Imagine the end of the world in moderation. It's hard. We tend to imagine that either the "economy" will recover and we'll go on like 1999 forever, plus flying cars, or else one day "the apocalypse happens" and every component of the industrial system is utterly gone.
I'm not ruling out a global supercatastrophe. A runaway greenhouse effect might turn Earth into another Venus and cook us all. Acidification of the oceans might kill the plankton, and with them everything that needs a lot of oxygen. An instant ice age could happen several ways, and this scenario needs more attention because some humans would survive. But what I'm focusing on here is the scenario that includes only events we're reasonably sure about: the end of cheap energy, the decline of industrial agriculture, currency collapse, economic "depression," wars, famines, disease epidemics, infrastructure failures, and extreme unpredictable weather.
If that's all we get, the crash will be slower and more complex than the kind of people who predict crashes like to predict. It won't be like falling off a cliff, more like rolling down a rocky hill. There won't be any clear before, during, or after. Most people living during the decline and fall of Rome didn't even know it. We're told to draw a line at the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, but to Romans at the time it was just one event -- the Visigoths came, they milled around, they left, and life went on. After the 1929 stock market crash, respectable voices said it was a temporary adjustment, that the economy was still strong. Only years later, when we knew they were wrong, could we draw a line at 1929.
I suggest we're already in the fall of civilization. In 2004 the price of oil doubled, bankruptcies and foreclosures accelerated, global food stockpiles fell to record lows despite high harvests, an apocalyptic religious cult hacked an election to tighten their control of the world's most powerful country, and we had record numbers of hurricanes and tornadoes -- and a big tsunami to top it off. If every year from here to 2020 is half as eventful, we'll be living in railroad cars, eating grass, and still waiting for the big crash we've been led to expect from watching movies designed to push our emotional buttons and be over in two hours.
You know how it goes: Electricity and water and heat are off and not coming back on. Food and fuel will never again be coming into the cities. People "revert to savagery" or "anarchy," running wild in the streets killing and looting. If you live in the city, you will have to kill people to steal their food, or even eat them, and they'll be trying to do the same to you. If you live in the country, you'd better have a big gun to fend off the hordes of starving urbanites scouring the countryside. This condition will last until a strong leader rebuilds "civilization."
This is a web of lies. The first lie is the assumption that breakdowns will be sudden and permanent. More likely it will go like this: As energy gets more expensive and the electrical infrastructure decays, blackouts will be more frequent and last longer, but power will come back on. By the time the big grids go down permanently, the little grids, patched together from local sources, will be ready to take their place. They will be weaker, less reliable, and more expensive, and they won't cover the slums, but by then we'll all be experts at living without refrigerators and running laptop computers from car batteries scavenged from junked SUV's and recharged with solar panels. Electricity is a luxury, not a necessity. When the lights go out, we won't go berzerk -- we'll go to bed earlier.
Likewise with gasoline. The oil's not running out -- it's just getting more scarce and expensive. People who want it will not form motorcycle gangs that chase tankers and fight to the last man. They'll do what my dad did in 1973 and what they're doing now in Iraq -- wait six hours for a fill-up. If you already know how to get by with a bicycle, you just won't have as many cars to deal with.
Water supplies are mostly gravity-fed. If something stops the flow, someone will be fixing it. Even the worst places, like Phoenix or Las Vegas, will not suddenly and permanently run out of water. As with electricity and fuel, water will get lower quality, more expensive, and unpredictably available. People will learn to store it and to stop wasting it by watering lawns and washing cars and shitting in drinking water. Adaptable people will learn to catch rainwater. With only 12 inches a year, a 10 foot square metal roof feeding a storage tank will gather 100 cubic feet, or about 800 gallons, enough for one person to have more than two gallons a day.
Food is more difficult. It rarely falls from the sky, and industrial agriculture can't possibly continue to feed everyone. It would be easy to feed even our present bloated population if we all learned how to grow little gardens and trays of sprouts and bathtub algae, but that's not going to happen. Populations have died in famines before and will do so again. The lie here is that the food supply will end suddenly and permanently, when really, like everything else, it will end in a series of small collapses and partial recoveries.
