It comes via The Royal Society, a scientific body that has been around since the 1600s and is considered about the most prestigious on our planet, you know, Earth. It's a warning about our very real prospects of global civilization collapse in what may be modern mankind's final century.
What is the likelihood of this set of interconnected predicaments leading to a global collapse in this century? There have been many definitions and much discussion of past ‘collapses’, but a future global collapse does not require a careful definition. It could be triggered by anything from a ‘small’ nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization, to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities. In either case, regardless of survivors or replacement societies, the world familiar to anyone reading this study and the well-being of the vast majority of people would disappear.
How likely is such a collapse to occur? No civilization can avoid collapse if it fails to feed its population. The world's success so far, and the prospective ability to feed future generations at least as well, has been under relatively intensive discussion for half a century. Agriculture made civilization possible, and over the last 80 years or so, an industrial agricultural revolution has created a technology-dependent global food system. That system, humanity's single biggest industry, has generated miracles of food production. But it has also created serious long-run vulnerabilities, especially in its dependence on stable climates, crop monocultures, industrially produced fertilizers and pesticides, petroleum, antibiotic feed supplements and rapid, efficient transportation.
...What are the prospects that H. sapiens can produce and distribute sufficient food? To do so, it probably will be necessary to accomplish many or all of the following tasks: severely limit climate disruption; restrict expansion of land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; put much more effort into soil conservation; increase efficiency in the use of fertilizers, water and energy; become more vegetarian; grow more food for people (not fuel for vehicles); reduce food wastage; stop degradation of the oceans and better regulate aquaculture; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural and aquacultural research; and move increasing equity and feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda.
... rising temperatures already seem to be slowing previous trends of increasing yields of basic grains, and unless greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced, dangerous anthropogenic climate change could ravage agriculture. Also, in addition to falling yields from many oceanic fish stocks because of widespread overfishing, warming and acidification of the oceans threaten the protein supply of some of the most nutritionally vulnerable people.
...More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is apparently now entrained, with the prospect of increasingly severe storms, droughts, heat waves and floods, all of which seem already evident and all of which threaten agricultural production.
...In addition to the serious and widespread problems of soil degradation, sea-level rise (the most certain consequence of global warming) will take important areas out of production either by inundating them (a 1 m rise would flood 17.5% of Bangladesh), exposing them to more frequent storm surges, or salinizing coastal aquifers essential for irrigation water.
...The best estimate today may be that, failing rapid concerted action, the world is already committed to a 2.4°C increase in global average temperature. This is significantly above the 2°C estimated a decade ago by climate scientists to be a ‘safe’ limit, but now considered by some analysts to be too dangerous, a credible assessment, given the effects seen already before reaching a one degree rise. There is evidence, moreover, that present models underestimate future temperature increase
...Fossil fuel companies would have to leave most of their proven reserves in the ground, thus destroying much of the industry's economic value. Because the ethics of some businesses include knowingly continuing lethal but profitable activities, it is hardly surprising that interests with large financial stakes in fossil fuel burning have launched a gigantic and largely successful disinformation campaign in the USA to confuse people about climate disruption and block attempts to deal with it.
Another possible threat to the continuation of civilization is global toxification. Adverse symptoms of exposure to synthetic chemicals are making some scientists increasingly nervous about effects on the human population. Should a global threat materialize, however, no planned mitigating responses... are waiting in the wings ready for deployment.
But much uncertainty about the human ability to avoid a collapse still hinges on military security, especially whether some elements of the human predicament might trigger a nuclear war. Recent research indicates that even a regional-scale nuclear conflict, as is quite possible between India and Pakistan, could lead to a global collapse through widespread climatic consequences.
Societies have a long history of mobilizing efforts, making sacrifices and changes, to defeat an enemy at the gates, or even just to compete more successfully with a rival. But there is not much evidence of societies mobilizing and making sacrifices to meet gradually worsening conditions that threaten real disaster for future generations. Yet that is exactly the sort of mobilization that we believe is required to avoid a collapse.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in avoiding collapse is convincing people, especially politicians and economists, to break this ancient mould and alter their behaviour relative to the basic population-consumption drivers of environmental deterioration.
...If foresight intelligence became established, many more scientists and policy planners (and society) might, for example, understand the demographic contributions to the predicament, stop treating population growth as a ‘given’ and consider the nutritional, health and social benefits of humanely ending growth well below nine billion and starting a slow decline. This would be a monumental task, considering the momentum of population growth. Monumental, but not impossible if the political will could be generated globally to give full rights, education and opportunities to women, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion. The degree to which those steps would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but they are a likely win-win for societies.
...While rapid policy change to head off collapse is essential, fundamental institutional change to keep things on track is necessary as well. This is especially true of educational systems, which today fail to inform most people of how the world works and thus perpetuate a vast culture gap. The academic challenge is especially great for economists, who could help set the background for avoiding collapse by designing steady-state economic systems, and along the way destroying fables such as ‘growth can continue forever if it's in service industries’, or ‘technological innovation will save us’.
...widely based cultural change is required to reduce humanely both population size and overconsumption by the rich. Both go against cultural norms, and, as long feared, the overconsumption norm has understandably been adopted by the increasingly rich subpopulations of developing nations, notably India and China. One can be thrilled by the numbers of people raised from poverty while being apprehensive about the enormous and possibly lethal environmental and social costs that may eventually result. The industrial revolution set civilization on the road to collapse, spurring population growth, which contributed slightly more than overconsumption to environmental degradation. Now population combined with affluence growth may finish the job.
Humanity has the assets to get the job done, but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity, are everywhere. One central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is the distribution of costs and benefits through time: the costs up front, the benefits accruing largely to unknown people in the future. But whether we or more optimistic observers are correct, our own ethical values compel us to think the benefits to those future generations are worth struggling for, to increase at least slightly the chances of avoiding a dissolution of today's global civilization as we know it.
In a nutshell, this urgent and invaluable report calls on us to rethink our civilization. We have to stop seeing it as Planet Earth and start thinking of it as Lifeboat Earth. Our ability to live cooperatively for an extended period of at least several if not many generations will determine the fate of our civilization. Brown, black, yellow, white - we're all in the same boat and it doesn't matter if we're Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, animist or secular. We need every one of us to grab an oar and pull together for the common good and, like all survivors in lifeboats, that's going to mean rationing and sharing.