Civilizations have two important properties:
- they are dissipative systems, and
- they are creative systems.
A dissipative system is a physical system that maintains its state by turning resources from a usable form into an unusable waste form.
In terms of physics (specifically: thermodynamics) one can describe them as dynamic systems that produce entropy (i.e. they become more disordered) and they maintain their ordered state by transferring that entropy onto some resource that is thus changed from a low-entropy form to a high entropy form (for example: electric energy (low entropy) is turned into heat radiation (high entropy)).
Moreover, civilizations are creative systems. This means that they can invent new ways of interacting with each other and with their environment (i.e. by inventing new technologies). Specifically, civilizations can open up new ways of using new resources that could not be used before.
One could take this as a definition of a civilization: a civilization is a creative dissipative system.
Civilizations can grow. When a civilization grows, the size of the dissipative system that has to be maintained is increasing. As a result, the amount of entropy produced by the system increases. As a result, the amount of resources used and destroyed by the system is increasing. The system will also compete with other dissipative systems using the same resources.
The amount of resources of any kind is limited. For a growing civilization, this can lead to a crisis. But being creative, a civilization is able to open up new resources. Examples from history include the invention of clothes, fire and housing enabling humans to settle in colder areas, the invention of bow and arrow, enabling the hunting of more game, the invention of agriculture, enabling humans to get more food from the same area, the inventions of weapons of war, enabling one civilization to use another one as a resource, the invention of coal-fired steam engines, the invention of artificial fertilizer, and so on.
Faster growing civilizations outcompeted or integrated more slowly growing ones. Within a civilization, faster growing subsystems (e.g. companies) would outgrow the more slowly growing ones. So creativity is leading to knowledge that allows tapping into new resources, enabling some civilizations or their subsystems to outgrow other ones. Values, attitudes, social institutions and structures and technological knowhow that lead to faster growth will be amplified by making the civilization carrying them grow faster. This process can be compared to biological evolution.
As a result, civilizations have a general trend not only to grow but to increase the speed of their growth and thus the speed of using up their resource base.
Growth is a form of instability, so civilizations are inherently unstable.
The problem with this is that a planet has only a limited amount of resources. There is an upper limit of growth. We are currently approaching that limit with our global civilization. What is going to happen?
If a civilization outstrips the available resources and does not manage to stop growing, it will use up its reserves (raw materials, ecosystems, biodiversity, land, water, the ability of the environment (including the atmosphere) to take up its waste products, sources of energy) and then it will be too big for the resources that could be available in a sustainable way. It will then collapse, i.e. it will be destroyed by the entropy accumulating inside it, and fall apart. This can be compared to the starvation of an organism. For our industrial, technical civilization, this end is gradually appearing above the horizon. I don’t know when the final collapse is going to happen; I think it is a matter of a few decades, maybe even a hundred years but hardly more. I may not experience it myself (I am in my 50s now) but it will probably happen during the lifetime of the generation of our children or grandchildren, during the lifetime of people who are now young.
This collapse will not only cause the death of billions of people, part of it is the mass extinction of other life forms as well that we are causing by using these life forms as resources, by polluting them and by competing with them for resources like land and water. This is happening already and we will continue witnessing the accelerating destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity in our lifetime.
I don not know exactly how the final collaps is going to happen. I would expect an increase in “natural” disasters like droughts, storms and floods over the next decades (this is happening already, but we haven’t seen anything yet). I would expect deforestation, soil desctruction, desertification, land erosion, destruction of groundwater reserves and the destruction of aquatic ecosystems. I would expect increasing numbers of cases of unrest and of wars and large and ever increasing numbers of refugees. I would expect deepening economic crises and turmoil. Eventually, in more and more places, technical civilization is going to break down. When the electricity systems collapse, supplies of water, fuel and food will also collapse. Those of us who depend on these systems are going to die except for a few. Those of us living in poorer areas might survive this collapse, but many on these areas are hardest hit by environmental degradation. There are estimates that the population of the world will peak at about 12 billion people in a few decades. After the collapse, I would expect less than a billion to remain, on a devastated planet.
Our system of living is doomed. It is not sustainable. If something is not sustainable, it will not be sustained. That is the simple meaning of the word. There are only two possibilities then: either, the system will be transformed into a sustainable one or it will collapse. As long as most people are only trying to become as rich as possible, i.e. to increase their consumption of resources as much as they can (because that is the actual meaning of the word “rich”), and as long as politicians still think or proclaim that growth is the solution of problems, instead of the problem, everything points towards collapse.
Civilizations are inherently unstable. For example, while the societies of our hunter-gatherer ancestors seem to have been relatively stable and existed for tens of thousands of years, there was a slow growth leading to crises. They spread all over the world and the destruction began already back then, with the extinction of a number of large animals probably caused by our ancestors. Once the climatic conditions became stable enough, agriculture was independently invented about a dozen times. Writing was invented at least 5 times. And had the industrial revolution not taken place in 18th century Britain, it would have happened somewhere else. This course of events was, it seems, almost inevitable.
It is likely that wherever in the universe civilizations, i.e. creative dissipative systems, occur, they will start growing. The question is: will this always lead to a catastrophic collapse in the end, destroying the civilization and leading to a mass extinction of other life forms? Is the destructive development we are witnessing at the moment inevitable?
The standard view on resources is to treat them as being external to the system. So we perceive the extension of the system of our civilization as growth. But while this system is growing, the resources are shrinking. If growth happens at a constant rate (measured in percent), it is actually exponential, so the system actually grows faster and faster. We are used to perceiving this as something positive, as prosperity. If, however, we treat the resources as being part of the system, a totally different picture emerges: the system is shrinking, and it does so at an ever increasing rate. Collectively, we are getting poorer and poorer.
