Most Likely Sequence of Events
With the information gleaned from our speculative exercise in the last several posts, we can now flesh-out the remainder of our timeline of likely events with not only what will probably happen, but how people will likely react and what the consequences will be. This allows us to paint a much more nuanced picture of the future unfolding before us.
2016-2020: During this time, countries of the world try their hardest to maintain BAU conditions. There is massive application of propaganda via the media in an attempt to convince the masses that good times will continue forever, even as economic crisis accelerates. Central banks and governments continue ZIRP/NIRP policies as well as QE and direct intervention in markets to keep businesses solvent. Financial institutions begin to fail and it is possible that full scale financial collapse will be underway; however, this may also drag on for longer than 4 years.
In response to debt defaults, bankruptcies, and other clear signs that the financial system is deteriorating, massive fiscal stimulus efforts will be launched. These will likely push in opposite and contradictory directions. For example, massive public works projects will likely include capital expansion of transportation infrastructure because these are large projects that require many workers and lots of fossil fuel energy. At the same time, in the name of creating a green energy revolution, government projects to establish utility-scale wind and solar systems will be launched along with expanded subsidies for distributed renewable energy. This will likewise result in a short-term demand for fossil fuel energy and workers to manufacture and install new equipment.
Unfortunately, these programs will be unable to build a parallel energy distribution system that replaces our current fossil fuel network, and they will only be able to function for a short time under current models of finance. As the monetary system collapses under the weight of debt, governments will assume a more prominent role in the economy and in managing the daily lives and behaviors of citizens. Desperate times will justify continued expansion of police powers and surveillance of society; security apparatuses put in place by the CIA, NSA, DHS, and other federal agencies will effectively become turnkey authoritarianism where the existing “internet of things” manages behavior, especially financial transactions and political and activist activity.
Amidst the turmoil caused by this “second great recession” or whatever the media brands it, hostilities and war will become more frequent and intense at the periphery of the developed world. Acts of violence in developed countries will continue to be linked to outside conflicts and a war of civilizations, justifying further attempts to control internal movement, financial, and political activity. The current immigration crisis from Middle Eastern countries will accelerate, and social conflict in receiving European nations will escalate and become violent. Across the globe, nationalist sentiment will grow and become politically dominant as borders close and forcible expulsion of non-nationals begins. Tension between the major powers (US, Russia, China) will grow and proxy wars will expand in the war-torn equatorial regions.
Problems of migration and refugees will be exacerbated by increasingly long and hot summers, greater drought, famine (especially in the Middle East and Africa), lack of rain, and extreme weather events.
2021-2030: By this time frame, it will be largely apparent that the catastrophe underway is not another recession or depression but a complete collapse of the financial system. More and bigger stimulus programs will be proposed, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Some of them may result in employment or the production of useful goods and services, but others will only further distort economic relationships. Those in positions of power will reap huge profits from government programs and contracts, tax incentives, and central bank stimulus measures while the common person’s quality of life continues to erode. Eventually, “green energy” projects are abandoned as environmental concerns become secondary to more important tasks such as keeping the electricity on and the mines producing. Economic indicators like GDP are negative year after year, and markets for stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments enter free-fall and cease to function.
Eventually, the banking system will no longer be able to function in a meaningful way and the movement of money will cease. This could manifest itself in bouts of hyperinflation, or severe deflation, or combinations of the two among different asset classes and in different geographic areas. Without a functioning financial system, commercial collapse will accelerate quickly as the remaining businesses are no longer able to operate, even in the developed western countries. Companies kept afloat by government contracts and direct subsidy will be the last remaining actors in the economy as we currently know it. At this point the role of government will be greatly expanded as the sole provider of many goods and services currently provided by private industry. Governmental leaders will also live in fear of losing their authority and ability to exercise control, resulting in a ratcheting up of social controls to the point of outright martial law.
Immigration will reach a fever pitch as citizens of the countries most ravaged by years of war and economic collapse flee across borders into perceived safer areas. Militaries will be deployed to control migration, and when control is no longer possible, military force will be applied against civilians in order to stem the flow of immigrants.
Somewhere in this timeframe, the progress of collapse transitions from mere commercial collapse into outright political collapse. Most less-developed countries will cease to be governed in any meaningful way. Military leaders will conduct coups and form factions that fight among one another for resources in an attempt to gain control over territory and population. The major world powers will lead outright invasions of adjacent countries in order to assert security in their arenas.
