Thesis #17: Environmental problems may lead to collapse

In Collapse, Jared Diamond argues that civilizations *choose to collapse by neglecting their ecology. He spends most of his volume pointing to numerous examples of how civilizations collapsed because of ecological problems on Easter Island, Greenland, the southwest United States, and the Yucatan peninsula. He highlights the ecological role in conflicts in Rwanda, Haiti, Montana, China and Australia; he even provides a map which illustrates the nearly perfect overlap between the world’s most ecologically distressed areas, and its most politically distressed areas. Perhaps to shield himself from the charges of geograhpical determinism that came of his previous volume, Guns, Germs & Steel*, Diamond includes a few examples of societies that faced ecological problems and “chose” to survive: in the New Guinea highlands, Tikopia, and the Tokugawa shogunate. Yet, it is precisely in these “counter-examples” that we see where Diamond’s model goes awry.

Though Tainter’s work, already discussed at length, provides the cornerstone of most recent academic studies of collapse, Diamond spends only a single line in his dismissal. This is unfortunate, as Diamond’s work provides an excellent case of Tainter’s theory, were Diamond willing to accept that role. Instead, Diamond tries to argue that *all*collapses are due to ecology, and that is simply not the case. Diamond provides “counter-examples” to try to inject some element of “choice” into the matter, but all it accomplishes is to provide a theory which does not necessarily make any predictions, and thus, is unfalsifiable–making it unscientific, as well. Tainter’s logic seems irrefutable, though. Managing ecological crises is one of the very reasons humans invest in complexity in the first place. Diamond’s “success stories” illustrate that. The Tokugawa shogunate especially illustrates the use of greater complexity to handle an ecological crisis. So long as a society is still below the point of diminishing returns, this is an entirely sensible strategy. Diamond merely rephrases the question from, “Why do societies collapse?” to “Why do some societies collapse due to ecological pressure, and others don’t?” That is the question Tainter so admirably answers. The diminishing returns of complexity are the ultimate cause of collapse, but there are other, proximate causes which ultimately deliver the coup de grace. By analogy, no individual dies of AIDS; rather, AIDS creates a condition where otherwise harmless infections become fatal. Likewise, the diminishing returns of complexity is the ultimate cause of collapse by creating a condition where factors which otherwise might have easily been overcome, prove disastrous instead.

That said, Diamond’s book provides an enormous catalogue of evidence for the position that the proximate cause of collapse is *very often* ecological. In the final section, Diamond warns of the possibility of our own society’s collapse due to our environmental neglect. That neglect is born of a groundless mythology which is codified in our language, namely, the unique place humanity is accorded in the world. “The environment” is something outside ourselves–something we are distinctly not a part of. We separate the world into “artificial” and “natural” things; a dam made by a beaver is “natural,” but a dam made by people is “artificial.” We think of “nature” as all that which lies outside the sphere of human activity, thus allowing for such bizarre notions as “being close to nature.” The duality of the English language may force upon us some idea of humans being separate from the rest of the world, but the poverty of our language to express our relationship does not alter it. Humans are animals, and subject to all the same basic, biological laws as any other animal. We require food, water and air. We depend on other animals, just as all animals do: we rely on plants to recycle the carbon dioxide we exhale into oxygen we can breathe, we rely on plants to convert sunlight into food we can eat and energy we can absorb, we rely on the bacterial ecology that naturally inhabits our bodies to digest food and fend off disease. We have as much to lose from catastrophic losses of biodiversity as any other animal.

Thus, the popular dichotomy that pits the economy and “the environment” is a false one. The ecology is the basis of all economies, and anything that harms that ecology threatens the economy more than any recession. The single greatest threat to any economy is the loss of the ecology on which that economy is utterly dependent for energy, raw materials, and the support base that allows both its consumers and producers to survive and continue consuming and producing.

Given that, the prominence of ecological problems in so many historical collapses is hardly unexpected. Societies, regardless of their level of complexity, are products of their ecology. This has led to great confuson between two senses of the term “collapse”: social collapse, such as we have previously discussed in detail, and ecological collapse, which is an entirely different and unrelated phenomenon (save only in the case that ecological collapse is a proximate cause of social collapse).

Ecologies are inter-dependent, with many species relying on many others in complex webs of relationships. There is a great deal of resilience in this kind of formation, but it also makes for a somewhat chaotic system, where the loss of one member can initate cascades of change throughout the ecology, as some species die off, and others prosper from the emptied niches. Take, for example, the elimination of wolves from Yellowstone. Ill-studied at the time, the wolves were hunted as nuisances to livestock herds. In “Wolves’ Leftovers Are Yellowstone’s Gain, Study Says,” John Pickerell writes:

Wolves were systematically hunted in Yellowstone and much of the Western United States from the 1800s onwards. Yellowstone’s last pack was eliminated in 1926.

