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A 50,000-Foot View of the Global Crisis

We are now well into a global crisis that may mark the end of this cycle of human civilization. In this note I present a summary of what’s going on as far as I can tell, as well as a scenario for how things might develop over the next 75 years or so.

The issue is enormous, so an overview like this is inevitably going to be skimpy on details. This is, after all, not an academic journal. However, like every other fact in the known universe, those details are just a Google away…

Because the global predicament manifests itself in some way in virtually every area of human endeavour, any useful approach to it must be massively cross-disciplinary. Fruitful areas for investigation include:

Human Issues:

  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Finance (especially the characteristics and behaviour of money)
  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology
  • Neuro-psychology
  • Agriculture

Energy and Resource Issues:

  • Peak Oil and oil production in general
  • Classical electrical generation (coal, nuclear and hydro power)
  • Renewable electrical generation (wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and biomass)
  • Biofuels (including ERoEI considerations)
  • Rare Earth metal supplies
  • Copper and Iron ore concentrations

Environmental Issues:

  • Ecology (especially related to carrying capacity and footprint)
  • Climate change
  • Ocean acidification
  • Methane tipping points (permafrost and oceanic hydrates)
  • Species extinctions (including oceanic overfishing)
  • Deforestation and desertification
  • Fresh water depletion
  • Soil fertility depletion
  • Pollution: chemicals, heavy metals, radioactive waste, eutrophication, oceanic debris fields etc.

General issues:

  • Complex adaptive systems and resilience theory
  • Complexity theory and “Liebig’s Law of the Minimum”
  • Geoengineering
  • Genetic engineering (especially related to agriculture)
  • Habitat loss due to human numbers/activity
  • Overpopulation
  • “Peak Food”

Each of these 30 points is a field of study on its own. When we realize that “the global problem” is a result of interactions between them, we are faced with a combinatorial explosion of issues that must be considered even to understand what’s going on, let alone to make recommendations.

Most of us will only have enough time and expertise to skim most of the fields I listed, but even a cursory examination reveals a web of interconnections that far exceeds any ability to intellectually “dominate" the problem in its entirely. It is enough, however, to allow this summary of our predicament to emerge.

The situation is easier to understand if we look at it in three time frames: the Past, Present and Future.

Looking at the Past involves trying to determine, as honestly and deeply as possible, the origins of the problem, its evolution over time, and the reasons for that evolution.

The Present is, of course, a description of the current situation, both in terms of particular manifestations of the problem in various human domains as well as the interconnections and feedbacks between them. These interconnections may be between widely different domains, such as the role of neuro-psychology in the adoption of biofuels.

The Future should be considered in two ways: what is possible and what is probable. When assessing future actions, we should always keep the past in mind: how did we get into this fix in the first place, and how should that inform our response to it? As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Hold on tight, here we go…

The Past:

  • Evolution has given human beings a common set of psychological characteristics rooted in our brain structure. They have been modelled by Dr. Paul MacLean as the “Triune Brain”, which is a useful framework for understanding fundamental human behaviour patterns. These patterns include such behaviours as dominance, submission, competition, cooperation, altruism, xenophobia and our herding instinct (aka “group-think”). It also hints at the reasons why most human decisions are non-rational. These neuro-psychological qualities also give us a “hyperbolic discount function” in which distant, abstract threats are heavily discounted relative to immediate, tangible threats – regardless of the relative levels of existential threat involved.
  • Human culture is largely determined by the physical situation that exists at any particular place and time – specifically the food and water supply, material resource availability, and the climate. Culture is our structural response to those conditions, as mediated by our neuro-psychology. As conditions change, so does our culture.
  • Human population, our culture and our impact on the environment were all relatively stable from the first appearance of Homo sapiens 150,000 years ago until about 10,000 years ago.
  • Human numbers and environmental impact began to increase dramatically 10,000 years ago with the development of agriculture. The reason we developed agriculture at that time is open to speculation, but it probably had something to do with changing conditions following the last ice age.
  • The development of agriculture was also followed by a significant development of technology (in its broadest sense) that permitted people to manipulate their environment more easily and intensively.
  • The invention of writing about 5,000 years ago permitted the cross-generational storage and accumulation of knowledge, assisting the development and dissemination of technology.
  • The development of money, also about 5,000 years ago, decoupled the concept of value from the activity that actually generated the value. The concept of value was largely transferred to the money itself.
  • The next major upward break in human numbers and activity began about 200 years ago with the widespread adoption of fossil fuels. Since 1800 our population has grown from one billion to seven billion. Over 85% of that increase has come since the adoption of oil as our civilization’s keystone energy resource around 1900.

