Collapse: What’s Happening to our Chances?

Anne H. Ehrlich, Paul R. Ehrlich | January 16, 2014 | Leave a Comment

Apocalípico I by Mauricio García Vega | Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s been a little over a year since we tried to assess the probability that today’s perfect storm of environmental problems will lead to a collapse of civilization. [1]  This seems an appropriate time to see how recent events and discoveries might have changed the odds.  The trends in the main drivers of destruction continue unabated.  The Population Reference Bureau, which in 2012 projected that the world population in 2050 would be 9.624 billion people, foresaw in 2013 a 2050 population of 9.727 billion, resulting from a slight rise in the global total fertility rate.  There is little sign of consumption abating, with purchasing power increasing on average globally (but with great geographic differences). There is growing evidence that anthropogenic climate change is not only raising the global average temperature but also increasing the probability of extreme weather events.  The latter have been especially destructive in portions of America’s “breadbasket,” essential to maintaining human food supplies.  Even more worrying, there seems to be an escalating discovery of positive feedbacks such as the melting away of arctic sea ice, which decreases reflectivity and thus accelerates warming while ironically causing  nasty blizzards in the northern United States.  Warming also leads to even more warming by increasing the flux of the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere as permafrost thaws and possibly as methane clathrates (complexes of ice and methane underlying northern oceans) disintegrate as the oceans warm.   More positive feedbacks are clearly reducing the odds of keeping climate disruption within “manageable” limits (if such have not already been passed).

Recent analyses of the climate and agricultural situations [2] paint an ever-darkening picture. Indeed, there is building evidence of a likely failure to produce increases in crop yields that would be needed to feed 9 billion people in 2045, even if climate disruption doesn’t clobber agriculture.  There also are more and inevitably growing problems besetting efforts to obtain the mineral resources needed by industrial civilization.

Finally, there are signs that major powers, especially the United States, China, and Russia, are increasingly competing over resources in ways that could lead to major wars, possibly nuclear.  Much of the competition in a disintegrating Middle East is related to access to oil, use of which for energy mobilization and plastic manufacture we would be phasing out if society were moving toward sustainability.  The international situation, as historian Margaret MacMillan has pointed out, bears a frightening resemblance to that which preceded World War One. [3]  We are ending a long period without world wars but characterized by unprecedented technological changes that environmental/resource problems are going to make even less understandable.  As globalization continues in a situation of intensifying resource competition, reactionary movements held together by new technologies, and lack of trust are rampant in a world still structured into nation states with only weak mechanisms available to deal with global threats.  The building military confrontation between China and the United States could end in making all environmental issues moot.

There is some good news. Total energy consumption in the United States has been declining under President Obama because of steady increases in efficiency, especially in vehicles.  U.S. coal consumption has been going down because electricity generation has been flat and coal’s role in it has been diminished by being replaced by natural gas (which, even after accounting for fugitive emissions in production and transport, remains much better than coal in terms of climate change).  Of course, this only makes sense as a temporary “bridge” to a much lower carbon mix.  U.S. oil production is up, but that may be a short-lived reprieve.  Even so, burning domestic oil is better both economically and environmentally than burning imported oil.  And although Australia is eager to continue exporting gigantic amounts of coal at huge cost to Australia’s environment  and to that of the world, the Chinese government is moving rapidly toward a reduction of coal use, and India is being forced in that direction by finances.

There is also a heartening spread of solar technology in poor countries, among other things giving many more people access to modern communications (which, of course can be used for either good or ill!).  “No-take” zones (areas where fishing is prohibited) have shown an amazing capacity to regenerate neighboring fisheries.  But sadly, the zones cannot control pollution, acidification, or temperature change and thus may rapidly lose their value.  Brazil has greatly slowed deforestation in the Amazon with a combination of sound policies and good enforcement of them.  And the population prospects for the United States are slightly less grim: the 2012 projection for 2050 of 422.6 million dropped in 2013 to a projection of 399.8.

But what is crystal clear is that these changes are not remotely big or fast enough to make a real dent in the problem.  Furthermore, there are no plans nor any tendency toward making the most crucial move required to lessen the odds of a collapse: a rapid but humane effort to reduce the scale of the entire human enterprise by ending population growth, starting the badly needed overall decline in numbers, and dramatically curtailing consumption by the rich.  There is not even discussion about the obvious elements of the socio-economic system that support a structure embedding a need for perpetual growth – fractional-reserve banking being a classic target that requires investigation in this context.  Virtually every politician and public economist still unquestioningly assumes there are benefits to further economic expansion, even among the rich.  They think the disease is the cure.

A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist.  We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent.  He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent.  Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic.  Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.”  That could be the only thing that might preserve Earth’s capacity to support Homo sapiens in a post-apocalyptic future.

