Is this the end of Civilization?

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, 6/8/2022

Image Credit: The Financial Times

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? $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.

How Civilizations Collapse — And Ours is Beginning To

This Is Why the World Is Spinning Out of Control

Photo from Unsplash

Written by Umair Haque and published in 2/21/2022

You and I woke up to a terrifying new world today. War in Europe is now all but a reality again, after a lifetime of peace. War by a major military power, seemingly bent on Nazi style dominance and aggression.

That was only the second relevant fact of the day. The first?

Our governments have basically given up on Covid — to the desperate pleas of doctors and scientists, all of whom know that doing so will only prolong the pandemic, and make it much worse. We are as little as nine letters of DNA away from a truly terrible variant — one that makes Delta look like a walk in the park. That’s what science knows — not politics says.

What is really going on here? If you feel that all this is deeply frightening, chilling, that’s because it is. You are probably, like most of us, consumed with dread, which is the “freeze” part of the trauma response. That’s psychology. But the more urgent question is about our world.

So what happens from here?

In every great collapse, there are roughly three stages. We might call them something like neglect, decadence, and implosion. Sure, I’m oversimplifying — but all models do that. We are just trying to explain the present and predict the future a little bit, its general contours, its shape and weight.

Where we’ve been is cycling through the first two stages of collapse, neglect and decadence. And now we are approaching the event horizon of implosion. That is the last and final stage of collapse.

What happens in the “implosion” stage of collapse? Things spin out of control. They reach a point where they can no longer be managed. The conventional systems and orthodoxies and paradigms stop working. Tipping points are hit, and dynamics accelerate into implosive trajectories, which, by and large, become unstoppable.

Does it feel like the world is spinning out of control right about now? That is because we are at the edge of the “implosion” stage of collapse. We are dancing right at its verge. That is the point at which control is well and truly lost, and then things really go to hell.

I know that sounds dire. Please take a moment to hear me. I don’t tell you these things because I want to “doomsay,” which I’m often accused of. My motivations are always under question and attack. Do you know why that is? Because they hard to understand under our capitalist system and its values. I warn you because I genuinely care about you. That’s baffling to most because in our system, it’s not supposed to happen. People are supposed to do what’s profitable, not what’s right. Listen. I walked away from a lucrative career being a typical pundit because I couldn’t bear it. The good matters to me. I never want any being — you, a little animal, anyone — to suffer. I warn you because I care. That is totally incomprehensible to pundits, within the capitalist system, and that is why they constantly attack me with ad hominems.

I digress because I really want you to understand my motivations at this point in our relationship. I value our trust and community a very, very great deal. It is a wonderful and beautiful thing to experience every day.

We have built a community here that is pure of heart and rich in caring, intellect, wisdom, truth, goodness. But in that way, it is completely different from the corrupt and malicious world which surrounds us.

That world is now spinning out of control. And that loss of control is the hallmark of the “implosion” stage of collapse.

Let’s do a couple of examples to bring this little framework — three stages of collapse — home. Think of the canonical example, Rome. My little framework is very much along the lines of Toynbee, the great scholar of Roman collapse. Rome fell through, first, neglect. Its great public goods were underinvested in — whether aqueducts or fountains or squares and temples. People grew poor as a result. And finally, democracy collapsed. Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and took over, in a desperate, misguided attempt to become Rome’s saviour — and tyrant. He failed — thanks to Brutus and the Senate. But then nobody saved Rome — and the negligence only continued. Augustus became its first emperor, as democracy waned.

So then, because the negligence never ended, came the period of decadence. A hundred short years after Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Caligula was emperor. And his corruption, his orgies, his horse in the Senate — all these have become the stuff of legend. Fifteen year later came Nero, and his fiddle.

Negligence bred decadence. Instead of deciding to address the negligence which was bringing Rome to the point of ruin — leaving people impoverished, desperate, the empire crumbling at the edges — inequality had now spiralled to the point where Rome’s elites simply stopped caring at all. They preferred their orgies and wine and villas to trying to restore order and justice and prosperity. Who cared if their civilization was crumbling? Surely it would last another millennium or five anyways.

