The problems facing the world are individually extremely damaging, although only some of them
will lead to catastrophe. (Collectively, they all will.) All of them can be solved, and could have been
solved easily had they been addressed some time ago. They may be summed up, in order of actual
importance and very nearly in reverse order of how seriously they are taken, as the Economic Crisis, the
Political Crisis, the Resource Crisis and the Ecological Crisis.
The Economic Crisis is familiar. It is a crisis brought about by a shortage of capital and an excess of
goods. As a result, in areas where investment is needed there is no capital to invest, while there is
growing unemployment as a result of falling prices because of goods being dumped onto markets by
manufacturers. The official unemployment in the United States is about 10% at the moment, meaning
that the real unemployment is upwards of 20%. Of course this is not quite Depression-era conditions
yet, because there are so many more employed people, as a proportion of the population, since women
are now encouraged to work. However, high unemployment plus a shortage of money, compounded by
the deliberate decision by all Western governments to bail out the ruling class rather than the working
class, is potentially a highway to hell.
What would be needed would be Keynesianism, which is not what is being had, except in China.
However, not even China can afford to bail its own economy out sufficiently to increase domestic
demand enough to compensate for the collapse of the United States. Therefore, China cannot afford to
see the United States collapse, and yet the United States is bankrupt and when the United States runs
out of borrowed money it will not be able to sustain its own economy — that is, a U.S. collapse, when it
happens, will probably happen quickly, within a few weeks. Meanwhile, Brazil and India are well aware
that if the United States goes, they will go with it. Western Europe has its own problems (though not to
serious as those of the United States) and, of course, Russia is dependent on primary exports which will
disappear if the major powers suffer gross depression. It seems that everybody will run up unsustainable
debts as long as possible and then try to default, crashing the global banking system, leading to a
collapse of demand which will put many times as many people out of work as before. In other words,
the future looks much, much worse than 1929; possibly the worst financial crisis in capitalism’s history,
and one for which the Marxists, who have been waiting for it, are utterly unprepared.
Well, so much for the good news. What about the real problems?
The Political Crisis is not much talked about. It is hidden under the Global War on Terror, the War
On Drugs, and the Humanitarian War On Bad People Generally. Basically, the public has completely
lost faith in political leadership, which is natural since political leadership long ago stopped even
pretending to serve the public. (The fact that Tony Blair and Barack Obama took the trouble to make
such a pretense — or rather, their spin-doctors did — was something considered quite extraordinary, a
sign of the desperation of the times. Naturally, this had nothing to do with Blair or Obama’s actual
practices.) With democracy discredited, and human solidarity destroyed by decades of atomising
neoliberalism, the danger is not merely revolution, but the complete disappearance of society due to
everybody losing interest in it. The public are no longer responsive to ideological mobilisation (and all
governments are afraid of this because it represents a danger to the status quo which they represent).
Therefore they must be frightened into compliance by the manufacture of threats, preferably external.
In addition, this political crisis is driven by the United States’ fear of losing the authority over the
world which it gained in the 1980s. It lacks the military or financial power to enforce its dominion, so it
must seek assistance, and once again this means manufacturing threats through which governments can
be bullied into compliance. Hence a whole series of wars which everyone is invited to join, and if one
does not join one might easily become defined as the enemy instead.
These wars have been getting bigger and bigger and the public has been panicked more and more.
Various commentators have wondered why the British public was so frightened by four bombs going
off in London in 2005 when ten thousand times as many bombs delivered by Mr. Hitler sixty-five years
earlier aroused far less comparable panic. The reason is simple; the bombs were a pretext for whipping
up panic, as 9/11 had been. Xenophobia is on the rise, as is internal repression. These are not solutions
to the political crisis, because there is no solution to the political crisis; it is a self-sustaining
consequence of the depoliticisation and disdemocratisation of global political systems. The only answer
lies in politicisation and democratisation, and nobody in power wants this because it might detract from
their power. But therefore there must be more and more, and bigger and bigger, wars, and with more
wars comes more vigorous responses. We now have the world’s first civil war within a nuclear power.
The Pakistani civil war straddles the Middle East conflict zone and the East Asian conflict zones. We
have been brought to a situation where global nuclear conflict is once again a serious possibility, as it
was during the Cold War, except that now the decisions for the conflict are to be made in Islamabad,
New Delhi, Kandahar, Tehran and Tel-Aviv. This is anything but reassuring.
