Humanity has already had four major ecological collapses: how can we avoid a fifth?


The second great ecological collapse in Britain saw an end to the stone circle culture

Theologian Martin Palmer tells Tom Levitt how we can learn from previous man-made ecological collapses in Britain and create a 'new narrative' that challenges our dominant consumer culture

In your book you talk quite a lot about the devastating impact humans have on the natural world. Do you think that humans can live sustainably?

Throughout most of recorded history we have actually managed to have a balanced relationship with nature. What happens though is that we become more and more grandiose, for example building vast complexes like Stonehenge and destroying every other stone circle for 150 miles around it. We centralise our power and push ourselves and we push nature beyond a sustainable model. In other words, we exhaust the soil, we cut down most of the forests, we put pollute much of the air and the water and we become dependent on such extended trade routes that even the most minor ecological change actually destroys our ability to function because we become dependent on a lifestyle that is supported by grandioseness and no longer a simple relationship with nature. 

You say most of history we've lived in balance, but when have we stepped out of balance and collapsed? 
Well, there have been four collapses in Northern Europe. The first such collapse was round about 3000BC, and that was due partly to climate change ­the temperature got a great deal warmer ­ but also to the fact that we had deforested the uplands, where we lived. By 3000BC we had completely changed the forest and the woodland nature of Britain, and the same is true for most parts of Northern Europe. The climate changed, the soil blew away, we had not kept the hedges or the shrubs or the tree cover to ensure the soil stayed. It's very difficult to say, but it would appear that probably around about one-third of the population died of starvation as a result of the collapse of that agricultural system.
The second great collapse happened really primarily due to a natural disaster, which is a Volcanic eruption off Iceland around 1160 BC, which created so much ash in the air that it effectively blocked out the Sun for possibly as long as a decade and, quite simply, everything died. The crops died, the trees died, the flowers died, the everything died. And with it the animals and with it the people.

The third collapse was the end of the Roman Empire. During the height of the Roman Empire, in the second century AD to the fifth century AD, we were pumping out as much air pollution as we were in the mid Victorian periods. This was a monumentally industrial culture. By the 4th century AD, there were just three major agricultural organisations throughout the Roman Empire. They owned basically 98 per cent of the farmland and they ran it as ruthlessly as any multinational today. And they exploited the land, they exhausted the land. The Roman Empire collapsed because it could no longer feed the troops, and if you can't feed the troops, you can't protect the cities, and if you can't protect the cities, then everything falls apart. So that was very much a man made disaster: bad agricultural policy, industrialisation, the demolition of most of the forests, and soil erosion.

And the fourth collapse is a long drawn out one, it's triggered essentially by the Black Death in the mid 14th century, which wipes out probably about one-third to a half of the population of most of the world. And that really undermined the Medieval world view, which says, 'pay your dues to the church, the Priest will pray for you and the king will protect you'. And that led to the Renaissance, it led to the Reformation and it essentially destroyed the notion that you as an individual have your place in life because you're part of the Church, and the church will carry you through life and to Heaven.
Are we a vulnerable species or can we now engineer a solution to any future ecological crisis?
I think one of the great teachings of all the major faiths in their scripts and of all the greats is hubris. Hubris is essentially being so proud that you can't see the fall that is coming. And I think a great deal of our assumptions about how we're going to deal with the future is in fact hubris. You know, if we just wait another ten years we'll sort out how to capture carbon etc. I think the fundamental problem is that we are coming at nature as managers, not as part of nature, and if I look back over those four great collapses, what I note at each stage is that the collapse is proceeded by what appears to be a sense that we are in control. Our existence, our ability to sustain, is only possible if we actually understand that we are part of nature. And the theological perspective comes from this: when you've got a sort of triangle of the divine, however you understand that to be, ­ nature, and ourselves, then humanity is not able to place itself at the centre of the universe. There is always a bigger story at the centre of the universe: ­ the gods, the creation, whatever creation means. Every time we lose sight, if you like, of our place within something bigger and think its all for us, that's when the collapse comes. 
You mention the abandonment of London in past crises, do you think cities are particularly at risk?

One of the trends that most alarms me about contemporary thinking, say within the United Nations, is this drive to speed up the movement of people from the countryside into the cities so that you can industrialise the countryside. If you've got the people in the cities, the theory goes that it's much easier to supply them with food, warmth and energy, and you industrialise nature.

