Hell in a Hand Basket and Why We’re Going There, Guaranteed (sort of)

[My love of music has me suggesting that a song be played in the background while you’re reading this. There are a couple I’d like to suggest: Talking Heads-Nothing but Flowers; Blue Rodeo-Lost Together (must have some Canadian content); or, given the Ukraine/Syria/Iran/North Korea/Venezuela/Congo African Republic/Senkaku-Daiyou Islands/etc. situations, Frankie Goes to Hollywood-Two Tribes. Enjoy]


The ebb and flow of societies is well documented by historians and archaeologists. It seems every society rises in complexity to a zenith of some kind and then falls. There are an increasing number of people who contend that this sociopolitical transformation is fast-approaching for our globalised, industrial civilization, and of those some believe that this shift will be a long drawn out affair of slow decline[i], while others suggest it may be more of a sudden shift[ii], or collapse[iii].

Whether this change takes generations or is much more sudden and dramatic matters not (unless you’re living through the latter one, I suppose); one’s perception of this depends upon the temporal perspective taken. For example, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the oil-dependent, industrialized society of humans lasts 400 years, 200 years up and 200 years down (I think I’m being overly generous here on the demise side).

A 200-year decline may, given normalcy bias, not be perceived as a significant shift at all by those experiencing it. However, if we can step back and view this rise and fall in larger historical terms, say on a 10,000-year basis, this ascent/descent scenario may be perceived as quick and calamitous. I think perspective is everything here. (Note that I’ll continue to refer to the impending change as ‘collapse’ because I tend to believe the change will come quickly, especially once the power grid fails.)

That being said, the antecedents of such collapse are varied and complex. They range from declining marginal returns[iv] to environmental collapse[v] to psychological shifts[vi] to overshooting local carrying capacity[vii] to Peak Oil[viii] to population growth[ix]. Humans don’t require artificial intelligence that perceives us as a threat, a viral pandemic leading to a zombie apocalypse, or an alien invasion for our resources to push us over the cliff; we don’t even need a nuclear war. We have our own non-military, sociocultural peculiarities to accomplish it.

As with any complex, dynamical system, the variables that lead to collapse interact in ways both knowable and surprising (such are the emergent phenomenon that arise from complex systems). Feedback that might provide clues to the coming demise tends to be ignored, delayed, or misinterpreted, resulting in dismissal of clear signals. In fact, oftentimes, the actions taken by players can expedite the process of collapse. To this end, I believe that our economic system, with globalisation efforts and its underlying foundation of infinite growth, may be the catalyst that pushes our industrial civilisation over the impending cliff of collapse. But, who really knows? My guess is about as good as anybody else’s[x].

What are some of the components contributing to this collapse endgame? I offer a few: exponential growth of population; dependency on fossil fuels; human hubris; economic credit/debt obligations; climate change; peak resources (especially oil and water); delayed feedback; corrupt political/economic systems; misperceptions; accumulation of toxins/pollutants; misleading information; and just plain, old ignorance (some purposeful I believe). And, don’t forget the black swans.

To me, population growth seems to be the factor that we have pushed in the wrong direction but the underlying variable to this is energy. Populations do not grow if there is not enough energy to support such growth. This energy may take the form of domesticated animal and plant life, or long-stored, concentrated energy (i.e. fossil fuels), but at its base is solar energy and how it is exploited. For tens of thousands of years human population was held in check by limited energy exploitation. The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ certainly gave a boost to human population, especially within new villages, towns, and cities erupting all over the globe. However, once fossil fuels began to be exploited our population took off in a global, exponential explosion. It is this exponential growth of human population that has put us in this bind we are in.

To better understand what is happening, I believe one of the fundamental pieces of information to get a grip on is, in fact, exponential growth. Exponential growth is a concept well-known (think compound interest) but whose consequence has been lost on many. The late Dr. Albert Bartlett was perhaps one of the leading authorities on the implications of such growth and spent much of his professional career attempting to educate people about it. In a presentation he gave thousands of times and was viewed many more times on youtube (viewed more than 1/4 million times; not bad for an old guy lecturing about mathemtics) he outlines the importance of it and its consequences.

Entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population, and Energy’[xi], Bartlett argues, among other things, that zero population growth will happen whether we wish it to or not, it is a mathematical certainty. In the words of others, if something cannot grow forever, it won’t. However, as Bartlett points out, we hold near and dear to our hearts many things that are contributing to overpopulation: education, healthcare, immigration, sanitation, law and order. On the other side of the ledger, however, are forces that counter these: war, famine, disease, accidents, murder, abortion, and infanticide. His point is that we can either deal with the issue of overpopulation by changing our behaviours (and attitudes) or nature will do it for us; the choice is ours (or is it?).


