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

One Chart To Predict The Future of Civilization Collapse

I first read Limits To Growth sometime around 1982. Limits used computer models to predict possible futures of resource use, pollution and population over-shoot.

At the time I thought it was right, and everything since then has come in about as it said.

I found this chart from it, with a couple of added date lines in an excellent post on the retrospective book “Limits and Beyond.”

The chart’s a couple years off, but notice that we’re hitting the food per capita just a few years after it expected. You can say “this is because of the Ukraine war” but we were at the stretching point, which is why one war (and a bunch of stupid sanctions) were able to do this.

Note that services and industrial output are expected to peak around the same time. Population starts dropping in about 20 years and the death rate goes vertical about the same time.

Notice how extreme the declines and rises are once they get going. This should be familiar to people from the Covid pandemic, but these trends will last for decades; indeed for generations.

I’m not sure I entirely buy the population model. It’s based on the fact that poor people have more kids, with some delay, but I think the one things the Club of Rome didn’t entirely take into account is how bad climate change and ecological collapse will be.

The point, now, is that we’re about at the peak or slightly past it. The collapse has started. Covid and Ukraine pushed us into it, but it was going to happen anyway, and there’s always an inciting event. What has changed is that there was no slack in the system (and no competence, with the single major exception of China) to deal with it.

The second point is, again, how sharp these declines become, often almost immediately after they start.

Food isn’t going to get cheaper almost anywhere for a while. Then what will happen is that multiple countries which have surpluses will disconnect from the world supply network so they can feed their own people. This won’t be done for humanitarian reasons at home, our elites don’t have such feelings, it will be done because food shortages are the fastest route to revolution, and that includes food shortages caused by too high inflation. If the food’s out there any can’t afford it, it amounts to it not being out there.

This chart doesn’t break out water specifically, but in a lot of places water is going to be in serious shortage. We’re going to lose a lot of river flow and a lot of rivers and lakes outright, because they are fed by glaciers and snow pack which are already in precipitous decline. In some cases there will be an increase before the decrease: floods and so on caused by more water flow as glaciers melt faster, but then there will be almost none.

In many regions there’ll be more rain and there’ll be more rain overall, but it’s not going to make up for the lost river flow and lakes, or for the aquifers we have drained or poisoned.

This is the map, it may be off in a few places, but it’s going to be essentially correct. It didn’t have to be, the book was published as a warning so we could change our ways, but we didn’t and so it’s turned from possible prediction into prophecy.

Come back to this chart over and over again as you think about and plan for the future, but remember that it is a global chart: local areas will have different profiles and charts especially as we de-globalize, and in response to this collapse we are going to de-globalize with a vengeance.

There are certain places you just don’t want to be, which will get hit earlier and harder. In the US, much of the Southwest and south (Texas, for example.) In Asia: Bangladesh in the first wave, then India soon thereafter. I don’t know Africa well enough, but the same regional effects will occur there.

On the human scale there will be mass migrations, refugee waves of tens to hundreds of millions and war over water and arable land. Multiple societies will collapse into warlordism.

This is the future.

Our future.



The Next Covid Wave Is Onrushing


Spring of Down, By Stirling Newberry, Chapters X-XII


  1. bruce wilder

    I had a weird experience on TikTok where I commented in relation to a criticism of China’s One Child Policy for its authoritarian character something to the effect, “So how do we stop humans like locusts eating the whole planet? Seriously.”

    (and yes I was being a bit of an ahole)

    and this is what others reading came back with:

    “For years now the population in developed nations has been sustained by increased longevity and immigration.”

    “Industrialise the world and the population controls itself…”

    “The world population is currently predicted to start declining around 2100. Better education and access to healthcare lead to declining birth rates.”

    “Giving women and girls an education. Actually basically anything you can come up with except for literal EUGENICS…”

    “By not forcing people to birth children they don’t want. And by giving people access to birth control and education them about it.”

    only a handful of comments in response to my snarky provocation but also revealing of the limitations of the remarkable range of wishful thinking and ignorance that exists concerning the state of the world and its trajectory.

    I do not admire the repressive, authoritarian character that China’s One Child Policy took on, especially in its local implementation, but I also do not get how people do not get just how much China’s population size weighs down on the country’s ambitions, ecology and collective welfare.

    Ian says, in effect, ” we were warned and didn’t listen” and that is true I suppose — a lot of us, enough to form a preponderance are too stupid to hear.

  2. GM

    This chart is also the real reason for the Ukraine war.

