Civilizations come and go. History recorded the rise and fall of dozens of peoples and their societies, among others Ancient Egypt, Old Greece, the Roman Empire, and more recently, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. So, we, at the height, have to wonder: Is the modern world immune to collapse? The possibility that it might not be spells worry. In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), among dozens of examples, professor Joseph Tainter describes the decline of a Mesoamerican civilization centered around the city of Teotihuacan:
“The city leaders had the ability to mobilize labor at an unprecedented level. For 600 years or more, 85 to 90 percent of the population of the eastern and northern Valley of Mexico lived in or near the city. About 700 A.D. Teotihuacan abruptly collapsed. The population dropped within 50 years to no more than a fourth of its peak level. A period of political fragmentation followed.”
This sounds eerily similar to modern times. Today, globalization mobilizes a historically unprecedented level of labor. In developed nations, over 50 to 70% of their populations now live in cities. As hundreds of millions of people struggle each day to find housing in densely crowded cities, futurist dreams of space colonization signal a desperate need to expand mankind’s living space. But if we fail to accommodate this fast-growing world population — whether on Mars or at the bottom of the ocean — I predict nothing will stand in the way of bursting the human bubble.
“We, at the height, are ready to decline.” — Shakespeare
Fortune Favors the Bold
It has taken mankind since the beginning of history to arrive at a population of over 7 billion individuals. An unfathomable number, but as with Teotihuacan, within only the next 50 years, a concurrence of economic breakdown, resulting in poverty and famine, failing antibiotics and the subsequent outbreak of global epidemics, and — ultimately — global war will accelerate the descent of man towards near-complete collapse. As we risk losing billions, we carry a responsibility even Atlas’s shoulders cannot.
But if fortune favors the bold, the survivors entering the 22nd century will have descended from those able and willing to act now. The price for apathy is death. We who still dream of a better future must abandon the naive policy of freedom without a struggle. Freeing ourselves from the politics of appeasement, and from a culture centered around sheepish consumerism, the future calls on the heroic to guide humanity through the apocalypse.
Economic Bla Bla Bla
For decades, even the best government forecasters have repeatedly overestimated our chances of economic recovery, as shown in Graph 1 below. This naive optimism has fooled the world into adopting a wait-and-see attitude, forestalling the psychological preparation to combat a recession spiraling out of control. As one German historian put it, “Optimism is cowardice.” Given that the bureaucrats who mean to reassure us have been so wrong for so long, we urgently have to open our eyes and face reality as it is.
Seeing the Blind Spot
Is the threat of a human population collapse real? In this section, I argue that our expanding population, like Ponzi schemes and stock market bubbles, has formed a human bubble ready to burst. But first, in order to familiarize the reader with a basic concept, please have a quick look at Graph 2 below:
Going from left to right, we see a typical S-shaped curve. We see such graphs in almost every college textbook. This particular graph may, for example, represent the number of skyscraper stories construction workers have built over time. Once the workers have painstakingly laid out the foundations, developments accelerate as the tower stacks more identical stories. Then, developments slow down again in order to finalize the peak.
But such graphs fool us into thinking that growth processes always end in success, i.e. in the upper right corner of the graph. This survivorship bias, people’s preoccupation with explaining success rather than with looking at causes of failure, blinds us from seeing a bigger picture. Skyscrapers collapse or are demolished. Stock markets crash. We have to ask ourselves, “What comes after success?”
Rinse and Repeat
What happens next, we can learn by studying nature. Studying social insects such as ants, bees or termites, we can track the size of a colony’s population over time. The following Graph 3 generally applies to the various species of social insects, with biomass as a measure of the total number of individuals:
Having established a new colony during the founding stage (F), its total biomass is described by successive stages of exponential growth (E). Near the end of each cycle, the population reaches its natural limits to growth, limited by both external and internal factors. Then, a new reproductive cycle (R) begins, during which the colony regroups resources necessary to revitalize the colony, affording itself another growth cycle.
For their survival, social insects find themselves under a constant pressure. A colony runs the risk of being overrun by invading armies. Environmental disaster may cut off a colony’s food and water supply. Some social insect colonies even deploy the practice of slavery. But of equal threat is the risk of internal collapse. During the reproductive stage (R) the insect population experiences a sudden drop in numbers, losing up to 40–60% of its members. Individuals either pass away of old age, starve, succumb to disease, abandon the colony, or die defending it.
