Back to basics: averting global collapse
- From: ** <**@.org>
- Date: Fri, 07 Sep 2007 07:50:01 +0800
Back to basics: averting global collapse
By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 7 September 2007 Sign Up for free e-mail
A growing number of books are appearing that present a picture of global
catastrophe if civilisation does not radically change. ?Big picture? experts
like Martin Rees, Jared Diamond and most recently Thomas Homer-Dixon warn of
total collapse if things don?t change in a hurry.
These scientists are concerned with the basic material conditions of
civilisation on Earth. They are not beholden to some ideological fashion but
focused on the relationships between the core global systems, environmental,
technological, economic and so on. It is this broad overview that allows them to
see the emergent situation and cut through the daily commentary of all-too-often
Their message is stark: things are coming to a head, and we must generate new
ideas to deal with the new situation.
Ultimately it?s about the principles on which society operates. The great
debates of modernity - revelation versus rationality, religion versus science,
markets versus society, war versus negotiation, and so on - have been made
largely redundant. The new debate, only just getting under way, is this: how can
we live decently with suddenly too many people, too few resources and too much
The roots of the problem lie in our material success. In the last two centuries
industrialisation, increasingly fuelled by ever cheaper fossil fuels, has
generated unprecedented growth. This then brought about the invention of a raft
of information technologies which stimulated a new round of development known as
?globalisation?. Despite the evidence of world wars and global depression,
governments and peoples began to believe never-ending economic growth was
sustainable, and that all resources, human and material, should be turned to
This belief was of course mistaken, and now we face the reality. There are
material limits to growth, and we must think up a new set of ideas to run our
At the core of our dilemma is a very simple problem which we have created for
ourselves. We are in a race with ourselves, and our own creations, which we can
only lose. As things stand we are in a self-built treadmill in which we can only
go ever faster until the whole thing flies apart.
We started this race around ten millennia ago by maintaining a higher population
growth than could be supported by prevailing material conditions. For hundreds
of thousands of years we had lived within our natural limits, but something
changed that. In forcing ourselves to develop ever more material bounty, we
strapped ourselves into the treadmill, going ever faster as we try to keep
Most simply, more mouths meant the need for more food, the great Malthusian
dilemma. Our first response was the invention of agriculture, which led to
urbanisation and eventually civilisation. This led to organised social
competition, and then competition between political entities, originally
city-states and empires. This competition is at the essence of what we call
politics and of war.
Politics and war kept the treadmill rolling, the hope of final peace, final
security, final prosperity always just ahead. Generation after generation
passed, prisoner to this dream, never facing the fact that concentrated wealth
and power only generated the forces that would destroy them.
Eventually, with industrialisation, civilisation became so materially powerful
it needed a more effective means of controlling the utilisation of natural
resources to social purpose. Capitalism, the combination of open trading, or
markets, and a common currency enabled rapid expansion of the productive
capacities of civilisation.
One big problem with capitalism was that it made competition systemic.
Capitalism made it impossible to rest, to simply operate at a stable state,
because built into capitalism was the profit imperative. The profit imperative
meant that if a business did not make as much profit as another, it would
eventually fail. This logic reached its limits in the unrestricted global
financial system that came to connect every person on the planet through 24-hour
global currency and securities trading networks.
The logic of these mathematically-based finance systems came to outweigh all
other concerns. Culture, religion, family, nature, even war became subordinated
to the need to make and keep making money. This, some people said, was the end
of history and our fate for ever more.
Recently, however, another product of this great civilisational project, modern
science, has been sounding a warning. Basically, science tells us, there are now
so many people using so much of the Earth?s natural resources, the world is
running out of essential resources and space to put the waste products. The
rapid depletion of fresh water and fossil fuels are the resource problems most
identified, and atmospheric and oceanic pollution leading to global warming is
the worst environmental problem.
Science also tells us that the complexity of our civilisation is causing basic
problems. Mostly that complexity comes from the scale of our global
socio-economic system, the sheer numbers of diverse people and things involved.
In particular, the interconnected systems we have created to control and power
this civilisation are increasingly at risk. Electrical power grids, the Internet
and the global economy share a similar vulnerability to accidental or deliberate
There are also threats from the products of science itself. The construction of
super weapons, nuclear, biological, and so on, is one aspect, but the overall
risk added by advances in things like genetic manipulation of species (including
humans) and machine intelligence also loom ever larger. We are reaching the
point where we can no longer understand let alone control the technologies we
So far the logic of seeking profit has outweighed the logic of averting
collapse, and little or nothing has been done about these threats. Our various
institutions - some of which, like the family or religions, are millennia old,
while others, like the state or business firm, are only a few centuries old -
are unable to respond.
Most importantly, those institutions which were tasked with generating and
interpreting new information and decision-making - academia, the media and
governments - have become moribund. They were captured by vested interests
pursuing profits, and steadily neglected their proper roles as they made their
own grab for wealth and status.
What we need is a new balance in all aspects of life. We need to end the human
population explosion, and the associated growth in exploitation of resources. We
need to develop a new economy not based on endless growth. We need to bring as
many people as possible into information flows and decision-making processes. We
need to recover a sense of meaning, of social solidarity, beyond material gain
and social status.
Fortunately, there are a multitude of good ideas out there about how to do these
things (such as those of our own Geoff Davies), but we must immediately start to
really invest our best efforts.
We are an extraordinarily wealthy civilisation, and we can solve all our
problems and create a new and better world. But we cannot do this without
radical change, without fundamentally new ideas, and we must act now. Otherwise,
we will lose everything we have created over the long millennia.
The Germans called 1946 the Year Zero. Huddling in their ruins, once the most
civilised people on earth, they had fallen to irrational beliefs that exploited
their fear. Too many young men were dead, too many young women were prostitutes,
everyone did what they had to survive. And they all wondered how it could have
come to this.
But the German people at least had the Allies to help them out of the mess.
Dying in the billions as the complex natural systems reset themselves under the
weight of climate change, as food supplies collapse and water dries up, as even
more die when desperate states fight over the remnants of food and oil, we won?t
have any one to give us a hand. There?ll be no second chance for our
civilisation, and so we?d best get on with saving it.
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Dr Peter McMahon is a professional writer, researcher and teacher. He has worked
in a range of jobs from ore miner to political consultant.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Other Articles by this Author
» Practical responses to peak oil - June 28, 2007
» We are all Green now - June 13, 2007
» Government in a time of crisis - May 28, 2007
» From high-energy to high-information society - May 16, 2007
» Choosing between life and lifestyle - April 30, 2007
All articles by Peter McMahon
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