What Happens Next: A Timeline for Civilizational Collapse

BLOG A Timeline for Civilizational Collapse

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A number of readers have asked me for an “elevator speech” that describes how I think our civilization will collapse by the end of this century. Being more of a “picture” person I decided to try to answer that question graphically. The result is shown above.

There seems to be a growing consensus among those who have studied the history of civilizations, past and present, and who are informed about the current state of our economic, political, social and ecological systems, that we are headed for a wall — a series of cascading crises that we will not be able to prevent, mitigate, or adapt ourselves to. These crises will be principally of three types (listed in the order in which the systems underlying them will collapse):

  1. Economic and Political Crises: We are already weathering the early signs of these, though I don’t think the real economic or political crises have yet really begun. Because our economic and political systems, predicated on accelerating and endless growth, are unsustainable, we are starting to see evidence of great volatility in the industrial growth markets as awareness of this unsustainability mounts. This will produce a crisis of confidence as unemployment soars, wages collapse, and citizens lose the capacity to buy, which will precipitate market collapse and a chronic great depression — a “Long Emergency” — that will steadily worsen over the next 20 years and peak in the 2030s.
  2. Energy Crises: Our economy is based utterly on the availability of unlimited inexpensive energy. As the economy collapses for the reasons noted above, investment to seek new sources of cheap energy will evaporate, and an energy crisis will compound and accelerate the economic crises. As all the economic engines — employment, inexpensive energy, inexpensive resources, and inexpensive capital — all dry up, the economy will crash, leading to increasing regional and then global political turmoil, and finally, as the energy crisis peaks in the 2050s, the beginnings of civilizational collapse. Civil chaos, compounding the collapse of the fragile global economic system on which almost all humans depend for their very life, will lead to the quick collapse of national and regional governments, and power will devolve by default to local communities. Death will come not from massive war or bioterror (though there will be some, perhaps lots of that) but from the familiar killers of humans throughout civilization — famine and disease.
  3. Ecological Crises: The excesses of our economic system have already unleashed irreversable climate change, which is just beginning to show up in extreme weather events and accelerating glacial melting and temperature rise, and will soon produce ecological system collapses that will exacerbate the economic and energy crises. By the 2060s, human civilization will be in rapid descent as the ecological crises ascend. We will lose the last of our forests, crops will be devastated, pandemics will kill humans, their food crops and farm animals, our oceans will become devoid of life, fresh clean water will become desperately scarce, and deserts, droughts and floods will become commonplace.

Underlying all of these crises are the industrial growth society, economy, and civilization we have built up, over the past thirty millennia but especially over the past three centuries. This civilization was both enabled and required by the discovery of tools (arrowheads, fire, and catastrophic monoculture agriculture) that in turn enabled us to expand outside our natural rainforest habitat, become carnivores, become settlers, eliminate natural predators, and hence expand exponentially our species’ numbers and consumption of resources. To try to sustain this, we created a fragile economic and political system that depended on the exhaustion of natural ecosystems, the extermination of alternative cultures and all species not required for human food, and the ruthless repression of all forms of diversity and dissent. The discovery of fossil fuels allowed us to replace human labour with that created mechanically by the burning of these hydrocarbons — hundreds of millennia worth of stored energy consumed in just a century or two. This allowed us to completely pillage the planet, just as quickly, to the point that we now have nothing left for other species or for future generations, and this has precipitated the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, and the destruction, in the blink of an eye, of an ecological balance that was co-created and sustained collectively by all-life-on-Earth for millions of years.

Reg Morrison, in Spirit of the Gene, tells us what to expect after that:

If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion.

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11 Responses to What Happens Next: A Timeline for Civilizational Collapse

  1. Brilliantly written and drawn out. Whenever I need a diagram that says everything that needs to be said, I’ll commission the esteemable Mr Pollard.I think you need to create an easy to use gallery of your graphics.K.

  2. Fits with what I see as going on – I think like you Dave, I can no longer see any of us stopping the forces in play – I feel like a Roman in the “know” at 400 AD – by 500 it was all over in the west and no amount of last ditch effort was going to halt what was going to happen. Above all that the grain supplies from Africa would fail and the global communication system of the time.A retreat into micro regionalism. With adult kids and grand child – what to do? Maybe to be clear about what we see. Live a life more connected regionally and personally. Prepare mentally. Disconnect from the system.What about you Dave?

