The Economics of Civilizational Collapse
There are two ways to think about the future. One goes like this: “Ageing cured. Death conquered. Work ended. The human brain reverse-engineered by AI. Babies born outside of the womb. Virtual children, non-human partners. The future of humanity could be virtually unrecognisable by the end of the 21st century.”
It’s a kind of fairy tale for grown ups, a religious fantasy by any other name. Sound a lot like heaven? All this is called “transhumanism,” but it’s just something very old repackaged.
What, exactly? It’s Nietzsche, all over again. Think about it. What did Nietzsche have to say about, well, human beings? He didn’t like them very much. He was the modern world’s first misanthrope, if you like. For him, human beings were something to be transcended. Hence, he cooked up a figure he called the “Zarathustra” — a superhuman. The “Zarathustra” existed beyond good and evil — he wasn’t bound by the idle dictates of caring for anything or anyone in any way except himself. He “created reality” through sheer power of his own will. And the point of him was to be more than human.
To Nietzsche, the Zarathustra was the telos of…everything. The endpoint. The entire universe existed only to give birth to the superman.
How did that work out? Well, for one, the Nazis loved it. That’s a joke, but not really one. The old idea of the Zarathustra, the uberman, is still with us. This time, in the thinly veiled fantasies of the “transhumanists,” who are Nietzschean to the bone. We don’t need each other. Human beings are only here to be made obsolete! We’ll be married to robots! AI will fix it all! We’ll live forever in the God Cloud!!
Like I said…fairy tales for grown ups.
None of this going to happen.
The other way to think about the future is this. It begins with reality. And it ends with some dire conclusions.
What do you think of our civilization? My Western friends read a lot of people like the person I quoted above. Pundits and gurus like that. Those pundits and gurus give them the impression that our civilization is a raging, wonderful success. But those are just impressions. What they don’t teach them are the facts.
Almost nobody, in fact, begins with actual facts about our civilization — because almost nobody bothers to know them, learn them, discern them. But you and I should be smarter than that — if, at least, we want to think about the future of all of us well.
If you don’t believe me, go right ahead and tell me. One single fact about our civilization. I’d say that 99.9% of my Western friends can’t tell me a single one. So let’s begin with a few.
Our civilization’s average income — go ahead and guess. What do you think it is? I ask my Western friends this question, and they come back with figures like $50,000. They’re off by a huge amount. Our civilization’s average income is $10,000.
What does that make us? It doesn’t make us a rich civilization, planet, world. It makes us a poor one. So the first fact about our civilization — and it’s a crucial one — is that we are a poor one.
We may be richer than those which came before, but that’s not saying much. I’m about to explain why, but first I want you to try and imagine living on $10K per year. Would you enjoy it? Want to try it? How abject would your life be?
And even so, this number is an abstraction. About 75% of humanity lives on less than $10,000 per person in actuality. The majority of people on this planet live on $10 a day. So in truth our civilization is even poorer than this number suggests — much poorer, in real terms. Still, we’ll use for analytical purposes, because, well, you’re about to see.
Now. Why does this number matter? That brings me to fact number two. What did it take for us to reach an income of $10,000 per person as a civilization?
To hit this number, $10,000 per person, it took the resources of an entire planet, and then some, used in flagrant, abusive, flatly unsustainable ways. It took driving the planet to something that’s only happened five times in hundred millions of years of deep history — even though we human beings have only been around for a few hundred thousand years. It took causing mass extinction.
Put those two facts together, and what picture are you already getting? A picture of a civilization which used up the resources of an entire planet — and even those were only enough to make it poor.
It’s already a dismal picture, in other words — one of indifference, incompetence, folly, and hubris.
But now our civilization is at a turning point. Extinction’s here. You can literally see it happening. Birds are falling from the sky in the killing heat. Reservoirs and lakes and rivers are running dry. Wars over controlling the resources of a dying planet are erupting. Growing poorer, inflation surging, people are turning to religion and fascism for a sense of purpose, stability, meaning — or just a meal.
Extinction’s here, and our civilization can’t go on as before. Won’t, even if we want it to. Because our basic systems, from food to water to medicine to energy, from democracy to economics to sociocultural, are beginning to break down, rapidly and catastrophically.
So we’re at a turning point. What does that mean, in hard terms? Let me put in numbers for you, so it’s crystal clear. Our civilization’s average income is $10,000 per person. In actuality, 75% of humanity lives on far less than that. Just getting that far has killed the planet.
