It’s time to normalize the word, “collapse,” to describe the ongoing conditions in the US.
Some would counter it’s well past time—and I won’t argue with that—but I’d say we can no longer credibly claim that it’s too early to make this call.
“Decline” has been happening for decades at this point, as manifested in trends such as increasing class inequality, decreasing wages (as relative to inflation), higher infant mortality, lower life expectancy, a disintegrating social safety net, explosive growth of the prison-industrial complex, deteriorating educational system, etc. More and more people have been feeling the squeeze in their efforts to get by, even if establishment voices make claims to the contrary about “recovery.”
But “collapse” is more than “decline.” It’s when the system has lost enough integrity that it’s gone beyond the point of no return. With the multiple levels of disruption that have accompanied the COVID pandemic, we have passed that point.
Unemployment is at levels not seen since the Great Depression. But we’re not going to get out of this one the way we did then. We no longer have the resources, either in raw materials or in manufacturing ability, and neither can be brought back. Eighty years ago, we were a rising power and after WWII, we took center stage when the other leads were exhausted or slain. The landscape is entirely different now. Others stand poised to step in when we lose our grip, which is an inevitability at this point.
Another way to put it is that we just lack the “oomph” to avoid collapse at this point in our history.
What a terrible history it’s been, too. Founded on the original sins of genocide and slavery, we were on a bad path from the beginning. Our declaration of world dominance was made by destroying two Japanese cities full of civilians. In Southeast Vietnam, we murdered three million people and left behind mines and shells that still maim and kill to this day. All over the planet, we have pillaged and raped (literally). Despite delusions to the contrary, we were never a “shining city on a hill;” more like a hellish pit of malice. For much of humanity—including not a few within our borders—the collapse of the US will be considered a blessing.
That all empires end is not merely a truism but an historical fact. It doesn’t matter that many would shrug off the label of “empire;” that’s what we are, and we’re not exempt from the fate that all of them eventually face.
With collapse will come much suffering, that’s certain. People will lose their homes, their health and their personal freedom, if not their lives. Given our national character as a settler colonial state, we can expect an uptick in violence, especially with so many fire arms in circulation. Suicide, too, will become more common.
However, the results of collapse will undoubtedly be a mixed bag. As the old falls apart, room will open up for new. With less centralized control, locally-based initiatives will have the chance to grow. Experiments that have formerly been repressed will finally have a chance to be tried. Bad habits will be broken, both individually and culturally. We will be inspired by courageous people and powerful actions. Love will conquer in some moments, as it always has.
This is all just to talk about the domestic issues of United States. Of course the world is bigger than that, and no matter how things go down here in terms of social institutions. economic conditions and cultural arrangements, we’re facing a much bigger challenge that’s been taking a back seat in the news during the pandemic and the uprisings, but which ultimately dwarfs these concerns, and that’s the environment.
The climate’s course into increasingly chaotic territory continues unabated. Fires rage in Siberia. Arctic ice is at record low levels. Heat records are being smashed. The planet is becoming more inhospitable to human habitation with each year. Lurking in the background is the threat of abrupt climate change at a level that would wipe out agriculture and makes vast areas of the globe unlivable. According to ice cores and other evidence, drastic shifts can take place on alarmingly short timelines of just a few years. (For example, see the Younger Dryas.)
Trump and elections won’t matter on a planet that’s suddenly several degrees warmer or cooler, where death tolls from starvation are in the hundreds of millions. The cohesion of the nation state model itself will unravel at that point, and political power and material wealth will be of no consequence.
Just as many humans will be relieved when the US and its military machine are no more, so will many non-human creatures be when human civilization and its methodology of domination are gone.
In the meantime, here we are. The future is uncertain. In and of itself that’s neither good nor bad, but merely a condition. I’m not going to say that life will be “what we make of it” because I don’t believe that. At the individual level, we will be buffeted by forces beyond our control. Luck will play as big a part as preparation. In another way of looking at it, though, “what we make of it” is exactly what we’re getting, collectively.
One thing is undeniable: We can’t say we weren’t warned. Since the beginning of this misbegotten project called civilization, there have been dissidents in word and in deed. At every step of the way when we have chosen to walk with ecocide, we could have taken a different path, but didn’t. Now here’s the reckoning.