At the conclusion of our planning process, we ultimately have to decide what the final plan for our study area will be. In this exercise, we are attempting to identify a sequence of events, decisions, and actions at the global level that will constitute our Most Likely Alternative (MLA).
We have identified a unifying vision that seems to explain the actions of people in positions of power. We have thoroughly inventoried the existing conditions of the planet's ecosystems, natural resources, and human populations. We have looked to experts in mathematics, finance, natural resources, environmental science, and system dynamics to help us understand the trajectory of future conditions. We have developed possible alternative courses of actions and evaluated the likelihood that any of these alternatives will be implemented in total.
An "old school" style of planning would select directly from the identified alternatives based on the outcome of the alternative evaluation. A more progressive interpretation of the process takes a final pass across the alternatives and recognizes that history rarely follows one single path and that the best plan will select the most successful elements from each alternative and implement them sequentially. In essence, the alternatives evaluation can serve as a guide for determining the phasing of specific elements from across alternatives. Like a jigsaw puzzle of probable outcomes.
Lessons from Alternatives Evaluation
The outcome of our evaluation process provides a general scale of probability of certain bundles of actions being pursued because of their attractiveness to the public and policymakers, as well as apparent ease and feasibility. The most dominant choice was continuation of Business as Usual (BAU) for as long as possible. This establishes the baseline from which all other choices will be made.
Establishing the starting point and the desirability of continuing on the BAU path is an important factor in determining what options are actually available in the future. The longer the human population of the world continues down a particular path, the more the ability to divert onto other paths will be impacted. For an example we can refer back to the original Limits to Growth study in 1972. At that time the best available model indicated that there were a variety of options that could have resulted in long-term sustainability. The world chose the BAU path, so that by the 2002 update virtually none of those options were viable anymore.
By establishing the primary and initiating decision of our Most Likely Alternative as continuation of BAU as long as possible, we narrow down the availability of other alternatives functioning in a future phase. The lowest scoring alternative in our evaluation was Transition to Local Economies, primarily because it runs directly counter to existing power structures and expectations. It is questionable whether this voluntary global transition is feasible even today, if all political/economic/social obstacles to implementation were removed. It is difficult to imagine that any element of this alternative becomes more likely as the world continues down the BAU path for 5 or 10 years more. Likewise, the alternatives aimed at establishing a light version of BAU are really only on the table while large amounts of resources and robust economic activity is available to shepherd such a voluntary contraction. Once things begin to collapse, the likelihood of controlling that contraction becomes increasingly slim.
The first element we should pull from another alternative that appears to be highly compatible with the existing BAU path is the Winner Take All option. In many ways we can imagine a general overlap in these approaches- our current conception of BAU gradually transitioning into a second phase defined by larger, more violent conflict. In fact, the high score of this alternative is largely due to the fact that there are already elements of this aggressive approach present in existing BAU conditions, and perhaps true implementation of the war-centered option is more a matter of scale than a fully distinct alternative.
It could be that continuation of BAU actually helps set the stage for large scale military conflict. Continuing to run fossil fuel economies at full steam, further depleting resources like oil, clean water, and agricultural land will ratchet up tensions and make war a more acceptable and more profitable venture. The major variable, which may remain largely unknown, is what the outcome of all-out world war might be. If the strategic and tactical positioning of one side or another is truly superior, it might be that half of the world is annihilated in nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare. If the two sides are equally matched and are able to circumvent one another's defensive and first-strike capabilities, then perhaps humans destroy all life on Earth with our warfare, at which point there is no need to plan any further. From our review of existing conditions, it certainly appears that at this point the United States and it's western allies have positioned themselves well to dominate in global war; however, Russia remains a formidable adversary and it is possible that we underestimate their capacity. For our purposes, we will assume that cooler heads largely prevail and that warfare remains mostly conventional, with only limited use of nuclear weapons. An excellent analysis of the Russia/US dynamic and potential outcomes in the coming war is posted on Dmitry Orlov's site, here: http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2016/08/a-thousand-balls-of-flame.html . Orlov argues that Russia really holds the strategic upper-hand, and that escalation will result in targeted tactical strikes that will completely disable US warmaking capacity, as well as accelerating economic, political, and social collapse.
