Renowned Scientist Says Global Collapse “Likely”

(graph by net_efekt/flickr)

(graph by net_efekt/flickr)

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.



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7 Responses to Renowned Scientist Says Global Collapse “Likely”

  1. cindy says:

    Yep. According to scientists from many different fields, around 2030 is scheduled to be a perfect storm of converging crises: over population, climate hell, severe water shortages, not enough food, economic crisis and really austere government

  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    “This is like ridiculing seismologists because the great San Francisco earthquake has not yet happened.”

    Brilliant!! Made me laugh!

    And you’re right, of course, that the superfluous, obligatory hopium is tacked on at the end. It’s ALWAYS five minutes to midnight…never midnight.

    Until it’s hindsight.

  3. michele/montreal says:

    «famines, epidemics and resource shortages». What about the air we breath? 800 million (800,000,000, half the population of the country) Chinese are now seriously affected by air pollution. And this has been severe for weeks but going on for years. All those fine particles (less than 2.5 microns) entering the lungs (not just in China) will fast result in cancer and other deadly desease. There are no “lung transplant”. And the deterioration and death can come very fast (I have seen it very close to me more than once). I think such a large number will be affected soon all at the same time, it will become impossible to manage.

  4. gaylord says:

    My mind is boggled by the observation of all the seemingly intelligent people with whom I am in daily contact going about their consumptive lifestyles toward oblivion. “It’s not my problem” seems to be the ubiquitous notion, or else “there’s nothing I can do” as they hop into their motor vehicles to buy more stuff (or it arrives by UPS or FedEx truck). I was disappointed to see barely a thousand participants in my city’s Forward on Climate rally, among a population of 4 million. In this time of unprecedented access to information, people have developed tunnel vision or they perceive life to be some kind of fantasy akin to what they see in movies. Disasters aren’t perceived as real — they just happen to somebody else somewhere else — until they hit home. Humans demonstrate a paucity of rationality to recognize reality unless damage and injury afflicts them directly. I figure this is what it comes down to: only when the wealthiest and most powerful individuals, corporations, and governments who run the world are subjected to devastating impacts, will they begin to mobilize their resources to deal with the causes. By then, sadly it will be too late for much of the life on our poorly managed planet, but perhaps enough can be saved from destruction to permit a continued downgraded existence of far fewer beings. Whether humans will be among them is unpredictable. In my most cynical thought, perhaps it would be better for humans to cause our own extinction, in order to rid the planet of our infestation upon it. So then, millions of years hence…

    • Tom Lewis says:

      But here’s the good news: It won’t be an extinction, it never is. Descendants of the Aztec and Maya and Anasazi populate Central and South America, and our own Southwest. (Even the dinosaurs are still with us, we call them chickens.) Those who survive will do so because they have seen and compensated for the conditions you subscribe, and will have a shot at constructing a world to which they do not return.

  5. Gabe says:

    I just want to point out the paper is by Ehrlich and Ehrlich. Paul and Anne Ehrlich. I don’t care if this gets posted or not. But one of the things that he also points out as a problem with this civilization is there is not one single country wherein women have equal rights. Anne Ehrlich has been a long time co-author and hardly ever gets the attention deserved. This abuse of women will contribute to the coming social collapse of society and women will be 50% of the population responsible for rebuilding.