I am suspicious of all unified field theories, including my own. Still, we have entered a new age and must try to explain and understand it. I am with James Howard Kunstler's "Long Emergency" in many areas. But I don't think the federal government will collapse anytime soon; crises tend to centralize power — even the Roman Empire took centuries to fall apart in the West, longer still in the East. Nor do I think small-scale food production and small towns will replace cities; cities have the power and wealth to draw resources, and metropolitan areas will be the economic and organizing entities of the 21st century, barring a major nuclear war. Nor do I accept Dmitry Orlov's theory that America will collapse along the lines of the Soviet Union.
I call the new age the Great Disruption. It is on display in Japan, where one of the most advanced nations in the world is struggling with a devastating earthquake and an unfolding nuclear disaster. The planet is at 6.8 billion people, at or beyond its carrying capacity. This will amplify the natural disasters that are a normal part of the world, bringing much more widespread death and misery to the Haitis and Indonesias, but not sparing advanced nations. The United States has nearly doubled its population in my lifetime. This not only adds huge costs that we have not addressed, in infrastructure to use one example, but also vulnerabilities (and lack of spending on infrastructure to soften disasters, e.g. New Orleans). A major earthquake in Seattle or San Francisco today would be catastrophic, and both are inevitable. And lest Phoenicians feel smug, they are downwind from the largest nuclear power plant in the nation, one with a highly checkered safety record, getting older, and whose water supply in an emergency should be question No. 1 for the press. This on top of (over) populating one of the most hostile desert valleys and basins in the world, a totally manmade environment, totally vulnerable to tribulation.
Overpopulation is a backbeat for most of the other elements of the Great Disruption. But most of all it is about discontinuity The next 30 years are not going to be a replay of the past 30, only with cooler personal tech toys. Why not?
Growing scarcity in other critical areas, including water, many commodities, rare earth metals and even food. We're seeing this already playing out in the Third World.
Climate change. I guess smart Republicans, who must claim to be "skeptics," secretly think, "shit happens," and they can make a profit from, say, a navigable Arctic Ocean. Unfortunately, the best science, as well as experience on the ground, indicates that the costs from unaddressed climate change will be far higher than any benefits. In addition, the displacement of people in hot regions as crops wither and diseases spread will make the illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border look like a crowd moving to a minor league ballpark.
Economic competition and suicide. When I was first tossing this theory out, I called this part, "three billion new capitalists in the world." As in, much more competition for Americans. It's far more complex and dangerous. China is an authoritarian state employing a "state capitalism" that verges on neo-mercantilism. They are not playing the same game as American capitalism, and this was before our largest corporations stopped being American companies and the downside of "free trade" became apparent. China's model is being emulated in a world of cheap labor. Thus, we have a massive shipment of jobs and whole industries overseas with no end in sight. Millions of Americans are jobless and may never find work. Not everybody will become an "entrepreneur," which is actually a rare route to success. Meanwhile, our financialized economy has been rearmed by the bailout and is ticking for its next disaster (the Great Recession was only part of the Great Disruption). For now, enough Americans are "doing OK," even though wages have stagnated or fallen. Enough are distracted by Fox "News," cheap goodies at Wal-Mart and Republican theater. This won't last as the middle class collapses. Meanwhile, China's size also makes it highly unstable, and its troubles would be felt globally. And in large areas of Africa and the Middle East (oil), misery, scarcity and unemployment meet a young population, making it ripe for terrorism and warfare. Does anyone really believe the uprisings in the Arab world will lead to secular states friendly to America and capable of pumping more oil?
Endless war. Americans were never a peaceful people, but we fought discrete wars, with a beginning and an end. No longer. We are engaged all over the world, with "conservatives" always looking for fresh fights and "liberals" too afraid of being seen as weak to oppose them. Too bad this is all on borrowed money from places like China, and that we are the worldwide petroleum police force. Sustainable? No. Increasingly dangerous? Of course. Meanwhile, our "allies" Pakistan and India could reduce each other to ashes any time. Then there's Israel and Iran.
The collapse of American leadership. Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama — nothing really changes. The rich get much richer. The middle class falls back. Corporations, "financial services" and the military-industrial complex rule. Meritocracy and social mobility are stifled. The social contract is being destroyed for profit, both corporate and political. The commons deteriorate and our infrastructure is stuck in the 1960s, only with fewer trains and not even national ambitions in space. Genuine competition between parties and ideas is rare, both because the left has collapsed, too many Democrats have sold out and the Republican Party has gone nuts. An independent, intelligent, curious and widely read press is dying while the mainstream media are criminally clueless about these issues. Most Americans are unwilling to engage — Republicans are counting on the Wisconsin anger fading away. After all, there's the chance to get rich driving out to the Indian casino, a new pretty teen blonde in peril, the fear of brown people, 34 hours of television a week. Tax cuts, tax cuts tax cuts!!!
The result is that we are unable or unwilling to turn from, or mitigate, the worst consequences of the Great Disruption. We will spend our treasure trying to sustain the unsustainable. And then what?