In the last decade, there have been a number of books written on Collapse. These include:

Catastrophe: Risk and Response by Richard A. Posner, American jurist, legal theorist, and economist, Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and the most cited legal scholar of the 20th century

Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond, by Martin Rees, British cosmologist and astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, past President of the Royal Society of London

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, American scientist and author, Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles

The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We can Still Save Humanity, by James Lovelock, British scientist, environmentalist and futurologist, best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, by James Howard Kunstler, American author, lecturer and social critic, former staff writer for Rolling Stone

Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, by Michael T. Klare, Five Colleges professor of Peace and World Security Studies, defense correspondent of The Nation magazine, and on the boards of directors of Human Rights Watch and the Arms Control Association

The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Global Catastrophe, by Colin Mason, New Zealand-born Australian journalist, author, diplomat and historian, first foreign correspondent of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Another sobering book is The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by Gus Speth.

James Gustave (Gus) Speth (born 1942) is an American environmental lawyer and advocate.

He graduated summa cum laude from Yale University in 1964, attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from Yale Law School, where he was a member of the Yale Law Journal, in 1969. He served in 1969 and 1970 as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black.

Speth was a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he served as senior attorney from 1970 to 1977.

He served from 1977 to 1981 as a member and then for two years as Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President. As Jimmy Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality Chairman, he was a principal adviser on matters affecting the environment and had overall responsibility for developing and coordinating the President’s environmental program. In 1981 and 1982 he was Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, teaching environmental and constitutional law.

In 1982, he founded the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank, and served as its president until January 1993. He was a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton’s transition team, heading the group that examined the U.S. role in natural resources, energy and the environment.

Gus Speth

In 1991, he chaired a U.S. task force on international development and environmental security which produced the report Partnership for Sustainable Development: A New U.S. Agenda.

In 1990 he led the Western Hemisphere Dialogue on Environment and Development which produced the report Compact for a New World.

From 1993 to 1999, he served as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, served as Special Coordinator for Economic and Social Affairs under Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and also served as Chair of the United Nations Development Group.

In 1999, he became the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. He served the school as the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean and Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy. He retired from Yale in 2009 to assume a professorship at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.

Gus Speth refers to the books listed above:

Each of these authors sees the world on a path to some type of collapse, catastrophe, or breakdown, and they each see climate change and other environmental crises as leading ingredients of a devil’s brew that also includes peak oil and other energy problems, economic and political instabilities, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the risks of various twenty-first century technologies, and similar threats. Some think a bright future is still possible if we change our ways in time; others see a new dark ages as the likely outcome. For Martin Rees, the odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilization on earth will survive to the end of the present century.

The introduction to his book is titled: Between Two Worlds.

These graphs reveal the story of humanity’s impact on the natural earth. The pattern is clear: each one of these images looks like an enormous wave crashing against the future like a tsunami – the Great Collision. Unlike the 2011 tsunami that wreaked such havoc on Japan, including its most advanced energy technology, or the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy which inflicted record-shattering damage on New York City in 2012,  this tsunami is global and of much greater proportion.

Speth reflects on this impending disaster, its root causes and what we might do to at least attempt to reduce its impact on our children and grandchildren.

Again, from his introduction:

For all the material blessings economic progress has provided, for all the disease and destitution avoided, for all the glories that shine in the best of our civilization, the costs to the natural world, the costs to the glories of nature, have been huge and must be counted in the balance as a tragic loss.

Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second. About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. An estimated 90% of the large predator fish are gone, and 75% of marine fisheries are now over-fished or fished to capacity. Twenty percent of the corals are gone, and another 20% severely threatened. Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Over half the agricultural land in drier regions suffers from some degree of deterioration and desertification. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.

Human activities have pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide up by more than a third and have started in earnest the dangerous process of warming the planet and disrupting the climate. Industrial processes are fixing nitrogen, making it biologically active, at a rate equal to nature’s and one result is the development of more than two hundred dead zones in the oceans due to over-fertilization. Human activity already consumes or destroys about 40% of nature’s photosynthetic output, leaving too little for other species. Freshwater withdrawals doubled globally between 1960 and 2000, and are now over half of accessible runoff. The following rivers no longer reach the ocean in the dry season: the Colorado, Yellow, Ganges, and Nile, among others.

Societies are now traveling together in the midst of this unfolding calamity down a path that links two worlds. Behind is the world we have lost, ahead the world we are making. Human societies are moving, rapidly now, between the two worlds. The movement began slowly, but now we are hurtling toward the world directly ahead. The old world, nature’s world, continues of course, but we are steadily closing it down, roping it off. It flourishes in our art and literature and in our imaginations. But it is disappearing.

