The Six Stages of Collapse
Author: Dmitry Orlov; from Club Orlov
22 Feb 2008: Five Stages of Collapse | 29 Apr 2016: The Sixth Stage of Collapse
The Five Stages of Collapse
A casual perusal of history books will show that these various stages of collapse occur with great regularity. Unlike other animals, humans have a marked tendency to form complex social hierarchies which never endure because collapse is programmed into the very nature of complex social hierarchies. In fact, the first three stages can often be viewed as healthy developments.
For instance, a prompt collapse of the current financial/commercial/political scheme, which is wedded to the fatally flawed concept of infinite economic growth on a finite planet, would be most welcome, for it would give humanity a new lease on life—by leaving to the future generations a planet that is less than 100% despoiled and poisoned by industry. There are countless books that describe the predicament of industrial civilization in accurate and compelling detail, but they ruin the effect by containing certain telltale turns of phrase: “Unless we…” and “We must…” This book is not one of them. Here, the reader is being asked to take it as read that collapse will occur, and, instead of wasting time on what “we” must “do” about it, describes what each stage of collapse entails and what adaptations and coping mechanisms have proven effective in attempting to survive its consequences.
The description of each stage of collapse is accompanied by a case study that details what a successful adaptation to that stage of collapse looks like:
In the case of financial collapse, the example is Iceland—the only country so far that had successfully fought off international efforts to saddle its people with the debts incurred by its defunct private banks, allowing it to recover economically even as the US and the EU, which bailed out their failed banks, continue to sink deeper and deeper.
Commercial collapse is shown as seen through the eyes of the Russian mafia and criminal syndicates, explaining how “the free market,” in order to be able to operate, requires, at the very least, a protection racket, be it the mafia or the government. For those brought up on the pablum of nonviolence, this case study offers a useful lesson on the constructive uses of violence
Political collapse as a steady state condition is described through the example of the Pashtuns—one of the world’s largest ethnic groups inhabiting parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan—whose code of honor (Pashtunwali, or the Pashtun Way) has allowed them to fight off (and, in some cases, help destroy) every empire that ever blundered into their habitat. (They are known to the consumers of Western propaganda primarily as the Taleban.) The Pashtuns allow us to clearly see the dividing line between a hierarchical, imperialist, collapse-bound society and that of a steady-state, entrenched, well-organized anarchy.
Social collapse—or, rather, a very stable lack thereof—is studied with reference to the Roma, or Gypsies, who have survived intact over many centuries and who now number in the millions both in Europe and the US in spite of being shut out financially, commercially and politically in every country they inhabit. This case study allows us to ponder what it means to be marginalized, for to be marginalized by a collapse-bound society can be a blessing in disguise.
Cultural collapse is explored with the help of the Ik, an African tribe of hunter-gatherers who, once they were prevented from hunting and gathering, survived by mutating into a cultural form that we may not wish to recognize as human—yet they persist. The Ik allow us to explore an important question: Is survival at all cost really worth it?
In the interest of avoiding misunderstandings, it bears repeating that this is not a “Unless we…” book or a “We must…” book. If you are looking for a book that will tell you how to keep nine plus billion people alive in a carbon-neutral way, you are bound to be disappointed. Also, this book is likely to test the limits of your mental comfort zone, because you will, in the course of reading it, discover that the people who stand the greatest chance of surviving collapse do not resemble you socially or culturally. You might find it difficult to find common ground with them, or to respect them, initially. But looking back upon yourself, it may occur to you that you don’t stand much of a chance if you remain who you are, and that you yourself would do well to try to change your outlook, your habits and the company you keep. You might even find yourself taking a small yet significant first step in that direction; and if you do that, then this book will have achieved its purpose.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross defined the five stages of coming to terms with grief and tragedy as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, and applied it quite successfully to various forms of catastrophic personal loss, such as death of a loved one, sudden end to one’s career, and so forth. Several thinkers, notably James Howard Kunstler and, more recently John Michael Greer, have pointed out that the Kübler-Ross model is also quite terrifyingly accurate in reflecting the process by which society as a whole (or at least the informed and thinking parts of it) is reconciling itself to the inevitability of a discontinuous future, with our institutions and life support systems undermined by a combination of resource depletion, catastrophic climate change, and political impotence. But so far, little has been said specifically about the finer structure of these discontinuities. Instead, there is to be found a continuum of subjective judgments, ranging from “a severe and prolonged recession” (the prediction we most often read in the financial press), to Kunstler’s “Long Emergency,” to the ever-popular “Collapse of Western Civilization,” painted with an ever-wider brush-stroke.
