THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILURE: WHAT ECO-COLLAPSE MIGHT LOOK LIKE

diseaseSeveral readers have asked me to explain what I have called eco-collapse, the cascading series of catastrophic environmental and cultural failures that most scientists believe will start to occur unless we radically rethink and correct our unsustainable behaviour. Unlike the Club of Rome and the Malthus/Ehrlich population doomsayers, I’m not going to predict that this will happen in our lifetimes (though I think we’ll see the early symptoms), nor that a single cause or effect will dominate the collapse. I do think, based on this chart of population and resource consumption, that collapse is likely to occur by the end of this century, and that therefore the great-grandchildren of the baby boom generation will likely bear the brunt of it.

If you study history, and specifically the history of overcrowded areas, you can learn the past consequences of the type of conditions that exist already in much of the world today, and get an idea what the elements of eco-collapse will be. In no particular order, and not for the easily depressed, the ten elements are:

  1. Catastrophic Famines: Eighty million died of starvation in Mao’s China. Despite the surplus of food that exists today, catastrophic famines remain common and are increasing in magnitude with population. Humanitarian efforts may alleviate the small famines of North Africa, but we’re not equipped to handle Asian famines resulting from catastrophic crop failures with victims in nine figures, and that’s what we can expect in this century.
  2. Epidemic Human Diseases: We haven’t found a cure for AIDS in a quarter-century of intensive effort, and AIDS is a relatively slow-spreading disease. Plague left half of medieval Europe dead, and smallpox has killed a billion humans. Epidemic diseases are nature’s population balancer. Diseases like SARS mutate rapidly, faster than we can isolate and inoculate for them. And BSE (Mad Cow) has now ushered in a whole new family of even harder-to-contain diseases that result from prions. As population density increases, new parasitic diseases always emerge with increasing speed and ferocity. In the incessant battle against disease, nature always bats last.
  3. Crop Failures: Five animals and six grains now make up the large majority of human food intake, with fewer varietals of each being produced each year. This creates a hugely vulnerable human food system — vulnerable to plant and animal diseases (like potato blight) and insect infestations, as well as flooding and drought. We are now drawing down the water table below the soil, and replacing depleted soil with artificial oil-based nutrients, so frighteningly quickly that shortages of groundwater and oil are now even more likely to produce catastrophic crop failures than diseases and infestations.
  4. Cannibalism: Watch for the re-emergence of cannibalism in the 21st century. It has been endemic, and even legal, in China for much of its history due to that country’s dependence on fragile monoculture, and also occurred in the former USSR in the last century. It will of course get great press, but its real importance is as a harbinger of cultural collapse.
  5. Nuclear & Biological War: With North Korea and Iran joining Israel, India, China and Pakistan in the club of nuclear-capable belligerants, it is sheer folly to believe that, as conditions in these areas continue to deteriorate, nuclear weapons won’t be used. Even Dubya wants to re-start the arms race with mini-nukes. In the unlikely case that nuclear bombs are not dropped in this century, we can expect factions in at least 60 (and growing) totalitarian states with rudimentary bioweapons capability to start to deploy them. The number of possible users, agents and means of deployment are limitless. The only question will be how many times they will be deployed and whether they will get completely out of control.
  6. Water Rationing & Desertification: The massive freshwater needs of 6, 7, 10, 14 billion people are rapidly lowering water tables and depleting all available freshwater resources. At the same time, the Arctic ice, which contains a large proportion of what’s left, is melting at an unprecedented rate into saline seas. Deserts are advancing at an increasing rate, especially in tropical areas where exploding population and poor soils quickly turn lush forests into new deserts. Desalination is an expensive and energy-consuming process. Look for massive water rationing, and at least one ‘water war’ in this century.
  7. Economic Depression: Almost all the anti-depression safeguards enacted in the mid-20th century have been done away with in the interest of ‘deregulation’ and in the belief that ‘it could never happen again’. Currency, land, stock and commodity speculators are again buying on huge margin (no money down) at unsustainably low interest rates, manipulating and whipsawing prices and rates and massively inflating the value of securities and real estate. At the same time, market deregulation and ‘globalization’ have greatly increased interdependence of economies — one big domino can now topple them all. And trade imbalances, debts and deficits (government, corporate and individual) are at ruinously, irresponsibly high levels, making the entire economic system extremely vulnerable to the twin threats of interest rate spikes and deflation. Not only can it happen again, recent economic policies have made another worldwide economic depression a probability.
  8. Catastrophic Terrorism: Technology, combined with the staggering concentration of power and resources, economic interdependence and our dependence on uninterrupted energy flows and grids, work to the terrorist’s advantage. A well-planned attack by a small group could easily produce millions in casualties and trillions of dollars in economic losses. The intelligence failure on 9/11 and the incompetent responses since then have ably demonstrated the effectiveness and high likelihood of success of terrorist actions. There is simply no way in our complex society to suppress information about our vulnerabilities to attack or about the technologies that could exploit these vulnerabilities. As desperation and nihilism (expressed very effectively by the number of ‘suicide’ attacks) grow, so will the probability of catastrophic terrorism. In fact the restraint that the millions, perhaps billions of potential terrorists have demonstrated to date speaks to our basic humanity, our aversion to inflicting suffering on each other. It is in no way a reflection of how ‘anti-terrorist’ acts have made the world safer — in fact these acts have made the world immeasurably more dangerous.
  9. Cascading Weather Disasters: Scientists warn that global warming brings with it extremes in climate change: heavier and longer floods, devastating hail, severe and recurring drought (and related fires), crippling blizzards and ice storms. So far these increasingly extreme weather patterns have been merely newsworthy. Soon they will start causing major casualties and huge economic losses.
  10. The Decline of Democracy, Constitutional Liberalism and the Rule of Law: Israel and Palestine are models of what happens when advocates of escalating war, reprisal and terrorism gain the upper hand. Many of Latin America’s ever-fragile democracies are already imperilled, as are some of Eastern Europe’s. Totalitarian states tend to spend more on military adventures, and provoke more terrorist acts. And economic and physical hardship tends to destabilize nations politically. Look for the percentage of the world’s nations that can fairly be called ‘democracies’ and ‘free’ to start declining soon, as well as increasingly common suspension of civil liberties and the ‘rule of law’ in favour of  ‘security needs outweigh the need for freedoms’ and  ‘might makes right’ politics.

