Is Collapse Inevitable?

Basically, the answer is yes.

In order to understand why, we need to agree first on what is meant by collapse. Collapse is usually understood as a significant decline in socio-economic complexity. It is a common occurrence in human history and a process that takes place over time, usually measured in decades. That does not mean it cannot happen much quicker, if the preconditions and external settings are unfavourable, which will likely be the case for our current collapse scenario.

A collapse is driven by the inability to maintain the existing capital stock (infrastructure and production equipment) and population. The reason this eventually happens is that once you are past peak production non-renewable resources (fossils fuels, mineral ores) decline quickly. It also happens when you are using renewable resources (wood, fresh water, prey species) faster than their rate of renewal.

We are also producing waste (carbon dioxide, methane, contaminated water, plastic, chemicals etc.), which can alter the cost of production and the cost of capital maintenance by changing the conditions under which it takes place. For example, carbon dioxide and methane emissions eventually lead to global warming, which changes the weather and hence conditions for agriculture and housing (think air conditioning, flooding, fires).

In theory, we could have transitioned to a steady-state economy to prevent collapse before crossing any planetary boundaries. That would have meant matching the rate of resource consumption to either their renewal rate or the speed of substitution through technology (like replacing oil and gas with electricity from solar/wind plus storage and reducing reliance on transport). It would have also meant limiting the new capital formation rate to that level of resource consumption minus what is required to maintain the existing capital.

In practice, humans don’t work like that. Collapse has been recurrent throughout human history and much of it has been self-inflected through over-consumption of resources. The current capitalist system prioritises economic growth (and hence resource consumption) over all other considerations (like survival of the ecosystems we depend on). The underlying idea that exponential growth can go on forever is so stupid that it makes you wonder why we still believe in progress through education, science and technology.

To avoid collapse what would have been required was a binding global agreement on resource extraction and distribution, whilst simultaneously addressing historical inequities and societal inequality to level the playing field. It would have further required a binding mechanism on keeping the global human population and the amounts of waste released into the environment within the limits set.

That alone sounds outlandish enough, but to make matters worse it would have also been necessary to come to that agreement before any of the planetary boundaries were crossed. We have now crossed both waste boundaries (carbon dioxide, methane and chemical waste) and broken the renewal cycle of nitrogen and phosphates in the soil. We have also destroyed so much biodiversity through altering land use that the integrity of the biosphere is now compromised beyond normal repair rates.

By J. Lokrantz/Azote based on Steffen et al. 2015., CC BY 4.0,

In short, it didn’t happen, and it was never going to.

That leaves collapse and makes it inevitable. Instead of decreasing the rate of resource use, we have increased it, so that we can continue expanding production. More production leads to faster decline in non-renewable resources, higher capital maintenance costs and more waste. This strategy prolongs the growth cycle in the short term but makes the collapse steeper when resources become scarce at the level where society can afford them, which is what we are seeing right now.

The next step is a maintenance crisis, where production fails to keep pace with the maintenance requirements of the existing stock. This applies to food production and human population levels in the same way as it applies to infrastructure and production equipment. If the cost of production becomes too expensive to be affordable, ‘maintenance’ becomes less than what is required to maintain population or capital. Roads deteriorate, service levels drop, there are food/goods shortages and the population begins to decline.

This process is made worse under conditions of severe wealth inequality and neoliberal politics as we have now. The more of the ever scarcer resources the wealthy appropriate for themselves, the faster the conditions decline for the general population. Because neoliberal policy prescriptions advocate for less public spending, government spending on capital has declined in all developed countries.

In an ideal world, the collapse should stop when capital and population levels have dropped sufficiently to bring resource use back under the rate that could be maintained. Because of the chaotic and uneven nature of the collapse, this is unlikely to work. History tells us that those who consume the most resources, the rich, feel least inclined to reduce their usage.

History also tells us that collapse will likely happen at different speeds and in stages, with periods of relative calm followed by the next stage of breakdown. But the trend will be the same – less complexity (no more global supply chains, no Internet), smaller organisations (states, cities, institutions, companies) and smaller populations.

That does not mean that humans won’t survive, and it does not necessarily mean that no level of technology will survive. We can be sure that access to oil and gas will stop altogether, already today post-collapse Venezuela no longer has the technological means to exploit the largest oil reserves on the planet. But many coal deposits will remain accessible with less sophisticated extraction technology for quite a long time. Wind turbines constructed from less advanced materials than used now can still provide power, just less. If we maintain access to coal, we also might be able to retain the ability to manufacture solar panels (silicon is made from quartz and coal).

Post-collapse society will look very different, but it does not have to look like the stone age. What exactly it looks like will depend on our collective demands from now on. If we pull our heads out of the sand (or screens), shake off the indifference and addiction to consumption and start demanding real action through civil unrest or ‘lying flat’, then maybe we can change course to avoid the worst case scenario. 

Peter Lanius

Peter Lanius is a physicist by training who has worked in IT, Telecoms and as an executive coach across many industries. He believes in collapsing early to avoid the rush and lives on a 20acre property in regional Australia.