Extinction vs. Collapse: Does it matter?

McDonald, Samuel Miller | May 8, 2018 | Leave a Comment

Venus - May 18 2016 by Kevin Gill | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Climate twitter – the most fun twitter – has recently been relitigating the debate between human extinction and mere civilizational collapse, between doom and gloom, despair and (kind of) hope. It was sparked by an interview in The Guardian with acclaimed scientist Mayer Hillman. He argues that we’re probably doomed, and confronting the likelihood that we’re rushing toward collective death may be necessary to save us.

The headline alone provoked a lot of reactions, many angered by the ostensible defeatism embedded in Hillman’s comments. His stated view represents one defined camp that is mostly convinced of looming human extinction. It stands in contrast to another group that believes human extinction is highly unlikely, maybe impossible, and certainly will not occur due to climate change in our lifetimes. Collapse maybe, but not extinction.

Who’s more right? Let’s take a closer look.

First, the question of human extinction is totally bounded by uncertainty. There’s uncertainty in climate data, uncertainty in models and projections, and even more uncertainty in the behavior of human systems. We don’t know how we’ll respond to the myriad impacts climate change is beginning to spark, and we don’t know how sensitive industrial civilization will be to those impacts.

We don’t really know if humans are like other apex predators highly sensitive to ecological collapse, or are among the most adaptable mammals to ever walk the earth. One may be inclined to lean toward the latter given that humans have colonized every ecological niche on the planet except Antarctica. That bands of people can survive in and around deserts as well as the Arctic as well as equatorial rainforests speaks to the resilience of small social groups. It’s why The Road is so disturbingly plausible; there could be a scenario in which basically everything is dead but people, lingering in the last grey waste of the world. On the other hand, we’ve never lived outside of the very favorable conditions of the Holocene, and past civilizational and population collapses suggest humans are in fact quite sensitive to climatic shifts.

Famed climate scientist James Hansen has discussed the possibility of “Venus syndrome,” for instance, which sits at the far end of worst case scenarios. While a frightening thought experiment, it is easily dismissed as it’s based on so many uncertainties and doesn’t carry the weight of anything near consensus.

What’s more frightening than potentially implausible uncertainties are the currently existing certainties.

For example:

Ecology

+ The atmosphere has proven more sensitive to GHG emissions than predicted by mainstream science, and we have a high chance of hitting 2°C of warming this century. Could hit 1.5°C in the 2020s. Worst-case warming scenarios are probably the most likely.

+ Massive marine death is happening far faster than anyone predicted and we could be on the edge of an anoxic event.

+ Ice melt is happening far faster than mainstream predictions. Greenland’s ice sheet is threatening to collapse and already slowing ocean currents, which too could collapse.

+ Which also means predictions of sea level rise have doubled for this century.

+ Industrial agriculture is driving massive habitat loss and extinction. The insect collapse – population declines of 75% to 80% have been seen in some areas – is something no one predicted would happen so fast, and portends an ecological sensitivity beyond our fears. This is causing an unexpected and unprecedented bird collapse (1/8 of bird species are threatened) in Europe.

+ Forests, vital carbon sinks, are proving sensitive to climate impacts.

+ We’re living in the 6th mass extinction event, losing potentially dozens of species per day. We don’t know how this will impact us and our ability to feed ourselves.

Energy

+ Energy transition is essential to mitigating 1.5+°C warming. Energy is the single greatest contributor to anthro-GHG. And, by some estimates, transition is happening 400 years too slowly to avoid catastrophic warming.

+ Incumbent energy industries (that is, oil & gas) dominate governments all over the world. We live in an oil oligarchy – a petrostate, but for the globe. Every facet of the global economy is dependent on fossil fuels, and every sector – from construction to supply chains to transport to electricity to extraction to agriculture and on and on – is built around FF consumption. There’s good reason to believe FF will remain subsidized by governments beholden to their interests even if they become less economically viable than renewables, and so will maintain their dominance.

+ We are living in history’s largest oil & gas boom.

+ Kilocalorie to kilocalorie, FF is extremely dense and extremely cheap. Despite reports about solar getting cheaper than FF in some places, non-hydro/-carbon renewables are still a tiny minority (~2%) of global energy consumption and will simply always, by their nature, be less dense kcal to kcal than FF, and so will always be calorically more expensive.