The Present:

There are of course many symptoms of the global problem, but these are representative:

  • Climate change due to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels is probably the most significant existential threat humanity faces today. Climate change is altering weather patterns, causing physical damage though extreme weather events, and is increasingly disrupting rainfall and food production in various regions.
    Soil fertility is plummeting world-wide.
  • Fresh water extraction from long-term and fossil aquifer storage is increasing to support the intensification of agriculture. Water tables are sinking around the world.
  • We may have already lost the oceans, because of a combination of over-fishing, acidification, temperature changes, and pollution from plastic waste and agricultural runoff. Food fish species exploited by humans are near collapse and the entire food chain is showing signs of disruption (e.g. jellyfish population explosions).
  • Desertification and deforestation are continuing largely unchecked around the world.
  • Species are going extinct at a very rapid rate, from a combination of habitat loss due to human activity, climate change and pervasive pollution.
  • The human food supply is showing signs of peaking due to climate change and increasing input costs.
  • Many genomes of agricultural species of plants and animals have been streamlined to such an extent that the resilience of the stocks is now in question.
  • We hit Peak Oil around 2006. Global crude oil production has been on a plateau since late 2004 (8 years now) despite massive upward excursions in the price.
  • The world economy is in a continuing recession caused by a combination of human factors (excessive complexity and loss of control) and a tightening of resource inputs – especially oil. The symptoms vary from place to place, but the underpinnings are global.

The Future:

The following points constitute a scenario based on my reading, that I believe becomes increasingly probable as the time horizon is pushed out. Take this as a 75 year scenario.

