Collapse: 20 possible scenarios


There is a serious danger of the biosphere collapsing as a result of global warming and climate change. The survival of mankind, and initially that of the most vulnerable, is at stake. Since 1981, the world's leaders have been fighting to avert a climatic and ecological catastrophe. But global warming continues to rise inexorably. What is the current ecological and socio-economic situation? What are the different socio-ecological scenarios for humanity's future? What are the factors leading to the collapse of civilizations? These are the three main questions addressed in Thierry Brugvin's book, " Collapse, 20 possible scenarios "he tries to answer. He presents it to us, exclusively.

It was around 2015 or 2016, one day, when discovering the edifying map published by the magazine " New Scientist "It was in the "4° degrees warmer world" that I truly realized that there was something even worse than a shrinking or recessionary world: a world suffering from global warming and its disruption. It was no longer just a question of feeling a little less the cold of winter and suffering a little more the heat of summer... In this map, we can see that France was covered in ochre, like an arid country with a climate similar to southern Spain, or even northern Morocco, and only the northern hemisphere remained green and more or less cultivable.
In a world similar to that of the Middle Ages, mankind was still able to feed itself through laborious farming. However, when the earth's temperature rose too high, water ran out, agricultural production became insufficient and famines broke out, resulting in millions of deaths...

Most non-renewable resources will be exhausted between 2040 and 2090

The planet's non-renewable resources are running out. In 2019, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) estimated that natural resource extraction would have to increase by 111% (150% for metals and 135% for minerals) to fuel unlimited annual growth. (1). In 2017, global oil consumption was 95 billion barrels. Stacked side by side, these 50 cm by 80 cm barrels would represent 40,000 km, or the circumference of the earth. If stacked vertically one on top of the other, they would rise to a height of 760,000 km. All year round (2).

It's impossible to achieve infinite quantitative growth in a finite world. However, "with a growth rate of 2% (i.e. very low) in 2000 years, GDP would be 150 million billion. In 2000 years, with only 0.7% of growth, it would be a million times today's GDP! Yet the average growth rate in the OECD was between 3 and 5% on average, "at least before the economic crisis of 2008. In 2022, global economic growth would be 3.3%, as it was in the early 2000s, when it averaged 3 %. With such a rate, "an economy doubles in 23 years" and growth of 10 %, an economy doubles in 7 years". However, non-renewable resources are likely to be exhausted within 20 to 50 years.

Energy resources are set to disappear rapidly: oil around 2050, natural gas around 2070, coal around 2160. As far as metals are concerned, iron seams will be dry by 2090. We can see that rising oil prices are leading to a slowdown in growth, followed by rising food prices. As for nuclear power, will it be able to reduce global warming? Probably a little, but uranium reserves are also coming to an end. What's more, electric power isn't all that green these days.

What's more, with global warming reaching 2°C, rising sea levels are likely to affect more than a billion people in the 21st century. In addition to rising seas, there is also a growing risk of soil sinking in metropolises. Worse still, global warming is likely to have a serious impact on agriculture, leading to famine. In France, record temperatures could well exceed 50 degrees by 2050. (4).

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The greatest risk to humanity is global warming

In 2021, however, CO2 concentration is 50 % higher than in 1800, and the average temperature at the Earth's surface has already risen by 1.1°C. In 2021, the World Meteorological Organization and the UK Met Office warn that "the probability of reaching 1.5°C warming by 2025 now stands at 40 %. The 2018 Paris Agreement set a threshold of 1.5°C not to be exceeded before the end of the century. This was the most ambitious target set. But 75 years ahead of schedule, we are already likely to exceed it, with the catastrophic consequences that this implies." (5).

Global warming is causing the waters to rise, flooding densely populated and fertile areas such as the Nile and Bangladesh deltas, leading to famine.
The IPCC estimates that a billion people would be affected by rising sea levels in the 21st century with a 2°C warming. But it could very well reach 4°C. Several billion people would then be affected. (6).

To make matters worse, the problem of droughts linked to rising temperatures will have an impact on agricultural production and thus also create huge famines. At least 50,000 people die of hunger or malnutrition every year as a result of global warming. (7). On the other hand, increasing global warming will generate famines in even greater numbers every year. According to the World Nutrition Report 2017, 815 million people went to bed hungry, or one in nine people in 2016. This is up from 777 million in 2015. In addition, 50 million children suffered from hunger in 2017. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), more than 25,000 people, adults and children combined, died every day from famine and related causes, i.e. more than 9 million every year in 2009. (8). This corresponds to around 80 % of the population of the Île de France region. Yet the future is likely to be even worse, with further droughts limiting global agricultural production.

