Last year a coworker and I had a conversation about the national debt and out of control congressional spending. He was skeptical when I suggested a second Great Depression could trigger a total collapse of the U.S. government, or the end of America as we know it. We didn’t have enough time to fully discuss the issue, and my distilled version – that increased complexity has made our civilization increasingly fragile – apparently wasn’t convincing enough. Probably a lot of survivalists or preppers have the same problem. Follow-on discussions over several months finally did convince him.
This is my attempt to explain the real possibility of a complete collapse of the U.S. caused by an event or events that disrupt systems to the point they cannot recover. The main focus is on how financial and resource issues could interact to do this, but other large-scale events – plague, massive natural disaster(s), terrorist attacks on infrastructure, and so on – could have the same effect.
For many it seems a real leap of logic to go from financial crisis to a total collapse and chaos. This is also an attempt to bridge that gap by providing some facts, context, and a narrative to explain how a perfect storm of problems is in America’s future.
Most people are aware of several of the issues that are in part setting the right conditions for a collapse since they are main stream news, but are not aware of a host of other issues or how they can interact with one another to greatly amplifying negative effects. Additionally most have not considered how the advances in technology over the past two decades that have made our lives easier, and our utter dependence on that technology, have made made us much more vulnerable.
This is not about a second Great Depression that simply lowers our standard of living, or an attack that destroys most of the U.S. or world (e.g. nuclear war, meteor), or destroys a critical part of the infrastructure in one fell swoop (e.g. EMP), that effectively results in a hard collapse.
Before getting into why a total collapse is possible, some assumptions that are widely accepted as factual.
- All empires end. Throughout history great powers have risen and fallen, so it is not unthinkable that the U.S. could also become a lesser power. This alone does not mean total collapse.
- The current U.S. national debt (84% of GNP as of 20 April 2010) and deficit spending are putting the value of the dollar at risk, and is placing the long-term financial health of the country into question. Current spending is unsustainable and will eventually force spending cuts, increased taxes, or both. Recent budgetary trimming by congress is a drop in the bucket.
- Demographics. America’s population is rapidly aging and Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, which will dramatically increase pressure on Social Security and public medical programs. This will also reduce the number taxpayers, further complicating budget issues.
- America’s infrastructure needs a major overhaul. Bridges, roads, rail, energy, dams, levees, drinking water systems, and more are in need of an estimated $2.2 trillion to be put in good condition.
- Competition for petroleum (e.g. China, India, and Europe) and the increased cost of extracting more difficult to reach fields will increase energy prices. Many of the world’s largest oil fields are in decline. The U.S. has the world’s largest deposits of coal, but our transportation is reliant upon oil (our cars don’t run on coal and our homes are not headed by coal), as the U.S. military recently noted. Oil is going to cost much, much more, there is no way around it.
These issues set the stage for the rest of the story.
Our Achilles Heels
There are four primary areas of concern (the fourth, not included in the quote below, is communications):
Most people’s very lives depend on a fragile triad made up of the transportation network, power grid and finance system. All three of these systems depend on the other two and they are all three unbelievably fragile.
Transportation. The U.S. is heavily reliant on relatively cheap imported oil from which we obtain; gasoline, diesel (and heating oil), and to a lesser extent (except the military), jet fuel. I won’t get into Peak Oil theory, in part because you can find just as many arguments for as against and in the end the bottom line remains we really don’t know. The important thing here is that while there may be much oil out there (or not), the easily obtained oil is gone, what is left if is increasingly difficult to extract, and it is therefore becoming more expensive. Without near-term technological breakthroughs in the area of energy soon (unlikely), demand for oil will increase as the population grows. Then there are China and India (from 2007):
In unusually urgent tones, the International Energy Agency warned that demand for oil imports by China and India will almost quadruple by 2030 and could create a supply “crunch” as soon as 2015 if oil producers do not step up production, energy efficiency fails to improve and demand from the two countries is not dampened.
In the U.S., most of us drive to work. The vast majority of what we buy is delivered by ships, and then by trucks, that use diesel fuel. Many homes in the northeast heat with heating oil (essentially diesel). Use any products made of plastic, nylon, petrochemicals, etc.? All made from petroleum. Our military needs massive amounts of fuel to project power and is very concerned about what the future holds.
Besides fuel there is infrastructure. Roads and bridges in many areas of the U.S. are in exceedingly poor shape, “Large swaths of our infrastructure… have aged to the point of gross deterioration.” It won’t be inexpensive to repair. Asphalt is part oil (tar) itself, and concrete is also energy intensive to produce.
