Interesting film I caught online, called Earth 2100: the Final Century of Civilization?. While a bit alarmist (they did point out it was intended to represent a worst case scenario) it was an interesting watch, certainly something Id recommend….with a healthy dose of salt alright!
The basic premise of the show is that, we know that in this century we face quite a few difficult challenges ranging from overpopulation, impending peaks in many natural resources (in particular oil, the IEA has just conceded that conventional oil supplies may have peaked in 2006, see links below), climate change, stretched water resources, environmental pollution, potentially new and deadly virus outbreaks, etc. In this film they portray a sort of perfect storm where all various problems conspire over the course of the next century to bring down much of civilisation, told through the eyes of the worlds oldest person (an American born in the present day).
Again, while a little alarmist, the message I think its important for people of our age to take out of this film, is that we need to get over this whole well its never happened before in my lifetime and therefore it never will happen, ever attitude. Very dramatic & catastrophic events only happen on fairly rare occasions, yes…but they do occasionally happen! Its more likely anyone reading this will be killed by a meteor strike (or a super volcano) than you are likely to win the lottery. Theres also a view present in society these days that human civilisation will just muddle through regardless….simply because we always have! Or that our current civilisation is so very large and advanced compared to civilisations of the past and this somehow makes us immune to collapse. Unless someone can explain to me how the laws of physics have changed in the last few decades, the very same mechanisms which brought down past Empires (from the Soviet Union to the Romans, to the Easter Islanders) can still potentially apply to our civilisation. The only difference would be the shear scale of the disaster. For sure, chip away at the supports of any civilisation (its food supply, natural resources, social fabric, environment, energy sources, etc.) and it will tumble just like the many that have come before us.
The Titanic may have been the largest and most advanced ships of her day, but she was made of iron and thus while unlikely to sink due to clever design, she still managed to do so in just over 2 hours. And there were plenty of people who went down with the Titanic, not because the lifeboats were all full (only a handful went away full loaded) but because many were reluctant to swap the apparent safety of the Iron deck under their feet for a small flimsy little rowing boat.
Again, I found it interesting how they got across the point in the film, about how civilisations tend to collapse gradually over time. Its rare you can trace it back to a single event. The Romans didnt wake up one morning and say:
Feck it! Im freezing my nuts off in this Toga! And those slaves? Since we went Christian its nothing but nag, nag, nag, nag! Right! Im getting me a big horned helmet and becoming a Goth!
Nor is the Tabloid version of Roman downfall true – that the Empire fell because the Vandals sacked Rome in 455 (and presumably vandalised everything:DD…if only theyd had ASBOs!) For one thing Rome had been sacked before (by the Visigoths in 408…I assume they Visi-goth-ed it!..:))..Ill stop now!), held to ransom on other occasions, and looted by Roman soldiers at various points in Roman history during civil wars (obviously the Romans defined sacking a city as when foreigners did the looting). And the last Emperor of the Roman Empire wasnt finally deposed until the late 470s. And of course this is only the Western Roman Empire were talking about, the Eastern Empire (henceforth known to us as Byzantium) survived right up till 1453. So the collapse of the Roman Empire was probably gradual, over several centuries of slow decline, until eventually normal for Romans wasnt being Roman.
One has to therefore ask the question, well if the decline of the Roman Empire was gradual, why didnt the Romans do something about it? The answer, as the film above suggests could be the case for our own civilisation, is because the seeds of Romes destruction were probably sown many centuries before. For example, the Hirsch report suggests we need 20 year minimum to prepare for peak oil. We currently have
.-4 years…and counting (weve probably already missed the boat!). Similarly some level of climate change is now inevitable, its more a case of keeping it to within safe parameters.
Its simply human nature to adapt a quick fix to a problem than focus on more appropriate long term solutions, even if that quick fixes can prove to be counter productive in the long term (as would be the case, for example, if we start using coal or tar sands to offset declining oil production). At some point during the collapse of the Easter Island civilisation someone cut down the last tree on the Island. What was going through his(or her) mind when they cut down that last tree? Well probably thoughts of a big warm fire and some shelter for the night I suspect. Also it is in human nature for people to put short term luxury over long term gain. Nobody has ever rioted because the government failed to tax them enough, there have been plenty of riots for the opposite reason. Give people a choice between a new set of matching Dinnerware and the long term survival of the human species and most people will take the Dinnerware (giftwrapped!).
Again, while I feel that total collapse of civilisation, as portrayed here, is unlikely (though theres a world of a difference between unlikely and impossible!). Its not unlikely that some of the challenges we face this century will overwhelm some people’s and their governments and see some parts of the world descent into brief, or extended, periods of anarchy and brigandism. Why? Well for starters, because its already happening. Go visit Somalia any time you disagree with me (H&S disclaimer, dont visit Somalia, its a place with no government, no taxes and lots of guns .is anyone from the Tea party reading this? ;D) And as they correctly portray in this film one of the places ripe for such a breakdown of civil society is the Midwestern states of the USA.
