We are on the Cusp of the Collapse of Civilization

We have known the situation on Earth is dire for many years. In 2019 reports surfaced that predicted the end of civilization. While these scientists were criticized for their overly pessimistic assessments, more recent research suggests the situation may be even more perilous than they predicted. According to recent research published by the AGU, we may have underestimated CO2 emissions from thawing permafrost by as much as 14 percent.

Another study from the World Meteorological Organisation indicates that we are now only 0.2 ° C below the 1.5 ° C (2.7 °F) upper threshold temperature limit. Ongoing warming is also increasingly being driven by feedback loops. Recent studies from from the world’s top climate modeling groups suggest that high clouds that shade the Earth during the day may burn off as the world warms exacerbating global warming. The data supporting climate threats are not new, in 2015 it was already abundantly clear that global warming is real and demands urgent action. In 2018 we saw more evidence for civilization ending tipping points and in 2020 we are facing a deadly pandemic and an economic collapse.

In a recent article, Umair Haque laid out the truth about the sobering reality we face.  “There’s not — or there shouldn’t be, by now — any real debate on the point that we are now living through the probable end of human civilization.” Haque anticipates civilization will end because of the confluence of climate change, mass extinction, ecological collapse, economic depressions, financial implosions, political upheavals, pandemics, plagues, floods, fires, and social breakdowns. 

Collapsing wildlife and oceans

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event that is expected to kill-off half of all species on Earth. This extinction is taking place at rates that are hundreds or thousands of times faster than we have seen in tens of millions of years.  A June 2020 study indicates that 515 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles now have fewer than 1,000 individuals each. In a June 2020 press release from the Center of Biological Diversity senior scientist Tierra Curry offered the following warning:

“We’re looking at biological annihilation if we don’t act to save life on Earth. Extinction is a political choice. We’ve reached a crossroads where our own future is at stake if we don’t move away from fossil fuels and end wildlife exploitation, and at the same time, necessarily, address poverty and injustice.”

According to a 2019 UN report, one million species are on the brink of extinction and climate change is a major contributing cause. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely,” the report stated.

New research suggests that we can also expect to see a more abrupt  collapse of animal species than previously anticipated.  A recent report published in Nature indicates that climate change is likely to cause sudden die-offs which will be catastrophic not only for wildlife but for the humans as well. The study indicated that global extinction is being driven by human activity including farming, fishing, logging, mining, poaching and burning fossil fuels. We know that fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change and two recent French modeling studies concluded that fossil fuels will increase temperature by 6 to 7 ° C (10.8 to 12.6 ° F) by the end of the century.

In 2013 it was already apparent that the mass extinction of our oceans was underway. The recent Nature study suggests that climate change and other factors could cause the entire ocean ecosystem to suddenly collapse beginning in tropical oceans as soon as this decade.  “It’s not a slippery slope, but a series of cliff edges, hitting different places at different times,” research leader Alex Pigot of University College London told The Guardian.

The history of civilization

Climate change is a salient factor that is thought to have played a role in the decline of many civilizations including the Roman Empire, the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku, the Akkadians, the Mayan, and most recently some of the countries that make up the Levant. In 2014 NASA published a paper which studied the factors that contributed to the fall of great civilizations. This paper suggested that our society could collapse due to inequality and too few natural resources. The study said a “brief overview of collapses demonstrates not only the ubiquity of the phenomenon, but also the extent to which advanced, complex and powerful societies are susceptible to collapse.” The study was sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and headed by the National Science Foundation’s Safa Motesharrei.

It is hard to ignore the fact that the world is worsening in areas that have contributed to the collapse of previous civilizations. The climate crisis, demands that are outpacing the planet’s carrying capacity and a growing gap between the rich and poor are three of the reasons why Luke Kemp — a researcher who has studied the fall of historic civilizations — thinks our world may be headed in a perilous direction. In a BBC article Kemp points out that virtually all past civilizations have collapsed and while some like the Chinese and the Egyptian have recovered or transformed, others have not.