“In the early 1900s no one stopped to consider the ecological role of wolves,” commented Robert Beschta, a forestry scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “Wolves were considered a predator with no value and seen as a huge constraint on allowing a productive ecosystem to flourish,” he said. Wolves, mountain lions (Puma concolor), and coyotes (Canis latrans) were all targeted as threats to livestock and game, he said.

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, changes cascaded through the ecology. In “Lessons from the Wolf,” Jim Robbins writes:

The wolf-effect theory holds that wolves kept elk numbers at a level that prevented them from gobbling up every tree or willow that poked its head aboveground. When the wolves were extirpated in the park as a menace, elk numbers soared, and the hordes consumed the vegetation, denuding the Lamar Valley and driving out many other species. Without young trees on the range, beavers, for example, had little or no food, and indeed they had been absent since at least the 1950s. Without beaver dams and the ponds they create, fewer succulents could survive, and these plants are a critical food for grizzly bears when they emerge from hibernation.

After the wolves’ reintroduction in 1995 and 1996, they began to increase their numbers fairly rapidly, and researchers began to see not only a drop in the population of elk but a change in elk behavior. The tall, elegant mahogany-colored animals spent less time in river bottoms and more time in places where they could keep an eye out for predatory wolves. If the wolf-effect hypothesis is correct, and wolves are greatly reducing elk numbers, the vegetation should be coming back for the first time in seven decades.

This is precisely what we have seen in the decade since the wolves’ reintroduction. This specific case must stand to illustrate one of the most basic ideas of ecology: that ecologies are governed by complicated, intricate inter-relationships. Robbins sums this idea up at the end of his article, writing:

Wolves have brought other lessons with them. They dramatically illustrate the balance that top-of-the-food-chain predators maintain, underscoring what is missing in much of the country where predators have been eliminated. They are a parable for the unintended and unknown effects of how one action surges through an ecosystem. More important, the Yellowstone wolves are bringing into focus hazy ideas of how ecosystems work in a way that has never been so meticulously documented. Just as the actions of the wolf echo through Yellowstone, they will reverberate into the future as they help to increase the understanding of natural systems.

Thus, ecological problems cannot be considered in isolation. Every part of an ecology affects every other part. Nor can we recieve news of ecological problems with passivity: *nothing* is more vital to our survival as a species than the health of the ecology we are a part of. Though our cultural mythology has created a scientific “blind spot,” by making the very question of what *our* inter-relationships might be, those inter-relationships still exist, and without a healthy, robust ecology, human survival itself–much less the fragile, complex societies we build on top of such ecologies–is imperilled. As E. O. Wilsondescribed the position:

T’he first, exemptionalism, holds that since humankind is transcendant in intelligence and spirit, so must our species have been released from the iron laws of ecology that bind all other species. No matter how serious the problem, civilized human beings, by ingenuity, force of will and-who knows-divine dispensation, will find a solution. Population growth? Good for the economy, claim some of the exceptionalists, and in any case a basic human right, so let it run. Land shortages? Try fission energy to power the desalting of sea water, then reclaim the world’s deserts. (The process might be assisted by towing icebergs to coastal pipelines.) Species going extinct? Not to worry. That is nature’s way. Think of humankind as only the latest in a long line of exterminating agents in geological time. In any case, because our species has pulled free of old-style, mindless Nature, we have begun a different order of life. Evolution should now be allowed to proceed along this new trajectory. Finally, resources? The planet has more than enough resources to last indefinitely, if human genius is allowed to address each new problem in turn, without alarmist and unreasonable restrictions imposed on economic development. So hold the course, and touch the brakes lightly.

It is an unexamined bit of recieved wisdom, ridiculous once examined. Humans are animals like any other, and subject to the same laws and dictates.

Most of our current ecological problems can be organized under one of two general headings: the Holocene Extinction, and global warming. We will consider each in turn, before turning to the implications of these two looming crises.

The Holocene Extinction

In 1833, Charles Lyell introduced the name “Holocene,” or “Recent Whole,” for our current geological epoch, stretching back only 10 or 12 thousand years. This makes the Holocene an incredibly young geological epoch, the shortest by far. The International Geological Congress in Bologna adopted the term in 1885, and it has been the accepted terminology ever since. The preceding geologic epoch was the last ice age, the Pleistocene. It lasted for two million years, and while it was marked by significantly advanced glaciation, this was not the unremitting state of affairs. The Pleistocene had regular interglacial periods, during which the weather would turn warmer and the glaciers would temporarily recede. These interglacials typically lasted an average of 10 - 20 thousand years. In short, the “Holocene” is a perfectly typical interglacial. The Pleistocene–the “last ice age”–never ended. We’re still in it; a warm spell, yes, but in it.

