Systemic Collapse: The Basics
By Peter Goodchild
28 September, 2009
Systemic collapse, societal collapse, the coming dark age, the great transformation, the coming crash, the post-industrial age, the long emergency, socioeconomic collapse, the die-off, the tribulation, the coming anarchy, perhaps even resource wars (to the extent that this is not an oxymoron, since wars themselves require resources) ― there are many names, and they do not all correspond to exactly the same thing, but there is a widespread belief that something immense and ominous is happening. Unlike those of the Aquarian Age, the heralds of this new era often have impressive academic credentials: they include scientists, engineers, and historians. The serious beginnings of the concept can be found in Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Population, Resources, Environment (1970); Donella H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth (1972); and William R. Catton, Jr., Overshoot (1980). What all the overlapping theories have in common can be seen in the titles of those three books.
Oil depletion is the most critical aspect in the systemic collapse of modern civilization, but altogether this collapse has about 10 principal parts, each with a vaguely causal relationship to the next. Oil, metals, and electricity are a tightly-knit group, as we shall see, and no industrial civilization can have one without the others. As those 3 disappear, food and fresh water become scarce (fish and grain supplies per capita have been declining for years, water tables are falling everywhere, rivers are not reaching the sea). These 5 can largely be considered as resource depletion, and the converse of resource depletion is environmental destruction. Disruption of ecosystems in turn leads to epidemics. Matters of infrastructure then follow: transportation and communication. Social structure is next to fail: without roads and telephones, there can be no government, no education, no large-scale division of labor. After the above 10 aspects of systemic collapse, there is another layer, in some respects more psychological or sociological, that we might call “the 4 Cs.” The first 3 are crime (war and crime will be indistinguishable, as Robert D. Kaplan explains), cults, and craziness — the breakdown of traditional law, the tendency toward anti-intellectualism, the inability to distinguish mental health from mental illness. After that there is a more general one that is simple chaos, which results in the pervasive sense that “nothing works any more.”
Systemic collapse, in turn, has one overwhelming cause: world overpopulation. All of the flash-in-the-pan ideas that are presented as solutions to the modern dilemma — solar power, ethanol, hybrid cars, desalination, permaculture — have value only as desperate attempts to solve an underlying problem that has never been addressed in a more direct manner. American foreign aid, however, has always included only trivial amounts for family planning; the most powerful country in the world has done very little to solve the biggest problem in the world.
Oil is everything. That is to say, everything in the modern world is dependent on oil. From oil and other hydrocarbons we get fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. On a more abstract level, we are dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons for manufacturing, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. As the oil disappears, our entire industrial society will go with it. There will be no means of supporting the billions of people who now live on this planet. Above all, there will be insufficient food, and the result will be terrible famine.
A vast amount of debate has gone on about “peak oil,” the date at which the world’s annual oil production will reach (or did reach) its maximum and will begin (or did begin) to decline. The exact numbers are unobtainable, but the situation can perhaps be summarized by saying that about 20 or 30 major studies have been done, and the consensus is that the most likely date for “peak oil” is 2008, when about 30 billion barrels were produced. (Perhaps of greater importance is the fact that oil production per capita peaked much earlier, in 1979.) On the other side of the peak, however, we are facing a steep drop: 20 billion barrels in 2020, 15 in 2030, 9 in 2040, 5 in 2050.
In the entire world, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to extract — which may sound like a lot, but isn’t. When newspapers announce the discovery of a deposit of a billion barrels, readers are no doubt amazed, but they are not told that such a find is only 2 weeks’ supply.
As the years go by, new oil wells have to be drilled deeper than the old, because newly discovered deposits are deeper. Those new deposits are therefore less accessible. But oil is used as a fuel for the oil drills themselves, and for the exploration. When it takes an entire barrel of oil to get one barrel of oil out of the ground, as is increasingly the case, it is a waste of time to continue drilling such a well.
Coal and natural gas are also disappearing. Coal will be available for a while after oil is gone, although previous reports of its abundance were highly exaggerated. Coal, however, is highly polluting and cannot be used as a fuel for most forms of transportation; the last industrial society may be a bizarre, crowded, dirty, impoverished world. Natural gas is not easily transported, and it is not suitable for most equipment.