Whatever the causes, deaths now exceed new births at an alarming rate. In the end, the colony collapses with the death of its queen. We can now apply these lessons to human populations.
If we say the study of apes tells us something about the human animal — the naked ape — then social insects can tell us a great deal about how we behave collectively. Not just insect colonies face the possibility of extinction. Famously, the dodo bird went extinct around 1662. Short of a century ago, about 5 million elephants still roamed the African planes. Today, no more than 12% of that remain. Given the growing number of mammalian species faced with extinction, what about that brainy one, Homo Sapiens?
We know the Neanderthal went extinct about 40,000 years ago, after having roamed Europe for several hundreds of thousands of years. Surely, by now modern man must have developed the required intellect to control his own evolution, right? If only we had the time, we would cure all disease, end all war, save the whales, lock the climate in a fixed state–preferably at 80 degrees Fahrenheit — and stop the universe from expanding. But these are the delusions of politicians whose only currency is the false promise. In reality, more than having outwitted nature, man has escaped fate by chance.
Disease: The Black Plague
No human settlement, city, nation or empire either has endured or will endure forever. Societal collapse is a historical certainty. In the past, even entire continents of people were faced with the possibility of collapse. In medieval Europe, the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, killed nearly 30% of all Europeans, amounting to 25 million individuals out of a population of 85 million. It took Europeans three centuries to recover.
Graph 4 below shows how the plague had impacted the population of England.
Because cities have denser populations, they allow for disease to spread more quickly. In some medieval towns and villages, the plague had killed up to 85% of their inhabitants. A recent article from The Guardian states that “people who lived through the epidemic saw their world collapse around them.” In some neighborhoods, “‘ruinous’ houses were still being reported two centuries later.” With the majority of human beings living in cities today, professor Carenza Lewis points out:
“This disease is still endemic in parts of today’s world, and could once again become a major killer, should resistance to the antibiotics now used to treat it spread amongst tomorrow’s bacteriological descendants of the fourteenth-century Yersinia pestis. We have been warned.”
The plague, however, does not tell us a story of a human bubble bursting, but one of resilience to disaster. In order for populations to deal with nature’s blows, they must be able to withstand and recover from all sorts of setbacks, including epidemics, foreign invasion and changing habitats. Evolution favors these more resilient systems over less flexible ones.
Invasion: Native American Resilience
Another well-known example of such resilience is the impact the arrival of the Europeans, and the diseases they brought with them, had on Native Americans. In North America, between 1490 and 1890, their numbers dropped from around five million individuals to below several hundred thousand. However, recently, the Native American population appears to have recovered to pre-Columbian levels, shown in Graph 5:
Again, in this example we do not observe a sudden collapse — there is no flash crash — but instead, we see a rather steady rate of decline over a period of several centuries. The graph above merely evidences Native Americans’ extraordinary resilience to a complete takeover of their habitat.
Collapse: Japan, a Post-Peak Population?
In the previous two examples, disease and invasion disrupted populations of people, but they did not collapse. When it comes to collapse, what we’re looking for lies in internal factors. In an article titled Time Is Running out for Japan’s Dwindling Population, professor Kohei Wada of Chuo University mapped 2,000 years of Japanese population growth (Graph 6), including a catastrophic projection of what happens next:
The professor predicts that during the next 50 years the Japanese population will fall from over 125 million people today to below 45 million. This sudden drop equals a population loss of over 60%, most likely the result of an aging baby-boom generation phasing out, while new births have dropped to all-time lows. To grasp the scope of such a decline, picture Tokyo, but with six out of every ten homes abandoned. At this rate, megacities will become mega ghost towns.
However, if such a collapse occurred in isolation from the rest of the world, Japan would no longer be able to participate in the global economy. Also, its dwindling population — and therefore its diminishing military might — would open the door to foreign conquest, possibly forever erasing ethnic Japanese people. Population decline is a dangerous thing.
Evidence for a Human Population Bubble
Early November 2013, I emailed a researcher of stock market crashes if he could assess whether internet money Bitcoin had formed a price bubble. It had happened before, when in April 2013 the price of one Bitcoin rose to about $265 before crashing back down to $80. Later that year, from October onward, Bitcoin’s price began to surge again, rising to well over $1,000. Using a mathematical method called a log-period power law (LPPL), the researcher I had contacted examined Bitcoin’s price movements, publishing his results on November 16th:
“In this post, I will respond to a request to publish an analysis of the Bitcoin/USD index (Mt. Gox). Based on these graphs, there is quantitative evidence to suggest that the recent increase in the Bitcoin/USD has been the start of a bubble. While The Bubble Index: Bitcoin has not reached its highest levels seen earlier this year, investors in the currency should be cautious.”
