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Can Civilization Continue? An Earth System Scientist Explains

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If the world has a finite amount of natural resources, and these resources have been diminishing steadily since the industrial revolution, how is the model of infinite economic growth possibly expected to continue? Doesn’t it have to end eventually?

This is a good question, however I think it’s possibly something of a red herring. That is, we don’t have to worry too much about ultimate or absolute limits to growth. What we need to worry about is how we move towards such limits from where we are right now.

We have an increasingly narrow space within which to operate, to organise ourselves on Earth. Essentially, we have seriously eroded our choices.

 

Do you agree that it is already too late to prevent global catastrophe caused by global warming?

No. There is nothing physically insurmountable about the challenges we face. I think it’s very important to continually stress that. Yes, in about a billion years time the increase in the size of the sun will mean the death of the biosphere. We have plenty to play for until then.

Sometimes people talk about social transitions. For example in the UK, drink driving and smoking in pubs/bars. It’s become the norm to do neither and that happened quite quickly. It always seems impossible before it is done.

Best estimate. How long do we have to spend all our savings before this hits?

I find it hard to be optimistic about the welfare of some people around the middle to the end of this century if we continue as we are. If we maintain business as usual with regards carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, biogeochemical inputs (we keep exceeding planetary boundaries) then I find it hard to see how our current connected, distributed, industrialised civilisation can function in the way it currently does.

There is no natural law, no physical principle which means the tremendous increases in wellbeing, industrial output, wealth etc observed over the past 300 years have to continue. Consider the broader historical context and you realise we live in extraordinary times. But we have become habituated to this and simply expect the future to resemble the past – and that includes future rates of change.

What largely keeps our current civilisation aloft is fossil fuel use and an unsustainable consumption of natural capital (sometimes discussed in the context of ecosystem services). There are end points for both of these and these end points are decades not centuries away.

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