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Global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades

I’m grateful to be alive, despite years of terrible driving. That’s probably why news of the end of civilization is hitting me so hard.

In case your cigarette-smoking friends haven’t posted this on your Facebook timeline already, a study funded in part by NASA** and released on March 19 offers compelling evidence that “global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades,” due to our unsustainable use of resources and humanity’s “increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

In other words, we appear headed toward global economic catastrophe because the world’s wealthiest people will likely continue to overconsume while starving off the rest of us.

Researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota, using analysis tools created for a separate NASA study, measured our planet’s ecological “carrying capacity,” which they define as “the population that can be indefinitely supported by a given environment.”

Their conclusion: “Collapse is difficult to avoid.”

But don’t search for the razor blades just yet. The end of this civilization may be nigh, but an entirely new one doesn’t have to be bleak.

First, it’s helpful to know what the beginning of the end will look like here in Florida, and current news stories offer clues of what those initial signs will be.

“The first signifier is loss of water supply,” says Bruce Stephenson, a Rollins College professor of environmental studies and civic urbanism. “Our aquifer is pretty much depleted.”

Stephenson says that Floridians who are tracking the great decline can look to St. Petersburg, which he says is a representative microcosm of the whole state.

“Whatever happens to St. Petersburg is going to happen to the rest of Florida,” says Stephenson, “and water is their single biggest issue.”

Once Florida communities start drawing water from nearby sources like the St. Johns River, they become parasitic cultures. And once we begin widespread desalination – the expensive practice of converting seawater into drinkable water – we’ll know we’re in trouble.

“St. Petersburg has built the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere,” says Stephenson, “and they get over 50 inches of rain a year.”

Water depletion isn’t the only red flag. Access to local food will quickly follow, becoming one of our region’s most pressing daily challenges.

To avoid the “inequality-induced famine” foretold by the researchers, we’ll have to rapidly adapt our food and transportation systems.

“I want everyone to grow their own food, to at least know how,” says biologist Clayton Louis Ferrara, rather emphatically. “It’s very important for people to at least fucking know how.”

Ferrara, the executive director of international environmental education organization IDEAS For Us, says that, with preparation, “we can be better at rolling with the punches, and surviving with our culture and our civilization intact.”

“We should be trying to grow at least 20 percent of our own food,” says Stephenson, who sees adaptive behavior occurring instinctively among Millennials.

“The younger generations are into growing food, they’re into alternatives to transportation, and to me it’s almost a survival mechanism that has switched on.”

Beyond what we can grow ourselves and with neighbors, we can also foster local sustainability with our own dollars – while they still hold value, that is.

“Life in the mid-21st century is going to be about living locally,” predicts social critic and author James Howard Kunstler in a widely viewed 2007 TED Talk.

“Be prepared to be good neighbors. Be prepared to find vocations that make you useful to your neighbors and to your fellow citizens.”

The East End Market, the Audubon Park Garden District’s local-food hub, is full of useful neighbors, including grocer Emily Rankin, who owns Local Roots.

“Supporting our local economy is a big factor for me,” says Rankin, “but I think more importantly, it’s about preserving the land that we need in order to have the things that we need as people.”

Rankin says that addressing the sustainability crisis “is a driving force in what we do.”

“We absolutely need access to local food,” says Rankin. “We’re trying to create access without the need for additional resources. Having proximity to the food that we eat is critical.”

** There's a lot of commotion about who actually published/presented this study. While it was funded in part by NASA, the report was an independent investigation. The results do not represent the views or conclusions of NASA. Read the Guardian's piece here.

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