A Mechanism of Civilization Collapse

Malthus reported that the human population would stop growing when the food supply failed to feed any additional people. Rachael Carson and Paul Ehrlich predicted that in converting the earth’s resources to human use, nature’s balance would be disrupted; and humankind, as a part of that system, would be injured.  The Club of Rome, Forester, and Meadows’ groups, predicted that ever expanding human activities would, 1) overload the world’s systems for purifying water, air, and soils, and they would become toxic, 2) consume renewable resources, like forests and fisheries, to extinction and thus remove them from their own life support, and 3) deplete non-renewable resources like fossil fuels and deep-water aquifers and cause a rollback in well being.

Many of these predictions have not come true. The population has not stopped growing. Some people are still realizing ever-improving conditions. Technology has ever-improved productivity, healthcare, communication, and transportation. 

More people live farther above subsistence than at any previous time. And most recently there has been a reduction in those starving.

However, human action has made, parts of the eco system toxic, some species extinct, and some reservoirs nearly empty. A growing portion of our population lives just above subsistence. A well off portion is precariously supported by exhaustible energy supplies. A third group, while sharing in a century long meteoric rise in well being, is now realizing declines.

Let me focus on this last group, for it is its future behaviors that threaten the collapse of our global civilization.

To describe a mechanism, which connects the causes of these declines to civilization’s collapse, let me describe the human condition not in values of variables but in trends of those variables.  For example, instead of using the number of people at each level of wellbeing, I use the “movements” of people up and down the ladder of wellbeing. 

For simplification, I will assign each global inhabitant to one of three conditions, “gaining wellbeing,” “losing wellbeing,” or “constant wellbeing.”

The gainers of wellbeing (from every region and economic strata) are, capital and resource owners, entrepreneurs, and wage earners in places of lowest overhead and cost of living (e.g. India and China).  In the group of constant wellbeing, are those living at subsistence?  (These individuals cannot move down in wellbeing without dying, or up, for they are already using every resource at their disposal and minute in their day just to survive.)  Finally, in the group losing wellbeing are people who live above (some very high above) subsistence and are experiencing declines.

These wellbeing-movements exist within a civilization described by two other variables - each with its own rising trend, “total human footprint,” and the global carrying capacity.

When the total human footprint rises faster than the global carrying capacity we say the demand is approaching the limits of supply.   As the gap between the two variables closes, economists, who have been telling us to “prime the pump,” “a rising tide lifts all boats.” and the wonders of “trickle down benefits,” change their story and begin to tell us about a zero sum game where there are few unused resources. New uses for resources require taking them from old purposes.

In a system, described as a zero sum game, wellbeing acquired by gainers matches wellbeing lost by losers.

Since the people at subsistence have little to give up but their lives, it means the losers have to be people who have something to relinquish - e.g. those capable of “declining wellbeing.”

Next let me describe the part of the mechanism that shows how a civilization, that is approaching a zero sum game condition, causes the “declining-wellbeing-members of that civilization” to take social actions that cause its collapse. 

Increasing human numbers only partly describe increasing "total human footprint."   Consider that, normal individuals strive to increase their personal footprint.  It is not impossible for an individual to rise from a subsistence footprint to a footprint 500 times larger in a lifetime - in dollar terms from earning a dollar a day, to earning $500 a day (130k/year.)  Certainly my family went from peasant farmers to mangers in the industrialized world in 70 years.

Since the world still contains billions of peasant farmers, billions laboring for minimum wages, millions of industrial middle managers, and ten’s of thousands of senior management, all of whom are still striving for improvements in their wellbeing, the unconstrained total human footprint could continue to rise by factors of 10 per lifetime without any increase in population.

Such rapid increases in "total human footprint" cause it to crash into global carrying capacity and create a form of resource scarcity. It’s a scarcity that exists long before we have planted the last unused acre, harvested the last ocean fish, or pumped the last barrel of oil. It’s a scarcity that exists in spite of technology creating a 90-mile-per-gallon car, and a second green revolution from genetically modified crops.  It’s a form of scarcity that does not create famine.   Instead, it raises the cost of commodities relative to income e.g. food, water, energy, and housing.

These changes cause the people who are above subsistence to experience a decline in wellbeing. These people will still have their cell phones, internet access, and medical diagnostic tools to point at to show their benefits have improved far above those of their parents. But their cost of living is rising faster than their income.

