The End of the Colombian Age

14 min readJan 15, 2024
Dusk over Oceania. Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

We are witnessing the end of an era in history spanning half a millennium; the end of Western dominance in geopolitics. For those who understand the role of resources and energy in economics, culture and politics, it comes as no surprise that this shift in global power has an awful lot to do with resource depletion in particular, and overshoot in general — not unlike the many major shifts in human history. What we are facing here is something akin to the fall of the Soviet Union, but this time on steroids, and with global consequences affecting every nation on the planet to boot.

We live in truly remarkable times. Most people born into a middle of an era expect things to continue smoothly, with the past being a reliable guide for the future. Those who have the “fortune” to born into the very last decades of an age tend to think similarly, and fail to recognize that they are witnessing something which future historians (if there will be any) will commemorate as an end to a period, and a beginning of a new era. Perhaps its no exaggeration to say, that what we see here is the collapse of modernity in two acts, the first being the fall of the West.

Let me start with Erik Micheals and his fine blog Problems, Predicaments, and Technology, where he has recently shared an interesting story about us, Rationalizing, Storytelling, and Narrative-Generating Apes. He closed with citing historian Joseph Tainter, author of the book The Collapse of Complex Societies, on how civilizations end. Incidentally, I also closed my last article with a definition and description of civilizational decline, so I think this is a good place to pick up the thread.

Before we delve into the details I find it important to emphasize once again that collapse is a long and complex process, not a sudden and devastating event as depicted in Hollywood movies. As it is the case with any continuous phase shifts in a complex adaptive system, such as our high-tech global civilization, there are no clear boundaries. Collapse is often preceded with a similarly prolonged pre-collapse phase, something which often escapes the attention of the masses and the elites alike. An era of long stagnation, and ever more dire attempts made at kicking the can just a little further down the road. Then, when all attempts fail and things really start to turn sour, phrases like “no one could see it coming”, “black swan event” and the like are thrown around liberally — failing to mention the ample warnings given beforehand. Just think about any recent event in history: the great financial crisis, the wars in Eastern Europe or in the Middle East. But how do we know that things are indeed headed this way? What is collapse anyway? As Tainter writes:

“There is, first and foremost, a breakdown of authority and central control. Prior to collapse, revolts and provincial breakaways signal the weakening of the center. Revenues to the government often decline. Foreign challengers become increasingly successful. With lower revenues the military may become ineffective. The populace becomes more and more disaffected as the hierarchy seeks to mobilize resources to meet the challenge.

With disintegration, central direction is no longer possible. The former political center undergoes a significant loss of prominence and power. It is often ransacked and may ultimately be abandoned. Small, petty states emerge in the formerly unified territory, of which the previous capital may be one. Quite often these contend for domination, so that a period of perpetual conflict ensues. The umbrella of law and protection erected over the populace is eliminated.

Lawlessness may prevail for a time, as in the Egyptian First Intermediate Period, but order will ultimately be restored. Monumental construction and publicly-supported art largely cease to exist. Literacy may be lost entirely, and otherwise declines so dramatically that a dark age follows.”

Without taking Tainter’s words as exact predictions (knowing that every civilizational collapse is somewhat different), let’s see where we are in the process of decline when it comes to the world’s once most powerful nation and the unquestionable center of western civ. the United States. Needless to say, it’s a fool’s errand to tell when and how will an empire fall precisely. Collapse is always a prolonged event taking decades to fully unfold, and caused by a multitude of reasons, of which resource depletion is but one. One thing is for sure though: no state or empire lasted forever, and eventually all met their fate.

One could say at this point: oh, we are still far away from that. Sure, if you live in a gated community somewhere in the hills of Arizona, where the whether is always nice, food is always plenty and services are superb, you could tell: ‘Life has never been better. Nothing is collapsing for me.’ Once you climb out from underneath that rock of well being and propaganda, you start to see that nothing is fine. In fact, things deteriorate faster than any of us could document it.