For those of us who have already gone through all of the emotional stages of reconciling ourselves to the prospect of social and economic upheaval, it might be helpful to have a more precise terminology that goes beyond such emotionally charged phrases. Defining a taxonomy of collapses might prove to be more than just an intellectual exercise: based on our abilities and circumstances, some of us may be able to specifically plan for a certain stage of collapse as a temporary, or even permanent, stopping point. Even if society at the current stage of socioeconomic complexity will no longer be possible, and even if, as Tainter points in his “Collapse of Complex Societies,” there are circumstances in which collapse happens to be the correct adaptive response, it need not automatically cause a population crash, with the survivors disbanding into solitary, feral humans dispersed in the wilderness and subsisting miserably. Collapse can be conceived of as an orderly, organized retreat rather than a rout.
For instance, the collapse of the Soviet Union – our most recent and my personal favorite example of an imperial collapse – did not reach the point of political disintegration of the republics that made it up, although some of them (Georgia, Moldova) did lose some territory to separatist movements. And although most of the economy shut down for a time, many institutions, including the military, public utilities, and public transportation, continued to function throughout. And although there was much social dislocation and suffering, society as a whole did not collapse, because most of the population did not lose access to food, housing, medicine, or any of the other survival necessities. The command-and-control structure of the Soviet economy largely decoupled the necessities of daily life from any element of market psychology, associating them instead with physical flows of energy and physical access to resources. This situation, as I argue in my forthcoming book, Reinventing Collapse, allowed the Soviet population to inadvertently achieve a greater level of collapse-preparedness than is currently possible in the United States.
Having given a lot of thought to both the differences and the similarities between the two superpowers – the one that has collapsed already, and the one that is collapsing as I write this – I feel ready to attempt a bold conjecture, and define five stages of collapse, to serve as mental milestones as we gauge our own collapse-preparedness and see what can be done to improve it. Rather than tying each phase to a particular emotion, as in the Kübler-Ross model, the proposed taxonomy ties each of the five collapse stages to the breaching of a specific level of trust, or faith, in the status quo. Although each stage causes physical, observable changes in the environment, these can be gradual, while the mental flip is generally quite swift. It is something of a cultural universal that nobody (but a real fool) wants to be the last fool to believe in a lie.
Stages of Collapse
Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost. The future is no longer assumed resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out, and access to capital is lost.
Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down, and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.
Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.
Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.
Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity” (Turnbull, The Mountain People). Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes “May you die today so that I die tomorrow” (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago). There may even be some cannibalism.
Although many people imagine collapse to be a sort of elevator that goes to the sub-basement (our Stage 5) no matter which button you push, no such automatic mechanism can be discerned. Rather, driving us all to Stage 5 will require that a concerted effort be made at each of the intervening stages. That all the players seem poised to make just such an effort may give this collapse the form a classical tragedy – a conscious but inexorable march to perdition – rather than a farce (“Oops! Ah, here we are, Stage 5.” – “So, whom do we eat first?” – “Me! I am delicious!”) Let us sketch out this process.
Financial collapse, as we are are currently observing it, consists of two parts. One is that a part of the general population is forced to move, no longer able to afford the house they bought based on inflated assessments, forged income numbers, and foolish expectations of endless asset inflation. Since, technically, they should never have been allowed to buy these houses, and were only able to do so because of financial and political malfeasance, this is actually a healthy development. The second part consists of men in expensive suits tossing bundles of suddenly worthless paper up in the air, ripping out their remaining hair, and (some of us might uncharitably hope) setting themselves on fire on the steps of the Federal Reserve. They, to express it in their own vernacular, “fucked up,” and so this is also just as it should be.