My father purchased his own home at age 30 with two kids and a stay at home wife.   Most two income couples with no kids cannot purchase his home.  My father in 1962 paid less than 1% of his income for a semester of my education at a first rate university.  I will pay 30% of my income for that same semester.  In 1968 I was an engineer working for a research laboratory in a major US company.  I ran tests that required mechanical fabrication.  My mechanical fabricator had vocational school training.  However, his salary allowed him to support a stay at home wife.  Own his home. Drive two three-year-old cars and fully support his two children at the University of Michigan.   I would bet that his replacement’s wife holds a job, they rent their home, they drive two 7-year-old cars and their kids are working or in local junior colleges (not having been given the advantages now needed to get into the University of Michigan.) It’s not hard to see a mechanical fabricator’s path through life has been on a downward slide for almost 40 years.  For fabricators, 1968 might have been their peak wellbeing.

The collision, between the total human footprint and the global carrying capacity (in spite of great advances in technology) has produced a multitude of these unrecognized slides downward in wellbeing.  And the existence of these slides is rising up the ranks of the industrialized work force and the supporting service industries. 

The losers of wellbeing don’t fully appreciate the meaning of these slides. First, because they are so far above subsistence they are not afraid of a little loss.  Many still live like royalty relative to the bottom 2 billion people on the globe.  Second, they think their set back is temporary and technology will create the next big breakthrough and set them back on course for improving conditions.  Third, new electronic toys distract them from their loses, like a longer commute time because they can’t afford a home they want near work.  And fourth, they don’t expect the sliding to continue.  They don’t see it continuing toward a “civilization break down,” like the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides or as it did in New Orleans after a natural disaster.

The losers of wellbeing don’t make predictions.  Their days are filled with baseball, boy scouts, and PTA – they have a script.  It says they will march through preschool, grade school, middle school …  and college and experience upward mobility just like their parents.   For them, today’s crises are having to put $50 worth of gas in their Chevy sedan, watch a gut wrenching war in Iraq, and fight to keep oil drillers out of Alaska’s last pristine wild life refuge.  There is no temporal view. They don’t see any progression to harsher times.  So they are not going to change any behaviors.   Neither are those who are at subsistence or those that are still gaining well being.

So who is gong to create civilization’s collapse with their disruptive social behaviors? I suggest that it will be these “losers of wellbeing.”– AS SOON AS THEY BEGIN TO SEE their destination -- joining the really poor folks. 

It may not be their kids or grand kids that complete this fall.  But “look out” great grand kids, if nothing else changes you could be street people.

The size of this fall is not so far fetched.  Remember, your grand father worked for a dollar a day and your dad bought his home on a single income.  How much does tuition have to increase relative to your income before college is out of reach?

There is another trend that will drive the “loser’s of wellbeing” to social disruption. The gainers are becoming a smaller percentage of the global community while the losers’ percentage increases.   This dynamic will break the back of a loser’s optimism when he or she realizes that chances of joining the gainer’s group are dwindling. 

So what are these disruptive behaviors? First, a little social unrest threatens a tranquil neighborhood – an LA, Newark, or Detroit riot. The normal response is that social institutions redistribute the wealth though cajoling generosity and taxing the wealthy.  Sometimes the unrest is responded to with physical suppression as it was in Johannesburg.  Just to be on the safe side, the wealthiest individuals retreat behind guarded walls as they did in Peru and Columbia. 

If the unrest becomes more wide spread than a few ghettos, then, social institutions lead their groups into a civil war.  They find a way to blame some other group for their losses.  The scapegoat group is driven over the boarder, into refugee camps, or experiences genocide. The conflict does lower the population and does redistribute the wealth but it usually leaves the community broken and destitute. 

At a national level, institutions lead expeditionary wars of right that dissipates the fury at home (Iraq.)  Or they lead wars of acquisition of another nation’s space or resources - as in Nazi “lebensraum” (war for living space.) 

In the global arena, even these most extreme solutions will not last forever.  Eventually the remaining national targets will have no resources to take. The “wellbeing losers” will have to turn toward local targets of opportunity. The last standing civilization will begin to eat itself.

I don’t know when this view of our civilization will become common. 

Or when the losers of wellbeing will see their slide clearly enough to change their behavior – either to start their rampage against the “haves” or choose behaviors that reverse the rising trend in total human footprint. But I do know that Malthus, Carson, Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, Forrester, and Meadows were correct in their predictions that the human footprint would crash into the world’s carrying capacity.  They were correct in their predictions of rising scarcity, pollution, and environmental destruction.  If they made any errors, it was that they did not expand their model’s projections to include the eventual “wellbeing loser’s” reactions to these conditions.  If they had, they would have predicted that an ever-rising spiral of social violence would consume any surplus stored by the “haves,” drain Mother Nature’s bank of fossil reserves, and debilitate her renewing processes.   They would have predicted that these social actions, a mixture of, riot, terrorism, civil war, and national aggression, would leave the human remnant struggling for simple subsistence.


Jack Alpert (Bio)     mail to: Alpert@skil.org      (homepage) www.skil.org      position papers

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