The religion and the environmentalism of the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something they do not really wish to destroy. We all live by robbing nature, but our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue.

We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and each other. It is either that or continue to think and talk about changes that we are inviting catastrophe to make.

– Wendell Berry, What Are People For?, 1990

Bibliography of Collapse

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (1980) by William Robert Catton, Jr., professor emeritus of Sociology, wild land resource researcher, and first chair of the American Sociological Association Section on Environmental Sociology

The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) by Joseph A. Tainter, American anthropologist and historian.

Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (2002), 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 (2003), by Colin Mason, New Zealand-born Australian journalist, author, diplomat and historian, first foreign correspondent of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond (2004), by Martin Rees, British cosmologist and astrophysicist, Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, past President of the Royal Society of London

A Short History of Progress (2004), and What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (2008) by Ronald Wright, Canadian prize-winning author with a background in archaeology, history, linguistics, anthropology and comparative culture, who gave the 2004 Massey Lectures in Canada upon which these books are based.

Catastrophe: Risk and Response (2005) 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

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2005), by James Howard Kunstler, American author, lecturer and social critic, former staff writer for Rolling Stone

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), 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 (2006) and The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2010), by James Lovelock, British scientist, environmentalist and futurologist, best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis

The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2009), by Gus Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality for Jimmy Carter, Professor of environmental and constitutional law at Georgetown University; founder of the World Resources Institute, senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton’s transition team, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and Chair of the United Nations Development Group, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University and Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy, professor at Vermont (Environmental) Law School

Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (2010), by Spencer Wells, world-renowned geneticist and anthropologist, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Professor at Cornell University, and director of The Genographic Project, with a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University, a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University and a research fellowship at Oxford University.


Descriptions & Summaries:

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (1980), by William Robert Catton, Jr.

The core message in Overshoot is that, “… our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load… That carrying capacity surplus is gone now, eroded both by population increase and immense technological enlargement of per capita resource appetites and environmental impacts. Human life is now being lived in an era of deepening carrying capacity deficit.” (William Catton, A Retrospective View of My development as an Environmental Sociologist)

“Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future [by way of] diachronic competition, a relationship whereby contemporary well-being is achieved at the expense of our descendants. By our sheer numbers, by the state of our technological development, and by being oblivious to differences between a method that achieved lasting increments of human carrying capacity [viz. agriculture] and one that achieves only temporary supplements [i.e. reliance on fossil fuels and other mined substances], we have made satisfaction of today’s human aspirations dependent upon massive deprivation for posterity.”


The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) by Joseph A. Tainter

Tainter examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations, and of the Western Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory. Tainter argues that sustainability or collapse of societies follow from the success or failure of problem-solving institutions and that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their “energy subsidies” reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society rapidly sheds a significant portion of its complexity. He describes three highways to disaster: the Runaway Train (out-of-control problems), the Dinosaur (indifference to dangers), and the House of Cards (irreversible disintegration).  He predicts that the next collapse would be global in scale.

Social complexity

According to Tainter, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can be recognized by numerous differentiated and specialized social and economic roles and many mechanisms through which they are coordinated, and by reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth).

When a society confronts a “problem”, such as a shortage of energy, or difficulty in gaining access to it, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge. Tainter applies his model to three case studies: The Western Roman Empire, the Maya civilization, and the Chaco culture.

For example, as Roman agricultural output slowly declined and population increased, per-capita energy availability dropped. The Romans “solved” this problem by conquering their neighbors to appropriate their energy surpluses (in concrete forms as metals, grain, slaves, etc.). However, as the Empire grew, the cost of maintaining communications, garrisons, civil government, etc. grew with it. Eventually, this cost grew so great that any new challenges such as invasions and crop failures could not be solved by the acquisition of more territory.

Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion by Domitian and Constantine the Great only led to an ever greater strain on the population. The empire was split into two halves, of which the western soon fragmented into smaller units. The eastern half, being wealthier, was able to survive longer, and did not collapse but instead succumbed slowly and piecemeal, because unlike the western empire it had powerful neighbors able to take advantage of its weakness.

