The Slow Crash

by Ran Prieur

February 2, 2005

Creative Commons License
[Edited and annotated December 7, 2012. This is a nice work of fiction, and an interesting view of cutting edge doomer thinking in 2005. I can see now that my timeline was still much too fast, my vision of the changes was too catastrophic, and I was too optimistic about popular adaptations.]

Imagine the end of the world in moderation. It's hard. We tend to imagine that either the "economy" will recover and we'll go on like 1999 forever, plus flying cars, or else one day "the apocalypse happens" and every component of the industrial system is utterly gone.

I'm not ruling out a global supercatastrophe, like an asteroid impact, an accidental nuclear war, or runaway climate change leading to an anoxic event. But what I'm focusing on here is the scenario that includes only events we're reasonably sure about: the end of cheap energy, the decline of industrial agriculture, economic collapse, wars, famines, infrastructure failures, and extreme weather.

If that's all we get, the crash will be slower and more complex than the kind of people who predict crashes like to predict. It won't be like falling off a cliff, more like rolling down a rocky hill. There won't be any clear before, during, or after. Most people living during the decline and fall of Rome didn't even know it. We're told to draw a line at the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, but to Romans at the time it was just one event -- the Visigoths came, they milled around, they left, and life went on. After the 1929 stock market crash, respectable voices said it was a temporary adjustment, that the economy was still strong. Only years later, when we knew they were wrong, could we draw a line at 1929.

I suggest we're already in the fall of civilization. In 2004 the price of oil doubled, bankruptcies and foreclosures accelerated, global food stockpiles fell to record lows despite high harvests, and we had record numbers of hurricanes and tornadoes -- and a big tsunami to top it off. If every year from here to 2020 is half as eventful, we'll be living in railroad cars, eating grass, and still waiting for the big crash we've been led to expect from watching movies designed to push our emotional buttons and be over in two hours.

You know the story: Electricity and water and heat are off and not coming back on. Food and fuel will never again be coming into the cities. People run wild in the streets killing and looting. If you live in the city, you will have to kill people to steal their food, or even eat them, and they'll be trying to do the same to you. If you live in the country, you'd better have a big gun to fend off the hordes of starving urbanites scouring the countryside. This condition will last until a strong leader rebuilds civilization.

This is a web of lies. The first lie is the assumption that breakdowns will be sudden and permanent. More likely it will go like this: As energy gets more expensive and the electrical infrastructure decays, blackouts will be more frequent and last longer, but power will come back on. By the time the big grids go down permanently, the little grids, patched together from local sources, will be ready to take their place. They will be weaker, less reliable, and more expensive, and they won't cover the slums, but by then we'll all be experts at living without refrigerators and running laptop computers from car batteries scavenged from junked SUV's and recharged with solar panels. Electricity is a luxury, not a necessity. When the lights go out, we won't go berzerk -- we'll go to bed earlier.

[Why did I think the grid would eventually go down everywhere? Because that's easier to imagine than the grid in the most energy-rich areas mostly staying up, and then re-extending after the tech system adjusts to renewable energy. Then it's just a question of how much of the grid stays mostly up. One percent? Ninety percent? ]

Likewise with gasoline. The oil's not running out -- it's just getting more scarce and expensive. People who want it will not form motorcycle gangs that chase tankers and fight to the last man. They'll do what my dad did in 1973 -- wait six hours for a fill-up. If you already know how to get by with a bicycle, you just won't have as many cars to deal with.

Water supplies are mostly gravity-fed. If something stops the flow, someone will be fixing it. Even the worst places, like Phoenix or Las Vegas, will not suddenly and permanently run out of water. As with electricity and fuel, water will get lower quality, more expensive, and unpredictably available. People will learn to store it and to stop wasting it by watering lawns and washing cars and shitting in drinking water. Adaptable people will learn to catch rainwater. With only 12 inches a year, a 10x10 foot square metal roof feeding a storage tank will gather 100 cubic feet, or about 800 gallons, enough for one person to have more than two gallons a day.

