Wednesday, March 06, 2013

This Is About as Blunt a Warning As We Can Get

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.

Much the same can be said about aspects of the epidemiological environment and the prospect of epidemics being enhanced by rapid population growth in immune-weakened societies, increased contact with animal reservoirs, high-speed transport and the misuse of antibiotics. Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg had great concern for the epidemic problem, famously stating, ‘The survival of the human species is not a preordained evolutionary program’.

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.


doconnor said...

You shouldn't confuse global civilization collapse with extinction. We where around for tens of thousands of years without civilization.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm not confusing the two, DOC. It's why I included this line from the report:

"...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."

The die-off, however, would be massive due almost entirely to our total dependence on unsustainable support systems and institutions. Or, as they note and as the Pentagon and others foresee, we could see a nuclear extinction event.

the salamander said...

Could we send a Labrador Retriever, Dudley Do Right or Social Services to retrieve doddering Joe Oliver from his voyages to 'make all Canadians look like green Tar Sands idiots tour' ? Its really pathetic to see a supposedly sentient being spew complete nonsense. Does he still have a driver's license?

First the Tar Sands were 'Ethical' and now they're 'green' ..
What's next Joe ? They're 'Holy' or 'Blessed' ?
And caring and deeply concerned Canadians are eco-saracens?
Uh oh .. he's a holy Crusader for the Petroleum Club now .. ulp ..

If he truly is speaking for Stephen Harper, his so called Government, and Bay Street of Alberta.. its more proof we clearly have complete mad men at the helm.. certified frothing psychos that will gladly sacrifice the environment of Canada, its air .. land ..waters .. and common sense.. due to their undetermined psychic, economic, political, ideological or personal mood disorders.. or love for China.

Seek professional help Mr Oliver.. and retire.. spend more time with your family if they can tolerate you.. You've done enough damage to Canada and its clear you've become a complete fool.. dangerous in our time and disastrous to any future generations. Go hang with demented loose cannons like Peter Kent, Rob Anders, Keith Ashfield, Novak, Toews, Kenney, Baird, Flaherty, Clement, Mackay et al .. and fade to black.. please.

If the Tar Sands is an epic Titanic disaster, then you're the dull witted helmsman.. 'aye Captain, all economic engines full ahead' and Stephen Harper is your arrogant delusional captain. Open your eyes man ! That's not open water or an iceberg ahead.. its the fricken shore of reality !

Well, neither of you will ever be forgotten for your part ..
Infamy takes a lot of time, hard work and dedication..
and gawd knows you arse holes are tireless, mean connivers
that deserve a demeaning postage stamp accordingly.

You're a wealthy workaholic with no real life. By comparison Mike Duffy is a fat little bed bug that itches Canada.. while you're emerging as a biblical and pestilent blight aiding and abetting the process of savaging the entire country.. with extreme consequences to the entire planet.

Your efforts in support of Mr Harper's mad eco dream, will exterminate large chunks of the marine, freshwater and boreal food chains. Not everyone can make that claim dude. You're the 'anti Jacques Cousteau', that has zero interest in celebrating nature or environment or creatures. Your passion is politics and petroleum, stock options and more money.. and screw anyone or anything that stands or lives in the way of your pathway to uber richness.

Please leave our country alone .. so we can try to heal it
It does not belong to you.. or your greedy investment factions or little Bo-Peep political club .. and its very clear that you and they.. do not belong here... or deserve status here.. much less care about Canada.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sal, there's a line out of the report that can easily be adapted to our petro-government:

"Because the ethics of some [in government] include knowingly continuing lethal but profitable activities, it is hardly surprising that [those promoting] fossil fuel burning have launched a gigantic and largely successful disinformation confuse people."

I have heard it said that many corporate executives are privately accepting and concerned about global warming but divorce themselves from that reality when "on the job."

Dr. Atomic said...

I think Leonard Cohen had it right when he sung "I have seen the future, baby / It is murder."

If the rest of the world consumed as much resources as that of North America, you'd need at least three or four more Earths just to sustain that level of consumption. And since there aren't three or four more Earths around, the industrialized world is going to be forced to contract.

You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Endless growth means endless crises. Which, of course, makes me want to pound my fists when I hear people claiming that we need more growth to solve problems CAUSED by growth...