Scientists propose changing the rules of history to avoid environmental collapse

June 7, 2018, University College London
In their new book, The Human Planet, the authors have now gathered new evidence which reveals the basic rules governing human societies from the earliest hunter-gatherers to those of the present day. They warn that this evidence points to today's globally interconnected mega-civilisation moving in one of two directions; one of continued rapid global growth and an eventual catastrophic collapse, or the emergence of a new mode of living that replaces the latest type of society, consumer capitalism. Credit: UCL

For the first time in our planet's 4.5 billion-year history a single species, humans, is increasingly dictating its future, according to a new book by UCL scientists.

The new epoch known as the Anthropocene—assessed in 2015 by Professors Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin in a report published in Nature—marks the period when human impacts on our home planet have become global and sustained.

In their new book, The Human Planet, the authors have now gathered new evidence which reveals the basic rules governing human societies from the earliest hunter-gatherers to those of the present day.

They warn that this evidence points to today's globally interconnected mega-civilisation moving in one of two directions; one of continued rapid global growth and an eventual catastrophic collapse, or the emergence of a new mode of living that replaces the latest type of society, consumer capitalism.

The two scientists show that in all of human history there have been just five successive types of society that spread worldwide. Each of these societies relied on the greater use of energy, and a greater generation and flow of information and knowledge. This resulted in more people, increased productivity, and rising collective human agency, but also led to ever-greater global environmental consequences.

"How the human story fits within Earth's history is obviously complex, but one role of scientists is to pick away at difficult problems to understand them in simpler and more fundamental ways," said Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science (UCL Geography).

"By tracing the environmental impacts of different human societies since our march out of Africa we noticed that they had features in common. While , like fossil fuels, and new ways of communicating information, like record-keeping, are well-recognised as revolutionary in their impacts, a much larger and more coherent picture emerged."

The five societies that emerged and spread are: Hunter-Gatherer, Agricultural, Mercantile Capitalist, Industrial Capitalist and Consumer Capitalist. Each of these started with a major, and usually traumatic, transition: Domestication, European colonisation, the Industrial Revolution and the Great Acceleration that followed the end of the Second World War.

The scientists believe that their analysis points towards to two future scenarios. One following the response of all other types of animal that encounter vast new resources: a long period of exponential growth, just as the global economy is growing, followed by a swift collapse; or the emergence of a new sixth type of society that replaces the consumer capitalist mode of living.

The academics argue that more energy for all and increased investments in education, the internet and computing are essential components for a transition to sixth type of society. However, even if new energy comes from renewables, and fossil fuels are rapidly phased out to avoid catastrophic climate change, such a leap may not be enough to avoid collapse. To do that requires breaking the current high-production and high-consumption model of human development at the heart of consumer capitalism and a focus on environmental repair.

The book ends with two bold ideas that are under increasing discussion to do this: Universal Basic Income, an unconditional payment to every citizen to cover their subsistence needs, to break the production-consumption dynamic; and Half-Earth, where half the Earth's surface is allocated for the primary benefit of other species, with humans having the run of the rest, to enable environmental restoration.

"What human actions have done in the small amount of time we have been on this planet is astonishing. We have cut down half the trees on Earth, over 3 trillion of them, and have made enough concrete to cover the whole surface of the Earth in a layer 2 millimetres thick. We have created over 170,000 synthetic mineral-like substances compared with about 5,000 'natural' occurring minerals, and we make over 300 million tonnes of plastic per year which can be found in every ocean. Most shocking of all is that if we weighed all land mammals in the world, humans would represent 30 percent livestock 67 percent and just 3 percent wild animals. We really do live on a human dominated planet" says Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science (UCL Geography).

Lewis and Maslin conclude that we need to recognise our planet-changing power and redirect it to shifting to a new type of so that people and the rest of life we share our home planet with can all flourish.

Explore further: Humans account for little next to plants, worms, bugs

Related Stories

Humans account for little next to plants, worms, bugs

May 21, 2018

When you weigh all life on Earth, billions of humans don't amount to much compared to trees, earthworms or even viruses. But we really know how to throw what little weight we have around, according to a first-of-its-kind ...

