|Kincardine Harbour and Lighthouse, June 16, 2017|
In a recent post I talked about how we can expect the collapse of our civilization to be slow and bumpy—uneven geographically, unsteady chronologically and unequal socially. But I was deliberately vague about what's going to happen first, where collapse will go from there and where it will end up. I suspect many of my readers found this rather unsatisfying—I know I did. In this and my next few posts I'll be getting down to the "nitty-gritty" details of collapse.
Number one on that list is that collapse is already happening, and has been since the early 1970s, when oil production in the continental United States peaked and America's shiny new world empire began to crumble.
We'll get back to that soon, but today I want to talk about the end point of the process. Or rather, I should say "end points", since I don't expect things will decline to the same level across the whole planet. Allowing for that, where will we be when collapse is complete and the dust has settled? That's hard to say for several reasons.
First, there is no such thing as a "natural state" to return to. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not living in harmony with nature, indeed nature doesn't live in harmony with itself. Nature, and human society within it, are dissipative structures—never in balance, relying on inputs of energy and materials to maintain them in a steady state. Death is the only real equilibrium state such structures have access to, and even after death decay continues to change things.
For the last few hundred years, the energy bonanza of fossil fuels has propelled our civilization to hitherto unheard of heights, a "steady" state chiefly characterized by growth. Collapse will entail a significant energy decline as we give up fossil fuels and nuclear fission as energy sources. We'll be left with solar energy, including its indirect forms (biomass, wind and falling water), and in a few locations things like geothermal and tidal energy, to the extent that we have the wherewithal to access them.
The quantity and quality of energy available will determine, among other things, the kind of energy infrastructure that can be built and maintained. And the kind of energy infrastructure we can support will determine the quantity and quality of energy that will be available. When everyone in a group is struggling just to get enough food to stay alive, there aren't enough spare manhours to work on energy projects beyond obtaining food itself, our most basic energy source. But as things periodically get better, a few tinkerers will have time to get some previously abandoned infrastructure working again. So I expect there will be a good deal of bouncing up and down as this dissipative system works its way toward a new, more or less steady state determined by the lower availability of energy. And because there are different amounts of energy and materials available in different areas, they will end up in different states.
Second, climate change also makes it hard to predict what things will be like when the collapse dust settles. There is a significant lag built into climate change and even after we quit adding CO2 to the atmosphere it will take decades at least before the warming process stops and begins to reverse. It will possibly be hundreds or even thousands of years before things reach a new normal. In the meantime, the climate will keep changing and behaving erratically. So it is hard to say which parts of the world and how much of it will be able to support human life. Even the level of energy use and technology in areas where people do live will be effected by changing climate.
Third, social organization will degrade as collapse progresses and do so in chaotic and unpredictable ways.
Having said all this, I am still feeling adventurous and I think there are some things that can be predicted—that are obvious enough that even an old tradesman like me can make them out.
It's my guess that the human population will settle out at around a few hundred million. This may seem odd to many of my readers.
The UN's population experts say that our population will be between 9 and 10 billion by the middle of the century and then, due to the ever spreading demographic transition things will peak out between 10 and 11 billion before the end of the century. But this assumes that we will find a way not just to feed all these people, but to bring them prosperity in order to lower the birth rate. It's nothing but a dream.
The most realistic estimates I read say we are already in overshoot to the tune of 150%—that would mean paring our 7.5 billion back below 5 billion to get out of overshoot. The demise of oil based agriculture and large scale international shipping will reduce the number of people that our planet can support to a significantly lower number, I suspect around 2 billion. But we must also remember that climate change and various other eco-disasters are going to reduce the planet's carrying capacity even further, and thus I say a few hundred million if things go moderately well. I would be surprised to see the population settles out to more than 1 billion and shocked if it was less than 10 million.
There's nothing really special about these numbers—I certainly don't think there is any such thing as an ideal number of people. Like any successful species, we will always tend to maximize our numbers as far as our environment allows. But with a damaged planet and the high quality, easily accessible fossil fuels gone, there will only be so much we can do.
OK, clearly I'm talking about a significant decline in population. Where are all those extra people going to go?
We are going to see further lowering of birth rates in the developed world, especially as the economy continues to contract and people get discouraged as they did in Russia following the collapse of the USSR. Then we'll see rising death rates, first in the developing world and finally everywhere. Things will fall below the new, reduced carrying capacity and then recover, bouncing up and down a few times until a more or less steady state is reached.
Famine, pandemic and war will all contribute to this. But we tend to forget that we are all going to die anyway, at some point. If that schedule gets moved forward somewhat it can make a big difference and not just to the individual. Over a period of generations even small decreases in birth rate or increases in death rate can make for large changes in population.
In some areas, including, but not limited to the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and the American Southwest, desertification will continue and eventually take the decline in population all the way to zero. That is not just due to lack of water, but also due to extremely high temperatures, not so much on average but in the form of heat waves.