At the end of 2020, there will still be 690 million malnourished people on earth, i.e. 8.9 % of the world's population, including 140 million starving people; 7 million people a year will still die as a result. The director of the WFP announces that "the pandemic is doubling needs, while it is blocking the transport of aid, with the result that 135 million more people will be affected by famine. But by 2021, this figure could rise enormously", he warns. (9).

While there is enough food to feed everyone on the planet, global socio-economic inequalities are creating an insolvency of the poorest. In 2008, the violent financial, food, oil and ecological crises have called into question man's former place on earth and in nature. Some expect technical progress to be the solution to these systemic crises, while the majority of ecologists prefer to regulate ecology through standards and laws.

Could humanity survive a temperature rise of 10.5°C in 2300?

This increase is one of the IPCC forecasts. This would mean an average temperature of 25.5°C. In 2016, the average temperature on earth was 15°C, and in France it was 15.6°C in 2014. What's more, a human's physical survival depends on the relationship between humidity and outside temperature. In a desert with an average temperature of 25°C, agriculture is possible in an oasis. The city of Biskra has an average annual temperature of 21.8°C, but achieves high agricultural production. So there are regions that manage to produce large volumes of crops in even more arid climates, but only when the water table is sufficient. This suggests that, when it comes to agricultural production, the problem is not so much the level of temperature as the volume of water available. Water shortages are becoming a serious problem for millions of people in most nations. This is why wars over water will increase, in order to gain access to and share the water in rivers and streams. 

Ecological limits will reduce world demographics

The danger of desertification stems from a drastic decline in agricultural and therefore food resources. According to the Meadows report, this should lead to a collapse in world demographics within the framework of the Standard Model (business as usual)(10). What's more, permafrost is a veritable climate time bomb.

Despite all the talk of reducing global warming, the carbon footprint of the digital industry continues to grow. Similarly, textile consumption is the 2nd most polluting industry after the oil industry. As for the impact of transport on global warming, it is significant, but not the majority, since carbon emissions from transport represent 14 % of global emissions. Moreover, cargo ships emit a great deal of sulfur, but little CO2 in proportion to their weight. Even if large companies are more responsible for CO2 emissions, each of us has a share of the responsibility in proportion to our consumption. Globally, the carbon footprint per capita is 2 to 3 times too high to be sustainable. As for the carbon footprint of France, and therefore of the average French person, by 2023 it will be 6 times too large to be sustainable.

A sustainable ecological footprint is a prerequisite for human survival

Since "the 1950s, the ecological footprint of the French has exceeded the capacity of France's natural resources to meet their needs". (11). There is a strong correlation between income level and ecological footprint. Some countries, such as Cuba, may not be very wealthy, but they have a sustainable ecological footprint, as well as a good human development index (HDI). Thomas Piketty has shown that people's CO2 emissions are proportional to their income, so that responsibility for their carbon and ecological footprint is related to their level of wealth. What's more, wealth inequalities are increasing, and economic inequality varies according to country of birth. Yet the history of ecological inequalities shows that they also stem from historical economic inequalities. Responsibility for global warming varies according to criteria, political vision and national interests. There are four levels of socio-economic and ecological class struggle: the struggle between owners and non-owners, the struggle for purchasing power, the economic struggle between North and South and the North-South ecological struggle for the last non-renewable resources.

Climate crisis increases famine and migration

As a result, automobile fuel in the North is reducing food supplies in the South, due to the global production of primary energy, including agrofuels. In this way, a form of global market for agricultural land is developing, with the development of agrofuels contributing to the starvation of the most malnourished. What's more, the world's fish stocks are dwindling, and some species are on the brink of extinction. Meat consumption contributes to global warming. The monopoly of seed control is becoming a food and commercial weapon. The industrialization of agriculture also benefits petrochemical capitalism.

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Biodiversity is in freefall. Yet it is essential to ecosystem balance and productive, resilient agriculture. Worldwide, 32 % of species are in decline. As we all know, the collapse of species and biodiversity is affecting bees in particular, even though they are crucial to agriculture. But it is humanity that is the main cause of the 6th great extinction of species, and therefore of the decline in biodiversity.
Are we in the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene or the Bovidocene? No, it's more like the productocene, capitalist, socialist or communist productivism. Is there enough arable land left in the world today, and will it be enough to feed humanity? Yes, because we can feed more than 11 billion people, but not everyone has enough money to buy food. For that, we need to redistribute wealth. However, there is also competition between the development of agriculture and deforestation. Deforestation reduces the water cycle, thereby increasing global warming. The latter, in turn, increases the number of refugees worldwide.

