“The whole notion [of a breakdown of civilization] might seem pretty outlandish. But then again, we’ve never before lived in a world like the one we’ve created today.”

15 Nov 2009

In The Upside of Down, political scientist writes about the combination of growing stresses that threaten to trigger a breakdown in modern civilization:

If our societies are already brittle because accumulating stresses have eroded their resilience over time, what starts as a local and seemingly manageable breakdown could jump boundaries and quickly spread around the globe, and might even trigger a collapse of global economic and political order.

Such an outcome would be a tangible example of … “synchronous failure”—an event caused by multiple, simultaneous, and synergistic stresses that together generate multiple, simultaneous, and synergistic failures. We can’t see the future, of course, so we can’t possibly know whether such a thing might occur and, if so, what exactly it would look like. In fact, the whole notion might seem pretty outlandish.

But then again, we’ve never before lived in a world like the one we’ve created today—in which we can disrupt the planet’s most fundamental natural processes, carry a new disease to distant continents in days, and move terabytes of information across the planet in a second—and in which half a dozen of us, with the right materials, could destroy an entire city.

The idea of such breakdown did seem pretty outlandish to me when I first read a serious article on this in New Scientist back in April 2008. That article, “Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable,” seemed overly gloomy to me. I thought it must be ignoring lots of things that we could do to do deal with possible breakdowns in the just-in-time delivery systems and huge amounts of energy that we’ve become dependent on.

But the more I’ve learned about these things, the more our fossil-fueled civilization seems brittle and vulnerable to breakdown. It seems like it’s another example of a point that journalist Stephan Faris made: “it’s no longer possible to delve into our relationship with the global environment without drawing conclusions that make you seem like a raving fanatic to those who have yet to delve.”


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »