According to a paper appearing in the March Proceedings of the Royal Society, “Now, for the first time, a global collapse [of civilization] appears likely.” The paper makes, in a scholarly, peer-reviewed manner, many of the same points about the existential threats that I made in my book Brace for Impact:Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age. According to Paul R. Ehrlich’s paper, titled “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?” the threats include toxic pollution, land degradation, scarcity of water and oil, plagues, resource wars (perhaps nuclear), over-consumption, overpopulation and the overarching threat multiplier, climate change.
Yes, it is that Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. This will no doubt raise hoots of derision from the anti-science crowd who have pilloried him (and his wife and collaborator Anne) for decades because some of the scenarios in the book describing what will happen when population growth exceeds carrying capacity have not yet happened. This is like ridiculing seismologists because the great San Francisco earthquake has not yet happened. Science should not be credited or discredited on the basis of pinpoint predictions, but on the basis of its understanding of consequences. As Ehrlich says now [to the Los Angeles Times] about The Population Bomb:
“When we wrote it, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet; about half a billion of them were hungry. Today there are 7 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry. We’ve lost something on the order of 200 million to 400 million to starvation and diseases related to starvation since the book was written. How ‘wrong’ [were] we?”
But to get back to the future as seen in his current paper: “Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale,’ facing what the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems.”
The paper offers an impressive survey of the perfect storm, whose elements will be well known to a reader of The Daily Impact. It even has a section comparable to our category, “Apocalypse When?”:
“a future global collapse … could be triggered by anything from a ‘small’ nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization, to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities. In either case, regardless of survivors or replacement societies, the world familiar to anyone reading this study and the well-being of the vast majority of people would disappear.”
And yet it seems to me that Ehrlich flinches somewhat when he assesses the significance of his well-made case. It may be that years of mocking by the knuckle-draggers have taken their toll, and may explain why he couches his paper as a question, and insists in his conclusion that the collapse can be avoided. He explains how, in general, with a series of logical and effective measures that are clearly impossible to expect in a political climate that refuses to change.
What he really thinks, it seems to me, is found not in the formal conclusion of the paper, but elsewhere in it, where he also offers a rationale for continuing to raise the alarm despite the derision of the deniers:
“Unfortunately, awareness among scientists that humanity is in deep trouble has not been accompanied by popular awareness and pressure to counter the political and economic influences implicated in the current crisis. Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster.”
Or, to put it less elegantly, brace for impact.