Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

| January 15, 2013 | Leave a Comment

“For the first time an array of interconnected problems is moving a global civilization toward collapse. Driven by increasing overpopulation and overconsumption by the rich, these dilemmas include climate disruption, loss of ecosystem services, global poisoning, depletion of resources  (especially soils and groundwater), and the threat of vast famines, epidemics and resource wars.  Only a concerted effort to reduce the scale of society and focus much more attention on agriculture and equity seems likely to much improve the human prospect.  Growth is the disease; sustainability is attainable, but only with unprecedented rethinking, effort, and cooperation.”

Read more here [PDF]

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedIn
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.
  • Pingback: Quando un dettaglio può fare la differenza | Climatemonitor()

  • I am completely new to this and signed up to learn more. And maybe change my intuitive outlook that the current human-dominated ecosystem (how many mammals (levestock, rodents) are not dependent on humans, etc) is unlikely to remain unchallenged.

    Populations tend to grow beyond the pint of sustainability and if they lack the flexibility to “gently” collapse, they crash with unpredictable results. I know little about biology, but a fair bit about political economy and institutions. It is extremely unlikely that the type of political systems that dominate the OECD countries (basically all some form of representative systems where politicians compete for popular support with short term promises to constituencies) will find it easy to organize themselves for the task of shrinking economically beyond the point of becoming more efficient in the use of natural resources and controlling fertility. The rest of the world consists of populations that expect the “rich” countries to make the bulk of the sacrifices. They tend to be less democratic but cannot ignore the need to be reasonably people-regarding (look at the Arab spring). We properly give to causes like feeding Somali refugees in camps just across the border. But the TV footage shows mainly pregnant women with small children. Draw your own conclusions abou the utility of such aid in the greater scheme of human sustainability. So how would mankind organize itself to avoid disaster from the variety of possibilities mentioned in this article?

    Maybe a world government could do that but that is completely unfeasible, except as a result of large scale war (which might well have the unintended consequence of reducing populations directly). Anyone looking at the EU and the pre-Civil War USA should understand how hard it is to govern for the benefit of diverse groups.Without such an (inherently even less democratic than the EU) institution nothing coordinated can be agreed and enforced.

  • Greg:
    Capitalism has already failed and it’s not a religion. Study up on our polluted water tables, ocean acidification, dna damage to bees causing some of them to go extinct, ad nauseum. Thousands of years of history prove that if the peasants don’t eat they revolt. Hiding in underground shelters for a year or two is most likely to cause one to come back up to anarchy ruled by gangs and potential cannibalism. This is freedom buddy. Do you have the intelligence to want to be a part of engineering a solution or merely buy into the propaganda of separation of ideologies?

  • @Stefan: I see you are signed into MAHB, but your comments suggest you are not signed up to its premise. Am I missing something? If not, how is participation working out for you? Also, the reference you make to iPhones is very Guy McPherson-esque. Would I be correct that you are familiar with his efforts to argue for the collapse the economy, voluntary or otherwise, as the last long-shot choice humanity can yet make to allow shrew-size and smaller mammals to be an option for thermal self-regulating life in the unfolding climate of the Anthropocene (now that the numbers just don’t add up to saving the ‘civil’ society of CapitalismFail)? If so, and you are familiar with the commenting community at his blog, “Nature Bats Last”, how do its dynamics compared to what goes on at MAHB?

    I don’t feel I should try to join a group if all I want to do is change it. And to the degree I have grasped MAHB’s purpose, my joining would mean I would work toward doing this (even as my comments here are intended to do). In my experience it is irrational wishful thinking, like what seems to be promoted here, that functions, systemically, as a positive feedback of a loyal opposition; that continues to corrupt language such that these three systemic concepts/dynamics remain hidden in plain sight: freedom is responsibility; property (wealth) is responsibility; and power is the right to be irresponsible.

