Consumer society has tried to legitimize itself by making people believe that it represents a sustainable way of living. For those in the First World, all the evidence that a meltdown is coming—the deterioration of the climate, the decline of the biosphere, the diminishing of available resources—has usually existed outside of immediate view. Commercialism and the mass media, which have gained an unprecedented presence in our lives through the digital revolution, have distracted us from these realities while the machine of global capital has continued to run.
With this year’s pandemic-triggered economic crash, more have begun to realize that the system is broken. But it’s still hard to grasp the enormity of the upheaval that we’ve entered into. The big tech companies, which have benefited from the crisis, are trying to extend the paradigm of industrial consumption. Amazon hopes it can replace retail with home delivery, and tech monopolies like Google and Apple hope they’ll be able to keep their profit margins up by creating a demand for digitized healthcare services.
They’ll rake in money from this for a while, but when you look at the material limitations that industrial civilization has created for itself, it becomes clear that capitalism will overall produce diminishing returns from here.
The most immediate threat that the commercialized paradigm faces is the fact that for most people in both the Third World and the imperial core, a prosperous life is now out of reach. With unemployment soaring worldwide while the neoliberal countries increasingly resemble failed states, living standards in the capitalist world are sure to continue declining not just in this year, but throughout the next generation or so.
In the U.S. alone, around 60% of people had less than a thousand dollars saved up prior to the pandemic, while a third of U.S. households struggled to afford food, shelter, or medical care. Now many of these people’s meager savings have been blown apart, while hunger and unpaid rent have started to appear for many others. The labor and consumer base is rapidly shrinking, which is why hundreds of thousands of capitalists have recently lost their statuses as millionaires.
In this next decade and beyond, what will exacerbate the economic meltdown—in addition to the decline of the dollar and the escalation of the U.S. economic war with China—is the acceleration of the climate collapse. It’s expected that by 2030, global sea levels will have risen by 0.3 to 0.6 feet, which will turn into somewhere between 2 and 5 feet by 2050. For perspective, with eight feet of sea level rise the World Trade Center building in New York (and a lot of buildings inland of it) will be surrounded by water.
By 2030, 60% of coral reefs will be highly or critically threatened, which will lead to food shortages and market collapses; reefs house 25% of marine life and support the basis for $375 billion in goods and services each year, meaning this kind of disruption will greatly shrink economies and make many kinds of foods scarcer. Add this onto the ever-increasing fires, storms, and heat waves, and it’s clear why over 100 million people are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty within the next decade.
In a situation where capitalism will continue to try to create ever-increasing quantities of commercial consumption and resource extraction, unprecedented shortages for food and other goods are inevitable. A 2014 IPCC report says that by the middle of the century, the planet will reach “a threshold of global warming beyond which current agricultural practices can no longer support large human civilizations.” Even if better agricultural practices get more widespread in the next few decades, this century’s additional environmental disasters and resource shortages will make the capitalist world rife for social unraveling.
This is partly because the capitalist world will be unwilling to give up the ecologically harmful agricultural practices which are making soil less farmable, and because the remaining oil and metal supplies won’t be able to sustain capitalism’s ever-increasing demand for these resources. Peak oil happened in 2006, peak gas happened in 2010, and peak coal has arguably happened at the same time as peak oil.
This year’s oil price crisis is a sign of where this decline will lead to. Oil demand may have declined with the Covid-19 economic crash, but unless this is followed by a drastic transition towards renewable energy, the dangers from peak oil will return. The current situation shows how vulnerable the global economy will be to these shortages. As Yves Smith wrote last year:
“Many of the problems the world economy is facing today seem to be the result of reaching the limits of energy extraction. Very few researchers understand how a self-organized networked economy really operates. As a result, the symptoms of economic health and economic illness have been confused. It looks quite possible that we have reached both Peak Oil and Peak Coal, approximately simultaneously. This is a frightening situation, because it could be an indication of collapse in the next few years. This would likely be much worse than the Depression of the 1930s.”
The same pattern of diminishing returns is happening for the world’s metal supply. A study from last year concluded that in regards to copper, “increased demand and decreased resource quality will cause significant price increases. The copper price is suggested to increase significantly in the coming decades. A similar situation applies for zinc and lead with soft scarcity and increased prices for zinc. The total supply of copper reaches a maximum 2030 - 2045, zinc 2030 - 2050 and lead 2025–2030.”
This will be so destructive because a “circular economy,” where society’s current usage of resources is sustained through reusing what’s already been mined, isn’t feasible. Most metal simply isn’t recyclable; for one example, less than 1% of rare earth metals in our phones are reused, hinting at just how much trouble the coming shortages will cause for our highly digital world. And no matter how much we try to recycle plastic, it can only be salvaged as many as seven times before becoming permanently unusable.
This reality of a vastly declining return on metals in the coming decades will make it infeasible to replace oil and coal with alternative energy sources like wind and solar, because these require the production of fossil fuels and metals. No matter how fossil fuel-light the process of creating wind turbines and solar panels becomes, both fossil fuels and metals will still be required for their production. And this will make them unable to fully or sustainably replace fossil fuels as the globe’s primary energy source.
Combined with civilization’s current methane emissions, which are being maintained by the cattle industry, this systemic obstacle to reducing greenhouse gas emissions makes the Paris climate accord’s plan for avoiding catastrophic global warming essentially impossible to reach. It’s inevitable that the planet will warm 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average between 2030 and 2050, after which the planet is on track to warm by as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius before 2100.
Add all of these projections to the fact that the world’s wildlife populations have declined on an average of 60% since 1970, and the possibility of mass agricultural collapses in just the next couple of decades becomes very plausible. So does the prospect of wild jumps in global prices for gas, electronics, and other commodities.
Which is where the factor of inequality comes in; comfortable living arrangements, modern technologies, and reliable food supplies won’t become unattainable for everyone throughout this century, just for those who don’t make it into the capitalist aristocracy.
Oligarchs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are preparing to leave the rest of us behind and create an age of techno-feudalism. They’re working on projects to live underground, in remote compounds, or in space when the planet undergoes an apocalyptic event. They’re planning out infrastructure projects where those who live in privileged “smart cities” can easily access goods from within their homes, while AI-driven mass surveillance monitors the population’s every move.
They’re also aiming to profit from the climate crisis in various ways. Bill Gates’ campaign to mass produce a Covid-19 vaccine (and subsequently gain a monopoly on global healthcare) is one example; viruses like Covid-19 are being multiplied by today’s warmed climate, and the elites will take advantage of this as the climate crisis exacerbates these and other problems.
Our only recourse is to fight back, and to take the resources that the rich are stealing from us. This will have to involve seizing the means of production, which as you may notice are a recurring theme in the catastrophic projections I’ve listed. It’s because healthcare, food, energy, and other facets of civilization are controlled by the capitalist class that these resources are becoming out of reach for many people. It’s also because of this arrangement that the ecological crisis has gotten to this point.
We won’t be able to undo the damage that their machine has done, but we’ll be able to avoid a lot of suffering and death if we carry out a new wave of proletarian revolutions.
If you appreciate my work, I hope you become a one-time or regular donor to my Patreon account. Like most of us, I’m feeling the economic pinch during late-stage capitalism, and I need money to keep fighting for a new system that works for all of us. Go to my Patreon here. Follow Rainer on Twitter, Youtube and Medium.
From the archives: