How Human Collapse Could Really Happen

Between climate change and more, we could be sleepwalking into annihilation

Asteroids, supervolcanoes, nuclear war, climate change, engineered viruses, artificial intelligence, and even aliens — the end may be closer than you think. For the next two weeks, OneZero will be featuring essays drawn from editor Bryan Walsh’s forthcoming book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, which hits shelves on August 27 and is available for pre-order now, as well as pieces by other experts in the burgeoning field of existential risk. But we’re not helpless. It’s up to us to postpone the apocalypse.

LLately I’ve become obsessed with the question: Is this how it all ends? Is this how the mixed-bag story of human civilization comes to a close — anticlimatically, with barely even a whimper? Sure, there have been environmentalists since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962 who have been howling about environmental degradation. And yes, movements like Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate have accumulated a sizable following of activists around the world.

But these are — the truth is — tiny squeaks amidst a deafening cacophony of indifference and denialism. Given what’s at stake and the great urgency of this late hour, one might expect a stentorian chorus of panicked screams from everyone who isn’t a misanthrope around the globe: “The planet’s on fucking fire,” as Bill Nye so eloquently put it in a recent video. “If ever there wasn’t a time for thumb-twiddling, this would be it.”

The fact is that the climate time bomb is ticking down. It’s true that apocalypticists in every generation have yelped that their generation is the last, but this time is different. Why?

Because of science — because warnings that a cataclysmic rupture to human history lies ahead are based on evidence rather than faith and revelation. The freaked out climatologists and ecologists and oceanographers and zoologists are not like Christian pastors obsessed with the rapture. When scientists say that we human beings stand at a uniquely pivotal moment in history — a moment marked by unprecedented threats to our survival and one that demands immediate and profound changes to our way of life — we must take them seriously. There isn’t a single problem facing us that isn’t solvable. But solvable problems tend not to be solved if there’s no solver trying to solve them.

Here’s what we’re up against if we fail to act — in other words, if the Republicans continue to make the calls in Washington, D.C. (I’m an advocate of charging them, as well as oil company executives, with crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.)

According to one study, between 20% and 30% of the world “will experience serious drought and desertification by the year 2050” if civilization follows a business-as-usual trajectory on carbon emissions. Imagine the extraordinary social upheaval that will cause. The Southern region of the U.S. is home to 122,696,385 people. Think about what an exodus of, say, 100 million people would look like. It’s going to be Mad Max to the max. How will the government be able to maintain law and order? Where exactly will they go? And how will they buy new houses when they couldn’t sell their previous homes?

Right now, the U.S. can’t handle the “immigration crisis” at our southern border. Imagine what will happen when a billion people around the world are forced to leave their homes and move elsewhere — with the U.S., no doubt, being one of the main destinations.

This game of demographic musical chairs will be made even more complicated by the fact that (a) as the human population grows, more and more people are moving to cities, (b) eight out of the 10 largest cities are near the coast, and © climate change is causing sea levels to rise.

Consequently, coastal cities will become increasingly crowded with desperate folks trying to get by at exactly the moment when they’ll become more vulnerable than ever to devastating coastal flooding, catastrophic storms like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and other extreme weather incidents. Eventually, then, people will abandon these cities and establish new urban centers further inland. If you haven’t been to New Orleans, now would be a good time to visit because it’s not going to be around for much longer — unless some future tourism company invites people to scuba dive along the submerged alleys of the French Quarter.

The fact is that the inimical effects of climate change are far, far too numerous and complex to offer anything more than a blurry vision of the future. Soil depletion is making our food less nutritious, and meteorological vagaries like heat waves will result in food supply disruptions that will leave supermarket shelves empty for days or weeks at a time. This is worse news than you think because, as one study found, we’ll need more food in the next 50 years than human civilization has so far produced.

This could happen. It really could. It almost certainly will if we continue to fixate our eyes to the right of our visual field while the entire scientific community is screaming, “Look left!”

Oh, and there’s the rapidly wilting biosphere on which we depend for food, pharmaceuticals, and other “ecosystem services.” We’re in the early stages of the sixth mass extinction event, and according to the 2018 Living Planet Report, the global population of wild birds, fish, amphibians, mammals, etc., declined by a staggering 60% between 1970 and 2012. This statistic is burned into my neurons, and it keeps me up at night with dilated pupils and sweaty palms. We’re burning down our home and we started the fire with a flamethrower.

Then there’s the emerging “insect apocalypse,” which just by itself could bring the whole edifice of global society crashing down. Here’s how the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson imagines things happening:

A majority of flowering plants, upon being deprived of their pollinators, cease to reproduce.

Most herbaceous plant species among them spiral down to extinction. Insect-pollinated shrubs and trees hang on for a few more years, in rare cases of up to centuries.

The great majority of birds and other land vertebrates, now denied the specialized foliage, fruits, and insect prey on which they feed, follow the plants into oblivion.

The soil remains largely unturned, accelerating plant decline, because insects, not earthworms as generally supposed, are the principal turners and renewers of the soil.

Populations of fungi and bacteria explode and remain at a peak over a few years while metabolizing the dead plant and animal material that piles up.

Wind-pollinated grasses and a handful of fern and conifer species spread over much of the deforested terrain, then decline to some extent as the soil deteriorates.

The human species survives, able to fall back on wind-pollinated grains and marine fishing. But amid widespread starvation during the first several decades, human populations plunge to a small fraction of their former level. The wars for control of the dwindling resources, the suffering, and the tumultuous decline to dark-age barbarism would be unprecedented in human history.

This could happen. It really could. It almost certainly will if we continue to fixate our eyes to the right of our visual field while the entire scientific community is screaming, “Look left!”

Which brings us back to the original question: Is this how it happens? The fact is that some people have witnessed the end of the world, or at least the end of their world. Plenty of civilizations in the past have collapsed, such as the Romans and Mayans.

But today the situation is different because nearly every spot on the planet is in some way connected to every other by a massively complex web of mutual interdependence. When you live in a global village, what happens in one neighborhood will affect all of the others.

Today, the collapse of the Roman empire will also cause the collapse of the Mayan empire, so to speak. Yet, rather than screaming about the precarity of this predicament and the extreme, historically unprecedented dangers facing us if business continues as usual, most people around the world are only passively worried about climate change — if they’re worried at all.

While most people don’t have suicidal impulses and don’t commit suicide, it’s hard to argue that our species doesn’t have a death wish, however subconscious. It’s an incredible thing to live in the midmorning of the 21st century and watch civilization self-destruct in real time.

Author and scholar of existential threats to humanity and civilization. www.xriskology.com. @xriskology

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