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Facing the Specter of Environmental Doom

Denial of ecological damage could lead to civilizational collapse.

At a conference last week, a colleague and I were having a late-night chat over drinks when the topic of the major changes expected from global climate change came up. I offered that wealthy people will probably do fine while the masses will be severely impacted by disease, displacement, or widespread starvation. My friend, a climate-change expert, differed. The systemic changes in our mid-term futures—perhaps in the next several decades—will likely be so severe, he said, that entire economic systems may begin to fail, leaving the wealthy to die or live under much-compromised conditions, along with others. Only major changes to the way our economy works now—less burning of fossil fuels, more equitable and modest distribution of resources, less flying—will ward off such a dismal future.

A perfect storm of shortages and crises may be brewing.[i] That’s the unvarnished news from someone who studies these things every day.

Strange storms coming

A recent news report underlined this dire possibility.[ii] A new study carried out with support from both NASA and the US National Science Foundation concludes that global industrial civilization could collapse in just decades from now, driven mainly by unsustainable resource use and growing inequalities of wealth. It wouldn’t be the first time that an “advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative” civilization collapsed. Civilizations usually go through cyclic trends. The study examines several factors that can determine the risk of collapse: population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy.

Creating an Unstable Society: Resource Pressures & Economic Inequality

When resources are stretched too thin and society simultaneously stratifies into wealthy Elites who control much of the economy and a lower class of Commoners, history shows that the time is ripe for massive failures of the systems society depends on. The elite are in control, but they’re increasingly cut off from reality and the life conditions of the lower classes: resources and the people who work to create products from them. They become inured to reports of problems (such as global climate change or biodiversity loss) and believe that government and industry will make the adjustments necessary for them to maintain their lifestyles.

That lack of action that results when people are cut off from nature and the consequences of their actions lies at the root of the global environmental crisis, as I explain in my book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment.[iii]

Excessive strain on resources and extreme social inequality have driven the collapses of complex, advanced societies throughout history: the Roman, Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, and the cities of Mesopotamia. Today, we’re reaching the limits of many of Earth’s “ecological services” including clean water, forests, and fisheries. And we’re living in a situation of increasing economic disparities, particularly in America, as explained so cogently in the recent film, Inequality for All.

According to this report and similar ones (including a new report from the IPCC that says that the negative effects of global climate change, including reduced agricultural output overall, are upon us and getting worse), we may be able to avert disaster or mitigate it, but doing so will take a concerted effort in societies across the globe.

Facing the Bad News

Unfortunately, most of us will face such news with denial. We’ll go on with our lives and pretend that everything will be OK. We relatively wealthy people can ignore the signals from below that the planet is nearing crisis.

There is of course some uncertainty because nobody can predict the future perfectly. But even if society doesn’t truly collapse, at the very least we’re in for some serious problems due to global climate change. Some of them are already happening, with severe droughts affecting the US heartland and severe storms already battering our coasts—Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy hitting New York and New Jersey—and expected to just get worse if we don’t act.

One big problem with denial is that in the meantime, the problems only get worse and harder to deal with. If we had begun to respond in earnest to global climate change a decade or two ago, the transition would have been easier and the effects of our changes more impactful. It’s like saving for retirement: money you put in during your twenties gains more compound interest over time (and builds more value) than money you set aside later in your career. As the years go by and we do little about climate change, more carbon goes into the atmosphere and we push the planet further toward the brink; we’ll have to make greater changes more quickly to stave off the worst consequences. Slowing the train is easier if you start further away from the broken bridge.

There are also compelling moral reasons to push past our denial and act now and every day. Just ask yourself: do we have the right to bequeath a damaged, hobbled planet to future generations? Their lives will be poorer and more difficult due to our lack of action today. Less fresh, clean water will be available. Agriculture will produce less in drought-stricken zones.

There’s also a huge potential psychological payoff to accepting the facts and changing our lives in response: feelings of empowerment. Rather than passively accepting doom or trying not to think about it, we can actively work to make the world better for ourselves and our descendants. Acting communally—in neighborhoods, villages, towns, companies, and non-profit groups—is even more energizing. Research shows that people are more willing to invest their time and energy in a cause when they see others doing so, too.

Doing It, Now

Not all the change is hard. There are several things you can do starting today to help ward off disaster: fly less, drive less, buy less stuff you don’t need, and eat less meat. These are the biggest burdens most of us place on the environment. Former Vice President Al Gore has a lot of other suggestions about helping solve global climate change.

As I wrote in a previous post, our knowledge that we’re hurting the planet and future generations with our daily lives could also be taking its toll on our mental health, just as Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment subjects experienced all sorts of ill consequences of the damage they were inflicting: seizures, uncontrolled laughing, and copious sweating. Responding substantially to our climate change and fighting for more just and equitable economic policy might just make you happier and give you greater life satisfaction. Doing what I can about environmental problems and being open to new ideas for changing my lifestyle choices has made it easier for me to confront the grave news I hear every day about the worsening condition of our abused planet.

Many people feel despair in response to the news that we may be bringing about our own civilization’s demise. But as I wrote here, we can choose to turn despair and anguish into action if we realize that feelings of pain for our world are natural and healthy and that pain is only morbid if we deny it. Unblocking our feelings about environmental degradation can clear the mind and help us to become whole again—even as we face (and work on healing) our contaminated, heating world. Acknowledging that our current lifestyles are part of the problem has the unexpected side benefit of letting us feel more connected with the planet and its people, and it highlights our individual potential for contributing to a healthier, more sustainable world.

Learn about my book: Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment.

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

Follow my environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature.

Read more of my posts on The Green Mind.

[i] John Beddington (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government). “FOOD, ENERGY, WATER AND THE CLIMATE: A PERFECT STORM OF GLOBAL EVENTS?”

[ii] Nafeez Ahmed, “Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?,” The UK Guardian, March 14, 2014.…

[iii] Kenneth Worthy, Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2013).

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