by Aric McBay
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
—Mario Savio, Berkeley Free Speech Movement
To gain what is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else.”
—Bernadette Devlin, Irish activist and politician
At this point in history, there are no good short-term outcomes for global human society. Some are better and some are worse, and in the long term some are very good, but in the short term we’re in a bind. I’m not going to lie to you—the hour is too late for cheermongering. The only way to find the best outcome is to confront our dire situation head on, and not to be diverted by false hopes.
Human society—because of civilization, specifically—has painted itself into a corner. As a species we’re dependent on the draw down of finite supplies of oil, soil, and water. Industrial agriculture (and annual grain agriculture before that) has put us into a vicious pattern of population growth and overshoot. We long ago exceeded carrying capacity, and the workings of civilization are destroying that carrying capacity by the second. This is largely the fault of those in power, the wealthiest, the states and corporations. But the consequences—and the responsibility for dealing with it—fall to the rest of us, including nonhumans.
Physically, it’s not too late for a crash program to limit births to reduce the population, cut fossil fuel consumption to nil, replace agricultural monocrops with perennial polycultures, end overfishing, and cease industrial encroachment on (or destruction of) remaining wild areas. There’s no physical reason we couldn’t start all of these things tomorrow, stop global warming in its tracks, reverse overshoot, reverse erosion, reverse aquifer drawdown, and bring back all the species and biomes currently on the brink. There’s no physical reason we couldn’t get together and act like adults and fix these problems, in the sense that it isn’t against the laws of physics.
But socially and politically, we know this is a pipe dream. There are material systems of power that make this impossible as long as those systems are still intact. Those in power get too much money and privilege from destroying the planet. We aren’t going to save the planet—or our own future as a species—without a fight.
What’s realistic? What options are actually available to us, and what are the consequences? What follows are three broad and illustrative scenarios: one in which there is no substantive or decisive resistance, one in which there is limited resistance and a relatively prolonged collapse, and one in which all-out resistance leads to the immediate collapse of civilization and global industrial infrastructure.
If there is no substantive resistance, likely there will be a few more years of business as usual, though with increasing economic disruption and upset. According to the best available data, the impacts of peak oil start to hit somewhere between 2011 and 2015, resulting in a rapid decline in global energy availability.1 It’s possible that this may happen slightly later if all-out attempts are made to extract remaining fossil fuels, but that would only prolong the inevitable, worsen global warming, and make the eventual decline that much steeper and more severe. Once peak oil sets in, the increasing cost and decreasing supply of energy undermines manufacturing and transportation, especially on a global scale.
The energy slide will cause economic turmoil, and a self-perpetuating cycle of economic contraction will take place. Businesses will be unable to pay their workers, workers will be unable to buy things, and more companies will shrink or go out of business (and will be unable to pay their workers). Unable to pay their debts and mortgages, homeowners, companies, and even states will go bankrupt. (It’s possible that this process has already begun.) International trade will nosedive because of a global depression and increasing transportation and manufacturing costs. Though it’s likely that the price of oil will increase over time, there will be times when the contracting economy causes falling demand for oil, thus suppressing the price. The lower cost of oil may, ironically but beneficially, limit investment in new oil infrastructure.
At first the collapse will resemble a traditional recession or depression, with the poor being hit especially hard by the increasing costs of basic goods, particularly of electricity and heating in cold areas. After a few years, the financial limits will become physical ones; large-scale energy-intensive manufacturing will become not only uneconomical, but impossible.
A direct result of this will be the collapse of industrial agriculture. Dependent on vast amounts of energy for tractor fuel, synthesized pesticides and fertilizers, irrigation, greenhouse heating, packaging, and transportation, global industrial agriculture will run up against hard limits to production (driven at first by intense competition for energy from other sectors). This will be worsened by the depletion of groundwater and aquifers, a long history of soil erosion, and the early stages of climate change. At first this will cause a food and economic crisis mostly felt by the poor. Over time, the situation will worsen and industrial food production will fall below that required to sustain the population.
There will be three main responses to this global food shortage. In some areas people will return to growing their own food and build sustainable local food initiatives. This will be a positive sign, but public involvement will be belated and inadequate, as most people still won’t have caught on to the permanency of collapse and won’t want to have to grow their own food. It will also be made far more difficult by the massive urbanization that has occurred in the last century, by the destruction of the land, and by climate change. Furthermore, most subsistence cultures will have been destroyed or uprooted from their land—land inequalities will hamper people from growing their own food (just as they do now in the majority of the world). Without well-organized resisters, land reform will not happen, and displaced people will not be able to access land. As a result, widespread hunger and starvation (worsening to famine in bad agricultural years) will become endemic in many parts of the world. The lack of energy for industrial agriculture will cause a resurgence in the institutions of slavery and serfdom.
