Survival During Societal Decline
My most recent book was on societal death: All Societies Die: How to Keep Hope Alive. (Cornell, 2021). A very real concern for people who read doomsday books is “How Do I Stay Alive in the Coming Catastrophe?”
They think in terms of big Hollywood-style catastrophes:
Ecological Destruction of Eighty Percent of All Life
Total Collapse of the Economic System
In the Hollywood scenarios, you stock food. You stock guns. You shoot every marauding raider you find. You shoot every refugee staggering towards your base because they are all radioactive and infectious.
Fortunately, you have your bitcoin. There won’t be food and water but the internet will work just fine. (Thank you, Paul Krugman, for that snarky observation.)
However, most realistic societal declines are not as lurid and dramatic as Hollywood movies. They are a matter of slow steady deterioration. The economy just gets worse and worse. Crime rates, rise slowly but steadily. First there is a little corruption, then a little more corruption and then one day, one realizes there is a whole lot of corruption. Organizations that used to work become a little dysfunctional, then a little more dysfunctional, and then at some point, so dysfunctional as to be a complete joke.
The process occurs over decades rather than in one big blast. It is more like a person becoming prematurely old and not like a person being blown up with a car bomb.
So what are the dangers that people realistically have to worry about today?
And what are the survival strategies that people need to be thinking about for the dangers they will realistically face?
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In the next few decades, three trends seem clear. Two have straightforward human welfare implications. The third is much more ambiguous.
Trend One: The Coming of the Downturn in the Mensch Cycle
Mensch cycles are long term cycles of boom in the global economy. Many scholars call these Kondratieff cycles or K-cycles. The Kondratieff cycle specifies a hard periodicity of 25 years of boom and 25 years of bust. The Mensch cycle is much more flexible about how long each phase of the cycle lasts.
Prosperity in the world economy is based on the presence of a new “great” product which induces massive purchases of the great product and massive purchases of spinoffs. The invention of the automobile generated not only tons of automobile purchases, but tons of steel purchases, rubber purchases for tires, governments purchasing concrete to lay down new roads, purchases of insurance against damages from automobile accidents, drilling of petroleum to provide gas for the automobiles, etc. etc. etc. The onset of the automobile era led to a massive worldwide economic boom. The automobile boom lasted as long as it did because technological innovation kept people buying new upgraded versions of their old former cars. Automobiles got bigger engines, power brakes, power steering, air conditioning etc. – with each new invention leading to the junking of an older generation of cars and sales to a global population of a new generation of cars.
Economies go sour when there is an exhaustion of new innovations that can be put into the primary product of the era. After power brakes and power steering, there were no great innovations in automobile manufacture until the development of the SUV in the 1990’s. The result was that global automobile sales sagged. More and more international producers entered the market leading to a world glut in automobiles. The result was the Great Recession of the 1970s and 1980’s when automobile manufacturing areas were suffering from economic stagnation and ever worsening unemployment. Detroit has never really recovered from the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The current global expansion is based on the computers, software and the internet. What is going to happen when Google and Microsoft finally run out of apps to invent? What will happen when there has been nothing new to put on your phone in five years? Silicon Valley will not be selling anything. It will look just like Detroit in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Planning Point 1: There will be a significant long term depression that will take place some time in the next thirty years.
Trend 2: Increasing Victory for Tax-Cut Conservatives and a Substantial Shrinkage of the State
The long term trend is going to be for taxes in most countries to go down – and with it a concomitant reduction in the scale and scope of state services. Conservative governments put through major tax cuts and cut government spending to make that possible. Liberal governments tend to not raise taxes. The Biden administration may in fact counter this trend, raising taxes and expanding government services. But its hold on power is fragile. Outside of the infrastructure contracts, most of the new government programs and taxes are highly likely to be cut back during the next Republican administration. This implies a major shrinkage in government employment – and employment in any sector that is dependent on government financial support.
