If you’ve ever wondered just how powerfully collective thinking grips most members of our species—including, by and large, those who most forcefully insist on the originality of their thinking—I have an experiment to recommend: go out in public and advocate an idea about the future that isn’t part of the conventional wisdom, and see what kind of reaction you field. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll get some anger, some argument, and some blank stares, but the most telling reaction will come from people who try to force what you’re saying into the Procrustean bed of the conventional wisdom, no matter how thoroughly they have to stretch and chop what you’ve said to make it fit.
Now of course the project of this blog is guaranteed to field such reactions, since the ideas explored here don’t just ignore the conventional wisdom, they fling it to the floor and dance on the crumpled remains. When I mention that I expect the decline and fall of industrial civilization to take centuries, accordingly, people take this to mean that I expect a smooth, untroubled descent. When I mention that I expect crisis before this decade is finished, in turn, people take this to mean that I expect industrial civilization to crash into ruin in the next few years. Some people, for that matter, slam back and forth from one of these presuppositions to another, as though they can’t fit the concepts of prolonged decline and imminent crisis into their heads at the same moment.
That sort of response has become more common than usual in recent months, and part of the reason may be that it’s been a while since I’ve sketched out the overall shape of the future as I see it. Some of my readers may have lost track of the broader picture, and more recent readers of this blog may not have encountered that picture at all. For that reason among others, I’m going to spend this week’s post summarizing the the decline and fall of industrial civilization.
Yes, I’m aware that many people believe that such a thing can’t happen: that science, technology, or some other factor has made progress irreversible. I’m also aware that many people insist that progress may not be irreversible yet but will be if we all just do that little bit more. These are—well, let’s be charitable and call them faith-based claims. Generalizing from a sample size of one when the experiment hasn’t yet run its course is poor scientific procedure; insisting that just this once, the law of diminishing returns will be suspended for our benefit is the antithesis of science. It amounts to treating progress as some sort of beneficent fairy who can be counted on to tap us with her magic wand and give us a wonderful future, just because we happen to want one.
The overfamiliar cry of “but it’s different this time!” is popular, it’s comforting, but it’s also irrelevant. Of course it’s different this time; it was different every other time, too. Neolithic civilizations limited to one river valley and continental empires with complex technologies have all declined and fallen in much the same way and for much the same reasons. It may appeal to our sense of entitlement to see ourselves as destiny’s darlings, to insist that the Progress Fairy has promised us a glorious future out there among the stars, or even to claim that it’s humanity’s mission to populate the galaxy, but these are another set of faith-based claims; it’s a little startling, in fact, to watch so many people who claim to have outgrown theology clinging to such overtly religious concepts as humanity’s mission and destiny.
In the real world, when civilizations exhaust their resource bases and wreck the ecological cycles that support them, they fall. It takes between one and three centuries on average for the fall to happen—and no, big complex civilizations don’t fall noticeably faster or slower than smaller and simpler ones. Nor is it a linear decline—the end of a civilization is a fractal process composed of crises on many different scales of space and time, with equally uneven consequences. An effective response can win a breathing space; in the wake of a less effective one, part of what used to be normal goes away for good. Sooner or later, one crisis too many overwhelms the last defenses, and the civilization falls, leaving scattered remnants of itself that struggle and gleam for a while until the long night closes in.
The historian Arnold Toynbee, whose study of the rise and fall of civilizations is the most detailed and cogent for our purpose, has traced a recurring rhythm in this process. Falling civilizations oscillate between periods of intense crisis and periods of relative calm, each such period lasting anywhere from a few decades to a century or more—the pace is set by the speed of the underlying decline, which varies somewhat from case to case. Most civilizations, he found, go through three and a half cycles of crisis and stabilization—the half being, of course, the final crisis from which there is no recovery.
That’s basically the model that I’m applying to our future. One wrinkle many people miss is that we’re not waiting for the first of the three and a half rounds of crisis and recovery to hit; we’re waiting for the second. The first began in 1914 and ended around 1954, driven by the downfall of the British Empire and the collapse of European domination of the globe. During the forty years between Sarajevo and Dien Bien Phu, the industrial world was hammered by the First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, millions of political murders by the Nazi and Soviet governments, the Second World War, and the overthrow of European colonial empires around the planet.
That was the first era of crisis in the decline and fall of industrial civilization. The period from 1945 to the present was the first interval of stability and recovery, made more prosperous and expansive than most examples of the species by the breakneck exploitation of petroleum and other fossil fuels, and a corresponding boom in technology. At this point, as fossil fuel reserves deplete, the planet’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants runs up against hard limits, and a galaxy of other measures of impending crisis move toward the red line, it’s likely that the next round of crisis is not far off.
What will actually trigger that next round, though, is anyone’s guess. In the years leading up to 1914, plenty of people sensed that an explosion was coming, some guessed that a general European war would set it off, but nobody knew that the trigger would be the assassination of an Austrian archduke on the streets of Sarajevo. The Russian Revolution, the March on Rome, the crash of ‘29, Stalin, Hitler, Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, Hiroshima? No one saw those coming, and only a few people even guessed that something resembling one or another of these things might be in the offing.