If anything, our current interglacial is most remarkable for its brevity. If it ended this week and the glaciers returned, it would be marked as the shorter side of normal. In fact, it would have ended some 5,000 years ago–an interglacial of just 5,000 years–were it not for the ecological devastation of the Agricultural Revolution (*see* Ruddiman, “The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago,” [PDF] *Climatic Change* 61: 261–293, 2003). It was the threatened return of the glaciers, and the concommitant ecological changes, that pushed the first farmers in the Fertile Crescent to adopt their sedentary way of life. They were responsible for massive deforestation, and raising huge herds of livestock polluting the atmosphere with incredible amounts of methane–enough to hold the glaciers in check. For 5,000 years, our civilization has lived on borrowed time, extending our “Holocene” by balancing the earth’s natural cooling trend against our reckless environmental abuse.

Yet, in that short time, the “Holocene” has joined the Cambrian-Ordovician, the Ordovician-Silurian, the Late Devonian, the Permian-Triassic, and the Cretaceous-Paleogene for the dubious distinction of contributing its name to a mass extinction event.

Until recently, the term “Holocene Extinction” referred to a rather minor spate of extinction which took place at the beginning of the Holocene, with the end of the megafauna–woolly mammoths, North American horses, sabertooth cats, and other large mammals. This occured at the beginning of the Holocene, as humans were first moving into many new environments, like the Americas and Australia. This has led to a long-standing debate between “overkill” and “overchill.” Were the megafauna wiped out by climate change? Or by rapacious, brutal bands of overhunting human foragers?  Bothsides have their evidence, of course.

Nor is this merely an academic argument without reprecussion for the present. The “overkill” theory is routinely cited by some groups as if it were already a proven fact, and used as evidence that humans are an inherently destructive species. So we needn’t worry ourselves with the ecological destruction we wreak. We can’t help it. It’s our nature.

As you might expect, the truth lies somewhere between overkill and overchill. Human populations were almost certainly too small to wreak such havoc all by themselves, and the same climate changes that opened the way for humans into Australia and the Americas also had to affect the other large mammals living across the globe. More importantly, however, alpha predators–like wolves, and like humans–play important, keystone roles in any ecology. The introduction of a new alpha predator can have dramatic effects, even causing cascades of extinction. This is not necessarily because the alpha predators overhunt or are even in the least bit maladaptive; this is simply the nature of alpha predators and how they relate in any given ecology. When humans came to Australia and the Americas, they were as harmless as wolves, lions, or any other big mammalian predator. Their presence caused cascades of changes throughout the ecosystem. Given that it was also a period of major climate change, a great number of species that were already under stress adapting to the new climate were tipped over the edge into extinction by the further ecological changes created by the adaptation of a new alpha predator. Our ancestors were hardly noble savages; but neither were they bloodthirsty killers bent on the destruction of all life on earth. They were animals, like any other.

While Australians and Americans established a new equilibrium in their given environments, the same climate changes that allowed them to cross the Bering Land Bridge and shortened the boat ride between the islands of Oceania and ultimately Australia, were having other effects, as well. In the Middle East, some foragers had come to rely increasingly on cereal grains. Their lives became more sedentary as they established static resources necessary for their food source, like granaries and mills. As the weather turned, they were forced to intensify their food production–and agriculture was born. The weather was already turning colder, causing the glaciers to expand, the sea levels to drop, and the ways to America and Australia to reveal themselves from the ocean floor. But the agriculturalists of the Fertile Crescent were seeing hard times with the colder, drier climate. They intensified their production, which gave them more food. More food increased their population, which naturally needed more food. The Food Race was off to a running start.

To refer to the “Fertile Crescent” today is a cruel joke, but this was not always the case. Once, this region was abundant. The arid desert we see today is the result of agriculture. The first farmers stripped it of all life, and then spread out to the east and west to consume the next region, like the alien invaders of some clichéd science fiction movie. Yet it was not malice or greed that drove them; they were locked into an endless cycle of exponential growth. Their way of life required constant expansion. Good or evil, nice or mean, they were compelled to conquer, whether they liked it or not (see thesis #12 and thesis #13).

Deforestation, desertification and the herding of methane-producing livestock increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere–enough to halt the world’s cooling trend. The two balanced each other, cancelling one another out, to unnaturally extend the “Holocene” interglacial. All the while, the massive ecological devastation wrought by the spread of agriculture perpetuated new cascades of extinctions–often, as a matter of policy.

Wolf species were systematically hunted down by farmers, until they became extinct, in both Japan and Europe. Such hunting has endangered wolf populations in North America, as well. Such hunts were conducted because wolves would prey on livestock. Agricultural societies often circulate tales demonizing wolves and other predators that prey on livestock, providing a cultural basis for such hunts. It is a unique strategy in the animal kingdom: no other species wastes its efforts trying to systematically eliminate its competition.