Food is more difficult. It doesn't fall from the sky, and industrial agriculture can't possibly continue to feed everyone. It would be easy to feed even our present bloated population if we converted every lawn and golf course to a food forest, but that's not going to happen. Populations have died in famines before and will do so again. The lie here is that the food supply will end suddenly and permanently, when really, like everything else, it will end in a series of small collapses and partial recoveries.

[I was underestimating industrial agriculture, which is becoming more efficient as it becomes more automated. It takes less energy to maintain and power machines, than to maintain human workers at a decent standard of living, so energy decline will not destroy automation. Solar panels feeding motors can already turn sunlight into work more efficiently than photosynthetic crops feeding animal muscles. There will be a few decades when the world has scarcer and more expensive energy than during the age of cheap oil, but this will not make energy-dependent systems disappear. They will just pull back and abandon the poorest populations.

Also, when there's a famine, most deaths are not from starvation. They're from disease or violence as people short of food become weaker and take more risks. I argue below that people rarely do premeditated murders to steal food, but lack of food makes them fight with each other for all kinds of other reasons.]

The other lie is that people will kill each other to steal food. I haven't heard of anyone doing it in areas hit by the tsunami. In the 1984 Ethiopian famine, in the siege of Sarajevo, even in the Irish potato famine, when Ireland was producing enough meat and grain to feed everyone and exporting it to wealthy Englishmen, when people would have been morally justified in killing for food, they did not kill for food. The Donner party ate their own dead but did not kill for food. Napoleon's soldiers retreating from Moscow would cut the organs from fallen men and horses, sometimes before they were quite dead, but did not kill each other to steal food. Nations have gone mad and killed millions for empty abstractions of race and religion and politics, but even in Rwanda or Nazi Germany or post-revolution France, it was uncommon that anyone would kill for food.

I can't explain it, why people will kill for ideas and then, when their life is at stake, will quietly starve. Maybe hunger comes on so slowly that by the time they're ready to kill, they're too weak. Maybe, in a real famine, the elite keep the food so well guarded that there's no point trying to take it, and the non-elite, not corrupted by power, would rather share what little they have than fight to the death.

Imagine yourself in that position. Whatever stopped the food coming into the city, it's probably regional and temporary, and you'll be expecting it go to back to normal soon, or at least expecting help. Exposure kills people much faster than starvation, so you'll want to stay in the place you know and try to get a piece of the aid shipments. If you leave the city you'll be headed for a particular place like a cabin or a friend's house, not roaming the countryside looking for a cornfield. I've gone by bicycle from central Seattle over Stevens Pass to near Wenatchee, and over Snoqualmie all the way to Spokane. I rode freeways, highways, dirt roads, and gravel trails, and I think I saw two fields of edible crops, neither in season.

What about stealing from other people in the city? Again, put yourself in that position. Do you know which houses have food? Which have guns? Would you really go to a random house and knock the door down? If you're even thinking about it, you'll be expecting other people to do the same, and you'll make a defensive alliance with your neighbors. If you're allied and you need each other for survival, you're going to share food. Those with the most food, if they're smart, will give some away to earn respect and loyalty. The situation will be all about social dynamics among neighbors, not physical conflicts against roving gangs.

The popular image of "anarchy" is another lie, an elitist caricature of lower class people as stupid and randomly dangerous, mindless and incomprehensible like a tornado. In reality, in the Rodney King riots, people were intelligent enough to not harm the Korean grocery stores where the owners had been nice to them. I was in the Seattle WTO protest, and the destructive actions were not mindless and crazy, but calm, deliberate, and focused.

Notice the propaganda use of the word "streets": "mean streets", "I grew up in the streets", "rioting in the streets". Where else are we going to riot? The lawn? We're led to believe that the most dangerous thing in the streets is people on foot with free will. The most dangerous thing in the streets is the automobile. How many people have been invisibly killed in car crashes in the same intersection where the big media spent days showing Reginald Denny being beaten by black people?

