The cockroach of the globe, New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
The cockroach of the globe, New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

ScienceJuly 29, 2021

NZ tops list of societies likeliest to survive global collapse of civilisation

The cockroach of the globe, New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images
The cockroach of the globe, New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

Renewable energy, food supply and an isolated spot in the world see plucky Aotearoa punching above its weight again. 

Turns out Peter Thiel and assorted billionaire doomsday preppers were on to something when they stuck a pin in the New Zealand map as location of choice for the apocalypse bunker. A new study in the journal Sustainability finds that Aotearoa’s relative isolation and ability to self-sustain in energy and food puts the country top of the list for survivors in the face of worldwide civilisational collapse.

With the world in a “precarious and perilous” state amid a soup of existential threats, New Zealand leads a small group of territories at either end of the world – Iceland, the UK, Tasmania and Ireland – judged best placed to adapt and prevail in the face of “large-scale failures”. These include those stemming from the climate crisis, energy collapse, upheaval of the financial system, or a pandemic that would make Covid-19 look like a mere warm-up.

Among the criteria used to assess which places are likeliest to survive are the security and renewability of the energy system, the self-sustainability of food production, the ability to isolate from the rest of the world, travel links within the territory, and the size and disbursement of population.

“We weren’t surprised New Zealand was on our list,” Aled Jones told the Guardian. “We chose that you had to be able to protect borders and places had to be temperate. So with hindsight it’s quite obvious that large islands with complex societies on them already [make up the list].”

The study looks at the risk of meltdown in terms of “de-complexification”: essentially a collapse in the societal scaffold that has been built up over time. Increases in complexity in recent centuries had seen “large increases in population, energy use and interconnectedness and has resulted in increasingly extensive and severe perturbation of the Earth System and the biosphere”, find the authors, Nick King and Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.

The continue: “This perturbation has resulted in a wide range of effects and feedbacks on global human civilisation including (but not limited to) climate change, increased risk of pandemics, ecological destruction (manifesting as a sixth extinction event) and growing risks of systemic instabilities. In combination, these effects place complex human civilisation in a precarious and perilous position with regards to its future; the risk of an uncontrolled ‘de-complexification’ event (a systemic reduction in the overall complexity of civilisation at global scale) occurring may be increasing.”

New Zealand tops the list of catastrophe survivors by virtue of its “favourable starting conditions”, or “nodes of persisting complexity”. These are territories’ characteristics that “may feasibly allow them to retain localised, higher levels of societal, technological and organisation complexity”.

Using this model, the study came up with a shortlist of New Zealand, Iceland, Tasmania, the UK and Ireland. “This identified New Zealand as having the greatest potential to form a ‘node of persisting complexity’, with Iceland, Australia (Tasmania) and Ireland also having favourable characteristics. The United Kingdom presents a more complex picture and potentially has less favourable characteristics overall.”

The authors of the Sustainability paper are keen to stress that their work is intended to help forestall societal collapse. “This analysis … would be of limited value if it were simply a dispassionate analysis of what parts of human civilisation might survive a major, global scale ‘de-complexification’ in relatively unscathed forms,” they write. “Such an event would be bleak, tragic and history-altering when the loss of life, knowledge and cultural achievements, which would inevitably be attendant to such scenarios, are considered. As such, this analysis is carried out with the intent to aid the understanding of what contributes to making such events possible or probable and, therefore, to act as a component of the feedback, which may reduce the risk of them occurring.”

A 2019 study in the journal Risk Analysis suggested that New Zealand, along with Australia and Iceland, could offer “lifeboats” for a world facing a large-scale extinction event.

Nick Wilson of Otago University, a prominent public health expert in the recent Covid-19 crisis,  said then that “discoveries in biotechnology could see a genetically-engineered pandemic threaten the survival of our species”.

He told the Herald in 2019: “Though carriers of disease can easily circumvent land borders, a closed self-sufficient island could harbour an isolated, technologically-adept population that could repopulate the earth following a disaster.”

A resilience strategy could operate “like an insurance policy”, he said. “You hope that you never need to use it, but if disaster strikes, then the strategy needs to have been in place ahead of time … Resiliency planning could also take account of other threats, such as a nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere, which New Zealand is also relatively well-positioned to survive.”

Disappointingly, neither of the research papers makes reference to singer Jason Kerrison’s 2012 plan to build an ark to survive the end of the world.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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