General Question

Hobbes's avatar

Do you think Civilization will collapse within our lifetimes?

Asked by Hobbes (7368points) February 16th, 2011

I’ve known about the many environmental problems which face us today for a long time, but until recently I had been seeing them in isolation, I think. I’ve made a list of the major problems Civilization has created for itself, which we will probably start feeling the effects of in the near future. Taken individually, the problems perhaps seem surmountable, but seen as an interrelated group the picture becomes grim indeed. Some of this list was based on one Jared Diamond presented in the book “Collapse”, but I’ve altered it a bit and added some of my own.

Climate Change/Global Warming
Energy Shortages/Peak Oil
Water Pollution/Depletion
Soil Problems
Species Extinction
Habitat Destruction
Effects of introduced species on native ecosystems
Trash and Toxin Buildup
Epidemics affecting humans
Epidemics affecting crops (UG99, Colony Collapse Disorder, Effects of Monocropping)
Experimental Accident (High-Energy Particle Physics, Nuclear Physics)
Nuclear Weapons/Waste

and of course, good ol’ Warfare

It seems to me that shit is going hit the fan one way or another, probably very soon.

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69 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

Civilisation will change, but I deem it unlikely to end.
Unfortunately, humans have demonstrated to survive even the worst of calamities.
Like cockroaches.

WestRiverrat's avatar

Civilization as we know it may collapse, but civilization as a whole will not.

tranquilsea's avatar

@ragingloli lol we are at that!

Civilizations come and go. We have to deal with significant problems but I think we, as a race, are up to the challenge.

Hobbes's avatar

For the vast majority of our history, we lived without Civilization and, I believe, got on quite well. Why not again? What if we survive the coming catastrophe but in much reduced numbers? What other sustainable way of life is there?

By the way, here’s a quote from Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” that I found illuminating.

“The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long.”

glenjamin's avatar

not likely, though this may be hubris

YoBob's avatar

Civilization will exist for as long as there are civilized humans that form cooperative groups to share the work load of providing for their needs. So… unless we are talking about total annihilation of the human race, I’d say the answer is no.

I do, however, believe that civilization is likely to undergo some significant changes in the next couple of centuries.

Hobbes's avatar

“Humans that form cooperative groups to share the work load of providing for their needs.”

This also describes hunter-gatherers, who I would argue had a mode of being very different from what we describe as Civilization.

Blackberry's avatar

Nope. Like the other answers: We’re good at surviving for the moment.

flutherother's avatar

Our present way of life has got to change and recognizing that stark fact and dealing with it would be the best way to prevent civilization from collapsing.

thecaretaker's avatar

I think it will happen soon, the world is becoming overpopulated and will continue to explode in population beyond our limited natural resources, the turning point I believe will be a limited supply of oil and maybe a natural disaster that will put the world under stress, human survival, greed will do the rest, I dont think everyone will die only a large percentage will die from rioting in the metropolitan areas around the world, rural dwellers will find a way to do without and survive forming communities, so in a way not much will change in human behavior, urban dwellers live by basic necessities that come from somewhere, rural folk already make those necessities; that mindset would play out along with a series of bunkers and firearms to defend the community

Hobbes's avatar

@Blackberry – What about Survivor Bias, though? Just because we survived the Cold War without a nuclear exchange doesn’t mean it wasn’t a likely outcome. Just because Civilization is growing at the moment doesn’t mean it won’t collapse in future.

WasCy's avatar

Globally? No, not without a specific calamity: huge asteroid strike, pandemic (one with high mortality and communicability), global nuclear war or alien takeover. Otherwise, it’s possible that ‘some’ civilizations may collapse, such as those dependent upon their remoteness from what we call ‘modern’ civilization: New Guinea, Amazon and the like. And civilization probably will “collapse” at least temporarily, in places such as North Korea and Myanmar at times of regime change (or as Myanmar demonstrated, during natural disaster).

The things that we already know about won’t doom our civilization: overpopulation, conversion from a petroleum-based economy to whatever else, food and water shortages, global warming… they will make things “interesting” and more difficult (from what we now envision our lives should be like), but they won’t be game-enders. No, what will get us will be something that we haven’t foreseen or haven’t been able to plan for.

tinyfaery's avatar

Not my lifetime, but maybe yours.

tinyfaery's avatar

@osullivanbr Wow. Blast from the past. I am the user FKA tinyfaery, btw.

osullivanbr's avatar

Come over to the chaos that is Ireland at the minute, we ain’t far off this kind of chaos at the moment. Sadly I’m only half joking.

@psychocandy I’M ALIVE!!!!!
@psychocandy Oh hi you stranger. I totally just had one of those moments where I was thinking who the hell? :-)
Good to see you, hear, um eh, ah you know

YoBob's avatar

@Hobbs, different yes, but civilization none the less.

Hobbes's avatar


This is the definition of Civilization I’m working from. It’s out of Derrick Jensen’s book “Endgame”

“A culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts—that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from latin civitatis, meaning state or city), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”

Why do you assume that Civilization will continue indefinitely? Especially since it is a relatively new invention.

“The things that we already know about won’t doom our civilization”

Why not? You haven’t actually disproved my point. Why would the fact that we know about a threat mean it can’t harm us?

WasCy's avatar


I think the way I do because very few threats “to civilization” come out of the blue and knock us on our ass with no chance at recovery. The global war from the last century (World War II) didn’t seriously threaten “civilization”. Even Hitler’s maniacal hatred of the Jews and intent to destroy that race didn’t end Jewish civilization. And that was much of mankind at its worst, trying to kill other humans.