+ Energy demand probably has to decrease globally to avoid 1.5°C, and it’s projected to dramatically increase. Getting people to consume less is practically impossible, and efficiency measures have almost always resulted in increased consumption.

+ We’re still setting FF emissions records.

Politics

+ Conditions today resemble those prior to the 20th century’s world wars: extreme wealth inequality, rampant economic insecurity, growing fascist parties/sentiment, and precarious geopolitical relations, and the Thucydides trap suggests war between Western hegemons and a rising China could be likely. These two factors could disrupt any kind of global cooperation on decarbonization and, to the contrary, will probably mean increased emissions (the US military is one of the world’s single largest consumers/emitters of FF).

+ Neoliberal ideology is so thoroughly embedded in our academic, political, and cultural institutions, and so endemic to discourse today, that the idea of degrowth – probably necessary to avoid collapse – and solidarity economics isn’t even close to discussion, much less realization, and, for self-evident reasons, probably never will be.

+ Living in a neoliberal culture also means we’ve all been trained not to sacrifice for the common good. But solving climate change, like paying more to achieve energy transition or voluntarily consuming less, will all entail sacrificing for the greater good. Humans sometimes are great at that; but the market fundamentalist ideology that pervades all social, commercial, and even self relations today stands against acting for the common good or in collective action.

+ There’s basically no government in the world today taking climate change seriously. There are many governments posturing and pretending to take it seriously, but none have substantially committed to a full decarbonization of their economies. (Iceland may be an exception, but Iceland is about 24 times smaller than NYC, so…)

+ Twenty-five years of governments knowing about climate change has resulted in essentially nothing being done about it, no emissions reductions, no substantive moves to decarbonize the economy. Politics have proven too strong for common sense, and there’s no good reason to suspect this will change anytime soon.

+ Wealth inequality is embedded in our economy so thoroughly – and so indigenously to FF economies – that it will probably continue either causing perpetual strife, as it has so far, or eventually cement a permanent underclass ruled by a small elite, similar to agrarian serfdom. There is a prominent view in left politics that greater wealth equality, some kind of ecosocialism, is a necessary ingredient in averting the kind of ecological collapse the economy is currently driving, given that global FF capitalism by its nature consumes beyond carrying capacities. At least according to one study [1], the combination of inequality and ecological collapse is a likely cause for civilizational collapse.

Even with this perfect storm of issues, it’s impossible to know how likely extinction is, and it’s impossible to judge how likely or extensive civilizational collapse may be. We just can’t predict how human beings and human systems will respond to the shocks that are already underway. We can make some good guesses based on history, but they’re no more than guesses. Maybe there’s a miracle energy source lurking in a hangar somewhere waiting to accelerate non-carbon transition. Maybe there’s a swelling political movement brewing under the surface that will soon build a more just, ecologically sane order into the world. Community energy programs are one reason to retain a shred of optimism; but also they’re still a tiny fraction of energy production and they are not growing fast, but they could accelerate any moment. We just don’t know how fast energy transition can happen, and we just don’t know how fast the world could descend into climate-driven chaos – either by human strife or physical storms.

What we do know is that, given everything above, we are living through a confluence of events that will shake the foundations of civilization, and jeopardize our capacity to sustain large populations of humans. There is enough certainty around these issues to justify being existentially alarmed. At this point, whether we go extinct or all but a thousand of us go extinct (again), maybe that shouldn’t make much difference. Maybe the destruction of a few billion or 5 billion people is morally equivalent to the destruction of all 7 billion of us, and so should provoke equal degrees of urgency. Maybe this debate about whether we’ll go completely extinct rather than just mostly extinct is absurd. Or maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that, regardless of the answer, there’s no excuse to stop fighting for a world that sustains life.


Samuel Miller McDonald: Born and raised in Northern Michigan, Sam is currently pursuing a PhD at University of Oxford in political geography and energy. His background can be found here. Tweet here.


This article was originally published by ActivistLab, and is published here with permission from the author.


