It’s encouraging to see that the terms “climate crisis” and even “climate collapse”, which even five years ago were ridiculed as doomerism, are now considered perfectly reasonable descriptions of our current state. That doesn’t mean there is any consensus on how to address it, or any widespread willingness to change our lifestyle to match this new worldview. And it certainly doesn’t mean that climate collapse can be avoided or significantly mitigated. Still, it’s a start.
Lost in this new awareness, however, is that our global industrial economy is once again teetering on the edge of what will be a long drawn-out but ultimately permanent collapse. That’s a concern because if the more pervasive effects of economic collapse come first, there’s a good chance climate collapse will once again be ignored as our attention focuses on the more immediate existential crisis of economic suffering.
And it is very likely that the first dominoes of global economic collapse are, as a recent NYT article highlighted (sadly, behind a NYT paywall), about to fall. And the reasons for this are even more complex and even less understood than the reasons for climate collapse. Here are a few of them:
- This economy is built on faith in perpetual growth: faith that rapid and accelerating economic ‘growth’ can and will somehow continue indefinitely, so that investments in the future will continue to make sense. If that faith is shattered — if people begin to doubt that investing now in stocks, bonds, loans, real estate, commodities, and businesses will not yield a positive return commensurate with the risk in the intervening period — then the market value of those goods and securities will crumble, in some cases (like with stocks) to zero. No one will pay money for common stocks, which are the riskiest and lowest-ranking (in the case of insolvency or bankruptcy) securities, unless they believe that the present value (discounted at a rate that reflects the risk of the return being lower than expected) of future cash flows (dividends and sales proceeds) from that investment exceeds the current price. That means the price is hugely vulnerable to changes in perceived future cash flows (profit increases) and to perceived risk. There have been many recessions and depressions precipitated by nothing more than just such a change in perception. And to some extent that change in perception is self-fulfilling.
- The value of ‘fiat’ currencies is built on faith: the currencies on which our economy is dependent no longer have any underlying collateral other than the ability and willingness of the issuing government to redeem them at face value. These governments have incurred (especially over the past four decades under conservative governments that have cut corporate and high-worth individual taxes and accelerated ‘defence’ spending and subsidies to corporate friends), colossal levels of indebtedness, and the annual deficits and accumulated debts levels are accelerating every year. Guess what the acceptability and continuance of such debt levels is based on? The ability of future governments to increase revenues, based on accelerating personal incomes and corporate profits. When faith in this ability drops, currencies collapse. See Argentina, Russia, Venezuela etc etc to see how fast and profoundly this happens, and the economic consequences of it.
- Economic growth is dependent on ever-accelerating amounts of debt. The economy needs people to continue to consume at ever-increasing rates, which requires most of us to borrow more and more money so we have it to spend. If citizens were to (wisely) decide to repay their debts and live within their means, it would collapse the already-leveraged money supply and bring down the economy. Unfortunately for most citizens, they don’t have the luxury to hold the line on new debts, let alone repay the existing ones. The same thing would happen, incidentally, if the banks decided to become more careful (responsible) about their lending, instead of their current practice of hard-selling gullible customers on incurring additional debts they can’t afford, at usurious repayment rates, and lending money recklessly on the strength of the ‘value’ of wildly-overpriced collateral, or simply to generate more profits and commissions.
- Governments and banks are deliberately suppressing interest rates far below current rates of inflation. They are doing this to encourage ever-more borrowing and spending, and to force investors out of bond and other ‘fixed income’ investments into stocks (and real estate), so that the illusion of perpetual increases in stock (and real estate) values (necessary to prevent economic collapse) is continued. This is now hugely difficult to do: Interest rates in most places are near or even below zero, a nightmarish situation for those on fixed incomes, and for pension fund managers prohibited from investing all their funds in stocks. This means that, to avoid the wrath of investors and plunging values, fund managers have to buy extremely-high-risk ‘junk’ and ‘near-junk’ bonds to get any return at all, and have to take higher and higher risks on stock investments. It means listed companies are buying back their own stock to make the remaining shares more valuable on a per-share basis, because they simply can’t keep generating more and more profits-per-share any other way. It means that banks have to furiously fight anti-usury laws that would block them from charging 29% interest on credit card balances while they’re paying the same customers 0.5% on their ‘savings’ accounts — without usurious interest rates on such loans to the poor, they could not generate the needed double-digit increases in profits every year to keep their shares from collapsing and to avoid insolvency and bankruptcy. This ‘tax on the poor’ is a large part of the reason net worth for the vast majority of citizens is now negative and declining, while essentially all wealth accrues to the 1% (tax cuts for the rich also contribute to this). As income and wealth disparity soars, it tears at the very social fabric our economy is supposed to be supporting.