Take oil extraction for example, literally the basis of everything this civilization does from agriculture to mining or from transportation to “renewables”. On the surface everything looks perfectly fine: wells are pumping petroleum at a higher rate than ever before in history, gas is getting cheaper, and the future looks bright. Which is true, unless you dare to look just a tad bit further than the next few months. If you scratch the paint, which has started to peel and come undone in large patches anyway, you see a totally different picture. The end of the shale boom is drawing dangerously close — and it really doesn’t matter if it ends as early as next year, or three years from now. Once it’s over, it’s over, and then an ever accelerating decline in oil output awaits. (Dr. Chris Martenson, author of the book titled The Crash Course explains the situation superbly in just 36 minutes with charts and ample evidence to back up his claims).

As both I and Mr Martenson — not to mention petroleum geologist Art Bermann — keep repeating: oil depletion has nothing to do with technology or regulation. If you are sucking a milkshake with an ever larger straw all you gonna do is empty the cup faster. On the long term it really doesn’t matter if you are using a motorized turbocharged hydrogen-fusion powered sucking machine, once you start to hear the slurping sound there is not much left to do. Sure, in the meantime you will get record braking years like 2023, but in the end you have just brought closer that which you are trying to deny all the time: depletion. And no, it really doesn’t matter if you plan to power to future with “fusion” or “renewables”… All technology use, without exception, relies on sucking reserves of finite resources dry as fast as possible. It makes no difference if you call that resource petroleum, lithium or copper.

Even if you think that quantity has a quality of its own, this should make you stop and think for a little. While we could disregard the fact that the energy economics of fossil fuels get worse and worse with every passing year, and that we foolishly compensated the energy lost on ever shittier investments with quantity, once output starts to fall, shit is going to get real. How and from where will the US buy the missing quantities then? What would happen if the Middle East indeed turned its back on the Americans? The process is already well underway, with attacks mounting on military outposts and ships, resulting in a 90% drop in container traffic, and Western oil companies being gradually replaced with Chinese ones.

This story is about much more than oil though. There is nary a material field in which the US is self reliant, whereas it’s competitors are holding at least one (or a dozen) aces up in their sleeves. The geopolitical shift and the rise of Eurasian powers are not without merits in their dominance in certain resource fields. All this, of course, must be viewed in its proper historical context. In fact, what we are witnessing here is the definitive end of the ‘Colombian age’; a five hundred year period starting with the famous journey of Columbus, resulting in the discovery and looting of the American continent and later the entire world. Something, which is now coming to a close with the ferocity of a grand finale of the biggest fireworks show you have ever seen. As Ronald Wright brilliantly put it:

“Modern America and modern civilization in general are the culmination of a half Millennium we might call the Colombian age. For Europe, and later its offshoots the Americas, North Central and South, really were El Dorado: a source of unprecedented wealth and growth. Our political and economic culture, especially its North American variant, has therefore been built on a gold rush mentality of ‘more tomorrow’. The American dream of New Frontiers and plenty has seduced the world, yet this seduction has triumphed. Just as the Colombian age shows many signs of ending, having exhausted the Earth, and aroused appetites it can no longer feed.

In short the future isn’t what it used to be. When Stanley Kubrick made the
film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ 40 years ago, it did not seem farfetched to imagine that by the start of this millennium Americans might have a base on the Moon, and be flying manned craft to Jupiter. After all, only five decades had passed from the first airplane to the first space flight. But by the real 2001 there had been no man on the moon since 1972, elderly space shuttles were falling out of the sky and the defining event of that year, and perhaps of this new century, was not a voyage to outer planets but the flying of airliners into skyscrapers by fanatics.”

Forget Elon Musk and Space X. Once resources start to run low (or come at a somewhat slower pace) there will be no way to land Americans on the Moon, let alone Mars. The US is facing it’s biggest crisis of its history spanning back to the arrival of the Mayflower. Everything which has been achieved since then was underpinned by the rich resource deposits of the new continent. And while you could — in theory — open a few new mines here and there, the easy to get high quality stuff is gone for good. The rest would take an extraordinary energy investment to get: requiring the removal of megatons of rocks, building a mine with its connecting roads, machinery, power supply, etc. — only to process ores with abysmal metal to rock ratios. All this is to be done by burning diesel fuel, distilled from petroleum, of course. In light of a looming fall in oil output this does not seem to be a winning proposition to me.

