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

Tag: Civilization Collapse

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.


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.


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