Could Covid-19 and climate change cause the end of our civilisation?
All previous civilisations and empires have gone through the cycle of rise and fall. As we shall see, there is a pattern in these cycles usually involving both climate change and pandemics or epidemics among other factors.
Although there are many factors in the decline of civilisations and empires, I want to concentrate on the five factors that appear to be common in almost every case.
There is an interesting similarity between the fall of the Roman Empire and our current climate changes and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The last Ice Age ended about 11,700 years ago with the beginning of the Holocene Period. Since then the Earth has enjoyed a consistently mild average temperature, which has allowed the growth (and fall) of all the human civilisations up till now.
The Roman Empire flourished especially between 200 BC and 150 AD. During this time, the climate was warm and wet – ideal conditions for the expansion of agriculture.
However, after this period, severe droughts and extreme cold weather became common, which seriously affected the agricultural output.
Then to add insult to injury, in 165AD the empire was struck by the Antonine Plague, which was probably smallpox.
This plague caused an estimated 7 million deaths which seriously reduced the number of Romans available for employment in the agriculture sector and the military.
This was followed in 249AD by the Plague of Cyprian which raged for 13 years. It’s not known what caused it, but it could have been a viral haemorrhagic fever such as Ebola. It is reported to have killed more people than the Antonine Plague, possibly over 10 million. This further weakened the state that was already struggling from the Crisis of the Third Century (see below).
These pale into almost insignificance compared to the events of the AD 530s and 540s when a period of extreme volcanic activity caused the almost total blocking out of the Sun for about 15 months, which caused the Late Antique Little Ice Age lasting for more than 150 years. and a pandemic of the bubonic plague, the Justinian Plague, the Black Death, which killed up to 100 million people.
As for our problems today, which as of now seem to be much less serious than the events described above, we have climate change which has at the very least been made worse by human activity, and now in the 2020s we have a pandemic of a novel virus, the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes the Covid-19 disease. Hopefully, with modern medicine and almost instant communications around the world, we will be able to overcome the worst of outcomes. However, at the time of writing, June 2020, there could be further peaks in the Covid-19 infection, and I haven’t even mentioned the devastation that may be caused in the poorer parts of the world.
One of the factors in our modern society which has made us more vulnerable to the Covid virus is Globalisation. Modern travel, long supply chains, exporting of manufacturing to the developing world to take advantage of low wages, non-union labour, and favourable tax breaks.
This has meant that in addition to the effects of the disease, there is also the damaging effects on the economy, not just of individual nations, but the total world economy.
The history of empires and civilisations has shown that they all collapse for similar reasons.
There are large movements of populations. In our case, there has been a major increase in travel around the world in the last 50 years, especially air travel. I was amazed to discover that at any one time there will be up to 20,000 aircraft in the sky, according to Flightradar24, which keeps track of flights in real time. This amounts to an average of 12 million passengers per day.
This then leads to the coming together of pools of disease, which can result in the transmission of infectious diseases across the world as we are experiencing at this time. In our case, we have the Covid-19 pandemic which has probably only just begun, as of June 2020.
The failure of the state can have many causes, but it frequently begins when the state for both internal and external reasons begins wars, which cause a massive drain on resources because of expansion of territory over which it has to establish military bases with the need for extended supply lines.
Despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad. There are 1.3 million active personnel in the military together with 800 thousand reservists. It has a 2020 budget of 720 billion dollars.(720,000,000,000)
These wars have caused the deaths of millions of people, euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’; massive refugee crises with millions of people on the move, or locked in refugee camps, which are breeding grounds for infectious diseases, especially viruses for which there are no cures. The death toll in the parts of the world ravaged by war, especially US led wars in the Middle East and Africa, will escalate to ever more frightening levels.
Also, there is often another empire rising during the final days of collapses. Think of the case of the rise of China occurring at the same time as the fall of the United States. Ironically, US policy regarding trade and outsourcing of manufacturing and allowing massive Chinese investment in many levels of US society has provided the engine necessary for China to possibly become the next Superpower. And, worryingly, both the US and China possess nuclear weapons.
Since the increase in globalisation, the West, in particular, has become more and more reliant on outsourcing manufacturing and supplies of resources, especially to the Far East. This has meant that complex supply chains have had to be established.
In my post, ‘The Coronavirus and How it Will Affect our Lives’, I described the supply chain by sea from China to Europe. This involves up to 150 container ships, the largest of which carries 20,000 shipping containers. When China locked down in late January 2020, this supply chain, along with the associated air freight stopped, but we didn’t feel the effects immediately because of the 6 to 8 week transit time at sea.
In many parts of the world, the loss of trade, the loss of jobs, along with the shortage or even non-existence of supplies of essential items may lead to massive famines.
The Earth’s climate is changing. The evidence for global warming is irresistible. Now it may be part of a natural cycle, based on changes to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and the fluctuations in the radiation we receive from the Sun, but there is no doubt that humanity, especially in the developed world, is making the changes worse, and has been since the Industrial Revolution which began about 250 years ago.
There is no doubt that this revolution, along with the technological advances it has produced, has made life better, at least for the people of the developed world, but we must also acknowledge that much of this advance has been at the expense and exploitation of the Third World.
Climate change has been a major contributing factor in the collapse of most, if not all, of the civilisations of the past.
In spite of the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’ mentioned above, the Roman Empire did not collapse, and we must ask why. Collapse can be avoided, or at least postponed if two factors can be brought into play. These are high economic growth and the control of violence.
Under the conditions of an epidemic, which is a localised outbreak, these two factors can be controlled more easily, but if the epidemic travels and spreads, becoming a pandemic, these factors become very difficult to control.
Consider where we are at this moment in time. The world economies are not growing, quite the opposite. This fact leads to the lack of essential supplies, loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of even basic income, and with the lockdown across the world, the levels of stress, frustration and fear are leading to an increase in violence. So both factors are missing.
It is seventeen years since the SARS coronavirus outbreak and seven years since the MERS coronavirus outbreak and in spite of major attempts to produce vaccines for these infections, there has been no success. There is no guarantee that we will be able to develop a vaccine against the Covid-19 infection.
Finally, previous pandemics have been limited to relatively small areas of the world, but the Covid-19 pandemic is worldwide – a planetary pandemic.
Could this lead to the end of our civilisation? I don’t know, but I believe it could, and even if we can bring it under control, we have to change the way we live; we have to replace globalisation with localisation, and we have to prepare for the next global pandemic which will surely come.