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How Likely Is Collapse?

Are these fears reasonable?

FACES FROM A LOST EMPIRE Easter Island is one of the Pacific's most extreme examples of deforestation, says Jared Diamond, author of Collapse. The island once possessed a forest of palms, and it has popularly been thought that natives deforested the island, partly in the process of erecting giant statues for their chiefs. The island has 887 statues; the largest is 72 feet high and 165 tons. Without trees, the Rapa Nui natives were unable to build fishing canoes; they lost their main source of heat, raw materials for clothes, and tools. Starvation, cannibalism, civil war, and a population crash ensued.
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn for YES! Magazine


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Much attention has been given recently to the prospect of collapse, catastrophe, and decline. Are these fears reasonable? What is likely and not-so-likely? Which concerns should take top priority? And what should we do?

One may justly ask why all this gloom and doom is appearing in YES! The answer is paradoxical: the first step toward a positive future at the individual, community, society, or global level is to address seriously the problems at hand and to take meaningful action. A full basket of big, messy problems is now in front of us. If not addressed in a constructive way, they could result in local or regional catastrophes, or collapse of societies, civilization, and perhaps even the human species.

Prospective catastrophe then and now

After the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fear of more nuclear explosions became the major concern of many people. As the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union continued to escalate, visions of “nuclear holocaust” were frequently evoked as a way to stop the madness and reduce or eliminate these fearsome weapons. This justified fear perhaps reached a high point in December 1983, when environmental scientists posed the “nuclear winter” scenario in Science magazine, arguing that nuclear war would not only devastate people and cities, but could also darken the skies and chill the atmosphere, leading to extinction of many plants and animals.

With the end of the Cold War, fear of all-out nuclear war virtually disappeared. But new fears are growing which, collectively, could be as bad or worse:

Global Warming, due to human-induced release of greenhouse gases, leading to rising sea levels and more extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts;
Severe Ecosystem Damage, due to growing human numbers placing demands on nature, leading to loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services;
Terrorist Attacks, which could involve nuclear weapons, “dirty nukes” (conventional bombs laced with radioactive materials), bioterrorism, tampered food supplies, or attacks on chemical plants, the Internet, or the electrical grid;
New and Revived Diseases, most notably at the moment the prospect of an avian flu pandemic if the H5N1 virus mutates so it spreads easily to humans;
Prolonged Energy Crisis, brought on by a major reduction in global oil supply, which could be due to a sudden terrorist attack or a long-term waning of available oil in the face of rising demand and insufficient alternatives;
A Great Economic Depression, brought on by rising deficits and defaults, or collapse of the U.S. dollar.

Thus, the landscape of justifiable fear has changed radically in the past two decades, from a single overwhelming threat of nuclear war between superpowers to a multitude of highly uncertain threats from every direction, which could unfold in any of numerous combinations of political, economic, and especially health and environmental concerns. And if today's stew of possible calamities is quite different from that of 20 years ago, it is likely that 20 years from now the prospect will again be different—for better or worse.

Rough guesses for uncertain times

Is all or most of the gloom portrayed in the books referenced on pages 20–21 warranted? Probably. Those who take the "pooh-pooh position" of flat denial have probably not read any of these well-documented works. That said, can any distinctions be made about what is likely and what is not? There are many uncertainties, but some rough estimates can be attempted.

All-Out Extinction, of all humans, is a remote possibility at present, but in 20 years, with major climate changes and several other catastrophes, it could be taken much more seriously. Remarkably, there are no programs to study the possible futures of humanity at any major university.

Total Collapse, as suggested by Jared Diamond, begs further questions. Is this likely for some societies, most societies, or all societies? Will it be permanent, or only temporary? Collapse does seem likely in decades ahead for small and weak societies (it is only in the past decade that we have begun to use the phrase “failed states”), and we can see ghost towns and decaying communities even in the U.S. Collapse seems unlikely, at present, for big, rich, and diverse societies.

Catastrophes, both natural and man-made, will happen. Most will be local or regional, but some (i.e. pandemics) can be global. Most people, communities, and societies will recover, to some degree (e.g. San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and New Orleans after Katrina, although the latter may or may not fully regain its past glory).

Overall Decline, for most people in the U.S. and elsewhere, for decades or more, seems likely. Think of it as “punctuated evolution” or “jagged evolution,” rather than the linear, ever-upward evolution that is widely assumed. Arguably, decline is already underway, but it is masked by obsolete industrial-era views of economic growth—the GNP measure—rather than a more sophisticated progress measure such as the Genuine Progress Indicator or the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare.

What we should do

Many households, businesses, local governments, and communities around the world are pursuing sustainable practices, as are many European national governments. But much more can be done on many fronts, especially in turning the U.S. government around from laggard to responsible world leader. Local action is all well and good, but sensible policies at the national and global level are necessary. There is no dearth of advice, although it is scattered around: hundreds of books advocate wise and humane policies to enhance our chances for survival and well-being. One of the best is Lester Brown's Plan B 2.0 (see above), a lucid introduction to what is needed.

Jared Diamond does not prescribe any policies, but he nicely synthesizes lessons learned as to why past societies destroyed themselves. Such societies fail to anticipate problems before they arise, to perceive problems that have arrived, and to solve problems once perceived. Despite America's surfeit of information and knowledge, we fail in all three dimensions because we are not effectively organized to succeed in these multi-disciplinary and multi-agency tasks. Seriously facing our era of multiple transitions and multiple catastrophes in an already crowded and angry world of 6.5 billion people, projected to be 9 billion people by 2050, will require extensive attention to the organization of our knowledge resources—and to promoting civic education.

At the “elite” level of knowledge production, our present understanding of the world and its problems is highly fragmented among academic disciplines and professions, increasingly partisan think tanks, and a plethora of profit-driven media outlets. Imagine if medicine were practiced in the same way: a world of specialists in brains, eyes, ears, lungs, skin, feet, etc., with no general practitioners to assess the whole body. What academia lacks are generalist “knowledge integrators” who can assess the big picture of various sectors and humanity in general. At the popular level, more attention has to be given to developing informed citizens who can see through political flim-flam, appreciate what science has to offer, sort out what is most important and what actions are needed, and know how to evaluate success. Suffice to say that, despite—or perhaps because of—the evergrowing abundance of information and the miracles of the Internet, we are “amusing ourselves to death,” to cite the prescient 1985 book of the same name by the late Neil Postman. Or check out Attention Deficit Democracy by James Bovard, for a current variant. It's not pretty

We are unlikely to rethink our organization of knowledge and ways of informing ourselves any time soon. So we will continue to elect reality-challenged leaders with learning problems, suffer from various catastrophes, and react inadequately when they do occur. But perhaps one of these catastrophes will serve as a wake-up call, and perhaps enough of us will finally realize that we cannot continue as we have. Then we will begin to organize knowledge for survival and human benefit, elect responsible leaders who promote the public interest and the interest of humanity, make wise investments with our public funds, and educate all citizens for the promises and perils of life in the 21st century.

Michael Marien wrote this piece for 5000 Years of Empire, the Summer 2006 issue of YES! Magazine. Michael lives in LaFayette, New York, and is editor of Future Survey, a monthly review of key books, reports, and articles, published by the World Future Society.  

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