24 May 2013

Collapse: What it might look like. And how we might respond.

This post attempts to briefly sketch out why and how our civilisation might collapse over the next couple of centuries.  It’s mainly guesswork, but much of it is likely to be true.

Civilisation stands on the brink of collapse.  And what is scary is that so many people appear to be unaware of this.
Civilisations in Collapse

Seeing the signs:

The signs are clear enough. Most people are aware that we are running out of oil, and that we’re a civilisation that is addicted to oil.  And most of us are now aware that climate change is upon us. And yet, since 1990 (when we became aware of its seriousness) CO2 emissions have increased by almost 50%. The global community has made no dent in the inexorable rise in emissions. At some stage the global community will have to respond, and that will have significant impacts.  And the machine of perpetual economic growth is near its end.  The 2007 financial crash might just have taken us into a world of the flatline. And food?  Surely most us must be aware that the combined Oil, Climate Change, and Financial crises will lead to food shortages?

But what about those ecological and social crises that don’t reach the daily news?  The biodiversity crisis - for example - that threatens our survival. 200 species disappear every day; we are in the midst of our planet’s 6th Mass Extinction event. The first such extinction that has been caused by an individual species; us.  Another story is provided by the fact that antibiotics, which our health service relies upon, are increasingly becoming ineffective.  This coupled with the deterioration in human auto-immunity suggests that a future epidemic could lead to millions of people falling ill, and swamping our hospitals.  But this might provide respite for another dilemma; overpopulation.  Global population is set to rise to 10 billion well before the end of this century.

I could have mentioned many other crises; the Energy Crisis, the Debt Crisis, the Arms Trade Crisis, the Soil Depletion Crisis, the Security Crisis, the Corruption Crisis, the Income Gap Crisis, the Poverty Crisis, the Computer Virus Crisis, the Fisheries Crisis.  And I’m sure you will now call to mind a few others that I haven’t mentioned, because I am confident by now that you have got the picture. 

Resources decline:

But I have left the most significant predicament to last.  The Resources Crisis.  We are running out of all the resources that this society has exploited so remorselessly and cheaply in the past to build the current edifice that we ironically call civilisation. In essence, all the raw materials like oil, gas, coal, iron, aluminium, copper, tin, silver, nickel, phosphorus, silica, and rare earth minerals etc. will be become unavailable to us at some point in the future.  The resources might still be under the ground, but they will be in such small concentrations that we will not have the energy or the machines to extract them. And even if we did no-one would have the money to finance it.

"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist"
... Kenneth Boulding.

The following chart is from the New Scientist, a few years back…
How Long Will Resources Last

The civilisation that we know today will cease to exist at some stage in the middle of this century.  But we will start to see clearly the slow decline within the next 2 decades. 

The slow decline:

It’s unlikely that civilisation will collapse like a house of cards.  There is still some resilience in this civilisation. But it will be rocked by successive events from which it will partially recover, only to be hit again.  It is difficult to predict the next crisis; it might be financial, it might be energy or climate related. These big events might happen only once every 5 years or so. But within 20 years, it should be clear to most of us that a pattern is developing, and it is unlikely that we will return to the easy comforts we experienced in that period from 1980 to 2005.

At a guess the slow decline will end sometime in the latter half of this century.  During this period we can expect to see shortages in fuel, food, medicines and consumer items, increasing queues at shops for essential items, the end of the car, public transport breakdowns, brownouts, blackouts, breakdown in gas and water supplies, mass unemployment, hyperinflation, the collapse of national governmental bodies and the increasing insignificance of money.  The National Grid will become unreliable and break down. Computers and mobile phones will stop working. Such technologies will be available only to the super-rich.   Even renewable energy will fail to work without essential rare earth metals.

And all this against a social background of mounting confusion, anger, lawlessness and violence.

Many of us who campaign for a fairer and more sustainable world have realised by now that the collapse will have a good outcome in that the pressure on unstable ecosystems will diminish.  Civilisation cannot be changed for the better, but its damaging progress can be blunted, and if that saves just a few species it will be worthwhile.  A simple way that anyone can contribute to the slow decline is to stop buying anything that is not essential. If 10% of us can do this, then civilisation will collapse a little bit sooner.  But most importantly we will be learning how to live more frugally, which will be very useful in the times to come.

Many people (me included) will rejoice at the decline of this civilisation, as we recognise that it has bought us the luxuries of a comfortable life only at the expense of huge unjustified destruction.  But those that enjoy the lifestyle that civilisation brings will be reluctant to change, and will hang on to its exploitative nature for as long as possible.  And this will sadly result in lawless violence, as times become even harder.  Our society must anticipate and prepare for this. If people know what is on the horizon, they are less likely to resort to the knee-jerk gang culture.

"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about".
.... Charles Kingsley.

The age of salvage:

Well before the end of the 21st century, a new kind of economy will emerge.  Some of the products of civilisation will survive and remain useful for many years.  Hammers, garden forks and other hand tools, if looked after, will last for a century or so.  Glass will be treasured for its passive solar effect. And there will always be wood and simple tools to cut and shape it. Traveling quickly will require the bicycle or the horse. And that limitation of travel will strengthen communities. For many centuries it might be possible to eke out a peaceful way of living not unlike the American Indians used to enjoy before the coming of the white man.

How to respond positively to this:

Let us put our minds together to see what life we can make for our children”.
... Chief Sitting Bull

Preparation work for the collapse to come cannot start too soon.  We do not advocate the survivalist mentality of taking to the hills and stockpiling essential commodities.  Quite the opposite.  The most important thing is to be fully engaged in the communities where we live.  As national institutions break down, local forms of organisation will become crucial.  Initially local authorities will be able to play a useful transitional role in ensuring that people don’t go hungry, and are secure. And friendly police forces might be needed to deal with the increasing possibility of violence and lawlessness. 