Slavery does not occur in a political vacuum. Threatened by economic and energy collapse, some governments will fall entirely, turning into failed states. With no one to stop them, warlords will set up shop in the rubble. Others, desperate to maintain power against emboldened secessionists and civil unrest, will turn to authoritarian forms of government. In a world of diminishing but critical resources, governments will get leaner and meaner. We will see a resurgence of authoritarianism in modern forms: technofascism and corporation feudalism. The rich will increasingly move to private and well-defended enclaves. Their country estates will not look apocalyptic—they will look like eco-Edens, with well-tended organic gardens, clean private lakes, and wildlife refuges. In some cases these enclaves will be tiny, and in others they could fill entire countries.
Meanwhile, the poor will see their own condition worsen. The millions of refugees created by economic and energy collapse will be on the move, but no one will want them. In some brittle areas the influx of refugees will overwhelm basic services and cause a local collapse, resulting in cascading waves of refugees radiating from collapse and disaster epicenters. In some areas refugees will be turned back by force of arms. In other areas, racism and discrimination will come to the fore as an excuse for authoritarians to put marginalized people and dissidents in “special settlements,” leaving more resources for the privileged.2 Desperate people will be the only candidates for the dangerous and dirty manual labor required to keep industrial manufacturing going once the energy supply dwindles. Hence, those in power will consider autonomous and self-sustaining communities a threat to their labor supply, and suppress or destroy them.
Despite all of this, technological “progress” will not yet stop. For a time it will continue in fits and starts, although humanity will be split into increasingly divergent groups. Those on the bottom will be unable to meet their basic subsistence needs, while those on the top will attempt to live lives of privilege as they had in the past, even seeing some technological advancements, many of which will be intended to cement the superiority of those in power in an increasingly crowded and hostile world.
Technofascists will develop and perfect social control technologies (already currently in their early stages): autonomous drones for surveillance and assassination; microwave crowd-control devices; MRI-assisted brain scans that will allow for infallible lie detection, even mind reading and torture. There will be no substantive organized resistance in this scenario, but in each year that passes the technofascists will make themselves more and more able to destroy resistance even in its smallest expression. As time slips by, the window of opportunity for resistance will swiftly close. Technofascists of the early to mid-twenty-first century will have technology for coercion and surveillance that will make the most practiced of the Stasi or the SS look like rank amateurs. Their ability to debase humanity will make their predecessors appear saintly by comparison.
Not all governments will take this turn, of course. But the authoritarian governments—those that will continue ruthlessly exploiting people and resources regardless of the consequences—will have more sway and more muscle, and will take resources from their neighbors and failed states as they please. There will be no one to stop them. It won’t matter if you are the most sustainable eco-village on the planet if you live next door to an eternally resource-hungry fascist state.
Meanwhile, with industrial powers increasingly desperate for energy, the tenuous remaining environmental and social regulations will be cast aside. The worst of the worst, practices like drilling offshore and in wildlife refuges, and mountaintop removal for coal will become commonplace. These will be merely the dregs of prehistoric energy reserves. The drilling will only prolong the endurance of industrial civilization for a matter of months or years, but ecological damage will be long-term or permanent (as is happening in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge). Because in our scenario there is no substantive resistance, this will all proceed unobstructed.
Investment in renewable industrial energy will also take place, although it will be belated and hampered by economic challenges, government bankruptcies, and budget cuts.3 Furthermore, long-distance power transmission lines will be insufficient and crumbling from age. Replacing and upgrading them will prove difficult and expensive. As a result, even once in place, electric renewables will only produce a tiny fraction of the energy produced by petroleum. That electric energy will not be suitable to run the vast majority of tractors, trucks, and other vehicles or similar infrastructure.
As a consequence, renewable energy will have only a minimal moderating effect on the energy cliff. In fact, the energy invested in the new infrastructure will take years to pay itself back with electricity generated. Massive infrastructure upgrades will actually steepen the energy cliff by decreasing the amount of energy available for daily activities. There will be a constant struggle to allocate limited supplies of energy under successive crises. There will be some rationing to prevent riots, but most energy (regardless of the source) will go to governments, the military, corporations, and the rich.
