The apocalypse is coming and it cannot be stopped. Let me assure you that I am not one of those religious nut jobs who climbs up on a soap box on a handy street corner to scream at passers by about how the end is nigh. Nevertheless, the apocalypse is coming.To clarify, I am not talking about the end of the world, or the “rapture” (whatever that is), or World War Three, or a new pestilence, or any number of other popular causes of the apocalypse. What I mean by the apocalypse is that after it has passed, the world will be so different from the world we know today that we might as well simply say that the world as we know it will have ended. You might argue that such an event is not an apocalypse but I argue that it will happen so rapidly that it will be difficult to imagine a more accurate description.
Rather than argue semantics further, let me explain the mechanism for the apocalypse. The coming apocalypse will be triggered by economics. More precisely, modern economic structures will clash with real world physical limits and collapse in a mouldering pile of debris. The result of this collapse is beyond the capabilities of my crystal ball to predict though a few moments of thought will suggest many possible outcomes, almost all of which are unpleasant. But I doubt I have convinced anyone that economic collapse is imminent. What is wrong with modern economics that will cause it to fail catastrophically?
The precise mechanics of modern economics is beyond the scope of this discussion. However, there are many excellent discussions on the subject, including this trilogy of posts or this web site. Basically, our modern economic system requires perpetually increasing economic growth to stave off collapse. Given that there are finite resources available on Earth and in its immediately accessible environs, it should be obvious that perpetual growth is impossible, accelerating or not. Even modern talk about “sustainability” is nonsense because what most so-called experts mean by “sustainability” is “sustainable growth”. Sustainable growth is really an oxymoron since it still supposes that perpetual growth is possible. The only way anything is sustainable is if its growth rate is exactly zero. Greater than zero and resources will be exhausted. Less than zero and it will eventually fizzle out. Thus growth rates above or below zero are equally detrimental in the long term.
There is another factor contributing to the economic collapse, too. That factor is population. Increasing population requires increasing the baseline resource consumption rate to match. That baseline is the minimum rate required for subsistence and does not include luxuries like automobiles and so on. Of course, as population increases, so does demand for those luxuries. Thus, population growth is actually accelerating the economic apocalypse. Population growth must also level off to a steady state before anything resembling sustainability is possible. (It may even need to decrease to reach sustainability.)
It should be obvious to you that resource exhaustion could just as easily trigger an apocalypse as economic collapse. Indeed, it seems more likely on the surface and there is historical precedent for wars over resources. Certainly such a situation could trigger a global conflict. Why, then, do I assert that the apocalypse will be triggered by economic collapse?
The answer to that is simple. The economic collapse is imminent. It is likely that the first signs were seen in the United States with the collapse of the hosting market several years ago and the resulting wave of foreclosures, quit claims, bankruptcies, and the ripple effects from them. The situation in Greece may also be a signifier. Add in the periodic wrangling over debt ceilings in the United States, multi-trillion dollar bailout packages, plunging sovereign credit ratings, and so on, it is not hard to imagine that a collapse is looming, especially in the context of the underlying fundamentals of the world economic system.
Let us now assume that my prophesied economic collapse occurs. That still does not mean results on an apocalyptic scale. After all, one of the sites I mentioned above even suggests solutions to the world economic problems. Surely once we come out the other side, life will continue relatively unmodified? Well, yes, it might do that for a while, but the underlying fundamental problem of population growth will not be solved. Nor will the underlying fundamental problem of increasing per capita consumption. Even a new economic system that is not require perpetually acceleration growth is doomed to fail if the participants in the system continue with unsustainable practices. Changing the economic system merely removes one incentive for over consumption. Resources will still be finite and demand will still exceed the ultimate supply in the longer term.
There are two reasons I foresee an apocalyptic change after a total economic collapse. The first is that the vast majority of the population will have to revert to basic subsistence rather than luxury consumption. That means enough food to eat, enough heat not to freeze, and so on. Fancy things like automobiles, computers, telecommunications, and so on, will be used only as needed, or not at all, depending on available resources. Life expectancy is likely to fall as it becomes increasingly difficult to obtain medical care. Even education levels will likely fall. In times of extreme hardship, people must concentrate on survival over all else, and anything beyond basic education is not needed for mere survival. In an economic system where continued consumption is required for continued stability, this will lead to a downward spiral. It may even lead to population reduction due to starvation, disease, and even lack of shelter. In the end, when the situation stabilized (and it must at some point), the new status quo will be very different from the modern high tech golden age.
The other reason is that some powerful interests will see the collapse as an opportunity. It is likely that as sovereign nations weaken, opportunists will seize the opportunity to expand their own empires. War and wide scale destruction are the only possible result of such activities. Why this would lead to an apocalyptic result needs no elaboration.
In summary, my assertion is that the end of the world as we know it is imminent and it will be caused by economic failure rather than anything more tangible. History may prove me to be overly pessimistic, and, truth be told, I would be overjoyed to be wrong. Alas, I do not foresee the world economic situation improving sufficiently in the near term to ward of the total collapse.