    Russia is the most important place with surpluses for the foreseeable future. So it had to be encircled and subjugated, which it is resisting now.

  3. Astrid

    Bruce, I’m not sure it’s stupidity so much as wishful (and perhaps magical) thinking. My husband is far smarter than I am, but those are his response as well. At least he hedged by agreeing not to have kids (though he never particularly liked children, so it wasn’t a sacrifice), but some of our brightest friends had kids in the last 5-10 years or are planning on having kids soon, long after the big picture should be very clear.

    If going against the herd isn’t beneficial to your mental health or financial well-being, the intelligent strategy use to go with the herd even if it is stampeding towards the cliff. If you don’t do it, you get trampled before the cliff. My husband and I easily lost $2-10 million in asset appreciation in the last 20 years because we didn’t go all-in on real estate, stocks, and exotica like bitcoin liked everyone else around us. These were specific decisions that we debated and agonized over, but the chumps that we were we anchored ourselves in 1950-1990 markers and that’s why we’re still working and not retired to New Zealand. My mom, not particularly bright but always very pragmatic, constantly questions my decisions by asking what I’m not doing what everyone else uses doing.

  4. Astrid

    The Chinese “one child policy” wasn’t so much a response to ecology as to remove a drag on economic development. The Cultural Revolution was a huge brake on economic development and family formation, so there simply weren’t jobs, housing, or schooling available for everyone after 1976. By strictly enforcing one child policy at least in the cities (where the government had to provide jobs, housing, schooling, and foods to all with urban residencies), the government dramatically reduced its burden. Incidentally, another legacy of that era is that China has very low official retirement ages, in their 50s, to free up jobs for younger people graduating into the workforce.

    Of course, after 30-40 years of these policies, it became social norms. Having more than one kid (with its massive financial burdens to launch the kids and especially supply housing for sons) or not retiring youngish (especially for women, to care for grandchild and engage in massive morning exercises) becomes abnormal and uncomfortable. I don’t think the Chinese government is truly thinking outside the box yet and thinking of better ways to eliminate bullshit jobs and UBI, but I hope they’re looking for a pathway there.

    (There was a huge post 1949 baby boom, partly a natural rebound after decades of war, but also strongly encouraged by a CPC government that believed in growing soldiers for the inevitable confrontation with the West and USSR. Families with 10+ children were very common, often raised in just 20-30 square meters of low standard housing. If you want to know how they lived, this translation rings very true to stories I’ve heard. Even very senior factory managers and cadres struggled to feed and cloth their families and pay their school fees. These were truly idealistic and uncorruptible people, to an extent that nobody in the West or even in China today can imagine –

  5. Raad


    I think a less auth. version of your pop control is basically a harsher but still humane version of what some of the commenters were saying: access to birth control alongside education and equal rights.

    I think it really does translate to less humans in the long run as many people simply don’t have the desire to have kids until fairly late, if everything else is going swimmingly in their lives. Why ruin a good time when you have a lovely job, home, hobbies and don’t want the headache of having kids?

    Only a few of us are hardwired for that stuff and honestly? Most people aren’t really cut out to be parents given how badly many of us end being damaged.

    Access to birth control, social safety, gender equality and widespread *good* education and NOT just training masquerading as education is one component. But the second part: of dealing with ways to stop those who are very likely to be damaging parents from bringing (and subsequently damaging) life into this world needs work. Likely the second part needs a bit of auth but if there were these rules and processes you had to go through to have a kid then the second part kinda takes care of itself.

    People shouldn’t have kids just to make themselves feel better. They are lives that are bought into a world without their express consent so at least make sure they land safely and have a good incubation until ready to face the world.

  6. Ché Pasa

    This is the future.

    Our future.

    And it’s here.

    Ian, thanks for putting this up. We need these reminders from time to time. It helps to understand that many of our rulers, while lacking wisdom, compassion, and common sense, have been studying these charts and graphs and their updates for decades and they are intimately familiar with the course of civilization laid out by the Club of Rome and others of that ilk.

    Some of what could have been done a long time ago was done (Green Revolution, etc.) and stalled the the Apocalypse for a time, but it was happening in a context of widespread rebellion and upheaval among the comfortable. We sometimes forget that it was some of the best off among populations that were the most rebellious against authority, command, and control. And that caused a reaction among the powerful that we’re still living with today.

    We like to think that when the downtrodden rebel, there’s a chance for positive change. Well, think again. The chance is there, but the realization is rare. Usually when the downtrodden rebel they’re simply and swiftly crushed or exterminated. Every sign points to that being the fate of almost all rebellious efforts from here on out — with a notable exception.

