March 22, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: Civilizational Collapse Goes Mainstream, or Catastrophe's Jimmy Durante Moment

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For the unemployed or under-employed twenty- or thirtysomethings: Verily I say unto you, don't sweat it.  Why start something you can't finish?

Personally, I had a "career," so to speak.  While it was fundamentally a dumb way to live, and represented a triumph of social programming over native inclination, that's the way it happened. As Thoreau said once, if I apologize for anything, it is for my good behavior.

Comes now the Goddard Space Flight Center (part of NASA) with a team of multi-disciplinary scientists who conclude as follows:
Civilization was pretty great while it lasted, wasn't it? Too bad it's not going to for much longer. According to a new study sponsored by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, we only have a few decades left before everything we know and hold dear collapses.The report, written by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center along with a team of natural and social scientists, explains that modern civilization is doomed. And there's not just one particular group to blame, but the entire fundamental structure and nature of our society.Analyzing five risk factors for societal collapse (population, climate, water, agriculture and energy), the report says that the sudden downfall of complicated societal structures can follow when these factors converge to form two important criteria. Motesharrei's report says that all societal collapses over the past 5,000 years have involved both "the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity" and "the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or "Commoners") [poor]." This "Elite" population restricts the flow of resources accessible to the "Masses", accumulating a surplus for themselves that is high enough to strain natural resources. Eventually this situation will inevitably result in the destruction of society.

So there you have it: this is where all of our collective efforts have led us.  To utter ruin.

I would probably quibble with the study, to the extent it emphasizes elite overuse of natural resources.  It seems to me that the overuse of natural resources in Western industrialized countries particularly has been very much an egalitarian phenomenon.  The destruction of Earth as a human habitat has been a group effort.  We all pitched in, and it's unfair to give the One Percent all the credit, now that the job is done.

The other aspect of the report's summation that seems overly optimistic, to the point of being Pollyannish, is comparing previous overuses of resources to the current orgy of destruction being carried on by Earth's 7 billion inhabitants.  A matter of scale.  No previous civilizations, for example, ever managed to kill the entire planetary ocean, as we have done.  And, previous overuses of nonrenewable resources were "secular," in a way.  There were still plenty of such natural resources available on Earth, it's just that societal breakdown made it impossible to utilize them. See the difference?  We've blown past that restriction.  When we say we've decimated the natural resource base, we mean it.  We're talking gone for good.  We demand our props.

Plus, I don't think it's realistic to talk only in terms of "social" collapse and to isolate climate change as simply one of the factors.  Read, for example, Michael Mann's latest essay in Scientific American where he describes the dangerous threshold humanity will reach as early as 2036. The game is on the line, and the world's nations are still being led by fundamentally stupid, limited people who refuse to see it that way.

Which, really, is the essence of the problem.  Now, the late, great Fyodor Dostoevsky tried to warn us in his sublime Notes From The Underground.  Those who lead tend to be men (and women, in modern times, though not in Fyodor's, except for hereditary rulers) of action.  What was it he said? Ah yes, that "a man of action was a fundamentally limited man."  And why? Because such a man mistakes intermediate effects for final realities.

These "intermediate effects," social status, fame, wealth, general prosperity, are all illusions that can probably best be explained psychologically as an effort to cheat one's own mortality.  Take for example the Koch brothers, the Destructive Duo who finance and run the Republican Party in the United States of America. They devote much of their money, time and industry to ensuring the destruction of Earth as a livable habitat.  I'm sure they don't look at it that way; it's simply the effect they produce, which they don't see because they're living out a personal dream of "self-fulfillment," in their case the accumulation of wealth so vast that neither they nor the twenty generations of descendants who follow them would ever have a chance to spend it (because in part those twenty generations will never exist, thanks to the Koch brothers in some measure).

We live at the mercy of these Limited Men, and people like them.  So to the Slackers, to Gen-X, to the Millenials, and all of your fellow travelers: don't worry about a career, don't worry about accumulation, don't worry about anything. There's nothing to prove to anyone.  There never was, but now it's become increasingly obvious that the effort to prove your "self-worth" and social value, in any conventional sense, simply lays down another brick in the Road to Perdition.  Enjoy what you do as you do it, and take no thought for the morrow, because believe me, sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof.  The age-old questions, Why am I in this handbasket? And where am I going?  have been answered.

A great convergence of opinions about our fate is underway.  Quite breathtaking to behold, for someone who has followed the early rumblings since the Club of Rome put out its Limits to Growth in 1972.  NASA, the Department of Defense, very disparate institutions from all over, are coming around to similar conclusions.  As the Great Schnozzola said, "Everybody's gettin' intuh the act!"