Civilization’s Golden Era Is Teetering On Collapse

Civilization's golden era is teetering on collapse
New millennium has brought a turning point in history, yet we ignore meltdown

Hans Tammemagi
Special to the Sun
Published: Saturday, June 28, 2008

The period from 1950 to 2000 will be remembered as the Golden Era of modern civilization, the pinnacle reached by humans after a million years of evolution. This brilliant half-century was sponsored largely by fossil fuels, especially oil, which brought unprecedented economic growth, plentiful transportation and a rich and diverse lifestyle.

But the new millennium has brought the end of cheap oil, and civilization is suddenly teetering on the edge of collapse. Even if we manage to scrape through (and it would require heroic efforts), life will change. We're at one of the most important turning points in history, yet we persistently ignore the coming meltdown and just want to party on. Nero would be proud.

So, why is civilization teetering?

First, peak oil has arrived. There is no better signal than the price of oil, which has skyrocketed past $130 and shows no sign of slowing. Some shrug and claim there's still a lot left, technology will find it and extract it. Others, as represented by the editors of Maclean's magazine, feel that we have grappled with costly oil before and by applying determined conservation and new efficiencies, we will cope.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Peak oil, this two-syllable piece of jargon, is another way of saying we are on the threshold of a major crisis. From now on the supply of oil will diminish each year, but population and demand will continue to grow. This is truly frightening because our modern industrial society is built on and totally dependent on this versatile fuel. It is the foundation for transportation, industry, agriculture, fishing and much more. As the gap between what economies and nations need and what they can get widens, bidding wars will erupt (they already have) and then shooting wars (one already has).

The globe is in for tough times because renewables like wind and solar simply can't be supplied in enough quantity to fill the enormous demand. As an aside, environmental organizations are doing an enormous disservice by promoting the fantasy of a feasible renewable energy and hydrogen economy.

Second, the world is facing a major food shortage. It took two centuries but the Malthusian Devil is finally banging on the door. For seven of the past eight years global production of cereal grains has not met consumption. The price of cereal crops such as rice, corn and wheat has doubled in the past year. Poor countries are hardest hit and food riots have broken out in more than 10 countries including Egypt, Cameroon, Morocco and Indonesia.

The United Nations recently announced that large segments of the world face immediate hunger now, and global food production must be doubled in the next 30 years.

But how is this possible? There are no empty lands to cultivate and agriculture is highly dependent on oil and gas to power machinery, to make pesticides and fertilizers and for shipping. Food prices are rising in lock-step with the price of oil. And now another body blow: the mad rush to harvest cereal grains like corn to make biofuels for cars rather than food for people.

The world's food situation is deadly grim, and it can only get worse, since we are adding 70 million more people to the planet every year.

As though the oil and food crises weren't enough, we're also staring down the throat of global warming, the most insidious threat ever faced by humans. Yet our efforts to curb carbon emissions are laughable and pathetic. It's an interesting insight into our human psyche that we can ignore such a serious problem.

Space doesn't permit me to discuss cool, clean water, another vital resource whose supply is becoming painfully short.


Major changes are in the wind. At the very least it will mean paring back our lifestyles including, for example, less flying and driving, which will drive a stake into the heart of tourism, one of the world's largest industries. Tourism-dependent places such as Phoenix that are located in a desert with obscenely sprawling suburbs are particularly vulnerable, and violence and societal breakdown are likely.

James Kunstler, in his book, The Long Emergency, predicts that the United States will degenerate into a set of autonomous regions, with major urban centers replaced by numerous villages.

Societal breakdown won't happen quickly nor everywhere, but be sure of this: Change is coming and although poor nations will be hardest hit, North America will not be spared.

We clearly need to think smaller eco-footprint with hybrid cars, smaller homes, diets with less meat, more bicycling and better recycling. If we all pitch in, these changes will buy us time-but only a little.

While oil brought good times, it also allowed human numbers to soar well beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. We cannot continue to ignore this basic underlying problem. It will yield not one millimeter of progress if we decrease our environmental footprint by, say, 20 per cent but the population increases by 20 per cent over the same period.

The crisis situation is unsolvable unless we also address the population problem. It's elementary logic, a no-brainer.

Curtailing human population, however, is a daunting challenge. I hope we're up to it, for the alternative is decidedly unpleasant.