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Collapseology: why this should be shaping Australian public policy

By Fiona Heinrichs - posted Tuesday, 21 June 2011

In recent times there has been an emergence of a genre of research theory that could be called collapseology. Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (2005), Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside and Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilisation (2006) and Graeme Taylor’s Evolution’s Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transformation of Our World (2008) are three of many books seeing the likelihood of a collapse of modern civilisation based upon a business-as-usual use of resources and continuous economic growth.

The cover story edition of New Scientist (5 April, 2008), ‘The Collapse of Civilisation: It’s more precarious than we realised’, discussed the work of a number of leading thinkers who believe that a breakdown of modern civilisation could occur because of technological systems becoming so complex that they reach ‘critical dimensions of instability’ and then collapse or slowly disintegrate. Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist at the University of Utah, and the author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) believes that complex societies – including our own – can collapse in a matter of decades because of diminishing returns from increased complexity.

Human societies are problem-solving organisations, which require energy to be maintained. As complexity increases, so too does the costs per capita. Hence, further social investment in complexity may reach a point of declining marginal returns. Over time, returns fall and costs rise and social resilience decreases. Threats and challenges may therefore overwhelm society. Environmental threats and challenges are one such force.


The Global Footprint Network has calculated that humanity’s demand on the ecological services of the Earth is now such that it would take 1.4 Earth’s to ‘generate all the resources humanity consumes and absorb all our CO2 emissions’. An ecological overshoot has occurred, such that it now takes 17-18 months for the Earth to regenerate what is used in 12 months: ‘The urgent threats we are facing today – most notably climate change, but also biodiversity loss, shrinking forests, declining fisheries and freshwater stress – are symptoms of this trend.’ The Global Footprint Network rejects the idea that this is merely a consumption problem and that population growth does not have an environmental impact.

The idea that the world has reached critical limits is also seen in many scientifically respectable reports including the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being (2005), the United Nation’s Environment Programme, Global Environment Outlook 4 (GEO4) (2007) and the Fifth Report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, Up in Smoke? Asia and the Pacific (2007). According to this last report, an increase of only 1°C during the rice growing season would reduce Asia’s rice yields by 10 per cent: ‘In a region whose population is still rising, if the ability to grow food is weakened by climate change, the health and livelihoods of millions of people will be at risk.’ The CSIRO Report, Climate Change in the Asia Pacific Region (2006) also predicts that if a 2-4°C rise in the average global temperature occurs in the 21st century there will be ‘devastating’ environmental and economic impacts upon Asia, especially with respect to water stress and food security.

There is now a considerable body of research voicing concern about water stress and coming ‘water wars’ (‘peak water’); the possibility of all of the world’s top soil vanishing in as little as 60 years (‘peak soil’) and ‘peak food’, with the prospects of food prices increasing by 40 per cent in the next decade and fishless oceans by 2050 on a business-as-usual scenario. This environmental decline is occurring while human populations continue to surge. In this context, and in light of threats posed from ‘peak oil’ and global climate change, the remarks made by prominent Australian businessman and environmentalist, Dick Smith that ‘in 100 years time people in Australia will be starving to death’ is not implausible.

The prospect of collapse of the wider global framework puts the Australian immigration and population debate in a new perspective and challenges unquestioned assumptions. The idea that Australia is part of a global environmental crisis slipped through the cracks of the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Tony Burke’s Sustainable Australia – Sustainable Communities: A Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia. Instead of setting immigration targets, we are treated to ‘motherhood policies’ such as a national urban policy to create more liveablecities without an examination of whether under aggravated population growth this is possible at all. That was what the inquiry was supposed to do.

In my e-book, Sleepwalking to Catastrophe I argue that Australia, like the rest of the world, is failing to come to grips with the reality of the environmental crisis and instead continues with business-as-usual. As Clive Hamilton in Requiem for a Species (2010) observes, by default we are setting humanity on course to a type of future depicted in The Road, a Hobbesian world where those that survive are at war against all.


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About the Author

Fiona’s interests lie in climate change, peak oil and population growth. These issues motivated her to write the book: Sleepwalking to Catastrophe. Tackling the vexed issue of youth unemployment, her latest work is: GUTTED! Youth Unemployment in Australia. Both are available online at

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