The first thing I should say is that the word collapse freaks me out. I don’t use it often, for fear of sounding like an unhinged alarmist. Surely, respectable scientists should want nothing to do with it.
The second thing is that I don’t harbor any secret pleasure in imagining catastrophic failure of the human endeavor. It depresses me, frightens me, angers me, frustrates me, confuses me, and makes my wife crabby.
What keeps pulling me back to it—despite my innate repulsion—is not only credible elements of risk that I will get to in this post, but also that I think it’s too important to tolerate our natural tendency to hide from the prospect. Ironically, doing so only raises the odds of that ill fate: mitigation requires direct acknowledgment. Failure to speak openly and honestly about the less-than-remote possibility of collapse is not in our best interest, ultimately.
So let’s grit our teeth and confront the collapse monster. What conditions make it at once likely and off most people’s radars?
It is a heavy lift for one blog post to do a complete job in motivating collapse as a realistic outcome of the human enterprise. Any one argument can be picked at, but the totality should be considered. This is a long post, so buckle up.
[Added after posting] An early comment helpfully pointed out that I failed to define collapse. For the purposes of this post, we can think of collapse as a drastic and probably chaotic reduction in energy and resource use per person, the result looking primitive by today’s standards. Population may plummet through famine or other disruption. What remains might not maintain much of our present technology, and in the worst cases lose much of our accumulated science/knowledge. I am not talking about extinction of our species or necessarily reversion to hunter-gatherer lifestyles (thought that’s certainly on the table). Most would see this trajectory as a colossal failure of the enterprise.
To Those Who Won’t Have Any of It
First, if like many you find yourself resisting the idea of collapse—even before getting into the details—ask yourself why. Is it because you somehow know it won’t happen? Have you thought through how society organizes itself to confront global resource limits and to cope for thousands of years on natural flows? Have you identified a scheme for—and transition path to—global cooperation and governance that protects substantial areas of wilderness on land and sea for countless generations? Have you thought of a compelling reason why humans would abruptly stop competing and exploiting resources as quickly as possible, or stop striving to accumulate more possessions and luxuries for themselves? Does it seem obvious that humans will—for the first time en masse—adopt an attitude that nature is at least as important as ourselves, and deserves top priority?
If you think these questions are totally missing the mark, then what’s behind the disconnect? Do you dismiss the idea of resource limits? Does Earth seem so vast that human presence cannot possibly ruin whole ecosystems? Do you challenge the notion that nature is important and a necessary life-support system that should be kept intact? Have we transcended evolution or our physical underpinnings? Are we using the same physics? Or are you simply unconcerned with humanity’s fate after you’re gone, so that collapse of civilization and loss of science/knowledge within a few hundred years is no biggie?
It’s also possible that you simply have not thought deeply about it, performed calculations, or considered long enough spans of time. Is it then a preference, a hunch, a reaction—perhaps based on abhorrence of the idea? What can you really say, when it comes down to it, that definitively settles the case that we’re safe from collapse? Are we safe enough, in fact, that even a serious discussion is wasteful or itself more dangerous than any intrinsic threat?
It may be that pride in our accomplishments has swollen into an unshakable faith that human ingenuity trumps natural limits. The appeal and origin of this notion is completely understandable and forgivable in light of the incredible developments of the last few centuries. It is easy to get carried away in awe of human achievement, overlooking the fact that the recent amazing past has been fueled by our spending a one-time inheritance as fast as humanly possible. Humans always have been amazing creatures, and always will be. What sets the last few centuries apart is the speed with which we’ve consumed Earth’s finite stocks.
In order to have a constructive conversation about collapse, we must set aside what we want to be true and try to detach from the enormity of the prospect in favor of a cool analysis. Just as fearing and denying our own death will not prevent its ultimate arrival, similar evasive reactions will not decide our fate on the question of collapse. In fact, they may act to secure a catastrophe. Only by breathing deeply and accepting that collapse is a legitimate possible outcome, and one that many current elements are directing us toward, can we justify any confidence in averting such an end. So collapse, unlike death, is not inevitable unless we fail to take the prospect seriously.
Do I Think Collapse is Coming?
