The Collapse Of Civilization May Have Already Begun

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Above Photo: From  Vice.com

Scientists disagree on the timeline of collapse and whether it’s imminent. But can we afford to be wrong? And what comes after?

December 24, 2019 “Information Clearing House” –    “It is now too late to stop a future collapse of our societies because of climate change.”

These are not the words of a tinfoil hat-donning survivalist. This is from a paper delivered by a senior sustainability academic at a leading business school to the European Commission in Brussels, earlier this year. Before that, he delivered a similar message to a UN conference: “Climate change is now a planetary emergency posing an existential threat to humanity.”

In the age of climate chaos, the collapse of civilization has moved from being a fringe, taboo issue to a more mainstream concern.

As the world reels under each new outbreak of crisis—record heatwaves across the Western hemisphere, devastating fires across the Amazon rainforest, the slow-moving Hurricane Dorian, severe ice melting at the poles—the question of how bad things might get, and how soon, has become increasingly urgent.

The fear of collapse is evident in the framing of movements such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and in resounding warnings that business-as-usual means heading toward an uninhabitable planet.

But a growing number of experts not only point at the looming possibility that human civilization itself is at risk; some believe that the science shows it is already too late to prevent collapse. The outcome of the debate on this is obviously critical: it throws light on whether and how societies should adjust to this uncertain landscape.

Yet this is not just a scientific debate. It also raises difficult moral questions about what kind of action is warranted to prepare for, or attempt to avoid, the worst. Scientists may disagree about the timeline of collapse, but many argue that this is entirely beside the point. While scientists and politicians quibble over timelines and half measures, or how bad it’ll all be, we are losing precious time. With the stakes being total collapse, some scientists are increasingly arguing that we should fundamentally change the structure of society just to be safe.

Jem Bendell, a former consultant to the United Nations and longtime Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria’s Department of Business, delivered a paper in May 2019 explaining how people and communities might “adapt to climate-induced disruption.”

Bendell’s thesis is not only that societal collapse due to climate change is on its way, but that it is, in effect, already here. “Climate change will disrupt your way of life in your lifetimes,” he told the audience at a climate change conference organized by the European Commission.

Devastating consequences, like “the cascading effects of widespread and repeated harvest failures” are now unavoidable, Bendell’s paper says.

He argues this is not so much a doom-and-gloom scenario as a case of waking up to reality, so that we can do as much as we can to save as many lives as possible. His recommended response is what he calls “Deep Adaptation,” which requires going beyond “mere adjustments to our existing economic system and infrastructure, in order to prepare us for the breakdown or collapse of normal societal functions.”

Bendell’s message has since gained a mass following and high-level attention. It is partly responsible for inspiring the new wave of climate protests reverberating around the world.

In March, he launched the Deep Adaptation Forum to connect and support people who, in the face of “inevitable” societal collapse, want to explore how they can “reduce suffering, while saving more of society and the natural world.” Over the last six months, the Forum has gathered more than 10,000 participants. More than 600,000 people have downloaded Bendell’s paper, called Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating our Climate Tragedy, published by the University of Cumbria’s Institute of Leadership and Sustainability (IFALS). And many of the key organizers behind the Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaign joined the protest movement after reading it.

“There will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers,” concludes that paper, released in 2017.

Catastrophe is “probable,” it adds, and extinction “is possible.” Over coming decades, we will see the escalating impacts of the fossil fuel pollution we have already pumped into the atmosphere and oceans. Even if we ceased emissions tomorrow, Bendell argues, the latest climate science shows that “we are now in a climate emergency, which will increasingly disrupt our way of life… a societal collapse is now inevitable within the lifetimes of readers of this paper.”

Bendell puts a rough timeline on this. Collapse will happen within 10 years and inflict disruptions across nations, involving “increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict, and war.”

Yet this diagnosis opens up far more questions than it answers. I was left wondering: Which societies are at risk of collapsing due to climate change, and when? Some societies or all societies? Simultaneously or sequentially? Why some rather than others? And how long will the collapse process take? Where will it start, and in what sector? How will that impact others sectors? Or will it take down all sectors of societies in one fell swoop? And what does any of this imply for whether, or how, we might prepare for collapse?

In attempting to answer these questions, I spoke to a wide-range of scientists and experts, and took a deep dive into the obscure but emerging science of how societies and civilizations collapse. I wanted to understand not just whether Bendell’s forecast was right, but to find out what a range experts from climate scientists to risk analysts were unearthing about the possibility of our societies collapsing in coming years and decades.

The emerging science of collapse is still, unfortunately, a nascent field. That’s because it’s an interdisciplinary science that encompasses not only the incredibly complex, interconnected natural systems that comprise the Earth System, but also has to make sense of how those systems interact with the complex, interconnected social, political, economic, and cultural systems of the Human System.

What I discovered provoked a wide range of emotions. I was at times surprised and shocked, often frightened, sometimes relieved. Mostly, I was unsettled. Many scientists exposed flaws in Bendell’s argument. Most rejected the idea of inevitable near-term collapse outright. But to figure out whether a near-term collapse scenario of some kind was likely led me far beyond Bendell. A number of world leading experts told me that such a scenario might, in fact, be far more plausible than conventionally presumed.

Science, gut, or a bit of both?

According to Penn State professor Michael Mann, one of the world’s most renowned climate scientists, Bendell’s grasp of the climate science is deeply flawed.

“To me, this paper is a perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness,” he told me.

Bendell’s original paper had been rejected for publication by the peer-reviewed Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal. According to Bendell, the changes that editorial reviewers said were necessary to make the article fit for publication made no sense. But among them, one referee questioned whether Bendell’s presentation of climate data actually supported his conclusion: “I am not sure that the extensive presentation of climate data supports the core argument of the paper in a meaningful way.”

