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The Collapse of Civilization: "It Wouldn’t Be An Adventure"
Alex Steffen, 3 Jan 08

Kim Stanley Robinson makes a point I made elsewhere, but much more clearly:

"It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario."

The other half of this coin, of course, is that many of the things we need to do to avoid meltdown will also help us lead happier, more secure lives, both on local and national levels.

(Follow on: KSR also says, "As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that’s now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time." I actually think that he's really right here, that there's a tremendous untapped vein of inspiration in a lot of the 1970s thinking about sustainability, especially if the period costuming is stripped off and the tech is updated. )

((Which, going further, ties into something I've seen a lot of people musing about lately -- including Regine here on WC just today -- which is the future that was being promoted at the end of the 1970's, which was greener and fairer and far more sane than the Reagan/ Thatcher/ Kohl vision that destroyed it has turned out to be. Which raises a possibility for speculative fiction that would be a lot of fun: what if the Reagan "revolution" never happened -- what if the U.S. had taken the other road?))

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People who think civilisation will somehow be better off by going through a collapse are surely few in number but definitely are dangerous dreamers. The more common viewpoint I read is from sceptic/delayer pundits who seem to labour under the misapprehension that civilisation that doesn't undergo collapse but does experience the full effects of climate change will be better off due to warmer temperatures and the like. That's almost as big a failure in imagination and almost as dangerous.

Would it be possible to have Kim write a guest post on WC? Ever since reading the Mars Trilogy (which I can recommend to all) I've greatly admired his writing and it would be very interesting to hear more of his views.

Posted by: Scatter on 4 Jan 08

Which raises a possibility for speculative fiction that would be a lot of fun: what if the Reagan "revolution" never happened -- what if the U.S. had taken the other road?

An outstanding question. Alex, you often say that to build a sustainable world, we need to imagine it. Here's your opportunity.

Posted by: David Foley on 4 Jan 08

Thinking about it, it would be very interesting to hear his views on geoenengineering given the terraforming content in the Mars Trilogy.

Posted by: Scatter on 4 Jan 08

"People who think civilisation will somehow be better off by going through a collapse are surely few in number but definitely are dangerous dreamers."

- I personally DO NOT THINK that civilisation will be better off after such an event, but NATURE, LIFE, the planet WILL BE. Civilisation IS the problem. I'm not sentimental enough to consider human life any more (or less) sacred than other lifeforms; I simply see the sustainabiliity issue like trying to install solar panels to heat the swimming pool on the Titanic; putting windmills up on the Titanic to power the casinos. Rearranging FSC deckchairs (with Fairtrade organic fabric from Peru) on the Titanic. Now, how many lifeboats was that I counted? I recommend reading the analogous short story in Richard Heinberg's 'Powerdown' and help us prise those floorboards up to start making more lifeboats!

Posted by: Fred Brown on 4 Jan 08

" I'm not sentimental enough to consider human life any more (or less) sacred than other lifeforms"

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm not either. I am, however, a human being who prefers his environmentalism to be a consequence of enlightened self-interest on the part of myself and my fellow humans. Sacred or not, human life is you and me.

Posted by: Philip Welch on 4 Jan 08

Neither am I and I don't think I implied that in my comment. I am however quite fond of the human race and the civilisation we have at the moment, even with it's horrific faults, and would quite like to see it continue.

Posted by: Scatter on 5 Jan 08

I personally don't think an environmental catastrophe would be an adventure by any means. I look upon it as I look upon my own death- inevitable and bringing a change of perspective and existence(for better or worse).

Posted by: Dillon on 7 Jan 08

But of course the collapse of civilization will be an adventure, albeit a brutal one; not every adventure is guaranteed to end well, and no one is guaranteed survival. However, one's chances of survival improve with education and preparation.

While civilization's collapse would devastate the human population, it wouldn't necessarily wipe it out. In the long run, a vastly reduced human population would be good for the planet. Undeniably, population growth drives resource consumption, energy demand, the rising costs of health care, education, housing, and a host of other problems, including air and water pollution and global climate change. When there are fewer people, all of these problems will simply go away.

Skipping down to the bottom line, we--both as a species and as individuals--don't deserve to survive until we learn to live lightly and sustainably and to share in Gaia's bounty.

Posted by: Phil Hanson on 8 Jan 08

I don't mind my own death. it will come before the fit hits the shan. But I don't feel like it is fair to bequeath this to the young who follow me/us.

I also highly recommend KSR's global warming trilogy (40 Days of Rain, etc.)