Before getting to the main event, I should clear the air on the question of whether I am a “collapsist,” if that’s a word (spell-checker is saying no). My simplest answer is: I am decidedly anti-collapse, and am optimistically and perhaps irrationally motivated to do whatever it takes to prevent such a catastrophe from materializing. But I see the risk as being real enough and scary enough that I’ll take sober acknowledgement of the possibility over careless dismissal any day.
So my decision is to communicate the risk of collapse as perhaps the best way to ultimately dispel my concerns. Nothing would give me greater joy than for heightened awareness and consequent mitigation efforts to prove my worries to be wrong. Dismissal, sadly, plays right into my worst fears. Thus, until I see global efforts explicitly aimed at mitigating the collapse-prone elements detailed below, I am afraid that my fundamentally conservative core requires a default position that collapse is the most likely outcome: assume the risk real, so that it may be prevented.
Elements Promoting Collapse
What follows are separate but not always independent points of consideration. The goal is to hold all these in mind simultaneously. As a builder of scientific instruments, I have become accustomed to respecting a handful of different constraints and objectives all at once in order to forge a compromise path in developing a device that works and delivers useful data. Forgetting any one of several dozen—sometimes interacting—constraints can lead to a failed instrument. What follows is a bit like that for me: a swirling collection of important elements, none of which may be ignored. Ask yourself as you go along which of the 21 points/perspectives are firmly planted in the public consciousness as an obvious matter enjoying broad agreement.
- Civilization (cities, agriculture) is about 10,000 old. If we want to believe that civilization is in its infancy and not near its end (i.e., if we are to reject the notion of collapse), then we should be thinking about thriving on timescales of 10,000 years or longer. Even a collapse within 1,000 years would probably be regarded by nearly everyone as an undesirable failure of humanity.
- The growth trajectory is manifestly impossible to continue for centuries more. In physical terms, continuing energy growth at about 2% per year results in Earth reaching boiling temperatures in 400 years—not due to CO2 but just the sheer thermodynamics of waste heat. In mineral resources, maintaining a similar growth rate would have us mining materials at a pace 10,000 times the current pace in 400 years. How much accessible copper is even around? Have we not scooped out the easy resources—the low-hanging fruit? Indefinite growth in any physical measure is incompatible with a finite planet bearing a finite inheritance and a finite carrying capacity. For a resource that we have used 10% of, for instance, any rate of extraction greater than 0.0002% per year is unsustainable. Exponentials are cruel beasts, and cannot persist for long in a physical system.
- Holding steady is hard, too. Since growth is an absurd short-lived anomaly, what about leveling out in population, resource use per capita, and adopting a steady-state economy? The problem here is that the rate at which we are depleting one-time resources today is unsustainable. We’re simply spending our bank account without paying attention to the balance and without any source of additional income. Most clearly, forests and wild spaces are down by a factor of two in the last 60 years, and will be gone within 60 years at current rates of depletion. Before even getting to steady state conditions, inevitable near-term increases in population together with sought-after increases in standards of living around the world spell an even shorter lifetime for critical habitats. Meanwhile, fisheries are failing in domino fashion; aquifers are being depleted at rates alarmingly higher than replacement; soils are degrading and arable land is lost; fertilizer depends on a finite resources; habitat loss is resulting in species extinctions far in excess of natural rates. Even the plunder of mineral resources in the seemingly infinite crust is getting harder, only a fleeting century or so into our spree. Sustaining present levels for even a few more centuries is a dubious (i.e., unsubstantiated) proposition. It is practically absurd to imagine sustaining present practices for 10,000 years. Humans simply have not yet demonstrated an ability to maintain a technological society without utter reliance on grossly unsustainable inheritance spending.
- Climate change is accelerating and causing disruption in many sectors, threatening to end the stability of the Holocene that coincides with all of human civilization. Oceans are acidifying and corals are giving up the ghost, the ripple effects from which could be catastrophic for the broader set of oceanic ecosystems. Changes are faster than evolution can track in terms of seasonal timing or adapting to new climate conditions. Plants do not easily migrate, and animals are often cut off by development to remain captive in disconnected islands of increasingly hostile habitat. It is very hard to predict the degree to which these changes could result in large scale ecosystem collapses and thereby pose an existential threat to our own survival. Even if we stopped emitting CO2 today—an absurdly unrealistic conjecture—the damage mounts as Earth’s oceans continue to warm and more ice melts, while the planet slowly coasts toward a new equilibrium bringing unknown hardships.
