Is a global economic, social, and political collapse imminent?

Is a global economic, social, and political collapse imminent?

 

This is the ‘byline’ on the cover of book one in my fictional novel trilogy, Olduvai. How did the idea for this series of books (currently working, very slowly, on book four) come into being? Well, as I stated in 2013 on my website (https://olduvai.ca):

 

“Sometime in late 2010 I rented the documentary Collapse and my view of the world changed almost overnight. I began researching the claims made by Michael Ruppert and found that the arguments he made to be sound and extremely disconcerting. As I delved deeper and deeper into the rabbit’s hole I discovered, I found myself becoming more and more concerned about numerous issues. One of the root concerns was regarding the mathematics of exponential growth and our lack of understanding about how this growth pattern was leading us to eventual collapse on numerous fronts: population, economics, and resource depletion (see this by University of Colorado’s Albert Bartlett). I continued exploring ideas and concepts, introducing myself to economics and systems thinking, then suddenly found myself back in my graduate studies of anthropology and archaeology. Reading Jarid Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies it became more and more obvious that we, as a species, were on a slow-moving train wreck towards eventual social, political, and economic collapse on a global scale. Two other books that have shaped my thoughts are Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth and Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course.

 

As an educator (ten years as a classroom teacher and thirteen so far as a vice principal in kindergarten to grade eight schools), I felt the need to share and educate my family and friends about my ‘discoveries’. I initially encountered a lot of resistance and denial, being told I was overreacting and focusing on the negative. This may have been due to an initial overzealousness on my part, but I also believe it was a ‘normal’ reaction by people whose fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world were being challenged; they needed to reduce the cognitive dissonance that was created by the narrative I was suggesting. (I think it’s important to note here that our understanding of the world is based on many things, not least of which are the stories we tell ourselves about how and why world events are occurring. It is formed through personal experiences but also through the tales weaved through our education system, and by our leaders and media who may not always have our best interests in mind.)

 

In the summer of 2011, as I relaxed with my family and friends at a rented cottage just outside Haliburton, Ontario, I began forming the idea of writing a fictional story about a group of Ontarians experiencing the collapse of their world. As I sat on the deck in that beautiful summer sunshine and watched our four teenage daughters (two from each family) enjoying their time away from school, I wrote the draft of a chapter in which a young man was hiking through an abandoned countryside on his way to his brother’s, who had been predicting such an event for some time. My goal, at that point, was simply to get some thoughts on paper. Before I knew it the summer was over and I was back at work, too busy to put a lot of time into the story. I continued reading voraciously and would occasionally put ‘pen to paper’ but the story was not evolving quickly.

 

Suddenly, I found myself on medical leave for a few months and the opportunity to write more was presented. I shared several chapters with my wife one weekend and her positive response prompted me to explore the possibility of publishing a book, something I have wanted to do for years (ever since I shifted my university studies from biology/physiology (disliked organic chemistry) to biological psychology (where I was exposed to Stephen Jay Gould’s Ever Since Darwin), and then to anthropology/archaeology (keen interest in hominid evolution), I have loved doing research and writing; in fact, I shared with my wife early in our relationship and before I entered education that I would love to write for a living.

 

The result is Olduvai. I have no delusions about this ever being a ‘bestseller,’ my tongue-in-cheek goal is to sell 423 copies! Why? For those that have seen the apocalyptic, John Cusack movie, 2012, you may recall that Cusack’s character, Jackson Curtis, is a writer who sells 422 copies of his book, Farewell Atlantis. As his novel managed to become a part of humanity’s decimated cultural heritage (the world’s tectonic plates shift due to neutrinos from a solar flare boiling the earth’s interior and he and his book escape in one of a handful of ‘arks’), I thought if I sold one additional copy, I had a higher probability than him-theoretically.

 

It's now been over seven years since I took that red pill and opened my eyes to a new ‘reality’. I view and interpret the world very differently now, questioning almost everything but especially mainstream narratives. Up to this time I had, for the most part, accepted the world as I was conditioned to do. In fact, looking back I was, as James Howard Kunstler has suggested in explaining why so many of the world’s citizens are unaware of the various dilemmas we face and unquestionably accept the propaganda we are exposed to, “caught up in the thrum of daily life”. School. Marriage. Career. Family.

