Sunday, March 31, 2013

Can civilization survive ecological collapse? (Michael Thomas)

if we narrow our definition of 'civilisation' to the dominance-hierarchy of capitalism, whether free-market, corporatist or statist, then the answer is clearly 'No'. and nor should it. unfortunately, it is the societal model [or set of models] that is driving and accelerating strain in our ecological limits. piece-meal reform, far better than crashing systems, requires time we don't have [i think]... so the nasty alternative of collapse, and its concomitant rising body count, seems 'inevitable'. mitigating this seems less appealing / motivating than averting it, but the latter is a luxury we don't have, so get motivated to attempt to 'only' limit damage, toot sweet... - Tim

Can civilization survive ecological collapse?
By Michael Thomas

People often speak about nature in the context of it being seen as a system next to, or in opposition, to civilization. But, if we are to analyze the situation in the context of system theory, we realize that nature is really the overarching system within which all other systems on this planet exist.

The overarching system is always more complex than the subsystems (Luhmann, Ecological Communication). Overarching systems often show emergent properties, which are properties beyond the sum of the individual performances of the subsystems (for instance the ability of different cells to function as a single being, or for the human brain to solve complex problems without the necessary preparation or conscious thought.)

In the past we had the overarching meta-environment, regional environments, and then human societies as subsystems of these regional environments. This meant that destructive ecological behavior would only damage a relatively isolated environmental subsystem, and the diversity and connection to non-damaged ecosystems would enable it to recover.

Today, we see a global civilization greater than all but the overarching natural system. We see nations and corporations competing with climactic factors in influencing the state of ecosystems. Recent research by Barnosky et al (2012) indicates that when 50% of small ecosystems are in an altered state, then the overarching system no longer becomes viable in its current state: it shifts states.

So what happens when a global civilization crosses the overarching limits (according to Barnosky, 2012, this happens at 50%, and we are at 43% right now), and thus disables enough subsystems that the overarching system is no longer viable in its existing state? This is what one would call ecological collapse, an intensification of mass extinction, and it is a threat within our lifetime.

This is bigger than climate change: a much bigger inconvenient truth.

Thus if civilization is a subsystem of the overarching system nature, which we are threatening to destabilize, then how can we expect a subsystem to survive the collapse of the overarching system? How will civilization react when the basis upon it sits shifts? How will humanity react?

And most important: how can we act now to help avoid having to answer these questions? I think a good first step is sharing this kind of information. People are only able to help in an emergency if they are aware one is going on, take responsibility, and know how and decide to help in the situation (Darley and Latane,1968).


1)      Barnosky et al. 2012. “Approaching a state shift in Earth´s biosphere.” Nature, 486, 52-58

2)      Luhmann, Niklas. 1986. Ökologische Kommunikation.

3)      Darley, J.M., Latané, B. (1968a). “Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), 215-221.