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Why might civilisation fail?
Our civilisation is unsustainable
How will it fail?
What will follow?
When will the decline begin?
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Are we seeing the beginning of the end of this global civilisation?

Written 2008/02/23, modified 2014/09/15
Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com

The economic collapse of 2008/09 showed that the global economy is delicate; by August 2011 serious civil unrest had hit the UK, the European economy was in serious trouble, and the USA had uncontrollable debt. If such serious collapse can be triggered by the failure of a relatively trivial thing such as the sub-prime mortgage market in the USA, how much worse will the collapse likely be following some combination of the problems listed below?

I hasten to say that this page is not a prediction of Armageddon; rather it is a statement that, if we do not change the ways our civilisation works by a conscious effort, great and probably unforeseeable changes will be forced upon us.

It is worth noting that probably the only major world-wide sustainability problem that has ever been resolved is the destruction of the ozone layer by chloro-fluro-carbons.

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Why is the present global civilisation likely to fail?

There are many reasons to believe that the present global civilisation is facing its last years. These things may not bring down civilisation, but they will greatly change it:
  1. Environment has a low priority: the majority of the people of the world, and consequently the governments of democratic nations, give a low priority to the environment. As an example, on 2014/01/16 Lara Giddings, Premier of the Australian state of Tasmania, said: "[Labor party supporters] see from the Greens still a party that concentrates on the environment as their number one core issue." She was pointing out why people should vote for Labor and not for the greens. This idea, that the environment is all very well, but should not get top priority is no doubt a common view, and is why we see the problems listed on this page; the environment must come first, if we rubbish our environment we will find that we have nothing.

  2.  

    Addicted to cheap energy

    Tens of thousands of years ago mankind's energy came from the food we ate. With the domestication of animals, we harnessed the energy in the food that our domestic animals ate and at about the same time we discovered fire and were able to use the heat from burning wood to warm ourselves and cook our food. From about the twelfth century we progressively harnessed an increasing amount of energy from wind and flowing water; then, in the nineteenth century we started using steam engines to enable us to use the energy stored in fossil fuels. From then the price of energy has more-or-less steadily fallen and our consumption steadily increased.

    "All the energy in crops grown today–along with plants consumed by livestock and trees harvested for pulp, paper and other wood products–comes to roughly 180 Exajoules, or about 20 percent of world energy consumption." Scientific American, p45, August 2011.

    Mining requires large quantities of petroleum and will therefore slow as petroleum prices rise; even if coal is seen as a substitute for petroleum (at the cost of higher rates of greenhouse carbon dioxide production) the cost of mining the coal will be higher in the future.
    Modern farming is energy intensive, because of the machinery used and the heavy use of fertilizer, the manufacture of which is also energy intensive. The energy cost of food packaging, preparation, transporting foods long distances is also very high. Scientific American (January 2012) estimated the energy consumption of the food industry as percentages of the total U.S. energy budget:
    U.S. Energy Budget Spent on Food
    Food packaging, preparation, refrigeration, handling, sales and service5%
    Agriculture2%
    Food transportation2%
    Food processing and manufacturing1%
    The same article stated that ten times the fossil-fuel energy goes into foods grown in the USA as is available from those foods.

    The declining supply of petroleum will force food prices up.

    We are running out of readily accessible petroleum, the evidence is suggesting that peak production of conventional petroleum has past, yet governments and industry are taking little action. The development of horizontal drilling and fracking has made available unconventional petroleum, but there are serious environmental questions.

  3. With declining petroleum supplies cheap energy is finished. With the end of cheap energy will come the end of cheap mining. The world's richest shallow mineral deposites have been mined-out. The deposites that are being mined now are generally deeper and/or less concentrated. They therefore require more energy to mine than shallow, highly concentrated, deposites.

  4. Climate change will cause massive disruption, environmental disasters, mass migrations and wars; yet not a single government is doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas production; most are doing next to nothing. For every one degree Celsius rise of temperature above the norm, wheat, rice and corn yields fall by 10 percent (Scientific American, May 2009). Yet denial of climate change abounds.

  5. Water supplies are coming under increasing pressure. More and more water is needed to maintain agricultural production, but most of the world's water resources are already over-exploited.

  6. While world population continues to rise world food production seems to have peaked and be on the decline. This decline will accelerate as fertiliser prices rise with shrinking petroleum supplies and more land is used for energy production to replace the petroleum that is going to be harder to get and the coal that we must try not to burn.

