The steady destruction of wildlife can suddenly tip over into total ecosystem collapse, scientists studying the greatest mass extinction in Earth’s history have found.– The Guardian, Ecosystem collapse ‘inevitable’ unless wildlife losses reversed
If we know sometthing about ecology, the history of Earth, and perhaps systems theories, we know that ecosystems can unravel fast and with disastrous consequences. (Disastrous for the beings dependent on the ecosystem, the living Earth will survive and continue to evolve.)
A system is relatively stable even when many factors are pushing it out its stability. At some point, these factors add up sufficiently for a dramatic shift. And the system eventually finds another equilibrium.
OUR CURRENT ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
We are in the middle of an ecological collapse and we will see more of the consequences in the coming decades. By then, it will be too late to prevent much of the damage. We will be occupied dealing with the immediate consequences of the collapse. And the process will already have gone too far.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Of course, there are still things we can do.
At an individual level, we can get ready for this collapse in whatever ways make sense to us. Creating good community ties is perhaps the most important.
At a collective level, it all depends on our collective will and that’s not here yet. If the will comes, at some point, we can perhaps reduce the severity of the unraveling but we will still find ourselves in a very difficult situation.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE LIKELY CONSEQUENCES?
What are some of the likely consequences of this unraveling?
We’ll likely see human migration on a scale beyond anything before in history, with all the conflicts and struggles that will bring. We are already seeing more extreme weather. We’ll see more drought and flooding. We will have problems with food production. (At the very least, disruptions and changes.) We may have more frequent pandemics. (More exposure to unfamiliar pathogens.) We may also see far more serious shifts, including a collapse in the ocean ecosystems which would be disastrous for most land life.
Even the moderate scenarios are immensely costly in terms of money and human suffering. It would have cost us far less to make changes decades ago when all of this was forecast. (I was very aware of it in the ’80s in my teens, as would anyone moderately informed.)
WHY DID IT HAPPEN?
Why didn’t we take care of it back then? After all, it would have been the optimal time. We had the information, and we had the time and resources to make changes.
There may be several answers.
This has to do with the future, which is abstract to us and seems like something we can deal with later.
Politicians typically operate with a time frame of one or two election cycles. The system is set up so they have few to no incentives to think long-term. For them too, it’s easier to push it into the future.
Some may think that this is about someone else and not ourselves. We think we will be safe, and this will be the problem of someone else. (In other parts of the globe, for future generations, or for other species.) We may think we don’t need to take it seriously since others don’t seem to take it seriously. We may think there is still time. We may have other and more immediate priorities, and use our energy and time to take care of our daily life challenges.
Any system has mechanisms to stay stable. And so also society and our culture. There are many incentives and processes that preserve the status quo and resist deep change. That’s generally good, except in this situation where we face a dramatic collective crisis and don’t take it seriously enough.
Our current economic system was created at a time when the limits of nature were not such a problem. Because of low population numbers and less efficient technology, nature was for all practical purposes unlimited. We had apparently unlimited natural resources, and an apparently unlimited ability to send pollution into nature. Nature had enough capacity, so we didn’t need to include the limits of nature in our economic systems.
These days, we are very much running into the limits of nature so we need an economic system that takes ecological realities into account. We need a system where what’s easy and attractive to do, at individual and collective levels, is also what is good for ecosystems, society, non-human beings, and future generations. That type of system is very much possible, we just need the collective will to implement it.
This is not just about our economic system. This has to do with all human systems, including transportation, energy production, food production, water use, waste, manufacturing, education, philosophy, and far more.
It’s a change that has to permeate every aspect of our individual and collective lives.
LOOKING BACK AT OUR TIMES
Of course, this living and evolving planet will continue even after this crisis. It has survived many crises in the past. (That’s why we are here.) Humans are also likely to survive. (Unless the more radical scenarios play themselves out.)
But we will go through an evolutionary bottleneck. Our numbers may be dramatically reduced, and our way of life will have to dramatically change and adapt.
Hopefully, those who survive will learn something from it. Hopefully, we will transform our systems – at individual and collective levels – so they are aligned with ecological realities. Otherwise, history will repeat itself and we’ll eventually have another ecological collapse.
How will future generations look at our time?
Since I am the one imagining it, I obviously imagine it similar to how I already see it.
I see a civilization formed at a time (1600-1800) with far fewer people and less advanced technology. I see a civilization with systems that do not take ecological realities into account. I see people confused about this and trying to live life as usual. I see people not taking this seriously enough, perhaps because they assume there is still time and others will deal with it.
I see heroes: I see environmental activists. I see young people and their school strikes. I see people who think deeply about this. I see people who develop alternative economic systems. I see people implementing solutions. These are the heroes of future generations.
I also imagine it will look weird how some people today see sustainability and environmentalism as naive and impractical. In reality, it’s the only way forward. It’s the only way for us to survive and thrive.
As science has shown us for decades, sustainability is the only realistic way forward, and that requires deep systems changes. (Far beyond what’s envisioned even by many in environmentalism and sustainability.)
And if anyone is out of touch with reality, it’s the ones who want to continue as before, or the ones who assume that technology alone is sufficient, or that small adjustments here and there are all that’s needed. That looks like wishful thinking. It looks like denial.