For many years now I have been fascinated by theories about the future of our globalized world. Among other things, dystopian film-like events and Jared Diamond’s book (Collapse, 2005) make me keep wondering of possible scenarios – what could possibly happen to our civilization? I am not the only one to worry about it; the scientific community is more concerned than ever by the unsustainability of human activities.
A fellow geographer, Grégoire Chambaz, has recently written an interesting article on ‘collapsology’ (accessible in French here). Have you heard the word before? I hadn’t. Literally, it means the study of decline or collapse of our civilization. I was rather ‘happy’ to see that this field of research has been defined and finally given a name. The scenarios that are being contemplated are depressingly the same, but luckily there may be ways to mitigate or overcome them. Here are two graphs I’d like to share with you, alongside a few thoughts.
The Earth has 9 limits or boundaries to cross before its ‘life support system’ collapses. It is research-based proven that we have already by far exceeded the boundaries for biodiversity integrity and biochemical flows (see the red high-risk areas in the chart below). Land-system change and climate change are in increasing risk zones. As for freshwater use, ocean acidification and ozone depletion, there is margin left, but damages are growing. For atmospheric aerosol loading, novel entities and functional diversity, there is simply insufficient global quantification to assess at this stage.
The Boiling Frog
As per the allegory, our planet is the pot and we are the frog. We have been gradually exposed to dangerous changes that we keep minimizing or simply ignoring. Extreme climate events, season’s deregulation, air-soil-water pollution, extinction of terrestrial and aquatic animals, slow food-poisoning, pandemics, have become banal. Our current level of consciousness is disproportionately inferior to the seriousness of the situation.
If we continue to believe that we are laying in a comfy jacuzzi, hey earthlings, we will boil up.
FYI, actually experiments showed that frogs would leap out of the pot when water reaches 25°C 😉
‘The Limits to Growth’
The global trends predicted by the Club of Rome back in 1972 in their book ‘The Limits to Growth’ have been confirmed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in 2008. If you take a look at the chart below, it is obvious that economic growth based on limited non-renewable resources is a bet meant to be lost. The remaining non-renewable resources are plummeting turning into harmful waste and pollution (i.e. entropy), while population and consumption continue to grow exponentially. Without significant interventions, a period of global decline is expected: food per capita, industrial output per capita, services per capita, would all drop. This would negatively impact the global population beginning with 2030.
But wait… Imagine the resources line in the above chart is a stable or growing alternative/renewable resource trajectory, then all the other indicators of economic growth won’t collapse. This would be the case in a circular green economy based on ecology, knowledge and continuous innovation. “New systems, waste treatments, materials, designs, energies, robots, biological, medical and aerospatial discoveries, the list doesn’t end” (Philippe Silberzahn): 3D printers revolutionizing the access to design and technology; biogaz, solar and eolian power feeding energy needs; hydroponics and composting efficiently generating food for all, and more. Lots of investments needed!
All of these would be part of our best future scenario – with the condition that a fair distribution of wealth is put in place. Unless we promote open source and affordable sustainable technology across the planet, only a tiny part of the world’s population would benefit from this, deepening social discrepancies and geopolitical tensions. We don’t want more of that – do we?
When I think about collapsology, either lamblike fear, activist fever or fatalist curiosity grabs me. Safe environment and sustainable resource management are still not a priority for the world’s decision-makers. Humanity pushes its limits farther towards self-destruction and hopefully self-salvation. Maybe that is what our damned species is about.