    In addition, I just researched the Monty Hall problem. It is both interesting AND an amazing example of observer bias. In terms of the math, the “proof” is unflawed. What “muddles” the minds of those who got it “wrong” is that the context, a game show (games of chance) played socially within its western social variant, is also a variable that the math of probabilities cannot address without bayesian statistics. Just because switching ones choice is mathematically correct, in practice, such can only be right as modeled on a computer to be right. In real life, a shared knowledge of this “right” and/or modeled answer would have the game become boring, and like tick, tack, toe, one that quickly looses social value. To the degree game playing is a social value, the knowledge of the right answer due to simple probability, isn’t completely right. Further, the context for the problem includes some unstated assumptions that are neither universal, nor sustainable. If these variables were factored into the computer model runs, for the majority of time that humans have been on the planet, the contestant would be most right to ask, since a choice shift is implied to be possible, to choose the open door and the goat . . . unless a rusting lawn ornament has some ritualistic/aesthetic value ( 😉

    In two posted events I’ve listened to (a talk and an interview), Paul has acknowledged that his goal of increasing the probability of civil society avoiding collapse from 10% to 11%. This is felt, by a more knowledgeable person, to be a shift from 1% to 1.1% that it won’t collapse. He also notes—without quantifying—that most of the criticism this paper is receiving (privately?!?), is that its conclusion is, with a very high degree of probability, wishful thinking.

    You and I are adding to that assessment.

    I do not know if there is any scientific convention for what is appropriate when stating statistical probabilities, felt or proven. But to make the affirmative assertion that collapse can be avoided, when, the chances are implied—as you reflect (though not explicitly stated in the paper)—to be a 90%, or if this MAHB effort is successful an 89%, likelihood that civil society will collapse (and this is based on the now very dated science and models as of 2005 (i.e. 2007 IPCC 4th Assessment), is such both misleading and disingenuous. I feel it is worth noting that when scientific skeptics were facing such odds, reporting such positions as being equal, within the framework of “balanced” journalism, was seen as frustrating and foolhardy. Is the shoe on the other foot?

    My contention is that it is. The resulting noise silences, just as surely as the pop-science (unengaged in the scientific method) skeptics do. The behavior frustrates the intelligence that may exist within society from being matured into. Does it also co-conspire to assure responsibility is avoided and power is maintained within the irrationality of CapitalismFail with its childish trust in systemic avarice? Does it also feed into public ignorance, projection, pious scapegoating, and enabling denial/motivated reasoning?

    Ironically, relative to stories and sapient foresight, both behaviors, those of pop-science skeptics and light green climate hawks, seem to be similar, if differentiated, efforts to be heroic; engaged in to give meaning to a life within the context of a shared social narrative. And neither seems to be other than different iterations of irrational delusions and motivated reasoning. The pop-science skeptic exercises denial to save the ‘religion’ of CapitalismFail from the twin threats of the Anthropocene it created, and peak conventional oil—as peak credit—that effects the pulling of the plug on its life-support system (i.e. a trap relative to quantitative easing being scaled to prevent a thawing of the affected flash frozen collapse). Light green climate hawks, talking a talk that is not, in a statistically significant manner, walked, engaged in liberal secular individualism, denial withstanding, function as the loyal opposition for the ‘religion’ of CapitalismFail. Systemically, these are positive feedback dynamics. I can bear witness that, as “blue pill” feedbacks, they make “red pill” messaging in this culture akin to the rightness of a man talking when a woman is around to hear him: wrong. 😉

    “Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong.”

  • …or not! 😉

    Anyway, to the degree the perceived need for a new intelligence, in MAHB’s case, foresight, and such is like the addition of natural and spiritual intelligences to Gardner’s original seven, what problem might such additions/perceived absences be solving? To the degree liberal secular academia is functionally–by their observed actions–”an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”, might such go a long way toward explaining both the lack of foresight in society and the perceived need for it? What if the most trustworthy way for homo sapiens to learn is by example? What if the most trustworthy way to remember what is sapient is through story?

