The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Now That We’re At Peak, How Fast Will Civilization Collapse Be?

Last week I wrote an article about the future of civilization, collapse centered around a graph from “Limits To Growth.”

I spent a fair bit of time staring at this graph yesterday, and I want to return to it, because it says some very important things about what’s coming up over the next decades.

The first thing to understand is that the future is, as William Gibson has noted, unevenly distributed. Sri Lanka is currently all-out collapse, for example.

The chart above is GLOBAL. Regional charts will be similar, but not identical and the time axis will differ. Some regions will collapse slower, peak later and so on.

The first thing I want you do is find the population line. Notice that it peaks in 2050.

Now, find the services per capita line. Peaks about 2020.

Now, the industrial output per capita. Also peaks about 2020.

And now look at the food per capita line, same thing.

But it’s not the peak that matters, go back and look at what happens after the peak.

Now, go back to those three lines and see what they do after 2020.

Not quite vertical declines, but very very steep.

Look at the food per capita line now. Go to the very right of the chart, then to the very left.

Somewhat under half the food per capita in 1900 will be produced in 2100. Move back a little and you’ll see it actually bottoms around 2060, then slowly recovers.

All three of the production lines have precipitous declines. The industrial production line manages best, winding up around a 1950 number, but remember that most of the world was not industrialized back then, just Europe, Japan, and North America. This is a world number. Next, consider the primary industrial nation today is China: don’t assume that it’s Europe and North America who will necessarily be the one with the big chunk of the remains: it isn’t going to be just a reversion to 1950 (especially considering the food collapse.)

Services come off the worst: services are, in most cases, luxuries. If we want to keep the important services like health care and education we’re going to have to prioritize them and be ruthless about cutting service crap we don’t actually need.

As for the good stuff, pollution peaks around 2035 in this model. Sounds promising and it is, but the problem is that we will be past self-reinforcing cycles at that point: methane release from permafrost for example, so climate change will continue. And as people become desperate for food, and they will, every wild animal, including the fish, and anything else edible will be plundered, so ecological collapse will continue and even accelerate.

Population doesn’t peak till 2050 in this model. Look down to the food line and you’ll see that food per capita recovers when population declines. In part this indicates a semi-permanent change in the Earth’s carrying capacity: some will recover, over time, but for a long time it just won’t be able to produce as much food for us.

Now, flip over to the death line. It goes vertical in the 2040s. Of course, the Club of Rome couldn’t model Covid, so I suspect we may get there earlier and the plague may help a number of these lines be somewhat better, ironically.

But do notice that when the death line goes vertical, it’s damn near at 90 degrees. A LOT of people are going die.

The population, death and birth lines indicate that deaths are driving the population decrease. I’m hoping that the births line is wrong, it goes vertical not long after the deaths line and that’s why the food per capita numbers remain abysmal. If we want to have even semi-decent conditions for most people we’re going to need decreasing population for quite some time. I’ve seen estimates that the world carrying capacity may crash as much as 80%. Hopefully it won’t be that bad, but if most of the tropics are uninhabitable we’re in a world of hurt and every estimate I’ve seen is that climate change takes away far more agricultural land than it creates farther north.

All of that before we get to the permanent damage done to our supplies of fresh water, which is a definite limiting factor. Even if we make desalinization work, well, there’s a lot of land that’s nowhere near the sea.

This is a chart you should spend time with, till it soaks into your emotional bones. Look at the shape of those curves.

This is civilization collapse. It is going to be very bad, much worse than most people expect.

The collapse has begun, worldwide. It’s not evenly distributed, but it’s here.

We are post peak. Plan accordingly.



Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – July 3, 2022


Germany Is Being Crushed By “Anti-Russia” Sanctions


  1. different clue

    If the planetary collection of ecosystems survives in some form or fashion, then where various sub-branches of present day civilization collapse back to might depend on what kind of civilization their ancestors had before they entered this current cycle of civilization.

    So, if Sri Lanka is in acute collapse and perhaps on the way to Deep Collapse, what might it collapse down to? Somalia? A South Sudanese Famine Camp? Or might it be able to revive some semblance of the old High Classical Civilization it used to have?
    What if the best and the brightest Sri Lankans of today work on reviving a social survival amount of their prior civilization to have a survival-enabling civilization for tomorrow?