In his response, sent in the form of a letter to the journal’s chief editor, Bendell wrote: “Yet the summary of science is the core of the paper as everything then flows from the conclusion of that analysis. Note that the science I summarise is about what is happening right now, rather than models or theories of complex adaptive systems which the reviewer would have preferred.”

But in Mann’s view, the paper’s failure to pass peer review was not simply because it didn’t fit outmoded academic etiquette, but for the far more serious reason that it lacks scientific rigor. Bendell, he said, is simply “wrong on the science and impacts: There is no credible evidence that we face ‘inevitable near-term collapse.’”

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who is also world-famous, was even more scathing.

“There are both valid points and unjustified statements throughout,” he told me about Bendell’s paper. “Model projections have not underestimated temperature changes, not everything that is non-linear is therefore ‘out of control.’ Blaming ‘increased volatility from more energy in the atmosphere’ for anything is silly. The evidence for ‘inevitable societal collapse’ is very weak to non-existent.”

Schmidt did not rule out that we are likely to see more instances of local collapse events. “Obviously we have seen such collapses in specific locations associated with extreme storm impacts,” he said. He listed off a number of examples—Puerto Rico, Barbuda, Haiti, and New Orleans—explaining that while local collapses in certain regions could be possible, it’s a “much harder case to make” at a global level. “And this paper doesn’t make it. I’m not particularly sanguine about what is going to happen, but this is not based on anything real.”

Jeremy Lent, systems theorist and author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, argues that throughout Bendell’s paper he frequently slips between the terms “inevitable,” “probably,” and “likely.”

“If he chooses to go with his gut instinct and conclude collapse is inevitable, he has every right to do so,” Lent said, “but I believe it’s irresponsible to package this as a scientifically valid conclusion, and thereby criticize those who interpret the data otherwise as being in denial.”

When I pressed Bendell on this issue, he pushed back against the idea that he was putting forward a hard, scientifically-valid forecast, describing it as a “guess”: “I say in the original paper that I am only guessing at when social collapse will occur. I have said or written that every time I mention that time horizon.”

But why offer this guess at all? “The problem I have with the argument that I should not give a time horizon like 10 years is that not deciding on a time horizon acts as a psychological escape from facing our predicament. If we can push this problem out into 2040 or 2050, it somehow feels less pressing. Yet, look around. Already harvests are failing because of weather made worse by climate change.”

Bendell points out that such impacts are already damaging more vulnerable, poorer societies than our own. He says it is only a matter of time before they damage the normal functioning of “most countries in the world.”

Global food system failure

According to Dr. Wolfgang Knorr, Principal Investigator at Lund University’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in a Changing Climate Program, the risk of near-term collapse should be taken far more seriously by climate scientists, given the fact that so much is unknown about climate tipping points: “I am not saying that Bendell is right or wrong. But the criticism of Bendell’s points focuses too much on the detail and in that way studiously tries to avoid the bigger picture. The available data points to the fact that some catastrophic climate change is inevitable.”

Bendell argues that the main trigger for some sort of collapse—which he defines as “an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning, and hope”—will come from accelerating failures in the global food system.

We know that it is a distinct possibility that so-called multi-breadbasket failures (when major yield reductions take place simultaneously across agricultural areas producing staple crops like rice, wheat, or maize) can be triggered by climate change—and have already happened.

As shown by American physicist Dr. Yaneer Ban Yam and his team at the New England Complex Systems Institute, in the years preceding 2011, global food price spikes linked to climate breakdown played a role in triggering the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. And according to hydroclimatologist Dr. Peter Gleick, climate-induced drought amplified the impact of socio-political and economic mismanagement, inflicting agricultural failures in Syria. These drove mass migrations within the country, in turn laying the groundwork for sectarian tensions that spilled over into a protracted conflict.

This is a case of what Professor Thomas-Homer Dixon, University Research Chair in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, describes as “synchronous failure”—when multiple, interconnected stressors amplify over time before triggering self-reinforcing feedback loops which result in them all failing at the same time. In his book, The Upside of DownCatastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, he explains how the resulting convergence of crises overwhelms disparate political, economic and administrative functions, which are not designed for such complex events.In my own work, I found that the Syrian conflict was not just triggered by climate change, but a range of intersecting factors—Syria’s domestic crude oil production had peaked in the mid-90s, leading state revenues to hemorrhage as oil production and exports declined. When global climate chaos triggered food price spikes, the state had begun slashing domestic fuel and food subsidies, already reeling from the impact of economic mismanagement and corruption resulting in massive debt levels. And so, a large young population overwhelmed with unemployment and emboldened by decades of political repression took to the streets when they could not afford basic bread. Syria has since collapsed into ceaseless civil war.

From this lens, climate-induced collapse has already happened, though it is exacerbated by and amplifies the failure of myriad human systems. Is Syria a case-study of what is in store for the world? And is it inevitable within the next decade?

In a major report released in August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that hunger has already been rising worldwide due to climate impacts. A senior NASA scientist, Cynthia Rosenzweig, was a lead author of the study, which warned that the continued rise in carbon emissions would drive a rise in global average temperatures of 2°C in turn triggering a “very high” risk to food supplies toward mid-century. Food shortages would hit vulnerable, poorer regions, but affluent nations may also be in the firing line. As a new study from the UK Parliamentary Environment Audit Committee concludes, fruit and vegetable imports to countries like Britain might be cut short if a crisis breaks out.

When exactly such a crisis might happen is not clear. Neither reports suggest it would result in the collapse of civilization, or even most countries, within 10 years. And the UN also emphasizes that it is not too late to avert these risks through a shift to organic and agro-ecological methods.

NASA’s Gavin Schmidt acknowledged “increasing impacts from climate change on global food production,” but said that a collapse “is not predicted and certainly not inevitable.”