Prior to that, the 1918 – 1919 flu pandemic, if it had been more lethal, could have had a chance to do us in. But since it was, after all, “only” a flu epidemic, no matter how dangerous to those with compromised systems, it wasn’t nearly as lethal as, say, Ebola or the current “bird flu”. And those are hard to contract, so far, which is the other saving grace.

So we can plan for those and fight them, because we at least know what we’re dealing with there. But another pandemic, with the lethality of bird flu and the communicability of “regular” strains of flu? That could give us insufficient time and resources to defend against.

The other things aren’t going to happen overnight. They will undoubtedly create huge stresses as we attempt with varying degrees of success to adapt to them, but the fact that we should be able to make the adaptations (even if large numbers of us die off) doesn’t doom “civilization”.

It’s the things that hit us with massive force, no ability to defend or retreat or fight back (such as the things I mentioned in the first post) that could do us in on a global scale.

wundayatta's avatar

This seems like the question of someone young and idealistic. I’m a great proponent of both, although I do think they make one prone to exaggeration. Part of the problem is not knowing much history or economic history. The more you know, the more you know about what humans are capable, the more you gain an appreciation for their flexibility and tenaciousness.

Just for instance, most people don’t know that demographers predict that the world population will start decreasing sometime in the middle of this century. Economists understand that humans have always found ways to either replace or make do without resources that have run out.

I wonder if the weather reporters in your area are as hysterical as the ones where I live. Every storm is the storm of the century. Every storm forecast sends people to the grocery stores to stock up on… who knows? Half the time, the storms don’t even show up at all.

People like to be hysterical and make mountains out of molehills. The death of civilization is another Chicken Little event. The sky is not falling. Sorry. Besides which, this is just a forecast, and long range forecasts are a joke. There have been many predictions of the end of the world. They have all been wrong so far, and it’s hard to imagine any evidence strong enough to support an accurate prediction.

Hobbes's avatar


You’re looking at those threats individually. I’m talking about the combination of war, pandemics, and all the environmental problems I listed. A strain of AIDS might mutate and become more easily transmittable. The thing is that nearly all these problems are linked to the growth of Civilization, that is the increase in population density requiring an exponentially growing use of imported resources.

“The other things aren’t going to happen overnight.”

I didn’t say overnight, I said within the next 50 to 100 years.

Yes, something completely unpredictable might happen, but you still haven’t shown that the visible threats aren’t extremely dire when seen in combination.


I’m 21, so you’re right there.

You can’t replace the water or the soil. You can’t replace an extinct species. Trees take a long time to grow back. You can’t make do without air to breathe or food to eat. Maybe we’ll manage to switch to another energy source before we all kill each other for the remaining oil, but it won’t matter if we destroy the planet.

YARNLADY's avatar

Not mine, but then I’ve already lived two thirds of my lifetime.

Soubresaut's avatar

I’m not confident enough to say within our lifetimes for sure, but I think it will happen.
From what I’ve seen, Civilization as we’ve made it is rather precarious… the only thing keeping it together is all trusting that it’s the best thing to do; or, in totalitarian governments, inability (yet) to rally together.
Actually, I think it’s some mixture or combination of being somewhat separated and not fully knowing anything better to do that keeps us stagnant in a specific way of life. I really think that humans naturally do seek change if they can see it, see a better way.

Haven’t we all been told (since before we were even able to understand what was being told to us) that our societies are superior, the systems not perfect but on their way to being perfected? Our faith in Civilization (our monetary, law based, heirarchal, etc, civilization) comes from nowhere other than Civilization and those before us that have been taught to believe in it as well.

Right now, we’re just marching down a road as fast as we possibly can. We assume that we’re eventually going to come to some even ground as everyone follows and catches up. We assume we’re becoming better. We don’t really know, though. We’ve got no way to know what direction we’re headed.

If we do keep destroying the planet, we will not be able to sustain ourselves at some point.

But Civilization’s collapse doesn’t mean all of the human race dies out, and it doesn’t mean everything we know gets lost. It means the system of rules we’ve balanced on top of one another have fallen down. The walls of our house have fallen around us. This isn’t that unfeasible.
I think we’ve had quite a few topples: economic downturns, bank failures, world wars, a lot of things that have already mentioned. And no, all of civilization wasn’t taken down, because we’ve built a complex house. Part were knocked down—rooms, sections—but we’ve so far always been able to rush a quick, or relatively quick, repair.

I think we think of ourselves as the pig that built the brick house. The wolf couldn’t huff and puff it down like he could the straw and stick houses. But what @Hobbes is saying, what I understand it as, is that just because we’ve encountered weak wolves doesn’t mean there aren’t stronger ones. Or just because we’ve encountered the strongest wolf, doesn’t mean there isn’t more out there. (Earthquakes will take down brick no problem). Or just because we’ve been able to deal with the wolves and the earthquakes on separate terms and survive, doesn’t mean a well timed blitz wouldn’t knock us over.

So instead of sitting inside our brick house, telling ourselves how wonderful it is, shouldn’t we be continually searching not just for bigger, but different and better?

To think this Civilization we’ve created in a millisecond for the Earth, for the Universe, a few hundred or a few thousand years by our time (depending on when you count the beginning as)—to think that is infallible? It’s that sort of cockiness that will ensure collapse.

