It’s the End of the World As We Know It?

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Guardian apocalyptic headline and its derivatives hit social media was this:

NASA probably really didn’t fund a study on the end of the world, and the world probably is not going to end.

The title was “Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?”

First of all, no, this is not a NASA study, but rather a study that has some minor derivative funding from NASA. The media storm is embarrassing up to the point that NASA issued an official statement on their emphatically not supporting the arguments proposed in the paper.

Now, I am obviously inclined towards the kind of techno-optimism criticized in the study, so in that sense my position is far from neutral to this topic. But seriously, drawing an argument from the demise of the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty to predict the fall of present day civilization? It’s like saying it’s stupid to think that you could get from Beijing to New York in twelve hours, since you couldn’t do that a hundred years ago.

To boot, it is even arguable that in a very relevant sense neither the Roman Empire nor the Han Dynasty really even ended. Throughout human history, most human civilizations have not in fact really collapsed (in terms of being wiped out permanently  from the face of the Earth), but rather they have morphed into something new – of course, often following some dramatic cultural shifts.

The case of the sustainability of resource use is, however, a very important one. While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. And with developments in some areas, new problems have arisen that need to be addressed.

To this end, we need both solutions arising from technological breakthroughs, as well as changes in our mindsets regarding consuming material stuff. It is by pushing forward where we can, and holding back where we need to that we can resolve these issues.

But these are issues that we can emphatically resolve. No dynamic system moves on inevitably on a mechanistic track, least of all a system comprising of as complicated beings as humans.

I suppose the real historical lesson you should draw regarding apocalypses is that there have always been doomsayers certain of the looming apocalypse.

Yet here we are.