 

Life is different now. Do I truly believe ‘collapse’ is imminent as my novel suggests? I'm not so sure about ‘imminent’ but I continue to believe our current technologically-charged and industrial, global civilisation is on the cusp of significant change (Caveat: I do not hold the belief that we may experience a kind of technological revolution that will ‘solve’ our seemingly intractable problems. That is not the type of change I think will occur). Whether the inevitable ‘change’ will be positive or negative in its impact is a totally-subjective opinion. I believe with most things in life there are both pros and cons, and a shift in how our world is ‘organised’ (politically, economically, socially) will bring both. Lots of ‘pain’ but also plenty of opportunities. Whether the survivors of any transition take advantage of the change to ‘improve’ human systems is a whole other question for another day. 

 

I also am unsure as to whether the ‘collapse’ will appear as a ‘sudden’ event as some have claimed or more of a slow decline as others have suggested. How one views this will depend on the temporal perspective taken for even a relatively gradual shift can be interpreted as ‘sudden’ on a longer timeline but because of normalcy bias remain unseen by human participants caught up in the change. I also believe there may be certain events that do create situations that could be seen as ‘sudden collapse’, such as an extended or irreversible power grid collapse. Many of the globe’s citizens are very seriously ill-equipped for such an event, especially in ‘advanced’ economies. Just as most people are not prepared for a loss of global transportation and the movement of goods, especially agricultural products. 

 

The vast majority of the world's population have lost the skills and knowledge to be self-sufficient. We have come to depend almost entirely upon various complex systems over which we have little to no control. And, we are adding to their complexity every day creating more uncertainty as systems tend to become more fragile and susceptible to sudden shifts or collapse as they become more complex. Even after a half dozen years of educating myself and working to create a self-sustaining fruit and vegetable garden to supplement our household food consumption, I’d be lucky to feed my family for a couple of weeks at the end of our growing season. And without a wood-burning stove in our home, we would never survive a Canadian winter should our natural gas supply suddenly encounter disruptions. 

 

The future is unknowable. I don't care how much data one has or how great the model being used to make predictions may be--to say little about the impact of a Black Swan event or two. But if the past is an indication of how this most recent experiment of human growth and ‘progress’ may proceed, we can expect some pretty significant disruptions just ahead. And having an educational background in archaeology, it has been the past more than anything else that I have looked to for some type of indication as to what the future may hold. I believe all our imagined futures of endless possibilities built upon technological innovation are just wishes and hopes, they are wonderful for creating fictional narratives but not sound evidence for what will likely happen down the road as we encounter the biophysical limits to the growth culture we have come to depend upon. And although the past doesn't repeat itself exactly, it does rhyme and the cycle of growth and decline has been replicated again and again through the 6000+ years of complex human social systems. I tend to think the belief that 'this time is different' and we will not repeat the mistakes of past complex societies is more hubris and wishful thinking than anything else. But, of course, only time will tell...

 

For anyone interested in a free PDF version of book one, Olduvai, please email me at olduvai@rogers.com. You can also view news and commentary regarding topics that relate to ‘collapse’ at my website: https://olduvai.ca   (updated almost every day)

 

NOTE: I am working on Part 2 of Is Growth a Positive Force? It’s simply taking time as I am rereading some texts and busy with life...

Comments

Even A Broken Clock Added Apr 16, 2018 - 3:45pm
Steve, in the next day I will be posting a piece that aligns with your thinking. Looking at the thermodynamics involved with oil fracking, it appears that we are nearing the point where it takes more energy to extract a barrel of oil than that barrel will release during its combustion. Once we reach that point, the game is over for fossil fuels. Looking forward to your future pieces.
George N Romey Added Apr 16, 2018 - 3:58pm
We have an unsustainable debt peonage economic system which increasingly is leaving large chunks of people behind. Yes some people in less developed countries have moved out of dire poverty but the’re still poor. US and most of Europe have a debt to GDP in excess of 100%. China is over 300%.  The CBO projects the US debt will rise to $30 trillion by 2028-and that’s the rosy picture.
 