Hobbes's avatar

Beautifully put, @DancingMind

incendiary_dan's avatar

We’ve discussed this in private, but I’ll but the summary of my thoughts here anyway. Civilization will collapse within the next few decades due to resource scarcity, specifically the lack of cheap energy. It will reform in many places in smaller scale for some time, but in many places it will be displaced by more egalitarian human cultures. The sooner this happens the better in my opinion, since the sooner industrialism stops, and therefore stops destroying more and more natural “resources” (read: living creatures), the more will be left not only for their own sakes, but for humans to subsist on.

So will it collapse in our lifetime? Yes and no.

Will it collapse eventually? Of course, because it’s by definition a way of life that extracts more than it puts back, and undermines natural biodiversity, and therefore by simple laws of thermodynamics it has to at some point.

I’m also surprised you didn’t define civilization, since people use it differently often and most people just use it to mean all of humanity (which is itself a sign of extreme ethnocentrism and covert racism).

Hobbes's avatar

@incendiary_dan – Yeah, I should have defined it in the original post. I defined it here though.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@Hobbes Ah, missed that. Very good. :)

Blackberry's avatar

@Hobbes Oh, of course it could happen, but I feel it’s very unlikely in our lifetime.

Hobbes's avatar


What about our children’s life times?

wundayatta's avatar

@Hobbes wrote: You can’t replace the water or the soil. You can’t replace an extinct species. Trees take a long time to grow back. You can’t make do without air to breathe or food to eat. Maybe we’ll manage to switch to another energy source before we all kill each other for the remaining oil, but it won’t matter if we destroy the planet.

Water is recycled all the time. It’s a natural process. Same with the soil, although that takes a bit longer. The idea that trees take a long time to grow is probably a product of your youth. Trees can grow back in a few decades, and some within a few years. Species have been going extinct for three billion years, and they haven’t been replaced. What’s your point? Energy? Economic pressures will make sure that problem is solved. Maybe we’ll find new energy sources, or maybe we’ll become very efficient (read—more conservation).

It is not within our power to destroy the planet. I’m sure we could make it less hospitable for humans, but not enough to destroy civilizations. The human animal is very resilient. It is very smart. That’s how it’s been able to take over so many resources in the last 100,000 years or so.

33 years ago, I was 21, and I was fighting “Big Oil,” because of the first oil crisis. Prices had doubled and tripled in a few months, and people couldn’t afford to heat their houses in winter. We proposed price controls. Sounded like a good idea to me at the time. But then, I didn’t know economics.

We were fighting nuclear proliferation, and we won, no thanks to our work. The Soviet Union finally collapsed due to its internal inefficiencies. Clean water? Clean air? Yeah, we did a lot on those. You have no idea what it was like breathing the air in cities back in the 70s.

Population? It was a concern back then, too. So was energy. Things have changed there, too. We are seeing more changes even as we write. What is happening in North Africa will probably have a significant impact on population. With democracy comes an improved economy, and with improved economic situations, comes lower birth rates.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see democracy to continue to spread around the world. Freedom will allow people to work on these issues of concern, but mostly, it will let things happen more quickly and for humans to become more responsive because we will be more educated, and more people will be working on these problems.

God, I feel like I’m giving one of Reagan’s “morning in America” speeches. But I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about humanity and about our planet. Being overly optimistic is a problem, but so is being overly pessimistic.

I’ve only lived 54 years, but I’ve seen a lot of things happen that I thought would kill civilization as we know it. It didn’t. I didn’t have that kind of perspective when I was 21. I couldn’t. So I understand the urgency you feel, and I applaud it, so long as you follow it up with action. It takes energy to make change, and being angry can give you that energy.

But you don’t want to end up like me—burnt out by fighting so many losing battles. Or winning, but not having had any role in the win. We have only a limited amount of control over world events and our planet. I think we should work towards our goals of saving the world, but I don’t think we should take much responsibility on our shoulders because that can mess you up, and unbalance your life in other ways that make it hard to be of any use.

Do not overestimate your capabilities, and do not overestimate the size of the problems we face.

laureth's avatar

Define Civilization.

I’m sure that when Rome was rapidly declining, it felt like the end of civilization for the Romans. And it was. But time passes, and now there are potato fields on top of old Roman roads, tended by people who feel themselves to be civilized.

Will civilization change in a way that feels like the end of it, to us? Probably not. I think the change will be somewhat more gradual. As energy prices rise, things will become more expensive,which will increase how much people do without or substitute until we realize one day that nothing is quite as grand as it used to be. We’ll make do with less until less is the new normal. We’ll grow our own food as an adjunct to the grocery bill until growing our own food becomes the normal way that people supply part of their diet. We’ll drive less and less until people don’t quite believe stories about how much people used to drive. Not with a bang, but with a gradual whimper.

I recommend The Long Descent by John Michael Greer, for a longer explanation of why I think this is the most likely scenario.

Odysseus's avatar

In the next 70 years ? NO.
I would bet my life on it.

Hobbes's avatar


These things are recycled, yes, but if we keep degrading them at the current rate, the result will be catastrophic.

“The idea that trees take a long time to grow is probably a product of your youth.”

I really wish you’d stop patronizing me like that.

“Species have been going extinct for three billion years, and they haven’t been replaced. What’s your point?”

Loss of species diversity is one of many threats Civilization poses to itself. Just because it has happened before doesn’t mean it can’t destroy us.

“Energy? Economic pressures will make sure that problem is solved”

This sounds like blind faith in the market and in technology, to me.