- Most citizens are now a few months’ income away from bankruptcy, homelessness, and even hunger. Secure full-time jobs with benefits have disappeared by the millions (they’re too ‘expensive’ for profit-obsessed corporations to offer), leaving most citizens no choice but to work multiple low-paying, insecure jobs, perpetually caught in the two-income trap. While life expectancy has flat-lined, healthy life-years for the poor have fallen due largely to poor diets (they are too busy working to have time to cook healthy food), chronic anxiety and stress, and decreasing access to essential health care (whose costs continue to skyrocket year after year), leading to more and more people who are unable to participate in the labour force and hence dependent on other family members, or rendered homeless. And the population is aging rapidly, facing accelerating health-care costs and sick days, and mostly unable to even think of retiring before they die.
- Governments, politicians and corporations are consciously lying about the real rates of inflation and unemployment. Factoring in the soaring costs of health care and housing in affluent nations, true inflation rates are 6-10%, and true unemployment rates are 20-30%. When the typical citizen is paying 8% more per year for essential goods and services, and paying 16% interest on their borrowings (the average for lower-income earners, per the Two Income Trap), while receiving average wage increases of only 2%, and earning just 0.5% on their savings, while facing a high risk that they, or their spouse, will become unemployed in any particular year, the situation is unsustainable and potentially explosive.
- Our economy is totally dependent on inexpensive, affordable fossil-fuel energy, water, minerals, construction materials and other resources. The claims that economic growth stems from innovation, efficiency, ‘consolidation’, globalization, and ‘economies of scale’ are complete bunk. All of the growth in our industrial economy over the past century has been due to one factor: the use of cheap energy and resources. Many studies have confirmed there is an almost perfect correlation between energy production (and consumption) per capita and GDP per capita, whether measured over time or between countries. Over that century, cheap fossil-fuel energy constitutes an amazingly-consistent 80+% of that energy, and there is abundant evidence that the only thing that will change that is if (when) available fossil-fuel resources become too expensive for consumers to afford (eg if there is an economic collapse). There is likewise an almost perfect correlation between total energy production (and consumption), total GDP, total stock market value, total world population, total world imports & exports, total resource consumption, and total CO2e emissions. They have all risen, and will all fall, in lock-step.
When economic crises are local, or when there are ways to re-jump-start the economy by correcting the underlying causes that led to the recession or depression, there are levers that can be used to intervene and restore the economy to health. But we used up the last of our available levers in 2008, and we are once again at the tipping point, and this time we are looking at a permanent and global economic collapse. We are finally going to have to face that our perpetual-growth, high-resource use, environmentally-ruinous, debt-faith-dependent economy was never sustainable, and was destined to collapse sooner or later. We will soon (probably in fits and starts over the next three decades or so) be forced to return to a radically relocalized, low-tech economy of sufficiency. It will not be a graceful transition.
In short, while climate collapse will render centralized, high-tech, high-energy use civilization unsustainable, and make much (and possibly all) of the planet uninhabitable, economic collapse will likely make our lives radically different, and will do so well before climate collapse weighs in with full force.
The collapse of our global industrial civilization will have two chapters. The economic collapse chapter will come first. The climate collapse chapter will just be the final blow. It’s unlikely that the survivors, by the end of this century, will be able to read this forecast, and it’s unlikely they will care about why or how it happened. They will be otherwise occupied.
Charts above from OurWorldinData.org CC-by-SA via Sustaining Capabilities blog 2018. Note that the recent drop in proportion of CO2e emissions in affluent nations corresponds to their offshoring much dirty industry to Asia, whose proportion of emissions grew commensurately.