At current rates of deforestation, civilization will collapse in 20-40 years

Preface.  At current rates of deforestation, forests will be gone in 100-200 years. Long before that, in 20-40 years, the effects will be felt, with a 90% chance of civilization collapse likely.  

Since it looks like world conventional oil peaked in 2018, I’m putting my money on energy decline as the civilization crasher, but the Limits to Growth model and Rockstrom’s (2009) paper (Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity) of nine existential crises facing us makes my peak oil bet a bit less certain.  Though with oil we can fend off and delay the other threats for a while.  Destroyed the topsoil?  Then grow food in vertical farms. Out of water? Drill down 1,000+ feet, and so on.

Below are excerpts from an article by Nafeez Ahmed, who is summarizing the findings of:  Bologna M, et al. 2020. Deforestation and world population sustainability: a quantitative analysis. Nature Scientific reports.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Ahmed, N. 2020. Collapse Within Several Decades Deforestation and rampant resource use is likely to trigger the ‘irreversible collapse’ of human civilization unless we rapidly change course.

Two theoretical physicists specializing in complex systems conclude that global deforestation due to human activities is on track to trigger the “irreversible collapse” of human civilization within the next two to four decades. 

If we continue destroying and degrading the world’s forests, Earth will no longer be able to sustain a large human population, according to a peer-reviewed paper published this May in Nature Scientific Reports. They say that if the rate of deforestation continues, “all the forests would disappear approximately in 100–200 years.”

“Clearly it is unrealistic to imagine that the human society would start to be affected by the deforestation only when the last tree would be cut down,” they write.  

This trajectory would make the collapse of human civilization take place much earlier due to the escalating impacts of deforestation on the planetary life-support systems necessary for human survival—including carbon storage, oxygen production, soil conservation, water cycle regulation, support for natural and human food systems, and homes for countless species.  

In the absence of these critical services, “it is highly unlikely to imagine the survival of many species, including ours, on Earth without [forests]” the study points out. “The progressive degradation of the environment due to deforestation would heavily affect human society and consequently the human collapse would start much earlier.” 

Tracking the current rate of population growth against the rate of deforestation, the authors found that “statistically the probability to survive without facing a catastrophic collapse, is very low.” Its best case scenario is that we have a less than 10 percent chance of avoiding collapse.

The underlying driver of the current collapse trajectory is that “consumption of the planetary resources may be not perceived as strongly as a mortal danger for the human civilization”, because it is “driven by Economy”. Such a civilization “privileges the interest of its components with less or no concern for the whole ecosystem that hosts them.”  

The most effective way to increase our chances of survival is to shift focus from extreme self-interest to a sense of stewardship for each other, other species, and the ecosystems in which we find ourselves. 

McKenna, Phil. 2015-11-26. Sputtering Corporate Effort to Save Forests Highlights a Big Issue for Paris Talks. InsideClimate News

Key findings:

  • There are no signs that the annual rate of forest loss is slowing.
  • Only 8% of 250 “powerbroker” corporations—and less than 1% of the 150 leading lenders and investors in agricultural companies—have polices in place to eliminate or reduce deforestation.
  • Deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of global man-made emissions through the razing and burning of trees. Because tropical forests are potent carbon sponges, stopping deforestation—and allowing damaged forests to recover—could deliver as much as 40 percent of the emissions cuts needed to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The New York Declaration on Forests was supposed to help halve forest loss by 2020, but an initial assessment published last week by the Amsterdam-based consulting company Climate Focus along with a group of non-governmental organizations said deforestation has not slowed in the countries that signed the pact. Very few of the world’s leading companies whose practices drive deforestation have changed their policies to begin to tackle the issue, according to a separate report published last week by the Global Canopy Programme.

The declaration was signed in September 2014 by 52 companies—including Unilever, Walmart and General Mills—as well as more than 30 countries and 100-plus subnational governments, indigenous groups and non-governmental organizations. They committed to 10 goals, meant to cut the world’s forest loss in half by 2020 and end it by 2030. The declaration was notable for its ambitious targets and rare collaboration among countries and corporations, and for tackling the root causes of deforestation, primarily corporate agriculture practices. The majority of tropical forest loss and degradation is driven by the production of only six commodities: palm oil, soy, beef, leather, timber, and pulp and paper.

Cutting the rate of deforestation in half, the goal of the New York declaration, would require $20 to $30 billion a year, significantly more than current pledges, which remain less than $10 billion a year, according to Boucher of the UCS.

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14 Responses to At current rates of deforestation, civilization will collapse in 20-40 years

  1. Freya says:

    This is why we need to be setting up Knowledge Arks to preserve our collective learning and culture, so our descendants don’t have to reinvent or rediscover the many sciences.

  2. Rice Farmer says:

    The biggest immediate danger to trees is the collapse of the oil industry, which is already underway. When petroleum products become hard to get or unavailable for whatever reason, people will cut trees for fuel. Don’t think that would happen? It already did some years ago when fuel prices spiked. Two countries where it happened that I immediately recall are Greece and Indonesia. Once people have burned their furniture, they’ll move on to the trees.

