The Coming Collapse of Global Civilization?


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 20 April 2006 Updated: 05 May 2011 - added a short dialog with a reader

Yet another essay, based on my opinionated view of things. I'm using some elementary calculus and differential equations herein, so beware. But if your mathematical skills don't allow you to follow such arguments - well, you've managed to encounter a good example of how your ignorance of such things has left you poorly equipped to understand the modern world! Contrary thoughts and other comments can be sent to me at, but be willing for me to post them in a revised essay if I choose. Otherwise, don't waste my time.

1. Introduction

Various informal discussions and other chance experiences of late have stimulated me to write up and post this essay. What follows is a pretty dark vision. I hope there's something serious wrong with my reasoning, but my crystal ball seems to be predicting what amounts to the collapse of our Western, technologically-based civilization and, perhaps, the subsequent collapse of most of the rest of global civilization. I want to discuss the various threads that I see leading to this dire forecast. And I hope that someone can produce a convincing argument that I'm wrong.


2. The Malthusian doomsday

In the later part of the 18th century, Thomas Malthus made the point that ,,,

...the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.

Put in modern terms, the rate of population increase is roughly proportional to the population itself, so in terms of simple differential equations, if N is the number of humans at some time, t, then the rate of increase, dN/dt, is given by

dN/dt = coN

where co is a proportionality constant that is simply the reproduction "efficiency". Overall, for the whole Earth, this number is greater than 0, implying growth, although it varies considerably from one nation to the next, and even for different cultures within the same nation - actually, it varies from one individual to the next. This differential equation can be solved, resulting in a mathematical description of the population as a function of time. It is easily shown that the solution of this differential equation is

N(t) = No exp(cot)

where No is the population at some arbitrarily chosen starting point t = to. Exponential growth is what Malthus referred to as "geometric" increase. This principle of population growth is well-known and can be used to make projections about the future population of the Earth, although typically in a more sophisticated form that accounts for many other factors. No matter how sophisticated this forecasting is, however, it can't be denied that the world's population is growing in something very much like an exponential fashion:

This figure illustrates the primary characteristic of exponential growth - a very steep climb after a long period of relatively slow growth. The proportionality constant is the key to the growth rate - the larger co is, the faster the growth, but in the long run, anything larger than zero will eventually result in a steep growth. The fact that the population decreases when people die is generally incorporated into the proportionality constant. In principle, if every person on the average produces one child, the population isn't growing (disregarding fatalities before the next generation reproduces, wars, famines, epidemics, etc.) and co would be zero. I don't know the details, but if all the appropriate factors are considered and averaged over the globe, the exponential curve is more or less a good approximation to the existing world population curve.

A key to understanding the growth of population versus the growth in food production, is understanding how food production works. If we assume that world's food production is basically related to the area under cultivation, A(t) - this neglects the world's small numbers of hunter-gatherers who produce food for themselves very differently than agricultural societies - then an increase food production rate, dF/dt, does not follow the same mathematical form just developed for population. Rather, it's something like

dF/dt = d(c1A)/dt = A dc1/dt + c1 dA/dt

where F(t) is the quantity of food as a function of time, c1 is a proportionality factor associated with the productivity of the agriculture (which generally is not a constant), and A(t) is the area under cultivation, which is a function of time. However, generally speaking, the area under cultivation has historically been slow to change, except perhaps when North America was first colonized by Europeans, and occasionally undergoes local increases (as when the Soviets tried to force agriculture into historically unfavorable regions within its territory during the 1950s) or decreases (as in the Dust Bowl in the U.S. during the 1930s). If we regard A(t) to be approximately constant globally, with a constant value of Ao (so that the second term above vanishes), then we need some sort of mathematical formula for the productivity as a function of time. Although agricultural productivity has changed by perhaps a factor of as much as 5 over the time since Malthus, it has never exhibited a growth rate comparable to an exponential increase with time. Let us assume for simplicity that productivity follows a time tendency given by

c1(t) = c1(to) + c2 t

This is a so-called linear equation - it's a straight line, with its slope determined by a constant c2. Therefore, under the assumptions I've made, the solution for the food supply as a function of time is simply

