THE SKY REALLY MAY BE FALLING: Every Previous Civilization Has Vanished. Why Not Ours?

By MacKenzie, Debora | CCPA Monitor, September 2008 | Go to article overview

THE SKY REALLY MAY BE FALLING: Every Previous Civilization Has Vanished. Why Not Ours?


MacKenzie, Debora, CCPA Monitor


Some CCPA members think The Monitor carries too many "doom and gloom" articles. We do publish some that make less than comfortable reading, including this one and another by Bob Harrington elsewhere in this issue. But the purpose is not to gratuitously make our readers unhappy or fearful, but rather to alert them to the possibility-even the likelihood-that our civilization is no more invulnerable to collapse than the ancient Roman, Egyptian, Mayan, and other empires that preceded us. The scientists quoted in the following article are not crackpots or doomsayers. They are scientists who are renowned in their respective fields. Some readers may choose to disagree with their analyses and predictions, but we should at least be willing to hear what they have to say.

DOOMSDAY. The end of civilization. Literature and film abound with tales of plague, famine and wars which ravage the planet, leaving a few survivors scratching out a primitive existence amid the ruins.

Every civilization in history has collapsed, after all. Why should ours be any different?

Doomsday scenarios typically feature a knockout blow: a massive asteroid, all-out nuclear war, or a catastrophic pandemic. Yet there is another chilling possibility: what if the very nature of civilization means that ours, like all the others, is destined to collapse sooner or later?

A few researchers have been making such claims for years. Disturbingly, recent insights from fields such as complexity theory suggest that they are right. It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down.

Some say we have already reached this point, and that it is time to start thinking about how we might manage collapse. Others insist it is not yet too late, and that we can-we mustact now to keep disaster at bay.

Environmental mismanagement

History is not on our side. Think of Sumeria, of ancient Egypt, and of the Maya. In his 2005 best-seller Collapse, Jared Diamond of the University of California blamed environmental mismanagement for the fall of the Mayan civilization and others, and warned that we might be heading the same way unless we choose to stop destroying our environmental support systems.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC agrees. He has long argued that governments must pay more attention to vital environmental resources. "It's not about saving the planet. It's about saving civilization," he says.

Others think our problems run deeper. From the moment our ancestors started to settle down and build cities, we have had to find solutions to the problems that success brings. "For the past 10,000 years, problem-solving has produced increasing complexity in human societies," says Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist at Utah State University and author of the 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

If crops fail because rain is patchy, build irrigation canals. When they silt up, organize dredging crews. When the bigger crop yields lead to a bigger population, build more canals. When there are too many for ad hoc repairs, install a management bureaucracy, and tax people to pay for it.

When they complain, invent tax inspectors and a system to record the sums paid. That much the Sumerians knew.

Diminishing returns

There is, however, a price to be paid. Every extra layer of organization imposes a cost in terms of energy, the common currency of all human efforts, from building canals to educating scribes. And increasing complexity, Tainter realized, produces diminishing returns. The extra food produced by each extra hour of labour-or joule of energy invested per farmed hectare-diminishes as that investment mounts. We see the same thing today in a declining number of patents per dollar invested in research as that research investment mounts. …

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