Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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Will civilization collapse? Ask a climate refugee…

Syrian Refugee Camp, Lebanon - EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Courtesy Flickr CC

This article is part of the series What’s Next for the Planet? Read the series introduction.

At least 89.3 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes.” — U.N. Refugee Agency’s end of 2021 report  

Human civilization is just one component, or subsystem, of the complex living system we call the ecosphere. Thus, it is obvious that our well-being, if not our actual survival, depends on the ecosphere’s health. If the planet’s capacity to feed us becomes compromised, as it is likely to do if we don’t curb global warming, our population will necessarily decline, and possibly plummet. If we make large portions of the planet uninhabitable due to excessive heat and drought or incessant flooding, which we are already doing at a good clip, civilization as a whole could unravel as huge numbers of displaced people desperately flee their devasted regions, hoping to merely survive.

As we attempt to predict upcoming developments based on current trends, we can predict, with a reasonable degree of certainty, what could be our first truly worldwide existential crisis — namely that by 2050 climate change will force migration on a scale that could upend global civilization. Such mass migrations could lead to a general collapse, or at least the severe disruption of economic activity, and of many, or most, functional political and social systems.

Why such a dire prognostication?

Looking at some numbers, we see that studies by the U.N. International Organization for Migration have concluded that worldwide there are likely to be one billion people displaced by 2050. Estimates by Cornell University, global insurance companies and others concur, and studies by the same organizations anticipate two billion displaced by 2100.

The global population is expected to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050, and about 11 billion by 2100. That means that the direct and indirect effects of climate change, including violent conflicts and extreme poverty, will displace at least 12% of us by 2050, and 18% by 2100.

But the mass displacement crisis won’t just happen one morning thirty some years from now. It is already well underway. So far, 90 to 115 million people have been displaced worldwide by climate change, and 26 million more are displaced each year. Even wealthy countries are affected. The U.S. census bureau reported that in 2022 natural disasters exacerbated by climate change displaced 3.3 million Americans, one million in Florida alone. 

Until now, approximately 60% of global climate-exacerbated migration has been “internal” — people moving within their own national boundaries, most of them from the countryside into cities where they often become destitute while competing for scarce jobs. However, the growing trend is for migrants to flee their country of origin, seeking asylum elsewhere. (For example, the 3.6 million refugees from Syria’s climate-connected civil war now subsisting in refugee camps in Turkey.)

At what point could climate migration become so disruptive that it crashes the global economy, forcing us to devote most of our financial resources to putting out literal and figurative fires, while leaving us almost none with which to move civilization forward or even rebuild? We have already stepped onto that threshold, but we can’t be sure when we’ll cross it and be unable to turn back. However, just the quick glance we’ve taken here at the relevant statistics and trends indicates that if we don’t quickly change course, we’ll look back from 2060 and realize that it’s already too late.

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.

This article is part of the series What’s Next for the Planet? Read the series introduction.


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Articles in This Series


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.