The government response to this could be to offer some helpful homilies about “the wages of sin” and to open a few soup kitchens and flop houses in a variety of locations including Wall Street. The message would be: “You former debt addicts and gamblers, as you say, ‘fucked up,’ and so this will really hurt for a long time. We will never let you anywhere near big money again. Get yourselves over to the soup kitchen, and bring your own bowl, because we don’t do dishes.” This would result in a stable Stage 1 collapse – the Second Great Depression.
However, this is unlikely, because in the US the government happens to be debt addict and gambler number one. As individuals, we may have been as virtuous as we wished, but the government will have still run up exorbitant debts on our behalf. Every level of government, from local municipalities and authorities, which need the financial markets to finance their public works and public services, to the federal government, which relies on foreign investment to finance its endless wars, is addicted to public debt. They know they cannot stop borrowing, and so they will do anything they can to keep the game going for as long as possible.
About the only thing the government currently seems it fit to do is extend further credit to those in trouble, by setting interest rates at far below inflation, by accepting worthless bits of paper as collateral and by pumping money into insolvent financial institutions. This has the effect of diluting the dollar, further undermining its value, and will, in due course, lead to hyperinflation, which is bad enough in any economy, but is especially serious for one dominated by imports. As imports dry up and the associated parts of the economy shut down, we pass Stage 2: Commercial Collapse.
As businesses shut down, storefronts are boarded up and the population is left largely penniless and dependent on FEMA and charity for survival, the government may consider what to do next. It could, for example, repatriate all foreign troops and set them to work on public works projects designed to directly help the population. It could promote local economic self-sufficiency, by establishing community-supported agriculture programs, erecting renewable energy systems, and organizing and training local self-defence forces to maintain law and order. The Army Corps of Engineers could be ordered to bulldoze buildings erected on former farmland around city centers, return the land to cultivation, and to construct high-density solar-heated housing in urban centers to resettle those who are displaced. In the interim, it could reduce homelessness by imposing a steep tax on vacant residential properties and funneling the proceeds into rent subsidies for the indigent. With plenty of luck, such measures may be able to reverse the trend, eventually providing for a restoration of pre-Stage 2 conditions.
This may or may not be a good plan, but in any case it is rather unrealistic, because the United States, being so deeply in debt, will be forced to accede to the wishes of its foreign creditors, who own a lot of national assets (land, buildings, and businesses) and who would rather see a dependent American population slaving away working off their debt than a self-sufficient one, conveniently forgetting that they have mortgaged their children’s futures to pay for military fiascos, big houses, big cars, and flat-screen television sets. Thus, a much more likely scenario is that the federal government (knowing who butters their bread) will remain subservient to foreign financial interests. It will impose austerity conditions, maintain law and order through draconian means, and aide in the construction of foreign-owned factory towns and plantations. As people start to think that having a government may not be such a good idea, conditions become ripe for Stage 3.
If Stage 1 collapse can be observed by watching television, observing Stage 2 might require a hike or a bicycle ride to the nearest population center, while Stage 3 collapse is more than likely to be visible directly through one’s own living-room window, which may or may not still have glass in it. After a significant amount of bloodletting, much of the country becomes a no-go zone for the remaining authorities. Foreign creditors decide that their debts might not be repaid after all, cut their losses and depart in haste. The rest of the world decides to act as if there is no such place as The United States – because “nobody goes there any more.” So as not to lose out on the entertainment value, the foreign press still prints sporadic fables about Americans who eat their young, much as they did about Russia following the Soviet collapse. A few brave American expatriates who still come back to visit bring back amazing stories of a different kind, but everyone considers them eccentric and perhaps a little bit crazy.
Stage 3 collapse can sometimes be avoided by the timely introduction of international peacekeepers and through the efforts of international humanitarian NGOs. In the aftermath of a Stage 2 collapse, domestic authorities are highly unlikely to have either the resources or the legitimacy, or even the will, to arrest the collapse dynamic and reconstitute themselves in a way that the population would accept.