But how about renewable energy? While our analysis indicates that renewable energy is not a feasible means of extending BAU-like conditions indefinitely, alternatives involving expanded deployment of renewable energy resources scored highly in our evaluation. For one thing, they provide at least the illusion that industrial civilization can continue to grow in the face of limits to growth, which is highly attractive to the public. In addition, there is the potential for massive transformational infrastructure projects to drive economic activity as a fiscal stimulus lever. Even if solar panels and wind turbines produce expensive energy that requires major retrofits to the existing grid, and even if the major upfront (fossil fuel) energy investment required to manufacture and install this infrastructure is more destructive than it is helpful, there is the potential for job generation and generally keeping people busy. This is also attractive. So, to the extent that continuation of BAU and the war-making of Winner Take All BAU do not exclude the possibility of expanded renewable energy deployment, we would expect to see increasingly urgent efforts at utility-scale conversion. There will likely come a time where collapse will become so extreme that these efforts must be abandoned in favor of providing basic services.
Politically and economically our evaluation shows that maintenance of some market mechanisms and the semblance of the current conception of western democracy is highly attractive. However, it is also clear that as collapse progresses there will likely be a continuing and gradual shift to larger government control of crucial sectors, individual financial freedom, and ultimately the functioning of the remaining economy.
Most Likely Sequence of Events
With the information gleaned from our speculative exercise in the last several posts, we can now flesh-out the remainder of our timeline of likely events with not only what will probably happen, but how people will likely react and what the consequences will be. This allows us to paint a much more nuanced picture of the future unfolding before us.
2016-2020: During this time, countries of the world try their hardest to maintain BAU conditions. There is massive application of propaganda via the media in an attempt to convince the masses that good times will continue forever, even as economic crisis accelerates. Central banks and governments continue ZIRP/NIRP policies as well as QE and direct intervention in markets to keep businesses solvent. Financial institutions begin to fail and it is possible that full scale financial collapse will be underway; however, this may also drag on for longer than 4 years.
In response to debt defaults, bankruptcies, and other clear signs that the financial system is deteriorating, massive fiscal stimulus efforts will be launched. These will likely push in opposite and contradictory directions. For example, massive public works projects will likely include capital expansion of transportation infrastructure because these are large projects that require many workers and lots of fossil fuel energy. At the same time, in the name of creating a green energy revolution, government projects to establish utility-scale wind and solar systems will be launched along with expanded subsidies for distributed renewable energy. This will likewise result in a short-term demand for fossil fuel energy and workers to manufacture and install new equipment.
Unfortunately, these programs will be unable to build a parallel energy distribution system that replaces our current fossil fuel network, and they will only be able to function for a short time under current models of finance. As the monetary system collapses under the weight of debt, governments will assume a more prominent role in the economy and in managing the daily lives and behaviors of citizens. Desperate times will justify continued expansion of police powers and surveillance of society; security apparatuses put in place by the CIA, NSA, DHS, and other federal agencies will effectively become turnkey authoritarianism where the existing "internet of things" manages behavior, especially financial transactions and political and activist activity.
Amidst the turmoil caused by this "second great recession" or whatever the media brands it, hostilities and war will become more frequent and intense at the periphery of the developed world. Acts of violence in developed countries will continue to be linked to outside conflicts and a war of civilizations, justifying further attempts to control internal movement, financial, and political activity. The current immigration crisis from Middle Eastern countries will accelerate, and social conflict in receiving European nations will escalate and become violent. Across the globe, nationalist sentiment will grow and become politically dominant as borders close and forcible expulsion of non-nationals begins. Tension between the major powers (US, Russia, China) will grow and proxy wars will expand in the war-torn equatorial regions.
Problems of migration and refugees will be exacerbated by increasingly long and hot summers, greater drought, famine (especially in the Middle East and Africa), lack of rain, and extreme weather events.
2021-2030: By this time frame, it will be largely apparent that the catastrophe underway is not another recession or depression but a complete collapse of the financial system. More and bigger stimulus programs will be proposed, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Some of them may result in employment or the production of useful goods and services, but others will only further distort economic relationships. Those in positions of power will reap huge profits from government programs and contracts, tax incentives, and central bank stimulus measures while the common person's quality of life continues to erode. Eventually, "green energy" projects are abandoned as environmental concerns become secondary to more important tasks such as keeping the electricity on and the mines producing. Economic indicators like GDP are negative year after year, and markets for stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments enter free-fall and cease to function.
Eventually, the banking system will no longer be able to function in a meaningful way and the movement of money will cease. This could manifest itself in bouts of hyperinflation, or severe deflation, or combinations of the two among different asset classes and in different geographic areas. Without a functioning financial system, commercial collapse will accelerate quickly as the remaining businesses are no longer able to operate, even in the developed western countries. Companies kept afloat by government contracts and direct subsidy will be the last remaining actors in the economy as we currently know it. At this point the role of government will be greatly expanded as the sole provider of many goods and services currently provided by private industry. Governmental leaders will also live in fear of losing their authority and ability to exercise control, resulting in a ratcheting up of social controls to the point of outright martial law.
Immigration will reach a fever pitch as citizens of the countries most ravaged by years of war and economic collapse flee across borders into perceived safer areas. Militaries will be deployed to control migration, and when control is no longer possible, military force will be applied against civilians in order to stem the flow of immigrants.
Somewhere in this timeframe, the progress of collapse transitions from mere commercial collapse into outright political collapse. Most less-developed countries will cease to be governed in any meaningful way. Military leaders will conduct coups and form factions that fight among one another for resources in an attempt to gain control over territory and population. The major world powers will lead outright invasions of adjacent countries in order to assert security in their arenas.
This is probably the most dangerous time period for the potential of large-scale warfare to eliminate all of humanity. While economic conditions have deteriorated to a point of desperation, large militarized political organizations are still driving events on the global stage. It seems likely that this must culminate in direct warfare between the major powers, and that inevitably this would result in some exchange of nuclear weapons. If this occurs at a late stage in the process of collapse, it is possible that attacks will lack coordination and the window of opportunity for complete nuclear Armageddon will pass. Orlov's proposed scenario, where targeted strikes from both sides destroy military and industrial capabilities, also seems highly plausible. In any case, if humanity survives the confrontation of world powers, the outcome will likely be a dramatic acceleration of all forms of collapse as remaining infrastructure is destroyed or becomes inoperable, and military forces are fragmented or incapacitated.
On the ground conditions during this period will vary greatly. Outside of the developed countries in Eurasia and North America, the stages of collapse will be much more advanced as complete lack of organized governance takes hold. Within the developed countries, riots and fighting for resources within population centers will be common. Wide spread hunger and homelessness will take hold of the populations, who are primarily occupied with attempting to feed their families, or in the service of military, police, or paramilitary/revolutionary fighting organizations. Large cities in particular will begin to empty as the population density and lack of services leads to exponentially greater violence and declining health and sanitation conditions. Some social structures may continue to operate either independently or at the direction of military government, but clan/gang conflict, looting, and stealing will become widespread. Some areas will retain public services like electricity, natural gas, and potable water for longer, while some areas may see these quickly disappear. In the lack of these basics, conditions will deteriorate more rapidly and become increasingly violent. Total population will fall as deaths far exceed births, with urban centers leading the trend.