In the year 1000, there were only about 270 million people on earth – fewer than today’s US population. Global economic output was only about $120 billion. Eight hundred years later, the man-made world was still small. By 1820, populations had risen to about a billion people with an output of only a $690 billion. Over this eight hundred years, per capita income increased by only a couple of hundred dollars a year. But shortly thereafter, the take-off began. By 2000, populations had swelled by an additional five billion, and economic output had grown to exceed $40 trillion. The acceleration continues. The size of the world economy doubled since 1960, and then doubled again. World economic activity is projected to quadruple again by mid-century.

Historian J. R. McNeill has stressed the phenomenal expansion of human enterprise in the twentieth century. It was the twentieth century, and especially since WWII, that human society truly left the moorings of its past and launched itself on the planet with unprecedented force. McNeill observes that this exponential century “shattered the constraints and rough stability of old economic, demographic and energy regimes”.

Physicists have a precise concept of momentum. To them, momentum is mass times velocity, and velocity is not just speed but also direction. Today, the world economy has gathered tremendous momentum – it is both huge in size and growing fast. But what is its direction?

The escalating processes of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification that continue despite decades of warning and earnest efforts constitute a severe indictment. The underlying drivers of today’s environmental deterioration range from immediate forces like the enormous growth in human population and the dominant technologies deployed in the economy, to deeper ones like the values that shape our behavior and determine what we consider important in life. Most basically, we know that environmental deterioration is driven by the economic activity of human beings.

About half of today’s population lives in abject poverty or close to it, with per capita incomes of less than two dollars a day. The struggle of the poor to survive creates environmental impacts where the poor themselves are often the primary victims. But the much larger and more threatening impacts stem from the economic activity of those of us participating in the modern, increasingly prosperous, world economy. This activity is consuming vast quantities of resources from the environment and returning to the environment vast quantities of waste products. The damages are already huge and are on a path to be ruinous in the future.

So a fundamental question facing societies today – perhaps the fundamental question – is how can the operating instructions for the modern world economy be changed so that economic activity both protects and restores the natural world?

With increasingly few exceptions, modern capitalism is the operating system of the world economy. Capitalism as we know it today encompasses the core economic concepts of private employers hiring workers to produce products and services that the employers own and then sell with the intention of making a profit. But it also includes competitive markets, the price mechanism, the modern corporation as its principle institution, the consumer society and the materialistic values that sustain it, and the administrative state actively promoting economic strength and growth. The inherent dynamics of capitalism is a powerful drive to earn profits, invest them, innovate, and thus grow the economy, typically at exponential rates.

These features of capitalism, as they are constituted today, work together to produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive of the environment. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at almost any cost; enormous investment in technologies designed with little regard for the environment; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by a worshipping of novelty and by sophisticated advertising; economic activity so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical  operations of the planet – all combine to deliver an every-growing world economy that is undermining the planet’s ability to sustain life.


Ironically, studies have demonstrated that, beyond an optimum point of financial subsistence, people don’t get happier with further economic growth.

When a nation’s GDP rises above $10,000 per capita there is no relationship between GDP and happiness. For a reference point, in the United States our GDP per capita rose above this $10k point in the 1960s and is currently around $50k per capita. The reality is that despite a five-fold increase in personal wealth, people as a whole, are no more happy today than they were in the 1970s.

Happiness is to a large extent associated with seven factors:

  1. family relationships
  2. one’s relative financial situation
  3. the meaningfulness of one’s work
  4. ties to one’s community and friends
  5. health
  6. personal freedom
  7. personal values

Speth notes that “except for health and relative income, they are all concerned with the quality of our relationships“. We clearly know that people need deeply connected and meaningful social relationships. Yet we are living increasingly disconnected and transient lifestyles where we relentlessly pursue increasing affluence all the while putting distance between us and what we truly need to be happy.  We are on that hedonic treadmill convinced that happiness comes from material possessions, all the while neglecting the social bonds that truly fulfill us.

Speth quotes Psychologist David Meyers who wrote about this American Paradox. At the beginning of the twenty-first century he observed that Americans found themselves

“with big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility. We were excelling at making a living but too often failing at making a life. We celebrated our prosperity but yearned for purpose. We cherished our freedom but longed for connection. In an age of plenty, we were feeling spiritual hunger. These facts of life lead us to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically.”

To paraphrase Speth: A fundamental question facing societies today – perhaps the fundamental question – is how can the operating instructions for the modern world economy and the modern world culture (our paradigm) be changed so that economic activity serves real human needs while at the same time protecting and restoring the earth that we share with millions of other species and that we have borrowed from our grandchildren?


 may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes


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