Similarly, due to rising sea level and more frequent and violent storm surges, much of the area currently near sea level will be submerged and people will be forced to move inland to higher elevations. In developed areas (and there are a great many of them near sea level) every effort will be made to stave off the rising seas, to hang on as long as possible, but due to economic contraction, energy decline and continued rising seas, those effort will eventually fail.
Unreliable weather will make most ways of life more difficult than they are now. It's tempting to say that rural people who are still engaged in various forms of subsistence agriculture will simply carry on as at present. And that will be true, where the climate co-operates. Where it doesn't they too will be forced to migrate to in search of greener pastures.
Some countries import much of their food, and couldn't switch over to growing it even if they desperately needed to. They are faced with a crisis when the price of food goes up and will be faced with an even larger one when oil supply problems make international transportation prohibitively expensive or downright unfeasible.
Migration, whether it is spurred by climate, economics or conflict will be the defining feature of the next few decades and will itself be the source of much conflict. Even the most welcoming of countries will eventually be overwhelmed with refugees, who will back up into ever growing refugee camps behind various choke points. Of course, some will not make it as far as the camps and for some of those who do, the camps will eventually prove to be death traps.
It is also pretty clear to me that large cities with many millions of people, that rely on modern transportation systems to supply them with the necessities of life, are not going to be viable. They will fall apart in various unpleasant ways and we'll end up living in much smaller communities.
Some of the energy end points here are pretty easy to predict: we won't end up getting any significant amount of energy from fossil fuels and none from nuclear fission. I don't believe we'll ever achieve nuclear fusion as a practical power source, and if we do, we won't hang on to it for long.
Some (chiefly climate change deniers) will point to coal as an energy source with centuries of supply left. But a closer look shows that peak coal is nearer than we think, and much of the remaining coal is of low quality—not a good source of surplus energy. No doubt there will be a surge in coal use as the availability of oil and natural gas diminishes, but then the same thing will happen with coal.
We'll be solar powered again, as we were for all but the last bit of our history and all of our prehistory. And most of that will be solar power in its indirect forms: biomass (including food), wind and falling water. Solar photovoltaics and large electricity generating wind turbines will be beyond the reach of the available technology for almost everyone. Even solar thermal energy will be quite rare because of the amount of glass required. Sure, you can get the kind of thermal energy required for large scale glass making from charcoal or probably even from wood gasification. But if heat is what you need that solar power installation for, it would be better to use the biomass directly instead.
In most areas human and animals muscles, powered by food, will once again will be the main source of mechanical energy. These will be supplemented by wind mills and waterwheels. Only rarely will there been enough fuel of any sort available to burn in heat engines. Burning biomass will be the main source of heat. And overall there will be much less energy available than we have access to today, perhaps by a factor of 10. That's on the average, of course. My background with Ontario's electrical utility leads me to think it may be possible to do much better than this in a some areas, harnessing falling water to generate electricity using fairly simple technology. Such set ups have quite a high EROEI, producing generous amounts of surplus energy. This is what got the province of Ontario off to its start in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Canada's industrial heartland. Admittedly, the thermal energy cost of steel reinforced concrete is such that large dams won't be feasible, but there are quite a number of locations around the world where hydro power can, and frequently has been, developed with relatively small and simple civil engineering projects.
Keeping such projects running or refurbishing them after they have been shut down or abandoned for a while will be much easier than the development process that went on in the 1800s.
When people hear about my interest in collapse, they frequently ask, "How far down do you think we'll go?" They are thinking in the sense of what historical level of development will we descend to.
But it is overly simplistic to say that we'll "go back" to a certain period in the past.
Things have changed since then and you simply can't go back. The environment in particular has been damaged in ways that would make many historical lifestyles unfeasible. There is much to be said for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, for instance, but it requires a high level of skill and detailed knowledge of the area one is living in, things that very, very few of us have or could learn quickly if we suddenly needed them. And stocks of wild game and food plants have been depleted so much in most areas that hunting and gathering simply isn't feasible.
On the other hand, unlike our ancestors, we already know that a great many things are possible. Even if we find them temporarily beyond our reach, re-acquiring them will be much easier than developing them from scratch was in the first place. Where collapse has been fairly complete it will still be possible to salvage many useful things—knowledge, tools and materials. Where collapse is less devastating we'll keep many things working for a long time even if we've lost the ability to recreate them from scratch. And because our population will be much lower, there will be a great deal of left over stuff per capita and, I suspect, a brisk business in refurbishing and repurposing that stuff.