The other lie is that lack of food will make people kill each other. I challenge readers to come up with a single event, in all of history, where it was common for people to kill each other for food. I haven't heard of anyone doing it in areas hit by the tsunami. In the 1984 Ethiopian famine, in the siege of Sarajevo, even in the Irish potato famine, when Ireland was producing enough meat and grain to feed everyone and exporting it to wealthy Englishmen, when people would have been morally justified in killing for food, they did not kill for food. The Donner party ate their own dead but did not kill for food. Napoleon's soldiers retreating from Moscow would cut the organs from fallen men and horses, sometimes before they were quite dead, but did not kill each other to steal food. Nations have gone mad and killed millions for empty abstractions of race and religion and politics, but even in Rwanda or Nazi Germany or post-revolution France, it was uncommon that anyone would kill for food.
I can't explain it, why people will kill for ideas and then, when their life is at stake, will quietly starve. Maybe hunger comes on so slowly that by the time they're ready to kill, they're too weak. Maybe, in a real famine, the elite keep the food so well guarded that there's no point trying to take it, and the non-elite, not corrupted by power, would rather share what little they have than fight to the death.
Imagine yourself in that position. Whatever stopped the food coming into the city, it's probably regional and temporary, and you'll be expecting it go to back to normal soon, or at least expecting help. Exposure kills people much faster than starvation, so you'll want to stay in the place you know and try to get a piece of the aid shipments. If you leave the city you'll be headed for a particular place like a cabin or a friend's house, not roaming the countryside looking for a cornfield. I've gone by bicycle from central Seattle over Stevens Pass to near Wenatchee, and over Snoqualmie all the way to Spokane. I rode freeways, highways, dirt roads, and gravel trails, and I think I saw two fields of edible crops, neither in season.
What about stealing from other people in the city? Again, put yourself in that position. Do you know which houses have food? Which have guns? Would you really go to a random house and knock the door down? If you're even thinking about it, you'll be expecting other people to do the same, and you'll make a defensive alliance with your neighbors. If you're allied and you need each other for survival, you're going to share food. Those with the most food, if they're smart, will give some away to earn respect and loyalty. The situation will be all about social dynamics among neighbors, not physical conflicts against roving gangs.
The popular image of "anarchy" is another lie, an elitist caricature of lower class people as stupid and randomly dangerous, mindless and incomprehensible like a tornado. In reality, in the Rodney King riots, people were intelligent enough to not harm the Korean grocery stores where the owners had been nice to them. I was in the Seattle WTO "riots," and the destructive actions were not mindless and crazy, but calm, deliberate, and focused.
Notice the propaganda use of the word "streets": "mean streets," "I grew up in the streets," "rioting in the streets." Where else are we going to riot? The lawn? We're led to believe that the most dangerous thing in the streets is people on foot with free will. The most dangerous thing in the streets is the automobile. Deaths in the streets probably go down during riots because there are fewer car crashes. How many people have been invisibly killed in car crashes in the same intersection where the big media spent days making sure everyone in the world saw Reginald Denny being beaten by lower class people?
The function of propaganda is not to tell us what to think but to sink us deeper in what we already thoughtlessly believe: in this case, that in the absence of central control we get a dog-eat-dog universe full of shocking crimes. That's what we have now. The every-man-for-himself morality is a symptom of a culture that uses excess wealth and zero-sum competition to maintain hierarchy. In the absence of wealth and control, people get nicer. We learn to take responsibility, to work together, to help each other... until a new dominator appears and crushes us down.