As stage 3 collapse runs its course, the power vacuum left by the now defunct federal, state and local government is filled by a variety of new power structures. Remnants of former law enforcement and military, urban gangs, ethnic mafias, religious cults and wealthy property owners all attempt to build their little empires on the ruins of the big one, fighting each other over territory and access to resources. This is the age of Big Men: charismatic leaders, rabble-rousers, ruthless Macchiavelian princes and war lords. In the luckier places, they find it to their common advantage to pool their resources and amalgamate into some sort of legitimate local government, while in the rest their jostling for power leads to a spiral of conflict and open war.
Stage 4 collapse occurs when society becomes so disordered and impoverished that it can no longer support the Big Men, who become smaller and smaller, and eventually fade from view. Society fragments into extended families and small tribes of a dozen or so families, who find it advantageous to band together for mutual support and defense. This is the form of society that has existed over some 98.5% of humanity’s existence as a biological species, and can be said to be the bedrock of human existence. Humans can exist at this level of organization for thousands, perhaps millions of years. Most mammalian species go extinct after just a few million years, but, for all we know, Homo Sapiens still have a million or two left.
If pre-collapse society is too atomized, alienated and individualistic to form cohesive extended families and tribes, or if its physical environment becomes so disordered and impoverished that hunger and starvation become widespread, then Stage 5 collapse becomes likely. At this stage, a simpler biological imperative takes over, to preserve the life of the breeding couples. Families disband, the old are abandoned to their own devices, and children are only cared for up to age 3. All social unity is destroyed, and even the couples may disband for a time, preferring to forage on their own and refusing to share food. This is the state of society described by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull in his book The Mountain People. If society prior to Stage 5 collapse can be said to be the historical norm for humans, Stage 5 collapse brings humanity to the verge of physical extinction.
As we can easily imagine, the default is cascaded failure: each stage of collapse can easily lead to the next, perhaps even overlapping it. In Russia, the process was arrested just past Stage 3: there was considerable trouble with ethnic mafias and even some warlordism, but government authority won out in the end. In my other writings, I go into a lot of detail in describing the exact conditions that inadvertently made Russian society relatively collapse-proof. Here, I will simply say that these ingredients are not currently present in the United States.
While attempting to arrest collapse at Stage 1 and Stage 2 would probably be a dangerous waste of energy, it is probably worth everyone’s while to dig in their heels at Stage 3, definitely at Stage 4, and it is quite simply a matter of physical survival to avoid Stage 5. In certain localities – those with high population densities, as well as those that contain dangerous nuclear and industrial installations – avoiding Stage 3 collapse is rather important, to the point of inviting foreign troops and governments in to maintain order and avoid disasters. Other localities may be able to prosper indefinitely at Stage 3, and even the most impoverished environments may be able to support a sparse population subsisting indefinitely at Stage 4.
Although it is possible to prepare directly for surviving Stage 5, this seems like an altogether demoralizing thing to attempt. Preparing to survive Stages 3 and 4 may seem somewhat more reasonable, while explicitly aiming for Stage 3 may be reasonable if you plan to become one of the Big Men. Be that as it may, I must leave such preparations as an exercise for the reader. My hope is that these definitions of specific stages of collapse will enable a more specific and fruitful discussion than the one currently dominated by such vague and ultimately nonsensical terms as “the collapse of Western civilization.”
The Sixth Stage of Collapse
I admit it: in my last book, The Five Stages of Collapse, I viewed collapse through rose-colored glasses. But I feel that I should be forgiven for this; it is human nature to try to be optimistic no matter what. Also, as an engineer, I am always looking for solutions to problems. And so I almost subconsciously crafted a scenario where industrial civilization fades away quickly enough to save what’s left of the natural realm, allowing some remnant of humanity to make a fresh start.
Ideally, it would start of with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.