Innovation and invention have slowed to a crawl yet the money centers demand double digit profit growth so companies shift towards financial hocus pocus. Rent seeking has replaced real investment.
 
Ultimately the system will crash and very likely hard. Harder than the 1930s. It might not be in my lifetime. Central Bankers have become wizards at keeping this system alive.
 
That doesn’t even touch the geo politics threats becoming more ominous by the day.
John Minehan Added Apr 16, 2018 - 4:50pm
This may be of interest . . . . 
David Montaigne Added Apr 17, 2018 - 6:58am
The inevitable crash has been postponed masterfully - but that may just make the eventual fall worse.  Analyze anything from unsustainable debt to history to prophecy and you may conclude that collapse and WWIII are likely within a few years.
Steve Bull Added Apr 17, 2018 - 7:09am
Even A Broken Clock
Energy-return-on-energy-invested (EROEI) is profoundly important and so grossly overlooked. 
George
One of the points Tainter makes in his argument is that it usually isn't just one or two variables that bring about sociopolitical decline/collapse but a coalescence of factors. Certainly, however, socioeconomic factors are huge; especially because they have such a significant impact on geopolitics. 
John
Thank you for the link. I will take a more detailed look when I have time.
David 
As much as I hope I am wrong, I tend to agree with you.
Pardero Added Apr 17, 2018 - 11:27am
Steve Bull,
Some wise fellow once said something very much like,' It is hard to think of the higher things, when one must seek to make a living.'
My living is in the fracking industry. Many fracs require a drilling rig, in addition to all the frac equipment. If one considers that many areas are no longer profitable for drilling new wells, it can't be long before old wells have little more to offer, in spite of advances in fracking. If the price of natural gas was high enough, marginal areas would be reconsidered
Prices would have to go up long term, but fortunes have been lost on that bet.
It would seem that the domestic industry is safe, with a trend for higher costs, which will be passed on.
In a Road Warrior scenario, it could be that areas of civilization would continue, in energy producing areas. 
I can't place a time frame, but I can safely predict a return to low grade coal, which is not presently feasible.
Steve Bull Added Apr 17, 2018 - 11:41am
Padero
Amongst the best analyses I've seen regarding fracking and our shale oil/gas future comes from David Hughes, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute. You can find his work here.
Bill Kamps Added Apr 17, 2018 - 12:26pm
George: US and most of Europe have a debt to GDP in excess of 100%. China is over 300%.
 
Romney, you keep saying China has debt to GDP of over 300%, and it just isnt true.  Show me where are the facts ?   By most accounts they have 65% debt to GDP, however, they also have $3 trillion in cash on hand, which reduces their debt to GDP by about half to about 30%.
 
 
Bill Kamps Added Apr 17, 2018 - 12:34pm
Steve, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, predictions are difficult, especially about the future.
 
I suspect our economic growth will slow, because tress dont grow to the sky, and economies cannot compound forever.  However, that does not necessarily mean there will be a sudden collapse, or even that most people's standard of living will decline.  Most people in the world still have a rising standard of living. Emphasis on the word, most. 
 
Yes George says the people in the developing countries are still poor, and they are compared to Europe and the USA, but they are much better off than they were 50-100 years ago.  Life expectancy, literacy, and child survival is all much higher than before.  These are good things.
 
This does not mean that those of us in the USA wont live in smaller houses, drive smaller and fewer cars, and in general consume less resources.  We are the pigs of the world, and using less resources, does not mean the world is in decline.  Maybe we will live better when we dont have so much stuff to take care of. 
 
It also does not mean some kind of Black Swan event wont cause a drastic decline in our standard of living.  By definition these are unexpected events, and our current system is not very flexible and resilient so that we can respond to major disruptions.
George N Romey Added Apr 17, 2018 - 2:01pm
Bill I just pulled up a Financial Times article from February 5, 2018. At the end of 2017 China's Debt to GDP ratio was expected to be 317%.  Plain and simple as day.
Dr. Rupert Green Added Apr 17, 2018 - 2:08pm
Bull, the collapse occurred yesterday.  Ooops! It happened a minute ago. To be frank, the collapse occurs ever day of our life. Our existence depends on it. My point, for eons people, long dead and gone, have been speaking of end time. At every moment a person dies and one is born.  Perhaps it was the death of one of those Godly people calling upon others to repent of their evil ways, or face death. S/he is dead and gone and the sinner is still around.
 
