Collapse Will Look Nothing Like in the Movies

B
12 min readJan 29, 2024
Collapse as depicted in movies. Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

Modern — overdeveloped — societies in the West are already in a severe crisis. Something, which will eventually turn into a long global emergency in the years and decades ahead. A five centuries long era of economic growth — ushered in by colonization and leading to the plundering of natural, mineral and most of all fossil fuel resources — is about to come to its logical endpoint. And while it’s nigh on impossible to tell precisely how, and according to what timetable the decline of modern civilization will unfold, one thing is for sure: it will look nothing like what you see in Hollywood movies.

The recent bumper crop of post-apocalyptic films are all riddled with the same cliches. Make no mistake, these themes do have a useful purpose, like making our story-telling brain feel comfortable, or invoking a great deal of empathy for the protagonists, but they also greatly mislead their audience. As any serious collapsologist would testify, these stereotypes not only make these movies, well, extremely predictable, but also far-far removed from reality.

We need to set a thing or two right about collapse. Let’s start with my personal favorite: namely that collapse is a nearly instantaneous event, and that it happens everywhere, precisely at the same time. The day before everything looks and works fine, the day after the entire world is in ruins. Buildings take a torn down look in a matter of days, streets get clogged with crashed and abandoned vehicles, and there are barely any survivors left to be seen. Everything looks, well, visibly collapsed.

According to the plot, all this is a direct consequence of a mysterious event, resulting in an absurdly large number of people dying in a week. As the story unfolds, we are informed that civilizational collapse is to be blamed on the wrong doings of a small group of humans, a virus or a natural disaster, and never-ever on billions of us living unsustainably for hundreds of years. If the latter gets accidentally uttered, though, then it is hush-hushed away immediately by a rather unlikable person, steering the conversation back to how we must fight the evil conspirators, aliens, zombies, the virus, you name it. ‘Hey, we’ve got a mission to accomplish! We must save the world!’

At this point it is revealed that only one very special individual (the protagonist) has the key to humanity’s survival, and that there is a promise land far-far away where this key must be delivered to, usually at a great cost. According to the story experts allegedly have managed to preserve science and civilization in this safe haven, and all they need is that special knowledge, ingredient, person, item [fill in the blank] to eliminate the cause of collapse and reboot society. Needless to say, the role of this mythical place is to create the illusion that experts have everything under control, and no matter what happens, our current way of life can continue indefinitely.

“Someone, somewhere will surely think of something.”

Once they set out to complete their mission, the hero(s) learn that they cannot really trust anyone they meet along their journey, and that they have to be very-very suspicious of strangers. ‘Hey, they want to steal our stuff! Do you want them to take away our freedom, too?!’ In their visibly collapsed world, the protagonists’ former neighbors are now their enemies: people they must be wary of, and whom they can shoot dead without repercussions. The post-apocalyptic world has become a hostile, untrustworthy place with raiders lurking around every corner, waiting to ambush everyone who passes by. Yet, every now and then our heroes stumble upon well prepared folks living in their heavily guarded homes (with food, water and energy to last for years, of course), but they seem to be very unwilling to help too. Everyone for themselves.

Thanks to the many repetitions through countless movies, novels and the like, these cliches have become almost axiomatic: assumptions people accept without questioning. As a result even the word ‘collapse’ have become a bogeyman, invoking images of ruins, grave danger and mass casualties, something no one wants to talk about, let alone live through.

This is why collapse is denied so vehemently, especially by the well-to-do and managerial classes. Having been exposed to so much collapse-porn, they are terrified to lose their cushy well paying jobs, McMansions and other privileges, so they rather opt to deny it altogether.

When it comes to non-fictional problems and predicaments, as known as reality, I argue, nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from a truly apocalyptic event (a massive meteor strike or a nuclear war bringing on a winter lasting many years, and a complete destruction of the ozone layer) collapse will look completely different. First, it is not something happening everywhere at the same time, leading to billions of casualties in a matter of weeks. Sure, one could always conjure up the worst of all possible horror scenarios, like an abrupt shut-down of the entire electric grid (leading to the utter breakdown of our life support system), or a multi-breadbasket failure causing global famine.

