How Humans Will End The World: A Cautionary History of Environmental and Civilizational Instability – Inquiries Journal

After thousands of years of innovation, humankind has shaped the modern world into a new planetary epoch: the Anthropocene. This paper connects the human propensity to carve our comfortable, convenient civilizations into our local environments with the reactionary forthcoming global instability of Earth’s ecosystems. By following the classic theory of civilizational decadence, it is evident human civilization has entered the final phase, the decline and fall. This is due to a paradox, wherein the products of our perceived prosperity, consumerism and wastefulness, hasten advancement towards planetary instability. Analysis of the origin and perpetuation of this paradox into the contemporary period through innovation and ignorance suggests that humankind may be able to prevent this final evolutionary phase through global collective responsibility rather than the current small-scale innovative methods by unconnected groups.
Humans have entered the Anthropocene, a new epoch in which we are the protagonist to global environmental change. This interaction between the Earth and human civilization is not a new development, however, now scientists draw firm connections between the activities of humans and the dire contemporary destabilization of Earth’s natural processes. Human actions cross the threshold of a balanced operating space within the Earth-System and into environmental instability, this is evident in the historical trajectory of human consumerism and the consequent garbage it creates. Scholars place civilizations into three stages of evolution: the beginning, the rise and height of prosperity, and the decline and fall. I will use historian Neville Morley’s understanding of the theory of decadence, a narrative of civilizational decay, to analyze the past and present in order to reveal possibilities for the future (2004). Drawing on the historical context and formidable contemporary implications of a global ecosystem that is fundamentally interconnected with humankind’s both innovative and harmful actions, I argue for the existence of a paradox, in which the products of our perceived civilizational prosperity, waste management and consumerism, hasten advancement towards planetary instability and plunges human civilization into the terminal stage. Furthermore, through this historical analysis, I suggest that humankind has an opportunity to thwart irreversible civilizational and planetary decline by rejecting the overconsumption and wastefulness that allows for the paradox to perpetuate, and instead work towards collective global responsibility.
If social scientists studied the ruins of human civilization a thousand years from now they would discover a global landscape shaped by human waste—mountains of garbage and oceans of plastic—and conclude that the humans collapsed environmental stability and caused their own demise. Just as their counterparts have explored the grand pyramids towering over ancient terrains, future archaeologists will exhume the mountains of garbage and piece together the human behaviors that shaped society, digging up evidence of how this once great civilization fell. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes (2013) portrays, when they drill into the Puente Hills Landfill and examine the inner space of the mountain, they will find the trash mummified and preserved by the work of 31,000 cubic feet of noxious gas produced by garbage (p. 24). This constitutes pollutants such as CO2 and methane which are greenhouse gases that hastened atmospheric instability. If they explored one of the largest and most putrid garbage mountains, New York City’s dump, Fresh Kills, archeologists would conclude that New Yorkers threw out 12,000 tons of trash everyday, the equivalent to the weight of “62 Boeing 747 jumbo jets” or nearly “9,000 Honda Civics” (p. 8). The future archaeologists would realize that these past humans enjoyed a culture of consumer wastefulness, constantly throwing out goods at exorbitant amounts to purchase new items despite the environmentally harmful gases it created. Drawing off those reports of increased waste, historians would compare epic stories passed down by empires with the reality of the everyday life of beachgoers, sailers, and scientists who waded through oceans of plastic. Historians would discover that plastic—a man made, consumerism driven product—began appearing in oceans only around a century before civilization fell and draw the connection between human waste pollution and their subsequent ignorance of the consequences that became their demise (p. 136). Just as with all the other great fallen empires—Rome, Ottoman, Mayan, Persian—Anthropologists will line out this civilization’s evolutionary stages from conception to apex to its deterioration. They will conclude that the civilization entered its terminal period when the planetary boundaries, which scientists Johan Rockström and his colleagues (2009) define as the safe operating space of consumption and output, were breached and despite warning signs humanity plowed forward directly into irreversible environmental disaster (p. 472). These social scientists will draw two conclusions. The first, is that humans and the environment are invariably interconnected, and in this way human civilization is the primary actor in their own collapse. The second, is that this case is no different than any other of a once great historical empire; as the fall approaches cultures scramble to switch extravagance and overconsumption with frugality, but no civilization has ever thwarted their fall—yet.
