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Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?

Abandoned statue in Syria (Credit: Getty Images)

Are we on the road to civilisation collapse?

Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us how much risk we face today, says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening.

Great civilisations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.

DEEP CIVILISATION

This article is part of a new BBC Future series about the long view of humanity, which aims to stand back from the daily news cycle and widen the lens of our current place in time. Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” she wrote.

That’s why the Deep Civilisation season will explore what really matters in the broader arc of human history and what it means for us and our descendants.

So concluded the historian Arnold Toynbee in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History. It was an exploration of the rise and fall of 28 different civilisations.

He was right in some respects: civilisations are often responsible for their own decline. However, their self-destruction is usually assisted.  

The Roman Empire, for example, was the victim of many ills including overexpansion, climatic change, environmental degradation and poor leadership. But it was also brought to its knees when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455.

Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq km (1.9 million sq miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq km (770,000 sq miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

How Mises Explained the Fall of Rome

How Mises Explained the Fall of Rome

An excerpt from Mises’ classic work, ‘Human Action’.

Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization

Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.

It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness.

Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population’s purchases of the products of the city-dwellers’ processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were mutually interdependent.

What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Paul Ehrlich: ‘Collapse of civilisation is a near certainty within decades’

Fifty years after the publication of his controversial book The Population Bomb, biologist Paul Ehrlich warns overpopulation and overconsumption are driving us over the edge

The toxification of the planet with synthetic chemicals may be more dangerous to people and wildlife than climate change, says Ehrlich.
The toxification of the planet with synthetic chemicals may be more dangerous to people and wildlife than climate change, says Ehrlich. Photograph: Linh Pham/Getty Images

Ashattering collapse of civilisation is a “near certainty” in the next few decades due to humanity’s continuing destruction of the natural world that sustains all life on Earth, according to biologist Prof Paul Ehrlich.

In May, it will be 50 years since the eminent biologist published his most famous and controversial book, The Population Bomb. But Ehrlich remains as outspoken as ever.

Prof Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University.
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Prof Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The world’s optimum population is less than two billion people – 5.6 billion fewer than on the planet today, he argues, and there is an increasing toxification of the entire planet by synthetic chemicals that may be more dangerous to people and wildlife than climate change.

Ehrlich also says an unprecedented redistribution of wealth is needed to end the over-consumption of resources, but “the rich who now run the global system – that hold the annual ‘world destroyer’ meetings in Davos – are unlikely to let it happen”.

The Population Bomb, written with his wife Anne Ehrlich in 1968, predicted “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” in the 1970s – a fate that was avoided by the green revolution in intensive agriculture.

Many details and timings of events were wrong, Paul Ehrlich acknowledges today, but he says the book was correct overall.

“Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.”

Ehrlich has been at Stanford University since 1959 and is also president of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, which works “to reduce the threat of a shattering collapse of civilisation”.

“It is a near certainty in the next few decades, and the risk is increasing continually as long as perpetual growth of the human enterprise remains the goal of economic and political systems,” he says. “As I’ve said many times, ‘perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell’.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

“The collapse of our civilization is not a political issue.” Really??

“The collapse of our civilization is not a political issue.” Really??

The cover article of New Scientist this week asks “Is Western civilization on the brink of collapse?” I’m glad they’re raising this question, but their discussion was extremely disappointing.

First, as George Monbiot points out in a follow-up article, the article fails to distinguish between Western and global civilization, conflating two very different issues: 1.) the recent historical dominance of the West over the rest of the world, and  2.) the unsustainable dynamics of our global civilization.

Worse, in their editorial, they argue that on the issues of climate breakdown and environmental collapse, those raising the alarm have “prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.” To me, that reads like saying that those who argue that the Earth orbits the Sun have prematurely provoked pushback from the Flat Earth Society by emphasizing the role of gravity. It’s the kind of thinking that grants false equivalency to climate deniers and leads to pseudo-scientists funded by the Koch brothers getting equal television time to real scientists representing 98% of scientific opinion.