F(t) = Fo + Ao (c2/2) t2

where Fo is the food supply at some arbitrarily chosen starting point t = to. This is the equation for a parabola, where the food supply increases quadratically as a function of time and is what Malthus referred to as "arithmetic" growth. Such a time tendency in food supply seems like a pretty decent rate of increase. However, as Malthus was quick to point out, this sort of growth rate is not enough to keep up with an exponentially-growing population. Moreover, it seems unlikely that we could sustain an indefinite linear increase in agricultural productivity. Such gains are getting more difficult to come by. Nevertheless, short of making nonarable land productive (which is very energy-intensive - just ask the Israelis!), the only realistic way to increase the food supply is to increase the productivity of agriculture. In effect, several factors have resulted in just that, thereby putting off the Malthusian crisis for more than two centuries. Technology has given us more productive and pest resistant hybrid forms of crops, mechanized crop production and transport, new chemical fertilizers, chemical and biological herbicides and pesticides, and so forth. Among other things, the dependence on petroleum of many of those productivity increases means that it has been cheap oil that has fueled not only our vehicles, but also much of the food supply growth that is sustaining the world's increasing population. Unfortunately, Malthusian logic asserts that it cannot keep up indefinitely with an exponentially-growing population. Moreover, I've indicated that we can't expect to increase agricultural productivity indefinitely. The disappearance of cheap oil will have huge consequences, here. Energy-intensive increases in food supply are simply not sustainable.


2. Unstable connections

Our western civilization has developed along the lines clearly articulated by Toffler in The Third Wave (see references below). His basic premise is that the first wave of civilization is the development of agriculture, some 5-6000 years ago. Prior to that, humans were essentially hunter-gatherers. It's evident from cultural studies that hunter-gatherer societies never develop high population densities. Although not necessarily devoting every second of every waking moment to food production, hunter-gatherers don't have the time to exploit local resources other than food, because they are typically nomadic. Moreover, specialists capable of igniting technological change are essentially absent from hunter-gatherer societies. This seems to produce little opportunity for rapid population increase, and these societies also have relatively high death rates, from childbirth, disease, occasional food shortages, and so on. Thus, these cultures lie relatively light upon the land, although even this low hunting rate may have been catastrophic for most North American megamammals (e.g., mammoths) in prehistoric times. Slash-and-burn agriculture by small groups of nomads is much closer in spirit to hunter-gatherers than it is to sedentary agriculture.

Toffler notes that the agricultural revolution was still underway in some locations around the world by the time the second wave had begun: the industrial revolution. I'm not going to explore Toffler's intriguing notions much beyond what I've done here. This essay is not about the Third Wave. Agriculture was first developed thousands of years ago, but it has taken thousands of years to unfold. The fact that food production can become the primary means of support for specialists within a society means that whoever is not involved in food production has the time to pursue other things, including the exploitation of local resources and development of technology. An agricultural society encourages the proliferation of specialists, who are able to devote most of their time toward skills not directly related to food production: flint-knapping for arrowheads and spear points, mining, digging wells for water, building shelters, making clothing, leading religious ceremonies, defending their fields from those who would steal their crops or plunder their society (i.e., soldiers), potters, becoming literate (scribes), medicine, art, and even governance. The development of agriculture is likely a necessity for the emergence of bureaucracies! Hunter-gatherers tend to be more egalitarian, because everyone is more or less capable of surviving on their own. Societies built around agriculture lead to caste systems and class distinctions.

The specialists, with their minds and time freed up to pursue topics beyond the basics, could contemplate new ways to do things that would benefit the whole society, but it also meant the growth of dependency within that society on the specialists. If someone is free to do something other than the basics necessary for survival, that means that some of the survival skills previously known to all become the domain of specialists. Those who do not pursue those specialties are as ignorant in other specialties as they are knowledgeable in their own domain. Such societies have a fundamental obligation for internal cooperation, as they clearly depend on each other for the society as a whole to survive.

