We Are Witnessing the First Stages of Civilization’s Collapse
Will our own elites perform any better than the rulers of Chaco Canyon, the Mayan heartland, and Viking Greenland?
In his 2005 bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, geographer Jared Diamond focused on past civilizations that confronted severe climate shocks, either adapting and surviving or failing to adapt and disintegrating. Among those were the Puebloan culture of Chaco Canyon, N.M., the ancient Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica, and the Viking settlers of Greenland. Such societies, having achieved great success, imploded when their governing elites failed to adopt new survival mechanisms to face radically changing climate conditions.
Bear in mind that, for their time and place, the societies Diamond studied supported large, sophisticated populations. Pueblo Bonito, a six-story structure in Chaco Canyon, contained up to 600 rooms, making it the largest building in North America until the first skyscrapers rose in New York some 800 years later. Mayan civilization is believed to have supported a population of more than 10 million people at its peak between 250 and 900 A.D., while the Norse Greenlanders established a distinctively European society around 1000 A.D. in the middle of a frozen wasteland. Still, in the end, each collapsed utterly and their inhabitants either died of starvation, slaughtered each other, or migrated elsewhere, leaving nothing but ruins behind.
The question today is: Will our own elites perform any better than the rulers of Chaco Canyon, the Mayan heartland, and Viking Greenland?
As Diamond argues, each of those civilizations arose in a period of relatively benign climate conditions, when temperatures were moderate and food and water supplies adequate. In each case, however, the climate shifted wrenchingly, bringing persistent drought or, in Greenland’s case, much colder temperatures. Although no contemporary written records remain to tell us how the ruling elites responded, the archaeological evidence suggests that they persisted in their traditional ways until disintegration became unavoidable.
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These historical examples of social disintegration spurred lively discussion among my students when, as a professor at Hampshire College, I regularly assigned Collapse as a required text. Even then, a decade ago, many of them suggested that we were beginning to face severe climate challenges akin to those encountered by earlier societies—and that our contemporary civilization also risked collapse if we failed to take adequate measures to slow global warming and adapt to its inescapable consequences.
But in those discussions (which continued until I retired from teaching in 2018), our analyses seemed entirely theoretical: Yes, contemporary civilization might collapse, but if so, not any time soon. Five years later, it’s increasingly difficult to support such a relatively optimistic outlook. Not only does the collapse of modern industrial civilization appear ever more likely, but the process already seems underway.
Precursors of Collapse
When do we know that a civilization is on the verge of collapse? In his now almost 20-year-old classic, Diamond identified three key indicators or precursors of imminent dissolution: a persistent pattern of environmental change for the worse like long-lasting droughts; signs that existing modes of agriculture or industrial production were aggravating the crisis; and an elite failure to abandon harmful practices and adopt new means of production. At some point, a critical threshold is crossed and collapse invariably follows.
Today, it’s hard to avoid indications that all three of those thresholds are being crossed.
To begin with, on a planetary basis, the environmental impacts of climate change are now unavoidable and worsening by the year. To take just one among innumerable global examples, the drought afflicting the American West has now persisted for more than two decades, leading scientists to label it a “megadrought” exceeding all recorded regional dry spells in breadth and severity. As of August 2021, 99 percent of the United States west of the Rockies was in drought, something for which there is no modern precedent. The recent record heat waves in the region have only emphasized this grim reality.
The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offers many examples of such negative climate alterations globally (as do the latest headlines). It’s obvious, in fact, that climate change is permanently altering our environment in an ever more disastrous fashion.
It’s also evident that Diamond’s second precursor to collapse, the refusal to alter agricultural and industrial methods of production which only aggravate or—in the case of fossil-fuel consumption—simply cause the crisis, is growing ever more obvious. At the top of any list would be a continuing reliance on oil, coal, and natural gas, the leading sources of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) now overheating our atmosphere and oceans. Despite all the scientific evidence linking fossil-fuel combustion to global warming and the promises of governing elites to reduce the consumption of those fuels—for example, under the Paris Agreement of 2015—their use continues to grow.
