Once the domain of survivalists, religious zealots and other disaffected souls, the possibility of societal collapse has recently gained more respect in the broader, mainstream community, discussed in widely-regarded books and the blogs of the New York Times (and elsewhere!). Questions abound: How realistic is this notion? Are we close to a collapse? Can we act to prevent it?
To say that our planet and society as a whole is facing a few troubles is a bit of an understatement. The climate is unequivocally changing; a casual glance at planet doom? illustrates the many and varied impacts. There are too many people, and food shortages are becoming more apparent. Cheap oil and natural gas, the foundations of our technological society, are at or near peak production. They will only become more scarce (and hence more expensive) in the future. The unbridled global economy is teetering on the brink of collapse, exacerbating the other threats. To top it all off, the most powerful military in the history of mankind is in the control of lunatic war-mongers who will do anything to further the cause of the global corporations.
Despite this, many in positions of influence seek to maintain the status quo, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of the problems facing us. Some of the excuses/reasoning: Climate change is just down to natural variability; There's plenty more oil/natural resources left, the 'greenies' just won't let us drill/mine/clearcut; Technological innovation will save us; Malthus and all the other doomsayers have always been wrong, so they are this time, too; We have other pressing problems, we'll deal with it later; Hakuna Matata – No worries, mate!.
The predicted impacts of these dilemmas are equally varied. James Lovelock, who conceived of the Gaia Hypothesis, suspects that it is too late to mitigate climate change and that billions will perish before the end of the century, leaving only a remnant of humanity surviving at the the poles. Others also support this 'giga-death' point of view. A recent book, The Long Emergency, by JH Kunstler makes a slightly less grim, but still shocking, prediction of the future of (primarily) the US. He expects a complete breakdown of the American way of life, with a return to more agrarian times and a lower energy-intensive lifestyle. Some parts of the US, especially the south and west, fare especially poorly in his vision. A recent post over at Climate Progress on this book discussed this view and, along with many of the commenters, generally rejected at least the severity of it. Of course, those who deny the seriousness of the problem have no dire predictions, expecting the consequences to be minor inconveniences rather than a serious issue. The general mainstream view seems to be along these lines, with some problems, but nothing threatening.
For what its worth, my views tend to the darker side of things. But I, like everyone else, don't really know. I don't feel things will be as extreme as Lovelock and Kunstler, but it's not going to be a walk in the park, either. I think our world is in for a major reorganization, and a lot of people are going to perish, due to starvation, warfare and disease. Our self-indulgent, western way of life is going to come crashing down, and the developing world is going to be hit even harder. The pace of climate change is too quick, and the energy and financial problems will only exacerbate things. If we can contain our bloodlust in the inevitable conflicts for resources (food, water, oil...), we have a chance at the future. If not, it is a long fall. And if the world resorts to WMDs to resolve these conflicts, then all bets are off. Mind you, I desperately want to be wrong on this, and look back in 20 years time and laugh at my naivete. My fear is that I won't be able to.
Awareness of these issues is growing, but the magnitude and extent of the crisis is still underestimated. The climate has become an issue for the upcoming national election (24 November) in Australia. But the two major parties have somewhat tentative policies for climate change, and issues like peak are not even really a concern. The minor parties are better, but even the Greens are underestimating the problem. Their campaign literature still speaks of climate change impacts as something that will happen, not as something ongoing. For much of the western world, neoliberal economics and unlimited growth are still the dominant paradigm. As a society, I fear we (myself included) are woefully unprepared for what awaits us.
Regardless of one's personal opinion of the issue, a risk management-type approach should be taken to deal with these issues. Risk can be defined as the likelihood of something happening times the consequences of that event happening. The consequences of a Lovelockian 'giga-death' scenario are incalculable – a very, very large number. So unless the chances of it occurring an infinitesimal (and I suspect they are low, but not non-existent), the risk is large, and prudence dictates action be taken to reduce that risk. Maybe the excuses/rationales noted earlier for inaction will prove to be valid and society is in no danger of a collapse. Even if this is the case, our lifestyles are demonstratively unsustainable, and this must be remedied.
There is also the moral aspect. We owe future generations a right to a viable existence. It should be our goal to at least provide as much to them as was provided to us. As the UN said today (my emphasis):
"The effects of climate change are being felt already," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
"Climate change will hit hardest the poorest and most vulnerable countries. Its overall effect, however, will be felt by everyone and will in some cases threaten people's very survival.
"Failing to recognise the urgency of this message and acting on it would be nothing less than criminally irresponsible."
It is time for the rich nations of the world to lead by example and act seriously to adapt and mitigate climate change. We caused the problem, we need to lead the way to fixing it, rather than pointing fingers at China and India. They aspire to the same life we lead and who are we to deny it if we won't curb our own excesses. Blaming others for the problems we caused is pathetic, a sign of the narcissistic, delusional culture we have created. Who knows, maybe the crises we are facing can have some positive outcome and lead to a fairer, more just world for all.