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Systemic Collapse

There might not be any precise or isolated “disaster” to be dealt with in future years, although warfare always seems to lurk everywhere, as it has in various past years. On the contrary, what I envision and describe below is about “fourteen elements” of collapse. These will all be calamitous, but the process will usually be so slow that most people won’t notice it, or will at least try not to do so. None of this claim to a mixture of disasters is totally original, it was spelled out, over the past few decades, by people such as William R, Catton, Jr. (Overshoot). Surprisingly, though, we now have silence almost everywhere, perhaps because disasters are a drag on the stock market. But the silence will eventually be broken. Somebody once came up with a story about a frog: If you drop a frog into hot water, it will hop out, but if you drop it into cold water and bring it to a boil, you’ll have boiled frog. The coming years could be the Era of Boiled Frog, though I hope not.

Getting down to brass tacks: young White people need to develop some sort of “survival” mentality. At the moment they’re out-numbered, out-maneuvered, out-smarted. Maybe they should expand their horizons with a job in Saudi Arabia, where serious crimes are punished by stoning, beheading, or crucifixion. I’m not really wishing anything like that to happen to them, I’m just saying that middle-class life in Canada is not a great preparation for what’s coming down the road. A bookstore owner in New Brunswick once told me about the terrible problem graduates were having finding jobs, but when I suggested they improve their résumés by spending some time abroad, he seemed to think I was talking nonsense. I’m no tough guy, definitely, but I’m very glad I flew out of the nest long ago.

Systemic collapse, the coming dark age, the coming crash, overshoot, the die-off, the tribulation, the coming anarchy, resource wars – there are many names, and they do not all correspond to exactly the same thing, but there is a widespread conviction that something ominous is happening. This event begins with about 10 elements, each with a somewhat causal relationship to the next. The first are (1) fossil fuels, (2) metals, and (3) electricity. These are a tightly-knit group, and no industrial civilization can have one without the others.

As those three disappear, (4) food becomes scarce – grain and fish supplies, for example, have been declining for years. (5) Fresh water also becomes scarce – water tables are falling everywhere, rivers are not reaching the sea. Matters of infrastructure then follow: (6) transportation and (7) communication – no paved roads, no telephones, no computers. After that, the social structure begins to fail. (8) Government (and the economy) is characterized by income disparity, kleptocracy, inflation, and artificial debt crises. (9) Education sinks to ever-lower levels. (10) Large-scale division of labor starts coming to an end, although it was largely that which made complex technology possible.

After those 10 elements, there are others, forming a separate layer. These are in some respects more psychological or sociological, and are far less easy to delineate, but we might refer to them as “the four Cs.” The first three are (1) crime, (2) cults, and (3) craziness – a world in which selfishness and deceit replace a sense of community; the ascendancy of dogmas based on superstition, ignorance, cruelty, and intolerance; the overall tendency toward anti-intellectualism; and the inability to distinguish mental health from mental illness.

Those three are followed by a final and more general element that is (4) chaos, which results in the pervasive sense that “nothing works anymore.” Think of the future environment as a transplant from one of the least-fortunate parts of the ex-Soviet world: drunken police officers in ill-fitting uniforms, parks strewn with garbage, and apartment buildings devoid of straight lines – nothing that is easy to define, but the subtle or even subliminal indications of general dysfunction.

Oil is everything. That is to say, everything in the modern world is dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons. From these we get fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. On a more abstract level, we are dependent on these fossil fuels for manufacturing, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. When oil goes, our entire industrial society will go with it. There will be no means of supporting the billions of people who live on this planet. Above all, there will be insufficient food.

A good deal of debate has gone on about that “peak,” the date at which the world’s annual oil production will reach (or did reach) its maximum and will begin (or did begin) to decline. (Of course, it is actually extraction; we do not “produce” oil, just as dentists do not “produce” teeth.) The exact numbers are unobtainable, mainly because individual countries give rather imprecise figures on their remaining supplies. The situation can perhaps be summarized by saying that dozens of major studies have been done, and the consensus is that the peak of “conventional” oil is somewhere between the years 2000 and 2020. Perhaps the most useful data is the annual reports of BP, one of the oil and gas supermajors. “Unconventional” forms of oil, from tar sands and shale and so on, have had increased production since around 2005, prolonging the overall peak, but supplies of unconventional oil are not expected to last much longer.

After the “peak” itself, the next question is that of the annual rate of decline. Estimates tend to hover at around 3 or 4 percent, which means production will fall to half of peak production at some time around 2030, although there are reasons to suspect the decline will be much faster, particularly if Saudi reserves are seriously overstated, as Matthew R. Simmons claims in Twilight in the Desert.

In 1850, before commercial production began, there may have been 2 trillion barrels of usable, recoverable oil in the ground. Within the first two decades of the twenty-first century, roughly half of that oil had been consumed, but perhaps as much as 1 trillion barrels remain. A trillion may sound like a great deal, but is not really so impressive in terms of how long it will last. At the moment about 30 billion barrels of oil are produced annually, and that is probably close to the maximum that will ever be possible. When newspapers announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only two weeks’ supply. Many press releases, particularly about “unconventional oil,” are just thinly disguised advertising, designed to lure gullible investors into supporting projects that will have large expenses but small profits. 