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: mahb.stanford.edu/blog/extinction-vs-collapse

[1] Editor’s note, May 9: The article was published classifying the referenced study as NASA-funded, when the study itself was an independent research project using the cross-disciplinary Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model. The HANDY model was created using a minor NASA grant, but the study based on it was conducted independently. A press release from NASA can be found here.

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Geoff Mosley

    You can read my account of life in a steady state economy in ‘A Future Beyond Growth Towards a steady state economy’ (Routledge 2016).

  • Mary Lehmann

    The question “Extinction vs Collapse –Does it matter?” is easy to answer: In future it would matter, but like all creatures alive now, we can only act in the present, with wise regard for the past. So the only thing that matters is that the earth is heating up increasingly, a positive feedback that must be be sent in a negative direction of decreasing.

  • Michael Hart

    Extinction and Collapse are indeed two different states of existence. The first is non-existence as a final state. Collapse is the disintegration of structures and systems and within that disintegration are we talking about man made structures and systems, or, biological and natural systems. Historical evidence suggests they can be linked and one cause the other and in other examples, they may have collapsed but extinction was not the outcome. We may have a degree of certainty that collapse caused extinction of a particular form of human social construct at different times in the past. We also know that collapse of intra-dependant biological systems can lead to extinction for some but not all species within that system.

    In terms of the questions posed by McDonald it is not clear that we can say that collapse therefore is a transitory state to a non existential outcome, it is evident as a deterministic process. The end of that transitory process may be extinction or annihilation or it may be another outcome altogether. Indeed what is a natural system? Can the two, collapse and extinction, be conflated as causative and therefore linked ?

    I would argue that is highly unlikely that homo sapiens are headed for extinction. The change in conditions necessary for that to occur would require such large changes in the all the factors that make homo sapien life possible, unlikely. That is to say we will not be deprived of food, water and air on such a significant scale that we would dissappear biologically. No matter how significantly bad our pollution of the environment becomes (Through the addition of heat to planetary heat balance, the reckless disposal of unwanted byproducts of the industrialised age and changes to the gaseous composition of the atmosphere). In short we may go close but we will not have an impact on a planetary scale that say the outcome of collision between an asteroid and the earth would have. We do however within our capacity the means and have been doing so, to reduce and damage the many natural systems and biological species to the point where we can no longer exploit the viable organisms remaining nor manage the adapted replacements.

    I would argue therefore that there is sufficient evidence available to confidently claim we will collapse and that collapse will be comparatively spectacular in its severity and destruction of our social systems and supporting structures and systems. I would also argue that we are already in the initial phase of that collapse based on the available evidence of the loss of biodiversity, resource abundance and spatial accommodation of our aggregate mass on the biosphere, I would also argue that given our capacity of adaptation and other unique characteristics are such that coming to any spatial predictive timeline is not possible, it is an unknown. I suspect however with good reason that it will happen faster and more violently than we are able to either recognise or respond to to prevent. Part of that problem is simply we have become so well conditioned by our mechanistic epistemology and heuristics to believe in our capacity to respond and or out think the problems we face we are unable to grasp that the problem is not one of failed political systems nor of delusional incomplete mechanistic explanations of economy but our collective delusional state of our own mortality and hence extinction.

    Lets be brutally honest, we are in a state of collapse, the physical state of modest equilibrium of temperature or planetary heat distribution and water vapour transfer are now shifting into different states and we have so severely exploited the earth’s available resources, physical and
    biological, we have significantly reduced our capacity to adapt and mitigate these planetary scale changes. All these conditional changes mean a lot of us are going to die within the normal human time span of approximately 70 years, the next 70 years. If we have any further radiation exposure events, either from warfare or industrial accident then that timescale will shift rapidly down. Who will survive therefore is the question and for that there is no answer we will not know with any certainty or probability. One thing is certain, the mega scale human social system will not. It will be a very small and very constrained survival outcome distributed across the globe.

  • Bill Everett

    Very minor point: “At least according to one Nasa-funded study, the combination of inequality and ecological collapse is a likely cause for civilizational collapse.” NASA put out a press release stating that this study was NOT funded by NASA. See https://www.nasa.gov/press/2014/march/nasa-statement-on-sustainability-study/

    • Thank you for pointing this out and directing us to the press release. The article has been edited accordingly and a footnote added explaining the error.