“It is not within our power to destroy the planet.”

Surely, you jest? Nuclear war would scrub life from its surface. Even if we don’t totally destroy the planet (which I hope is the case) it is still likely that we may destroy Civilization.

“The human animal is very resilient. It is very smart. That’s how it’s been able to take over so many resources in the last 100,000 years or so.”

Civilization as such has only been around for about 10,000 years. The rest of the time we were still resilient and we were smart enough not to destroy our own home.

“Clean water? Clean air? Yeah, we did a lot on those. You have no idea what it was like breathing the air in cities back in the 70s.”

I would still say the general trend in air and water quality has been negative, not to mention all the other problems which have gotten significantly worse since then.

“Population? It was a concern back then, too. So was energy.”

So because it was a concern thirty years ago and is even more of a problem now, we shouldn’t worry about it?

“I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic about humanity and about our planet”

I hope so, but even if I’m optimistic about humanity and the planet, that doesn’t entail optimism about Civilization.

“Do not overestimate your capabilities, and do not overestimate the size of the problems we face.”

I would say the exact opposite. “Do not underestimate your capabilities, but do not underestimate the size of the problems we face”.


“Define Civilization.”

I did, here.

I hope the change is more gradual too, and I think we should do as much as we can to smooth the transition, but that doesn’t discount the very real possibility of a catastrophic crash.


Why are you so sure?

WasCy's avatar

Well dun, @wundayatta!

You might even turn into a libertarian one of these days.

I concur. “Collapse of civilization” is almost inconceivable to me. Even the stuff of apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster “action films” where everything is seemingly going up in massive fireballs and mushroom clouds would be unlikely to “kill” civilization.

I suppose if you define it very narrowly as “a particular culture”, or the artifacts of that culture, then you could kill that ‘stuff’, but unless you wipe out the humans and their ability to congregate and think you couldn’t possibly wipe it out everywhere. As I noted before, various human cultures have gone extinct, or nearly so. The Aztec and Inca civilizations have gone, as well as the Maya, even if some of their descendants have been left to live in the new civilization that has arisen in their places. The Roman and Greek “civilizations” have gone, even if Italy and Greece are quite civilized places (as is South and Central America – I didn’t mean to imply otherwise).

The civilizations in New Guinea and the Amazon basin will probably disappear before too long. The Anasazi people of the American Southwest vanished, leaving nothing but relics of the places they lived. The Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations vanished, even though Egypt and the former Babylon are now thriving civilizations under new management.

I agree with @Hobbes that there are some very real threats to our current “way of life”, including cheap fuel (and transportation because of that), plentiful food (due to abundant rich topsoil and plenty of fresh water, and monoculture agriculture that has its own risks), and a lot of other things that we take for granted. Water maybe chief among those, followed by air and sunlight.

And I agree that depletion of ancient fresh water aquifers (which you didn’t mention) and topsoil erosion, plantation style agriculture and waste of energy are huge problems. That doesn’t even mention the likelihood of the effects from rapid climate change. Air pollution and the potential rapid spread of disease – not to mention terrorist (or worse, ‘suicide for the sake of suicide’) attacks based on insane world-views – are potential threats are very real problems.

I don’t think it’s “blind faith” to believe that the human ingenuity that has “rescued” us from every predicted calamity from the time of Malthus to the Club of Rome and other doomsayers is going to fail now. It might take longer than we would wish, and there may be huge upheavals and (let’s hope not) wars that dwarf what we’ve seen so far. But to think that anything we’ve seen so far, or any combination of things we’ve yet experienced, will “wipe out civilization” is a bet on the far dark side of pessimism.

It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it. (Besides, who would you collect from on that bet?)

incendiary_dan's avatar

Civilized ingenuity has just made things worse.

wundayatta's avatar

@Hobbes You can feel patronized if you want. I can’t help that. But I still think that your youth plays a significant role in your thinking. I believe that when you are 50, you will think differently. ‘Course, I’ll be demented by then, so I’ll never know. Your views are highly informed by your age. What can I say? I’m not saying they should be dismissed because of that. I’m just saying that you hold views that are more common of people your age than they are of older people.

You say a lot about the future without offering any data to support it.

I once answered a question about nuclear destruction here, and I did a bunch of research for it. I think I saw that the largest estimate of how many people would die if all the nuclear armaments were used at once was something like 2 billion people. That leaves what, 4 or 5 billion left? Nuclear war, despite the massive amount of destruction it would do, would not make much of a dent in reducing the impact of human life on the planet.

Also, there would plenty of land left undestroyed. Finally, it seems that land recovers much more quickly from radiation than one might think. So, nuclear war would be disastrous, but it would not wipe out civilization all over the world. In any case, all out nuclear war is pretty unlikely. Most people in charge of the weapons are not crazy enough to use them. It’s all about deterrent.

incendiary_dan's avatar

@wundayatta No, I think you’re actually just being patronizing. How about Derrick Jensen, one of the biggest writers on collapse, who is 50? He’s a long time environmental and social justice activist. Hardly an idealist (at least, not any more). How about Michael Ruppert, who is a bit older I think? John Michael Greer, also middle aged. Dmitri Orlov, middle aged. Most of the experts on collapse are, in fact, middle aged.

It’s most certainly not a young person’s idea.

Hobbes's avatar


“You say a lot about the future without offering any data to support it.”

Do you want me to give you data showing that climate change, species extinction, peak oil, etc. are real and dangerous? It’s not that hard to find.

