Sustainability or Collapse?

Sustainability or Collapse?: An Integrated History and Future of People on Earth

Robert Costanza
Lisa J. Graumlich
Will Steffen
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 518
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  • Book Info
    Sustainability or Collapse?
    Book Description:

    Human history, as written traditionally, leaves out the important ecological and climate context of historical events. But the capability to integrate the history of human beings with the natural history of the Earth now exists, and we are finding that human-environmental systems are intimately linked in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. In Sustainability or Collapse?, researchers from a range of scholarly disciplines develop an integrated human and environmental history over millennial, centennial, and decadal time scales and make projections for the future. The contributors focus on the human-environment interactions that have shaped historical forces since ancient times and discuss such key methodological issues as data quality. Topics highlighted include the political ecology of the Mayans; the effect of climate on the Roman Empire; the "revolutionary weather" of El Niño from 1788 to 1795; twentieth-century social, economic, and political forces in environmental change; scenarios for the future; and the accuracy of such past forecasts as The Limits to Growth.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-27086-1
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Dahlem Workshops
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Julia Lupp
  4. List of Participants
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Foreword The Mirror of Galadriel
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
    Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

    Sometime in the summer of 2002, I moderated the Program Advisory Committee meeting charged with the design of the Dahlem Workshop “Earth System Analysis for Sustainability.” I recall that toward the end of our incredibly intense and exhausting deliberations Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate and one of my designated workshop co-chairs, exclaimed: “This is going to be the most ambitious of all Dahlem events so far! I really don’t know whether it will work.”

    This was a well-justified concern indeed since the workshop topic was nothing less than the generic mode of operation of the planetary machinery under qualitatively different...

  6. Section I Introduction
    • 1 Sustainability or Collapse: Lessons from Integrating the History of Humans and the Rest of Nature
      (pp. 3-18)
      Robert Costanza, Lisa J. Graumlich and Will Steffen

      What is the most critical problem facing humanity at the beginning of the 21st century? Global pandemics, including AIDS? Global warming? Meeting global energy demands? Worldwide financial collapse? International terrorism? The answer is all of these and more. Most of us live in an increasingly global system in which our most critical problems span national borders, cover continents, or are truly global. When past civilizations collapsed, they were isolated from other parts of the world. The socioeconomic and natural drivers of these collapses were local and regional. Today in our interconnected global civilization, massive social failure in one region can...

    • 2 Human–Environment Interactions: Learning from the Past
      (pp. 19-38)
      John A. Dearing

      This discussion paper¹ attempts a brief review of the ways in which useful information about human–environment interactions can be gained by studying the past. It is essentially the personal view of an environmental scientist whose perspective has evolved through a career dealing with the reconstruction of past environments from the analysis of sediments. Thus, while it attempts to cover diverse approaches to the study of Earth and world systems, it is biased toward the physical sciences. Its primary aim is to draw out a few categories of “learning from the past” for discussion, focusing particularly on common and contrasting...

    • 3 Assessing and Communicating Data Quality: Toward a System of Data Quality Grading
      (pp. 39-48)
      Robert Costanza

      There are three principle sources of uncertainty in scientific analysis. Gaps in knowledge or understanding can arise from any or all of these sources.

      1. Parameter uncertainty: the uncertainty associated with model parameters. This is also known as “within model” uncertainty. The usual way to communicate this uncertainty is through statistics and sensitivity analysis of various kinds.

      2. Model uncertainty: the uncertainty associated with the choice of model or underlying assumptions. This is also known as “between model” uncertainty. The usual way to communicate this uncertainty is to display the results of alternative models or sets of assumptions. For example,...

  7. Section II The Millennial Timescale:: Up to 10,000 Years Ago
    • 4 The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Maya: A Case Study in Political Ecology
      (pp. 51-60)
      Vernon L. Scarborough

      The ancient Maya of karstic lowland Central America occupied a geographic region of 250,000 km² with an uninterrupted cultural legacy of at least 1500 years. Although much is made of their well-known, if little understood, collapse in the 9thcentury A.D. (most recently popularized by Diamond 2005), the long-lived success of the Maya within a difficult and frequently inhospitable semitropical environment warrants greater attention. As a primary civilization, or a highly complex social order unlike any preceding it, and the only such “state” from a tropical regime, the Maya are best known for their towering pyramids, elaborate ball courts, developed...

