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Are We in the Early Stages of Civilizational Collapse? Plus, the Future of the Economy, and Why the World is Going Crazy

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The other day, as I was doing my daily reading, I came across climate scientists, debating whether or not we faced civilizational collapse. It was interesting, and I want to take a sec to give you my perspective, which is that of an economist slash top 50 thinkers guy, guru, whatever you want to call it etcetera.

Collapse. Think of a top spinning. How does it stop? It destabilizes. That’s the same model we should apply to us. So what destabilizes our human organizations, the largest of which is a civilization—leading to the loss of momentum, the breakdown, that ends in collapse?

And here, collapse isn’t a sci-fi film. Tomorrow, it’s the End of the World. The Roman Empire took centuries to fully collapse. The Soviet Union took decades to become what Russia is today. And so on. We’re talking about a process, that takes from decades to centuries, then, not a sudden sort of blockbuster film overnight melodrama. The tragedy of collapse is written across generations.

So. Destabilization. Long-term. What causes it?

The Future of the Economy

The economy. It’s the very first thing we should look at to think about this question.

And the economic picture before us is as clear as it is dire. What were we just discussing yesterday? How inflation is the primary destabilizer of modern polities. So what’s the future of the economy?

We’re in for a lost decade, plus. The global economy’s projected to stagnate for the next decade, but even beyond that, there are no real sources of easy growth left. We’ve made war on each other, pillaged the world, and destroyed the planet. Game over, at least for those models of “growth.” (And no, tools like AI won’t magically create “growth”—they’ll just create more phantom growth, gains making the ultra wealthy even wealthier, but costing us dearly at the median, taking jobs, eroding culture and society, breaking social bonds, fueling distrust, and so on.)

Now. What’s the main issue affecting the world today? There’s a “cost of living crisis,” as we economists call it, and that understates just how much pain people are feeling. They’re feeling the crunch profoundly and dearly. But framing it this way—a cost-of-living crisis—implies that it’s temporary, that it’ll pass someday soon. Will it, though?

The hard truth is: probably not.

Consider the following. It’s from a cutting edge study—one of the first times our central banks have studied the effects of climate change in a serious way. What did it find?

Food costs more because of climate change - and it will get worse

Rising temperatures are predicted to drive up food inflation by between 0.9 and 3.2 per cent a year by 2035, as crop yields suffer from extreme heat.

“You are already paying more and more for food due to global warming – and rising temperatures will drive food prices a lot higher in the next decade.

According to a study done in collaboration with the European Central Bank, by 2035, higher temperatures alone will be pushing up worldwide food prices by between 0.9 and 3.2 per cent every single year.

“There’s often a sense of shock and surprise at the magnitude of these impacts,” says Maximilian Kotz at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, referring to his discussions with economists while doing the study.” 

All of that’s going to be, inevitably, an underestimate, because so far, everything about the mega-scale impacts of climate change has been severely underestimated. So let’s imagine now that food prices go up by 4%, 5%, a year, due to climate change. This study doesn’t really factor in corporate strategy, aka profit margins, and adding those in, that means that food goes up double that much, maybe. 

Welcome to what I often call the greatest economic shock in modern history. Inflation isn’t going to magically go away. I know that you’re often told that it will, but—but those sorts of estimates and models, amazingly enough, are so obsolete that they don’t factor in the single biggest change in the world, which is climate change. It hardly takes a genius to see that droughts, crop failures, megafloods, and so forth are going to add up dearly, in terms of this basic.

Let’s shade that in in another way, to make it even sharper. Do you know what’s already becoming a luxury, mainly reserved for the ultra rich? Clean air. It’s now marketed as a selling point in high-end apartments in Manhattan, precisely because, I’d imagine, there are more and more days of ultra low quality air, since, for example Canada burns. I think those who don’t keep up with the science are severely underestimating where we’re headed, because we’re already in “uncharted territory.”

 Combine the following with its economic and sociopolitical implications—and tell me if you don’t shudder.


The head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies is sounding an alarm in the scientific community — albeit a nuanced one — over how unexpectedly significant 2023's warming was.

Why it matters: Scientists don't yet know why the world warmed by about 0.2°C (0.36°F) more than would have been expected during 2023, lasting into this year, climate scientist Gavin Schmidt wrote in the journal Nature on Tuesday.

Zoom in: Schmidt outlines all the known players on the climate stage during 2023, from El Niño to changes in marine shipping emissions, along with increasing greenhouse gases.

None of them can explain the enduring spike in global air and ocean temperatures that began last year.

He calls it "an unprecedented knowledge gap," noting that if the anomaly does not diminish by August, as suggested by past El Niño events, "the world will be in uncharted territory."

Notably, his predecessor at GISS, James Hansen, published a paper last year arguing we are already in just such a situation.

So here we have inflation for two of the most basic of basics—air and food. I haven’t mentioned water, though as you can imagine, the situation’s not so different, perhaps even more dire, because as a world, we’re running out of it, essentially. 

