We tend to conceive of evolution as a process that occurs over millions of years, but lately discoveries in genetics have changed that perception. We evolve in fits and starts — very slowly for long periods, then in sudden spurts of rapid change. Often the trigger is a particular event or convergence of upheavals that shake up the order of things. Within a very short time after each catastrophe, new life-forms emerge, ecotones form, and long-established orders realign. Evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould called this process “punctuated equilibrium.”
Cultural evolution proceeds in much the same fashion, as we can learn from the work of historians, sociologists and anthropologists such as Joseph A. Tainter, William R. Catton, Jared Diamond, and Dmitry Orlov.
Civilizations are living entities with regular cycles of birth, growth and death. They may evolve and grow for as little as a century or two (as for the Inca) or thousands years (as in India and China). When a civilization begins, it is a child — it tries new things and adopts behaviors it likes. As it matures its social norms become more rigid, embedded and brittle. It loses abilities to respond to change or adapt in new ways. Each generation is taught to accept “the way things are” without questioning. This phase ends in corruption, decay and decline.
Many of us can sense the next punctuation coming. It has already begun. Globally, the starting point for the next phase may have come three centuries ago. At that moment humans had only just discovered how to harness coal to make steam but had yet to employ the far greater energy density of oil and gas, never mind nuclear fission. The mere addition of coal to the human energy portfolio was enough to augur the end of the global civilization we know today.
Coal from the Fushun mine in northeastern China was used to smelt copper as early as 1000 BCE but it was the advent of James Watt’s steam engine in the 18th century that gave fossil energy traction, literally. In perfect parallel, expansion of the human population tracked expansion of the supply of available energy, railroads and factories. In 1965, Thomas McKeown put forward the then controversial but now widely accepted hypothesis that human population growth since the late eighteenth century was due to improved economic conditions and better nutrition.
Svante Arrhenius, running the mathematical equations for climate change, and Thomas Malthus, doing the same for population, accurately predicted the outcome once humanity was swept up in the enchantment of seemingly unlimited energy growth.
As we progressed in our ability to harness energy, we moved from a nearly stable world population, fluctuating little over the course of thousands of years, to a steady growth rate of 30 percent every 20 years. As our mechanical technology exploded, we went from adding one billion more people to the planet every 120 years in 1927, and the fraction of a part per million of carbon dioxide that required, to adding one billion people and 25 to 30 parts per million of CO2 every 12 years.
A reckoning awaits. When, exactly, that may occur is difficult to predict. It could occur suddenly, as the fictitious debt instruments engineered to cover the real life-support deficit can no longer be serviced. It could occur slowly, as we continue squeezing out the last tons of brown coal, barrels of tarry shale oil, and cubic meters of unconventional gas, using ever-advancing technologies to find, refine and burn them as quickly as possible, while ignoring the horrific climate consequences we are locking in.
Catton called our modern humans Homo colossus — those among our kind living in industrial countries and consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels to motivate and control machines that do orders of magnitude more work than humans or animals could do otherwise. Homo colossus is gradually replacing Homo sapiens as development spreads like a cancer across the Earth.
While Homo sapiens, with a stable population under one billion, might have had a reasonable chance of being around for another two or three million years, Homo colossus hasn’t a prayer.
In 2004, the Astronomer Royal in Britain, Sir Martin Rees, assigned humanity about a 50/50 chance of surviving through the 21st century. He was being generous. Earth has already passed tipping points in seven of ten essential life support systems for humans — biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, ocean acidity, land fertility, and freshwater availability — and the other three — ozone, atmospheric aerosols and chemical/radioactive pollution — have yet to be fully quantified but may have already been exceeded as well.
In evolutionary biology a population bottleneck is where radical changes to the environment causes a species to lose of all but the most hardy of its population; hardy, that is, in terms of the selection pressures arising from the change. If there are no sufficiently hardy individuals left, or the ones that manage to survive cannot reproduce sufficiently to repopulate, the species goes extinct. We are quickly approaching that reckoning for Homo colossus but we have yet to understand what is happening, never mind change course.