The Flashpoints: The frequency of each of these ten elements is likely to increase slowly over the coming decades, amplified by the reality that many of these problems are self-sustaining, and reinforce and precipitate the other elements, in a cascading sequence like we saw in the first half of the 20th century. Throughout history, the main locations of violence and catastrophic loss have usually been those with at least two of (a) high population density, (b) high population growth rate, and (c) high utlilization of limited resources (arable land, energy, water etc.) Three areas to watch, therefore, are the Mideast/South Central Asia area, China, and Latin America. These are all under massive environmental stress already — horribly polluted and degraded and under huge population and resource stress. Many of the ten elements above will thrive in these areas, so watch for these areas to explode first — ‘the beginning of the end’.

The Last Straw: The wild cards in how all of this will play out are human innovation and technology. Remarkable human resourcefulness has made fools of Malthus, Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. I don’t believe famine will be our undoing. There is currently a veritable (though highly vulnerable) glut of human food on Earth — obesity is now commoner and a greater killer of humans than starvation. I think human ingenuity will keep food production high enough that we won’t starve before we kill each other off. I also think that we will kill each other off before nature even comes to bat with the devastating consequences of global warming. (So save your money and don’t go see the incredibly silly Day After Tomorrow). We have three much greater vulnerabilities: (#2) Diseases, (#5) War and (#8) Terrorism, all of which already fill the daily newspapers, any (or a combination) of which will, I believe, prove to be our undoing rather than the other seven elements.

Once the world starts to be pummelled regularly by famines, crop failures, desertification, water scarcity, economic depressions, weather catastrophes, and cultural collapse, we’ll be so caught up in physical, social, economic and political turmoil that we may not even see the knockout punch coming — India/Pakistan nuclear war, a major bioterrorist attack, or emergence of a new superdisease to take the place of Smallpox and the Plague, or some similar rapidly escalating catastrophe that will simply get out of control. There simply won’t be time for us to step back from the brink as we did at least twice in the 20th century. Whether this holocaust is nuclear or biological, the result will be what scientists call an Extinction Event — a sudden drastic change in Earth’s absolute biomass and its constituent makeup. There will be a huge drop in human population as well as a similar drop in the populations of all the species that have cast their lot in with us — the major animals and high-carb grains we eat, plus the pets, rodents, insects, weeds and diseases that feed on or thrive in dense urban and monoculture environments. Whether the rest of life on Earth is better or worse as a result of this Extinction will depend on its direct cause — if it’s a human-specific disease like Smallpox, the rest of the planet’s life could recover and thrive quickly, whereas if it’s nuclear war or an undifferentiated bioweapon, its impact on the whole ecosystem could be as profound as the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs and much of the rest of the planet’s species 60 million years ago. Scientists currently seem to believe that the next cycle of life will be dominated by birds and insects — creatures that can fly above the devastation and cover long distances to find scarce food. Apres nous les dragons.