Remember, I've been saying I expect a slow collapse, taking several decades. That's slow compared to what some expect to happen, but pretty quick if you're think in terms of, for example, how long steel exposed to the elements takes to turn to rust. I've heard people saying that in twenty years after a fast collapse all the iron on the planet will have rusted away to nothing and survivors would be using stone tools. From my own personal experience with farm machinery abandoned in the open, I can say that even after fifty years all that has happened is the formation of a patina of rust on any part thicker than a few millimeters. Unprotected sheet metal goes fairly fast, but thicker sections are more durable. Since people will start collecting scrap metal and storing it out of the weather, it seems clear to me that our civilization will leave a legacy of refined metals that should supply post-collapse metal workers with most of what they need for the next few centuries.
So, we'll see some strange mixtures of different technological levels. I expect we'll see even the few remaining post-collapse hunter/gathers using tools made of iron instead of stone.
The limiting factor will be energy. The level of technology that can be supported is determined by the decisions you make about what to do with the surplus energy you have available to you. Note that's not energy, but surplus energy. Problems with low quality hydrocarbons, diffuse and intermittent sunlight, unpredictable wind and so forth mean that we'll have much less surplus energy than we have today. Given the unpredictable climate and weather that we'll be coping with, we'll probably make some fairly conservative decisions—a full belly comes first, especially if you are working hard, and most of us will be.
But once we have electricity, all sorts of manufacturing possibilities open up. Decisions will have to be made about how much of a society's available surplus should be put into setting up the infrastructure necessary to produce electricity and what kind of manufacturing to pursue. Many of these areas where hydroelectric power is available may be able to retain a level of technology roughly equivalent to the early 1900s, for a few million people all told.
Some will no doubt be surprised by what they see as my overly optimistic outlook. There is a large part of our population for whom most technology is essentially magic—they just have no idea how it works or how to make it work if it was broken and they had to fix it on their own. For them, moving down to anything short of our current level of technology is a total collapse. When things start to break down these folk will be out of luck.
But there are many other people who do have a pretty good grasp of how one or more areas of technology work and how to keep them working. As long as you don't have your heart set on the latest high tech toys, it really isn't that hard.
Do I think anyone will be able to hang onto or recover the ability to manufacture semiconductors, computers and possibly even an internet of some sort? The kind of worldwide manufacturing network we have today is not absolutely necessary to attain to scaled down versions of this sort of technology. But I think it is fair to say that it will be rare if attainable at all, and concentrating on this sort of technology will probably prove to be a mistake.
What we'll need to adopt is "appropriate tech"—technology that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive instead of energy intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous (not critically dependent on materials or tools that cannot be made or salvaged locally).
"Local" and "decentralized" come up in this discussion because transportation without fossil fuels will be much more arduous than it is today.
There are a number of other technology related areas that are big enough subjects for another post and will have to wait until then:
- How will we manage to feed ourselves when fossil fuel based agriculture is no longer possible? There is no doubt in my mind that, with a sufficiently small number of people to feed, this will be possible.
- What will be the future of medicine? One thing I am sure of is that even though many people will turn to alternative medicines, they will not be any more effective than they ever have been. In other words, not at all.
- Genetic engineering has the potential to be very useful in the kind of future that lies ahead of us. I know, I've said this before. It's soon time I explained what I mean and why I am not afraid of genetically engineered organism that are intended to be beneficial. Coming soon in another post.... Of course, there is also the possibility that GE will be weaponized, and that's another story altogether.
Many people are concerned about the legacy of toxic hazards (chemical, biological and nuclear) that modern technology is leaving to future generations. This is mainly a result of fear and misinformation, which often takes the form of a monotonic view of toxicity. That is, the fear that if something is toxic in large doses, it will eventually prove to be toxic in even the tiniest doses, given long enough exposure. The scientific consensus simply doesn't support this, telling us instead that the dose determines the poison. Many things people are afraid of, including radiation and pesticides, are quite harmless in small doses and the levels allowed by current regulations include a ridiculously large margin for safety.
In many ways the level of social organization retained during a collapse is a better indicator of the degree of collapse than the level of technology.
I think it is clear that there will be much less organization, and that it will be in simpler in nature and less centralized. Another major defining feature of the years ahead (along with migration) will be the breakup of various political and economic federations, until the remaining political entities are small enough that they can hope to work with the existing transportation, communication and information infrastructure and the limited energy available to power it.
Many writers, when talking about collapse, fall into pipe dreams about their favorite political and social systems rising to a higher level of prominence that they currently enjoy, and the ideologies that they oppose falling on hard times. I find this quite improbable.
There will be a greater degree of isolation between communities than we have today and a lack of the wherewithal for these communities to force their ideas on others. Because of this, "dissensus" will be easier to do than it is today and many different approaches will be tried. This is a good thing—there is a chance that at least some of these approaches will be successful adaptations to the new conditions.
Having said all this about the end points of collapse, I should make it clear that the paths we'll take to get there are anything but straightforward—they will have some interesting twists and turns that I think most people aren't expecting. That will be a recurring theme in my next few posts.