Collapse: the Bio-Physical Roots: Delivering Dark Hope #2
David R. Weiss – July 27, 2021
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This is #2 in an eight-essay series over the next ten days in which I’m thinking out loud and a bit on the run about what it means to be church (or any authentic human community) … in a time of approaching ecological-social collapse. It will be a much longer project to fully develop these thoughts (maybe eight years), but I want to offer this as an overview of sorts. (Here’s a link to essay #1; if you missed it, start there.)
In this essay I set forth very briefly what I see as the damning “hard science” evidence for why eco-social collapse is now a foregone conclusion. I am NOT a climate scientist. I don’t pretend to speak with authority on the science of the climate crisis. I read the same news that the rest of you do, although I likely read a bit deeper and wider on climate crisis than many. I’ve followed this topic closely for the past five years; in 2019 I spent an entire year blogging weekly about climate and related issues.
Last year, I put much effort into addressing the pandemic, racial justice, policing, and our frayed democracy. Those issues (and others) have not lost importance, and I’ll continue to write about them. But my calling is to write into our coming climate tumult. It’s all connected, and I care deeply about all of it, but this is my corner of that connectedness, and I’m going to focus my energy here.
Four things, no five, fed my sense of urgency this summer. (1) News from a leaked IPCC report; (2) recent research on the 1972 Limits to Growth project; (3) a study that set resource depletion in a race against technological development; (4) an interview with a leading theorist on planetary boundaries; and (5) the sweep of 2021 summer weather calamities from heat dome to drought to flood to wildfire. Compounded on top of one another, the overarching sense is that the window of our opportunity to avert collapse … has closed.
What remains is the opportunity to brace for collapse—and to fashion communities that might harbor and sustain humanity under conditions that will be more challenging than any of us have EVER known. I now regard this as a holy task, and I commit myself to doing all that I can to assist in this sacred work.
I don’t claim that these five perspectives are definitive or even unique. Similar reports are everywhere if you look. Nor is this sense of collapse entirely new to me. I’ve had intuitions of this since first immersing myself in climate literature six years ago. But my encounter with these pieces in close proximity over the past several weeks made the ground shift beneath my feet. I won’t offer complete summaries here, though I may return to them at greater length in future posts. Here is the gist of each piece.
(1) In late June Agence France-Presse, an international news agency based in Paris, reported on a leaked advance draft of a four-thousand-page 2022 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. With many authors representing multiple disciplines and viewpoints, and crafted over months, even years, the process by which IPCC reports are written is structured to produce a broad-based and moderate consensus.
The broad-based consensus view in the leaked draft is anything but moderate. It speaks of life on Earth being “fundamentally reshaped” by climate change even if we manage to cut greenhouse emissions. It notes we are doing irreparable damage to the forests and oceans, our best natural allies in reducing CO2. And while the report acknowledges, “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it adds bluntly, “Humans cannot.”
The IPPC report shows that the impacts of climate change—the ripple effects felt across ecosystems—are already happening at just a 1.1 degree Celsius increase over the pre-industrial era global average. The Paris agreement had initially hoped to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees (a threshold the World Meteorological Organization now says we may cross for the first time before 2026). Ultimately, the signatories pledged to stay well below a 2 degree rise, but only secured policy commitments to limit it to 2.5 degrees. But even those commitments aren’t being met; we’re currently on track for 3 degrees Celsius. At best. Anywhere between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees will rewrite ecosystems, animal species, agriculture, human migration, and political instability. Beyond 3 degrees (and perhaps sooner) the infrastructure of a global civilization will collapse.
Finally, the IPCC report identifies a dozen “tipping points” where crossing a threshold in one realm (like temperature increase) results in a cascading effect in other realms (like loss of ice leading to rising sea levels and so forth). Tipping points are almost impossible to predict with accuracy, but once crossed, they may be entirely impossible to recover from. Catastrophic climate change—not just for “polar bears and poor countries” but for every living being—is on the table per the IPCC. Perhaps not yet chiseled in stone, but written in indelible ink with every passing month. “The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own.” When that’s the moderate consensus, something has changed.
(2) You may recall a 1972 MIT study commissioned by the Club of Rome (an international humanitarian think tank of sorts) that looked at “The Limits to Growth.” Considering primarily the interplay between population growth and resource depletion, the study came to the sobering conclusion that if the world continued its present rate of growth in consumption and population, societal collapse would occur beginning around 2040. Although the final report helped spark the environmental movement, it was largely dismissed as alarmist by mainstream pundits.
Recently a Harvard graduate student did an analysis using objective historical data compiled from 1970-2000 to ask how closely the original report had been in modeling the first thirty-year period after its publication. Answer: almost exactly. We’ve done a bit better than predicted at avoiding resource scarcity—but only because we’ve become technologically adept at stealing finite resources from future generations. Still, under the “Business as Usual” model—which we seem determined to follow (even the Green New Deal barely makes a dent in Business as Usual)—we’re “on target” to trigger an economic collapse in the next decade, with a subsequent winnowing of population. Winnowing. That’s a gentle word for a mass die off of human beings.
