[Disclaimer: I've said before and repeat here: Predicting when a major event like a collapse will happen is for mugs. One can look at current trends and extrapolate, but one cannot know how humans will respond to changing circumstances. That said, one can make educated guesses.]
We face ‘converging catastrophes,’ driven by pollution and resource depletion, and made worse by overpopulation. The two most visible and clearly dangerous are climate change and peak oil.
The Climate Change Social Tipping Point
At current rates of sea-level rise, tens of millions of people will be displaced within 25 years. If you think all those people, and the countries they live in, are going to go quietly into the night…well, would you?
Current projections suggest a sea level rise of at least one metre this century is now likely. A one-metre rise will displace at least 56 million people, and possibly double that.
From Bangladesh to the Maldives, from Vietnam to Pakistan to Alexandria to Venice, millions upon millions of people will be driven from their homes and livelihoods. And where are they to go? Into ever-more crowded areas of their own – and neighbouring – countries. Rising sea levels will produce a tide of climate refugees that will make the chaos in Darfur look mild.
Many of those refugees, and the people whose lands they attempt to crowd into, are going to be angry. Combine that with nothing left to lose, and we have a recipe for human-caused Armageddon .
The embattled governments will be driven to extreme actions to try and maintain control, and one proven method is to distract the people with an external enemy. Now, Bangladesh isn’t about to attack the world’s largest contributor to climate change to date, the United States. However, they might consider charging climate deniers like Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, which continues to this day to fund climate denial – to bankroll, in effect, the dispossession and death of millions – with crimes against humanity and demand reparations.
That might be interpreted as an indirect attack on the United States and one the G77 would consider as a last resort, I’m sure. However, faced with insurrection, what choice will they have but to take extreme measures?
Long before the sea rises one metre by 2100, many millions will have been displaced and many hundreds of millions will see their future clearly – they will lose everything: Their land and farms, their businesses, their livelihoods – virtually everything of any value. This is almost certain to be a social tipping point; when sufficient people realise that climate change is real and will affect them quite adversely.
The Peak Oil Tipping Point
Even if we avoid mass violence caused by rising seas, spreading deserts, water shortages, and other effects of climate change, there is still the very real problem of peak oil. Put simply, a limited supply of oil existed on the earth and we appear to be at or very near the point at which half of it has been extracted. That means the supply of oil will henceforth begin to decline and the cheapest-to-extract oil is gone. Given how massively dependent our entire economy is upon oil, this is not good.
The effects of peak oil could well hit much sooner than those due to climate change. At the moment, most oil-producing countries are pumping about as fast as they can. Any increase in demand or decrease in supply will cause a price spike. Remember the 70s? There were long, long lines to get rationed gas in the United States. The U.S. has become far more dependent upon oil since then, as have many other countries.
Because oil is in virtually everything, any increase in price or decrease in supply is potentially devastating. Most agricultural fertilisers and pesticides are petroleum-based, and of course tractors and trucks run on diesel. If the price of oil goes up, it has a ripple effect through all these points and many more, and the price of the end product – your food – goes up significantly.
The price of commuting also goes up, and given the number of Americans who live in suburbs only accessible by car, that is a real problem. Heating bills will go up. The price of plastic will increase, and plastic is in everything. The cost of transportation will rise, making importing and exporting more costly. This would hit big exporters like China hard.
Predictions on the effects of peak oil range from immediate collapse to a long decline. It depends how it happens and how we react. A sudden collapse in oil supply, say from terrorists bombing the Saudi oil fields or another hurricane wiping out much of U.S. refining capability, would have a serious and immediate impact on the U.S. economy. The U.S. does maintain the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) – which contains a 34-day supply of oil. Thirty four days.
We could mobilise the economy and redirect all resources to converting to solar, wind, and other power sources, as well as drastically cutting energy use through conservation. A little insulation would go a long way. Suburbs could be abandoned and reverted to fields, while the former inhabitants move to more densely populated, walkable areas. However, this kind of mobilisation likely won’t be politically acceptable until ‘things’ are quite bad, and by then it may be too late because the remaining supply of oil is so limited and expensive. And honestly, the U.S. government is so corrupt at this point that they will probably screw up any mobilisation.
How Long Have We Got?
I give us a maximum of 25 years before riots begin, and probably wars. Within 25 years, sufficient millions will have been dispossessed or drowned by sea level rise alone – not considering other impacts of climate change like stronger storm surges, desertification, the spread of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and so on and on – that everyone else will know the bell tolls for them, too. And in 25 years, the price of oil is going to be much, much higher. Food prices will go up, especially for meat, suburbs will become uninhabitable, and there will be a lot of newly poor people looking for someone to blame.
The world will become a more hostile place. No longer will Americans slap Canadian flags on their luggage when touring the world, because all developed countries will be reviled. Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom will be especially loathed, as we are the countries that have spewed the most greenhouse gases, that continue to do so, and that refuse to change because we are too greedy.
Another very likely outcome of climate change will be the end of American-style capitalism and a rise in religious fundamentalism, as people return to values that recognize greed as a sin, not as a virtue. Rightly or wrongly, there is likely to be a backlash.
You have, at best, 25 years to see the world, to experience different cultures, to remember the world as it is and could have been. After that, if you have a home, it will be safest to spend the remainder of your days there.
Originally published as a shorter article on Celsias.com as You Have 25 Years. It did not mention peak oil.