The total amount of resources of our planet is limited. There is a limited amount of arable land, of fresh water, of ground water. There is a limited amount of forests and of other types of ecosystems. There is a limited amount of species. There is a limited amount of mineral resources. There is a limited amount of fish in the seas. There is a limited amount of fossil fuels. There is a limited capacity of the land, the water and the atmosphere to absorb our solid, liquid and gaseous waste products. All of these resources are shrinking. They are being destructed, and the speed of their destruction is increasing.
If we want to avoid a disaster, we have to start treating the resources as integral parts of the system. We would then realize that there is no net growth. Growth is an illusion. In today’s economy, resources are just taken and used. Being external to the system, they can be taken by whoever claims them.
A sustainable system, on the other hand, would have to treat the resources as part of the managed system, a part that is managed in a non-destructive way.
One way to do this would involve the complete separation of ownership and use. Resources would become unavailable. The owner of the resource would have to be an institution that, by its constitution, has the purpose of preserving the resource. The user of a resource would “rent” it and would have to pay a price that is sufficient for the complete restauration of the resource to its previous state. We could call this the “recycling price” or the “sustainable price” of the resource. Under such a scheme, destructive uses of resources would simply be uneconomical. Only sustainable business models could survive.
A few examples: The prices for raw materials would rise so much that complete recycling is the cheapest option. The burning of fossil fuels would become completely uneconomical because because re-synthesizing the fuel from carbon-dioxide and water effectively takes more energy than you could get out of it in the first place. The price to be paid for extinguishing a species would be ruinous in any case because resurrecting an extinct species is practically impossible due to the loss of genetic information and would, if technically possible, be horrendously expensive. Only modest uses of ecosystems would be possible because beyond a certain level of use, repairing the damage would become so expensive that such a use would be uneconomical.
There are two problems with such a system. In such a system, the resources would artificially be made unavailable. The first problem is that Human creativity might find ways to get at them nevertheless, by means of corruption or violence. To prevent this, one would need education on one side, but also an organization of “rangers” to protect the resources. E.g., in the case of a forest, illegal logging and poaching or mining in the area of the forest must be prevented, and the corruption of the rangers themselves has to be prevented. There must be an organization powerful enough to keep such a system up. The question is if this is feasible.
The other problem is: even if such a system is technically possible, is there any political way to get there? Or will those who are now in the possession of the resources and who use them as a source of their power prevent any attempt into this direction, even if that means their own destruction in the (not so very) long term. Can we force, bribe or buy them out of their power? Maybe a sustainable civilization is possible but practically unreachable. There might be many civilizations in the vast expanses of space and time, but maybe there are only a lucky few who ever make it out of the growth trap in time. At the moment, it does not look like we will be one of those.
If we do not introduce such a system, we are getting things far cheaper than we should, and we are enriching ourselves by not paying the full price. You might buy something and think you have the right to it because you have paid, but actually, you have not paid the full price. The price has been subsidized from the destruction of the resource. The rest of the bill is then paid by the generation that will witness the collapse of civilization then inevitable, a catastrophe that would lead to the death of several billion people in a short time, and by generations following that event, who would find themselves impoverished on a devastated planet. Enriching ourselves and imposing the bill on future people effectively means exploiting them. Everything that is not sustainable is an instance of exploitation. So our economic system is exploitative and destructive. It is criminal.
Profit can only come from three sources: from inflation, i.e. devaluation of money (which is not really a profit), from the losses of others and from economic growth. Economic growth, as we have seen, is, in the end, the destruction of resources. So this type of profit is also an instance of the second case (losses of others) and since these other people are people of the future who had no chance of influencing the deal, it is always an instance of exploitation. In a sustainable civilization, on the other hand, there would be no net profit.
There are two ways to reach such a state: either, we manage to turn our global economy into a sustainable one.
The other way is: our civilization will collapse, and the survivors would then live more or less sustainable on a much lower level. Growth would no longer be possible because most of the easy to get resources would have been used up already. The global civilization would be gone, and the remains of it would fragment into small local groups. A second rise of technological civilization would be impossible because of lack of resources. I don’t know if this would result in an endless state of local war between small groups. If our descendants are lucky enough, they might be too poor to fight. Maybe a relatively peaceful, more or less stable culture could evolve; something akin to the cultures of ancient Australia. Or maybe we would just go extinct completely, like all those species we will have pulled into the abys along with us.
(The first picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MidtownApril2014.jpg, the second is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StatfjordA(Jarvin1982).jpg. The third picture, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pripyat_CentralSquare.jpg, showing a view of the abandoned city of Prypat, gives an impression how cities might look after the collapse. In some places, we have to expect violent events to take place during the collapse. This kind of events is exemplified here by the fourth picture, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Destruction_in_Homs_(4).jpg, showing a view of the destroyed city of Homs.
The last picture, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bolivia-Deforestation-EO.JPG is showing deforestation in Bolivia.
It is an example of how a growing system is using up finite resources. The resource (the forrest) is consumed by the growing agricultural areas.
The resource is treated not as a part of the system, but as external to it. There is no institution maintaining it. The people felling the trees or clearing a patch of land either do not pay for the land and the wood at all, or they do not pay the fair, sustainable price, which would be the price required to return the forest to its previous state. Beyond a certain level, destruction of the resource becomes irreversible.)