Capitalism Runs Out of Gas
Catabolic capitalism rains on your doomsday plans.
A decade ago, Craig Collins published an essay explaining what's going to happen when an economic system based on endless growth runs out of resources on a finite planet. It's not going to be pretty.
He eventually called it catabolic capitalism. Essentially, we start to consume each other. It's the only way to keep up profits.
Now we're living it.
As Collins explains, capitalism won't simply end when industrial civilization declines or collapses. That should terrify us all. See, civilizations have ended before. New civilizations grew in their wake.
Not this time.
Say what you will about any previous empire. They did some nasty stuff. It's nothing compared to capitalism.
This system brought us slavery and genocide on an industrial scale. It never ended. Both continue to this minute. Qatar worked hundreds of migrants to death to build soccer stadiums for billionaires. Fast fashion factories all over the world force people to sew and stitch for 17 hours a day to provide disposable clothing for influencers. If they make any mistakes, the company docks more than half their pay. As we speak, Israel is driving 2 million people into the desert, for their oil and gas. Here in the U.S., politicians are debating whether poor children should go hungry for lunch, even while we throw away 60 million tons of food every year. Not pounds. Tons. In Texas, politicians responded to heat domes by canceling mandatory water breaks. CEOs are running companies from yachts while forcing their workers back into unventilated offices.
That's a hunger for endless profits so deep and pathological that it leads to baffling, inexplicable, soul-crushing abuse. It's so hungry that it consumes everything, including its own social base.
That's catabolic capitalism.
The elites who run all of this aren't going to throw their hands up and start growing vegetables when everything falls apart. They might be building bunkers all over the earth, but they're not going to stay there and hide forever. They're going to use them as retreats.
Even after civilization collapses, the billionaires are going to continue doing everything they can to exploit us.
They're not going to leave us alone.
They're not going to let us live in peace, growing food and hiding from the heat. They're going to pull every dirty trick in the book to produce vast quantities of hungry, unsheltered, unfed people. They're going to need workers. They're going to need consumers. Tag, you're it.
History paints an appalling precedent.
Just look at all the indigenous groups who once lived in sustainable communities before global industrial civilization started to erode. Corporations rolled up and exterminated them. They took their stuff, and then forced them to work for almost nothing. If they refused, they died. To enforce their rules, these corporations relied on local police. They used armies. They used militias and paramilitary groups. If someone had land they wanted, they found a way to take it.
This will be us.
A lot of preppers live in fear of the government, but they should really be living in fear of Nestle, Nutrien, and Monsanto.
And defense contractors.
They've already learned how to turn wars and disasters into opportunities for profit. As we recently saw, they managed to twist the pandemic into a huge windfall. The world's richest doubled and tripled their wealth while essential and frontline workers lost their jobs or died trying to save people. Then instead of using pandemic relief money for what it was intended, they spent it on yachts and sports cars. They pumped cryptocurrencies. They even managed to sell jpegs for millions by calling them "nonfungible tokens." Following the U.S. Department of Justice, the Associated Press calls it "the greatest grift in U.S. history." More than $280 billion was flat-out stolen.
Another $124 billion was "misspent."
We could've used that $400 billion to outfit 90 percent of our public spaces with clean air, free of disease. We could've invested it in public health. Instead, criminals stole the money and spent it on themselves. All the while, self-help gurus went around talking about how the pandemic was "a blessing for me."
Now our public health infrastructure is crumbling while the CDC Director travels the country taking unmasked selfies and promoting looser infection controls, making it easier for sick people to get sicker.
That's catabolic capitalism.
A growing number of people no longer see any benefit to investing in anything beyond their own wealth and financial security. They've been thoroughly propagandized and brainwashed by decades of corporate messaging and advertising. We hear the same message thousands of times a day: It's okay to be selfish. Do what's best for you.
Get yourself a little something.
You do you.
That's the logic of catabolic capitalism. Nothing matters but shareholder value and the next quarterly report. It's all based on cheap energy. If you can't get it from fossil fuels, you have to get it from people.
Make them expendable.
It's no wonder Goldman Sachs asks, "Is curing patients a sustainable business model?" No, it's not sustainable if you consider the alternative: Keeping them sick but managing their symptoms.
Obviously, that sells more drugs.
Under catabolic capitalism, there's no incentive to make long lasting, high quality goods that someone only buys once or twice in a lifetime. It's more profitable to pillage the earth for rare metals and minerals to make cheap phones that people want to replace every three years. It's more profitable to get people sick and then keep them sick as long as possible. It's more profitable to charge everyone a subscription for everything.
There's no incentive to clean the water or the air. There's no incentive to protect employees from... anything, really.
That costs money.
There's no reason not to charge renters as much as you can. There's no reason not to design algorithms that figure out the maximum amount of money someone's willing to pay for food or life-saving medicine.
There's no reason not to convince the public that they need to start more wars for the sake of democracy, especially if it allows you to sell more weapons and then frees up natural resources.
There's not even a reason to try and slow down climate change, or help anyone deal with it. Hot, hungry, thirsty people are customers. If a city runs out of water, then you can sell them water. The great thing about water is that people can't decide to go without it.
That's where catabolic capitalism is going.
It doesn't matter if you can grow your own food. It doesn't matter if you know how to collect water. It doesn't matter if you know how to build a hut out of mud and branches. Not when an unhinged billionaire decides he owns all of your land, all of your water, and even you.
Don't get me wrong, you should learn all of this.
It's just not going to be enough.
Not for everyone.
If you're like me, you've been thinking a lot about the future and what it's going to look like. On the one hand, we have to learn to enjoy a life with less electricity. It's coming. It wouldn't be so bad, honestly. We'll have to become more sustainable and self-sufficient, for the time we have.
And yet, it's not going to feel quite like the 19th century. It's not the same planet. This collapse will look different from the previous ones, because this one created global industrial capitalism, a monster. The ones who drove us to collapse won't stop once it's all gone. They're going to keep causing pain. They're going to keep looking for ways to earn profits. When it's all gone, they're not going to believe it. They're going to keep up the facade.
As we've already seen, your mortgage doesn't expire when your house burns down or floods. You still owe the money. An apocalypse isn't going to wipe out your student loans. Navient will keep collecting until the end of time. If they can't garnish your wages, they'll find something.
They'll get creative.
Some of us have found ourselves secretly yearning for civilization to collapse because civilization itself has gotten so sick and twisted. Unfortunately, the idea of catabolic capitalism should prepare you.
Brace yourself. Not even the end of civilization is going to stop Prime Delivery. They're going to try and keep it going somehow. Just look at the fossil fuel companies. They know they're driving the extinction of all life on earth. They lied about it. They're going full steam ahead. They can't stop themselves.
After the year we've had, it's not so hard to imagine people even showing up to work, long after money becomes useless, simply because they can't bring themselves to accept it's all over. They'll find shallow comfort in routines, like that video of the bear that keeps wandering in circles even after it's been freed. They're never going to chill out and enjoy their last few years in a cave somewhere.
The billionaires aren't going to accept the collapse, either.
We're probably not going to get a break, even after the collapse. So take whatever break you can now, while you can.
They're not going to leave us alone.
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