WTF, How Did We Wind Up Here?

 


Two centuries of progress.  Cheap, abundant fossil energy. The Industrial Revolution. The Great Acceleration. The verge of collapse.

There's a new paper, published just last week, by Nick King and Alec Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute, Cambridge.  The abstract presents a handy summary of where we are today and how we got here:

The globe-spanning, energy-intensive industrial civilisation that characterises the modern era represents an anomalous situation when it is considered against the majority of human history. Several large revolutions in terms of population (total size and rate of change), social organisation and patterns of energy and other resource use have occurred to bring about the modern world. The first major change that humans achieved after a long period (approximately 3 × 105 years) of living in small, dispersed bands of hunter-gatherers was the transition to an agriculture-based civilisation, which occurred independently in multiple locations. This was enabled to a large degree by the shift approximately 1 × 104 years ago to a warmer, more stable interglacial climate at global scale that has been characterised as the Holocene [1].

The major shift resulting from the spread of agriculture led to consistent energetic and material surpluses which, in turn, allowed for the establishment of fixed urban settlements, hierarchal societies and organisational complexity such as labour specialisation. The emergence of these phenomena set in motion enhancing feedback mechanisms (e.g., food surpluses) that led to increasing populations and the spatial expansion of agriculture and human activity over the majority of the Earth [1]. The growth of the extent and complexity of human civilisation continued for centuries but was ultimately constrained by reliance on natural flows of energy (primarily insolation captured through photosynthesis and the availability of biomass in which it was stored) and the application of human/animal muscle power to utilise energy and material resources. Overcoming this limit commenced from approximately 1800 (the start of the Industrial Revolution) through the large-scale exploitation of the very large energy stock contained within fossil carbon deposits using newly developed technologies. This set in motion new enhancing feedbacks (e.g., coal-fired pumps which allowed previously inaccessible coal seams to be mined, providing further energy for industrial development) [1]. The global population and industrial capacity grew rapidly for approximately 150 years but achieved near-exponential growth only from approximately the middle of the 20th century. This period, characterised as the ‘Great Acceleration’ [2], has generated the most rapid and profound of all the changes described above, resulting from the strengthening of the feedbacks initiated at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The ‘Great Acceleration’ is characterised by substantial and ongoing increases in societal complexity and the extent and intensity of human activities across a broad spectrum of measures including, but not limited to, population growth, energy and freshwater usage, nitrogen fixation and cement production. The aggregate effect of this dramatic growth has been the strong and increasing perturbation of the Earth system and the biosphere, making collective human civilisation a major force acting at global scale. This has led to the characterisation of recent Earth history as the ‘Anthropocene’ [2,3].
 
The Earth System is, however, finite in spatial extent, energetic capacity and overall complexity, and the ongoing expansion of human endeavours has and will continue to result in the Earth System’s limits being exceeded and the system being moved out of equilibrium. The Earth System (characterised as ‘Gaia’) is a self-regulating mechanism [6], and observable shifts in the behaviour of Earth Systems may be manifestations of balancing feedbacks resulting from the strong and growing perturbation from human activities. These may have the potential to fundamentally undermine the agriculture-based civilisation that has flourished in benign Holocene conditions.

The Threats that Loom:

The following subsections describe four major categories of threats to the ongoing viability of the high-intensity civilisation that has emerged from the ‘Great Acceleration’. These phenomena are the encountering of limits; diminishment of returns; ecological destruction; and ‘risk multipliers’. These are discussed in detail in the following subsections.

One of the major threats is growth itself or rather the limits to growth. History is full of instances in which growth was arrested or reversed, temporarily, but the history of mankind has been a story of growth. Today, however, it's not some war or plague or pestilence thwarting growth but the reality that Earth, our host, is finite and, as they say, you can't get blood out of a stone.

Limits.

