|Homer Simpson's Schrei|
by Lisa Lustich
after Edvard Munch (Der Schrei) and Matt Groenig (The Simpsons)
I'm sure he's 'schrei'ing, "D'Oh!"
Thomas Andrews: The pumps buy you time, but minutes only. From this moment, no matter what we do, Titanic will founder.
Ismay [incredulously]: But this ship can't sink!
Thomas Andrews: She's made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can... and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.
- Dialog from the movie, Titanic
Predicting The End Of The World As We Know It
Prediction is tricky business. To my mind, there are three general kinds:
Mystic prediction - Revelations, Mayan Calendar change-over, Age of Aquarius - in which visions of a deeper Truth are predicted to manifest themselves. Maybe. But I don't lose any sleep over them.
Context prediction - Cuban Missle Crisis, Fukushima spent-fuel storage collapse, economic bubble-burst - in which a particular event (or range of events) is foreseen and its likelihood estimated (best, worst and probable case scenarios).
We've spun the wheel and pray for good fortune. We may not know the odds, exactly, but grip the table with white-knuckled hope. These alarm me, but when one is over, it's (more-or-less) over, and we go on to the next event.
Crises may be recurrent, but each is embedded in its own context.
Systems prediction - Malthus, Limits to Growth, (Abrupt) Climate Change, plummeting biodiversity - in which exponential growth and depletion, runaway feedback and physical limits trend toward our demise. These strike me as coming upon us with mathematical certainty. With the partial exception of Malthus (who had not foreseen three 'green' revolutions) these are on or ahead of schedule, with no relief in even theoretical sight.
Systems predictions are concerned with processes.
A process is a causal chain of related events. In a simple system like dominoes, causation is a one-way trip. In complex systems, a domino which is 'down' is not out-of-play. Complex systems allow feedback. This is what makes systems prediction tricky... feedback leads a complex system to self-adjust.
But there are limits. Adjustments always occur. But complex systems also tend to be chaotic. Beyond a certain threshold, the system may shift to a new mode, wildy dissimilar to its former pattern.
This is the core concept of TEOTWAWKI.
What will trigger TEOTWAWKI?
Frankly, I don't know. But my sense is that we have built a house of cards...
We depend on non-renewables and cheap energy. We depend on unlimited growth. We have mountains of nuclear devices lying about in their own waste, domestic and weaponized. Fundamentalists (including our own) have their hands on reins of power. We've created ideal conditions for pandemic. We've shot past the climate tipping point (permafrost melting). We're killing the oceans. Arable land and potable water are on sharp decline. By every metric, we are living in environmental overshoot.
Any one of these, among others, could be the trigger.
I don't believe these have to reach a scale which, of themselves topple the techno-economy which underlies The World As We Know It. A pandemic, say, doesn't have to kill off 90% of world population to trigger the process... 10% might do it. It needn't be apocalyptic in scale.
...All it has to do is shake the table hard enough.
I believe that, at some point, we shall cross a threshold of economic collapse - a point somewhere between Orlov's Stage 1 (financial collapse) and 2 (commercial collapse) - which marks the onset of the equivalent of another Great Depression. And this will be our point-of-no-return.
Since the onset of the previous GD - a mere four score years ago - much has changed.
World population has tripled, and gone from predominantly rural to predominantly urban or sub-urban, concentrated in low-lying coastal areas. Thus, important nodes of the global economy are exposed to civil unrest and rising sea-levels
Wealth disparity has left billions desperate, at or over the edge of disaster. Meanwhile, corporate and fiduciary theft and corruption have weakened the system from which the wealthy have profited. Thus, it is a very short drop into widespread, violent unrest.
Small, largely subsistent farms (whose knowledge, seed stock and husbandry means necessary for small-scale farming has been drastically reduced or lost) have given way to large, corporate, hybridized monoculture, whose productivity is dependent on fossil fuels... meanwhile we are at the limits (and losing ground) on arable land and fresh water. Thus, the food supply is likely to collapse along with the economy, incapable of supporting resident or refugee populations.
Cheap energy has enabled physical separation of manufacture from raw materials, energy, transportation and market synergies. Industrial centers more than ever rely on a functioning global economy for local operation. Thus, they are no longer centers for potential recovery.
Supply-on-demand (aka just-in-time supply) has left cities with a 3 to 4 day supply of food on hand. Thus, interruption of the supply flow will throw cities into immediate crisis.