I also mentioned in my opening post that I was working from Jared Diamond’s ideas, a very well respected historian. I also recommend the thinkers @incendiary_dan mentioned.

“Nuclear war, despite the massive amount of destruction it would do, would not make much of a dent in reducing the impact of human life on the planet.”

You are forgetting the catastrophic environmental impact such a war would cause, the lingering effects of radiation, and the ensuing social upheaval.

“Most people in charge of the weapons are not crazy enough to use them. It’s all about deterrent.”

I hope this is the case, though I do not have as much faith in the idea as you.

In any case, nuclear war is only one of the many dangers I’ve pointed out.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Yes. Collapse is inevitable periodically. We create these complex societies without a clue as to how to structure them and how to make them operate so as to do little harm. It’s inevitable that they will eventually collapse. This is why survival skills are so important.

WasCy's avatar

I agree with @CaptainHarley that ‘specific’ civilizations will collapse from time to time. Empires crumble all the time without civilization (more broadly defined) collapsing. That’s why I think it would take something external to humanity – external to Earth, even – to bring about a world-wide collapse of human civilization.

And I suppose that depending on how you define “collapse”, a global nuclear war in a short span of time, that wiped out @wundayatta‘s posited 2+ billion people, could count as “collapse”. But I don’t see that exchange happening, not even in my worst nightmares any more. Like @wundayatta I also grew up in the 1950s to 70s when we thought that was a real possibility (not quite an inevitability, but close to it). I suppose that if so many were killed so violently so rapidly, with the resulting calamity, that would represent a “collapse” – but we’d rebuild from that and have another civilization within a generation. That’s inevitable, as long as we’re still human.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Just curious, since we’re on the subject, what everyone thinks of this:

I would love some considered, honest input on these. : )

Hobbes's avatar


But Civilization as a whole has only been around for about 10,000 years, a small fraction of our history. What makes you so sure it will endure? The fact that individual collapses have happened in the past doesn’t mean a large-scale one won’t happen in the future. Consider that no individual Civilization has ever faced the magnitude and variety of problems we currently do.

Again, nuclear exchange is a worst-case scenario, and I hope it won’t happen. But I don’t discount it as a possibility.

Besides, as I said, nuclear war is only a small part of the overall threat.

“we’d rebuild from that and have another civilization within a generation. That’s inevitable, as long as we’re still human.”

You’re implying that it is in human nature to build Civilizations. I’d point out again that they are a relatively new invention.

Hobbes's avatar


“We can continue to stomp on the ants coming out from under the refrigerator, but until we remove the spoiled food behind it, they are just going to keep coming”

I think this is true. If there’s any hope, it’s in addressing the basic worldview, the set of ideas and assumptions which is the root cause of all this.

WasCy's avatar


The “civilization” that you define here probably predates 10,000 years by another 30,000 or so. (Humans who had the time and sensitivity and developed the talent for cave painting weren’t living as animals, and hadn’t been for a very long time, I think!)

If “Western civilization” collapses due to some combination of the things you have mentioned, then that doesn’t do a thing to most of rural India, for example, or Africa. Indigenous peoples of the Americas would probably rejoice – and rebuild the civilizations they once knew, while cribbing from us the things they like and can re-use or re-purpose.

You mention “peak oil” from time to time, as if that’s a calamity. It’s not, any more than “peak stone”, “peak bronze”, “peak wood” or “peak whale oil” were calamities in their time. There’s so much of Earth that we don’t even know yet, I can’t wait to see what makes oil and coal obsolete, which really defines when we hit those peaks. It’s not that we can’t find those things any more, we just find better replacements.

Hobbes's avatar

Cave painting and other art forms such as music, dance and storytelling have nothing to do with Civilization as I defined it. The leisure to engage in these activities was plentiful pre-Civilization – many studies show hunter-gatherers only worked between 5–20 hours per week. What do you mean by “living as animals”?

“If “Western civilization” collapses due to some combination of the things you have mentioned, then that doesn’t do a thing to most of rural India, for example, or Africa. Indigenous peoples of the Americas would probably rejoice”

I think this is somewhat true, though climate change, epidemics and food/clean water shortages would affect the poorest populations most heavily.

“You mention “peak oil” from time to time, as if that’s a calamity.”

Our entire way of life and importation of food didn’t depend on stone, bronze, wood or whale oil. Besides, as I’ve said before, it’s the combination of peak oil with all the other things I mentioned that is the true threat.

mattbrowne's avatar

I think it’s a good idea that Jared Diamond alerts humanity about all these risks, above all the potential dangers related to climate change. However, all this should turn us into optimists instead of pessimists. Why? Since we understand these risks we can also think of effective countermeasures. Global collective intelligence will help us find solutions.

Ergo: Civilization will prosper and it won’t collapse.

“The world is actually improving dramatically and the pace is quickening.”

That’s the message of Matt Ridley who wrote the book “The Rational Optimist”. Life expectancy continues to rise. Global literacy rates have increased dramatically over the last 30 years. Vaccinations in Africa have saved tens of millions of lives. Response times to natural disasters have been improved significantly.

To deal with: Overpopulation, Climate Change/Global Warming, Energy Shortages/Peak Oil, Water Pollution/Depletion, Deforestation, Soil Problems, Species Extinction, Habitat Destruction, Effects of introduced species on native ecosystems, Desertification, Trash and Toxin Buildup, Epidemics affecting humans, Epidemics affecting crops, Experimental Accidents, Nuclear Weapons/Waste

we need

100 times more scientists and engineers and teachers.

