Since I was a kid, I have heard people talking about various forms of collapse. The most often mentioned form of collapse is economic collapse, normally implying something like the Great Depression. There are other forms of collapse, like the collapse of nations or civilizations, as discussed at length in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse,” and as represented in our collective consciousness with images of the Romans or Babylonians, and their failing states.
If we look at nations as big cogs in the machine of global civilization, then the economy is that which keeps all the various gears turning together, keeps them moving smoothly. Thus, in this day and age, nations are subsystems of the global economy, and the global economy is a subsystem of global civilization, which is itself a subsystem of the biosphere or “world ecosystem.”
Unfortunately for us, the most ominous and likely collapse is not that of the economy or nations, which exist in many ways through our mutual agreement, but of the biosphere -the world ecosystem-, which exists independently of us. To reiterate the four most important facts leading to this conclusion are:
- Ecosystems do not react linearly to change, but abruptly switch states (Scheffer, 2001).
- That the global biosphere or global network of ecosystems, is threatening to collapse, if just 7% more ecosystems shift states (collapse at 50%, and we are currently at 43%) (Barnosky, 2012).
- Managers, planners, and politicians are not coordinating with scientists or experts (Staudinger: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment, 2012).
- Evolution is far less likely than extinction (Schwartz, 2006).
To make this more understandable, we will define collapse as a sudden state shift with negative consequences; when a system becomes so unbalanced or tilted that it can no longer maintain its current state. This definition is functional in regard to everything from economies, nations, ecosystems, and even the world ecosystem: the biosphere.
A collapse is almost always triggered by a range of factors, and the totality of it is a function of measures taken before the collapse. Once a system has collapsed though, factors have to be brought to a point far before where initial collapse occurred: states have a certain resilience, or tendency to resist changing to other states.
This resiliency of natural systems can be witnessed in everything from relationships, families, nations, to ecosystems: they appear to suddenly shift states once a certain point has been passed, and returning them to their previous state will take far more effort than it took to “tip” the system into its new state. Think of it as an ice cube which melts and freezes at different points: it may melt at 32°F, but you’d need to get it down to 9°F in order to refreeze it.
But, what does biosphere collapse mean for you and me? It means, first of all, that the global economy would stop functioning: it represents a much deeper and ubiquitous form of economic collapse than that imagined by proponents of that theory. Land would be less productive, diversity loss accelerated, and mass extinction (already far higher than the background rate, estimated by the UN to be about 150-200 species a day) would be intensified. It means there would be less food, for a continually growing population, and a ravine instead of a gap between the rich and the poor.
It doesn’t just mean less food, it also means that extreme conditions and sudden changes have more drastic effects; ecosystems are less resilient, and these are exactly the type of changes which make extinction far more likely than evolution. It means the situation will get continually worse, and making it “get better” is about as likely as adapting to freefall after springing over a cliff: at best you only break most of your bones.
Humans are not used to thinking about such dynamic or sudden changes. Empirical evidence about how ecosystem states work has only been researched within the last 15 years, and this information has largely remained in the ecology community, and failed to reach the masses. The key to this, of course, is not to rely on existing mainstream sources to overcome their dissonance, but to ourselves become the media, to bring this information not only to our friends and families, but other intelligent people we come into contact with.
We can influence others by ourselves being the change, and work to shift awareness towards these important topics and questions. Must we wait until a methane burp, or for the continuing exponential rise of atmospheric methane, before we start to realize these are problems more serious than any humanity has encountered before?
This is an emergency, and the difference between going over that cliff, or working to slow ourselves with enough time to grab the edge, is determined by how many people are aware of this emergency, and if their humanity is still intact enough to care.
1) Scheffer, Marten. 2001. “Catastrophic shift in ecosystem states”. Nature Publishing Group.
2) Barnosky et al. 2012. “Approaching a state shift in Earth´s biosphere.” Nature Publishing Group
3) Staudinger, Michelle D et al. 2012. „Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment.Cooperative Report to the 2013 National Climate Assessment”.
4) Schwartz. 2006. “Sudden Origins: A General Mechanism of Evolution Based on Stress Protein Concentration and Rapid Environmental Change”
5) (mainstream source)
6) (comprehensive analysis)