Are We at Peak Civilization?

 The 2008 financial crisis fit well with modeled conditions that also produce a global peak in per-capita industrial output in the next 12 months, inaugurating decades of economic and demographic contraction.

The end is nigh, writes Chris Wood: at least of the capitalist consumer cornucopia world where daily trillions of de-substantiated dollars flitter across global server networks and ships the size of islands slip into Rotterdam and Long Beach and Vancouver and disgorge every lust-object of the 21st century imagination—from Nissans to mantel-piece tchotchkes to backyard drones. Photo of ships waiting for berths at the Port of Vancouver, Canada, by Deborah Jones, © 2014

The end nears, writes Chris Wood, for “the capitalist consumer cornucopia world where daily trillions of de-substantiated dollars flitter across global server networks and ships the size of islands slip into Rotterdam and Long Beach and Vancouver and disgorge every lust-object of the 21st century imagination — from Nissans to mantel-piece tchotchkes to backyard drones.” Above, ships wait for berths at the Port of Vancouver, Canada. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2014

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY 
January, 2015

I’ve been doing some seasonal reading. Not so much of the festive, punch and fruitcake variety. More of the pre-solstice gathering darkness kind. I’ve been reading in to the end of the world.

I don’t mean exactly the end of everything. I mean the end of our world, the capitalist consumer cornucopia world where daily trillions of de-substantiated dollars flitter across global server networks and ships the size of islands slip into Rotterdam and Long Beach and Vancouver and disgorge every lust-object of the 21st century imagination — from Nissans to mantel-piece tchotchkes to backyard drones.

That world cannot go on. And as some bright person once said (the words are variously attributed to Henry Ford and economist Herb Stein): “What cannot go on, will stop.”

It’s the premise of this column that the ultimate foundation of that world, just as it was for the worlds of the Greeks, the Ming and the Maya, is our natural security: the supply of ecoservices like food, water and air — to name only the crudest — which constitute our biological habitat, which keep us alive, and which thus underwrite everything else in the human experience more complicated than bare survival (iPhones, quinoa salad, vacations in Cancun).

And it is a matter of record, in thousands of observational data sets, that our natural security, long neglected and abused, is crumbling.

Many of us, even many who don’t make a habit of following science or resource news, are aware of this, if only in a vague and unvoiced way. Richly documented evidence of how our neo-liberal, globalized, high-tech economy is exhausting the planet prefaces urgent expert pleas from international consortia of science like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, from blue-ribbon business panels, and from innumerable sustainability manifestos, for global system change before our way of life collapses on its own biophysical excess. 

But clearly, we are not changing much. Collapse therefore seems ever more the likely outcome. Which led me to wonder: What do we really know about the phenomenon of social collapse? Surely, I thought, some scholars somewhere must have studied this, the most plausible end point of numerous grim contemporary trend lines. So it is that I have been reading in to the end of the world.

Here are some things to expect, to fear, and to hold on tight to. (Some sources are identified below for further reading.)

It won’t be Hollywood. Collapse is unlikely to arrive overnight in an instantaneous global meltdown. We may not even recognize it when it starts, but only by looking back much later.

Perhaps history’s most famous “fall” was that of Imperial Rome: it didn’t happen in a day but over several hundred years. Remnants of Mesopotamian civilization endured for six centuries after Cyrus conquered Babylon in 540 BC.

Thus Jorge Randers, one of the authors of the seminal work on our society’s likely overshoot and collapse, 1972’s The Limits to Growth, argued in a 2008 reconsideration that collapse may in fact be experienced as a persistent decline in the quality of life over an extended period of time. His example is Russia in the decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Said Randers: “I define a collapse as ‘global’ if it affects at least 1 billion people, who lose at least 50 per cent of something they hold dear, within a period of 20 years.”