But more often, extinction has simply been the unforeseen side effect of our expanding agricultural way of life. These continuing extinctions have led to some confusion, and argument about an “on-going” Holocene extinction. In fact, there are two separate phenomenon going on here, unfortunately obscured because both began with a common cause–the changing climate of 12,000 years ago. The first was simply the product of a readjustment in ecologies, to a changing climate and a new large mammalian predator migrating in. This was relatively benign. The second phenomenon is what makes the Holocene extinction such a pressing concern. It is far more devastating, and because it is a systemic consequence of agricultural society, it will never “iron itself out” as the first one did, except with the end of agricultural life–and civilization with it.

This, the *real* Holocene extinction, has been a significant problem for the entire history of civilization. Even all by itself, it would have eventually reached crisis proportions and *still* marked agriculture as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

Yet, this process has recently seen an incredible intensification, forcing us to face a crisis of unprecedented proportions now. This intensification began with the Industrial Revolution, which did not change the *nature* of agriculture nearly so much as it exponentially increased its scale. The intensification of cultivation had long before crossed a point of diminishing returns, where more calories of work were expended in cultivation than were returned in yields. This shortfall had previously been made up by animals, which could leverage energy sources that were otherwise unusable–for example, they could graze in fields too rocky for food crops. With first the Industrial Revolution, and then the Green Revolution, other energy sources–like petroleum”)–allowed us to push even further beyond the point of diminishing returns, to significantly increase yields simply by making the process unthinkably inefficient. Today, on average, every calorie of food we consume requires ten calories of work–primarily stored in fossil fuels–to cultivate, package and ship. Very little of the earth remains naturally arable; nearly all of it requires intense fertilization and irrigation. On the other end, the average piece of food an American eats has traveled 1,500 miles to the dinner plate.

The Green Revolution raised our carrying capacity to–essentially, wherever we want it to be. Human population jumped up in response, with growth slowing only now as we begin to approach a new asymptote somewhere near 9 billion. There are, at the time of this writing, only 6.5 billion people on earth, yet just that many requires 40% of the earth’s photosynthetic capacity. That is how much energy is required to support so many people, and the food that so many people require–and, as is often the case, the food that food requires. 40% of the total energy available to the entire planet is wrapped up in a single species; only 60% is currently portioned out among all the other millions of species on earth.

This is the essential reason for the Holocene extinction. Deforestation, desertification, climate change and other climatological and ecological disasters are often the immediate causes, but these are themselves symptoms of the ultimate cause–that we are, essentially, starving the world out. We are taking everything for ourselves, and laying siege to all life on earth.

The effects have been catastrophic. Extinctions are always happening, just like people are always dying. But like an explosively high death rate, an extinction rate far beyond the background rate is catastrophic. The normal background rate of extinctions is about two to five taxonomic families of marine invertebrates and vertebrates every million years. Normal background extinction would end one mammalian species every 200 years, on average. Some centuries might see two or three mammalian species lost; other times, several centuries may pass with no mammalian extinction whatsoever. Yet in the past 400 years, 89 mammalian species have gone extinct, and another 169 species are critically endangered–45 times the normal rate of background extinction, just among mammals. The total current extinction rate is difficult to calculate, since we don’t know precisely how many species there are on earth, but the most conservative estimates indicate that we are seeing *147 extinctions per day*. Most scientists estimate that we are now seeing extinction rates that are anywhere between *a thousand and ten thousand times*the normal, background rate.

This is unprecedented. None of the previous extinction events were this lethal, or this quick. We are doing more damage than when a comet carved out the Yucatan and blotted the sun out of the sky. In 2002, E.O. Wilson predicted that at current rates, one half of all species on earth will be gone in a century. Previously, the Permian-Triassic was the worst extinction event in our planet’s history; it ended 95% of all species that then existed, but it took nearly a million years to unfold. We are seeing half of that in mere centuries.

No extinction occurs in a vacuum. All species exist in an ecosystem, and with each species lost, the ecosystem becomes weaker. If sharks go extinct, so too do remoras. Each extinction triggers a cascade of extinctions through its dependencies, running their course through the complex web of life on earth. The complex is too great to predict where those cascades will end, or what will be extinguished in its course. We are as dependent on our planet as every other species, and our willful blindness to this, our deluded, alienating fantasy of being higher and nobler than mere nature, does not change that basic fact.

The Holocene extinction, left unchecked, will ultimately claim *us* as well. All it will take is the wrong cascade, or simply weakening the earth’s ecosystems to a tipping point that can no longer support our way of life. Cereal grains are fickle; a temperature change of a few degrees might kill them all off. With 90% or more of our diet coming from just a few, closely-related grasses, our entire, global population is essentially in the same precarious boat as the Irish of 1845.