We will need to focus on those things that are essential:
  1. Wholesome Food.
  2. Clean Air and Water.
  3. Shelter.
  4. Warmth.
  5. Friends and Conviviality.
  6. Music and dance.
  7. Love.
  8. A Mission.
We will need to acclimatise to a world without non-essential luxuries.  How long will it take us to realise that we can live quite well without the mobile phone?

Most of us will need to learn new skills, as specialist hi tech jobs become redundant and pointless.  There are obvious skills like gardening, cooking, sewing, knitting, basic building, mechanical engineering, caring and the ability to make rudimentary energy.  We will need to recover our ability for story-telling, because as the old civilisation collapses, we will want to invent and tell new stories in order to educate ourselves about the new civilisation to come.  We need some guidebooks for the future.

The Gift Economy will ultimately replace our reliance on Money.  Cohesion in our society will inevitably rely on generosity. The gift economy is about using what gifts we have for the well-being of our friends in the community.

There are some things we need to plan for now.  In the immediate future, there will be no cheap fossil fuels. In the long term, even hi tech renewable energy will not be an option.  The energy future is wood for warmth, intermediate technology and 12 volt electricity.  We need to plant millions of trees now, so that they will be ready for burning in 50 years when we need them.

Prophesy of Doom?

Of course many people will react to this prognosis with the view that this is just doom-mongering. But I feel like the doctor who knows that the patient has got cancer, and believe it’s the responsible choice to tell the patient the truth, so that he can prepare for the rest of his life better informed.


  1. Thanks for this Mozz. I would go along with much of this of course. As Bill McKibben put it -We are too late to stop Climate Change but we can act to stop it from becoming a complete and utter calamity". And to quibble over likely timescales or possible scenarios would smack of "fiddling while Rome burns". But I would say that in the West we are particularly vulnerable because we are now so detached from the natural world- we have lost so many practical skills which were until fairly recently commonplace. And the complexity of our technical infrastructures, combined with its reliance on IT makes the whole edifice rather precarious. This is reinforced by globalisation and the neo-liberal obsession with deregulation which has removed many safeguards in the system. And so much of the West's (Except Germany) manufacturing base has now disappeared to the East- together with much of the associated skills.
    So for me the biggest issue is what we should be doing, bearing in mind, as you say that "people" don't appear to be awake to these issues. The majority (of the affluent) are still sipping cocktails in the casino while the Titanic sinks. And, personally I feel that learning to live "in community" should be a priority because the nuclear family is clearly unfit to meet the new realities we will soon be facing

  2. Yes, you're right, Phil. We must take this opportunity - now - to do something to prepare for the coming storm.

    And I agree that the formation of real caring communities (from all walks of life that truly understand what's going on) is a priority.

    In this connection the following words which conclude Mara Freeman's essay "Connecting Thread" are important:

    "Meanwhile as modern ecological consciousness grows, fostering a thirst for an abiding relationship with the natural world, this ancient and all but dried-up river is being fed with fresh springs from Deep Ecology and other related movements. We will have to relearn just how to be in relationship with the numerous forms of life which hover about us in unguarded moments, pressing against the windows of our dreams, waiting patiently for that simple act of recognition that can come like lightning or as quiet as leaf-fall. Their voices can teach us how, if we will listen".

  3. I am a negative person.
    It is difficult to be a negative person in our unbelievably Disneyland culture.
    The biblical prophets were (negative..) poets, too.
    Whatever happened to our poetry ? (Couldn't you prophesy... in beautiful poetry ?)
    Could THAT have something to do with the path we are now on ?
    I happen to believe that the last place where/when you can see clearly what is going on is when you're in the middle of it.
    How long has decline been going on ?
    You can make a case for decline making significant headway when Vaucanson, on Louis XV's request, sapped the delicate silk artistry in Lyon, and opened the door for the jacquard loom which is an industrial technique, producing rigid, monotonous, and unimaginative designs for... a greater number of people with less money, and with largely unskilled labor, of course.
    Most people, from left, or right, do not seem to understand that the consumer society is fueled by our demands for increasing freedom, and goes hand in hand with our lunatic raving about... democracy. The greatest amount, for the greatest number of people, at the least possible cost is what fueled the industrial revolution in the first place. GOOD INTENTIONS...(or at least, not unadulterated exploitation. That would be too convenient.)
    On community... I have become allergic to humankind. I detest man as a species. That does not make me insensitive to the plight of my.. neighbor, but talk of community makes me want to run in the opposite direction. Is that such a bad thing ?
    Contrary to popular belief, money is not the root of all evil. That would be too easy. Idolatry of money as a refuge, due to the bankruptcy of a society's ideals, well.. that is the root of our evil.
    On luxury... there is a saying that one man's meat is another man's poison. What is luxury to you, perhaps is a necessity to me, and vice versa.
    It is very important to take into account luxury.
    Because art is a luxury, my friend, if you take a.. pragmatic, cost efficient perspective.
    Are you sure that you want to do that ?? (Even the American Indians sewed beautiful beads onto their tunics... they didn't have to, and those beads were not a necessity, and I'm sure that they knew that, too.)
    At certain times, my soul is so sick in our ugly world that I think that I would rather... die than live in a world that has been so rationalized to be efficient, cost efficient, or pragmatic that there is no place for even the hint of the thought of luxury.
    Puritanism made the U.S. a great country, and puritanism is taking the U.S. (and the Western world...) down...