Autumn Number 2019

The Glory Perspective

Civilisation Collapsing

Saral Sarkar

In the past, civilisations collapsed or withered away. So modern civilisation too may not be able to avoid that fate. Currently, this possibility is being associated with global warming. But even earlier, the end of the current civilisation was speculated on in association with the discovery of limits to growth.

While millions are worried, some, called the denialists, do not accept that global warming is a man-made problem. It is better to accept the well-known view of the vast majority of climatologists that excessive emission of green-house gases by humans is the explanation of this phenomenon. If so, it is the duty of human beings to repair the damages and see to it that GHG emissions remain below the limit. Many optimists still believe, the problem can be solved.

But there are strong doubts. Our prevailing political-economic system, that today seems to be unalterable, is the big obstacle to solving the problem. The optimists say, one only needs to have the will to do the necessary things. But that is only theory. The million Dollar question is: will humanity be able to develop the strong will to take the difficult and complex measures necessary for stopping warming in the given narrow timeframe, i.e. by 2030? One must delve a little deeper in the matter, in order to judge whether that, in reality, would also be possible.

Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, postulated in 1989 before the fall of the Berlin wall, was largely (though not fully) borne out by the developments that took place in the years immediately thereafter—viz. the systemic transformation that took place in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European communist states. If it proves to be an enduring truth, then one have to reckon with a long life for the political-economic system of liberal democracy plus free-market capitalism and Western lifestyle. Apparently, at present at least, this system has no rival as an ideal.

This system has two parts :
(1)  It requires that, generally speaking, the incumbent rulers, an elected president or prime minister, and her party, which has a majority in the parliament, seek endorsement of the majority of the voters for another period of 4 or 5 years in office. Now human nature being what it is, politicians crave for (more) power (Fukuyama says: recognition) and power holders try to remain in power.
(2)  The majority of the voters, the ordinary people, on their part, crave for more prosperity, more comfort, and more enjoyment in life through consumption of more and more goods and services.

The former can attain their objective by serving or promising to serve the immediate material interests of the majority of the voters - for instance, by promising to create more and better jobs, lower taxes, raise wages and welfare benefits, increase security etc. All that requires high rates of economic growth, for which borrowing money is made easier and cheaper for both private and public sectors. As a result, generally speaking, all economies of the world are today sitting on mountains of debt.

These two fundamental aspects of human nature have been two of the main drivers of human history. They have given rise to capitalism and industrialism, from which people today cannot escape. They contributed strongly to continuous material and technological "progress", but also caused much misery and destruction (at least ever since humans left the putative state of primitive communism behind). Of course, throughout history, there have been exceptional humans who rejected these motives and followed lofty ones for their actions (Gandhi, Saint Francis of Assisi, Buddha e.g.). But they have been few and far between. These cravings have driven kings and emperors, but also other kinds of rulers, to conquer or dominate over more and more territories and peoples, which was their way of satisfying their own lust for power and the hunger of their own subjects for (more) prosperity. Neither the citizens' democracies of the ancient Greek city states, nor the ancient Roman republic of the assembly of aristocrats (the Senate) has been much of an exception. In more recent times, neither the revolutionary democratic French republic founded with lofty ideals in 1779 nor the United States of America founded after a liberation struggle in 1776, with its ideal democratic constitution, could resist the temptation of conquering other countries and dominating over other peoples.

Throughout history, these two drivers got ever more force from the continuous growth in human population, which caused a continuous growth in the volume of demand for goods and services that satisfy the consumption desires of people. A growing human population also enabled entrepreneurs to hire (or buy on the slave market) more and more cheap labourers (slaves) and rulers to recruit (or conscript) ever more soldiers for their wars.

In the present context, the most problematic aspect of this system is that it has developed a growth dynamic that cannot be stopped, let alone reversed, anymore for any length of time without risking a serious political and economic crisis. But without reversing it, we cannot also stop the march along the slippery slope to an ecological collapse.

Against this background, is there any reason to be optimistic? The phylogenetic (i.e. innate) behaviour patterns of humans were formed (as those of all animals) by the processes of biological evolution, the most important of which have been struggle for survival and survival of the fittest. There is not much room there for altruism. Yet, people are now being called upon to (decide to) do things that totally go against the grain of this genetic inheritance: As individuals, one should not act only in one is own individual interest, not even only in the interest of identity group (nation, tribe, ethnic group), but also and primarily in the interest of the whole humanity, and the rest of nature (other animal and plant species) to boot. And one should not even act only in the interest of the currently living generations of humanity, but also in the interest of the future generations thereof. Politicians should not strive for power, but only desire to serve the people and the future generations. Economic policies should no longer be oriented toward continuous economic growth, but, on the contrary, toward a contracting (degrowing) economy. People should no longer seek joie de vivre in more consumption of luxury goods and services, but in sacrificing standard of living they are used to. One should e.g. drastically reduce air travel and use, instead of cars, bicycles and boats for travel. In sum, one should drastically reduce use of scarce resources, especially of fossil fuels, the very basis of affluence in the current civilisation. Is all that humanly possible at all? Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a famous German author on the subject, wrote in 1989: "To tell Europeans, Americans, and Japanese that they should wear sackcloth and ashes and forgo prosperity, is a strategy condemned to failure."

If at all possible, it will, in any circumstance, be extremely difficult. Firstly, climate change is a global phenomenon. Though mainly caused by the industrial societies, in the recent decades, all countries have been contributing to it, more or less. It is a typical "tragedy of the commons" situation, the commons being here the global atmosphere. One knows how difficult it was to achieve the Paris Accord on climate change (2015). India, e.g., resisted accepting any cut in its CO2 emission and had to be pressured by other powers to do so.