...Nine separate boundaries are defined, three of which (biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle and climate change) have been transgressed; further transgression may risk moving the Earth System to conditions inconducive to supporting large human populations. Another study [15] combined the socioeconomic Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with an integrated socioeconomic model of global human activity/biophysical model (‘Earth3’) to conclude that meeting the SDGs cannot be achieved within global environmental limits.

...The peak use rates across multiple crucial resource types shows that numerous resources had a synchrony of peak use centred on the year 2006.

Diminishing Returns.

...The ‘excess’ of energy provided by high-EROI energy resources has also provided the conditions for the enhancing feedback mechanisms of capital accumulation to permit the accumulation of wealth by sub-regions and -populations of the world. Evaluating [28] this phenomenon quantitatively through the application of predator–prey population dynamics models to assess the evolution of four factors (‘elites/commoners/nature/wealth’), identifies that (economic) ‘elites’ preying on resources and the labour of ‘commoners’ can lead to economic stratification and ecological strain and, ultimately, irreversible societal collapse. Applying [29] qualitative arguments demonstrates that the affluent proportion of the human population have disproportionate global environmental impact (resource use and pollutant emissions), but cultural factors (wealth accumulation, consumerism, etc.) make the necessary changes to lifestyle unlikely to occur.

Trashing the Place - Ecological Destruction.

...There are a total of five extinction events evident in the geological record which have been attributed to several natural events and causes (e.g., rapid climatic changes, flood basalt eruptions, bolide impacts) [34]. The sixth extinction episode (or alternatively, the Holocene Extinction Event) is currently ongoing [35].

...The growth in human populations and technological development can be linked [37] to resource consumption, and the propensity for humans to destroy forest ecosystems gives a high probability (>90%) that global civilisation is very likely to suffer a catastrophic collapse in future (within a few decades). The current extinction event also differs in that it is driven by the concurrence of phenomena unique to human actions including changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of animals and plants; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species [38].

Making the Problem Worse than Necessary - Risk Multipliers.

Climate change is likely to be the most pervasive of these risk multipliers, largely because the climatic system is planet-spanning and interfaces directly or indirectly with human and natural systems in highly complex ways.

...Although the direct link between climate change and past and present conflicts is uncertain, there is support for the potential of climate change to introduce instabilities. It is within this context that climate change has been ascribed a near-certain potential to severely disrupt human civilisation [43], particularly in light of the potential for tipping points and non-linearities to occur within the climatic system [44].

Pandemics present another source of risk multiplication given their long history of strong feedbacks on human population dynamics and economic activity [13]. Several studies made prescient links between destructive human activities, such as deforestation, and pandemic risks, which have been borne out by the COVID-19 pandemic of the early 2020s [45,46,47]. The potential threat of coronaviruses [45] was known to pose a risk to human populations, particularly with bats as a vector (due to the nature of their virome). ...Furthermore, the United Nations [48] warns that future pandemics may be more severe than COVID-19 in terms of virulence, fatality rate and other impacts.

...The increasing hyper-connectivity of the globalised economy [49] is a process characterised by the reduction in system resilience in favour of increased efficiency and complexity, which may increase the risk of initially small disturbances being subject to enhancing feedbacks that spread and potentially eventually create system-level threats (the ‘Butterfly Defect’). ...Furthermore, the global system may now have moved beyond human control or understanding [35] and may therefore be even more prone to catastrophic behaviour modes that can propagate in coupled systems through a range of unpredictable mechanisms [51].

Heading for the edge.

Overall, the literature sources summarised in the preceding subsections paint a picture of human civilisation that is in a perilous state, with large and growing risks developing in multiple spheres of the human endeavour. The synthesis of the conclusions presented in these myriad studies is that 70 years of the ‘Great Acceleration’ (plus the lesser but cumulative effects of the preceding approximate 10,000 years) have had indisputable, egregious effects on the functioning of the totality of the Earth System, and the continued trends and behaviours of the human collective look highly likely to exacerbate these existing trends.

Taking to the Lifeboats. A Glimmer of Hope?