Bill Nye and climate deniers
Arguing against “politicizing” civilizational collapse is the same mindset that leads to offering equal TV time to pseudo-scientific climate deniers

As I describe in my recent article, “What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?“, the underlying drivers impelling our global civilization to the precipice are the economic structures of a global capitalist growth-based system driven by massive transnational corporations that are more powerful than individual nations. Since politics is, by definition, about the dynamics of power and governance, how is it possible either to diagnose the problem or suggest solutions without it being political?

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Great Unraveling: Using Science and Philosophy to Decode Modernity

The Great Unraveling: Using Science and Philosophy to Decode Modernity 

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

“Forty percent of the United States drains into the Mississippi. It’s agriculture. It’s golf courses. It’s domestic runoff from our lawns and roads. Ultimately, where does it go? Downstream into the Gulf.”

—Sylvia Earle

Our civilization is headed for a downfall, to be sure, in part due to the massive gulf between our hopes for the future and the omnipresent inertia regarding social change in mainstream politics, though a more apt analogy for our society might be circling the drain. The dark, shadow side of our industrial farming practices in the US has resulted in the hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately the size of New Jersey and growing every year. Caused by excess nitrates, phosphates, and various chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides draining from farmland into the Mississippi river basin, toxic algal blooms kill millions of fish, shrimp, shellfish, and, almost certainly, thousands of marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico every year. There are hundreds of these dead zones around the world’s oceans, caused by agribusiness and sewage runoff from the world’s largest cities. There are also garbage patches in the Pacific (actually diffuse swathes of ocean littered mainly by microplastics) comparable to the size of Mexico.

Meanwhile on land, we have lost half of our wildlife in the past 40 years. The implications are inconceivable and beyond words, and calls for global action on a coordinated scale beyond anything that has been seriously considered by the so-called political leaders of the “world community”. This will require an immediate mobilization of international resources (a Global Marshall plan, which will need trillions of dollars of aid redistributed to the developing nations over decades) to combat three main crises: global warming, habitat loss, and accelerating species extinction rates, all of which are interconnected.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Switzerland is Prepared for Civilizational Collapse

Switzerland is Prepared for Civilizational Collapse

More than any other country, Switzerland’s ethos is centered around preparing for civilizational collapse.

All around Switzerland, for example, one can find thousands of water fountains fed by natural springs. Zurich is famous for its 1200 fountains, some of them quite beautiful and ornate, but it’s the multiple small, simple fountains in every Swiss village that really tell the story. Elegant, yes, but if and when central water systems are destroyed these fountains are a decentralized and robust system for providing everyone with drinkable water.

The Swiss political system is also decentralized. If the central government fails, the Swiss might not even notice. The mountains and valleys also mean that Swiss towns and villages are geographically independent yet linked in a spider-web of robust connections.

Despite being at peace since 1815, Switzerland is prepared for war. Swiss males (and perhaps females in the future) are required to serve in the military (those who cannot, pay a special tax) creating a robust reservoir of trained citizens ready to serve in an emergency.

The Swiss have been tunneling the Alps for hundreds of years creating innumerable secret hideaways for people and stores.

As a further example of how ridiculously well prepared the Swiss are for any and all threats, there are things like hidden hydroelectric dams built inside of unmarked mountains so that in the event of mass bombings, they’ll still have electricity from these secret facilities. And, remember, these are the things the Swiss government has let us know about. It is thought that there are probably more fortifications and hidden goodies scattered about the country’s landscape. (ital. added, AT)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The other side of the global crisis: entropy and the collapse of civilizations

The other side of the global crisis: entropy and the collapse of civilizations

When we discuss the impending crisis of our civilisation, we mainly look at the resources our economy need in a growing quantity. And we explain why the Diminishing Returns of resource exploitation pose a growing burden on the possibility of a further growing of the global economy. It is a very interesting topic, indeed, but here I suggest to turn 180 degrees around and take a look at the “other side;” that is to what happens where the used resources are discarded.