    Here are a couple of articles about Sri Lanka’s High Classical Hydrological ( Hydraulic) Civilization.

    And here’s a bunch of images of ” Sri Lanka Hydraulic Civilization” related stuff, with URLs for people who want to go url diving.;_ylt=AwrFEP3d3cRiLv0DnW1XNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzIEdnRpZANMT0NVSTA0NV8xBHNlYwNzYw–?p=sri+lanka+hydraulic+civilization&fr=sfp

  2. bruce wilder

    Ian made a point a while back when he pointed out that for all the economic growth globally since 1950, the industrialization of China et cetera, the number of extremely poor people has not changed. Industrial civilization does not encompass or integrate the whole world and as climate change impacts people who have never been part of the developed world, taking away the basis of their bare subsistence and possibly the livability of their natural environment, their experience of collapse will be more sudden and of a different character from the experience of people who have grown up dependent on an artificial environment of complex systems and services.

    I look at the curves of births and deaths and population growth, collapse and recovery and I think it will be dire, but may take a more variegated form. I think it is possible on present trends that fertility in the developed world is even now crashing, not just for social reasons of people choosing to have fewer children but also because of the accumulation of plastics and other chemicals impinging on hormonal reproductive health.

    Famine induced by crop failures for subsistence farmers will kill, while people in the developed world not being able to afford as much meat is a different problem.

    The triumph of neoliberalism has made collapse even harder to “manage” than it might be for a society with more competent and responsible elites, able to imagine and even embrace retrenchment and retreat. As Ian says, forward-forcings are already taking over to make natural forces continue climate change and carbon saturation in the oceans proceed even if and when humans decelerate their profligate use of fossil fuels. If we look closely, we can also see that political and social forces have not developed to human advantage. In the U.S. the elites have become democidal in their sociopathy and denial.

    I think the dynamic modeling that underlay Limits to Growth reasoning was remarkable for its controlled use of highly abstract reasoning. Nothing like it can be convincingly done today — the IPCC reports have provoked and reported some truly abysmal efforts from academic economists. That inability to imagine a future prevents us from imagining governing a collapse, guaranteeing chaos and violence and horrific “engineering” mistakes.

  3. someofparts

    It makes ordinary life feel surreal, like the calm just before a tsunami makes landfall. Carrying on with life as usual, even in the most minimal, self-reliant way possible, won’t save us – but what else can we do?

  4. Quite Likely

    I’m surprised you give such credence to this chart, looks like pretty blatant pseudo-science to me. I’d bet at very good odds that that food, industrial production and services per capita will continue their upward trends.

  5. Dan Lynch

    Ian said ” be ruthless about cutting service crap we don’t actually need.”

    Agree, and I’m going to diverge from the main theme of Ian’s essay and expand on the service issue. I have some peculiar ideas and one of them is that most service jobs should be outlawed. Let me explain.

    For moral reasons, I believe it is demeaning, and therefore immoral, to require any person to “serve” another person if that other person is capable of serving himself.

    Examples: no one should have to cook for another competent adult. No one should have to carry food to that competent adult’s table, or refill his glass. No one should have to clean another competent adult’s swimming pool, or mow their lawn, or clean their toilet. It’s demeaning.

    Besides being demeaning, low-skill service jobs do not add any real economic value. If those low-skill service jobs are outlawed, the competent adult will simply cook his own food, clean his own swimming pool, mow his own lawn, and clean his own toilet, and real economic output will remain exactly the same as before. In fact, real economic output will rise if those former service workers get re-assigned to jobs that produce something useful to society — manufacturing, infrastructure, etc..

    Some service jobs should be permitted — caring for the elderly and the disabled who are not capable of doing things themselves, and services that requires specialized skills, like education, health care, or repair. But that’s about it. Get rid of the demeaning low-skill service jobs.

    Some people like to eat at restaurants because they are lousy cooks, but a lot of people like to eat at restaurants because they like the feeling of being served, and ordering people around. Having spent some time working in service jobs, I know all too well how arrogant affluent people like to order service workers around. They get off on it. That’s wrong. Outlaw it.

