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Probably not

Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? By Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich – Review by Tony Lowes 


The Population Bomb was one of the most influential environmental books of the 1960s. Written by Professor of Biology at Stanford University, Paul Ehrlich, and (then uncredited) his wife Anne, it became a classic of eco-catastrophism, rehearsing Malthus’s dictum that: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”.

However, Malthus made no predictions of imminent catastrophes. The Ehrlichs did. They predicted that “nothing can prevent famines in which hundreds of millions of people will die during the 1970s”.

In recent interviews Paul Ehrlich has forgivingly said that this was simply because he “underestimated the resilience of the world system”, claiming that in fact his views have become “depressingly mainline”.

Now, the Ehrlichs have extended their analysis of the human predicament to ask “Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided?”.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society B, the Ehrlichs point out that while past civilisations have collapsed – often for environmental reasons – their orbits  were local and regional. An inter-connected global civilisation is different.

Quoting Britain’s Prince Charles’ suggestion that we are witnessing “an act of suicide on a grand scale”, the authors list the problems that manifest “rapidly escalating severity”. In addition to climate change there is the extinction of species; land degradation and land use changes, including sea rise and urbanisation; the spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and dead zones; worsening infectious diseases; and depletion of limited resources, especially water.

Environmental damage increases at a rate that becomes faster with each extra person born. And no civilisation can avoid collapse if it cannot feed its people.

Climate change could “ravage” seriously vulnerable agriculture with its dependence on stable climate, crop monocultures, industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, petroleum, antibiotic feed supplements, and rapid transport. Depleted oceans can no longer feed the poor. Reflecting the implications of all this for humans, recent predictions suggest there will be 60 million environmental refugees by 2020.

The  pressures are exacerbated by the global desire to repeat the ‘successes’ of the west including its perpetual growth model. India alone is planning 455 new coal plants. Worldwide 1200 coal plants are planned.

The Erhlichs cite recent studies that suggest that while we are now inexorably committed to a 2.4 degrees Centigrade rise in temperature, “the present models underestimate future temperature increases by overestimating the extent that growth of vegetation can serve as a carbon sink and underestimating positive feedbacks”.

163 footnotes bolster the Ehrlichs credibility and in view of the misfiring of their earlier volume they are needed.

The classic ‘solution’ for global emissions requires transforming the ‘energy mobilisation infrastructure’ and the ‘water-handling infrastructure’. The authors suggest this is “extremely problematical” economically and politically. The cost is for now, the benefits for the future.

Thus the battleground to save civilisations is in convincing people to alter their behaviour “relative to the basic population consumption drivers of environmental degradation” (no-one ever said the Ehrlichs were masters of democratic prose). Civilisation must overcome the social and physiological values that prevent this “endarkenment”, a phrase coined for the rise of religious orthodoxies that reject “enlightenment values” – population control, condoms, abortion as a method of birth control.

The Ehrlichs plead for more scientists to become involved in the effort to address the key issues – a “cutting edge for research that must slice fast” – and to bring their results to the attention of the public, and their masters in policy-making.

This “foresight intelligence” cannot be supplied by the market but is critical to inform “true international governance”. Informed international institutions will then be able to plan to ameliorate the impacts of the coming droughts, famines, floods, and epidemics – which is the only way to save our global civilisation.

Their update: if we do not restructure our global systems now, the collapse of civilisation will do it for us. Discredited hippies? Grizzled but sage harbingers of impending doom? You decide.