It is often assumed that the collapse of the western Roman Empire was a catastrophe for everyone involved. Tainter points out that it can be seen as a very rational preference of individuals at the time, many of whom were actually better off. Archeological evidence from human bones indicates that average nutrition actually improved after the collapse in many parts of the former Roman Empire. Average individuals may have benefited because they no longer had to invest in the burdensome complexity of empire. Tainter notes that in the west, local populations in many cases greeted the barbarians as liberators.

Diminishing returns

Tainter begins by categorizing and examining the often inconsistent explanations that have been offered for collapse in the literature. In Tainter’s view, while invasions, crop failures, disease or environmental degradation may be the apparent causes of societal collapse, the ultimate cause is an economic one, inherent in the structure of society rather than in external shocks which may batter them: diminishing returns on investments in social complexity.

For contrast, Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, focuses on environmental mismanagement as a cause of collapse. Finally, Tainter musters modern statistics to show that marginal returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovation are diminishing today. The globalized modern world is subject to many of the same stresses that brought older societies to ruin.

However, Tainter is not entirely apocalyptic: “When some new input to an economic system is brought on line, whether a technical innovation or an energy subsidy, it will often have the potential at least temporarily to raise marginal productivity.” Thus, barring continual conquest of your neighbors (which is always subject to diminishing returns), innovation that increases productivity is – in the long run – the only way out of the dismal science dilemma of declining marginal returns on added investments in complexity.

And, in his final chapters, Tainter discusses why modern societies may not be able to choose to collapse: because surrounding them are other complex societies which will in some way absorb a collapsed region or prevent a general collapse; the Mayan and Chaocan regions had no powerful complex neighbors and so could collapse for centuries or millennia, as could the Western Roman Empire – but the Eastern Roman Empire, bordered as it was by the Parthian/Sassanid Empire, did not have the option of devolving into simpler smaller entities.

His paper “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies” (1996) focuses on the energy cost of problem solving, and the energy-complexity relation in manmade systems.


Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (2002), by Michael T. Klare

From the oilfields of Saudi Arabia to the Nile delta, from the shipping lanes of the South China Sea to the pipelines of Central Asia, Resource Wars looks at the growing impact of resource scarcity on the military policies of nations.

International security expert Michael T. Klare argues that in the early decades of the new millennium, wars will be fought not over ideology but over access to dwindling supplies of precious natural commodities. The political divisions of the Cold War, Klare asserts, have given way to a global scramble for oil, natural gas, minerals, and water. And as armies throughout the world define resource security as a primary objective, widespread instability is bound to follow, especially in those areas where competition for essential materials overlaps with long-standing territorial and religious disputes. In this clarifying view, the recent explosive conflict between the United States and Islamic extremism stands revealed as the predictable consequence of consumer nations seeking to protect the vital resources they depend on.

A much-needed assessment of a changed world, Resource Wars is a compelling look at warfare in an era of rampant globalization and intense economic competition.


The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Global Catastrophe (2003), by Colin Mason

The clock is relentlessly ticking…Our world teeters on a knife-edge between a peaceful and prosperous future for all, and a dark winter of death and destruction that threatens to smother the light of civilization.

Within 30 years, in the 2030 decade, six powerful “drivers” will converge with unprecedented force in a statistical spike that could tear humanity apart and plunge the world into a new Dark Age. Depleted fuel supplies, massive population growth, poverty, global climate change, famine, growing water shortages and international lawlessness are on a crash course, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

In the face of both doomsaying and denial over the state of our world, Colin Mason cuts through the rhetoric and reams of often conflicting data to muster the evidence to illustrate a broad picture of the world as it is, and of our possible futures. Ultimately his message is clear: we must act decisively, collectively and immediately to alter the trajectory of humanity away from catastrophe.


Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future In This Century – On Earth and Beyond (2004), by Martin Rees

Just when you’ve stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb, along comes Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, with teeming armies of deadly viruses, nanobots, and armed fanatics. Beyond the hazards most of us know about–smallpox, terrorists, global warming–Rees introduces the new threats of the 21st century and the unholy political and scientific alliances that have made them possible. Our Final Hour spells out doomsday scenarios for cosmic collisions, high-energy experiments gone wrong, and self-replicating machines that steadily devour the biosphere. If we can avoid driving ourselves to extinction, he writes, a glorious future awaits; if not, our devices may very well destroy the universe.

“What happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.”

For many technological debacles, Rees places much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the scientists who participate in perfecting environmental destruction, biological menaces, and ever-more powerful weapons. So is there any hope for humanity? Rees is vaguely optimistic on this point, offering solutions that would require a level of worldwide cooperation humans have yet to exhibit.


A Short History of Progress (2004), and What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (2008) by Ronald Wright

A Short History of Progress looks at the modern human predicament in light of the 10,000-year experiment with civilization that led us into innumerable “progress traps”, and What is America? elucidates how modern capitalism and the shift toward America’s global cultural and economic dominance was entirely dependent on the “discovery” and conquest of the ancient advanced civilizations of South, Central and North America.

“Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology – a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials. Progress, therefore, has become a “myth”…But progress has an internal logic that can lead beyond reason to catastrophe. A seductive trail of successes may end in a trap…Many of the great ruins that grace the deserts and jungles of earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations which fell victim to their own success…The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise. Now is our last chance to get the future right.”

“Modern America – and modern civilization in general – are the culmination of a half-millennium we might call the Columbian Age. For Europe and its offshoots, the Americas really were Eldorado, a source of unprecedented wealth and growth. Our political and economic culture, especially the North American variant, has been built on a goldrush mentality of “more tomorrow”.  The American dream of new frontiers and endless plenty has seduced the world – even Communist China.  Yet this seduction has triumphed just as the Columbian Age shows many signs of ending, having exhausted the Earth and aroused appetites it can no longer feed. In short, the future isn’t what it used to be.”

“The Columbian Age was built on colonial attitudes: on taming the wilderness, civilizing the savage, and the American dream of endless plenty. Now there is nothing left to colonize. Half a millennium of expansion has run out of room. Mankind will either share the Earth or fight over it – a war nobody can win. For civilization to continue, we must civilize ourselves. America, which helped set the Europeans on their new path half a century ago, must now reexamine its own record – the facts, not the myths – and free itself from the potentially fatal mix of forces that created its nation, its empire, and the modern world.”


Catastrophe: Risk and Response (2005) by Richard A. Posner

Catastrophic risks are much greater than is commonly appreciated. Collision with an asteroid, runaway global warming, voraciously replicating nanomachines, a pandemic of gene-spliced smallpox launched by bioterrorists, and a world-ending accident in a high-energy particle accelerator, are among the possible extinction events that are sufficiently likely to warrant careful study. How should we respond to events that, for a variety of psychological and cultural reasons, we find it hard to wrap our minds around? Posner argues that realism about science and scientists, innovative applications of cost-benefit analysis, a scientifically literate legal profession, unprecedented international cooperation, and a pragmatic attitude toward civil liberties are among the keys to coping effectively with the catastrophic risks.


The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (2005), by James Howard Kunstler

The Long Emergency explores the consequences of a world oil production peak, coinciding with the forces of climate change, resurgent diseases, water scarcity, global economic instability and warfare to cause chaos for future generations.

The book’s principal theme explores the effects of a peak in oil production, predicted by many geologists, on American society as well as the rest of the world. In both this book and in his other writings, Kunstler argues that the economic upheavals caused by peak oil will force Americans to live in more localized, self-sufficient communities.


Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), by Jared Diamond

In his million-copy bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. Now in this brilliant companion volume, Diamond probes the other side of the equation: What caused some of the great civilizations of the past to collapse into ruin, and what can we learn from their fates?

As in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. Moving from the Polynesian cultures on Easter Island to the flourishing American civilizations of the Anasazi and the Maya and finally to the doomed Viking colony on Greenland, Diamond traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe. Environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices were all factors in the demise of these societies, but other societies found solutions and persisted. Similar problems face us today and have already brought disaster to Rwanda and Haiti, even as China and Australia are trying to cope in innovative ways. Despite our own society’s apparently inexhaustible wealth and unrivaled political power, ominous warning signs have begun to emerge even in ecologically robust areas like Montana.

Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing, Collapse is destined to take its place as one of the essential books of our time, raising the urgent question: How can our world best avoid committing ecological suicide?


The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We can Still Save Humanity (2006), by James Lovelock

The key insight of Gaia Theory is that the entire Earth functions as a single living super-organism. But according to James Lovelock, the theory’s originator, that organism is now sick. It is running a fever born of increased atmospheric greenhouse gases. Earth will adjust to these stresses, but the human race faces a severe test. It is already too late, Lovelock says, to prevent the global climate from “flipping” into an entirely new equilibrium that will threaten civilization as we know it. But we can do much to save humanity. In the tradition of Silent Spring, this is a call to address a major threat to our collective future.

The end is all but nigh for Mother Earth’s inhabitants unless drastic measures are soon taken: that’s the rueful prognostication delivered by Lovelock (Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth), intuitive originator of the theory that the world is a self-regulating system that, over the eons, has been able to sustain an equilibrium between hot and cold so as to support life. Now, propelled by global warming, Lovelock says, a tipping point has almost been reached beyond which the Earth will not recover sufficiently to sustain human life comfortably. Lovelock dismisses biomass fuels, wind farms, solar energy and fuel cell innovations as technologies unlikely to mitigate greenhouse gases in time to save the planet. Instead he sees nuclear energy as the only energy source that can meet our needs in time to prevent catastrophe. Chernobyl was a calamity, he notes, but nuclear power’s danger is “insignificant compared with the real threat of intolerable and lethal heatwaves” and rising sea levels that could “threaten every coastal city of the world.” Lovelock’s pro-nuke enthusiasm, unexpected from one of the mid-20th century’s most ardent environmental thinkers, is the well-reasoned core of this urgent call for braking at the brink of global catastrophe.


The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (2009), by Gus Speth

How serious are the threats to our environment? Here is one measure of the problem: if we continue to do exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy, the world in the latter part of this century will be unfit to live in. Of course human activities are not holding at current levels – they are accelerating, dramatically – and so, too, is the pace of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification. In this book Gus Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning and a widely respected environmentalist, begins with the observation that the environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to decline, to the point that we are now at the edge of catastrophe.

Speth contends that this situation is a severe indictment of the economic and political system we call modern capitalism. Our vital task is now to change the operating instructions for today’s destructive world economy before it is too late. The book is about how to do that.


The Vanishing Face of Gaia (2010), James Lovelock

Challenging the scientific consensus of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he believes it is too late to reverse global warming. We must accept that Earth is moving inexorably into a long-term “hot state”. His starkest warning is that the earth is overpopulated by a factor of about seven. It cannot for much longer maintain both its ecosystem and the supply of food, energy and materials to such a large population. He fears that, whatever we do, climatic catastrophes are going to reduce that population, leaving the rump of humanity living on what he calls “lifeboats” – favorably situated regions in the northern hemisphere.

“Individuals occasionally suffer a disease called polycythanemia, an overpopulation of red blood cells.  By analogy, Gaia’s illness could be called polyanthroponemia, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good.”


Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (2010), Spencer Wells

Wells uses his historical genetic and paleo-anthropological research to describe a fatal mismatch between civilization and our biology. Struck by the profoundly negative effects of the agricultural lifestyle on humans living 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, while he researched his earlier book, A Journey of Man, Wells explains why most of what ails us today has it roots in that mismatch, and why we took this path.

“When our ancestors created agriculture around 10,000 years ago, they were simply responding to an immediate need for more reliable sources of food during a time of climatic stress. They were unaware of what, by changing their fundamental relationship to nature, they were unleashing on the world. Instead of relying on nature’s plenty, they were creating it for themselves. By doing so, they divorced themselves – and us – from millions of years of evolutionary history, charting a new course into the future without a map.”



 by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page

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