In my previous posts I have explained the reasons why I think our civilization is going to collapse. In this post, I want to present a few considerations about how this is likely going to happen.
I think the collapse will not happen suddenly. The reason for the collapse is that the resources of our planet are finite. The economic system that has developed leads to an uneven distribution of assets and power.
For some time, the growth of the world economy has created a situation in which, in many parts of the world, the economy seemed to create a win-win situation. The rich where getting richer, but the not so rich where also getting richer. At the same time, civil liberties expanded in many countries, leading to the emergence of liberal democratic states. The “invisible hand” postulated by Adam Smith seemed indeed to increase the wellbeing of many people. This age of win-win societies, however, depended on the abundance of the resources.
Since the resources are limited, however, the world economy is ultimately a zero sum game. The gains of sum are the losses of others. The bulk of the losers had been, for a long time, the people of the future, so they were invisible for a long time and it was possible to pretend (or actually believe) that the development could go on like that forever and that everything was going to be better and better. The invisible had seemed to provide enough for everybody (except some poor people in some remote countries, that is…).
But every future turns into the present at some time. When resources become scarce, the times of the win-win economy are over. The invisible hand is beginning to strangle us.
The development towards a win-lose-economy, where the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, has already started in many parts of the world. Some of the signs of this development are:
- Actual power is being concentrated in the hands of smaller groups, as democratic institutions are hollowed out. Democracies are bit by bit turning into oligarchies, sometimes with a democratic facade, while states that entered the phase of strong economic growth late, like China, skip the democratic stage altogether. This development is backed up by corresponding developments in political and economic philosophy.
- Social redistribution systems are being cut back or destroyed in many places.
- Public property is being privatized.
- Societies are dissociating from their governments and are fragmenting into different groups. The older, larger consensus-based political parties are disintegrating into smaller and often more extremist ones.
- Middle classes are disappearing in many countries, the rich grow richer, the poor poorer and the gap between the richest and the poorest widens.
- Small businesses are swallowed up by larger ones or driven into bankruptcy.
- Countries, businesses and private households have increasing debts.
- Poorer countries are getting poorer. Some countries that where relatively prosperous before are becoming poor and plummet to a lower level.
- The poorest countries are disintegrating into war and chaos, in many cases giving rise to different kinds of extremism.
- Larger and larger numbers of people are trying to leave the worst-affected areas and try to enter the richer areas.
- Environmental resources (land, water, ecosystems) are increasingly being destroyed.
- Meanwhile, some richer countries are still getting richer (but within these, as noted above, the distribution of wealth is increasingly uneven).
As a result, the collapse of civilization is not happening everywhere at the same time. It has already happened in some places. Some areas and some groups and people have started to slip or will find themselves on a way down sooner or later. The collapse is probably still several decades away in some other places. Riches and power are being concentrated into smaller and smaller areas and into fewer and fewer hands. As economies crash and people become poor, however, there will no longer be markets for many mass consumer products. As a result, businesses are going to crash and the production of many products we are taking for granted today, like cars, mobile phones, computers, household equipment etc. etc. will become uneconomical, as will the production of components (like electronic parts) contained in those products.
At the moment, there might still be some potentials of “economic growth”, e.g. streets and dams that can be built, forests that can be cut down etc., with other words: things that can be destroyed to make profit, but this is going to come to an end. As a result, industries will become bankrupt in more and more places. More and more places that where prosperous before will start looking like the abandoned parts of cities like Detroit. The industrial civilization will shrink, leading to a feedback loop of less employment, more poor people, more companies falling out of business, and more states and societies becoming unstable, eventually plunging into upheavals, revolutions (without any positive outcome, since there are no more resources), and wars. Infrastructures like electricity production – and all the systems depending on it, like food and water distribution, the internet etc. – will collapse and fail in more and more places. Finally, the few rich people will lose their riches and their power.
There is going to be a world after the collapse, but thinking about what is going to happen then will be a topic for later articles.
Civilization as we know it will be gone. And we will not have a second chance to build one, because the resources required to do so will largely be destroyed.
(The picture, showing an abandoned factory building, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Industriehalle_1950er_P4400145-HDR.jpg.)