Despite more than 30 COPs aimed at regulating the climate, the situation is only getting worse.

This is probably because climate regulation is not necessary for the elites, but also because people are not willing to change their lifestyles, as everyone aspires to consume more and more, in order to at least reach the standard of living of the classes above them. There is a strong correlation between income level and ecological footprint. Yet only a sustainable carbon footprint and ecological footprint will enable humanity to survive.

Individual or national responsibility for environmental damage is proportional to the destruction caused, and generally also proportional to the level of wealth, i.e. consumption or production. But responsibility is also proportional to the power of elected representatives, technocrats and citizens to pass and enforce environmental laws. Ecological responsibility is therefore proportional to two factors: economic power and political power, whether individual or collective.

Each of the major powers accuses the other of being most responsible for global warming. But responsibility for the carbon footprint varies according to the indicators chosen. It can be the richest individuals (the 8.5 owners, the 1%, the 5%, the 10 %, the 50% richest of humanity), the most polluting companies, such as the oil companies, or the countries with the largest carbon footprints. Among the major powers, those most responsible for CO2 emissions are the United States in terms of carbon footprint per capita, China in terms of carbon footprint per country, and Great Britain in terms of carbon footprint, since the start of the industrial era in 1850. Indeed, the history of ecological inequalities also stems from the history of economic inequalities.

What will humanity's ecological future look like?

Different ecological scenarios have been identified for humanity. The IPCC proposes 5 new scenarios for the future. Scenario SSP1-1.9 is the most optimistic. In it, the IPCC describes a world where global carbon dioxide emissions fall to zero by 2050. In scenario SSP1-2.6, "the IPCC's second-best scenario", global CO² emissions are sharply reduced, but at a slower pace. In the 3rd scenario, SSP2-4.5, the world remains in the middle of the road. In the 4th scenario SSP3-7.0, the world will be torn by national rivalries and will follow a steep path. In the 5th scenario SSP5-8.5, the world's development will be fueled by fossil fuels and will be a world hurtling down the highway to the abyss.

As for ADEME, it has imagined 4 scenarios for achieving carbon neutrality in 2050: Scenario 1: Generation frugality (sobriety with a little technology); Scenario 2: Territorial cooperation (with slight sobriety and a little technology); Scenario 3: Green technologies (without sobriety); Scenario 4: The repairing bet (technological solutions without sobriety). 

As early as 1972, the Meadows Report for the Club of Rome envisaged 11 scenarios, including 5 main ones, for the future of humanity in 2100, which have been updated periodically. (12). The first scenario is linked to the reduction of non-renewable resources or "natural resources". business as usual ". Then there's the pollution growth scenario. Then the 3rd scenario of pollution control. In the 4th scenario, humanity decides to control births, pollution and non-renewable resources. In the 5th, everything is stabilized, except non-renewable resources. (13). It's the latter that's the most pleasing, but it's the 1st scenario that humanity is currently following. This scenario predicts that demographics will never reach 11 billion, but only 7.8 billion. (14), because its growth will cease in 2030. This is because industrial and agricultural production will have started to stagnate around 2020. This is indeed what happened. The Meadows team didn't foresee the Covid crisis in particular, but the recession did. Coincidence or not, these forecasts have held true for 50 years. (15 – 16).

To conclude the futurology, let's recall the 6 other scenarios for the future of humanity on the planet, but this time in relation between technological and ecological resources: 1) the scenario of technological fortress cities or states; 2) the agricultural scenario without advanced technology; 3) the thorium power plant scenario (i.e., medium energy, but limited by metals); 3-a) the deregulated climate sub-scenario; and 3-b) the regulated climate sub-scenario (i.e., medium energy, but limited by metals); 4) the abundant-energy, metal-limited scenario; 5) the abundant-energy, metal-limited scenario, including 5-1) the resource-abundant capitalism sub-scenario; and 5-2) the resource-abundant communist or democratic socialist sub-scenario. Then, 6) the decreasing (then post-creasing) society scenario; 6-1-1) solidary, voluntary and democratic degrowth, 6-1-2) liberal or far-right degrowth. With regard to the 6th scenario, there are sub-scenarios of the political decision to degrowth through ecological planning, through authoritarian decisions by a world government or several national governments, or through the incentive regulation of degrowth by representative democracy or through the political decision taken by direct democracy through referendum. Finally, there are also sub-scenarios for implementing the 6th scenario of solidarity-based, planned degrowth, through numerical control, incentives, or by limiting individual resources (salaries, income, wealth...).