Diversity is strength; diversity ensures survival. The human population is growing, while the number of species takes an unprecedented nose-dive. The amount of life is not changing, but biodiversity is plummeting. We are, pound by pound, replacing every single lifeform on this planet with a corresponding unit of human flesh. We are reducing the planet’s biodiversity to a single species.

Taken to its extreme end-point, the insanity of this policy becomes evident. Humans will choke on their own breath and fall on each other in cannibalistic slaughter. We cannot survive all on our own. The general principle is more complex; long before we are alone in the world, this course will mean the end of our species. Therein lies the great irony of the Holocene extinction. It is the worst mass extinction in the history of the earth, and it is the only extinction ever driven forward by organisms themselves. But ultimately, those organisms–us, human beings–will be among the dead, if we do not soon wake up from our ten-thousand-year madness, and stop this before it’s too late.

In the article cited above, E. O. Wilson considers the question, “Is humanity suicidal?” Like Wilson, I do not believe that it is. Humans are omnivores, making them incredibly adaptable to new environments. They are also alpha predators. They can be as harmless and well adapted as wolves, lions, or hawks. When humans found themselves in a new environment–such as the Americas or Australia–there were some changes that took place, but these were well within the normal bounds of ecological change. What we have seen since, however, is something entirely different. It is not humanity that is maladapted to life on earth; it is agriculture that is maladapted to humanity. We are still Pleistocene animals, no matter how many stories we spin about our vaunted “Holocene,” and the agricultural life simply does not suit us. It forces us to grow exponentially, and wreak havoc on the earth.

Global Warming

As previously mentioned, ecological problems can never be considered in isolation, and much of the cause of global warming can be found in the same causes of the Holocene Extinction. Humans have been causing the release of greenhouse gases and altering the earth’s atmospheric composition and global climate for 10,000 years. However, while previously our excesses were checked by the earth’s natural cooling trend as it tried to enter a new cycle of glaciation, the increases in scale since the Industrial Revolution have brought on a global climatological crisis.

Climate change predictions, based on the IPCC W1 report

Global warming is a subject of debate only because of the short-sighted nature of the modern corporation: a consequence of the nature of investment and the stock market. Because most of the proposed “solutions” to global warming are legal restrictions on economic activity, those companies which would suffer in the short-term (though they would prosper in the long-term–as the benefits of their own survival and the survival of their customers) have invested a good deal of money in obfuscating the issue, in order to make global warming appear questionable, and thus avoiding the proposed political ramifications. It is worth noting that global warming is considered controversial only in the United States–the only other Western country than Australia that still considers evolution to be a controversial subject. With the United States as the single most significant consumer of petroleum and the worst producer of greenhouse gases, no international plan to reduce global warming can have any hope of succeeding without the support of the United States. The website Exxon Secrets maps the relationships through which ExxonMobil specifically funds nearly all of the “climate change skeptics” in the United States.

Yet global warming is an open question only in the arena of public policy. Among scientists and those who have honestly researched the topic, its reality is well known and widely accepted. Even the well-funded “climate change skeptics” can agree on the basics: that the greenhouse effect is real (and is even beneficial; with no greenhouse effect whatsoever, the earth would be too cold for mammalian life), and that the globe has been warming at a dangerous rate.

Political critics often allege that global warming is a non-issue, because mean global temperature has increased “only” a few degrees; specifically, as the IPCC WG Iconcluded, “0.6 ± 0.2°C.” Even more importantly, that rate has increased over the past two decades to 1.0°C per century. The critics’ use of the word “just” relies on our conventional concept of temperature, and dishonestly obfuscates the scale inside of which global climate operates. The difference between our current climate and an ice age is also “only a few degrees.” Climate is a very different thing from weather, and while the temperature outside may change drastically, the *global average temperature* is a very static thing, and even minor changes can have catastrophic consequences.

Eleven of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1990, and the five warmest of all have occurred in the last decade (in descending order: 2002, 1998, 2003, 2001, 1997). The polar ice caps are shrinking. In 2005, that shrinking of polar ice meant that the Odden ice shelf did not fully form. Normally, the Odden ice shelf’s melting in the spring releases a great deal of cold water into the Atlantic, providing one of the main forces pushing the Gulf Stream. The lack of much input from the Odden ice shelf made the Gulf Stream very weak through 2005. As a result, the hot water of the Gulf of Mexico remained n the Gulf, creating intense surface and deep sea temperatures–such that minor tropical storms that wandered over those hot waters became massive hurricanes. The record-breaking number of hurricanes in 2005 was entirely the result of normal multi-decadal cycles, but the intensification of Katrina, Rita and Wilma into some of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the north Atlantic was a direct result of global warming. At the same time, the lack of the Gulf Stream may continue to have devastating consequences, in the form of an especially bitter winter in northern Europe, which normally enjoys a climate much warmer than its latitude would normally allow, thanks to the Gulf Stream.

