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Global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades

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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.

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