  6. Eric Anderson

    I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that if there is any hope of changing our present trajectory, it lies in religion, not technocracy. Aldo Leopold spoke to the necessity of the 3rd ethical revolution — the development of a land ethic. I say religion, because it seems to be the only tool that has the ability to capture the mass imagination. People are generally just too simple to grok all this at an intellectual level. They just have to be able to feel it in their hearts and bones.

    This chart predicts the wrath of an angry god. The question is, will we double down on our failed monotheistic systems or evolve to an ethical system that understands that when we destroy the land, we destroy ourselves and our neighbors.

  7. Mary Bennett

    About subsistence, self-reliance and protecting oneself from predation: In the 70s I had planted about 6 tomato plants near my apartment building. Production was good, because the spot had been fallow for years. I was working graveyard and sleeping days, so I maybe didn’t harvest as soon as I might have. One day, two ladies I had seen around town, but did not know, came to my door, addressed me by first name, did not introduce themselves, and asked if they could pick some tomatoes. “How many do you want?” Instead of a civil answer, I got “They are just rotting on the vine!” So, they picked tomatoes, and never spoke to me again. Now, I am pretty much a hermit and loner, but the occasional friendly hello would have been nice. I still share surplus seedlings and produce when I have a surplus, but I decide where it goes.

    One way to discourage petty predation is to distribute your surplus of the kinds of things the predators might want, not books, obviously, before they know you have the surplus. Furthermore, I have learned, there is nothing offensively highfalutin about insisting on being addressed in a polite manner, especially by people who are asking for a favor.

  8. Ché Pasa

    I’d hate to list all the regions that have experienced or are experiencing collapse right now. Nations invaded, societies imploded, economies shattered, environmental degradation through climate change, over population, resource extraction or what have you, it’s all pretty widespread, nowhere is safe, and yet does civilization itself collapse?

    Can everything else collapse but civilization endure?

    Is history a fair enough guide to what’s happening now and what’s to come?

  9. Joan

    I think the reproductive issues Bruce mentioned are huge. I met a woman last week who had four miscarriages before giving up (and not adopting). It made me wonder what percentage of childless women actually wanted kids but couldn’t biologically do it and for whatever reason didn’t want to adopt.

    Maybe simply because it’s my age group having all the kids right now, but it seems like it’s everywhere that people are having unexplained bad period symptoms, like really heavy bleeding out of nowhere, or pregnancy issues.

    There are so many things from the environment (plastics, medications, other pollutants) that the body absorbs, and add to that the pervasive and unrelenting stress of making it economically and under bad labor conditions, and technology can only get you so far in terms of bandaging over the problem. At some point if the female body is too burdened then the birth rate is going to decline and leave a lot of women childless who had wanted kids.

  10. Feral Finster

    Once upon a time not so long ago, any unfortunate development was automatically blamed on Jews.

    King’s army lost a battle? Jews.
    Crop failure? Jews.
    Grand Duke can’t father a son? Jews.
    Royal confessor’s favorite catamite turns out to be a foreign spy? You guessed it…

    No evidence needed. Because Jews.

    Today we are enlightened and evolved. We have gone beyond scapegoating Jews. We scapegoat Russia.

  11. different clue

    @Dan Lynch,

    I used to do some of those service jobs. They are not low-skilled, merely low-prestige.
    Since prestige is measured in money, use legislation to force up the pay on currently low-prestige service jobs and they become high-prestige jobs. Raise the price of services to cover the raise in pay. Document and dox every abusive service-buyer who abuses and demeans the people who are providing the service, and share his/her face to every other provider of service . . . . so that person can no longer buy any service at any price anywhere.

    In today’s super-populated social-insectoform hyper-urbanised civilization, I doubt one can ban the performing of service for pay since service is what keeps at least a few billion people alive as they perform their specialise social-insect function within the Great Termite Mounds we call “cities”.

  12. different clue


    One wonders further whether the biological reason those women couldn’t conceive or carry to term or etc. might be do to the pollution-induced non-viability or non-deservingness-to-survive of their partners’ sperm cells.

    The only real solution to that problem would be the systematic and total mass-extermination of every member of those social classes who support pollution and who keep it legal. Once they were all well and truly out of the way, we could then outlaw pollution and accept the costs implied to keep it outlawed.