So we already see that the effects of global warming are chaotic, and are best described as, “increasingly erratic weather.” Global warming drives weather into the extremes, rather than simply making everything hotter. This makes sense: the world is not uniform, why should we expect the effects of heating such a world to be uniform?

Of course, the world has been hotter in the past, but the question is not whether or not life on earth can survive; the question is not even whether or not humanity can survive. The salient question is whether a way of life that is utterly dependent on a small number of closely-related and fickle cereal grains that can barely survive the most minor perturbations of rainfall or temperature can endure in such a world. The U.S. Global Change Research Information Office outlines some of the threats our agricultural way of life might face:

It may be possible for global agricultural production to keep pace with increasing demand over the next 50-100 years if adequate adaptations are made, but there are likely to be difficulties in some regions. This conclusion takes into account the beneficial effects of carbon dioxide fertilization, i.e., given sufficient water and nutrients, plant growth will be enhanced by an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Changes in the spread and abundance of agricultural pests and the effects of climate variability were not reflected in this assessment. Regional changes in crop yields and productivity are expected to occur in response to climate change. There is likely to be an increased risk of famine, particularly in subtropical and tropical semi-arid and arid locations.

This is in addition to massive flooding, the spread of malaria with the spread of the tropics, and perhaps unpredictable crises we will face as our complex society faces the very same ecological problems that destroyed the Mayans and others.

In New Orleans, we may see a harbinger of things to come. Not only will the incidence of storms of Katrina’s magnitude increase, but so will sea levels–setting up conditions where even milder storms can wreak such devastation.

Global warming is not new, but we have recently crossed a threshold in scale and set off a new environment in which previously tolerable acts have become intolerable. Our greenhouse gas emissions balanced the earth’s natural cooling trend in the past, but our increases in scale have reversed that trend. Reductions in ice and snow cover make for darker land and water, which absorbs more heat from the sun. The Siberian permafrost is melting, releasing enormous amounts of methane. The frozen methane once locked beneath the arctic ice cap is also beginning to melt; that will drastically alter the atmosphere’s composition, and make it hotter still. We are no longer emitting greenhouse gases into a world that’s tending to become cooler: we’re emitting greenhouse gases into a world that we’ve pushed into a positive feedback loop that will make it hotter and hotter.

That positive feedback loop will eventually end; they always do. Climate has states of equilibrium where ti comes to rest, and when pushed out of one, it moves quickly to the next. We have succeeded in moving the earth out of the Holocene’s state of equilibrium, and the earth is now moving quickly–and catastrophically–towards a new, hotter state of equilibrium. It is by no means guaranteed that complex societies will be possible at this new state; in fact, it’s very likely they will not be. Nor is a complex society already beyond the point of diminishing returns at all likely to be adaptable enough, quickly enough, to survive the catastrophic transition.

Diamond’s Dozen

If the immediacy of our environmental crisis is still lost on anyone, Jared Diamond begins to draw down how crucial these concerns are at the end of Collapse:

Ask some ivory-tower academic ecologist, who knows a lot about the environment but never reads a newspaper and has no interest in politics, to name the overseas countries facing some of the worst problems of environmental stress, overpopulation, or both. The ecologist would likely answer: “That’s a no-brainer, it’s obvious. Your list of environmentally stressed or overpopulated countries should surely include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Somalia, plus others”.

Then ask a first world politician, who knows nothing and cares less about the environment and population problems, to name the world’s worst trouble spots: countries where state government has already been overwhelmed and has collapsed, or is now at risk of collapsing, or has been wracked by recent civil wars; and countries that, as a result of those problems, are also creating problems for us rich first world countries. Surprise, surprise: the two lists would be very similar.

Today, just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of getting politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing. When people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.

The results of these transparent connections are far-reaching and devastating. There are genocides, such as those that exploded in Bangladesh, Burundi, Indonesia, and Rwanda; civil wars or revolutions, as in most of the countries on the lists; calls for the dispatch of troops, as to Afghanistan, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands, and Somalia; the collapse of central government, as has already happened in Somalia and the Solomon Islands; and overwhelming poverty, as in all of the countries on these lists.

Hence the best predictors of modern “state failures” prove to be measures of environmental and population pressure, such as high infant mortality, rapid population growth, a high percentage of the population in their late teens and 20s, and hordes of young men without job prospects and ripe for recruitment into militias.

Those pressures create conflicts over shortages of land, water, forests, fish, oil, and minerals. They create not only chronic internal conflict, but also emigration of political and economic refugees, and wars between countries arising when authoritarian regimes attack neighbours in order to divert popular attention from internal stresses.

In short, it is not a question open for debate whether the collapses of past societies have modern parallels and offer any lessons to us. Instead, the real question is how many more countries will undergo them.

