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The Art of Graceful Collapses

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApril 29, 2011 10:18 PM


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On a recent post of mine at Climate Central, one reader left an impassioned comment that sounded as if he considered overpopulation to be the greatest threat to humanity. I'm going to break it up into three parts. Here's the challenge, as he explained it:

An even more overlooked problem is overpopulation (defined as living unsustainably, whether due to a high number of people at a low level of consumption or a smaller number of people at a high level of consumption - basic human ecology). In most or all of the Arab countries undergoing civil unrest, unemployment is rampant due to a rapidly expanding number of people flooding the job market. Also, the fraction of the population that are children is enormous, meaning the problem will get worse very soon. Expect more countries to undergo this process, continued unrest, failed states, wars, and terrorism. Smaller families would have prevented this a generation ago.

I think he's conveniently overlooking the venal corruption and oppression of the regimes in those countries as a major factor, and making a faulty assumption about smaller families. No matter. Here's his solution--and because it will come too late, the consequence to humanity:

Now it will take 1 - 2 generations at one child per family just to stop growth, and a century or two to bring population down to a sustainable level. We don't have that much time before we hit the wall of climate change, inadequate resources, and mass extinction. That's true worldwide: we need smaller families everywhere, and drastically reduced consumption in developed countries. Since that won't happen, expect collapse of modern civilization.

Now this final part, a riff on the nature of "graceful collapses," is what fascinates me most:

In principle collapse could be "graceful," with preservation of knowledge and diversity and an orderly retreat to agrarian, nomadic, and hunter-gatherer societies as humanitarian calamities rapidly lower population and consumption through natural disasters, disease, and famine that we will be powerless to prevent or adapt to. Graceful collapses have happened before, but the odds are against it now for two reasons. First, languages and cultural knowledge are already being lost at a rapid rate as cultures go under. Second, the powerful will try to maintain their own well being by force, leading to more unrest, wars, terrorism, and possible nuclear holocaust. Ungraceful ("graceless?") collapse would probably mean the end of our species, and millions of years for the world's ecology to rebuild after the mass extinction - if climate change doesn't sterilize the planet.

Jeez, that makes Soylent Green seem like a Disney flick. So here's my question: Does anybody know of examples of "graceful collapses" in human history? As for the "orderly retreat to agrarian, nomadic, and hunter-gatherer societies," well, good luck with that Flintstones/National Geographic mashup. For a nice tonic to such romanticism, see this recent piece, the main point of which you can glean from its subhead:

Pre-modern lifestyles were fraught with violence, disease, and uncertainty. We should be happy that indigenous societies are increasingly leaving them behind.

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