Fossil fuels artificially boosted the carrying capacity of Earth for human occupancy. There is zero likelihood that deriving energy from capturing current and benign solar influx (as we did for thousands of years) could replace our belovedly potent but toxic concentrates of ancient sunlight gathered and stored over millions of years. It simply can’t. A steep population decline is coming. Whether extinction will be avoided is still an open question.
Evolutionary biologist Bruce H. Lipton says there are three questions that form the base paradigm of civilizations. If the old answers are wrong, or become wrong over time, new answers are required. Civilizations that stay nimble enough to adopt the new answers begin a new chapter of life. Those that don’t disappear. The three questions are:
How did we get here?
Why are we here?
How can we make the best of it?
The first question is a very unusual story no matter how you approach it. You could say we are here because billions of years ago astronomical collisions occurred as objects moving out from the Big Bang ricocheted like billiard balls and in an extraordinary chance occurrence one of those collisions produced an elliptical orbit in the third planet from a star, an orbiting moon just the right distance from that planet to pull tides, a spin that secured climate gradients between the poles and equator, and an eccentric tilt of the axis that permitted annual seasons — and the ebb and flow of photosynthesis. In these extraordinarily auspicious circumstances of birth we were also given the rarest gift — the presence of surface water, arriving during the collision like a water bag breaking at the start of labor.
The collision that struck off Earth’s moon enveloped the young Earth in a hot metallic vapor — 230°C (446°F). Over a few thousand years that vapor condensed, perspiring water and leaving behind a sweltering carbon dioxide atmosphere. Liquid oceans formed despite the temperature because of the pressure of the heavy atmosphere. Gradually, subduction by plate tectonics and absorption by ocean water removed most CO2 from the atmosphere, cooling the world and yielding a benign atmosphere of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen — and the perfect conditions for life to arise.
Or, alternatively, this may just be a dream that Vishnu is having.
If a civilization answers the third question in a way that ignores the energy and resource flows and storages of the planet — “get more stuff,” “watch out for number one, or “this world doesn’t matter, it is the next we want to get into” — they are destined to fail. If a civilization says to the third question, “maintain harmony,” “don’t anger the gods,” or “live lightly and plant for the future,” they may succeed.
Right now the majority of people in the world cling to self-destructive ways. They are set in old patterns and don’t realize how fragile and brittle those are. A growing minority see better ways and are putting together the building blocks for the next phase.
We have that choice before us now, individually and collectively. Civilizations undergo transformations. We can leave behind the old one that is poorly adapted and design and build a more advantaged new society. This book is part of that visioning process. The dying civilization was founded upon carbon. The new one will be too, just in different forms.
As the planet teeters on a climate precipice and the global economy is running full-speed towards a fossil carbon-induced bubble, many people see no viable solutions to these looming interconnected disasters.
Those few among us who have glimpsed the possibility for a new carbon economy grounded in vast legions of energized and empowered youths spreading out across the landscape regenerating soils, forests, oceans, whale populations, migratory waterfowl and a garden planet may seem crazy.
But these are not moonshots, or science fiction. They are economically viable and applicable reconceptions for many different industries. Some solutions are already being field tested while others have yet to leave the laboratory.
It is an exciting time to be carbon beings on a carbon world, learning how to grow and prosper with the natural cycles of carbon.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. This post is from Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies to Reverse Climate Change from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year (the book is free to our sponsors).
Tainter, J., (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Catton, W., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press (1980); Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, Xlibris US (2015).
Diamond, J., (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, Revised Edition.
Orlov, D., The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit, New Society Publishers (2013); Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects, New Society Publishers, Revised edition (2011).
Rees, M., (2004) Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century — On Earth and Beyond, Basic Books.
Lipton, B., (2016) The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles, 10th Anniversary Edition, Hay House, Inc.