Eventually, our society (as any other society in history) is a dissipative structure. It means that it exist only because it is able to dissipate energy in order to stock information inside itself. And there is a positive feedback: more energy permits to implement more complexity; and more complexity needs, but it also permits a larger energy flow. This, I think, is a crucial point: at the very end, wealth is information stocked inside the socio-economic system in different forms (such livestock, infrastructures, agrarian facilities, machines, buildings, books, the web and so on). Human population is peculiar because it is a large part of the information stocked inside the society system. So, from a thermodynamic point of view, it is the key part of “wealth”, while from an economic point of view people can be seen as the denominator of the global wealth.

The accumulation of information inside a system is possible only by an increment of entropy outside the same system. This is usual with all the dissipative structures, but our civilisation is unique in its dimension. Today about 97% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass is composed of humans and of their symbionts and we use about the 50% of the primary production (400 TW?), plus a little less than 20 TW we have from fossil fuels and other inorganic sources.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Empires (Like the U.S.) Fall When Corruption Becomes Rampant

Empires (Like the U.S.) Fall When Corruption Becomes Rampant

By way of example, corruption was one of the main causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire:

The Praetorian Guard—the emperor’s personal bodyguards—assassinated and installed new sovereigns at will, and once even auctioned the spot off to the highest bidder [and see this]. The political rot also extended to the Roman Senate, which failed to temper the excesses of the emperors due to its own widespread corruption and incompetence. As the situation worsened, civic pride waned and many Roman citizens lost trust in their leadership.

The Ottoman Empire started its decline when the sale of offices, bribery and corruption became widespread.  Indeed:

Most historians point to “degenerate Sultans, incompetent Grand Viziers, debilitated and ill-equipped armies, corrupt officials, avaricious speculators, grasping enemies, and treacherous friends.

The Yuan Empire (led by the Mongols) also collapsed due to corruption:

The decline of the [the Yuan empire] was a result of a number of factors, these being incompetent and rivaling leaders, corruption, revolts, decadence, factional struggles, assassinations, external attacks, and disease.

Moreover:

Toward the end, corruption and the persecution became so severe that Muslim generals joined Han Chinese in rebelling against the Mongols.

Former history professor at the University of Alabama Larry Clayton notes:

The [Roman] republic evolved into an empire and the empire grew corrupt from its own tremendous power. There arose, like mushrooms after a long rain, self-indulgent vices driven by pride and power. An oft quoted observation noted:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” wrote the English essayist and historian Lord Acton in 1887.

Long after the Roman Empire disappeared, other empires, notably the ones of France, England, and Spain began with the conquest and settlement of the New World. By the end of the nineteenth century, European nations had created economic, military and commercial empires across much of the globe.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Presuming to Care about the Earth

Presuming to Care about the Earthstuff on cats

Photo: Mihnea Stanciu/Flickr CC.

There are times that I find myself wandering pensively in the woods, asking aloud, “so how should I presume?”

I just read about the land sinking — up to thirteen inches a year in some places — in the Central Valley of California.

I also just read about there being no mountaintops left in certain areas of West Virginia anymore. None. And, the coal companies are pulling out. West Virginia’s usefulness to them as a sacrifice zone is over.

I also read about the botany studies indicating that the sounds of nature have empirically diminished — less bird song, less insect cacophony — having been drowned out by the noise of industrialization. So, really, how should I presume?

Prufrock Nation

T.S. Eliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, like so many literary examples in modernity, is concerned with issues of meaning, doubt, and individual significance. Prufrock is riddled with uncertainty as his place in the universe seems shaky. He questions, but appears to find no answers. Prufrock finds the modern world becoming a place of spiritual emptiness, a certain absence of the sacred proliferating as modernity takes hold.

