Op-Ed: Collapseologists are warning humanity that business-as-usual will make the Earth uninhabitable

Christopher Ketcham and Jeff Gibbs
·5 min read
Smoke from wildfires darkens the sky over the mountains and freeway.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas/Los Angeles Times; John Antczak/Associated Press)

Hundreds of scientists, writers and academics from 30 countries sounded a warning to humanity in an open letter published in the Guardian in December: Policymakers and the rest of us must “engage openly with the risk of disruption and even collapse of our societies.” “Damage to the climate and environment” will be the overarching cause, and “researchers in many areas” have projected widespread social collapse as “a credible scenario this century.”

It’s not hard to find the “collapseology” studies they are talking about. In a report for the sustainability group Future Earth, a survey of scientists found that extreme weather events, food insecurity, freshwater shortages and the broad degradation of life-sustaining ecosystems “have the potential to impact and amplify one another in ways that might cascade to create global systemic collapse.” A 2019 report from the Breakthrough National Center for Climate Restoration, a think tank in Australia, projected that a rapidly warming world of depleted resources and mounting pollution would lead to “a largely uninhabitable Earth” and a “breakdown of nations and the international order.” Analysts in the U.S. and British military over the past two years have issued similar warnings of climate- and environment-driven chaos.

Of course, if you are a nonhuman species, collapse is well underway. Ninety-nine percent of the tall grass prairie in North America is gone, by one estimate; 96% of the biomass of mammals — biomass is their weight on Earth — now consists of humans, our pets and our farm animals; nearly 90% of the fish stocks the U.N. monitors are either fully exploited, over exploited or depleted; a multiyear study in Germany showed a 76% decline in insect biomass.

The call for public engagement with the unthinkable is especially germane in this moment of still-uncontrolled pandemic, institutional failures and economic crises in the world’s most technologically advanced nations. Not very long ago, it was also unthinkable that a virus would shut down nations and that safety nets would be proven so disastrously lacking in resilience.

The international scholars’ warning doesn’t venture to say exactly what collapse will look like or when it might happen. Collapseology is more concerned with identifying trends and with them the dangers of everyday civilization: ever-expanding economic growth, rapacious consumption of resources and the saturation of the planet's limited repositories for waste.

Among the signatories of the warning was William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia best known as the originator of the “ecological footprint” concept, which measures the total amount of environmental input needed to maintain a given lifestyle. With the current footprint of humanity — most egregiously the footprint of the energy- and resource-entitled Global North — “it seems that some form of global societal collapse is inevitable, possibly within a decade, certainly within this century,” Rees said in an email.

The most pressing proximate cause of biophysical collapse is what he calls overshoot: humans exploiting natural systems faster than the systems can regenerate. The human enterprise is financing its growth and development by liquidating biophysical “capital” essential to its own existence. We are dumping waste at rates beyond nature’s assimilative capacity. Warming temperatures, plunging biodiversity, worldwide deforestation and ocean pollution, among other problems, are all important in their own right. But each is a mere symptom of overshoot, says Rees.

The message we should glean from the evidence is that all human enterprise is ultimately determined by biophysical limits. We are exceptional animals, but we are not exempt from the laws of nature.

Another of the signatories on the warning letter is Will Steffen, a retired Earth systems scientist from Australian National University. Steffen singles out the neoliberal economic growth paradigm — the pursuit of ever expanding GDP — as “incompatible with a well-functioning Earth system at the planetary level.” Collapse, he told an interviewer, “is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory of the current system, as prophetically modelled in 'Limits to Growth. ' "

"Limits to Growth" is a 150-page bombshell of a book published in 1972. The authors, a team of MIT scientists, created a computerized system-dynamics model called World3, the first of its kind, to examine worldwide growth trends from 1900 to 1970. They extrapolated from the historical data to model 12 future scenarios projected to the year 2100.

The models showed that any system based on exponential economic and population growth crashed eventually. The gloomiest model was the one in which the “present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged.” In that “business as usual” scenario, collapse would begin slowly in the 2020s and accelerate thereafter. Updates to the "Limits" study have found that its projections, so far, have been spot-on.

Only if we discuss the consequences of our biophysical limits, the December warning letter says, can we reduce their “likelihood, speed, severity and harm.” And yet messengers of the coming turmoil are likely to be ignored — crowned doomers, collapseniks, marginal and therefore discountable. We all want to hope things will turn out fine. “Man is a victim of dope/In the incurable form of hope,” as poet Ogden Nash wrote.

The hundreds of scholars who signed the letter are intent on quieting hope that ignores preparedness. Let’s look directly into the abyss of collapse, they say, and deal with the terrible possibilities of what we see there “to make the best of a turbulent future.”

Christopher Ketcham is the author, most recently, of "This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West." Jeff Gibbs is the writer and director of the documentary "Planet of the Humans."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.