It is hard for me to believe the Constitution is a living document treated with such reverence,  and the Earth is non-living in the way we treat her. Perhaps she is long suffering and now and then gives a Pompeii, which actualizes your topic. I muse at the idea of the Earth being an engine from which we have been drawing the oil.  Mother Earth's little tremors, typhoons, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, and such, taking half a million lives at a time, does not even deter us.   When we have drawn beyond the critical point is the doom time of which your argument speaks.
George N Romey Added Apr 17, 2018 - 2:08pm
Bill believes that the US can simply add what will be well more than $1 trillion a year to the deficit (more like $2 trillion if we have a technical recession), keep interest rates well below mankind lows and have people live on debt and somehow it won't be a problem.  The system crashed in 2008 because of too much leverage (sub prime mortgages were only a part of the problem) and if anyone were to take a minute to look at debtclock.com they'd see the ticker for all debt (personal, corporate and government) keeps rising.  Over the past ten years of a supposedly recovery the economy has never gotten over much more than 2%.  So maybe someone can answer how does a society take on debt like crazy while its economy is showing anemic economic growth (most of which is concentrated into a few hands) and not have a day of reckoning. 
 
We also have a situation in which the Federal Reserve plans to unwind its balance sheet to the tune of $50 billion a month while at the same time treasuries will soar to cover the wonderful tax cut Trump gave this country.  This has the potential to spike interest rates regardless of what the Fed does with the Federal Funds rates.  All of these companies that borrowed billions to buy back stock and acquire their competitors what happen when their interest expense soars.  Don't think its a problem?  Can you spell Toys R Us?
Dave Volek Added Apr 17, 2018 - 2:16pm
Steve
I went to Mr. Hughes' report and gave it a brief read. In my opinion, he is correct that the petroleum industry has underestimated the decline rate from these tight oil/gas plays.
 
In my mind, we should be assuming a higher decline rate for proper societal. If it turns out that the decline rate is lower than predicted, then that is a good thing.
 
Bill Kamps Added Apr 17, 2018 - 2:34pm
Don't think its a problem?  Can you spell Toys R Us?
 
George, I know you know the difference between the debt of a company and the debt of a country, so stop trying to confuse others.
 
This has the potential to spike interest rates regardless of what the Fed does with the Federal Funds rates. 
 
Agreed.  Emphasis on potential.  People have been predicting this for 40-50 years now, and it remains a potential.  If we add debt too quickly it is a problem, no one knows what is too quickly.  Growing at a rate of 5% per year is probably not too quickly, 10% less optimal.  Interest rates spiked to 19% on the long treasury in 1979 and the system did not collapse.  Now it is 3%.  I would say we have some wiggle room.   We probably could not sustain a spike to 19% at the time, granted.
 
Bill I just pulled up a Financial Times article from February 5, 2018
 
The IMF puts the number at 65% for 2015 not counting $4 trillion in cash on hand.  Granted there are different ways to count debt, and it has grown a lot in recent years.  I have no reason to dispute the FT. 
Stone-Eater Added Apr 17, 2018 - 3:39pm
Don't worry about a collapse. The only collapse that will happen is a BIG war which, in a matter of years, will boost some ECONOMIES again, because what is put to ashes can be built up again.
 
Shit is that most regions in the world were never being "built" at first because they were neither of importance in resources nor in geostrategy.
Fat Bastardo Added Apr 19, 2018 - 4:35am
OMG! I can't believe this stupidity. There is no collapse coming. Maybe the corporate gangsters and oligarch will be losing some wealth but as soon as they are hunted down and eradicated the common man will thrive. 
 
Energy technology will displace fossil fuels and living will become more affordable. Building technology will make housing more affordable. 
 
Young Arabs in the Middle East will exterminate Islam and liberate people from it's cruel yoke. 
 
Young Russian will rise up and kill Putin and his oligarch masters. 
 