    I posite that the sought for “foresight intelligence” is locked away in humanity’s religious stories that ‘secular’ academia has cut themselves off from, and twice over. First, by disengaging form the social institutions that craft trusted stories via a snobbish affect, second, by engaging, ‘religiously’, in the economic paradigm of CapitalismFail. This has told a story that now, with motivated reasoning defining what is socially, religiously trusted, functionally cuts society off from its foresight/story, and effects the perceived needs for a ‘missing’ intelligence. Does such a reframing help make visible the “invisible”?

    To the degree indigenous cultures tell themselves, and live, stories that affect more sustainable living than those of CapitalismFail, and the religiously deeply spiritual are empowered, through trusted stories, to embrace suffering and sacrifice for a greater good than is perceivable within an individualistic mind set that undergirds The Age of Enlightment, and, applying Occam’s razor, what but the “Ivory Tower’s” perchance to isolate one’s social and psychological development from the complexity of the natural world, and the paradoxical “conflicts” of religious theology vs. human behavior regarding the paired problems of “what is the meaning of life”/”what is the life of meaning” explains the otherwise invoked trust in the stories of CapitalismFail?

    How did I do? 🙂

    • @Greg: Oh yes – I am also thinking along these lines. Yin and Yang. Above I brought the example of the goat example solved a Marilyn Vos Savant. A simple riddle, and yet many learned Math professors claimed she was wrong. She wasn’t. She is the first to say that IQ is a crude concept, but there IS a huge difference between her and me – as there is a huge difference between the average holder of a postgraduate degree and a person of below average IQ. This has nothing to do with arrogance. It just is so. There are people who cannot learn calculus. You can do whatever you want: they don’t grasp it. You can already see it in children. My two older daughters are so different they could belong to different species: one is a massive sports talent, the other is clumsy but the sort that taught herself reading and writing before school. She instantly jumped years and even now again is two years ahead of her class in Math, German and English. She sees how things works instantly. So that exists. But how to transfer this type of insight to those who don’t have it? Of course naked understanding of how things work also is not yet wisdom. Still there is no other animal with such a tremendous range of mental capacities, talents and abilities. There are some who need not learn by example – they learn out of themselves. But for the majority the example is important. And what is the example that humans get from their modern world parents? That work and earning money and having a career has priority over everything? That the possession of things is important? That being important is important? I think you are right: humans need stories. Talk Story. A lost art. Replaced by commercial entertainment quite unrelated to each of us (although some of it does, to a certain extend, provide a new mythological and even cultural framework, e.g. SciFi for the “Geek” world). As a young man, highschool and early college time, I used to believe in science, I thought we can solve everything intellectually. That changed over time. I pretty much lost faith in the Western model and more and more began to appreciate other ways of thinking, talking, communicating, living. There is a lot to learn from native communities that have managed to build stable societies for hundreds of years – millennia in some cases. There is a lot to learn from the mystic core of our major religions. They are part of the stories that should teach us about our own shortcoming, help us to keep our in-between simian nature at bay. Here an example of Talk Story, living an alive: Jamaica Osorio. I think she studies at Stanford, too.

    • @Greg: one more on stories… In an interview by the Frankfurter ALllgemeine Newspaper in Germany Prof. Joachim Schellnhuber, advisor on climate change to Chancellor Merkel and the EU Commission, referred to our nonchalance when it comes to planetary scale issues as “kausale Distanz” (causal distance). The Interviewer asked him if he sees a way to bridge this distance. His answer was (translation by me):

      “Only by means of intellectual empathy. We tell coherent stories of what could happen and pull the future closer to us with images people are familiar with – for example environmental refugees on the Island of Lampedusa, right at our (EU) doorstep. It is about building a bridge into the future. But to achieve this requires a significant achievement of imagination, and that doesn’t come easy.”

