Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Signs of impending social collapse and what we can do

A version of this is to be published by the Frank Fenner Foundation.


The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) has published, in late September 2016, a paper called Anticipating societal collapse; Hints from the Stone Age. This repeats speculation that the Syrian conflict has in part been triggered by the worst drought in the Fertile Crescent in its instrumental record, and it lists several mechanisms for why societies can sometime be so slow to take evasive action that collapse becomes inevitable. 

One of these is called the “sunk-cost effect” – essentially, people have invested so much effort and time in something that once worked, that they keep on with the same approach, even though it is like sending more money after bad. A second is the “bystander effect.” We are herd creatures and behave like those around us. A third is that elites have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thus blocking change – this mechanism surely is easy to see today, in modern Australia and elsewhere.

The paper reviews evidence that science can increasingly detect incipient collapse (by finding evidence of falling “resilience”) and concludes by suggesting that science and big data be used to scan the globe for empirical indicators of such declines, in the hope that this will finally shift society’s behaviour. That seems reasonable, but evidence alone will not be enough to overcome either the sunk-cost effect or to convert predatory human elites into benevolent change agents. Furthermore, does one really needs big science to sense that resilience is in decline – is not the massive increase in global refugee numbers sufficient evidence of a major problem?

Much of my own academic work (since 1991) has been relevant to social collapse. In particular, I have been making the case that if societies collapse then this will do immense harm to public health. Therefore, public health and medicine more broadly would be well served – indeed they have a duty of care – to  recognise these issues and to try to prevent collapse. The bystander effect could switch from a liability to an asset – humans can change their collective behaviour, not only to do harm (e.g. by going to war) but to transform society in ways that mean civilisation can survive, e.g. by switching to clean energy, eating less meat, and establishing a fairer, more bio-sensitive world.

In the last three months I have published two more articles about these topics, called Sounding the Alarm: Health in the Anthropocene and Planetary overload, limits to growth and health. They are both open access. I welcome any comments.