Discussions of global climate change or global warming often seem to turn to worst-case scenarios. The extinction of humanity doesn’t seem very likely. But the collapse of civilization? That may be more worth worrying about, for there are a number of things that could make it happen. And global warming is only one of them. There are also plague, war, exhaustion of ground water for crop irrigation, Carrington events (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/3/110302-solar-flares-sun-storms-earth-danger-carrington-event-science/), and so on.
Just what would the collapse of civilization mean? War would surely mean the outright destruction of human support systems—power plants, airports, water and sewage systems, food supply—and an immense reduction of the human population. Even without war—consider recent reports of unprecedented droughts and heat waves. In December 2019, Australia was expecting record-breaking temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) (https://au.news.yahoo.com/australia-50-degree-days-temperature-record-threat-extreme-heat-035631058.html).
Heat waves and droughts don’t demolish the infrastructure of civilization, but they do affect the supplies of fresh water and food and heat waves can damage power lines. If they become widespread, there could be a decline—not as abrupt as in the case of war—in the human population. The first to be affected would be the poor, but if the situation got bad enough, the rest of us would be hammered too. That would in turn mean a loss of people with the skills to keep the power grid and the Internet running and the fuel supply coming for trucks and cars. Businesses that depend on commuters would crash. Cities (which are due to hold half of humanity soon) would be in dire straits. Country folk would be in better position to survive.
If the cause of the collapse left libraries—with their troves of technical knowledge and even blueprints—intact, it might take a generation to get things running again, albeit at a reduced level. Chances are it would take several generations more to get back to being able to support a population of over 7.7 billion people. Without libraries, it would take a lot longer, though people would still have the advantage of knowing things can be done.
So how far might a collapse drop us? Bear in mind that the current world population is over 7.7 billion.
To the 1990s? The world’s human population was 5.7 billion in 1995. (https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/) The Internet was just getting started. There were no smartphones. Young folks might consider even this much of a collapse the apocalypse.
To the 1980s? World population was 4.8 billion in 1985. We did not have the Internet yet, though email was getting started and there were bulletin-board systems. We did not have cell phones, much less smart phones. We had TV, but streaming was unheard-of.
To the 1970s? World population was 4 billion in 1975. People were beginning to talk of computer networks, though the Internet was barely a dream. The very first personal computers had arrived.
To the 1960s? World population was 3.3 billion in 1965, less than half of what it is today. We had electricity and cars. The Interstate highway system was still being built. We did not have personal computers, smartphones, or the Internet. Color TV was still new.
To the 1950s? World population was 2.7 billion in 1955. TV was new and just black and white. Computers were primitive beasts. But we had electricity and cars and refrigerators. Air conditioning, though, was a rarity. It took a week to go from the U.S. to Europe by passenger ship. Air travel was still new.
To the 1920s? World population was 2 billion in 1927. We had electricity, but cars were still pretty new. Telephones were of the sort you see in old movies, with operators and party lines. For many people, refrigeration still meant putting blocks of ice in an insulated box.
To 1800? World population was 1 billion. There was no electricity, no cars, no TV, no computers, no telephones, and of course no Internet.
Even further? Collapse all the way to the Stone Age? It would take nuclear war to do that, and I hope that is very unlikely.
It is perhaps more pertinent to consider how rough life would be if we were reduced to conditions equivalent to those decades. The 1990s? The screen-addicted kids who yell “OK, Boomer!” at anyone with grey hair would feel horribly deprived, but boomers and older (that’s me) would find conditions pretty congenial, despite heat waves, droughts, and rising sea level. The world would, after all, be less crowded by 2 billion people.
The 1980s? Less crowded by 3 billion people. Technology would be familiar, although some things would of course be missing. We can say much the same for the 70s and 60s.
The 1950s? I was a kid then, and I still remember the joy of getting our first TV, a Zenith black-and-white with a screen no bigger than that on my current laptop. But we had running water, central heating, indoor toilets, cars, and so on. With about a quarter of today’s population, suburbs had more open space. Life at that level would still be familiar. If society devolved with the technology, back to Jim Crow, segregation, separate facilities for blacks and whites, and worse, many of today’s white supremacists would be quite happy.
The 1920s would still feel fairly familiar though we would surely consider it a mite primitive. We’d have to get kicked all the way back to 1800 to have it really feel like a collapse of civilization. Dropping from 7.7 billion people to 1 billion people would be drastic enough to deserve the label. Yet people managed then, and we could do it again. There are people who know how to raise their own food, build houses, cut wood for fuel, handle horses. Remember that country folk may be hit less hard than city folk.
And of course, as soon as the needs of survival were handled, we’d be working hard at bringing back the electric grid, the Internet, and all the rest that went away when we couldn’t maintain it.
Our needs would be less, with such a drastically reduced population. We wouldn’t have bring it all back right away. We wouldn’t even have to bring things back in the same form. Renewable energy, for instance, would handle the needs of the smaller population just fine.
With luck, we might also face the future more intelligently than we have so far. We might, for instance, heed the lesson of the collapse, that the world has a carrying capacity, and let go of the mania for growth in population and development that got us into this mess. Instead, we could apply our resources to maximizing the well-being of the people, all of them, everywhere.
We could, in other words, take advantage of the collapse to start over and get it right this time around.
You are of course free to consider me far too optimistic.