Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.
In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.
Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:
Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.
Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.
Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
So what has brought us to the brink? There are many factors which have contributed to our current situation. In particular overpopulation and over consumption of resources such as fossil fuels lie at the heart of our dilemma. This is underpinned by our economic system, which rewards exploitation of resources and focuses on economic growth. This system has contributed to the demise of ecosystems worldwide.
What is often not realised is that the environmental and societal problems we face are all connected and all can be attributed totally to the impact of too many people consuming too many resources. This is why symptomatic treatments, like trying to tackle climate change, while simultaneously encouraging economic growth are doomed to failure. Unless humans change their entire philosophy and way of life such band-aid solutions will do little to avert the coming crisis. Unfortunately, powerful national and corporate interests will never allow the kind of fundamental changes that are necessary to address these issues constructively.
The Earth is resilient, and there is little doubt that it will recover its former glory in a relatively short time period. Over millions of years, surviving opportunist species such as rats and crows will evolve into a myriad of new specialised life forms. Forests will return to cover much of the Earth. However what is a short time period for the Earth is totally outside of the human time frame. None of us will be around in ten million years time to see the planet reborn. We will have to contend with struggling to survive on a resource-depleted planet, under inhospitable climatic conditions. It is inevitable that many of the other life forms with which we share the Earth will also be impacted, with the rate of extinctions reaching a peak as civilisation collapses. Many of the plant and animal species we currently share this planet with are already poised on the brink, as a result of human activities, and are unlikely to survive long into the current century.
In spite of our predicament, I do not believe that our current western civilisation has been entirely bad news. Over the last two hundred years, our civilisation has gone through an unprecedented period of growth and expansion. We have made vast progress in our knowledge of all fields of science, arts and music have flourished. Technology has also developed which makes our lives easier than ever before. These are the gifts of the oil age. The development of many of things we take for granted today would not have been possible without the one-time gift of energy from fossil fuels. The capitalist economic growth model has lead to rapid advancement in many areas. Even periods of wartime have lead to beneficial advances in knowledge and technology.
However, we must now move beyond free market capitalism and the philosophy of unlimited growth. A new guiding philosophy is now needed for humanity and for the Earth if human civilisation is to survive in any form. I believe it was always inevitable that humanity would one day reach this point, the often talked about bottleneck of civilisation, where we ourselves have become the main threat to our continued survival as a species.
The problem is that now the ideology of the capitalist age is now so entrenched in society that few are capable of visualising a future which does not involve economic growth. The ideas and philosophies which have served us in the past can have no place in a future society. In particular, the concept of nation states, which protect their own interests at the expense of all others, and corporations, which exist only to make money, are not compatible with a sustainable vision of the future.
So how can we prevent the upcoming crisis from occurring? I believe that the harsh truth is that we cannot and that it is inevitable. Our planet simply cannot support so many people, consuming so much. We can make efforts to try to soften the landing. In particular, I believe that the environmental movement can play an extremely important part in helping to protect many of the remaining wild parts of the Earth, and in slowing the build up in greenhouse gasses over the next few years. However these can only be stop-gap measures. The main focus should be on sowing the seeds of a future sustainable society. For the rest of this essay I would like to look at how this could be done.
Consider what will happen after the initial crisis. A much reduced human population will be concentrated in areas which are still capable of producing food. For the most part, these will be parts of the world where climate change has not impacted local weather conditions too severely. In some cases, climate change may also make some new areas suitable for agriculture. Over time, these societies will grow and will probably make exactly the same mistakes as our society has done.
I foresee a situation where humanity will consist of a number of scattered populations, ruled over by feudal warlords. The end result will be a cycle of war and famine, with associated population growth and crash, and with additional resources being depleted in each cycle. This pattern will likely lead ultimately to the extinction of humanity, over the course of several thousand years. If history proves one thing it is that the lessons of the past are rarely learned. There is ample evidence that many of the major civilisations of the past were wiped out by environmental factors, but have we taken the lessons from this to heart?
So what is the solution? Clearly we cannot all go back to being hunter-gatherers. We can certainly learn from how so called “primitive” societies live as a part of their local environment. However even many of these societies are not perfect examples of living in harmony with the environment, as evidenced by the disappearance of mega-fauna on all continents, shortly after the arrival of humans. I believe that our best hope lies in developing entirely new sustainable settlements which can act as focal points for the development of a new society.
The classic science fiction series “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov describes a situation which has many parallels to our current predicament. The galactic empire appears to be at the height of its power, with its rule extending across the entire galaxy. One man however, the mathematician Hari Seldon, sees the inevitable collapse of the empire, where all others do not. His solution is to establish a colony in a remote part of the galaxy where the seeds of a new society can be planted. He is unable to prevent the break up of the empire and the subsequent turmoil, but the colony he establishes goes on to flourish and after many years becomes the basis of a whole new galactic civilisation. It is instructive to know that one of Asimov’s inspirations for this series was the decline and break up of the Roman Empire, which has often been compared to our current situation.