Then, just a few weeks later, in early December 2013, the Bitcoin bubble indeed burst as he had predicted. The price of a single Bitcoin plunged from its $1200 high to well below $600, losing over 50% of its value on a single day. Today, investors are still waiting for recovery. Graph 7 shows the development of the Bitcoin price from September 2011 to March 2014. Note the periods of exponential growth right before the April and December 2013 crashes.
What exactly had made Bitcoin a bubble in the first place? To answer that question, I refer to research by professor Didier Sornette of the Financial Crisis Observatory based in Zurich, Switzerland. Sornette explains why bubbles form in his book Why Stock Markets Crash. To cut a long story short, bubbles form as the result of positive feedback loops. People bought more Bitcoins because they saw other people buying more and making great profits — i.e. “monkey see, monkey do”. Most financial bubbles thus form in and out of themselves, regardless of external factors.
Signs of a Human Population Bubble
We can apply this insight — positive feedback loops create bubbles in and out of themselves — to the historic growth of the entire human population, from 10,000 BC to today. During only the past two or three centuries, exponential innovations in agriculture, accelerated by fossil fuels, first coal then oil, allowed for a dramatic expansion of the human population size. We went from 1 billion to 7 billion members within a time-span of 10 generations.
That exponential growth also paints a picture of a highly risky bubble formation. Even a layperson can spot the bubble clearly visible in Graph 8:
We like to think our numbers either continue to grow or stabilize. We like to believe our technological skills will solve whatever problems stand in our way. We think we are going to build floating cities or off-world colonies. But the reality is, that a declining marginal return on investment that governs human societies will force stop further growth. Not external factors, but the declining rate of human efficiency is what will most likely kill the species.
Alarmingly, compared to 50 years ago, the speed at which the human population is growing has more than halved (Graph 9). At this rate, within the next few decades, human population growth will cease. For the first time since the birth of modern man, we begin our decline. But it won’t be the first time a species of man collapses. Homo neanderthalensis, too, was erased, as were Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Denisova. Is there anything we can do to cancel our demise?
How the Collapse Unfolds
Right before the possible collapse of humankind, we would expect to see a societal breakdown. We can indeed see evidence of such a breakdown. Yet not all of our leaders want to be made aware of that fact and flee in self-delusion. A few weeks after dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination, former US presidential candidate Jeb Bush held a speech in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Without shame, he claimed, “Babies born today will easily become 120, 130 years old.”
Bush said this while accusing his former competitor Donald Trump of being a populist, but this typical false promise of old age is the oldest form of political demagoguery. Children born today will most certainly not grow older than their parents. Firstly, genes still cap our average longevity at more reasonable levels. Secondly, since people spend nearly 50% of their medical budgets in the final years of their lives, economic stagnation will force governments to divert the cost of old age away from the elderly.
Next, in order to provide for younger generations so desperately needed for a culture’s survival, governments will also be forced to divert pension funds. Ultimately, with governments running in panic mode, the unproductive elderly that no longer contribute to society may be actively ‘discarded’, freeing up resources for the young. In fact, Nazi Germany’s euthanasia programs targeted not only minorities and Jewish people but also the sick, the elderly and those deemed unfit for work. (Fascism may very well be the politics of collapse.)
The Collapse of Complex Societies
In his book on collapsing societies, professor Tainter writes a great deal about why societies collapse. In some cases, the decision is perfectly rational as “under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response.” People choose to cut themselves loose from a failing system, rationally accepting a lower standard of living, but thereby saving their lives. In case of the Mesoamerican Casas Grandes civilization, Tainter paints a grim image of what might be the future of the modern world:
“Sometime about 1340 A.D. Casas Grandes political supremacy came to an end. The site fell into disrepair. Goods were still produced in large volumes, but civil construction and public maintenance ceased. Public and ceremonial areas were altered for living quarters. The dead were buried in city water canals and plaza drains. As walls crumbled, ramps were built to reach still usable upper rooms. Casas Grandes finally burned, at which time corpses were left unburied in public places, and altars were systematically destroyed.”