Alternative sources of energy will never be very useful, for several reasons, but mainly because of a problem of “net energy”: the amount of energy output is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input. All alternative forms of energy are so dependent on the very petroleum that they are intended to replace that the use of them is largely self-defeating and irrational. Alternative sources ultimately don’t have enough “bang” to replace 30 billion annual barrels of oil ― or even to replace more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.
Petroleum is required to extract, process, and transport almost any other form of energy; a coal mine is not operated by coal-powered equipment. It takes “oil energy” to make “alternative energy.”
The use of unconventional oil (shale deposits, tar sands, heavy oil) poses several problems besides that of net energy. Large quantities of conventional oil are needed to process the oil from these unconventional sources, so net energy recovery is low. The pollution problems are considerable, and it is not certain how much environmental damage the human race is willing to endure. With unconventional oil we are, quite literally, scraping the bottom of the barrel.
More-exotic forms of alternative energy are plagued with even greater problems. Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived from fossil fuels (coal or natural gas), if we exclude designs that will never escape the realm of science fiction; if fuel cells ever became popular, the fossil fuels they require would then be consumed even faster than they are now. Biomass energy (perhaps from wood, animal dung, peat, corn, or switchgrass) would require impossibly large amounts of land and would still result in insufficient quantities of net energy, perhaps even negative quantities. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Wind and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.
The current favorite for alternative energy is solar power, but proponents must close their eyes to all questions of scale. To meet the world’s present energy needs by using solar power, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) of collectors covering about 550,000 km2 — a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials — a self-defeating process.
Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing, and transporting. The Green Revolution was the invention of a way to turn petroleum and natural gas into food. Without fossil fuels, modern methods of food production will disappear, and crop yields will be far less than at present. Because of the shortage of food, world population must shrink to one billion by 2050, but we conveniently forget that war, plague, and famine are the only means available. A close analogy to “petroleum famine” may be Ireland’s potato famine of the 1840s, since — like petroleum — it was a single commodity that caused such devastation. Cecil Woodham‑Smith describes the Irish tragedy in The Great Hunger. The first official response was disbelief: “There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable,” wrote Sir Robert Peel in 1845. By 1847 the image had changed: “Bodies half‑eaten by rats were an ordinary sight; ‘two dogs were shot while tearing a body to pieces.’”
Petroleum is the lifeblood of our civilization. Even a bicycle, that ultimate symbol of an “alternate lifestyle,” requires petroleum for lubrication, for paint, and for plastic components. The vehicle that delivers the bicycle runs on petroleum, over asphalt that is made of petroleum. “Rubber” tires are often made of petroleum.
The problem of the world’s diminishing supply of oil is a problem of energy, not a problem of money. The old bromide that “higher prices will eventually make [e.g.] shale oil economically feasible” is meaningless. This planet has only a finite amount of fossil fuel. That fuel is starting to vanish, and “higher prices” are quite unable to stop the event from taking place.
Much of modern warfare is about oil, in spite of all the pious and hypocritical rhetoric about “the forces of good” and “the forces of evil.” The real “forces” are those trying to control the oil wells and the fragile pipelines that carry that oil. A map of recent American military ventures is a map of petroleum deposits. When the oil wars began is largely a matter of definition, though perhaps 1973 would be a usable date, when the Yom Kippur War — or, to speak more truthfully, the decline of American domestic oil — led to the OPEC oil embargo.
The problem of the loss of petroleum will, of course, be received in the same manner as most other large-scale disasters: widespread denial, followed by a rather catatonic apathy. The centuries will pass, and a day will come when, like the early Anglo-Saxons, people will look around at the scattered stones and regard them as “the work of giants.”
When thinking about survival in a world without oil, we must remember that the near future will differ from the distant future. To get an overview of the all the coming phases, we must consider that history in general (not only the history of oil) will form a sort of bell curve: the events after about the year 2000 will form a downward curve that somewhat reflects the curve of events leading up to that same year. That bell curve will not be perfectly symmetrical, of course: the decline in modern civilization is likely to be fairly swift.
