On the eve of the COP 26, UN’s world climate conference (to begin in Glasgow on 31. October. 2021), Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the host country UK, said in Rome the following:
“This is our memento mori,” (‘Remember that you will die’.) ….“After its fall, the level of education in Rome, the construction skills went down, the marvelous villas were lost, even the livestock shrunk in size. The same thing can happen to us if we don’t act against climate change now.” He said further that global warming will spur “colossal migrations, shortages of food and water, and many other conflicts.”
Johnson was optimistic that modern
societies have the capacity to mitigate the negative effects of humans on the
planet. (https://www.rt.com/uk/538937-boris-johnson-ancient-rome/). I am not so
optimistic. I am of the opinion that particularly modern societies are not
capable of mitigating this impending collapse.
I have dealt with this topic in an earlier short essay posted on this blog on 1. October 2019 (http://eco-socialist.blogspot.com/2019/10/is-collapse-of-our-civilization.html). Recently, I read a review article on some books on this topic published in the journal Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00436-3). Thereupon I wrote another short piece in which I explained why I disagree with the politician Boris Johnson as well as with the scholar-authors reviewed in the said article in Nature. It is reproduced below:
I sincerely thank Nadarajah for
posting this. Even to read just a book review is better than not to read
anything on this unpleasant subject simply because the books are too
discouragingly long. While reading the review, the following thoughts occurred
I am convinced that our present-day civilization is heading for a collapse, for I cannot see that we humans have resolved to do the needful to mitigate, let alone avert the various crises converging to result in an inevitable collapse. The first and the most important things to do for the purpose would have been to stop all further economic and population growth in the world. But the leaders of the world have not resolved to do that. On the contrary, they are all actively pursuing the goal of continuous economic growth and passively tolerating the continuous spontaneous growth of world population. The collapse would not be like a big-bang bomb blast, it would happen gradually, but, from now on, more or less rapidly. In fact, the process has already begun.
Societies, Civilizations, Cultures
If we are allowed to go only by
the short presentations in the review, the authors of the books have dealt
mainly with the collapse of societies that emerged in different particular civilizations obtaining at the time.
Most people use these terms interchangeably, meaning the same thing. But it is useful to differentiate between them. Let us use the term society in the following sense: a more or less large group of people living under more or less similar social and religious hierarchical systems having more or less same/similar social laws, norms, rituals and moral codes. And let us use the term civilization to imply a certain level of state formation, a certain level of material and technological development covering housing, clothing, transportation, communication, techniques of production of food and other useful things, formalized laws such as criminal laws, property laws and laws governing other material relations which are generally brought into force by the rulers of the particular historical time.
Here I do not intend to elaborate on the terms societies, cultures and civilizations. It may suffice to give a few examples: Samuel Huntington gave his most famous book the title “Clash of Civilizations”, whereas in its German translation, it is called “Kampf der Kulturen. We in India e.g. speak of Hindu culture (with its sub-cultures), Muslim culture etc., although we are all, more or less, living in the same civilization, half industrial and half rural, where e.g. both motor vehicles and bullock carts are used as means of transportation.
Of course these things are always in a state of flux, border lines between the terms are often blurred. But I hope readers understand what I mean. I would like to conclude this paragraph with a quote. Knowledgeable people use the word “culture” in its social-anthropological meaning, namely “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” In this meaning “culture” includes also “the material organization of life”, that is, “social and economic institutions.” [Edwards, Paul (ed.) 1967]
What is collapsing Today?
I am a bit disappointed that the
reviewed authors have addressed the subject as so many case studies, which they
have done with a ‘retrospectoscope’. Of course, the collection is very good history writing. But our present-day
civilization is quite different from those of
the past, those of the Rapa Nui, the medieval Mayans, the ancient Sumerians
etc., and even from the high civilization of the classical Romans.
It is different in that none of the past ones were global like our present one. In none of the past civilizations countries were so dependent on imports and exports of goods and technologies for their economic prosperity or survival as the countries of today. To mention just a few more examples, there simply was no global, not to speak of instant, communication before our times, no cheap means of travelling all over the world, no great similarity of the life-style of the rich and the middle classes in all countries, no similarity of the diseases they suffer from (Covid-19 e.g.) and the healing technologies they use, no identity of the knowledge they impart to their students etc. etc.
Of course, the cultures are not converging yet. Their differences still remain, but the gaps are slowly closing, The different religions are still there. And although English has become the lingua franca all over the world, the vernacular languages are not disappearing, on the contrary. These two things – religions and vernacular languages – are becoming more and more the cores of cultural identities that are often causing conflicts. But that is a different subject.
Our present-day civilization is different in another very important respect. Whereas in the previous ones, energy supply for work was mainly based on human and animal labor, that of ours is mainly based on fossil fuels. Whereas the former sort – human and animal labor – was eminently renewable, fossil fuels are eminently nonrenewable, hence ultimately exhaustible. Wind and solar radiation also played a substantial part in the production methods of previous civilizations – wind as the power behind sailing ships and wind mills and the warmth of solar radiation as the main factor in growth of vegetation and food crops. They do not play such great roles in our present-day civilization.
Two additional important differences are: (a) in the quantity and type of man-made pollutions: In the previous civilizations, most pollutants were biodegradable. Wastes that were not recycled were rare in the past. Today it is just the opposite. (b) Today’s most dangerous man-made pollution, high rates of emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are going to change the global temperature for perhaps a million years, making the Earth uninhabitable.
The cases of collapse studied by the learned historians were singular and isolated, occurring in different times and caused by different factors. There were of course factors that were common to all these cultures and civilizations, e.g. steady population growth throughout history, development of class societies, greed of oppressive ruling classes etc. They surely played some role in their history, but not necessarily the decisive ones in their collapse. Resilience, revival or replication was possible because of continued existence of sufficient renewable resources and of further possibilities of migration to greener pastures that were sparsely populated and/or where the local populations were militarily not strong enough to resist aggression.
When, however, our present-day civilization collapses, which is happening in front of our eyes (see e.g. the article by Paul Kingsnorth posted by Sajai Jose on 29.10. on this list), it cannot be salvaged. It is already overpopulated, there are no satisfactory possibilities of large-scale migration to greener pastures any more, the nonrenewable resources so very essential for running its over-complex economies will have been gone forever, and many parts of the Earth may finally and irreversibly have become uninhabitable.
Let me finish this text with two quotes from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whose disciple I regard myself to be:
Georgescu-Roegan (1971/1981: 296) calls the supplies of nonrenewable energy sources and other minerals in low-entropy state “the limited dowry of mankind’s existence on Earth”. A dowry is not only a limited but also a one-off gift, Therefore, he comes to the logical conclusion:
“Even with a constant population and a constant flow per capita of mined resources, mankind's dowry will ultimately be exhausted if the career of the human species is not brought to an end earlier by other factors.” (ibid)
On the fate of our present-day civilization, he wrote in a fit of pessimism,
"Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short, but fiery, exciting and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful and vegetative existence. Let other species, – the amoebas, for example – which have no spiritual ambitions, inherit an Earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine." (Georgescu-Roegen 1972/1976: 35)
I do not quite agree with NGR. I do not think the human species would disappear from this Earth altogether. We are far too intelligent for that, far too ingenious. Our descendants would survive, in somewhat still inhabitable pockets left behind after the collapse, but in much smaller numbers. They would however live in a different civilization and with different cultures.
Edwards, Paul. ed. (1967) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967. New York].
Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971/1981) Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA (US).
Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1972/1976) Energy and Economic Myths. New York: Pergamon Press