the finitude of our Civilization: between limits and borders

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We often hear that it is impossible to have infinite growth in a finite world. A finite world? But where are these famous limits? And what are they? To understand this, it is necessary to distinguish between limits (impassable) and boundaries (crossable).

Let’s take the metaphor of the car. After a slow and gradual start, the car (our industrial civilization) picked up speed at the end of World War II and began a breathtaking ascent called « the great acceleration ». Today, after some signs of overheating and engine coughing, the speedometer needle starts to flicker. Will it continue to climb? Will it stabilize? Will it come down? 

Simple, even simplistic, the car metaphor has the merit of clearly distinguishing the different « problems » we face. In reality, our industrial civilization is not going straight into the wall. It is confronted with two other types of limits, or more precisely, with limits and boundaries. The limits are represented by the end of our gas tank, and the borders by the edges of the road. 

the limits: the end of the reservoir of essenCe 

To maintain itself, to avoid financial disorders and social unrest, our industrial civilization is obliged to accelerate, to become more complex, and to consume more and more energy. Its meteoric expansion has been fueled by an exceptional — but soon to be extinct — availability of highly energy-efficient fossil fuels, coupled with an extremely unstable growth and debt economy. 

But the growth of our industrial civilization, now constrained by geophysical and economic limits, has reached a phase of diminishing returns. Technology, which has long served to push these thermodynamic limits, is less and less capable of ensuring this acceleration and « locks in » this unsustainable trajectory by preventing the innovation of alternatives. 

The era of cheap and abundant fossil fuels is coming to an end, as evidenced by the rush to unconventional fossil fuels with prohibitive environmental, energy and economic costs. This definitively buries any possibility of ever finding economic growth, and thus signs the death warrant of an economic system based on debts… that will simply never be repaid. 

the borders: the exit 

In addition to the impassable limits that physically prevent any economic system from growing ad infinitum, there are invisible, blurred, and difficult-to-predict « borders. These are thresholds beyond which the systems on which we depend are disrupted, such as the climate, ecosystems or the major biogeochemical cycles of the planet. It is possible to cross them, but the consequences are no less catastrophic. They represent the edges of the road, beyond which our car would leave a stability zone and face unpredictable obstacles. A too high speed of the vehicle does not allow to perceive the details of the road and inevitably increases the risks of accident… 

Complexity sciences have recently discovered that beyond certain thresholds, complex systems — such as economies or ecosystems — abruptly switch to new states of equilibrium that are impossible to know in advance, or even collapse. The global climate system, many ecosystems or major biogeochemical cycles of the planet have now left the zone of stability that we know, announcing the time of great and sudden disruptions, which in turn will destabilize (and probably annihilate) industrial societies, the rest of humanity and even most other species. 

The transgression of borders heralds ruptures in food, social, commercial or sanitary systems, i.e. in concrete terms, massive population displacements, armed conflicts, epidemics and famines. In this « non-linear » world, unpredictable events of greater intensity will be the norm, and it is to be expected that the solutions we attempt to apply will regularly disrupt these systems even further. 

we’re stuck

Each of the limits (energy, minerals, etc.) and boundaries (climate, biodiversity, etc.) are alone capable of seriously destabilizing civilization. The problem in our case is that we are simultaneously running up against several limits and have already crossed several boundaries! 

The paradox that characterizes our time — and probably all the times when a civilization ran up against limits and transgressed borders — is that the more powerful our civilization becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes. The modern globalized political, social, and economic system on which more than half of humanity lives has seriously depleted the resources and disrupted the systems on which it was based, to the point of dangerously degrading the conditions that once allowed it to expand, that now guarantee its stability, and that will allow it to survive. 

The result is clear, but it hurts. To save us from too much climate and ecosystem disruption (which are the only ones that threaten the species), we need to stop the engine. The only way to create a safe space is to stop the production and consumption of fossil fuels, which leads to an economic and probably political and social collapse, i.e. to the end of the thermo-industrial civilization. 

On the other hand, to save the engine of our industrial civilization, we must transgress more and more borders, i.e. continue to prospect, dig, produce and grow ever faster. This inevitably leads to climatic, ecological, and biogeophysical tipping points, as well as to resource peaks, and thus ultimately to the same result — a collapse — except that it could be coupled with an extinction of the human species, if not of almost all living species. 

To use the car metaphor again, while acceleration has never been so strong, the fuel level indicates that we are on reserve and the engine, out of breath, starts to smoke and cough. Exhilarated by the speed, we leave the marked trail and go down, with almost no visibility, a steep slope full of obstacles. Some of the passengers realize that the car is very fragile, but apparently not the driver, who continues to press the accelerator! 

Pablo Servigne & Raphaël Stevens 

Extracts from How everything can fall apart. A small manual of collapsology for the use of present generationsby Pablo Servigne & Raphael Stevens. threshold, 2015, 300 pp. 

In this book, we bring together all the evidence that suggests that a collapse of our modern, industrial societies is possible, and that it may happen much sooner than we think. And if you have to live it, then you might as well do it as humanly as possible. We therefore propose above all a theoretical framework to hear, understand and welcome all the small initiatives that are already living in the post-industrial world, and that are emerging at a crazy speed. 

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