In an attempt to predict future societies around 2100, these different scenarios can be summarized around three major scenarios based on three criteria: the degree of probability, the level of inequality and the ecological and therefore food situation. Thus, there are mainly unequal technological societies, whose existence is unlikely because technological solutions have yet to be discovered or mastered. Then there are ecological societies that are predominantly egalitarian, but whose likelihood of occurrence also remains relatively low due to a lack of desirability for the majority. Finally, there are the ecologically fragile and therefore food-deficient societies, which also turn out to be highly unequal. However, the unequal scenarios are the most likely to occur, as they simply prolong the current dominant global political, socio-economic and ecological trends.

What are the causes of the collapse of societies, and how do we define the collapse of a society?

Depending on the definition of collapse, the interpretation and analysis of a case study will differ. The collapse of a type of society leads to its disappearance or replacement, but it can also be the result of revolution or innovation. Revolution is not the same as collapse. When an ancient civilization collapses during a revolution, is it a collapse? No, because in a revolution, most of the social actors of that society or civilization remain present.

Le chercheur Jared Diamond explique les effondrements à partir de cinq facteurs principaux. Selon Diamond, le premier facteur d’effondrement « concerne les dommages que les individus infligent à leur environnement.» Le second facteur identifié par Diamond relève des changements climatiques. Le troisième facteur d’effondrement qu’il met en évidence est induit par « des conflits avec d’autres sociétés.» Le quatrième facteur d’effondrement consiste dans les rigidités idéologiques et culturelles des élites. Le cinquième facteur est déterminé par la réduction du soutien apporté dans les relations commerciales avec d’autres sociétés (17). Mais il existe un autre facteur d’effondrement, qui n’a pas été abordé par Diamond, celui des inégalités. Or, à la suite de Marx qui priorise les causes économiques, Motesharrei avec son Modèle HANDY considère que ce sont les inégalités économiques qui accélèrent le déclin des sociétés. C’est ainsi qu’il explique l’effondrement de la société Maya.

Par ailleurs, pour le chercheur Joseph A. Tainter, la complexité organisationnelle se révèle un facteur de fragilisation d’un système. Or il existe un équilibre optimal entre efficacité et robustesse dans la taille d’une société ou d’un système. Il y a donc rarement un seul facteur ou secteur de la société, qui explique un effondrement ou une révolution mais plutôt une combinaison de facteurs.

Comment tenter d’éviter l’effondrement ?

Pour y répondre, il existe des propositions des courants de pensée de l’écologie politique. Cependant les solutions actuelles du courant néolibéral mondialisé pour réguler le climat s’avèrent peu efficaces, puisque le dérèglement s’accentue sans cesse. La politique de compétition libérale mondialisée s’oppose à une coopération climatique internationale efficiente. D’ailleurs, les mécanismes de régulation mondiale du carbone se révèlent très peu efficaces, mais les plus riches ne veulent pas véritablement les changer. Or, la régulation du climat ne se révèle pas vraiment nécessaire aux élites, qui sauront plus longtemps que les autres en repousser les conséquences pour eux-mêmes. Mais, il existe d’autres propositions politiques que celles des libéraux. Certains considèrent que la régulation du libéralisme économique, ne suffira pas à réguler le climat, car le problème serait le capitalisme. D’autres répondent que, c’est surtout le productivisme, qui pousse à la productivité, au profit et à la consommation et que le communisme lui-même s’est révélé aussi productiviste, comme le capitalisme libéral. Il est vrai que le capitalisme social ou écologique ne perdure jamais très longtemps, car les grands capitalistes, c’est-à-dire les entreprises transnationales ne veulent pas être trop régulée dans leur liberté. Le problème relève donc à la fois du productivisme communiste et du productivisme capitaliste libéral, avec sa liberté compétitive, fondamentalement non coopérative.

Il y a donc différentes orientations qui s’inscrivent dans le cadre des grands systèmes politico-économiques et écologiques. Il y a celles de l’écologie sociale, de la décroissance, des effondristes, de l’écosocialisme, de l’économisme, de l’écologie libérale et de l’écologie extrême-droite. L’alternative relève aussi d’une transformation de la psychologie individuelle et collective. Il existe une multitude de solutions pour agir contre le dérèglement climatique et la fin des ressources non renouvelables.

