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Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
Paul Ehrlich and Anna Ehrlich, Proceedings of the Royal Society

Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

1. Introduction

Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size [1]. Some, such as those of Egypt and China, have recovered from collapses at various stages; others, such as that of Easter Island or the Classic Maya, were apparently permanent [1,2]. All those previous collapses were local or regional; elsewhere, other societies and civilizations persisted unaffected. Sometimes, as in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, new civilizations rose in succession. In many, if not most, cases, overexploitation of the environment was one proximate or an ultimate cause [3].

But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’ [4], facing what the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems [5]. The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources [6,7], including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas [8]; and resource wars [9]. These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’ [10], and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity….

(8 January 2013)

Global warming, peak oil, economic chaos

David Gear, The Ecologist

David Gear reviews “Convivial Policies for the Inevitable” by Michael Bassey which warns we may be forced to start relating to each other in long-forgotten ways, because there is no alternative.

More about the title’s “convivial” policies anon.

That warning, and a more immediate clue to the book’s contents, is implicit in its sub-title: Global Warming, Peak Oil, Economic Chaos. These three 21st Century horsemen of the apocalypse canter through the text, often rearing up menacingly in head-on confrontations with the complacency of our most cherished 20th Century assumptions.

The chief villain contributing to global warming through increased concentrations of anthropogenic greenhouse gases is carbon-dioxide, originating from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil. Despite a minority’s pedagogic insistence to the contrary, the World’s top petroleum geologists are already suggesting that its worldwide production may peak (hence “peak oil”) as soon as 2020, and thereafter decline. Many authorities predict this will result in economic chaos, so completing a troika harness for the apocalyptic horsemen…

(January 2013)

The Healing Power Of Beauty In A Bleak World

Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power

Since its publication in 2004, I have been enthralled with John O’Donohue’s extraordinary book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. Time and again I return to the dog-eared and heavily highlighted pages of my copy of the book for comfort, inspiration, and creative stimulation. When the book was first published, I had not yet formulated a concept or construct for what I now believe is the most monumental reality of our time, the collapse of industrial civilization. A variety of names for this reality have arisen: the Long Emergency, the Great Turning, the great contraction, descent, transition, and more. The names we actually give the unprecedented changes that the earth community is now experiencing remain ambiguous at best. What is not ambiguous, however, is the fact that these changes are producing a world that is woefully less than beautiful.

Whether it be the rotting, gray carcasses of bleak, boarded up city blocks of abandoned store fronts; suburban cul de sacs consisting of vacant, foreclosed homes; countless crumbling bridges and pot-hole-pocked roads; tasteless, thoughtlessly-constructed high rises; irredeemably scarred mountaintops; or charred forests ravaged by the worst fire season in recent memory, the landscape of our planet is becoming increasingly dull, drab, and downright dismal.

But not only our landscape lacks luster in this time of daunting and depressing changes. So does the soul of our nation and our communities. Economic downturn, an epidemic of senseless violence, resource depletion, extreme weather, media marinated in consumeristic blather, and a pervasive sense of loss that signals an inexorable departure of meaning, creativity, inspiration, and compassion from the modern world—all of this leaves us so hungry for beauty that we do not even recognize our longing. And then from time to time, we hear a note or see a color or read a poem that stirs the ache in the soul for beauty. Perhaps we immediately quash the impulse because we feel too busy, too tired, too burdened, too despairing, or too fearful that if we surrender to it, we will be forced to confront the vapid grayness of the lack of beauty in our lives. Or perhaps we follow what is stirred by a glimpse of beauty, and we allow ourselves to indulge, even revel in the body sensations and soul restoration that bathe us for a time in our humanity and shine an inextinguishable light in the darkness of our time.

In such moments we rediscover on a cellular level what Piero Ferrucci, author of Beauty And The Soul declares near the beginning of his book: Beauty is the affirmation of life. What is more, beauty grounds us in life and in the body. “The more we can perceive beauty in our surroundings,” says Ferucci, “and also inside us, the more we will feel at home and glad to exist.” In fact, he points to a Swedish study of 12,000 people which indicated that “those who go more often to the theater, movies, to concerts and exhibitions, have a greater chance of longevity.” In other words, beauty increases the will to live.

