A pair of sobering reports have received media attention recently. One is a study led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory geographer Thomas Wilbanks on the possibility of cascading system failures due to climate change [New Government Report Warns of ‘Cascading System Failures’ Caused By Climate Change]. A second report is a NASA study about how a ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global systems. [NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?]
We have mistaken impression that civilization is a progressive march in the forward direction only. But history is littered with civilizations such as the Roman Empire, Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, all of whom were sophisticated and advanced (for their time). The NASA study involved natural and social scientists who studied these dynamics and identified five major factors related to societal collapse: Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy. These factors can converge to generate two social outcomes: pressure on resources due to strains on ecological carrying capacity and the stratification of society into rich and poor. Both have played a role in the collapse of societies over the past 5000 years.
Technology won’t save us. Technology can make processes more efficient, but can also lead to greater consumption of resources by lowering cost and therefore increasing demand (an outcome sometimes referred to as Jevon’s Paradox). And technological societies are brittle. As Wilbanks and team point out, the services provided by infrastructures have interdependencies that can lead to cascading failures. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, the loss of electricity meant that oil pipelines could not ship and refineries in the region could not operate, leading to higher gas prices across the country. Contemporary lifestyles rely on these intricate webs of infrastructure services, rendering society vulnerable to localized events that propagate widely and cause major disruption.
Required is social change: a reduction of economic inequality to diminish potential for social disruption, and reduction in resource consumption through renewable resources and slower population growth. In other words, we must find ways to reduce the external threats to our technological and societal systems: hardening our infrastructure by itself will not help.