Humans have relied on innovation to domesticate novel ecosystems into a convenient and agreeable habitat for human life, however, these short-term advancements have become the root of long-term environmental disaster. Thousands of years ago humans began building cities and forming civilizations, vastly altering an ecological system that had been undisturbed for 4.5 billion years (Subramanian, 2019). For the first time, humans began shaping the environment around them—digging up clay to construct buildings, carving roads from one town to the next, corralling animals for the farm, sowing seeds in long rows to harvest more—and Earth would never be the same again (Boggs, 2016). These innovations were a response to an austere and unforgiving environment that humans have since, through technological advancement, shaped to develop a man-made world that offers space for expansion, a wealth of resources to make life easier, and a foundation for which to build civilizations. However, complementary to our relatively brief life-span, humans think in a similarly short-term manner without foresight for the long-term consequences of actions, which have detrimental effects on the environment. Certainly, a most distinct example is when Thomas Midgley invented the CFC refrigerant substance—now conveniently used to keep houses air-conditioned and fridges icy cold—subsequently draining the ozone layer and, as one historian put it, has had the most detrimental impact on Earth “than any other single organism in history” (Schwägerl, 2013, p. 30). Even individuals have the immense power to vastly influence and shape the environment with innovation. In a most biting ironic twist, the human knack for innovation simultaneously provides ephemeral convenience and comfort while hastening Earth’s environment towards terrifying long-term decline. Humans have strived for innovation, but with each new technological advancement, are faced with the reality of the interconnected relationship between themselves and the environment.
The nature of this relationship is central to the explanation of how global ecosystems and human society share in mutual deterioration and thus, why it is of significant importance for societal understanding. Past scientists and old school theorists have often argued that humans and nature are connected by a “duality,” in that, they operate as a pair but are fundamentally opposing forces (Palsson et al., 2013, p. 9). However, this idea of “duality” fails to account for the voluminous empirical findings that establish the relationship as not only dependent but thoroughly fused. This interconnection, as previously presented, is intertwined on a historical and reactionary level, but it is also the basis for the propagation of modern environmental and societal disaster. For example, this is why horrifying arctic volcanic eruptions, attributed to the melting of glaciers, can be traced back to the human release of greenhouse gases and consequent warming of the atmosphere (Beddoes, 2011). The relationship between the environment and humans is a mutual one; human innovation leads to an environmental disaster which leads to societal turmoil as we scramble to deal with the consequences. The connection between humans and the environment is not one-sided and, in fact, may tip the global ecosystems and civilization into irreversible instability if allowed to continue the way it has.
Societies misunderstand the interconnectedness of this relationship and, in doing so, ignore collective responsibility in finding a global solution by steering towards isolated, highly politicized, short-term fixes—and unevenly distributing environmental stress to poorer countries, thereby perpetuating societal inequalities. Political and social institutions try to wipe their hands of environmental responsibility by creating a stratification of environmental equity, but in doing so, fail to recognize the mutual relationship between humans and nature. For example, rich nations directly affect the ecological systems and lives of citizens from poorer nations by deliberately placing “dirty” industries in poorer regions and causing environmental degradation (Palsson et al., 7). Even so, the issue remains that environmental waste in a poor country is still environmental waste in Earth’s system and—in this mutual relationship—the Earth-System affects all humans. This only serves to escalate environmental decay everywhere but shifts the blame from wealthy to poor countries. In this way, superstorms caused by carbon footprint and poisoned local ecosystems resulting in the hazardous toxic waste can become a source of political scapegoating rather than any serious provocation to action (Schwägerl, 32). Political institutions recognize the danger environmental consequences pose to humans but they do not take serious collective steps to mitigate it. There is a clear disconnect between the recognition of societal responsibility and the actions taken to solve the problem. The reason for this culminates in the societal ignorance of the extent and power of this mutual relationship between environmental decay and human actions. Political institutions prefer the obsolete merits of a “duality” which allows for humans to continue with short-term advancements unhindered and blameless for the subsequent natural consequences. Humans have now recklessly entered into conflict with themselves, unwilling to sacrifice the comforts of innovation that have, and continue to, directly tip the fragile environmental and civilizational stability.