And now we need to transform those basic economics in ways, dramatically. Our investment rate as a civilization is 20%. That’s way too low. To what? To replant the forests, replenish the reservoirs, safeguard the animals, detoxify the oceans, build functioning systems for any basic from food to water to medicine, let alone anything more. Our investment rate needs to hit 50% for us to have any chance — any chance — of having functioning basic systems, from democracy to energy to economies to working societies, instead of just imploding into American style violence, anarchy, fascism, and lunacy.
But is that even possible?
Remember, we have $10,000 per person to work with. That’s it. That’s all we have. Now we’re saying: of that $10K per person, we need to take $5K away. That leaves just $5K to live on.
Go ahead and ask yourself if that’s politically palatable anywhere in the world. Of course it’s not — which is exactly why global politics keep on shifting further and further to the right. So fast and hard that nations like America and Britain resemble Weimar Germany more than any remotely modern society, or nations like India and China and Russia are turning or have turned textbook authoritarian-fascist.
Fact three. Our civilizational economics preclude the levels of investment we need to make to save our very civilization from collapse. We are in what’s known as a “poverty trap.” What’s a poverty trap? When you can’t invest in yourself, because you’re too poor. You can’t get an education, because you’re busy working some crap job, just to survive. You can’t buy a home, because you’re stuck paying rent forever. You can never keep up with the bills, because you’re forever paying off interest. And so on. Those are examples of individual poverty traps — and they affect whole social groups in broken nations like America, or entire nations, which stay poor for centuries.
Our civilization is in a poverty trap now. The story goes like this. We used up the planet’s resources — in foolish and unwise ways — to reach the relatively paltry level of $10,000 per person, which in actuality is much lower than that. Now we need to replenish life itself on the planet, which is having an Extinction Event, or else. Or else what? We perish right along with it. But doing that is going to take more than we can afford. It would mean slashing our civilizational income from $10K per person to $5K per person — which is impossible, because you can’t live on that, even in poor countries.
Our entire global politics is now just one giant, grim reflection of this basic, awful fact. Why do, for example, Americans never actually vote for the things they say they want — decent healthcare, retirement, pensions, education, and so on? Because those things cost money — and Americans don’t have money. They live at the edge, and they can’t pay any more in taxes, even if it means long run savings. They won’t be able to live now. Hence, the entire nation keeps heading right, so fast that massacres and theocracy are now a reality, even if people say they don’t want all that — the inconvenient truth is that the hard economics leave them no choice.
This is where we are as a world. We can’t afford to make the investment we need to save our civilization, because we never grew into a rich civilization in the first place. My Western friends don’t understand this at all. They look around at their relatively affluent nations, and don’t quite grasp that maybe 5 to 10% of humanity lives that way. The rest live in poverty, which is the truer picture of where our civilization is. The wealth the West enjoys was never invested broadly, shared, spread, nearly fast or far enough, and so our civilization is still poor.
And now we’re in a poverty trap. We need the largest investment wave in human history. We need to invest tens of trillions per year, every year, for half a century or more. Why? For a reason, too, that history has never seen before — all of human history. To try to stop what of the Event — Extinction — we can.
But where will that investment come from? People in rich nations don’t even have the money, after all. Ask them if they want to pay a dollar more in taxes to save anything, and they’ll cry no, because they feel poor, too. This is why America and Britain, like I said, are basically far right nations now. Maybe parts of Western Europe are resisting this trend — Germany, Scandinavia, France to some degree — but that’s about it.
What about corporations? LOL. Good luck getting a penny out of them. We don’t have global courts with the jurisdiction to say: hey, big corporations, you need to help the rest of us stop extinction. And even if we did, so what? Again, the economics are horrifying. Apple has a lot of cash, so you’ve heard — the world’s most valuable company. $200 billion. The top ten corporations have about $1 trillion in cash, total. And that’s just a one-off. That’s not even close to what we need. We need tens of trillions, every year, for half a century.
What about the super rich? Think of them as corporations all over again. Maybe we could get a trillion or two or even five from them. But again, that’s a one off, and it’s not even close.
At this point, most of my Western friends get angry. At me. They think I’m trying to trick them, or pull something over on them. They don’t understand I’m trying to explain the reality of things — of who we are — to them. They find it impossible to believe that we don’t have the resources or money we need, because they’ve never lived in societies like that. But as a civilization, this is what it means to be a poor one. What it means to be in a poverty trap.
