Friday, 6 June 2014

The Morrow Project, Part 3: making things worse makes things worse

At the end of the previous post on this subject, I wrote that the next question I'd try to address would be:

"...through our relationship with the World (our home), it's natural systems, the biosphere, the atmosphere, the oceans and land, are we setting the conditions for a new 'collapse' of human society?..."

I'll front up now and confess that what I'd like to write is 'Not likely', but even if I was confident enough in my own prejudice (which I'm not especially), it would still be short changing anyone who has made the effort to come here and read this stuff.

So, let's look at the question in a bit more detail. The gist is simple: are we (collectively, Globally) screwing the Future? 

Whilst I'm inclined to avoid the more severe forms of alarm rising from any number of reports in the media of new 'crises', one advantage of being both a generalist and an external observer of Science is that my inquiries can range far and wide and aren't constrained by significant personal forces. So, what do I see?

First, clearly, evidently and without argument, both in general and in the particular, the recent impact (over the last 150 years or so, give or take) of Human activity on the Natural systems of our home (Earth) is substantially negative. Second, that negative impact has got worse progressively and unremittingly. This is not to say that all human impact is negative, or needs to be negative, but the trend is consistent, persistent and growing almost exponentially.

A lot of people will argue, though, that 'Nature' is sufficiently robust to manage and adapt to this damage, or that the Earth's systems will still be there long after we have gone, or adapted ourselves, so it doesn't matter. But such arguments fall down in a couple of ways.

Whilst large-scale ecological systems often react to external forcings, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is a finite state; there comes a point beyond which an ecosystem simply cannot survive the damage done. This is how some deserts, dustbowls, and so forth, come into existence. So, it is reasonably to counter that, however robust any given ecosystem or biosphere happens to be, there is a limit which results in inevitable decline, or death.

The argument that Earth will Abide (apologies to George R Stewart) is arguably irrelevant. The meaning of the question implies the persistence, at the least the desirability of the persistence, of humankind into some future or other. insofar as the question of the collapse of natural systems has meaning, its meaning is defined in relation to us, its occupants and persecutors.

Much more tricksy (well, for me, at least), is the question of Societal tipping points. under what circumstances does a social entity (a community, town, nation, etc) turn from being a more or less ordered arrangement of a group or groups of people, into a lawless, incoherent and self-destroying chaos?

There is no shortage of evidence from historical examples of societies which decline and subsequently cease to exist as a coherent entity, some of them reasonably recent. At the same time, there is ample evidence of the capacity of groups of people to adapt, transform or simply re-start somewhere else, sometime later.

One thing which seems clear from these examples, though, is that a social unit is much more vulnerable to sudden, uncontrollable or overpowering external forces for which it is unprepared. In this, human social entities share characteristics with natural systems.

So; are setting the conditions for a collapse of human society? Regardless of the answer, one thing we should be aware of is that by setting the conditions for ecosystems to reach tipping points, we are absolutely increasingly the likelihood of our being overtaken by forces no longer under our control.

My provisional answer (much simplified), is that I believe we are already seeing, in miniature, the social/human consequences of our negative environmental impacts. That these effects (war, lawlessness, rebellion, tribal/gang warfare) will increase in areas of greatest vulnerability. The more worrying, more 'global' question about the collapse of civilisation depends, in part, to the extent to which this will produce knock-on effects. But even this implies that 'stronger', more 'organised' social entities are not vulnerable to upheavals except at apocalyptic scales, and this assumption is by no means certain.

To be continued...