The disregard for the environmental consequences of human action began when the first civilizations arose and garbage and litter became an issue for these new urban dwellers; their innovative solution would shape the world and enable future generations of waste through collective forgetting. The first stage of civilizational and environmental evolution commenced with the birth of waste management. With the first documented garbage crisis in Ancient Athens over two thousand years ago, humans endeavoured to solve the problem of trash by evading the problem altogether. The Ancient Greeks invented the municipal town dump, legislating into existence the singular human process of directly disrupting local ecosystems to dispose of rubbish (Humes, 2013, p. 14). The first town dump in Ancient Athens was not, in itself the end of the world, this is true. However, their waste was far less voluminous and more organic, emitting limited harmful toxins into the environment. If humans now generated the same type and amount of waste the Ancient Athenians had, the Earth-System would remain stable for thousands of more years (Rockström et al., 2009, p. 472). The archaeologists that pick through Ancient Greek dumps and their future counterparts wading through garbage mountains would be analyzing different waste cultures; for one, contemporary humans enjoy a culture of abundance and consumerism that have far surpassed the limits of a town dump. However, the municipal town dump created a human mindset that garbage, once invisible, becomes inconsequential—paving the way for future generations of wastefulness and opening the door for consumerism to thrive.
Into the 19th century humans used their innovative spirit to create landfills in order to produce, consume, and waste more. The human tradition evolves into hiding waste within the environment in order to produce more. City officials employed a variety of out-of-sight waste disposal strategies: dumping refuse into oceans, rivers, and letting pigs run amok to eat the putrid litter lining the streets (Humes, 2013, p. 43). Humans ventured into quick and convenient methods for dispelling trash and escaping responsibility, but even this was not enough to hide the sheer amount of waste. Citizens decided it was disgusting to feed pigs trash and to then eat those pigs, and the waterways lost their visual appeal with all the trash swirling about; in short, the problem of trash became too smelly and ugly to ignore. The first landfill was created shortly after and Earth was dug up and filled with thousands of tons of rubbish, soon becoming mountains of garbage (p. 46). Human civilization nestled into the Age of Living within landscapes of waste. By the end of the 19th century, humans had begun to use their knack for innovation to shape the Earth with their garbage so they could produce and hide even more garbage.
This innovative waste-management system of landfills unfolded a culture of consumerism and an economy of abundance that thrust human civilization into perceived prosperity. The second stage of civilizational and environmental evolution reaches its zenith with a culture of abundance and wastefulness. In the early 20th century a new consumer identity arose, one that tightly bound the concept of economic prosperity with the ability to obtain and then waste perfectly functional items in a cycle of consumerism and waste. President Eisenhower pushed Americans to “buy anything” to bolster the economy and half a century later President Bush urged a new generation to buy even more for the prosperity of the country (Humes, 2013, p. 7). Humans came to rely on consumerism as a tool for measuring success and wellbeing. In 1960 a journalist wrote that “wastefulness has become […] a way of life,” further cementing consumerism as not only an economical and social characteristic, but a necessity for the common lifestyle (p. 71). This pinnacle of human civilization was measured by the ability to throw away perfectly viable resources, creating more waste to fuel a disposable economy. Innovation thoroughly changed the world by carving and shaping the Earth, however, the low social regard for trash and its effect on the environment largely remained the same. Little thought was given to the environmental consequences that would become of this innovative culture of abundance, and as a consequence of this historical ignorance the global planetary boundaries are now under threat.
