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The last civilisation

PaulS's picture

The development spurt experienced in the past 200 years is entirely based on the discovery of cheap and later almost free energy (such as the 50,000 : 1 return on capital for energy from sweet crude in the Arabian peninsula).

Such almost free and apparently almost unlimited resource is bound to lead to enormous development and could have led to a truly rich and equal, satisfying society. Unfortunately we have allowed two trends to develop, which will lead to the complete destruction of the current civilisation. These are

1. Massive growth in population, leading to a biological overshoot and collapse.
2. Massive growth in consumption driven by the unrestrained capitalist system, which thrives on innovation and never ending pursuit of ever increasingly resource hungry and frivolous activities

The first of these is a simple biological overshoot as potentially present in most animal environments, where resource limitations are temporarily removed, leading to rapid population expansion, leading to exhaustion of those resources (usually food), leading to mass starvation and correction to sub-normal numbers.

In human terms that means rapid expansion of population fro munder 1 billion to over 9 billion in a matter of about 150 (or about 5 generations)- that's almost as fast bacteria in a test tube - they would manage that expansion in 3 generations). Now that we have hit the maximum energy and food production, numbers are likely to collapse to 3 billion or less over just 1 or 2 generations. It will not be a pretty picture. What happens after that depends on whether or not we learn to plan and manage civilisation on the basis of multiple generations, i.e. with at least 100 year horizon. That seems very unlikely, given the competitive manner of human nature. Many apparently theoretically wonderful human systems have failed because in the final analysis it proved impossible to change human nature.

The second trend further exaggerates the first but also qualitatively increases our dependence on cheap energy, such that we are no longer, in any practical sense, able to go back to energy consumption at cost levels and in quantity per capita normal before the current development spurt.

Humanity had a fantastic chance to really achieve something when we discovered this almost free energy. But it would have required great deal of self restrained, which we, as a species, sadly lack.

Had we restrained our numbers to those in the 18th or 19th century, our current problems would have been at least one order of magnitude smaller and more manageable.

Had we restrained our conspicuous consumption and instead realise that fossil fuels were just a short term energy spike, we could have invested most of that energy into research and development in order to find and develop a truly inexhaustible energy source, which could have helped us design a sustainable lifestyle for our species of our own choosing.

As it is, once our current civilisation collapses, as it inevitably must, that will be the end of all advanced/ technological civilisations on this planet. That is because we will have already wasted the once only endowment of this almost free energy and indeed most other minerals and materials. And so no future civilisation will be able to repeat the experiment, which we have just so badly messed up.

That of course means that the flower power of the sixties really was the high point of all civilisations on this planet! What a sad indictment of the human species.