  7. Population growth has stopped in China and in most developed nations. This had to happen some time, but it has resulted in several forms of disruption: aging populations having to be supported by a diminishing work force in the West, and a gender inequality in China, among others.

  8. There is an increasing gap between rich and poor in most of the world. This is resulting in an increasing level of disillusionment among the poor, which, in turn, is leading to a less cohesive and stable society (consider, for example, the riots in the UK in August 2011). No governments seem willing or able to reverse the trend in financial inequality.

  9. The ultimate cause for the failure of this civilisation is the dominance of short-term, emotionally-based and ill-informed decision making. Science and technology has given humanity power over our environment, but humans are driven largely by emotions. At a time when rationallity and an understanding of science and the knowledge that science has made available to us is increasingly essential, many of the world's people seem to be turning away from science; ignorance seems to be increasing, belief in 'new age' mumbo-jumbo, religion and other superstitions is increasing.

Our civilisation is unsustainable

By definition, a civilisation that is unsustainable must change in one way or another. If the unsustainable features of a civilisation are not changed by a conscious effort of the citizens then changes will be forced onto the civilisation. Each of the problems below must be solved if our civilisation is to become sustainable. The first twelve points in the list below are based on those that Jared Diamond included in his excellent book, Collapse, I added the remainder. (Diamond's list is repeated in its short form on my page, Threatened disasters compared.)
  1. Habitats are being destroyed at record rates.

  2. Wild foods, especially fish stocks, are being destroyed; trawling is damaging the sea-bed.

  3. Biodiversity is being lost at record rates.

  4. The area of land available for food production, and the remaining land's productivity, is decreasing due to:
    • Soil lost to erosion;
    • Fertility lost following declining levels of plant nutrients and soil carbon;
    • Soil productivity is being destroyed by salinisation due to the build-up of natural salts from irrigation water and reclaimed sewage water;
    • Land is being taken out of production for the construction of housing and roads, etc.
    • Productivity in a number of areas is declining because of declining rainfall (with climate change), in some areas previously productive land is turning to desert;
    • Coastal land is being lost due to rising sea levels, this is particularly important in the world's great river deltas (which have some of the world's most furtile land);
    • Land-use is being changed from food production to fuel production.

  5. Our civilisation is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, particularly petroleum, yet the supply is declining.

  6. Fresh water resources are greatly over-committed, and in many areas are declining due to climate change. Water is being drawn from many of the world's major aquifers at rates much greater than they are being recharged by natural processes; many are failing or will begin failing in the near future. Much of the world's food production depends on irrigation, but the water available for irrigation is decreasing.

  7. Humanity is approaching the 'photosynthetic ceiling'. Soon there will be little photosynthetic capacity on earth that is not dedicated to man's direct use.

  8. A huge range of chemicals are being released into natural environments with unknown long-term effects.

  9. Plastic wastes are being released into natural environments with unknown long-term effects. It has been forecast that by 2050, 95% of seabirds will have plastic in their gut.

  10. Alien species: weeds, pests and pathogens that humanity has spread around the world are having a steadily increasing effect.

  11. Problems due to climate change:
    • Rising ocean temperatures are causing coral reefs to die, sea ice to melt and sea levels to rise.
    • Rising temperatures on land are causing declines in agricultural productivity.
    • Mountain glaciers are retreating; this is particularly serious for those rivers that have their sources in the Himalayas and are heavily relied upon for irrigation in South and East Asia.
    • Positive feed-back effects are beginning, for example the release of methane from arctic permafrost and the decline in snow and ice cover will increase the greenhouse effect.

  12. World population continues to rise, especially steeply in many poorer states.

  13.  
    Economists and governments still believe that a growing economy is the only healthy economy, while the absurdity of this argument is obvious to anyone capable of seeing that one finite planet is incompatible with permanent exponential growth.
    The environmental impact of the average person is increasing, due to rising living standards. For example, people with more money to spend are demanding more meat, the production of which is more environmentally expensive than vegetable-based foods.

  14. The oceans are becoming more acidic (their pH is falling) due to increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (with climate change). This is detrimental to all those oceanic invertebrates that have calcium carbonate skeletons, such as corals, molluscs and many planktonic species.

  15. Forest is being cleared and not replaced. (Diamond was well aware of this problem, but did not include it, as an individual item, in his dozen.)

