Sudden Collapse or Slow Decline?

Not long ago the debate was whether it was happening at all. Today the question is whether global warming and consequent climate disruption will destroy industrial civilization as we know it, and if so how quickly. A sense of just how far we have moved can be found in the debate between environment-watchers George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth.

Monbiot’s position is that unless industrial society re-tools and powers down with the urgency and speed of the allies’ World War II re-armament program, the world will soon face an irreversible ecological collapse in which the global human population will fall dramatically from its present 6 billion plus to under 2 billion. Those who survive will inherit a species-depleted planet and a Hobbesian human society run by the psychopaths who always take over when civilization fails.

Monbiot admits to having become more pessimistic about whether industrial civilisation will in fact act in time to pull back from disaster, but argues persuasively that the prospect of a mega-die-off is so awful that any sane and humane person would want to prevent it. Kingsnorth, on the other hand, believes that the radical changes Monbiot is calling for are simply not going to happen. Human nature being what it is we are more likely to delay the necessary painful steps until it is too late, which it may already be.

However he disagrees with Monbiot that the collapse will come like a "thief in the night." His scenario is similar to that described in John Greer’s book The Long Road Down. According to Greer there will be no quick cosmic cull of homo sapiens, but a slow and extremely painful decline - two or more centuries of war, genocide, famine, drought and disease - which has in fact already started with resource-wars and increased hunger among the world’s "bottom billion." This long descent will be like a combination of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Dust Bowl over a longer period and on a planetary scale.

Since we cannot avoid this, Kingsnorth suggests that we must make the best of it by managing and mitigating some of its extreme horrors. However the fact is that human population has overshot the carrying capacity of the earth and run down its resource-base and, like all species that suffer population overshoot, will inevitably be cut back painfully. But once the human race has been suitably reduced we will have learned some valuable lessons--we are not separate from Mother Nature, nor can we ultimately control her, and the notion of infinite economic growth is an economic fantasy.

So on the one hand Monbiot believes we might just save our industrial civilization by alternative technology and a radical reduction in consumption but if we fail the fall could be sudden and catastrophic, like the collapse of a beehive. On the other, Kingsnorth says that Monbiot’s action-plan is too little too late but that there will be a series of more gradual collapses over the coming centuries rather than a sudden one just around the corner. Resistance is futile but we (or rather some of our descendants) will survive--fewer than we are but wiser in the ways of the planet.

Now, Monbiot and Kingsnorth are two thoroughly secular gents but even they have dimly perceived that they could be influenced by their cultural religious world-view. "We both come from a Western, Christian culture with a deep apocalyptic tradition," admits Kingsnorth. And Monbiot later refers to Kingsnorth’s vision as ‘a millenarian fantasy…of Redemption after the Fall’. These comments raise the question of what the living embodiment of the tradition of the end-time--the Church--has to say here?

Certainly there is a growing Christian eco-movement and Benedict XVI is considered to be a remarkably green Pope but there seems little of the almost eschatological urgency of these two secular humanists in official ecclesiastical circles about the crisis humanity faces. Of course we do have to nurture a fundamental trust in God’s providence. In addition, the Church has, in a way, seen it all before in the collapse of Roman and Byzantine Christian civilizations and the Barbarian invasions, which she and humanity survived.

However, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the Church, along with much of the industrial civilization upon which she depends economically, has her head if not firmly, at least halfway in the sand. Understandably so. Who wants to face the prospect of a rapid planetary apocalyptic collapse of society to the cannibalistic level described in Cormac McCarthy's book, The Road, or even a slow but traumatic, two-century die-off of over 4 billion souls à la John Greer? For to head off either of these horrible prospects will require looking at all the things we would rather not face, from the question the optimum population for our planet to a realistic (i.e. far lower) level of material consumption.

So perhaps it is a sign of the times that the pagans are having apocalyptic visions of the future while Christians blithely believe that "all will be well and all manner of things will be well" without suggesting how we might seriously contribute to such a happy outcome.

Chris Chatteris, S.J.



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James Lindsay
8 years 6 months ago
Fr. Chris,

I think we must always disagree with anyone who says overpopulation is the problem. It is not. We have coped with such Malthusian fantasies before and we will again.


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