T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Hollow Men, ends with the following lines…
- This is the way the world ends
- Not with a bang but a whimper.
A recent study, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and using new statistical modelling methods, predicts that this current civilization will likely collapse in another twenty to fifty years. The study draws analogies with past human civilizations; the Assyrian, Roman, Mayan, Minoan, the various Chinese empires…. We can assume that like us; the populations of those civilizations had every reason to believe their civilization was unique and would last forever. While civilisational collapse is quite rare, characterised by entire ways of life, systems of thought, cultural values and worldviews disappearing, political collapse occurs frequently ( eg empires and kingdoms disintegrating). What appears likely to happen in our modern context, given the confluence of a number of catastrophic events, is civilisational collapse.
While this particular study has been sharply critiqued by journalists and scientists alike for its simplicity and generalisations ; the broad conclusion that, as Paul Simon aptly put it ,”everything put together falls apart” , is a healthy reminder of human hubris.
The single most important story unfolding in not-so-slow-motion on this planet is the ongoing destruction of the natural world in the name of “progress” and “growth” (ie consuming ever more “stuff”) by humans; , which will in the near future, significantly negatively impact on this species. Despite our insistence to the contrary, humans are entirely reliant on other species for our survival. It is a given that is blindly ignored by politicians, businesspeople and businesses and all those with a current stake in the way our “civilization’ currently works ( ie all of us).
As key resources become more expensive to extract, the world economy (which is apparently now the full extent of this ‘civilization’) begins to contract and distort . And as the gap between rich and poor widens, the “have-nots” increasingly demand in more and more violent ways, their right to a slice of the pie. As the oceans and atmospheric temperatures rise, so do the pressures on our artificial nation-states. As we progressively and rapidly eliminate species after species to produce more things, to make “progress”; our chances of long term survival as a species are being rapidly reduced. Our civilization demands that we assume that we have an infinite volume of resources to consume for the infinite future in a closed planetary system – a small contradiction in terms! We are indeed heading for the perfect storm.
Study after academic study shows that the more we gain from a civilization’s prosperity, the more we are blind to its failings and contradictions and its inevitable fall. This tunnel vision says , that ‘if I am doing well out of this catastrophe then it cant be a catastrophe at all!’
Homo sapiens pride themselves on their remarkable intelligence; their capacity to manipulate their environment for their own ends. They appear unable to grasp that that self-definition process of appropriating everything good, intelligent and wonderful to human attributes, is simply the result of their blinded vision. If by definition, species that manipulate their environment are determined to be superior to all other species; then lo-and-behold!- homo sapiens are superior beings! Because homo sapiens are above all other traits, social beings, all of us have an intensely strong need to “fit in”, to belong to the group. Agreeing with other people on ‘our’ group’s thought processes and paradigms is an essential part of this togetherness. However, agreement does not it make it truth.
Thus, it does not matter that the capacity to manipulate the environment for the benefit of our species and at the expense of all other species on this planet might not be quite such an intelligent thing to do, given that the environmental devastation and species destruction is largely for homo sapiens’ short term pleasures, power and baubles.
Were we to say that a species that can sustain itself easily and efficiently without damaging its environment in the process, were more ‘worthy’ beings than other species ; then homo sapiens would not be registering on the short-list!
Over the millenia, homo sapiens have been able to convince themselves that people of other cultures, or colour, or background are inferior to one’s own culture because of this self-defining process. Using the same intellectual process, the more different another species is from ourselves, the less worthy , less intelligent, more expendable and worthy of our exploitation and destruction that species becomes. The more differentiated from our species the “other” is, the easier it is to dismiss its inherent traits and qualities and its right to life. However on our ever smaller blue planet, we no longer have the luxury to differentiate between “them’ and ‘us”.
How much easier then is it to dismiss the equality of other species with ourselves when their characteristics, strengths and skills are so different from homo sapiens, and when it is so much to our benefit to be able to kill and exploit other species without moral qualms.
As Henry Gee also points out succinctly in his Guardian article , each species’ particular traits or “strengths” are based purely on, firstly, what biological mechanisms of sense are available to them ,and secondly, how they use those senses to that species’ best advantage. Homo sapiens may not value our sense of smell because its not a particularly efficient sensing mechanism in homo sapiens, but you can bet a dog does!
The capacity for self-delusion in our species is immense. Witness the largely American driven anti- climate -change camp. Of course we cannot be destroying our planet with C02 through industrialization, because capitalism and owning the means of production is the reason for our being! – after all, aren’t we, the US consumer, the greatest people on earth because our nation is the epitome of capitalism?
As another example of collective self-deception, Seth Klarman, the manager of the $27billion hedge fund, the Baupost Group, recently remarked on the similarities of the world’s banking system to the ‘Truman Show’, the late nineties Hollywood film, where the lead character “lives a seemingly charmed world, snuggled comfortably into an American suburbia of white picket fences and crisply cut lawns. But gradually Truman starts to notice something is not quite right. He is actually trapped inside a film set controlled by hidden directors, and discovers to his horror that he is the unknowing star of the world’s most popular reality TV show.” In one of the more blatant nuances of reality shifting homo sapiens have acquiesced to, our financial system is in essence simply one of “smoke and mirrors” -the manipulation of facts and figures designed to obscure reason and reality; a fragile house of cards.
One key point of difference with previous human civilizations around the world is that our current civilization is a global one; each of the parts are inextricably connected. Apart from a few small tribes in isolated areas, every one of us has bought in to this unique method of environmental destruction. Thus when this civilization collapses -(and it is a “when” and not an “if” ), that collapse will be both more rapid and more global; there will not be another model of homo sapien civilization around for the survivors to pin their hopes on. The other significant difference with other previous human civilizations is this current one’s geographical reach. Vast areas of the planet have now been laid waste in the name of human progress.
So, while the modelling conducted by Safa Motesharrei may be flawed, it does provide an opportunity for serious debate about the direction this global civilisation of ours is taking us..
Did Nasa fund ‘civilisation collapse’ study, or not?
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)
About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization
Plotting the Downfall of Society-Peter Turchin Book Review
A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation
So, after the IPCC report, which bit of the world are you prepared to lose? | GeorgeMonbiot