- Renewable Energy is harder than fossil energy. Wind and solar installations are taking off, right? A look at Figure 7.8 in the textbook shows these two rocketing upward globally over the last several years. But the scale is still very small, and at the recent impressive rate of expansion would still take over 100 years to replace current (enormous) energy appetites. Also, beware of the fact that we go for the low-hanging fruit first, giving a distorted sense of broader suitability. Some folks at UC San Diego are evaluating ways to retire the campus’ methane-burning infrastructure for electricity, heating, and cooling—ideally generating and storing all its own renewable energy via solar. It’s very hard—both practically and economically. UCSD is an affluent land-rich campus in an affluent, progressive state in an affluent country; free of the political rancor typical of state and national governance; benefiting from guidance and leadership by sage academics rather than elected politicians; situated in a sunny and mild location; and not even trying to solve the thornier problems of transportation, shipping, or manufacturing. Yet it seems extremely unlikely that we can pull it off. If transitioning away from fossil fuels is prohibitive for UCSD, then who, exactly, could we expect to succeed in making a clean break to fossil-free renewable energy?
- The Limits to Growth work was an early eye-opener that robust and ubiquitous dynamical modes like delayed negative feedback create conditions for overshoot and collapse. The contortions they had to execute in order to prevent a 21st century collapse illustrated just how “baked in” collapse could be. While no model should be interpreted literally, neither should we dismiss the top-level findings and the inherent warning that—at first blush—we run a serious risk of collapse. So far, our trajectory is still consistent with their nominal model case. The jury is still out, and I don’t like what the sneak peek implies.
- We face an energy trap (Section 18.3 of the textbook), in that the ease and cheapness of fossil fuels will likely delay large-scale migration to renewable energy until declining availability of fossil energy forces our hand. But then we learn that a massive build-out of renewable technologies (panels, turbines, concrete, installation) takes a tremendous amount of energy that can’t be conjured (financed) like money. Redirecting diminishing energy flows into a new infrastructure results in available energy declining even more rapidly as a result, for the few decades it takes to accomplish a transition. Such a “voluntary” energy decline is politically difficult to initiate and maintain, which may bind us to a path toward reduced capacity and resource scarcity. Successful navigation, in other words, requires decade-scale sacrifices for a better “far” future outcome—not something we are particularly talented at accepting.
- Resource wars seem likely, wasting an enormous amount of energy and resources on destructive, not constructive ends. As Earth’s inheritance of fossil energy and other material resources are plundered around the globe, the process will be geographically uneven in terms of where supply and demand exist. Figure 8.11 in the textbook illustrates this for oil: the largest consumers are not the ones possessing the largest reserves. Humankind’s historical predilection for war suggests a likelihood for forceful acquisition of critical supplies by powerful nations lacking adequate domestic resources. Other prosperous but resource-poor nations may object and decide to fight for access. Otherwise the aggressor, capturing vast supplies, becomes an unrivaled and literal superpower for the foreseeable future. Success requires global cooperation to protect ecosystems that know no political boundaries. Earth is an island in space, so we need an island mentality to survive: we’re all in this together. Past and present global relations, however, are better described by the word competition than by cooperation.
- Earth has never in its history had to contend with 8 billion fire apes, intelligent enough to have leveraged power by exploiting and burning one-time resources. We now operate outside the bounds and protections of evolution: in breach of contract, without a map to success. What could possibly convince us that this fireworks show—which has not even come close to standing the test of time—can maintain anything like its current resource impact for the long haul? Humans have demonstrated convincingly that we can live in a primitive state for hundreds of thousands of years. Our present mode is a few-century flash, supported almost entirely by inheritance-spending. Arguing that we have found a new normal is a precarious position that I would not be eager to defend. Parties end. Fireworks shows end. Why would our flash be any different? It’s not just guesswork: what other outcome could result from rapid resource exploitation on a finite planet?