Kemp defines collapse as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control. Kemp sees collapse as a tipping point phenomena, when compounding stressors overrun societal coping capacity. The four major  causes of collapse according to Kemp are climate change, environmental degradation (ecological footprint), inequality and oligarchy (social disintegration) , complexity (EROI) and external shocks (war, natural disasters, famine, plagues and epidemics). 

The corona-warning

In a recent Axios article, Bryan Walsh says the COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment and social unrest are all “pushing American society close to the breaking point”. He reiterates the historical fact that all civilizations fall and he explains the most common reason why they collapse is internal failure. “The U.S. is at risk of a downfall over the coming decade,” Walsh quotes Kemp as saying, “There are early warning signals and the different contributors to collapse are rising.”

The U.S. has done a very poor job of managing the coronavirus and Walsh argues that disease commonly precipitates the decline of civilizations. He points to the “Antonine plague” which is thought to have played a salient role in the demise of the Roman Empire. He says COVID-19 has revealed the downside to globalization and the institutional failure and ingrained inequities in American society. He points to the social unrest across America and blames entrenched divisions and the polarizing effects of social media

The shutdown associated with the coronavirus radically decreased emissions, however, a surge in activity post-lockdown could imperil hopes of containing global warming. The coronavirus shutdown caused CO2 emissions to decrease by a global average of 17 percent in April, but they are surging again. This has prompted International Energy Agency (IEA) executive director Fatih Birol to warn that the world has six months to avert climate crisis. “This year is the last time we have, if we are not to see a carbon rebound,” Birol said.

Umair Haque recently said, the coming Great Climate Depression will make the coronavirus “look like a fond memory…Coronavirus is a foreshadowing, a taste of a dismal future, a warning, and a portrait, too. Life as we know it is falling apart. Life as we know it will continue to fall apart, for the rest of our lives” Hague wrote. He says the Climate Depression of the 2030s will be “much, much worse than the Great Depression”. Entire ecosystems will fall apart.  Once civilization’s primary systems are gone there is no going back. Once they are gone they are gone for good.  Hague believes the virus can teach us a lesson, but it is far from certain that we will we listen. We have been warned, as Haque poignantly opines:

“You can see the lights going out. The lights of civilization — prosperity, democracy, freedom, justice, truth, beauty, goodness. All gone, incinerated by the fire, drowned by the flood, and all that’s left is a desperate, stupid, terrible, idiotic struggle, through the mud and ashes, for self-preservation, each against each other, all against all. I take your water, you take my energy, they take our food, we take their medicine. Around and around the maypole we go, ashes, ashes, we all fall down. That is how our civilization ends.”

Death by suicide

However, as Walsh points out, “Look back over American history and you can find more dire examples of each of these factors. The social unrest in 1968 was far bloodier; the 1918 flu pandemic killed far more people; and, of course, ending the original sin of slavery required a civil war that resulted in 750,000 deaths.”  Humans have also had to contend with climate change and environmental degradation.

Unlike the Romans and Mesopotamians we know what’s coming. Julia Steinberger says, “the current trajectory we are on is both utterly devastating, and utterly avoidable”.  Historian Arnold Toynbee studied the rise and fall of civilizations and he concluded that great civilizations are not murdered, they take their own lives. Walsh said somewhat ambivalently, “America’s record of weathering past existential crises gives us hope of survival, but not certainty. The next few months could tell us whether the U.S. is ultimately on the road to renewal or ruin“.

Will we sit idly and wait for the end to come? Will we deny future generations their right to a livable future? We have a chance to save our planet, including much of the diverse array of flora and fauna that make up our biodiversity. This is not an act of selfless altruism, in the process of saving nature we may also be able to save ourselves.  Or maybe we won’t.

“It doesn’t have to be like this” Haque wrote, adding, “And yet it is. Maybe, then, it always did have to be like this. Maybe this is the only way. We have to fail so they can learn. I take consolation, I suppose, in the fact that the next civilization will be —will have to be — wiser, gentler, truer, better than us.”