Collapse 101

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kali Yuga

(Suggested soundtrack for this article: Swimmin’ Time by Shovels and Rope)
Major Kong rides a nuclear bomb in this frame from Stanley Kubrick's film 1964 film "Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."
Humanity’s days on Earth are numbered, but don’t panic! You, too, can learn how to turn collapse into an exciting money-making opportunity. Send us money to find out how! /s (/s means sarcasm, by the way, but we really will take your money if you feel like supporting our work. We’re not rich, and we’ve still gotta eat.)

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

I’m sorry to say that I have some bad news for you: Civilization is collapsing. If you hadn’t realized that already, I imagine that reading this summary will come as something of a shock. If you’ve already started putting together the pieces for yourself, then this might cover some familiar territory. In any case, the purpose of this overview is to describe in simple and straightforward terms why so many reputable people have become convinced that civilization is heading for a disaster of epic proportions.

But What About Rocket Jesus?

On the surface, the idea that industrial civilization is collapsing might seem utterly ridiculous to people raised on the techno-utopian vision of shows and movies like Star Trek, Star Wars and all the endless imitators who imagined that humanity would travel to the stars and explore the universe. Indeed, for most of my life I was one of the people who believed exactly that. I thought that humanity, despite our flaws, would mature along with our technology and eventually leave our home planet for sexy sci-fi adventures among the stars.

Looking back, that seems pretty ridiculous now, but you’d be amazed by how many otherwise intelligent and rational people still seem to believe something along those lines.

A Tesla Roadster is shown floating in space with the Earth in the background.
Elon Musk (aka Rocket Jesus) once launched a sports car into space in the most dramatic combination mid-life crisis / penis-overcompensation in human history.

Hell, celebrity billionaire Elon Musk (henceforth referred to by his charming internet nickname Rocket Jesus) famously spent a metric fuckton of money launching a goddamn sports car into orbit in order to keep dreams of space exploration alive. The problem is, of course, that if we can’t manage to build a sustainable civilization on Earth with an abundance of resources, how the hell are we supposed to make it work on Mars?

The main point I’m trying to make here is that settling other planets or living on spaceships is no solution for the problems that have gotten us into this mess. We have built an entire civilization on the foundations of overconsumption, inequality, greed and hubris. Taking those things into space will kill us even faster than they are killing us here on Earth.

On to the Main Event

So what do I mean when I say that civilization is collapsing? Well, as it turns out, this whole shitshow of a culture is based on exploiting resources as quickly as possible and turning them into constant growth. Ever since our ancestors developed totalitarian agriculture (by which I mean the system that dominates ecosystems as opposed to coexisting with them) we have been heading down a dead-end road that ends with a very steep cliff.

Think of it like this: When yeast cells are added to a sugar solution to make alcohol, they begin by doubling their numbers over and over again until they have completely saturated the solution. Then, they metabolize the sugar for energy and excrete CO2 and alcohol. After a few days almost all the sugar is gone, and the yeast begin to die off as their food supply runs out and their waste products build up until they can no longer survive.

Comic of yeast cells destroying their home.
Some humans are marginally smarter than yeast cells, but in groups we end up causing just as much damage to our environment. (Cartoon by Nick Kim)

Humans are carrying out the same process right now on a planetary scale, but almost everyone is in denial of this fact because they can’t quite believe that our leaders and decision-makers could be so damn stupid. “But wait,” I hear some of you thinking, “humans are so much smarter than yeast! We’re individuals who make choices and create amazing technology. Surely someone will invent something that can save us!”

It’s true that as individuals we’re (marginally) smarter than yeast, but as a whole our population dynamics follow the same physical laws and respond to the same pressures and incentives as other species. When resources are abundant, our population grows until it reaches the physical limits of the environment. Once all the resources have been consumed, our population will inevitably decline, no matter how smart some individuals may be.

Unfortunately, we’ve been born into the generations living right before the peak of civilization, and we are currently witnessing the last of the easily-accessible resources being consumed. It’s somewhat like riding up the steep initial incline of a roller coaster: on the way up it can seem as though we are climbing an endless hill of progress, but as soon as we tip over the peak there will be a rapid and dramatic fall.

Oil, Energy and EROEI

The main driver of collapse is our addiction to fossil fuel energy sources. As I write this in early 2018, more than 85 percent of the world’s energy is derived by burning oil, coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels. Our civilization is completely dependent on these fuels for electricity, transportation, manufacturing and pretty much every other aspect of industrial society. There are several major problems with this situation, some of which we will have to deal with very soon (within 5 to 10 years) and others that we will be dealing with until our species goes extinct (much sooner than you probably imagine).

In the short term, the most pressing problem is that we have burned through most of the easily-accessible oil in the planetary equivalent of a wild weekend bender. Oil is basically stored solar energy that has been accumulating for millions of years, and when we first began burning through this treasure trove in the early 20th century, each barrel provided up to 40 times as much energy as was required to extract it (some estimates say as high as 100-to-1). This energy surplus allowed our population to explode and provided the fuel for massive economic growth and unprecedented prosperity for the wealthy nations of the world.

New Yorker comic illustrating collapse.
This New Yorker comic says it all, really. Greed and hubris are destroying the world, but at least the imaginary numbers in our stock portfolios went up for a while! (Who am I kidding, I’m too poor to have a stock portfolio, but I’m fake-impressed by how much imaginary money other people are making!)

Unfortunately, just like a raging alcoholic who drinks up all their money in one weekend instead of saving anything for the future, we’ve now burned through our reserves and we’re desperately fracking everything in sight to squeeze out a few more drops of the good stuff. Making matters worse is the fact that fracking and using other technological fixes to extract shale oil is highly energy-intensive. That means that where once we were getting an Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of greater than 40 to 1, now we’re down below 20 to 1 and falling fast.