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  16. Modern mechanised agriculture requires large quantities of cheap (petroleum) fuel; in some cases the energy in the crops produced is little greater than the energy consumed to raise the crops. To be sustainable agriculture must produce crops containing far more available energy than is consumed in the total production process. (See energy return on investment.)

  17.  
    Morocco has control of about 40% of global phosphate reserves. Most of this phosphate is actually in Western Sahara, a nation that was annexed by Morocco in, I think, the 1990s. The UN has made efforts to allow the Sahrawis a referendum on the sovereignty of Western Sahara, but the Moroccan government is not moving. Morocco has a poor record on human rights.
    China has the second largest phosphate reserves on earth and just as poor a record on human rights as does Morocco.
    Phosphate supplies for the production of fertiliser are running out. Phosphorus is one of the three most important plant nutrients; without phosphorus fertilisers the "Green Revolution" in agriculture would not have been possible. Scientific American (June 2009) called the world's phosphate supply "a looming crisis" and said that if action is not taken now "future agriculture will collapse". Some phosphate deposits contain levels of cadmium sufficient to cause contamination of the soils that receive the phosphate fertilizers over an extended period of time.

  18. The populations of most countries are aging. Apart from the aged, the proportion of the populations of Western nations in particular who are incapable of, or unwilling to, work is increasing (single mothers, disabled, unemployable, etc.) This is placing an increasing load on the shrinking proportion of the population that has to support the economies.

  19. Superstitions and fundamentalist religions, particularly Islam, are gaining an increasing grip on the world's people at a time when what is needed is a carefully thought-out and reasoned response to the problems listed here. How many people are expecting a non-existent god to fix all our problems rather than taking action themselves?

  20. Pollinating insects are in decline. Honeybees, in particular, are suffering badly in many countries from colony collapse disorder. (While the cause of CCD is not fully known, it seems to be due to "multiple factors [that] interact to weaken the hives, making them susceptible to a range of pathogens and viruses." [New Internationalist, Sept. 2009]) Wild bees are also suffering losses and quite probably extinction of some species. Some of the causes of the decline of pollinating insects are: the clearing of native vegetation, with its enormous variety of flowering species; monoculture agriculture, which all flowers at the same time resulting if feasts alternating with famines for the insects; and widespread use of agricultural chemicals, insecticides in particular. Without the pollinating insects, many plants are less able, or unable, to reproduce.

  21. Man is now artificially producing more nitrates (as fertilisers) than are produced naturally, with the result that the natural nitrogen cycle has become unbalanced. Nitrates and phosphate being washed off farmland and from sewage are causing algal blooms and consequent 'dead zones' in the coastal waters of many parts of the world.

  22. The present careless use of antibiotics is causing micro-organisms to develop resistance. Antibiotics are, for example, routinely added to some animal feeds because it produces slightly faster growth rates.

  23. The ozone layer that protects the earth's surface from damaging ultra-violet light has been damaged. Production of the worst of the gasses that have caused most ozone loss have been controlled by the Montreal Protocol, and there is cause for optimism; but no room for complacency.

  24.  
    People with access to enough land to significantly supplement their needs will do so, but modern city and suburban blocks are so small that their owners will not have this option.
    Our mega-cities are not compatible with a declining supply of petroleum. Carting food and other materials from where they are produced into cities, and carting wastes out, requires a lot of fuel. As the loss of petroleum makes our present form of mechanised agriculture less viable and as food prices rise due to shortages, more labour will be required to maximise food production; that labour is living in the wrong place at present. Modern cities and suburbs have been developed to suit the private car.

  25. The private car, as it is, is incompatible with declining petroleum supplies and the need to reduce greenhouse gas production; its use must be greatly reduced if societies are to become sustainable, but there is no indication of reduction as of 2009. Changing to electric vehicles of similar power to current petroleum-fuelled models will no much help, going to much lower-powered and lighter vehicles might be viable.

  26. We are travelling too quickly. The speeds that we travel at present in cars, and aeroplanes is unsustainable because we are approaching the end of oil and producing too much of several greenhouse gasses. Energy is about to become much more expensive, both in financial and environmental terms, and we are going to have to learn to use it more economically and rationally.