There are degrees of collapse. Dmitry Orlov, a Russian-born engineer and author now living in the United States, hypothesizes five stages, each associated with “the breaching of a specific level of trust, or faith, in the status quo.” These circles of broken trust are, in order: financial, commercial, political, social and — the last to fall — the cultural. He gives the tragic example of the Ik — a nomadic African group dispossessed of its traditional territory by the creation of a national park — as evidence that when the last of these crumbles, not even the bonds of parenthood hold.

Not everywhere has as far to fall. It is very likely that traditional pastoral, hunting-based or agricultural societies, whose sources of the necessities of life are locally produced and independent of global supply chains or continental energy grids, will hardly notice a system failure in the neoliberal economy — except perhaps as the happy retreat of countless unwelcome pressures. As William Kunstler argues however, those European and North American urban and suburban residents most indulged by those same globe-straddling, last-minute supply chains, are also the least well equipped with either practical skills or communitarian attitudes for local self reliance when they fail. 

And collapse of the old, not to be trite, is also an opportunity for the new. Countless writers, practical and academic researchers, think tanks, and grassroots movements like those creating so-called ‘Transition Towns’ from Latvia to Japan, or defending indigenous lifestyles around the globe, are imagining other ways of living. Joseph Tainter, a modern giant of collapse literature, has suggested that as the natural and social destructiveness of globalized consumerism become harder to ignore, collapse becomes “the most logical adjustment.”

But lastly, this: our midnight may be at hand. The post-Enlightenment study of collapse may be said to have begun with Gibbon (1776) and Malthus (1789). The two Thomases studied, respectively, the fall of Rome centuries earlier, and the theorized exhaustion of the planet through over-population at some indefinite time to come. A few scholars still sift the sands of ancient civilizations or abstracted futures. Most students of collapse are fully focused on the now — or at any rate the decades immediately ahead of us.

Graham Turner also revisited the modelling that underlay 1972’s Limits to Growth. He found that its forecasts tracked closely with reality well into this century.

More unsettling, he also found that the 2008 financial crisis (linked by many analysts to rising oil prices at the time) fit well with modeled conditions that also produce a global peak in per-capita industrial output in 2015 — that is, in the immediate next 12 months — inaugurating decades of economic and, after 2030, demographic contraction.

Whether or not we are at peak civilization this year, Turner is probably right when he concludes, “this suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that planning for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.”

Indeed, the world is not ending. Our way of living in it however, cannot go on for ever. Like it or not, it will stop. The stretched, brittle and over-leveraged machinery of the global neoliberal system may already be displaying the first shudders and jags as its forward momentum stalls.

Planning for what comes next would be a good idea. As an earlier essayist on this topic, Peter Timmerman, noted: “The resource which gives out first is time.”

Copyright Chris Wood 2015

References and further reading

James Howard Kunstler. “The Long Emergency.” Rolling Stone, March 24, 2005. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2005-03-24/long-emergency  

Dmitry Orlov. Five Stages of Collapse. New Society Publishers, 2013. His core ideas are explained on his ‘ClubOrlov’ blog-site at http://cluborlov.blogspot.ca/p/the-five-stages-of-collapse.html

Graham Turner and Cathy Alexander. “Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we’re nearing collapse.” The Guardian, Sept. 2, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/02/limits-to-growth-was-right-new-research-shows-were-nearing-collapse

 

 

chris1

Chris Wood is a founding writer with Facts and Opinions. He is the author of the Natural Security column and occasional long-form Think magazine pieces, and contributes the odd blog entry.

Wood writes about the issues of human social survival in the 21st century. His 40-year career has spanned award-winning work in radio, newsmagazines, books and the internet. He is the author or co-author of seven books, most recently Down the Drain: How We Are Failing To Protect Our Water Resources, with Ralph Pentland (Greystone, 2013).  After growing up near Hamilton, Ont., and later living for periods of time in rural Ontario, the Maritimes, Toronto, Dallas and Vancouver, his home is now on Vancouver Island with  his writer/marketer wife, Beverley Wood, and their two middle-aged bull terrier dogs. Currently, all are on an extended research and study term in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. 

Read more about Chris’s work, or book him as a speaker, at www.bychriswood.com

 

 

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.

 

 

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