The British Isles, Scandinavia, Patagonia, Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand are identified as locations that migrants may seek to relocate to in this scenario. With the global average temperature increased by 4 °C, much of the land in the tropical and subtropical latitudes may become unproductive and depopulated, and inundated coastlines are common throughout the world [60] with Scandinavia, the British Isles and New Zealand identified as potential lifeboats. Using the perspective of the Gaia Hypothesis [6], northern Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, New Zealand and the British Isles (along with mountainous regions at lower latitudes) may remain habitable through the persistence of agriculture and may therefore act as ‘lifeboats’ for populations of humans.

It may be possible to control a ‘power down’ of global society as a preferable pathway to that of economic and environmental collapse [56]. The ‘power down’ would comprise a concerted, global, long-term effort to reduce per capita energy and resource usage, equitably distribute resources and gradually decrease the global population including the possibility of ‘Building Lifeboats’ through community solidarity and preservation.

The authors stress that the main purpose of their paper is to identify and explore the "lifeboat" countries of the northern and southern hemispheres. This includes Canada. Particularly worrisome, for Canada, is that the United States is not on the list.

Colonialism, industrialisation, and the globalisation of supply chains has since reduced/removed the need for many nations to be self-reliant. This trend has increased global resilience to localised resource constraints whilst global resources remain plentiful (i.e., overall surpluses can be exported as needed) but has also increased overall global vulnerability to ‘de-complexification’.

Where nations have become reliant on global supply chains their ability to utilise local resources may be degraded and/or local populations may have expanded per capita resource use beyond the local carrying capacity. This may result in a high degree vulnerability to the reduction or cessation of externally supplied resources. There would therefore be significant benefit in nations assessing alignment or mismatch with their local carrying capacity (now and in the future, based on projected changes in population, including from any potential large-scale inward migrations).

This could allow for the planning and implementation of measures to decrease vulnerability. This could include increasing the development and use of local resources (e.g., agricultural land and water resources, even if not currently the most cost-effective solution), reduction/elimination of reliance on resources/products that cannot be produced internally (e.g., agriculture reliant on imported fertiliser) and measures to decrease per capita resource usage. Such efforts could have the dual effect of reducing global resource consumption in parallel to increasing the resilience of regions and nations to global-scale events such as ‘de-complexification’.

Globalized free trade, the model embraced by all of Canada's major political parties, could turn out to be our Achilles Heel. One option to thwart collapse, if only to some degree and for some duration, is to develop local resources and industry "even if not currently the most cost-effective solution" to bolster domestic resilience and preserve our natural advantages for turbulent times ahead.

The development or modification of a manufacturing base that could reliably supply key components necessary to the continued operation of fundamental systems (e.g., power networks, water supply infrastructure) may provide some degree of resilience against a reduction in the global availability of such items. Even if the local manufacturing capacity were limited and able to only produce relatively crude/simple items, this may provide resilience (i.e., by allowing vital functions and therefore complexity to be sustained to a degree).

Conclusion.

Human civilisation underwent increases in sociopolitical complexity since the Agricultural Revolution (ca. 100 centuries ago), the Industrial Revolution (ca. two centuries ago) and with exponential characteristics as part of the ‘Great Acceleration’ [2] (starting ca. 70 years ago). This generally has been characterised by phenomena such as large increases in population, energy use and interconnectedness and has resulted in increasingly extensive and severe perturbation of the Earth System and the biosphere. This perturbation has resulted in a wide range of effects and feedbacks on global human civilisation including (but not limited to) climate change, increased risk of pandemics, ecological destruction (manifesting as a sixth extinction event) and growing risks of systemic instabilities. In combination, these effects place complex human civilisation in a precarious and perilous position with regards to its future.

Humanity's predicament and our options are being laid out as never before.  The status quo has run its course, outlived its utility. We are in a time of change. Either we change on our terms or we wait until we become changed in ways we might not survive. Yes, survive.  There are ways we can avert the worst of this if we have the wisdom and courage to change.  Do we have the will to change?

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