November 5, 2014

The Olduvai Theory

While I don't have the answers, I like to ask lots of questions about the way things are, or could be.

For example, I often ask myself what all the resource extraction, fossil fuel burning, and shopping will lead to.

The mainstream media does not talk about limits to growth much, but that doesn't mean other people haven't been thinking about how nature is responding to the demands of industrial lifestyles. The questioning started a long time ago, and has persisted to the present day.

Frequently, the answers are not what we like to hear.

Just recently the UN released a climate change report that included "stark warnings" and a recommendation that carbon emissions go to zero soon to avoid further damage. But similar warnings about the dangers of industrial civilization have been given before.

In 1893 historian Henry Adams could envision the American dream of unlimited opportunity and indefinite progress turning into a waking nightmare of the moral dilemmas of a capitalist society. He saw too that though science was making tremendous advances in the conquest of Nature, the odds were growing that a dehumanized mankind might lose the war.

It seemed probable to Adams that the ultimate result of exploiting new energy systems would be the "apocalyptic end of history itself".

Building on Adams' work and the work of others since, Richard C. Duncan came up with the Olduvai Theory in 1989. It attempted to answer questions about where industrial civilization was heading if it stayed on course.

The Olduvai Theory states that the life expectancy of industrial civilization is approximately 100 years: from about 1930 to about 2030.

Duncan believes that the cause of the collapse of industrial civilization, if and when it occurs, will be that the electric power grids go down and never come back up. He concluded that if we continued down the fossil fuel road, and did not implement sustainable strategies that industrial civilization would collapse.

He says, "The overshoot and collapse of industrial civilization was assured once humanity became dependent on the rapid exploitation of nonrenewable resources on a finite planet. Moreover our insatiable appetite for electric power has accelerated the collapse and steepened the decline."

We may still have time to avert an Olduvai situation from unfolding in a worst case scenario, but it will require massive and immediate action from all of humanity of the sort recently recommended by the UN report.

Some say we have until 2022 to take action. After that it is thought that we will pass the tipping point and nothing we do will be able to reverse the damage.

So what is all this leading to?

Will it be an oily Olduvai dystopia of death, destruction and shopping on our way to a post-industrial stone age, or a sun-driven sustainable simple living sensation that takes humanity into a glorious future?

This is what we should be asking ourselves as well as our elected officials, and we should be asking now.


  1. If only more folks would ponder the future instead of burrowing deeply into seeking pleasure and distraction.

  2. Gam,

    Even pondering the present would be an improvement. There are already ample signs to indicate that we need a new approach in order to avert bigger problems down the road.

    Perhaps the worse things are the more we are inclined to seek pleasure/distractions. I noticed that a bunch of superhero movies are coming out over the next while - a sure sign that someone sees trouble ahead.


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