Although my own terms are largely arbitrary, I tend to think of a future transition from what I call a Neo-Victorian Era to a Neo-Alfredian one. In other words, the future will descend from an industrial age resembling that of Queen Victoria (the world of Charles Dickens) to a pre-industrial age resembling that of King Alfred the Great (the world of Viking raids), whose reign was a thousand years earlier. And finally we shall return to the Stone Age, where we started from — back to the Olduvai Gorge, as Richard C. Duncan says.
The Problem of Infrastructure
Most schemes for a post-oil technology are based on the misconception that there will be an infrastructure, similar to that of the present day, which could support such future gadgetry. Modern equipment, however, is dependent on specific methods of manufacture, transportation, maintenance, and repair. In less abstract terms, this means machinery, motorized vehicles, and service depots or shops, all of which are generally run by fossil fuels. In addition, one unconsciously assumes the presence of electricity, which energizes the various communications devices, such as telephones and computers; electricity on such a large scale is only possible with fossil fuels.
To believe that a non-petroleum infrastructure is possible, one would have to imagine, for example, solar-powered machines creating equipment for the production and storage of electricity by means of solar energy. This equipment would then be loaded on to solar-powered trucks, driven to various locations, and installed with other solar-powered devices, and so on, ad absurdum and ad infinitum. Such a scenario might provide material for a work of science fiction, but not for genuine science. The sun simply does not work that way.
It is not only oil that will soon be gone. Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will be available when the oil-powered machinery is no longer available — a chicken-and-egg problem. Copper, aluminum, and other metals are also rapidly vanishing. Metals were useful to mankind only because they could once be found in concentrated pockets in the earth’s crust; now they are irretrievably scattered among the world’s garbage dumps.
The infrastructure will no longer be in place: oil, electricity, and asphalt roads, for example. Partly for that reason, the social structure will also no longer be in place. Without the infrastructure and the social structure, it will be impossible to produce the familiar goods of industrial society.
Without fossil fuels, the most that is possible is a pre-industrial infrastructure, although one must still ignore the fact that the pre-industrial world did not fall from the sky as a prefabricated structure but took uncountable generations of human ingenuity to develop. The next problem is that a pre-industrial blacksmith was adept at making horseshoes, but not at making or repairing solar-energy systems.
Fossil fuels, metals, and electricity are all intricately connected. Each is inaccessible — on the modern scale — without the other 2. Any 2 will vanish without the third. If we imagine a world without fossil fuels, we must imagine a world without metals or electricity. What we imagine, at that point, is a society far more primitive than the one to which we are accustomed.
The End of Electricity
As Duncan points out, the first clearly marked sign of systemic collapse may be the failure of electricity. Throughout the world, electricity comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric dams, and all of them are bad choices. Most North American electricity is produced by fossil fuels, and in the United States that generally means coal, although natural gas is often the first choice for future supplies of fuel. Coal is terribly inefficient; only a third of its energy is transferred as it is converted to electricity.
The North American grid is a hopelessly elaborate machine — the largest machine in history — and it is perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. But most North Americans still cannot think of a failure of electricity as anything more than a momentary aspect of a summer storm. In other parts of the world, the future is already here: the lights fade out daily after 4 or 5 hours, if they come on at all. Actually North Americans are in far better shape than the citizens of other countries. Thanks to political bungling, even “civilized” Britain will apparently be losing 40 percent of its electrical power between 2008 and 2014.
The Long-Term Reliability Assessment, a lengthy document by the North American Electric Reliability Council, is disquieting. Each area of North America, according to this text, will be in some danger of outage over the next few years, due to inadequate supplies of electricity. Texas may be in the greatest danger, whereas Quebec (with the advantage of hydroelectric dams) may be the safest area.
North Americans should have been warned about the threat to electricity by the great blackout of August 14, 2003. Jason Leopold describes the aftermath of that event:
Congress called for spending of up to $100 billion to reduce severe transmission bottlenecks and increase capacity so the transmission lines could carry additional electricity from power plants to homes and businesses. But the money that would have funded a reliable power grid was spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I remember that day in 2003 very well. No gasoline, because the pumps required electricity. Still, many Torontonians came up to Ontario’s cottage country, where I was living, to wait out the troubles. Also no bank machines working, so it was cash only. There were big sales of batteries and candles. Also bottled water.
