History shows that overexploitation of ecosystems has often led to civilisational decline. We should look to our past to understand the risks ahead.
Christian Kaarup Baron
October 17, 2022
The notion of the Frontier is a powerful metaphor. It carries the special ring of breaking new ground and the conquest of unexplored territories, whether in space, science, technology or just good old-fashioned land-grabbing. As such, it appeals to people with the resources and capability to undertake these endeavours. No wonder that it is such a favourite metaphor among presidents, tech billionaires, pioneer scientists and engineers – and other Nietzschean supermen.
For the not-so-fortunate worker in the textile dyeing industry of Bangladesh, the notion of the Frontier probably carries less of an appeal. Exposed to the dangerous chemicals involved in this kind of production, she might be a mother of four who is fighting with lung cancer at the age of thirty-five. For her, the very act of securing her family’s survival every day may itself be a challenge of exhausting proportions, leaving little time to fantasize about deeds on a grander scale.
Examples like this illustrate the rather obvious point that questions of privilege and inequality are important elements in assessing the merits of ‘Frontier’ thinking, and indeed of any futurist discourse, But they also allude to the basic contention that we must pay close attention to the presumptions behind our thinking about the shape of things to come, and place them under critical scrutiny. For better or worse, future visions are neither politically neutral nor immune to delusions or bias. Perhaps the most menacing grand-scale reminder of this was the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to these wars, it was the firm belief among the neoconservative advisors of the Bush administration that once military victory was achieved, the transition to democracy would be more or less automatic. This belief not only led the Bush administration to decisions that were morally dubious, such as sanctioning the invasion of Iraq on the basis of erroneous claims about weapons of mass destruction; it also undermined the epistemic grounds for making these decisions at all. In holding on to this position, they ignored all historical evidence concerning the constraints and complexity of nation-building – including, for instance, warnings from Carl Bildt, former Special UN Envoy to the Balkans. They also altered the pathway of intelligence throughout the US administration, in effect creating a grand-scale confirmation bias in the system that served to select exactly the kind of information that fitted their own assumptions. The disastrous results of these choices are a matter of public record and include the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as the return to power of the Taleban in Afghanistan.
This example may be extreme in its consequences, but it underlines the necessity of placing our ideas about the future under critical scrutiny. Returning to the Frontier thinking mentioned above, one of the contentions sometimes associated with it is the idea that we will never run out of resources for human exploration and technological development. This idea can be traced back to the economist Julian Simon, and has in recent years been popularised and defended by pioneer engineer and scientist Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, as well as by the Danish financial investor, serial entrepreneur, and best-selling author Lars Tvede. Both take a constructivist stance on the ontology of natural resources, arguing that they do not exist in nature independent of human activity, but only come into being as genuine resources when we begin to exploit them.
It’s easy to be sceptical towards this position, as it tends to ignore the material conditions that constrain technological development. It is also worth noticing that this line of argumentation finds its support by pointing to the history of industrialisation. Zubrin uses the example of Malthus and his (in)famous conclusion in An Essay on the Principle of Population from 1798 that any increase in food production will only result in increased population growth, leaving the level of starvation the same as before. Contrary to Malthus, Zubrin maintains that the past two hundred years of industrialisation have demonstrated decisively that Malthus’ prediction was completely false and that many of the problems of starvation that were present in Malthus’ era have been solved, while the global human population has risen from about 1 billion to 7 billion and beyond. He also claims that this example may be extended as a general principle for the future development of human civilisation, and warns that the most damaging idea in human history is the claim that there isn’t plenty to go around.
In a similar vein, Lars Tvede notes that we have a past record of underestimating the availability of resources like coal, iron and oil. He also argues that our history shows an ability to overcome crises in the apparent limitations of resources, making it likely that we will be able to overcome similar crises in the future. In Tvede’s view, the main driving factor behind technological innovation is not the availability of the necessary natural materials, but the availability of minds set on working with these materials to create or exchange new ideas. Whereas Zubrin draws on space exploration and a future colonisation of Mars to push the boundaries for technological improvement, Tvede seems quite content to remain on Earth, believing that synergetic development is sufficient to maintain an incoming flow of new and hitherto unexplored resources.
For anyone who dabbles in the philosophy of science, it should be clear that the kind of argument that is employed by Zubrin and Tvede is inductive in nature, in the sense that it seeks to present general conclusions on the basis of a finite set of specific observations. Although this kind of argument that is often employed in various scientific domains, it is usually accompanied by a certain amount of caution – and with good reason. The basic problem with this argument is quite simply that its conclusion does not follow logically from the stated premises. One way to illustrate this is to use the example of white swans. Throughout history, the sighting of a white swan must have been a fairly common observation for anyone walking around in the northern parts of Europe. For the inductively minded European naturalist, it would therefore be tempting to conclude that all swans are white. However, as pointed out long ago by the philosopher Karl Popper, these observations give no guarantee whatsoever that the next observed swan might not be of an entirely different colour – and as it turns out, there are actually black swans in Australia.
