Will our civilisation collapse? Or – when?

Or should that be: when will our civilisation collapse? It has happened to all past civilisations.

I guess the current ‘civilisation’ is Western Civilisation, which Aotearoa is closely linked.

Luke Kemp (BBC’s Deep Civilisation): 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.

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.

Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence.

Virtually all past civilisations have faced this fate. Some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicentre of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists.

What can this tell us about the future of global modern civilisation? Are the lessons of agrarian empires applicable to our post-18th Century period of industrial capitalism? (Read about the greatest long term threats facing humanity.)

I would argue that they are.

We may be more technologically advanced now. But this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix.

And while our scale may now be global, collapse appears to happen to both sprawling empires and fledgling kingdoms alike. There is no reason to believe that greater size is armour against societal dissolution. Our tightly-coupled, globalised economic system is, if anything, more likely to make crisis spread.

The bigger the civilisation, the bigger the fall? Quite possibly.

While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses happen, historians, anthropologists and others have proposed various explanations, including:

CLIMATIC CHANGE

When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation and desertification.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION

Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY

Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

COMPLEXITY

Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy.

Increasing levels of bureaucracy are certainly an issue here, as is environmental degradation. Inequality is a more debatable issue, and climate change is more of an international issue – but if Aotearoa made drastic measures as suggested by the Green Party (and there’s quite a chance of that to an extent at least if next year’s election delivers a Labour-Green government, Labour would be under much more pressure for major ‘reform’ without having NZ First as an excuse for modest change).

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine and plagues.

Major disasters like a meteor strike, or the more likely possibility of a large volcanic eruption that precipitates major effects on the climate and food production.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.

That sounds a bit too theoretical.

Despite the abundance of books and articles, we don’t have a conclusive explanation as to why civilisations collapse. What we do know is this: the factors highlighted above can all contribute. Collapse is a tipping point phenomena, when compounding stressors overrun societal coping capacity.

Climate tipping points are cited as a real danger.

Once you reach a tipping point it may be too late to do anything about it.

Today, societal collapse is a more treacherous prospect. The weapons available to a state, and sometimes even groups, during a breakdown now range from biological agents to nuclear weapons. New instruments of violence, such as lethal autonomous weapons, may be available in the near future. People are increasingly specialised and disconnected from the production of food and basic goods. And a changing climate may irreparably damage our ability to return to simple farming practices.

With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we may have already reached this point of civilisational “terminal velocity”. Any collapse – any fall from the ladder – risks being permanent. Nuclear war in itself could result in an existential risk: either the extinction of our species, or a permanent catapult back to the Stone Age.

The potential for nuclear catastrophe was a real scare when it arose in the 1950s. Have we become too complacent? There’s still a real chance of self inflicted disaster, and it could be precipitated by one nutty leader (there’s no shotage of them), or a lower ranked maverick.

The collapse of our civilisation is not inevitable. History suggests it is likely, but we have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past.

The political wreckages we are witnessing suggest that we are not good at learning from the past when it comes to power and governance.

 

 

“Collapse of our civilisations” unless “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”

The climate change debate is ramping up internationally, and there are attempts to get a revolution off the ground here in New Zealand.

Rapid and far reaching changes in all aspects of society? Most people resist even moderate levels of change. And rapid change means high risks of unintended consequences.

Are we facing “the collapse of our civilisations” if we don’t accept rapid change?

Recent world headlines:

Deutsche Welle –  Germany protests call for leadership on climate action

From Berlin to Cologne, protesters have gathered to demand more from the government in the fight against climate change. Greenpeace said Germany must lead, and that means phasing out coal by 2030.

Euronews – COP24: Tens of thousands of climate change protesters march in Brussel

Tens of thousands of climate change protesters marched through Brussels on Sunday as the UN’s COP24 conference began in Poland.

The protest’s organisers estimated a record breaking 75,000 people took part, making it the biggest climate change march to have taken place in Belgium.

“We demand more ambition from our Belgian decision makers on the European and international level,” Climate Coalition Nicolas Van Nuffel said. “But this ambition also needs to be realised at the Belgian level. Since 2012, we have been waiting for a national plan for the climate which implies a strategy, in the short and long term.”

RNZ:  David Attenborough tells UN climate talks ‘time is running out’

The naturalist Sir David Attenborough has said climate change is humanity’s greatest threat in thousands of years.

