Slightly Different (perhaps?) view of collapse – Essay
Rooting for Collapse: A Conservation Biologist’s Perspective on the End of the World
We live in a globalized world. Civilization and empire have spread throughout the farthest reachest of the globe, and the results are unprecedented in all of human history. Economies thousands of miles apart have been linked and streamlined; green revolutions have successfully supported order of magnitude increases in human population; complexity and infrastructure that would baffle scholars and policy-makers of bygone ages are now taken for granted; information is available to virtually everyone, everywhere, at the shortest of time lags behind reality. An impartial observer looking around a modern city, or even a modern American household, would be hard-pressed not to admit that this looks like the Golden Age of human achievement; and yet, we know better. The advent and increasing sophistication of fields like conservation biology, coupled with ubiquitous information gathering, storage, and distribution, have allowed a skeptical minority to take a peek below the hood at the furiously churning engine of modern progress, or, perhaps more aptly, the wake left by the tires and exhaust of this metaphorical vehicle. The results have been unseemly at best, unconscionable at worst. In fact, we’ve created a world in which there are no less than three threats to our very existence. We’ve shown nothing short of complete incompetence in halting or even slowing down any of these factors. It seems a susbtantial leap of faith to assume that we could influence all three at once; but what would happen if we were able to concentrate on solving just one or two?
Climate change, over-development, and energy shortage are predictably connected, and indeed, it is downright disingenuous to present them as isolated in their emergence or effect. However, for illustrative purposes, that is exactly the series of sugar-coated stories I intend to tell. The ensuing pages will offer a brief glimpse into three alternate realities, each containing just one cardinal threat borrowed from our world. Our first stop is a world that is warming up…
Earth A is considerably healthier than the one that we inhabit. Progress continues to bring prosperity to an ever-growing world population. Engineers long ago solved the riddle of space limitations by creating cities and sub-cities that are perfectly vertically stratified. Cities of just a few square miles support tens of millions of residents in thousand story sky-scrapers. Thus, development goes up instead of out, and the forests are spared. The Earth, only sparsely dotted with pockets of civilization, provides all of the natural resources needed to support the growing population. Living standards rise, inequality falls, and cheap energy is no object, as oil is found to be both abiotic in origin and miraculously self-replenishing. Thus, the economic machine continues to accelerate unabated, bringing out new technological advances by the minute. Earth A has escaped nearly all of our limitations, but it still obeys the laws of atmosphere and thermodynamics.
There is endless energy to fuel progress, but that energy comes with a steep price. Earth A’s emissions of carbon dioxide and methane continue to rise, no faster but also no slower than ours here on regular Earth. The accelerating rise in concentration of greenhouse gases, in a matter of decades, raises global temperatures several degrees Celsius. The polar ice melts, covering shoreward cities and destroying coastal ecosystems. Erratic, extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity. Thousands of species go extinct, and large-scale agriculture becomes impossible. The natural resources that had been so carefully protected from human manipulation and over-exploitation are irrevocably altered, imposing a cap on growth and eventually causing the planet’s natural and human systems to collapse.
Now let us travel to Earth B, a wondrous planet where climate change poses no risk to the health and prosperity of nations. Scientists here have devised an ingenious method of sequestering carbon into large, extremely energy-dense nuggets of the newly discovered element, Unobtainium. Thus, emissions are effectively recycled, averting raising greenhouse gases or depleting energy reserves. In fact, this new element is so much more useful than oil that the current amount of carbon is perfectly sufficient for virtually infinite industrial growth. Economies prosper, technology advances, and populations grow. Soon, however, space starts to run out…
Earth B’s engineers have discovered the holy grail of energy, but have been unable to solve the seemingly simpler issue of where to put everyone. The population doubles every 35 years, requiring ever more land and base resources to support it. Forest becomes agriculture land, which is quickly polluted and depleted through over-exploitation and the massive infusion of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The useless farm lands then become cities, which then become epicenters for massive urban sprawl. After all, sky scrapers can only go so high before they topple over. All of the previously existing ecosystems succumb to this cycle of development, and irreversible feedback loops are created. Agriculture disappears as pollinators go extinct, and disease wipes out sterile hybrid monocultures. As food shortages reach a tipping point, Earth B’s elite continue the endless march of progress. Virtual reality is finally perfected, a kind of technological tip of the hat to Easter Island, as famine and civil unrest engulf the planet.
An alternate (but similar) view of Earth B, perhaps more familiar based on the rhetoric of the early 21st century, could involve renewable energy. Pundits in the public and private sector alike, for example, Van Jones in his book, “Green Collar Economy”, have argued for the viability and desirability of green energy. Leaving aside the significant hurdles for any alternate energy source to support our current size and complexity (EROEI, storage, versatility, transport), the end result if “all goes as planned” is the same. Maybe this is akin to capitalism becoming vegetarian, but it would still demand an ever-growing number of calories. Just because a “green” solution works, does not mean that the world will automatically be populated by 7 billion environmentalists. Energy will fuel development and exploitation, re-inforcing the belief that this will always be the case, and the natural systems on which we depend will fail.