In fact, I argue, this depletion of rich mineral reserves was the prime reason behind the deindustrialization of the US. Coal, iron ore, copper, uranium, etc. could be mined and processed more profitably elsewhere, where deposits were richer, people poorer and environmental standards lower. Now, that even that part of the easy to mine minerals is gone (or in the process of depleting fast), what we are facing is a global race for securing whatever is left. Is it any wonder, that so many prominent western politicians and think tanks were openly fantasizing about decolonizing Russia, in hopes of bringing back a Yeltsin-like figure who would then allow them to open mining pits all over the place…? It would not be a far fetched idea to say that a similar line of thinking drove the pivot to Asia as well. It was certainly the case in Latin America, why should we think that it is different this time…? Whatever you think of foreign policy decisions,

wars were always fought over resources, land, minerals and a market to sell one’s goods.

Western Europe — the prime ally of the US — is extremely badly positioned in this regard. Having burnt up all its cheap coal and metal ores during the industrial revolution and in the past two world wars, it has drawn the short straw in the ongoing third. In fact, this is why WWIII appears to be such a “slog”: western nations simply cannot produce enough shells, missiles, drones, tanks, you name it to win it. Meanwhile the other side is ramping up production on the back of its excess capacity and resource base of fossil fuels and metals (most of which it can no longer export to the West), while it keeps husbanding its human resources. As I keep repeating: this is not a rerun of WWII, or an armed conflict fought over territory, but a war of ‘aggressive attrition’ waged till capitulation. It has a clear, well communicated and well understood purpose of stopping NATO expansion by burning up as much Western hardware as possible.

The slower and longer this conflict goes, the deeper the collapse of the western alliance will run.

Thanks to the self-sabotage of the continent’s cheap energy supply, Europe was already losing its heavy industries to competition, and whatever is left is now leaving fast. It must be told, that once domestic resources became too expensive to exploit, and all the good stuff were gone, it was only a question of time when the EU would start hurtling towards economic depression anyway. With this ongoing conflict, however, deindustrialization and demilitarization has switched to a higher gear. Now, there are no viable plans left on how to handle the situation.

The Euro zone economy, as a result, has “likely entered recession” last year. No wonder: energy is the economy, and more than 80% of our energy still comes from burning fossil fuels. Germany’s CO2 emissions thus fell to levels not seen in decades, and according to Agora Energiewende, this hasn’t happened because of a sudden growth in “renewables”, but because a good portion of Germany’s industrial base has left the country. This has come about as a direct result of deliberate acts of self-sabotage: with European agencies coming up with all sorts of “regulatory changes” resulting in equipment stuck in Canada for months, export licenses being revoked, transits being refused — or the outright ban put on steel, coal and oil imports — not to mention turning a blind eye to Nordstream explosions.

Replacing these cheap and plentiful fossil fuel resources with expensive LNG from the US, and petroleum products shipped around the Asian continent in a shadow fleet of tankers did not help either, to say the least. Add to this the closure of Germany’s last working nuclear power plants, rising interest rates, a loss of people’s purchasing power, falling exports (due to losing market share both East and West), or the complete loss of their technological edge over other nations, and you see that Europe’s largest economy is facing a deep and structural crisis. Is it any wonder that last week the whole country entered protests…?

At the same time, and much to the same reasons, the UK manufacturing sector also plunges deeper into crisis:

“UK manufacturing output contracted at an increased rate at the end of 2023”, Rob Dobson, Director at S&P Global Market Intelligence, said. “The demand backdrop remains frosty, with new orders sinking further as conditions remain tough in both the domestic market and in key export markets, notably the EU” he continued. Things look unlikely to get better any time soon. Business optimism dropped to its lowest level in a year, reflecting a weak economy, high interest rates and client closures. “With concerns about high interest rates and the cost-of-living crisis hurting demand, the outlook for manufacturers in the months ahead remains decidedly gloomy,” Dobson said. With demand low and optimism fading, December saw further job losses in the manufacturing sector.