The broadcaster said it could lead to the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of “much of the natural world”.

He was speaking at the opening ceremony of United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland.

Sir David said: “Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change.

“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Once force behind this rise in activism: Extinction Rebellion

FIGHT FOR LIFE

We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. The government has failed to protect us. To survive, it’s going to take everything we’ve got.

Extinction Rebellion is a campaign by the  network. We aim to promote a fundamental change of our political and economic system to one which maximises well-being and minimises harm.

Here in New Zealand last year Jacinda Ardern said that climate change was our new ‘nuclear free moment’, and also talked our climate change stance up at the United nations, but has since been criticised for not matching her words with appropriate action.

(The Spinoff) – What’s behind the surge of new energy in the climate movement?

Tired of the procrastination and timidity of government-led change, climate rage is now ripe for rebellion. Cordelia Lockett explains why. 

All mouth and no trousers. That pretty much sums up New Zealand’s response to climate change. A lot of words but little demonstrable action.

Our new government is promising large but delivering light.

However, that may all be about to change. In the last month, there’s been a sudden surge of new energy in the climate movement. In the United States, several cities (sensibly circumventing any hope of leadership at a federal level) have declared a state of climate emergency. The dynamic new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is championing a visionary Green New Deal: a mobilisation plan to rapidly reduce carbon while simultaneously addressing associated social problems.

Australian kids are skipping school to protest about the climate. And in Britain a new people’s movement has emerged – Extinction Rebellion – which is disrupting the streets and spreading like wildfire.

In early October this year, the IPCC released a special report highlighting the catastrophic consequences of allowing global temperature increase to exceed 1.5 degrees. The tone was stronger and scarier than previous reports, and the wording unequivocal.

To have any hope of getting climate change under control we need to halve emissions by about 2030 and then drive them steadily down to zero by 2050.

And to do so, it says, would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. That sounds to me like systemic change: a social, political and economic transformation, no less.

Our Prime Minister regularly mentions the issue in her speeches, even saying climate change is her generation’s nuclear-free moment. I agree. But where’s the bold programme of policy initiatives to match the strong words and size of the problem? We need leaders who act, not just talk about acting. Let’s do this.

The government needs first to acknowledge the scale and urgency of the problem by declaring a climate emergency and develop a credible plan to decarbonise the economy as quickly and as justly as possible. To do this will require a decent-sized tax on carbon and methane. Cars and cows: a scary agenda for many Kiwis, admittedly.

A massive education and social marketing campaign would help communicate the need for widespread change. This should focus on the financial and other costs of inaction, as well as the multiple benefits of a comprehensive, transition to a fossil-free, climate-protecting society.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a mass movement emerging from the long-standing UK social justice network Rising Up. It’s a response to climate inaction and incrementalism by governments, and instead advocates non-violent direct action and civil disobedience. XR’s radical campaign is sweeping through Europe and beyond. Local groups have cropped up all over the UK, and the spark has already caught fire in Canada, Germany, Sweden, the United States, Australia, Denmark, Czech Republic, France, Netherlands, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland, Scotland, Spain, Norway, India, Italy, Solomon Islands.

And Aotearoa. Here, there are groups springing up in short order: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Thames, Waihi, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Nelson and Tauranga.

But why now?  Was it that latest IPCC report? Or the WWF announcing that we’ve wiped out 60% of the world’s vertebrate animals? Or the wildfires in California killing 88 people – with 200 still missing – and demolishing a whole township? Or the record-smashing Northern Hemisphere summer temperatures? Or just an idea whose time has come?

The speed of the XR pile-on shows a thirst for something big, a grand project. And collective direct action is a great vessel in which to pour one’s climate-related anger, fear and despair. It’s collegial and energising. Tired of the procrastination and timidity of government-led change and frightened by what is being called a direct existential threat, climate rage finally has a home.

It’s something of a cliche, but New Zealand really could be world-leading in its climate response. We have a vibrant indigenous culture of kaitiakitanga, practical virtues of courage and hard work, moral values of equality and harmony with the environment, and a legacy of taking radical political initiatives which have global impact. We can do it again with the climate crisis. It’s not only necessary: it may just be possible.

Are we heading towards “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, or, as Attenboriugh claims, we face “the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”