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Societal Collapse: What It Means

Posted on 27th March 2019

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This article on is about a paper about the impacts of climate change: "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy".

The thesis of the paper is that climate change, already here and getting worse, will cause economic and societal collapse, potentially in 10 years from now.

If you have read other material about the impact of climate change, either elsewhere in the news, or on this blog (here, here, here and here), then you know that shortages of water, food, energy and other resources are predicted, and that these shortages will in many cases lead to armed conflict and increased migration. Until now, however, I have not seen any predictions about the impact on society; this paper does just that.

The news piece in the first link, above, tells how many readers were seriously upset and depressed by the scientific paper, and are heading to the hills, or places like New Zealand in the hope that their survival chances will thus improve. In order to decide whether such drastic action is necessary, let's look at what "Societal Collapse" means.

The sections below describe the separate symptoms of societal collapse, and what it may mean to you. The thing to remember is that all these things are connected, and degradation in one area causes impacts in another: a positive feedback loop, or vicious circle.

Nevertheless, nothing is certain. Some things may come to pass, and perhaps some will not; they may happen sooner than predicted, or later. Readers should treat all these predictions as risks, and act to try to reduce those risks to the extent that it is possible.

Law And Order

One of the most destructive symptoms of the collapse of society is likely to be in law and order. You only need to look at the news about the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests to see the effects of street protests and civil disobedience, and the inability of the police in France to limit the disruption. Imagine protests many times bigger and more frequent, with people on the streets because they cannot feed their families or find a job, or are being thrown out of their homes.

If French police cannot deal with the current Gilets Jaunes protests, how much worse will it be in countries with smaller police forces (e.g. the USA, with a police force one tenth, per capita, of those typical in western Europe? Add to this the impact of reduced budgets for policing (as a result of the collapse of money).

Crimes will go unpunished, meaning that there will be no reason for people and companies with whom you deal (your landlord, your bank, your insurance company, etc.) to obey the law and uphold your legal rights. Looting will be rife. There will be no-go areas for police in all countries, with some streets ruled by gangs; you may have to pay protection "money" just to go shopping. Your car will likely be stolen or torched. It will become very dangerous just to walk the streets.


Because many vital resources will be in short supply, inflation will go out of control (like in Venezuela right now). Money will start to become useless, and you will need to barter to get basics. If you don't have anything that people want, then you won't be able to barter for what you need.

Not only do individuals need money for daily life, but governments need it to fulfill their role in society. Once money becomes ineffective, governments will not be able to pay for the services they provide: health care, R&D (e.g. into combating or preventing climate change), policing, road maintenance, sewage, etc. The collapse of money, and its impact on governments' ability to function, is probably one of the biggest drivers of other negative impacts on society.

Your wages, if you continue to have them, will be inadequate, and you will need to buy what you need immediately you get paid (because, by tomorrow, the price may have doubled due to rampant inflation). Your pension, and your investments, will similarly become useless.

Your property, which in many cases is limited to the house in which you live, is likely to lose its value, which may mean that, although you may need to move home, you can't afford to.


Farming productivity is already being effected by climate change. In some cases this is due to direct changes in the weather, and the predictability of the weather. The distribution of pests is also already changing. It is getting harder to be a farmer.

Intensive farming is heavily dependent upon money, for pesticides and fertilizers, seed stock and machinery. If/when the money system collapses, it will become impossible to sustain intensive farming practices. Without intensive farming, it will be impossible to feed the world. Today, "buy local" is a choice; it will probably become the only option (no more asparagus in December, apples in April, kiwi fruit in Finland, mangoes in Europe and America).

There has also been talk about the threat caused by climate change to coffee supplies. I don't know if this is really an issue, but it could become one.

One effect that seems certain is that people's diets will change. Fruit and vegetables will again become truly seasonal, and meat consumption (the production of which is so dependent on water, energy and specialised feed-stock) will reduce.


Access to drinking water is already an issue for many people around the world. Recently there was a lot in the news about a water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa. More recently there is bad news about future water supply in areas fed by the Colorado River (here, on Mashable) and in Britain (here on The Guardian). The USA, Britain and many other nations have long been extracting too much water from underground and surface sources, causing some rivers and lakes to dry up, and others to become polluted. Ground water in Israel is becoming too salty to use, as salt water seeps in from the sea to replace water pumped out for household and agricultural use.