  27. The gap between rich and poor is widening. Even in the great democracies, the wealthy are gathering to themselves a steadily increasing share of political power (by controlling who gets into government and then controlling what those in power do – consider the lack of government action on climate change while the great majority of informed voters want action), leaving a declining amount of power to the less well-off. As in the past, a point will be reached at which those near the bottom of the heap will demand a more balanced spread of wealth and power.

  28. Malnutrition is increasing. Many people still don't have enough to eat, that is nothing new and may not be increasing, but obesity due to poor eating habbits is increasing at a very high rate, and not just in the well fed West. This is leading to increased health problems and health costs.

  29. Meat consumption is increasing. The production of meat requires far more land that the production of the same amount of vegetable foods. There is no more land.
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Of critical importance is the fact that humanity has not reacted rationally and appropriately to these problems. In response to climate change governments are doing as little as possible and the great majority of individuals are not changing their lifestyles; governments refuse to see that growth cannot continue for ever and seem to not want to know about the declining petroleum supply. People live as if most of the above problems did not exist and we can continue to live the next fifty years with as little care for the environment as in the past fifty.

We have become reliant on a globally integrated economy. Given the above problems, this cannot continue.






How will our global civilisation fail?

The present interdependent world-wide civilisation might fail catastrophically, provoked by some crisis (like the economic crisis of 2009), or it could gradually come undone due to increasing combinations of economic and/or environmental factors.

The costs of food, water and energy are increasing.

Food

We have run out of new agricultural land; there is no more good agricultural land that can be brought into production. The Green Revolution is over. Poor agricultural land can be temporarily got by felling the world's remaining forest, at great environmental cost. There are increasing problems with loss of fertility and weeds in the world's agricultural land.

Water

Nearly all the water available has been committed in the parts of the world where water is needed for food production. Water can be diverted from one use to another, or one place to another, or fresh water can be got from the sea, but all with increased costs and increased consumption of increasingly expensive energy.

Energy

The portable energy that we have got from petroleum is becoming more expensive because we are running out of petroleum. The Global Financial Crisis of 2009 temporarily eased the pressure on the petroleum supply (and therefore on the cost of petroleum), but by early 2011 we were again seeing increasing petroleum prices. There are still huge reserves of lower value forms of petroleum, but all come with greater financial and environmental costs.

The cost of electricity is increasing due to several factors:

  • Nuclear power has proved to be much more costly (in money, irrespective of its environmental costs) than was expected fifty years ago, and the cheapest uranium has already been mined; what remains is low grade ore and more costly to get out of the ground.
  • Little more hydro-power is available without either unacceptable environmental damage or loss of agricultural land, or both.
  • We cannot increase the rate at which we mine and burn coal without increasing climate change, and in any case, the easiest coal to mine has gone in many parts of the world.
  • We are running out of petroleum; the increasing cost of fuel feeds-back into many other costs.
  • Sustainable power, while potentially plentiful, is more expensive than the simple mining and burning of fossil fuels.

So, it seems likely that the graduall decline in availability of cheap food, water and energy will cause finding a livelihood on this planet to become steadily more challenging.

 
By mid 2012 we have seen social unrest in the European countries that are having the biggest financial problems. Is it possible that these will escalate and brind down governments and financial systems?
It is probable that economic decline will be initiated by falling petroleum supplies; if so then there will be a feed-back between demand and price of petroleum – as petroleum prices rise, world economy will decline and demand for petroleum will shrink, tending to ease the pressure on price. Our civilisation is very dependent upon cheap energy, and petroleum is the most portable and convenient of the cheap energy sources. Rising petroleum prices will cause shortages and price rises in many other things that have been cheap because energy and petroleum has been cheap. It seems likely that there will be a positive feed-back with small rises in the cost of energy leading to increasing costs in almost everything else, leading back into further increases in the cost of energy.

It is possible that an outbreak of a highly contagious disease, such as the flu epedemic of 1918 or SARS, might provide the trigger that begins the collapse.

Governments and economists have long relied on growing economies and have irrationally seemed to believe that economies can continue to grow for ever. Declining resources, the end of cheap energy in particular, will probably cause negative economic growth.

In the early stages of the decline there will be rising unemployment. This will result in reduced turn-over in the retail industry, restaurants and other businesses that rely on discretionary spending; in turn this will lead to increasing defaulting on mortgages, eventually resulting in the failure of banks. Governments will have greatly reduced revenue because of the decreased tax income and increased expendature due to unemployment; so they will not be in a position to bail-out the banks.

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What will follow?

While the interconnected global civilisation seems likely to fail in not many years, it is very probable that more local civilisations will endure in many places. If we are lucky the rule of law will not break down in most areas and perhaps the present Golden Age of free thought and scientific advance will continue in at least some regions.

 

July 2012

Are the current financial problems the beginning of much greater changes? Why are we having the present problems? Why the financial slow-down generally in The West, worse than that in Europe. What is the underlying cause? Increasing cost of fuel? Increasing cost of food? Declining supply of space for development?

Or maybe it can't be stated specifically? Maybe it's just the result of an ever increasing use of resources that are becoming steadily more scarce?

In the early phase of declining petroleum, energy and food prices will rise because the cost of agricultural production will rise, this will lead on to an increase in malnutrition and starvation particularly in third world nations. As I write this in early 2011 we have already seen big rises in energy prices and food riots in response to steeply rising food prices.

Manufacturing and services industries will decline because people will make-do with aging machines or do without, and will not be able to afford many of the services. This will lead to widespread unemployment, particularly in cities, with consequent defaulting on mortgages and loans; many banks will fail (many came close to failing in the recent Global Financial Crisis). The GFC showed that banks are less stable than we used to think; in a more serious down-tern many will fail, and governments will not be able to afford to prop them up. Financial constraints on governments – largely because income from tax will be much reduced – will become very tight, but the lessons that we are seeing in the near-economic failures of states such as Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Spain and Portugal in 2010 and 2011 will probably not have been learned and there will be many states that will become bankrupt.

 
Fuel is one of the main costs in farming, fertiliser is another; manufacture of nitrogenous fertiliser is highly energy intensive and the raw materials for making phosphate fertilisers are running out.
The developed nations will no longer have the money (or the will) to support poor nations; this, combined with the increasing cost of energy, price of food, scarcity of water, etc. etc. will lead to wide-spread starvation and political instability there. Many of the people of poor nations will attempt to move to richer nations, causing further instabilities.

In the developed nations agricultural industries will have to be supported so that enough food can be produced to feed the people. Unemployment, and the lack of the option of any subsistence gardening within our crowded cities will probably cause a migration from urban to rural areas, placing heavy loads on local economies and societies. Regulation of wages will be reduced or stopped all together to put more flexibility into economies; reduced wages and government support for agriculture will cause a great increase in employment in the sector. The availability of lowly paid workers will allow for an increasingly labour-intensive agricultural industry and probably lead to an increased level of productivity per hectare.

 
If I am right about the collapse of this global civilisation then the Internet may also fail (or people will simply have higher priorities than reading material on the Internet), so few or none will read this page. Until that time, people will be able to read this page, and they will probably believe that I am wrong because civilisation has not failed – yet!
Bankrupt states will not be able to financially support those people who cannot support themselves; the poor will, at least to a large extent, be thrown on their own devices. People such as self-funded retirees will find that most of their investments will fail.

On the world scale it seems likely that mass migrations and consequent wars will ravage Africa and Eurasia in particular.

If, in the worst case, there is a major decline into barbarism, it will be difficult to climb back to civilisation because all of the easily mined resources have been used up. The next civilisation will be a different one, we can hope it will be a saner one.

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When will the decline begin?

Has it already started? Economic growth in the developed nations as a whole has been very slow for several years (as I write in April 2011), energy and food prices are rising and starvation increasing; water shortages are widespread; there are an increasing number of failed or failing states in the world; things are looking increasingly grim for many of the world's poorer people. We are in the later years of a great global golden age of freedom and enlightenment.

There is no reason to think that our present civilisation should be in some way fundamentally different to other civilisations (other than its global nature) and immune from the failures that have occurred to many others in the past.






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On this page...
Acidification of oceans
Addicted to cheap energy
Aging population
Agriculture too fuel-hungry
Alien species
Biodiversity loss
Cars unsustainable
Chemical contamination
Cities unsustainable
Climate change
Deforestation
Economists in dream-world
End of oil
Environmental footprint increasing
Environment has a low priority
Food supplies declining
Habitat destruction
How will it fail?
Our civilisation is unsustainable
Phosphate running out
Photosynthetic ceiling
Plastic contamination
Population rising
Problems due to climate change
Productive land less available
Soil and fertility loss
Superstition
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Water supply declining
What will follow?
When will the decline begin?
Why might civilisation fail?
Wild food stocks declining