As modern civilization’s shelf life expires, more scholars have turned their attention to the decline and fall of civilizations past. Their studies have generated rival explanations of why societies collapse and civilizations die. Meanwhile, a lucrative market has emerged for post-apocalyptic novels, movies, TV shows, and video games for those who enjoy the vicarious thrill of dark, futuristic disaster and mayhem from the comfort of their cozy couch. Of course, surviving the real thing will become a much different story.
The latent fear that civilization is living on borrowed time has also spawned a counter-market of “happily ever after” optimists who desperately cling to their belief in endless progress. Popular Pollyannas, like cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, provide this anxious crowd with soothing assurances that the titanic ship of progress is unsinkable. Pinker’s publications have made him the high priest of progress. While civilization circles the drain, his ardent audiences find comfort in lectures and books brimming with cherry-picked evidence to prove that life is better than ever, and will surely keep improving. Yet, when questioned, Pinker himself admits, “It’s incorrect to extrapolate that the fact that we’ve made progress is a prediction that we’re guaranteed to make progress.”
Pinker’s rosy statistics cleverly disguise the fatal flaw in his argument. The progress of the past was built by sacrificing the future—and the future is upon us. All the happy facts he cites about living standards, life expectancy, and economic growth are the product of an industrial civilization that has pillaged and polluted the planet to produce temporary progress for a growing middle class—and enormous profits and power for a tiny elite.
Not everyone who understands that progress has been purchased at the expense of the future thinks that civilization’s collapse will be abrupt and bitter. Scholars of ancient societies, like Jared Diamond and John Michael Greer, accurately point out that abrupt collapse is a rare historical phenomenon. In The Long Descent, Greer assures his readers that, “The same pattern repeats over and over again in history. Gradual disintegration, not sudden catastrophic collapse, is the way civilizations end.” Greer estimates that it takes, on average, about 250 years for civilizations to decline and fall, and he finds no reason why modern civilization shouldn’t follow this “usual timeline.”
But Greer’s assumption is built on shaky ground because industrial civilization differs from all past civilizations in four crucial ways. And every one of them may accelerate and intensify the coming collapse while increasing the difficulty of recovery.
Difference #1: Unlike all previous civilizations, modern industrial civilization is powered by an exceptionally rich, NON-renewable, and irreplaceable energy source—fossil fuels. This unique energy base predisposes industrial civilization to a short, meteoric lifespan of unprecedented boom and drastic bust. Megacities, globalized production, industrial agriculture, and a human population approaching 8 billion are all historically exceptional—and unsustainable—without fossil fuels. Today, the rich easily exploited oilfields and coalmines of the past are mostly depleted. And, while there are energy alternatives, there are no realistic replacements that can deliver the abundant net energy fossil fuels once provided. Our complex, expansive, high-speed civilization owes its brief lifespan to this one-time, rapidly dwindling energy bonanza.
Difference #2: Unlike past civilizations, the economy of industrial society is capitalist. Production for profit is its prime directive and driving force. The unprecedented surplus energy supplied by fossil fuels has generated exceptional growth and enormous profits over the past two centuries. But in the coming decades, these historic windfalls of abundant energy, constant growth, and rising profits will vanish.
However, unless it is abolished, capitalism will not disappear when boom turns to bust. Instead, energy-starved, growth-less capitalism will turn catabolic. Catabolismrefers to the condition whereby a living thing devours itself. As profitable sources of production dry up, capitalism will be compelled to turn a profit by consuming the social assets it once created. By cannibalizing itself, the profit motive will exacerbate industrial society’s dramatic decline.
Catabolic capitalism will profit from scarcity, crisis, disaster, and conflict. Warfare, resource hoarding, ecological disaster, and pandemic diseases will become the big profit makers. Capital will flow toward lucrative ventures like cybercrime, predatory lending, and financial fraud; bribery, corruption, and racketeering; weapons, drugs, and human trafficking. Once disintegration and destruction become the primary source of profit, catabolic capitalism will rampage down the road to ruin, gorging itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.
