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Is That Another Wave Of Collapse Headed Our Way?

London's financial district, known as the Square Mile. Will it be one of the first dominoes to fall when society can no longer sustain itself?
Peter Macdiarmid
Getty Images
London's financial district, known as the Square Mile. Will it be one of the first dominoes to fall when society can no longer sustain itself?

As we found out on Monday, the universe appears to be filled with the rippling remains of an early period of ultrafast expansion, a discovery that ushers a new era of observations that will take us right up to the beginning of time. (Also: read Adam's post.)

The details still need to be scrutinized (and, believe me, they will!) by the scientific community. The possibility of errors — even if valiantly dealt with by the BICEP2 team — must be ironed out. And other experiments will need to confirm the numbers. But this is very exciting news indeed, something that doesn't happen often in a single lifetime.

How lucky we are to have found the Higgs boson and evidence of gravitational waves from inflation within a two-year period!

But other, sobering, news is also afoot and deserves our attention, too.

A recent study led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation-supported research center at the University of Maryland, has warned that civilization as we know it may be at the brink of collapse.

Rapid population growth — combined with our highly unbalanced distribution of wealth — and its obvious need for more resources (water, energy, food) may lead to a breaking point beyond which civilization becomes unsustainable.

Simply put, if you don't have any water to drink or food to eat but your neighbors do and won't share, you and your buddies are going to yank it away from them. Social unrest is not a joke.

Now, the authors of the study are acutely aware that apocalyptic cries have always been with us. However, they also warn us that in the past "historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases)." If not oblivious, at least unwilling to share the profits or to decrease their standard of living in the name of higher social equality.

It's not all doom and gloom, however.

Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

Some believe that all of our problems will be taken care by technological development and that we should just trust scientists and engineers to come up with solutions. Others are suspicious of solutions coming from technology, knowing that every advance comes with a price tag tallied in resources consumed or unforeseen circumstances propagated. This is the worrisome polarization between the engineers and the Druids that we wrote about recently, an idea suggested by Paul Saffo of Stanford University.

Of course, the world has changed a lot since the Romans and the Mayans. When we speak of the collapse of civilization now we are not referring to a single culture but to a global event. The world is a different place, interlinked, with people and economies connected across political borders and cultural boundaries. And yet, despite our connections, the world is still a stew of disparity, prejudice and injustice, even if things may be getting gradually better, as Steve Pinker has recently argued in his last book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

The question for us to ponder (unless you are one of those who believe this is all good-for-nothing, hyped-up, liberal, cry wolf alarmism) is whether we are improving fast enough to enact change before it's too late. It seems to me that the answer should be a no-brainer.

We only have to gain by improving economic equality and decreasing our resource-consumption, imminent collapse or not. And, while we are at it, I suggest we increase funding for scientific research so that we can stare into the face of creation with pride and not fear.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.