David Attenborough and the Collapse of Civilization

Fear and Loathing in Katowice

Nick Nielsen
9 min readDec 17, 2018

The Global Climate UN — COP24 in Katowice

On 03 December 2018 Sir David Attenborough made some brief remarks at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, which was the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The remarks — a transcript of the full text of the speech is available — were apocalyptic and widely quoted in the press. At a couple of points in the speech Attenborough asserted that the future of civilization is at stake. Here is the first mention of civilization:

“Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate Change. If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

…and he finished with another remark about civilization:

“The continuation of our civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend, is in your hands.”

Whether or not one agrees with Attenborough that civilization is at stake in climate change negotiations, it is another question entirely as to whether meetings like this can accomplish anything other than hand-wringing. The COP24 meeting did conclude with an “agreement” (cf. Climate change: COP24 deal to bring Paris pact to life by Matt McGrath), but I hope that none of my readers is so naïve as to believe that this is going to have any impact whatsoever on the climate of our homeworld.

This is not cynicism, it is geopolitical realism, because the reality of the situation is that, without enforcement provisions, the agreement is toothless and can be violated at any time without consequence. And no body of negotiators at the level of those present at COP24 would be empowered by their nation-states to concede any national sovereignty in order to make it possible for an international body to punish it for violations of the agreement.

What Effective Action on Climate Change Would Look Like

It is not difficult to imagine what a meeting might look like, or what an agreement might look like, if it were taken seriously. Individuals who wield real political power would be present. They would come prepared to cut deals. There would be intense negotiation over consequences of any violations, which would be severe, or nothing would happen. For example, suppose an agreement were struck on climate change matters, and if a nation-state violated this agreement, the head of state would be sentenced to a public flogging, and then this flogging were actually carried out. That would get the attention of presidents, prime ministers, kings, and queens.

Now, you will think that I am being facetious about a serious matter and therefore mocking the process. While I am mocking the process, because it is ineffectual, I am not being facetious. It would take measures of this degree to get any agreement on something so closely tied to economic growth and development. There would have to be individuals in power with skin in the game. One of the unrecognized and unacknowledged problems of democracy is that the revolving door of power means that leaders have little or no skin in the game. If they fail, they usually go into comfortable retirement. They are rarely if ever made to bear the consequences of their actions. If this does not change, nothing else will fundamentally change. And certainly the human impact on the biosphere is not going to change without fundamental, if not radical, change.

Climatological and Civilizational Scales of Time

On the one hand, it has become very difficult to talk about climate change scientifically because the discourse around climate science has become so politicized. On the other hand, despite the highly politicized nature of the debate, very little political action has occurred, so there is a feeling on the part of those concerned about climate change that the stakes must be raised so that people will pay attention. Thus the escalation of rhetoric intended to capture public attention reaches the level of claims that climate change will mean the end of civilization unless we take action now.

There are many problems with this, of course. Climate change does happen, and has happened throughout the history of our homeworld, but it happens over a climatological scale of time, just as geological change happens over a geological scale of time. Civilization, notably, does not change according to either a climatological or geological time scale, but according to the (far shorter) time scale of human history. The difference between these scales of time leads to a lot of confusion, and a failure to understand what is at stake, and what can be done about it.

For more than two hundred years, since human beings have been burning an increasing quantity of fossil fuels, we have been increasing the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere. The genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back in again. Global warming is a done deal, and it was a done deal before we realized what was going on. The carbon capture and storage technologies now being debated, and sometimes also being designed and built, are not about capturing all the carbon released into the atmosphere over the past two hundred years, but only about capturing newly produced carbon from fossil fuel pollution sources, so that the problem doesn’t get worse. But the problem is already a problem, and even if we were to stop all human activities that released carbon into the atmosphere now — and the only way to do this would be to end civilization — that wouldn’t do anything about the carbon already released into the atmosphere.

Now, the biosphere, closely coupled with the atmosphere, oceans (hydrosphere), and the land (geosphere), is a complex adaptive system. One change — such as more carbon in the atmosphere — cannot be isolated from other parts of the Earth system. Increased carbon could be offset in a number of ways. It is possible, though not likely, if human beings went extinct tomorrow, that the Earth system would right itself and not enter into a period of extended warmer temperatures. (James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis postulates that Earth as a whole is a self-regulating system that maintains itself in homeostasis, though of course there are limits to what a self-regulating system can tolerate.) This is not likely to occur (even in the event of the unlikely counterfactual of human civilization abruptly disappearing) because every time in the past when carbon has reached levels commensurate with present levels, the climate warmed up from the greenhouse effect. (Peter Brannen goes into this in his book The Ends of the World.)