Of course, there are problems even with this scenario. Take, for instance, the problem of Global Dimming. The phenomenon is well understood: sunlight reflected back into space by the atmospheric aerosols and particulates generated by burning fossil fuels reduces the average global temperature by well over a degree Celsius. (The cessation of all air traffic over the continental US in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has allowed climate scientists to measure this effect.) If industrial activity were to suddenly cease, average global temperatures would be jolted upward toward the two degree Celsius mark which is widely considered to be very, very bad indeed. Secondly, even if all industrial activity were to cease tomorrow, global warming, 95% of which is attributed to human activity in the latest (rather conservative and cautious) IPCC report, would continue apace for the better part of the next millennium, eventually putting the Earth’s climate in a mode unprecedented during all of human existence as a species.
On such a planet, where the equatorial ocean is hotter than a hot tub and alligators thrive in the high Arctic, our survival as a species is far from assured. Still, let’s look at things optimistically. We are an adaptable lot. Yes, the seas will rise and inundate the coastal areas which over half of us currently inhabit. Yes, farmland further inland will become parched and blow away, or be washed away by the periodic torrential rains. Yes, the tropics, followed by the temperate latitudes, become so hot that everyone living there will succumb of heat stroke. But if this process takes a few centuries, then some of the surviving bands and tribes might find a way to migrate further north and learn to survive there by eking out some sort of existence in balance with what remains of the ecosystem.
We can catch glimpses of what such survival might look like by reading history. When Captain James Cook landed on the shore of Western Australia, he was the first white man to encounter aboriginal Australians, who had up to that point persisted in perfect isolation for something like 40.000 years. (They arrived in Australia at about the same time as the Cromagnons displaced the Neanderthals in Europe.) They spoke a myriad different languages and dialects, having no opportunity and no use for any sort of unity. They wore no clothes and used tiny makeshift huts for shelter. They had few tools beyond a digging stick for finding edible roots and a gig for catching fish. They had no hoards or stockpiles, and did not keep even the most basic supplies from one day to the next. They had little regard for material objects of any sort, were not interested in trade, and while they accepted clothes and other items they were given as presents, they threw them away as soon as Cook and his crew were out of sight.
They were, Cook noted in his journal, entirely inoffensive. But a few actions of Cook’s men did enrage them. They were scandalized by the sight of birds being caught and placed in cages, and demanded their immediate release. Imprisoning anyone, animal or person, was to them taboo. They were even more incensed when they saw Cook’s men catch not just one, but several turtles. Turtles are slow-breeding, and it is easy to wipe out their local population by indiscriminate poaching, which is why they only allowed the turtles to be taken one at a time, and only by a specially designated person who bore responsibility for the turtles’ welfare.
Cook thought them primitive, but he was ignorant of their situation. Knowing what we know, they seem quite advanced. Living on a huge but arid and mostly barren island with few native agriculturally useful plants and no domesticable animals, they understood that their survival was strictly by the grace of the surrounding natural realm. To them, the birds and the turtles were more important than they were, because these animals could survive without them, but they could not survive without these animals.
Speaking of being primitive, here is an example of cultural primitivism writ large. At the Age of Limits conference earlier this year, at one point the discussion turned to the question of why the natural realm is worth preserving even at the cost of human life. (For instance, is it OK to go around shooting poachers in national parks even if it means that their families starve to death?) One fellow, who rather self-importantly reclined in a chaise lounge directly in front of the podium, stated his opinion roughly as follows: “It is worth sacrificing every single animal out there in order to save even a single human life!” It took my breath away. This thought is so primitive that my brain spontaneously shut down every time I tried to formulate a response to it. After struggling with it for a bit, here is what I came up with.
Is it worth destroying the whole car for the sake of saving the steering wheel? What use is a steering wheel without a car? Well, I suppose, if you are particularly daft or juvenile, you can use it to pretend that you still have a car, running around with it and making “vroom-vroom!” noises… Let’s look at this question from an economic perspective, which is skewed by the fact that economists tend view the natural realm in terms of its economic value. This is similar to you looking at your own body in terms of its nutritional content, and whether it would make good eating. Even when viewed from this rather bizarre perspective that treats our one and only living planet as a storehouse of commodities to be plundered, it turns out that most of our economic “wealth” is made possible by “ecosystem services” which are provided free of charge.