And decadence bred, at last, implosion. The empire flew apart. Its enemies marched and attacked it. Cults grew. The average person lost faith in it. Its once proud democracy was now a distant memory. Its armies could not keep the peace, or even secure its borders. Bang. A century after Nero came Commodus — the witless fool under whom Roman implosion has become the stuff of legend.

Why am I going through this retelling of history with you? Imagine life at each of these three stages. In the period of neglect, life wasn’t too bad. Sure, maybe your local aqueduct didn’t work very well, or your town square was in need of maintenance. But society’s basic systems — security, food, water, medicine, democracy — they all still worked.

Nobody much, in that era, would have predicted the ugliness and sordid humiliation of what was to come just a few short decades later, under Caligula and Nero. That Caligula would try to put his horse in the Senate, to drive the point home that Roman democracy was a joke. That basic systems like democracy, food, water, security, medicine would all have begun to break down. That Rome itself would burn, while its emperor fiddled. Life in that age? The age of decadence? It was brutal and desperate and ugly, for the average person. It was beginning to become a desperate battle for self-preservation and survival, while elites mostly laughed and partied and ate fine desserts.

But even then, few could have predicted what was to come next. The age of implosion. What was life like then? Society as Romans once knew it had basically stopped existing. The most basic guarantees — rights, security, stability, systems for food and water and money, had simply stopped working. You didn’t know when your village might be invaded, when life might simply fall apart into shattering violence and brutality and irrevocable ruin.

Life at each of these stages got worse — in special ways. Dramatically worse. Worse in ways that the last stage didn’t predict, and largely laughed at the warning of. And so much worse, by the end of it, that everything was out of control. By Commodus’s era, Rome could not manage its problems. Its mechanisms of order didn’t work anymore. It couldn’t impose control. Its armies were shattered. Its fields were barren. Its great waterways were crumbling ruins. And so on. Everything had spun out of control.

Now. Maybe you begin to see where we really are as a world. We have gone way, way past the age of neglect. Past the age of decadence. Now we are at the edge of the age of implosion.

Let me walk you — quickly — through how each of those stages played out for us. The age of neglect for us? We had a chance, my friends. We could have spent the surplus of our civilization doing things that genuinely expanded the human good. Like educating every single child on the planet, and giving every adult a thorough education, too — inoculating ourselves against fascism. Like giving every life on the planet healthcare — preventing today’s pandemics. Like creating a democracy that genuinely worked for the globe — not just ones that were still contested by fanatics globally — a democracy that let the world’s once abundant resources be shared fairly, and thus used wisely. Such a democracy would have prevented the economies of the richest nations, like America, from being based solely on overconsumption.

We had a century or more to do that. But we didn’t do that. And so we entered the age of decadence. That age was when the entire global economy’s point was to supply goods and services for Americans to overconsume. Our consumption ratio as a civilization is far, far too high: 80% of our economy is consumption. Any farmer can tell you: you can’t reap 80% and only plant 20% and hope to have a harvest for very long. But the entire global economy was predicated on this. China and India became labour centers which basically supplied Americans with huge cars and cheap steel and pointless gadgets and so on. Walmart and Amazon became the way station of this economy.

This age of decadence is best exemplified by the American McMansion. By the 90s, American culture had become a quest for a certain kind of life — a McMansion and a fleet of huge cars, in some giant suburb, at the end of some giant highway. Who really needed to live like this? If everyone in America was going to live like a king — then the truth was that it was costing the planet. Democracy. Life on it.

Instead of investing those resources in educating the planet or giving it healthcare or rights or freedoms…the entire point of global political economy became to let Americans live the lifestyles of mindless ultra-consumption. The very ones for which they became scorned and mocked around the globe as selfish, thoughtless idiots. Could any civilization like this really last? Americans numbered 300 million people or so — and the resources of an entire planet, from its raw materials to its labour, were basically pressed into service so they could live like kings.