Of all the people on Earth, no one is more dependant on fossil fuels than the inhabitants of the Mid-western United States. Laissez-Faire planning polices have meant the cities here being subject to rapid strip development, where public transport is poor (or non existent) and a car a necessity. Many industries in the region are heavily dependant on supplies brought in from far away (mostly by trucks, a number of industries in the region specifically setup in towns off the railroad network because railroad towns tended to be more unionised than more rural towns). The vast cattle farms of the region almost exclusively feed their livestock grain and corn (cos theres not enough grass!) trucked in from far away (much of it grown with extensive use of fossil fuels). Water resources in the Mid west are already severely stretched. Farms and cities rely on large irrigation projects and an extensive network of dams to maintain water supplies, as well as increasingly, drawing (with fossil fuel powered pumps) from underground aquifers (which like oil wells wont last forever). Ironically, for a place that is the heartland of the Tea Party and Libertarian movement, the Mid west is heavily dependant on government money, both for the many defence related industries in the region as well as things like farm subsidies, etc.
Obviously you can see how things could quickly go pear shaped. Peak oil produces a spike in oil prices, making living in this region increasingly expensive, uncomfortable (you try going through a summer in Texas heat with out Air-con!) and eventually impossible. Many of the regions industry collapses as the nations highway trucking network folds, as too do many farming communities. A peak in global oil production will seriously stretch the finances of the US government, it could even lead to a melt down of the US economy. Needless to say those cheques from Uncle Sam soon stop rolling in. Finally, its a mere accident of geology and climate that most of the Mid-western USA isnt all one big desert (indeed large parts of this area ARE desert). It would take only a relatively modest level of climate change to dry out the whole region. Dried up reservoirs behind dams = no more drinking water = no more hydro-power (the only non-fossil fuel, non-hydro sources of energy in the whole of the US mid west are a single Nuclear power plant and several large wind farms in Texas). In short another dustbowl, only this time one that will cover as much as a third of the US land mass!
A final twist, as if to rub salt in the wound, there are a few common vectors that often lead to a breakdown of law and order. One is the ready availability of weapons, another is an excess of religious fanaticism. With theyre Gospel’s un Guns this puts the Mid west well placed to suffer a fairly swift lunge into anarchy once the oil rug is pulled from underneath them. The Tea party and libertarians may get theyre wish a few decades from now and big government will get off theyre backs. Trouble is theyll suddenly realise (too late!) that its sort of nice to have a job, police on the street, firemen, teachers, hospitals, public transport and civil infrastructure (you know? things like roads, flush toilets, internet access?). Of course, contrary to what the film portrays I reckon the rest of the US will prevail (a good number of bumps along the way though). So therell be plenty of places for the locals to migrate to (but dont forget youre birth certificates:>>!).
In short, if theres one thing to learn from this film, its that we need to tackle our planets problems sooner rather than later. Waiting, as the Romans did, until the Goths are at the gates is not an option. And the nay sayers need to give it a break. Im pretty sure there were probably a couple of Goth Horde Deniers hoping around the city back then claiming that it was all part of a natural migration pattern for Goths to come South this time of year and theyd soon go home, and the hordes not that big, and why didnt we defeat that other horde of Gauls a couple of years back so well muddle through it again.
Its all about insurance. If we are prepared to spend 2-4% of our GDP on defence (a roughly average global figure) even thought there have been few real wars of necessity since WW2 (I would rate Vietnam, Iraq I & II wars of choice), whats the problem spending similar amounts to protect against other threats? If you think its okay to spend billions of our money on the off chance that Kim (not-so)Jung(and-very)ill starts waving his Dong(missiles) at us ;D, then you must agree it would be wise to spend, say half that amount, on fixing climate change, or mitigating oil depletion. Yes, it may never happen, the peak oil doomers and the IPCC scientists could be all talking bollix, but if theyre both right and were not ready, then were fucked! And its much more likely that they are right than it is that well ever face a major global war again. Indeed the most likely triggers for a global war, are peak oil and climate change!
And if theres anyone on this Earth who should be chaining themselves to the sides of oil tankers its people from Middle America…and, ironically enough, if theres anyone who should be chanting burn, baby burn! its the Canadians and Swedes!
Im not saying The end of the world is Nigh! Im just saying its a risk if we keep burying our head in the sand and acting like weve got some sort of get-out-of-armageddon-free-card.
And if you want to see something REALLY alarmist watch this: