Collapse and dystopia: Three recent updates on our possible future
It looks like we can forget about “collapse fatigue,” the term — which I just now made up (or maybe not) — for the eventual exhaustion of the doom-and-collapse meme that has been raging its way through our collective public discourse and private psyches for the past decade-plus. I say this based on three recent items that have come to my attention spontaneously, as in, I didn’t go looking for them, but instead found them shoved into my awareness.
ONE: Just a couple of weeks after James Howard Kunstler asked “Are You Crazy to Continue Believing in Collapse?” — and answered, in sum, “No” — we now see that
TWO: a new collapse warning of rather epic proportions and pedigree has begun making its way through the online doom-o-sphere, starting with a piece in The Guardian:
A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution. Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”
. . . By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “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]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
. . . Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today . . . we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”
The study highlights, in a manner reminiscent of dystopian science fiction, the specific way this division into Elites and Masses not only might play out but has played out in the histories of real societies and civilizations:
Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”
Turning from the Guardian summary to the text of the study itself, which was written in 2012 but only recently accepted for publication, in the first couple of pages we find choice words of anti-comfort (and common sense) like this:
It may be reasonable to believe that modern civilization, armed with its greater technological capacity, scientific knowledge, and energy resources, will be able to survive and endure whatever crises historical societies succumbed to. But the brief overview of collapses demonstrates not only the ubiquity of the phenomenon, but also the extent to which advanced, complex and powerful societies are susceptible to collapse. 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.
In their conclusion, after having applied what’s called the HANDY (Human and Nature Dynamics) model of analysis — derived from predator-prey mathematical models — to the question of collapse, the authors finish with this:
In sum, results of our experiments . . . indicate that either one of the two features apparent in historical societal collapses — over-exploitation of natural resources and strong economic stratification — can independently result in a complete collapse. Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates. Even in the absence of economic stratification, collapse can still occur if depletion per capita is too high. However, collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.
(Not inconsequentially, if you, like me, notice immediately that those final words represent a hell of a gargantuan “if,” you’re not alone: a writer for CNET astutely observes,
Ah, so that’s all it will take. A sudden change of heart among the elites to distribute their wealth amongst the rest of us, and people to stop using natural resources like free lives in a video game. Better start hoarding bottled water and batteries now.)
And finally there’s this:
THREE: Bruce Sterling, with whom I once had the honor of serving as a co-panelist for a dystopia-flavored discussion titled “Imagining the Future: World Politics, Global Economies, and More” (as immortalized in this photographic evidence), delivered his annual extemporaneous closing speech at SXSW Interactive in Austin last week, and he ended by sketching the following vision of our likely future, which echoes much of the above:
My suspicion is you’re going to see some very severe (not super severe, but increasingly severe) weather disruption events that are just like the ones we’ve already had, only more so. And they’re going to be carried within this cruelty of neo-Liberal global capitalism and the casino economy that we’ve built, our extremely uneven, and outmatched economic structure where the ultra-wealthy can basically buy anything anywhere.
So what will that look like? The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. People often ask, “How could science fiction writers predict the future?” The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075 . . . it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.
How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious – people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, “Oh, well my town will never get bigger.” Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, “Oh, well I’m never going to get older.” Okay, you are gonna get older. You could get Botox, you can deny it, you can fake it, exercise, take vitamins. You’re gonna get older.
Then there’s the issue of being afraid of the sky, which is mostly a slider bar — you should be afraid of the sky now, but you could be extremely afraid of the sky very suddenly for pretty much any unpredictable reason. Once the thing hits — there’s gonna be lots of Katrinas. If it’s a Katrina a year, we could manage it. But if it’s a Katrina a month or if it’s a Katrina a week, we’re in for it. There’s gonna be lots of old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. Demographics, urbanization, fear.
FULL TEXT: Bruce Sterling Closing Remarks – SXSW 2014
As I say, we can obviously forget about collapse fatigue. It looks and sounds like this show — both in rhetoric and in reality — is only just getting started.
Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Posted on March 18, 2014, in Environment & Ecology, Society & Culture and tagged apocalypse watch, bruce sterling, collapse, Dystopia, ecology, James Howard Kunstler. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.