Coal and natural gas are also not as plentiful as before. Coal will be available for a while after oil is gone, although previous reports of its abundance were highly exaggerated. Coal, however, is highly polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation. In addition, coal mining requires large amounts of oil (mostly in the form of diesel fuel) and electricity. As for natural gas, it is not easily transported, it is not suitable for most equipment, and again it is a fossil fuel less abundant than often claimed to be, even with hydraulic fracturing of shale.

In terms of its effects on daily human life, the most significant aspect of fossil-fuel depletion will be the lack of food. “Peak oil” basically means “peak food.” Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process combines natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen to produce nitrogen fertilizer), pesticides, and the operation of machines for irrigation, harvesting, processing, and transportation. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear, and crop yields will be far less than at present, as David and Marcia Pimentel explain clearly in Food, Energy, and Society. We should therefore have no illusions that several billion humans can be fed by “organic gardening” or anything else of that nature. A few people will survive using primitive farming methods, but many others will succumb to famine.

As Michael T. Klare has shown in Resource Wars, much of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the rhetoric about the forces of good and the forces of evil. The real “forces” are those trying to control the oil wells and the fragile pipelines that carry that oil. A map of American military ventures over the last few decades is a map of petroleum deposits.

The ascent and descent of oil production were discovered long ago. Studying American oil fields in the 1950s, a geoscientist at Shell named M. King Hubbert found that as the years went by, oil production decreased, mainly because big discoveries were becoming less common, while new discoveries were becoming fewer and smaller. The changes in production could be plotted on a graph, forming something resembling a bell curve. Looking at the graph, Hubbert could see that the peak of American oil production would be about 1970; after that, there would be a permanent decline. When he announced this, most people laughed at him. But he was right: after 1970, American oil production went into a decline from which it never recovered.

Hubbert also reasoned that the same sort of pattern must be true of oil production in the whole world, not just in the US. Plotting the available data, he calculated that global production would peak in 1995. His reasoning about the world situation was the same as that for the US: the big discoveries were lessening, and newer discoveries were becoming fewer and smaller. Again he was right, or at least he was nearly right: in 1960, about 7 billion barrels were being produced yearly, and by 2010 production had increased to 30 billion, but even with the addition of “unconventional” oil there is none of the dramatic growth of the past.

The first distinct sign of systemic collapse will be the increasing frequency of electrical-power failures, as Richard C. Duncan has shown in “The Olduvai Theory.” Throughout the world, electricity comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric dams, and all of them are bad choices. Most electricity in the US and Canada is produced by fossil fuels, and in the US that generally means coal. The first problems with electricity will serve as an advance warning, but the greatest danger will occur years later as the production of fossil fuels and metals is itself reduced by the lack of electrical power.

The US and Canadian grid is a hopelessly elaborate machine – the largest machine in history – and it is perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. Every part of these two countries will be in some danger of outage over the next few years, due to inadequate supplies of electricity. But most Americans and Canadians still cannot think of a failure of electricity as anything more than a momentary side effect of a summer storm. In other parts of the world, the future is already here: the lights fade out daily after four or five hours, if they come on at all. Actually Americans and Canadians are in far better shape than the citizens of other countries. 

When the lights go out, so does everything else. There will come a time when the house or apartment will be largely non-functioning. Not only will there be darkness throughout the dwelling between sunset and sunrise, but all the sockets in the wall will be useless. The four major appliances – stove, refrigerator, washer, and dryer – will be nothing more than large white objects taking up space. There will be no familiar means of cooking food or preserving it, and no practical means of doing laundry. There will be no modern heating or air-conditioning, because these are either controlled by electricity or entirely powered by it. For the same reason, the plumbing will not be working, so clean water will not be coming into the house, and waste water will not be leaving it. For those living in high-rise apartments, there will be many stairs to climb because the elevators will not be operational.

And that is only one’s own habitation. The entire country will be affected; the whole world will be affected. Computers will cease to operate, and computers have insinuated themselves into almost every device we use. There will be no long-distance communication: no telephones, no Internet, no electronic transmission of data from anywhere to anywhere.

Eventually money will largely cease to exist, because there will be no electronic means of sending or receiving it, and no way of balancing accounts. Banking machines will cease to operate. In fact money nowadays is generally not reckoned as coins or bills, but as data on a screen, and the data will no longer be there. 

Modern medicine will vanish. Doctors will not have the modern means of taking care of their patients. Pharmacies will be closed, so drugs will not be available. Medicare will not be depositing funds into doctors’ bank accounts. Hospitals will be burdened with the sick and dying, and there will be no means of taking care of the sick. With refrigeration not working, hospitals will not even be able to take care of the dead. There will not even be a means of removing and burying the bodies.

The police will be immobilized because they will have no means of sending or receiving information. Since police forces anywhere have only enough personnel to deal with fairly average crises (but not enough to deal with the great majority of minor crimes), their duties will be limited to protecting the rich and powerful. Eventually they will find that they are powerless to do anything but stay home and protect their own families.

