Steht unsere Zivilisation vor dem Zusammenbruch?Sep 22, 2022
At the height of its expansion, about 30 percent of the world's population lived in the Roman Empire. In many ways it was at the forefront of human progress. These included achievements such as central heating, concrete, double glazing, banking, international trade, and the opportunity for social progress. Rome was the first city in the world with a population of one million and was a center of technological, legal and economic progress. An empire so stable, prosperous, and powerful that it seemed unbreakable until it wasn't. Slowly at first, but then suddenly, the world's most powerful civilization collapsed. By civilization we mean a complex society organized by various institutions, divided into different social classes, and in which there is a specialized division of labor.
Civilizations share a dominant language, share the same culture, domesticate plants and animals to support the people of their great cities, and often build impressive monuments. Civilization greatly improves our efficiency, allows us to accumulate vast amounts of knowledge, and harnesses human ingenuity and the earth's natural resources. Without civilization, most people would never have been born. This makes it quite worrying that it is actually the norm, not the exception, for civilizations to collapse. Virtually all civilizations perish, after an average of 340 years. For the individual, collapse is rarely comfortable. The common cultural identity is broken, while the institutions can no longer govern the population. unconsciousness is lost.
The standard of living falls. Violence increases and many times the population decreases. Civilization disappears entirely, is swallowed up by stronger neighbors, or something entirely new emerges, sometimes with more primitive technology than before. If it's always like this, what about us? If Europe ever forgot how to lay pipes and mix concrete, will our technologies and greatest industrial achievements simply be lost? From the one-euro pizza to smartphones and laser eye surgery, will all of this also go away? Today's urban areas extend over thousands of square kilometres. We travel the skies and communicate in a matter of seconds. Thanks to particularly high-yielding genetically modified plants, efficient machines and highly effective fertilizers, industrial agriculture feeds billions of people.
Modern medicine gives us the longest life expectancy in history, while industrial technologies allow for unprecedented levels of comfort and abundance. Even if we can't do it without destroying our ecosphere. Although different civilizations still exist, some competing and some coexisting, they all form a single global civilization. This modern civilization is, in a way, even more fragile than the empires of the past, precisely because today everything is so much more connected. A collapse of our industrialized world would mean the end of most people, because the world's population can only be fed by our high-tech agriculture. And there is an even greater danger: what if the collapse were so devastating that we never returned to the state of industrialization?
What if our chance for a prosperous future as a multi-planetary species is gone? A global collapse of civilization could be an existential catastrophe: something that would destroy not only the lives of all people today, but also that of all potential future generations. All the knowledge we could have gained, the art we could have created, the joys we could have had, all lost. But how likely is that? First of all, good news. Although individual civilizations have collapsed, this has never stopped the progress of global civilization. Rome fell, but the Aksumite Empire or the Teotihuacans and of course the Byzantine Empire continued to exist.
And if only the population suddenly collapses? To date, no known catastrophe has killed more than 10 percent of the world's population. No pandemic, no natural disaster, no war. The last good example of the rapid decline in the world's population was the so-called Black Death, a 14th century bubonic plague pandemic that swept through the Middle East and Europe, killing a third of all Europeans, totaling about a tenth of all Europeans. of the world population. If ever an event could have caused the collapse of civilization, this is it, but even the plague showed just how resilient humanity really is.
While the old societies were massively torn apart over a short period of time, this dramatic loss of human life and insane suffering has hardly had a negative impact on Europe's long-term economic and technological development. The population recovered in two centuries, and only two centuries later the industrial revolution began. History abounds with incredible recoveries from terrible tragedies. For example, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in World War II: 140,000 people died and 90 percent of the city was reduced to rubble. But against all odds, an amazing transformation followed. In just a decade, Hiroshima's population rebounded and today it is a thriving city of 1.2 million people.
For the people who had to live through this, nothing can take away the horror of the horrible events. But for us as a species, this evidence of our resilience is good news, so even in the worst case, recovery is highly likely. One important difference compared to the past is that humanity today has unprecedented destructive power. Our arsenal of nuclear weapons is so vast that an all-out global war by any means could trigger a nuclear winter and kill billions. Our knowledge of our own biology and how to manipulate it is so advanced that it is slowly becoming possible to create viruses as contagious as the coronavirus and as deadly as the Ebola virus.
The risk of global pandemics is now much higher and more dangerous than it used to be. So perhaps we ourselves bring about our ruin. And that could be far worse than anything nature has offered up to now. But what if, say, 99 percent of the world's population dies? So global civilization would disappear forever? Could we recover from such a catastrophe? There are certainly reasons to be optimistic. Let's start with the food. Today there are a billion farm workers around the world. Even if the world population were to drop to just 80 million, many survivors would almost certainly know how to grow food.
We wouldn't have to start from scratch either, because we could still use modern, high-yield plants. Our cultivated corn today is ten times larger than its ancestors. The original tomatoes were the size of a pea today. After agriculture, the next step towards recovery would be to rebuild industry, such as power supply and automated production. One big problem is that today's economies of scale make it impossible to pick up where we left off. Much of our high-tech industry only works thanks to high demand and highly connected supply chains on different continents. Even if our infrastructure unexpectedly remained intact, technologically we would be taking huge steps backwards.
But we're thinking of a broader time frame here. Industrialization originally occurred 12,000 years after the Agricultural Revolution. So if we were to start over after a devastating collapse, it shouldn't be too difficult to achieve reindustrialization, at least on the evolutionary time scale. However, there is a condition. The Industrial Revolution was literally powered by the burning of readily available coal. And that is exactly what we still rely on today. Using coal now would not only make climate change much worse, it could also make it much harder to recover from a major crisis. So we should stop burning available coal, also because it serves as insurance for our civilization in case of disaster.
What also makes our recovery likely is that we would probably still have most of the knowledge to rebuild civilization. We would certainly lose a lot of very important institutional knowledge, much of it stored on hard drives that no one could read and use anymore. But much of the technological, scientific and cultural knowledge found in 2.6 million libraries around the world would survive the catastrophe. Survivors of the collapse might still remember what was once possible and could reverse engineer some of the tools and machines they would find. In short, despite the potential for catastrophic hazards, whether natural or self-inflicted, there is reason for hope.
Humanity is amazingly resilient, and even in the event of a global civilizational collapse, it seems likely that we can recover, even if many people perish or suffer insane misery, even if many cultural and technological advances are lost in the process. But when we consider that all of this is at stake, it remains a terrifying risk. Nuclear war and dangerous pandemics are a threat to this amazing global civilization that we have built. Humanity is like a drunken teenager running around tight corners without a seatbelt. The good news is that we still have time to prepare and mitigate these risks.
We just have to. (birds singing)
If you have any copyright issue, please Contact