By Umair Haque
There’s an old line from a movie called Office Space — do you remember that one? — that I’ve always loved: “Every day since I began work is worse than the day before it.” That’s kind of an apt summary for…everything…at the moment.
Life isn’t a happy thing right about now. It’s stressful, strange, upside-down. I’m weary with boredom, exhausted by isolation, tired of all the nothing…and I bet you are, too. So.
Is it just me, or living through the end of human civilisation kind of…sucks?
There’s not — or there shouldn’t be, by now — any real debate on the point that we are now living through the probable end of human civilisation.
The end of human civilisation is now easy enough to see, over the next three to five decades.
It’s made of climate change, mass extinction, ecological collapse, and the economic depressions, financial implosions, political upheavals, pandemics, plagues, floods, fires, and social breakdowns all those will ignite.
Coronavirus is a foreshadowing, a taste of a dismal future, a warning, and a portrait, too. Life as we know it is falling apart. Life as we know it will continue to fall apart, for the rest of our lives. How do you live through that?
I’m not your therapist, sadly — or luckily. I’m just an economist. So let me paint you a picture.
What did Coronavirus rupture? A sense of easy normality, of stability, of placidity. That things could just go on as before. Now, at least, we know how quickly life can simply…come to a screeching halt. How fast everything can change. True, in some countries, like America, things had been on a steady downward trajectory anyways. But don’t mistake the crucial lesson of the pandemic: life as we know it has now come to an end.
That’s not to say lockdowns and so forth will last forever. But they won’t end — like we all secretly hope — overnight, either. They’ll be with us, in fits and starts, as the virus ebbs and flows, for years. Or at least until a vaccine’s ready. It takes about five to ten years to develop one, usually. So Corona will probably define this decade — sapping the life from economies, causing a depression here, a stagnation there, another one here, yet again there, draining the cohesion from societies, as people grow tired of yet another lockdown, redefining politics, shifting power to authoritarians and nationalists, ripping a connected, cooperative world apart.
But that’s just a tiny, tiny taste of what’s to come.
Corona caused our lives to come to a standstill. But by and large, our systems still work. That’s not to say we have great and magnificent systems, or even really good ones — but mostly, they were kept functioning. Systems, meaning: social, economic, and financial systems, from healthcare to banks to jobs to wages and pensions and so on.
Those are what I’ll call in this tiny essay “superficial” or “secondary” systems. That’s not to say that they’re unimportant — it’s to say that they depend on other, deeper systems. But I’ll come to that.
What’s going to be different next time around is that these superficial systems will simply stop working.
A decade from now, by the 2030s, climate change is going to go nuclear. From relatively mild — although already badly disruptive — to catastrophic. And as it does, where it does, when it does, so too, all those systems we depend on will simply rupture and break. Suddenly. Bang! Just like Coronavirus did to our lives — but not our systems — today. Tomorrow, the difference will be that those systems will come to a halt, not just our temporary access to them. They will be “offline”, crashed, broken, devastated, wrecked, depleted, bankrupt, and paralyzed.
What happens when a continent burns? Take the example of America, or Australia. Both have already had an experience of “megafires.” Luckily, they’ve been managed to be controlled — or have burned themselves out. By the 2030s, though, we won’t be so lucky. Megafires will be a regular seasonal event, and they will just go on raging through canyons and hills and plains. What then? Well, then financial systems simply break. Who’s going to pay for the costs of repairing millions of incinerated homes, schools, offices, universities, clinics? The answer is: nobody.
Just like we have Rust Belt towns today — places that are being abandoned by deindustrialization — so too we’ll have Fire Belt and Flood Belt towns and cities and villages tomorrow. And as those places are destroyed, they’re going to take financial systems, healthcare systems, jobs, incomes, pensions, wages, and so forth with them. Not temporarily — like now, during the pandemic — but for good. Just like Rust Belt towns have been abandoned, so tomorrow’s Fire and Flood Belt will be uninhabitable. And the exodus fleeing from it will break most of our superficial systems. Banks won’t be able to cope with the costs of insuring all that, healthcare systems with the costs of treating all the ill, employment systems with providing for all those people, energy grids with the wreckage, and so on.