We already got enough investment bankers, lawyers, MBAs, artists, journalists and so forth.

Many kids in Europe and the US graduating from high schools pick the wrong subjects.

We will save civilization but our kids need to be interested in science and engineering and teaching. We need to create the right incentives to get them more interested in this.

tranquilsea's avatar

@CaptainHarley I did a lot of research on both the Zeitgeist movement and the Venus project. I quite like how Jacques Fresco has hypothetically structured society. He has dealt with the problem of us endlessly running through all of our resources. He has dealt with mindless consumerism, planned obsolescence, and the education deficit we currently have.

But as much as I like what he has put together… doesn’t mean that his model would work. We have so many governments, corporations and people who profit from the way society is structured today and that makes ideas like this exceptionally hard to implement. Plus it is hard to get 5 people agreeing on some action. Getting almost everyone on board is a pipe dream.

I do like what he says, though.

CaptainHarley's avatar


As do I. But as you point out, utopias always seem to run aground on the shoals of personal preference. This is one of the main reasons I’m a libertarian.

wundayatta's avatar

@Hobbes Nowhere did I say the things you mention are not bad. I am only addressing the question which is about the collapse of civilization. You have no evidence to link those things to collapse of civilization.

As to nuclear war: asked and and answered. Nature seems to recover much more quickly from radiation poisoning than we imagine. Plus it still won’t kill enough people to collapse civilization.

@incendiary_dan The people you mentioned have different reasons to say what they say. I do not find Jensen very convincing. While I do believe in tree hugging, I don’t find tree hugger logic to be very convincing.

But none of it matters. We don’t need to use the “collapse of civilization” as a threat to make people take global warming or any of the other ills more seriously. All we need to understand is that we are all in this together, and people will be forced to understand that by economic circumstances. All the haranguing we do, doesn’t have nearly as much effect as a polluted stream in your back yard, or as falling profits.

Hobbes's avatar


While in a sense it’s wonderful that we’re saving more lives and increasing life expectancy, I maintain that overpopulation is the root of most of the problems I listed. Increased literacy is great, but it won’t help people much if we run out of food. I hope that we will somehow solve all these problems without massive loss of life, but since the “advance” of technology is responsible for the shit-storm, I see no reason to believe that it will save us beyond faith.


“You have no evidence to link those things to collapse of civilization.”

Much of the list is based on one provided in Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse”, as I mentioned. In this book, he comparatively examines the factors which have historically lead to the collapse of Civilizations. We are currently facing all of them, plus some extras.

On the point of Nuclear War, the number of people dead isn’t the only factor, and though Nature might recover, I maintain that the effects of the damage on human Civilization would be catastrophic.

Your dismissal of Jensen might be more convincing if you offered anything other than ad hominem arguments.

I am not attempting to use this idea as a threat, or to harangue anyone, nor do I have a specific goal in mind. I’m simply trying to figure out how likely an outcome it is. Right now I remain convinced that it is very likely. Perhaps you’re right that people will start reacting once they really start feeling the effects, but it seems probable to me that by then it will be too late.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Hobbes – It’s overpopulation related to our level of development. If we were able to harness 100 times more energy from the Sun and learn how to reuse key resources 8 billion might not be considered overpopulation anymore. Right now we are lagging behind.

Hobbes's avatar

It would be wonderful if solar power were widely implemented. However, it currently supplies less than .02% of the world’s power, and there are enormously powerful corporations with a vested interest in making sure it stays that way. It seems doubtful to me that we could achieve the required conversion before problems such as climate change become catastrophic. Moreover, even if we were able to transition to such an energy source, it would not help us against water pollution/depletion, soil problems, deforestation, species extinction, trash buildup, epidemics or warfare. Reusing key resources might help with some of this, and I would be overjoyed if we were able to transition smoothly to a sustainable society based on the use of clean energy, I’m not denying that it’s possible, but to me collapse still seems the much more likely outcome.

mattbrowne's avatar

Well, we’ll get there eventually. Some folks even go beyond like

The question is how we can use solar power best. Photovoltaics seems tricky. Solar thermal might have more potential. And then there’s the research on micro algae. Photosynthesis had billions of years for optimization. Some species produce 60% oil and the rest can be used to create biobutanol. When a barrel of algae oil costs $100 compared to $150 of crude oil the whole vested interest story changes dramatically. Dinosaur corporations will simply go extinct.

Hobbes's avatar

“Well, we’ll get there eventually.”

This sentence, and the scale you linked, assume that there is a “there” to reach, and that the story of history is the story of progress towards this goal. I fundamentally disagree.

You did not actually address any of my other points. How can you be sure that such a transition would happen in time to avoid disaster? How would solar power help us against the other problems I mentioned? You’re placing a great deal of faith in technology which is very theoretical, and which the most powerful people in the world have an interest in suppressing.

Hobbes's avatar

“I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

mattbrowne's avatar

@Hobbes – Well, look at the graph of the Kardashev scale from 1900 to 2010. The level of usable energy did increase every single year. When I said we’ll get “there” I meant the cost of usable solar energy is equal or less than the cost of our traditional energy sources such as fossil fuels.

How can I be sure that such a transition would happen in time to avoid disaster? I can’t, but I’m quite confident. To me progress is unstoppable and setbacks are temporary. According to Matt Ridley whom I mentioned before, one of the key drivers is trade. In his recent book he also argues that gloom-mongers have always been with us, and have always been proved wrong.

