Rapid globalization and economic conditions will continue to produce increasing uncertainties and risks, as well as new opportunities that will impact all phases of urbanization—often with unanticipated consequences. As a result, uncertainty must be a critical component of planning and policymaking. Economic uncertainty must be taken into consideration when new and innovative projects are developed to ensure that they are “successful” in local and global terms, and better equipped to withstand fluctuations in local and global economies.
-- From Urban Policy in an Uncertain Economy by the East-West Center
The Half Urban World for Doomies
(Roughly rounded terms, ahead. Original numbers gleaned from UN, IMF and World Bank sources ...)
- About 10,000 years back, agricultural civilizations
first arose. From that time through the 1700s, it took from 95 to 98 persons
actively engaged in farming to support 100 people; themselves and 2 to 5
non-farmers. Today - leveraged via modern, industrial
technologies heavily reliant on fossil fuels - 2 to 5 farmers support 100 people when averaged worldwide.
- In recent decades, lean production and inventory philosophy (Just In Time or JIT production and supply) has become widespread. This means inventories of supplies on hand are kept to a minimum. In the case of urban centers in the U.S., food vendors and local warehouses are stocked on average to supply only two to three days of normal demand.
- A few years back, we passed the Half-Urban World mark. This means that more than half of us now live in urban concentrations of 2000 or more people. Current world population about 7,500,000,000 souls.
Each development, in itself seems just another historical milestone on our road to the stars. Each a symbol of progress marking our advance as a species.
Taken together, they comprise an unprecedented recipe for disaster.
What we see is a situation in which an otherwise short-lived cessation of urban supply is going to have drastic consequences for urban populations who, in their desperation, will damage critical infrastructure beyond hope of recovery.
Supply chain failure essentially stops most food production in its tracks. Without steady inputs of seedstocks, fertilizers, feed, fuels, parts and manpower, production and distribution grind to a halt, with a horizon of the next planting/harvest cycle. Irrigated areas would soon lose water, as would many reliant on pumped ground and aquifer waters. No markets or transport, no point in harvest even where possible. Livestock would be put down as feed on hand is exhausted, saving only what can be pasture fed.
The hundred fed by each one or two farmers would go hungry, even if some emergency transport were arranged.
What follows is my best guess as to how this might play out on a near global scale. There will be many variations, especially among towns set in low density, rural areas. Size and local food production industries may follow a different course. Third world urban areas may have better local supply, but tend to be high density.
Stage One: Urban Implosion
This plays out much as collapse fiction portrays it. Panic, food riots, collapse of utilities and services, overwhelmed police and emergency services, emergence of gangs controlling resources and black market trade.
What is often overlooked, I believe is damage to urban infrastructures, including many which are vital to service extra-urban regions. Rioting, fire and looting can easily damage power and water stations and conduits, telecommunications, fuel storage, computer networks, railway and general equipment. Experienced, irreplaceable personnel will not be able to commute, abandon their stations to protect their families, and/or be lost to violence.
In fairly short order, without resupply, resources on hand will be exhausted or hoarded out of reach of many to most.
Stage Two: Urban Explosion
Individuals and small groups must at some point decide to abandon the city in search of food. Water and shelter will be of constant concern.
Likely, roads will be beset by 'highwaymen', exacting a toll of refugees.
Surrounding suburban areas, where present, will have their own pitfalls and dynamics, both for residents and for the refugees flowing out of the cities. Food here will likely have been exhausted or corralled as well. Their mere extant along with attrition from violence will cut into refugee numbers. Never the less, I expect many (hundreds to millions, depending on initial population) will reach the rural surrounds.
Stage Three: 'Locust' Behaviors Threaten Rural Populations
By this time, people will be desperate and ravenous. Every animal, grain, food or material deemed edible will be consumed. Every rumor that can be pursued will be, as mobs large and small pour through the countryside.
In particular, gardens will be uprooted and seedstock consumed.
At some point, cannibalism becomes inevitable.
EROEI Energy Return On Energy Invested), I believe, will play a large role in this phase. Pillaging individuals and groups must achieve a net return, or they starve out. Dense or concentrated resources may support larger groups organized as bandits or raiders, but these will deplete quickly. Low density or well hidden resources will not, and any bandits straying into these areas will burn out.
It is an open question as to whether ex-urban mobs will topple rural societies, which will have problems of their own when supply fails. Clearly, initial urban numbers will be well down. Rural populations will diminish, but likely not to the proportional degree as urbogenic ones. They will also have intimate local knowledge on their side. It may be that some can hold out and retain social cohesion.
