Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Richard Steiner Headshot

Will Civilization Collapse, or Evolve?

Posted: Updated:

A recent NASA-sponsored study, led by mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, warns that modern industrial civilization may collapse in coming decades due to resource depletion and a growing unequal distribution of wealth. The authors write that: "The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent."

Fragile and impermanent, indeed.

This then is the central question of our time: Will our industrial civilization evolve to become sustainable, or collapse?

Since the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, people have worried about the long-term, planetary effects of our industrial civilization. The first Earth Day in 1970 catalyzed a hopeful emergence of environmental policies in the U.S. -- the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. Aid flowed to developing countries trying to help stabilize population growth.

The U.S. and Soviet Union once had thousands of nuclear warheads targeted at each other, but faced with the prospect of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), none have been used -- yet. The United Nations agreed to many security and environmental treaties.

The world developed a reasonable expectation that governments would rise to meet the global environmental and security crisis, and all would be well.

Today, 40 year later, this optimism has faded. We are worried, and we should be.

In the past 40 years, world population has doubled; the world economy grew three-fold; inequality increased; resource extraction and depletion skyrocketed; forests, fisheries, and ecological habitat declined; deserts spread; water became scarce; terrorism proliferated; and thousands of species went extinct. We are, in fact, in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth, but this time caused solely by ourselves. Atmospheric CO2 levels increased to 400 ppm, climate became more chaotic, ice continues to melt, and sea level continues to rise.

The number and severity of failed states continues to rise. Nuclear weapons have been reduced, but they have also spread to politically unstable regions. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist's "Doomsday Clock" is still set at 5 minutes to midnight. On the dual global threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, they state the following: "In the face of such complex problems, it is difficult to see where the capacity lies to address these challenges."

Today, humanity is using 50 percent more resources than Earth can sustain, and if current trends continue, by 2030 we will be using twice what our planet can provide. The global environmental debt grows. After 1970, progress toward a sustainable, peaceful civilization stalled, indeed went over a cliff. Many still don't want to admit it.

Clearly, things have gone from bad to worse. So what happened? What derailed our earlier path toward sustainability?

Well, some got more greedy, some tuned out, and many grew frustrated with the political inertia on the issue. Politics were captured by the industrial and military elites. The wealthy and powerful invested in government policies that protected their wealth and power. The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, and the recent McCutcheon ruling, ensured the continuation of the wealthy elite -- the 1 percent.

When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported last month that climate change is now critical, Exxon reported that they essentially do not care. They are in the oil business, and they want to stay in the oil business.

Academia continues to provide the corporate elites just what they want -- a rationale to continue their self-indulgent, destructive practices. Advertising perpetuates consumerism; the entertainment industry keeps the public distracted; social and environmental systems continue to disintegrate.

We monkeys have gone a little crazy on our lovely little "wet blue ball."

Many seem to have lost contact with the natural world from which we evolved, that which provides everything we need -- air, water, food, shelter, medicine, and culture. We are headed down a dark, dead-end evolutionary corridor.

The question now is whether we can turn away from this dead-end path and toward sustainability in time. While the policies for sustainability are clear, there is strong political push back by those who benefit from the unsustainable status quo. As stated by the NASA-funded collapse study: "While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing."

And this is where we are now stuck.

Eric Cline's book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, makes a persuasive case that the Bronze Age ended three thousand years ago with the collapse of several Mediterranean civilizations.

Cline writes: "It was, in fact, a perfect storm of calamities that brought down the kingdoms of the late Bronze Age just after 1200 BC; a perfect storm that created havoc with globalized civilizations that bear more than a passing resemblance to ours today."

Jared Diamond's 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive documents the fall of the Sumerian, Greenland Norse, Maya, Anasazi, and the Easter Island civilizations, mostly due to environmental decline, and mostly self-imposed.

All of these studies provide a cautionary tale for our current environmental situation.

It is interesting to wonder what the people of collapsing societies may have thought just prior to the collapse. What did those on Easter Island think and say? Who listened, who didn't, who tried to act, how did their peers respond? One might speculate that in each of these pre-collapse societies, there were analogs to today's Tea Party Republicans, denying there was any problem, all the way to the bitter end.

But now of course, the threat is global, not local. What is now at risk is the functional integrity of the only biosphere we know, and the very continuation of civilization. And yet, we seem numb to this unprecedented threat.

Will modern civilization evolve to become egalitarian and sustainable, or collapse?

We'll soon see.