Civilization Is Running out of Options We'll Need New Technology to Get Us out of the Fix in Which Technology Has Put Us

By Dyer, Gwynne | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Civilization Is Running out of Options We'll Need New Technology to Get Us out of the Fix in Which Technology Has Put Us


Dyer, Gwynne, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Reporter: "What do you think of Western civilization, Mr Gandhi?"

Mohandas Gandhi: "I think it would be a good idea."

The quote is probably apocryphal, but if the Mahatma didn't say it, he should have.

Now we have something close to a global civilization: Most of the world's people work in similar economies, use the same machines and live about as long. They even know most of the same things and have the same ambitions.

So we need somebody to ask us the same question. Do we really think a global civilization is a good idea? And if so, have we any plans for keeping it going beyond a few more generations?

History is full of civilizations that collapsed, and often their fall was followed by a Dark Age. In the past these Dark Ages were just regional events (Europe after the fall of Rome, Central America after the collapse of Mayan civilization, China after the Mongol invasion), but now we are all in the same boat. If this civilization crashes then we could end up in the longest and worst Dark Age ever.

Our duty to our great grandchildren is to figure out how to get through the 21st century without a collapse. We have all the rest of history to get through, but we cannot even imagine what the problems and opportunities of the 22nd century will be, so let's concentrate on what would constitute interim success by 2100.

Interim success in 2100 would be a world in which a recognizable descendant of the current civilization is still thriving. The global population might be heading back down towards the current 7 billion by then, having peaked at several billion higher, but it won't fall faster than that unless billions die in famine and war, so it must be a future in which a very big population is still sustainable.

Unfortunately, the way we are living now is not sustainable. We have taken too much land out of the natural cycles in order to grow our own food on it. We are systematically destroying the world's major fish populations through overfishing and pollution. We are also driving most of the larger land animals to extinction.

This is a "six-planet" civilization: It would take six Earth- like planets to sustain the present human population in the high- energy, high-consumption style that is the hallmark of the current global civilization. Not all of the 7 billion have achieved that lifestyle yet, but they all want it and most of them are going to get it. And for the foreseeable future we will have only one planet, not six.

That's the real problem we must solve if we are to reach 2100 without civilizational collapse and a massive dieback of the human population. All the other stuff we worry about, like global warming, ocean acidification and the "sixth great extinction" are really signals that we are not solving the basic sustainability problem. …

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