Political Animal


June 07, 2012 3:30 PM Running Out of Time

By Ryan Cooper

Looming like Sauron over every other issue in the world is the specter of sudden environmental collapse, documented in small scale in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse (see New Yorker review here). A group of scientists based in Berkeley just issued a report making exactly this prediction:

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation.
“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of a review paper appearing in the June 7 issue of the journal Nature. “The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.”

James Fallows says this could be the most important story of 2012, bar none. I haven’t read the report (paywalled), and though it doesn’t seem to have all that much in the way of groundbreaking new studies, this kind of argument has long been easy to make. Diamond’s book, published in 2005, has basically the same conclusion. Historically, societies that fail to manage their resource base have tended to collapse very quickly. This time, it could happen on a planetary scale.

(Image via)

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • matryoshka on June 07, 2012 4:16 PM:

    Unfortunately, no one wants to hear it, and no one is going to believe it until it is undeniable.

  • c u n d gulag on June 07, 2012 4:18 PM:

    Conservative POV:
    What is that image?
    That ain't no science!

    And as for changes taking generartions, well, who the hell cares?
    WE'LL all be gone!

    And after we dismantle SS and Medicare, and empty the seas of fishes and plant life, and land of flora and fauna, at least we can say that we left SOMETHING behind for future generations!
    You're welcome, today's young people, and future young people!

    This kind of reminds us of the mess the Nixon/Reagan/Bush I/and Bush II administrations - and you know how much we loved, and still love, those groups of fine Christian folks - left behind, writ large on a GLOBAL scale!
    So, it's kind of a Conservative Tradition!

    Besides, we have faith that free-markets and faith will fix it.
    So, if money don't fix it, then prayer surely will!
    Bet on it!!

    Er... uhm... we want that money for that bet put-up front - NOW!
    So it can grow with interest.
    Yeah... yeah... So it can GROW with interest!
    *That's a good one, huh?*

  • Ron Byers on June 07, 2012 4:22 PM:

    Our Republican overlords will handle the crisis with ease. They will simply pass laws denying science and our lying eyes. They will simply say it ain't so. Don't believe me just pull up Steven Colbert's word from last evening--Sink or Swim.

  • Mitch on June 07, 2012 4:33 PM:

    "Historically, societies that fail to manage their resource base have tended to collapse very quickly. This time, it could happen on a planetary scale."

    This time it WILL happen on a planetary scale. Indeed it's already begun. Unfortunately I really don't think anything can be done at this point. Humanity is not going to stop breeding or consuming vast resources with no thought for the future. Also, consider that the oceans absorb much of our carbon only to release it slowly into the atmosphere over time. So even if we stopped burning fossil fuels en masse, it's too late to stop the rise of atmospheric CO2. And as the far northern latitudes defrost, methane will be released from the frozen soil, compounding the problem.

    Cheery thought, but there you have it. It seems that we are well and truly fornicated, or at least our grandchildren will be.

  • Daryl McCullough on June 07, 2012 4:37 PM:

    There's a Catch-22 when it comes to a really bad catastrophe that is awaiting us: if you try to be realistic, you will sound like an alarmist, and most people won't take you seriously. So you almost have to underplay the seriousness of the threat in order to get people to listen.

  • TCinLA on June 07, 2012 4:38 PM:

    Homo Sap, the failed experiment in creating biological intelligence capable of foreseeing the results of its actions and making rational decisions to change/alter those actions, has become a cancer on the planet (if you look at our population increase since 1800, the graph looks very much like what a cancer cell does). Earth will survive, and maybe in another 10 million years after our departure, a second attempt will be more successful than we. I'm just sorry for all the innocent species far better than we that we have destroyed in our ignorance and greed.

  • T-Rex on June 07, 2012 4:39 PM:

    Environmentalism, a parable:

    A man fell overboard from his boat and was swept away from it by the current. He prayed to God to save him and began swimming to shore. A boat passed by and offered him a lift but he said "No, I have faith in God, I'm praying to him to save me." So he kept on swimming, but without making much progress. Another boat passed by, and the sailor said "You look like you're in trouble. Let me help you in." But he said "No, God will save me, I'm praying to God." A third boat passed by and the same thing happened again. But finally he was so exhausted that he could hardly swim and he prayed once more to God. This time, God answered, and said, "Dammit, I sent you three boats!"

  • Mimikatz on June 07, 2012 4:53 PM:

    This story got big play in the SF Chronicle, but I haven't seen it elsewhere. It is probably inevitable at this point, and will be visible and fast enough to be virtually undeniable within e lifetimes of most folks here, certainly by 2030. It never ceases to amaze me how DC types can agonize so over the state of Social Security or the national debt in 2037 but never give a thought to what the planet will be like by then. Do people in Phoenix or in Oklahoma realize just how hot it is going to get? Do people in the Dakotas and Nebraska realize they will be among the hottest places within 40-50 years and that is going to have n effect on crops? I know the GOP legislators in North Carolina think they can wish away sea level rise, but it ain't so, although there are other effects that will be. Felt sooner than sea level rise.

  • James E Powell on June 07, 2012 6:31 PM:

    Jared Diamond and others have written about societies that failed to appreciate or prepare for looming catastrophes and collapsed as a result of that failure.

    Does anyone write about societies that did appreciate and prepare for looming catastrophes? Are there any to write about?

  • DisgustedWithItAll on June 07, 2012 10:21 PM:

    Whoa!!! Republicans aren't going to like that!! Can the universe present that sort of image and not come under withering attack from the wingnut God squad?