Animal populations increase in size in the absence of constraints. Classic ecological examples include extirpation of all native predators (consider white-tailed deer in much of the northern United States, for example, now that humans have removed their predators). In our case, ready access to cheap fossil fuels alleviates constraints such as famine and pestilence. Like all animals that overshoot — that is, outstrip resources — the human animal will undergo a large-scale correction. The longer overshoot persists, the larger the human population becomes, and the greater the requisite correction. The Club of Rome was right, way back in 1972: There are limits to growth, for economies and populations.
Jared Diamond gave us many examples of the collapse of human societies, some of them quite catastrophic. Consider all 23 major civilizations that came before industrial civilization. Consider the microcosmic example of Easter Island. Seems we aren’t nearly as special as cockroaches, after all.
We’re due for a massive correction with respect to our hallucinatory economy and our bloated population. Because we’ve run out of inexpensive energy, we’ve reached the end of economic growth. We might be at the end of global population growth, too. If not today or tomorrow, the day is fast upon us. Within a few years, the global human population will shrink by eighty percent or so. When it does, the alleviation of oppression will be profound, with respect to the rest of the world.
The world’s non-industrial cultures and species likely will not rebound immediately, especially if the collapse drags on for a few years. In that case, we’ll continue to exploit resources, chopping down every tree and hunting down every bird, bunny, and bug. Soon enough, though, we’ll exhaust local resources. And, since long-distance transportation is halted when the economy collapses, local resources will be the only resources. You can forget about tapping the last barrel of “oil” from the Canadian tar sands when you’re living in Brazil. Or even in Nebraska. We’ll be “reduced” to living sustainably (think Stone Age) or, in the case of most of us, not at all.
Indeed, if we come up with energy too cheap to meter — the
promisecurse of nuclear energy, back in the day — we’ll turn the planet into a lifeless pile of rubble within a couple decades.
For industrial civilization, the human suffering and subsequent loss of life is only beginning. We can only imagine how bad it will get when the economy really tanks. Right now, we’re on the leading edge of the housing bubble and the financial collapse. At some point — and I’m guessing that point comes this year — the whole damned thing comes crashing down. No amount of wishing, praying to false idols such as cheap energy, or American exceptionalism is going to save the empire when we reach the state of capitulation in the stock markets. Just because we say it shouldn’t happen doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, or won’t.
Who’s to blame, or thank, as if either one matters? Consider these prescient words from Will Durant and Ariel Durant (The Story of Civilization, volume 3 “Caesar and Christ, Epilogue – Why Rome Fell”): “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”