…here we can see the human dilemma—everything we regard as good makes the population problem worse, everything we regard as bad helps solve the problem. There is a dilemma if ever there was one.

Dr. Albert Bartlett


A burgeoning population and its implications for human sustainability on a finite planet has been around for some time. Thomas Malthus’s treatise on the subject in 1798 being perhaps one of the most well known. Had Malthus known of the incredible boost to global carrying capacity that was about to be unleashed by the exploitation of a one-time windfall of concentrated and easily-transportable energy, petroleum, he may not have been so adamant in his conclusion that the end of growth was near-at-hand. But such are the chances when one attempts to foretell the future.

My own biases, prejudices, predilections, observations, and experiences, suggest this human experiment we are a part of will not end well[xii]. I believe that there is too much momentum, too many people with a sense of entitlement, too many sociocultural myths, too many elite protecting the status quo, and far too much ignorance for us to avoid a global collapse. Unless, of course, Zemphram Cochrane’s trans-warp engine test on April 4, 2063 at 11:15 am, after the Third World War (aka Eugenics Wars), is seen by a Vulcan survey expedition and makes First Contact, saving us from ourselves[xiii].

What typically follows social, political, economic collapse is a ‘dark age’ of some kind and is perhaps best known (at least within Western history) by the years that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. But more on this in another post.

Despite all of the above, there are a variety of other variables that could push a teetering globe into a collapse scenario, particularly geopolitics or a natural disaster. No one knows. Prediction of the future is for meteorologists and economists, neither of which is very good beyond a couple of days for the former, and much less for the latter. I must admit, however, that Marion King Hubbert’s prediction of the coming demise of industrial civilization[xiv], along with the seminal text, The Limits to Growth[xv], are pretty good guesses in my books.

The one thing I am sure of, the more I learn, the more I am finding that I am ignorant of. Although I spent a career as an educator[xvi], I continue to be a student…and perhaps this diatribe is all just an elongated justification of my belief system, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”[xvii]

Olduvai (aka Steve Bull)


[i] Greer, J.M.. The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. New Society Publishers, 2008. (ISBN 978-0-86571-609-4)

Kunstler, J. H.. The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Grove Press, 2009/2006/2005. (ISBN 978-0-8021-4249-8)

[ii] Diamond, J.. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Books, 2005/2011. (ISBN 978-0-14-311700-1)

Orlov, D.. The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit. New Society Publishers, 2013. (ISBN 978-0-86571-736-7)

Ruppert, M.. Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Oil World. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009.  (ISBN 978-1-60358-164-3)

[iii] I use the following definition of collapse, as proposed by Joseph Tainter (see footnote below): “[It] is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity….To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must  have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations…The collapse in turn must be rapid—taking no more than a few decades—and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.” (p. 4)

[iv] Tainter, J.A.. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1988. (ISBN 978-0-521-38673-9)

[v] Diamond, J.. Ibid.

[vi] Orlov, D.. Ibid.

[vii] Catton, Jr., W.R.. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1982.

(ISBN 978-0-252-09988-4)

[viii] Ruppert, M.. Ibid.

[ix] Malthus, T.. An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society. J. Johnson, 1798.

[x] Take a good, long critical look at the world and its leaders. Do you have faith, enough faith that you would risk your own life and that of your family, in the leaders of this world to be capable of circumnavigating successfully the various crises that are erupting with greater magnitude and frequency, from climate change to geopolitical stresses to resource depletion to economic collapse? If you have that much faith in them, well good luck to you. Quite simply, I don’t. I believe they are incapable of managing these dilemmas and cascading failures of the various systems of industrialised civilisation will occur some time in our future. NO, I have no idea when.

[xi] Bartlett, A..

Arithmetic, Energy, and Population. (Transcript: http://www.albartlett.org/presentations/arithmetic_population_energy_transcript_english.html).

[xii] I must admit that my particular pessimistic perspective makes for an interesting dynamic between my spouse and I, for she is the eternal optimist who, as a practising educator, believes in the successful implementation of social engineering to prevent many of the negative consequences (I’ve just retired from the profession but have always been a ‘little’ critical of it, and authority; the latter, in no small part, likely the result of being the child of a police officer).

[xiii] Star Trek, First Contact. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_First_Contact

[xiv] Hubbert, M.K.. Energy from fossil fuels. Science, Feburary 4, 1949. v.109, pp. 103-109.