The German and British militaries have also turned out to be jokes. Leopard tanks face serious maintenance issues (at least those which were spared from burning on minefields). German military bases are spied upon by drones, resistant to western jamming attempts. Britain has run out of arms to send. One country after the other makes announcements that they are unable to send more weapons, and support the buildup of arms industries instead — in a warn torn country, without heavy industries and under constant missile barrages.

Without heavy industries (preferably out of the way of enemy fire), and cheap energy to power them, how would any European country produce its own weapons? Tanks, artillery shells, guns etc. all take an immense amount of carbon intensive energy, and plenty of high quality steel and explosives to make. Somehow it didn’t dawn on Western elites, that none of this could be produced by an EU economy comprised largely of banks, real estate and insurance companies and corporate headquarters.

Sure, you can power a server farm with windmills, but not a factory churning out tanks and ammo.

The United States faces a similar problem in its struggle to ramp-up shell production. With no industry, skilled labor, a robust supply chain of components and most importantly excess energy to back it up, it’s no wonder that the West is lagging behind its competitors. For reference, just take a look at where most steel is made nowadays, and draw your own conclusions... And its not only that. The West has also lost its military supremacy, and not only in the fields of high tech armaments (electronic warfare, jamming, hyper-sonic missiles etc.) but also in the area of strategic planning. As Swiss Army Colonel Jacques Baud’s wrote in his latest book:

The problem with the vast majority of our so-called military experts is their inability to understand the Russian approach to war. It is the result of an approach we have already seen in waves of terrorist attacks — the adversary is so stupidly demonized that we refrain from understanding his way of thinking. As a result, we are unable to develop strategies, articulate our forces, or even equip them for the realities of war. The corollary of this approach is that our frustrations are translated by unscrupulous media into a narrative that feeds hatred and increases our vulnerability. We are thus unable to find rational, effective solutions to the problem.

This is indeed a deep-rooted cultural problem; what John Micheal Greer refers to as the ‘Orc Fallacy’ in his brilliant essay The Three Stigmata of J.R.R. Tolkien. The West has not only lost its industries but also its wits, and sunk into a delusion of moral and technological superiority — something which is clearly and demonstrably no longer there. Now, that America is stretched thin across the entire globe exerting itself to defend everything everywhere — while trying to actively engage not one but a whole range of its major competitors all at the same time — what is the probability of it coming out as a winner?

This whole setup, with a senile leadership and a servile media apparatus wholly unable to grasp the situation, reminds me eerily to what we are told has happened to the USSR before it broke up:

…everyone from the top to the bottom of Soviet society knew that it wasn’t working, knew that it was corrupt, knew that the bosses were looting the system, knew that the politicians had no alternative vision. And they knew that the bosses knew they knew that. Everyone knew it was fake, but because no one had any alternative vision for a different kind of society, they just accepted this sense of total fakeness as normal.

Once you take stock of the things denied most vehemently — a depleted military arsenal together with a lost technological edge, a looming debt crisis, soaring inequality, accelerating de-dollarization, or an election looking more like a prelude to civil war — you start to see how a perfect storm is taking shape on the horizon. Once again, what were the hallmarks of the decline of once great powers? Revolts and provincial breakaways… Foreign challengers becoming increasingly successful… The military becoming ineffective… From the perch I’m sitting on, I can already observe all these signs of a deepening pre-collapse crisis, and I’m afraid we don’t have to wait much too long to see what comes after the current phase of decline is over.

Until next time,


P.S.: Save this article and send it in a few years time to anyone who insist that all this could not possibly be foreseen.

Thank you for reading this post. If you would like to see more in depth analysis of our predicament please subscribe for free, and if you can afford it, consider supporting my work by taking a snapshot of this QR-code or by clicking the link below. Thank you!




A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: