NASA’s done a study on predicting the end of civilisation, and there are some important lessons. The data look grim for us, but I still have faith in humanity.
I’ve never known why we spend so much time worry about Armageddon. What’s the point stressing about the possibility of a meteor destroying all life on earth, if there’s no way to predict it and no way to prevent it?
It’s just bringing pointless stress into your life.
And it’s one of those quirks of the human mind. We spend a lot of time worrying about meteor’s and black-swan events in financial markets, and less time worrying about getting hit by a bus or years of sub-par returns, even though these are infinitely more likely.
But I think it can be fun to ponder the end of civilisation. In the past 10,000 years how many civilisations have risen into positions of unassailable strength, only to completely collapse in the blink of an eye. The Egyptians, The Romans, The Mayans, The Aztecs… That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
From this perspective, the current global order of things doesn’t seem so permanent.
So what can we learn from the collapse of previous orders? Well, NASA commissioned a study to see what we could learn from history. (yes NASA – with the rockets and the landing on the moon and all that. I’m not sure what their angle is here. Maybe they’re tried to build funding for escape podules.)
Anyway, when they cast their eyes back through history, they found that there were three common and inter-related factors in the ruins of every great civilisation.
- Lack of available resources
- A drastically skewed wealth distribution
One and two are kind of the same. The amount of resources you need depends on the size of your population. So it kind of gives us two scenarios for the end of civilisation as we know it.
In the first scenario, wealth inequality kills society. The wealthy grow to consume too much of the world’s resources leading to a collapse in the common class. Having broken the back of the workers who are carrying them around, the demise of the wealthy elites is inevitable.
In the second scenario, we just run out of resources. There simply isn’t enough minerals, water, land, internet (the fundamentals of human life) to sustain us. There’s also an inequity aspect to this. As the resources dry up, it’s the poor working folk who go to the wall first. The rich try to insulate themselves for as long as they can, but eventually reality catches up with them.
So how are we tracking? Is the end nigh? There’s a few ways to get a handle on this…
First up, we can look at population. That’s been on a strong upward run since the 70s, and won’t be levelling out anytime soon. It’s a grim picture if you’re worried about over-population.
But the population data is a bit meaningless without knowing how much resources each person is using.
On that measure, things aren’t looking great. Natural resource depletion (as a percent of income – so how much we’ve got to eat into natural resources to produce the same amount of stuff) is on the rise again. We weren’t doing too bad in the 90s, but it jumped up in the 2000s, dropped after the GFC, but is on the rise again.
It’s a crude measure, but we’re not headed in the right direction.
Another way to look at it, is to look at how many years our current known resources have left. The amazon’s got almost a couple of hundred years before it’s completely deforested (which is better than I thought, but 200 years isn’t that long really).
But a lot of our other resources have a lot less. Coal has 42 years. Oil 37. Looks like a great many of our resources will run dry in my lifetime. (gulp.)
On the inequality front, we’re actually doing better, as a planet. Inequality in the OECD has actually plateaued in recent years:
But my suspicion is that this is mostly due emerging middle classes in our developing countries. I’ve seen some charts that have shown that income inequality actually got a lot worse in the US after the GFC. I don’t know what it is here.
Anyway, last time I checked there didn’t seem to be much support amongst the global elites for sharing the wealth around.
Well, you can’t accuse me of seeing the world through rose coloured glasses. There are some pretty major challenges on the horizon.
However, I’m still an optimist at heart, and I think there’s some important qualifiers.
The first is the role technology plays. No other empire existed in the technological quickening that we’re experiencing. That won’t save us in and of itself, but it does open up some possibilities.
Take solar energy for example. The solar industry achieves greater and greater economies every year. Soon, we could be looking at economic systems built on ‘free’ energy. Once that fundamental building block changes, the whole game changes.
Imagine for example, solar powered robots mining the world’s garbage dumps to recycle metals and minerals. Or solar powered desalination plants creating water for agricultural land.
I’m not hanging my hat on solar-powered robots to save us, but I’m conscious that we live in a time where the lag between our sci-fi dreams and reality is getting shorter by the day. It’s enough to give me a ray of hope.
And I also believe in humanity. We’re and ingenious species capable of incredible things (including the great miracle of being beautiful towards each other). When push comes to shove, I’ve seen humans rise above incredible challenges. I have to believe that we’ll find a way.
I’m not saying sit back and relax, everything will be sweet. And I would like to see a bit more leadership on this stuff.
But I’m not going to wallow in depression about how we’re all going to hell in a hand basket.
What’s the point of that?