With their new chemical and synthetic garbage designed to sustain this prosperous culture of wastefulness, human civilization transformed oceans into swirls of plastic chowder and threatened the stability of marine ecosystems. The disposable economy needed a new disposable product that could fuel the proliferation of waste—plastic. This synthetic chemical compound made up 0.4% of waste in landfills in 1960 and increased to 25% 40 years later (Humes, 2013, p. 71). Evidently, plastic became an integral part of the consumer experience, present everywhere from fast food containers to refrigerators, and was championed as the savior to humanity for its radicalizing effect on consumer culture. However, not all plastic—and garbage—ends up in the landfill. Every year 7 million tons of trash runs into the oceans, 5.6 million tons of which are plastic (p. 135). All this plastic in the ocean has extremely detrimental effects on not only aquatic ecosystems, but on humans too. The plastic enters the process of biomagnification: a cycle of absorbing chemical runoff from pesticides to fertilizer, being eaten by small fish essential to the marine food chain, and then eaten by bigger fish on the human food chain until the dinner table boasts a meal with questionable edible integrity (p. 109). Scientists have no idea how biomagnification will affect environmental stability because the development is still so new. However, this problem is only one small part of a larger issue, though scientists aren’t sure how this affects global stability yet, they do know that this process poisons sea life and disrupts a natural process. Through the surge of more disposable and chemical products, consumerism directly harms the environment. Moreover, since planetary boundaries are interconnected they interact and inform each other within the Earth-System and are susceptible to reacting adversely and unpredictably to disruptions.
These ecological systems rely on the collective cooperation of all species that live within them to perpetuate fundamental biological processes; a shift by humans in this natural operation have resulted in planetary destabilization as all the fragile biotic factors that bind together to secure the Earth-System crash into each other and irrevocably tumble out of control. The third and potentially final stage of civilizational and environmental evolution begins now, as human waste pollution pushes ecosystems to exceed the safe operating spaces they are meant to function in. The two major planetary boundaries that have been crossed by the human dependence on consumerism and waste are climate change and biodiversity loss. A multitude of other subsystems have also been compromised as a result of these breaches. Researcher John Rockström and his colleagues (2009) have proposed to cap CO2 levels in the atmosphere at 350 million parts per million by volume (p.p.m.v.), however, this limit has already been exceeded with the current atmospheric carbon concentration at 387 p.p.m.v. (p. 472). This increased carbon emission is the result of human innovation and consumerism. Just one landfill held 31,000 ft3 of greenhouse gases, and there are thousands more just across the US (Humes, 2013, p. 24). Mountains of garbage increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and escalates climate change, which leads to the sabotage of other environmental systems. Polar ice caps melt and affect the oceanic acidity, endangering the lives of thousands of species who depend on stable habitats to survive (Rockström et al., 2009, p. 473). “Ghost nets,” thousands of pounds of intertwined plastic garbage, crash into and tear apart coral reefs (Humes, 2013, p. 124). These ghost nets destroy the ecological habitats of thousands of species, of which are undergoing a mass extinction at an alarming rate that has not been seen since the last great global extinction (Rockström et al., 2009, p. 473). Moreover, chemical pollutants from garbage runoff adversely threaten and have already increased the rate of biodiversity loss in oceans and the freshwater availability in other waterways. The rate of pollution in freshwater sources humans use for survival has increased sixfold since the creation of the first landfill (p. 473). Humans now not only live in landscapes of waste, we eat and drink it too. Health is a two way relationship between humans and the environment. Human civilization relies on environmental stability for survival but we cannot achieve it while remaining so dependent on consumerism waste that directly contributes to destabilization.
The crux of the issue, then, is this paradox that the consumerism and wastefulness humans most attribute to their height of prosperity is also the reason for their impending environmental and civilizational collapse. Humans and the environment share a delicate mutual relationship. As such, the environment rests on a fragile balance that can drastically affect the lives of humans. For example, something as simple as microscopic phytoplankton, a marine ecological system that has been operating within the natural process for billions of years, produces nearly half of the oxygen used by humans for basic daily survival (Humes, 2013, p. 131). Therefore, human garbage emissions and chemical pollution compromise this natural system and endanger not just the phytoplankton, but civilization too. It is essential to human survival to ensure the stability of global environmental systems, and this can only happen with global societal change.