The catastrophic ‘do-nothing’ scenario

A few years ago, though, I discovered first-hand that a catastrophic collapse of the global food system is possible in coming decades if we don’t change course. At the time I was a visiting research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, and I had been invited to a steering committee meeting for the Institute’s Global Research Observatory (GRO), a research program developing new models of global crisis.

One particular model, the Dawe Global Security Model, was focused on the risk of another global food crisis, similar to what triggered the Arab Spring.

“We ran the model forward to the year 2040, along a business-as-usual trajectory based on ‘do-nothing’ trends—that is, without any feedback loops that would change the underlying trend,” said institute director Aled Jones to the group of stakeholders in the room, which included UK government officials. “The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”

Someone asked, “Okay, but what you’re saying is that if there is no change in current trends, then this is the outcome?”Jones was at pains to clarify that this model-run could not be taken as a forecast, particularly as mitigation policies are already emerging in response to concern about such an outcome: “This scenario is based on simply running the model forward,” he said. “The model is a short-term model. It’s not designed to run this long, as in the real world trends are always likely to change, whether for better or worse.”

“Yes,” Jones replied quietly.

The Dawe Global Security Model put this potential crisis two decades from now. Is it implausible that the scenario might happen much earlier? And if so why aren’t we preparing for this risk?

When I asked UN disaster risk advisor Scott Williams about a near-term global food crisis scenario, he pointed out that this year’s UN flagship global disaster risk assessment was very much aware of the danger of another global “multiple breadbasket failure.”

“A projected increase in extreme climate events and an increasingly interdependent food supply system pose a threat to global food security,” warned the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction released in May. “For instance, local shocks can have far-reaching effects on global agricultural markets.”

Climate models we’ve been using are not too alarmist; they are consistently too conservative, and we have only recently understood how bad the situation really is.

Current agricultural modelling, the UN report said, does not sufficiently account for these complex interconnections. The report warns that “climate shocks and consequent crop failure in one of the global cereal breadbaskets might have knock-on effects on the global agricultural market. The turbulences are exacerbated if more than one of the main crop-producing regions suffers from losses simultaneously.”

Williams, who was a coordinating lead author of the UN global disaster risk assessment, put it more bluntly: “In a nutshell, Bendell is closer to the mark than his critics.”

He pointed me to the second chapter of the UN report which, he said, expressed the imminent risk to global civilization in a “necessarily politically desensitized” form. The chapter is “close to stating that ‘collapse is inevitable’ and that the methods that we—scientists, modellers, researchers, etc—are using are wholly inadequate to understand that nature of complex, uncertain ‘transitions,’ in other words, collapses.”

Williams fell short of saying that such a collapse scenario was definitely unavoidable, and the UN report—while setting out an alarming level of risk—did not do so either. What they did make clear is that a major global food crisis could erupt unexpectedly, with climate change as a key trigger.

Climate tipping points

A new study by a team of scientists at Oxford, Bristol, and Austria concludes that our current carbon emissions trajectory hugely increases this risk. Published in October in the journal Agricultural Systems, the study warns that the rise in global average temperatures is increasing the likelihood of “production shocks” affecting an increasingly interconnected global food system.

Surpassing the 1.5 °C threshold could potentially trigger major “production losses” of millions of tonnes of maize, wheat and soybean.

Right now, carbon dioxide emissions are on track to dramatically increase this risk of multi-breadbasket failures. Last year, the IPCC found that unless we reduce our emissions levels by five times their current amount, we could hit 1.5°C as early as 2030, and no later than mid-century. This would dramatically increase the risk of simultaneous crop failures, food production shocks and other devastating climate impacts.

In April this year, the European Commission’s European Strategy and Policy Analysis System published its second major report to EU policymakers, Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe. The report, which explores incoming national security, geopolitical and socio-economic risks, concluded: “An increase of 1.5 degrees is the maximum the planet can tolerate; should temperatures increase further beyond 2030, we will face even more droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people; the likely demise of the most vulnerable populations—and at worst, the extinction of humankind altogether.”

But the IPCC’s newer models suggest that the situation is even worse than previously thought. Based on increased supercomputing power and sharper representations of weather systems, those new climate models—presented at a press conference in Paris in late September—reveal the latest findings of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report now underway.

The models now show that we are heading for 7°C by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue unabated, two degrees higher than last year’s models. This means the earth is far more sensitive to atmospheric carbon than previously believed.

This suggests that the climate models we’ve been using are not too alarmist; they are consistently too conservative, and we have only recently understood how bad the situation really is.

I spoke to Dr. Joelle Gergis, a lead author on the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, about the new climate models. Gergis admitted that at least eight of the new models being produced for the IPCC by scientists in the US, UK, Canada and France suggest a much higher climate sensitivity than older models of 5°C or warmer. But she pushed back against the idea that these findings prove the inevitability of collapse, which she criticized as outside the domain of climate science. Rather, the potential implications of the new evidence are not yet known.

“Yes, we are facing alarming rates of change and this raises the likelihood of abrupt, non-linear changes in the climate system that may cause tipping points in the Earth’s safe operating space,” she said. “But we honestly don’t know how far away we are from that just yet. It may also be the case that we can only detect that we’ve crossed such a threshold after the fact.”

In an article published in August in the Australian magazine The Monthly, Dr. Gergis wrote: “When these results were first released at a climate modelling workshop in March this year, a flurry of panicked emails from my IPCC colleagues flooded my inbox. What if the models are right? Has the Earth already crossed some kind of tipping point? Are we experiencing abrupt climate change right now?”

Half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral system has been wiped out at current global average temperatures which are now hovering around 1°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Gergis describes this as “catastrophic ecosystem collapse of the largest living organism on the planet.” At 1.5°C, between 70 and 90 percent of reef-building corals are projected to be destroyed, and at 2°C, some 99 percent may disappear: “An entire component of the Earth’s biosphere—our planetary life support system—would be eliminated. The knock-on effects on the 25 percent of all marine life that depends on coral reefs would be profound and immeasurable… The very foundation of human civilization is at stake.”

