Category Archives: Collapse

Sowing the seeds of a future society

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:Sowing

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.
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Stuff to read and watch

I’m busy working on a difficult article which I hope to get published somewhere. In the meantime, I’ve come across several intriguing items on the Web, either in researching the article, or just poking around. Take a look:

[UPDATE: Take a look, as well, at this ongoing roundtable discussion of the question of population and climate change. In my view, Fred Meyerson, John Guillebaud, and Martin Desvaux’s comments have so far been on the money. I note that Guillebaud and Desvaux’s response to Betsy Hartmann is quite in line with my own past comments on her work.]

Cool book discovery

A book I’m amazed I hadn’t come upon until a week ago is Jeffrey K. McKee’s Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. Having just received it yesterday, I’ve only scanned it so far. But I learned elsewhere that Mckee, a physical anthropologist at Ohio State University, argues that no matter how much we lower per person consumption levels, we cannot end the current mass extinction crisis without addressing population size and growth. That’s a refreshing change from the usual insistence, “It’s all about (per capita) consumption,” so prevalent today among environmentalists. For some of McKee’s thoughts online, try this pdf.

Food for thought from Anthropik

At the Anthropik Network, rewilding advocate Jason Godesky, whose work you should know, responds to an article in The Economist which tries to debunk the “myth” that early hunter-gatherer cultures were in many ways fairly benign and livable compared to today’s civilization. Not surprisingly, Jason debunks the debunker quite handily.

The heart of rewilding from Urban Scout

Urban Scout gets to the heart of the “rewilding” movement in a video on his blog. Rewilders such as Scout and Godesky have a better handle on our ecological dilemma than just about anyone. Don’t overlook what they’re doing!

Danny Bloom’s bloomin’ polar cities

Danny Bloom, who’s commented here a few times, is trying to get people to think. It seems he’s trying to nudge us to consider how serious climate change just might be by imagining a possible future need for special communities in the polar regions for those who survive global warming. Environmental writer Stephen Leahy reports on Danny and his polar cities idea. In email, Danny told me he’s serious, but on some level is also “kidding, in a kind of guerilla theater public awareness wake-up call kind of way.” His idea is sometimes dubbed “quixotic,” but if it fosters discussion that can only be good.

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Global warming and Malthusianism

Editor’s note: Brad Arnold is a global warming and biological weapons internet activist. This essay by Brad captures succinctly the potentially tragic consequences, intended or not, of the Bush administration’s historic determination to maintain a business-as-usual stance rather than endorsing mandatory caps on greenhouse gases.

Let’s hope signs of positive change at the recent climate change conference in Bali prove more than fleeting.

As a side note, it’s worth acknowledging the varying ways we might interpret the Malthus quote in Brad’s essay. (For some perspective, try William Catton’s discussion here, and Gregory Bungo’s observation that in the quote below Malthus was using satire to make a point.) But while some who dismiss the population issue like to use Malthus as a straw man in making their arguments, a careful reading of Brad’s essay demonstrates that no matter your take on Malthus, the importance of population in the global ecological crisis remains.

My thanks to Brad for this incisive piece. — JF

By Brad Arnold:

Populations tend to increase at a geometrical rate, whereas the means of subsistence increases at just an arithmetical rate. Without the checks of disease, famine, and war, human populations will double their size every 25 years. (An idea advanced by Thomas Robert Malthus)

The world’s population reached 1 billion for the first time in 1830. It took 120 years to double to 2 billion, and just 30 years to reach 3 billion. The world’s population is now over 6 billion people.

Our increased means of subsistence is due to technology and a climate favorable for agriculture. Modern medicine, industrialized farming, and use of fossil fuel have reduced disease and famine. Furthermore, we’ve enjoyed an exceptionally mild climate period called the Holocene.

Most of the 80 million extra each year are born in developing countries least able to support the added population. The demographic divide between the rich developed countries and the poor developing countries is reflected in vast disparities of living standards, health, and economic prospects.
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Grim worldview from the deck of the Titanic

Administrator’s note: Jim Lydecker’s essays have appeared previously on GIM. In this one, which first appeared as a guest commentary in the Napa Valley Register, Jim does an especially good job of tying together succinctly a number of the ecological, economic, and political crises we face. He raises, as well, a troubling question: If our elected leaders are fully aware of the challenges facing us, why are they doing next to nothing to address them?

My thanks to Jim for providing this article! — JF
By Jim Lydecker: Titanic

I have written before that America is like the Titanic making her way through an ocean of icebergs. The captain and his staff keep reassuring the passengers everything is OK.

Standing on the deck, we see the bergs getting bigger and closer. Looking up at the captain’s quarterdeck, I wonder if they know what the hell they are doing? Can they be so stupid to not see the impending crises in front of us? Are they focused only on those directly in our path hoping to navigate our way through, fingers crossed?
Or do they know there is no way out and we are doomed?

This allegory is more true than fictional. America faces a convergence of crises of such magnitude that no amount of financial or scientific commitment may be enough to keep them from ending industrial civilization. The future would be less problematic if our leaders had taken on the crises before they became so large and interconnected.
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WEAP model on The Oil Drum

[Note update below. Paul’s updated model is here.]

There’s a lengthy discussion on The Oil Drum of Paul Chefurka’s World Energy and Population: Trends to 2100. I mentioned Paul’s paper in the introduction to the previous post here, and recommend it to anyone interested in an excellent, readable analysis of the relationship between peak energy and global population. It goes a long way toward bringing into focus much of the essence of our global ecological crisis.

I haven’t read all the comments on The Oil Drum, but there’s clearly enough material there to keep an interested reader busy for days. Good stuff.
[10/21/07] Update: See Paul’s newer World Energy to 2050. Given Paul’s reassessment of his WEAP model (see this link, but also Paul’s comments below), a few more words are in order. It seems the key conclusion resulting from over 400 comments on the paper on The Oil Drum was that it did not successfully establish a causal link between energy decline and population decline.

That said, I believe the paper has had real value. First, it does contain excellent examinations of some important issues. Second, getting it in front of large numbers of people who could discuss and critique it has moved the discussion of this hugely important topic. We now have some new indication of how difficult it is to demonstrate beyond doubt a link between energy decline and population decline. It remains, of course, a problem of tremendous importance.

This is all very speculative, of course, but if true, it may in time help clarify the role of peak energy in the looming convergence of major ecological problems.[1] It could turn out to provide a smidgen more hope for the human future. Unfortunately, with a number of key ecological crises underway, some form of population crash remains a clear concern. See the comments for more.
[1] Converging ecological problems include climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, aquifer depletion, soil erosion, depletion of fish stocks, and more, all in the context of increasing population overshoot and consequent decreasing carrying capacity.

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