This is probably the most dangerous time period for the potential of large-scale warfare to eliminate all of humanity. While economic conditions have deteriorated to a point of desperation, large militarized political organizations are still driving events on the global stage. It seems likely that this must culminate in direct warfare between the major powers, and that inevitably this would result in some exchange of nuclear weapons. If this occurs at a late stage in the process of collapse, it is possible that attacks will lack coordination and the window of opportunity for complete nuclear Armageddon will pass. Orlov’s proposed scenario, where targeted strikes from both sides destroy military and industrial capabilities, also seems highly plausible. In any case, if humanity survives the confrontation of world powers, the outcome will likely be a dramatic acceleration of all forms of collapse as remaining infrastructure is destroyed or becomes inoperable, and military forces are fragmented or incapacitated.
On the ground conditions during this period will vary greatly. Outside of the developed countries in Eurasia and North America, the stages of collapse will be much more advanced as complete lack of organized governance takes hold. Within the developed countries, riots and fighting for resources within population centers will be common. Wide spread hunger and homelessness will take hold of the populations, who are primarily occupied with attempting to feed their families, or in the service of military, police, or paramilitary/revolutionary fighting organizations. Large cities in particular will begin to empty as the population density and lack of services leads to exponentially greater violence and declining health and sanitation conditions. Some social structures may continue to operate either independently or at the direction of military government, but clan/gang conflict, looting, and stealing will become widespread. Some areas will retain public services like electricity, natural gas, and potable water for longer, while some areas may see these quickly disappear. In the lack of these basics, conditions will deteriorate more rapidly and become increasingly violent. Total population will fall as deaths far exceed births, with urban centers leading the trend.
Finally, under the weight of constant war and lack of a secure and stable economy, the remaining nation-states will become ungovernable and will split into factions of military leaders attempting to secure geographic areas of various sizes. Large swaths of territory in formerly developed countries will completely lack any form of central authority and citizens will be left to their own devices. As the final political institutions of the first world devolve into warlord states and anarchy, social collapse sets in.
For many, the story ends here. Basic resources such as food and clean water are scarce and precious, and there is no room for the support system that currently keeps large parts of the population alive. It sounds terrible, but there will be no support for the disabled and ill. People who rely on mobility devices or life-saving medication will not live past this time period. Diabetics will go without insulin, there will be no antibiotics to stave off infections. People who lack supplies, or the capacity to forcibly take them from others, will waste away and starve. Violence defines the daily routine, where the strongest and most ferocious survive while the weak and/or principled suffer severe lack leading to death. Cities become virtual graveyards, while the countryside is dotted with survivors attempting to eke out a living from the land. Unfortunately, even those with the skills and experience to work the earth and provide for their families will be largely unsuccessful, as they are forced to fend off more powerful and aggressive groups looking to exploit their hard work.
Ultimately, even the most powerful warlords will begin to run out of resources to exert control over remaining populations and outright cultural collapse will arrive. With all mines long since shuttered, and all factories long since closed, lack of fuel, electricity, equipment, and even firepower will become too severe to exert force beyond the immediate vicinity. Population will be reduced to a small fraction of the global peak. With small groups of humans now spread thinly across the globe, conflicts are smaller scale, generally individual or group combat in an attempt to take or defend caches of resources. No large scale organization, record keeping, or communication remains.
The impacts of climate change further complicate life for survivors and large parts of the world near the equators become basically uninhabitable. Tropical diseases spread far into the northern latitudes, and the option for groups of survivors to stay in one place is no longer viable. Humanity becomes nomadic, wandering generally northward or southward towards the poles, seeking shelter from extreme weather and enough ecosystem stability to provide sustenance. Along the way, they encounter vast areas of contamination, including the remains of melting nuclear reactors and burning spent fuel ponds.
If humanity and enough ecosystem to support it somehow survive past mid-century, these humans will not resemble the humanity of today. Wild, fierce, and violent- like dominant predators in the wild- they will not have time to keep accurate records of what has happened. Reading, writing, philosophy, mathematics, and all things not directly related to staying alive will be forgotten. They may wonder at the strange ruins, and invent stories about gods and devils and being cast out of paradise. If they survive, within a few generations only myths will remain of our current great experiment in civilization.