Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.”
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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – It is quite common for movies, TV shows, and books to imagine the collapse of the United States as a civilized society. Here are five popular examples with portrayals of America’s demise:
- “The Last of Us” is a very popular series on HBO right now. It portrays a fungal infection that turns people into zombies, causing the collapse of civilization. Similarly the movie “World War Z” brings the “zombies cause collapse” theme to life.
- In the book “One Second After” by William R. Forstchen, an EMP attack on the United States destroys the power grid and most electronic devices, causing the collapse of the United States and the deaths of a majority of Americans.
- There are many books and movies that portray the collapse of civilization due to an attack by extraterrestrials. In many of these portrayals, humans eventually triumph over the evil aliens. “War of the Worlds”, “Independence Day”, “Battle: Los Angeles”, etc. come to mind.
- The movie “The Day After Tomorrow” portrays rapid climate change events that affect major cities such as New York all over the world. Most of the northern United States becomes frozen under an ice sheet.
- The movie “Children of Men” depicts a situation where humanity becomes completely infertile. No children are born worldwide for many years, leading to the collapse of civilization.
It is easy to dismiss many of these portrayals. Zombies are not real. Extraterrestrials will not arrive. An EMP attack is unlikely.
But is there any scenario that could bring America to its knees? How might America really collapse, and could it happen in the near future?
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008
The last time America came near to collapse was in the year 2008. A financial crisis of 2008 nearly overwhelmed the financial system of the United States and then worldwide, leading to a deep economic recession. I know that financial analysis is neither sexy nor exciting, but please hang in there for a couple of paragraphs or skip to the next section. This is important because it shows how financial missteps can affect the entire world economy.
We can ask ChatGPT for a succinct description of the financial meltdown in 2008:
“The financial crisis of 2008 was caused by a housing market bubble, subprime mortgages, and excessive risk-taking by financial institutions. As the housing market declined, mortgage-backed securities became toxic assets and the financial institutions that held them suffered significant losses. In addition, complex financial instruments, such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs), were poorly understood, leading to a liquidity crisis that threatened the stability of the entire financial system. Governments and central banks intervened with massive bailouts and stimulus packages to prevent a global economic collapse, and new regulations were put in place to prevent a similar crisis from happening in the future.”
You might recall that one part of this fiasco was called the subprime mortgage crisis. The problem was that a good portion of the mortgages in America at this time were written to people who really could not afford them. They were given short-term teaser rates to get them into the mortgages, but when the teaser rates ended these people were doomed. Ultimately there were millions of people defaulting on these loans, and the crisis and recession unfolded in 2007 and 2008.
So, why did this happen? People could not afford their mortgages, so they stopped making payments. This caused a wave of foreclosures. During a foreclosure, the mortgage lender ends up owning the house that collateralized the foreclosed mortgage. Therefore the banks and mortgage lenders ended up possessing millions of houses they could not easily sell. It was a complete mess because the mortgage lenders were no longer receiving the payments they expected to be receiving from the mortgages, and there was nothing they could immediately do with all the empty houses. But at least they still held the empty houses (and the land underneath them). These houses had fallen in value, but they still existed and the value would eventually return in a few years. The whole mess sorted itself out eventually with the passage of time. America survived the crisis.
Can we extrapolate from the financial crisis of 2008 to understand how climate change will cause the next financial crisis and an American financial collapse?
The Way America Could Collapse
This scenario involves Antarctica. Check out these three headlines from February 2023 and you can see how Antarctica will soon be affecting everyone:
- So-called Doomsday Glacier is ‘in trouble,’ scientists say after finding surprising formations under ice shelf: https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/15/world/thwaites-doomsday-glacier-sea-level-climate-intl/index.html
- Antarctic Researchers Report an Extraordinary Marine Heatwave That Could Threaten Antarctica’s Ice Shelves: https://insideclimatenews.org/news/12022023/antarctic-ice-shelves-marine-heatwave/
- Myth-buster: Why two degrees of global warming is worse than it sounds: https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2023/02/myth-why-two-degrees-of-global-warming-is-worse-than-it-sounds/
The second article contains these two alarming quotes:
“In the 1990s, the global average sea level increased at about 3 millimeters per year, but that annual rate increased to 4.5 millimeters in the last five years. Between August 2020 and January 2021, sea level rose 10 millimeters.”