The cumulative result is, I believe, that an economic stumble on the scale of the previous GD will subject us to far greater stresses, while lacking many of the fail-safe structures which saw that generation through.
The result, I think, will be slide through depression straight to collapse. If it were a matter of depression, only, we might well recover for another round. But given our givens, I think other events will rule that out.
In the exponentially near future (I venture within the next world population doubling period), I predict a full-blown depression = collapse.
I see it going down something like this:
Short Term (First Years)
We enter the economic equivalent of the Great Depression -
One or more trigger events occur, initiating positive (runaway) feedback in economic systems.
The global economy stumbles, falls and fragments as bank and business fail. Debt defaults, currencies become non-negotiable. This is a global process. There is no entity of financial standing left to halt, much less reverse the process.
Import/export fails as credit and exchange become non-functional.
The direct result is virtual cessation of international and intranational trade. Import/export ceases, notably the flow of oil. Transportation systems cease to function.
- Urban centers implode - Supply-on-demand falters then fails, causing immediate food shortage. Abruptly unemployed millions riot over food and frustration. Fires rage. Critical infrastructure is damaged (port facilities, grid elements, financial centers, fuel distribution). Within cities, roads are occupied and blocked. Attempts at imposing martial order are successfully resisted.
- Urban centers explode - Food all but gone, desperate millions fan out into the adjacent countrysides, laying waste and consuming animal and seed stock. Roads are controlled by gangs demanding compensation for right-of-passage. Competence and cruelty are honed by ruthless culling.
- Rural systems go down - Transportation fails completely due to financial disruption, uneven fuel availability and impassable roads.
- Death tolls in the billions - From violence, exposure, starvation and disease. Many water sources are polluted by untended corpses.
- Rise of two-bit 'warlords' - Small bands will likely coalesce to appropriate whatever seems worthwhile.
All it takes for this sequence to start, I believe, is that we wander across the threshold from recession to depression. We have come close several times - as assessed by sober, conservative economists.
Mid-Term (First Generation)
- Hybrid and agribusiness crops fail - Lacking fertilizer, pesticides and fuel for water, plowing, sowing and harvest, crops fare extremely poorly. Hybrids fail to breed true after first generation, reverting to largely unviable stock. Small farming/gardening seed and techniques are rare and scattered. Hunger makes what seed there is difficult to preserve. Forage replaces agriculture.
- Base mortality rates climb - Lack of medicine, medical and natal services, and sanitation are themselves deadly, and permit spread of previously controlled diseases, exacerbated by poor nutrition. Death by violence continues, though decreases as perpetrators are reduced by attrition and victims become more scattered.
- Untenable domestic nuclear plants go LOCA (Loss Of Coolant Accident) - Water- and airsheds irradiated and poisoned by emissions. Potentially short term fatal in immediate vicinity. Long-term health and reproductive issues over a wide region; dire in the northern hemisphere, hopefully less so in the southern.
Longer Term (Next Several Generations, If Any)
Assuming the environment isn't too badly damaged by radiation and runaway climate change...
- Environmental recovery begins - Freed from habitat pressures, surviving plant and animal populations rebound.
- Parasitic/predatory groups decline - Scarcity of victims make these groups unviable.
- Limited agriculture regains a foothold - Surviving non-hybrid strains are propagated.
- Limited trade begins - Scavenged and hand-assembled items, food and furs.
- Rise of monastary-like centers - Knowledge is preserved, reassembled and reworked along new lines.
Beyond (the Possibly Human Future)
- (Human induced) climate change runs its course - Exactly how is in question. It's likely to add to the daunting list of challenges that survivors face over the next millennia.
- Genetic damage accumulates - Infant and birth mortality rates rise further. Plant and animal species stressed.
- Physical remains of present culture degrade - Scavenging returns diminish, eventually to negligible.
- Extraction of mineral resources remain uneconomic - In our era, we extracted beyond the reach of lower-tech, boot-strap efforts... only common surface elements will be available, by and large.
- Human cultures advance on neo-lithic technologies - While some 'modern' technologies may survive (such as glass work), by and large technologies are based on biologic and common mineral resources. With luck, understanding of microbiology, physics, astonomy and mathematics will survive and inform for a brighter future.
So this is what I see as coming, and why I'm a 'hard lander'.
I see the trigger as relatively banal (vs. apocalyptic). The collapse as a relatively abrupt transition (vs. long, slow decline). The aftermath as practically permanent (vs. recovery from temporary set back).
It just won't take much.