Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
With an ongoing pandemic, increasing unemployment, and an ever-growing amount of social unrest, 2021 is starting off as one of the more chaotic years in decades. With so much chaos, the obvious question to ask is how much is too much? How much can our institutions sustain before they begin to fall apart?
For many, the idea of societal collapse may seem like an unimaginable impossibility, but so too was the idea of mass shutdowns only a short time ago. The truth is societies often have, and still can, collapse, and we are fooling ourselves if we think that our specific little slice of history is any different.
As an exercise, I want to look at the current state of the United States and the three most likely ways it could collapse in the near future.
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Table of Contents
Understanding Crisis and Collapse
It takes more than a single crisis to cause a collapse. The economy almost collapsed in 2008, but eventually, our economy was able to slowly recover. We’ve had massive terror attacks, cyber-attacks, oil embargoes, multiple contested elections, even a Japanese sneak attack, but each time the nation has bounced back just as (if not more) powerful than before.
The United States is a resilient creature, and it has shown the world that it takes much more than a single wound to bring it down. However, each crisis can feed off another and become compounding issues that lead to catastrophe. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed due to a growing number of failures that led to an untenable situation.
Small secession movements in the Balkan regions eventually led to major unrest all over the Soviet Empire, a coup attempt was made, and client states lost faith in the government. Their Empire was officially dissolved in the following months.
To come even close to a similar failure, the United States would have to endure a series of challenges that all culminated in a mass loss of faith in the central government and large regions deciding they would be best left to their own devices.
In order for a nation like the United States to fully collapse, it would need to be the victim of cascading failures. This is a process where a failure triggers further shortcomings in a system of interrelated, interconnected parts.
For example, the power grid’s loss would eventually result in the loss of the most water and wastewater systems, the loss of internet and telecommunication systems, and the eventual halting of fuel pipelines. Once all of these systems have failed, then no society will be able to function as it had—eventually, new infrastructure will arise, and new borders will be drawn.
They believed that the lack of power would stop almost any form of modern transportation—there would be no rapid transit and no elevators. Also, the lack of power would cause difficulties in driving because of problems with traffic signals. Shipping would be disrupted because ships could not be unloaded at the port. Eliminating power would also cause water supply distribution problems and fire hazards.”– Strategic Attack of the National Electric Systems by Thomas E. Griffith, Jr. Major, USAF
Civil strife, pandemics, as well as infrastructure failures can all be key pressure points that eventually cause society to fracture when they become prolonged issues. With enough fracturing, the base structure will finally shatter.
Balkanization and Separation
The U.S., much like the Roman Empire of old, is too big for a single dramatic collapse. Like the Romans, we will likely see a separation of states within the U.S., and each region will fare differently. Inner-city New York may turn into a dystopian hell hole, while Montana may look much the same as it does today.
We have seen countless examples of powerful and expansive federations fall apart and dissolve into warring factions. It happened with the Roman Empire, the Mongols, The Chinese, honestly everywhere if you go back far enough.
Regardless of WHY the U.S. Collapses, balkanization is likely to be HOW it collapses.
The American Civil War almost precipitated this happening in North America and the fact that such a large nation as the United States, with cultures as different as those as you would find between Northern California, Brooklyn, rural Texas, or Alabama, has been able to stay together as long as it has, is relatively unique in world history.
It is safe to say that no matter what causes the US Collapse, the result will be a continent made up of smaller regions that may be hostile or uncooperative with one another.
I do see some unnerving parallels between the current American political environment and those in the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The combination of constitutional crises, nationalist demagoguery, and weak institutions proved fatal to national unity in those cases, spawning wars that tore countries apart and killed hundreds of thousands of people.”From Rhetoric, Violence, and Civil War: The Balkanization of America? by Colonel Robert E. Hamilton Associate Professor of Eurasian Studies at the U.S. Army War College
3 Possible Causes of the U.S. Collapse
These are the most likely causes of collapse, or at least critical steps in a cascading failure, facing the United States. For every single one of these, you only have one natural response. BE BETTER PREPARED. In each instance, the problem goes well beyond any one person.
The only thing we can do is prepare and plan to the best of our abilities. We already saw in 2020 how those who were ready with supplies did much better than everyone else when the shelves were hit with panic—and that was only a test run for what is possible.
1. Another Pandemic and an Overbearing Response
It is a common theory that the wave of plagues that struck the Roman Empire were key factors that led to its eventual downfall. Plagues and pestilence have wreaked untold damage on humanity over the ages, and we have seen that the problems don’t stop with the disease itself. The loss of jobs and resources due to the pandemics have been just as devastating to the long term health of worldwide populations.