“The last century was particularly pessimistic. A plethora of cultural and environmental sages predicted increasing poverty, pollution and pestilence. Yet here we are with worldwide life expectancy up by more than a third in the past 50 years, cleaner air and rivers than we have enjoyed for centuries, and birth rates falling dramatically everywhere.”

Although I disagree with his views on dealing with carbon emissions, his overall analysis of progress makes a lot of sense to me. Media offer bad news instead of good news, because they are easier to sell. And they have to please their shareholders. Unfortunately, this creates a lot of exaggerated pessimism and learned helplessness.

How would solar power help us against the other problems I mentioned?

I never said solar power on its own is the remedy for everything in your list. But our available and future knowledge will help us deal with the challenges avoiding the collapse some people predict.

Powerful people in the world had an interest in suppressing computers because they could threaten their sales of typewriters. Are we still using typewriters?

All these people might get is some delay. Again, to me progress is unstoppable.

Soubresaut's avatar

…can I jump in…?

As I understand it, solar energy, while it’s increasing in popularity, is extremely inefficient. Yes, we’re getting more solar cells out there, and slowly improving them, but the winners of solar energy are by far the trees; we’re nowhere close.
It still takes a lot of fossil fuel energy to create the solar panels, and they don’t last long enough to give that much benefit, if at all. Before they’ve really started to earn much of their keep, they have to be replaced or repaired, causing more fossil fuel expension.

And I know that you weren’t saying it was the win-all. But in this Civilization, I don’t think we’ll be able to make the transition to multiple sources of energy as quickly as we’d like.

The reason we’re using fossil fuels for everything? Not just because they work, but because we’ve worked really hard to make them be the “only” thing to work.
A normal car engine can run on both gas and ethanol, because we haven’t changed the original design. Before the plethora of gas pumps, throughout the countryside farmers would take the unused parts of their plants and create ethanol. People traveling by car would stop and purchase the ethanol from the farmers and continue on their way. (It’s a surprisingly easy process in that we can do it at our own home. You have to know what you’re doing, but it’s definitely do-able, because farmers were doing it. eHow’s way and just search “make ethanol” on the internet to find much more. )
—Yes, ethanol still releases co2, but it came from plants that recently soaked up a lot of the co2 it expends, so in that way it’s a bit better.
—No, ethanol isn’t a full answer either, but that’s not my point:

The reason ethanol stopped being used was because it was often cheaper than the gasoline. Oil companies didn’t like that so much. The Prohibition of the 20s was actually in large part funded by Rockefeller. Because ethanol was an alcohol, it fell in among the prohibited. With ethanol out of the picture, Oil had the monopoly on fuel.
Diesel fuel was actually created specifically for the diesel engine by oil companies. Originally, that engine had been designed to run on peanut oil, and it still will today.

By the time alcohol was legal again, enough time had passed that ethanol was semi-forgotten. And Oil had enough of a one-up to prevent its comeback. More gas pumps had been built. On top of that, farmers were hit hard with the depression, and couldn’t restart their ethanol production.

That’s a kind of long way of me trying to show how I disagree that progress is inevitable and unstoppable. In a competitive market, movement is unstoppable, because everyone constantly needs to be producing. But we’re all so caught up in trying to keep up and keep ahead, I doubt we’re all really that much concerned about what we’re doing to “progress”—where we’re going to be in the future. I doubt we’re really able to tell exactly where we’re headed.

Now, we’ve got Oil having a monopoly on car fuel. A monopoly that’s hard to break, even though we already have the technology to use other fuel.
(The other main “new” car technology? Electric. The first crude designs were actually invented in the 1830s, and they were working well by the 1900s. When Ford created the Model T, designed for gas, mass produced (cheaper), and made to be desired, electric slowly started to fade into the background and the technological advancement halted.)

Monopoly is the game of consumerism. And when a monopoly is established, it’s going to dig in its roots and make sure it keeps the money pouring in. Which is, again, why I doubt progress is inevitable. In a place where everyone’s trying to make a buck off everyone else regardless, it take a tremendous amount of effort to change what the powerful have put into place. (Tobacco, anyone? How many (often toxic) chemicals are added into cigarettes?)

The result of the ‘progress’ boasted by generations not to long ago is Big Oil, given a huge leg up by blocking the competition and getting the benefits of mass production.
The mass production monster that’s come about actually causes more of the problems of global warming than the cars themselves. Even if everyone stopped driving, if we keep buying, we keep dumping co2 into the air.
(This ‘progress’ also means mindless factory jobs for millions, which we’ve tried to make better, but haven’t gotten rid of in any stretch of the word.)

We also have farmers now producing too much. And that excess corn, which could easily be used for ethanol—not an answer to global warming, maybe, but to our problems with foreign oil for sure—is made into High Fructose Corn Syrup (not deadly, but not good for us) beause they’ve found their own monopoly: soda.

Don’t start to argue that well, we’re getting back electric cars, and companies are starting to switch to real sugar. Because no they’re not. The big guys are creating little side works for people who care. The money’s still going to the people who are creating the problems. You’ve got “natural” versions or “greener” versions of products (for a little more money!) right next to their “original”—which isn’t really the original, just the cheaper.

I’m not saying that all technological advances are bad. No one is. But we’re not making these huge leaps and bounds. Yes, we are in pretty much the same boat we were years previous.
And it’s a sinking boat. I think we can all agree that we can’t keep endlessly producing more and more stuff. So many people are standing on the deck shouting “we’re going down! we’re going down!” and just because we haven’t yet, we’re not panicked.

