“Collapse of Civilization” has become a popular topic for bloggers, books, and movies (e.g. The Day After Tomorow). A growing number of websites cater to those individuals (the “preppers” and “survivalists”) who believe the collapse is imminent. Some of the very rich are preparing fortress refuges. There is growing alarm within the scientific community that “business as usual” is leading to catastrophe for humankind.

What would a collapse of civilization look like?

Orlov (Five Stages of Collapse, New Society Publishers, 2013) provides a useful framework for thinking about the various aspects of our civilization: Financial, commercial, political, social, and cultural.

A financial collapse involves the big banks failing. Given the record of criminal and absolutely immoral behavior of the banking industry, one might think this would be a good thing. Unfortunately, any such collapse has very serious consequences for the rest of us. First, our pensions are tied to these institutions: if there is a mass failure of the banks, our pensions will also be gone. Second, the value of our paper money depends upon these banks continuing to function: without the banks our money might suddenly be worthless. Third, all the food, consumer products and oil that we need moves through the supply chains based on letters of credit that these banks issue to each other: no international banks, no letters of credit, and therefore nothing moves in the commercial supply chains. This means nothing to buy at Walmart or the grocery store except those things produced locally.

A commercial collapse involves the import and retail sector failing. Most of our food, consumer products, and oil originates in some distant location, much of which is shipped internationally. Consumer goods such as clothing, appliances and vehicles are produced and delivered via long complex chains of suppliers and shippers. The entire world has largely adopted “just-in-time” inventory practices which is great for efficiency and profits but terrible for resilience … any disruption of the process brings the entire chain to a grinding halt, as e.g. we saw with the Japanese car companies after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown disrupted a few of the parts suppliers. In England, a national truck strike resulted in empty grocery stores in three days. After six days people were going hungry and the government had to step in and end the strike. Unfortunately, all of us living in the modern urban world are utterly dependent upon the commercial sector for the necessities of life. A commercial collapse would disrupt almost all stores, fuel for trucks and autos, the electrical grid, the internet, and supplies for medical facilities, including the pharmacies.

A political collapse involves two strongly inter-related phenomena: Citizens lose faith that the government will actually be helpful to them and the government loses the ability to control or even affect the course of events. As citizens lose faith in the government, they become increasingly unwilling to pay taxes or otherwise cooperate with or depend on the government. More and more of the economy moves to the black market or iinformal or underground economies, none of which pay taxes. Governments lose the ability to collect taxes and therefore can’t provide essential services such as police, firemen, water and sewer, and schools.

A social collapse involves loss of faith that your people (church, lodge, charities, clubs, etc.) will take care of you. Local social institutions attempt to fill the power vacuum created by the financial, commercial, and political collapses. However, these groups are likely to run out of resources or perhaps fail through internal conflict over how to deal with the totally novel situation confronting them.

A cultural collapse means the loss of most of what makes us human. We lose our kindness, generosity, compassion … We compete as individuals for scarce resources in a “law of the jungle” where might makes right.

One scenario of collapse begins with a financial collapse that then triggers a commercial collapse (i.e. nothing moves internationally for lack of letters of credit). The resulting shortages of almost everything then precipitates a political collapse. If local governing bodies arise fairly quickly, whether they be tyrannical warlords or New England style town meetings, the process can perhaps be stopped with political collapse. Afghanistan (with warlords) and the Soviet Union dissolving into multiple states (and with the Russian Mafia largely taking over the commercial realm) provide recent examples. At any rate, a social and cultural collapse would be almost infinitely worse than one which was contained within the financial, commercial and political realms.

In summary, collapse of civilization can mean several different things, depending upon how many of our institutions and socio/cultural norms fail. Recent history suggests that a collapse would mean the failure of our financial and commercial sectors, followed by a quite radical restructuring of our political arrangements. In previous civilizations, all of which eventually collapsed, the social and cultural spheres remained intact and people largely cooperated to help each other.

What’s next?

There is little agreement on what sorts of structures and practices would arise from the ashes except on one point: the new institutions and practices will be much more localized than they are now. Each region and locality will be largely on its own.

The “Preppers” and “survivalists” mostly think that a collapse will result in a Hobbesian “law of the jungle” situation in which people kill each other for scarce resources. There are two bodies of research that suggest this scenario is unlikely.

The sociology of disasters shows that when natural disasters (e.g., tsunamis, earth quakes, or hurricanes) occur, the response is almost always the same:

  • the authorities assume that the survivors will be lawless and heartless, with the strong victimizing the weak and everybody stealing everything they can. The official response is therefore to send in the military to restore order and to shoot looters.
  • The survivors instantly band together to help each other. Within hours after the disaster ends, they have set up medical stations, soup kitchens, and shelters. They break into hardware stores to get the tools they need to dig out survivors. They break in to pharmacies for medical supplies. They break into grocery stores for the soup kitchens. And large numbers of the survivors open their homes to shelter the homeless. Those with relevant businesses provide free food, tools, supplies, and shelter.

It usually takes the authorities about three days to mobilize and enter the disaster zone. When the authorities finally arrive, they find the survivors manning these soup kitchens, medical stations, and emergency shelters, all being efficiently run by volunteers. This literature shows that in the aftermath of disasters, ordinary people always cooperate effectively to help each other. Rebecca Solnit describes these outpourings of compassion and selflessness as “A Paradise built in Hell”.

There is a second relevant literature that examines group behavior in extreme situations, e.g., a group in a lifeboat with insufficient food and water. These are situations in which it is likely that some or even all of the group will die. The historical evidence shows that groups react in one of two ways: 1) the strong kill off the weak in order to survive or 2) the group decides that they are all in it together and they will take care of each other. Early in the group’s history, they make a decision to follow the path of murder or the path of caring for each other. Once they start down the path of murder, there seems to be no turning back: the group degenerates into savagery. Similarly, if a group starts down the path of “we are all in this together and will take care of each other” they stay on that path. Which path the group chooses seems to depend upon the informal leadership within the group at the beginning.

This research strongly suggests that, following any collapse, there will be some groups with murderous norms who will prey on others. This literature equally strongly suggests that the majority of ordinary people will band together to help each other after a collapse. In other words, the post collapse society will probably not be too different than what we have today in terms of the number of predators among us. However, if the political structures collapse, we may not have official policemen and firemen to protect us and may have to improvise these functions.

What else might disappear?

If we have financial and commercial collapse, much of what we normally take for granted is going to go away. The things we won’t have include:

  • Centrally generated electricity
  • The internet
  • Food trucked in from outside our local area
  • Consumer products with parts from outside our local area (i.e., almost everything)
  • Gasoline and diesel fuel
  • Our pensions and bank accounts will likely disappear

In short, we will be thrust into a situation in which we (individuals, families, and small groups) will have to do almost everything for ourselves. There will be a very high premium on learning skills such as gardening, carpentry, blacksmithing, and improvising.

Solar panels have a useful lifetime of about 30 years so there should be some electricity for at least 30 years, which should help us through a transition to a different life style.