[1] Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH. 2013. Can a collapse of civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B .

[2];; Grassini P, Eskridge KM, Cassman KG. 2013. Distinguishing between yield advances and yield plateaus in historical crop production trends. Nature Communications 4:2918 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms3918 |


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  • Elelei Guhring

    Similar to the period before WWI seems well borne out by the facts. The prevalance of fascist politics, I would estimate 90% of politicians today, anywhere, are fascists. Even those Cultural Marxists bare little resemblance to anything that Marx ever said. I would then expect at least a long conflict of a global scale, probably we are already in it given events precipitating from the Islamic attack on the USA in 2001, and we don’t need a war on the scale of WWI or WWII to have the same effects: it could be far more widespread and of less immediate damage. Look at the violence spreading throughout Europe where an equipment poor and untrained force has used what they have: women, which have been effectively weaponize for the first time in history. Women are not only the target of violence but the means of spreading fear through mass rape, the widespread rape and trafficking of children, and the threat that this imposes as not only entire communities where 4 in 5 muslims are aware of what is happening but the police and government are facilitiating it to avoid “misunderstandings.” I think the face of war today is rape, social offensiveness, corruption on a truly astonishing scale, disregard of the law, and a desire to seek revenge. It will I think end badly but it is also an opportunity for those who think differently to build alternatives that will eventually attract large numbers of conflict weary unemployed/underemployed peoples who have lost faith in religion, capitalism and politics.

    • Earon Davis

      I think you are expressing some good ideas. However, I’m not sure about your references to Muslims. They seem to exaggerate the uniformity and coherence of Islam in a way that may be prejudging. I am deeply concerned about the use of rape as a tool of war, not something in the least endorsed by any of the major religions, but employed in service of terror and oppression with catastrophic long-term results.

  • Marshall Johnston

    I would like to die with the peace of mind that I did what I could. is my swan song

  • the article was very good until i got here:

    “and dramatically curtailing consumption by the rich.”

    um, this is not a rich/poor or partisan political issue. while is is common to blame “them” the responsible people are the ones in our mirror.

  • Chaz

    Ok so I showed my father this article and he said it was just one of those “pretend scenarios” conducted by colleges to see how people would react, like a social experiment. Is he correct, or is civilization heading for a total collapse within the next 35 years?

  • Bingo

    Gerald is right its over don’t see anyway to land softly either. So lets talk about things based on the 1% estimate

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  • Miguel Benny

    I really like the statement that furthering the disease along is not the cure. Similarly you can’t spend your way out of debt which is the plan in America today…collapse of the worlds economy is imminent and unfortunately it might take just that to save all of humanity from ourselves. We really are a stupid lot!!

  • Gerald Spezio

    Paul & Anne, if the above essay is the best you can do, you might consider giving up altogether.

    We are all in hospice whether we like it or not.

    The whole monstrous farce is over.

    Henry Paulson, smiling Bankster from hell, told us the plan; “WE WANT PEOPLE TO BE ABLE TO GET THE CREDIT THAT THEY NEED.”

    Pay compound interest to you for our bread, eh Henry?

  • Shodo

    I would propose that saving civilization is a mistaken goal. We need to focus on saving life on earth, with a natural preference for saving human life as well as other. Civilization as we know it is obviously not going that direction; if we could create a civilization that understands our actual role as part of the family of life, we might then be able to create structures and technologies that tend toward saving life. But our present civilization has to go.

  • John Paily

    Nature is stressing us to evolve to know her truth and enter golden age. problem is that we have made nature complex and beyond common mans perception and sense
    It is common sense that our environment is governed by two cyclic forces; heating and cooling or unwinding and winding that gives way to one another. This manifests as day and night and climatic cycles with nearly equal time span given for each cycles. We also see a Parallel Design where when one part is heating another part is cooling. It is
    natural that when such a system is heated in exponential way through our
    material activity and the parallel world design is upset by eating on the time
    given to cool, the system goes into disorder and accelerates, in which both
    forces of heating and cooling peaks and fall violently leading to huge
    destruction from forces of Mother Nature. We are witnessing it around the world
    yet intellectuals are failing to Awaken to Truth. Science has come to realize temperature
    fluctuation is more fundamental threat to life. A fact that I strived to call world
    attention for nearly two decades

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  • Now let’s look at the facts.

    Can you asceertain a political consensus with ANY of the political parties? No.

    Can you create a compelling and irreversible action plan with definitive solution goals with ANY of the corporate or NGO stakeholders and investors and corporate sponsors? No.

    Can you create a sweeping and lasting consensus with any electorate, based on the facts, as well as a cogent strategy for sustainability? No.

    In other words, voters, corporations, NGO’s and government officials all, in a sweeping majority, are not interested in managing resource depletion, a shift to lower or even remotely sustainable survival models, resilient economies, resource based economies, or WHATEVER solution you or anyone would care to propose.

