History Repeats Itself

I had to write a commentary-based popular science article for my Brain, Behaviour and Evolution class so I thought I’d post it up in case anyone felt like reading it. It’s based off a paper titled “Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided?” by Paul and Ann Ehrlich. Have fun.

History Repeats Itself

Everyone has heard of collapsed ancient civilisations; their stories shine out to us from the tombs of history, sometimes seeming like cautionary tales, sometimes like ridiculous and contrived plays, but always bringing to mind the idea of lost opportunity. But why did they fall? One of the questions we have begun asking ourselves seriously in the past hundred years is what impact we’re having on the environment around us.

A paper entitled “Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided?” by Ehrlich & Ehrlich (2013) (Paul Ehrlich is pictured) published last year gives us some insight into the potentials for disaster that climate disruption, accelerating extinctions, land degradation, ocean acidification and many more imminent problems are creating. But what could cause such global changes? The answer, the authors tell us, is found in a complex interplay between the ways in which humans are impacting the environment and the environmental feedback systems and responses to those actions.

As long ago as 1798, Thomas Malthus put forth the idea that is now known as a Malthusian catastrophe, “the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race“ (Malthus 2003, p. 61). In essence, Malthus was describing a situation in which population growth in an area outstrips the ability of the area to support the population, leading towards famine and eventual death of the population (or at least, a population reduction to levels that are sustainable again).

While Malthus himself wasn’t inclined towards catastrophic views, believing instead that the population would simply not outgrow available resources, the authors of the study disagree. Instead, they say that in order to simply support the existing population at the current standards would require roughly half an additional planets worth of resources (this is without even removing things like world hunger). A terrifying fact that shows the tenuousness of our grasp on our current level of happiness and wealth. Ehrlich & Ehrlich (2013, p. 1) tell us, “in many, if not most, cases, overexploitation of the environment was one proximate or an ultimate cause” of the collapse of ancient civilisations. And the earth itself is giving us warnings not to repeat that process.

The studies authors point out that our ecosystem is flailing with climate disruption destroying both ecologically important wilderness and arable farming land (and predictions for far worse), global-scale extinction events and growing levels of harmful chemicals that are contaminating our day to day environments. Mass evacuations may be yet to come from many thousands of heavily populated coastal cities and towns due to the rising sea levels.

All of this is telling us that we have to do something or we will face a collapse; however this time the collapse will be on a global scale, which is unprecedented in human history. The authors warn us that, “failing rapid concerted action, the world is already committed to a 2.48C increase in global average temperature” (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 2007, p. 3). Our agricultural system evolved in a relatively benign period of Earth’s history and as such has the potential to be disrupted by even small variations in the climate of the globe.

As these events become more severe and frequent, the authors inform us that we need to work on restructuring our existing energy system to make energy gathering and deployment more efficient. We can do this but it will require dramatic action involving not just the technical construction aspects but also changes to human behaviour.

One of the main problems is our reliance on fossil fuels. In order to limit the damage that will be inflicted on us, the authors say we need to halve the global use of fossil fuels by 2050. Failing to meet that goal will lead to temperatures that, “could well bring down civilization” (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 2007, p. 3). This impacts another problem we will have in the agricultural region related to climate change. The authors point out that, “as the planet’s climates rapidly shift to new, less predictable regimes” (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 2007, p. 3) crop yields that are considered low today may become the high yields of tomorrow because, “farming areas now rain-fed may someday need to be irrigated, whereas irrigation could become superfluous elsewhere, and both could change more or less continually” (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 2007, p. 3).

Another problem is that of the in-group thinking and tribalism that have become entangled in the debate about climate change in the public eye. Many different people and groups vigorously oppose the idea of climate change, despite decades of accrued research pointing to it being correct. The authors tell us that, “interests with large financial stakes in fossil fuel burning have launched a gigantic and largely successful disinformation campaign in the USA to confuse people about climate disruption” (Ehrlich & Ehrlich 2007, p. 3) and this has led to much of the public to doubt scientists who are bringing attention to it.

What can we do? Ehrlich & Ehrlich (2013, p. 4) suggest that the answer lies in, “reducing the scale of the human enterprise (including the size of the population) to keep its aggregate consumption within the carrying capacity of Earth”. However, this idea has met some resistance, especially from groups like the ‘endarkenment’, who oppose the idea based off of a rejection of enlightenment values such as freethought, secularism and the scientific method. More must be done to convince the general public of the importance of these values.

We know from history that civilisations collapse and the signs that lead to their demise. We are able to recognise those signs amongst us now. The real question is can we act to avert the danger quickly enough? We have a history of innovation and survival as a species and we have seen from the nuclear crisis that humans can respond to global threats with rational action. We have the capabilities within us right now to reduce consumption and pace growth in order to create a sustainable society, all we have to do is take the action.


Ehrlich, P.R. & Ehrlich, A.H. 2013. Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Proc. R. Soc. B, 280: 20122845

Malthus, T.R. 2003. An essay on the principle of population. The Gutenberg Project, Salt Lake City, pp. 61.


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