  • Climate change will not be ameliorated by international agreement. This is due to the cooperation problems identified in the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game, national and corporate self-interest, a lack of urgency due to the hyperbolic discount function mentioned above, and the complete lack of any realistic substitute for fossil fuels.
  • The general replacement of declining oil supplies by biofuels will not succeed due to the low ERoEI of such fuels.
  • The global impact of Peak Oil will be made worse as producing nations retain more of their declining oil output to satisfy domestic demand. This will drain the international oil market of most supplies by 2040 or so.
  • Over the next 25 years the decline in oil exports will trigger repeated rises in world oil prices. Those prices will in turn trigger waves of economic instability, with the prices falling during recessions/depressions and surging again during attempted recoveries.
  • The amount of capital available for new equipment manufacturing and infrastructure maintenance and development will decline in a stair-step fashion during the repeated recessions, as the global debt bubble implodes.
  • Nuclear power will not be developed any further because of public resistance due to the perceived risk. Some exceptions may occur in autocratic, centrally planned economies (esp. Russia and China).
  • While much renewable power will be installed in some places, in global terms renewable power will not save the day. This will be because of the lack of capital, the huge disparity between current renewable generating capacity and power needs, the inability to upgrade or even maintain national electrical grids, and the difficulty in addressing some transportation problems with electricity.
  • Most new electrical generation capacity will be fuelled by natural gas and coal.
  • There will be spreading electrical grid breakdowns as poorly-maintained infrastructure fails.
  • The human food supply will fail to keep pace with population growth, probably starting within the next two to five years. Despite international aid, famines will begin to spread out of sub-Saharan Africa into the rest of that continent and Asia. Pockets of starvation will begin to appear in developed nations over the next decade or two.
  • International tensions will rise over access rights to water, oil and gas. Regional and civil wars will become more common.
  • Populations will panic, and demand strong protective measures from their governments. This will result in an increase in repressive, bellicose authoritarian regimes. Asymmetric warfare will increase.
  • The use of transportation to move food from producing to consuming regions will become increasingly difficult, unreliable and expensive. This will cause a re-localization of food production, but some regions will not have enough land, water or skills – or a suitable climate – to permit the replacement of imported food supplies.
  • Sanitation infrastructure will suffer for the same reason as electrical grids – the progressive lack of capital for maintenance and refurbishment. Sanitation failures will trigger disease outbreaks.
  • Fertility rates and birth rates are likely to plummet world-wide over the next 30 years, due to the same influences seen in Russia from 1987 to 1993 during the break-up of the Soviet Union. These changes will largely be driven by personal choice rather than centralized planning and legislation.
  • Mortality rates will begin to climb somewhat later, due to food supply problems and the regional spread of communicable “breakdown” diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery. The spread of diseases will be aided by the breakdown of local and regional sanitation and health care systems.
  • Population growth will slow faster than the UN currently projects. World population may reach a peak of between 7 and 8 billion between 2030 and 2040, and then begin to decline. The speed of the decline is unknowable. The world population will begin to stabilize as it drops below two billion.
  • The world’s political landscape will undergo massive changes. In some cases there will be fragmentation as regional populations secede or are increasingly isolated by traditional geographic barriers (mountains, rivers, lakes, oceans and deserts). In other cases there will be amalgamations as wars of conquest are fought over resource access rights.

I do not believe, based on what I have learned, that new technological developments offer any hope for escaping this scenario. Much of the possibility for technological development hinges on the availability of capital and oil, both of which will be in increasingly short supply in the coming decades.

Some technological developments will cushion the shocks in some places. For instance the OECD may be able to make use of new low-energy or renewable technologies. However, the probability that such changes will penetrate deeply enough into Africa and Asia to prevent catastrophe is, in my estimation, vanishingly small. And in the end, the entropic forces at work may overrun even the most technologically sophisticated regions.

I do not support the use of genetic engineering or biotechnology to address the food supply problem. In my opinion the risks are too great and the probability of success is too low. Nor do I support the further development of nuclear power, for similar reasons.

In any event, what we face is not, at its heart, a technology problem amenable to an engineering solution. What we have is an ecological problem. We are in an overshoot situation relative to the ecological underpinnings that are required to support life, as well as having drawn down most of the accessible resources on which our civilization’s operation now depends. Our numbers and our needs have filled our ecological niche, which we have expanded to include the entire planet.

The good news is that human extinction is extremely unlikely. This is a very large planet, and we are a very resilient species. There is evidence that we rebounded from the Toba bottleneck when our species was reduced to at most a few tens of thousands of individuals. Barring a cosmic accident, humans will be around for a long time. Our current civilization, though, is quite another matter. On that scale we are about out of time, resources and options.

So what do we do about it? It’s not in our nature to simply roll over and give up – our survival instinct is, after all, built into the oldest reptilian part of our brains.

There will be some governments that will come to their senses in time, and have the courage to institute helpful measures. Unfortunately, institutional responses will usually be reactive rather than proactive. The worse the situation becomes before they take action, the more likely it becomes that panic will cloud the decision-makers’ judgement, leading to short-sighted, mistaken and ultimately harmful policies.

Most of the effective preparation for the coming changes will happen where it always does – at the individual level. This is already happening as people break free from the group-think of their cultures, wake up and realize what’s going on.

This awakening is the source motivation that feeds all the small, local independent environmental and social-justice groups that are springing into being like antibodies throughout the infected bloodstream of our global culture. These groups are independently addressing local problems as diverse as water rights, education, local food production, environmental cleanup, social justice issues, home energy production, local currencies, cooperative housing and child care – the list is effectively endless.