“’The most striking changes I have witnessed are the retreat of the front of Pine Island Glacier after an abrupt change in its calving style in 2015,’ he said, describing one of the glaciers in West Antarctica known to be particularly vulnerable to the warming ocean. Up until that year, the glacier had been thinning, and then all of a sudden, big chunks started breaking off, he said. ‘I visited the front on three different research cruises, in 2017, 2019 and 2020,’ he said. ‘And each time we had to go about 10 km further upstream due to the rapid retreat resulting from more frequent calving.’”
If we combine these two phenomena and look just a few years ahead into the future, we can envision cities like Miami starting to flood from sea level rise at an epic scale. There will be soon be so much flooding that the writing will be on the wall, and the residents will start a mass evacuation from Miami. We can already see the flooding starting in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JbzypWJk64
How many Miami refugees are we talking about? ChatGPT has the answer:
“According to the United States Census Bureau’s latest estimate, as of 2021, the population of Miami, Florida is approximately 472,000 people. However, the population of the Miami metropolitan area, which includes Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, is much larger, estimated at over 6 million people.”
These 6 million people will be evacuating from the area because, in the not-too-distant future, the entire region will be underwater. Everything in this image that is light blue will be underwater once we see 10 feet of sea level rise (Source: https://coast.noaa.gov/slr):
How will this level of flooding unfold?
- Step 1 – “Normal” sea level rise of X millimeters per year will continue occurring due to the melting of the Greenland, Antarctica and other ice sheets and glaciers.
- Step 2 – Rapid sea level rise of 2 feet will occur when the Thwaites Glacier collapses.
- Step 3 – Subsequent sea level rise of 10 feet will occur when glaciers adjacent to the Thwaites Glacier collapse.
It is likely that Step 2, which could begin happening over the next three to five years, is the event that will get everyone’s attention and spark the panic leading to mass exodus. Other cities along the east coast will be having similar problems, but Miami will be the worst because of the large population, the very flat and low-lying terrain, and the salt water intrusion.
The last item in that list – salt water intrusion – is something that happens to the aquifer that Miami depends on for drinking water. As sea levels rise, this aquifer gets more and more contaminated with saltwater and eventually becomes useless to the area. This article points out that:
“Harold Wanless, a University of Miami geographer known for sobering but accurate predictions about the changing climate, said the Atlantic Ocean in South Florida already is a foot higher than in 1930 and noted that saltwater advances inland from both the east and southwest. ‘There’s major saltwater intrusion that is further diminishing our freshwater resources. And we’re probably going to lose most of (the freshwater resources) with another 2 feet of sea-level rise,’ he said.”
So imagine this scenario. In three to five years the Thwaites glacier collapses and sea levels rise two feet over a short period of time. Flooding in Miami is severe. The aquifer is destroyed. Now the writing is on the wall, and everyone can see what is coming. The collapse of the glaciers adjacent to Thwaite’s will become imminent in a slow-moving disaster that unfolds over several years.
Six million people will begin a mass exodus from the greater Miami area. They will be screaming for relief from the federal government:
- Screaming for financial relief from the massive financial losses.
- Screaming for infrastructure relief in the form of some sort of massive construction to save Miami from rising oceans.
- Screaming for new housing relief, because these 6 million people will need to move and live somewhere.
But the federal government will not be able to provide any of these things at the scale we will see here. There simply is not enough money to solve these problems. There will be massive financial losses as people abandon millions of homes, apartments, businesses, roads and infrastructure that will soon be underwater. There is no way the federal government will be able to make all of these people whole. There will not be a way to build sea walls of other constructions able to hold back the floodwaters. And there will be nowhere near the housing necessary to provide homes for 6 million refugees streaming out of Miami. The United States is already short on housing, and these 6 million refugees will have nowhere to go. This video from 60 Minutes covers the housing shortage and rent increases: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEwxYvQVU5g
This is how the United States will collapse. If the 2008 financial crisis was nearly catastrophic, imagine what will happen when millions of mortgages are abandoned in Miami and all of the houses are worthless. The banks and mortgage lenders will not be holding empty houses as they foreclose on mortgages in Miami. They will be holding nothing. The rising ocean will be destroying all of the houses and the land they occupy. All of these assets – the houses and apartments and businesses plus the land they sit on – will completely dissolve into nothing as the salty floodwaters swallow Miami.
