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... and future generations will not feel fine.

Stanford biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich have just published a provocative analysis of the future of human society in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences. The title says it all: "Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?" Their prediction is not comforting.

Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

These two respected biologists provide a rather scathing indictment of our collective mismanagement of natural resources and unbridled environmental destruction. We are facing a "perfect storm" of stupid human behavior. Call it the self-inflicted 'human predicament.'

The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources [6,7], including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas [8]; and resource wars [9]. These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’ [10], and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.
Adaptation from an evolutionary perspective is traditionally defined as physiological or behavioral traits that enhance the survival of an organism in a particular environment. We humans are collectively degrading the environment to stack the deck against our own survival, not to mention the survival of many other species. Human intelligence is clearly overrated.

Ehrlich and Ehrlich present an interesting dissection of how we are capable of averting disaster but probably will not. That pessimism is warranted for three reasons.

First, we would all like to imagine that technology will somehow come to our rescue and save our collective rumps from a stone age future. Perhaps, but it is our technology that got us into this mess.

Ehrlich and Ehrlich use our food production miracle as the the perfect illustration. While we have managed to greatly enhance agricultural productivity, we still cannot feed the 7 billion human mouths currently on the planet. By conservative estimates, at least 1 billion people are grossly malnourished from food insecurity and many more are at great risk. To make matters worse, we are diverting agriculture to produce energy rather than food. Continued growth of the human population, climate change and resource depletion virtually guarantee starvation on an unimaginable scale. If we were truly as smart as we like to believe, we never would have gotten ourselves to the brink of disaster in the first place.

Consider our rush over the climate cliff. Evidence that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is closely tied to climate change has been piling up for decades. (Here is an excellent video summary of the geological evidence for the carbon-climate link.) Yet technology has not been systematically developed and deployed to reduce carbon pollution. Our tools are no match for corporate greed and political cowardice.

Business as usual will be our demise. Sustainability advocates have been making this case for some time. It is interesting to see the scientific community come to same conclusion. The global economic system is driven by consumption regardless of the environmental costs. Those that benefit from this system are not going to relinquish control any time soon. We humans have created the ultimate predator - the multinational corporation. The survival of corporate interests trump the common good.

Here is the corporate predator at work in pushing us over the climate cliff.

Unfortunately, essential steps such as curbing global emissions to peak by 2020 and reducing them to half of present levels by 2050 [66] are extremely problematic economically and politically. Fossil fuel companies would have to leave most of their proven reserves in the ground, thus destroying much of the industry's economic value [67]. Because the ethics of some businesses include knowingly continuing lethal but profitable activities [68], it is hardly surprising that interests with large financial stakes in fossil fuel burning have launched a gigantic and largely successful disinformation campaign in the USA to confuse people about climate disruption [69,70] and block attempts to deal with it [71].
The corporate predator is well served by political incompetence and corruption. Take a good hard look at the confederacy of dunces in D.C. for proof that our goose is going to be cooked.

We have dealt with the climate cliff by allowing fossil fuels to continue to dominate our energy policy. One political party calls climate change a hoax. The other party claims that carbon pollution is a serious problem, but only wants to take a few timid steps toward cleaner energy sources. And for all the talk of Obama as the king of 11th dimensional chess, it is breaking news when he even mentions climate change. (Mr. President, gun control is nice but carbon control is necessary.)

There is nothing particularly earthshaking in the Ehrlich and Ehrlich analysis, but it is remarkable to see scientists speak bluntly about stupid human tricks. It is especially remarkable when it happens in one of the most respected scientific publications in the world.

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 [28], are everywhere. One central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is the distribution of costs and benefits through time: the costs up front, the benefits accruing largely to unknown people in the future.
By the way, calls for action on the climate crisis are growing louder. For example, the MIT Technology Review just called on the president to make climate change a top priority for his second term. Thomas Friedman makes a forceful case for a carbon tax to speed the transition to cleaner alternative energy sources. The political animals will ignore these calls. Nothing is likely to change until the Millennials take to the streets in very large numbers to demand rapid transition from fossil fuels. They have the most skin in the game.

If nothing else, the Ehrlich and Ehrlich article will prove useful for anthropologists in the distant future trying to understand the remarkable failures of the Anthropocene Epoch.

Originally posted to DWG on Wed Jan 16, 2013 at 10:57 AM PST.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS, Climate Hawks, Science Matters, and Community Spotlight.

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