There is still considerable disagreement among those who see a relatively near-term collapse of western civilisation as to exactly how that collapse will occur. At one end of the debate are those who imagine an almost vertical descent into a new dark age. In this vision an economic collapse far worse than 2008 will be quickly followed by the collapse of the fossil fuel industries. Without fuel, industrial society itself will cease working. Trade routes will cease operating and agriculture – deprived of diesel powered machinery and oil-based fertilisers and pesticides – will struggle to produce a small fraction of the food required to sustain a global population of 7.5bn people. In less than a decade we will be treated to all four horsemen of the apocalypse, who together will reduce the global population to no more than a billion and possibly less than 500 million. Then, for those at the extreme end of this imagining, the remaining humans are driven to the far north of Siberia and Canada by a runaway greenhouse effect that eventually kills off even these poor souls.
At the other are those who imagine a prolonged (50-150 years) period of decline. In this scenario there is no one big crash, but rather a series of (often major) environmental, resource, economic and geopolitical crises that gradually sap the resilience of our civilisation. Few people notice the gradual decline in living standards, the decay of our industrial infrastructure, the decline in the value of our currency, the increasingly volatile climatic conditions or the falling birth rate and rising death rate. As in the first scenario, the human population shrinks to less than a billion through self-inflicted causes like alcohol and opioid abuse; in addition to localised and regionalised famines and a string of natural disasters. By the end of this age of decline, few can remember what life was like in the late twentieth century because what remains of the industrial economy is incapable of providing the means to achieve even a fraction of that lifestyle.
Common to both scenarios, however, is the idea that industrial civilisation will consume itself on the way down. This is particularly true where living standards fall below poverty levels and previously available resources become harder to obtain. If, for example, steel or aluminium was no longer available it would be relatively easy to cannibalise derelict buildings or disused machinery to recycle what we already have. Call it a “circular economy” if you like.
The assumption, however, is that cannibalism of this kind will be something that only happens after the crash. The assumption could be wrong. The cannibalising of our existing infrastructure may turn out to be an economic phenomenon borne out of supply and demand considerations. The result could well be a disruption that itself hastens the collapse.
To give an example of what I mean, my home city has recently experienced the widespread theft of drain covers. The BBC reports that:
“About 125 gully grids have been stolen since mid July, causing the council to spend about £43,000 on making the grids safe and replacing them… Councillors blamed the scrap metal market and said 30 covers had been stolen in the past week.”
This is hardly the crime of the century. However, it comes after the local authority has faced nearly a decade of austerity cuts. So that £43,000 means someone else is going to lose their job next year. The important issue here, though, is that this is an economic event resulting from supply and demand issues. Demand for scrap metal is high within an economy that is extremely unequal. Meaning that scrap metal dealers are prepared to break the law to obtain metal; and those in need of money are prepared to strip metal from our infrastructure to supply it.
“Metal theft in the UK, fuelled by the rising value of scrap metal, is costing the economy hundreds of thousands of pounds every year.
“The police reported over 7,800 occurrences of metal theft in the Midlands last year, with Birmingham alone suffering over 900 incidents, costing the council huge expense when cash is already limited, and exposing drivers, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians to the danger of a serious accident.
“Manhole covers aren’t the only items on their shopping list. Gully grates, street signs and lead roof flashing are fervently sought after.”
Metal theft has also become an ongoing problem for Britain’s rail network. According to Network Rail – the company responsible for the infrastructure:
“Cable theft costs us millions of pounds each year. The total cost to the economy – taking into account the impact of freight delays to power stations and supermarkets, and on passengers who miss appointments or have their day ruined – is even higher.
“The theft of metal is a big problem for the railway as thieves target signalling cables, overhead power lines and even metal fences to sell for scrap.”
Fuel, it seems, is also becoming a commodity that some people are willing to risk jail time to obtain. The north of England, it seems, is something of a fuel theft hub; as the Manchester Evening News reported last year:
“Greater Manchester is the UK’s fuel theft capital, shocking new figures have revealed. More than a quarter of a million pounds worth of petrol, diesel, oil and red diesel was swiped by thieves in the region during 2015 – more than anywhere else in the country.
“A Freedom of Information request revealed GMP were called to a total of 3,804 incidents during that year. This was 1,400 more than South Yorkshire, which is the second top hotspot at 2,382.”
Most of these thefts were from filling stations as drivers left without paying. However, there has also been a rise in the number of fuel thefts from parked cars, such as this one in South Wales and this one in Gloucester. Most worrying of all from an infrastructure perspective, was the recent raid on Britain’s fuel pipeline infrastructure (for which the thieves were caught). As Louie Smith at the Mirror reported:
“A gang stole more than £1million of fuel from a network of underground pipes running across the UK, a court heard…
“A jury was told they set up a fenced compound on farmland to process the fuel – mainly red diesel – before collecting it up in lorries.
“The gang are said to have siphoned off petrol, diesel and aviation fuel from the pipe network in Kent, Essex, Hampshire, Northamptonshire and Cheshire.”
Fuel is particularly expensive in the UK because the government takes more than half of the final price in taxes. So when – as is happening now – oil prices rise, the impact is doubled for the end user. As this goes on, fuel theft becomes a target for both petty and organised crime. The temptation for debt-loaded and over-taxed businesses facing falling sales and little prospect of growth is to use black-market fuel to keep their vehicles on the road. And if the demand is there, organised crime will provide the supply.
We might, of course, dismiss thefts of this kind as just the run of the mill criminality that has always beset western economies. Certainly, similar thefts occurred during the recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The trouble is that economic crimes of this kind are not recorded centrally, so it is difficult to discover any national trends. The point, however, is that a combination of shortage, high prices and falling general incomes creates the conditions for these crimes to become far more widespread. It is also worth noting that the latest round of thefts are happening at what is widely held to be the end stage of an economic upswing. What comes after is the next recession during which things can only get worse.
This brings us back to the question of resilience and collapse. Most commentators treat resilience as a single event issue. Can a pipeline withstand an earthquake? Can a building survive a fire? Can a city recover from a flood? So long as the infrastructure does not fail, it is assumed to be resilient. As western economies stop growing and switch into reverse however, resilience becomes about process. The drainage system will not fail because a relatively small number of drain covers are stolen. But what if they are stolen at a time when the road network is also disintegrating, when bridges and tunnels need urgent repair, and when climatic changes are causing supposedly 1 in 100 year floods to happen every year? Add into that mix the ongoing austerity imposed by central governments and the increasing indebtedness of local governments, and we have a recipe for things falling apart faster than they can be put back together again… at which point things break down for good.
As with much else in the realms of collapse, it is easier to ignore what amounts to the slow cannibalisation of our infrastructure as little more than petty theft. The more it goes on, however, the more fragile our infrastructure becomes. Gradually it will begin to fail and we will lack the money and the resources to put it back together again. And when that process gathers pace, we will finally discover whether the collapse of western civilisation is going to be fast or slow.
As you made it to the end…
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