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Sustainability or Collapse?

An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth

The MIT Press, pp. 495, 2007, Edited by Robert Costanza, Lisa J. Graumlich, and Will Steffen,
ISBN -13: 978-0-262-03366-4 (hardcover : alk. paper), ISBN -10: 0-262-03366-6 (hardcover : alk. paper)

This book deals with what has been called the ‘Anthropocene era’ during which there has been a gradual but accelerating switch from a nature-dominated to a human-dominated global system as technology, that is mainly the development of mechanisms to use non-human energy, has been the main mediator between individual societies and their respective environments. The title could very well have been ‘Collapse, Not Sustainability’ as the authors have not described any societies that have achieved long term sustainability during the last 10,000 years.

The contributions are by interdisciplinary teams at the 96th Dahlem Workshop on Integrated History and Future Of People on Earth (IHOPE) in Berlin, June 12-17, 2005. The term ‘systems’ is prevalent in this text. Analysis of the interaction of humans with their environment, by the various teams, is organized chronologically into sections beginning with the period before the advent of agriculture and ending with possible future scenarios. The change in the human – nature relationship is documented as stable populations of hunter-gatherers transitioned to complex agricultural societies that expanded to the extent that they damaged the ecosystem services that were essential for their survival. The escalating demands on the limits of ecosystem carrying capacity, by hierarchical social structures in which the ratio of non productive elites to food producing commoners and slaves increases, is a repeating theme in a number of the reports.

The chapter contributors generally have a systems analysis orientation as they discuss the influences of social organization on the interplay between specific human populations and the ecosystems they have exploited. Some chapters discuss very recent events such as the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane Katrina which is seen as a consequence of social deterioration as opposed to the result of climate change.

The most rapid and dramatic ecological transformations documented in the book may be the new vegetation / fire / animal species assemblage complex that was produced by the arrival of humans in Australia 46,000 years ago, and later the shift from meat eating to seed eating that appears to have been precipitated by the introduction of predatory dingoes about 4,000 years ago.

Recognizing humanity as the current dominant factor in the ecological dynamics on the planet, some of the group chapters attempt to forecast future scenarios of and options for the operation of the nature – civilization complex. There is a general premise that attempts to create a sustainable future depend on a comprehension of the elements that led to collapsed civilizations in the past.

The group examining millennial scale dynamics deals with both the dry-cool period beginning 4000 years ago and the dry-warm period beginning 1400 years ago as these shifts changed the social and economic dynamics of various civilizations on the planet. Climate change is also central to the deliberations of the group concerned with centennial scale dynamics as they examine the effects of the end of the Medieval Warm Period and the beginning of the Little Ice Age that wrecked havoc on various population groups starting in the mid 1300s. The "Great Acceleration" in the mounting influence of increasingly complex societies on their environments, facilitated by the temporary removal of historically tight energy availability limits as a result of access to and increasing use of non renewable fossil fuels, is one of the primary preoccupations of the group that concentrates on decadal scale dynamics. Increases in agricultural productivity are understood to be a prerequisite for the population growth. Finally there is a concerted effort to use historical evidence to model plausible future scenarios for the successful functioning of complex socioecological systems in the context of current human numbers.

There is general recognition throughout the text that as natural systems are simplified by increasingly complex societies to produce goods and services, these ecosystems are destabilized and carrying capacity is reduced. Compromised ecosystem resilience by exploitation to the limits of carrying capacity, for the production of population and economic growth, is observed to increase the likelihood of civilization collapse, especially as a result of perturbations caused by climate change. One example, of environmental change providing a ‘tipping point’ for an expansionist and increasingly complex bureaucratic society, is demonstrated by the importance of climate cooling on the final collapse of the Roman Empire. Evidence is presented that the collective inability of human societies to remember the privations of past leads them to rapidly expand exploitation levels when opportunities are presented by historically uncharacteristically favourable conditions. During the inevitable subsequent periods of agricultural productivity decline, urban areas are shown to be so vulnerable that they are sometimes completely abandoned. Measures that forgo maximization of resource use in order to reduce risk and increase resilience against episodes of future scarcity are shown to be viewed as "illogical" in the all important short term. The decadal group report suggests that during the 20th century "anything short of maximization of economic growth came to be seen as a form of lunacy or treason", while population, energy use, the global economy and industrial production grew 4, 13, 14 and 40 fold respectively.

In spite of the historical evidence presented that human societies consistently expand to overshoot the carrying capacities of their environments and collapse, many of the contributors appear guardedly optimistic that mathematical simulation modeling will provide keys to understanding and reducing the damage caused by human-environment interactions and the development of rational self-regulation. The centennial group report states "Theoretically, there will be opportunities to get out of the [socioecological] feedback loops that are currently destroying the environment." There are references by many of the groups to agricultural intensification causing nutrient depletion and physical destruction of soils that result in decreased carrying capacity and population collapse. None of the groups acknowledge that all agriculture is based on the replacement of plant nutrients that are lost through leaching when the diverse, self managing, nutrient conservative plant communities on virgin forest and prairie soils are extirpated by plowing so as to establish simpler food crop assemblages. The looming exhaustion of the fossil fuels that has allowed modern societies to augment depleted soils with mined and manufactured (nitrogen since 1913) exogenous nutrients, in order to maintain agricultural productivity, is seen by this reviewer as an insurmountable barrier to food production in amounts required to sustain even a small fraction of the existing (and still growing) world population into the future. The group dealing with Future Scenarios states that "Even when a collapse is known to be imminent, it often can not be controlled, and recovery cannot occur until considerable reconfiguration and downsizing has taken place."

Review from Peter Salonius,
Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre,
P.O. Box 4000, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada E3B 5P7,
Phone (506) 452-3548 email psaloniu @ nrcan . gc . ca

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