It’s amazing how much pure water is needed, even by frugal people — about 8 liters per person per day is about the minimum comfortable amount, and that’s only for drinking, cooking, and perhaps a little dishwashing. All other water, such as for flushing the toilet (if you don’t use an outhouse), must come from a pond or a river, although you might want to install a hand pump for a well long before such an emergency occurs. You might also want to keep candles, matches, batteries, wind-up electric devices, and so on. And in winter you would of course need several cords of firewood, and plenty of warm clothing and bedding.
Money and Labor
Almost everything in our modern economy is either made from oil or requires oil for its functioning or its transportation. As the price of oil begins to skyrocket, therefore, so will the price of everything else. The same happened on a smaller scale during the temporary oil crises of the 1970s and ’80s; it was referred to in those days as “stagflation” — stagnation of income combined with inflation of prices, something that economists used to say was impossible. The hardest hit will be those with debts: car payments, house mortgages, credit cards, student loans. But everyone will find that a dollar just doesn’t “stretch.” High prices will be combined with low wages.
At first, money will be an immensely important issue. It will take a handful of bills to buy anything. And largely because of the high prices, unemployment will rise dramatically. For the first few years of the collapse, there will be a financial Reign of Terror, and in fact this era has already begun to some extent, if we can judge from a number of related events. In 1970 U.S. domestic oil production went into a permanent decline. Although global oil production must be dated to the first years of the twenty-first century, production per capita reached its peak much earlier, in 1979. In the U.S., gasoline prices, which had been steady for decades, started to increase annually by 18 percent in 2003. And around 2005 the energy required to drill for a barrel of oil began to exceed the energy gained from it.
The “economic” problem of peak oil is occurring when North Americans have already been battered by other economic problems. One serious issue is globalization: for many years, big companies have been getting their work done by sending it out to whatever countries have the poorest people and the most repressive governments. The result is that people in “developed” countries lose their jobs. Although the official unemployment levels are low, the figures are misleading; large numbers of the “employed” are not working at well-paying, permanent, full-time jobs. Closely related to the problem of globalization is that of automation, which increases production but decreases payrolls. (The “Historical Income Tables” of the United States Census Bureau have shown, over many years, the widening gap between the rich and the poor: in particular, while most incomes have either fallen or not changed, the upper 5 percent of families have seen their incomes climbing dramatically.) As a result of all these vagaries within the capitalist system, government services are perpetually being cut. The common expression is that “money is tight these days,” although very few people ask why that is the case. Taxes continue to rise, but the individual receives little in return.
(But, no, contrary to rumor the international credit collapse that began in 2007 was not due to oil depletion; all that the two had in common is that the former can be ascribed to government corruption, which like oil depletion is an aspect of systemic collapse.)
At one point, the money problem will be everything. A few decades later, the money problem will be nothing, because money will disappear. Money is only a symbol, and it is only valuable as long as people are willing to accept that fiction: without government, without a stock market, and without a currency market, such a symbol cannot endure, as George Soros has pointed out. Money itself will be useless and will finally be ignored. Tangible possessions and practical skills will become the real wealth. Having the right friends will also help.
The answer, in part, is to try to give up the use of money well ahead of time, instead of letting the money economy claim more victims. Barter would allow people to provide for their daily needs on a local basis, without the dubious assistance of governments or corporations. Such a way of doing business, unfortunately, is illegal if the participants are not paying sales tax on their transactions. Politicians disparage the age-old practice of barter as “the underground economy” or “the gray economy,” but of course their own income is dependent on taxes. In any case, the transition would not be simple: there are so many rules, from building codes to insurance regulations to sales- and income-tax laws, that make it difficult to provide oneself with food, clothing and shelter without spending money. Nevertheless, as the economy breaks down, so will the legal structure; where there is no law, there are no criminals.
