That grim, much-derided prediction of impending apocalypse that has provided satirical grist to many a cartoonist’s mill – so often depicting an unkempt, placard-carrying vagrant picketing the street – was last month elevated to the status of rocket science. Literally. Research funded by no less hallowed an institution as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has predicted that our civilisation is in terminal decline. Not many of us will be around to welcome the dawn of the next century, apparently.
The way we have been destroying our environment over the past couple of centuries and the way climate change – man made or not – is ravaging us, we don’t need a rocket scientist to tell us that we’re all heading for trouble. Big trouble. But when an organisation like NASA, full of rocket scientists besides other nerdy, brainy sorts, gets associated with what claims to be a serious study proposing that we’re all doomed, the world does take notice.
The study draws parallels between several past civilisations that declined and disappeared, some of them mysteriously, many of them for good reasons – and compares them with the challenges that our civilisation finds itself confronting. Again, most of the findings are more common sense than rocket science: too many people chasing dwindling resources, the widening gap between the haves and have-nots upsetting the social status quo leading to war, disease, chaos and ultimately, decimation.
Instances of past civilisations going down the tube are legion. From the highly progressive Nabta Playa people who disappeared in about 6000 BCE around what is now Egypt, through the great Indus Valley civilisation (India/Pakistan/Afghanistan) that is believed to have gone to seed around 1900 BCE to the Khmers (in today’s Cambodia) and the Incas (in modern Peru) well into the Christian era, history is littered with vanished civilisations. The list is endless: Romans, Guptas, Mesopotamians, Mauryas, Han….
Nearer home in the Pacific, we have the lost Nan Madol civilisation in Pohnpei, Micronesia, the vanished people who built the giant Pulemelei stone structure on the island of Savai’i in Samoa and of course the much written about disappearance of the great stone statue erectors of Rapa Nui or Easter Island. These sites and stories have been the subject of countless books, novels, films and television shows and have inspired dozens of Hollywood blockbusters – all feeding the insatiable human appetite for conspiracy theories ranging from alien abductions to simply mysterious disappearances.
According to the NASA funded study, many civilisations declined and disappeared because they became unsustainable – ecologically, economically and socially. As resources became scarcer, the top echelons of society cornered and hoarded them because of their wealth and power over the lower rungs of the masses. It was only a question of time when the deprived hoi polloi became restive and violently militant upsetting societal equilibrium. That inevitably resulted in warfare, undermining of the law and order system, breakdown of the social code, eventually spiraling out of control into complete chaos.
However, there is one big difference between all these civilisations of the past that declined and disappeared and our own modern one. While these past societies were separated by vast swathes of both eras and geographical distances, our present civilisation has grown to become a global one and seemingly seamless, encompassing the entire planet. Thanks to communications technology, the world today is more connected than at any time before in the history of mankind. Besides, every other field of technology has progressed in the past 100 years enough to make our world look as if it is completely integrated.
So is this one important difference between our own civilisation and the ones that disappeared before our times enough for us to assume that we will not follow them into the abyss of forgotten histories and survive forever? Is our civilisation safe because it is so widespread and appears so well integrated globally? Will our mastery over technology and the fabulous promise of new discoveries being made in so many critical fields affecting us all over the next few decades insulate us from terminal decline?
While it is tempting to argue that our civilisation is indeed different from those before us because of its wide spread and all these scientific and technological achievements, we must note that we have failed to address the three main reasons that the researchers say why civilisations disappear – over population, the decline of sustainable practices and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.
Despite all our so-called economic progress, income gaps have continually widened in much of the world and we have been living well beyond our means as far as resources go for several decades now. Even more crucially, in the pursuit of “better” living standards, we have not only dug deep into the earth and plumbed the depths of the oceans for natural resources but have also polluted our ecosystems unsustainably. Many scientists believe we have already reached the point of no return as far as environmental degradation goes.
Exponential population growth, dwindling resources and the simultaneous drive to improve living standards fuelling consumption is the very cocktail of circumstances that killed civilisations in the past. It has nothing to do with the size and extent of civilisations. It is all about sustainability – learning to live within one’s means.
Unfortunately, our diehard capitalistic civilisation’s yardstick measures success the other way: it’s more about growth, greater production and greater consumption leading, of course, to greater profits. The realisation that all this comes at an unsustainable cost – dwindling, irreplaceable resources that ultimately tip natural systems out of kilter – is willfully glossed over. As long as the only yardstick of capitalistic success remains pure and simple “growth” of statistical things like GDP and stock market indices, the relentless plunder of natural resources and the pollution of the environment will continue unabated.
And the non-inclusiveness that is ever so subtly built into the capitalistic system will ensure that the rich will get richer and the poor poorer. Small wonder, then, that the total food wasted at the consumption stage in developed countries is equal to the total food production of the poorest countries in Africa: one billion go to bed hungry each night.
As the study points out, the signs that we too will join the vanished civilisations are all there: overweening greed and excessive exploitation and consumption on the one hand, and exploding populations, social exclusion and environmental degradation on the other.
Maybe there’s a conspiracy theory here somewhere. The rocket scientists at NASA perhaps funded this study to strengthen their case for their métier – interplanetary travel: set up colonies on the moon, Mars or further afield now that civilisation on Planet Earth seems doomed. What an opportunity to begin civilisation all over again on a clean slate on a new planet….
Never underestimate rocket scientists!
First appeared in the April issue of Islands Business magazine.