This Is Collapse — Some of Us Just Aren’t Paying Attention
Food, Water, Energy, Money. How Many Crises Can a Civilization Take? We’re Finding Out the Hard Way
Written by Umair Haque and published in Medium.co, 6/8/2022
How are you feeling these days? I hope you’re all doing OK, well, even. Me? I’m…hanging in there. I’m a little under the weather today so I’ll try to keep this brief. OK — LOL. At least shorter than usual.
If you look around, and if you’re observant, you can begin to notice something profoundly disturbing happening to our world. Our civilization is beginning to visibly fail. Over the last few years, I’ve warned of civilizational collapse. I’ve predicted failures of all kinds, that our basic systems would begin to shatter and break. And now you see it beginning to happen.
When I talk about civilizational collapse, people seem to think it’s some kind of prediction. It’s not — not anymore. My Western friends are lost in comic book movies and Instagram bodies and billionaire fantasies and dueling celebrities. But if you look at the world for just one second, what do you see?
Let me take you on a brief tour of a civilization that’s now beginning to collapse in earnest.
The basic systems of our civilization are now visibly coming undone. This is a change. It’s the beginning of a long-run trend, which will define the rest of our lives and beyond. On a dying planet, things don’t work. Every kind of system fails. It’s not just about the war in Ukraine. System failure is a problem of a dying planet. And so is war, like in Ukraine, which is about controlling our dying planet’s dwindling food and energy supplies.
What systems can you see failing — if you only look? They’re hidden in plain sight.
Let’s begin with the global food crisis. Everyone from the UN to the World Bank is warning of one that’s a “catastrophe.” Those aren’t my words, that’s the Economist, this time. You can probably feel it in your own life. How fast have the price of your everyday groceries, meat, produce, bread, milk, risen? Maybe skyrocketed is the better word. As my lovely wife put it, over the last year “every day everything got more expensive.”
It’s OK for “people like us.” You, me, the average Westerner. Even if we’re hurting these days, we’re still relatively affluent. But as Antonio Guterres has warned, the impending food crisis is going to horrific for much of the world. Many of the world’s poorer countries and regions are net food importers. Shortages will hit them especially hard — and people will starve.
When I talk to my Western friends about issues like this — global hunger — they don’t get it. Not anymore. They just don’t care. It’s not just that they’re indifferent, lulled into numbness by Marvel Movies — Aquaman will feed the world!! — it’s that way back in the 80s, all this got turned on its head. Celebrities did a good thing and tried to “feed the world” — remember that song? But the net effect was that the average person now sees it as a kind of cultural issue. My Western friends don’t get how incredibly, shockingly bad this really is.
So let me tell you. In Afghanistan, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, people are starving. Look at this picture of a starving baby from Afghanistan. Look at it. Look at it. That poor child looks like a haunted, broken thing. A skeleton. Does any baby deserve that?
So do you know what parents are doing in Afghanistan to feed their kids? What would you do if you saw your child turning to bones before your very eyes? Would you cry? Scream? Rage at the horror of it?
They’re selling their organs. People are selling their organs to feed their starving kids. This is the world we live in. My Western friends, trapped in their idiots’ paradise of Marvel Movies, not only can’t imagine it — they don’t bother to notice it.
That is a measure of moral emptiness — and that’s not just an empty jeremiad. It’s why their societies are falling apart, too. You can’t not care about people selling their organs to feed their starving kids and then hope the fascists and theocrats don’t come for you, too. That’s not how this works. This thing called the project of human civilization.
To be a civilization where people are selling their organs to feed their kids — at this juncture in human history — is, in a nutshell, why our civilization is failing. How it is. This is what we reduce people to, still. It’s the 21st century. Talk to me about progress, sure — but don’t also stop noticing how badly we have failed as a civilization, whose test is how the most vulnerable are treated. The most vulnerable people in our civilization? They’re not “like that” Afghanistani child above. They are that child. And we treat them in unspeakable ways. What does it mean to reduce a child to bones, to starve them, for their parents to sell organs in a desperate, futile attempt to feed them milk?
But another reason my Western friends don’t care is that, well, life is getting hard for them, too. It’s hard to have sympathy for a starving baby from some country a million miles away — when your own country, America, is struck by a food crisis, too. And you can’t get baby formula for your own kids. At that point, distinctions cease to matter. When you can’t provide for your own, empathy quickly runs out. It dries up and turns to dust. All you can think about is your own baby.
America’s baby formula shortage isn’t really about what Americans think it is. A factory being shut down, not even the centralization of production in a few factories. Sorry, wrong — proximate causes, sure, but not ultimate ones, real ones. Let me tell you the true cause.
To avert this catastrophic global food crisis, do you know how much the World Food Program needs? $22 billion. In other words, Jeff Bezos or Gates or the rest of the billionaires gang could stop, prevent, and end a global food crisis in a microsecond, and still have so much money left over they’d still be mega-billionaires.