  13. different clue

    @Eric Anderson,

    The Indian Nations already developed this ethic. We can either learn it out of a will-to-survive, or refuse to learn it out of an obsolete sense of ethno-racial pride.

    @Quite Likely,

    The Club of Rome made a prediction. You have made a different prediction. Who is right and who is wrong? Let Darwin decide.


    We who have no power can live the lowest input/energy life we can and still have it be enjoyable. The Long Jackpot will take a lot of us at random, and the more of us know how to survivalize in a Post Jackpot world, the greater a random chance there will be that some of the survivors will have the skillsets and knowledge needed to help eachother co-provide eachother with an okay life on very little inputs.

    We also have the passive negative power of withholding our knowledge from those who do not deserve to have that knowledge, because they are aggressive causers and supporters of the problem, and their survival into the post-problem world would be a tragedy and a disaster for all remaining life on earth. What is the point of enduring all this pain if the black hat bad actors who engineered all this pain are allowed to survive too?

    For example, Loud and Proud global warming deniers do not deserve to survive the coming heat waves they help to cause and do not deserve to have any information on how to survive the Deep Heat. We cannot help it if the unworthy and the undeserving come here and learn counter-heat survival measures. But we can at least refrain from giving them such information outside of venues like this if they are so bold as to ask us. We can always play dumm.

    ( Who wants to bet that at least some Indiandigenous First Nations persons are playing dumm and withholding survival information from the rest of us right now today?)

  14. @ different clue,

    Thank you for your pushback to Dan Lynch. As a man who cleans buildings to pay the bills, the idea that all service jobs are “demeaning” is a demeaning comment, but my work is not. Having low bargaining power given the current economic and societal conditions does suck. I don’t think of myself as a lesser person for it though.

  15. Jorge

    @Quite Likely

    The Club of Rome models date back to 1973, as documented on Australian television news:

  16. Eric Anderson

    Agreed in regard to Native American culture. Disagree in regard to taking a passive stance. Some of us have young children, and as such, would rather mitigate the unmitigated disaster we’re heading for.

    Religions have all been created by people to solve the crises of their time. I see no reason the same cannot be created anew. Indeed, I see no more apt time to do so. People need hope in the face of what’s coming for them and the old paradigms obviously don’t have the answers.

  17. @ quite likely

    Ah, so the Club of Rome models (which were run through computers by pretty smart people) are pseudo-science, but your Belief that business as usual with produce technofix after technofix after technofix is ‘real’ science.

    Gotcha. Keep Begging The Question and don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

  18. Oregoncharles

    “The first thing I want you do is find the population line. Notice that it peaks in 2050.”
    No, more like 2030; it’s obscured by joining another line.

    2030 is roughly what the UN(?) is predicting. Many rich countries are PRESENTLY well below replacement, and some are losing population – Japan.

    One thing that’s required is a complete rethink of economics, which depends heavily on increasing population to drive “growth.” As presently set up (not designed – it’s pretty haphazard, really), population decline = economic collapse. Although Japan is getting by, so far.

    The economist Herman Daly worked on this problem most of his life, and is succeeded by an organization for “Steady-State Economics”. Might be worth looking up.

  19. Eric Anderson

    Right. On. The. Money.
    I’ll add, there is no such thing as a growth economy if negative externalities are factored into the price of production.
    Economics 2.0 must be steady state economics.

  20. things may go as badly as you think, or even worse – but still

    from WIRED, an interview with the author of a book looking back at the Club of Rome report:

    from the “limits of growth” retrospective interview at wired:


    50 years on from the original report, are we on the right course as a species?

    Carlos Alvarez Pereira, vice president of the Club of Rome and co-editor of the new retrospective book Limits and Beyond: 50 Years on From The Limits to Growth, What Did We Learn and What’s Next? :

    No, if you look at the reality. […]

    But there are also good reasons for optimism of the will. And those reasons are possibly less obvious, less evident, less in the headlines in the media and elsewhere. We definitely think there is an ongoing cultural change often hidden in plain sight. Many are experimenting, often at the community level, trying to find their own pathways towards that balance of well-being within a healthy biosphere. A change that brings hope to me is the change in the status of women, the increasing roles of women. And I would say that if you look at what’s happening with the younger generations, there is a big change as well.