    • 5 Climate, Complexity, and Problem Solving in the Roman Empire
      (pp. 61-76)
      Joseph A. Tainter and Carole L. Crumley

      The Roman Empire has been studied for centuries by those who see in it lessons for their own time. We are among those who perceive in the Empire a case study whose value is timeless. Where once the Roman Empire was studied to draw political or moral conclusions, wewill show that it can yield fresh lessons in such contemporary problems as climate change, government insolvency, the evolution of institutions, and the relationship of heterarchy and hierarchy in problem solving.

      For an agrarian empire activated by solar energy, the territory most efficiently administered would have been the Mediterranean Basin and fringing...

    • 6 Integration of Climatic, Archaeological, and Historical Data: A Case Study of the Khabur River Basin, Northeastern Syria
      (pp. 77-88)
      Frank Hole

      Northeastern Syria is part of a broad expanse of semiarid steppe (the Jazirah) that lies between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers (Figure 6.1). The northernmost part of the Jazirah is known as the Fertile Crescent, a narrow stretch of land suitable for rain-fed agriculture where annual precipitation reaches 350 mm. Southward, rainfall decreases markedly, and is <150 mm where the Khabur River enters the Euphrates. The normal limit for rain-fed agriculture today is 200–250 mm, a marginal zone that fluctuates spatially in response to interannual variability in precipitation that approaches 100 percent (Figure 6.2). The focus of this chapter...

    • 7 The Trajectory of Human Evolution in Australia: 10,000 B.P. to the Present
      (pp. 89-94)
      Timothy F. Flannery

      It was only in the early 21stcentury, with the development of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and electron spin resonance (ESR) dating, along with advances in ¹⁴C dating, that researchers developed a plausible chronology for human arrival in Australia and for megafaunal extinction. This new knowledge has dramatically altered our understanding of human–environment interactions in Australia. The emerging consensus is that humans arrived in Australia between 45,000–55,000 B.P. (Bowler et al. 2003) and that the continent underwent a dramatic ecological transformation at around the same time. This transformation included the extinction of many large vertebrates (Roberts et al....

    • 8 Toward a Comparative Study of Hegemonic Decline in Global Systems: The Complexity of Crisis and the Paradoxes of Differentiated Experience
      (pp. 95-113)
      Jonathan Friedman

      In this chapter I review some of our own research on the above subject and a thought experiment of sorts—one meant to be suggestive only. It consists primarily of a series of propositions concerning the issues of decline and a model of the dynamics involved therein, especially of hegemonic decline in global systems. Although the discussion begins with expansion and decline in “tribal” social orders, the primary focus is with phenomena that have been taken up in a recent publication (Friedman and Chase-Dunn 2004), which focuses on what might be called comparative hegemonic decline. The discussion is also very...

    • 9 Group Report: Millennial Perspectives on the Dynamic Interaction of Climate, People, and Resources
      (pp. 115-148)
      Charles L. Redman, Carole L. Crumley, Fekri A. Hassan, Frank Hole, João Morais, Frank Riedel, Vernon L. Scarborough, Joseph A. Tainter, Peter Turchin and Yoshinori Yasuda

      The dynamic interactions between human societies and their environments are best understood from a perspective that accounts for long-term patterns and processes and addresses questions from an integrated, often interdisciplinary, perspective on human societies and biophysical environments. As proposed by the Earth System Science Partnership/International Council for Science to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg 2002, the development of a science for sustainability will require the development of a long-term perspective. “Archives from the past—e.g., ice cores, coral cores, tree rings, archaeological and historical records—must be studied more vigorously to provide paths of change, baseline conditions,...

  8. Section III The Centennial Timescale:: Up to 1000 Years Ago
    • 10 Revolutionary Weather: The Climatic and Economic Crisis of 1788–1795 and the Discovery of El Niño
      (pp. 151-168)
      Richard H. Grove

      Australia has above all other places a claim on the epithet, “the El Niño continent.” It is regularly beset by this phenomenon, which links climate anomalies across the globe. During an ENSO event, a spatial pattern of climate fluctuations develops: heavy rains fall on the Pacific coast of South America, while the lands to the west of the Pacific Ocean—from Australia and Indonesia through to southern and northeast Africa, and including South Asia—suffer severe droughts. The distinct feature about the phenomenon is that fluctuations appear in many locations almost simultaneously. Climatologists call the relations between fluctuations “teleconnections” (Nicholls...

