Renowned Scientist Says Global Collapse “Likely”

6 06 2015

(graph by net_efekt/flickr)

According to a paper appearing in the March Proceedings of the Royal Society, “Now, for the first time, a global collapse [of civilization] appears likely.” The paper makes, in a scholarly, peer-reviewed manner, many of the same points about the existential threats that I made in my book Brace for Impact:Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age. According to Paul R. Ehrlich’s paper, titled “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” the threats include  toxic pollution, land degradation, scarcity of water and oil, plagues, resource wars (perhaps nuclear), over-consumption, overpopulation and the overarching threat multiplier, climate change.

Yes, it is that Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. This will no doubt raise hoots of derision from the anti-science crowd who have pilloried him (and his wife and collaborator Anne) for decades because some of the scenarios in the book describing what will happen when population growth exceeds carrying capacity have not yet happened. This is like ridiculing seismologists because the great San Francisco earthquake has not yet happened. Science should not be credited or discredited on the basis of pinpoint predictions, but on the basis of its understanding of consequences. As Ehrlich says now [to the Los Angeles Times] about The Population Bomb:

“When we wrote it, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet; about half a billion of them were hungry. Today there are 7 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry. We’ve lost something on the order of 200 million to 400 million to starvation and diseases related to starvation since the book was written. How ‘wrong’ [were] we?”

But to get back to the future as seen in his current paper: “Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale,’ facing what the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems.”

The paper offers an impressive survey of the perfect storm, whose elements will be well known to a reader of The Daily Impact. It even has a section comparable to our category, “Apocalypse When?”:

“a future global collapse … could be triggered by anything from a ‘small’ nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization, to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities. In either case, regardless of survivors or replacement societies, the world familiar to anyone reading this study and the well-being of the vast majority of people would disappear.”

And yet it seems to me that Ehrlich flinches somewhat when he assesses the significance of his well-made case. It may be that years of mocking by the knuckle-draggers have taken their toll, and may explain why he couches his paper as a question, and insists in his conclusion that the collapse can be avoided. He explains how, in general, with a series of logical and effective measures that are clearly impossible to expect in a political climate that refuses to change.

What he really thinks, it seems to me, is found not in the formal conclusion of the paper, but elsewhere in it, where he also offers a rationale for continuing to raise the alarm despite the derision of the deniers:

“Unfortunately, awareness among scientists that humanity is in deep trouble has not been accompanied by popular awareness and pressure to counter the political and economic influences implicated in the current crisis. Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster.”

Or, to put it less elegantly, brace for impact.




7 responses

6 06 2015
John Doyle

According to the graph collapse is quite a way off, a hundred years away, or thereabouts. I think that is optimistic, considering all the peaks and variable acting on our civilization already. The debt bomb is ready to go off now. It won’t wait 100 years.

7 06 2015

Two studies, looking at the Limits to Growth study modelling scenario of standard run (BAU), one looking at the situation up to 2000 and another up to 2010, have shown, since 1972, the accuracy and applicability of this modelling. This scenario modelling indicates that a collapse of our civilization is likely by the middle of this century not as shown in the graph in this article. Where did this graph come from? Is it one devised by Jeremy Leggett and if so, I would like to question his use of the term, The limits to growth, in that graph.

I don’t think this collapse will happen suddenly. From where I am I see it in the first stages of collapse now. Wherever I look I can see the symptoms: Financial, political, and environmental.

Financial: The financial system is unsustainable. The system in every form, including debt, derivatives and inequity of wealth is self-defeating. Governments of most countries have indulged in “pretend” activities to hide this.

Political: A sufficiently large percentage of the worlds politicians are only interested in themselves and what they can get from their position of power. They have grid locked democracies in a sufficient number of the world’s nations to prevent the rest from doing what is necessary. They are instead doing the typical things collapsing civilizations have done in the past, attacking their own peoples and starting wars to divert those people, including wars over resources.

Environmental: We pollute for the profit of the large corporations who control most of the politicians and are only interested in enriching their share holders. Individually we all cause pollution because we are persuaded of the necessity of consumption.

7 06 2015

I agree Don, the collapse has started. The only question is how fast things will fall apart in the so called safe countries of the world, Aus, NZ etc.

As yet we have not had any large state sanctioned or terrorist atrocities and we are not so far away from the rest of the world that a desperate, impoverished & overcrowded nation may want to plant some of it’s population here.

Financially we are seeing the investment arms of even the big/safe banks running away from failed retirement and investment operations/divisions, claiming rouge operators were the issue. But the operators would have been following accepted company procedures.

Environmental issues we face include increasingly frequent flood/drought cycles and a population pressure on areas that were once drought free (& building in flood plains), but now are building desal units to try to ensure future water supplies. Also our leaders are pushing ahead with mining and stating coal is our saviour.

7 06 2015
Chris Harries

I love that comment on Ehrlich being frightened of the inevitably response and thus putting his thesis in the form of a question.

When Galileo was being harassed by the Catholic hierarchy (for his views on the mechanics of the solar system) he wrote up his thesis in the form of a debate between two sides. This trick enabled him to avoid being seen as a protagonist of either side. It was to no avail. In the end he didn’t escape being put under house arrest by papal decree.

I work a lot with climate scientists and they tend to drive me silly because they’ve become so paranoid and frightened by the sceptics lobby they will barely say anything that’s blunt and brave and will edit out any speculative comments that could be pointed to. The result is blandness and what looks like equivocation. The sceptics crowd has won, sorry to say.

7 06 2015

Don’t you think the sceptics are starting to lose ground now though Chris….? I can’t help thinking the big shift has started….

7 06 2015
Chris Harries

Yes, I do, Mike. They are becoming like those pathetic smokers who have to light up in lift wells and back alleys. My impatient comment above was directed at climate scientists who have allowed themselves to be bullied. Now is the time for them to get really brave.

7 06 2015
Anthony William O'brien

Climate scientists who tell us all the reasons sea level will be higher than predicted and then say the IPCC’s 2 meters is about right. Anthropologists who tell us why civilizations collapse, demonstrate those conditions apply today and then say we are different. Paleontologists who tell us we are racing so very much faster to an extinction event, but refuse to say we are at risk. Health experts tell us all about diabetes, cancer and obesity, and then promote the idea that we are going to live so much longer than any generation prior. Economists who tell us the middle class underpins economies and yet refuse to conclude the current inequality is unsustainable.

Whatever our field of study we will not look at the obvious conclusions. I think I agree with Don the collapse has already started. It is well past time to run away, yet here I am still in suburbia.

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