These include water clean enough to drink, air clean enough to breathe, a temperature-controlled environment that is neither too cold nor too hot for human survival across much of the planet, forests that purify and humidify the air and moderate surface temperatures, ocean currents that moderate climate extremes making it possible to practice agriculture, oceans (formerly) full of fish, predators that keep pest populations from exploding and so on. If we were forced to provide these same services on a commercial basis, we’d be instantly bankrupt, and then, in short order, extinct. The big problem with us living on other planets is not that it’s physically impossible—though it may be—it’s that there is no way we could afford it. If we take natural wealth into account when looking at economic activity, it turns out that we consistently destroy much more wealth than we create: the economy is mostly a negative-sum game. Next, it turns out that we don’t really understand how these “ecosystem services” are maintained, beyond realizing that it’s all very complicated and highly interconnected in surprising and unexpected ways. Thus, the good fellow at the conference who was willing to sacrifice all other species for the sake of his own could never be quite sure that the species he is willing to sacrifice doesn’t include his own.
In addition, it bears remembering that we are, in fact, sacrificing our species, and have been for centuries, for the sake of something we call “progress.” Aforementioned Captain Cook sailed around the Pacific “discovering” islands that the Polynesians had discovered many centuries earlier, his randy, drunken, greedy sailors spreading venereal disease, alcoholism and corruption, and leaving ruin in their wake wherever they went. After the plague of sailors came the plague of missionaries, who made topless Tahitian women wear “Mother Hubbards” and tried to outlaw fornication. The Tahitians, being a sexually advanced culture, had a few dozen different terms for fornication, relating to a variety of sex acts. Thus the missionaries had a problem: banning any one sex act wouldn’t have made much of a dent, while a ban that enumerated them all would read like the Kama Sutra. Instead the missionaries chose to promote their own brand of sex: the “missionary position,” which is best analyzed as two positions—top and bottom. The bottom position can enhance the experience by taking a cold shower, applying blue lipstick and not breathing. I doubt that it caught on much on Tahiti.
The Tahitians seem to have persevered, but many other tribes and cultures simply perished, or continue to exist in greatly diminished numbers, so depressed by their circumstances that they are not interested in doing much beyond drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and watching television. And which group is doing the best? That’s the one that’s been causing the most damage. Thus, the rhetoric about “saving our species from extinction” seems rather misplaced: we have been doing everything we can to drive it to extinction as efficiently as possible for a few centuries now, and we aren’t about to stop because that would be uncivilized.
Because, you see, that’s who we are: we are educated, literate, civilized persons. The readers of this blog especially are economically and environmentally enlightened types, their progressivism resting on the three pillars of pointing out financial Ponzi schemes, averting environmental devastation and eating delicious, organic, locally grown food. We do wish to survive collapse, provided the survival strategy includes such items as gender equality, multiculturalism, LGBT-friendiness and nonviolence. We do not wish to take off all of our clothes and wander the outback with a digging stick looking for edible tubers. We’d rather sit around discussing green technology over a glass of craft-brewed beer (local, of course) perhaps digressing once in a while to consider the obscure yet erudite opinions of one Pederasmus of Ülm on the endless, glorious ebb and flow of human history.
We don’t want to change who we are in order to live in harmony with nature; we want nature to live in harmony with us while we remain who we are. In the meantime, we are continuing to wage war on the sorry remnants of the tribes that had once lived in balance with nature, offering them “education,” “economic development” and a chance to play a minor role in our ruinous, negative-sum economic games. Given such options, their oft-observed propensity to do nothing and stay drunk seems like a perfectly rational choice. It minimizes the damage. But the damage may already have been done. I will present just two examples of it, but if you don’t like them, there are plenty of others.