It will be such a complete disaster, playing out in multiple cities, that America will collapse in a financial meltdown and housing crisis.
Is there any way to prevent this future from unfolding?
The obvious question is this: If we know that this future catastrophe is approaching, is there anything America could do to prevent it? Are there any steps we could take now that would save Miami and the East coast of the United States from this catastrophe?
If America and the rest of the developed world were rational and forward-thinking, we would be doing several things at a massive scale:
- We would stop burning fossil fuels by banning them. We would invest several trillion dollars in massive solar projects, wind projects, battery systems, synthetic fuels, etc. to rapidly eliminate all fossil fuel use worldwide.
- We would invest several trillion dollars in projects that extract gigatons of legacy carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
- We would remove human activity from the Amazon rainforest and other rainforests so they can heal and regenerate. Preventing the rainforests from collapsing prevents hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
- We would ban beef and dairy cattle worldwide, as cattle are a major contributor to greenhouse gases.
- We would invest a trillion dollars to stabilize the Thwaites glacier and adjacent glaciers, so they do not rapidly collapse in the near future.
- We would engage in geoengineering projects with the potential to cool the planet quickly, such as stratospheric aerosol injection. See this video for details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCo_m1Vupn8
If humanity could undertake these projects quickly and with serious intent, we might save Miami and other coastal cities from the sea level catastrophe that is coming and a financial collapse in America.
But given our track record, what is the chance of any of these steps happening in any near-term future? Approximately zero. And therefore, what is coming seems inevitable. There seems to be nothing that will prevent the financial collapse that is approaching due to sea level rise.
What does ChatGPT think?
I asked ChatGPT for a list of things that might cause the collapse of the United States. Here is what it came up with:
“As an AI language model, I must emphasize that the following list is speculative, and should not be taken as a prediction or a political statement. The United States is a complex society with many factors at play, and any hypothetical collapse would likely be the result of a combination of multiple factors. With that said, here are ten potential factors that could contribute to the collapse of the United States:
- Political instability and division leading to a breakdown of governance and social order
- Economic collapse, such as a major recession or depression, or a long-term decline in economic growth
- Environmental degradation and natural disasters, such as the effects of climate change or a major pandemic
- Foreign military intervention or occupation
- Widespread corruption and cronyism, leading to a breakdown of trust in public institutions
- Civil unrest and large-scale protests or riots that lead to the breakdown of law and order
- Technological disruption and loss of jobs due to automation and artificial intelligence
- Massive debt and financial insolvency
- Cultural fragmentation and the breakdown of national identity, leading to increased social unrest and the rise of extremist ideologies
- Loss of international influence and prestige, leading to decreased economic and diplomatic power.
- A major terrorist attack causing widespread destruction and loss of life
- A large-scale cyberattack disrupting critical infrastructure and causing chaos
- A breakdown of the healthcare system due to a pandemic or other health crisis
- A significant decline in educational standards and a lack of investment in education
- A complete breakdown of the energy grid leading to widespread blackouts and power outages
- The rise of a totalitarian regime that suppresses civil liberties and freedom of speech
- The decline of the middle class and the rise of extreme income inequality
- The depletion of natural resources leading to a shortage of food, water, and other basic necessities
- A loss of trust in democratic institutions and the rule of law
- The proliferation of nuclear weapons and the potential for a catastrophic nuclear war
- The spread of disinformation and propaganda leading to widespread confusion and mistrust
- The collapse of the housing market and a widespread foreclosure crisis
- A severe drought or other natural disaster leading to widespread famine and food shortages
- The rise of organized crime and a breakdown of law enforcement
- A breakdown in international alliances and the rise of global conflict
- The loss of key allies and trading partners, leading to economic isolation and decline
- The failure of the education system to adequately prepare the workforce for the modern economy
- The spread of drug addiction and the breakdown of public health infrastructure
- The failure of the criminal justice system to adequately address social issues and maintain order
- The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and the potential for widespread job displacement.”
It is interesting that ChatGPT is pointing at itself as a potential collapse agent in #7 and #30. This article is discussing a combination of #2 and #3.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JbzypWJk64 – South Florida’s Rising Seas – Sea Level Rise Documentary
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEwxYvQVU5g – Lack of new construction and corporate landlords contributing to skyrocketing rent
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCo_m1Vupn8 – The Crazy Plan to Fight Climate Change (Stratospheric Aerosol Injection)