      I think this approach of “bridge building visualization” is the only way to go, but it also means to walk a thin line. Models are not reality, and neither are metaphors and visualizations. The approach can be easily attacked, which can be seen in the climate field. Climate change denial lobbyists usually attack the visualization. The non-scientific public is their target audience. Another problem is closely related again to the difference in educational, cultural and intelligence backgrounds among humans. As Feynman once pointed out the best a popularizer of science can hope to achieve is to create the illusion of understanding among his audience. And how do people act? People are inert, avoid change. As Tobias Owen once wrote: if aliens would come and recommend to us to recycle, we’d probably ignore it. It would be different if they said “Recycle, or we’ll blow up your planet”. I can write code, I can use calculus, I know how a star produces its energy, but I am still just a some mammal, a barely self aware monkey mostly driven by subconscious mechanisms, hormones, chemical imbalances in the brain and body. Like all of us. And motionlessly sitting in an office day in, day out, for decade upon decade, doesn’t cater to my mammalian nature, which desires both for balance: the ivory tower and the serenity of spiritual/natural experiences. The body and the soul. Or rather what needs to be catered to is the trinity of body, soul and mind. Men sana in corpore sana. That balance is severely disturbed.

  • This next comment comes after finishing the paper. I’ve also listened to the interview about this paper that was linked to on Twitter. Tom Brown would be an optimist compare to me . . . which would make you, Paul, a full-blown Pollyanna juxtaposed to me. 😉

    As I mentioned in my critique in the previous comment of the failed liberal strategy to effect desired social change, action speaks louder than words. To the degree this is so, shouldn’t professors and scientists be added to the listed politicians and economists needing to “alter their behavior…”? Between the predilections of the conservative end of the moral continuum of social psychology concerning duty and action compared to liberals, and Gardner’s intra and inter-personal intelligences’ capacities to read between the lines, isn’t the observation that those who teach that there is a problem but live just like everyone else an education about much of what can be observed to need “foresight intelligence” to fix? Might “endarkenment” be but a reflection of enlightenment in the dark looking glass of CapitalismFail?

    In the morning I will add to this and suggest an alternate way to find the missing foresight that is hidden, thanks to motivated reasoning, in plain sight.

  • Lawrence

    I heard about MAHB from Paul’s interview on Radio Ecoshock Jan 23 2013.
    Alex doesn’t like nuclear power, but I think it will be required.
    I don’t think I count for registering on MAHB so I’m posting my suggestion here.
    Paul said in the interview we had but one or two decades before a 90% probable civilization collapse.
    Some think renewables and efficiency will be enough, I cannot see it.
    I think we will need to do what GRLCowan, Tom Blees and Prof Barry Brook suggest. We need to build a lot of IFRs. Some of them are used to grind olivine to 2.5 microns and disperse over land to absorb CO2. Meanwhile as we reduce fossil fuel use we must find a way to substitute for the fossil fuel aerosols that Hansen says are now reflecting 1.5W/m2. I don’t know if the olivine particles would do that.
    This only covers CO2 extraction and power production. There are other elements of sustainability I do not know the answer to – for example there are some who think Permaculture is the answer to food production and some other aspects. I just don’t know.