Finally, under the weight of constant war and lack of a secure and stable economy, the remaining nation-states will become ungovernable and will split into factions of military leaders attempting to secure geographic areas of various sizes. Large swaths of territory in formerly developed countries will completely lack any form of central authority and citizens will be left to their own devices. As the final political institutions of the first world devolve into warlord states and anarchy, social collapse sets in.
For many, the story ends here. Basic resources such as food and clean water are scarce and precious, and there is no room for the support system that currently keeps large parts of the population alive. It sounds terrible, but there will be no support for the disabled and ill. People who rely on mobility devices or life-saving medication will not live past this time period. Diabetics will go without insulin, there will be no antibiotics to stave off infections. People who lack supplies, or the capacity to forcibly take them from others, will waste away and starve. Violence defines the daily routine, where the strongest and most ferocious survive while the weak and/or principled suffer severe lack leading to death. Cities become virtual graveyards, while the countryside is dotted with survivors attempting to eke out a living from the land. Unfortunately, even those with the skills and experience to work the earth and provide for their families will be largely unsuccessful, as they are forced to fend off more powerful and aggressive groups looking to exploit their hard work.
Ultimately, even the most powerful warlords will begin to run out of resources to exert control over remaining populations and outright cultural collapse will arrive. With all mines long since shuttered, and all factories long since closed, lack of fuel, electricity, equipment, and even firepower will become too severe to exert force beyond the immediate vicinity. Population will be reduced to a small fraction of the global peak. With small groups of humans now spread thinly across the globe, conflicts are smaller scale, generally individual or group combat in an attempt to take or defend caches of resources. No large scale organization, record keeping, or communication remains.
The impacts of climate change further complicate life for survivors and large parts of the world near the equators become basically uninhabitable. Tropical diseases spread far into the northern latitudes, and the option for groups of survivors to stay in one place is no longer viable. Humanity becomes nomadic, wandering generally northward or southward towards the poles, seeking shelter from extreme weather and enough ecosystem stability to provide sustenance. Along the way, they encounter vast areas of contamination, including the remains of melting nuclear reactors and burning spent fuel ponds.
If humanity and enough ecosystem to support it somehow survive past mid-century, these humans will not resemble the humanity of today. Wild, fierce, and violent- like dominant predators in the wild- they will not have time to keep accurate records of what has happened. Reading, writing, philosophy, mathematics, and all things not directly related to staying alive will be forgotten. They may wonder at the strange ruins, and invent stories about gods and devils and being cast out of paradise. If they survive, within a few generations only myths will remain of our current great experiment in civilization.
The purpose of this nine part series has been to lay out the facts about industrial civilization and the limits to growth and determine a most likely sequence of events in the future. The outcome is very bleak. It is the opposite of what politicians, the media, most professionals, and our own friends and family lead us to expect.
As individuals and as groups, it is unlikely that we have the power to divert humanity from its current trajectory. While timelines and specific outcomes are estimates and are subject to some variability, the basic premise of the story is inevitable at this point. Massive collapse is coming, very soon, and along with it the deaths of many living things including most if not all humans.
While this revelation gives us plenty of reason to despair, it doesn't mean that we must spend our remaining time in desperation and depression. While it is beyond our capability to "save the world" or impact events on a global scale, we have fairly significant power to influence activity at a local level. As individuals, we have tremendous capacity to shape how we will face these terrible times. Future posts will explore these more intimate scales, where we still exercise freedom- even if it is only in our own attitudes.
After all: death is inevitable. Everything that lives must die. Whether we have 5 more years or 50, its how we choose to live that really matters. This has always been true, and will continue to be so, regardless of how the future unfolds.
How to Read This Blog
HOW TO READ THIS BLOG:
To get the most out of this blog, I recommend beginning with the earliest post and proceeding in chronological order. For the most part this blog, like a planning document, builds on data and rationale in a linear manner. You may find value in individual posts taken in isolation, but I suspect your experience will be richer if you follow the intended progression.