Planning Point 2: Jobs That Are Dependent on Government Spending Are Likely To Become Harder To Find
Trend 3: Increasing Ecological Crisis
All indications are that the world is going to do very little to slow down global warming or to mitigate the other major threats to the biosphere. Fossil fuel use will increase. Deforestation will continue. Sources of fresh drinkable water will be put under strain. Animal populations will be drastically reduced including the stock of fish in the ocean, and the stock of pollinators on land. No one really knows which crises will hit in which order – or what the implications of each crisis will be for what kinds of human activity.
If any of the ecological crises actually kill us off – well, that settles that.
If the crises don’t kill us, there may be perverse economic benefits.
Capitalism loves disasters. Disasters are an opportunity to make windfall profits or to rebuild. Never mind the human consequences or suffering involved with a tsunami hitting Miami or abnormal heat destroying vast amounts of crops.
Scarcity raises prices – leading to huge windfalls for whomever is left with the remaining stock of what was lost. A lot of what gets destroyed is going to be replaced. Money can be made on replacement projects. Destroyed cities will be rebuilt, either in the original location or in a more secure location. Destruction of resources leads to more investments either in expanding supplies of the original resource – or in finding technological substitutes.
Plagues are good business for doctors and undertakers. Non-medical disasters generate their own population of lucky winners.
Planning Point 3: Ecological Destruction Will Allow Some People To Get Very Wealthy. If You Guess Right on Which Disaster Hits First, and Figure Out An Appropriate Remedy, One of the Big Winners Could Be You
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Actual Survival Tips
There will be nothing here about building shelters, growing your own food or the art of hand-to-hand combat. Actual societal decline will be much less dramatic. The likely process will involve slow steady economic stagnation with worsening quality of life issues. Money can buy relief from quality of life issues. So, the biggest practical concern of people in the future will be economic survival.
The normal economy will continue to function, although at a much less impressive level than we are generally used to. The economy of the United States will resemble the economy of the Ukraine. People will still go to school. People will still look for jobs the normal way. There will be a lot fewer jobs to get. Most of those jobs will be low paying. There will be some spectacularly lucrative jobs at the top.
So, the real survival trick will involve getting a job. The real question will be what field you ought to go into.
A few tips on the job market in a decaying society:
a. The hot job sectors of 2000 to 2020 will not necessarily be the hot job sectors in the downturn of a Mensch cycle. Training in computer science may not accomplish anything. Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas may have massive unemployment. If a new technology comes, you can train in the new technology in whatever location that technology is based in. (You had better hope that the new invention is developed in America and not in China.) But in the down-phase of a Mensch cycle, there will be no new technology to latch on to.
b. In economic downturns, certain basic functions don’t go away. People still have to eat. They still need somewhere to live. In stressful times, vices go up. People self-medicate with alcohol, with drugs, with gaming, with porn. They self-medicate with wholesome entertainment as well. Even in the Great Depression, Hollywood was alive and well. People still listened to big bands. Find something that people will still need even in hard times and you can survive with that.
c. Occupations paid for by the government will face dramatically reduced demand. This will not be a good time to be a social worker working in a government agency. A career in higher education is likely to be a bad call. The public universities will be a shadow of their former selves. If you aren’t good enough to get tenured at Harvard or Chicago, you may not be good enough to catch on at all. The military may or may not be hiring. There may still be openings for police officers – and depending on the politics – for immigration enforcement. There may not be a lot of openings for career diplomats.
d. If you can do something about whatever ecological crisis is current, or you can repair the damage from whatever ecological crisis recently occurred, you might be okay. Picking an ecological crisis, assuming it will really happen, and then thinking about how you could pick up the pieces might be a completely viable economic survival strategy. Just be sure to pick the right crisis. Fortunately, since so many things are likely to go wrong, you are likely to have a broad menu of ecological disasters to choose from.
So either 1) avoid glamorous technologies that are about to run their course, 2) look for human needs that persist during downturns, 3) avoid sectors of government employment that are likely to shrink or 4) think hard about what you could do to remediate a realistic ecological disaster.
Any of those plans can guarantee that you and your family are still eating, and are enjoying some level of material comfort. The rest of the world will be struggling, struggling, struggling.