  • Michael Mielke

    Sam McDonald,

    The discussion about collapse vs. extinction is certainly a distinction with little difference. In a devastated world, with climate chaos + climate baking, with the results of ecological overshoot and over-full pollution sinks, whether a small per-cent of us survive into a bleak netherworld for another century or so matters little.

    What is interesting however, is how many of these types of bleak discussions omit any discussion of our agency, our collective agency to alter the comprehensive catastrophic future possibilities analyzed and diagnosed.

    What do you expect your Phd to provide you beyond the horrific expectations you present? And we don’t mean this as a rhetorical question. Are you just another who is looking for first class on the Titanic?

    We have written you already.

    We do it again.

    ATL does not believe that the future is fore-ordained, or that catastrophe is complete and comprehensive, unless we do not respond. The positive news is that it does not take a majority of people to wake up and change the music, and the outcomes quickly. Nor does it mean that small groups cannot alter history dramatically.

    A recent, but negative example is the Tea Party Movement, and the funding behind it (Americans for Prosperity born 2004) by the Koch brothers thwarted and changed any positive progressive movements toward ecological or climate restraint.

    Now, 13 years later, the fruit of the 21st century’s inaction screams loud. Can it be loud enough for a similarly funded movement that works with Reality, rather than the Delusions and Contradictions we live within?

    Is there no possibility for collective agency?

    • John Strohl

      At the risk of being a devil’s advocate – agency is being exercised now and has been for the majority of my adult life. Collective agency, as you imply, requires major funding… and a coherent vision behind it. Where, might I ask, do you expect that “similarly funded” largess will flow from for the much fractured vision of the thousands of agencies now dealing with their square of a global chessboard? The TPM was financed in it’s originality, with very deep pockets, and a very cohesive vision of oligarchy, and the few dominating, for their own gain, the many – as spelled out in the works of Edward Bernays circa 1927. I see no such counter funding in the offing. On one side we have the cohesive vision of master chess players, their pieces effectively arrayed. On the other, the fractured thinking of multitudes of “agency” exercised on each square of the chessboard discretely, with action taken or not in a completely disintegrated manner. Physician, heal thyself.

      • Michael Mielke

        John,

        I would be happy to provide you with a comprehensive vision with action plan to deal with the conditions of collapse in constructive ways.

        Contact me here for the comprehensive essay explaining:

        Michael@Tree-of-Life.works

        • John Strohl

          Email on it’s way. Look forward to the essay. I have a number of others already but there’s plenty of room at the dance. 🙂

  • To quote author Kurt Vonnegut,
    “In the battle between the forces of good and evil, greed and compassion, there is only one thing that has consistently made the difference–organizing.” And to underscore the urgency, particularly of this year, arguably the most important year in our million years on this planet: “These next two years are likely to be the most important two years in the next 40,000 years for the planet and human freedom.”– Sylvia Earle (one of the world’s leading oceanographers).

    So for me the answer is developing far smarter and more powerful ways to organize. And do do that, I am seeking fellow cofounders to help take organizing the next big leap forward asap, in time to have a powerful new tool to, for starters, turn Congress Blue. We will do this via a human centered mobile friendly web-based app called WinWisely, based on evidence-based organizing, behavioral economics, and more, by addressing what organizers call the mother of all challenges, the holy grail:
    ” How can these campaigns recruit, commit, support, and cleverly
    organize massively more volunteers than ever before to do the
    much-needed big impact tasks (i.e. much more than just showing up to
    another useless protest) to save democracy and the planet before it’s
    too late–from canvassing to bird-dogging to non-violent direct action.
    In a word, we aim to take grassroots organizing to the next level.

    In addition, WinWisely (our splash page is winwisely.org) will serve as a one stop app to solve the other twin challenge for movement organizing: to enable the 3-6M
    potential activists out there wanting to make a big difference, but
    overwhelmed or otherwise not knowing where to start, to easily find the
    right campaign and role that most strongly resonates with their concerns
    and needs.