In other places water is becoming polluted by mining, industrial waste, and activities like fracking. Flint, in the USA, is a well known example of the industrial pollution of water supplies.

Such issues will become more extreme and more widespread, since industry, water companies and governments are unlikely to change their policies.

What this means for you is that you may only have tap water part of the day; maybe not at all. It may no longer be safe to drink tap water. Water rationing may be applied. Eventually you will also probably find yourself unable to pay for your water supply, if your money becomes worthless, and ultimately water supply companies will go bankrupt.

Given that you might be trying to supplement your food supply by growing vegetables at home, the lack of water will be a huge problem.

We could all end up walking miles, and/or queuing up at water tankers, to get enough water to survive. This is already normal for people in parts of Africa, but we are not used to it in Europe and North America.

Health and Health Care

Health care is one aspect of society that will be badly affected by societal collapse. Government paid schemes will be first be trimmed and then cancelled, as government budgets come under pressure and the money system crumbles.

Private schemes will become less and less useful, as the crumbling money system forces health insurers to create more exemptions, preconditions and other loopholes to limit how much they pay, and therefore how good your health care is.

There will be more co-payments, and more treatments which are not covered at all. Good luck getting treatment for pre-existing conditions.

Waiting lists will grow, and more treatments will not be available locally. Medical equipment will be older and in need of repair, and medicines will be in short supply. Doctors and nurses will be even more overworked, and that will result in poorer treatment and more mistakes. Getting a second opinion will become much harder.

Remember to add to all this the coming crisis of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

Eventually, centrally organised health care will all but disappear. Hospitals, clinics and dentists will close. Because of this, vaccinations will be the exception, rather than the norm, and illnesses which are minor today (like appendicitis) will become fatal; child-birth will become mush more risky. Americans of future generations will also start to have "English teeth"; us English will be laughing about that, as long as our toothaches are not too bad.

The Environment

Even today, the world does not seem to be able to prioritise environmental protection above money; wild-life above people; the future against the her and now. It doesn't take much imagination to see how much worse things will be as the effects of societal collapse begin to bite. A lot of funding for environmental programmes comes from charitable donations, from companies and individuals. Most of the rest is government funded. Some government funding for environmental initiatives is in the form of international aid. All of these sources will dry up, as other "more urgent" needs soak up the dwindling supply of funds.

This is going to make some people's survival strategies problematic. If you are planning to live off the land in some way, you are going to want a sound ecosystem in which to follow your plan, whether that means hunting in the mountains, fishing on some island, or self-sufficient farming in New Zealand or Ireland.

The lack of effective and enforced environmental protections means there will be a huge increase in polluted ground water, pests, invasive species, the availability of feed-stock, and climate change will have major effects on species viability, as animals (birds, insects, etc.) find they are unable to change where they live to deal with the altered climate, because the space they need to occupy will already be occupied by humans and their farms.


Societal collapse will have negative impacts on public transport, and the ability to make business and leisure trips (so forget vacation trips, especially by air).

Even our ability to commute for work will be severely degraded. This will mean having to rethink where you live, and/or where you work: in future people will need to live near their job; by near, I mean walking or cycling distance.

Telecoms and The Internet

Nowadays people rely very heavily on their mobile phones, and on the Internet. Expect that service coverage and quality (i.e. data bandwidths and reliability) will be steadily degraded, as the degradation of money gradually gets worse (telecoms companies are, after all, businesses, and rely on income to maintain and improve their infrastructure).

This will make simple things much more difficult: you will have to agree beforehand not only when to meet someone, but also exactly where.

Internet shopping will eventually die out: without delivery services, Internet services, and a functioning money system, it cannot work.

Racism and other -isms

Recent history has shown us that, when times are tough for whatever reason, racism, homophobia, sexism and all those other prejudices come to the fore. We should expect that, as societal collapse starts to bite, this will happen all over the world. Civilisation is nothing more than a thin coat of paint hiding the feral creatures that humans are at core.