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How Do We Plan For an Orderly Collapse of Human Civilization?


April 22nd 2023.  The fifty-third Earth Day.  A day when, hopefully, we all pause and reflect on what we have been doing to our home.  A day when, hopefully, at least some of us become inspired to do better, to push for needed reforms, to set an example in our own lives, to reduce our demands upon our planet.

After 53 Earth Days, it is difficult to get out of bed, face the day, and get renewed. Progress in the epic battle to bring humanity’s demands into balance with the capacity of the planet to deliver has been glacially slow.  We have made modest progress – more in some places, less in others, and more vs some threats and less vs others.  And all the while, our excessive demands on Earth have continued to grow.

Yes, our rate of greenhouse gas emissions seems finally beginning to stabilize and slow.  Yes, we have had some notable successes in restoring species threatened with extinction.  Yes, we are more aware of, and are struggling to contain our worst forms of chemical pollution.  But nobody can claim that the climate is cooling, that the risk of a sixth mass extinction has lessened, or that we create and release novel chemicals only after exhaustive study of their potential bad side effects on the environment.  We have been making progress, but far too slowly and have further to go in 2023 than we did in 1970.  We are moving backwards, but at slightly slower rates – a weak sign of progress, indeed.

I still hold out hope for the survival of my beloved coral reefs.  Realistically, I know the chance is slimmer now than it was in 1970 and getting more slim every day.  My faint hope is embedded in the very unlikely rapid evolution of heat tolerance among at least some coral species, in the equally unlikely success at scale of our various efforts to restore coral reefs, and in the equally unlikely sudden change in human behavior – to repair and protect reefs while aggressively weening ourselves of our addiction to fossil fuels – as the consequences of what we have been doing lead to widespread moral outrage and a commitment to reform.  But in my darker hours I try to imagine a world in which at last some colorful reef fishes survive on algae-festooned algal benches – something which is much more plausible.  If this happens, tropical shorelines will still hold some of the wonder that coral reefs reveal.  Despite a wholesale reorganization and simplification of the structure and functioning of the most profoundly diverse ecosystem in our oceans.  When ecosystems collapse, they do not collapse to a vanishing point, but they do become less productive, less diverse, and therefore less able to sustain our lives.

Not in several lifetimes, or ever, will we be able to explore the vibrant coral reefs of the 1950s.  They are already gone although amazing coral reefs still remain in many places.  We could do more to keep them with us. 
Photo © Victor Huertas.

So, I am feeling pessimistic on this Earth Day morning.  (That it is drizzling rain does not help my mood.)  And I am wondering how to go forward knowing that the future I used to believe we could reach is now virtually impossible.  (That future was one in which smaller human populations would lead productive, culturally rich lives, while requiring far less of the resources Earth can provide.  It was one of four futures I briefly discussed in my 2011 book, Our Dying Planet.)  Going forward is necessary; the alternative is to lapse into despair.

Now may be a time when we can really learn something from history.  Not the history of ever-expanding prosperity that we like to tell ourselves, but the history of collapse.  Because humans have endured many collapses of once-flourishing civilizations.  Some of these collapses occurred when new technologies for war were brought in from outside and erased the status quo.  But many of the collapses were collapses from within.  Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse, detailed a number of these – ones where the society had outstripped its resources, and ones where a changing climate altered the provision of resources (usually seen as failed crops over several years).

What went through the minds of people caught up in such an instance of societal collapse?  I don’t know the answer to that and will be doing some exploratory reading.  But I suspect that there will be answers that can help us find an optimistic path towards an inevitably reduced future.

I anticipate evidence of denial, and futile attempts to prevent what is happening.  Sort of like when North Carolina legislated the problem of sea level rise out of existence in 2012.  Or when millions of people living in Florida refuse to concede that large parts of their state will be under water later this century.  The currently popular idea that we can have a soft landing on climate change is a good example of how alive such approaches are.  Let’s make modest changes to our consumerist lifestyles in western nations, while extracting fossil fuels for as long as there is a market for them, because we will surely find effective ways of carbon capture and storage before time runs out.  Even Bill Gates, a person of considerable intellect and someone who has done much good in the world, made this mistake in his 2021 book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, placing far too much faith in our ability to engineer our way out of any problem.  Sometimes there are no engineering solutions.

There will also be lots of activism, efforts to motivate members of society to change and address the causes of decline.  These may be hard to detect in the historical record – a record written by survivors, or by those who supplanted following the collapse.  As well as many stories of hardships faced and civilized norms lost, there should exist some stories of perhaps misguided optimists exhorting people to change their ways.

What I hope to find is a different kind of story: the forward-thinking story of people who gained understanding of what was happening to their society.  Those people who saw practical ways of lessening the human suffering by modifying, deflecting, altering what was clearly coming.  And who were able to inspire others to take up the challenge to build the new, more sustainable society of the future.  Those are the stories and the people we can learn from, the examples that we can match ourselves against, as we stride forward into the face of the abyss.

On this Earth Day, I am optimistic that we will be able to manage a profound shift towards a sustainable future.  There will be fewer of us left, our lives will be simpler, but they may remain just as culturally rich or even richer than now.  Richer because in this journey towards balance we will have learned the humility we badly need as a species in 2023.

We know of collapsed societies mostly through the monuments they leave.  What might we learn about how they managed their collapse? Image © Andia/Universal Images Group via Nature Inc.