For many years, my writing about collapse centred around the “3 E’s” — economic, energy, and ecological collapse. They are of course connected. An economy cannot be maintained when severe weather events keep crashing the infrastructure everywhere, or when climate collapse produces 2 billion climate refugees or makes large parts of the planet unfit for either habitation or agriculture.
Likewise, we cannot prevent an ever-worsening ecological collapse when we apply a religion of never-ending industrial growth and increasing human population far beyond what our finite earth systems can support. And our economy depends entirely on cheap, affordable energy which, even with today’s massive subsidies of fossil fuel production, is running out. Most of it will likely be left in the ground not because it will reduce the severity of climate change, but because as our economy stumbles it will simply be too expensive to extract. So decline in energy use may mean both a brief respite for the planet’s ecological systems and a precipitator of collapse of our economic systems.
While all this is still true, I’ve come to realize that there are many more inextricably interconnected systems that comprise the earth (ecological) systems and human (civilizational) systems on which our lives depend, and that they are all poised to collapse. Some of these are listed in the chart above.
History is replete with examples of political, financial and economic collapse, and often when one fails the rest of these systems follow. Much of the world already lives in cities and countries that are in fairly advanced stages of both civilizational and ecological collapse. I have argued that the collapse of our human systems is likely to precede the collapse of the world’s ecological systems, which I think will be more gradual. But ecological collapse is still accelerating, and my sense is it will almost inevitably inflict the final blow on civilization by the end of this century.
The many economic crashes we have seen in past, and which various countries have seen lead to panic and even starvation, have occurred frightening quickly — in a matter of months when a “tipping point” is reached. The problem now is that our economy is so tightly globally integrated, and so lacking in resilience (“efficiency”, being cheaper and more profitable for corporations, has been pursued instead) that the next crash is highly likely to be global. And since the mechanisms to recover from a crash have now all been exhausted (we used the last of them up in 2008), when it happens it will probably be a ‘permanent’ (unrecoverable) collapse.
As I’ve written about often, this will mean a collapse of substantially all currencies, businesses, international (and most domestic) trade, the job market, and the value of real estate, investments and pensions. This will likely lead, as it has before (but this time globally), to the bankruptcy of governments and the devolution of almost all economic activity by default to the community level. We will essentially have to start again to build, community by community, economies that are sustainable and radically relocalized, rather than predicated on the current centralized Ponzi scheme of perpetual double-digit growth and ignored externalities.
Many writers on collapse have expressed the hope that we can manage, with difficulty, collapse of our economic and political systems, while keeping our social systems more or less intact. Social disintegration, if it happens, will create vastly more suffering than the collapse of our economic, financial and political systems (and the educational, health care, technological infrastructure and other systems that depend on them).
As someone who believes we’re all doing our best, my sense has always been that salvaging our social systems should be possible, and will be essential to avoiding chaos as the rest of our systems collapse. But of late I’m becoming less confident that that is possible.
What exactly are our “social systems”? They are, in essence, a vast array of tacit agreements on how we will individually and collectively behave. These agreements are built on a mutual trust that it is in the collective interest of everyone to respect them. Some examples:
- Contribution to shared services: We agree to pay a fair amount of taxes, tithes or similar payments to finance what we agree to be “essential services” — our collective health, education, roads, communications and other infrastructure, and “defence” and “security”.
- Abiding by laws: We agree to respect and uphold the laws of the land, even when we don’t agree with all of them.
- Unified response to crises: We agree to subordinate our personal interests to some extent to the collective interest in times of recognized crisis (wars, depressions, “natural” disasters).
- Allow governments to do their best: We respect governments to have the collective best interest of the whole population in mind, even when we disagree with what they see that best interest to be.
- Universal rights and responsibilities: We agree to respect a broad set of rights and freedoms for everyone, and to amicably and peacefully resolve differences when these rights and freedoms are perceived to conflict. These rights include property rights. These rights and freedoms come with a commensurate set of responsibilities, including the responsibility to ensure one’s property doesn’t harm others, and the responsibility to dutifully discharge one’s debts so as to not undermine confidence in the system of exchange.
I would argue that since the 1980s — just 40 years ago — most of the population in most nations has moved from a profound respect for these agreements to a position of no longer accepting most or all of these agreements. That is neither a good nor a bad thing in itself, and it is certainly understandable given the current utter dysfunction of most of our human systems. But the prevalence of this new antipathy towards any basic social contracts has profound implications for social cohesion, locally, nationally and globally.
Here are some examples of how this has manifested since it seemingly began in the reactionary Reagan/Thatcher era:
- Loss of commitment to paying for and providing shared services for all:
- Tax cheats, corrupt administrations and powerful international corporate lobbies openly reject the idea of paying taxes for “others’” essential services.
- Tax fraud is euphemistically reframed as “tax avoidance” and rewarded.
- Social services are starved for funds as more and more tax monies are spent on international (wars, invasions, coups and assassinations) and domestic (spying, militarized police) repression of citizens.
- Tax havens openly embrace corporate grifters.