[xv] Meadows, D., J. Randers, & D. Meadows. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004. (ISBN 978-1-931498-58-6)

[xvi] 9 years as a classroom teacher (grades 6-8), 13 as an administrator (K-8 school).

[xvii] Shakespeare. Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 26-28)

6 thoughts on “Hell in a Hand Basket and Why We’re Going There, Guaranteed (sort of)”

  1. Thank you Steve for this recap of the current status of most of the world.

    Don’t you think “Over The Rainbow” would have been a better song?

    I think you covered all the major failure points. Personally I think it will be a failure of the food system that will bring most of modernity down. America operates on a 2 week food supply system. Anything that will disrupt that 2 week system will lead to hunger and then starvation. Most Americans don’t know that it now takes more than 1 ton of oil to bring one ton of food to their dining room table.

    Think about that in sustainable terms. Goodness…..

    I think that it was Lenin who said that any ruler was 9 meals from anarchy.

    I think most people who live in modernity will hate to read what you are saying and will dismiss it in some way. No one wants to face the end of their lives.

    But the real point is that it is not necessarily the end of their lives. It will be an end of a way of life built on lies, theft and dishonor. I live in a community where more than 50% of my neighbors do not have electricity. They might want electricity but for a number of reasons they do not have electricity. Not do they have running water. Nor do they have a car. Or a stove. Or almost anything else an American would consider an essential for life and happiness.

    Yet they are, for the most part, happier than most Americans I know.

    And these people make up the majority of people in this world. When the oil spigot gets turned off they and their lives will not have so far to fall. Their emotional discomfort will be much much less than most American’s. I see most people who live in modernity falling into deep depression from which they can not escape. Here in this place there will certainly be death and struggle and problems because of the population issues you have mentioned. Oil makes this population bubble possible and when it goes so will a lot of people.

    Personally I don’t think a technology solution can be put in place before a collapse happens. I don’t think there is time to make the transition.

    Everyday that goes by without dealing with these issues and making real changes makes collapse more of a certainty.

    Personally I think collapse, not a slow decline, is already a certainty.

    1. Thanks to both of you guys. It is always refreshing to be in the “presence” of consciousness, awareness, etc.
      My observation here is that rise and fall, ebb and floe are part of our reality. Everything changes. It is either in ascension or decline and nothing does either exclusively. Right now I’m thinking of a bacteria culture in a Petrie dish, but it easily be the Rocky Mountains, just a different time frame.

      So that being the case, how shall we respond? How shall we live? Both of you, and CG too, have found some meaningful ways to respond to that reality.

      In myself I see two parts moving in opposite directions. In spite of all my efforts, the physical me is now past its peak and is in decline. The awareness part of me is enlarging. I think that the two work together (Yang & Yin?). If I had unlimited energy, like when I was 18, the external world would be the major focus. Although, difficult times, tragedies, failures, all the “bad” things seem to nourish awareness, so perhaps it’s not just becoming more infirm that is at work here.

      I highly value this awareness, although it produces pain sometimes, but I am happy that I have been given the opportunity to enter into it. Acceptance of what is produces great peace.

      I don’t know what is coming to our world or to me in it. Clearly it will be a reset, but with that will come a rebirth. It always happens that way. And perhaps my efforts to stay healthy and delay death will allow me to see it. Psalms 91 – “with long life I will satisfy him and cause him to feast his eyes on My salvation.” It could happen.

  2. Excellent work. As I see it, the probability of collapse, and its severity/velocity, is directly proportional to governmental control. More and deeper need to probe the populace requires more sophisticated tools and laws which are more likely to succumb to failure due to complexity. We’re in the process of same. The speed of collapse could very well be within Tainter’s single-generation time frame. Look at any ordinary car accident on a open road and you’ll see vehicles and personnel from all the local jurisdictions and medical/emergency authorities on the scene. It’s a microcosm of the overall level of control mechanisms at work.

  3. One thing to keep in mind when considering a collapse in the food system. We can buy a lot of time with a departure from our carnivorous diet. It would be immensely more efficient to feed ourselves rather than the animals. Not that I’m advocating supporting population expansion.

  4. We will all be in the hand basket together. I think that is the only thing for sure at this point. There are so many factors working against us, from the false population studies thanks to the eugenicist movement to the oil based greed to so many other factors I can’t even think about it without holding my head in my hands. Lately, I keep remembering something Confucius said… “The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin. When all is orderly, he does not forget that disorder may come.”
    At least I don’t have to worry about a superiority complex because I still have no idea what I will do when the light switch on the wall doesn’t work anymore.

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