Crafting a human niche

May 24, 2018

In "How Humans and Apes Are Different and Why It Matters," published in the Journal of Anthropological Research, Agustin Fuentes explores the common ancestry between humans and apes by examining characteristics that the two ...

Recommended for you

Biosphere 2 legacy lives on more than quarter century later

October 12, 2018

They lived for two years and 20 minutes under the glass of a miniature Earth, complete with an ocean, rain forest, desert, grasslands and mangroves. Their air and water were recycled, and they grew the sweet potatoes, rice ...

Scientists finger culprits decimating France's oysters

October 11, 2018

A two-pronged attack by a virus and bacteria is responsible for decimating France's 450-million euro ($520 million) oyster industry, scientists said Thursday, potentially solving a decade-long mystery.

7 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Doug_Nightmare
1 / 5 (1) Jun 07, 2018
Karl Popper's masterwork The Open Society and Its Enemies was prolog to The Poverty of Historicism that should be understood before reading this claptrap.
Squirrel
1 / 5 (2) Jun 07, 2018
Only two types of society have ever existed. Those that live as they are. And those with prophets that proclaim they should--or will--be something else..
greenonions1
not rated yet Jun 07, 2018
Doug - you very glibly dismiss this work as 'claptrap,' but offer no analysis as to why you think it is so? I have not read Popper, but just looked at a summary - here - https://en.wikipe..._Enemies It seems that Popper was critiquing authoritarian thinking - and promoting 'liberal democracy.' Are you denying the environmental devastation that our 'liberal democracy' is currently bringing to the earth? The massive island of plastics that are floating in the Pacific, that is then breaking into micro beads, and entering our food chain? I don't see this article as 'historicism' - as in the Hegelian sense of looking at cycles, but as a good analysis of linear history. There is reason to be freaking out about the environment - http://www.resili...ollapse/

What is exactly is your analysis?
Eikka
1 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2018
Doug - you very glibly dismiss this work as 'claptrap,' but offer no analysis as to why you think it is so?


The analysis is in Karl Popper's The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies.

But to make a long story short (and incomplete),

a) History is a one-time event. Trying to identify patterns or "laws" of history is futile, as you cannot repeat the experiment, which makes this sort of divination of the future pseudoscience at best.

b) What counts as history is heavily tainted by the commentator's own paradigm and perception of what is mostly indirect evidence, so just about any sort of future destiny can be implanted.

Popper made his criticism towards the communists. He pointed out that in divining the future of societies where communism must win, the communists made the error of taking the abstract as concrete and holding their understanding of "society" more real than the actual people it consisted of.
Eikka
1 / 5 (2) Jun 08, 2018
Universal Basic Income, an unconditional payment to every citizen to cover their subsistence needs, to break the production-consumption dynamic


UBI just creates a situation where it pays to have more babies, because each of them gets their own UBI.

In this sort of environment, evolution favors those who breed the fastest, because even as the living standards across the board are dropping due to overpopulation, making more babies still captures a greater share of the shared resources and ensures the survival of the genes. They push all the others out.

Therefore, those who try to limit growth are replaced by those who don't, and what happens next is described in the movie Idiocracy.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Jun 08, 2018
Human societies are basically destined to "crash". We will reach the limit of growth, and whether it's a catastrophe or a gentle coasting stop depends on how fast we're approaching the limits.

The more we try to do something about it, with UBI or "progressive" politics etc. the more we tend to speed things up, because the well-intentioned social engineers are more apt at creating more uncontrolled population growth than actually fixing anything that's wrong with the society.

For example, we could halt population growth today by dictatorial politics, but then after a while the people notice there's all these "surplus" resources that aren't being used, and start to blame the leadership for keeping it to themselves... and so the leadership gets ousted, and the newly "rich" society starts another baby boom cycle.
MR166
1 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2018
Prosperity seems to be the antidote to population growth. In developed nations the birth rate is plunging. Less land is needed for farming while more food is produced. One of the biggest problems facing the developed world is Ponzi based government financing. Declining birth rates hasten the monetary collapse.

If birth rates decline and much of the products are recycled man's impact on the earth is naturally reduced.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.