As these groups do their work, they also wake up many of those they come in contact with, to one degree or another. There may be over two million such groups in existence today, and there is one or more in every city on the planet. As far as I can tell their number is growing by about 30% per year. They are the true repository of hope in a gloomy landscape.

“Big solutions” are what got us into our current predicament. I reject the notion that more big solutions will get us out. Instead I prefer to count on the boundless courage, compassion, and ingenuity of individuals. People like you.


  1. Forgive me my ignorance but I really don’t see the point in these kind of posts.

    It seems that the article can be summarized as follows:

    “Humanity is doomed for reasons X, Y & Z but some will survive. We’re in that group – bully for us!”

    What use is this? I am motivated to change when I see what wonders are possible – and there are plenty of examples here; I am not motivated to change from a position of fear and gloom.

    I view this article as a non-resource and inane.

  2. LJ: I wrote this in the spirit of, “You can’t fix a problem you don’t understand.” Whether you find my understanding useful not, or whether it’s motivating or demotivating is entirely up to you.

  3. I don’t know about LJ but I find future predictions like these very motivating. I am also motivated by what wonders are possible. It is worth looking at the bad news along with the good news too.

  4. Hi Paul, I thank you very much for your reply. I really appreciate the fact that you were willing to offer a further response. I have spent 7 years looking at the various problems that we face right now and it was a particularly bad day when I made my initial comment.

    To others this may be new information and I hope it motivates them to reconsider where we are. It certainly is dire. I encountered permaculture when I was looking for external solutions that could compliment the necessary internal changes. So when I come here it’s for information that has practical, external relevance.

    It was unnecessary for me to adopt the tone that I did. I am still far from embodying the principles that I believe I need to – but I will continue to attempt to do so and I will continue to apologise when I believe I have let myself down. If I disagree, I hope to do so civilly.

    I sincerely wish you all the best in your endeavours and I hope that others realise that the real battle ground is within and it’s harder than one may suppose.

    All power to us who hope to see and work towards a fair world.

    Love and peace


  5. I tend to agree that this post could have been a lot better. For instance, assuming we all more or less know what the stakes are, the article could have said “we all know more or less what the stakes are”, skipped to the last 4 paragraphs and been a winner. I felt frustrated that the author didn’t spend more time elaborating claims such as ” As far as I can tell their number is growing by about 30% per year.” A graph or tabular data supporting this claim would be helpful. Expanding on the list of local problems that ARE being addressed (the signal) creates a groundswell of hope whereas elaborating the mis-deeds and woes we are experiencing turns up the noise at the expense of signal.
    All that being said, thank you for the trying to tackle this huge issue.

  6. While the senarios above may or may not come to pass, I think sharing what we know is our vote for avoiding or reducing future problems. IMO we can’t expect everyone who was raised in western society to share our point of view regarding enviromental, food and energy issues. My approach (in my workplace) is just to tell people what I did at the weekend and quite often they become interested and want to know more. For example I keep chickens and some of their food comes from my kitchen scraps, and the girls turn them into fresh eggs. I made compost at the weekend from stuff you normally throw away. Once you show people the rewards and benefits of doing the right thing, I think the moral and ethical issues become self evident.

  7. I have just today reposted on Facebook a report on three teenaged girls in Africa (the oldest is 15) who have invented a working generator that is fueled by 1 liter of urine for every 6 hrs. of electricity. I don’t have the dour outlook that you have. We are seeing the necessity and coming up with the inventions. Hide somewhere and watch whie we turn it all around. It’s called evolution and it happens in leaps and bounds. Not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well. Sometimes as we proceed from baby hood to our teens we grow an inch and it’s just between the ankle and the knee, but we’re taller all the same. I can’t live in the past. It’s over. I won’t presume to borrow on the future, it may never come for me. I have to live in the moment, making this the best life I can live right now, for me and everyone else. That’s what gets us through, one improvement at a time. We are all learning and growing. That’s all we really do, from cradle to grave.

