Can Civilisation Last Forever?

We are all doomed, or so we are told – but it may not be true

Cosmos Environment History International Military Science Technology

Back in the late 1970s, with the Cold War at its height, we schoolboys used to ponder, with grim fascination, what would happen if the balloon went up. A teacher had got hold of a copy of the recently unbanned BBC documentary The War Game, a dramatisation of a nuclear strike on southern England, and it scared the heebie-jeebies out of all of us. Two decades later a different grim fascination infected the world: the Millennium Bug, the computer meltdown that was supposed to accompany the last second of 1999.

Take one real threat, one imaginary and then add 20 years of growing anxiety that humankind may be altering the climate to disastrous effect, and the result is the idea that humanity, or at least our civilisation, is doomed in quite short order.

This thesis has become strangely fashionable; indeed, to argue against it one feels like a flat-earther. Sometimes threats are real and truly existential – such as global nuclear war. Sometimes they are fanciful, such as the Millennium Bug. And sometimes they lie somewhere in between, such as climate change. But surely we can all agree that if not humanity then certainly our current civilisation is in its final days?

Well, maybe. But what if it isn’t? This was the possibility I wanted to explore in my new book. What if, far from being about to end, not only our planet but we ourselves and even something resembling our culture were to rumble on not only for a few more decades but for centuries, or even millennia? It is a heretical thought, perhaps, but what if, just maybe, some aspect of today were to survive to the end of time itself?

For something of us to survive in the millennia or even aeons ahead we will have to dodge some bullets. To date, the most plausible agent of doom after all the dozens that have been postulated (asteroid strikes, GM plagues, climate catastrophes and so forth) is and will remain a global nuclear war. Nothing else so tangible and so immediate has the capability to kill billions of human beings in a short time. Despite arms treaties there remain more than enough nuclear weapons to do terrible damage. It is perhaps surprising that while millions live in a state of feverish panic about climate change, the continuing and far more substantial threat of atomic destruction appears to have receded from our collective consciousness.

But even this, even the most terrifying existential threat we face, would probably not be the end of our species. An all-out war, such as the one we pondered a generation ago when the arsenals of Nato and the USSR were at their height, would have killed perhaps 3bn people. But even after this most ghastly of cataclysms there would have been billions of survivors, and in a century or two something approaching modern civilisation would probably have re-emerged.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, it was popularly assumed that the two cities would remain uninhabitable until the early 21st century. In fact, both were rebuilt within a decade. The feared birth defects never materi­al­ised in any numbers and, generally, the effects of radiation were rather overstated, as they still are today (the myth that Chernobyl killed tens of thousands of people is remarkably persistent).

Now a new monster lurks under the bed: climate change. Until very recently it was perfectly proper to be sceptical about ­global warming. Much of the science was speculative; much of the fervour quasi-­religious. Now the figures are in and denial is no longer viable.

Nevertheless, questions remain. The problem with global warming is that it is largely something that will happen to people not yet born. What is the value of a life ruined by climate change 150, 250 years hence compared with the value of a life (perhaps ruined by Aids or malaria) today? Economists use a technique called discounting to weigh up the relationship between future and present costs. Is a life lost to flooding in 2108 worth as much, or half as much, or a tenth as much as a life lost today for want of better Aids research or new drought-­resistant GM crops for Africa? The likely effects of climate change and the lengths to which we should go to combat it remain complex and largely unknown.

Optimism is unfashionable, but let’s say we manage to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Let’s say it will be awful, but not quite the end of the world. What then? If we manage to keep the nukes at bay and adapt to a warmer planet, could our civilisation ­survive?

To answer this we need to define our civilisation. It is a curious thing, unlike any in history. It has no centre, unlike that of Rome, and no single ethos or tradition. Loosely, we may talk of an occidental civilisation that takes the traditions of the ancient Mediterranean and grafts upon them the ideas of the modern European and especially British Enlightenment. It has spread to include almost every­where, even those places that vociferously reject the very symbols of that civilisation’s triumphs.

Our civilisation is unique in its size and complexity; Rome, at its height, commanded perhaps 90m people across a land area rather less than that of the United States. Our world, tied together by myriad threads of technology, culture, shared assumptions and ambitions, encompasses billions and touches all continents.

Its size is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because the sheer size and multiple redundancies of our civilisation make total destruction unlikely. We have no Library of Alexandria that could be destroyed in a single fire, no priestly class in whose minds all important knowledge is stored. Our billions mean that the awfulness of the cataclysm needed to wipe us out needs to be that much greater than the plagues and earthquakes of history.

And yet our civilisation’s size and complexity could also be its downfall. We are immersed in a new kind of ecology, the technosphere, in which complex interactions of economies and machines are needed to feed and water us and provide shelter and jobs. Twenty thousand years ago, most people alive understood and actively took part in all the basics of survival. Today, equipped still with Stone Age brains, we modern humans live in a hi-tech world oiled by technologies and complex economic relationships few of us understand, which might as well have been put there for us by the gods. No wonder so many of us fear it will all fall apart, perhaps as punishment for our profligacy.

And some of those engines are indeed fragile. Turn over all commerce to the internet and what happens if it is killed by a super-virus? Most large cities are a week’s worth of food deliveries away from anarchy. Most of all there is the thing no one wants to talk about, or even think about – the extra three billion who will have to be catered for over the coming half-­century. One undramatic (but depressing) future consists of a slow descent into global chaos and malnutrition, with wealthy hi?tech enclaves surrounded by a growing sea of ­poverty.

But we must remain optimistic. The biologists say all species become extinct after a few million years. Maybe that is our fate, but perhaps the rules don’t apply to a species in possession of both antibiotics and the Bomb. As to our civilisation, it is proving durable and popular, spread at the point of commerce and a TV screen as much as the sword. Rome fell, but perhaps we can win the barbarians over this time. The future is within our grasp as it has never been before.