Bang! There go a civilisation’s superficial systems. Of course, some places will be lucky — and they’ll escape much of this damage. Canada, Scandinavia — just some of the beneficiaries. But they are a tiny relative proportion of humanity. The losers will be immense in number, and our systems simply don’t have the capability to cope, to provide, to offer them income, shelter, housing, medicine, food, even in rich countries. What happens then?
A depression does. Welcome to the Climate Depression of the 2030s. It’s much, much worse than the Great Depression — so-called — of the 1930s. Since huge chunks of the planet are now the Fire and Flood Belt, huge portions of humanity have nowhere to live, nothing to subsist on, and no way to earn a living, either. Demand falls through the floor, and the vicious cycle of falling incomes and lower employment sets in, with a vengeance.
How much does that kind of life suck? A lot more than now. That’s not to say today is fun. But tomorrow is going to make it look like a fond memory. What are you going to do when banking systems, healthcare systems, pension systems, all break down?
It’s OK. You’ll make it. It won’t be fun, but you’ll probably survive — you’re well off enough to be reading this, right? It’s the next decade you really have to worry about.
By the 2040s, mass extinction will finally begin to bite. Climate change will have destabilised temperatures and seasons enough that the current rate of mass extinction — which is already horrifically high — will explode. Did you know fish can’t spawn when water are too warm? That’s OK, we’re overfishing them to death, anyways.
Life on planet earth will, by the 2040s, begin to keel over from the bottom. It’s great towers and chains of life will crash and topple, having had the roots and foundations ripped out from under them. All the little things are dying off fastest and first — insects, bees, fish, worms, and so forth. But all those chains and ladders of subsistence — right up to us — depend on them.
Who’s going to turn the soil when the worms are gone? Who’s going to clean the rivers from turning to mud, when the fish are gone? Who’s going to nourish the plants that keep the forests healthy when the insects are gone?
The answer is: nothing is. Bang. Life on planet earth begins to die off.
Oops. We’re part of that, too.
Now the real fireworks begin. I talked about our superficial, or secondary, systems. Now our primary systems — the most fundamental ones — begin to break, go bankrupt, end up depleted, crash, burn. Energy, air, food, water, medicine. The things which keep us clean, nourished, fed, watered, alive in the most basic ways.
Those systems now begin to break down. The soil turns to dust, no harvest, no food. Now you have to compete bitterly just for food. The rivers turn to mud, because the fish are gone. Now clean water becomes a luxury. Raw materials become inaccessible. The basic compounds medicines are made of become scarce. And so forth.
What happens then? Right about now, you pay maybe 25% of your income for these basics — water, food, energy, air, and so on. Maybe more, if you’re relatively poor. But by then? Most of your income — easily upwards of 50% — will go these basics. The price of all these things will skyrocket, because there simply won’t be enough to go around. And having a steady supply of them will seem like a luxury.
Now you — the rich person of the world, back then, in the 2020s — are learning what it is to live like a poor person globally always did. They always had to carefully ration their food, water, energy, medicine. Do I wash dishes today, or do I bathe? Do I eat — or do I treat my sick kid? Those are the decision the poor 80% of humanity always lived with. You were lucky not to — maybe you didn’t know it. Now you live like them, too, making just those choices. Between the very basics. Over and over again, every day. Rationing, squeezing, cutting out every last morsel of waste, trying to conserve.
Don’t worry. You’ll probably succeed at that. You’re resourceful enough. The problem is that when you’re spending most of your income on the basics — then what do you save? And what do you have left over to invest in? Never mind having fun — you’re living like one of the global poor now, which is what climate change and mass extinction will make nearly everyone. It’s not that they don’t have fun — but they don’t spend a lot of money on it. For you, now, subsistence has become the daily project, mission, goal.
The old goals of saving, investing, maybe splurging — all those are distant, distant memories. What’s that kind of life like? It’s not pleasant, that’s for sure. It has its moments of happiness and even abandon and joy. But by and large, it’s what it sounds like: a bitter, desperate struggle for mere subsistence.