    The majority of human beings seem resigned to accept mass extinction of the species, starvation, disease, catastrophe, extreme poverty, extreme nihilism, open warfare, rampant crime down the road as long as they are allowed consume and live in paradise for another few years.

    Your complaint is heard. You wrote your piece. You have been absolved. Twenty years down the road you can look yourself in the mirror and say, in all sincerity “Ï did whatever I could but nobody would listen”.

    It is what it is. Let go,

    • Jack Wolf

      I don’t think they are resigned to accept mass extinction. Rather, they are in complete denial. At a recent conference, while talking to another scientist, I pointed out some well established facts. His head whipped back and he said: Well, I can’t accept that.
      I stepped out from denial over 12 years ago on another issue, and I can spot it a mile away. Even when they say, yes but we can’t do anything about it, that too is denial of man’s intuitive self preservation and parental instincts.

    • leilani jones

      No, don’t let it go. It is going to end badly and if there is anything to gain from it all, it is letting people know why, how and possibly when. It is arrogant to always think 20 years down the road. It could be a lot sooner than that. I have already accepted , when one looks at all the true data quantified and qualified, that this is all a domino principal already in extreme motion. What I don’t accept is allowing our species to pretend they are not responsible for it, not forced to face it before total fall of dominoes and a suspension of belief that somehow, something magic will come along and change the outcome.

      • Elelei Guhring

        I think by “ending badly” we realize that a lot of people are going to die. I would be surprised if it were less than a billion, I’m thinking on the order of at least 3 or 4, and probably as many will die from starvation as will from actual conflict, as victims from the conflict itself, and of course from the ensuing disease. In other words, a number not seen before in history.

    • Mike Stasse

      I’m of the opinion that the morons in charge of the world are actually programmed to ignore everything discussed here. Doing ANYTHING to alleviate our looming predicaments goes completely against their personality traits….

      • Elelei Guhring

        The morons who rule the world aren’t like the rest of us. They’re sociopaths. The only way to change things is to stop following them. Revolution has in the past show to be largely ineffective in the long term. If we are to survive we must as a collective group build a structure that we hold in high regard and protect it from religious and political sociopaths, until such a time as we can properly exterminate them as a threat.

  • Esdavis

    In these pre-apocalyptic times, is it any wonder that heterosexuality is diminishing in developed nations? My hypothesis is that, being aware of the product of heterosexual attraction – more babies in this already grossly overpopulated world – heterosexuality is less compelling in our unconscious minds. Of course, it is well documented that other species respond to overcrowding with loss of heterosexual consistency.

    Thus, I believe that our genetically pre-programmed desire to reproduce is being adapted by our environmental realities, and while this is not a conscious factor, it is an adaptation that supports survival of our species. Government interference with abortion rights and sexual orientation is exactly what is not needed at this time. It is fortunate that non-heterosexual couples are finally being granted the rights they deserve, but let’s not overlook overpopulation as a potential driver of that recognition. When populating the world was an overwhelming imperative, homosexuality was more of a threat to the established order. Today, it is a path to higher personal standards of living and decreased population footprint.

    I do not endorse homosexuality over heterosexuality. However, I favor an awareness of its natural presence as well as its adaptive capacity for individuals seeking to make sense out of the world as it is. And the world as it is, arguably created by fundamentalist policies towards population and sexuality, favors homosexuality in ways that would not have been understood, and were probably not as present, a thousand years ago.

    • Elelei Guhring

      Its more complicated than that. I think that when women are educated and aware of their resources and what the future holds, as well as the costs of having children, which are now a liability rather than an asset: children cost us, they don’t earn for us, that women, when they can decide to have children now decide not. Most civilizations until now forced women to have children. It was a social expectation enforced by peer pressure, and with religions by the utter devastating violence of men: see Christianity and Islam especially.

      • Earon Davis

        Yes, that is an important factor, the veritable enforcement of fertility goals in societies that see a woman’s main, if not exclusive, role as producing as many babies as possible.

  • Todd Nelson

    I am having a problem with the fears of global warming, because that is all they are. There hasn’t been any global warming in over 17 years. A fact even acknowledged by the UN IPCC. The total increase in global temperature since 1904 is 2/10 of one degree. As far as feeding the ever expanding global population, more CO2 in the atmosphere is just what is needed to increase the speed and quantity of growing crops. Unfortunately, man only contributes 3% of the CO2, so whatever man does, it isn’t going to make a statistical difference to the atmosphere.
    The real dangers to mankind are the actual pollutants we keep spewing into the air and the sewage and pollutants we keep dumping into our oceans. Those are quite real and need to be stopped. I am afraid that with AGW getting all the publicity and grant money, there isn’t money or publicity to do this. I believe that, in the future, global warming alarmists are going to be viewed upon as the greatest cause of real pollution disaster that could doom us all.

