Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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The Phases of the Global Great Disruption

The Great Plague of London in 1665 - Painting by Rita Greer, 2009 - Free Art License 1.3, Wikimedia (Zoom in on this painting for details)
This is the sixth part of a series on what Australian author Paul Gilding,in his 2011 book on the climate catastrophe, has called “The Great Disruption” (Read Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Gilding’s thesis, and that of this series, is not that we are necessarily headed toward the end of the world, or even the end of civilization, but toward a significant disruption of our economic and social systems caused by the biosphere’s loss of much of its resilience, and large swaths of the planet becoming unproductive or uninhabitable. In this series, we examine disruption caused by environmental shocks to the planet’s system, and discuss how these impacts can overlap each other, disrupting many of global civilization’s functions.

“I thought ‘disruption’ was a big understatement for the consequences of climate crisis…that are happening now…” – Email from a reader

This comment by a reader of earlier posts in Firebird’s  “Great Disruption” series brings up a good point: Is “disruption” is even the right word to express potential repercussions of the developing environmental crisis. Is “collapse” a better term?

After years of mulling such matters, I decided that the title of Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding’s 2011 book The Great Disruption, which I read a decade ago, described the most likely outcome of our current economic and social trajectory and its effects on the biosphere — assuming we make the right decisions going forward, that is; if not, “collapse” or “complete collapse” is the better descriptor.

I settled on “disruption” because disruptions can be ranked. For example, although it’s inconvenient and annoying, a quickly repaired broken water main on your street is a minor disruption. The covid pandemic was a big disruption of modern global civilization, especially affecting for trade. It’s repercussions are felt to this day.

The 1346-1353 Black Death (bubonic plague pandemic) that wiped out around 50% of Europe’s medieval population was clearly a Great Disruption. It threatened the complete collapse of that civilization, and permanently changed the relationship between landowners and serfs who, in a depopulated Europe, could demand to be paid in cash. Thus it spelled the beginning of the end of feudalism. (The 1665 Great Plague of London, which devastated that city, pictured above, would, in my estimation, be a ” “big disruption,” than the Black Death. Because of its primarily local or regional effect, it didn’t rise to the level of a Great Disruption — although we can be sure it felt that way to most of the residents of London at the time, who had traveled very little and whose perspective was largely local.)

The Coming Global Great Disruption

The current trajectory of our planetary management project, if we can call it that, is downhill. Global overpopulation and wealthy countries are driving excessive consumption, which is fed by overproduction and unrestricted extraction. The results, in terms of increased pollution, especially atmospheric pollution, and resource depletion, are adding up quickly, and, if left unchecked, could render much of the earth uninhabitable for humans — probably within the next few decades.

The coming Global Great Disruption appears to be developing as a series of smaller, regional disasters, including droughts, lengthy heat waves, huge storms and generally unpredictable weather, sea-level rise, epidemics and so on. These, in turn, are spurring local wars, famines, mass migration and nativist reactions to migrants, trade disruptions and the depletion of national treasuries and the inability of insurance corporations or governments to provide remedies.

As these disasters continue to develop and grow in scale and intensity, their effects will overlap at times and in ways that are hard to predict. A drought can cause a famine that will cause a war that will disrupt major trade avenues. At some point, there will be so many of these overlapping problems that the entire conflagration will perforce be viewed through a global lens — the Global Great Disruption.

This straightforward analysis of the situation should guide our response but, so far, we’ve only responded to the symptoms, not the root causes of the crisis. For example, we’ve recognized the threat of global warming, and made some half-hearted attempts to address it. But, necessary as they are, none of those tweaks to our energy system deal with the underlying problem — unsustainable growth. If anything, taken alone, switching to renewable energy within the framework of our current economic paradigm will make things worse by encouraging more growth, just as the fossil-fuel revolution did 200 years ago.

Simply put, to save some form of civilization, we’ve got to stop. Stop making more people and more stuff.

The planet can sustainably support only a limited number of people, each of whom consumes a limited amount of its replenishable resources. But currently we are in a condition called population “overshoot.” We are using the earth’s resources 1.75 times faster than they can be replaced, and current trends will push that number to three times replacement capacity by 2050. Our estimated sustainable population — with a comfortable but not excessive living standard for everyone — is 7.7 billion people, a number we exceeded in 2020, even as global consumption per capita rose.

But knowing this is unlikely to change our behavior because of the entrenched myth that unrestrained economic growth can support an unlimited population — and vice versa. Regrettably, only immense environmental disruption — possibly rivaling that of the Black Death, but on a global scale — is likely to force us to rethink things and reverse current trends. Fortunately, when that happens, models for a new economic paradigm already exist. We’ll examine them in upcoming Firebird Journal posts.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.









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2 Responses

  1. While the warming climate gets all the media attention, the real elephant in the room is the assault on the natural world and its resources. The self centeredness of Homo sapiens does not lend itself to global solutions for a global problem. The details will play out as they will but my feeling is that it is too late to close the barn door that our modern society has opened.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that is likely too late to “close the barn door” on the economic/environmental crisis. And the impending Great Disruption indeed looks chaotic in nature, as I alluded to in this post. This week alone there was another “unprecedented” deadly heat wave that extended from Mexico and northern South America to Angola while a bunch of tornadoes tore apart towns in the Midwest while the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic near Florida reached record temperatures — and so on. And it’s only May! We’re in for a rough ride, and there is no telling, at this point when, where and if it will end.

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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.