    The rightists currently flexing their muscles globally are in essence a rebel cadre. They are in rebellion against the world and their governments as they have been since (at least) the end of WWII. And they believe they are now unstoppable.

    They’re pretty much right. There is no serious opposition to their triumph; certainly none in the United States. The political class has yielded entirely.

    (I allow as how Russia and China are scrappy opponents to the dominance of Western fascist imperial rule, but honestly they represent another facet of the same thing.)

    Does civilization therefore collapse? It depends on who and where you are and how you define “civilization.” Aspects and institutions we once thought invulnerable have already collapsed. Elements of them are still present, but they don’t work well or at all (Congress, for example,) We’ve seen the utter futility of calling on, say, public health institutions to serve us or even to guide us coherently or responsibly. They can’t do it. Climate change is moving along at a smart clip — faster than predicted, but oh well — and “nothing is done.” Well, nothing that will save the masses from harm. That’s key to understanding . Nothing is done that will save us.

    But does that mean “civilization” disintegrates? Depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?

  7. Trevor H

    The world’s billionaire elite know this (or should know it), so what puzzles me is what they plan to do in the face of it. Many of them of course will be too old and so don’t care, but even they have kids!

    I used to think they would simply either go to ground (think bunkers in New Zealand) or go into space. The former probably won’t help them much when it all goes down, and the latter is probably unfeasible in the timeframe available. Either way they end up living a pretty shitty life compared to the one they have now.

    So what the hell are they gonna do?

    My best guess is another, much more deadly virus/nerve agent (to which they have the antidote), which wipes out 99% of the human population. If they can control the survivors as their serfs/slaves they can probably live a pretty good life. Other than that I really don’t know.

  8. Dan Lynch

    Population is a legit issue, but my beef with much of the population thinking is that it tends to center on how many mouths we can feed while ignoring the environmental consequences of growing all that food and taking up all that space on the planet. I guarantee you that if you were a grizzly bear, a cougar, or a wolf, you would not be cheering for more humans on the planet.

    Nor do the “pro-population” folks explain how higher population translates into a higher quality of life. The population of the U.S. has more than doubled in my lifetime and here’s what it means to me — the woods that I enjoyed playing in as a child are now suburbs. The woods where I used to hunt deer and bear as a young man now have a few houses of people “getting away from it all.” The river that I used to float in a canoe to get away from the hustle and bustle is now bumper to bumper canoe, and some rivers now require permits to control overcrowding. Glacier Park now requires reservations and permits to do nearly anything, because of over crowding. If you are a nature lover like me, the quality of life has gone down, not up, and it’s because of population.

    Capitalism does not know how to function without growth. No one wants to buy stock in a company that is not growing. But that’s capitalism’s problem.

  9. Feral Finster

    As an aside, Ian, you need to update your masterpiece “Seven Rules For Running a Left Wing Government” to take into account the recent election in Colombia.

  10. StewartM


    While I have written how well the much-maligned “Limits to Growth” has predicted the future, I can see no reason why *births* should shoot up.

    And Raad is correct. Yes, “modernization” and with it, gender equality, education, etc, has and will continue to drive down birth rates. The planet’s population is of a concern but it should right itself, as long as we don’t create ‘problem zones’ with too-many old people relative to young by walls against immigration. Of course, you can’t have this kind of modernization and still afford a “useless eater” billionaire class.

    The recent SCOTUS decision overturning Roe can be looked at both as those seeking a “victory for ‘white life'” (Rep. Mary Miller) as well as racist corporate types who want cheap domestic white babies desperate for a job, any job, so they won’t have to bring in less-“domesticated” immigrants–immigrants who might come from countries expecting say, universal health care (yes, even poorer countries have that).

  11. Purple Library Guy

    The problem for the billionaires, whether they realize it or not, is that their power is entirely dependent on the existence of our social framework. If there isn’t a United States armed forces and IRS, there is no United States dollar. If there isn’t a solid legal system, there is no such thing as “ownership”.
    All they’d have is whatever solid assets they squirreled away, for as long as it took someone who studied weaponry instead of hedge funds–probably one of their own bodyguards–to shoot them and take it. That said, it’s not the survivalists who will do well. It’s the people who strengthen communities.

