When we think of collapse, we often think of a building or bridge or other structure suddenly giving way. We have a tendency to take this physical model of collapse and translate it into the social and political world.
Thus, when Joseph Tainter or Jared Diamond write of societal collapse, we are inclined to think of a relatively rapid process that acts equally across an entire area and even perhaps across the entire globe. But I believe that the collapse of the globalized society we now inhabit will be exceedingly uneven geographically and one that is spread over many years. And, I believe that that collapse has already started to appear in places which might be considered the periphery of our global system.
My index of collapse in this case will be reasonably objective: When population in a country or region declines persistently and the main cause is not a voluntary decline in birth rates, but a persistent rise in death rates, then collapse has been confirmed. Notice I didn’t say “collapse has begun” for the engines of collapse are set in motion long before such demographic proof shows up.
Exhibit number one is Russia which has had a persistently declining population since 1991 when population was close to 149 million versus just under 142 million today. A broad range of factors are said to explain this decline. But despite the slight uptick in population this year, few experts expect the trend to be reversed. Russia may be a foretaste of how such a decline might be experienced elsewhere in the world once it arrives.
The reason the Russians have a head start is that their fall from Joseph Tainter’s perilous tightrope of complexity began in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event that continues to rain its cataclysmic consequences down on the Russian Federation and all the former Soviet republics that are now independent countries.
One key element has been the collapse of the public health system in Russia. AIDS is racing through the population and tuberculosis has resurrected as a major killer. Certainly, the famously low Russian birth rate has something to do with the decline in population. But that rate was already low before the Soviet Union collapsed. It has declined since then as the life chances that Russians perceive for themselves and their children continue to darken. Death rates meanwhile have shot through the roof, up 40 percent since 1992.
Surely, a country as rich in natural resources as Russia should be able to turn things around, especially since a strong central government (some say too strong) has been re-established under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. But such has not been the case. And, the Russian example shows that once collapse begins it tends to be self-reinforcing. More deaths and fewer births now lead to more deaths and fewer births in the future as the cohort of women able to reproduce shrinks and as the capability of the country to respond to the crisis shrinks with the declining population. And, remember, this is all happening in a country in which health care is provided to all people by the state and which has had one of the best educational systems in the world, at least until now. And, it’s happening inside the world’s leading exporter of oil, revenues from which have been swelling state coffers in recent years.
Perhaps you will say that Russia’s situation is unique. But other parts of the former Soviet empire are also experiencing significant population declines. Ukraine suffers from similarly high death rates due to AIDS, alcoholism and smoking. Many parts of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc are facing both declining births and rising death rates, the latter a sign that public health systems are inadequate to handle the problems they face. (See several of them in this table.)
But these countries have had histories of low birth rates. What about countries with historically high birth rates? There too we find a cluster of countries in southern Africa that are suffering heavily from an out-of-control AIDS epidemic. South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia appear to be on a trajectory toward population decline despite their high birth rates as their death rates spiral upward.
This cannot simply be put down to AIDS. There are AIDS sufferers in many countries. But wealthy countries such as the United States have spent considerable resources to keep a lid on AIDS infections. In some of those countries AIDS has even become a managed chronic condition rather than an automatic death sentence.
Resources, financial and otherwise, then must be the key. In a world of shrinking resources, especially shrinking energy resources, we will have less wealth to spend on the multiple threats to our complex global society such as climate change, epidemics and depletion of fisheries, forests, water, soil and minerals.
The first stage of collapse, Dmitri Orlov tells us, is financial collapse. We have just witnessed the most colossal financial collapse since the Great Depression. And, despite protestations to the contrary, we are following very closely the script of the last depression. (Both then and now markets rose about 60 percent from the bottom of the crash and experts everywhere were claiming that the worst was over.) The financial collapse is followed by a commercial collapse, i.e. an economic collapse in which businesses continue to fail and unemployment continues to rise.
These collapses cut revenues to local, state and central governments and force cuts in services that are critical to the health and nutrition of the population. It will likely be a long time before the average American or average Western European enjoys the same health as the average Russian or South African does today. But the wheels are in motion to undermine the very supports critical to public health even in wealthy societies. And, if economic stagnation or decline persists, the decline in income and employment among the middle and lower classes will inevitably lead to inferior diets and health care. Already many people in the United States are about to lose their unemployment benefits and many others who have reached time limits for public assistance must now sell their food stamps to pay their bills.
Today, the world’s wealthy countries still enjoy several advantages in the collapse game. Many have large tracts of excellent and highly productive farmland. Some like the United States, Canada and Australia have extensive energy and mineral resources left. Circumstances that force wealthy countries back on their own resources would be traumatic, but not as traumatic as what’s in store for many of the world’s poor countries, the resources of which have been transferred over many years at bargain prices to the wealthy countries. Those countries poor in resources and lacking well-developed public health and other administrative systems will certainly collapse first.
Now, collapse doesn’t mean annihilation. In Tainter’s view it means returning to a less complex society. Complex, large-scale systems would be abandoned because they are no longer effective in the face of new realities. It would be wise to begin building the replacements for those systems before they collapse. To a certain extent the local food movement is doing just that. But to build a truly resilient society there are so many other areas that require our attention–health care, education, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and the arts to name a few. And, even though those of us in wealthy countries will have some extra time to prepare, we will be doing so against a backdrop of increasing chaos and decline which will be made all the worse by the failure of governing elites to correctly diagnose our situation.