Apocalyptic thinking is frequently found in certain future scenarios, especially when those scenarios are created by people concerned with military conflict, climate change, artificial intelligence, disease outbreaks, or other scary possibilities. CRN has ourselves participated in the making of such scenarios involving nano-weaponry, and our co-founders wrote a chapter for a book on global catastrophic risk.
So, for anyone who's read this blog for a while, or who has kept up with general trends in futurist thinking, the projected "end of civilization" is not an unfamiliar theme.
A recent article in the New Scientist suggests that "the demise of civilization may be inevitable."
Some say we have already reached this point, and that it is time to start thinking about how we might manage collapse. Others insist it is not yet too late, and that we can -- we must -- act now to keep disaster at bay.
The upshot is that a certain level of complexity is unsustainable, and that we have reached or are near that point in numerous areas, including energy production, environmental management, finance and credit, etc. Assuming you accept the premise of the article, our choice -- that is, the collective choice of our modern industrialized society -- is to either adapt or collapse.
Adaptation will mean huge changes in the way we function. This is not a new idea, of course. Since "The Population Bomb" (1968) and "The Limits to Growth" (1972), we've been hearing increasingly dire warnings about being on the wrong path and what we must do to correct it. But today, in the face of massive evidence that global warming will dramatically change our world no matter what we do, adapting in order to survive seems more urgent than ever.
Is total collapse actually possible? Well, obviously, ours would not be the first civilization ever to perish or to crumble under the weight of its own unchecked enlargement. So certainly it's possible.
As pointed out in the New Scientist article:
If industrialised civilisation does fall, the urban masses -- half the world's population -- will be most vulnerable. Much of our hard-won knowledge could be lost, too.
On the other hand, we now know a great deal more about the mechanics and dynamics of collapse than have any people before us. We know much more about sustainability and resilience. It is also possible then, if not likely, that we can avoid collapse by making just enough of the right kinds of changes just in the nick of time.
But if our civilization is to change as much as some people say is necessary, how will that affect current institutions, such as the corporation, the nation-state, or even democracy itself?
George Dvorsky, who writes the excellent Sentient Developments blog and who serves on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), has some serious thoughts on the subject in a piece titled "Future Risks and the Challenge to Democracy."
This restructuring is already underway. We live in the post 9/11 world—a world in which we have legitimate cause to be fearful of superterrorism and hyperterrorism. We will also have to reap what we sowed in regards to our environmental neglect. Consequently, our political leaders and institutions will be increasingly called-upon to address the compounding problems of unchecked WMD proliferation, terrorism, civil unrest, pandemics, the environmental impacts of climate change (like super-storms, flooding, etc.), fleets of refugees, devastating food shortages, and so on. It will become very necessary for the world’s militaries to anticipate these crises and adapt so that they can meet these demands.
More challenging, however, will be avoiding outright human extinction . . .
Catastrophic and existential risks will put democratic institutions in danger given an unprecedented need for social control, surveillance and compliance. Liberal democracies will likely regress to de facto authoritarianism under the intense strain; tools that will allow democratic governments to do so include invoking emergency measures, eliminating dissent and protest, censorship, suspending elections and constitutions, and trampling on civil liberties (illegal arrests, surveillance, limiting mobility, etc).
Looking further ahead, extreme threats may even rekindle the totalitarian urge; this option will appeal to those leaders looking to exert absolute control over their citizens. What’s particularly frightening is that future technologies will allow for a more intensive and invasive totalitarianism than was ever thought possible in the 20th Century – including ubiquitous surveillance (and the monitoring of so-called ‘thought crimes’), absolute control over information, and the redesign of humanity itself, namely using genetics and cybernetics to create a more traceable and controllable citizenry. Consequently, as a political mode that utterly undermines humanistic values and the preservation of the autonomous individual, totalitarianism represents an existential risk unto itself.
Clearly, then, the question to ask is not only whether our civilization can survive the challenges of this century, but if it can, what kind of civilization will it be?
That is what we must actively plan for and work toward if we hope to live in a better tomorrow.