A major, multi-disciplinary study combining the perspectives of theoretical mathematics, natural and social sciences and — gasp! — history, among others, has concluded that a total, irreversible collapse of the world’s industrial civilization is both likely and imminent. The peer-reviewed study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Ecological Economics, confirms in detail the conclusions of my 2009 book Brace for Impact, the premises of The Daily Impact, and the scenario of my forthcoming novelTribulation.
The study (reported in detail in Britain’sGuardian newspaper and few other places) finds that contrary to popular assumptions, the precipitous collapse of technologically advanced, wealthy civilizations is not rare, but common in the history of the past 5,000 years. And the common cause of collapse, it concludes, is depletion of natural resources accompanied by extreme stratification of the population into a small, super-wealthy elite and an increasingly deprived population of “commoners.”
The factors that have contributed to past collapses, and therefore should be examined for clues to an impending collapse, are five in number: 1) population (getting too big), 2) climate (changing), 3) water (disappearing), 4) agriculture (unable to keep up with 1, partly because of 2 and 3) and 5) energy (see 4).
An analysis of the “improvements” in the productivity of agriculture and other industries for 200 years have involved drastically increased consumption of finite natural resources. When mathematical models are run that calculate the consequences of the world’s current trajectory, the study says, “we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”
“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse…” [Hello? HELLO! Over here!] “… and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”
Another frequent argument advocating doing nothing relies on the faith that technology will invent a way out that does not require any sacrifice. That assumption, too, is obliterated by this study, which finds that in the past, technological improvements that increase efficiency, at the same time increase per capita consumption and the depletion of resources. (It has often been observed, for example, that people who buy high-gas-mileage cars end up driving more miles, because each mile is cheaper, and consuming more gasoline than previously.)
It is apparently still a law, written somewhere and enforced somehow, that no matter how fully you demonstrate that the practices of the industrial overlords are taking civilization itself over a cliff, you must end with a Pollyannish song of optimism, and this brutally honest and unflinching study is no exception. All we have to do, it says in conclusion, to avoid the end of the world as we know it, is change immediately the behavior of everyone on the planet to reduce their consumption to a sustainable level, and make the distribution of profits equitable.”
Oh, good. I was afraid it was going to be hard.