If we can rid the world of humans who have the Nazi gene and end predatory capitalism and replace it with egalitarianism humanity will thrive because instead of most people being wage slaves they won't have to struggle just to survive but live to actualize their potential.
 
The rest of you should go underground with your guns and MREs and wait for the end to come. MORONS! 
Steve Bull Added Apr 19, 2018 - 6:57am
Fat Bastardo
While none of us can predict the future with much accuracy, which is more likely? That we repeat a recurrent historical theme of human complex societies over the past half dozen or more millennia or the events you suggest? And the name-calling really adds to the conversation, thanks.
Fat Bastardo Added Apr 20, 2018 - 12:55am
SteveBull
Futurists have predicted the future. 
 
Crawling in a hole and running for creating a self-fulfilling prophesy because of paranoid delusion insanity.
 
Henny Penny said that Chicken Licken said that Turkey Lurkey said..."THE SKY IS FALLING DOWN" 
 
There are sick societies like in the Middle East but they are becoming enlightened.  I can see preparing for natural disasters and working for nuclear disarmament. 
 
If you want a safer world, work on eliminating the problem instead of hiding from it. We need to rationally and scientifically identify the problem or problems that could lead to what you fear may happen. 
 
Look at it like this. You have a nest of hornets growing on your back porch. You can ignore it and stop using the back door or you can exterminate the hornets. There are people who are dangerous and left unchecked they will grow as a threat. 
 
My father served with the 63rd division in WW-2. They liberated the death camps during the occupation. My father hunted and killed low level Nazis in both Germany and France. There are not many Nazis in Germany of France today because their would be fore bearers were exterminated by the allies kinda like the story of St Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland. Germany today is free, sane and safe. The bad DNA has been purged from the gene pool. 
 
The first person to realize just how true it is that power and wealth corrupt was French lawyer Robespierre. 
 
To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty. Maximilien Robespierre


In 1789 a lot of evil human trash got sent to the guillotine.  Today, like in Germany, France has a high standard of living and clean governments.
 
If you want the world to be safe, sane and fair, you need to get rid of the crazy, dangerous and unfair people. 
 
Steve Bull Added Apr 20, 2018 - 9:38am
Fat Bastardo
I appreciate your latest comments in order to help clarify some points.
 
First, I think you need to reread my original article to garner a better interpretation of my intent. It certainly is not to fear monger about imminent collapse. Note that the title is a question, not an assertion. It is a missive about my changing understanding of what ‘collapse’ is and is not, and how I am attempting to address a small segment of the various dilemmas we might be facing as a species.
 
Second, it is also a recognition that complex human societies have repeatedly ‘collapsed’ throughout pre/history and we could experience a similar fate. Do I know for certain? Absolutely not. This being said, I believe it is more likely our past experiences are a better roadmap for future possibilities than the hopes and wishes our imaginations paint regarding the future. I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘Star Trek’ future I grew up believing in is less likely than a return to our agrarian or hunting-gathering roots (after all, the experiment with complex human societies has so far been only a small percentage of our time as a species on this planet and we already seem to be bumping into significant biophysical limits to its continued expansion, let alone maintenance). I am willing to admit I could be completely wrong, and in a way I hope I am. As I say, only time will tell.
 
Third, as for addressing identified problems and solving them to avoid the negative consequences, that is wonderful in theory and there are many organizations that are attempting this--although I believe many are not solvable problems but unsolvable dilemmas. Whether anyone is actually successful (or can actually agree) is a whole other issue. I can only control certain, limited variables in my immediate world. There are many problems/dilemmas (that I believe are significant; for example, the infinite growth paradigm we seem to be pursuing) beyond my purview that I cannot impact, no matter how hard I might try. I will address/control the ones I can, such as attempting to increase my family’s resilience by decreasing our dependence upon various complex systems that are prone to disruptions and over which I have no control--such as modern industrial agriculture.
 
Finally, as for making the world safe and sane by getting rid of “crazy, dangerous, and unfair people”, again, great in theory but probably impossible in practice. Our complex societies have ‘created’ such people from the get-go and almost always elevates them to positions of power and authority. I really would recommend reading Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies for some insight into this and the other issues raised