All the worst mass-killings of history have been top-down. Genocide happens not when central control stops but when it stops holding back. If the killers are not direct agents of government or industry, they are ordinary people who know they have both the protection and the ideological guidance of the biggest bad-ass of the moment. Usually the ideology is utopian: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, French revolutionaries, American "settlers," and now American neoconservatives and dominionists, all have justified their mass murders with a grandiose vision of a noble conflict to wipe the world clean and build heaven. The danger is not "terrorism" or "chaos" -- the danger is a new order that declares you the danger.
I expect utopian genocide to compete with famine for the number two spot, still well behind disease, which historically has always been the biggest killer. The Black Death of 1347-1350 (which might have been an ebola-like virus) killed about a third of Europe, and those people ate organic whole foods and had no jet travel or biowar labs.
Still, the interesting question is not "How will people die?" but "How will people live?" In the town next to the mass grave, what will we do all day? Process data and feign enthusiasm? Get on the internet? Make crossbows? Tend fruit trees? The best I can figure it out is to look at a bunch of more and less likely modifiers to the world as we know it, and think through how they could change things.
Peak Oil. Global oil extraction will peak in the next year or two, if it hasn't already. By 2008 it will be clearly in decline, though some will argue that it's only a temporary adjustment. Oil sellers will exploit the hype by raising prices even more than they have to. We will not "figure out" some new cheap energy source, but we will figure out that hydrogen is just a storage method, and not a very good one.
But life will change less than the peak oilers are predicting, because we have so much room to cut out waste: to drive less often in more efficient cars, ride bicycles, turn off the heat and air conditioning, take the machines and industrial chemicals out of agriculture, stop flying food around the world. Gradually, more people will grow their own food, raise their own kids, tend their own health, do stuff with their own bodies instead of machines, and turn their attention from the stock market and TV characters to their more real lives. Those who can adjust mentally will recognize this as an improvement.
When energy gets so expensive that people can't afford to drive their cars at all, or to buy the new super-efficient cars, they will abandon the suburbs to enterprising bicyclists or drug gangs or squatter communities or farmers. The abomination of the lawn will turn out to have preserved a lot of precious topsoil... which will now be depleted by moderately unsustainable agriculture. I don't see any likely way for us to go "back" to the forager-hunter lifestyle for which our bodies are made. It's not that we can't, but that most people will choose not to as long as they know any technique to gain short-term advantage by draining the life of the Earth.
Economic Derepression. That's not a typo. There are many economies, and the one that's failing is the control economy. The dominant media will not even call it a depression, but some kind of temporary crisis, when really it's the permanent end of the centralized techno-industrial order. What they'll call temporary "unemployment" will be a permanent transition to self-employment in the meaningful activities of subsistence.
The dollar will continue to slide, until non-wealthy Americans will no longer be able to buy anything imported. Americans will have to learn how to make stuff again, and we could get a renaissance in light manufacturing. We'll start local currencies, like Ithaca Hours, or if the rulers jealously forbid it, we'll build underground barter and gift economies. All this will be good for us. Meanwhile, economies that depend on selling stuff to Americans will also decline.
Interest rates will rise and pop the housing bubble, and so many people will default on their mortgages that it will be impossible to evict them all, or to keep squatters out of all the vacant bank-"owned" houses. The elite will try to repress squatters enough to preserve their property/power, but not so much that it fuels a movement for land reform. Something similar will happen with credit card debt, but milder, because the elite are always more willing to forgive debt than to give up their claim on land. One piece of advice: If you can sell off your stocks and get enough money to pay off your house, hurry!
World War III. The only way I can make sense of the coming attack on Iran is to see it as a giant cult suicide. Of course US forces will be humiliated, but not before sparking "WWIII." This is another term that's been hyped and simplified. Like "World" War II, it will actually be fought in only a few regions, and it will not destroy the world as we know it, only take it down a notch.
Secret Weapons. I'm sure they exist: powerful electromagnetic weapons, weather control, trippy stuff we can't imagine. But the people who research this subject are so paranoid that it's impossible to tell if these weapons are any more catastrophic in effect than other weapons, or if they're tactically effective enough to be used.
