The Whimper…

T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Hollow Men, ends with the following lines…

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

A recent study,  led by   applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and using   new statistical modelling methods, predicts that this  current civilization will likely collapse in  another twenty to  fifty years. The study   draws analogies with past human  civilizations;  the Assyrian, Roman, Mayan, Minoan,  the various  Chinese empires…. We can assume that  like us;  the populations of those civilizations had every reason to believe their civilization was unique and would last  forever. While civilisational  collapse is quite rare, characterised by  entire ways of life, systems of thought, cultural values and worldviews disappearing,  political  collapse occurs frequently ( eg empires and kingdoms disintegrating).  What  appears likely to  happen in our modern context,  given  the confluence of a number of catastrophic events, is civilisational  collapse.

While this particular study  has been  sharply critiqued by  journalists and  scientists  alike for its simplicity and generalisations ; the  broad conclusion that,  as Paul Simon aptly put it ,”everything put together falls apart” , is  a healthy  reminder of human hubris.

The single most important  story   unfolding in  not-so-slow-motion  on this planet  is the  ongoing  destruction of the natural  world  in  the name of “progress”  and “growth” (ie  consuming ever more “stuff”) by  humans;  ,  which  will  in the near  future,  significantly negatively impact  on this species. Despite our insistence to the contrary, humans are entirely reliant on other species for our survival.  It is a  given that is blindly ignored by  politicians, businesspeople and businesses  and all  those with  a current stake in  the way  our “civilization’  currently works ( ie all of us).

As key  resources become more expensive to  extract,  the world economy (which is apparently now the full extent of this ‘civilization’) begins to contract  and distort .  And as the gap  between rich and poor widens,  the “have-nots” increasingly demand in  more and more violent ways,  their right to  a slice of the pie. As the oceans and  atmospheric temperatures rise,  so  do the pressures on  our artificial nation-states. As we progressively and rapidly eliminate species after species to produce more things,  to make “progress”;  our chances of long term survival  as a species are being rapidly reduced.   Our civilization demands that  we assume that  we have an infinite volume  of resources to  consume for  the infinite future in  a closed planetary  system –  a small  contradiction in  terms!   We are indeed heading for the perfect  storm.

Study  after academic  study shows that the more we  gain from  a civilization’s  prosperity,  the more we are blind to its failings and contradictions and its  inevitable fall. This  tunnel vision says , that ‘if I am  doing well out of this catastrophe then it cant be a catastrophe at all!’

Homo  sapiens  pride themselves on their remarkable intelligence; their capacity to manipulate their environment for their own ends. They appear unable to grasp  that  that  self-definition process of  appropriating everything  good, intelligent and wonderful  to  human attributes,  is simply  the result of their blinded vision.  If by  definition, species that manipulate their environment  are determined to be superior to all other species;  then lo-and-behold!- homo sapiens are superior beings! Because homo sapiens are above all other traits,  social  beings,  all of us have an intensely strong need to  “fit in”,  to belong to the group. Agreeing with other people on ‘our’ group’s   thought processes and paradigms is an essential part of this togetherness. However, agreement does not  it make it truth.

Thus, it does not matter that the capacity to manipulate the environment for the benefit of our species and at  the expense of all other species on  this planet might not be quite such an intelligent thing to do, given that  the environmental devastation and species  destruction is largely for homo sapiens’ short term  pleasures, power  and baubles.

Were we to  say  that  a species that can  sustain itself  easily and efficiently without damaging its environment in  the process, were  more ‘worthy’ beings than other species ;  then homo sapiens would not be registering on  the short-list!

Over the millenia, homo sapiens have  been able to convince themselves  that  people of other cultures, or colour,  or background are inferior to one’s own culture because of this self-defining process.  Using the same intellectual process,  the more different another species is from ourselves, the  less worthy , less  intelligent, more expendable and worthy of our  exploitation and destruction that species becomes.   The more differentiated from our species the “other” is,  the easier it is to  dismiss its inherent traits and qualities and its right to life. However on our ever smaller blue planet,  we no  longer have the luxury to differentiate between  “them’  and ‘us”.

How much easier then is it  to dismiss the equality of other species with ourselves when their characteristics, strengths and skills are so different from homo sapiens, and when it  is so  much to our benefit to be able to kill  and exploit other species without moral qualms.

As Henry  Gee also points out succinctly in his Guardian  article , each  species’ particular traits or “strengths” are  based purely on, firstly, what  biological  mechanisms of sense are available to  them ,and secondly, how they use those senses to  that  species’ best  advantage. Homo sapiens  may not value our sense of smell  because its not a particularly efficient sensing mechanism in  homo sapiens, but you can bet  a dog does!

The capacity for self-delusion in our  species is immense. Witness the largely American  driven  anti- climate -change camp. Of course we cannot be  destroying our planet with C02 through  industrialization, because capitalism and owning the means of production   is the reason  for our being!  – after all, aren’t we, the US consumer, the greatest people on  earth because our nation is   the epitome of capitalism?

As another example of  collective self-deception, Seth Klarman, the manager of the $27billion hedge fund, the Baupost Group, recently  remarked on the similarities of the world’s banking system to the ‘Truman Show’, the late nineties Hollywood film, where the lead character  “lives a seemingly charmed world, snuggled comfortably into an American suburbia of white picket fences and crisply cut lawns. But gradually Truman starts to notice something is not quite right. He is actually trapped inside a film set controlled by hidden directors, and discovers to his horror that he is the unknowing star of the world’s most popular reality TV show.”  In one of the more blatant  nuances of reality shifting homo  sapiens have acquiesced to,  our  financial  system  is in  essence simply one of “smoke and mirrors” -the manipulation of facts and figures designed  to  obscure reason and reality;  a fragile house of cards.

The dreaded "black swan"!
                                  The dreaded “black swan”!

One key point of difference with previous human civilizations  around the world  is that  our current  civilization is a global one; each  of the parts are inextricably connected.  Apart from  a few small tribes in   isolated areas, every one of us has bought in to  this unique  method of environmental  destruction. Thus  when this civilization collapses -(and it is a “when” and not an “if” ), that collapse will be both  more  rapid and more global; there will not be another model of homo sapien civilization around for the  survivors to pin their hopes on. The other significant difference with other previous human civilizations is this current one’s geographical  reach.  Vast  areas of the planet have now  been laid waste in  the name of human progress.

So, while the modelling conducted by  Safa Motesharrei  may be flawed, it does provide an opportunity for  serious debate about the direction this global  civilisation of ours is taking us..




Did Nasa fund ‘civilisation collapse’ study, or not?

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)

About that Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization

Plotting the Downfall  of Society-Peter Turchin Book Review

A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation

Crisis of Civilisation 

So, after the IPCC report, which bit of the world are you prepared to lose? | GeorgeMonbiot

Leave a Reply