Nature abhors absolutes, and it is unlikely that either humans or our co-dependent life species will be completely wiped out by an Extinction Event. At least not immediately. Depending on the nature and cause of the Event, the human survivors could find themselves with a second chance — back in an Eden with the opportunity to build a new culture and society that melds a simple hunter-gatherer-gardener economy together with those technologies still relevant in a post-apocalyptic world. Or, if the Event leaves the planet seriously poisoned, we could instead be a marginalized, poorly-adapted, struggling minor part of a new global ecosystem dominated by those species better suited than we to what we have wrought, until evolution brings our wretched history to an ignominious end — a whimper after the bang.

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10 Responses to THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILURE: WHAT ECO-COLLAPSE MIGHT LOOK LIKE

  1. gbreez says:

    Thank heavens I am already depressed or this might have caused it. There is too much granite in Maine for me to dig a hole to hide in, but I am considering taking up serious drinking.OK, so I live on a mini-farm that until recently had goats for meat, milk & cheese (& will prob. again), chickens for eggs, supports a large organic garden, I eat tons of wild greens, rarely drive anywhere, & spend hours reading & writing (mostly reading) blogs, sending emails & faxes to errant officials, working on myself, working on personal & social change, jury-rigging aging machines to extend their lives, recycling everything possible, yelling at people for buying plastic… and, none of this is going to make any difference? Back to the idea about serious drinking. At least I have not eaten anyone recently though I am very economically depressed and may give it some thought. What’s a body to do? Besides vote for Kerry/Edwards & pray?I am glad you are back. :)

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks gb. If everyone, or even a lot of people did what you’re doing, it *would* make a difference. I had to get this out of my system, since people kept asking me ‘what do you mean by eco-collapse’, but now I’m working on the novel, which is much more upbeat.

  3. geo says:

    Dave, as always some excellent points. However, it seems to me that what you are really talking about is not “saving the world” but rather “changing how humans live so we as a species can continue to survive.” This thought has been lingering just below my mind’s surface (on the tip of my tongue, so to speak) for quite a while I think, since I first read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and The Story of B. It was something in your post, however, that brought it to the surface: “as profound as the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs and much of the rest of the planet’s species 60 million years ago.” Sixty million years ago, there was almost nothing left on the planet, yet look at it today. If we humans make the place unliveable for us, I have the feeling that good old Mother Earth will find a way to continue without us. It is all about adapting and evolving. As much as we like to think that humans are the end of the evolutionary line, even those who don’t believe we were “created” that way, perhaps we are just another part in the bigger picture? It just happens to be our misfortune to be aware of our state in the world and to know what is going to eventually happen to us, no matter what we do.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    geo: Excellent point. The name of my blog was originally tongue in cheek, but when my blog went to the top of the Google rankings for ‘save the world’ I decided to stick with the name. You’re absolutely right — what this blog is all about is precisely “changing how humans live so we as a species can continue to survive.” Even more than that, I’ve always believed, instinctively, that we need to act to minimize suffering in the world. If we make our best possible individual effort to do that, with every means at our disposal, then I think we’ve done all we can reasonably do. The larger issue of whether we can avoid a nuclear or biological holocaust is probably beyond our individual control, and, while it may be our collective responsibility, it’s kind of like saying you’re responsible for reckless driving when you’re 5 seconds from impact and your brakes have failed — not terribly useful, helpful, fair, or an intelligent use of the time left. I keep wondering if there’s some diabolical group of scientists somewhere creating a New Plague that will suddenly reduce human numbers drastically and unselectively, and hence pull us back from the brink again, and give us a chance to reform the way we live to avert catastrophe, to learn from our mistakes. Maybe that puts me in good company with those that look to god, the fates, government, technology or aliens to come up with a magic answer, to “make it all better”. It just doesn’t seem to be in human nature, or in nature at all, to give up hope even when it’s hopeless: Those that have have already selected themselves out of the gene pool. So here’s to a “Deus Ex Machina”.

