In my previous post, I compared the effects of two large storms on the United States, and some trends that will be affecting our ability to respond to such occurrences in the future. In this post, I would like to reflect on how I see these trends altering the future of our society in general.
On an individual level, people tend to thrive in the good times, and survive in the bad times. As I have said before, we are a phenomenally adaptable species. Our societies, however, are not. Societies tend to thrive in the good times, and collapse in the bad; sometimes slowly, often spectacularly; but, barring invasion, almost always when the cost to maintain the societal infrastructure exceeds the political will and/or capital available to support it. Every society, as the saying goes, is only three meals from anarchy.
So, where does that leave us, going forward? First, if we are struggling to maintain our deteriorating infrastructure now, things are only going to get much more problematic as global warming ramps up. Currently, events are unfolding slowly, and somewhat locally, enough that the country can at least make some significant repairs before the next big event hits. Two or three decades from now, this will probably not be the case; large storms and other highly damaging events (such as forest fires and droughts) may begin hitting with such frequency and intensity that we will barely have enough time to affect repairs before the next comes along. $100 billion per year is a lot of money, even for the United States. Multiply that by two or three, and we’re looking at a substantial drag on government resources. Multiply that by a factor of five or six, and we’re looking at spending nearly as much as we do each year on defense, just to keep the lights on, water running, grocery stores stocked, etc. A lot of infrastructure is going to break, and stay broken.
Second, our society has almost certainly exceeded the limits of sustainable complexity. iPhones, electric/water distribution, gasoline production, even most of the food in the supermarket, all sit on top of highly sophisticated and tightly interlinked supply and distribution chains that are literally thousands of miles long. When we begin having to spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on maintaining infrastructure, you can expect concepts such as “brand loyalty” to become quaint ideas of the past, right up there with “globalization” and “showering every day.” Indeed, I suspect that by mid-century or so, we may be happy to just consistently find any shampoo at all amongst the ever-smaller and variable stocks at the grocery store, as well as power reliable enough to keep our smartphones charged every day.
Finally, governments rely on a certain amount of faith from the people to keep things running in an orderly fashion. When the power starts to go out with increasing frequency and duration, and grocery shopping starts to become more like a scavenger hunt, what do you think is going to happen when an overextended government has to throw up its hands and say “sorry, can’t help you.” The federal government exists at the behest of the states (via Constitutional Convention); the states at the behest of the people. I would be highly surprised if both forms of government did not undergo significant change by the end of the century.
Scary to contemplate? Indeed. But the important thing to remember is that this will be predictably unfolding over time like a slow-moving train wreck, with most of the uncertainty now being whether this will be occurring over the next 50 years, or 100. There is plenty of time to prepare, without fear, while riding the curve down. And with change comes opportunity. If you can get your head around that now and plan accordingly, you will be much better positioned than those moving blithely along, waiting for superman/supertech to save them.
Frugality and adaptability will be survival traits. Start learning now.