I’m afraid that I wasn’t as clear as I should’ve been, in my last two blog postings, concerning why I think our civilization is probably doomed, and the end may not be as far away as we’d like. These gloomy musings were stimulated by two books I recently read – one on the collapse of the ancient Bronze Age empires 3,000 years ago, the other on the current worldwide wave of extinctions resulting from human activity. The two topics might not seem closely connected, but in my mind, they are.
I’ll clarify my point by referring to a third publication, which I read nearly half a century ago, and has remained vividly in my mind ever since. This is the study entitled The Limits to Growth, published back in the early 1970s by the Club of Rome, a society of international jet-setting do-gooders, dedicated to the thesis that uncontrolled economic expansion is leading the world to disaster.
If you visit the Club of Rome’s website, you’ll find the group still alive and still spreading the gospel of limited growth, even though their own study predicted that if the world didn’t heed their message by now – which it obviously hasn’t – catastrophe would be unavoidable. I guess hope springs eternal.
For its time, the Limits to Growth was quite a sophisticated example of computer modeling. It looked at present trends (as of the 1970s) in five areas – industrial growth, population growth, food production, pollution, and the usage of non-renewable natural resources – noted how each of these items affects the others, and concluded that if they were to continue their upward trajectories unabated, the population curve would turn sharply downward by the end of this century, perhaps long before.
In other words, billions of people would suddenly die.
The exact mode of their end couldn’t be predicted, of course. Food production might fail, pollution levels might override any controls, industrial growth can collapse and leave the masses destitute – the possibilities are nearly infinite. But something, in the end, will have to give, and the carnage will be terrible.
The central point of the study, which made a lot of sense to me, was the crucial significance of the interrelationships between the various factors. If only one of those world trends was on the increase, while the others were more static, the problem could be contained. Yet an increase in one will imply, indeed often requires, a corresponding increase in the others, which means it’s impossible to solve any of these issues without solving them all – which, to me, means it can’t be done.
The Limits to Growth study has been extensively praised and panned, as you can imagine. Critics tend to be either laissez-faire ideologues or Marxists – who have their respective reasons for envisioning a rosy future – and since I’m neither of those, I find the Club of Rome’s argument compelling. The original study did suggest that if exactly the right policies, like world-wide zero population growth, were to be adopted in time, the worst could be avoided. But that was many years ago, and how would we go about imposing said policies on the whole human race, anyhow?
My more recent reading has stirred my forebodings. The mysterious fall of the Bronze Age civilizations is a reminder that strong nations can abruptly fail to cope with the requirements of survival and vanish. And all those modern-day extinctions aren’t simply crimes of our species against Mother Earth – which, however, they emphatically are – they’re indications of how profoundly we humans are affecting the biosphere that sustains us, as it sustains all other life-forms.
It’s sobering to realize that the worrisome calculations of the Club of Rome don’t take the decay of the web of life into account. Or climate change. Or the possibility of war, terrorism, and civic unrest. Or plagues like Ebola unleashed by globalization. Or any of the myriads of other sources of possible instability in the world system – such as idiotic national leaders, bent on undoing the few modest steps we’ve taken to mitigate our environmental footprint.
Technological fixes can keep things going for a while. But technology will bring new problems along with solutions, and whenever we encounter a big enough hurdle that technology can’t overcome, our global house of cards could come crashing down. It’s only a matter of time, and it might happen tomorrow.
Realistically, I think we’re done for, and I’ve thought so since I first encountered the Limits to Growth study in the early 1970s. I don’t dwell on this, since I don’t see how there’s anything much I can do about it, and I don’t make any special preparations for it, since I don’t know from what direction the crisis will come. I support environmental causes and candidates, but not with any great hopefulness.
This blog posting is a downer, but sometimes the truth hurts. I’ll be comforting to this extent: no matter how grim the prognosis, there’s always a chance to achieve a better or worse result. Egypt survived the Bronze Age collapse, the Hittites didn’t. I’m sure there are things our country could do to maximize our chances when the bad stuff hits the fan, and we might want to have a discussion about that.
Maybe we’ll get to it as soon as we’re done arguing about bathrooms.
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