Decadence. In Rome, in any civilization, the age of decadence is about a kind of corrosive inequality. How was it fair that if you were in 90% of the world, you’d be consigned to a life of poverty and poor education and illness…while America took all the world’s gains and goods, in a way that was about excess, greed, selfishness, narcissism?

The opposite of decadence is intellect, goodness, truth, justice, equality. We didn’t build a world like that. We built one where Americans could live flashy lifestyles of complete and utter excess — huge houses, multiples of huge cars, multiple air conditioners, huge debts — while the entire rest of the world was neglected. And so, ultimately, was America itself.

The next stage of decadence was American elites growing rich while its own working and middle class fell into penury. Remember how Roman elites partied and were fed grapes and had orgies while their citizens fell into poverty, unable to find work, feed themselves, educate their kids? That was more or less exactly what was happening in America. Go to Manhattan or DC or San Francisco, and you’d see huge, huge mansions or penthouses in the sky rising — by the hundreds. But go to any town or smaller city, and you’d see devastation, poverty, drug addiction, despair, and blight. Decadence had spread from America versus the world, to American elites versus their own average citizens.

And now we are at the stage of implosion. Things are spinning out of control. Precisely because we underinvested for so long. We didn’t give every life on earth healthcare — from poor people to animals — and so we are getting pandemics. And because our leaders cannot find a way to manage them, we are simply giving up. War is breaking out in Europe again, as demagoguery rises — the very same demagogue starting that war is the one who destabilised America, too. Not a coincidence. Decadence. Neglect. Breeding implosion.

I could go on with plenty of examples. We’ve barely bothered to do anything about climate change — and within a decade now, swathes of the planet will be uninhabitable. The consequences will make Covid’s lockdown look like cakewalks. People won’t have homes to be locked down in. Economies will have to bear the immense costs of cities sinking, regions burning, provinces turning into Fire or Flood Belts, refugees fleeing, businesses closing for good, harvests failing.

That’s not even the big one. Then comes mass extinction — life on this planet beginning to die off at the species level. It is happening now, but we will feel it when one species critical to a certain chain is gone — and bang, that chain suddenly stops working. There goes our food. Water. Medicine. There go our oceans, rivers, forests, fields. The world as we know it no longer exists then. Remember not being able to get stuff on the shelves when Covid hit? Now imagine that, but permanent. That is the future we’re heading into.

I need to warn you about this. And you need to plan for itI don’t mean that you should turn into Glenn from the Yukon on that one survival show I like to watch. Run for the hills! You can if you want, but the truth is that isn’t going to work for most of us. We need to exist in collectives and communities — not just as rugged individuals.

You need to begin thinking all this through nowHow will I survive the age of implosion? How will I educate my kids? Where will my income come from? Where will I put my savings? Do I have a way to feed my family, if things fail for a time? I even mean simple things like wearing masks, because yes, they work, even cloth ones, and a worse variant is coming. Or simpler things, too, like saving more and spending less, because lean times are coming.

I can’t tell you what your plan should be. But I can tell you that you are going to need one, now. It could involved leaving a failing state — like moving out of America, if you have the resources. That is a very wise thing to do. It could mean thinking of a new career altogether. It could mean retiring, and building a more independent life in a working country, even if your kids don’t understand why yet. Or it could mean listening to your kids, who are often far more attuned to all this than we adults are, and asking them for their answers.

We are going to have to make these plans. And share them. So that we become communities and collectives. It only works that way. Yes, you can survive in a shack by yourself with a gun and knife — not a problem. But we are talking about something bigger. Not just surviving, but retaining some aspect of civilization. Surviving with goodness, grace, truth, nobility. With art and science and literature and culture and society intact. We cannot do that as individuals.

So we need to, in my opinion, begin making plans and sharing them. This is how I’m going to deal with implosion. This is how I’m going to. Oh, that’s a great idea. I didn’t think of that before! Thank you. May I join you? Sure you can — let’s join hands and do it together. You bring the art, I’ll bring the science. We are stronger together.

Our future, my friends, is in community. Communities which let civilisation survive a dark age. We need to start building them now. It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t have a magic wand. We just have something even stronger. Each other.