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Are technological advanced societies doomed to fail by their own actions? (Istockphoto.com)

By Adam Frank

The Babylonians didn't do it. The Romans didn't do it. The Chinese of the Tang Dynasty didn't do it. The Persian Empire didn't do it. For 50,000 years of human cultural evolution it didn't happen. For 6,000 years of civilization it didn't happen.

Then, in the space of a mere hundred years, we manifest pathways to utter ruin not once but twice. We have managed to put the entire project of civilization up for grabs first through nuclear arms and then through the twin perils of climate change and resource depletion.

How did this happen?

In the wake of this week's nuclear summit, my co-blogger Marcelo Glieser and I have been exchanging thoughts on the meaning of our penchant for scientifically mediated destruction. Marcelo was happy that finally the subject of nuclear arms was getting some love (so to speak). I then wondered out loud about the democratization of apocalypse in our post-arms-race world with the rise of sustainability as a pressing concern for global survival. This morning Marcelo asks the question of questions -- what kinds of political forms are required to keep up with our scientifically muscled-up, destructive inclinations? This afternoon I want to leave you with a simple question and a simple start at an answer.

Are technological advanced societies doomed to fail by their own actions?

The question obviously touches on our deepest fears and the hopes for our kids. It sticks in our mythic imaginations in visions of apocalypse from the Bible to The Terminator. It strikes at the heart of fundamental scientific questions like the existence of intelligent life in the Universe. So, why do we find ourselves here twice in a century? The answer for both nuclear arms and global sustainability is, I think, linked by a single term.

Fossil fuel.

Imagine a world in which no deposits of energy-laden fossil fuels had developed over millions of years. Imagine a world with Galileo, Newton and Darwin but without coal and oil. It seems to me that it is entirely possible for science to have developed without the rapid massive industrialization that the wide use of fossil fuels made possible.

There is so much free energy in a cubic centimeter of oil, it made miracles possible, allowing us to literally move mountains in months. Before fossil fuels all development was based on human labor (often slaves) and animal power with dung or forests being used for fuel (forests tend to disappear quickly).

Without coal, oil and natural gas used as fuel, fertilizer, raw material for plastics and a zillion other uses, we would not have leapt so far and so fast.

Most of all we would have never have not been able to carry forward something like the Manhattan project nor would we have been able to develop the globe-spanning network of submarines, missiles systems and warheads that made up the arms race. We liberated the energy in the atom with fuel oil.

And, of course, when we now speak of global sustainability, we are imagining trying to do without everything fossil fuels made possible -- from the depletion of fisheries to overproduction of CO2.

Perhaps, just perhaps, not all technological societies are doomed to destruction. Perhaps they just need time to mature, time to allow their understanding of themselves and their own natures to grow at the same pace as their mastery of the universes' fundamental forces.

Could it be that having all this free energy lying around in fossil fuels offered us a dangerous dose of cultural steroids, the evolutionary equivalent of human growth hormone?

Perhaps, just perhaps, our muscles grew faster than our wisdom.

1:14 - April 13, 2010