We Need To Talk About Societal Collapse

Societal collapse is the king of all the TEOTWAWKI scenarios. In other scenarios, some aspect of society is harmed or lost, such as the loss of the power grid, or the collapse of the economy, or the erosion of law and order. In societal collapse, everything that makes society a civilization, and not roaming bands of survivors, falls apart. The result is severe. The power grid is permanently down. Agriculture is reduced to survival gardens and hunting/gathering. Money is worthless. Law and order is gone. Violent gangs rule the streets. There’s no more voting or politics. Perhaps we would have marital law, to try to hold on to the last shreds of our society. Almost everyone will be out of a job, since pretty much all jobs are dependent on a working society, money, credit, and banks — all of which would be gone.

Societal collapse is the end of civilization as we know it, but with human persons still surviving, in whatever way is possible. How might this happen?

The simplest path to utter collapse would be a severe natural disaster. A comet or asteroid strikes the earth, just as happened with the dinosaurs. The force of the strike would cause massive earthquakes and tsunamis worldwide. The strike would also throw particulate matter into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun, cooling the weather and thereby destroying agriculture. Survivors of the initial catastrophe would slowly starve to death.

But the point of this article is that, in such an event, society would collapse before the mass starvation, and possibly before the comet or asteroid strike. Yes, before. If the world were to learn of such an impending disaster, as described in the movie “Deep Impact” (1998), I disagree that people would remain calm. As movie-President Morgan Freeman says: “Our society will continue as normal. Work will go on. You will pay your bills. There will be no hoarding. There will be no sudden profiteering.” Yeah, I don’t think so.

If people knew the world was about to end, they would not go to work. Prices would jump sharply, if there were anything left to buy. Very quickly, there would be no food left in grocery stores. And no one would be working, so as to replace that food. And the same goes for other types of stores and businesses. The mere knowledge of the impending disaster might be enough to collapse society.

But that type of event is very rare. A more likely event would have its basis in human events, such as nuclear war. The results are much the same. Physical destruction of society and the deaths of vast numbers of persons are one thing, and the other thing is the fear that grips survivors. People won’t go to work or pay their taxes. People would no longer fear being arrested and put in prison. Law and order breaks down. Most of our complex agricultural system collapses, and so does the economy. And then we would have nuclear winter, not unlike the comet or asteroid based “nuclear” winter. Schools would be shut down, along with almost all businesses. We would be not so different from hunter-gatherer societies, before the rise of civilization, over 10,000 years ago.

But other, more subtle disasters could cause societal collapse. If agriculture collapses, then the lack of food will cause violent crimes to skyrocket, overwhelming police and court resources. Then the economy will experience a sudden downturn, due to the interference in commerce of crime and the need to spend most of one’s income (and time) trying to obtain food. Many businesses will fall apart, causing unemployment to spin out of control. One problem leads to another, and then another. The end result could be almost as bad as a severe natural disaster.

But complete societal collapse requires a few more steps in this process. Not only does society experience greater harm and disorder, but the whole of civilization unravels. One point of view is that, if one fundamental building block of society is knocked out, the rest of society can rebuild that failure point. The economy falls into a great depression, and it eventually recovers. The agricultural system falls apart, but with the rest of society intact, it can be rebuilt. However, in the current circumstance, maybe that’s not the way things would play out.

The other possibility is that, if any one fundamental building block of society fails, the rest fall like dominos. If the economy falls into a great depression, the current agricultural system is so fragile and so dependent on commerce, it too will fail. And these failures will then cause the rest of society’s fundamentals to collapse. Which systems are needed to create a stable society? Agriculture is primary, since food is an absolute daily necessity. Housing, medicine, education, law and order, transportation, electric power, communication, commerce, and government are all basic societal needs. Yet all these things are interdependent. So a collapse of one, will certainly have negative repercussions on the others. And if enough of them fail, we no longer have a civilization.

I don’t think most people realize how fragile our world has become, and how interdependent. No one system can stand on its own, not any more. A societal collapse could start in another nation, and then spread across the globe. And that is the worst of the prepper scenarios (other than a complete end to the human race).

– Thoreau

4 Responses to We Need To Talk About Societal Collapse

  1. Some years ago a book and movie called “ON THE BEACH” played the theme featured in this excellent article. It took place in Australia – the only remaining area in the world not yet poisoned by nuclear fallout from a short and deadly war between the great powers. In the film, it was only a matter of months or years before Australia too, would be incapable of sustaining life. ”ON THE BEACH” focused on an American submarine crew that had been trapped in Australia as the short war played out, and was therefore saved from nuclear disaster (until the final end). Many of the same hopeless thoughts and fears as mentioned here, were displayed in the film. I highly recommend it!

  2. william w johnston did a series called out of the ashes that was about the very same thing i think there is around 25 or 30 books in the series its was a good series ive read most of em

  3. “But that type of event is very rare.”
    So rare in fact as to have never occurred in the history of man.

    • No. There is a theory that some comet and asteroid impacts have occurred in human history, thousands of years ago.