In early 2002, I had an epiphany. I had been depressed for months and queried whether there is even any point in living any more: in the long run, we are all dead, and whatever we achieve will crumble in the sands of time. In a century, barely anyone will even know that you ever existed.
What convinced me to keep on living was a realization that there are indeed some things worth doing. Among them is striving towards long-term survival of intelligences capable of love, empathy, curiosity, and creativity. That epiphany has guided my career choices ever since. (I however agree with the critics of the longtermism movement that there are some very dangerous strands of thought within this movement, mainly because too many people in the movement tend to dismiss the sufferings of the present and the near future in their calculations of some possibly attainable Greater Good in the far future, and in their near-sycophantic adulation of billionaires and other “Great Men.” That is the stuff the nightmare totalitarian dictatorships have always been made of.)
That said, existential risk or x-risk and collapse studies have ever since been close to my heart. Here’s the newest news.
UN Warns of ‘Total Societal Collapse’ Due to Breaching of Planetary Boundaries, Nafeez Ahmed, 26 May 2022. Byline Times.
“the human material and ecological footprint is accelerating the rate of change. A potential impact when systemic risks become cascading disasters is that systems are at risk of collapse”.
Refers to Thomas Cernev’s report “Pandemics, Climate Extremes, Tipping Points and the Global Catastrophic Risk – How these Impact Global Targets” (https://www.undrr.org/publication/global-catastrophic-risk-and-planetary-boundaries-relationship-global-targets-and):
“From the scenario analysis… it is evident that in the absence of ambitious policy and near global adoption and successful implementation, the world continually tends towards the global collapse scenario.”
Cernev’s paper identifies four potential pathways ahead:
“In all of these scenarios except for ‘stable earth’, the achievement of global targets and accompanying frameworks is negatively impacted,” the report states. “Furthermore, in the absence of change, scenarios ‘Earth under uncertainty’ and ‘Earth under threat’ tend towards that of ‘global collapse’.”
“The paper explains that, by adopting a systems analysis, it is possible to see how “the crossing of one planetary boundary systematically results in the crossing of others”. They are crucial to providing a ‘safe operating space’ for human societies to develop within a stable earth system, “with the passing of these boundaries subsequently, and most likely resulting in societal destabilisation and potential GCR events”.”
Nafeez Ahmed wrote in 2017 a primer “Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence”, where he pointed out that the process of global societal collapse is likely to accelerate as a self-reinforcing feedback loop between what he calls “human system destabilisation (HSD)” and “earth system disruption (ESD).
“In this feedback loop, earth system disruptions – in this case, triggered by breaching of planetary boundaries – destabilise social, political and economic institutions. This, in turn, inhibits successful policy responses to ESD, leaving the planet vulnerable to further ESD outbreaks.
The result is a feedback effect in which HSD and ESD occur in an amplifying cycle with the potential to culminate in a dramatic loss of complexity in the human system – what might be defined as a collapse.”
This is a conclusion that is easy to concur with. I just note here that as a whole, the threat is not so much in any single major event, but in a multitude of relatively minor (many still catastrophic) events that are all driven by the same logic: the need for individuals in a highly, and increasingly, competitive society to outcompete the others.
In such a society, where 1. winning the competition may yield considerable gain of status, and 2. losing or abstaining from the competition may mean considerable loss of status, it is in my opinion very difficult to limit the exploitation of the Other (both other humans, and other species) for private gain, and to limit the use of potentially dangerous technologies. Thus, a competitive, highly unequal society almost certainly exacerbates the feedback loops between HSD and ESD, and hinders cooperation that is necessary for the setting of the limits to exploitation.
Conclusion: we need to limit competition and share resources more equitably to “depower” the HSD/ESD feedback loop.
I would encourage everyone to read Giorgos Kallis’s very good short book “Limits” for more considerations about what I believe is the key problem in our time: how to set limits for exploitation, and how to prevent the limits from being undermined by the competitive pressures. I fully agree with Kallis: the natural world (or “the market”) will not set the limits for us in time to prevent very serious damages. We must learn to limit ourselves.
There is no “We” that can set those limits. “We,” as in the slice of global humanity that uses the preponderance of fossil fuels, are living within a supersystem that cannot set limits to its mania for fossil fuel use, hence collapse. Business is the last place to look for some sort of self-willed downshift, but there will be no other global force to do this, either.