    Hmmm . . . it occurs to me that, as a fairly antisocial person, one of the things I’m going to hate about the collapse of society is that, paradoxically, it will make it very difficult to get by without society. With our whole web of structures, from roads to money to jobs paying money to education furnishing formal qualifications to chain stores and internet ordering, currently it is possible to provide for all one’s needs without any real social contact at all. I don’t take it that far–I have some friends, I have an extended family that I interact with. But I don’t worry about getting to know my neighbours, for instance. That will all change–when things collapse, you will need to be firmly involved in a strong, close-knit community to survive. I hate that.

  12. Forecasting Intelligence


    The original LTG model shows global population peaking around 2030 and plummeting after that.

    Regarding birth rates, that might be a reflection of folks getting poorer and moving back to subsistence farming. We will need more babies in that world.

    It will be a mixed picture given some places will struggle to feed existing populations. One thing is for certain, death rates will be soaring as industrial healthcare collapses, and that will drive worldwide population downwards.

  13. Eric Anderson

    Kim Stanley Robinson suggested in Red Mars that the best non-authoritarian way to implement population control would be to allow each breeding pair 1.5 children and the ability to trade your shares.

    If you want to have more, you can pay for all the .5’s you desire.

  14. Eric Anderson

    A little twitter tangle a few days ago highlights most of the discussion here. Read the article. It’s laughable, but sets out the mainstream position. Population control bad because we need more cattle to sustain economic suicide. No mention whatsoever of species decline, resource depletion, etc. etc.

    I like Abhijit. But he seems content to live in a wasteland world populated solely by immiserated humans.

  15. Trinity

    For most of our history, children have been a form of social security. They can work in the family business or contribute to the coffers in other ways, take care of their aging parents while the aging parents assist with raising the grandchildren. It’s a win-win (barring mental illness in the family). Traditional cultures still do this, but we don’t.

    So I’m not surprised that the birth rate goes vertical in the chart, with a lag following the death rate that also goes vertical. That’s to ensure survival of whoever is left. And the overall survival rate will probably be low anyway, as shown with the steepened decline in population that follows. I imagine that the overall chart just makes the oligarchs even more excited about the future.

    One excellent quote from the referenced article: “Had the report described the opportunities that a world without growth offers it may have had a better reception.” This is one our problems: our collective failure to imagine a better world. Only when we can do that will we be able to begin to realize it. The governments aren’t going to do this any more than they are going to address climate change, economic inequality, etc. The academics do this, but they are either biased (and/or bankrolled) or so out of touch (theoretical instead of practical) as to be useless. The corporations are definitely doing this, but their vision is a dystopia focused on subjugation. It’s up to us, and so far, that means we are entirely fooked.

  16. Astrid

    My self proclaimed antihumanist friend (somehow this is okay edgy, but openly critiquing Ukraine 2014-2021 is definitely not okay in my circles) proposed a 0.9 child per couple cap and trade systems. He hates poor people and Europeans recreationally.

    I think financial trading of the right to procreate (just in polluting) is another terrible end stage capitalism idea for solving commons problems, albeit probably better than what we currently have. It just leads the pathological rich to have more options without feeling pinched and coerce the poor to sell their rights for a pittance. I would rather just have a tax on lifetime income/assets plus immediate years of national service for the parents. So second kid is a 5% tax for both parents plus 1 year of service for each parent, third kid is 15% tax plus 3 years of service, and so on. The funding and service generated to be earmarked for free universal under-21 services such as healthcare, education, childcare, food vouchers, camp, band instruments, etc.

    Though my favorite idea for dealing with libertarians who don’t think they need or are responsible to society is to send them all to a fenced off Tejas and wish them all the best. Only WMD inspectors and reality tv crews will be allowed in or out.

  17. Ché Pasa


    Out here in the wilderness, I got a shock the yesterday. Farmer down the road who planted late, late, late this year ’cause of drought, late hard frost, hard to get materials and resources like fish emulsion fertilizer and such put the farm up for sale. He’s been farming there for about 30 years, and he inherited the pace from his father who’d started the farm in the late ’50s. The place is an institution around here. People love Dave and his family. And the farm has been extremely successful growing specialty crops rather than standard commercial corn and beans a la Big Ag.

    There were plans to turn the farm over to his oldest son in a few years. Let him run it and the parental units could put their feet up in comfortable retirement. Huh. Nope. I don’t know what the plan is, but nothing they envisioned and talked about seems to be on the docket. I’m not the only one in shock. The whole community is shuddering.

    No one knows, at least no one who knows is saying, what the deal is. Best anyone can fathom, they’re bugging out, going to move to their “little” place in Idaho. The Time Has Come.

