This week I’m going to talk about a worst case scenario for humanity. This is mainly to contrast with next week’s post, which describes a better case scenario.
On one level it’s intuitive that as we are already committed to a 2°C temperature rise because of the amount of CO2 we have already put into the atmosphere, and emissions continue to rise, and as we are already using 150% of the Earth’s biological resources annually, then things are likely to end badly. On this level there isn’t much point in trawling through various worst case scenarios put forward by different people and trying to combine them.*
However, it is worth talking a little about the likely unfolding of events, to counter the often-repeated opinion that everything will be all right, we can cope because we are rich, technologically-sophisticated and smart.
Unfortunately we are faced with a trio of problems that are almost insurmountable, namely ‘peak soil’ (a shorthand for the exhaustion and mismanagement of soils worldwide and the collapse of biological systems), peak oil and global warming. The collapse of biological systems, including agricultural decline, and global warming are unquestionably happening, peak oil is still debated, but even if vast reserves of oil still remain this won’t help at all, as it will be used and the CO2 emissions resulting from this will make global warming even worse.
It is likely therefore that we will see widespread famines leading to widespread starvation. In modernity hitherto famines have mainly been restricted to single nations (usually because of mismanagement), not whole regions (the Sahel droughts of the 1980s were an exception, and an indication of what future famines are likely to look like).
We delude ourselves that because we have a global economy, then resources can be transferred to whichever region is lacking. This is true up to the point when famines become so frequent and widespread that instead of being able to be helped by the global economy, they act as a drain on it, weakening it and making it more likely that the next famines will be even more widespread.
This would constitute a series of systems collapses in the sense discussed by Joseph Tainter, and more recently by Jared Diamond in his Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Normally in the historical examples that are discussed in this context a society collapses to a lower level of complexity with a lower population. Often surrounding societies then step in to pick up the pieces, as did the Barbarians (Germanic tribes) over the western Roman Empire in the C5 CE.
However in the past societies have collapsed mainly because of local factors. Even when environmental factors were at play, these were local, not global. Now we are facing a global ecological collapse, accompanied by a global climate change (the local effects of which cannot be predicted easily). So instead of a collapse to a lower level of complexity and population followed by a recovery (which would be bad enough in itself), we are likely to see a global collapse through several stages of complexity to a very low level of population, with successor societies struggling to recover at all.
BUT, I don’t even think this is the worst of it. There is no doubting the capacity of different groups of people to take whatever measures they believe are necessary for survival. In the trenches in the First World War the English poet Charles Sorley wrote this sonnet about how he saw soldiers in the British army maintaining their will to survive in impossible conditions:
Whom Therefore We Ignorantly Worship
These things are silent. Though it may be told
Of luminous deeds that lighten land and sea,
Strong sounding actions with broad minstrelsy
Of praise, strange hazards and adventures bold,
We hold to the old things that grow not old:
Blind, patient, hungry, hopeless (without fee
Of all our hunger and unhope are we),
To the first ultimate instinct, to God we hold.
They flicker, glitter, flicker. But we bide,
We, the blind weavers of an intense fate,
Asking but this—that we may be denied:
Desiring only desire insatiate,
Unheard, unnamed, unnoticed, crucified
To our unutterable faith, we wait.
Sorley’s portrait of the survival instinct is very dark, and he identifies in it aspects that the conscience (to use the traditional term) actually wants to repress and not have succeed (‘Asking but this—that we may be denied’).
The survival instinct of course has other manifestations than the maintenance of morale in WW1 trench-warfare. We can point in history to various groups who, motivated by a perception that their survival was threatened, have been prepared to commit crimes on the greatest scale. The murder of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany is the most notorious example of this. Nazi propaganda had as its central theme the ‘threat’ posed by Jews to the German race and the necessity of violent action to counter this.
There is no reason to suppose that in a world collapsing on itself that this reaction will not occur, possibly in many different versions. And we should recall that, in contrast to earlier periods in history, now there exists the possibility of the use of nuclear or biological or chemical weapons, or all three, in different ways (targeting people, or crops, or even groundwater). So I see the worse case scenario for humanity as involving a global system collapse accompanied by technologically-sophisticated warfare, the effects of which are likely to leave a legacy of contamination and disease stretching into the future.
In this scenario we can also imagine that several generations of people will have lived in terrible conditions all their lives and we can imagine that the terror and trauma they have experienced will predispose them towards repeating what they have always known, in other words that pyscopathy will have become much more widespread and perhaps a dominant mental mode for humanity.
In such a scenario I think it would be quite possible for humanity to go extinct entirely.
*However, a list of recent works on global warming can be found here. The bibliographies of the Living Planet Report 2010 and the Ehrlich paper I have linked to before also provide some references which can be used to speculate on likely outcomes for humanity.