What happens when progress is no longer an option?
In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb a book that opens with a prediction of hundreds of millions of deaths from starvation in the 1970s. Increases in food production as a result of new technology prevented a population correction, but the underlying problem has not been addressed. According to the World Wildlife Fund, a third of all global arable land has been lost since 1960. Soil erosion in Africa has increased thirty-fold between 1974 and 2004 according to the WorldWatch institute. By intensifying food production, we have prevented an immediate catastrophe, but the effect it has had is to worsen the eventual catastrophe that will occur.
The predictions Ehrlich made were premature, not incorrect. The underlying diagnosis fits the pattern we are now seeing emerge. Technologies can emerge that delay the consequences of a disaster and a patient can undergo drastic lifestyle changes. In most cases of cancer however, experimental therapies merely buy us time, the underlying problem is often impossible to solve.
The problem we face is that we are a severely overpopulated species, incapable of participating in an ecosystem in a symbiotic manner. To feed our monolithic species, diverse communities consisting of countless interdependent species have to make way for fields of grain and herds of domesticated grazing animals. We take the existence of soil for granted, but most of the remaining fertile soil we now appropriate for our own benefit is a product of the forests that are destroyed, it can not survive in the absence of the organisms that gave birth to it. This theft enables us to presently sustain a biomass of humans that is an order of magnitude greater than all wild non-human vertebrates on land put together.
But for how long can it be sustained? What will be left in its absence? These are more controversial questions, where different people defend varying perspectives. Gail Tverberg is one of the most prominent of authors who expect a significant contraction in energy consumption within years. Others, like John Michael Greer, do expect disruption in the near term, but as part of a sustained gradual decline to post-industrial conditions over a span of centuries.
My expectation that I wish to clarify here, is for a global collapse to occur within a matter of decades. As a result of the interdependent nature of our industrial economy, I expect this collapse to be global. There are no places that will be spared and no reason to assume that an intermediate level of social complexity can be sustained for a significant amount of time. In the long term, I expect agriculture itself to be abandoned altogether, with surviving human beings forced to return to a lifestyle similar to that of the nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers that preceded the rise of civilization.
In a previous essay, Why the Singularity will not happen, I clarified why further growth in complexity in advanced societies is unlikely to happen. The big issue we face is that economic growth is coming to an end. Deficit spending normally has the effect of increasing economic growth. In Europe however, between 2008 and 2014 we have witnessed our debt rise from 68 to 95 percent of GDP. In spite of this massive and unsustainable form economic stimulation, our economy has struggled to grow at all. A similar trend is visible in all developed nations, of rising debts without economic growth.
What we face is a prolonged decline in the size of our economies. The problem however is that economies are much better at dealing with sustained economic growth than with sustained decline. A long enough period of decline can lead to an acute collapse. Our pension funds can only be sustained because of the expectation of future economic growth. The same logic is used when we issue mortgages and engage in deficit spending. Debt with an interest of two percent stays the same as our income, if our income grows by two percent a year as well. If our income declines by two percent a year instead, after ten years the size of our debt relative to our income has grown by 49 percent.
For European nations to pay back their national debts, their economies have to grow. We have faced eras of sustained economic stagnation before, but government debts during those eras were lower. The US had a public debt to GDP ratio of around forty percent during the 1930s, compared to around 100 percent today. Governments are also dealing with debts they will face that are passed on by the public in case of sustained negative economic growth. The Dutch government has guaranteed a large amount of mortgage debt. The entire financial system is interconnected in ways that are not transparent, with effects that are difficult to predict in advance.
The problem extends not just to our economies, but to our own lifestyles as well. Contraction is difficult, because new technologies become essential as we adapt to their higher degree of efficiency. The classical example is that of hunter-gatherers who begin to practice agriculture. They can not return to hunting and gathering, as their population has increased far beyond what the original environment can sustain. In the case of resource extraction, the type of resources that are less dependent on complex technology have often been depleted. If tar sand oil turns out to be too expensive under present economic conditions to extract, there is no way for us to move back to less difficult sources of hydrocarbons. I am thus very skeptical of any suggestion that we can sacrifice some complexity.
In previous societies, collapse was often a relatively drawn out process. People extrapolate from such cases to our present condition, but our present society is infinitely more vulnerable than previous societies, because everything we do depends on organization dependent technology. Organization dependent technology is not a very new phenomenon, but a situation like ours in which every aspect of the economy is dependent upon the continued functioning of every other aspect is unprecedented. Ancient Rome was dependent upon food imports from rural settlements, but the present situation, where rural settlements are dependent on soybeans imported from Brazil through a large harbor, then transported to their destination by truck drivers dependent on satellites for navigation is new.
We face a crisis that does not allow us to go back. Obvious examples are nations like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a nation that imports eighty percent of its food, it can simply not return to a lower level of complexity. In the 1950s Saudi Arabia was still largely self-sufficient in food production, but oil has enabled such an increase in wealth that food could be imported. Much of the food we eat has been kept frozen for years before it arrives on our table, we can eat tropical fruit in the middle of winter. Before refrigeration technology, people in many places were forced to ferment food to eat during winter, but most people today have no knowledge of how to ferment food.