In this interconnected planetary system, humankind will only be able to prevent civilizational and environmental collapse if we accept global collective responsibility for the consumer paradox and the ensuing instability. In Denmark, a sustainable waste system counteracts these environmental consequences by converting garbage gas emissions into energy. Researchers say this is a wonderful and innovative solution to the paradox, however, this waste-to-energy method cannot be truly useful in preventing the terminal civilizational phase if it is not embraced on a global level. For example, in the interconnected planetary ecosystem, it does not matter that Denmark only sends 3% of trash to landfills if the United States still sends 69%, that is still thousands of tons of carbon emissions that enter the Earth-System just from landfills every year (Humes, 2013, p. 253). Greenhouse gas emissions from any country are still greenhouse gas emissions that affect the entire planet. Calculating sustainable solutions by country only serves to shift blame from nation to nation and ignores the greater collective responsibility that needs to be understood and worked towards. In this way, the issue of plastic in the ocean becomes a debate over who is responsible rather than how will it be fixed. However, if tons of trash leaves the Western coast of the United States it still gathers into huge plastic chowder in international waters. In the journal Natural History, one scientist describes sailing through the international ocean at the convergence zone of trash and never seeing a clear spot of water (p. 116). This international problem is simply too large to be solved by the individual efforts of just a few countries. The entire human civilization faces the same ecological threat, just as the entire planetary ecosystem faces the same human threat.
If human innovation is the central factor in perpetuating the paradox, then innovation cannot be the exclusive solution to the problem; instead human civilization must undergo a collective societal change. Scientists praise the innovative, unconnected efforts that individual cities and nations have invested in, such as Denmark’s waste-to-energy program, however, the most effective strategy for the prevention of instability lies not in the innovation that has caused it, but in erasing the collective social forgetfulness that has allowed it to perpetuate. To effect any significant balance in the overstepped planetary boundaries, humans must compete with the long social history of environmental disregard and the assumption that wasteful consumerism means civilizational prosperity. In 2015, Connecticut closed its last landfill and now operates entirely on waste-to-energy disposal plants, this is possible because the state residents have one of the lowest waste outputs in the entire country (Humes, 2013, p. 263). Most plants were erected in the 1980’s during the national waste incineration boom, however state authorities believe this achievement wouldn’t have been possible in modern times because of the political associations with consumerism waste and economic prosperity (p. 264). In this way, large-scale collective innovation for the benefit of global stability will not be possible unless social attitudes surrounding the paradox alter to account for the consequences. Civilizational and environmental collapse can be prevented, but only with collective global responsibility for the paradox issue.
Human civilization’s history of consumerism waste and its damaging environmental consequences has created a paradox which culminated into a civilizational and environmental decline towards global instability. This is possible because of the interconnected relationship humans share with the environment, wherein human activity affects global ecosystems and in turn the ecosystems affect human life. By looking critically at historical developments, we can see that the biggest challenge in preventing deterioration and collapse of the Earth-System is confronting the paradox in which the innovation and culture of consumer wastefulness humans depend on for prosperity is also the driving force in hastening instability. Instead of continuing to plow forward with small-scale separate forms of innovation that ultimately do little to thwart global disaster, human civilization needs to form collective responsibility to work together to prevent the terminal phase.
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Morley, N. (2004). Decadence as a Theory of History. New Literary History, 35(4), 573-585.
Palsson, G., Szerszynski, B., Sörlin, S., Marks, J., Avril, B., Crumley, C., … & Weehuizen, R. (2013). Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environmental Science & Policy, 28, 3-13.
Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., … & Foley, J. A. (2009). A Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472-475.
Schwägerl, C. (2013). Neurogeology: The Anthropocene’s Inspirational Power. RCC Perspectives, (3), 29-38.
Subramanian, M. (2019). Humans versus Earth: the quest to define the Anthropocene. Nature, 572(7768), 168-171.
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Novella, N. (2021). “How Humans Will End The World: A Cautionary History of Environmental and Civilizational Instability.” Inquiries Journal, 13(09). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=1905
Novella, Natalie. “How Humans Will End The World: A Cautionary History of Environmental and Civilizational Instability.” Inquiries Journal 13.09 (2021). <http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=1905>
Novella, Natalie. 2021. How Humans Will End The World: A Cautionary History of Environmental and Civilizational Instability. Inquiries Journal 13 (09), http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=1905
NOVELLA, N. 2021. How Humans Will End The World: A Cautionary History of Environmental and Civilizational Instability. Inquiries Journal [Online], 13. Available: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=1905
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