I have been fascinated this last year with the question of what happened to the wisdom of the seventies, and the books noted above. There are two books on Stewart Brand out now, and I was shocked to buy Witold Rybczynski's Paper Heroes (1979, on appropriate technology) and find it so prescient.

It was an odd experience to go to a library sale in April 1990, as Earth Day fever was sweeping the US and to find some of the books above (and their ilk) being swept out of libraries as they outdated their shelves.

How short our memories!

Posted by: Jim on 8 Jan 08

Thanks to KSR.

My generation of elders appears to be doing a woefully inadequate job of helping our children understand that the current, relentless, business-as-usual effort to grow the global economy, given the gigantic scale and anticipated growth rate of the economic globalization, could soon become patently unsustainable on a small, finite planet with the size and make-up of Earth.

Hopefully, our children will somehow find the political will and the courage, despite their elders' denial of reality, to restructure and regulate the global economy so that it functions in a sustainable way, lest a colossal economic or ecologic wreckage befall them.

The human community includes more than 6.6 billion people now. By 2050, the UN Population Division projects a world population of over 9 billion people. That is an approximately 40% increase in absolute global human population numbers in the next 42 years. Can we reasonably and sensibly expect that Earth can sustain so many billions of people? What scientific evidence, sound reasoning or common sense explanation can provide a foundation for expanding unbridled economic globalization even one more day, for increasing unrestrained per capita consumption beyond its present conspicuous level for one more week, and for condoning the projected addition of 70 to 80 million members of the human community in this year alone?



Steve Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

Posted by: stevenearlsalmony on 9 Jan 08

There is a great book out that summarizes what individuals need to do -- it is based around peak oil but is just as relevant for climate change: _The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook_ by Albert Bates.
It is totally obvious we won't get to 9 billion people. All the fun starts in the next decade (probably more like the next five years). The oil crash will take less than a decade to play out (_Long Emergency_ by Kunstler) while climate will just keep on getting worse since so much is in the pipeline. Plus temps will spike as the smog goes away when China shuts down factories.


Posted by: Curt McNamara on 10 Jan 08

Dear Friends,

If the rich and famous people among us do not start expressing their concern for something other than their riches and privileges soon, then approaching global challenges, to be found in the offing, could serve the purpose of helping them refocus their attention and change their behavior.

There can be no functioning manmade global economy without adequate natural resources and global ecosystem services that only the Earth can provide. To believe that business-as-usual economic globalization can continue to expand much longer, let alone endlessly, in our relatively small, evidently finite and noticeably frangible planetary home is magical and wishful thinking of the first order. Such thinking is an embarrassment to anyone who values good science, sound reasoning and common sense.

The failure of the wealthy and politically powerful people in my not-so-great generation of elders to respond ably to the requirements of practical reality will soon be seen by our children as the worst example of a gross dereliction of duty in human history.



Steve Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A. on 12 Jan 08

My concern with many of these issues, is that while there are many campaigns
to raise awareness, there do not seem to be enough programs that actually
facilitate the underling process changes (in individuals and society) needed for
successful change.

I feel that active change at the process level is crucial for the progression of our
civilisation towards a sustainable system that integrates beneficially with our
natural environment.

Posted by: Stewart Gebbie on 15 Jan 08

KSR is simply amazing. He reminds me very much of Al Gore in terms of his breadth of knowledge and insight. Thanks to worldchanging for pointing out the need to moderate environmental enthusiasm in approaching the prospect of a human die down from global warming or peak oil (or both!). I wonder if KSR would be willing to collaborate with Al Gore in creating a blockbuster environmental feature film that would make Star Wars look like a flop in comparison?

Posted by: Jorge Luis-Delgado on 15 Jan 08

When our hominid species gets hungry and thirsty, we tend to wipe each other out in mass numbers. Read Jared Diamond's treatment of the Rwanda genocide for a fine example - Interesting fact, people were wiping out members of their own tribes, and the people who tended to get wiped were the ones with land. Diamond correlates this to the decline in food-producing land per capita. Another good reference is Peter Schwartz's report on climate change for the Pentagon a couple of years back.
The report envisioned the possibility of climate drought and famine causing nuclear war on the Indian subcontinent. Anyone who thinks a collapse of civilization would not bring out the nukes is just kidding themselves.

"Mad Max" fantasies notwithstanding, the combination of ecological and social collapse with all the feedback loops might reduce the human species, as James Lovelock says, to "breeding pairs of humans in the Arctic."

Posted by: Patrick Mazza on 18 Jan 08



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