But Gergis told me that despite the gravity of the new models, they do not prove conclusively that past emissions will definitely induce collapse within the next decade.

“While we are undeniably observing rapid and widespread climate change across the planet, there is no concrete evidence that suggests we are facing ‘an inevitable, near term society collapse due to climate change,’” she said. “Yes, we are absolutely hurtling towards conditions that will create major instabilities in the climate system, and time is running out, but I don’t believe it is a done deal just yet.”

Yet it is precisely the ongoing absence of strong global policy that poses the fatal threat. According to Lund University climate scientist Wolfgang Knorr, the new climate models mean that practically implementing the Paris Accords target of keeping temperatures at 1.5 degrees is now extremely difficult. He referred me to his new analysis of the challenge published on the University of Cumbria’s ILFAS blog, suggesting that the remaining emissions budget given by the IPCC “will be exhausted at the beginning of 2025.” He also noted that past investment in fossil-fuel and energy infrastructure alone will put us well over that budget.

The scale of the needed decarbonization is so great and so rapid, according to Tim Garrett, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, that civilization would need to effectively “collapse” its energy consumption to avoid collapsing due to climate catastrophe. In a 2012 paper in Earth System Dynamics, he concluded therefore that “civilization may be in a double-bind.”

“We still have time to try and avert the scale of the disaster, but we must respond as we would in an emergency”

In a previous paper in Climatic Change, Garrett calculated that the world would need to switch to non-carbon renewable energy sources at a rate of about 2.1 percent a year just to stabilize emissions. “That comes out [equivalent] to almost one new nuclear power plant per day,” Garrett said. Although he sees this as fundamentally unrealistic, he concedes that a crash transition programme might help: “If society invests sufficient resources into alternative and new, non-carbon energy supplies, then perhaps it can continue growing without increasing global warming.”

Gergis goes further, insisting that it is not yet too late: “We still have time to try and avert the scale of the disaster, but we must respond as we would in an emergency. The question is, can we muster the best of our humanity in time?”

There is no straightforward answer to this question. To get there, we need to understand not just climate science, but the nature, dynamics, and causes of civilizational collapse.

Limits to Growth

One of the most famous scientific forecasts of collapse was conducted nearly 50 years ago by a team of scientists at MIT. Their “Limits to Growth” (LTG) model, known as “World3,” captured the interplay between exponential population and economic growth, and the consumption of raw materials and natural resources. Climate change is an implicit feature of the model.

LTG implied that business-as-usual would lead to civilizational breakdown, sometime between the second decade and middle of the 21st century, due to overconsumption of natural resources far beyond their rate of renewal. This would escalate costs, diminish returns, and accelerate environmental waste, ecosystem damage, and global heating. With more capital diverted to the cost of extracting resources, less is left to invest in industry and other social goods, driving long-term economic decline and political unrest.

The forecast was widely derided when first published, and its core predictions were often wildly misrepresented by commentators who claimed it had incorrectly forecast the end of the world by the year 2000 (it didn’t).

Systems scientist Dennis Meadows had headed up the MIT team which developed the ‘World3’ model. Seven years ago, he updated the original model in light of new data with co-author Jorgen Randers, another original World3 team-member.

“For those who respect numbers, we can report that the highly aggregated scenarios of World3 still appear… to be surprisingly accurate,” they wrote in Limits to Growth: the 30 year update. “The world is evolving along a path that is consistent with the main features of the scenarios in LTG.”

One might be forgiven for suspecting that the old MIT team were just blowing their own horn. But a range of independent scientific reviews, some with the backing of various governments, have repeatedly confirmed that the LTG ‘base scenario’ of overshoot and collapse has continued to fit new data. This includes studies by Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey, an economics advisor to the British government and Ministry of Defense; Australia’s federal government scientific research agency CSIRO; Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute; and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in London.

“Collapse is not a very precise term. It is possible that there would be a general, drastic, uncontrolled decline in population, material use, and energy consumption by 2030 from climate change,” Meadows told me when I asked him whether the LTG model shines any light on the risk of imminent collapse. “But I do not consider it to be a high probability event,” he said. Climate change would, however, “certainly suffice to alter our industrial society drastically by 2100.” It could take centuries or millennia for ecosystems to recover.

But there is a crucial implication of the LTG model that is often overlooked: what happens during collapse. During an actual breakdown, new and unexpected social dynamics might come into play which either worsen or even lessen collapse.

Those dynamics all depend on human choices. They could involve positive changes through reform in political leadership or negative changes such as regional or global wars.

That’s why modelling what happens during the onset of collapse is especially tricky, because the very process of collapse alters the dynamics of change.

Growth, complexity and resource crisis

What if, then, collapse is not necessarily the end? That’s the view of Ugo Bardi, of the University of Florence, who has developed perhaps the most intriguing new scientific framework for understanding collapse.

Earlier this year, Bardi and his team co-wrote a paper in the journal BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, drawing on the work of anthropologist Joseph Tainter at Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society. Tainter’s seminal book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, concluded that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Tainter studied the fall of the Western Roman empire, Mayan civilization, and Chaco civilization. As societies develop more complex and specialized bureaucracies to solve emerging problems, these new layers of problem-solving infrastructure generate new orders of problems. Further infrastructure is then developed to solve those problems, and the spiral of growth escalates.

As each new layer also requires a new ‘energy’ subsidy (greater consumption of resources), it eventually cannot produce enough resources to both sustain itself and resolve the problems generated. The result is that society collapses to a new equilibrium by shedding layers of complex infrastructure amassed in previous centuries. This descent takes between decades and centuries.

In his recent paper, Bardi used computer models to test how Tainter’s framework stood-up. He found that diminishing returns from complexity were not the main driver of a system’s decline; rather the decline in complexity of the system is due to diminishing returns from exploiting natural resources.