Prufrock, then, bombarded by questions that he is unable to answer, finds himself growing old in a world that seems alien to him. I am there. I can’t wrap my mind around a world that is willing to destroy nature in order to grow economies.

Pre-industrial societies knew that nature was their home. Industrial society, quite to the contrary, sees nature as a repository of resources to be used for profit. Native Americans talked to nature. We talk about nature. This is a critical distinction. First People were a part of nature. We objectify it. We are products of Cartesianism and, thus, think that we are separate from nature (or, as Descartes would have called it, all of that “dead matter”) — distinct from our very home. We suck it dry, frack it, mine it, cut it down, pave it over and poison it — all in the name of progress. Civilization.

– See more at: http://transitionvoice.com/2015/09/presuming-to-care-about-the-earth/#sthash.9ovHnLN7.dpuf

 

Tim Flannery: ‘The Next Decade Is Going to Be Really Tough’

Tim Flannery: ‘The Next Decade Is Going to Be Really Tough’

A brutally honest conversation with the world-leading climate thinker, who speaks in Vancouver Oct. 14.

Tim Flannery didn’t become one of the world’s most influential climate thinkers by sugar-coating the truth. “If humans pursue a business-as-usual course for the first half of this century,” he warned in his seminal 2006 book The Weather Makers, “I believe the collapse of civilization due to climate change becomes inevitable.” But Flannery has always been clear-eyed about the opportunities we have to change our course. “The transition to a carbon-free economy is eminently achievable,” he wrote. The only things standing in our way are ignorance and pessimism and confusion.

Flannery has written about those obstacles in outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian. He’s convened business leaders at the Copenhagen Climate Council. He’s advised energy giants like India’s Tata Power. For such efforts he was recently given the Jack P. Blaney Award from Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue. When I reached him recently over Skype at his home in Australia, he was unflinchingly candid about all the hard work still ahead of us. “No matter what we do to reduce emissions the problem is going to get worse over the next decade,” he explained.

But it won’t be insurmountable. Flannery will describe the ways that our human species can solve it at a must-see discussion he’s leading in Vancouver on Oct. 14 (click here for tickets). Right now I’m writing my own book about climate change, which explores how Millennials such as myself are responding to a crisis that is defining our generation. So I appreciated Flannery’s brutal honesty when I put to him variations of the question that also happens to be the working title of my book: Are We Screwed? Our conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Archdruid Report: Dark Age America: The Fragmentation of Technology

The Archdruid Report: Dark Age America: The Fragmentation of Technology.

It was probably inevitable that last week’s discussion of the way that contemporary science is offering itself up as a sacrifice on the altar of corporate greed and institutional arrogance would field me a flurry of responses that insisted that I must hate science.  This is all the more ironic in that the shoddy logic involved in that claim also undergirded George W. Bush’s famous and fatuous insistence that the Muslim world is riled at the United States because “they hate our freedom.”

 

In point of fact, the animosity felt by many Muslims toward the United States is based on specific grievances concerning specific acts of US foreign policy. Whether or not those grievances are justified is a matter I don’t propose to get into here; the point that’s relevant to the current discussion is that the grievances exist, they relate to identifiable actions on the part of the US government, and insisting that the animosity in question is aimed at an abstraction instead is simply one of the ways that Bush, or for that matter his equally feckless successor, have tried to sidestep any discussion of the means, ends, and cascading failures of US policy toward the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.
In the same way, it’s very convenient to insist that people who ask hard questions about the way that contemporary science has whored itself out to economic and political interests, or who have noticed gaps between the claims about reality made by the voices of the scientific mainstream and their own lived experience of the world, just hate science. That evasive strategy makes it easy to brush aside questions about the more problematic dimensions of science as currently practiced. This isn’t a strategy with a long shelf life; responding to a rising spiral of problems by insisting that the problems don’t exist and denouncing those who demur is one of history’s all-time bad choices, but intellectuals in falling civilizations all too often try to shore up the crumbling foundations of their social prestige and privilege via that foredoomed approach.
…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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