    • martin golder

      Most people will no longer even bother to reply to these kinds of posts as the facts are now well established. I do feel however it is worth pointing out that an overwhelming majority (97% is often quoted)of climate scientists are convinced. Assuming that you are not privy to information unavailable to the science community it seems sensible to pay attention. The points that you mention are often seen in a long list of possible climate change denier sources. They and all the others are well refuted in peer reviewed science. If 97 doctors told you you need an operation would you seek another opinion.

      • Elelei Guhring

        The 3% are looking for a way to distinguish themselves in the event everyone else is wrong. This is pretty normal with most theories. Once upon a time Einstein was the only person who thought his hypothesis on general relativity was accurate. Everyone else thought it was nuts. Gradually it was tested and shown to be correct and became not only an accepted but also respected theory. It remains the most tested and most confirmed theory in history.

    • Mark Finhill

      You’re only looking at one small piece of the climate pie, average global surface temperatures. Look a little deeper–way deeper–in the oceans, and you’ll find your “missing” heat. Further, this so-called 17-year respite from global warming is too short a time period to make judgments. Climate is highly variable–short periods of relatively anomalous activity are usually considered statistical “noise.” Compare earth’s climate to your diet. Short term weather is analogous to pigging-out over the holidays. We may gain a pound or two, and then lose it in January. Try weighing yourself every day. Your weigh will fluctuate up and down, just like global temperatures. But in the long term, the trend is usually up.
      As far as increased CO2 being beneficial to crops, consider the last time in earth’s history when CO2 levels were this high — 800,000 years ago. It was a different world then, filled with completely different species. Our present crops are used to certain climatic conditions. And shifting crops to other geographical latitudes doesn’t take into account other growth factors, such as soil and precipitation conditions.
      This 3% you mention comprises the more than eight petagrams of combusted carbon that exceed the normally-balanced carbon cycle. This is obviously affecting the chemistry of the oceans, as seen in the recent impacts to pteropod populations off the Pacific Northwest coast, Although average temperatures on land are rising very slowly, we are seeing an increase in the incidence of extreme weather events.

    • Elelei Guhring

      My parents have noticed it. My father told me today that he remembers mid march in 1988, they had 60 cm of snow on the ground. We can see grass today. I remember several winters where I have seen grass in January, February, March. 10 years ago we didn’t have any snow until mid January. I was still wearing spring clothes outside. Figures are good, but personal experience sometimes is a kick in the head. My grandmother told me when she was a child she never remembers a Christmas without snow and there was always snow to shovel. Even across three generations the change is noticable. I live in Canada, not the tropics.

  • Fazlun Khalid

    Thank you for this analysis. The fractional reserve banking system – that’s the nub of the problem. Wonder when people were going to get round to this. Congratulations!

  • Jane
  • Jane
  • jane

    I agree;here in the UK,report after report emphasises the need for more immigration to drive an increase in economic growth and prosperity!!Expansion,expansion,expansion……
    The head of the IFS,Robert Chote,has recently added his voice.
    This Ponzi scheme is still bandied about as the cure-all;no mention of overcrowding;social fragmentation and downward pressure on living standards,let alone environmental degradation and increasing competition for resources such as peaceful open space and water supplies.
    The Tories are determined to rescind most current planning controls,saying that economic interests should always take precedence over any environmental concerns:this will lead to a deregulated free-for-all,especially in the already crowded south east.
    New ‘eco-towns’ are planned:where?Predict and provide.
    Many areas are still recovering from the recent floods,which have devastated many densely populated localities and disrupted transport networks: how many flood plains have been developed in the past 50 years or so?
    As a very wise soul said some time ago: we are sawing off the branch on which we are sitting,with no thought for the consequences and taking the world’s flora and fauna with us.

    • Shodo

      Yes. Growth is insane. Is killing us.

      • Elelei Guhring

        People forget that growth is cancer. It cannot happen indefinitely.


    • Elelei Guhring

      And yet as figures show Muslims in the UK cost almost twice what they contribute in income taxes. Perhaps if we legalized child sex trafficking and forced them to pay income taxes on their earnings from pimping 11 year olds they might pay for their social costs, but this is I think entirely unrealistic. Still I am amazed at the social tolerance for now a second generation of women, the total estimate is in excess of 1 million females since the late 1980s, is so great. Had anyone expressed this to me as a thought experiment I would have shot back “revolution by the mornning” but clearly as in centuries past, revolution remains distasteful to the English. One wonders how they ever had an empire that spanned 1/4 of the world’s population.

  • Vaengineer

    Quite a logical concise summary. Everything you say should be common sense to all.