In other words, collapse is a result of a form of endless growth premised on the unsustainable consumption of resources, and the new order of increasingly unresolvable crises this generates.

In my view, we are already entering a perfect storm feedback loop of complex problems that existing systems are too brittle to solve. The collapse of Syria, triggered and amplified partly by climate crisis, did not end in Syria. Its reverberations have not only helped destabilize the wider Middle East, but contributed to the destabilization of Western democracies.

In January, a study in Global Environment Change found that the impact of “climatic conditions” on “drought severity” across the Middle East and North Africa amplified the “likelihood of armed conflict.” The study concluded that climate change therefore played a pivotal role in driving the mass asylum seeking between 2011 and 2015—including the million or so refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015 alone, nearly 50 percent of whom were Syrian. The upsurge of people fleeing the devastation of their homes was a gift to the far-right, exploited by British, French and other nationalists campaigning for the break-up of the European Union, as well as playing a role in Donald Trump’s political campaigning around The Wall.

To use my own terminology, Earth System Disruption (ESD) is driving Human System Destabilization (HSD). Preoccupied with the resulting political chaos, the Human System becomes even more vulnerable and incapable of ameliorating ESD. As ESD thus accelerates, it generates more HSD. The self-reinforcing cycle continues, and we find ourselves in an amplifying feedback loop of disruption and destabilization.

Beyond collapse

Is there a way out of this self-destructive amplifying feedback loop? Bardi’s work suggests there might be—that collapse can pave the way for a new, more viable form of civilization, whether or not countries and regions experience collapses, crises, droughts, famine, violence, and war as a result of ongoing climate chaos.

Bardi’s analysis of Tainter’s work extends the argument he first explored in his 2017 peer-reviewed study, The Seneca Effect: When Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid. The book is named after the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who once said that “fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid.”

Bardi examines a wide-range of collapse cases across human societies (from the fall of past empires, to financial crises and large-scale famines), in nature (avalanches) and through artificial structures (cracks in metal objects). His verdict is that collapse is not a “bug,” but a “varied and ubiquitous phenomena” with multiple causes, unfolding differently, sometimes dangerously, sometimes not. Collapse also often paves the way for the emergence of new, evolutionary structures.

In an unpublished manuscript titled Before the Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth, due to be published by science publisher Springer-Nature next year, Bardi’s examination of the collapse and growth of human civilizations reveals that after collapse, a “Seneca Rebound” often takes place in which new societies grow, often at a rate faster than preceding growth rates.

This is because collapse eliminates outmoded, obsolete structures, paving the way for new structures to emerge which often thrive from the remnants of the old and in the new spaces that emerge.

He thus explains the Seneca Rebound as “as an engine that propels civilizations forward in bursts. If this is the case, can we expect a rebound if the world’s civilization goes through a new Seneca Collapse in the coming decades?”

Bardi recognizes that the odds are on a knife-edge. A Seneca Rebound after a coming collapse would probably have different features to what we have seen after past civilizational collapses and might still involve considerable violence, as past new civilizations often did—or may not happen at all.

“Very little if anything is being done to stop emissions and the general destruction of the ecosystem”

On our current trajectory, he said, “the effects of the destruction we are wreaking on the ecosystem could cause humans to go extinct, the ultimate Seneca Collapse.” But if we change course, even if we do not avoid serious crises, we might lessen the blow of a potential collapse. In this scenario, “the coming collapse will be just one more of the series of previous collapses that affected human civilizations: it might lead to a new rebound.”

It is in this possibility that Bardi sees the seeds of a new, different kind of civilization within the collapse of civilization-as-we-know-it.

I asked Bardi how soon he thought this collapse would happen. Although emphasizing that collapse is not yet inevitable, he said that a collapse of some kind within the next decade could be “very likely” if business-as-usual continues.

“Very little if anything is being done to stop emissions and the general destruction of the ecosystem,” Bardi said. “So, an ecosystemic collapse is not impossible within 10 years.”

Yet he was also careful to point out that the worst might be avoided: “On the other hand, there are many elements interacting that may change things a little, a lot, or drastically. We don’t know how the system may react… maybe the system would react in a way that could postpone the worst.”

Release and renewal

The lesson is that even if collapse is imminent, all may not be lost. Systems theorist Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, draws on the work of the late University of Florida ecologist C. S. Holling, whose detailed study of natural ecosystems led him to formulate a general theory of social change known as the adaptive cycle.

Complex systems, whether in nature or in human societies, pass through four phases in their life cycle, writes Lent. First is a rapid growth phase of innovation and opportunity for new structures; second is a phase of stability and consolidation, during which these structures become brittle and resistant to change; third is a release phase consisting of breakdown, generating chaos and uncertainty; the fourth is reorganization, opening up the possibility that small, seemingly insignificant forces might drastically change the future of the forthcoming new cycle.

It is here, in the last two phases, that the possibility of triggering and shaping a Seneca Rebound becomes apparent. The increasing chaos of global politics, Lent suggests, is evidence that we are “entering the chaotic release phase,” where the old order begins to unravel. At this point, the system could either regress, or it could reorganize in a way that enables a new civilizational rebound. “This is a crucially important moment in the system’s life cycle for those who wish to change the predominant order.”

So as alarming as the mounting evidence of the risk of collapse is, it also indicates that we are moving into a genuinely new and indeterminate phase in the life cycle of our current civilization, during which we have a radical opportunity to mobilize the spread of new ideas that can transform societies.

I have been tracking the risks of collapse throughout my career as a journalist and systems theorist. I could not find any decisive confirmation that climate change will inevitably produce near-term societal collapse.

But the science does not rule this out as a possibility. Therefore, dismissing the risk of some sort of collapse—whether by end of century, mid-century, or within the next 10 years—contravenes the implications of the most robust scientific models we have.