The collapse of complex societies follows a general schedule. “There is, first and foremost, a breakdown of authority and central control. Prior to collapse, revolts and provincial breakaways signal the weakening of the center,” writes Tainter. Indeed, in recent years, the collapse of authority and control in the Middle East has led to the so-called Arab Spring revolutions that plunged many regional governments into chaos. The European Union, too, is showing signs of weakness as the Dutch have voted against Ukraine joining, and the British are set to hold a referendum on leaving it.
Next, “revenues to the government often decline.” In Europe and America, both an aging demographic and mass migration of low-wage laborers have lowered national and federal tax incomes. As a consequence, “foreign challengers become increasingly successful, because, with lower revenues, the military may become ineffective.” Europe doesn’t even have an army to defend itself. The US pulling funds out of NATO, Germany’s Angela Merkel was forced to strike a very bad deal with Turkey to protect European borders against floods of migrants. Likewise, the US army would not be able to afford another Iraq invasion — and its enemies know it.
“the populace becomes more and more disaffected as the hierarchy seeks to mobilize resources to meet the challenge.” But failing to do so, “the umbrella of law and protection erected over the populace is eliminated. … Monumental construction and publicly-supported art largely cease to exist. Literacy may be lost entirely, and otherwise declines so dramatically that a dark age follows.”
Canceling the Apocalypse
A declining marginal return on investment in human population growth, alongside a shortage of cheap fossil fuels (Peak Oil), will irreparably disrupt the global supply of food and water. Peak Oil will usher in a global famine because even genetically unmodified crops have been selected for greater yield at the expense of normal plant functions. In other words, most fruits and vegetables we eat today come from crops that cannot survive in the wild, due to weak root systems. Without cheap fuels, farmers will abandon energy-intensive agriculture in favor of lower-yielding crops, which can survive in the wild, but which feed a much smaller number of people.
That agricultural disaster, coinciding with failing antibiotics, spells global catastrophe, as even the bubonic plague may resurface. For their survival, panic-stricken men and women may ultimately surrender themselves to a strongman calling for war against Enemy Others, competing for diminishing food supplies and living space. Professor Sornette calls it the Mad Max scenario. I believe that, within the next 50 years, we may lose up to 60–80% of all mankind, our numbers dropping below 2 billion individuals. The decline will then continue for several centuries as people struggle to hold on to what is left of civilization. In the end, we may never recover.
Perhaps a new species of man will evolve to replace us. No matter how wrong the world’s religions may have been about the creation of the universe, perhaps they were always right about the threat of the apocalypse. If we don’t act now, children born today will not live to be “120, 130 years old”, as phony politicians want us to believe, but instead, our children will witness the world collapse around them as the human race implodes.
I wrote this admittedly depressing article as a necessary warning. Human beings can show remarkable resilience to natural disaster, foreign invasion or war, but we are equally oblivious to our own weaknesses. With this article, I meant to argue that we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable. We must prepare for the one catastrophe we may never recover from: population collapse. It is comparably easy for us to see a rain of meteorites coming towards Earth, but when it comes to human arrogance,… it’s our heel of Achilles.
In my view, the Western world should take the lead. Abandoning the oppressive politics of political correctness, we must make it our duty to leverage both our wealth (Europe) and our military power (US) in order to guide humanity through the collapse. We must do so with the help of allies, while defending the weak who deserve protection, but without any hesitation to obliterate old and new enemies.
With the spiritual support of a toughened-up, manlier version of Christianity, the West should restore its dominance in the world, and by doing so, save mankind from itself. Because if we don’t, no one else will. I conclude by citing rule #16 from the Manual for a Christian Soldier, written by medieval intellectual Desiderius Erasmus, in 1501:
“If you ever receive a mortal wound, never cast your shield aside, never give your weapons away, and never surrender to the enemy. I have seen this happen to a lot of people whose minds are naturally weaker and more effeminate. Once they have fallen to the ground and ceased to offer resistance, they surrender entirely to their emotions and no longer think of winning back freedom. This pusillanimity is very dangerous, and even if it does not happen to the worst of people, it often does lead to the worst of things, namely despair. Against this, the mind must be strengthened through this rule of conduct that when we fall into sin we may not despair. Instead, we must imitate courageous soldiers who often not only refuse to flee out of shame, or out of pain inflicted by a wound, but who, because of that, are encouraged and awoken anew to fight more fiercely than before.”
We can still win back freedom and cancel the apocalypse. Let us follow the courageous, and let us fight more fiercely than ever before.
Tainter, Joseph A. The Collapse of Complex Societies. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. (p. 13)
Ibid., p. 14.