    • I certainly hope not, but it may be required to tinker with additional controlled and directed geo-engineering in order to avoid planetary disaster (as opposed to the uncontrolled planetary engineering of the last millennium, beginning with large scale land use change). I tend to be cautious. Generally we drastically overestimate our own abilities and insight. The famous goat problem is an example. Marilyn Vos Savant provided an unintuitive answer, which even many mathematics professors objected. I once encountered it in an IQ test, and I got it wrong. I knew intuitively I was wrong, but I couldn’t exactly tell why. My conventional school and college approaches led me astray. Now once you know the solution, it is simple enough, but still even the most learned men and women failed. So please: how can anyone seriously think they can provide a reasonable risk assessment for geo-engineering when even math professors get a simple riddle as the goat problem wrong? I once had an interesting conversation with Michio Kaku alongside a conference in Switzerland. He told me that Chaos theory didn’t give us anything. It has no predictive power. I think that is a wrong statement: it gives us the insight that complex systems are hard to predict – or not at all. It gives arguments for the precautionary principle substantial leverage. So we now burn the remaining fossil fuels as fast as possible, to keep “the economy” growing (iphones for everyone!), along the road we destroy landscapes andw ater tables and further compromise the stability of the geo-biosphere. Afterwards we need nuclear breeding technology to keep the game running, to feed the lusting little stonage monkey that somehow beamed itself into a space age society (in fact it is not at all space age – that merely is a side show. This here is money age). The new bright age of nuclear energy abundance will encompass “sacrificing a major city every decade” as Stanford’s own Robert Laughling suggests. He, too, thinks it will happen after all the carbon is gone. He, too, sees no alternative. People don’t like to sit freezing in their homes in winter. He explicitly uses this example, not considering that even the Vikings in Iceland had built passive houses about a thousand years ago. The headquarter of the company I work for was Europe’s first passive house office building, completed in the late 90. Demand side management goes much further… but that would include a different type of economy, one moving away from almost entirely producing pointless products that meet artificial demands, a system in which perfect quality is punished by death penalty. About Pauls predictions: the 90% probability for me belongs in the same category as wrong intuitive solutions of the goat problem. What was that 90% probability based upon? Hard to come up with real numbers there. It is a felt magnitude. On the one hand we should all be happy that he got the time line wrong, although his fundamental arguments largely stand unscathed. On the other hand: what actually does a global collapse look like? When a storm flood hits a dike, the villagers all come to help and re-enforce it. That works for a while. But the dike will come down in a scenario where the storm gets ever stronger. Perhaps if we step back and look at everything from a higher vantage point it turns out that the collapse already is much longer under way, perhaps the first world war was a first sign of overheating, the endless row of wars and crisis and atrocities of the 20th century could be chaotic fluctuations of a “global society” entering a different state. The collapse Paul predicts is one of a huge system, planetary scale, 7 billion+ actors involved. There are enormous complexities , feedback mechanisms and system inertia involved. Usually planetary scale changes take hundreds of years, thousands of years – even millions of years. But now we entered the anthropocene, and change happens fast. If Paul got it wrong by a few decades – even by a century or two – that is a small error margin compared to the time scales normally involved. Humans simply have no good perception or intuition for processes that span decades and centuries. As a result we take risks and use arguments on a planetary scale that we would consider outright insane in daily life. We would never feed unknown mushrooms from the forest to our kids because they just might not be poisonous, right? In daily life the precautionary principle is one of the guiding principles for all our actions. We buy insurance, we use seat belts, we make our kids wear helmets when bicycling, we have lifeguards on the beach, emergency numbers on the wall – you name it. We always look left and right before crossing the road and never say “oh – let’s just go – most of the time no car comes…”. And yet we are sending the entire planet across the road, blindfolded. Back and forth. All in the name of “the economy”. iPhones for everyone and 7000 variants of lipstick…

  • I have read far enough into this paper to feel it is appropriate to observe an omission, and question an assumption. The omission is the role that peak conventional oil plays in effecting peak credit for the flash-frozen-in-it’s-collapse economic paradigm of CapitalismFail. Not only is a trust in infinite growth on a finite planet without sapience, to do so when the currency for economic exchange is based on fossil carbon rationalized debt is foolhardy; motivated reasoning.

    I read that climate scientists put forward the 2°C number. Recent science suggest that that 2° is now 1°C, and the same refinements in climate science make the threats associate with 1°C 20 years ago, now applicable to a much lower figure.

    An appeal to reason for desired social change, in the absence of a walk that communicated the talk, seems to have been a liberal strategy that failed . . . and is yet trusted?