All the scientific data available suggests that if we continue on our current course of resource exploitation, human civilization could begin experiencing collapse within coming decades. Exactly where and how such a collapse process might take off is not certain; and whether it is already locked in is as yet unknown. And as NASA’s Gavin Schmidt told me, local collapses are already underway.

From Syria to Brexit, the destabilizing socio-political impacts of ecosystemic collapse are becoming increasingly profound, far-reaching and intractable. In that sense, debating whether or not near-term collapse is inevitable overlooks the stark reality that we are already witnessing climate collapse.

And yet, there remains an almost total absence of meaningful conversation and action around this predicament, despite it being perhaps the most important issue of our times.

The upshot is that we don’t know for sure what is round the corner, and we need better conversations about how to respond to the range of possibilities. Preparation for worst-case scenarios does not require us to believe them inevitable, but vindicates the adoption of a rational, risk-based approach designed to proactively pursue the admirable goal for Deep Adaptation: safeguarding as much of society as possible.

Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation approach, he told me, is not meant to provide decisive answers about collapse, but to catalyze conversation and action.

“For the Deep Adaptation groups that I am involved with, we ask people to agree that societal collapse is either likely, inevitable or already unfolding, so that we can have meaningful engagement upon that premise,” he said. “Deep Adaptation has become an international movement now, with people mobilizing to share their grief, discuss what to commit to going forward, become activists, start growing food, all kinds of things.”

Confronting the specter of collapse, he insisted is not grounds to give-up, but to do more. Not later, but right now, because we are already out of time in terms of the harm already inflicted on the planet: “My active and radical hope is that we will do all kinds of amazing things to reduce harm, buy time and save what we can,” he said. “Adaptation and mitigation are part of that agenda. I also know that many people will act in ways that create more suffering.”

Most of all, the emerging science of collapse suggests that civilization in its current form, premised on endless growth and massive inequalities, is unlikely to survive this century. It will either evolve into or be succeeded by a new configuration, perhaps an “ecological civilization”, premised on a fundamentally new relationship with the Earth and all its inhabitants—or it will, whether slowly or more abruptly, regress and contract.

What happens next is still up to us. Our choices today will not merely write our own futures, they determine who we are, and what our descendants will be capable of becoming. As we look ahead, this strange new science hints to us at a momentous opportunity to become agents of change for an emerging paradigm of life and society that embraces, not exploits, the Earth. Because doing so is now a matter of survival.

  • Michael

    If some major civilizations are collapsing it has little to do with climate change. No civilization was founded or drew its strength from healthy climates.

  • Pat moore

    They all did.

  • Michael

    You need to make your point. The Abrahamic faiths were born in arid lands and the Dharmic faiths were born in dense forests and icy mountains. These faiths sustained civilizations that ebbed and flowed according to droughts and floods but they also developed methods to live in adverse environments.

  • mwildfire

    A few little quibbles. First, yet again: the discussion of when we might hit the 1.5 degree C warming level ignores global dimming, which seems to guarantee that if all fossil fuel burning and deforestation ended tomorrow we would still soar past 1.5 degrees rapidly, because the dimming effect of fossil fuel smog subtracts something like .7 degrees from current temperatures which are at something like 1.2 degrees hotter. If this is not true I hope someone will explain to me why not.
    Next, the author saying he wants to know when collapse will hit, in what mode, which areas will be hit first, etc. Seems to me a polymath genius who is a climate expert, and also very well versed in agronomy with detailed information about crop regimes and soils in different parts of the world, and also an expert in financial and governmental functions, the history of conflict etc…such a person still could not answer that question. There are too many factors, too big a role of chance, too big an effect down through time from minor differences in an effect at one point, too much complexity generated by synergy. Such a person could come up with better guesses than most of us but they’d still be guesses. That some kind of collapse is inevitable does not take a genius/expert to figure out. One element is that a key reason for the collapse of civilizations is that there is always a privileged elite within complex societies, which is able for a long time to insulate itself from the consequences of its choices. A main thing they do, it seems, is find ways to cement their hold on power. But collapse breaks everything apart, including that hold on power–which means that at certain moments there is opportunity for not just competing sociopaths but even potential leaders with the good of the whole as their top priority, to organize new small societies.
    And someone the author questions whether it will be conflict or this sort of wholesome reorganization that happens–but isn’t it more likely that it will be both, with reorganization primarily happening at the local level with widely varying arrangements, some horrible and others little Edens?
    Finally, grammar Nazi alert: compound phrases like “break down” or “close up” do not get hyphens when used as verbs. You can say a civilization is in break-down phase. But not that you think it will break-down. The petals of a flower close up, even if you might say it’s the time for flower close-up.

  • Pat moore

    They are certainly arid now, but before human proliferation they were lush.
    Climate change is greater now than in the geological history. Has never accelerated this fast.

  • ThisOldMan

    Those whom the Gods would destroy, the first make mad. (As we all saw quite clearly in the election of Donald Trump, COP25, and every time we turn on our TV.)

  • Michael

    When Islam was born the Arabian Peninsula was the same in 700 AD as it is now.
    When Christianity was born the Bethlehem, the Roman province of Judea was the same as it is now
    Old testament descriptions of Abraham’s environment was arid
    Buddhism was born in Bodh Gaya where Nirvana took place and in the deer park of the city of Sarnarth where the Buddha gave his first sermon. that deer Park is still there and the lushness of that region has significantly diminished due to mismanagement by New Delhi.
    As for Hinduism it goes back to Harappa and here we can actually see the devastation caused by man.
    Sikhism was born in the Punjab which remains verdant as ever.

  • chetdude

    “Religion” is NOT Civilization… 😉

  • Jay Hansen

    It can be compatible with it if kept to oneself.

