Sunday, April 13, 2008

We've Only Just Begun

Millions haven't starved to death yet, but they soon will. We Peaknicks have had the term "Malthusian" applied to us derisively, but I've always worn it proudly. Malthus was right about everything except the dates. He couldn't have anticipated how fossil fuels would have temporarily lifted the planet's carrying capacity. Tragically that lift just means that there will be that many more billions who will suffer when the crash comes. And that crash is indeed beginning right now. The poorer countries are going to depopulate due to hunger and internal strife, but these countries don't have the power to make life miserable for the richer countries. So they'll starve and riot and tear themselves apart within. Countries like the U.S., Russia and China on the other hand do have to power to go campaigning in other places to secure resources; they have to power to create external strife and they most certainly will. We in the so-called advanced nations will have plenty of opportunity to kill off our populations with (resource) wars. But don't worry; we'll have our share of death from internal strife, too! At some point a trip to the gas station or supermarket will mean risking life and limb.

To recap: famine will strike first and pluck the low-hanging fruit of the swollen populations in the world's poorest countries. I imagine that something like a few hundred million will perish there alone before things start getting interesting within the industrial nations. When shortages of food and fuel strike more noticeably here ($50 for a gallon of unleaded, the same for a gallon of milk perhaps), we'll probably be willing to throw a few million young lives at the Russians and the Chinese who will be willing to see that and raise. Pestilence tends to accompany starvation and war, but this time around we have the multiplier effect of climate change and a century of accelerated pathogen evolution as an unintended consequence of modern medicine. I imagine the the trinity of starvation, strife and disease will each take a number of lives in a macabre Fibonacci sequence: over half a billion lost to hunger, nearly half that again to war and half that once more to disease. To be honest I expect double the first number which would mean a final tally of nearly 5 billion. This puts the random person's chances of long-term survival at about 1 in 6. If you can avoid being an inhabitant of an overpopulated Third World country or being a soldier in the army of an overpopulated First Wold country, then you've already improved your odds.

Our metroplexes are bound to become dangerous places to live, especially in the unserviceable, car-dependent sprawl between the older core cities and towns. These car suburbs and exurbs are destined for abandonment, but there will be a few hardy souls who will try to make a go of it in the remains. They will be living in a lawless, raised ranch ghetto wilderness, however. Our civilization will likely collapse physically back into our core cities and as the hungry mouths of the Third World close forever in death we may actually find food prices stabilizing due to the demand destruction. This is only a stopgap, however, and it will be far from orderly. The economy will be in shambles, jobs will be scarce and money hard to come by. Electricity will probably be very expensive and the supply not always reliable; the same goes for food. Tens of millions of ex-suburbanites will be living on top of the millions already in the city. Disease flourishes where there is crowding and malnutrition. City services will no doubt be strained and supplies of clean water could be problematic for any number of reasons (failing infrastructure and rising sea levels are the two most obvious) and the resulting lack of sanitation will do a lot of the work in fostering depopulation through disease. Sanitation engineering has been more responsible than medicine for making modern city populations possible. Modern industrial living has convinced the average person that the built environment's foremost priority is the movement and storage of personal automobiles; Never forget, however, that among the first conditions for permanent settlement of any size is keeping the shit out of the drinking water.