- The privileged castes’ lawyers write tax laws to make the poor pay higher tax rates than the ultra-rich.
- Starved public education, public health care, public transportation and other systems deteriorate closer and closer to a state of total dysfunction, while the privileged castes and their friends and families access exclusive first class private education, private health care, and private transportation, subsidized by public moneys.
- The word “services” is replaced by the derogatory term “entitlements” by the privileged castes and their government cronies to discredit public programs, so that they can be further starved and eventually dismantled.
- Loss of commitment to fairly create and uphold, and obey the law:
- The privileged castes break the law with complete impunity, including laws against murder, mega-pollution, fraud, bribery, price-fixing, oligopoly and sexual assault. Laws are harshly applied against everyone else.
- When the privileged castes buy, bribe or extort their way out of punishment, their success is celebrated, or their crimes “pardoned”.
- When the privileged castes’ enterprises fail due to greed, corruption or mismanagement, they are bailed out at public expense (“too big to fail”).
- Corporate oligopolies receive massive corporate subsidies, some of them buried in opaque “omnibus” packages of laws too huge and convoluted for anyone to wade through and object to. This includes horrifically inequitable and misdirected CoVid-19 subsidies.
- Other laws written by the lawyers of the privileged castes and dutifully passed by well-paid-off semi-literate politicians, often without them even having being read before they are “passed”, enable and encourage the oppression of the country’s citizens by (a) surveilling and often targeting them for harassment, (b) enabling the charging of usurious interest rates on their debts, and (c) depriving them of essential health care, education and other vital services.
- Still other laws enable the bombing and slaughtering of citizens anywhere in the world if they happen to be in countries whose governments don’t offer fealty to the privileged castes.
- Law “enforcement” has become militarized, overtly biased and racist, and governments seemingly lack both the will and means to rein in the excesses of “officers”.
- “Everyone for themselves” response to crises:
- The cult of individuality has reached the extreme where citizens claim that a requirement to wear a mask or get a vaccine is an outrageous violation of their “personal freedom”, and is deliberately and ostentatiously ignored.
- Trust in the judgement of scientists has been systematically destroyed through disinformation campaigns, so attempts to coordinate science-based emergency responses result in lawsuits, death threats against public health experts, and at least one attempted coup.
- An ever-growing number of both progressives and conservatives describe themselves as “libertarians” who want to be “left alone” to make all decisions for themselves, even in times of emergency.
- Widespread distrust of government intentions and actions:
- There is a broad distrust, hatred and loathing for anything that even vaguely smacks of government or involves any government agencies. This is amplified and constantly played up in the oligopolistic media and social media, whose technocrats just shrug and say “up to you to decide what is true” or “we’re just a platform, not responsible for content”.
- Hysterical claims about the “deep state”, alleged government plots, conspiracies and cover-ups are becoming more widespread and more popular. Attempts to debunk and fact-check misinformation and disinformation are assailed as “censorship” and merely drive their believers to unmonitored underground sites and into conspiracy theory cults.
- Among conservatives and the uneducated, we have returned to a 1950s-era sensibility that “collective” and “community” are synonymous with communism and totalitarianism. This myth never really went away, but recently-sowed anti-Russian and anti-Chinese sentiment (to provide cover for domestic failures) is strengthening this myth’s hold. So any government action that benefits a collective (ie everyone) is viewed with suspicion.
- Unequal “rights” and abrogation of commensurate responsibilities:
- Thanks to vast deregulation, non-enforcement, and granting of “rights” to corporations, corporate mega-polluters are free to destroy the world’s natural heritage (land, soil, air, water), accelerating the sixth extinction of life on earth. And they are free to distribute toxic and unhealthy foods that now cause most of the world’s deaths and diseases.
- Meanwhile, whistle-blowers and protesters objecting to these actions are killed, threatened, imprisoned and “disappeared”.
- Hiding behind corporate charters, the privileged castes now exercise the “right” to do anything that increases profits for their corporations, executives and shareholders, regardless of the cost to citizens, impact on citizens’ rights, and the viability of life on the planet. And they buy judicial appointments that will ensure this “right” is never infringed upon.
- Debts have reached staggering levels in every part of the economy — corporate, individual and government. Interest rates are fixed by the privileged castes so that large corporations, the privileged caste and “friendly” governments pay essentially zero interest, while the poorest citizens pay 24-28% on credit cards, the only credit they can obtain, and credit that they are constantly pushed to take on more of (and have to, when the real cost of living is rising at four times the rate average workers’ wages are).
- The privileged castes’ corporations now have the “right” to write off as tax losses the results of their misadventures and mismanagement, and to push the numbered companies of unsuccessful high-risk ventures into bankruptcy with impunity. Meanwhile, new laws have largely removed the corresponding right of individuals to declare personal bankruptcy.
These betrayals and abrogations of the agreements by which our societies function were initially propagated mostly by the privileged castes, with the often-overt encouragement and enablement of governments. It is not surprising, then, that the rest of the population, seeing itself discriminated against and oppressed by the privileged castes’ disregard for these agreements, are showing a similar disregard for these agreements, saying:
- If the privileged castes aren’t respecting the agreements, why should they?
