So far my thinking on this topic has been particularly influenced by Tainter's The Collapse of Civilizations, Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down (who I've blogged about before),Orlov's Reinventing Collapse (which I first blogged about here), Kunstler's The Long Emergency, Greer's The Long Descent, and John Robb's invaluable blog, Global Guerrillas.
These gentlemen (and it seems that most all writers on this topic are North American men--a fact possibly worth pondering) come from a wide variety of political and technical backgrounds, but they all converge on a common set of themes. The key variable, for most of them, is peak oil (or, more precisely, the asymptotic approach of EROI toward 1.0). This spells the end of the energy-intensive, globalized industrialism that U.S. politicians like to refer to as the American Way of Life. They concur that the industrial world will not end in a bang but rather in a whimper. (All them rightly excoriate End Days-Road Warrior apocalyptic visions as merely the inversion of the faith that endless technical progress will forever propel our civilization forward, eventually to other solar systems.) Most agree that the secular decline has begun in the center of this industrial civilization, marked by the stagnation or decline in the median standard of living over the last generation. All agree that the ride down will take a long time, and be, in technical economic terms, very lumpy. Most of them, I suspect, would agree with me that Hurricane Katrina, in both its ecological and its political implications, was not a one-off failure but rather represents a dark glass for scrying the future. All agree that government isn't going to save us, and suggest various strategies for learning to live locally.
So what will this look like as we play it forward? For my money, the best brief scenario for what this decline will look like is Greer's:
We're living the industrial analog of the Severan Dynasty. It's worth thinking carefully about how people living in the few decades after that experienced their world, as it marked the shift from the classic ancient world to the world of so-called Late Antiquity. Can Obama be our Diocletian?Imagine an American woman born in 1960. She sees the gas lines of the 1970s, the short-term political gimmicks that papered over the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and the renewed trouble in the following decades. Periods of economic and political crisis, broken by intervals of partial recovery, shape the rest of her life. By the time she turns 70, she lives in a beleaguered, malfunctioning city where nearly half the population has no reliable access to clean water, electricity, or health care. Shantytowns spread in the shadow of skyscrapers while political and economic leaders keep insisting things are getting better.Her great-grandson, born in 2040, manages to avoid the smorgasbord of diseases, the pervasive violence, and the pandemic alcohol and drug abuse that claim a quarter of his generation before age 30. A lucky break gets him into a technical career, safe from military service in endless overseas wars or "pacification actions" against separatist guerrillas at home. His technical knowledge consists mostly of rules of thumb for effective scavenging. Cars and refrigerators are luxury items he will never own, his home lacks electricity and central heating, and his health care comes from an old woman whose grandmother was a doctor and who knows something about wound care and herbs. By the time his hair turns gray the squabbling regions that once were the United States have split apart. All remaining fuel and electrical power have been commandeered by new regional governments, and coastal cities have been abandoned to the rising oceans.For his great-granddaughter, born in 2010, the great crises are mostly things of the past. She grows up amid a ring of villages that were once suburbs, but now they surround an abandoned core of rusting skyscrapers that are visited only by salvage crews who mine them for raw materials. Local wars sputter, the oceans are still rising, and famines and epidemics come through every decade or so, but with a global population less than half what it was in 2000 and still declining, humanity and nature are moving toward balance. The great-grand-daughter learns to read and write, a skill most of her neighbors don't have, and a few old books are among her most proud possessions, but the days when men walked on the moon are fading into legend. When she and her family finally set out for a village in the countryside, leaving the husk of the old city to the salvage crews, it likely never occurs to her that her quiet footsteps on a crumbling asphalt road mark the end of civilization.