Diamond lists what he sees as the twelve most critical environmental problems we currently face:

  1. Destruction of natural habitats (mainly through deforestation)
  2. Reduction of wild foods
  3. Loss of biodiversity
  4. Erosion of soil
  5. Depletion of natural resources
  6. Pollution of freshwater
  7. Approaching the “ceiling” for photosynthetic capacity
  8. Environmental pollution
  9. Introduction by humans of alien species
  10. Artificially induced climate change
  11. Overpopulation
  12. Large and deep environmental footprints

Point #3 is the Holocene Extinction exactly, with points #1, #2, #7 and #9 as either its causes, or effects. Point #10 is global warming exactly. That leaves us with #4, #5, #6, #8, #11 and #12 as seemingly unaddressed.

But in fact it’s in precisely these problems that we see the foregoing united under a single heading, and the illusion of Diamond’s “choice” revealed. Because civilization must always grow (thesis #12 and thesis #13), resources must always be depleted more this year than last, population must always increase, and environmental footprints must always grow deeper. All of these environmental problems–including the Holocene Extinction and global warming themselves–are the natural consequence of the Food Race.

Erosion of soil.

Soils of farmlands used for growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil erosion rates on forested land.

The rampant destruction of soil is a natural consequence of monoculture. In a balanced ecosystem, soil is shared by many different species of plant, creating mutually beneficial nutrient cycles analogous to the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle that benefits both plants and animals. The nutrient that one plant needs is the excretion of another, and vice versa. Planting a field entirely with a single crop is as suicidal as locking yourself in a garage with a running car, and for all the very same reasons.

This is what makes agriculture so disastrous for the land it’s practiced on, and why agriculture leads to constant territorial expansion. This is why the Neolithic Revolution turned the Fertile Crescent into a blasted wasteland, why the situation in modern Australia is so dire, why agriculture leads to desertification and salination crises, and why merely farming in and of itself is sufficient to wreak environmental catastrophe on a very large scale.

Yet it is precisely monoculture that provides the large-scale yields of agriculture. Any plot of wild land has some percentage of human edible matter, but it is much less than 100%, because that same land also provides food for all manner of other species, as well. By clearing that land and planting a single variety of crop, the biodiversity and photosynthetic capacity of that land is converted purely into human food–and human mass. To back away from this would be stepping away from the Food Race–and like an arms race, that is a disastrous move unless everyone steps away from it at the exact same time.

Depletion of natural resources.

The prevalent view is that known and likely reserves of readily accessible oil and natural gas will last for a few more decades.

Here, Diamond addresses the end of our fossil fuel subsidies, a subject we’ll broach in the full detail it deserves in the next thesis.

Pollution of freshwater.

A good many prominent people have recently forecast, with a sort of gloomy relish, that wars will one day, probably soon, break out over water. These forecasts come not just from the environmental movement, which has long become accustomed to fits of Malthusian soothsaying, but from officials of so sober an institution as the World Bank. Ismail Serageldin, the bank’s vice president for environmental affairs and chairman of the World Water Commission, stated bluntly a few years ago that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.” Although he was roundly criticized for this opinion, he refused to disavow it and has frequently asserted that water is the most critical issue facing human development. The former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros Ghali said something similar about water wars. So did Jordan’s late King Hussein, who had obvious cause to mean it. Egypt has more than once threatened to go to war over diversions of the Nile.

The above quote comes not from Jared Diamond, but from Marq de Villiers’ “Water Wars of the Near Future.” That we are facing crisis conditions for lack of freshwater is not very widely recognized, but no less real. Water pollution forms one part of the threat; rising sea levels and the possible salination of existing freshwater reserves is another. Already, tensions over lack of freshwater have run high in the United States–one of the least affected regions in the world–west of the Mississippi. The term “water wars” presently refers to political maneuvering in the western United States, though the phrase is increasingly used to refer to looming armed conflicts in Africa and Asia. Erwin Klaas’ “Potential for Water Wars in the 21st Century” provides an excellent introduction to the problem we face.

Environmental pollution.

Though the amounts detected in water from a Louisiana tap were small—just a few parts per trillion (ppt)—they can be biologically active, another study finds. At these concentrations, one of the hormones measured and another found in birth control pills alter the apparent gender of fish and, possibly, their fertility. In a suite of yet more studies, collaborating state, federal, and university scientists report finding male carp and walleyes in Minnesota that were producing “sky-high” quantities of vitellogenin, an egg-yolk protein normally made only by females. Such feminization might explain the suspected inability of some adult male fish to make sperm. The researchers had caught the walleyes in the effluent of a sewage-treatment plant—a type of facility that others have shown can release estrogenic pollutants.