Secondly, no underdeveloped country is prepared to give up its ambition of catching up with the USA with regard to affluence. The accord finally signed was therefore very weak, some even called it a fraud. Even this weak accord has in the meantime been repudiated by the USA. Actually, global CO2 emission is still rising.

The essential problem is that one cannot kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs. Fossil fuels are the very basic resource (the goose), the foundation on which the present-day industrial civilisation has been built and continues to run. If you drastically reduce their use, your economy will most certainly take a nosedive. That has been well understood all over the world by both the majority of the voters and their leaders. The strong desire to continue to get the golden eggs remains unabated. That is why nothing serious is being done, can be done, to mitigate global warming.

There is of course a minority of voters in almost every industrial country, the naïve environmentalists, who believe it is possible to run a highly industrialised economy/society without using any fossil fuels, and without substantially sacrificing prosperity. They are demanding since long that their governments embark on a quick 100% transition from fossil fuels to so-called renewable energies. But governments of the world are not doing anything more than giving some token support to the renewable power industry. Fact is, in the main, they are continuing to rely for the bulk of the energy needs of their country on the conventional sources, viz. fossil fuels, nuclear power, and hydroelectricity.

Already since the mid1970s, it is clear to discerning people that there are limits to economic growth. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen called the one-off availability of stocks of non-renewable energy sources and other minerals in low-entropy state "the limited dowry of mankind's existence on earth". He concluded in 1971:
"Even with a constant population and a constant flow per capita of mined resources, mankind's dowry will ultimately be exhausted if the career of the human species is not brought to an end earlier by other factors."
But politicians and experts, like ostriches, refused to heed their warnings, even pushed back with caviling. Frustrated, Georgescu-Roegen wrote:

"Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short, but fiery, exciting and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful and vegetative existence. Let other species—the amoebas, for example,—which have no spiritual ambitions, inherit an earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine."

This pessimistic but realistic perspective of the 1970s was mainly based on the realisation of the limitedness and exhaustibility of non-renewable resources, especially of energy resources. However, for the time being, the danger of sky-rocketing crude oil prices as a result of "peak oil" has been averted through the development of "fracking" technology that opened up shale oil deposits for exploitation. But even that would not save this civilisation from the growing resource problems. Today, however, the greatest danger is coming from global warming.

One can describe the situation today as a "pincer-grip crisis". On the one hand, the resource scarcity is increasingly making itself felt while the world population is continuously growing. On the other hand, if and to the extent that people succeed in solving the resource scarcity problem and thus make continuous economic and population growth possible, people in reality would be heating up the atmosphere and pollute the environment. There is no solution to this crisis within the current model of civilisation.

In the light of the analysis presented above, it seems that end of history in Fukuyama's optimistic sense —worldwide proliferation of a quasi-steady-state liberal-democratic capitalism—will not materialise. What people are observing today is rather the impending end of history in the sense of collapse of 'our present civilisation' followed by centuries of chaos, wars, and destruction. But that does not mean that humans as a species would soon become extinct, as the movement Extinction Rebellion seems to suggest. The present one is not the only possible civilisation. No, humans are a tough and intelligent species. In its history, this species has survived some earlier climate changes. And, as for civilisation, there have been several ever since humans transitioned from a nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to a sedentary agricultural one. So, in the future too, after the collapse of the present one, a different civilisation could be possible, which, hopefully, could be made more peaceful, more ecological and more social.

Denialists, but also many who accept the view that climate change is man-made, see only one way of positively reacting to the unavoidable change, viz. progressive adaptation to the new situation: e.g. by withdrawing from the coastal plains and newly desertifying areas and resettling in still habitable areas. That would not be easy, also because resistance to foreigners/outsiders encroaching on one's own territory is a strong element of human nature. Currently, people are witnessing this in the USA and Europe, but also in Assam (a province in India).

Human nature would most certainly be a big obstacle to creating a new civilisation. But there may still be some hope. Iräneus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, the great German human-ethologist wrote:
"We are not fully predetermined by our instincts. We are capable of controlling our nature through culture. … What is decisive is that we are the first creatures that can set goals for themselves, and thus give our life a meaning. By doing this, we, of course, do not free ourselves from nature, but we actively enter into new situations, in which new conditions of [evolutionary-biological] selection act upon us."

For reasons described above, just setting these goals may be, in practical-political terms, very difficult. But, at least on paper,a part of them has already been set, long ago—e.g. in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN (1948) and in various constitutions of individual states.

This part has also been realised to some extent in some countries, as evidenced e.g. by the compassionate or tolerating reception of political and war refugees as well as illegal migrants in some European countries such as Germany, Sweden etc. Such receptions have also been observed in poorer countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya, Tanzania etc.

But these examples also reveal the limit to such compassionate tolerance. As soon as the number of refugees and migrants swelled to a million and above, the host native peoples of the EU started fearing they "might lose their homeland". Xenophobic views and slogans like "Germany for Germans, foreigners get out" started being expressed, and fascistic and right-extremist groups got new impetus. There is no doubt, there does exist a social-critical limit to tolerance toward foreigners.

What can one conclude from all these facts for today's honest policy-makers and eco-political activists? Of course, one must not give up the ultimate cause of building an ecological and social-human society, But, as Paul Ehrlich once wrote addressing leftist activists, "Whatever be your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth]." This writer fully agrees. To make people control their greed and consumption desires is very difficult. It is much easier to make them accept population control.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019