Now let’s travel to Earth C, a place where we can still get a little something to eat. Greenhouse gases here have also mysteriously shed all of their atmospheric insulating properties, leaving the planet cold, cool, warm, and deserty in all of the appropriate places. C’s farmers manage to feed the growing population through a combination of scaling up, streamlining, genetic engineering, and a healthy dose of oil-based fertilizer inputs. Oil is also what keeps the global economy growing, as it of course must to leave any chance of covering yesterday’s debt tomorrow. The trouble here is that C’s reputable engineers, who have avoided all problems of crowding, deforestatioon, or breakdown of an economic system predicated on every-growing debt, missed a calculation somewhere en route to the formula for Unobtainium. Oil must be shared between agriculture, industry, and individual consumers, and eventually it starts to run out.
The peak oil story may be a familiar one, and it likey progresses on Planet C something like this: As oil output begins to decline, the price increases. It becomes more expensive to simply maintain the status quo, not to mention grow wealth, from the individual to the national scale. Perhaps, if the market continues to treat oil as an inelastic necessity, the price never comes down; perhaps, price increases eventually curtail demand and it becomes cheaper, causing massive deflation that paradoxically still puts its price out of reach for consumers. These two seeming opposites will be revisited in a moment. Peak oil has a number of potential implications for the global economy. The first and most obvious is that it puts a cap on world-scale growth. Assuming that oil is the main input that drives economic growth (and it most assuredly is), as it reaches a peak and begins an exponential decline, the world economy enters a double exponential decline. This happens because Earth C has already taken on debts based on the assumption of having more oil tomorrow (exponentially more). In a perfectly solvent economy, economic decline would be perfectly coupled with the exponential decline of oil – add in the debt factor and we get the double exponential decline. It’s unfortunately too late to implement much infrastructure to stop this sort of pattern from happening on Earth C, but it’s not too late for each nation to act in its own self-interest. Any amount of worldwide decline can be weathered and still support individual national growth, provided that the world is comfortable with vast and exponentially increasing inequality within and between its nations. In the real world, this results in either resource wars or universal collapse. C’s Earth is very similar to ours, and so it follows the former route.
Three planets, each of which have solved the vast majority of our current problems, still face imminent collapse. How does this compare to our real-world situation? It turns out, of course, that all three of these issues, climate change, overdevelopment, and peak oil, are present and working in concert to change industrial society forever. Vast oil inputs are required to drive development and economic growth, and they also are the main contributor to climate change. Climate change increases severe weather, making agriculture and “life as usual” a more energy-expensive business, thereby speeding along energy depletion. Development and resource exploitation has turned the world’s tropical forests into a net carbon source, and the economic need for exponentially greater resource inputs further drives oil extraction and use. It sounds, at first, like our prospects are significantly worse than those of Earths A – C. However, it turns out that the quick “collapse” brought on by these factors could actually yield much more positive results than any of the scenarios outlined above.
The three Earths were unable to eliminate one gigantic problem, and there is no doubt that this is a difficult task in any reality. But consider the connectedness of our three issues; this means, in essence, that if we conquer one, we conquer all three, while leaving ourselves with an Earth that is inhabitable in all of the ways that the imaginary Earths were not. If we stop using oil, economies must contract, development and growth must cease, and emissions will necessarily stop. Thus, the solution to all three issues is essentially the same: live a lower-energy life in a lower-energy world. The problem is that scientists have been saying this for decades, if not centuries, and society has never willingly taken the steps to make it happen. Why is that?
Perhaps it’s because publicized thinkers like Malthus and his disciples, the authors of “Natural Capital,” have been proven wrong again and again. Numbers that were proclaimed limits have been reached, and progress and growth have continued. However, it is a fallacy to believe that the future must always resemble the past. As stated in “Natural Capital,” all economic growth is ultimately rooted in the biotic and abiotic aspects of the Earth. There is a limit here, and the game of delaying is not a productive one. We can imagine modern society as a heroin addict. When plugged in, the addict is in a pleasant dreamworld; of course, it’s just exactly that, and in sober moments of clarity perhaps he senses that there is something wrong. Perhaps he even goes on to admit that he has a problem. From that stage the choices are quite simple: a guaranteed downward slope of continued use, quite possibly ending in an overdose, or a short period of hellish withdrawal after which life can improve. The industrialized way of life is an intoxicating drug, and those who learn to live without the needle should be considered the real pundits.
This is why we should root for the current “collapse” that is forming. There will now be no option but to change; the world is approaching cold turkey. The efforts of those currently trying to “save the Earth” will pale in comparison to the necessary efforts required for human survival as the Earth saves itself. A lower energy future is the only possibility, but it is up to us how soon that possibility is realized. The key, then, is preparation for the imminent future, and a positive perspective on collapse is the first crucial step in this direction. Once one overcomes the initial discomfort with this idea, the truth becomes clear: the only sure way to avoid collapse is to act as if it has already happened.
“Every junkie’s like a setting sun” – Neil Young
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