Will civilization as we know it end in the next 100 years? Will there be any functioning places left? If recent headlines about extreme weather, climate change, the ongoing pandemic and faltering global supply chains have you asking them, you're not alone.
Now two British academics, Aled Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, and his co-author, Nick King, think they have some answers. Their analysis, published in July in the journal Sustainability, aims to identify places that are best positioned to carry on when or if others fall apart. They call these lucky places "nodes of persisting complexity."
The findings were greeted with skepticism by other academics who study topics like climate change and the collapse of civilization. Some flat-out disagreed with the list, saying it placed too much emphasis on the advantages of islands and failed to properly account for variables like military power.
And some said the entire exercise was misguided: If climate change is allowed to disrupt civilization to this degree, no countries will have cause to celebrate.
1. New Zealand: Jones, who has a Ph.D. in cosmology — the branch of astronomy focused on the origins of the universe — is broadly interested in how to make global food systems and global finance systems more resilient. He says he is also intrigued by the ways in which collapse in one part of the world, whether caused by an extreme weather event or something else, can lead to collapse in another part. He does not feel certain that climate change will cause the end of civilization, he said, but it's on track to create a "global shock." For his study, he built on the University of Notre Dame's Global Adaptation Initiative, which ranks 181 countries annually on their readiness to successfully adapt to climate change. He then added three additional measures: whether the country has enough land to grow food for its people; whether it has the energy capacity to "keep the lights on"; and whether the country is sufficiently isolated to keep other people from walking across its borders.
2. Tasmania, around 150 miles south of the Australian mainland, emerged as second, Jones said, because it has the infrastructure to adapt to climate change and is agriculturally productive. Linda Shi, a professor in Cornell University's department of city and regional planning, said she appreciated that the study's authors were thinking long-term and tried to bring complex information together in their analysis of how countries might fare once temperatures have risen by 4 degrees Celsius. But she takes issue with several aspects of the list, starting with Tasmania. "If you are going to include Tasmania but don't care if the rest of Australia goes down, certainly there's some part of a huge country like China that would find a way to protect its people," she said.
3. Ireland fared well primarily because of its agricultural and renewable energy capacity and its isolation, Jones said. Top-ranking countries should not be celebrating, Joseph Tainter said, who wrote a seminal text on societal collapse. While praising the study's ambition, he said the authors had failed to properly account for the amount of fossil fuels required for a nation to feed itself.
4. Iceland ranks well, Jones said, because of its agricultural and renewable energy capacities as well as its isolation.
5. Britain: Jones insisted he wasn't biased just because he lives there.
6. United States and Canada are tied for sixth place. One factor holding them back, Jones said, is their shared land border. His model assumes that it would be more difficult for a country to maintain stability if masses of desperate people can rush across a border.
Jones says he's not suggesting that people should start buying bunkers in New Zealand or Iceland. Rather, he wants other countries to study ways to improve their resilience.