For the first, you can do your own research. Buy yourself an airline ticket to a tropical paradise of your choice and check into an oceanside resort. Wake up early in the morning and go look at the beach. You will see lots of dark-skinned people with wheelbarrows, buckets, shovels and rakes scraping up the debris that the surf deposited during the night, to make the beach look clean, safe and presentable for the tourists. Now walk along the beach and beyond the cluster of resorts and hotels, where it isn’t being continuously raked clean. You will find that it is so smothered with debris as to make it nearly impassable. There will be some material of natural origin—driftwood and seaweed—but the majority of the debris will be composed of plastic. If you try to sort through it, you will find that a lot of it is composed of polypropylene and nylon mesh and rope and styrofoam floats from the fishing industry. Another large category will consist of single-use containers: suntan lotion and shampoo bottles, detergent bottles, water bottles, fast food containers and so on. Typhoons and hurricanes have an interesting organizing effect on plastic debris, and you will find piles of motor oil jugs next to piles of plastic utensils next to piles of water bottles, as if someone actually bothered to sort them. On a beach near Tulum in México I once found an entire collection of plastic baby sandals, all of different colors, styles and vintages.
Left on the beach, the plastic trash photo-degrades over time, becoming discolored and brittle, and breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The final result of this process is a microscopic plastic scum, which can persist in the environment for centuries. It plays havoc with the ecosystem, because a wide variety of animals mistake the plastic particles for food and swallow them. They then clog their digestive tracts, causing them to starve. This devastation will persist for many centuries, but it has started already: the ocean is dying. Over large areas of it, plastic particles outnumber plankton, which forms the basis of the oceanic food chain.
The ravages of the plastics plague also affect land. Scraped together by sanitation crews, plastic debris is usually burned, because recycling it would be far too expensive. Plastic can be incinerated relatively safely and cleanly, but this requires extremely high temperatures, and can only be done at specialized facilities. Power plants can burn plastic as fuel, but plastic trash is a diffuse energy source, takes up a lot of space and the energy and labor costs of transporting it to power plants may render it energy-negative. And so a lot of plastic trash is burned in open pits, at low temperatures, releasing into the atmosphere a wide assortment of toxic chemicals, including ones that affect the hormonal systems of animals. Effects include genital abnormalities, sterility and obesity. Obesity has now reached epidemic proportions in many parts of the world, affecting not just the humans but other species as well. Here, then, is our future: chemical plants continue to churn out synthetic materials, most of these find their way into the environment and slowly break down, releasing their payload of toxins. As this happens, people and animals alike turn into obese, sexless blobs. First they find that they are unable to give birth to fertile male offspring. This is already happening: human sperm counts are dropping throughout the developed world. Next, they will be unable to give birth to normal male babies—ones without genital abnormalities. Next, they will be unable to produce male offspring at all, as has already happened to a number of marine species. Then they go extinct.
Note that no disaster or accident is required in order for this scenario to unfold, just more business as usual. Every time you buy a bottle of shampoo or a bottle of water, or a sandwich that comes wrapped in plastic or sealed in a vinyl box, you help it unfold a little bit further. All it takes is for the petrochemical industry (which provides the feedstocks—oil and natural gas, mostly) and the chemical plants that process them into plastics, to continue functioning normally. We don’t know whether the amount of plastics, and associated toxins, now present in the environment, is already sufficient to bring about our eventual extinction.
But we certainly don’t want to give up on synthetic chemistry and go back to a pre-1950s materials science, because that, you see, would be bad for business. Now, you probably don’t want to go extinct, but if you decided that you will anyway, you would probably want to remain comfortable and civilized down to the very end. And life without modern synthetics would be uncomfortable. We want those plastic-lined diapers, for the young and the old!
This leaves those of us who are survival-minded, on an abstract, impersonal level, wishing for the global financial, commercial and political collapse to occur sooner rather than later. Our best case scenario would go something like this: a massive loss of confidence and panic in the financial markets grips the planet over the course of a single day, pancaking all the debt pyramids and halting credit creation. Commerce stops abruptly because cargos cannot be financed. In a matter of weeks, global supply chains break down. In a matter of months, commercial activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, rendering governments everywhere irrelevant. In a matter of years, the remaining few survivors become as Captain Cook saw the aboriginal Australians: almost entirely inoffensive.