Yes, multiple systems can break down simultaneously, but there are several things which must go bust exactly at the same time. Also, there are thousands of people working hard to a) prevent such things from happening, and b) to restore normal operation within days. Believe me, no one is sitting on their hands watching such scenarios unfold. The best example is the near total collapse of the Pakistani electric grid — where many things went awfully wrong, yet the system was put back on its feet in a matter of days. So while catastrophe might hit any area any time, I find the chances of this event going global to be relatively low.

Why is collapse inescapable then? Aren’t we the smartest species on the planet who can solve everything thrown at them? Although we are highly resourceful, especially when it comes to increasing profits, we have foolishly sacrificed long-term results for short-term gains. We ended up overplaying our hand, despite strong evidence that this could not possibly end well. Sure, we will continue to find ways to maintain our energy and material output — until we no longer can. Technology can and will help, but it is unable to reverse the rapid decline of ore grades and energy returns, and it comes at a cost.

In fact, we are accelerating towards a point of diminishing returns as we approach geo-physical limits. Soon it will no longer matter how much effort we put into solving the “problem” of mineral or fossil fuel depletion, the costs will rapidly outgrow all the potential benefits we hope to gain. Such predicaments start very slowly and reluctantly, swinging back and forth between sustained operations and crisis mode; only to tip over somewhat later, and accelerate into an unending series of emergencies lasting multiple decades. If you think that the world has went crazy and about to go even crazier as a result, you are not entirely mistaken. You are witnessing the collapse of modernity, already. (On the other hand if you think that no, this could not possibly be the case, then I suggest to revise your sources of information.)

Civilizations, just like oil fields, “don’t crash and burn but follow an undulating path downward over years or decades.”

Decline is an unevenly distributed, bumpy ride back to a truly sustainable way of life. The later this decline is postponed, and the larger the gap between what is sustainable and what’s not (aka overshoot) is, the steeper the fall becomes. While there will be serious ‘crash and burn’ moments, collapse is not a straight line pointing ever downwards. It is often interspersed with moments of respite, or even renewed growth, only to resume in the form of another massive downturn. Meanwhile the system will constantly re-calibrate and try to restart itself… You know, those thousands of experts working overtime to save what they can.

But even experts have their limits. They can do ‘magic’, but in many cases they are just fiddling around the edges, reacting to one emergency after the other. As the number of crises needed to be tended simultaneously rises, and as lead times for spare parts lengthen, or God forbid shortages arise, many systems will be left in a permanent state of disrepair. Roads. Tunnels. Bridges. Dams. Water pipes. The electric grid.

Without strong fundamentals to support it, any structure is doomed to collapse, no matter how careful craftsmen try to maintain the ornaments on the facade. And the fundamentals of this civilization are crumbling. Fast. The biosphere and a stable climate. Natural and mineral resources. A stable economic system. A working infrastructure. These are the reasons why we are facing crisis after crisis with no end in sight, not because of evil conspiracies.

Our civilization is like an ageing couch surfer: progressing towards afterlife with one heart attack at a time, resuscitated by doctors again and again.

When it comes to the extraction and distribution of petroleum we are in the process of passing a major tipping point already. From mining to agriculture, or from long distance transport to building “renewables” almost all economic activity is underpinned by this highly polluting substance. Even though oil production numbers might be rising for a year or two to come, the net energy we gain from petroleum products will inevitably max out. From that point on energy cannibalism will eat away an exponentially growing chunk of whatever petroleum we may produce, leading to a permanent decline in net energy produced. Oh, and the same is true for other minerals and sources of energy too, inhibiting any further growth to the human enterprise... The world is about to enter a game of musical chairs on a massive scale.

Business as usual as a result will soon no longer be possible. The abrupt end to global economic growth consequently will upend all existing financial arrangements based on an ever growing pie. After a brief period of money printing a major debt crisis, and another bout of inflation is all but guaranteed. Many manufacturing companies will go bankrupt due to increased energy and transportation costs, raw material and equipment shortages, and an overall collapse of profitability (especially in the material and energy intensive electrification business).

Yet the world will not end.