- Are we problem solvers, or problem creators? Make a list of global problems we have created. The list might include: climate change; fossil fuel dependency; staggering inequality; habitat and species loss; desertification and salt build-up in agricultural lands—to name a few. Now make a list of global-scale problems we have solved. The ozone hole? Not convincingly, but at least holding steady now. Hunger? Energy? Pollution? Waste? Happiness? Population? Stabilized wilderness? I am not pretending that the human endeavor is devoid of improvements, like sanitation, health care, and tolerance (all to do with treating ourselves better, notice). But does it seem like global problems are fewer in number today than 100 years ago, or the reverse? A root problem is our sense that we are the dominant species on the planet and justified in prioritizing our needs over those of other elements of nature. Yet, a partnership is the only way to make it work long-term.
- We’re the worst judges. We were all born during a fossil-fueled fireworks show unlike anything that ever happened on this planet. Given all the threads that argue for the temporary nature of this inheritance spending spree, we should at least seriously question default assumptions that tomorrow will be “bigger” than today. Having been born during the fireworks show, it is no surprise that we are collectively unable to appreciate what “normal” on this planet really looks like. People are either oblivious to the danger, or unable to discern credible concerns from specious alarmism.
- People want stuff. We’re like ravens: “shiny” stuff appeals. Ultimate success means a truly sustainable lifestyle, which could well be materially poorer than today’s life, depending on population. How would we mitigate intrinsic individual desires to acquire more stuff (and power)? It may be a fundamental incompatibility in that evolution prepares self-motivated organisms looking out for their own prosperity. If a species develops “unfair” power advantages that were not part of the evolutionary script, the result may be destined to end poorly as that species uses its discovered power to damage ecosystems beyond repair—ultimately only harming themselves.
- Most of what we do today promotes failure, not success. Given that long term success requires a humble partnership with the life support machine we call the biosphere, most activities today serve to hack it down rather then preserve or build it back up. Economic constructs like the discount rate explicitly devalue the future, which points us in the direction of maximal exploitation for short-term gain—to the obvious detriment of nature and thus our own life support. In other words, we let financial decisions drive the planet, and that system is not based on values and principles that promote long term sustainability (a.k.a. success). We should not be surprised if that train—whose engine is often explicitly counterproductive to ecosystem health—fails to deliver a viable future.
- We’re attracted to the amazing. The unquestioned narrative of our time is of endless and accelerating technological breakthroughs. Since this seems to have been the case for several generations, it is considered to be a constant of the human condition. But how could we be so easily fooled? It is not that hard to see the error in the story by imagining a person living around 1900 suddenly transported to 1960, while another from 1960 is popped into 2020. Which person sees more unrecognizable “magic” all around? Cars, planes, radios, televisions, computers, nuclear power, all manner of household appliances like refrigerators and washing machines came into widespread use across the first interval. But what would the 1960 person be confused by? Microwave ovens would be new. Computers and phones advanced impressively, but not beyond recognition. A citizen of 1960 would correctly guess that the rectangle held to your cheek is a dumb-looking phone whose wire has been replaced by radio communication: not magic. So are we really accelerating? Is the next 60 years going to bring back the magic, or is that phase mostly done now? Challenge your assumptions. Snap out of the maladaptive stories we tell ourselves.
- One of those stories is that we’re just great. Human intelligence has paved the way for many very impressive accomplishments—no doubt. It is easy to be inspired—as I am—by some of our capstone achievements. But this breeds a certain self-congratulatory faith in human capabilities, and a hubristic sense that we can outsmart nature and “do nature” better than even it does. Consider that our perception is skewed by having witnessed the easy half of modern history. As we expanded from 1 billion to 8 billion people on the planet, we executed an unprecedented smash-and-grab of earth’s resources—largely unconstrained and even rewarded for the speed and efficiency with which we could carry it out. We devised political and economic systems to maximize material gain (almost always translating to a loss on nature’s side of the books, by the way). How will we fare when the fortunes reverse: when demand outstrips supply? Let’s not pat ourselves on the back just yet. Any fool can spend down the inheritance in an extravagant party. The real test is getting over the hangover and buckling down to a real job for the duration. So far, it’s been child’s play.