How much richer did billionaires get during the pandemic alone? $2 trillion. In other words, billionaires got a hundred times richer just during the pandemic than it would take to end a global food crisis erupting now. A hundred times.
Something is very, very wrong with a civilization like that. That something is that it concentrates too much wealth in too few hands, and there is an endemic, chronic lack of investment in things people need. Those few hands where wealth is concentrated “own” everything — and that is how you get to a world where production is centralized in a handful of factories and so forth. Baby formula? Come on, it’s something that should be produced in every city, region, state. It shouldn’t just be produced in a tiny number of factories in a big, big country. That’s a recipe for collapse.
These economics are fatal. Remember Rome? What did Nero do? He fiddled and danced a jig and sang…while Rome burned. What did Caligula do while the gates crumbled? He had orgies, apparently, and gorged himself and his friends to the point they’d throw up in bowls…just so they could do it all over again. See any of today’s billionaires lifting a finger to stop the global food crisis?
But what do we even call someone who could prevent the deaths of millions of people…by lifting a finger…and doesn’t? If you could save a million babies like the one above — just by lifting a finger — wouldn’t you? If you didn’t, what would it make you?
Perhaps you see my point.
This is civilizational collapse.
The food crisis isn’t just about food, of course. It’s about the real problem at the heart of our civilization. Money. Prices are skyrocketing even in rich countries — especially in rich ones. But even there, life has become a struggle. In America, of course, the average person is perpetually indebted, because they can’t make ends meet to begin with. So what happens when food gets more expensive by the day — and never stops?
But it’s hardly just food, either. Western America’s in drought — and weirdly, again, nobody much seems to care. Maybe it’s happened before. But this time is different. It’s not seasonal. Lake Mead is at risk of dying. Everything on a dying planet is — take heed. And yet from its waters tens of millions of people survive — and so do many of America’s crops. What happens as it runs dry? What happens when the water runs out?
The answer to that question is: nobody knows. And that’s a very, very big problem. Because we should know. There should be some kind of plan. Because it’s happening before our very eyes. But even in the richest countries, like America, there’s no plan, literally, to deal with any of these crises — food, water, money. Leaders are just like deer in the headlights. They can’t seem to believe it’s happening, even though they’ve been warned, at this point, for literally decades, by people like me, by people much smarter than me. They’ve had decades upon decades to prepare — and yet there America is, unable to feed its babies formula, without a plan for what happens when the water runs out, without enough money to go around.
So how bad do you think the situation is in poorer countries? It’s getting to be catastrophic. Many of the poor people fleeing to America’s southern border are at this point climate refugees. As the planet warms, harvests in their countries have dried up. Water systems have failed — water’s a problem across much of the region. Money, of course, is in short supply. And so they head north. It’s not just that they want to go to America — it’s that the North of a planet which is dying because of the heat is what’s going to survive.
Did you see the warning about yet another system failing? NERC — America’s energy grid regulator — warned just the other day that because it was going to be an especially hot summer, expect blackouts and brownouts. “Persistent, extreme drought and its accompanying weather patterns, however, are out of the ordinary and tend to create extra stresses on electricity supply and demand.” LOL — thanks for the warning, I don’t mean to poke fun at fine people doing good work — but none of this is “out of the ordinary.” Every summer is going to be like this, and it’s going to get much worse, fast. Hello, we are living on a planet that’s currently heating up at light speed.
America’s energy grids are beginning to fail. Americans don’t often stop to think about that, but they should, because, well, what happens when the power goes out? Everything in society grinds to a halt. Hospitals stop functioning. Businesses close their doors. Work grinds to a halt. Everything just stops. And so there’s of course a consequential knock-on effect on the economy as a whole. Which leads to unemployment, recession, more inflation, and so forth.
Energy grids going down are a very, very bad thing. But of course, this is another consequence of not having invested in systems that are fit for now — just depending on old, broken, industrial age ones, like America’s ancient, creaking energy grid.
What’s the list we’ve made so far. Food. Water. Money. Energy.
Those are all of a civilization’s basic systems.
Let me say it again.
Those are all of a civilizations’s basic systems. These systems are already under profound stress in America — breaking visibly before our eyes. They are already shattering around much of our world. If they’re crumbling in a rich country like America — how bad do you think it’s going to be in poor ones? Want to live in the kind of world where you have to get water delivered — and so it becomes a privilege for the wealthy? Where just affording food is a stretch? That’s how much of humanity has lived, but progress means the opposite. We are heading in the wrong direction. We are growing poorer as a civilization, now, fast. That is what all these crises mean.
A food crisis. A water crisis. An energy crisis. A — if you count Covid — public health crisis. A money crisis so absurd and demonically evil that it’d make Caligula develop a conscience — billionaires who could solve those crises by swiping on an iPhone. Who could prevent millions of deaths — but won’t, and what do you call a person like that?
How many crises can a civilization have at once?
We’re finding out the hard way. And that is what I mean when I say that I don’t warn of civilization collapse, or predict it anymore. Now I’m watch it happen. And so, if you’re looking — if you’re not too busy desperately living it — are you.