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According to a 2022 report produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA), global oil consumption, given current government policies, will rise from 94 million barrels per day in 2021 to an estimated 102 million barrels by 2030 and then remain at or near that level until 2050. Coal consumption, though expected to decline after 2030, is still rising in some areas of the world. The demand for natural gas (only recently found to be dirtier than previously imagined) is projected to exceed 2020 levels in 2050.
The same 2022 IEA report indicates that energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide—the leading component of greenhouse gases—will climb from 19.5 billion metric tons in 2020 to an estimated 21.6 billion tons in 2030 and remain at about that level until 2050. Emissions of methane, another leading GHG component, will continue to rise, thanks to the increased production of natural gas.
Not surprisingly, climate experts now predict that average world temperatures will soon surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial level—the maximum amount they believe the planet can absorb without experiencing irreversible, catastrophic consequences, including the dying out of the Amazon and the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (with an accompanying rise in sea levels of one meter or more).
There are many other ways in which societies are now perpetuating behavior that will endanger the survival of civilization, including the devotion of ever more resources to industrial-scale beef production. That practice consumes vast amounts of land, water, and grains that could be better devoted to less profligate vegetable production. Similarly, many governments continue to facilitate the large-scale production of water-intensive crops through extensive irrigation schemes, despite the evident decline in global water supplies that is already producing widespread shortages of drinking water in places like Iran.
Finally, today’s powerful elites are choosing to perpetuate practices known to accelerate climate change and global devastation. Among the most egregious, the decision of top executives of the ExxonMobil Corporation—the world’s largest and wealthiest privately-owned oil company—to continue pumping oil and gas for endless decades after their scientists warned them about the risks of global warming and affirmed that Exxon’s operations would only amplify them. As early as the 1970s, Exxon’s scientists predicted that the firm’s fossil-fuel products could lead to global warming with “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.” Yet, as has been well documented, Exxon officials responded by investing company funds in casting doubt on climate change research, even financing think tanks focused on climate denialism. Had they instead broadcast their scientists’ findings and worked to speed the transition to alternative fuels, the world would be in a far less precarious position today.
Or consider China’s decision, even as it was working to develop alternative energy sources, to increase its combustion of coal—the most carbon-intense of all fossil fuels—in order to keep factories and air conditioners humming during periods of increasingly extreme heat.
All such decisions have ensured that future floods, fires, droughts, heatwaves, you name it, will be more intense and prolonged. In other words, the precursors to civilizational collapse and the disintegration of modern industrial society as we know it—not to speak of the possible deaths of millions of us—are already evident. Worse yet, numerous events this very summer suggest that we are witnessing the first stages of just such a collapse.
The Apocalyptic Summer of ’23
July 2023 has already been declared the hottest month ever recorded and the entire year is also likely to go down as the hottest ever. Unusually high temperatures globally are responsible for a host of heat-related deaths across the planet. For many of us, the relentless baking will be remembered as the most distinctive feature of the summer of ’23. But other climate impacts offer their own intimations of an approaching Jared Diamond-style collapse. To me, two ongoing events fit that category in a striking fashion.
The fires in Canada: As of August 2, months after they first erupted into flame, there were still 225 major uncontrolled wildfires and another 430 under some degree of control but still burning across the country. At one point, the figure was more than 1,000 fires! To date, they have burned some 32.4 million acres of Canadian woodland, or 50,625 square miles—an area the size of the state of Alabama. Such staggering fires, largely attributed to the effects of climate change, have destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures, while sending particle-laden smoke across Canadian and American cities—at one point turning New York’s skies orange. In the process, record amounts of carbon dioxide were dispatched into the atmosphere, only increasing the pace of global warming and its destructive impacts.
Aside from its unprecedented scale, there are aspects of this year’s fire season that suggest a more profound threat to society. To begin with, in fire terms—or more accurately, in climate-change terms—Canada has clearly lost control of its hinterland. As political scientists have long suggested, the very essence of the modern nation-state, its core raison d’être, is maintaining control over its sovereign territory and protecting its citizens. A country unable to do so, like Sudan or Somalia, has long been considered a “failed state.”
