Collapse: Converging Crises and the American Oligarchs

Two new studies now being reported converge in frightening ways with the most recent data on climate disruption. Their results reflect the growing likelihood that the converging crises of economy, social justice, and ecology will lead to the collapse of civilization and even the sixth mass extinction. (Kolbert, 2014)

First, Gillens and Page (2014) studied empirical records in the period from 1981 through 2010, and showed that the outcomes of national policy debates have had almost no relationship to the preferences of the general population, but are highly correlated with the interests of economic elites; the obvious inference is that we live in an oligarchy with the trappings of formal democracy – not exactly news. But previous research results were mixed and did not settle which model of political process is valid. The researchers found that the opinions of citizens of median income and lower have had no bearing on social policy outcomes. But the interests of economic elites (who happen to fund most of politics) are clearly reflected in law and policy. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, oligarchs rule, and like the Russian oligarchs, many are ruthless.

Second, a new study of the dynamics between human activity and nature, using mathematical models based on historical examples, predicts the collapse of civilizations when economic stratification or ecological strain surpass carrying capacity. Either economic stratification or ecological strain can independently lead to collapse. Together, well… But collapse can be avoided if a sustainable rate of resource use is achieved and if resources are distributed equitably, so that carrying capacity is not exceeded. (Motesharrei, et al, 2014) Industrial societies today, especially the U.S., have fundamentally failed to even work seriously to find a path to either economic equity or ecological sustainability as climate chaos fast approaches. (Politically motivated public gestures of little substance don’t really count.)

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports gently urge an accelerated response to climate disruption because the indicators continue to accelerate. But with lags before effects of emissions are observed and felt, and positive feedback loops accelerate – dark arctic seas absorb much more solar radiation than reflective ice sheets – we are surely approaching a tipping point where mitigation efforts will not be enough and adaptation sufficient for survival will be nearly impossible. Like all previous reports, current assessments underestimate the urgency of accelerating climate disruption.

We are in a multi-faceted trap. The oligarchs continue to grab all they can, ignoring the signs of the end of the wealth they so desperately want to control. The corporate media continue to ignore the obvious, slowing public awareness of the immediacy of the human existential crises. And as the politicians are locked into their self-aggrandizing roles as the agents of the oligarchs, the people have no say over political decisions that affect human survival.

The economic-growth machine and its ideology grind on with full political support from the agents of oligarchy (congress and president) as if the old normal still applies. Interestingly, when we look at historical examples of the collapse of civilizations, such as the Maya and the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond, it is clear that collapse was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from the failure of elites to adapt social behavior to changing conditions of climate and/or ecology as they continued down their paths of self-glorification. The difference today is that it is no longer some small ecological niche that is disrupted; it is the entire planet.

Only massive public mobilization and rapid reorganization leading to ecologically viable and equitable economics has a chance of staving off the collapse of civilization. It is hard to imagine how such massive change could be accomplished. The American social and economic mobilization at the outset of World War II, comes to mind, but the elites and the people were united and the transformation required was much smaller, as were the stakes. We live in perilous times. We must act, together, now.
Diamond, Jared, (2005) Collapse: How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Gillens, Martin and Bejamin I. Page, (April 9, 2014, unpublished paper) “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Forthcoming, Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.

Kolbert, Elizabeth, (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt.

Motesharrei, Safa, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.” Ecological Economics 101 (2014) 90-102.

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