One of the first victims of collapse would be the energy companies, which are among some of the most capital-intensive enterprises. Next in line are the chemical companies that manufacture plastics and other synthetic organic chemicals and materials: as their petrochemical feedstocks become unavailable, they are forced to halt production. If we are lucky, the amount of plastic that is in the environment already turns out to be insufficient to drive us all to extinction. Human population can dwindle to as few as a dozen breeding females (the number that survived one of the ice ages, as suggested by the analysis of mitochondrial DNA) but in a dozen or so millennia the climate will probably stabilize, the Earth’s ecology recover, and with it will the human population. We may never again achieve a complex technological civilization, but at least we’ll be able to sing and dance, have children and, if we are lucky, even grow old in peace.
So far so good, but our next example makes the desirability of a swift and thorough collapse questionable. Prime exhibit is the melted-down nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. Contrary to what the Japanese government would want everyone to believe, the situation there is not under any kind of control. Nobody knows what happened to the nuclear fuel from the reactors that melted down. Did they go to China, à laChina Syndrome? Then there is the spent nuclear fuel pool, which is full, and leaking. If the water in that pool boils away, the fuel rods burst into flames and melt down and/or explode and then, according to some nuclear experts, it would be time to evacuate the entire northern hemisphere. The site at Fukushima is so radioactive that workers cannot go anywhere near it for any length of time, making it rather fanciful to think that they’ll be able to get the situation there under control, now or ever. But we can be sure that eventually the already badly damaged building housing the spent nuclear fuel will topple, spilling its load and initiating phase two of the disaster. After that there will be no point in anyone going to Fukushima, except to die of radiation sickness.
You might think that Fukushima is an especially bad case, but plants just like Fukushima dot the landscape throughout much of the developed world. Typically, they are built near a source of water, which they use as coolant and to run the steam turbines. Many of the ones built on rivers run the risk of the rivers drying up. Many of the ones built on the ocean are at risk of inundation from rising ocean levels, storm surges and tsunamis. Typically, they have spent fuel pools that are full of hot nuclear waste, because nobody has figured out a way to dispose of it. All of them have to be supplied with energy for many decades, or they all melt just like Fukushima. If enough of them melt and blow up, then it’s curtains for animals such as ourselves, because most of us will die of cancer before reaching sexual maturity, and the ones that do will be unable to produce healthy offspring.
I once flew through the airport in Minsk, where I crossed paths with a large group of “Chernobyl children” who were on their way to Germany for medical treatment. I took a good look at them, and that picture has stayed with me forever. What shocked me was the sheer variety of developmental abnormalities that were on display.
It seems like letting global industrial civilization collapse and all the nuclear power plants cook off is not such a good option, because it will seal our fate. But the alternative is to “extend and pretend” and “kick the can down the road” while resorting to a variety of environmentally destructive, increasingly desperate means to keep industry running: hydraulic fracturing, mining tar sands, drilling in the Arctic and so on. And this isn’t such a good option either because it will seal our fate in other ways.
And so it seems that there may not be a happy end to my story of The Five Stages of Collapse, the first three of which (financial, commercial, political) are inevitable, while the last two (social, cultural) are entirely optional but have, alas, already run their course in many parts of the world. Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention—environmental collapse—at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.
This tragic outcome may not be unavoidable. And if it is not unavoidable, then that’s about the only problem left that’s worth solving. The solution can be almost arbitrarily expensive in both life and treasure. I would humbly suggest that it’s worth all the money in the world, plus a few billion lives, because if a solution isn’t found, then that treasure and those lives are forfeit anyway.
A solution for avoiding the sixth stage must be found, but I don’t know what that solution would look like. I do find it unsafe to blithely assume that collapse will simply take care of the problem for us. Some people may find this subject matter so depressing that it makes them want to lie down (in a comfortable position, on something warm and soft) and die. But there may be others, who still have some fight left in them, and who do wish to leave a survivable planet to their children and grandchildren. Let’s not expect them to use conventional, orthodox methods, to work and play well with others, or to be polite and reasonable in dealing with the rest of us. Let’s just hope that they have a plan, and that they get on with it.