In a similar way, I think that it is necessary to establish a series of sustainable settlements to act as seed points for a future civilisation. Although many current towns and cities are becoming more environmentally conscious and recognising the value of local sourcing, I believe that the changes in philosophy necessary are of such magnitude that even the most enlightened population will be unable to bridge the gap. The settlements I envisage must be totally self-sustaining, producing all their own food and meeting their energy requirements locally.
Unlike many environmentalists, I believe that technology should also play a part in a future society. The best of today’s technology can be incorporated into the design of such settlements to allow the residents to live with a level of comfort vastly greater than other remnant human populations. Locally generated electricity can be used to provide lighting and limited transportation for example. The key to any technology however, is that it must be replicable within the community. Any technology which relies on outside sourcing will not be sustainable in the long term. This means that such communities must develop micro-manufacturing processes to produce materials such as electrical wiring, steel, glass, ceramics, and possibly even bio-plastics.
These settlements must also have a certain critical mass. One of the more encouraging recent developments is the movement towards eco-villages worldwide, but the fact is that most of these communities are simply too small to be sustainable in the long run. They lack the size and diversity to enable specialisation, with the result that on their own, they are likely simply to remain as subsistence farming communities.
The sustainable community of the future will need to have a population in the thousands to be viable. It must have a strict population control policy and environmental focus to remain sustainable and always look to the long-term future. Decisions should be made by the population as a whole; perhaps all members would be expected to spend a year as part of a governing council. This would ensure that all members of the community are fully represented and their voices are given equal weight. One model that could be effective is if a number of eco-villages were to locate adjacent to each other, the larger community would then have the required critical mass.
Unfortunately, it is inevitable that the coming crisis will result in millions of refugees, with a mass movement towards areas which are still capable of producing food. This is likely to be the main threat to the survival of many of these planned sustainable communities. If they are overwhelmed by a vast flood of refugees, the system will simply break down. To avoid this problem I would suggest that such communities be established in areas remote from existing population concentrations. A number of suitable areas exist throughout the world where population pressures are still not critical. Areas such as the South Island of New Zealand, Northern British Columbia, Patagonia, and parts of Scandinavia, have temperate climates and are sufficiently remote from major population concentrations to assure these budding communities a measure of protection over the first few years of the crisis.
Over time the function of these settlements will change. For the first ten or twenty years after the crisis starts, they will have to focus purely on survival. Outside contacts will be limited and the community will need to concentrate on feeding itself, and developing and refining appropriate technologies for sustainability. After this period it is likely that stability of a sort will have been established in the outside world. The community can then start reaching out to adjacent populations, helping them to create similar societies and settlements. Over time, entire regions will be able to develop sustainably, providing focal points for the development of a new genuinely sustainable society.
These then are my visions on how we might make it through the environmental and population bottleneck we now find ourselves in. Given that I believe a major environmental crisis is unavoidable, how might we ensure that genuinely sustainable communities could become a reality? Firstly I believe we should use the most powerful tool of the current age to design exactly how future communities should look, what technologies and system of government would be most appropriate, and how to ensure that such communities remain sustainable over time. Computer games already exist which allow users to design cities and societies. It would be a relatively simple undertaking to design an on-line computer game which would allow interested parties worldwide to refine the details of exactly what such a future society should look like. Remember that if communities develop in a haphazard manner, it is likely that they will fall into many of the traps that our current society has.
I believe it will be necessary to find a wealthy benefactor. It is ironic that in order to create a vibrant, sustainable community of the future, where money will have a place only as means of exchange, will take a considerable amount of money. It will be necessary to purchase large tracts of land and cover the costs of developing the initial infrastructure. This is a project which could easily capture the imagination of some of the more forward thinking philanthropic trusts and private benefactors. I think it would be very fitting to see capital derived from economic growth going towards the development of sustainable communities for the future.
The final component will be to find volunteers who are willing to commit themselves to such a project. Initially they would be involved in the design and construction of these settlements, but ultimately they will be the ones who would live there. If enough people can be found who would be willing to be involved in such a project, I believe that we can sow the seeds of a future sustainable society.
In conclusion, I have a bleak view of the future of our current society. There are many well meaning initiatives out there, but in order for our society to have any hope of survival we would need to completely abandon economic growth as a philosophy, and ensure that all women currently on the planet have no more than one child each. While these are desirable goals, we have to ask the question; is it at all likely that either of these scenarios will occur? I believe that instead of clinging to lofty and unachievable goals, we must actually prepare to face the unthinkable and set about designing the society of the future, using the most powerful tools available to us in the present. It is only by planning and developing settlements for the future now that we can help to ensure that future society will develop in a benign and sustainable manner.
Image source: see what you want to see’s photostream, flickr.com, Creative Commons license