The industrial revolution was a major departure from agricultural society in that it represented a huge increase in productivity, driven by the ability to tap energy sources like steam power that depended on the use of fossil fuels. Although factories had their roots in such simpler technologies as water and wind power, it was the exploitation of fossil fuels, with their very high energy contents, that literally fueled an explosive growth via this second wave. With the development of the technology for mass production, it became possible for even more specialization than before. Whole new concepts were created around what had previously been arcane and the province of a privileged few - like the predecessors to modern science in ancient Greece. Not only did the industrial revolution power the development of new technologies, but it enabled more people to reap the benefits and contributed to even more fractionation of the society into highly interdependent specialties. The very idea of a "renaissance man" became obsolete rapidly during the industrial revolution. Whereas at one point, it was plausible to imagine a few very smart individuals who could know a considerable fraction of all there was to know, during the industrial revolution, that changed irrevocably. Specialties split into subspecialties at a rapid pace, and the growth of knowledge in each of them meant that it was increasingly unlikely that any one person could ever know most of what there was to know.

It's not coincidental that literacy for the masses grew with the industrial revolution. Printing of books replaced laborious hand-copying, putting knowledge at your fingertips, rather than residing only in your head. Making the knowledge of specialists available to another generation was critical not just to the individuals, but to the whole of society. Education became a necessity for participating in the fruits of the industrial revolution, and was no longer just a pastime of the idle rich. Education prepared children for their roles in the industrial world. It was education that also instilled the virtues necessary for a factory worker - being on time, understanding the rules, etc. [see Toffler's The Third Wave and Farber's The Student as Nigger] An industrial society had to be an educated society, but it also required an obedient society, if the factories were going to continue their production. It also had to be a reasonably wealthy society, to have a market for all those goods it could produce. And it had to create demand for those goods not only internally, but also externally. Industry creates a climate for foreign trade, both for raw materials that couldn't be found locally and for markets to buy the manufactured goods.

As the 20th century has demonstrated, the industrial revolution also began to show some instability. Wars became vastly more deadly, and not just for the soldiers, but for all the civilian participants, including some in nations not even formally combatants. These wars trace their origins to the need for resources to maintain their industrial growth and production, and have become especially tightly focused on oil, as the energy source that drives all of those societies.

The complex chains of events leading to the vast interconnected structures underlying industrial societies were explored by James Burke in his PBS programs on "Connections". In the first such series, it was apparent that the ways in which technology advanced were highly nonlinear and depended on chance circumstances that might not occur again if it were possible to "rewind the tape" and start over at some point. Yet our whole society has come to depend on the largely unseen infrastructure that evolved by random chance - it now underpins "ordinary" life in a modern society. If we were to have to depend for food on what we could grow on our own, without the ability to buy the things needed to raise even a vegetable garden (including simple hand tools, seeds, etc.) because of a drastic breakdown in our society, very few of us even know in the abstract what it takes to make steel, much less to turn it into useful tools, and we would be hard pressed to be able even to put our hands on the raw materials and build a furnace capable of smelting iron into steel. We depend, instead, on others. And if the chain begins to unravel because of some problem somewhere within this vast infrastructure, it might well rapidly come crashing down in its entirety if the problem is at a key point and cannot rapidly be fixed.

I will discuss some of these doomsday scenarios later. For the moment, I simply want to emphasize that our Western industrialized society has become very unstable. There things going on behind the scenes upon which all of us are utterly dependent, and about which we know little if anything. Should something catastrophic happen to one or more of these key infrastructures, a collapse of our society into chaos is a very real possibility.


3. Cheap oil

As I've already mentioned, the key prop to our industrial society is cheap oil. The availability of this resource in considerable abundance has been one of the keys to many characteristics of our Western society. Unfortunately, it is a finite resource. A recently-published book by James Kunstler, The Long Emergency, has provided a dark picture of the future when oil production begins to decline, as it inevitably will do and perhaps already has. I'm certainly not capable of knowing to what extent his bleak forecast is correct and what is simply being unduly pessimistic about technology. But one thing is certain. Cheap oil will eventually disappear sooner or later as it's a finite resource, and we'll have to find substitutes not only for the energy it has provided in inexpensive abundance, but for the industrial products derived from it. The future depends on our ability to solve this challenge, and for the moment, it appears that nothing obvious is going to spring up to take take the place of oil. Many of the so-called "green" alternatives are far from being adequate, involve a lot of energy cost to yield what it likely to be less energy than the cost of producing it(such as ethanol from agriculture), and may have unforeseen consequences that could be serious. What happens if we derive a large fraction of our energy needs from wind power, for example? When we extract not trivial but vast amounts of energy from the low-level air flow, what consequences might that have on our environment? We're already experiencing serious environmental concerns from the consumption of fossil fuels. We don't get any energy without some cost, and we presently have no idea what those environmental costs might be. This is a familiar story, if anyone has paid attention to our history.