But what would it mean for the climate to right itself of its own accord? We are, or, at least, we were, in a period of unusually cold temperatures in Earth history. We today live in an ice age — the Quaternary glaciation. The Quaternary glaciation has been characterized by long periods of lower sea levels with a lot of water tied up in glaciers covering most of the northern hemisphere. Civilization began in the Holocene warming period, a part of the Quaternary glaciation, which latter is occasionally subject to warming. These warming periods usually last for about ten thousand years or so, then the temperature decreases and the ice caps begin to grow again. If we were to return Earth to its status quo ante (i.e., to its condition prior to the appearance of human civilization), we would return to the onset of a severe ice age.

If human civilization had not made the breakthrough to industrialization and high technology, the entire planet would, within a thousand or so years, return to a ice age probably as severe as the last glacial maximum. This would not likely cause human beings to go extinct — after all, our ancestors settled the entire planet during the last glacial maximum, thanks to canoes and bone needles that allowed for sewing form-fitting clothing — but it could well cause the end of civilization, and it would certainly cause the end of civilization as we know it today. (Cf. my post A Thought Experiment on Civilizations that Succumb to Snowball and Slushball Events.)

The Earth has been through It Before

This isn’t the first time in Earth history that massive amounts of carbon have been injected into the atmosphere in a short period of time. There have been times in the past when volcanoes have erupted through beds of coal, which is the same as burning these beds of coal very rapidly. In previous episodes of climate change due to the injection of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however, we weren’t here to experience it, and there was no civilization on Earth to be subjected to a global catastrophic risk.

There is, then, a certain kind of anthropocentrism in climate change alarmism, because it treats the present climate and its likely trajectory as though it were unique, special, and exceptional, whereas it only appears unique, special, and exceptional to us because we are part of the process. And we are right to be concerned about ourselves and the civilization we have built — these things have intrinsic value and are worth saving, but they are not the only things on Earth with intrinsic value. We need to learn to see ourselves and our civilization in a larger context that both recognizes their intrinsic value and makes a cold, clear-eyed, analytical assessment of the prospects for its survival, along with the survival of other forms of intrinsic value on Earth.

David Attenborough said that, if we don’t act upon climate change, civilization may collapse, and that is true — civilization may collapse. However, if we were to voluntarily bring civilization to an abrupt end in an attempt to “save” the climate by shutting down our emissions, then civilization would also, by definition, be doomed, only by a different process. If our civilization had taken a different trajectory of development, had not industrialized, had not injected greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and was instead facing the development of the climate without the technological resources provided by an industrialized civilization, civilization would also be doomed — but, again, by a different process (by the process of another ice age, rather than the process of a greenhouse).

Civilization is a very recent emergent complexity on Earth, and we do not know whether it can survive over the longue durée on a geologically active planet, which will, over geological time, mean the ruin of any structures built by human beings. That civilization must face climate change is only the most imminent expression of what it means to live on a geologically active planet, since the climate is a function of natural processes integrated with all the other natural processes that make our homeworld what it is. If civilization manages to survive in something like its current form, it will face further global catastrophic risks and existential risks.

Making Provisions for the Future

If the reader suspects that I am pessimistic about the future of humanity and civilization, and that I am seeking to “black pill” my readers with the inevitability of our doom, nothing could be further from the truth. The hopeful message is that there is a straight-up choice between accepting the ruin of all that human beings have created, and actually making some kind of provisions for the continuity of humanity and civilization. I believe that most human beings will choose the latter, though I should also add that I don’t think humanity will choose the latter until we well and truly have our back to the wall. Our back is not yet to the wall.

And by, “making some kind of provisions for the continuity of humanity and civilization,” I don’t mean pointless window-dressing meetings of UN functionaries; I mean dealing with the hard problems, like what will be done when large nation-states collapse in the face of massive flows of refugees, what kind of triage will be put in place to save what can be saved of humanity’s heritage and its technological capacities, and how to plan for real horrors that will result in the deaths of millions, tens of millions, and hundreds of millions. This is not pleasant material for conversation, but it is necessary in order to face what is coming without illusions, without rose-colored glasses, and without sentiment.

The geopolitics of climate change has yet to manifest itself in a meaningful way. However, industrialized civilization has given us the technological means by which we can, if we so choose, and when the geopolitics of climate change does manifest itself, take action to mitigate the worst consequences. Eventually, we can and will take effective action, thanks to civilization. Trying to turn the clock back on civilization will only mean hastening its doom. We need to push ahead.