There is an alternate scenario called “Comprehensive Technology.” It would also lead to the end of economic growth, but, via enormous and difficult technological innovation and transformation—the type that requires a decade or more of “wartime” cooperation and sacrifice (how did that go during the pandemic?)—we could avoid social collapse. To sum up, then: our current model of capitalism WILL die in the next 20-30 years, one way or another. Because: finitude. The question is whether we lay it to rest, or whether it takes a whole bunch of us out with it. In the global economy, unbridled capitalism is like the presumed right to bear arms. People are more than willing to die for it. My guess is billions of us will.
(3) Then, as if those two reports weren’t enough to press the air out of my lungs, I “read” a dense mathematical study that basically asked this question: “Since we’re on track to consume so much of the renewable resources on this planet that its capacity to renew itself will collapse, can we advance technologically fast enough to be able to leave the planet before we’ve killed its capacity to support us?” The math in this paper was beyond me, but it’s a peer-reviewed study, meaning that folks who could follow the math agreed it was sound.
Using deforestation as an objective measure of resource depletion and projecting technological development along an array of trajectories—10,000 of them tweaking variables this way and that—they “conclude from a statistical point of view that the probability that our civilisation survives itself is less than 10% in the most optimistic scenario.” In fact, they surmise we have only “a few decades left before an irreversible collapse of our civilization.” And they observe that such a collapse would hardly be neat and tidy—rather, messy, disordered, and brutal. They end on a note of mildly cautious hope: “Giving a very broad meaning to the concept of cultural civilisation as a civilisation not strongly ruled by economy, we suggest that only civilisations capable of a switch from an economical society to a sort of ‘cultural’ society in a timely manner, may survive.”
In short, my argument for Dark Hope is that only if churches and other authentic communities choose to invest all their energy in shifting their people from a culture ruled by economy to one shaped by compassion, only communities that manage this have any chance at all for survival.
(4) You’ve had enough, but I was still reading—an interview with Will Steffen, professor emeritus of Earth System science known for his work in developing a theory of “planetary boundaries.” These boundaries map nine interacting Earth systems that play key roles in maintaining a planet hospitable to human life—as the Holocene period has been for the past 12,000 years. When we transgress these boundaries (as by loading more than 350ppm of CO2 into the air) we begin to play Russian roulette with the planet. And since these systems interact, transgressing one boundary can set others off balance as well. Transgressing a single boundary doesn’t “break” the planet, but each boundary we transgress—especially as we do so to a greater degree (CO2 is currently around 417ppm)—effectively adds a bullet to a chamber.
Steffen and team estimated in 2015 we had transgressed FOUR of the nine boundaries—including the two central ones: climate stability and biosphere integrity. He expects that their current analysis will show that we’ve now transgressed SIX of the nine boundaries. Imagine, it’s a nine-chamber gun, and by the end of 2021 we’ll have loaded six chambers with bullets. And we are passing THAT gun to our children and grandchildren.
(5) Finally, I didn’t read this so much as I watched it. Scorching heat in the northwest. Wildfires to the west and north that made my skies hazy and my throat scratchy here in Minnesota. Floods in Germany and China. Drought widespread across my entire state and over 40% of the United States. We sometimes see these as isolated events, tragedies but mostly disconnected to the wider world. Our global economy is designed to buffer the privileged while exposing the vulnerable. All the food lost to drought or heat or rain or fire will change the price of what I put on my table, but it won’t leave me with an empty plate. But those whose land is lost, whose crops are destroyed, may well lose everything. And the food lost to this angry planet will be replaced in our stores by food from other lands. And those other lands may well have less to feed their own. And as extreme weather ratchets up in frequency and intensity, the strain on a global food system, the ache in empty bellies in other lands, will come home to roost. In a million ways. Until it reaches my own plate as well.
Our food system (as our entire global economic system) counts on exporting precarity to others. But there is only so much precarity that can be absorbed, even by those whose expectations are so much less than our own. And what we will say when they cry, “Enough!” There is a lot more than bad weather headed our way.
So now perhaps you understand why I’m not mincing words. What do I mean by “collapse”? I mean that my unhappy but overwhelming conviction is that we’ve reached a point where widespread ecological and social collapse in inevitable. NO MATTER WHAT our climate—and our world—is going to buckle. Extreme weather is going to play havoc with food production is going to drive extreme hunger is going to produce hordes of food refugees, heat refugees, and unimaginable political unrest. Those least responsible for climate chaos will flock to the very countries (like ours) that are the most responsible for collapse, until our own social fabric rips wide open.
The world we’ve known and presumed would be the backdrop for our future is … no more. This isn’t a matter of nature’s vengeance or divine punishment. It’s the result of math, physics, and human folly (where “folly” encompasses “innocent” human nature to self-perpetuating human systems that foment evil—and everything in between). Each of these—math, physics, and folly—has a role in collapse. And we’ve reached a point where ignoring its inevitability, or claiming that’s there’s still time to avert it, is a betrayal of compassion and wisdom.
In this piece I considered the hard science (math and physics, but also biology and chemistry) end of collapse. Tomorrow I consider the human folly: the psychic-social-cultural roots of our predicament. Let me be clear: this is necessary prelude to Dark Hope, which ends in joy. (To be clear, it may also end in poverty, simplicity, and even ruins—BUT JOY.)
Ten days. Stay with me. Please.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
 https://www.vice.com/en/article/z3xw3x/new-research-vindicates-1972-mit-prediction-that-society-will-collapse-soon; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/25/gaya-herrington-mit-study-the-limits-to-growth.