Our dependence on modern medicine guarantees disaster as well. Modern medicine has allowed us to survive ailments that would normally lead to our deaths. Nearly seventy percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug. It’s easy to introduce drugs into a population; it’s difficult to let go of them. Greece already faces significant problems with people for whom treatment can not be afforded. Sexually transmittable diseases become epidemic again when free treatment becomes unsustainable and whereas in previous times they were limited in their geography, today they have spread globally. Entire ethnic groups have gone extinct as a result of introduced venereal diseases.
Until not too long ago, much of Europe and the United States had hotbeds of malaria, which returned to Greece as a consequence of its economic situation. Malaria is growing resistant to currently used treatments and rats in much of Europe are growing resistant to widely used pesticides. A situation of economic decline is one in which investments in the future can not be made, because payoff is not certain, while people’s desire to posses immediately accessible cash reserves increases. Thus, a situation of economic decline is one in which we can expect pest species to return in high numbers, as the continual investments needed to exterminate them can no longer be sustained.
During eras of economic decline social instability increases, as the type of government programs that manage to keep the poor pacified are first to become obsolete. Crime does not pay under conditions where it is rare, because law enforcement agencies have the resources to address crime. Long term unemployed individuals with no job prospects have little to withhold them from criminal activity. There’s a growing list of crimes that law enforcement will not even bother to prosecute anymore, because resources are too limited. Thus the economic damage that is caused by criminal activity will inevitably grow during an era of economic decline.
Credit card fraud and VAT fraud are examples of criminal activity that perpetrators can generally get away with due to our ongoing economic crisis, as resources available for investigation are simply too limited. Technological progress led to the disruption of traditional communities, where the stigma of misbehavior ensured that crime remained relatively rare. Now that people don’t even recognize their own neighbors, law enforcement is increasingly forced to fill the vacuum. As Yugoslavia has shown to us, when social strife emerges between ethnic groups, it’s often impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.
Chatham House released a report that looked at the impact of a week long absence of trucks on the UK economy, similar to a September 2000 strike which reduced commercial truck traffic by ten percent. The maximum tolerance seems to be about one week, after which disruptions to companies become so large that it takes at least a month for them to return to normal activity. For them to be able to return to normal activity would of course depend on other companies returning to normal activity as well.
We can thus conclude that cascading failure is a genuine possibility when a society is tipped into instability. A nation that collapses can in turn trigger significant instability in other nations, depending on its importance in global trade. Nations that are believed to be most central to the global economy are China, Russia, Japan, Spain, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Belgium-Luxembourg, USA, and France. Instability would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, if actors respond by taking measures to protect themselves. As an example, if people respond to gasoline shortages by stocking up on gasoline, disruptive shortages become an inevitability.
Conditions that were once sustainable on a local scale do not necessarily have to be sustainable any longer under present conditions. The obvious issue is that population levels are now different. Many communities are dependent on food imports. Soil that was once fertile may now no longer be fertile at all, with farmers pouring fertilizer onto the land to make up for the fact that the soil is simply exhausted.
More insidious is the fact that climate change leads to changes in the relationship between plants and pathogen species. Certain insect species become far more destructive under elevated atmospheric CO2 conditions. Fungal pests also seem to become much more common in experimental studies. We haven’t noticed these effects, because farmers spray large amounts of pesticides. The climatic conditions under which our species developed agriculture no longer exist, but the effects are not apparent to us because our pesticides make us Gods over the new ecosystems we create. Animal husbandry is likely to be affected as well, as studies find that under conditions of high amounts of nitrogen in the soil, atmospheric CO2 enrichment to 450 parts per million causes endophytes to produce toxins in amounts that lead to reduced growth and milk production in cattle.
The Neolithic revolution is a relatively new development in the history of our species and the climatic window in which agriculture provides a survival advantage over tribes of hunter-gatherers may be relatively limited. Hunter-gatherers are after all more mobile, physically stronger, healthier, not bound to wheat fields and grain storages they are forced to defend against vandalism, more self-sufficient and less threatened by seasonal weather fluctuations.
It should be noted that the boundary between hunter-gatherer and agriculturalist can be vague. In Europe, cereals as a portion of the diet increased from one third in the eight century, to three quarters by the eleventh century. Even within agricultural societies themselves there are large differences, with East Asia as one arguable extreme, where rice agriculture gave birth to societies that require continual intense labor, whereas European societies up until the French revolution had long periods in which people were free to spend most of the winter procrastinating.
Overall however, we can expect to move away from our present conditions, simply because climatic conditions will not allow us to maintain the type of cereal based diets that our ancestors subsisted on for thousands of years. How far we will move away from those climatic conditions is difficult to state in advance, as it largely depends upon how much more greenhouse gases will be emitted in the coming decades, although some processes have been set in motion already that are now effectively impossible to stop.
The burden fell upon our shoulders to be born in an era where it is no longer possible to go further, but not possible to go back anymore either. We face a future that is fundamentally different from any conditions we have witnessed in recorded history. We have burned every bridge behind us and now face an enormous deep cliff ahead of us. Our only option now is to move sideways, into the unknown.