Prophesying Collapse

In a recent MAHB blog, Paul and Anne Ehrlich—reflecting on their paper last year on whether we can prevent civilizational collapse—describe what preventing collapse would require and give success somewhere between a 1 and 10% chance:

But what is crystal clear is that these changes are not remotely big or fast enough to make a real dent in the problem. Furthermore, there are no plans nor any tendency toward making the most crucial move required to lessen the odds of a collapse: a rapid but humane effort to reduce the scale of the entire human enterprise by ending population growth, starting the badly needed overall decline in numbers, and dramatically curtailing consumption by the rich. There is not even discussion about the obvious elements of the socio-economic system that support a structure embedding a need for perpetual growth—fractional-reserve banking being a classic target that requires investigation in this context. Virtually every politician and public economist still unquestioningly assumes there are benefits to further economic expansion, even among the rich. They think the disease is the cure.

A few years ago we had a disagreement with our friend Jim Brown, a leading ecologist. We told him we thought there was about a 10 percent chance of avoiding a collapse of civilization but, because of concern for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, we were willing to struggle to make it 11 percent. He said his estimate of the chance of avoiding collapse was only 1 percent, but he was working to make it 1.1 percent. Sadly, recent trends and events make us think Jim might have been optimistic. Perhaps now it’s time to talk about preparing for some form of collapse soon, hopefully to make a relatively soft “landing.” That could be the only thing that might preserve Earth’s capacity to support Homo sapiens in a post-apocalyptic future.

Apocalípico I by Mauricio García Vega

Not long after, Reverend Peter Sawtell, in his Eco-Justice Notes, reflected on “Doom and Gloom, Old and New,” applying lessons of the ancient prophet Jeremiah to prophets of today.

I’m not sure the style of Jeremiah’s message would be effective today. His pronouncement of horror wasn’t “effective” in 590 BCE, either. But there are at least four themes and messages in these verses that need to be lifted up, both for the prophets of today, and for those who dismiss the prophetic warnings.

  1. The proclamation of a prophetic critique is a long, lonely, ongoing task, and it must be embodied in the life of the messenger. Jeremiah’s personal life, renouncing marriage and children, was consistent with his public message. Those of us who speak words of warning today will be more credible, and harder to dismiss, when we are equally consistent. (Note the common attacks against Al Gore’s travel.)
  2. Sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the dire predictions of prophets and experts do come true. Jeremiah was right, just as climate scientists and ecologists have been accurate in naming the dangerous trajectory of our culture. We are seeing the first signs of unstable climate and ecological destabilization that are, indeed, catastrophic. Yet all too often today, I hear those who favor the status quo lump together all great warnings as failures and falsehood. (Alan AtKisson, in Believing Cassandra, addressed the way warnings can bring changes that avert the catastrophe—and then skeptics say that the predictions were wrong.) Doomsday predictions can be true.
  3. It is significant to me that Jeremiah preached in Jerusalem, the holy city, the site of the temple, the center of “God’s chosen people.” Jeremiah said that the city and the people would be demolished—and they were. Let’s remember that when people (including powerful politicians) reject the dangers of climate change with the implicit or explicit claim that “God would never let that happen to us.” If Jerusalem can be destroyed, and the covenant renounced by God, then we can have no expectation of miraculous divine deliverance from our self-inflicted crises.
  4. Jeremiah’s audience could not understand why he was dumping his doom and gloom on them. They saw themselves as good people, living presentable lives as members of their community in what they believed to be “ordinary times.” They were oblivious to how far they were outside of God’s law and the covenant relationship. They assumed that ordinary life, business as usual, was morally OK. Brueggemann wrote: “Jeremiah’s contemporaries are so detached from the claims of Yahweh, however, that they are unable to recognize the realities that the prophet regards as perfectly obvious.” The parallels to our situation—where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal, even by Christian scholars—are painfully clear, at least to me.

For those of us in the sustainability sector—at least those of us who are honest brokers of the data—reflecting on Sawtell’s thoughts is valuable. Yes, perhaps our warnings will prevent collapse or the Earth will prove more resilient than we could predict, but the odds of collapse are high. Finding ways to better communicate this “truth” to those who don’t understand their own trespasses (or in Sawtell’s words, “where economic growth, increasing energy use, and escalating consumer desires are seen as good and normal”) is the challenge for all of us in the sustainability movement—at least until the doom and gloom arrive. And then we’ll have other, more pressing challenges, like surviving, and picking up the pieces of civilization.

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