Difference #3: Unlike past societies, industrial civilization isn’t Roman, Chinese, Egyptian, Aztec, or Mayan. Modern civilization is HUMAN, PLANETARY, and ECOCIDAL. Pre-industrial civilizations depleted their topsoil, felled their forests, and polluted their rivers. But the harm was far more temporary and geographically limited. Once market incentives harnessed the colossal power of fossil fuels to exploit nature, the dire results were planetary. Two centuries of fossil fuel combustion have saturated the biosphere with climate-altering carbon that will continue wreaking havoc for generations to come. The damage to Earth’s living systems—the circulation and chemical composition of the atmosphere and the ocean; the stability of the hydrological and biogeochemical cycles; and the biodiversity of the entire planet—is essentially permanent.
Humans have become the most invasive species ever known. Although we are a mere .01 percent of the planet’s biomass, our domesticated crops and livestock dominate life on Earth. In terms of total biomass, 96 percent of all the mammals on Earth are livestock; only 4 percent are wild mammals. Seventy percent of all birds are domesticated poultry, only 30 percent are wild. About half the Earth’s wild animals are thought to have been lost in just the last 50 years. Scientists estimate that half of all remaining species will be extinct by the end of the century. There are no more unspoiled ecosystems or new frontiers where people can escape the damage they’ve caused and recover from collapse.
Difference #4: Human civilization’s collective capacity to confront its mounting crises is crippled by a fragmented political system of antagonistic nations ruled by corrupt elites who care more about power and wealth than people and the planet. Humanity faces a perfect storm of converging global calamities. Intersecting tribulations like climate chaos, rampant extinction, food and freshwater scarcity, poverty, extreme inequality, and the rise of global pandemics are rapidly eroding the foundations of modern life.
Yet, this fractious and fractured political system makes organizing and mounting a cooperative response nearly impossible. And, the more catabolic industrial capitalism becomes, the greater the danger that hostile rulers will fan the flames of nationalism and go to war over scarce resources. Of course, warfare is not new. But modern warfare is so devastating, destructive, and toxic that little would remain in its aftermath. This would be the final nail in civilization’s coffin.
Rising From the Ruins?
How people respond to the collapse of industrial civilization will determine how bad things get and what will replace it. The challenges are monumental. They will force us to question our identities, our values, and our loyalties like no other experience in our history. Who are we? Are we, first and foremost, human beings struggling to raise our families, strengthen our communities, and coexist with the other inhabitants of Earth? Or do our primary loyalties belong to our nation, our culture, our race, our ideology, or our religion? Can we put the survival of our species and our planet first, or will we allow ourselves to become hopelessly divided along national, cultural, racial, religious, or party lines?
The eventual outcome of this great implosion is up for grabs. Will we overcome denial and despair; kick our addiction to petroleum; and pull together to break the grip of corporate power over our lives? Can we foster genuine democracy, harness renewable energy, reweave our communities, re-learn forgotten skills, and heal the wounds we’ve inflicted on the Earth? Or will fear and prejudice drive us into hostile camps, fighting over the dwindling resources of a degraded planet? The stakes could not be higher.
Notes. His books include: The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  King, Darryn. “Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism” (OneZero, Jan 10, 2019) https://onezero.medium.com/steven-pinker-on-the-past-present-and-future-of-optimism-f362398c604b  Greer, John Michael. The Long Descent (New Society Publishers, 2008): 29.  Heinberg, Richard. The End Of Growth. (New Society, 2011): 117.  For more on catabolic capitalism see: Collins, Craig. “Catabolism: Capitalism’s Frightening Future,”CounterPunch (Nov. 1, 2018). https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/11/01/catabolism-capitalisms-frightening-future/  Carrington, Damian. “New Study: Humans Just 0.01% Of All Life But Have Destroyed 83% Of Wild Mammals,” The Guardian (May 21, 2018). https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study  Ceballos, Ehrlich, Barnosky, Garcia, Pringle & Palmer. “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering The 6th Mass Extinction,” Science Advances. (June 19, 2015). http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253
Teaser Photograph Source: Studio Incendo – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/