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Collapse of Civilization: A Pending Problem

2018-01-18

 

A new article in “New Scientist” discusses the probability of the collapse of civilization in the next few years.  The news is not good: we have built up our civilization using non-renewable resources, and when depletion of the resource occurs, we will be faced with freezing and starving.  Millions could die in the space of a few weeks or months if the delivery of food and fuel is disrupted.

Survival will depend on our ability to adapt, and the faster the better.  Renewable resources, like solar panels, batteries, and wind generators, will be premium items.   Gasoline will be extremely scarce or completely unavailable, bringing transportation to a halt unless battery-powered vehicles have entered full production.  When will this happen?   Elon Musk has just installed the world’s largest battery in a power-starved region of Australia to prevent power outages; perhaps we should ask him.

One sign of impending collapse is the record of global average temperatures over the last two hundred years.  There is considerable variability from year to year, but it is clear that temperatures only rose slightly before the middle of the twentieth century; the average has started rising significantly more rapidly in the 1970’s and the rate of increase appears to be accelerating, just as the rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentrations has accelerated.  The average for 2017 was announced today and it is lower than 2016 but higher than 2015.  Scientists have attributed this year’s failure to reach 2016 levels to the El Nino effect (warming of the ocean surface in the Pacific, heating the air) having waned last year.   When El Nino returns, and it will in a year or two, temperatures will take another leap.

The kind of long term thinking and planning that is required to avert, or at least ameliorate, catastrophe is missing from our public conversations.  Instead, there is violent argument over matters such as whether a baker who advertises his services to the public is required to bake a cake for clients who plan a same-sex wedding.  Apparently, cake is a sacred commodity to some people.  Apparently, some peoples’ concept of rights includes the right to pick and choose who deserves to buy their publicly advertised products.  It seems to me that you have the right to choose to whom you will give away something for free, but when you start charging a standard fee for something, you have transitioned from private choices to commercial and public services.  Why are we wasting time arguing about who gets the cake when the planet is burning down?

We should all be prepared to do with less when resources are strained, but there is one class of people who, vainly, will feel insulated from the first shocks: the richest 1% of the world’s population.  Currently, the top 1% own nearly half of all the world’s wealth.  Wealth means access to resources and the ability to take the food out of someone else’s mouth.  The wealthy will not suffer so much at first, but if things get bad, resentment may turn to open defiance and money will not protect them.

Great wealth inequality leads to lack of long term planning and undermines stability; in the long run, an egalitarian society will fare better than an elitist one because there is better social cohesion and better planning.  By these measures, we are not doing well and I am glad that I will not live long enough to witness the probable collapse that will come in the next twenty to thirty years.

Only planning and social engineering can save us from collapse.  The first thing is to institute a steeply progressive income tax that takes enough money to fund big projects that will eliminate the use of non-renewable resources and end population growth.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for rational planning.

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