What does ‘collapse’ mean, and should we continue using the term?

30 08 2022

The conservation, environment, and sustainability literature is rife with the term ‘collapse’, applied to concepts as diverse as species extinction to the complete breakdown of civilisation. I have also struggled with its various meanings and implications, so I’m going to attempt to provide some clarity on collapse for my own and hopefully some others’ benefit.

State transitions (Fig. 2 from Keith et al. (2015))

From a strictly ecological perspective, ‘collapse’ could be described in the following (paraphrased) ways:

But there is still nor formal definition of ‘collapse’ in ecology, as identified by several researchers (Keith et al. 2013; Boitani et al. 2015; Keith et al. 2015; Sato and Lindenmayer 2017; Bland et al. 2018). While this oversight has been discussed extensively with respect to quantifying changes, I can find nothing in the literature that attempts a generalisable definition of what collapse should mean. Perhaps this is because it is not possible to identify a definition that is sufficiently generalisable, something that Boitani et al. (2015) described with this statement:

“The definition of collapse is so vague that in practice it will be possible (and often necessary) to define collapse separately for each ecosystem, using a variety of attributes and threshold values

Boitani et al. 2015

Despite all the work that has occurred since then, I fear we haven’t moved much beyond that conclusion.

Hell, cutting down the trees in the bush block next to my property constitutes a wholesale ‘collapse’ of the microcommunity of species using that patch of bush. An asteroid hitting the Earth and causing a mass extinction is also collapse. And everything in-between.

But at least ecologists have made some attempts to define and quantify collapse, even if an acceptable definition has not been forthcoming. The sustainability and broader environment literature has not even done that.

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A perfect storm of global ineptitude

18 03 2021

Given the ‘success’ (i.e., a lot of people seem to be reading it) of our recent Ghastly Future paper, I thought it would be interesting to go back and have a look at what we wrote in our 2015 book Killing the Koala on the subject. I think you’ll find that if anything we were probably overly optimistic.

An updated digest of that material follows.

When your accountant tells you to reduce expenditure, you do it or risk bankruptcy; when your electrician tells you the wiring in your house is dodgy, you replace it or risk your family dying in an avoidable fire; when your doctor tells you your cholesterol is too high, you cut back fat intake (and/or take cholesterol-reducing drugs) or risk a heart attack.

Yet few with any real political or financial power heed the warnings of environmental scientists. It is not just a few of us either — globally, ecologists, conservation biologists and environmental scientists are united in telling the world (for decades now) that growth in population and consumption cannot go on forever. They have been united in telling us if we do not clean up our planet, our life-support systems could ultimately fail.

There are now nearly eight billion people on Earth, and median projections suggest that the population will grow to ten billion or more by the end of the century. Some analyses indicate that with present technologies, Earth could only sustainably support indefinitely some 5 billion people under best-case scenarios, but assuming similar proportions of poverty and suffering as we have today. Others imply that 5 billion could be many too many.

As a result, humanity is entering that near-perfect storm of problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption, gross inequalities, and the use of needlessly environmentally damaging technologies. The problems include the intertwined dilemmas of loss of the biodiversity that runs human life-support systems, climate disruption, energy shortages, global toxification, alteration of critical biogeochemical cycles, shortages of water, soil, mineral resources and farmland, and increasing probability of vast epidemics (as COVID-19 poignantly exemplifies).

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LX

8 04 2020

The third set of biodiversity cartoons for 2020 (plus a video treat). See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIX

24 02 2020

The second set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2020. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVIII

4 01 2020

The first set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2020. This special, Australia-is-burning-down-themed set is dedicated to Scott Morrison and his ilk. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVII

6 11 2019

The sixth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LVI

4 09 2019

The fifth set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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Our global system-of-systems

28 02 2018


I’ve just read an excellent paper that succinctly, eloquently, and wisely summarised the current predicament of our highly interconnected, global, complex adaptive system (i.e., our environment).

If you are new to the discussions around state shifts, hysteresis, tipping points, and system collapse, there might be a lot in the new paper by Philip Garnett of the University of York that you could find intimidating (and not just because of the complexity of the concepts he discusses). If you are more up-to-date on these discussions, I highly recommend reading this paper for distilling some of the more pertinent questions.

The essence of the paper is that our global environment (Earth) is one giant, complex system made up of interacting sub-systems. We can think of these as a giant, interconnected network of nodes and connections (often called ‘edges’) between them. If you do ecological network theory, then you know what I’m talking about.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is that Philip Garnett is not an environmental scientist; in fact, he’s a a lecturer in Operations Management and Business Analytics (although he does have a background in genetics and biology) who specialises in complex systems theory. In fact, much of his paper uses socio-economic examples of system complexity and collapse, yet the applications to environmentalism in general, and to ecological integrity in particular, are spot on.

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When human society breaks down, wildlife suffers

22 01 2015

bearGlobal human society is a massive, consumptive beast that on average degrades its life-support system. As we’ve recently reported, this will only continue to get worse in the decades to centuries to come. Some have argued that as long as we can develop our societies enough, the impact of this massive demographic force can be lessened – a concept described by the environmental Kuznets curve. However, there is little evidence that negative societal impact on the environment is lessened as per capita wealth exceeds some threshold; unfortunately environmental damage tends to, on average, increase as a nation’s net wealth increases. That’s not to say that short-term improvements cannot be achieved through technological innovation – in fact, they will be essential to offset the inexorable growth of the global human population.

So poor nations as well as the wealthy ones are responsible for environmental damage. Poorer nations often have ineffective governance systems so they fail to enforce compliance in environmental regulations, but wealthier nations often exploit a high proportion of their natural resources, with the inevitable environmental damage this entails. In some cases however, biodiversity can temporarily escape some of the ravages of society because humans either perceive the area to be too dangerous, or otherwise have no incentive to go there. There are some good examples of the latter, such as the vicinity around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, or the Korean demilitarised zone.

In this vein, I just stumbled across an extremely interesting paper today published online early in Conservation Biology that describes trends in charismatic wildlife (i.e., big mammals) as the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and societal breakdown ensued. The authors had access to an amazing dataset that spanned the decade prior to the collapse, the decade immediately following, and a subsequent decade of societal renewal. What they found was fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »

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