    • 11 The Lie of History: Nation-States and the Contradictions of Complex Societies
      (pp. 169-196)
      Fekri A. Hassan

      Nations play a major force in making history. In a world undergoing radical transformations, we may benefit from a cautious approach to apologetic historic writings as well as from a deeper, multifaceted understanding of how individuals shape historical events. Interpreting human history has not only been influenced by royalist, religious, and, more recently, nationalist agendas, but also by a lack of integration of insights from psychology, sociology, and anthropology. A fuller understanding of the historical process requires an explanation of how the thoughts, communications, and actions by individuals in a social matrix lead to norms and modalities that endure at...

    • 12 Little Ice Age-type Impacts and the Mitigation of Social Vulnerability to Climate in the Swiss Canton of Bern prior to 1800
      (pp. 197-212)
      Christian Pfister

      The Little Ice Age (LIA) is the most recent period when glaciers maintained an expanded position on most parts of the globe, as their fronts oscillated in advanced positions (Grove 2001). The LIA was a simultaneous, worldwide phenomenon; however, there was considerable regional and local variation.

      In the Alps, three phases of maximum extension can be distinguished: the first occurred around 1385, the second in the mid-17thcentury, and the third around 1860 (Holzhauser 2002). Heinz Wanner (2000) coined the term of “Little Ice Age-type events” (LIATE) to designate the three far-reaching advances known from the last millennium. Each of...

    • 13 Information Processing and Its Role in the Rise of the European World System
      (pp. 213-241)
      Sander E. van der Leeuw

      In the context of this volume, which aims at initiating a cogent reflection on the sustainability of our way of life as it relates to the natural environment, it seems to me that as a social scientist, the most important dynamic I can highlight is the relative importance of societal processes in the combined socioenvironmental dynamic. In other words, if we are to study sustainability, we must answer the following question: When is society “strong” vis-à-vis the environment, and in which periods, if any, do environmental dynamics dominate the scene?

      Before we do so, however, we must refine our conception...

    • 14 Group Report: Integrating Socioenvironmental Interactions over Centennial Timescales — Needs and Issues
      (pp. 243-274)
      John A. Dearing, Lisa J. Graumlich, Richard H. Grove, Arnulf Grübler, Helmut Haberl, Frank Hole, Christian Pfister and Sander E. van der Leeuw

      This group report focuses on the means of improving our understanding of the dynamics of socioenvironmental change that occur over timescales of centuries, with specific focus on the past 1000 years. The term “socioenvironmental change” is used here to define the whole range of interactions that may connect together the climate, sociocultural, and ecological systems existing at any spatio-temporal scale. The overall importance in studying this timescale and period are as follows:

      1. The past 1000 years were a period of substantial social and environmental change globally, exemplified by the growth of Islam, the European Renaissance, the 16th- to 17th-century...

  9. Section IV The Decadal Timescale:: Up to 100 Years Ago
    • 15 A Decadal Chronology of 20th-Century Changes in Earth’s Natural Systems
      (pp. 277-300)
      Nathan J. Mantua

      In many respects, decade- to century-scale variability is variability at the human scale. A human generation, major infrastructure planning and investments, the length of a person’s career and an individual’s lifetime: each typically plays out over timescales of decades. Earth system changes over decadal timescales can therefore resonate with human systems in ways that lead to especially strong societal impacts. This chapter aims to provide an overview of key 20th-century decade- to century-scale changes in the Earth’s natural systems due to both human and natural causes. Many components of the Earth system experienced dramatic changes in the 20th century. The...

    • 16 Social, Economic, and Political Forces in Environmental Change: Decadal Scale (1900 to 2000)
      (pp. 301-330)
      John R. McNeill

      In this chapter, I wish to provide a sense of the social, political, and economic background to the environmental turbulence of the last hundred or so years by following two strategies simultaneously: (a) a narrative of the evolution of international political economy since the 1890s, and (b) summary treatments of driving forces behind environmental change operating on the decadal timescale. The first of these (section on GLOBAL POLITICAL ECONOMY SINCE 1890) may be too familiar to some readers to justify the time required to read it, but it is offered for those who are not already well acquainted with the...