    • Fred says:

      Rice Farmer brings up a very important point. I’m assuming that the Physicists took into consideration the impending unaffordable FF due to diminishing returns of energy return on energy invested. If they did not make this part of their equation, then the time line will be compressed to much less than the 100 to 200 years. If it wasn’t for the cheap FF that we have had, there would be no trees now. I read a study on just this scenario. They concluded that Oregon, which has a huge temperate rain forest relative to the population would be out of trees in 6 years if we started using exclusively wood to heat our houses and businesses. If I’m not mistaken, the country of Haiti comes to mind as a country that already faces this problem.

  3. hugh owens says:

    Ask yourself the obvious question: what is more important? The survival of the planet’s ecology or the survival of human civilization? On our farm if we allow overgrazing of a pasture, the pasture can be severely endangered by exceeding its carrying capacity. Removing the animals can save the pasture. Don’t you just love metaphors?

  4. Gene Sikora says:

    @ hugh owens, et al,

    I first read “Limits To Growth” in 1991 while living and working in Ketchikan, Alaska for the final two months of the summer. It changed my thinking about sustainability. Here we are in the years. In Rawlins, a place I have known all my life, but which place I have lived in only as a contemplative, now “retired” adult, I have yet to locate a single person of any true, common sense, as regards the obvious fact that we live in a collective fantasyland. In this high, dry desert town, trees are almost non-existent. Wyoming, IMO, is on the verge of complete and total economic and political collapse. The party’s over.

  5. Kevin M. says:

    Crazy idea but buy a heavy feather blanket and some thermals and you wil find that keeping a home or business a little above freezing is tolerable. It goes below freezing here but we don’t run our heat very often. I do run a space heater in the bathroom for showers. You can live comfortably with a lot less than you think but you do need to plan for it. If there are no other choices people will have to get smart about using resources efficiently. Buy your heavy blankets thermals and other gear now while you can.

    • MargfromTassie says:

      It’s true! Keep yourself warm with your own body heat rather than heat a whole room or house. A hot water bottle on the lap under the blanket helps too. Ditto a dog.

      • energyskeptic says:

        The phrase “three dog night” comes from nights when you slept with 3 dogs to keep you warm back in the day when we didn’t have heat except the kitchen fires, where everyone gathered to stay warm while the women cooked. I read this in: Mildred Kalish. 2007. Little Heathens. Hard times & high spirits on an Iowa Farm during the great depression.

        • MargfromTassie says:

          Sounds like an interesting book. The people were certainly more resilient in those days. And more co-operative with each other – unlike today when so many whiners complain about something like wearing masks…

          • Rice Farmer says:

            And those days are coming back with the demise of central heating. Here in Japan, homes do not have central heating (something Americans are always shocked to discover). People use portable space heaters to warm only the rooms they are using at any given time; other rooms are left unheated. At night there’s no heat at all; people just pile on the blankets and comforters. Get used to it!

          • MargfromTassie says:

            The majority of houses in Australia don’t have central heating either. Most have either gas heating or reverse cycle air conditioning from a single unit – usually in a living room and/or open kitchen/family room. We have the reverse cycle units in our two living area, plus, in winter, especially, nothing beats the ambience of our wood heater. ( We are lucky to also have our own private forest)

  6. Fred says:

    We also have a huge stockpile of 3,000 to 30,000 sq. ft. houses that could be salvaged to to keep us warm for awhile. Many of which are lived in very rarely. Oh, how wasteful and short sighted we have been. If you live in a climate similar to the one I live in, it takes a lot of energy just to keep the pipes from freezing. I’m not in what I would consider a harsh climate, but it gets to 20 to 30 F below zero every so often. Gene from Wyoming understands that dog heat wont get the job done in most situations. The end of oil means the end of most of humanity.

  7. John Doyle says:

    I think people will pay whatever it costs to heat their houses, run their cars etc.This will put back the evil day when the money factor is cancelled out due to scarcity of product. After all money is no use without resources to spare. my home in the NSW country had only wood fires for cooking and heating.We managed. We eventually bought a slow combustion stove,but we used cut timber.It was all there was, so there’s not much future there.We can go back to it but we will end up much further back. Times will not be peaceful. Competition for resources wiil be disruptive of anything like a normal life.

  8. Rice Farmer says:

    I don’t think people will pay “whatever it costs” to heat their homes or run their cars. That assumes that no matter how high prices become, people will be able to pay. It’s just not so. That formula is, in a nutshell, behind the ongoing collapse of the oil industry. The industry’s replacement rate is below 100%, and has been for many years. Oil companies need a lot more money for exploration and development of new fields. So, why don’t they just raise the price of oil? The answer is simple: too many people could no longer afford to buy petroleum products. Prices are suppressed mainly by this mechanism.