That is also not from Diamond, but from Janet Raloff’s June 2000 report, “Excreted Drugs: Something Looks Fishy.” We are seeing increasing incidences of asthma and allergies–trends which are best explained by declining air quality. We all breathe, we all drink, and thus we all need clean air and water. We have neither. The toxins in our air and water are poisons that we take in daily, and are responsible for much of our deteriorating health.


The world’s human population is growing. More people require more food, space, water, energy and other resources. … What really counts is not the number of people alone, but their impact on the environment … Our numbers pose problems insofar as we consume resources and generate wastes.

We’ll consider points #11 and #12 together, since their separation was somewhat artificial to begin with. Overpopulation is the root cause of all other environmental problems. Even the most meager environment can sustain a few people–foragers have flourished in the Arctic, the Kalahari, and other regions because their populatons are low, and their footprint is light.

Overpopulation itself is the natural consequence of the Food Race–driven by the constant need to expand. That need is a systemic consequence of complex society. The alternative to overpopulation, then, is to reverse the trend of intensifying complexity and accept greater simplicity: in a word, collapse.

Complex societies are a luxury that a healthy ecology can afford. They grow out of a healthy ecology and are sustained by it. A complex society that is detrimental to its ecology assaults the very foundation on which it stands. It is bound for collapse.

Yet, that is precisely what complex societies *always* do. Diamond tries to paint collapse as a “choice,” but the environmental problems we face are the direct result of the Food Race. Agricultural production creates more overpopulation, which is answered by more intensive agricultural production–resulting in still greater overpopulation, on and on for ten thousand years, however long it takes for the positive feedback loop to crash in on itself.

As Sam Vaknin worte in, “The Emerging Water Wars“:

It takes 1000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain and agriculture consumes almost 70 percent of the world’s water - though only less than 30 percent in OECD countries. It takes more than the entire throughput of the Nile to grow the grain imported annually by Middle Eastern and North African countries alone. Some precipitation-poor countries even grow cotton and rice, both insatiable crops. By 2020, says the World Water Council, we will be short 17 percent of the water that would be needed to feed the population.

The main driving force behind the Holocene Extinction is the twin forces of overpopulation and intensified agricultural production. As more land is converted into cultivated fields, we approach important tipping points in how much of the world’s photosynthetic capacity is tied up in a single species. Deforestation is driven primarily by the need to feed an ever-growing populaton, but also for that population’s other resource needs, such as lumbering and mining.

That deforestation has been responsible for anthropogenic atmospheric change for thousands of years, but as the positive feedback loop of the Food Race reached new levels, we were forced to either adopt fossil fuels, or collapse. Those fuels have intensified our atmospheric impact to obscene levels, yielding a new crisis in global warming.

We do not face a long laundry list of environmental problems: we face a single, multi-faceted crisis. That crisis is complex society itself. The problems we face are the direct consequence of the positive feedback loop of complex society, and the Food Race in particular.

Diamond points to several examples of societies that overcame their environmental problems, but all of those examples–and Diamond’s own suggestions–rely on greater complexity. They solve one proximate cause of collapse by intensifying the ultimate cause of collapse: the diminishing marginal returns on complexity.

In the passage above, Diamond writes:

Today, just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of getting politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing. When people are desperate, undernourished, and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.

Those people are right to blame their governments. One of the main excuses by which Leviathan justifies its existence is that it can “manage” the ecology. Yet it is the very existence of Leviathan that ultimately threatens the very ecology on which it depends. Tainter’s logic is all too true: we cannot explain the collapse of complex societies in terms of their ecological resources, since managing those resources is precisely the promise complex societies offer. Why do such societies fail to deliver that promise?

The answer, of course, is the diminishing marginal return on complexity. The more a complex society manages its ecology, the harder it becomes to do so again. Diamond’s examples of societies that cheated collapse all existed below the point of diminishing returns, when greater complexity–in the form of environmental laws and regulations–still had significant marginal returns. That is not our situation; we are far beyond that point. That is why governmental regulations can never be more than stop-gaps for us, and why our choices are not between the environment and the economy, but between complexity to its bitter end, and survival.

Ultimately, though, it is conceivable that some solution may appear to this crisis. None of the available solutions seem terribly likely to succeed, or even especially effective should they by some miracle be realized. The Kyoto Protocol is a wonderful example of this. Its passage by the United States would be a minor miracle, and without the signature of the world’s single largest carbon consumer, it is completely ineffectual. Yet, even if it were somehow passed, it would be a mere stick in the river–the compromises already made to try to court the United States have made the treaty ineffective.

Ecological devastation is often the proximate cause of collapse–but not always. And, since complex societies specialize in managing their ecological resources, the possibility of some solution is possible, if minuscule and ever-shrinking. Ultimately, it is the diminishing returns on complexity that will end our civilization, but the final blow is difficult to predict. That said, it is extremely likely that the ecological devastation our complexity has wrought will be a proximate cause–and that our complexity will, in the end, be undone by its own consequences.