7 min read

The Formula for Collapse

The Formula for Collapse

It's a mistake to think of a collapse, or the collapse, as some kind of monolithic, singular event. I've said before that collapse is likely to be long, something that occurs in increments throughout our lives. But it's also possible that collapse will feel sudden–an all-at-once situation or a few precipitous stages that bring us most of the way down. Whichever one I say will happen won't happen, so I won't bother to make some declaration or to say that collapse will follow from a particular cause. There are three related factors, though, around which collapse revolves. Let's look at these three factors, and then we'll talk a little about how these factors will interact with all the other things we typically think of when we imagine doom.


Defined by science as "the capacity for doing work," we think of energy more as the thing that makes the lights come on when we flip a switch. Which is true. But keep the scientific definition in mind as we talk about energy here, because talking about energy in the context of collapse requires a bit of a broader scope than just electricity.

If I were discussing this subject with you a few thousand years ago, I could conflate energy and the next factor (spoiler alert: it's food). But because we live in the year 2021, energy gets a discrete header. Energy is what allows for the complexity of our society. I get to write this on a laptop sitting at a desk with a belly full of food I didn't grow while electricity flows from wires arrayed down the alleyway into my home, on and on and on, because of energy. Without the resources that have allowed for these wild innovations–that, at their most essential, make it quicker and easier to do work–if I were alive at all I would be hunting and gathering, or farming at best. But we discovered sources of energy beyond our own, mechanical sources. We figured out how to utilize other animals, fire, water, and, most infamously, fossil fuels.

As mentioned before, it's the metaphorical savings account of fossil fuels that allowed for the population and complexity explosion of our modern era. Fossil fuels are stored solar energy that we cannot recreate, upon which we are dependent, and which are becoming increasingly hard to acquire. Basically, we've spent everything in our savings in order to have a world as full of technology, comfort, food, and people as we do. But without that money, we won't be able to feed each other or keep the lights on. That's energy in the context of collapse*. We need more and more of it, we have less and less of it stored. Collapse Mathematics 101, day one.

*And, remember, renewable energy isn't a new savings account, or interest off the sun's account, or whatever. Renewable energy is, before it could possibly become a solution, a job (to keep with the metaphor) that you aren't qualified for.


You may or may not have heard that we live on a planet that doesn't go on forever. It's not flat and surrounded by an ice wall, either, but that's not important right now. As the human population increases, we will, inevitably, run out of arable land to produce food for that population. That's Collapse Mathematics 101, day 2. When we reach that point, food prices will soar, and millions (if not billions) will suffer. Many will starve fully to death.

Luckily (not really), that's probably not the way things will go. There's a more immediate threat to our food supply: our ability to grow food is directly tied to our use of fossil fuels for energy and consumable goods. We plant, fertilize, water, and harvest our food using fossil fuels–expending a great deal more energy than a simple farmer would have in the past (to a much greater yield, for now).

It's estimated that the carrying capacity of the planet is roughly 1/10th of our current population without fossil fuel inputs. It's estimated by others that trying to pin carrying capacity is a fool's errand (because for starters what is the average person's consumption? Does that account for a change in diet in an emergency? Do we assume that person needs more or fewer calories? Multiply by 8 billion give or take), but it's still a scary, scary figure. Running out of arable land alone (all else held equal) creates a cap on the population and a collapse that stabilizes only once population and food prices do. Running out of fuel for agriculture, on the other hand, creates an enormous, apocalyptic collapse that kills billions of people as we fall back on what can feasibly be grown without fossil fuels.


If Energy/Food is the Y axis of Collapse, People are the X axis. Or vice versa, I'm bad at math. Does it matter? Direct relationships, exponential growth, you get it. But people, importantly, are the multiplier by which we have to weigh energy and food. As our population increases–and it still is, by about 1.05% per year–our energy and food demands increase as well. Importantly, as the quality of life improves, so too do those demands. We may be awash in a sea of troubles, but for a lot of folks around the world, life is still getting better, at least better than it was for their parents, or grandparents. Think about, for instance, the expanding infrastructure and shrinking poverty in China. Millions and millions of people lifted out of poverty is undeniably a good thing, but people with money spend money, and that money is used for goods and services–energy and food–that wasn't being consumed before.

So it's not just the raw population, but their rate of consumption. You will see Americans conspicuously high on the chart of consumption, but the rest of the world is racing to catch up, and the planet simply can't afford that. There is no good way for us to make the world produce on the scale that Americans consume. The solutions people bandy about are ludicrous: tiny robots? Seriously? We're not going to avert a capitalist disaster by making farmers invest in more technology. (The rest of the article boils down to "don't waste your food." Truly brilliant ideas, wish I'd thought of them.)

The truth is that the real solutions simply are not palatable: scale down in a big, big way. Reduce our quality of life before life reduces it for you. The math just doesn't add up to any solution other than a true state of equilibrium within the planet's post-fossil fuel carrying capacity. The only real uncertainty is time.

Other Factors

You may have noticed I went almost an entire newsletter without saying "climate change." That wasn't an accident. I instinctively say "climate change" when I'm blessing someone after a sneeze. I intentionally haven't mentioned climate change, fascism, or white supremacy because the truth is we don't need any of those things for collapse to occur. It's kind of disappointing, right?

Whether or not we needed climate change to speed along our fall, though, it's here, it's an enormous accelerating and complicating factor for obvious reasons, and capable of ushering in collapse all on its own. Being able to grow as much food as possible is going to be of paramount importance to survival for our species, and climate change hangs a proverbial sword over every harvest, every home. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing may result in the extinction and ecosystem collapse of species that millions of people depend upon, making them then depend upon other sources of food–which will badly strain that supply. When you blend climate change and fascism together you get eco-fascism, in which the wealthy of the world close their borders while hoarding resources of exploited nations, resulting in truly harrowing conditions. Government mismanagement alone can do a lot to exacerbate things–whether that be mandates that lead to famines or hyperinflation. When it comes to the main factors of collapse, we're getting close to the knife's edge. These complicating factors, like climate change and the threat of fascism, can push us there faster.

While there are flashier issues at hand–polar vortices and vanishing coastlines and fire tornadoes and the like–we have to remember that collapse is as certain as aging and death. In a way, avoiding collapse can only be done by a different kind of collapse–much like waiting for a family history of heart disease to get you when all along it was your propensity for juggling chainsaws. It may be climate change or it may be Trump Jr. ordering every American with an even number of letters in their name into the Soylent Green Machine, but it's in the mail.

In the coming weeks I'll take some closer looks at what scenarios may play out, but the important things stay the same: we run out of food, we run out of water, we run out of energy. These are the things we must prepare for. Despite how dismal that sounds, it is not the end, nor is it the end, necessarily, of happiness and freedom. The whole reason I write this newsletter–and still plod away at my fiction–is to help people prepare for and imagine a better, more equitable world.

In the meantime

As a kind of stabilizing exercise, do this for me: think of something that you wish to have plenty of in the future. Don't be glib and say "streaming services" or something. Be honest with yourself. Genuinely consider what you would want to have plenty of–post-collapse or pandemic or what have you. It can be a selfish thing, a needful thing. But keep that goal in mind, and maybe it be attained. As for me, my wife and I recently went to a coffee festival, and I would like to have not only plenty of coffee (even if it's roasted dandelion), but plenty of occasions to have such an outing–I think that is, even through collapse, something to plan and strive toward. So I'll be thinking about coffee, and community, and the simple pleasures that come with changing seasons. What about you?