Is global society “doomed” to collapse? Maybe not.

the beginning is near

Whenever I notice a convergence of themes I tend to take notice. And today I see where two people, both former “doomers,” are now saying maybe not.

The first doomer is well known: Paul Ehrlich, whose best-selling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, “warned of the mass starvation of humans in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation, as well as other major societal upheavals, and advocated immediate action to limit population growth.” (wikipedia).

Now Paul, and his wife Anne, co-author, and uncredited co-author of that earlier book, have a new report out, published in the proceedings of The Royal Society, in which the famously gloomy scientist seems to have turned a new leaf.

(My own question to him: have you investigated the capacity of permaculture to feed the world?)

Can A Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?

You might want to read it to see how they get to where they are going. Here’s the concluding paragraph:

Do we think global society can avoid a collapse in this century? The answer is yes, because modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats, at least if they are obvious or continuously brought to attention (think of the risks of nuclear conflict). Humanity has the assets to get the job done, but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity [28], are everywhere. One central psychological barrier to taking dramatic action is the distribution of costs and benefits through time: the costs up front, the benefits accruing largely to unknown people in the future. But whether we or more optimistic observers [17,163] are correct, our own ethical values compel us to think the benefits to those future generations are worth struggling for, to increase at least slightly the chances of avoiding a dissolution of today’s global civilization as we know it.


Meanwhile, Ran Prieur, a savvy member of a much younger generation, who, he says, made a career out of “doomblogging,” has also changed his tune. Here’s his latest, from January 10th, ranprieur blog.

Ten years ago, when I imagined “collapse”, it was interesting. . .

I’ve been thinking more about doom blogging. Ten years ago, when I imagined “collapse”, it was interesting: industrial collapse means there are no factories and everything new is made by hand. Infrastructure collapse means there are no electric grids and we’re riding horses on the ruined freeways. Economic collapse means the banks are just gone, cash is worthless, and economies are gift and barter. Political collapse means you don’t have to pay taxes, kids don’t have to go to school, and there are no police.

Now it’s increasingly clear that none of these things are going to happen, even slowly over 100 years. As someone known for writing about collapse, I have two career options. One is to follow the bait-and-switch: keep writing about “collapse” but redefine it as something much less interesting. The other option is write about what has now become interesting, given the new forecast. And that is: if the tech system keeps grinding ahead, what kind of crazy stuff is it going to do?

On this subject, there are two popular schools of thought, and I don’t like either. One is obsolete late 20th century chickenshit disasterism: some new technology is going to end the world as we know it, if we don’t stop it. The other is infantile techno-optimism. Look at this page that just got massive upvotes on reddit: “Papertab” paper tablet is your flexible friend. This is not revolutionary. This is a toy, and people who get excited about it are like little kids around the Christmas tree, believing that the shininess and novelty of their toys equals eternal happiness.

Now, there are possible technologies that are truly revolutionary. But my fear is that they will all be stopped, that the increasing power of the tech system will be used to keep the world stable and predictable, and to make us happy in the shallowest and least satisfying way. To avoid this dreadful fate, we need a cultural shift in which we gain a deeper understanding of quality of life, and we need to apply this understanding to technology, and start using it to increase danger and pain. I know, people in Africa would love to have the problem of not enough danger and pain. Don’t worry — in a hundred years, they will, and we’ll have it worse than we do now.

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