Energy constraints will make it impossible to even attempt any full-scale infrastructure overhauls like hydrogen economies (which wouldn’t solve the problem anyway). Biofuels will take off in many areas, despite the fact that they mostly have a poor ratio of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). The EROEI will be better in tropical countries, so remaining tropical forests will be massively logged to clear land for biofuel production. (Often, forests will be logged en masse simply to burn for fuel.) Heavy machinery will be too expensive for most plantations, so their labor will come from slavery and serfdom under authoritarian governments and corporate feudalism. (Slavery is currently used in Brazil to log forests and produce charcoal by hand for the steel industry, after all.)4 The global effects of biofuel production will be increases in the cost of food, increases in water and irrigation drawdown for agriculture, and worsening soil erosion. Regardless, its production will amount to only a small fraction of the liquid hydrocarbons available at the peak of civilization.
All of this will have immediate ecological consequences. The oceans, wracked by increased fishing (to compensate for food shortages) and warming-induced acidity and coral die-offs, will be mostly dead. The expansion of biofuels will destroy many remaining wild areas and global biodiversity will plummet. Tropical forests like the Amazon produce the moist climate they require through their own vast transpiration, but expanded logging and agriculture will cut transpiration and tip the balance toward permanent drought. Even where the forest is not actually cut, the drying local climate will be enough to kill it. The Amazon will turn into a desert, and other tropical forests will follow suit.
Projections vary, but it’s almost certain that if the majority of the remaining fossil fuels are extracted and burned, global warming would become self-perpetuating and catastrophic. However, the worst effects will not be felt until decades into the future, once most fossil fuels have already been exhausted. By then, there will be very little energy or industrial capacity left for humans to try to compensate for the effects of global warming.
Furthermore, as intense climate change takes over, ecological remediation through perennial polycultures and forest replanting will become impossible. The heat and drought will turn forests into net carbon emitters, as northern forests die from heat, pests, and disease, and then burn in continent-wide fires that will make early twenty-first century conflagrations look minor.5 Even intact pastures won’t survive the temperature extremes as carbon is literally baked out of remaining agricultural soils.
Resource wars between nuclear states will break out. War between the US and Russia is less likely than it was in the Cold War, but ascending superpowers like China will want their piece of the global resource pie. Nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan will be densely populated and ecologically precarious; climate change will dry up major rivers previously fed by melting glaciers, and hundreds of millions of people in South Asia will live bare meters above sea level. With few resources to equip and field a mechanized army or air force, nuclear strikes will seem an increasingly effective action for desperate states.
If resource wars escalate to nuclear wars, the effects will be severe, even in the case of a “minor” nuclear war between countries like India and Pakistan. Even if each country uses only fifty Hiroshima-sized bombs as air bursts above urban centers, a nuclear winter will result.6Although lethal levels of fallout last only a matter of weeks, the ecological effects will be far more severe. The five megatons of smoke produced will darken the sky around the world. Stratospheric heating will destroy most of what remains of the ozone layer.7 In contrast to the overall warming trend, a “little ice age” will begin immediately and last for several years. During that period, temperatures in major agricultural regions will routinely drop below freezing in summer. Massive and immediate starvation will occur around the world.
That’s in the case of a small war. The explosive power of one hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs accounts for only 0.03 percent of the global arsenal. If a larger number of more powerful bombs are used—or if cobalt bombs are used to produce long-term irradiation and wipe out surface life—the effects will be even worse.8 There will be few human survivors. The nuclear winter effect will be temporary, but the bombing and subsequent fires will put large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, kill plants, and impair photosynthesis. As a result, after the ash settles, global warming will be even more rapid and worse than before.
Nuclear war or not, the long-term prospects are dim. Global warming will continue to worsen long after fossil fuels are exhausted. For the planet, the time to ecological recovery is measured in tens of millions of years, if ever.9 As James Lovelock has pointed out, a major warming event could push the planet into a different equilibrium, one much warmer than the current one.10 It’s possible that large plants and animals might only be able to survive near the poles.11 It’s also possible that the entire planet could become essentially uninhabitable to large plants and animals, with a climate more like Venus than Earth.
All that is required for this to occur is for current trends to continue without substantive and effective resistance. All that is required for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. But this future is not inevitable.