National Center for Atmospheric Research projected chronic drought areas mid-century; purple and red areas may be essentially uninhabitable
Students of past civilizations describe a civilization’s end not as a sudden tumultuous collapse but more a ‘walking away’, a giving up on the whole way of being and living embodied by the civilization, in favour of a simpler way of being and living. Civilizations, being inherently large and complex human creations, require a huge amount of infrastructure, resources, transportation networks, hierarchy and propaganda. They all collapse, eventually, when the cost of this complexity ceases to be sustainable, usually either because of resource exhaustion or climate change.
What collapses, most notably, is people’s faith in their way of being and living. People need to believe that the culture they live within is the best one for their community and descendants, and when they cease to believe, the political structure of that culture will inevitably collapse. You can only promise the impossible and lie to the people who ultimately have to keep the social fabric together, for so long, before they simply cease to believe. Like the Anasazi whose thousand-year-long North American civilization disappeared so quickly without a trace seven centuries ago, when the people cease to believe in the viability of their culture and walk away, the political system, and its governments, disappear.
I think this is beginning to happen to our civilization. Conservatives generally want strong central governments to sustain a military to ward off attackers. Progressives generally want strong central governments to create a social safety net and help ensure the well-being and education of the people. But now we have conservatives utterly dedicated to the dismantling of government, “starving it until it can be drowned in a bathtub”. And we have progressives so appalled by ubiquitous government surveillance and military misadventure that they are refusing to pay taxes. And we have young people who see governments as so inherently corrupt, inept, and unredeemable that they don’t bother to vote or even follow what they’re doing.
All factions seem to have lost faith in the value and integrity of government. Only the corporatists want the government to continue as it currently operates — siphoning from increasingly disgruntled taxpayers to subsidize the extremely rich and their global corporate enterprises, and engaging in colossally costly wars to steal resources and extract slave labour from struggling nations to enrich them further.
The corporatists own the propaganda arms of the culture — the political parties, the business ‘leaders’, the media, the advertisers — and they are doing their best to mislead and sedate those who have not yet caught on, and discourage those who have. They cannot last much longer.
This culture has pushed us headlong into runaway climate change, and the sixth great extinction of life on Earth. It has exhausted the essential resources on which it has gorged itself for two centuries, and deluded its citizens to believe that somehow innovation will create more from nothing. And it has indebted struggling nations, future generations and the natural world to an extent utterly impossible to repay or sustain. So soon enough, collapse will be upon us.
So how will we walk away, this time? What will it look like? How will central governments come to an end this time?
I am fond of saying that things must get much worse before most people will give up trying to sustain what has been for many a wonderful, astonishing culture. But there are different ways of giving up. This culture will not end, I think, in revolution or bloodshed. It is not worth such a price, nor will radical ‘reforms’ work. Nor will it degenerate into Mad Max-style anarchy and violence. In a crisis, most people tend to be surprisingly rational, protective (of those they love) and cautious, especially when the crisis is prolonged.
Many of those who live with constant struggle — people in most non-affluent nations, the homeless, the chronically poor — are already living in a sort of collapse. They haven’t ‘walked away’, because there was nothing for them to walk away from, or to. They still aspire, mostly, to live the affluent lifestyle we are accustomed to. They do not pay into, or receive anything from, central governments now, and in many nations are unenumerated, not even considered part of the populace.
Warlords and organized crime (and other forms of crypto-government) need access to centralized infrastructure and resources as much as established political organs do. Warlords need transportation, political, financial and military infrastructure in order to sell heroin, or oil, or people, and in order to buy guns and ammunition. Organized crime needs a stable real estate and construction industry to launder their wealth and enrich themselves, and functional currencies and networks for whatever people need that they can’t get through ‘legal’ channels.
When these systems fall apart, everything tends to go local, and there is much less to support inequality of wealth and power. Things that are available locally become relatively abundant (because there’s no economic way to export it), and things that must be imported become relatively scarce. The paper assets of billionaires then lose most of their value, and their hard assets become unmovable (physically or financially), beyond the immediate communities in which they sit. Without an industrial infrastructure to support its distribution, even hard assets — gold, minerals, oil reserves, buildings — will likely fall sharply in value. We will, I think, face a great levelling of wealth and power, and, thanks to climate change, a simultaneous great migration toward the poles.