To recap, it doesn’t matter that there will be lot of oil left in the Earth – it will be increasingly difficult and therefore expensive to extract, and there will be much more competition for what is extracted. Innovation may increase efficiency of vehicles or there may be alternate sources of energy discovered; but that’s highly unlikely given results from current lines of research, and unlikely to occur when needed, probably the next decade or two. This will be a shock to our economy, but could also spark oil wars – both could be triggers for collapse. On top of all that our transportation infrastructure demands attention.
Electricity. The thing that makes modern life modern; electricity. Our grid is overworked and largely tied to the internet, so aside from increasing demand and crumbling infrastructure, it is increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Most power plants use coal to produce electricity. We have plenty of coal, but the system is dependent upon having the fuel and functioning infrastructure to get it there, the communications networks that control everything, and the financial network to pay for it all. As long as interruptions are short the system remains robust; if any one segment is delayed longer term, then other systems begin to fail.
Communications. In the past twenty to thirty years we have become much more dependent on communications technologies. Phone lines are now multiplexed and on fiber rather than a direct line to the old central office on the copper wires of the Ma Bell days (the line to your house likely is copper – to a nearby junction where it’s cut over to fiber and the network). If the power goes out for more than a few days, most phone lines won’t work.
Cell phones, GPS navigation, the internet have all created dependencies. Much of the public energy, communications, and finance sectors are controlled over the internet – if the net is down, service can be degraded or simply not be there. Most stores no longer maintain warehouses, but rely on just-in-time delivery, which saves money but increases vulnerability from disruptions in the other sectors.
Finance. How many of us get an actual paper paycheck these days? Or use cash for everything? Most financial transactions are dependent upon the internet and other dedicated communications networks to function. Besides requiring adequate communications, this of course requires electricity. Which requires reliable transportation and access to fuel.
Transportation, communications, electricity, and finance are all interdependent upon one another. The system is robust as long as interruptions in service are short.
Some may point to the Great Depression and note we got through that, we’ll get through tough times in the future. We made it through previous difficult recessions. They may note that the Wiemar Republic, Argentina, Zimbabwe, and the former Soviet Union made it through financial collapses and hard times.
Well the times have changed – the U.S. is not Argentina or the U.S.S.R. and our methods of recovering in the past is no longer viable, essentially via cheap oil and/or deficit spending (including through war). The systems outlined above require a steady supply of fuel, and each other.
The general population has lost basic survival knowledge and skills since the Great Depression. Right now there are well over 300 million people in the U.S. Less that one percent are involved in farming (about two percent live on farms) and there are only about two million farms. In 1935 there were about 6.8 million farms for a population of 127 million. Currently about 81 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Almost all Americans rely on just-in-time delivery for most of what they consume, and most aren’t even aware of that.
Right now we don’t need more farmers since we are so much more efficient than in decades past. But this efficiency is the result of massive amounts of fossil fuels, fertilizers, irrigation, and of course reliance on electricity, communications, and transpiration.
There are a lot of lesser known issues in play related to farming. I won’t go into detail on all of these but check out the world-wide phosphate shortage and ground water depletion in the U.S. Both these will affect U.S. food production.
The Perfect Storm
Let’s put it all together – the baseline assumptions, technological vulnerabilities, and the end of cheap oil, combined with how the West and America function, and what that may mean for our civilization.
As our debt becomes insurmountable, the tax base of workers shrinks, those on the Social Security roles swell, and cheap energy is gone, America’s finical might of the past will be gone. We will not be able to afford keeping our infrastructure in good condition. Europe will face similar problems, while China and India will fee the pain from fuel prices. Unless an unexpected source of energy is found soon, this seems certain. There may be wars over energy, food, and water resources. There have always been wars over these things, but not with so many nuclear powers (and in decline). Basically the slow collapse scenario.
Here is where the interdependent areas of transportation, communications, energy, and finance begin to drag each other down. Significant degradation in any one area will create shock waves that affect the others. They must all function for any of them to function. This was not so in decades past, at least not to the level it is now.
Any one issue above is not enough to kill our civilization. But we’re not facing one of those issues, we’re facing most. Even if several are not as severe as portrayed, we’re looking at at least a slow collapse scenario, which would probably eventually trigger a total collapse. Perhaps I’ve not described this well enough; if so consider there are many obstacle to not collapsing and few routes away from that outcome.
Some people have the notion that they can do something about this. And the right people probably can, especially if then can discover a new power source or invent ways to overcome existing problems, before it’s too late. But I go back to locus of control; what can I realistically do to effect whether or not TEOTWAWKI will occur, or how it will unfold? Since I am not a politician, a scientist, or famous (as a platform for activism) and don’t plan on becoming any of those things, there is not much I can do beyond preparing and helping others to do the same.
I don’t believe a total collapse with a large die-off is inevitable, just possible or maybe probable if drastic changes don’t occur soon. I think we will see drastic changes, just not soon enough.