Major disaster or creeping decay? A huge, amorphous disaster like an Extinction Event can last anywhere from minutes (asteroid impact) to 500 million years (volcanic eruptions). The current extinction event, thought to be the sixth, began at least a century or two ago and may continue for another century or two, though that period could be drastically shortened by a number of potential events such as nuclear war or climate change. Human events are rarely severe enough to cause drastic, lasting change unless they are supported by many other, seemingly less significant situations and events. For instance, a small change in the climate can favor some microorganisms over others, and result in sudden, unexpected die-offs of particular species such as starfish, with unpredictable environmental consequences. Terrible typhoons killed hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar and China, and the Sichuan earthquake killed tens of thousands, but these countries’ populations barely showed the difference a decade later. So how can we expect the next century to play out?
Creeping decay may be more likely at first. And it is already here. We won’t see what is coming or we’d do something about it. Electricity has become increasingly essential to our existence since its development, and civilization would be severely hindered without it. The electric grid that was built over the past century contains aging sections for which the probability of failure continually increases. Natural gas supplies that heat most structures may seem relatively invulnerable, but they are susceptible to equipment failures, as detailed in this article on the infrastructure effects of severe weather. In the future we will doubtless again see utilities asking their customers to limit energy use due to a short supply. It is likely this sort of thing will become more and more prevalent. Will a future internet or power outage cause a new and unanticipated national problem?
Smog and toxic air in cities already causes widespread health problems. The economic impact of air pollution alone, not counting wild fires and other disruptive events, can slow an economy, and as pollution worsens the losses will increase. Some of the world’s largest cities are having to take steps that cut back attendance for businesses and schools in order to address air pollution. In the United States, problems like the PFOS contamination affect increasingly large areas near military bases and industrial centers, and many cities have trash incinerators that pollute the surrounding neighborhood and decrease life expectancies there. Simply put, degraded worker health does not help the bottom line, and increased work stoppages due to the environment will reduce productivity and GDP’s. In the long run, pollution might decrease life expectancies enough to mitigate the population explosion, but nobody wants that.
Mass migrations seeking safety and food will increase. Migratory movements of thousands are occurring constantly today, mostly people seeking to escape violent countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, where street gangs and repressive governments make life dangerous and difficult. In the near future, especially with the rise of right wing dictator “wanna-bes” s like Putin, Duterte, and Trump, masses of people will be discriminated against and suffer the attacks of bigots and right wing organizations. Innocent deaths are on a steady increase. Conditions in totalitarian countries will continue to deteriorate, and the movements of refugees will swell from thousands, to tens of thousands, to even larger migrations. It is unclear whether immigration by itself will cause wars, but I think it has in the past.
New problems will arise as old ones persist and increase. As infrastructure crumbles and power, water, and food supplies become increasingly intermittent, the risk of new problems appearing increases. Problems that affect one area will be made worse by problems of another sort. For instance, water quality that depends on a processing plant will be at risk as electricity powering that plant becomes less reliable.
Finally, there will be a transition from creeping decay to global disaster. As problems snowball, soon and possibly without warning a tipping point could be reached, starting a global economic collapse. The critical mass of our many, growing problems will combine to break key elements of the global economy such as the global shipping system. A major hindrance to this system could shut down factories and leave store shelves empty within weeks or months. An intermittent internet could cripple businesses that have become dependent on it. Roads, bridges, and power lines could become run-down and poorly maintained as power companies struggle to balance maintenance needs with the high demand for increased services.
When the collapse comes nobody will be able to stop it. At some point, when things get stretched a little too thin, maybe a “limited nuclear war” occurs, a sudden rise in sea level occurs and, in general, too many burdens drop on humanity at the same time. Then the global economy will begin to come apart, and we won’t be able to keep up. As the collapse of companies and governments proceeds, jobs will vanish and energy will become intermittent and scarce. International shipping will stop altogether, sooner or later. Energy supplies like reactors may continue to work, some for decades, but the transmission grid will be too run-down to work most of the time and will cover only very small areas. Bridge failures will increase and roads will deteriorate. Parts for cars, trucks, and just about anything else will be used up and quickly gone. In the wealthy countries many middle class people will find themselves isolated far from food sources in maze-like suburban developments. People and countries most dependent on cars and trucks for transportation will be hardest hit. Lack of medicines will kill and disable many people. When disease and starvation are taking many lives most of us will be weak with hunger, and conditions similar to when Europe was fighting the plague may exist, with wagons drawn through the streets to collect the bodies for burial in mass graves.
Economic stability will return, eventually, but things will be very different. After a few years or decades the changes will slow, but there may be so few people left that subsistence agriculture will dominate, rebuilding anything like the pre-collapse civilization will be impossible, and nearly everything in civilization will need to be built anew. Will future humans value sustainability and build mechanisms into their civilization that will prevent a population explosion? Or will the boom and bust population cycle occur again?
For now, there are benefits to living at the peak of human civilization. It is interesting to watch the scramble as the human species, still mostly unaware, begins to confront the results of its own overwhelming success, results that could end civilization and possibly even extinguish humanity itself. Good food is still plentiful for more than 80% of us. Most of us have some kind of shelter, many of us have air conditioning and even more have heat. I think of these things as I get out of my comfortable bed and take a hot shower, then drive my car the 30 miles (50 km) to work on superhighways that, for now, haven’t yet been taken over by pot holes. Life is good … if you don’t look too far ahead.
Thanks for reading, and good luck to us all. Enjoy civilization while you can. — Tim