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Rethinking Ecological Catastrophe
Ecological catastrophes are not likely to be the primary cause of the collapse of our contemporary society. The primary threats are elsewhere.
That said, ecological dangers are very real. Global warming is a common concern. Global warming is dangerous with threats of coastal flooding, extreme weather events, the loss of entire islands and cities, and the disruption of agriculture and our food supply.
As bad as those are, global warming may be only the second worst ecological danger we face. The number one threat is population growth. In theory, population problems ought to be under control. World birth rates are steadily decreasing. The total fertility rate for the entire world fell from 4.95 in 1950-55 to 2.36 in 2010-15, a reduction of more than 50%. But the world population will continue growing throughout the entire 21st century. In 2100, the world will have more than one and a half times as many people as it had in 2015.
Population growth has devastating effects on the environment because natural resources do not increase at the same rate as the number of people using those resources. Population growth
1. exhausts our energy supplies,
2. uses up the supply of drinking water,
3. exhausts natural food supplies such as fish in the ocean,
4. uses up supply of arable land for farming
5. promotes deforestation
6. intensifies the development of slums – with all the problems associated with concentrated poverty.
It is very easy to link such developments to the downfall of societies. There is a substantial historical and archaeological record of civilizations that have collapsed because of ecological problems.
The table shows various ancient societies that have collapsed from ecological woes. Those are real societal deaths on the historical record.
Ecological writers note however, that not all environmental threats are lethal. They represent a challenge to a society. Like any other problem in life, if one adapts to a challenge, one survives and moves on. If the government, the technological system or the economy of a society remain functional, even dire environmental threats can be addressed.
In the environmental literature, the jargonistic term for such adaptation is “ecological modernization”. This refers to a society using technology or regulation to counteract or eliminate environmental threats.
There is absolutely, positively, no guarantee that ecological modernization will occur. Ecological modernization is nice when it happens. Being cured from cancer is nice when it happens. Cancer often kills, and so do ecological threats.
That said, some environmental stories have happy endings. Ecological modernization occurs frequently. When the Great Lakes were becoming too polluted, treatment plants were built to clean water, and reduce industrial waste. Laws were passed banning the dumping of toxic waste into water supplies. Over time, water quality improved and the worst threats to the Great Lakes were averted.
The world is exhausting its supplies of petroleum. Through ecological modernization, new supplies are being discovered. Some conservation is occurring. Alternative sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, are being promoted. This is not a fully resolved problem. Fracking and nuclear power pose grim issues on their own. But, we are stumbling to some sort of progress, even though this is an imperfect progress.
Capitalism has its own sadistic form of ecological modernization. Modern capitalism is unusually capable of reproducing itself in the face of disaster. What happens when a good becomes scarce? The price goes up. This lowers the consumption of the now scarce item. When oil prices spiked in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Americans really did shift into using more fuel-efficient cars because gasoline had become more expensive.
Modern industrial societies have shown tremendous resilience in the face of all-out disaster. The Great Chicago Fire led to a tremendous boom afterwards as the city physically reconstructed itself. Both Germany and Japan were nearly destroyed in World War II. This was followed by thirty-five years of prosperity as both countries rebuilt their factories and cities from the ground up. Rebuilding a flooded New York City in the face of global warming would be a grim process, but it would not necessarily mean an end to American prosperity. The overall economy would keep going. Real estate brokers in New Jersey and Connecticut would make a small fortune.
Ecological crises are survivable, if a society has the capacity to do something about them. This is a huge “if”. The critical issue is often not the ecological threat itself – but the societies’ capacity to face any kind of problem.
If a society lacks the technological capacity to find solutions to problems
If a society lacks the organizational or political capacity to implement solutions to problems
If a society lacks the willingness to cooperate that is essential to starting the problem solving process in the first place
Then Any Problem – Ecological or Not – Can Kill
The key to survival overall is cooperation. Without cooperation, organizations and governments are both crippled. Without cooperation, there is no education and no science. The poison that undercuts cooperation is violence.
Cooperation is reduced in the face of internal and external war.
Cooperation is reduced in the case of organized ethnic violence.
Cooperation is reduced in the case of kidnapping, assassination, random assault and extreme forms of violent crime.
When all the people fear for their lives, no one is working together. No one trusts the partners that will be needed to pull off the common endeavors that are the solutions to the joint problems that represent a threat to all.
The cause of societal survival and growth is cooperation.
The cause of societal death is violence, distrust and destruction of adaptive capacity.
When societies are divided among themselves, they may lack the capacity to respond ecological crises. This makes ecological crises fatal.