But at least these wars could be cooled down if only our political leaders were not sociopaths. The
trouble ahead is the probability of wars which will be fought, not over imaginary hobgoblins or the
desire to brandish a conceptual big stick to conceal syphilitic impotence, but over the very real
Resource Crisis. The world’s supplies of water are running out as the population increases. The world’s
access to cheap, easily-transportable energy sources are running out. The world’s supplies of food are
running out as land and sea is depleted of nutritive value (water shortages, of course, contribute to this).
The world’s supplies of key minerals are running out. All this is happening at once, and for the moment
a lot of people are very happy because the prices of these minerals are soaring; it’s a good time to be in
food stocks; a good time to be in construction stocks; a good time to be in the greenwash business. But
for how long can real problems be held at bay by trying to make money out of them?
Probably not long. Food and thirst will cause wars over rivers, lakes and aquifers. Wars over control
of oil and access to nuclear technology have already started. Many of these will be wars between the
countryside and the city — and the city’s access to food and water and power is vulnerable. It is perfectly
possible that in civil wars and in international wars, productive capacity will be destroyed beyond the
capacity of individual countries to reconstruct it. It is one thing to destroy the electrical generating
capacity, water purification plants and communications systems of Iraq or Serbia, but what happens
when an entire region’s capacities go? What happens, too, when different regions are trying to make use
of limited quantities of expensive minerals, such as the rare-earths needed for modern electronics,
which China is carefully monopolising?
The trouble with these crises is that they are happening at a time when there is a tremendous
shortage of capital and a colossal lack of public support for large-scale projects. Meanwhile, a lot of
what capital there is, is going into weaponry, much of it ineffectual and hugely expensive. This is the
worst possible occasion for trying to develop our abandoned coal mines, build coal gasification plants,
nuclear breeder reactors and find ways to exploit shale oil and heavy tars economically. Unfortunately,
this is the time when these things have got to be done, and meanwhile we have to build more dams and
expand our production of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers which put a further drain on our
resources of hydrocarbons. We are running out of spare energy to accomplish these projects and our
oversupply of weaponry makes it tempting to steal the projects of others — or force people to donate
their energy at gunpoint, or missile-point, or atomic-bomb point.
And we are all getting these guns, missiles and atomic bombs at once, while the Leader of the Free
World is awarded his Nobel Peace Prize for helping make this global holocaust possible. Can a world-
wide nuclear war be staved off?
If it can, we may all still face catastrophe from the Ecological Crisis. Heavy weather and changing
climates will unpredictably affect our capacity to grow crops in forthcoming decades. The rain may
come at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Droughts will undoubtedly become more severe and
floods more serious. Everything is becoming more extreme. As a result, precisely at the time when we
need more of everything, our access to food and water is going to become less certain. It is already too
late to stop this from happening — we planned to stop it twenty years ago, when global warming first hit
the headlines (it had been predicted twenty years before that) but we didn’t. Too bad. Now we must face
the consequences and nobody knows whether they will be merely horrendous or actually catastrophic.
(The catastrophes could come if the peat-sinks of the Northern permafrosts turn out to give off as much
methane as most experts think they will when they warm up, and if the methane clathrates frozen under
the oceans give up their methane when the ice matrix of the clathrate starts to melt; that could raise
global temperatures so high that food yields will shrink everywhere and the planet will cease to be able
to support seven or eight billion people at all — meaning massive population dieback even without any
The trouble with all this is that most people don’t know how to feed themselves. But if the climate
changes drastically, nobody will know how to feed themselves. The plants which used to grow in
certain areas will no longer grow there, and because of the collapse of technological civilisation it will
be impossible to move to places where those plants can be grown. Other plants might grow in those
places, but the people living there will not know how to cultivate them, nor have access to the seeds or
the cooking techniques. What could happen is a worldwide equivalent of the Irish potato famine, when
the Irish couldn’t grow potatoes, didn’t know how to grow anything else, didn’t have the technology or
resources to grow anything else if they knew how, and couldn’t cook the free food supplies with which
they were provided (because they were given flint maize which had to be milled, and rural Ireland in
1848 had no flour mills). In other words, if there is a simultaneous collapse of food supplies and of
technological civilisation, it will not throw us back to the land, it will throw us back to the first eras of
agriculture, when crop-growing was an experimental luxury. Unfortunately it will also be a necessity,
because hunter-gathering will not be any more practical, since most of the traditional hunter-gatherer
techniques have been lost and global climate change will destroy the environments in which hunter-
gathering functioned. Besides, hunter-gathering cannot possibly support billions of people.
It looks as if we have a tough millennium ahead; anyone selling reliable suspended animation
equipment will probably find a lot of people keen to doze through the next thousand years until
Countdowns to Catastrophe.
The problems facing the world are individually extremely damaging, although only some of them