On a further note, the argument also rests on an optimistic assessment of the current state of affairs. It may be the case that the past two centuries of industrialisation have been a tremendous success when it comes to fighting human poverty and starvation, but in terms of biodiversity, they have been an outright disaster. At present, an estimated 96% of the planet’s mammalian biomass consists either of humans or their livestock. The remaining 4% is what is left of the once so abundant megafauna of elephants, tigers, kangaroos, and the like. By all credible estimates, the dwindling of biodiversity during the same time period has been staggering, to the extent that scientists now speak of it as the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Clearly, the human population expansion that Zubrin talks so enthusiastically about has come at a tremendous price for our planetary ecosystems and the remaining life on the planet – which again suggests that a constructivist view of natural resources is insufficient to understand what is going on.
The problems with the constructivist position go even deeper. Another issue is Zubrin’s and Tvede’s narrow choice of time scale. There have been anatomically modern humans on this planet for more than 250,000 years, and even if we ignore the long stretch of Stone Age hunter-gatherers, narrowing our relevant history down to the last two hundred of industrialisation seems to be a somewhat artificial limitation when compared with the previous 7,000 years or so of agriculturally-based city-states, kingdoms and empires. If we begin to include the history and fate of those civilisations, then it would appear that we have less ground for optimism than Zubrin and Tvede allow for. In fact, given the case that most of these civilisations have collapsed, it would appear that they are actually arguing for an industrial exceptionalism that runs contrary to the usual state of human affairs.
The most in-depth analysis of the complex set of problems connected with the relationship between environmental resources and civilisational development is that undertaken by the geographer Jared Diamond. In his book Collapse: How Societies choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond analyses historical and pre-historical instances of societal collapse (including the Easter Islands, the Maya of Central America, the Norse settlers in Greenland and even the depletion of natural resources in modern-day Montana), arguing that the root problem in most of these cases is overpopulation relative to the practicable (as opposed to the ideal) carrying capacity. Although some of the specific details of Diamond’s analyses have been challenged by other scholars (as is usual in any academic exchange) they nevertheless provide compelling evidence for the conclusion that questions of resource limitation and environmental constraints in general must be taken very seriously.
Among the environmental problems that have contributed to societal collapse in the past are deforestation and habitat destruction; soil problems, including erosion, salinisation and soil fertility losses; water management problems; overhunting; the effects of introduced species on native species; and overpopulation and the increased per-capita impact of people. To this list Diamond adds modern-day problems such as anthropogenic climate change, the build-up of toxins in the environment, energy shortages and the full human use of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity.
It would appear, then, that there are indeed natural capacity limits that constrain human civilisation and development. What Zubrin and Tvede (and Julian Simon) have done is either to bracket those limits or to ignore the fact that they are trying to evaluate the short-term effects of a general technological development that is only two hundred years old. Many of Diamond’s cases have a longer lifespan than this. Of these, perhaps the most interesting is that of the Maya. The Mayan civilisation spans a time period from about 250 AD to the fall of the final Mayan city of Nojpetén in 1697. From the very beginning, the Mayan civilisation was under environmental pressure due to its location in an area with poor soil fertility. This material constraint had the strange consequence that the Maya often had to interrupt their otherwise excessive internal warfare in order to bring the harvest home. In terms of technology, the lack of widespread access to metals such as iron forced the Maya to base the majority of their tools on carved minerals, in the form of jade and obsidian. However, despite these limitations they managed to build a thriving civilisation in the middle of rain forest territory, with an endurance that made it last for centuries, and with an ingenuity that modern-day engineers would be hard-pressed to follow, given the same constraints in terms of raw materials. The final decline of the Mayans was the result of a combination of the depletion of environmental resources through overpopulation, climate change in terms of droughts and disturbances in food production, and a lack of social resilience due to a long history of internal warfare and the pressure of hostile neighbours.
The Mayan collapse shows that we cannot disentangle the fate of a civilisation from the material conditions that support it. This conclusion is echoed in Diamond’s remaining cases, such as modern-day Montana. Here, several decades of excessive logging, mining and dairy farming have devastated local ecosystems and transformed the once prosperous mountainous state into one of the poorest in the US.
Despite all the claims about the endless possibilities of human ingenuity, the practical reality is that we are indeed dependent on the constraints of ecosystem services and the limits of natural raw materials. On a final note, the reader should be reminded that the process of planetary industrialisation rests on a series of historical exploitation practices that are unrepeatable. The natural materials that were used to build our industrial civilisation are not as accessible as they were in former generations. In many cases, the depletion of these resources means that the efforts necessary to produce and maintain modern high-tech equipment are in fact dependent on already pre-existing technology. If we imagine a complete wipe-out of our industrial civilisation, we risk a peasant stone age that will continue into any foreseeable future. As Robert Heinlein once said, there is no such thing as a free lunch.