  • Jay Hansen

    Let’s remember that ‘civilization’ and ‘civility’ are not the same thing. Civilization requires a ruling class which is rarely engaged in much civility. The collapse of civilization may be just the opportunity we’re waiting for.

  • Jay Hansen

    When you assume you make an ass of u, but not me.

  • Michael

    There is no assumption on my part. that makes you the ass.

  • Michael

    Religion is the foundation of all major civilizations and for a good part of the history of civilization religion was at its heart.

  • Jay Hansen

    There’s PLENTY of assumption on your part.

  • Michael

    I made clear statements you assume that I am not and when you assume you make an Ass out of yourself but not out of me.

  • Jay Hansen

    Urine idiot, and no pee tapes are necessary to prove it.

  • kevinzeese

    If you want to have an “Assume” battle — take it off this page.

  • “It will either evolve into or be succeeded by a new configuration,
    perhaps an “ecological civilization”, premised on a fundamentally new
    relationship with the Earth and all its inhabitants—or it will, whether
    slowly or more abruptly, regress and contract.”

    The better choice seems clear – morph into an ecological civilization. The shame is that a lot of living beings (including people) will suffer and die before enough of us choose to ‘evolve’.

  • kevinzeese

    The Ecosocialist Green New Deal could be the vehicle for evolving into an ecological civilization.

  • Jay Hansen

    One of them. Nothing is inevitable until after the fact.

  • Michael

    Another point about the global warming fiasco is that this is mainly an American movement with some followers in Europe especially that Swedish loud mouth Greta. It is aimed at the developing world which happens to be the none Western world and represents the majority of mankind.

    The Developing world just emerged from the Colonial age of extreme exploitation. They have over 5 billion and most are very young. These nations have been stripped of their wealth and power so that Europe could bask in it for close to 300 years.

    Current world population is at 8 billion and will grow to 14 billion. Most of that growth will be in the developing world. So listen to them or they will not listen to the first world.

    Now the developing world is doing everything it can to uplift the lives of billions so that they can rebuild their societies, reconstruct their civilizations and create economies that provide a first world standard of living and do that with 2nd hand technology.

    the Developing world does not have the luxury of global warming or cooling They have to use the cheapest most abundant energy sources such as coal oil and hydro.

    If the first world wants the 3rd world to consider global warming then get to know the 3rd world, invest in their economies and transfer the much needed technology.

  • chetdude

    Nope. Domination Hierarchies are the foundation of all major “civilizations”*** – religion is one of their tools used for social control…control the masses by scaring them with sky-god myths…

    *** The latest version of “civilization”, the fossil-fueled consumption and pollution machine driven by the religion of “capitalism” will probably take us out.

  • Michael

    Moderator. I dont. Please see the thread and who started it.

  • Michael

    The Pyramids and the Ziggurats are the oldest and largest monuments that span history. They were constructed purely for theological reasons so that the soul of the god King can travel in the after life. The technology that went into their construction laid the groundwork for the advancement of Egyptian civilization.
    That is one example.

    The philosophies including astrology that tried to make sense of Gods who can only be described in terms that cannot be measured as in “Timeless” formless, Omnipotent, Omnipresent laid the groundwork for most of our philosophies which then laid the ground work for our sciences.
    That is how I see it.

  • Michael

    Take for example the Hindu mathematical placement of the Zero as a neutral number. that took place only in Hinduism even though other civilizations understood the zero
    the reason is theological. Hinduism had a male female and neutral genders among its Gods. It had schools of thought of negative and positive where a neutral is needed
    Today computer language is based on the Hindu numerals of 1 and Zero. and the basics of all sciences could not advance without the Hindu numerals of zero to 10

  • the Green New Deal has many positive elements – it could provide at least a a beginning in a positive direction. I’m making a grand understatement by saying that to implement it would be a challenge. The military industrial complex would have to be gutted. Pay to play politics would have to be nixed. And that’s just a start. The only politician that might have the chutzpah to give it a go would be Berni. I’m very concerned that on the off-chance he achieves the Presidency, the powers that be will assassinate him.

    As an afterthought, it would be nice to see MMT employed toward the populace instead of the elites being the sole beneficiaries as they are today. If we’re going to destroy the dollar, we might as well do some good along the way.

  • Michael

    *** The latest version of “civilization”, the fossil-fueled consumption and pollution machine driven by the religion of “capitalism” will probably take us out.

    Coal was the energy of the industrial Revolution when England ruled the British Empire. That revolution spanned the 19th century and began before the Empire was born in 1857. England and Europe were transformed by that revolution.
    a transformation that began with the East India companies in 1600 and culminating in the Colonial Empires (around 5 of them).

    Oil became a world commodity when England switched her navy from using Coal to Oil in the First world War. During that war England, France and America divided up the oil resources of the Middle East under the Sykes/Picot agreement of 1916.

    The Empires came to a final end in the mid 20th century and only now is the developing world making some progress towards a first world standard of living with hardly any help from Europe or America.

  • voza0db

    MMT populace style!

    When one modern dumb slave does what the Owners & Billionaire Friends are doing 24/7… what happens?

    Enjoy!

    Just after noon on Monday, a 65-year-old man walked into a downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado bank and stole thousands of dollars before running outside and tossing the cash up into the air while yelling “Merry Christmas!”

    “He robbed the bank, came out, threw the money all over the place,” Dion Pascale, a witness of the strange ordeal, told KKTV.

    “He started throwing money out of the bag and then said, ‘Merry Christmas!’”

    when the robber was done tossing the cash in the air, he walked from outside of the Academy Bank and onto the patio of a nearby Starbucks, sat down, and waited for police to arrive and arrest him. He reportedly did not order a drink.

    The man, David Wayne Oliver, was arrested without incident.”

    This modern slave did what the financial terrorists are doing every second of every day with the PROTECTION of the politicians and the police. They don’t go to jail… he did!