    (Long backstory, not for telling here now. But there’s a reason why some folks are nervous at the news and it has to do with collapse.)

  18. Jorge

    I have a suspicion about the elites managing the world. The billionaires are not united, not at all. There are factions. One of the factions has accepted that there is no way to “green our way out of it”, that the only way to slow down the climate catastrophe is to slow down the world economy. This, I think is believable.

    Now, the suspicion: I believe that this faction has made a big move with the sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine invasion. They have kicked off the process of de-dollarization by stealing a few hundred million of Russian dollars, which, after stealing Venezuelan gold, has convinced the world that the US dollar is no longer to be trusted. This was a deliberate move to slow down and disrupt the dollar’s world-wide free-trade hegemony. Now, whether Biden, Yellen and the rest really understand this, I don’t know. But it smells like a major action by a faction of the elites. This faction does not want to shelter-in-place for the rest of their lives with dubious bodyguards in New Zealand, and know that Mars is not an option.

    This could be considered a strategy from Gibson’s “Jackpot” universe.

  19. Eric Anderson

    Jorge —

    Just finished the original Neuromancer series. Guess it’s time to dive into The Peripheral.
    Any other Gibson recs would be appreciated.

  20. Eric Anderson

    Che —

    If he’s headed to ID I hope he has some savings. Rural gentrification is wrecking the locals.
    The property market may be cooling in other parts of the county, but every conservative tin foil hat retiree in the nation seems to have the same plan re escaping to the Idaho “redoubt.”

    See here for a taste of the weather:
    It’s cray cray.

  21. different clue

    @ Ché Pasa,

    Did any or all members of this locally beloved farming family ever speak of or about something called . . . ” the Redoubt” . . . ?

    the American Redoubt – – – >

  22. bruce wilder

    I try to keep my paranoia in check regarding the hidden machinations of unidentified “factions” of the billionaires and otherwise powerful, but it is really growing more difficult as official “expert” policy actions accelerate in the direction of inexplicably incompetent and stupid not to posit that explaining it all are the ulterior motives of skillful machiavellians driving deliberately toward dystopia. (I can’t rhyme but I alliterate!)

  23. Ché Pasa

    I have not heard mention of “Redoubt” — but I haven’t heard lots of things. The family is religious fundamentalist, home-schoolish and so forth, but not in any way aggressive about it or condemnatory (in public) about others’ beliefs or way of life — unless it’s obviously evil. I thought they were Mormons, but as I’m not connected with the LDS, can’t say for certain.

    They have relations in Idaho and property they’ve had for a long time,

    Right now, I’m trying to find out more. There seems to be an odd quietness about it. I think people are still in shock.

  24. paintedjaguar

    “my favorite idea for dealing with libertarians who don’t think they need or are responsible to society is to send them all to a fenced off Tejas and wish them all the best. Only WMD inspectors and reality tv crews will be allowed in or out.”

    That notion has been extrapolated and written into a story. See “Coventry” by Robert A. Heinlein. (I know, I know, the wokies would love to send Heinlein to Tejas himself if he were still alive, but a lot of his earlier stuff is still thought provoking and he knew how to spin a yarn.)

  25. Ché Pasa

    Re: Redoubt

    I scanned the links supplied, and can say that the concept and practice is pretty commonplace out here in the wilderness, not unusual or particularly troubling at all. It’s just the way people live around here. The Redoubt states are not really a destination for most. They’re at their destination.

    Some things that pop out, though, among the Redoubters are their rampant paranoia about everything and everyone they aren’t intimately and directly involved with — which gives rise to their accumulations of weapons and ammunition. They seem to find comfort in their arsenals, but it’s not at all clear what it is they believe they must defend against. Those types are out here, sure, locked away in their compounds, Stars and Bars flying proudly next to their Trump 2024 flags, but they’re loons. “Medication time”, etc. They’re a minority and recognized as a potentially dangerous minority, but generally just shrugged off.

    Most of us have to get on with our lives somehow and don’t have time or interest in obsessing over “threats,” acquiring guns and spending all our money on ammunition.

    Also fretting over every little thing that “guvmit” is doing. For the most part, “guvmit” is leaving them the fuck alone. What the Redoubters are most opposed to isn’t happening to them. What they don’t like most of all is being “known” to outside authorities and being told “you can’t have; you can’t do” thus and so.

    Funny, though. They would turn that around in a heartbeat and behave exactly the same way toward anyone who is not part of their fellowship and to anyone who crosses them who is part of their fellowship.

    Bizarre. And yet not uncommon.

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