Should we try to avoid collapse?

Over on George Monbiot’s site, he and Paul Kingsnorth are debating whether we should try to save industrial civilization.

One interesting quote from the discussion:

Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them.

While there are plenty of environmentalists who assert that only a deep green approach that rejects all aspects of our current capitalist and integrated global society can succeed, there is the competing case that our current system is one that contains the possibility of sustainability, in a way that alternative systems do not.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

18 thoughts on “Should we try to avoid collapse?”

  1. Lomborg has ever-growing notoriety within the environmental community.

    First, he argued that we should do nothing about climate change because stopping it would cost more than adapting.

    Now, he is arguing that geoengineering will be safe, cheap, and effective.

    In the end, I think only further research into the possibility will make it clear to people that it might not work, might be very costly, and might have severe side effects.

  2. The fact that this is phrased as a question that is to be pondered as though there are options is silly. Whether certain groups want it or not, humans will adapt to climate change in one of two ways, either preventively or as the effects start to impinge upon us greatly. In doing so, technology will be employed. I think it’s highly unlikely that industrialized nations will disappear.

    Industrial civilization is responsible for significantly greater lifespans and quality of living for humans. Even if, as a byproduct, it results in an unintended decrease in the quality of human life through climate change, it is still desirable that future technology tries to restore that quality of life. If we aren’t concerned about quality of life, what’s the point in being concerned by climate change at all? It doesn’t matter to the planet what happens either way, it only matters to its occupants.

  3. I don’t think it’s impossible that industrial civilization will fail, either due to the effects of catastrophic climate change or because we run out of cheap fossil fuels before we have produced enough renewable energy capacity.

    The question of what ought to be done in the face of that is a complex one. I am more in agreement with Monbiot, that it would be possible to make a system similar to our current one sustainable. I don’t think a return to pastoralism, radical decentralization, the abandonment of capitalism, etc would necessarily deal with any of the problems we face.

  4. I don’t think it’s impossible that industrial civilization will fail, either due to the effects of catastrophic climate change or because we run out of cheap fossil fuels before we have produced enough renewable energy capacity.

    I’m more inclined to think that a worst case scenario would be a large die-off when food production drops-off, but with enough technology or capacity left to allow those who remain at least some ability to produce sustainable and modern infrastructure.

  5. That outcome also seems possible.

    A lot depends on how much conflict would arise as the result of civilizational decline. The kind of cascading failure Diamond identifies in the Greenland Norse and Anasazi seems possible if states respond to a sharply worsening climatic situation in aggressive ways.

    No doubt, there are other possible outcomes as well.

  6. Yes, perhaps the worst case scenario is that climate chaos leads to resource (e.g. food, water) shortages, which radicalise and destabilise nuclear-armed nations to the point of widespread nuclear exchange. Perhaps it is unlikely, but the question I was pondering as I woke up this morning (and came to work through a protest march against the Trident nuclear submarines here in the UK) was “will any industrial society with nuclear capabilities collapse peacefully if it perceives that other nations are partly to blame for its serious problems?”

    Whether or not they are nuclear (which I doubt at the moment, though unstable and declining nations with nuclear weapons is not a happy combination), the next wars might well stem from one of the many international conflicts over water resources, rather than oil.

  7. Yes, I wasn’t saying that there are not already tensions and conflict over water, simply that climate change may well heighten existing ones and spark new ones, leading water to be one of the flash points (or perhaps an underlying cause of other kinds of flash points) in international relations in the coming decades.

  8. Money’s Hunger
    Posted May 10, 2010

    Industrial civilisation is trashing the environment. Should we try to reform it or just watch it go down?

    By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th May 2010

    Those who defend economic growth often argue that only rich countries can afford to protect the environment. The bigger the economy, the more money will be available for stopping pollution, investing in new forms of energy, preserving wilderness. Only the wealthy can live sustainably.

    Anyone who has watched the emerging horror in the Gulf of Mexico in the past few days has cause to doubt this. The world’s richest country decided not to impose the rules that might have prevented the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, arguing that these would impede the pursuit of greater wealth. Economic growth, and the demand for oil it propelled, drove companies to drill in difficult and risky places.

    But we needn’t rely on this event to dismiss the cornucopians’ thesis as self-serving nonsense. A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculates deforestation rates between 2000 and 2005 in the countries with the largest areas of forest cover. The nation with the lowest rate was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The nation with the highest, caused by a combination of logging and fire, was the United States. Loss of forest cover there (6% in five years) was almost twice as fast as in Indonesia and ten times as fast as in the DRC. Why? Because those poorer countries have less money to invest in opening up remote places and felling trees.

  9. “So the Dark Mountain project, whose ideas are spreading rapidly through the environment movement, is worth examining. It contends that “capitalism has absorbed the greens”. Instead of seeking to protect the natural world from the impact of humans, the project claims that environmentalists now work on “sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level which the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right.”

    Today’s greens, it charges, seek to sustain the culture that knackers the planet, demanding only that we replace old, polluting technologies with new ones – wind farms, solar arrays, wave machines – that wreck even more of the world’s wild places. They have lost their feelings for nature, reducing the problem to an engineering challenge. They’ve forgotten that they are supposed to be defending the biosphere: instead they are trying to save industrial civilisation. “

  10. Industrial civilisation is trashing the environment. Should we try to reform it or just watch it go down?
    This is a false dichotomy. While I am hesitant about Dark Mountain, I fear that Monbiot is caricaturing their approach by saying it amounts merely to watching industrial social “go down”.

  11. This is the first I’ve heard of Dark Mountain, and I don’t really understand what the idea behind them is.

    Personally, I think it is possible to produce a form of civilization that is both industrialized and in keeping with acceptable environmental practices. The key tasks required for achieving that are replacing our energy sources with zero-carbon forms, protecting habitat, and possibly things like encouraging a slowly shrinking human population.

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