Is it possible that global civilization might collapse within our lifetime
or that of our children? Until recently, such an idea was the preserve of lunatics
and cults. In the past few years, however, an increasing number of intelligent
and credible people have been warning that global collapse is a genuine possibility.
And many of these are sober scientists, including Lord May, David King and Jared
Diamond - people not usually given to exaggeration or drama.
The new doomsayers all point to the same collection of threats - climate change,
resource depletion and population imbalances being the most important. What
makes them especially afraid is that many of these dangers are interrelated,
with one tending to exacerbate the others. It is necessary to tackle them all
at once if we are to have any chance of avoiding global collapse, they warn.
Many societies - from the Maya in Mexico to the Polynesians of Easter Island
- have collapsed in the past, often because of the very same dangers that threaten
us. As Diamond explains in his recent book, Collapse, the Maya depleted one
of their principal resources - trees - and this triggered a series of problems
such as soil erosion, decrease of useable farmland and drought. The growing
population that drove this overexploitation was thus faced with a diminishing
amount of food, which led to increasing migration and bloody civil war. The
collapse of the civilization on Easter Island followed a similar pattern, with
deforestation leading to other ecological problems and warfare.
Unlike these dead societies, our civilization is global. On the positive side,
globalization means that when one part of the world gets into trouble, it can
appeal to the rest of the world for help. Neither the Maya nor the inhabitants
of Easter Island had this luxury, because they were in effect isolated civilizations.
On the negative side, globalization means that when one part of the world gets
into trouble, the trouble can quickly be exported. If modern civilization collapses,
it will do so everywhere. Everyone now stands or falls together.
Global collapse would probably still follow the same basic pattern as a local
collapse but on a greater scale. With the Maya, the trouble began in one region
but engulfed the whole civilization. Today, as climate change makes some areas
less hospitable than others, increasing numbers of people will move to the more
habitable areas. The increasing population will make them less habitable and
lead to further migration in a domino effect. Huge movements of people and capital
will put the international financial system under strain and may cause it to
give way. In his book The Future of Money, the Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer
argues that the global monetary system is already very unstable. Financial crises
have certainly grown in scale and frequency over the past decade. The South-east
Asian crisis of 1997 dwarfed the Mexican crisis of 1994 and was followed by
the Russian crash of 1998 and the Brazilian crisis of 1999. This is another
example of the way globalization can exacerbate rather than minimize the risk
of total collapse.
This would not be the end of the world. The collapse of modern civilization
would entail the deaths of billions of people but not the end of the human race.
A few Mayans survived by abandoning their cities and retreating into the jungle,
where they continue to live to this day. In the same way, some would survive
the end of the industrial age by reverting to a pre-industrial lifestyle.
The enormity of such a scenario makes it hard to imagine. It is human nature
to assume that the world will carry on much as it has been. But it is worth
remembering that in the years preceding the collapse of their civilization,
the Mayans too were convinced that their world would last forever.
Dylan Evans is a senior lecturer at the University of
the West of England www.dylan.org.uk