But cities live off the countryside, not the other way round. Think of all the great disaster movies: they're right. What will happen in a crisis is everybody will try and escape to the countryside. We are almost wired to relate survival and sustainability with not being in cities. Building the mega-cities where you rely upon transport to get you 30 miles from your suburb into the middle of Shanghai, or where you rely on airplanes bringing you orange juice from Kenya into central London, nice, but not sustainable. It's so fragile, we saw that with the Volcanic ash incident two years ago, in one week we had people in complete panic.

If you get a collapse in nature, and the only communities you've got are huge and entirely reliant upon a tiny group of workers to provide food, clean water and energy, if those groups are affected, if there is a collapse, if you can no longer transport food, no longer grow the food, if the soil is eroded, if the Sun's gone because of volcanic ash or even our own activities and disasters, then those communities have no ability to actually eat anything on the land. And if you look at all the great collapses of civilisations, it's the cities that go first. There was a very famous statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Second World War, William Temple, and I think it sums it up, 'we are only 3 meals away from anarchy.' if you're heading towards your third missed meal and there's nothing in the local Tesco express, what do you do? 

How important are both the countryside and nature to human existance?

I think knowing about the countryside is crucial because we are a grazing species and in order for us to graze, we need the crops and the materials to graze upon. And the destruction of the countryside, whether that's through urbanisation, industrialisation, soil erosion, deforestation, it's almost like a suicide pact. We need this to sustain us. But also we are a species that has the capacity to wonder. One of the great mistakes in the environmental movement is to become utilitarian. To argue for example that why we keep the Amazon is because it's a carbon sink. Well, maybe it's the fact that a third of all species live in the Amazon is another reason for preserving it. Yes, we need the countryside and we need nature to keep us alive, but we are not the only creatures on this planet that have the right to be fed and kept alive by nature as part of nature.

I think we've got to start shifting the discussion away from 'what can we do to survive?' to 'what can we do to ensure that nature survives, and therefore, we survive?' I think we have to remember we are a wondering species, we are the ones that gaze the stars and wonder who the hell we are, we are the ones who sit by the sea and look at the infinity of the sea disappearing into the horizon and see that as a metaphor for our own lives. And at the moment we purely become concerned with nature as something that sustains us, rather than feeds us spiritually, psychologically and emotionally, I think we've lost the plot.

What have we lost as humans from our dwindling access to green space and nature?

I think what is lost by lack of access is the sense of being part of something much greater. We are very, very recently urbanised species. We've been around ­well, homosapien sapient for about 50-60 thousand years. We've really spent only the last 3 thousand years living anything like in cities or towns. We were not designed for cities, I think that's an important factor: we were designed to actually have quite a lot of leisure time, not always know where our food was coming from, that was a bit of a handicap, not always being able to keep warm, so we moved around a lot ­ we built stone circles in the winter because it meant you just spent your time heaving rocks up and down hills and that keeps you warm, believe me I've done it. I think just walking in parks, does something physically to us and psychologically and spiritually.

I also think that sense of understanding the process by which food is produced, the issues that are involved, the cost, the struggle, the uncertainties, I think that's pretty important. Because otherwise we can live in this bubble where we do expect to be able to go to the corner shop or Sainsbury's or wherever it is, and find and buy whatever we want. If we understood how fragile that chain from the field or the forest or the sea to our dishes is, I think we would demand a lot more of our political leaders and economic leaders and we would demand a great deal more of ourselves in respect to our food and our resources.

How long do you give humans on earth? And also Earth itself, ­ if you don't consider those two things separate?

Well, I mean, one of the things that I believe as a Christian is that the world has not been created for human beings. And that, frankly, if we as a species die out, I don't think that God is going to be, 'Well that was a complete waste of time, wasn't it?', because we've seen species come and go. I always think about the trilobite, one of the most successful species on the planet, went on living something like 240 million years and then dies out. And it was immensely successful, it evolved into all kinds of shapes, it covered the planet and then it disappears from the fossil record about 140 million years ago.

