|Several 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.