  3. Janene says:

    Hey Dave –I take a little bit of exception to you implying that using tools inevitably led us to this. That then implies that humans ARE fundamentally broken and that if we had not done it, some other tool using species would have.Otherwise… very nice, concise and to the point. I would add… for those that are looking for a better way to live now and in the future (those believing that humans may survive this as a species) that your timeline is good on a global scale, but that we can expect power systems to contract as they begin to collapse, suggesting that space will begin to open up, very quickly, which is outside of the dominion of remaining power structures. In other words, head to the hills, the deserts, anywhere that is far from current power centers and has limited agricultural/industrial resources….Janene

  4. prad says:

    looks pretty good to me.

  5. vera says:

    Nice, Dave! Now I have to copy it and carry in my pocket… :-)I wonder if there is another “collapse” and that is the one Janene mentions… collapse of power. And attendant relocalization… aren’t we all hoping there is a raisin in the collapse mud pie?

  6. Paul says:

    Might add Severe Decrease in Biodiversity as a Climate Change Tipping Point item. (Effects on food supply will be significant, we all fear.)Would be interesting to imagine how world population increases then drops in this timeframe.Housing Mkt Collapse might be expanded to Real Estate Mkt Collapse.Regarding the Debt Crisis: I don’t think it necessarily leads to a collapse of the $US. Even if that currency remains strong compared to others, the lack of credit and lack of opportunity to generate significant profits will create a downward-spiraling decrease in economic activity (depression).Due to the Oil Price Spike (which will probably be very volatile, not unidirectional), food prices will suffer spikes long before the majority of Industrial Agriculture Collapse occurs.Resource Wars will start well before Civilizational Collapse. Some would argue they are in progress now.Relocalization is ultimately inevitable. In a few locales it will be dreamy, in others it will involve war lords, slavery, fascism, protection rackets, exterminations, etc.

  7. Chaitanya says:

    Interesting you mention “tools” as a primary root cause. No wonder we are/will try to fix the problems using more tools and technology. We will try to fix the three E’s (Economy, Energy, Ecology) using three more E’s.financial Engineering: Governments / central banks are already doing that to patch over the current debt crisis. Zero interest rate policies, un-audited purchases of debt by central banks, stimulus packages etc etc.energy Engineering: There is actually no energy crisis per se. There is a ball of fire up there able to serve all our energy needs. We will try our level best to harness this energy.ecological Engineering: Steps such as Geo engineering, genetic engineering etc. We will try to completely engineer the planet according to our needs.Our society has chosen the Three E’s path over three R’s — Reduction of population, Reduction of consumption and Reduction of debt (which is my preferred solution, combined with limited engineering). I guess time will tell whether we succeed in three E’s.

  8. raffi says:

    thanks,dave, for this. looks quite plausible (with the minor exception of the “new islamic caliphate”)i wonder what such a map would look like, if it integrated the growing life-serving global forces at play…i harbor no illusions about us innovating or “awakening” our ways out of this mess…just posing a question…

  9. David Emanuel says:

    This is a great graphic yet it strikes me as ironically benign in presentation. Which is to say, as these events unfold there will, by definition, be a concomitant rise in irrational-thinking and -behavior, violence, pain, suffering, death and destruction. I know it’s the nature of such things (graphs) but I thought it warranted a mention.As an American, I see the rising violence and balkanization–implicit and explicit–all around me. It’s micro and macro, profoundly desperate and ugly, infinitely pervasive and all consuming.Welcome to the End of Empire during the Century of Contraction in the Culture of Make Believe.The course of my life–in our profoundly atomized F-U-I-Got-Mine society–has left me without any proximate primates with whom to commiserate about the criminal acts ofStatus Quobama (the plutocratic-lemon-socialist-liar, -thief and -thug in chief) and our fundamental, religious myth of infinite growth on a finite planet.Would that I knew someone like you (people who understand the high probability of the general conclusions of this approximate timeline) in real life.Alas, I can only nod my head in agreement and dismay while observing a few like-minds in this delusional spectacle we call “digital community”.In reality and solidarity,–David Emanuel

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone — I’ll take your excellent ideas into consideration as I evolve this chart in future. I think it’s going to be grim, but I also think it will bring out the best, not the worst, in human nature. My post today (Nov. 26/09) is an attempt to suggest how we should respond to all this.

  11. Seb says:

    – What’s your forecast for Canada?- Is the internet going down (say it ain’t so!)? If so, when?

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