We actually don’t have the money we need to invest to save ourselves. That’s what a poverty trap is. Just like someone not having a meagre amount to spend on educating themselves, because they’re working some crap job all the time, or not being able to pay off their debts, because all they can ever do is pay down the interest. That’s where we are, too. We actually don’t have what we need to invest in staving off civilizational collapse.
Think about what we really need. Huge waves of investment in entirely new planetary systems. Institutions to do the very real work of nurturing and tending to and healing life on the planet, entire new career pathways at them, entire new fields of jobs, whole new categories of degrees. An entirely new economy and society and culture. We are talking about investment on a transformative level. It’s not happening, right? It’s not happening because nobody can afford it.
And in the vacuum, all that’s left is the old ways — the failed ones, the ones people are turning back to, because nothing new is happening. Religion, fascism, authoritarianism, war, conflict, hate, paranoia, tribalism.
Our civilizational economics point squarely to us not making it. I don’t put it that bluntly often, because, well, I’m not a doomer. I think that there will be civilizations after ours, and they’ll learn from our mistakes. I’m pretty optimistic that way. But that’s because what I know, from observing our civilizational economics, is that we are headed for collapse.
Now. Let’s come back to transhumanism, all these fantasies. We’ll go to Mars! We’ll live in computers!! We’ll be robots!! Whatever they are, they’re the same thing. Infantile wish fulfillment. Religious fantasies in sheet metal and microchips. They’re not going to happen. How do I know that? The same way I know we’re headed for collapse. Our investment rate is too low. We can’t even invest in the basics — working planetary systems for food, water, air, medicine, let alone education, healthcare, democracy, culture, information, the vibrant ecologies all of these depend on.
Good luck with the rest of it. We’re a civilization that literally doesn’t know how to make cement and glass and steel without fossil fuels. Immortality potions? Living in the Cloud? AI as a replacement for friends and governments? We are a poor and backwards civilization. We’re incredibly inefficient at everything from using energy to tapping human potential to creating wealth — so much so that we’ve caused an Extinction Event.
That is how backwards we really are. Do you really think civilizations invent immortality potions and magic AI sentient friends or minds melding in the Cloud before they learn how to attain fossil fuel independence? While their energy efficiency is still at the level of a combustion engine? While their democracies don’t even function and are sliding back to fascism because the planet’s dying thanks to of all the above?
I suppose for some people these fantasies are a way of avoiding reality. Hey — we don’t need a living planet! We’re just machines! We don’t need life, because we’re superhumans! I know how to solve the problem of a dying planet — don’t depend on it!!
LOL. It’s an old story. Nietzsche said all this centuries ago at this point. And it was badly wrong even then. All it led to in the end, really, was fascists taking notions of superhumanity and will and raw power literally, and using them to justify annihilation and atrocity. The idea that the way to solve Extinction is to not need a planet, or any living thing at all, just computers, is exactly the same thing in disguise. Why bother, then? Why not just let everything…die? How easy that is, how neat, and how naïve.
We are, above all, human. We will never be anything else. We are primates who imagine gods, and sometimes even imagine we’re the gods we imagined in the first place. We remain who we’ve always been. Primates with this incredible talent for violence — so insatiable that it’s killed our own planet.
Our challenge isn’t evading this difficult truth. It’s facing it. Understanding it. Dealing with it. Not trying to pretend it isn’t true. Then, maybe we can grow. Learn. Grow up, as a species. And that’s the only way the next civilization doesn’t make the same mistake as us.
What mistake was that?
Using the resources of the whole planet to the point that an Extinction Event happened — only, ironically, for civilization to stay poor, so poor that it didn’t even have enough left over to invest in stopping the Event. The destiny of both — civilization and the planet — was thus sealed.
Nobody who follows us should ever make that mistake again. It’s the greatest mistake in human history, all 300,000 years of it. It’s the greatest mistake any species has ever made in hundreds of millions of years. We’re making it.
Don’t you think we should we at least pass that lesson on? In the end, all this? The trap of poverty — and the fascism, hate, violence, brutality, and lunacy poverty produces — our civilization ended in, even though it took killing a planet?
It’s the only thing deep time, and our progeny, is going to remember about us.