  8. Overall, I think this article represents a fair and balanced summary of the human predicament of our age. If it errs in any direction, it is towards the conservative rather than the radical in the sphere of possibilities.

    My take on this (and I do tend to spend most of what time I have for entertainment and leisure, in research around the subject) is that people generally have too narrow a view (call it tunnel vision, if you like) on these things and base their outlook mostly on a mixture of their own experience and the popular mass view, with little or no desire to expand that perspective. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. This does not augur well for any great human-induced ‘turnaround’ in our collective direction of progress, even though there is a growing though as yet fragile ‘dawning’ in some quarters, to the imperative that ‘something’ needs to be done. There just aren’t enough activists in the world, including permaculturists, to alter the course of events. It is much like an ant attempting to change the direction of a charging elephant.

    So, where does that leave permaculture (and inventors of such things as urine powered generators)? Well, nowhere of any great influence, for now. Such activities and enterprises have not even the slightest thread of a chance to turn the beast around. Not yet. But afterwards? Yes, of course. Assuming the author’s caveat of ‘barring a cosmic event’ does not eventuate. To which I would add, barring the crossing of irreversible climate tipping points and/or deliberate or accidental self-annihilation through conflict.

    What then will turn the beast around, or otherwise be its ‘undoing’? That, though legionary are the predictions and possibilities, we will have to wait and see.

    And what will be the outcome for the planet and humanity? We don’t need to worry about the planet. It has been here far longer than we have, and it will be here long after we have gone. Whatever we have done to it, it will recover. Even if it has to make itself unliveable for a while in order to get rid of us. And who would miss us? Not the cats and rats and ducks. Not the birds and insects. Not the flowers and the trees. They would all recover. Perhaps not the same species, but that is all part of nature. We should not be so conceited as to think that we are in integral part of that picture.

    And what do I mean by ‘afterwards’? Well, if we are not going to alter the course of events, something else will. It is inevitable that there will be a crunch of some sort and it is not likely to be pretty. Elephant hits the brick wall type of picture. The time frame does not allow for any other, more rosy or cosy, scenario …In spite of what your politicians, elected or otherwise, may tell you. This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. Not rocket science. In fact neither technology, nor good intentions, nor stress and worry, nor positive action, has anything to do with it. ‘Afterwards’ is what comes when all of the dust has settled following the elephant hits wall incident. If you are still here, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. Accept that part of that process may be that you will need to gain a level of independence. Those around you today, your support network, may not be around for you to lean. Contemplate that for a while. It may clarify your thoughts on what you should be doing now to be able to cope in such a situation. Hopefully there will be someone or lots of someones who can teach others how to live the permaculture way, with whatever level of technology and whatever resources is/are available. We cannot assume that the circumstances we find ourselves in will be anything like what we know today.

  9. Paul, you say: “The good news is that human extinction is extremely unlikely. This is a very large planet, and we are a very resilient species. There is evidence that we rebounded from the Toba bottleneck when our species was reduced to at most a few tens of thousands of individuals. Barring a cosmic accident, humans will be around for a long time.”

    In the blog comment that first made me aware of you, you said: “We are locked into this death march. There is no realistic way out of the box we have so cunningly fashioned for ourselves. … We have, in my estimation, 2 to 3 decades left to enjoy the fruits of our planetary rape. Between now and then we are dead men walking.”

    Which is it? Or are you making the distinction between species extinction–which likely would spell extinction for all complex life–and the crash of civilization?

    Thanks Paul, your writings have been meaningful to me.

  10. Shams,

    Yes, you intuit correctly. I expect civilization to come apart within 20 or 30 years (with all that implies regarding widespread immiseration and deaths, but I don’t expect an extinction-level event. Of course it’s impossible to make any firm predictions on something this grave (so to speak), but that’s the outcome that seems ever more probable to me at this point.

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