- Why should they have any trust in, or respect for, governments and the agreements they are only enforcing to their disadvantage?
- Why should they not cheat on their taxes as well?
- Why should they obey laws that seem designed to discriminate against and oppress them?
- Why should they trust governments to pass and enforce laws in the “collective interest” when governments seemingly only cater to the vested interests of the privileged castes?
- Why should they respect corporations’ and privileged castes’ “rights and freedoms” when they seem to amount to the right to destroy the planet, poison its citizens, and deprive them of their own rights and freedoms?
- Why when inequality has skyrocketed over the past 40 years should citizens presume anything governments do is in the “collective interest”?
So the population, no longer able to discern what they can and can’t believe and who they can trust, are filled with fear, bewilderment, rage and hopelessness. With trust gone, these social agreements are now, in many countries, in tatters.
And without them, the social fabric that has kept 7.8B people in line, and functioning at least superficially as a civil society, is rapidly tearing apart.
In many parts of the world where collapse is well-advanced, the members of constituent communities have learned to create a new local, social fabric. That may be in intentional community, or in a gang or cult, or less formally just in an evolving sense of “who’s in our community and how are we looking after each other?”. They are practicing, trying to figure out how to create a local economy, politic, health care system, education system, and social systems, in the vacuum left by government neglect and incapacity, and by the abandonment and abrogation of basic social agreements. They have forged new agreements, for better or worse. Some of the ones I’ve seen are amazing, while others are horrifying. We should be watching, and learning.
In parts of the world like (most of) ours where collapse still seems a way off, there hasn’t been much if any thought given to how, if the social fabric that is now so badly torn cannot be mended, we are going to follow “third world” examples and create new agreements that will work well-enough for us to survive.
It won’t be easy. We are like dogs that have been looked after all our lives and are suddenly witnessing the breakup of our family and the possibility we are going to have to make do for ourselves, in collaboration with the other dogs suddenly in the same position. We have become so dependent on civilization’s systems we have never given a thought to having to create whole “new” societies, from the bottom up, from the ruins of the one that is now quickly disintegrating.
Where once I was confident we’d muddle along, I now fear it may be a more brutal adaptation. We do have good intentions, but that’s about all we have going for us right now. We suffer from severe imaginative poverty (from 40 years’ lack of exercise of our imaginations). We have almost no residual skill or experience in community-building, consensus-building, or living and working in self-sufficient and self-managed communities. It may take two or three generations of experiment and practice to build up the skills and experience to be able to do what wild animals do innately.
We are inevitably, due to lack of imagination and better models, going to try to create new societies similar to the only ones we were familiar with, even though they were hopelessly dysfunctional and are unworkable in a world where all of the systems in the diagram above have already collapsed or are in the process of collapsing. We will probably try out neo-tribal models first, which will provide some useful lessons but likely won’t work well in our vastly diverse, vastly under-skilled post-civilization societies.
We will have to cope with the death throes of the top privileged castes as they desperately attempt to retain their wealth, power and influence. They will likely create a kind of neo-feudal model which will work for a while and then fail spectacularly once the “nobles” run out of money (and hence power; since most of their wealth is in real estate and “financial assets”, that shouldn’t take too long, but it will be chaotic). If you’ve ever lived in a “company town” you probably have a good idea how this works.
The biggest unknown in building post-civilization societies is whether some of the technologies we have produced during our civilization’s reign, such as nuclear and biological resources that have been or could be adapted for weaponry, could be used by very small groups of people to produce a global catastrophe, even before the catastrophes that ecological collapse is just now starting to present us with, weigh in. It really wouldn’t take a rocket scientist. (I’m much less worried about AI, nano-bots etc — that stuff takes a lot of energy to sustain, and I think we’ll run out before new technologies emerge that can start to rival in destructive capacity what’s already out there in military arsenals, power plants and laboratories.) And if neglected after collapse, all the existing nuclear power plants could melt down, and the mega-warehouses full of lethal chemicals could crumble, with disastrous consequences that could last for millennia.
The next biggest unknown is how severe the ecological collapse will be over the next couple of centuries. I think at least a small part of the planet will remain habitable to humans as this collapse unfolds, even without the energy-dependent, prosthetic, artificial environments in which almost all of us now live. But there are models that suggest otherwise. And it hasn’t been that long since the entire planet was wrapped in hot toxic gases that only microscopic creatures could endure. Even less time has passed since the entire planet was last covered in miles-thick ice. We can’t know.
If we can dodge these two bullets (and a few others equally as depressing), I still believe the human race can survive the collapse of global civilization, and in a couple of millennia, humbled, much smaller in number, and back to being a tiny and insignificant part of Gaia’s awesome experiment of life on earth, we might find our distant descendants living very happy, peaceful, simple lives, mostly free from stress and struggle. As Anna Tsing explains in The Mushroom at the End of the World, it will probably be a salvage-gift-and-scavenger society, similar and yet in ways amazingly different from how prehistoric humans lived.
That’s what I want to believe anyway.