    So We need to fill out our core team, people not just with tech skills, but with project management, community-liaison (to the beta testing electoral campaigns) skills, and of course digital marketing and social media skills.

    For anyone else, I hope you wil consider making your summer vacation one where you go to a swing US House district, Gubernatorial or US Senate state, and create what I call a “Democracy or Save the Planet Vacation.” Where you canvass or prvide transport or child care 4-5hrs per day, and play the rest of the time. There’s no better way, if you have kids over 7or 8 to also fulfill the highest purpose of your role as a parent beyond food and shelter–to inculcate values, especially the all important value of standing up against injustice. And if you don’t do that, you donate as if your life and those of your kids depended on it, and now, not next week, because of the ripple effect: getting canvassers and organizers out there now will have many times greater effect than a month from now.–gary@WinWisely.org

  • This is a good summation of the collapse/extinction scenarios. There is no precedent for the collapse of human civilization on a global scale, but there are many precedents for civilizational collapse on local scales, as ably documented by Jared Diamond, etc. Collapse of global human civilization would halt industrial processes and lead to an abrupt decline in the use of fossil fuels. From the point of view of the global eco-system, this looks like a reprieve from the worst-case scenario of runaway global warming. It would be exceptionally unpleasant for humans, of course.
    The rise of fascism, genocide, world wars, global pandemics, and mass starvation would be part of this scenario, leading to a precipitous global population decline.
    There may be no way to avoid these things, but some of them could be mitigated by some means of foresight. I believe it would be worth it to preserve some forms of knowledge, so that if there is any human remnant left, they don’t end up repeating the above scenario. The preservation of classical knowledge through the development of monasteries and monastic life in the European Middle Ages is one such possibility.

    We appear to be caught in a serious dilemma. Continuing with business-as-usual leads to acceleration of bio-diversity, and global warming. A de-growth scenario leads to economic collapse, fascism, and increased conflicts over dwindling global resources. I see four main priorities in this case: 1. to halt and reverse the trend towards inequality; 2. stop the rise of fascism; 3. Encourage and facilitate sustainable technologies; 4. Maintain the rule of law and diplomacy at all political levels, from the municipal to the global.
    If we were to prioritize these four things we might be able to mitigate the worst of what is to come. However the damage caused by rising inequality with its concurrent hijacking of the political system by the rich is perhaps the most important immediate threat.
    I appreciate the author’s cool-headedness in contemplating these horrific scenarios.

    • trilemmaman

      There is a game plan figured out and agreed to by most rational people and world leaders. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals. They must be funded and worked on simultaneously ASAP… but it looks like most people,..even many reading this, that have no clue about what to do to engage or support this game plan. Here’s a suggestion. Assist in your own community by organizing an event to redefine national security. Document the local costs in your own Congressional District from the harmful global forces that US military power and US border walls cannot stop. If you are game to taking such an action please let me know. I can assist if wanted. chuck@igc.org

  • Geoffrey Holland

    Biggest problem is overpopulation. 7.6 billion…doubled since 1970…still growing.. Where is the leadership?

    • kayaker

      I agree, and there is NO leadership other than a few non-profits who get little attention. I can’t fathom that in 2018, with the state of the world, most people still consider the subject “taboo”. And even the “enviro” community still debates ad nauseum over “overconsumption” vs. “overpopulation”. It’s taken me 56 years, but I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it would take a major miracle to change the dismal trajectory of Homo sapiens.

      • trilemmaman

        We learn best by pain and suffering. Wisdom just isn’t in our genes. Our minds originally evolved to solve problems for us to survive and thrive. We got so good at it that our minds found another task…. defending any damn fool idea regardless of the consequences. .What if politicians, the clergy, and the general public thought like engineers and scientists…and used fundamental principles to make our systems and structures sustainable. Instead of relying on ‘solutions’ like “Peace through Strength” or “Make America Great again”.