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By now, Canada has abandoned any hope of controlling a significant percentage of the fires raging in remote areas of the country and is simply allowing them to burn themselves out. Such areas are relatively unpopulated, but they do house numerous indigenous communities whose lands have been destroyed and who have been forced to flee, perhaps permanently. Were this a one-time event, you could certainly say that Canada still remains an intact, functioning society. But given the likelihood that the number and extent of wildfires will only increase in the years ahead as temperatures continue to rise, Canada—hard as it might be to believe—can be said to be on the verge of becoming a failed state.
The American West’s megadrought has been accompanied by another indicator of abiding environmental change: the steady decline in the volume of the Colorado River, the region’s most important source of water. The Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to more than 40 million people in the United States and, according to economists at the University of Arizona, it’s crucial to $1.4 trillion of the US economy. All of that is now at severe risk due to increased temperatures and diminished precipitation. The volume of the Colorado is almost 20 percent below what it was when this century began and, as global temperatures continue to rise, that decline is likely to worsen.
The floods in China: While American reporting on China tends to focus on economic and military affairs, the most significant news this summer has been the persistence of unusually heavy rainfall in many parts of the country, accompanied by severe flooding. At the beginning of August, Beijing experienced its heaviest rainfall since such phenomena began being measured there more than 140 years ago. In a pattern found to be characteristic of hotter, more humid environments, a storm system lingered over Beijing and the capital region for days on end, pouring 29 inches of rain on the city between July 29 and August 2. At least 1.2 million people had to be evacuated from flood-prone areas of surrounding cities, while more than 100,000 acres of crops were damaged or destroyed.
It’s not that unusual for floods and other extreme weather events to bedevil China, causing widespread human suffering. But 2023 has been distinctive both in the amount of rainfall it’s experienced and the record heat that’s gone with it. Even more strikingly, this summer’s climate extremes forced the government to behave in ways that suggest a state at the mercy of a raging climate system.
When flooding threatened Beijing, officials sought to spare the capital from its worst effects by diverting floodwaters to surrounding areas. They were to “resolutely serve as a moat for the capital,” according to Ni Yuefeng, the Communist Party secretary for Hebei province, which borders Beijing on three sides. While that might have spared the capital from severe damage, the diverted water poured into Hebei, causing extensive harm to infrastructure and forcing those 1.2 million people to be relocated. The decision to turn Hebei into a “moat” for the capital suggests a leadership under siege by forces beyond its control. As is true of Canada, China is certain to face even greater climate-related disasters prompting the government to take who knows what extreme measures to prevent widespread chaos and calamity.
These two events strike me as particularly revealing, but there are others that come to mind from this record-breaking summer. For example, the Iranian government’s decision to declare an unprecedented two-day national holiday on August 2nd, involving the closure of all schools, factories, and public offices, in response to record heat and drought. For many Iranians, that “holiday” was nothing but a desperate ploy to disguise the regime’s inability to provide sufficient water and electricity – a failure that’s bound to prove ever more destabilizing in the years to come.
Entering a New World Beyond Imagining
Half a dozen years ago, when I last discussed Jared Diamond’s book with my students, we spoke of the ways civilizational collapse could still be averted through concerted action by the nations and peoples of the world. Little, however, did we imagine anything like the summer of ’23.
It’s true that much has been accomplished in the intervening years. The percentage of electricity provided by renewable sources globally has, for example, risen significantly and the cost of those sources has fallen dramatically. Many nations have also taken significant steps to reduce carbon emissions. Still, global elites continue to pursue strategies that will only amplify climate change, ensuring that, in the years to come, humanity will slide ever closer to worldwide collapse.
When and how we might slip over the brink into catastrophe is impossible to foresee. But as the events of this summer suggest, we are already all too close to the edge of the kind of systemic failure experienced so many centuries ago by the Mayans, the ancient Puebloans, and the Viking Greenlanders. The only difference is that we may have no place else to go. Call it, if you want, Collapse 2.0.