China. I don't know enough to predict this one. China is going to be the next evil empire after the USA, but what will they do? Do they have the means to come over here and turn America into an even worse police state than it already is? How will it affect their economy when Americans are no longer buying their prison-manufactured products at Wal-Mart? How much time do they have before industrial civilization falls out from under them?
Serial Fallujah. If we get overt mass-killings in America, this is my pick for how it will happen. The rulers will pick off cities one by one, just like they did with Fallujah and the Branch Davidians, feeding the bloodlust of the public in a ritual as old as civilization: demonize them, seal them in, and kill them all. If a volcanic eruption cuts off food to your city, hold tight -- you'll be fine. If the bodies of soldiers or police are dragged through the streets of your city, get out and never expect to return.
Disease. One that kills 10% will slow down or stop many systems, especially the medical system, but in a few months or years it will all go back to almost how it was before. One that kills 50% will reorder society in ways we can't predict -- when people think they're about to die, they do unpredictable things.
Another factor is if the dead and the survivors have different cultural profiles. If we get a mad cow epidemic, it will tend to kill big red meat eaters and spare people who eat lighter. Almost any disease will go easier on people with healthier lifestyles -- in fact, this might have already happened: The insanity sweeping America and appearing in Europe could be a direct effect of a diet of over-refined sugars and starches, hydrogenated oils, and processed-to-death foods. We could see it as a slow diet-caused epidemic of mental illness that makes people do stupid things that tend to get them killed.
Weather. Overall global temperatures will continue to rise, though I think the mechanism is more complex than greenhouse gases absorbing sunlight. And in any particular spot, it will look more like crazy weather than warm weather. This winter in Seattle we had houseflies and hummingbirds in January. In July we might get a 110 degree day (43C) and then a snowstorm. Everyone will get faster winds, bigger storms, wetter floods and drier droughts. And if the climate is being affected, directly or indirectly, by CO2 emissions, then there will be a lag, just like the lag between turning the hot water up in the shower and feeling it, but much longer because the atmosphere is so much bigger. If the lag is as long as 30 years, then what we're getting now is the effect of the relatively mild emissions in the 1970's. What will it be like when the giant car fad comes back to bite us?
Astronomy. Eventually a mass-extinction-sized asteroid will strike the Earth. The chance that it will do so in the next 100 years is not worth bothering about. But some other cosmic events may be. A fringe theory of comets is that they are not "dirty snowballs" but hot and enormously charged with electromagnetism or some other kind of energy, and that a near pass of a comet can influence Earth in ways we don't understand. There could be all kinds of cosmic disasters that we don't know about because their physical traces are not as obvious as a giant crater or a layer of ash. The best place to look would be in the histories of ancient and prehistoric people -- which we are told to think of as pure fiction. For more on this subject, look into the work of Immanuel Velikovsky.
One event that is accepted by dominant science, somewhat likely, and could actually give us a sci-fi apocalypse that kills the system and leaves people unharmed, is a giant solar flare. The solar storm of 1859 fried the telegraph system by overwheming the wires with electric charge. Our computer components are so sensitive to electric charge that we keep them in foil pouches so we don't accidentally burn them out with static electricity. Do you think you could burn out a telegraph line by rubbing your feet on the carpet and touching it? Then imagine what a telegraph-burning solar storm would do to computers. Solar flares are associated with sunspots, and sunspots are now at a 1000-year high, and will peak in 2012.
Human Consciousness Shift. I'm not going to call it an "awakening" or "transcendence" because that would be putting it on a vertical scale, better than before. It's at least as interesting if we're not better but different. This one is fun to think about, and easy to argue for or against, because there are so many ways we are smarter, stupider, and no different than we were before. My own wild speculation is that humans are already splitting into two "races" very much like Tolkien's elves and orcs. In any case, it's obvious that without a shift in human collective consciousness, we're just going to keep reaching for the heroin, cutting the trees down as fast as they grow back, falling out of balance and crashing until we go extinct. And with a shift, it's wide open.