Peak Civilization?

By Keith Kloor | September 12, 2013 4:19 pm

A joint NASA/Library of Congress symposium held today in Washington DC asked:

Will human civilization on Earth be imperiled, or enhanced, by our own world-changing technologies? Will our technological abilities threaten our survival as a species, or even threaten the Earth as a whole, or will we come to live comfortably with these new powers?

I wasn’t able to listen to the webcast discussion, so I’m keen to see any forthcoming coverage in the blogosphere or mainstream media. The assembled panels seem to have explored themes at the center of a larger debate on Anthropocene era.

For another perspective on science’s impact on civilization, head over to Slate’s terrific special series on human longevity by Laura Helmuth.

  • prasad

    Without having seen the agenda or speakers, I predict that the conclusion will be we destroy everything and are at grave risk of destroying ourselves and gaia. Too many people working in environmental areas, even the scientists, got their start as romantics who’re uncomfortable with man despoiling mother nature. So that becomes the POV that shines through whenever the data don’t strongly constrain the statements made.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      Lake Chad. Lake Victoria. Aral Sea. The Dead Sea. The Colorado River.

      We clearly have negative impacts on the environment in ways that are very relevant to our own lives. In some of these cases technology seems to provide some relief (north aral sea, plans for dead sea replenishment through canals). It remains to be seen what the side effects of those are, and it often the scope of restoration falls well short of what was lost.

      Living sustainably is an important goal that doesn’t just fall in the realm of romanticism.

      • jh

        Wooly mammoth! Sabre-toothed tiger! Giant sloth! All victims of MAN! Stop the slaughter!

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Let’s not equate extinctions that happened thousands of years ago with water resource management today.

          • jh

            Those extinctions are among the earliest impacts of man on the environment. We’ve weathered the 12,000 years since relatively well.

            But MILLIONS have PERISHED since! Stop the slaughter of NATURE!

      • jh

        On a more serious note, could you detail the negative consequences for humanity as a whole that comes from the shrinking of the Aral Sea, the Dead Sea, or the use of all the water in the Colorado?

        What you’ve highlighted are changes. These changes may or may not – so far, as far as I know, not – have significant long-term consequences for humans.

        The Colorado no longer reaches the sea because the water is used (primarily) for farming. The farming produces food at relatively low cost. The food is beneficial to humans.

        It would be nice if we didn’t change the environment, the fact that we are changing the environment doesn’t imply disaster or even negative consequences. We continuously adapt to changes in the environment, even those that we cause, in part by finding new ways to use resources, in part by developing new technologies.

        Change isn’t bad or good. It’s just change.

        • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

          Well, there is the obvious impact on the people that live where those water sources used to be. Imagine if your primary water source just disappears. That is a negative impact.

          The Colorado River delta used to be a huge wetland area that was very important in migration routes for waterfowl. I suppose you could look at that as an impact that isn’t relevant to humans, but still….. It has also had negative impacts on the ecological diversity in the gulf of california that spills over into the fishing industry.

          in the case of the Aral sea, you are looking at one of the greatest environmental disasters in the world. Keep in mind this isn’t a result of the ambiguities of climate change. It is simply that the water is no longer reaching its terminus.The Aral Sea used to support a huge fishing industry. As water levels dropped salinity rose… eventually eliminating that industry by killing the fish. Towns that used to be ports are now miles away from water. The local climate has shifted massively because of the loss of the evaporative source for clouds. All the chemicals from unregulated industry that have flown down stream to the lake are now out of solution, creating large toxic salt flats. Dust storms that are now frequent in the area pick up these chemicals leading to inhalation by the people that live in the area. Prevalence of diseases related to this is off the charts in this area now.

          There is a reason that billions have been dumped into trying to restore the sea. At this point the North Aral is partially restored thanks to a damn that locks the water away from the former South Aral. Meanwhile the South Aral is left to its fate but the Eastern basin is still unusable, partly because of toxicity and partly because of seasonal flooding due to glacier melt in the spring.

          Overdrafting of aquifers is already having large ramifications in other parts of the world. Depletion of the Ogallala aquifer in the plains is a looming concern in the plains.

          Change in itself isn’t a bad thing, but the law of unintended consequences would indicate that any large, rapid, and far reaching change will have negative consequences to go along with whatever benefits you receive.

          I have no problem with exploiting natural resources, but sustainability is a topic that isn’t just for bleeding hearts…. unsustainable use means at some point there is a dead end on a one way street.

  • BarryG

    My theory is that it’s all going to work out somehow.

  • wowlfie

    Due to the insanity of religion mankind is near it’s peak. It’s just a matter of time before all hell breaks lose primarily because of the Middle East.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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