Yes, life will get increasingly harder and harder during the years and decades of the long emergency ahead. With rising fuel and fertilizer costs, droughts and heatwaves, agricultural output will become ever more challenging to maintain, not to mention managing the costs of producing food. There is a grossly under-reported wave of farmer’s protests underway across Europe already, exactly due to this reason. The people growing our edibles can no longer see a viable path to stay in business: rising energy costs (diesel) and the end to many subsidies have put them into an impossible situation. Will this lead to starvation and hunger riots then? Hardly. Then perhaps to more centralization and falling quality? You bet. Small farms will be soon bought up by large agricultural firms who then will have an even greater lobbying power, and an even better access to government funds. Rising food prices for the people, and skyrocketing monopoly rents for the wealthy is what at stake here.

Fuel and resource shortages will not disappear due to centralization though. It will just exacerbate inequality. A good many years into this process, food rationing might become the norm again, together with long queues for just about everything. If you don’t belong to the top 0.1%, you can kiss goodbye to holidays abroad, a new computer, or even a new toaster. Electricity will become intermittent, and rolling blackouts will become the standard measure to cope with shortfalls in generation and maintenance. Healthcare services and medicine might also become unavailable to the rank and file public, leading to a fall in life expectancy and an increase in mortality across all age groups (except for the well to do with their private healthcare facilities).

Beset by an ever worsening economic outlook, an ageing population, shortages and wars, a fall in birth-rates (due to soaring costs of living and to infertility attributable to chemical pollution), ageing, wars, a rise in infectious diseases and ‘deaths of despair’, world population could easily decline by as much as 2–5% per year. At such a rate our numbers would be halved every 2–3 decades, reducing world population to well under a billion by the end of this century. No novel viruses, mass starvation or global wars required. Just good old civilizational decline, and a corresponding rise in excess deaths.

As you can see from the picture above, collapse will look nothing like in the movies. It won’t happen everywhere at the same time, and it will surely take more than a day or two to unfold. It will not lead to mass casualties in a week, yet it will reduce our numbers to a fraction of what it is today by the end of this century. This decline is perfectly normal, a logical conclusion to billions of people living well beyond their environment’s — and ultimately the planet’s — carrying capacity for centuries.

Overshoot and the resulting resource depletion, pollution and climate crisis is what post-apocalyptic movies try to hush-hush away at all costs. And while it is true that we can do nothing to stop it, as every attempt made at it would further exacerbate resource depletion and ecological collapse, we could certainly make it more humane. It is not cast in stone that Big Ag must buy up all farmland, nor that a global war must be fought for the last remaining resources on Earth. Collapse is also not something you can bug out in a shelter. It will take much-much longer than your resources could last, and ultimately you will be forced to cooperate with your neighbors. Make no mistake, it is not a bad idea to have food and water stocked up in your basement for emergencies or disruptions, but having a safety net of friends and family will take you much further.

Don’t expect that someone somewhere will come up with something either. Collapse once started is irreversible. And newsflash: it’s already well underway… Increasing and maintaining complexity (including devising ever more sophisticated technologies, requiring ever more electricity and mining) would take an exponential increase in energy uptake, hence the term energy cannibalization. Slurping ever more oil from underneath our feet, or building ever more elaborate “renewable” devices on the back of rapidly degrading mineral reserves, will soon take more energy than it can give back to society. This is a process which can only get worse with more technology use. You see, it is technology itself which is unsustainable, not fossil fuel use alone.

Once net energy peaks and starts to contract, it will mean a permanent economic contraction. Complex systems like corporations, governments or the world economy only “know” how to grow, they really suck when it comes to shrinkage. And while the rank and file of governments and corporations will do everything they can to keep the system together, they will be fighting a losing battle. This is why large complex systems are fragile: instead of voluntarily giving up functions, and simplify to conserve energy, they do the diametric opposite. They concentrate power even more, and allow their rent seeking oligarchs to siphon off any remaining wealth, while the lower ranks fight tooth and nail to keep things together. At least until physics ultimately wins, and things inevitably fall apart.

Photo by Minna Autio on Unsplash

At this point people — and that includes us, me and you, Dear Reader — will increasingly have to rely on local communities, personal skills, small farms and radically simplified governance structures. No one will come on TV to announce that collapse is officially here, and that you are free to go. These things will evolve in parallel, and when our centralized systems finally give up the ghost they will suddenly leave a vacuum behind. What will fill this void, however, will be up to us. At least I hope.

Until next time,

B

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B

A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: https://thehonestsorcerer.substack.com/