Thus trying to foresee the future of industrial society in detail is an impossible task. Sketching out the sort of future that we could get is considerably less challenging. History has plenty to say about the things that happen when a civilization begins its long descent into chaos and barbarism, and it’s not too difficult to generalize from that evidence. I don’t claim that the events outlined below are what will happen, but I expect things like them to happen; further than that, the lessons of history will not go.
With those cautions, here’s a narrative sketch of the kind of future that waits for us.
The second wave of crisis began with the Ebola pandemic, which emerged in West Africa early in 2014. Efforts to control the outbreak in its early phases were ineffective and hopelessly underfunded. By the early months of 2015, the first cases appeared in India, Egypt, and the Caribbean, and from there the pandemic spread to much of the world. In August 2015 a vaccine passed its clinical trials, but scaling up production and distribution of the vaccine to get in front of a fast-spreading pandemic took time, and it was early 2018 before the pandemic was finally under control everywhere in the world. By then 1.6 billion people had died of the disease, and another 210 million had died as a result of the collapse of food distribution and health care across large areas of the Third World.
The struggle against Ebola was complicated by the global economic depression that got under way in 2015 as the “fracking” boom imploded and travel and tourist industries collapsed in the face of the pandemic. Financial markets were stabilized by vast infusions of government debt, as they had been in the wake of the 2008 crash, but the real economy of goods and services was not so easily manipulated; joblessness soared, tax revenues plunged, and a dozen nations defaulted on their debts. Politicians insisted, as they had done for the past decade, that giving more handouts to the rich would restore prosperity; their failure to take any constructive action set the stage for the next act in the tragedy.
The first neofascist parties were founded in Europe before the end of the pandemic, and grew rapidly in the depression years. In 2020 and 2021, neofascists took power in three European nations on anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-banking industry platforms; their success emboldened similar efforts elsewhere. Even so, the emergence of the neofascist American Peoples Party as a major force in the 2024 US elections stunned most observers. Four years later the APP swept the elections, and forced through laws that turned Congress into an advisory body and enabled rule by presidential decree. Meanwhile, as more European nations embraced neofascism, Europe split into hostile blocs, leading to the dissolution of the European Union in 2032 and the European War of 2035-2041.
By the time war broke out in Europe, the popularity of the APP had fallen drastically due to ongoing economic troubles, and insurgencies against the new regime had emerged in the South and mountain West. Counterinsurgency efforts proved no more effective than they had in Iraq or Afghanistan, and over the next decade much of the US sank into failed-state conditions. In 2046, after the regime used tactical nuclear weapons on three rebel-held cities, a dissident faction of the US military launched a nuclear strike on Washington DC, terminating the APP regime. Attempts to establish a new federal government failed over the next two years, and the former United States broke into seven nations.
Outside Europe and North America, changes were less dramatic, with the Iranian civil war of 2027-2034 and the Sino-Japanese war of 2033-2035 among the major incidents. Most of the Third World was prostrate in the wake of the Ebola pandemic, and world population continued to decline gradually as the economic crisis took its toll and the long-term effects of the pandemic played out. By 2048 roughly fifteen per cent of the world’s people lived in areas no longer governed by a nation-state.
The years from 2048 to 2089 were an era of relative peace under Chinese global hegemony. The chaos of the crisis years eliminated a great many wasteful habits, such as private automobiles and widespread air travel, and renewable resources padded out with what was left of the world’s fossil fuel production were able to meet the reduced needs of a smaller and less extravagant global population. Sea levels had begun rising steadily during the crisis years; ironically, the need to relocate ports and coastal cities minimized unemployment in the 2050s and 2060s, bringing relative prosperity to the laboring classes. High and rising energy prices spurred deautomation of many industries, with similar effects.
The pace of climate change accelerated, however, as carbon dioxide from the reckless fossil fuel use of the crisis years had its inevitable effect, pushing the polar ice sheets toward collapse and making harvests unpredictable around the globe. Drought gripped the American Southwest, forcing most of the region’s population to move and turning the region into a de facto stateless zone. The same process destabilized much of the Middle East and south Asia, laying the groundwork for renewed crisis.
Population levels stabilized in the 2050s and 2060s and began to contract again thereafter. The primary culprit was once again disease, this time from a gamut of pathogens. The expansion of tropical diseases into formerly temperate regions, the spread of antibiotic resistance to effectively all bacterial pathogens, and the immense damage to public health infrastructure during the crisis years all played a part in that shift. The first migrations of climate refugees also helped spread disease and disruption.
The last decade before 2089 was a time of renewed troubles, with political tensions pitting China and its primary allies, Australia and Canada, against the rising power of the South American Union (formed by 2067’s Treaty of Montevideo between Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay), and insurgencies in eastern Europe that set the stage for the Second European War. Economic troubles driven by repeated crop failures in North America and China added to the strains, and kept anyone but scientists from noticing what was happening to the Greenland ice sheet until it was too late.
The collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, which began in earnest in the summer of 2089, delivered a body blow to an already fraying civilization. Meltwater pouring into the North Atlantic shut down the thermohaline circulation, the main driver of the world’s ocean currents, unleashing drastic swings in weather across most of the world’s climate zones, while sea levels jolted upwards. As these trends worsened, climate refugees fled drought, flood, or famine in any direction that promised survival—a promise that in most cases would not be kept. Those nations that opened their borders collapsed under the influx of millions of starving migrants; those who tried to close their borders found themselves at war with entire peoples on the move, in many cases armed with the weapons of pre-crisis armies.
The full impact of the Greenland disaster took time to build, but the initial shock to weather patterns was enough to help trigger the Second European War of 2091-2111. The Twenty Years War, as it was called, pitted most of the nations of Europe against each other in what began as a struggle for mastery and devolved into a struggle for survival. As the fighting dragged on, mercenaries from the Middle East and Africa made up an ever larger fraction of the combatants. The final defeat of the Franco-Swedish alliance in 2111, though it ended the war, left Europe a shattered wreck unable to stem the human tide from the devastated regions further south and east.
Elsewhere, migration and catastrophic climate change brought down most of the nations of North America, while China dissolved in civil war. Australia and the South American Union both unexpectedly benefited as rainfall increased over their territory; both nations survived the first wave of troubles more or less intact, only to face repeated invasions by armed migrants in the following decades. Neither quite succumbed, but most of their resources went into the fight for survival.
Historians attempting to trace the course of events in most of the world are hampered by sparse and fragmentary records, as not only nation-states and their institutions but even basic literacy evaporated in many regions. As long as the migrations continued, settled life was impossible anywhere close to the major corridors of population movement; elsewhere, locals and migrants worked or fought their way to a modus vivendi, or failing that, exterminated one another. Violence, famine and disease added their toll and drove the population of the planet below two billion.
By the 2160s, though, the mass migrations were mostly at an end, and relative stability returned to many parts of the planet. In the aftermath, the South American Union became the world’s dominant power, though its international reach was limited to a modest blue-water navy patrolling the sea lanes and a network of alliances with the dozen or so functioning nation-states that still existed. Critical shortages of nonrenewable resources made salvage one of the few growth industries of the era; an enterprising salvage merchant who knew how to barter with the villagers and nomads of the stateless zones for scrap technology from abandoned cities could become rich in a single voyage.
Important as they were, these salvaged technologies were only accessible to the few. The Union and a few other nation-states still kept some aging military aircraft operational, but maritime traffic once again was carried by tall ships, and horse-drawn wagons became a standard mode of transport on land away from the railroads. Radio communication had long since taken over from the last fitful fragments of the internet, and electric grids were found only in cities. As for the high-end technologies of a century and a half before, few people even remembered that they had ever existed at all.
In the end, though, the era of Union supremacy was little more than a breathing space, made possible only by the collapse of collective life in the stateless zones. As these began to recover from the era of migrations, and control over salvage passed into the hands of local warlords, the frail economies of the nation-states suffered. Rivalry over access to salvage sites still available for exploitation led to rising tensions between the Union and Australia, and thus to the last act of the tragedy.
This was set in motion by the Pacific War between the Union and Australia, which broke out in 2238 and shredded the economies of both nations. After the disastrous Battle of Tahiti in 2241, the Union navy’s power to keep sea lanes open and free of piracy was a thing of the past. Maritime trade collapsed, throwing each region onto its own limited resources and destabilizing those parts of the stateless zones that had become dependent on the salvage industry. Even those nations that retained the social forms of the industrial era transformed themselves into agrarian societies where all economics was local and all technology handmade.
The negotiated peace of 2244 brought only the briefest respite: a fatally weakened Australia was overrun by Malik Ibrahim’s armies after the Battle of Darwin in 2251, and the Union fragmented in the wake of the coup of 2268 and the civil war that followed. Both nations had become too dependent on the salvaged technologies of an earlier day; the future belonged to newborn successor cultures in various corners of the world, whose blacksmiths learned how to hammer the scrap metal of ruined cities into firearms, wind turbines, fuel-alcohol stills, and engines to power handbuilt ultralight aircraft. The Earth’s first global civilization had given way to its first global dark age, and nearly four centuries would pass before new societies would be stable enough to support the amenities of civilization.
I probably need to repeat that this is the kind of future I expect, not the specific future I foresee; the details are illustrative, not predictive. Whether the Ebola epidemic spins out of control or not, whether the United States undergoes a fascist takeover or runs headlong into some other disaster, whether China or some other nation becomes the stabilizing hegemon in the next period of relative peace—all these are anyone’s guess. All I’m suggesting is that events like the ones I’ve outlined are likely to occur as industrial civilization stumbles down the curve of decline and fall.
In the real world, in the course of ordinary history, these things happen. So does the decline and fall of civilizations that deplete their resource bases and wreck the ecological cycles that support them. As I noted above, I’m aware that true believers in progress insist that this can’t happen to us, but a growing number of people have noticed that the Progress Fairy got her pink slip some time ago, and ordinary history has taken her place as the arbiter of human affairs. That being the case, getting used to what ordinary history brings may be a highly useful habit to cultivate just now.