The function of propaganda is not to tell us what to think but to sink us deeper in what we already thoughtlessly believe: in this case, that in the absence of central control we get a dog-eat-dog universe full of shocking crimes. That's what we have now. The every-man-for-himself morality is a symptom of a culture that uses excess wealth and zero-sum competition to maintain hierarchy. In the absence of wealth and control, people get nicer. We learn to take responsibility, to work together, to help each other... until a new dominator appears and crushes us down.

[A recent book on this subject is A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. She focuses on short-term disasters, and people might have more trouble holding together cooperative networks when there is no recovery in sight. I think it depends on their emotional intelligence and empathy, and in most of the world today, I would expect a long-term disaster to eventually turn into rule by warlords.]

All the worst mass-killings of history have been top-down. Genocide happens not when central control stops but when it stops holding back. If the killers are not direct agents of government or industry, they are ordinary people who know they have both the protection and the ideological guidance of the biggest bad-ass of the moment. Usually the ideology is utopian: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, French revolutionaries, and American "settlers," all justified their mass murders with a grandiose vision of a noble conflict to wipe the world clean and build heaven. The danger is not "terrorism" or "chaos" -- the danger is a new order that declares you the danger.

Still, the interesting question is not "How will people die?" but "How will people live?" In the town next to the mass grave, what will we do all day? Process data and feign enthusiasm? Get on the internet? Make crossbows? Tend fruit trees? The best I can figure it out is to look at a bunch of more and less likely modifiers to the world as we know it, and think through how they could change things.

Peak Oil. Global oil extraction will peak in the next year or two, if it hasn't already. By 2008 it will be clearly in decline, though some will argue that it's only a temporary adjustment. Oil sellers will exploit the hype by raising prices even more than they have to. We will not figure out some new cheap energy source, but we will figure out that hydrogen is just a storage method, and not a very good one.

[Did oil peak? We can't answer this without getting into the difficulty of defining "oil". Now there's a surge of cheap natural gas. The more important thing is that the cost of energy will continue to rise more often than it falls.]

But life will change less than the peak oilers are predicting, because we have so much room to cut out waste: to drive less often in more efficient cars, ride bicycles, turn off the heat and air conditioning, take the machines and industrial chemicals out of agriculture, stop flying food around the world. Gradually, more people will grow their own food, raise their own kids, tend their own health, do stuff with their own bodies instead of machines, and turn their attention from the stock market and TV characters to their more real lives. Those who can adjust mentally will recognize this as an improvement.

[In the paragraphs above and below, just because these adaptations are available and helpful, doesn't mean average people will change. Jared Diamond has written that the Vikings in Greenland starved to death rather than change their culture to eat fish. I think something like this will happen with American lawns and cars, except the government will prevent starvation by subsidizing industrial agriculture, and most people will just become more poor and sick and unhappy. So these utopian visions are bad predictions, but still good advice.]

When energy gets so expensive that people can't afford to drive their cars at all, or to buy the new super-efficient cars, they will abandon the suburbs to enterprising bicyclists or drug gangs or squatter communities or farmers. The abomination of the lawn will turn out to have preserved a lot of precious topsoil... which will now be depleted by moderately unsustainable agriculture. I don't see any likely way for us to resume the stone age lifestyle for which our bodies are made. It's not that we can't, but that most people will choose not to as long as they have other options.

Economic De-repression. There are many economies, and the one that's failing is the control economy. The dominant media will not even call it a depression, but some kind of temporary crisis, when really it's the permanent end of the centralized techno-industrial order. What they'll call temporary "unemployment" will be a permanent transition to self-employment in the meaningful activities of subsistence.

[Again, you and I can do this, but I fear most people will just become poorer and unhappier in their dependence on a techno-industrial order that continues to chug along. Technologies like 3D printers will threaten to make the tech system less centrally controlled, but I think it will respond by blocking autonomous manufacturing through expanded intellectual property.]