  5. Todd says:

    With regard to your point in #8, Catastrophic Terrorism, I believe you are right on target. I’ve been reviewing Imperial Hubris, and I am more convinced than ever that the American approach to defeating terrorism is simply hastening the demise of culture as we know it. I believe the growth of al Qaeda-trained fighter groups will be exponential in the next five years. Furthermore, those countries who are unwilling to give up old paradigms, which drive the inspiration for new terrorist group formation, are simply aiding and abetting their own demise.The environmental impact of such warfare as this has not been figured into the equation nearly enough. Thanks for including a discussion of it here.Todd

  6. I have a question I’ve never seen adequately answered here: how can we have a hunter-gatherer society and still retain any technology at all? The infrastructure and labour involved in even simple technology is enormous. What about those who don’t live in hospitable climates where food is abundant, or live with harsh winters that a large investment of energy for storage and planning, warm clothes, etc? (Like, say, Ontario)… The labour investment for mere survival in less hospitable climates is quite large, and it really increases that “3-4 hours per day” figure that you’ve already cut down – somehow – to a mere one. Even where food is abundant, well… technology is the problem. The Haida had abundant food year round and the only thing it produced was a thriving slave trade and some good totem poles.Any society who has any technology whatsoever tends very quickly to become a stratified and its population requires central leadership. The divisions of labour required to produce the technology necessitate it.So when you say “those technologies still relevant…” I need a little clarification. How would this new society would actually work? I see no room for any kind of “relevant technology,” without destroying your utopian ideal of small innovative communities.

  7. (completely ignoring for now the fact that we’d be unlikely to survive the coming extinction…)

  8. Don Dwiggins says:

    A few comments:- Your mentions of the Club of Rome appear to be based on a misconception that’s been repeated since the initial report was published. A good reference for clearing this up is http://greatchange.org/ov-simmons,club_of_rome_revisted.pdf. An update was done in the early ’90s and published as “Beyond the Limits”, by Meadows et al. Also, Hardin Tibbs, in http://www.bfi.org/pdf/gbn_sustainable.pdf, has an interesting discussion of some of the modeling done in that book.- You don’t mention the emerging fossil fuels crisis as a possible element. If the ASPO folks are right (peakoil.net), the gap between petroleum production and demand will soon reach crisis proportions, especially as countries like China increase their demand dramatically. Since the first world economies run to a vary large extent on oil, and require continually increasing consumption for “economic health”, this could easily become a major factor. Ironically, it could be a mitigating factor, by causing the first world countries to “pull in their horns” as they belatedly recognize that they’re not all that strong, and that they have serious problems on their home grounds. Also, less fossil fuel consumption, less GHG emissions, so the climate change problem may be less intense.- Renee’s comment is something I’ve considered as well. I don’t think a “new Eden” with small hunter-gatherer societies scattered over the Earth, with minimal if any communications among them, and only an echo of a memory of the things we’ve learned, is a desirable end to humanity’s experiment with civilization. If we have a choice, some form of effective world-wide web of communications and “knowledge husbandry” is important, so that we can remember the hard-won lessons and learn from them and from each other in an ongoing dialogue. I don’t agree that “technology is the problem”, though. Stratification, slavery and warfare have occurred in the most primitive of societies. We simply have to learn how to grow from homo aggressans to homo amans while remaining homo faber.

  9. Don: Oh, I’m quite pro-technology, I just don’t see how the immense infrastructure required to manufacture even the parts in a basic radio can co-exist with Dave’s ideal society. Technology requires at least some manufacturing at some point in its life. I couldn’t make a computer from scratch if I had a year to do it, and I spent a fair amount of time in school just learning how to make electrons dance. Technology requires transportation mechanisms, which requires infrastructure. It requires land and water, and it requires labour. Labour means people who aren’t spending their days making love and gathering food but instead devoting at least some measure of time to “technology husbandry.” The more complex the item is, the more of everything it takes to produce. This leads to social stratification and specilization, which leads to increased centralization; I don’t see those as welcome in Dave’s ideal world – and fair enough. But I don’t see Dave’s ideal world working without communications media, not to mention writing and records of some description. Where do we get paper from? We can press our own hemp, I suppose. But I’d rather spend my time making love and skipping rope. But then we’d forget, and fall back into intellectual primitivism and xenophobia.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Renee & Don: You raise an important issue here that most intentional communities really haven’t addressed: The role of technology in post-civilization cultures. I’ve distanced myself from the ‘noble savage’ idea — that tech is necessarily bad and should be avoided. Just because most of our modern technologies were produced by destructive and unsustainable processes doesn’t mean they *have to* be. For example, today’s computers use components extracted at devastating cost to some third world countries, tie us to the energy grid, and produce a lot of pollution and waste. But it should be possible to produce computers that don’t do these things if we’re innovative. There is no reason why some post-civilization communities might not specialize in creating eco-friendly computers and distribute them to other communities in exchange for other commodities. And I continue to believe, based on the colossal waste I see in large organizations of all kinds and the astonishing amount of unnecessary and shoddy junk that most of us spend our lives producing, that a stable population could produce essential information, transportation and energy technlogies AND the necessities of life in a much, much shorter workday than the one most of us now slave through. I’m going to give this more thought and blog on it again and hope you will contribute to this discussion further. Thanks!

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