The collapse of civilizations is possible

Op-ed

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Ralph C. Martin

I am not a prophet. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, much less next year or beyond that. However, as a scientist, I read scientific literature and books about ecology, agriculture and dynamic systems and at this point, I am compelled to say that the collapse of civilizations is, at least, possible.

“The world’s top climate scientists expect global heating to blast past a 1.5C target and they envisage a ‘semi-dystopian’ future, with famines, conflicts and mass migration, driven by heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms of an intensity and frequency far beyond those that have already struck.”

Bill Rees in his well written 2023 scientific paper, ‘The Human Ecology of Overshoot’ warns that “the growth of the human enterprise (population and economy) on a finite planet is the greatest factor contributing to plunging biodiversity. Reduced human populations almost everywhere are necessary to preserve remaining patches of non-human life on Earth.” He bluntly states, “the human enterprise is effectively subsuming the ecosphere” and “wide-spread societal collapse cannot be averted—collapse is not a problem to be solved, but rather the final stage of a cycle to be endured.” Rees acknowledges that “barring a nuclear holocaust, it is unlikely that Homo sapiens will go extinct.” Even if you only read one scientific paper every decade, ponder this one. 

In another seminal 2023 paper, ‘Earth Beyond Six of Nine Planetary Boundaries,’ Richardson et al., update the 2009 and 2015 planetary boundary papers. Biogeochemical flows, in 2023, were more pronounced with phosphorus flows from fresh water to oceans at 22 Tg per year, twice what is recommended, and the total of human generated nitrogen at 190 Tg per year, more than 3x the planetary boundary limit. Biosphere integrity also still exceeds the safe operating space, with the human appropriation of net primary productivity now over 23%, contrasted with a preindustrial level of 10%. The other breech of biosphere integrity is the rate of species extinctions, up to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years, and it is accelerating. 

The four planetary boundaries newly crossed in the 2023 paper are: i) land use change, which is mostly indicated by the decline of forest cover since preindustrial times, ii) climate change with atmospheric CO2 concentration at 417 ppm, well beyond 350 ppm and radiative forcing at 2.91 W per sq m, in contrast to 1 W per sq m, iii) novel entities, including synthetic chemicals, microplastics, endocrine disruptors, organic pollutants, nuclear waste and nuclear weapons and iv) freshwater change with deviations almost twice recommended levels. 

In a recent interview, Wade Davis, an author I highly respect said, “Doom and gloom will never encourage people to action. Only hope and the promise of a better world will lead to action.” He argued that we survived WWII and other crises and in the end we will be fine. I defer to the 1972 book, Limits to Growth. At this stage of our human journey, it is appropriate to recognize the threat humans have become to the entire global ecosphere and to understand it is possible to proceed too far along this path. This knowing may be crucial to choosing in time to walk more respectfully on a path within ecosystem limits.

Seth Klein in his book, ‘A Good War,’ also compares our current crises to that of WWII and his suggestions for action are practical but unfortunately, mostly ignored. Nevertheless, Ecojustice is holding governments’ and corporations’ feet to legal fires. 

Before acting to adapt, take a breath and reflect on Cynthia Bourgeault’s advice, from her book ‘The Wisdom Way of Knowing.’ “Rather than rushing around in exhaustion to exercise our ‘choices’ in clothing, cars, jobs, and vacations, to maximize the selfhood that is illusory anyway, we could learn to give and take with life in the effortless freedom of inner authenticity.” 

Coming full circle, I don’t know what will happen in the future. Neither do I know what will not happen. In the time we have left as individuals and civilizations, we can at least appreciate and respect our singular home, Earth, where we belong with other species and elements. Thomas Berry, a wise eco-theologian, asserted that the Earth project is primary and the human project is derivative. Our role is to live accordingly, regardless of outcomes.   

Ralph C. Martin, Ph.D., Professor (retired), University of Guelph. Information on book, Food Security: From Excess to Enough at www.ralphmartin.ca

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