A separate issue is whether we're driving ourselves towards that and I think we are. But I do think that we have enough possible examples of how to go in the opposite direction. And part of that, which is why I call the book 'Sacred Land', is to return to a vision that we are part of a much, much bigger story. Because at the moment, we are the story, we are the masters of the universe, we are the DaVinci sketch of the man of the measure of all things, we are the group that believes it's in control. I suppose for me one of the defining moments of our hubris was when after the disaster of the Copenhagen Summit, where we thought that if we got around 198 politicians together, they would all agree to do the same thing because everybody thought it would be good. We then get the volcanic ash about four months later, and that actually does more to cut our use of transport, carbon, etc. in a few days than all the hot speeches, all the climate summits of the previous 20 years. Nature has a way of re-balancing. Part of our arrogance is believing that we can do it, and I don't think we can. I think what we can do is slow down, reverse, or even stop what we're doing.

So do you think human existence is actually already collapsing?

I think we are very close to it. But in every single community I see people who are re-building what has been destroyed. And one of the wonderful things about nature is it's immense powers for recovery. I've just been to Detroit, a third of the city is now agricultural, well is now wasteland, or agricultural land. That land is growing perfectly good food and the houses have gone because of the collapse of the motor industry, nature is quite capable of restoring itself, but I think we are very close to intellectually and conceptually collapsing. I suppose my point has always been that each of the stories that we have lived in, whenever we lost, whenever we were unable to change the story in time to stop the collapse or respond, we went into a period of intellectual and conceptual chaos. I think the challenge is, ­ can we think our way out of this?

We are a narrative species. And when our collapses happen, they happen because we no longer believe the story we used to live in. It can take us up to 2 or 3 hundred years to come up with a new story. The challenge now, is can we create a new narrative? Because we're not going to be narrated out of this by facts and figures, I have no idea what 350 degrees or whatever it is is in climate change, I have no idea. ­ I can't see it, I can't measure it, I can't conceive it, and yet the environmental movement support millions into trying to persuade people to sign up to the 350 movement or whatever it is. Tell a story, for God's sake! Tell a story about a community that's actually dying out because they can no longer farm the land because there's no water. Tell stories, narrate our way out of this. And not just by telling us about the disasters, but by reminding us about being part of nature, not masters of the universe, that's the story that has to die. So we've got to narrate our way out of this, not financially manage our way out of this. That will come if we can tell a better story.

What do you mean by a better story and narrative?
The grand narrative means that we need to have a story that is sufficiently all embracing and sufficiently encompassing of what we experience that we can say, 'That makes sense.' What we lack at the moment is anything that makes sense. Listening this morning to the head of RBS justifying his huge salary and money, he just couldn't see that there was a problem. So his grand narrative is, 'I do this job. I deserve this amount of money.' We live in these stories already, most of us just think it's how the world is, it isn't. It's how we tell ourselves the world is. So the question is, 'Can we really get ourselves to grips with creating through all the different mediums and resources a new grand narrative?' It's what in a sense Celtic religion did after the stone circles collapsed, it's what Marxism did for much of the late 19th century and early 20th century, it presented a grand narrative that couldn't stand up against traditional Christianity, imperialism and colonialism. It became rapidly corrupted because was a bad story at the start, but it was deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We've got to recognise that we all live in stories.

Do you think consumer capitalism is a story?

Yes, I think consumer capitalism is entirely a story. All you've got to think about is, 'when the going gets tough...' You know, that is probably one of the best known aphorisms whereas 100 years ago we would have had Biblical statements, you know, 'do not put your trust in princes.'
So what can make a young person switch from a life of consumer capitalism?

I think there are three ways. One is a huge disaster; churches, mosques, temples are always overflowing when there's a disaster. Secondly, where actually you realise that you need to abandon one narrative because it's destroying you, it's making you not the person you want to be, and becoming another story. And I have friends who have been converted to Marxism, who have been converted to Buddhism, friends who have been converted to Christianity, their lives have been transformed. And communities can actually go through that as well. And the third one, is actually to be offered the possibility of recognising you already live in a story. And therefore, to ask of you, 'Is this really the story you want to live in?' and if it is, what about the consequences?

Until we're actually able to be honest to ourselves that the environmental movement has basically been sucked into a consumerist world view, and therefore is not terribly exciting to most people, we're going to get stuck. And that's where the Dark Mountain Project is superb. They have a superb critique of the story the environmental world is trapped in at the moment. What they lack, is that confidence, to say 'Let's tell a different overarching narrative.' And that's the next step.

Martin Palmer is co-founder of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). His book 'Sacred Land' is published by Piatkus and available from March 1st


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