- Space fantasies are alarmingly alluring. They’re like reverse mortgages, attracting rafts of seemingly sane individuals, lured by Tom Selleck’s moustache. It’s a trap, people! As exciting as it is to think about, fueling imagination in an otherwise “boring” reality, it’s simply impractical to a degree that entertainment fails to convey. Space ambitions promote collapse in three ways. First, it’s an enormously intense mis-allocation of precious resources that just dig our hole deeper for no meaningful reward other than stoking fantasies. Second, promoting space as a viable escape hatch from earthly woes is a form of denial that defeats what might otherwise be an appropriate “immune system” response to the threat of collapse (thus, akin to an auto-immune disease). Finally, it may serve as a window into irrational human responses to real challenges. If we’re so easily misled in this domain, how can we have confidence that we’ll approach other aspects of collapse threats soberly and realistically?
- Show me, don’t theorize. A key bottleneck is that many people have a hard time accepting a challenge to the prevailing narrative, when the view out the window looks fine. (This relates to personality types, discussed in Section 18.1 of the textbook.) To discuss global collapse of civilization is by definition discussing the unprecedented. That’s hard to swallow. History is of limited use. Direct experience offers little value. Getting one’s head around it requires a mode of thinking and synthesizing that is hard and unfamiliar to many. Going against prevailing attitudes and persistent narratives is even harder. As social animals, we take cues from those around us. It’s hard for many to stick their necks out and be different. It’s isolating. Honestly, without the language of math and science, I can’t imagine I would ever find enough conviction to buck the norms. But these tools are invaluable in poking into the future, where history runs out. Few individuals are equipped with well-honed tools of this sort, though.
- We tend to avoid blame. It is impossible to entertain the idea of collapse without connecting the fact that your own actions as a member of society are contributing: that you are partly responsible. That’s a heavy load to bear, and it torments me personally. A tempting way out is to deny the likelihood of any such collapse—which turns out to be pretty easy to do.
- We’ve been conditioned to ignore. From stories of Chicken Little (“The Sky is Falling”) to the Boy Who Cried Wolf (recall, the wolf did come, though), we are taught to ignore ever-present prognosticators of doom. A long time ago, I asked a friend why he would not at least turn the car onto a new path if a road sign said “cliff ahead.” His response was that he’s seen the same sign all his life and it hasn’t been true yet. Years later, I finally have a retort: but now it’s scientists who are holding up the sign.
- Dangerous Denial. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching of my concerns over potential collapse—already mentioned a few times in this post—is the degree to which the notion is too unpopular or radical to discuss, for many. Because of this tendency, many have not honestly confronted the possibility and run through considerations like the ones outlined above. And, of course, failing to acknowledge the possibility is one of the surest ways to fall victim to this fate. It’s a self-unfulfilling prophecy: the very act of “predicting” it won’t happen is the thing that makes it most likely to happen. I would much rather that we are all talking about collapse and devising explicit global strategies to avoid that outcome. The core goal of most people warning of collapse is to be proven wrong, ultimately.
- If we don’t heed these concerns, it seems the likely outcome is overshoot; collapse; failure. Even if we did collectively get serious about a bold new trajectory, it’s still far from easy. So what, exactly, would stop us from overshoot, over-spending the inheritance, and damaging ecosystems beyond their ability to recover? Related to the previous point, it seems unlikely that we would stop by accident or dumb luck, but only out of awareness and recognition. Please forgive me if the current global political climate does not inspire confidence.
Remember, any of these elements in isolation may not commit us to collapse, per se. But we don’t get to choose one element at a time—whack-a-mole style—or call for a timeout: they all operate simultaneously, and nature will not be a forgiving referee or listen to our howling protests of “no fair.” Hold it all in your head, if you can. Then do something about it!
I have been grappling with these sets of concerns for a long while now, and keep looking for ways to stop worrying. The arguments I typically hear downplaying the threat often amount to steadfast faith in humanity (amazingly effective spenders of the inheritance that we are) to prevail over any challenge. I hear much less in the way of specific reasons why the suite of fundamental elements can be ignored or are wrong. The arguments usually aren’t on that plane, and thus to me lack substance.
One potentially revealing tendency I have witnessed is that those arguing against the likelihood of collapse will accuse the ones warning of the danger as wanting collapse, or at least eager to believe in collapse. My head explodes with multiple simultaneous thoughts. First, I can’t speak for everyone, but my sense is that the motivation behind even engaging in this unpopular conversation is to promote avoidance of collapse. If you believe collapse is likely and actually want that outcome, the best way to promote an ultimate crash is to keep quiet about it. Hey, maybe the collapse dismissers actually secretly want collapse and are trying to divert any attention away from our crash-bound trajectory. Just kidding, but it’s fun to turn the tables.
