It might be too late to stop climate catastrophe. It’s time to plan for what comes next
It is now widely believed that the consequence of climate change, if not averted, will be the collapse of society. But while predictions previously suggested this could happen around the year 2100, a growing number of researchers think this could take place much sooner.
In 2018, professor of sustainability Jem Bendell published an essay saying he believed it will happen in our lifetimes, given our current trajectory. While some scientists saw his theory as flawed, many others agreed that we have already entered the sixth extinction event and are on an unstoppable course.
This is echoed by the 12 scientists who in May 2020 said: “Even if the world agreed to maintain all the pandemic-enforced restrictions on travel and consumption, the emissions saved would amount to almost nothing, compared with what’s needed to achieve the Paris agreement’s climate targets… It is time to acknowledge our collective failure to respond to climate change, identify its consequences and accept the massive personal, local, national and global adaptation that awaits us all.”
Bendell questions whether it’s sensible to continue living under the assumption that we can slow down climate change. This starts to feel more urgent when you consider a number of researchers have revised predictions such as bringing forward a rise in temperature of 1.5C to 2030, perhaps even 2026.
A growing number of scientists now say the pace at which climate change is happening is getting faster, as most projections have been linear – however changes to the weather and their pollutant causes are not.
Scientists who study tipping points – thresholds that once crossed, cannot be reversed – have identified a total of 15, 9 of which have been triggered.
So what does this mean for human life? Firstly, it would lead to uncontrollable impacts on our environment and agriculture. This in turn impacts on our social, economic and political systems. At the very least we can expect certain parts of the world to become completely uninhabitable due to the rise in temperature, leading to a mass exodus of climate refugees – the World Bank says countries need to prepare for over 100 million internally displaced people. This is already happening in some regions.
The inevitable rise in sea levels will submerge coastal areas. Residents of Miami, for example, are already being told to move before this happens. Crops will fail, leading to food shortages, there will be more pandemics, financial instability, crime and civil unrest.
We can’t know exactly what the collapse of our society might look like, but we can expect our lives to change dramatically.
Whether you believe climate catastrophe is going to happen in 5 years or 50, if we look at the history of civilisations we see that societal collapse happens to most countries every few hundred years. Look more closely and common themes emerge: rising inequality, environmental change, decay of social cohesion, economic depression, and disease. The period of collapse is generally brutal but short, and either leads to a weakened country, or recovery if the right support is available.
Cultural evolution scientist Peter Turchin has been charting this pattern in the US for a number of years; he predicted that unrest and violence that would happen in 2020. The way out of this, he said, is to solve the problem of inequalities.
Here in the UK, we are in the grip of the second wave of Covid-19, with one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Food poverty is a public health crisis, there are delays to imports and business are moving to the EU due to Brexit, and we are in the worst recession of our history with 1.72 million unemployed, or 5% of the country. The hospitality, retail, travel and nightlife sectors have all but crumbled, and 1 in 7 businesses is on the verge of closing.
Meanwhile, the media is either controlled by corporate interests or under attack from politicians who label any attempt at fact finding as disinformation. Social cohesion, chipped away since the 1970s, is at its lowest, with struggling families blaming their hardship on benefits scroungers or immigrants instead of the system that’s deliberately failed them.
I have no doubt that we have entered a stage of societal collapse. What happens next is largely down to us.
Bendell’s Deep Adaptation concept focuses on the resilience of human beings to adapt to changing circumstances to be able to survive. This could include a post-consumerist way of life, with closer relationships within our communities, rewilding and a deeper connection to nature and spirituality. There will be huge emotional and psychological challenges that we can start exploring and preparing for now. If we will all be living off-grid we’ll need to rely on each other far more – whether it’s for preparing food, building, or producing essential supplies.
This collaborative effort is mutual aid – the act of caring for each other with all parties being active participants. It’s an important element of social movements: the Occupy encampments in 2011 were organised by mutual aid groups who helped young protesters to occupy public spaces and hold political workshops. During the Covid pandemic, thousands of hyperlocal mutual aid groups were created to deliver food, medication and other essential supplies to people self-isolating.
Mutual aid takes many forms. It is growing food in a community garden for a neighbourhood to be self-sufficient, it is running community spaces and events for people, it is providing packed lunches for children from low income families. It is providing vital help that the government is failing to do.
If we are, as I believe, on the verge of societal collapse, we need to start establishing mutual aid networks up and down the country now, so we can be resilient for what comes next. It’s clear the government that created this predicament will not have the will, even if they have the resource, to pull us out of it, and there are four more years until an election with no guarantee it will give us the change we need.
That’s why it’s crucial we start talking to our neighbours and community groups and finding out what we all need to make our lives better. Then we need to work together to get it. As empowered, self-sufficient communities, we will have a stronger say in what we want from our society and our government. Then if and when catastrophic climate change takes place, it won’t be the end of the world – it’ll be the start of a new one.