I’m not kidding, then, when I say this is the greatest shock in modern history, maybe all of history. The basics are poised to get more and more expensive. In a kind of weird modern day take on Les Miserables, and if it appears we might reach the point of “let them eat cake,” you’re not far off the mark, at least in many higher risk places and locales. What does a civilization where the basics—food, air, and water, and everything that’s made from them, which is everything, period—are poised to dramatically rise in price, and have already begun to, becoming increasingly unaffordable…what would you call the situation it faces?

Is that an early warning sign of collapse? If not, shouldn’t it be?

How Societies Destabilize

Yesterday, we discussed how inflation is the great destroyer of modern democracy. Maybe more than that, if we look back in history—the great destroyer of stability, period. Let’s confine ourselves to just the modern era—and examples like Weimar Germany becoming Nazi Germany thanks to hyperinflation are all too clear.

What’s happening today? Amazingly, Trump is poised to win the Presidency again—after, despite, it all, criminal charges, a coup attempt, abuse of power, the whole nine yards. Why? Ask people, and they’ll tell you: they think the economy sucks, and inflation’s killing them. Like I said: the great destroyer.

Now imagine what a world of perma-heatflation—long-term inflation induced by climate change, for all the basics, and all the stuff made from the basics, and here you can ask yourself what’s not made from air, water, and food, as a basic input—imagine what that world looks like politically. It’s not pretty, is it? 

We’ve had a cost of living crisis for a little less than half a decade—and economic stagnation for about two. And it’s the number one reason that democracy’s in such dire shape that it’s halved in the last twenty years. In Europe, that little bout of a cost of living crisis has been enough to send the far right surging, even in mature social democracies, once held up as beacons of stability by the world. 

The great destroyer. Inflation isn’t really just “inflation.” It wrecks people’s lives, fast and hard, as we’ve found out the hard way in recent years. But previous bouts of inflation have…ended. Because we had the tools to end them. With various adjustments to things like interest rates. I won’t get into why, but now? We don’t have the tools to end this wave of inflation. Can you tell me how to raise more crops or suddenly increase the supply of clean water by 50% or give people clean air on a burning planet? We have no idea, literally none, how to accomplish those things, and so this coming wave of inflation is likely to be…

The Flickering of Civilization, or Why the World is Going Crazy

Permanent. Permanent’s a dangerous word to use, in the economic context. Nothing lasts forever. But this? This one well might. It’s emphatically possible that the prices of food, air, and water, become sharply, permanently higher. After all, even the price we pay now, at the pump or grocery store, is artificial, propped up by vast subsidies. 

So what happens if prices just go up and up…forever? 20 years. 30. 50. What happens if the “equilibrium price”, as we economists call it, of food, water, and air, on a planet that’s two degrees hotter…is…double what it is today. Triple. 

You can see the problem, but let me spell it out for you. People’s living standards go on cratering. Their well-being goes on imploding. They react in frustration, despair, and trauma, all of which becomes rage and anger. They blame institutions for it, perhaps rightly. They lose faith in orthodox politics and its parties. Instead, they turn to demagogues, peddling wacko conspiracy theories, transforming their anger and rage into hate and spite. 

Then the world begins to seriously unravel. And we’re already at that point, more or less, or approaching it. If Trump gets re-elected? Kiss the world, even as we know it today, this bleak one, goodbye. Everything destabilizes that much more. You get the point. 

As their lives fall apart, people turn to demagogues, and demagogues aren’t interesting in solving their actual problems, just finding scapegoats to blame, and cottoning up frenzies and panics of hate. The vicious circle accelerates. This path leads, in the end, to something much like world war. At best, little bubbles of isolated nations, in a world that’s more or less authoritarian, and if you think I exaggerate, remember we’re already at just 20% democracy left.

What happens in that kind of world? Not much good does, and that’s the point. People, being less free, constrained to live in the ways fanatics and lunatics want, don’t devote their lives to science, art, literature, justice, beauty, goodness, truth, or at least not as much as otherwise. The fascist-authoritarian mission of cleansing society of the impure, or starting this war, or conquering that neighbor, or demonizing that social group and taking their personhood away—it becomes everything, the point and purpose of a society. Manias, frenzies, panics are all that’s left, which is what destabilization is. So potential, possibility, progress—all these grow swiftly suffocated in the authoritarian era we’re now facing, and seem to be entering.

So. Are we in the early stages of civilizational collapse? I think that question’s probably a little much for a lot of people to handle, so let’s turn it on its head. If a civilization was in serious and real trouble, what would you expect to see? Economic decline—today, the majority of people in ours are getting poorer, so check. Rising prices—in ours, the basics are skyrocketing, and are set to continue to, so check. Growing instability, sociopolitically—in ours, people are giving up on the belief that orthodox institutions, from political parties to corporations to international agencies, can give them better lives, and turning to fanaticism en masse, so check. A situation of resources shortages, running on empty—we’re hitting the wall of climate change, and so far, mostly twiddling thumbs, so check.

Maybe your answer differs from mine. Good, discuss away in the comments. Me? I’d say: if these aren’t early warning signs, then we’ve gone blind.

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