Considerable amounts of the world's supply of petroleum has been used in fighting wars. We've literally blown up vast stores of petroleum products denying them to our enemies, even as we've consumed them in the process. As the stewards of a vast resource, we've squandered much of it accomplishing absolutely nothing constructive, instead causing only destruction. We continue to fight wars over oil, at the same time that our wasteful war machines gobble it up ravenously in the very act of "protecting" our access to the oilfields. The insanity of this beggars the imagination, but of course, a few are reaping huge short-term profits from the process. Are we collectively able to come to our senses in time to use the time remaining on our world's oil supply to develop practical alternatives? I wonder.

I see constant reminders that growth continues to be viewed by many right-wing conservatives as an unalloyed good. We encourage people and industry to move to Norman, Oklahoma, for example. We have nothing resembling a functioning public transportation system in Norman - although there is a barely noticeable, very limited bus service - so we have to endure constant, expensive road "improvement' construction projects to allow us to move those new residents about back and forth to their new jobs. This means more cars, consuming more petroleum, to fuel more growth and expansion, which constantly requires more energy expended in expanding our infrastructure. Norman is now over 100,000 souls, and still growing. I personally don't find that growth all that exciting or promising. Crowds are everywhere, including at the gas stations, where we all wait to fill our tanks after crawling through more and more traffic. Ugh.


4. Problems confronting the USA - and the world

As a nation we have been distracted from the really important questions tied to what is going to happen to us when the cheap oil is gone. Some people have foreseen bad things - James Kunstler is one. We seem obsessed with sports, how to spend our leisure time, religious issues disguised as politics (abortion rights, "intelligent design", etc.), and other trivia. Apart from crackpot survivalists, very few are seriously considering what's going to happen when the energy crisis resulting from the disappearance of cheap oil hits. Existing alternatives to cheap oil just don't measure up and we don't seem to have any sense of urgency about finding real solutions. The teetering structure of our modern civilization has cheap oil as its most critical weak link - although there are others, such as the availability of fresh water. Our global economy is profoundly interlaced with that of other nations. If we go down, so will many others. We can go down because so much of our society is dependent on that cheap oil, beginning with modern, unsustainable agricultural methods based on gas-guzzling farm machinery and petrochemicals. If agriculture fails us, then it doesn't take long for the thin veneer of civilization to wear off. A simple stock market crash in 1929 threatened many of our American institutions - in Germany, that problem was "solved" by relying on a demagogue to put things back the way people thought they should be. Freedom was sacrificed for the sake of security - this is a familiar story in world history and it could be said that we are currently flirting with that, given the machinations of the GWB administration. But if the economic collapse that could follow skyrocketing fuel prices comes to pass, it could make the Great Depression look like a picnic in the park.

The discovery of cheap oil was a great gift, and we've squandered that gift in self-indulgence and short-sighted consumption of it to serve our immediate needs with little or no thought to the future. The peak in US oil production passed sometime in the 1970s. The peak in world oil production is not far away, if it hasn't already occurred. The clock is ticking, and yet we as a nation seem preoccupied with trivia. And we continue to waste our resources in a futile war that is bankrupting the nation and causing a great divide in the American public, comparable to that associated with Viet Nam.

Population growth exacerbates it all. A few million hunter-gatherers could be sustained forever in a continent as rich as North America. As we pass 300 million, perhaps on our way to a billion, the continent's riches are being consumed at an ever-increasing rate. Many of our cities in the west have expanded well beyond the capacity of the local area to sustain them, notably with regard to fresh water. Thus, our western cities reach out for hundreds of miles to plunder water to slake the thirst of the millions in the cities, robbing the ecosystems of the water that sustains them. We log the forests relentlessly to feed our construction needs, leaving the former woodlands to erode, destroying the soil and the native streams. We produce vast quantities of grain, but use it mostly to feed animals - a wasteful way to use the food value of grain. Much of our meat comes to us via cattle feedlots, as well as swine and poultry confinement pens - these are little more than meat factories, with the effluent from those concentrated animals creating a huge pollution problem and producing the dead give-away: noxious smells that signal to anyone with half a brain that something wrong is being perpetrated. Those animals are dosed with antibiotics (contributing to an overall decline in the effectiveness of antibiotics for disease control), growth hormones, and God knows what else - simply to sustain the animals in what is clearly an otherwise hostile environment long enough to get fat and wind up on our tables abundantly-marbled with fat that is contributing to our own growing obesity problem.

Our fast-growing population is polluting everything around us - the air, the water, the soil. The CO2 from fossil fuels is clearly a factor in global warming - anyone denying that is contravening the consensus among meteorologists and climatologists. The air is filling with particulates and aerosols that are also causing a decline in solar radiation reaching the surface, that is apparently counteracting to some extent the warming caused by greenhouse gases. Neither of these two effects is good for us. Potentially, this could result in catastrophic changes to the climate. Since we are still not able to forecast precisely what consequences this will have, we are essentially playing a form of "Russian roulette" with the environment. Perhaps the event that triggers the collapse will have its origins in some consequence of environmental destruction

We are way out of balance with our world. Anyone with any knowledge of the natural world knows the consequences of a large imbalance - eventually some event will trigger a major catastrophe for the human race. Will it be war, famine, disease - or all of these together? The world will survive and life undoubtedly will continue. The cockroaches, rats, bacteria, viruses - all these are supremely adaptable and no doubt can outlive the human race, if it comes to that. But the adjustment to the imbalance will be awful. Biblical descriptions of the end of times might seem tame by comparison.


5. The great collapse

Most people have no clear sense of their dependence on the infrastructure of the civilization that surrounds them. Our basic needs are food, fresh water, shelter, clothing. OK, so the economy goes into the toilet. All that infrastructure doesn't just go away instantly, but everything gets lots more expensive, relative to what most people are earning. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots grows even wider. This can lead to civil unrest or even revolution. The nation could descend into a civil war, but with ever-diminishing resources. No one can afford this for very long, because the machinery of war consumes resources greedily and gives nothing but destruction and death in return. If the energy that powers the production of war material is in short supply, the war could quickly become increasingly primitive. We could wind up throwing stones at one another or beating on perceived enemies with clubs, at the end.

If the USA goes down economically, so will many other nations. We could well find ourselves being targeted by other nations as a way to solve their problems and allay their internal unrest. Not only civil war is possible. So is international war. Such wars would be incredibly savage, because the very survival of the warring nations would be at stake. Nuclear exchange could easily occur, and that would likely be the end of civilization as we know it. That would put an end to much of the infrastructure of our civilization in a few hours, at most.

Consider this. Where do you obtain your food? From the grocery store. From where do they obtain food? From the agrobusinesses that have been replacing the family farm. Many rural people working the land are doing so on behalf of absentee owners today - they're little more than sharecroppers, rather than in business for themselves. If our economy collapses, the complex infrastructure that brings food to the local store could be seriously curtailed or even destroyed. How do you obtain food, then? Could you grow enough food during the year to keep you and your family from starving over the winter? Bugs and plant diseases in your garden aren't just pests, now - they threaten your very existence. Welcome to the third world! OK - even assuming you know how to grow enough food to sustain yourself and your family - what about those garden tools? You'd be using them to grow your life-sustaining food, but most of them are made from steel. What happens when they wear out or break? Can you fix or replace them? Do you know how to make steel? Even if you know how, can you, with the resources at your disposal? Where are you going to obtain the materials needed to replace your store-bought tools? The answer is - you can't. You've become dependent on a vast network of people and processes about which you know little or nothing and over which you have no control. Before too many years go by, you're scratching at the soil in your garden with a stick! Welcome to the Stone Ages.

During the collapse, the rules of civilization will collapse, as well. The police that protect you from vandals and predatory people won't be around to help you. If someone comes by who wants your food and has weapons, or a gang of thugs (as in the doomsday movies like Mad Max), they'll just take what they want and blow you away, or enslave you, unless you manage to kill them first. So you go out and fill your basement with guns and ammunition to protect yourself, right? And you can use those guns to hunt for animals for food, too. Well, those firearms are also products of that infrastructure, as is the ammunition. Eventually, after a few years or so, the guns break, or you run out of ammunition. Then you're back to sticks and stones to hunt with and for self-protection.

What about your clothing? Clothing tears and wears out. You can't go down to Wal-Mart and buy clothing imported from China anymore. You can't buy clothing anywhere. Know how to sew? Perhaps you should learn. But what fabric can you get, even if you do know how to sew? Know how to make fabric from cotton, or wool? Your ancestors probably did, but most of us have no clue. If you can't find someone to help you learn, you'll be wearing animal skins, at best.


6. Other collapse mechanisms

In addition to an economic breakdown, there are other threats to our civilization. One associated with growing population throughout human existence has been disease. With modern global rapid transportation, all that needs to happen is that a new disease emerges that is almost invariably lethal with a long gestation period and can be transmitted by simple contact and/or through the air. This was the premise of a book written many years ago - Earth Abides - by George R. Stewart. In this book, when most of the human race is killed off by the disease, the infrastructure that supports modern civilization dies, as well. The scattered survivors basically wind up in the Stone Ages.

There's not much romantic in the likely reality of post-Apocalyptic scenarios. Without the infrastructure of civilization, life is short, brutish, cruel, and often painful. The people with genetic weaknesses, like bad vision, don't get easy solutions made by specialists to compensate for those weaknesses. No technology for making glasses, or even doing proper eye examinations. If you can't see well, you won't be a successful hunter and you won't see danger coming in time to save yourself. Someone either helps you or you die. Diseases and injuries are much more often fatal. The condition I had surgery for in 2004 would have killed me in a post-Apocalyptic world - no surgeon to perform the complex operation, to say nothing of the modern technological equipment that produced the right diagnosis in the first place. I simply wouldn't be here to write this essay (of course, there would be no computer to use nor any Internet, so it's a moot point, perhaps) There's not much spare time for contemplating abstract thoughts, no computers, no electricity, no indoor plumbing.

Nature has shown us that it eventually will respond to a population that expands too rapidly. We are doing precisely that. Global population growth is going to produce awful consequences that will be tremendously magnified when we run out of cheap oil, which is currently propping up the food supply that permits that population growth. The developments associated with a global collapse of technical civilization will be merciless, brutal, and could even result in our disappearance as a species, even including the small remnant hunter-gatherer societies that could otherwise survive in their isolated corners of the world (e.g., in a full nuclear exchange).

UPDATE: added 05 May 2011: A short dialog with a reader named Andy (last name withheld by request)

Your essay "The Coming Fall" is amazing. I was an instant fan. I am awake and aware of much of what is happening in the world. I believe the elite are bringing it down by design and have been for many years. This is about resources, greed, and power. What can someone like me do, in your opinion, to help?

Sorry, Andy, but I have no wish to offer advice about what to do, since I feel pretty unlikely to be able to do much about the situation myself. My essay merely offers some food for thought. In addition to greed and power, I'd suggest that the vast majority of the citizens in the 1st world (who are the consumers bankrolling the corporations) have little or no idea about science and what it tells us about what we're doing to ourselves and the planet. They allow themselves to be swayed by right-wing pundits who are nothing more than shills for the corporate world, spewing lies and half-truths as a smokescreen.

In other words, ignorance is a big contributor to this problem. As for the citizens of the rest of the world, they're struggling as best they know how, mostly even more ignorant of what impacts their actions have. A few million hunter-gathers had little real effect. Several billion "consumers" have serious impact. What happens in nature to a species that runs out of control? I think we are still a part of the natural world, however "powerful" our "culture" becomes and will be subject to the same forces that control the rest of the natural world.

Links and references

The Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth)

Alvin Toffler, 1979: The Third Wave. ISBN 0-553-22635-5 Bantam Books (paperback), 537 pp.

George R. Stewart, 1949: Earth Abides. ISBN 0-449-21301-3 Fawcett Books (paperback), 337 pp.

Jerry Farber, 1967:The Student As Nigger.

James Howard Kunstler, 2005: The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. ISBN 0-87113-888-3, 320 pp.