You’ll get through it. Maybe you’ll learn something new, about the value of human connection, of warmth, of simpler things.
It’s the next decade that you really have to worry about.
The 2050s will be the age of the Final Goodbye. By now, earth’s great ecosystems will be in irreversible and catastrophic decline. The ocean currents, the reefs, what little is left of the polar ice. The forests which are the earth’s lungs will be charred, the rivers which are its veins will have turned to dust, the prairies which are its limbs will be made of floodwater, the oceans which are its organs will be bitter with acid.
The Final Goodbye, as in: there’s no coming back from this. Sure, life on earth will survive, in some form. But not as we know it, and not in the way that we depend on it.
It will be very, very different. Maybe jellyfish — the inedible kind — will roam the seas. Maybe bacteria that thrive in heat will live in the embers of the permanent megafires. Who knows? What’s for certain is this.
Now the collapse of our civilisation’s primary systems — of energy, air, food, water, and medicine — goes permanent, and goes nuclear. Do you know how to put an ocean back together? A rain forest? A prairie? Neither do I. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. And having gone, so are the most basic of things they nourish us with, energy, air, water, food, medicine, and so on.
As those critical resources begin to depleted for good, our systems will crash. How do you “price” food or water when there’s not enough to go around — for good? The answer is: you don’t. You take it, if you can, and if you can’t, you die. Our carefully planned technocratic systems — from the technical end, markets, prices, algorithms, currencies, options, to the practical end, stockpiles, pipes, reservoirs, and so forth — all simply crash, break, fall apart. They are no good anymore. What good is a “price” for the last antibiotic in a country? What good is a healthcare system full of finely educated and trained managers and accountants and CEOs for allocating antibiotics or operations when…there aren’t going to be many more?
Maybe you see my point. Nobody cares now even if you have “money,” because money is just the polite and agreeable fiction of a civilized society. Now all that matters is power, and the will to use it.
Now things break down in big, big ways. Nations fall apart, as cities and towns turn on one another. The idea of democracy comes to an end, and tribalism, factionalism, every kind of stupid and backwards superstition from the depths of history replaces it. All that’s left is everyone against everyone else — each tribe for themselves — in a desperate, doomed, idiotic battle for the last few morsels of life-giving stuff left on a planet that’s turning to dust, fire, and death.
Think of America, right about now — how it’s become this stupid, desperate, never-ending battle for self-preservation — only everywhere.
Corona, in its own way, is trying to prepare us for that. It’s trying to teach us how not to end as a civilization. By taking care of one another. Not in some meaningless, Hallmark-card kind of way. But in a razor-sharp one. Invest, now, in the things you will need tomorrow. All of you. Food, water, air, energy, medicine. Where do they come from? From the lungs, limbs, organs, blood, of the earth, the forests, skies, oceans, rivers. From the creatures, the animals, beginning with the smallest, which feed and nourish the bigger, right up to us. Invest in all that. Do it now. Do it like never before in history. Put aside your stupid squabbles, and your pointless pursuits. Put down the remote control, the phone, the drug, the fix. You are here on planet earth. Are you really here on planet earth?
Corona is a warning from the end of human civilisation, backwards in time. To the beginning of the end of human civilisation. It teaches us how you can see the end from here. You can see the lights going out. The lights of civilisation — prosperity, democracy, freedom, justice, truth, beauty, goodness. All gone, incinerated by the fire, drowned by the flood, and all that’s left is a desperate, stupid, terrible, idiotic struggle, through the mud and ashes, for self-preservation, each against each other, all against all. I take your water, you take my energy, they take our food, we take their medicine. Around and around the maypole we go, ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
That is how our civilisation ends.
Does it suck to live at the end of human civilisation? Of course it does. Not just because life is wearying, boring, draining, or tense. But because you know. It doesn’t have to be like this. And yet it is. Maybe, then, it always did have to be like this. Maybe this is the only way. We have to fail so they can learn.
I take consolation, I suppose, in the fact that the next civilisation will be — will have to be — wiser, gentler, truer, better than us. It’s a shame, though, that the rest of our lives are going to, well…you know. Suck.
*First Published in Medium of 4 July 2020