Leadership and Social Structure
The decline in the world’s oil supply, the biggest news story of modern times, rarely appears in the conventional news media, or it appears only in distorted forms. Ironically, the modern world is plagued by a lack of serious information. Today’s news item is usually forgotten by tomorrow. The television viewer has the vague impression that something happened somewhere, but one could change channels all day without finding anything below the surface. The communications media are owned by an ever-shrinking number of interrelated giant corporations, and the product sold to the public is a uniform blandness, designed to keep the masses in their place. But the unreality of television is only the start of the enigma. What is most apparent is the larger problem that there is no leadership, no sense of organization, for dealing with peak-oil issues.
One might consider as an analogy the Great Depression. During those 10 years, everyone lived on his own little island, lost, alone, and afraid. It was a “shame” to be poor, so one could not even discuss it with one’s neighbors. The press and the politicians largely denied that the Depression existed, so there was little help from them. In general, it was just each nuclear family on its own — for those who were lucky enough to have a family. Barry Broadfoot, in Ten Lost Years, records the memories of one Depression survivor:
Every newspaper across Canada and in the United States always played up the silver lining. . . . There were no such things as starvation, hunger marches, store front windows being kicked in. Yes, they were reported, but always these were called incidents and incited by “highly-paid professional agitators.”
A related problem is the lack of ideological unity. While one person has a sort of Armageddon-like vision, stocking up ammunition for the Last Battle, someone else is busy on the Internet asking for ideas on how to make a still for the dozen corn plants he intends to grow. There is a complete lack of agreement on first principles.
Part of the reason for these problems is that many modern societies, including that of the United States, are “individualist” rather than “collectivist.” There is a sort of frontier mentality that pervades much of modern life. In many ways, this has been beneficial: freedom from tradition, freedom from onerous family duties, and freedom from manorial obligations have perhaps provided much of the motivation for those who came to what was seen as the “New World.” That spirit of self-sufficiency made it possible for pioneers to thrive in the isolation of the wilderness.
Yet we must not forget the truism that there is strength and safety in numbers. Individualism might be more beneficial in good times than in bad; North Americans seem to adjust poorly to crises. The defects of individualism can seen right within what is mistakenly called the democratic process: political leaders can tell the most blatant lies about economic trends, about warfare, or about transgressions of civil liberties, and the response is a numbed, silent obedience which is puzzling only until one realizes that most people have little means of behaving otherwise. They are generally lacking in family or friends with whom they can share information or compare ideas, and they are therefore entirely dependent on the news media for mental sustenance. The television set in the living room is the altar on which common sense is sacrificed.
Faced with such challenges, one would at first be lucky to produce a “post-oil community” much larger than one’s own nuclear family, before sheer destitution forces people to take a more serious attitude to survival. Fair-sized groups, however, would eventually develop. The society of the future has never been described, but at least some numbers are available. Chester G. Starr’s statement, in A History of the Ancient World, is probably as good as any: “Whereas Paleolithic packs numbered perhaps 20 or 30, Neolithic farmers either lived in family homesteads, in villages of 150 persons (as at Jarmo), or in even larger towns (as at Jericho).”
In any case, the question of the ideal political system is essentially not a political matter but a psychological one. Humans spent thousands of years living in small groups, hunting and gathering. The group was small enough so that each person knew every other person. Democracy could work because both the “voters” and the “politicians” were visible. It has only been in a tiny fraction of the life span of humanity that political units have been created that are far too large for people to know one another except as abstractions. Small groups have their problems, but in terms of providing happiness for the average person, the band or village is more efficient than the empire.
Broadfoot, Barry. Ten Lost Years 1929-1939: Memories of Canadians Who Survived the Depression. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997.
Duncan, Richard C. “The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge.” Geological Society of America, Summit 2000. Reno, Nevada, November 13, 2000. http://www.dieoff.org/page224.htm
Kaplan, Robert D. The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia — A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith Publisher, 2001.
Leopold, Jason. “Dark Days Ahead.” Truth Out. 17 October 2006.
North American Electric Reliability Council. Long-Term Reliability Assessment. Annual.
Soros, George. The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered. New York: Public Affairs, 1998.
Starr, Chester G. A History of the Ancient World. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
United States Census Bureau. “Historical Income Tables — Families.” U.S. Government Printing Office. Annual. http://www.census.gov/hhes/www
Woodham-Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1962.
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is email@example.com.