Global civilisation as we have come to know it over the last few decades is finished. A combination of threats, from pandemic to cultural malaise to war to environmental disaster, are combining to erode the technologies, systems and arrangements necessary to maintain a global civilisation. It might not be obvious for a decade or two, but the great global project is over.
This collapse is not necessarily the end of humanity in the same way that the end of the Roman Empire was not the end of the people who called themselves Romans, but it might be. Some humans may be able to restructure their lives to live in some places if only at a lower level of security, comfort and ease, but most will not.
Global civilisation is only between 300 and 30 years old, depending on how you look at it. Its origins lie in the break out from northern Europe around the beginning of the sixteenth century when European sailors, soldiers, merchants and clergy left Europe in the hi-tech vessels of their day – wooden sailing ships – to discover, conquer and exploit the rest of the world. Around the end of the nineteenth century this growing politico-economic system jumped up to another level as new technologies and new financial innovations galvanised global trade. This system then took a serious knock with the occurrence of two world wars, but then took off anew thanks to technologies developed in the last of these wars, such as jet transport and computers. By the 1980s the digitisation of financial activity resulted in a new burst of activity, which ended in the financial crisis 2007-8. Since then the global economy has sputtered along, mainly kept going by the historically unprecedented rise of China. The globalisation of some other activities, such as culture and travel, continued apace, but there are signs that they are faltering as well.
The theory on big systems collapse suggests that they do not melt down to the lowest possible level but rather to the next level of organisation. Some states, the richest and most stable ones, may be able to exist for a while, mostly depending on how hard climate changes hit them. The poorer countries will feel the pressure immediately (indeed, some already are) and will soon enough collapse with the result of millions of deaths.
A couple of decades ago David Suzuki wrote that Canada and Australia would be the only developed nations to survive intact if global relations broke down because they had enough food resources. Australia has not fared so well since then under short-sighted governments, especially as climate change has hit it hard. Canada, of course shares a border with the US; maybe it will have to build a wall to keep desperate Americans out as things continue to decline. .
Whatever else happens the number of humans on this planet will plummet. Contemporary capitalism, with its goal of maximising immediate profits through ever increasing scale and complexity, has continued the high population growth of previous religious and then nationalist authorities. This rate is in decline, but will still likely peak at around nine billion or less. This growth rate cannot be sustained as the economy crashes, security at local, national and global levels declines, and basic food, water and health resources diminish.
As I write this piece the Corona virus is terrorizing the world and it is unclear how bad it will get. These animal-related diseases are always popping up, usually because some very poor people live too close to farm animals, and they are potentially devastating in their effect. So far we have been lucky, but sooner or later one will appear that combines high levels of lethality with high levels of contagion. The effects of global warming will only increase this exposure to disease as the tropical diseases head into the intermediate climate zones.
And speaking of global warming, this is but one of the environmental threats that might do for humanity. The collapse of species - from insects to fish – around the world is truly ominous, and we might suddenly find that we have wiped out a key species that we depend on.
We have done nothing about global warming since the threat became generally known in 1988. It may already be too late to prevent runaway warming and temperatures going up by four or more degrees by century's end. Now it would take an extraordinary effort to even make a dent in this rise and there are no signs that this is remotely likely.
And almost as dangerous as these catastrophes is the threat of mass violence, in particular the possible use of so-called weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear and biological arms. We survived the first nuclear arms race by the skin of our teeth, and now there is another one underway. Aside from specialised nuclear weapons developed by the Chinese to negate US strengths, such as their anti-carrier missiles, the Russians and the Americans are working on hyper-fast missiles. This is particularly concerning because such weapons erode the time available between launch and detonation. In the past global war was only avoided because there was time enough for humans to consider the apparent threat and make a reasoned decision (that is, not to retaliate). The main reasons the Soviet Union protested the introduction in the early 1980s of intermediate range Pershing missiles based in Europe was because they would eliminate this decision time and promote a shift to 'launch on warning'.
Furthermore, there are now more nuclear powers, some of whom, like India and Pakistan, are traditional enemies. Any nuclear explosion might launch all out war, and even a small war could start a nuclear winter which would kill billions of people through starvation.
There is another problem of an altogether different kind. A civilisation is made up not just from its material constituents – transport systems, communications systems, urban centres, military assets – but also by the way people within it live, in particular what we call its culture. For instance, the US claims to be a culture where individual rights, democracy and free enterprise are given top priority. Here I think the signs are almost all negative. China and Russia have showed how capitalism can thrive under authoritarian rule, while the West is faltering.