Complexity is costly. Civilization’s bills are coming due. An expensive collapse lies ahead, and no political will to fix it.
Complexity is expensive. One of the reasons people are desperate for a “living wage” is because living costs so much more than it used to. New and improved technology starts out as status symbols for wealthy people, but gradually becomes a necessity. Mobile phones, for example, used to be a fancy luxury, and now nearly all of us have to have them, an expense our ancestors didn’t have. Before refrigerators were common, our ancestors kept food cool in root cellars, spring houses, and ice boxes. Yet, the technology that expands the list of items we “need” is the same force driving us towards an expensive collapse. How much longer can it continue before the costs are too much to bear?
All the once-optional gadgets that we now need to live a decent life are the result of a couple hundred years of increasing industrialization. As our standard of living improved, it was pretty easy to ignore the pollution and drawdown of natural resources because offshoring the factories and plentiful, easy credit hid the costs that should have been paid to clean up as we went along. Besides, nobody wants to do without the luxuries they consider necessary, which is a powerful motivation to stop listening when “doomers” start talking, or to send militarized police to rough up protesters who value clean water over yet another leaky pipeline. However, ignoring problems doesn’t mean they go away. Now we’re finding out the consequences of our actions.
The expensive collapse isn’t arriving all at once. Like the climate emergency, it falls unevenly, hitting marginalized people and precarious communities first. This economic death of a thousand cuts will seem like only a slight drag, gradually increasing until the bill for keeping civilization running is simply unaffordable, like paying the internet bill, student loans, and rent while working for minimum wage. It can be done, carefully, until it can’t.
Here are some of those thousand cuts:
The “new normal” summer heat in the Pacific Northwest caused grocery stores to turn up the refrigeration, and then turn it off altogether. When the temperature is 116°F (46.7°C) outside, refrigerators and freezers can’t keep up. Stores in Oregon and Washington had to pull produce, meat, dairy, and other perishable items from the sales floor. Restaurants and cafés closed for similar reasons. Increased power usage caused blackouts, making the problem worse. This will happen more in a hotter future.
Triple-digit temperatures, emptying aquifers, and rivers going AWOL are stressing the rest of the food supply, too. Farmers lose out when their crops die and they can’t pay the bills. Losses from agriculture’s expensive collapse are passed on to publicly-funded crop insurance programs, taxpayers paying to shield farmers from complete disaster while also paying higher prices for the food that’s still available.
Heat and hunger are killing cattle. In Mexico, ranchers have been forced to slaughter cattle early or watch them waste away and eventually drop. The cattle used to eat grass, but with every year hotter and drier than the last, ranchers resorted to importing higher-cost alfalfa. Then alfalfa farmers couldn’t irrigate anymore because of the drought. There weren’t always cattle in the region, just like there weren’t always giant vegetable farms in California, and they won’t stay there forever. Losing both will mean an expensive collapse for the food system in North America.
One solution to the water crisis is to build desalination plants. They’ll be vital resources in the years ahead, but they’re also pricey to build at scale, which will add another layer of cost to every enterprise that once relied on cheap, plentiful water. Unless they’re powered by the sun’s heat alone, desalination plants are also energy intensive, which indirectly adds to the problem they’re meant to solve.
Meanwhile, where there’s not too little water, there’s often too much. A growing number of people around the world live in flood zones. With more severe weather and stuck weather systems coming, losses from floods will add up. For years, it’s grown increasingly expensive to insure people who live and do business in flood zones. Just as with those who live in areas prone to wildfires, how long can we afford to repeatedly rebuild after every disaster, and who will foot the bill?
A stretch of I-70 in Colorado is the perfect example of the kind of one-two punch we can expect to face more often in the future. Last year, the Grizzly Creek fire tore through the area, burning off the tree cover on the slopes along the freeway. This year, torrential late-July rains soaked the denuded land, causing an expensive collapse of mud and debris that blocked the east-west artery. I-70 has been shut down indefinitely.
This would all be much easier to deal with if, say, we had an abundance of cheap natural resources to throw at the problems, as we once did. The fracking boom that enabled the economy to ignore peak oil for a little longer is coming to an end, though, making it more expensive to do anything that requires a lot of energy. We can’t rebuild houses with burned forests or buy food that never grew.
Adding to the expensive collapse are the bills that are coming due. Some are obvious, like the cohort of (at least) 34 million Americans critically ill with “Long COVID,” who will require disability payments and extra care while being less able to work. Some problems are sneaking up on us, like the cost of repairing, replacing, or deciding to live without the massive amount of concrete-based infrastructure that is coming to the end of its useful lifespan. Expect these problems (and more) to face hostile legislatures unwilling or unable to fund “business as usual.”
Truth is, we’re already faltering. In Michigan as elsewhere, child care expenses are on par with mortgage costs, and families are already making hard economic decisions about whether or not they can afford to go to work. Will they be able to shoulder the costs of an expensive collapse? Supply chains are unraveling, with deliveries to the hinterlands becoming erratic. As the disasters around us erode them further, making the Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020 look like a brief inconvenience, how will civilization maintain the economic base necessary to insure and rebuild everything that breaks? Low-income countries are already unable to keep up, but the United States won’t be too far behind, once it’s no longer “the wealthiest country in the world.”
We can’t avoid an expensive collapse at this point. A country this divided, polarized, and broken will never summon the political will needed for the deep, systemic changes necessary to adapt to the situation ahead. It’s going to be up to people like you and me to help each other find a path ahead. We’re all we’ve got.
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