I read the first chapter or so of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse which Lex commented on below. I didn’t read much farther because I found his conclusions largely trite. Diamond essentially advances the old Malthusian idea that short-sighted over-consumption leads to resource depletion which causes civilizations to collapse. While vaguely true, this view of collapses ignores the fundamental issue of why any particular civilization runs out of resources while others in very similar circumstances do not.
I would argue that it is not over-consumption but rather under-production that causes collapses. I think three major factors cause under-production:
1) Lack of trade,
2) Static technology,
3) Concentrated political power,
or as we call them in the modern political context:
2) Sustainable development,
3) International governance.
Yep, the most popular prescriptions of the far Left today are exactly those which in previous eras have caused civilizations to collapse. All the well-meaning warm and fuzzy leftists out there are, out of well-intentioned ignorance, working hard to slip a knife in between the ribs of our planetary civilization.
Lack of trade dooms a civilization because it prevents a society from acquiring material goods in times of dearth. Droughts, floods, pestilence and other calamities happen in all times and places. Trade helps buffer against such bad times. Further, even in very low-tech societies, trade brings in new technologies (such as new food plants and animals), practices and forms of organization that allow a civilization to adapt to changes in climate or resource exhaustion.
Static technology kills because there really isn’t such a thing as an infinitely sustainable technology base. All forms of human manipulation of the environment alter the environment in some negative way. The only differences lie in the time it takes the negative aspects to manifest. Even hunter-gatherers radically alter their environment, often wiping out all the macroform species in just a few centuries. Even if some kind of equilibrium is reached, over the course of centuries or millennia the climate or biome will change on its own. Humans adapt to environmental change by changing their technology. Static technology in a changing environment equals death.
Centralized or elitist political control (which almost always go together) kill because the powers-that-be perceive the changes needed to adapt as threats to their power and position. Without any other competition for power, such as from an external enemy, the political system focuses exclusively on internal challenges from below. When the civilization is stressed, the leadership responds by trying to reinforce the status quo. The society grow more hidebound and less adaptable just when it needs the opposite. Eventually, the polity shatters into anarchy and the economy, devoid of organization, evaporates.
All of the civilizations that Diamond examines suffered from all three of the factors that lead to an eventually lethal under-production. The policies popular on the Left today seek to create under-production on a global scale.
Anti-globalization seeks to chop the world up into largely self-contained economic pockets dependent only on local resources. This may sound emotionally appealing but it would also mean that if you don’t have resources in your local era you do without, possibly with fatal consequences. Even if you can make do, you will do so at a much lower efficiency, which will lead to a reduced material standard of living. A lower standard of living means a smaller surplus that can be used to support innovation or to deal with emergencies.
Sustainable development is an eventual death sentence because it is based on fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between technology and resources. Advocates of sustainable technology believe that resources exist a priori — independently of the technology that utilizes them — and that the resources are fixed and finite. Therefore they believe that only by using the minimal amount of the resources possible at any one time can the technology be sustained.
The reality is exactly the opposite. Technology creates the resources it consumes. Progressing technology bootstraps its own resource production. Increasing agriculture production creates a surplus you can use to clear more land. Mining iron lets you create iron tools that make it easier to mine iron. Pumping oil for energy gives you surplus energy to find more oil or to create another energy source. Throughout history, each new technology has created more resources than it has consumed. Freezing technology will itself eventually lead to resource exhaustion by preventing the creation of new resources.
International governance is dangerous because it will eventually lead to a state with no external competition. At that point, politics will become a struggle between the political class and everyone else. Change, especially technological change, will be seen as a dangerous threat to the status quo. Planetary civilization will grow static, and like all other static civilizations will collapse when stressed.
The leftists of every generation always believe that they know how to achieve a practical near-utopia, and since once you have reached utopia there is no further need for improvement, they always conceive of such a civilization as a static one. If implemented, the ideas of anti-globilization, sustainable development and international governance will create the conditions that have destroyed numerous previous civilizations.
If our planetary civilization is at risk for collapse it is not due to the supposed mindless consumption of the free-markets and unfettered innovation, but from the hubris of those who believe they have the final answers. But answers are never final. The only constant is change. Adapt or die.