Parallèlement à l’engagement individuel, l’action collective ou les stratégies des partis politiques ou des associations face aux problèmes écologiques, il existe 5 principales attitudes. Il y a les réalistes, parfois pessimistes envers les irréalistes, parfois optimistes, mais on observe aussi les combatifs face aux défaitistes. Il y a ensuite les combatifs optimistes, les combatifs pessimistes, les défaitistes, qui sont par nature pessimistes. Concernant les très graves problèmes pour lesquels les probabilités de réussite se révèlent relativement faibles, il semble que l’attitude la plus constructive soit d’être combatif, sans être trop optimiste. Ceci afin de ne pas minimiser l’effort à entreprendre et de ne pas sombrer dans l’angélisme des petites actions individuelles pour protéger l’environnement.

Psychologiquement, il vaut mieux agir et éventuellement échouer que subir un effondrement extérieur, voire intérieur sans avoir tenté d’agir. L’abattement s’avère la pire des solutions. Pour prédire ce qui va arriver à l’humanité, nous pouvons utiliser la métaphore d’un train lancé à pleine vitesse qui arrive trop vite dans un virage bordé d’un mur. Plus le conducteur du train freine, plus la population fait d’effort pour décroître et infléchir la direction prise, moins le train frappe violemment le mur et plus il sera alors en mesure de poursuivre sa progression, avec le moins de wagons perdus possible. Dans notre cas, c’est-à-dire avec le moins de destruction écologique, de décès par la famine et de guerres possibles.

Thierry Brugvin, Docteur en sociologie – Enseignant-chercheur en psycho-sociologie à l’Université de Besançon et psychothérapeute

** »Effondrement, 20 Scénarios possibles – Inégalités économiques, crise écologique, incohérences politiques » Editions Yves Michel, 2024

(1) OCDE, Global Resources Outlook to 2060, OCDE, 2019
(2)COUZINER Adrien, Etat des lieux sur le risque d’effondrement de la société thermo-industriel, ADRASTIA, Novembre 2018
(3) LATOUCHE Serge, Le pari de la décroissance. 2006, Fayard, 302 p.
(5)   WMO, WMO Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update for 2021–2025, WMO, mai 2021, in Média Citoyen, « L’ONU prévient : nous nous dirigeons vers un enfer climatique », juin 2021.
 (6) AFP, RELAXNEWS, FUTURA, Réchauffement climatique : la montée des eaux sera bien plus élevée et rapide que prévu » 13/12/2021.
(7) BARRAU Aurélien, Le plus grand défi de l’histoire de l’humanité,  Robert Laffont, 2020.
(8) FAO, L’état de l’insécurité alimentaire dans le monde, FAO, 2013
( 9) LE BOUCHER Eric, « L’intolérable retour de la famine dans le monde », Les échos, 11 déc. 2020.
 (10) TURNER Graham, On the Cusp of Global Collapse? Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data, GAIA21/2(2012) p.116 – 124. TURNER,Graham. Is Global Collapse Imminent? MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne, 2014.
(11)  CANFIN Pascal, « Un modèle de croissance insoutenable », Alternatives économiques, Fév. 2010
(12)  TURNER Graham, 2014, p. 7.
(13)  MEADOWS 1972, Fig 46;
(14)  Correspondant à la valeur normalisée d’environ 0,47 du modèle standart (BAU) de Turner (2008)
(15)  PISON Gilles, Tous les pays du monde, Population et Sociétés, numéro 525, septembre 2015.
(16)  Ce qui correspond à la « valeur normalisée » de 0,43 du rapport Meadows réajusté par TURNER, G. M. “A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality”, Global Environmental Change, 18, pp. 397-411, 2008
(17)  DIAMOND Jared, Effondrement, Comment les sociétés décident de leur disparition ou de leur survie, Paris, Gallimard, 2006.DIAMOND, 2006.
(18)  NAFEEZ Ahmed. « Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? », Earth Insight, The Guardian, 14 March 2014. in WARSCHAWSKI Dror, La fin du monde : la faute à qui ?  Genève, Le courrier, 6 mai 2014

Header photo : Perte d’une maison en bord de rivière à Soriotpur, au Bangladesh /août 2018 — Photo Chowdhury Zakir Hossain/Barcroft Media/Abaca.

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