We are currently seeing a vaccine being utilized for COvid-19, but now we know just what level of havoc is possible from diseases in the modern age of international travel.
Should Covid-19 get much worse, or should another horrible disease arrive, it will only take a few bad decisions from the government before you begin to see cities and states go rogue. The idea of further lockdowns mandated by the federal government, people knowing they won’t be employed for another year, will begin to make many desperate.
With state and local governments already fomenting anger from the populace, and radical groups being caught planning to abduct a governor, I don’t need to elaborate much on how fractures can begin to form under these continuing circumstances.
The U.S. and Covid-19
2. Social Unrest and Conflict
Antifa, Proudboys, State Militias, and #hashtag movements have all shown in the last year that our country is full of political factions with little to no cultural commonalities with one another. Entire sections of our country use different websites from one another, watch different news channels from one another, and have very different beliefs about the history and direction of this country as a whole.
Look at the comments section on social media of an Antifa member getting knocked out, or a Trump Supporter getting pepper-sprayed, and you will quickly see just how divided and violent much of the cultural subconscious is currently. This isn’t new, we had similar social unrest in 1968, but just because you overcame a hurdle once, doesn’t mean you will again.
Major civil conflicts in history have been started with much smaller divides. It is likely only the comforts of modern society that have kept us from each other’s throats.
3. Social Evolution
Another interesting perspective is one given by Dr. Steven Gimbel of Gettysburg College, who looks at these issues from a sociological perspective. In his words…
The cultural tipping point is when a society has created too much complexity; at that point, society can no longer afford it. Every previous major civilization in human history in every corner of the world has collapsed due to becoming overly complex; due to bureaucracy.”
At a certain point, it isn’t worth participating in the traditional society. In many ways, the evolution of our society is what has spurred much of the conflict.
Think about all this in the context of our modern age where everyone can retreat into their own personal tribal space with like-minded people, where we no longer need to interact with our local community at all.
This leads into a line of thought put forward by futurists. As physical connections become less important and our digital ones supplant them, our traditional physical borders may be another friction point.
So whether through political conflict, an overly complex bureaucracy, or transcendence into a new way of living, our society will be hard-pressed to maintain the same semblance of cohesion it currently has.
While a dramatic economic collapse may be possible, we have seen many weaker nations (as well as the U.S. itself) bounce back from worse situations. Perhaps more likely are the great events like war or Super-volcanoes that quickly annihilate those institutions that we have in place.
A major war with a power like China would tax the U.S. and our culture in ways we haven’t seen in the post-modern age. If nuclear weapons were used, we could be living in the world of The Postman faster than you think. While even with a full nuclear war, we may never be forced to travel with a Donkey and recite Shakespeare for food, it still wouldn’t be very pretty should you survive at all.
Then there is the possibility of the Yellowstone supervolcano suddenly going off and taking out the entire Western United States. Society would probably look pretty different after that.
Something we shouldn’t leave out, though I know many of you will roll your eyes, is climate change. Regardless of whether you think humans are causing it or not, it is a fact that the U.S. military has issued warnings regarding the collapse of the U.S. by 2039 due to climate change. The report makes a strong case, warning that millions of people will have to relocate, increasing societal tension, and that natural resources will diminish, causing international conflicts.
The report also happens to mention the long-term thinking of China regarding both these issues, as well as their training. They emphasize that China has spent the last twenty years especially preparing their soldiers and officers for many roles they now hold, and “maybe the basis of large asymmetries with broad implications for the U.S. Army, the U.S. I.C., the DoD, and allies.”
Don’t Think it Can’t Happen
So whether we are facing more pandemics, social unrest, or a huge natural disaster, there are many possible causes for a U.S. collapse. The last thing I want to grab from that War College report was this piece of advice:
Everything we believe about the world is provisional – ‘serving for the time being.’ Adding the words ‘so far’ to assertions about reality reminds us of this”– Black Swan, Red Beard: Recognizing The Unexpected by Andrew A. Hill
Make sure you have enough food, ammunition, and other supplies to last a long time. We have already seen in this last year just how hard-to-get some of this stuff can be. A lot of essential supplies disappeared overnight when the panic first set in.
I know I’m preaching to the choir, but just because it seems like society is stable and that chaos is something that happens far away, remember we are the exception in human history. Humankind and the empires we build are transient and none last forever. Prepare for the worst and you can only be pleasantly surprised.
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