In this stage, something I think of as Demographic Winter (analogous to Nuclear Winter) seems possible. Large numbers of ex-urbanites burn what they can for warmth and cooking. Some percentage will get out of hand in uncontrolled forest and prairie fires. Globally. Smoke produced will likely have climate scale consequences for some time, further stressing survivors.
Stage Four: Forage, Gardening? and Husbandry?
Sooner or later, the population much reduced, small bands will begin to relearn wild forage and hunting technologies.
Limited gardening may begin as non-hybrid seed caches are discovered, and growth propagated from those which escape being eaten. Hybridized cloned varieties may survive for propagation in this phase, as well, so long as they are not overly dependent for success on insecticides and other industrial measures.
Livestock may be propagated. Most draft animal technologies as well.
But propagation of skills, plant- or animal stocks, takes time.
Of course, somewhere in here, domestic nuclear plants and spent rod storage facilities go LOCA.
Stage Four: Return to Organic Agriculture?
Assuming our species makes it this far, methods of organic agriculture, if it happens at all, will have to restore what is remembered and reinvent much that has been lost, under conditions of changed climate.
My guess is that this stage is unlikely. That we will not return to agriculture in any near future (millennial scale), and will likely have to rediscover it by the time we do.
But most of human experience did without it, and by some estimations, were better off before its adoption transformed us.
Are full economic and urban collapse plausible? And if so, are these dynamics likely?
If we are indeed approaching the limits to growth (see this blog's header), the conditions underlying the capital-based, global industrial economy. Events over the last 45 years are in high conformity with that hypothesis. We have seen the depicted curves flattening, with the model suggesting the dropside is nearly on us. Should a tipping point initiate cascading failures which outstrip capacity to halt them, ensuing collapse may well be catastrophic.
Global economic collapse is entirely conceivable to the IMF, World Bank and central bankers at national and international levels. Crushing global debt (national, corporate, individual), fiat currencies weakened by quantitative easing, non-productive spending (e.g., military), wealth disparity, rising cost of insurance, unstable business environment... and under it all plummeting EROEI on fossil fuels... are seen individually as potential threats to the global economy. Collectively, they are ominous indeed. Notice that growth within a limited system is not appreciably on their radar.
Global supply chain cessation would be the natural result of economic collapse (arrest). Again, there are many historical cases of financial breakdown leading to supply interruption. Typically, these have been short lived as support arrived, originating from stable surrounds.
Are tools available sufficient to restore confidence and restart interrupted global trade in a time to avert runaway, systemic failures (of which urban collapse is an example)? It's a matter of debate, but the very concept of 'too big to fail' implies that failure is not an option since it brings down the house. Once something big gives, it may well be that issues multiply faster than they can be brought under control.
There have been many historical examples of dramatic urban collapse due to war (especially siege), local economic collapse or natural disaster. Most of them follow stages one through three to some degree. Deviations appear to be more or less proportional to how much outside supply and assistance they receive, and how soon 'normalcy' is restored. How well the general population is armed plays a role. Long duration and/or lack of significant outside assistance makes the worst case the probable case.
Should supply chains fail, military and National Guard assets, running on strategic reserves, may attempt to run stopgap supply services. But the task will be enormous, and efforts diluted by attempts to establish order and control. Personnel will be difficult to keep on task as they go AWOL in support of families, taking what they can get away with. Most assets will be stranded overseas.
To my mind, the combination of low on hand inventories, food producer to consumer ratio and staggering numbers of the people involved and the high aspect ratio of critical dependencies in service infrastructures mean that we are in uncharted territory.
That the transition from functional to desperate can proceed in remarkably short order.
That urban breakdown will not be confined within urban city limits.
That the infrastructures necessary for restoration of function can be damaged beyond repair.
That rapid population loss - both urban and rural - can be catastrophic.
In a scenario of global economic arrest, extrapolate outward, demographic explosion from every urban center, world wide. Looking at a map, the world appears a minefield..
In regard to the rural vs. urban bug-out debate, the preceding considerations suggest that rural wins hands down.
Urban areas, producing no significant foods from their own ground must be abandoned. Sooner or later, survivors will bug out rural. Those already rural will be ahead of them.
A further observation is that, the farther one is from urban concentrations, the better, lest the locust phase sweep over your position.
My advice? Relocate rural, now.
Git while the gittin's good.
PS. I searched the terms "half urban world" collapse in several variations looking for serious, non-fiction analyses, and found little to nothing (mostly my own, amateur efforts!).
I would welcome serious consideration of global urban collapse dynamics by anyone who's guesses might be better informed and referenced than my own.