Second, that’s not how this stuff works. Practicing scientists don’t first decide what they want to be true and then make the experiment fit. That’s soooo middle-school science fair. But it may be a window into the motivation behind collapse dismissers. Perhaps the fact that they don’t want collapse to manifest (who the hell does?!) becomes the foundation of their resistance. Then, having some awareness of that motivation in themselves, they may naturally assume (project) that anyone arguing the opposite must therefore want the opposite, deplorable outcome.
Third, a feedback dynamic can arise that would make it seem like the person warning of collapse might be emotionally invested in being proven right, and it goes like this. The idea of collapse is proffered. A strong opposition freaks the profferrer out because if we can’t acknowledge collapse as a viable possibility, it’s that much scarier and likely. So the arguments escalate and take on a desperate tenor. It would be easy to confuse the unspoken, underlying emotional reaction of “why don’t you see this as a problem?” and/or “your denial is exactly why this is an existential problem” as “I desperately want to be right about this.” How would you know the difference? If the exchange becomes antagonistic enough (a human specialty), it is not an uncommon reaction for the collapse-warner to spitefully want the disastrous scenario to play out just to witness the collapse-dismisser suffer with the rest of us and finally admit in their ruin that they didn’t have the answers. Oh, the look on their face! I told you so! That’s an unfortunate personal thing, not a genuine desire to see humanity go down in flames. But to the recipient of the ill-wisher, it can all look the same: this cat wants collapse.
One way to probe underlying sentiments of the person warning of collapse (I’m being careful not to say pro-collapse person, because such a misnomer is sort-of the whole point) is to say: “Hmm, I see why you are concerned. That would be a very bad outcome indeed. What do you think we should do to prevent it?” My prediction is that the person relaxes, visibly relieved, and starts talking in earnest about the elements and barriers to be addressed. Then you know where their heart lies. Or you may encounter something closer to depression if the person has little hope left that collapse can still be avoided and laments the seemingly inevitable loss. Just consider, though: they may be right! How can you claim to know the answer any better than they do?
On the other hand, maybe the individuals dismissing concerns of collapse are right. Smart people may be able to imagine some form of success, but the question is less about how it could go in someone’s mind than about how it will go in the human free-for-all in which we find ourselves. Granted, we’ve got a lot riding on this, and virtually no one wants to see collapse. So we’ll fight tooth and nail to prevent a crash if it becomes a clear and present danger, and maybe if we’re lucky it’s not too late when the risk becomes apparent. My concern is that the tactics we use may be reasonably effective at delaying the result for several years at a time, commensurate with political terms. No one wants collapse on their watch. But kicking the can down the road is not a plan, just a delay.
Avoiding the Worst
The structural transformations that would be necessary to truly put off collapse indefinitely are enormous, and will not happen without first openly acknowledging that collapse is the likely result of inaction (i.e., of business as usual). We would have to transform economies to stop or reverse growth, assess and adopt practices geared for long-term sustainability, prioritize nature over ourselves in deciding what activities are tolerated, and establish a global cooperative to live within our means for generation after generation. Since this will likely involve leaving “goodies” on the shelves, within easy reach but protected from exploitation, it is unclear whether we can even get there and maintain such an unprecedented level of self-control for thousands of years.
All the while, individual action should not be discounted. If feeling overwhelmed by the enormous challenge, forget about saving the planet and bring peace of mind to yourself by living more responsibly as a part of nature. Maybe others will notice and follow. Transformation won’t happen without change at the individual level. Chapter 20 of the textbook offers some (limited) guidance. I am also enjoying a book by Peter Kalmus called Being the Change that aligns quite well with my own perspective.
Until movement on such transformations becomes evident at individual and global scales, I will continue to worry about the real threat of collapse. We’ll have plenty of notice if the world gets serious, as the first step is widespread, open, honest communication. Thus, at present, we would appear to be in no danger of preventing collapse. Indeed, we are just now collapsing across the finish line of this marathon post. Just breathe.