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Back to basics: averting global collapse

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 7 September 2007

A growing number of books are appearing that present a picture of global catastrophe if civilisation does not radically change. “Big picture” experts like Martin Rees, Jared Diamond and most recently Thomas Homer-Dixon warn of total collapse if things don’t change in a hurry.

These scientists are concerned with the basic material conditions of civilisation on Earth. They are not beholden to some ideological fashion but focused on the relationships between the core global systems, environmental, technological, economic and so on. It is this broad overview that allows them to see the emergent situation and cut through the daily commentary of all-too-often vested interests.

Their message is stark: things are coming to a head, and we must generate new ideas to deal with the new situation.


Ultimately it’s about the principles on which society operates. The great debates of modernity - revelation versus rationality, religion versus science, markets versus society, war versus negotiation, and so on - have been made largely redundant. The new debate, only just getting under way, is this: how can we live decently with suddenly too many people, too few resources and too much pollution?

The roots of the problem lie in our material success. In the last two centuries industrialisation, increasingly fuelled by ever cheaper fossil fuels, has generated unprecedented growth. This then brought about the invention of a raft of information technologies which stimulated a new round of development known as “globalisation”. Despite the evidence of world wars and global depression, governments and peoples began to believe never-ending economic growth was sustainable, and that all resources, human and material, should be turned to this purpose.

This belief was of course mistaken, and now we face the reality. There are material limits to growth, and we must think up a new set of ideas to run our global civilisation.

At the core of our dilemma is a very simple problem which we have created for ourselves. We are in a race with ourselves, and our own creations, which we can only lose. As things stand we are in a self-built treadmill in which we can only go ever faster until the whole thing flies apart.

We started this race around ten millennia ago by maintaining a higher population growth than could be supported by prevailing material conditions. For hundreds of thousands of years we had lived within our natural limits, but something changed that. In forcing ourselves to develop ever more material bounty, we strapped ourselves into the treadmill, going ever faster as we try to keep ahead.

Most simply, more mouths meant the need for more food, the great Malthusian dilemma. Our first response was the invention of agriculture, which led to urbanisation and eventually civilisation. This led to organised social competition, and then competition between political entities, originally city-states and empires. This competition is at the essence of what we call politics and of war.


Politics and war kept the treadmill rolling, the hope of final peace, final security, final prosperity always just ahead. Generation after generation passed, prisoner to this dream, never facing the fact that concentrated wealth and power only generated the forces that would destroy them.

Eventually, with industrialisation, civilisation became so materially powerful it needed a more effective means of controlling the utilisation of natural resources to social purpose. Capitalism, the combination of open trading, or markets, and a common currency enabled rapid expansion of the productive capacities of civilisation.

One big problem with capitalism was that it made competition systemic. Capitalism made it impossible to rest, to simply operate at a stable state, because built into capitalism was the profit imperative. The profit imperative meant that if a business did not make as much profit as another, it would eventually fail. This logic reached its limits in the unrestricted global financial system that came to connect every person on the planet through 24-hour global currency and securities trading networks.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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