The dollar will continue to slide, until non-wealthy Americans will no longer be able to buy anything imported. Americans will have to learn how to make stuff again, and we could get a renaissance in light manufacturing. We'll start local currencies, like Ithaca Hours, or if the rulers jealously forbid it, we'll build underground barter and gift economies. All this will be good for us. Meanwhile, economies that depend on selling stuff to Americans will also decline.

Interest rates will rise and pop the housing bubble, and so many people will default on their mortgages that it will be impossible to evict them all, or to keep squatters out of all the vacant bank-owned houses. The elite will try to repress squatters enough to preserve their property/power, but not so much that it fuels a movement for land reform. Something similar will happen with credit card debt, but milder, because the elite are always more willing to forgive debt than to give up their claim on land.

[It is turning out to be surprisingly easy to keep homeless people out of abandoned houses, and to continue making claims on unpayable debt. The ruling system seems to be getting better than ever at keeping us under control without killing us. Bob Calvert said it best in 1978 in Hawkwind's song High Rise: "It's a human zoo, a suicide machine."]

Serial Fallujah. If we get overt mass-killings in America, this is my pick for how it will happen. The rulers will pick off cities one by one, feeding the bloodlust of the public in a ritual as old as civilization: demonize them, seal them in, and kill them all. If a volcanic eruption cuts off food to your city, hold tight -- you'll be fine. If the bodies of soldiers or police are dragged through the streets of your city, get out and never expect to return.

Disease. An epidemic that kills 10% will slow down or stop many systems, especially the medical system, but in a few months or years it will all go back to almost how it was before. One that kills 50% will reorder society in ways we can't predict -- when people think they're about to die, they do unpredictable things.

[Now I think that instant global communication greatly reduces the threat of disease epidemics, by making them easier to quarantine.]

Another factor is if the dead and the survivors have different cultural profiles. Almost any disease will go easier on people with healthier lifestyles -- in fact, this might already be happening, if sugary overprocessed foods are causing mental and emotional instability that makes people do stupid things that tend to get them killed.

Weather. Overall global temperatures will continue to rise, but in any particular spot, it will look more like crazy weather than warm weather. Everyone will get faster winds, bigger storms, wetter floods and drier droughts. And if the climate is being affected, directly or indirectly, by CO2 emissions, then there will be a lag, just like the lag between turning the hot water up in the shower and feeling it, but much longer because the atmosphere is so much bigger. If the lag is as long as 30 years, then what we're getting now is the effect of the relatively mild emissions in the 1970's. What will it be like when the giant car fad comes back to bite us?

[Stuart Staniford has argued that some regions, presently highly populated, will become so hot in the summer that anyone without air conditioning will die. Preventing deaths will require some combination of massive energy use and massive emigration.]

Astronomy. Eventually a mass-extinction-sized asteroid will strike the Earth. The chance that it will do so in the next 100 years is not worth bothering about. But some other cosmic events may be. A fringe theory of comets is that they are not "dirty snowballs" but hot and enormously charged with energy, and that a near pass of a comet can influence Earth in ways we don't understand. There could be all kinds of cosmic disasters that we don't know about because their physical traces are not as obvious as a giant crater or a layer of ash.

One event that is accepted by dominant science, somewhat likely, and could actually give us a sci-fi apocalypse that kills the system and leaves people unharmed, is a giant solar flare. The solar storm of 1859 fried the telegraph system by overwheming the wires with electric charge. What would that do to our computers? Solar flares are associated with sunspots, and sunspots will peak in 2012.

[Telegraph lines are more susceptible to solar storms than computers because the wires are so long. But a big enough solar storm would kill a lot of satellites. And there are possible weapons, not yet in use, that could make local electromagnetic pulse strikes strong enough to destroy computers.]

Human Consciousness Shift. We won't necessarily become better, but different. This one is fun to think about, and easy to argue for or against, because there are so many ways we are already smarter, stupider, or no different than we were before. Without some kind of shift in consciousness, it's hard to see how we can avoid falling out of balance and crashing until we go extinct. And with a shift, it's wide open.