    • 17 Integrated Human–Environment Approaches of Land Degradation in Drylands
      (pp. 331-339)
      Eric F. Lambin, Helmut Geist, James F. Reynolds and D. Mark Stafford Smith

      Land degradation in drylands, which is referred to as desertification, impacts human populations (e.g., food security, health and well-being, sustainability) and environmental quality (e.g., dust storms, trace gas emissions to the atmosphere, soil erosion). Throughout human history, dryland degradation has been associated with the collapse or decline of a few ancient civilizations. Today, desertification is the subject of an international framework convention, the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).

      Land degradation in drylands is still poorly documented, and its causes are hardly understood. Proponents of single-factor causation suggest various primary causes, such as irrational or unwise land mismanagement by nomadic pastoralists...

    • 18 Group Report: Decadal-scale Interactions of Humans and the Environment
      (pp. 341-376)
      Kathy A. Hibbard, Paul J. Crutzen, Eric F. Lambin, Diana M. Liverman, Nathan J. Mantua, John R. McNeill, Bruno Messerli and Will Steffen

      Of the timescales that reach from the deep millennial past to the forecast of the future, the decadal scale provides the most detailed insights into human interactions within the Earth system. Human activities were major drivers for secular changes of the Earth’s environment in the 20thcentury (McNeill 2000). Humanity is facing an increasing number of global-scale problems, and, as these problems become more evident, there are increasing calls for a change in how we manage our affairs and our relationship with the environment (Costanza et al. 2005). The primary finding reported by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA2005, p. 1)...

  10. Section V: The Future
    • 19 Scenarios: Guidance for an Uncertain and Complex World?
      (pp. 379-398)
      Bert J. M. de Vries

      Having been asked to write about scenarios, I interpret this within the focal question for the 96thDahlem Workshop: How can we best use human–environment systems history and models to generate plausible future scenarios that can integrate with various policy, decision making, and stakeholder communities? I will—and only can—do this within the context of my personal experience in global change modeling, in energy and greenhouse gas emission scenario construction, and in investigating past and present aspects of the search for sustainable development (Rotmans and de Vries 1997; Nakícenovíc et al. 2000; de Vries and Goudsblom 2002; MNP...

    • 20 Evaluating Past Forecasts: Reflections on One Critique of The Limits to Growth
      (pp. 399-416)
      Dennis L. Meadows

      Numerous names for efforts to foretell the future are used commonly as synonyms. Among them are: conjecture, prediction, prophecy, scenario, prognostication, augury, divination, projection, prognosis, and forecast. There are, however, subtle differences among these terms. An influential futurist in the social sciences, Frenchman Bertrand de Jouvenel (1964, 1967), used the termconjecture. For this workshop I was asked to write a paper entitled, “Testing Past Predictions.” But professionals in the field have come to prefer the wordforecast. It is used both as a verb and a noun. It is the term I normally use in describing my own research,...

    • 21 Integrated Global Models
      (pp. 417-445)
      Robert Costanza, Rik Leemans, Roelof M. J. Boumans and Erica Gaddis

      There is now a relatively long history of integrated global modeling using computer simulations, starting in the 1970s with the World2 (Forrester 1971) and World3 models (Meadows et al. 1972; Meadows and Meadows 1975). Since then the field has expanded, owing partly to the increasing availability and speed of computers and to the rapidly expanding global data base that has been created in response to increased interest in global climate change issues (Meadows 1985; Meadows et al. 1992; Nordhaus 1994; Alcamo et al. 1998; Rotmans and de Vries 1997; IPCC 1992, 1995, 2001; Boumans et al. 2002; Meadows et al....

    • 22 Group Report: Future Scenarios of Human—Environment Systems
      (pp. 447-470)
      Marianne N. Young, Rik Leemans, Roelof M. J. Boumans, Robert Costanza, Bert J. M. de Vries, John Finnigan, Uno Svedin and Michael D. Young

      The fundamental question that our working group addressed was: “How can we use historical narratives and models of human and environmental systems to generate plausible insights about the future in such a way as to advance policy, decision making, and stakeholders?” This question emphasizes the need to understand the dynamics of human–environment interactions. Properly organized, such an understanding can then be used to inform and constructively influence future actions.

      In this chapter we first discuss properties of human–environment systems, the questions that need to be asked, and ways in which models can be used to answer them. Historical...

  11. List of Acronyms
    (pp. 471-474)
  12. Author Index
    (pp. 475-476)
  13. Name Index
    (pp. 477-484)
  14. Subject Index
    (pp. 485-495)