Cause and Effect | Understanding the real threats of a civilisation collapse - Hindustan Times
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Cause and Effect | Understanding the real threats of a civilisation collapse

Apr 20, 2024 09:21 PM IST

Amidst increasing climate-related crises, experts warn that civilisation collapse isn't just a dystopian concept from movies—it's a real possibility.

At the UN climate summit in Poland in 2018, biologist David Attenborough made a foreboding speech. He said: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisation and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Humans are experiencing vast shifts in their immediate environment, with the droughts in Africa, fires in much of North America and Canada, floods in Afghanistan, UAE and Pakistan, and heatwaves elsewhere also wreaking havoc across the world, irrespective of the stage of development a region is in. (Reuters) PREMIUM
Humans are experiencing vast shifts in their immediate environment, with the droughts in Africa, fires in much of North America and Canada, floods in Afghanistan, UAE and Pakistan, and heatwaves elsewhere also wreaking havoc across the world, irrespective of the stage of development a region is in. (Reuters)

Many scientists have since made allusions to Attenborough’s speech, mostly to instil a sense of urgency.

Many have also used the speech to deride scientists, dubbing them doomers.

But, perhaps, there is one thing running concurrently through this all: no one knows what the collapse of human civilisation and the natural world would look like.

Several movies, TV shows, and books have imagined this scenario, but like the scientists before them, have failed to reach a conclusion.

Perhaps, because there is no real instance to compare it with?

There are two ways to look at Attenborough’s and several of UN chief Antonio Guterres’s statements.

The first is the environmental aspect.

Human societies are locally adapted to a specific climate with a mean annual temperature of ∼13°C, according to a 2020 paper "Future of the human climate niche". As the current warming of the planet continues, this adaptive capacity also reduces.

To simplify this: Human civilisation could thrive in the stable conditions of the Holocene, but due to anthropogenic changes this stability has been disturbed. The effects of this disturbance can be seen every day.

Humans are experiencing vast shifts in their immediate environment, with the droughts in Africa, fires in much of North America and Canada, floods in Afghanistan, UAE and Pakistan, and heatwaves elsewhere also wreaking havoc across the world, irrespective of the stage of development a region is in.

In the natural world, impacts have been just as dramatic. While the coral reefs of the world are witnessing an extinction-level bleaching event, the temperature and land use changes have led to diseases jumping from one species to another, including humans, in a process known as zoonosis. This will not only impact the infected species, but will also threaten more frequent and, probably, deadlier pandemics.

The WHO on Thursday voiced alarm at the growing spread of H5N1 bird flu to new species, including humans, who face an "extraordinarily high" mortality rate.

This brings us to the second aspect of the statement.

The events of the last few years are proof that the Earth is on the fast track to becoming uninhabitable, and as alarmist as it sounds: the collapse may be near. But the silver lining is that the collapse will likely not be as dramatic as the extinction of dinosaurs was, nor will it be an abrupt event.

With that in mind, some scientists in their paper "Climate change and the threat to civilisation" defined civilisation collapse as "the loss of societal capacity to maintain essential governance functions, especially maintaining security, the rule of law, and the provision of basic necessities”. They further associated such collapses “with civil strife, violence, and widespread scarcity”.

“Climate collapse, then, might not be an abrupt event but rather an extended process that starts small and plays out over the course of a century or more,” the scientists, led by Daniel Steel, at the School of Population and Public Health and the W Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics, University of British Columbia, wrote in their paper published in PNAS in 2022.

They identified three possible civilisation collapse scenarios:

  • The localised collapse of specific, vulnerable locations
  • The collapse of several urban and national regions, with the remaining ones experiencing negative climate-related impacts such as food and water scarcity
  • Global collapse in which cities around the world are abandoned, nations vanish, and world population falls rapidly.

For the first, the scientists cited the example of the Syrian civil war where model simulations indicated that the kind of drought implicated in the war was more than twice as likely to happen given the anthropogenic climate change. Thus, climate collapse need not only be determined by environmental factors, with politics, international aggressors and internal conflict playing a dominant role.

Elaborating on the other two, the scientists wrote that in the second scenario, while urban and national-level collapses are widespread, some large urban centres and national governments still exist which experience shortages. In the third, “all large urban areas across the globe are virtually abandoned, functioning nation states no longer exist, and the world’s population undergoes a significant decline”.

This imagery, they said, is what the phrase “civilisation collapse” perhaps evokes.

This hypothesis ties in well with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which defines a five-tier model of human needs, depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. Among these, the basic needs of food, water, warmth and rest must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up in the pyramid. While this is a motivational theory in psychology that identifies what would motivate an individual to achieve things, it zeroes in on food, water, warmth and rest as the most basic for survival.

When viewed from the climate lens, these basic needs are also the things first at risk of disruption.

The water crisis in Bengaluru, the rising costs of staples like olive oil in parts of Europe after a drought, fuel shortages in winter months amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis, and the incessant conflict in West Asia: these are what may serve as examples of the initial stages of a localised collapse.

The scientists also identified collapse mechanisms, and grouped them into three:

Direct impact mechanisms: Severe and compounding climate impacts like rising sea levels, drought, flooding, extreme heat and so forth would affect agriculture, water availability and other basic necessities for a civilisation.

Socio-climate feedback mechanisms: Adverse climate change impacts, especially on food production, may cause political conflict that undermines the capacity for adaptation while leading to actions, such as bans on food exports or warfare, that spread destabilisation and hasten collapse.

Exogenous shock vulnerability mechanisms: Climate change would weaken adaptive capacities through processes described in the first two mechanism types, thereby leaving global society vulnerable to collapse triggered by other types of shocks, such as wars or pandemics.

So, will climate change drive humans extinct or destroy civilisation?

“If I had to rate odds, I would say the chances of climate change driving us to the point of human extinction are very low if not zero,” Adam Schlosser, the Deputy Director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, said in response to a question on MIT Climate Portal.

“There are going to be some really, really bad regional and local consequences. Consider island nations of the world—the type of warming that we're heading toward, with the expected sea level rise that could force them in many places to retreat or possibly abandon their homeland, is an existential threat to them,” Schlosser, a climate scientist who studies future climate change and its impact on human societies, said.

So, while human extinction is not really the main worry, it may do well for humanity to prepare for regional, localised collapse scenarios.

Tannu Jain, HT's deputy chief content producer, picks a piece of climate news from around the globe and analyses its impact using connected reports, research and expert speak

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Tannu Jain works with HT's Page 1 team. She writes on the environment and climate change, with a focus on implications at the local and global levels. She is also the author of Cause and Effect, a weekly column for HT Premium.

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