I don’t see central governments “collapsing” so much as slowly withering away. The rich and powerful will do their best to steal what’s left of the people’s assets: government-owned land, property and cash. They will probably succeed, since they’re the foxes minding the public henhouse. They will call it “privatization” and say it’s in the people’s interests, though it will not be. They will describe the liquidation of assets of cities and then counties and states to pay off corporate debts (the richest 10% own over 90% of US municipal bonds) as “prudent fiscal management”. What is left, as many citizens of bankrupt towns and cities have already discovered, will be utterly inadequate to meet minimal needs of citizens. I think we will see essential services — health, education, security, infrastructure maintenance — largely move into the hands of for-profit corporations that will charge prices only the rich can afford, and will provide inadequate services for everything else (witness e.g. the disgrace of prison privatization in the US).
This could lead to a devolution of service to communities, which may of necessity start to fend for themselves and self-organize the provision of essential services to community members, possibly through co-ops (as has happened in past depressions). This may provide a much lower level of service than what we’re used to, but at least it will be ours. The privatized services tailored to rich urban dwellers will almost inevitably go bankrupt as the value of the paper wealth of the rich plummets as a result of economic collapse. The rich may then try to organize their own walled-community services, but they probably won’t be able to find anyone willing to work in them for what they are able to pay, so eventually they may have to join neighbouring communities which have found successful ways to provide subsistence services, peer-to-peer. The high-priced medical specialists, pharmaceuticals, lawyers and private schools will, by then, probably be gone, unaffordable vestiges of the great levelling.
In many struggling nations, there is currently a vast disparity of wealth. But that disparity depends substantially on the largesse of the corporatist interests in affluent nations, and these interests will have little money left to spend to support them, so in those countries, too, there will likely be a great levelling of wealth. Even the drug czars will probably find that organized crime no longer pays, as the value of currencies collapses. There will be little value in oil reserves and pipelines if there is no money to produce and maintain them, and no money in customers’ pockets to pay for them — especially with the plunging EROIs of modern energy supplies.
As in many struggling nations today, and as in the Great Depression and the Long Depression before that, millions will likely flock to the cities fruitlessly in search of jobs. This could mean that the cities and suburbs will be hollowed out, as the cost of maintaining bridges, expressways, elevators and other infrastructure becomes too high to continue. They may simply be scavenged for what is of transportable value, and then abandoned. The majority of us will likely move towards areas with nearby land that is arable without artificial oil-based fertilizers, and away from the many increasingly intolerable and desertified areas shown in purple and red on the map above.
It is this Great Migration that, I think, could bring the end of most national governments. These governments currently own the security apparatus — the bombs and border militias and armies and security agencies — in most countries, and most people will, I think, continue to believe that security is essential, especially in the face of masses of climate change refugees seeking a habitable place to live. But the astronomical cost of “home security”, which is almost certainly the least efficient and effective of all government services (for complex but perfectly logical reasons), can probably not be maintained through economic collapse, especially with the end of cheap (high EROI) oil. Once national governments admit they cannot afford to maintain armies, borders and weaponry, it’s probably game over for them. And there will almost certainly be no capacity at the regional level by then to devolve authority for security to. On top of this, as people move from the cities towards the remaining arable hinterlands and thousands of miles towards the poles, they’re not likely to care much if someone wants to invade the areas they’ve abandoned.
We’re already seeing a loss of faith in the value of centralized governments, across the political spectrum. If they prove unable to cope with economic collapse, and the great uprooting and great migration brought on by runaway climate change, we may see, in a few short decades, the disappearance of most of the national governments on the planet. As they were until just a couple of millennia ago, political boundaries may then get fuzzy, and largely unimportant and, for better and for worse, it may be the decisions made in each local community, face to face, that will once again determine the well-being of citizens.
Community-building anyone? And where will we be trying to build communities by the middle of the century?