    • John Strohl

      The problem is there is NO single biggest problem, and having more than two simultaneously creates analysis paralysis, not to mention that there is NO such thing as “world leadership” except at the Dalai Lama, or Pope, or spiritual leader level… and they have no operational authority, only moral authority, at a time when morality is under attack. Everybody else is a regional leader with global status, local constituencies, and personal interests. One could easily think that consumption, tied to over-population, is the biggest problem, but the largest areas of population increase have the smallest consumption footprints, so MAYBE the underlying problem is the real problem – greed and selfishness in the developed world, specifically the wealth addicted extraordinary few in the developed world, and their general contempt for ALL other life as it stands. The question for me is, when the peaceful methods for radical change have all failed, are we ready and willing to fight for what matters just as our forefathers did?? By what criteria do we judge that failure? By what means do we fight??

      • trilemmaman

        By organizing within your Congressional District to get the policy makers already in office to do what is needed…instead of what most people think they want.

        • John Strohl

          While I would love to see that work, it IS one of the peaceful methods… I have no conviction that any of the peaceful methods will work, because I have a strong conviction of the evil we are up against, and I KNOW that it will not stop, much less turn around, for any peaceful method. I would recommend a reading of “On Sheep, Wolves, And Sheepdogs” by Dave Grossman (http://mwkworks.com/onsheepwolvesandsheepdogs.html)

          • The talk by Grossman on Sheep..etc. is a serious misunderstanding of morality. Morality is not something that is only dealt with by professionals. It involves everybody in monitoring, judgements, and implementation of sanctions. The metaphor of “sheep” deliberately ignores this. Everyone knows and understands the moral rules. They work because of collective knowledge, education, and enforcement. Moral rules are internalized and work on all levels, from the personal to the political. Policing is only a small part of this. Think of the power of public opinion, gossip, social disapproval, peer pressure, etc. No one would cooperate with the police without these. It’s true that enforcement of moral rules has become specialized with the police and legal system. Enforcement is necessary because the idea that people will all just cooperate all of the time is false. If bullies are not stopped they will take over. But enforcement is just the tip of the iceberg of what comprises morality. There is something very disturbing about the imagry of that talk about sheep etc., very reminiscent of fascism. If I am not mistaken, this is no coincidence.

          • John Strohl

            We’ll have to agree to disagree. I believe you are mistaken. You say “Moral rules are internalized and work on all levels, from the personal to the political.” Well, there must be something seriously wrong then. We seem to have, as a country, failed in that regard because our President’s main and only consistent quality is that he is a bully. He hasn’t been stopped. He has taken over – an entire political party it would seem, at the very least. He’s doing exactly what bullies do. The The metaphors aren’t – most people ARE sheep. Some are wolves. A very few of us are sheepdogs, and it’s not about enforcement of anything. It’s about creating safe space for sheep to be… sheep… which isn’t fascist. So I think your off the lines entirely, but you say it Yahweh and I’ll say it mine. Thanks for being there and being you.

          • That would be my point too John. There is something seriously wrong when you have a President of the United States who is a bully and has no morals. No people are sheep. This is a very disagreeable metaphor. People can be tricked and deceived, and it is happening in a large part because of the heavily biased right wing media: Fox, and Sinclair. Rule of law breaks down when people stop seeing their opponents as reasonable people and refuse even to listen to their opponents arguments.

    • trilemmaman

      The biggest problem is the ignorance surrounding this comment. It’s the consumption patterns of the west (that’s us) who ruin the environment for the rest. We have the technological capacity and the resources today to improve the quality of life for everyone alive today and well into the future if that was humanities goal. Instead we fund wars, and buy stuff that rewards wasteful corporations in hopes of protecting our spoiled and excessive way of life. More people in the world today are threatened by obesity than hunger. If we valued the health of people and the environment instead of personal wealth and our creature comforts of expensive cars, houses and pretty gardens, we would be happier, healthier and less of a drain on the environment.

      • Mark Hollidge

        Mmm…So what you are saying, is the west needs to stop consuming. And the rest of the world should start consuming more in order to catch up (only fair). Mmm…Seems a bit ignorant to me. Perhaps we need to allow everyone to consume at a moderate level, and allow population (via empowerment of women, depowerment of men, availability of contraception, end of religious bigotry etc.) to reduce to a number sustainable at that level of consumption. Most scientist agree at 2-3 billion, depending on whether we all become vegetarians. Remember Population and Consumption are entwined. Like Trump and a Prostitute.