This is reflected economically by the anemic growth and near-zero interest rates that have characterized the post-2008 economic “recovery.” I put recovery in quotes there because it is quite clear that conditions for 99% of humanity have not recovered and never will. Instead, we will see a continual decline in quality of life and available resources until the system reaches a breaking point. Some analysts suggest that EROEI below 10-to-1 will make it impossible to sustain our manufacturing and distribution networks, effectively leading to collapse well before the planet actually runs out of oil. Based on current consumption and discovery rates, this could happen as soon as the early 2020s.

CO2, Climate Change and Collapse

Unfortunately, even if the entire world population became enlightened overnight and gave up fossil fuels today, went 100 percent vegan and lived out the rest of their lives as hermetic eco-saints, there is already so much carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution in the atmosphere that collapse is “baked into the cake.” Because of its chemical makeup, CO2 takes a few decades from when it is initially released until it is fully active as a heat-trapping agent in the atmosphere. This means that the wild climatic swings, monstrous storms and record-breaking heat waves we’re already witnessing are being amplified by CO2 emissions from the 1980s and 90s, and will continue to intensify as all the CO2 we’ve released since then stacks on top.

Basically, we would have had to dramatically downsize the global economy decades ago and actively worked to prevent the last 40 years of population growth in order to have a chance to avoid catastrophic climate change and eventual extinction. But, since our political leaders and corporate overlords have the common sense, empathy and foresight of meth-addicted hyenas, we’re now in what I like to think of as “the darkest timeline” in which our species is effectively going to go extinct by the end of this century. I say “effectively” because even if the children of a few billionaire survivors eke out a living for a while longer in underground bunkers, there will be no triumphant return to the surface for them or their descendants. Those bunkers will eventually become tombs, as elaborate and ultimately pointless as the pyramids of Giza.

Photograph of the pyramids of Giza.
Are you a forward-thinking billionaire with money to spare? Act now to purchase our state-of-the-art survival bunkers at a fraction of their actual value! … Oops, wrong picture. But you get the point.

I say all this with considerable confidence because we have already altered the climate of our planet so much that eventually the atmosphere will become unbreathable. To make a long story short, phytoplankton in the oceans make more than 50 percent of our oxygen, and we are killing them off by heating up the water and causing it to become more acidic as it absorbs CO2. Once the oceans pass a certain threshold, dangerous bacteria take over and produce a toxic gas called hydrogen sulfide. Here’s a link to a full explanation if you want to read more about this process. (Fair warning: It’s depressing as hell and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, but that sure didn’t stop me from ruining my own life by learning about it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

Well before the oxygen runs out, though, we will reach global average temperatures that make it difficult (if not impossible) to grow the staple crops that billions depend on for sustenance, including rice, wheat and corn. Droughts are already impacting millions of people all over the world, and they are projected to increase dramatically in many areas, turning whole swathes of productive countryside into deserts. Other areas will receive massive increases in rainfall, leading to unprecedented flooding and the loss of cropland due to pollution and erosion. The combined effects of food shortages, famines, droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes and all the other disasters brought about by climate change will rapidly destabilize most countries and lead to mass migrations on a scale never before seen. Inevitably, this will cause political and military conflicts as wealthier nation-states attempt to secure their borders and hoard the few remaining resources for the elites.

A cartoon dog sips coffee in a burning building.
This classic gif from the comic Gunshow by KC Green is often used to summarize the mainstream response to climate change and scary news in general. It is becoming more accurate and timely by the day. In fact, I’m starting to envy that dog his quick and relatively painless death.

Economically, these factors will lead to death-by-a-thousand-cuts as multi-billion-dollar disasters occur over and over again until insurance companies are bankrupted and the global economy lies in smoking ruins, just like our storm-shattered cities.

(Note that I haven’t even bothered to talk about the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, proliferation of toxic chemicals and plastic pollution in every water source, or any of the accelerating feedback loops that are complicating all of these problems. Frankly, there’s no point. It only takes one extinction-level event to end a species, and we’ve set ourselves up for at least a dozen of them and counting. Reading the news these days feels like watching a special-needs soccer team racking up own-goals and celebrating that the score is getting so high.)

Jumping to Conclusions

At this point in the article, it’s customary to drag out the ol’ garden hose and blow a bunch of smoke and sunshine up your ass about how humanity can solve its problems with advanced technology, greater political engagement and positive thinking about chakra crystals or something.

Fortunately, I don’t care enough about what you think or do to bother lying to you. So, I am free to summarize the situation succinctly and honestly in layman’s terms: We fucked up big time and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to fix it. In upcoming articles I will dig more deeply into the techno-fantasies of carbon capture and storage, space-based reflectors and other geo-engineering pipedreams, but for now suffice it to say that you’d better enjoy your remaining time and money while you can, because the future is looking grim and retirement is a fantasy for all but the wealthiest people alive right now.

Whew! I need a drink, and I imagine you might as well. There’s plenty more we could cover, but this is just Collapse 101, so let’s save some despairoin for another day. If you’re wondering what comes next, check out our piece on What YOU Can Do to stop collapse, or get a head start on navigating the Stages of Grief.

If this is all a bit much for you, why not take a break from the hardcore doom with our suggestions for Coping Mechanisms, or consider getting offline entirely and go for a walk in the park while you can still breathe the air and see some actual plants and animals before they’re gone for good.

No matter what else you take away from this article, I hope you’ll remember to appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it. Becoming aware of collapse can be a terrible burden, but it can also be a great gift when it becomes a reminder to treasure each day as if it could be your last, and to live life to the fullest while you can. Our children and grandchildren will look back on these years as a time of unbelievable luxury, comfort and convenience, so try not to take anything for granted, and do your best to be grateful for the time you have left.