Thus, from the words of Ferucci and O’Donohue, it makes sense that the more we witness the descent of civilization and the decline of our communities, the more we and our world require conscious experiences of beauty. We have already seen that beauty affirms life, but in a declining world, it serves other purposes as well.

(15 January 2013)

Waiting for the punchline

Chris Nelder, Smart Planet

“Has collapse jumped the shark?”

That was the question I shot to Justin Ritchie on Sunday night after seeing The Simpsons‘ brilliant take on the collapse meme, in which Homer joins a small group of “preppers,” stocks a doomsday bunker, and bugs out when the grid goes down, then has a crisis of conscience and steals a load of supplies to bring back to the huddled masses in town — who, it turns out, survived a few days without power just fine and were going about their business as usual.

Ritchie and his fellow grad student friend Seth Moser-Katz produce the outstanding Extraenvironmentalist podcast, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the themes of peak oil, the end game of debt, environmental degradation, and the prospect of Collapse with a capital “C.” With verve, high production values, and liberal doses of humor, the pair explore these subjects with top thinkers around the world in provocative ways. “Doom without the gloom,” they call it. (In a super-wonky appearance, I discussed oil and gas and energy transition with them in Episode 47.)

And instead of doing the real work of prepping — like figuring out how to produce our own food and renewable energy, decarbonizing our economies, using and consuming less, and knitting together functionally useful communities — we’re sitting alone in our living rooms, watching apocalypse porn like Doomsday Preppers, or laughing at the whole phenomena along with The Simpsons.

Perhaps collapse really has jumped the shark.

(9 January 2013)

Moral case for sustainability more effective than economic?

Adam Corner, The Guardian

Over the past five years, a simple idea about the best way of promoting sustainable behaviour has taken root, and grown. The idea – once radical but now understood as fundamental to developing serious public engagement with climate change – is straightforward: that encouraging people to adopt sustainable behaviours because it will save them money is a flawed and potentially counter-productive strategy.

A paper published this month in Nature Climate Change by psychologist Jan Willem Bolderdijk of the University of Groningen and others, is the latest in a growing body of empirical evidence that challenges the idea that "save money, save the planet" is a viable message for promoting engagement with climate change.

In an experiment conducted at a petrol station in Holland, the researchers compared two different messages aimed at persuading people to get their tyre pressure checked (because cars with tyres inflated to the correct pressure use less petrol).

The researchers targeted either economic or "biospheric" (ie caring for the natural world) values in their messages, comparing the effectiveness of an environmental slogan, "care about the environment? Get a free tyre check"; a money saving slogan, "Care about your finances? Get a free tyre check"; and a control group message that asked people to think about their safety on the road.

(11 January 2013)

Pandora’s Boxes

Heather Millar, Orion

A PAIR OF SCIENTISTS, sporting white clean-suits complete with helmets and face masks, approach a prefab agricultural greenhouse in a clearing at Duke University’s Research Forest. Inside are two long rows of wooden boxes the size of large horse troughs, which hold samples of the natural world that surrounds them—the pine groves and rhododendron thickets of North Carolina’s piedmont, which at this moment are alive with bird song.

Looking a lot like the government bad guys in E.T., the two men cautiously hover over a row of boxes containing native sedges, water grasses, and Zebra fish to spray a fine mist of silver nanoparticles over them. Their goal: to investigate how the world inside the boxes is altered by these essentially invisible and notoriously unpredictable particles.

The researchers are part of a multidisciplinary coalition of scientists from Duke, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Howard, Virginia Tech, and the University of Kentucky, headquartered at Duke’s Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), that represents one of the most comprehensive efforts yet to measure how nanoparticles affect ecosystems and biological systems.

So far the questions about whether nanoparticles are an environmental risk outnumber the answers, which is why the Duke scientists take the precaution of wearing clean-suits while dosing the boxes—no one’s sure what exposure to a high concentration of nanoparticles might do. Among the few things we do know about them are that they sail past the blood-brain barrier and can harm the nervous systems of some animals…

(January/February issue 2013)