There is a dangerous relationship between electricity and nuclear power. Nuclear reactors need electricity to run the cooling, among other things. As we have seen in several failures over the past few decades, a good-sized blackout could result in large-scale mortality from leaked radiation. The dangers are exacerbated by a combination of poor planning, poor regulation, and poor oversight, due to various fundamental human errors ranging from irresponsible cost-saving to outright fraud. Even the permanent closure of nuclear reactors, well ahead of time, will be hampered by a lack of both money and motivation – with so many people involved, it will be easy for everyone to shift responsibility to someone else.

It will be impossible to jump into a car and get help because cars require gasoline, and the gas pumps are run by electricity. In any case, the oil wells and the refineries will have ceased operation. The biggest “vicious circle” will have taken place: no electricity will mean no fossil fuels, and no fossil fuels will mean no electricity.

“When the lights go out” is largely a figure of speech, of course, because the incandescent or fluorescent light bulbs in a house will not be the major concern. In the daylight hours, one does not need light bulbs. But the flickering of bulbs will nevertheless act as an early-warning system – the canary in the coal mine, so to speak. During a severe storm, it is the flickering of light bulbs that indicates that it is time to get to whatever emergency supplies have been put aside: bottled water, canned food, and warm clothing. The unsolved problem, however, is that when most people think about emergencies, they only think about surviving and remaining comfortable for a short period of time. There is always the spoken or silent refrain of  “until the authorities arrive.” But those authorities will be waiting for other authorities to arrive, and those at the top will have made their own plans long ago.

Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of “net energy”: the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. With the problematic exception of uranium, alternative sources ultimately don’t have enough “bang” to replace the 30 billion barrels of oil we use annually – or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.

At the same time, alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Petroleum is required to produce, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes “oil energy” to make “alternative energy.” Alternative energy, in other words, is always riding on the back of a vast fossil-fuel civilization.

The use of unconventional oil (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil) poses several problems besides that of net energy. Enormous quantities of natural gas and water are needed to process the oil from these unconventional sources. The pollution problems are considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the human race is willing to endure. With unconventional oil we are, almost literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel. 

More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater problems. Fuel cells cannot be made practical because such devices require hydrogen obtained by the use of fossil fuels (coal or natural gas), if we exclude designs that will never escape the realm of science fiction; if fuel cells ever became popular, the fossil fuels they require would be consumed even faster than they are now. Biomass energy (from corn or wood, for example) requires impossibly large amounts of land and still results in insufficient quantities of net energy, perhaps even negative quantities. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.

The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but it has no practicality on a large scale. There is a great deal of solar energy reaching the Earth, but it is too diffuse to be of much value. Proponents of solar energy must therefore close their eyes to all questions of scale. The world’s deserts have an area of 36 million km2, and the solar energy they receive annually is about 300,000 exajoules (EJ), which at a typical 11-percent electrical-conversion rate would result in 33,000 EJ (G. Knies, “Global Energy and Climate Security through Solar Power from Deserts”). Annual global energy consumption in 2015 was approximately 570 EJ. To meet even the world’s present energy needs by using thermal solar power, then, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 570/33,000 x 36 million km2, which is about 623,000 km2 – a machine larger than Ukraine. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials – a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world’s energy problems.

The quest for alternative sources of energy is not merely illusory; it is actually harmful. By daydreaming of a noiseless and odorless utopia of windmills and solar panels, we are reducing the effectiveness of whatever serious information is now being published. When news articles claim that there are simple painless solutions to the oil crisis, the reader’s response is not awareness but drowsiness. We are rapidly heading toward the greatest disaster in history, but we are indulging in escapist fantasies. All talk of alternative energy is just a way of evading the real issue: that the Industrial Age is over.

Petroleum, unfortunately, is the perfect fuel, and nothing else even comes close. The problem with the various flying pigs of alternative energy (as in “when pigs can fly”) is not that we have to wait for scientists to perfect the technology; the problem is that the pig idea is not a good one in the first place. To maintain an industrial civilization, it’s either oil or nothing.

Over the course of the next few decades, all that is certain is that the future of humanity will start to resemble its distant past, except that much of the natural resources will be missing. However, the planet will still have about 100 million square kilometers of wilderness, ravaged though parts of it may be, and the “economy” in the depths of that natural world will be the same one that has been there for millions of years.

The intelligent thing to do would be to take control of that transition, to enter the future with both eyes open. Finding a new world for tomorrow means finding a way of life that is more attuned to the land, the sea, and the sky. There is no way for a small group of people to prevent systemic collapse, but it may be that things will be better when the collapse is completed. At the moment, there is only one direction, and that is out. We must literally step out of the present economy – and by “we” I mean those few who are clever enough to be saved, those few who make the effort to pack their bags. We must stop being part of “society.” The details are uncertain, but the general picture is not too hard to draw. I envision a world where people can wake up each morning and greet the sunrise. I imagine a world in which people can live with nobility, dignity, and grace.

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  • Peter Goodchild

    Peter Goodchild's most recent book The Western Path, published by Arktos, may be purchase at