• John Ikerd

Is a Civilizational Collapse Inevitable?

Updated: Sep 1, 2019

Over the past few months, I have heard and read several urgent warnings of an impending civilizational collapse from highly respected voices in the sustainability movement.


Their concerns tend to focus on climate change, but environmental degradation, fossil energy depletion, loss of biodiversity, and growing social and economic inequity are other commonly cited symptoms of a civilizational crisis. These modern-day prophets seem to agree that a preoccupation with economic growth is the root cause of this crisis and furthermore is an inevitable evolutionary consequence of human life on earth. They see little hope for avoiding a collapse in human civilization and no certainty of human survival.


I agree that we are confronted with a civilizational crisis, but I have not given up hope. I simply don’t believe we can predict the future of humanity or the earth with any degree of certainty. I don’t believe a collapse of human civilization is inevitable. I agree that if we don’t respond quickly to the current ecological and societal crises, human civilization as we know it will almost certainly collapse. While the evolution of living systems may be inevitable, including natural ecosystems, human societies, and food systems, there is no assurance that the timing or magnitude of past cyclical changes will be repeated in the future. Living systems are incredibly complex, interconnected networks that are continually changing and evolving over time.


All systems, living and nonliving, may be characterized by pattern, structure, and process. While the basic patterns of change in living systems may be predictable, their evolving structures and processes are not. Living and nonliving systems are fundamentally different. The pattern of a nonliving system is the blueprint or plan for construction or development. The pattern of a living system is encoded in the genetic code or basic principles that guide its development. The structure of both nonliving and living systems are the physical manifestations of their patterns—a nonliving building or machine; a living body or organism. The defining difference between nonliving and living systems is found in their processes—the means by which they function, produce, or fulfill their purpose.


During the process of production, nonliving systems eventually wear out or become obsolete and must be redesigned and rebuilt or remade. However, living systems continually renew, reproduce, redesign, and replace themselves in their process of production. Life is a “self-making” process. The basic pattern of living and nonliving systems remain unchanged, but the structures or physical materialization of living systems are continually changing. A mature adult has the same DNA as at birth, but the physical body and its ability to function have materially changed. While the process of human development follows a predictable pattern, the specific characteristics and capacities of the adult, even its survival, is inherently unpredictable.


Living organisms not only remake themselves but also collectively remake their environments. They also evolve from generation to generation to accommodate the new environments they help create. The unchanging patterns or guiding principles of living systems reflect the basic patterns of directional, cyclical, and evolutionary change. However, the timing and magnitude of structural changes in living systems, including evolutionary changes, are virtually impossible to predict. In other words, while we know that we humans function according to principles that distinguish us as uniquely human, we cannot predict precisely how we individually will respond to given situations or how human civilization will evolve.


We humans obviously have greatly accelerated the natural evolutionary processes of species extinction, environmental pollution, fossil energy depletion, and global climate change that now threaten not only the future of humanity but the livability of planet Earth. It seems reasonable that we humans could just as effectively accelerate a “great turning” and the creation of new patterns, structures, and processes necessary to heal the earth. We might also learn to cope with environmental modification—but not an ecological collapse. We have the capacity to learn from past failures, reverse course, and use our uniquely human powers of intentionality and agency to assist nature in its evolutionary reversal—if we have the wisdom to do so.


In other words, I believe it is still possible to avoid the evolutionary collapse in human civilization. The call for purposeful, intentional, meaningful change is made even more urgent by the possibility that the impending collapse in human civilization can be averted. And if we fail to prevent it, we can still build sustainable local food system and sustainable local economies and communities to carry the remnants of civilization through the great turning to the new civilization. However, neither avoidance nor survival of a collapse is possible without revolutionary change.


Revolutionary change means a fundamental change in pattern—in the basic plan, blueprint, genetic code, or set of guiding principles. Revolution begins by the realization that the current system—be it economic, social, or civilizational— cannot be fixed by repair, renovation, or redesign. This means we must be willing to rethink purpose as well as pattern. In the absence of purpose, there is no means of choosing an appropriate pattern or set of principles to guide the creation of a new social and economic structure. I believe the fundamental cause of the impending civilizational collapse is that industrial societies have lost their sense of purpose.


People in industrial nations take pride in their reliance on logic, reason, and “sound science.” However, so-called modern science denies the existence of purpose—at least in any sense other than the blind unfolding of inevitable physical, chemical, and biological processes set in motion by the creation of the universe. The existence of purpose cannot be proven by the “scientific method” of observation, measurement, replication, and verification. “If it can’t be proven, it doesn’t exist.” However, this denial of purpose does not match the reality of human experience. Without purpose, life simply makes no sense.


If there were no purpose for our lives, it really wouldn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. Any choice would be equally right or wrong and good or bad. In fact, a strict interpretation of modern science also denies the existence of human intentionality or agency. There would be no basis for conscious, purposeful choices nor the free-will or ability to follow through with such choices. Our lives would be predetermined by the systematic unfolding of mechanical, chemical, and biological processes. We would simply be biological robots marching helplessly through an evolutionary process toward an inevitable state of uselessness and lifelessness, as the universe tends inevitably toward an inert state of entropy.


The recognition of purpose acknowledges the ability of humans to form logical intentions and to make choices that have positive or negative influences on the future. Through collective intentionality and agency, we humans can influence the cyclical evolution of the living and nonliving elements of the earth’s ecosystems, including our own human societies and economies. The acceptance of purpose acknowledges that what we choose to do or don’t do matters, that our lives have meaning. No one seriously questions the material benefits and betterment that the scientific method and science in general have brought to humanity. It has brought modern civilization to humanity. However in the civilization of the future, science must be guided to serve the purpose of humanity, rather than allowing humanity to be guided by a purposeless science.


So this brings us to the ultimate question: What is the purpose of life. No one actually knows, at least not for sure. Purpose is always determined at higher levels of organization, and the purpose of human life obviously comes from beyond the realm of scientific observation, measurement, or proof. We can only sense purpose through the spiritual dimension of our being. So we must also relearn that we are “spiritual beings.” The spiritual dimension of self gives us the moral sense of purpose needed to form intentions to carry out the actions consistent with our purpose. Obviously, economic or material well-being is a necessity of life, but we are also social and moral beings. The challenge to humanity in this time of crisis is to return to our physical, social, and spiritual roots—to again become fully human.


I think the ultimate purpose of human life on earth might best be described as love.  The most general definition of love is “a belief in the inherent goodness”—of a person, place, thing, or even an abstract concept, such as God. Love doesn’t require proof; it’s a matter of belief—of faith. The act of loving is an expression of this belief through acts intended to be in the best interest of the object of affection. Collective acts of love nudge humanity and the universe in the direction of goodness. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This means the evolution of the universe ultimately tends toward goodness, toward love. If there is any moral justification for concern about sustaining human life on earth, or surviving a civilizational collapse, then the purpose of humanity, individually and collectively, must be to love and be loved.


John Ikerd

© 2019 by John Ikerd All Rights Reserved

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