  • Jon

    You have failed utterly to understand the biology of the situation. I don’t think you read the article at all. Imagine trying to feed 20 people with 5 potatoes/day for a year.

  • Jon

    i encourage you to come to grips with Reality! Get to know her. Truth is what Reality sees when she looks in a mirror.

  • Hi dB, yes I read this story. Somewhat relevant I suppose from an abstract perspective – the thing is, if you don’t own the printing press, you don’t get to play with the monopoly money it spits out – perhaps that’s the moral of the story.

    As you’ve acknowledged, the Fed is already printing money hand over fist and funneling it to the banks who funnel it to the stock market and the REIT market, and every other bloated asset. I see no reason for that permanently jammed open spigot to be directed away from the gluttonous elites and toward the average Joe’s (health insurance, education, small biz development, etc.), pollution alleviation, renewable energy r&d, .public banking,.. The dollar, and for that matter all other fiat currency, is on its way to zero value so again I say – put the paper currency to good use while it still exists. It will take someone new, with the appropriate mindset, in the White House to enable this ‘redirection’ to happen.

  • Michael

    I understand this only too well, maybe you don’t. Take for example what you said:
    Imagine trying to feed 20 people with 5 potatoes/day for a year.
    That is based on an assumption that there is a scarcity of food due to maybe overpopulation, environmental degradation?
    Here are some facts.
    -India is a major grain exporter and has bumper crops due to 2 green revolutions yet 5 thousand Indian children die each day due to starvation.

    -India is also the world’s biggest waster of fruit and vegetables. Each year over 21 million tons of wheat & millions of tons of rice are wasted due to bad management, corruption, ineptitude.

    Today the world produces more than enough food for twice our pop of 8 billion.
    Other methods of food waste:
    -Farmers destroy crops when global prices are not good enough. They do the same to animals

    -The reason why produce is uniform in shape and color is because produce that is not is tossed out. From carrots to cucumbers to fruit have to meet a uniform shape and size for easy retail. Millions of tons of farm produce is deliberately destroyed

    -Expiration dates: When produce goes beyond an expiration date it is tossed regardless if the produce is still good. It is an FDA requirement.
    The list is very long and covers everything from farm to home to restaurant where tons of food is wasted.

    and then there is mismanagement and corruption. Solve them and no one has to starve.

    PS: India is the best example to address the 3rd world. Her pop of 1 billion 350 million is larger than Africa (1 bil 150 mil) Americas (1 billiion) Europe (771 milion) and home to a vast number of languages, ethnicites, religions and a biodiversity as complex as all of Africa.

  • Michael

    Forgot two big items
    Food used for anything but consumption. From games where food is the “toy” like the tomato festival in Italy to pumpkins used purely for festival but not consumed to food used in religious festivals is another section seldom discussed. Do we really need to use so much farmland to produce pumpkins used in Halloween if global warming is an issue?
    Farmland used to grow cash crops like Tobacco and Pot. These products do not feed or cloth us but make a few very rich.

  • Jon

    Valid points here, Michael with regard to colossal waste. I am aware of that and despise the waste, being very frugal all my long life. Huge room for improvement. Nonetheless, massive climate change is happening and it threatens life on this precious planet.

  • voza0db
  • Michael

    I do not see “massive climate change” but even if it is taking place and Man is responsible then you have to deal with history and how the most of the world remain underdeveloped
    Or
    we can discuss energy consumption between India and America. India’s energy needs are massive and alternative energy cannot meet it.

  • chetdude

    What a crock — you think teams of laborers would have put their lives on the line, with many of them crushed into dust building those ‘monuments’ to religious myths, unless there were agents of the dominator Class with whips lashing them into doing it (for economic reasons)?

    god had nothing to do with it…

    Actually, it’s quite presumptuous for mere specks of life on a planet out at the rim of a rather average boring galaxy to assume that they can even conceive of what really motivates the Universe to exist…

  • Why did you choose Warburg?

  • Michael

    Civilization sprang from religion. Show me something that did not

  • Michael

    When you say
    teams of laborers would have put their lives on the line, with many of them crushed into dust building those ‘monuments’ to religious myths, unless there were agents of the dominator Class with whips lashing them into doing it (for economic reasons)?

    This monument comes to mind. It is the largest monolithic carving on the planet and to accomplish this teams of carvers carved the entire Temple, which is larger and taller than the Parthenon, using only a collective memory. there were no blue prints and it took several generations to do this.
    That kind of mind requires a form of discipline not seen in the West. to create the Kailasanatha Temple of Ellora with perfect symmetry using no blue print demand a highly evolved method of thought.
    https://www.wondermondo.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/KailashTemple.jpg

  • rgaura

    There are so many aspects of `civilization´ that are destructive and stupid, let them fail. We have the tools and knowledge to replace them with place based, respectful, intimate structures. We will be better off without big ag, big pharma, and other technologies which have become hazards to health and ecology.
    No mention of 70 years of geoengineering destabilizing whole areas as a type of warfare. In 1913, cloud seeding washed away portions of San Diego, causing a catastrophe and millions in damage. There are dozens of patents on these technologies, its being used worldwide. HAARPs have been constructed worldwide, and heating the ionosphere is having major impacts on weather systems.
    We can’t solve societal problems without a more complete data set. Lets hope for an american glasnost in 20/20.

  • voza0db

    Simple!
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2b6a250f89caeab4235f60bac1beed800bd81e1774e91d9dd4efd8011e6e6497.jpg

    “Dear” Paul Warburg was the one that put the F.R.S. in motion!

  • Aha! Fascinating. The little ‘berger’ also played a large part in the forming of the Brookings Institute ‘think tank’ –
    “He was also a trustee of the Institute of Economics, founded in 1922; when it was merged into the Brookings Institute in 1927, he became a trustee of the latter, serving until his death” – Wikipedia