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New Report: "Global Collapse Appears Likely"

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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Just when you thought you'd survived the fears raised by the end of the Mayan calendar, eminent Stanford University scientists Paul and Anne Ehrlich have issued a report titled "Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided?" in the Jan. 8, 2013 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences division, revealing that "global collapse appears likely."

The reason? "Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and poor choices of technologies are the major drivers."

Is there no way of saving ourselves? "Dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity."

But how to do that? Our political and economic systems seem frozen in the past.

The Ehrlich report stresses "the need for rapid social/political change" and explores some of the psychological and social barriers to swift cultural transition.

Our ancestors apparently "had no reason to respond genetically or culturally to long-term issues," the Ehrlichs claim. So as a species we suffer from what we might call the "next tiger syndrome" (or the "next quarter" or "next election" syndrome). If something is right on top of us, we can rouse ourselves to deal with it. If the threat seems far off, we start to snooze...

But snoozing as the oncoming train barrels towards us just won't cut it in present circumstances. And sadly, "There is not much evidence of societies mobilizing and making sacrifices to meet gradually worsening conditions that threaten real disaster for future generations. Yet that is exactly the sort of mobilization that we believe is required to avoid a collapse."

The term "mobilization" brings to mind great efforts of the past like World War II. But to date there has been an insufficient sense of urgency to rouse us, partly because of political cowardice and also as a result of the torrent of disinformation from those who would lose if things change.

Without significant pressure from the public demanding action, we fear there is little chance of changing course fast enough to forestall disaster. The needed pressure, however, might be generated by a popular movement based in academia and civil society to help guide humanity towards developing a new multiple intelligence, "foresight intelligence," to provide the long-term analysis and planning that markets cannot supply.

Academics and nonprofits at the forefront of a revolution? The Ehrlichs claim that "helping develop such a movement and foresight intelligence are major challenges facing scientists today." The problem is, of course, that most scientists have absolutely no training or aptitude for effective communication, marketing or political activism.

But, as history informs us, things can change abruptly, with or without the help of academics and NGOs.

We know that societies can evolve fundamentally and unexpectedly, as was dramatically demonstrated by the collapse of community regimes in Europe in 1989. Rather than tinkering around the edges and making feeble or empty gestures towards one or another of the interdependent problems we face, we need a comprehensive approach ... development on the old model is counterproductive.

The Ehrlichs introduce a hopeful note here:

What scientists understand about cultural evolution suggests that, while improbable, it may be possible to move cultures in such directions. Whether solutions will be global or polycentric, international negotiations will be needed, existing international agencies that deal with them will need strengthening, and new institutions will need to be formed.

So what's the bottom line?

"Do we think global society can avoid a collapse in this century?" The Ehrlichs are cautiously optimistic while also admitting that the odds are against us.

Modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats, at least if they are obvious or continuously brought to attention (think of the risks of nuclear conflict). Humanity has the assets to get the job done, but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity, are everywhere.

A sobering analysis, but one we need to take seriously as it comes from distinguished scientists with a deep understanding of our collective situation.

The full report can be downloaded from the Royal Society website.

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