The Titanic took hours. And the biggest lesson we should have learned is to not assume invincibility, and make sure there are enough lifeboats.

No, everyone didn’t go down with the boat; yes, poeple survived. But really? That tragedy was nothing more than what can happen when we declare a ship unsinkable.

…well, I guess I leaped more than jumped, but still…

incendiary_dan's avatar

Also, solar, wind, and other “clean” energy sources require energy intenstive strip mining of rare earth minerals that is hugely destructive of ecosystems for hundreds of miles around the mines, uses insane amounts of water, and leaves huge swathes of land poisoned for generations, maybe forever.

Also, we’re running out of those in the U.S., since China has stopped exporting them.

And did anyone even read the link I put to Jevon’s Paradox? It’s a principle which states that technology that allows for more efficient use of a resource will greatly increase that resource’s use, often many times more.

Hobbes's avatar

You know, I was going to respond, but I think you guys pretty much covered it.

I particularly liked the bit about the Titanic, @DancingMind

laureth's avatar

@DancingMind – I’m with you for most of that,and GA. Do you know how much fossil fuel input is needed (in terms of synthetic fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide, transport and energy) to make ethanol from corn? The reason we have so much “extra” corn is because we dump fossil fuels on the stuff. And without exporting all that “cheap, extra” corn around the world (lately, because we make ethanol out of it), prices get out of reach for really poor people, and then things like this happen.

It’s all connected, and it’s all more soaked in oil than we really imagine.

CaptainHarley's avatar

“In Partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” Interesting. Isn’t he that guy who built a multibillion dollar fortune by developing a new operating system for computers, in his garage?

flutherother's avatar

Perhaps collapse is too strong a word but it is not sustainable even in terms of tens of years never mind centuries.

mattbrowne's avatar

@DancingMind – Yes, the current photovoltaic panels are not very efficient. No, it’s not true that they don’t last very long. They do last for 20–30 years, some even longer. Some are from the late 60ies and they still work at 90% the original output. Yes, trees are more efficient. Photosynthesis got more than billion years of experience. Even more efficient are micro algae and they don’t require fresh water like trees. We need clever engineers to make use of micro algae.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Given the historically proven nature of civilizations to collapse due to environmental resource scarcity and organizational problems, and given the current state of worldwide environmental degradation, isn’t saying that civilization won’t collapse soon (or ever) sort of like playing Russian Roullette for five rounds and being optimistic about the sixth? Just a thought.

thecaretaker's avatar

Ive heard people say buying gold is a wise investment during hard times, I disagree, start learning skills pertaining to survival and farming, if society collapsed tomaroe and all of the electricity, oil, and supermarkets were gone, your gold would be worthless; you would find yourself cold, hungry, thirsty and willing to pay anything for a clean glass of water, I think everyone right now should learn how to grow there own food, make clean water and store all of it; that knowledge is priceless if society collapses; I wouldnt take gold as form of trade, I would take the wooden box it came in because that would have usable value if society collapsed.

Mystajzym's avatar

You call this Civilization!! It already has collapsed, it is staggering in its death throes, we are so wrapped up in it we can’t see, like many Insane People, we think it is Normal to behave this way.

dcb41's avatar

The ones to survive the initial collapse will not be the best prepared, but the most organized ruthless groups that will be able to prey on those that have taken preparations. Alliances will form that resemble organized crime groups those that have the potential to instill fear in others will become the new leaders—law of the jungle.

NanoNano's avatar


One big one you missed: the rise of superintelligent AIs. I strongly recommend reading “Our Final Invention” by James Barrat.

In answer to your basic question, yes, we are facing an extinction event. Do I think the human race will be extinct in say, 100 years time? No, but I think we certainly have the potential to be.

You didn’t mention catastrophes that aren’t controlled by us perse, like an impact from an asteroid. One half a mile or larger in diameter would destroy everything on earth. A gamma ray burst, a massive solar flare…

A nuclear winter (which could be set off with only 100 nuclear detonations over large cities, forests or oil refineries is another possibility). Israel alone has this capacity…

SmartAZ's avatar

You are entertaining a lot of different subjects, not all of them correctly named. If you want to discuss the collapse of a culture you need to read this free ebook. You don’t have to agree, but you do need to be aware.

The USA has been showing symptoms of impending collapse since WW2 and much of the rest of the world has collapsed recently or is now collapsing. Financial advisors (SOURCE) are predicting collapse in the USA this year or next, although details and timing are always random.

kritiper's avatar

The decay/collapse will occur slowly, hardly perceivable, but should accelerate more rapidly towards the end.
It has already begun.
According the UN, the population of the Earth should top out at 11 billion* just after this century and I would think the end won’t be far behind that, maybe 100–150 years.
I have always thought that mankind had, at the most, 250 years left, and that that was a generous estimate.

* Found in The Idaho Statesman, 6/18/2019
“UN: Population expected to rise to 9.7 billion in 2050.
The world’s population is getting older and growing at a slower pace but is still expected to increase from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050, the United Nations said Monday.
The UN Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division said a new report that world population could reach it’s peak of nearly 11 billion around the end of the century.
But Population Director John Wilmoth cautioned that because 2100 is decades away this outcome “is not certain, and in the end the peak could come earlier or later, at a lower or higher level of total population.””
-Associated Press

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