    So politically, at the level of corporations, at the official level, things are going pretty much in the wrong direction. Culturally, below the line, my bet is that a lot of things are happening in the good direction. The human revolution is already happening—it’s just that we don’t see it. And maybe it’s good that we don’t see it yet, until the very moment where it makes a lot of things shift.”

    I am reminded of what Yogi Berra may have said: “You never know when something surprising might happen.”

  21. different clue

    @Eric Anderson,

    A belief-approach has been emerging into my mind over time. Here are the two credal poles which my feeling sort-of drifts between . . .

    The God of Selection is a Callous God, and its first True Prophet was Darwin.

    If Mother Nature ain’t happy , ain’t nobody happy.

  22. Eric Anderson

    @DC —
    Yeah, which unfortunately, the emerging capitalists immediately seized upon to spin into the superiority of the elite through psuedo-sciencey social darwinism.

    I like Also Leopold’s 3rd ethical revolution spun into a religious framework because it allows it’s prophets to point their finger directly at evil. I mean, it’s not too large a logical leap to point to the mono-theist revolutions as being led by false gods, the devil, etc. And, one doesn’t have to look far to find the evidence that it might be true.
    Every religion needs to possess a certain asceticism. Spun: the “devil” has tempted the masses to destroy the foundations of ecology (and thus ourselves) in the pursuit of mammon.

    I’m telling you … the time is ripe.

  23. Eric Anderson

    mistah charlie:

    Your comment above seems consonant with much that Caitlyn Johnstone has been writing for some time now. Here’s her latest:

    Didn’t know if you were aware of her, but she is Australia’s single most valuable export. Like Ian is Canada’s.

  24. Henry Moon Pie

    I”m weeks late to this discussion, but Ian’s post and comments by Eric and different clue compelled me to respond in case anyone ever checks back on this thread.

    For the past few years, mainly at Naked Capitalism, I’ve argued that our future holds three possibilities: Mad Max; Gilead; or the emergence of a new worldview/religion that quickly becomes widespread.

    Eric, you’re absolutely right. Religions have been created in history to deal with social and political issues. One of the best examples is one of the best known religions: Judaism, not the Judaism of the Talmud but of the Hebrew Bible. The core of that book, from Genesis through II Kings, is largely the product of the school of Ezra, identified with the priest who was among the exiles returning to Jerusalem after the decree of Cyrus allowed them to return from the Babylonian exile.

    Ezra came back to a Jerusalem without a temple or walls. The “people of the land,” who may have been related genetically to the returnees, knew little of YHWH and represented to Ezra, a “polluting presence.” The question was how to recreate a cohesive culture and state after the complete defeat and dispersal of the Jewish nation of Judah.

    Some choices were made. Who would be their god? At the time, the Ancient Near East was henotheistic. While many gods were acknowledged, each nation aligned with one particular god. In Israel’s case, that had been YHWH. But war was conceived as taking place on two planes: the earthly plane fought with sword and mace; and the heavenly place where the gods and their supernatural subordinates duked it out. When your nation lost, it meant that your god had lost as well. Would Israel reject YHWH and find a god more capable of winning wars? That was not where Ezra went. Instead, he adopted monotheism and claimed that YHWH was the one true god (following the exiled II Isaiah), and that Judah’s defeat and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians was not YHWH’s failure, but the fault of the Jews themselves who had been unfaithful to YHWH (the Dems have adopted the same approach of blaming their voters). In the even bigger picture, the second Genesis story answers the question, “Why is the world so fucked up?” with Eve eating the apple, i.e. human disobedience and betrayal are the cause of our misery.

    Now there are many things to criticize about Ezra’s choices, but you have to give him some credit. His invention has stuck around long enough that the Israelis will still cite YHWH’s land grant to Abraham as justification for the state of Israel.

    Late Iron Age monotheism isn’t going to cut it as a religion in a post-Enlightenment, climate collapse era. We need something closer to Eastern religions like Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism that seek harmony among humans and between humans the the ten thousand things. Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct , nominates neo-Confucianism with its Taoist flavorings. My contention is that this should be an open-source process that starts with what’s needed in a new worldview in these new times, and works from there.

    In any case, I’ll drop in more frequently to see if these discussions continue.

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