13 December 2011

Will global civilization avoid collapse?

I consider myself a lucky man. I was born in the right place at the right time to enjoy what may well be the peak period of civilization. Never has human society offered so much to those in a position to take advantage of it—physical luxury not even kings and queens could enjoy in past eras, intellectual freedom unparalleled since the ancient Greeks, an exceptionally wide spectrum of political choice, knowledge beyond anything available previously, social justice achieved by few previous societies—a cornucopia of gifts.

Now, unfortunately, civilization—global civilization—is faced with imminent collapse, taking much of this good stuff with it. If this sounds like an old man reminiscing nostalgically about the good old days, consider the evidence.

Climate scientists tell us the only way to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change is to hold temperatures to less than 2ºC above preindustrial levels. Furthermore, they warn us that even if current pledges by the world's nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are met, they will not be enough. More ambitious cuts are needed. These are the views of people who, unlike our political and business leaders, actually know what they are talking about. They are our wise men on this issue.

And what are the chances of achieving the necessary cuts? Unfortunately, not good at all. At the recently concluded Durban Conference, the best the world's nations could come up with was a deal to do a deal. Developed and developing countries will work on an agreement to be legally binding on all parties, but it won't come into force until 2020. This is the date the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that emissions must peak and fall rapidly thereafter if we are to limit temperature rise to within the 2ºC.

So the doomsday scenario is not the view of cynical old men. The evidence is clear, and it tells us that according to our best science and political reality, we are firmly on the road to catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

It is possible, of course, that major polluters will impose the necessary limits without a global agreement. But the chances of that are not promising either. The world's major economies made pledges to limit their emissions at the Copenhagen talks in 2009, but these are having little effect and the possibility they will unilaterally expand these pledges is remote. Meanwhile, global output of greenhouse gasses continues to reach record levels.

We are doing what societies have been doing since human beings settled into the agricultural way of life 10,000 or so years ago. Civilization after civilization, society after society, has established itself, grown and prospered, then collapsed, and the leading reason for collapse is demanding more from the environment than it has the capacity to provide. And that is exactly what we are doing today. We are extracting resources faster than the planet can replace them and we are creating pollution faster than the planet can absorb it.

The major difference this time is that we are doing it on a global scale. Despite having the greatest perspective on history ever, and the greatest knowledge of science, we insist on making the same old mistake. It seems we have learned nothing.

There is some small hope. Occasionally societies have recognized their folly and changed direction. For example, in the 17th century the Japanese were doing what the Easter Islanders infamously did—deforesting their islands. They were faced with the same result—the loss of their most important natural resource followed by catastrophic social collapse. But they recovered in time by radically changing their culture, even their diet. They became masters of silviculture (forest management) and strictly regulated forest use; they relied less on farm animals and more on fish for protein, allowing farmland to be reforested; they used lighter construction methods for their homes; they developed more efficient stoves and relied more on the sun for heating; and they reduced their birth rates. The result was a stabilized population, more sustainable consumption of resources and today almost 80 per cent of Japan is covered with forest.

So it can be done. The question is can a diverse, fragmented, competitive and mutually suspicious global population do what a local, homogeneous population did? After all, the Kyoto nations are about to meet their collective target for CO2 emissions by 2012, when a more stringent second stage was to kick in. Unfortunately, that second stage has now in effect been abandoned. The sad reality is that we are not doing what is necessary and time is rapidly running out.

If the imagination and wisdom required to radically change our national and global cultures simply isn't there, if we have created a challenge that exceeds the capacities of our species, well ... civilizations come and go. Ours will probably go, but it's been a great ride. At least for some of us.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bill.
    I can't find how to contact you through your blog - so I'm trying to reach you by leaving this comment.

    I'm the editor of an online newsletter for an organisation called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms): www.wwoof.org/wwindynews

    The next issue will go online in early January and I have been searching for an article about the Durban conference. Your blog post of 13th December sums up very well what we as a society (indeed, species) are faced with and how royally we are failing to do anything whatsoever to meet the challenge.

    Would you give me permission to reprint that post in our newsletter? You would, of course, be credited as author; the article would be clearly marked as your copyright; and we would link to your blog and/or any other website you would like us to link to.

    You can reach me at craig@wwoof.org or through the newsletter pages linked to above.

    Hoping you'll agree...

    Craig Priestley