Our Civilization is Now Reaching an Omega Point — the Point of Irreversible Collapse
This gentle world that you and I know, that I love, of old parks full of ancient trees, long walks through them — all that is now coming to a swift and sudden end.
We are reaching what I call the Omega Point. “O” for game over. The Omega Point is the inflection point at which our civilisation will no longer survive — and we are coming closer and closer to it by the day now. We are surely going to hit it within the next two decades, perhaps the next decade, on the trajectory we are on.
Omega isn’t some kind of abstruse notion — it’s just simple economics, which any grade schooler can understand. Let me explain it you conceptually, and then I’ll describe how life will change as we begin to hit it.
The world’s GDP is about $80 trillion. Omega is theoretically hit when the costs of the existential threats of the 21st century that our civilisation now faces — climate change, mass extinction, ecological collapse, and the pandemics and social upheavals and economic depressions they’ll ignite — exceeds the world’s GDP. At that point, we are spending every dollar, euro, and renminbi we have to fight floods, hurricanes, fires, and pandemics — which leaves nothing, and I mean nothing, over for air, water, food, energy, medicine. Bang. The lights go out.
In the real world, though, Omega is hit long before the costs of our existential threats reach the ceiling of global GDP. As we fight climate change, ecological collapse, mass extinction, pandemics, authoritarianism, we must still feed and nourish and clothe and mend ourselves — that is, we need to spend a significant percentage on the basics, food, water, air, medicine, shelter, clothing, and so forth. That’s about half of global GDP right now.
So realistically, Omega — the point at which our civilisation collapses, for sure, permanently, game over — is hit at about half of global GDP spent on combating our existential threats.That leaves us too little left over for the basics of life, and civilisation descends into chaos, ruin, and social collapse — just as it has, for example, in America, as people fight each other bitterly for self-preservation.
So we hit the Omega point when the damage caused by our existential challenges — climate change, ecological collapse, pandemics, authoritarianism, etc — reaches $40 to 60 trillion at our current level of global income and wealth.
Now, if that doesn’t make sense, think about it this way.If you had to spend 100% of your income, say, mending your roof, or shoring up your home’s foundations, you’d be effectively broke. Sure, you could borrow, maybe, if you were lucky, and you had good credit. But you would still be bankrupt in net terms. And as a world, we have no such luxury — when we are broke, collectively, nobody is left to lend to us. Omega therefore represents the point at which our civilisation is effectively bankrupt: when we’re $40 trillion to $60 trillion in the hole.
At that point, there will be no way out. We will be broke, and not have the economic capacity to mitigate, avert, or address problems like climate change and ecological collapse anymore. Their costs will have exceeded the total economic resources of our civilization.
Nice theory, Queen, you might say — but so what? Surely Omega, this sci-fi concept you’ve invented, is in the distant future. It’s something our great grandkids might have to worry about! Relax, dude! Everything will be fine!
Let me put in context for you just how close we are to hitting Omega. $40 to $60 trillion might sound like a lot — but in fact, it’s not. It is frighteningly little. Take Covid. It’s a relatively minor problem compared to climate change or mass extinction, in scale, scope, and intensity. Its damages won’t remotely approach those of a melted down planet. And yet the IMF has estimated that Covid has already cost us $24 trillion.
Covid alone takes us about 40 to 60% of the way to hitting Omega. Covid alone. My God. This afternoon, when I thought about this, and ran the numbers in my head, my heart skipped a beat. We are in serious, serious trouble, I thought. My God. Are you seeing the problem here? Let me spell it out.
So what about climate change? The IMF has estimated that climate change costs about 7% of global GDP — but that’s just subsidies for undercharging for carbon (if that makes your head spin, don’t worry about it.) That doesn’t factor in the damage caused by climate change — megafires, megafloods, mega-hurricanes, and so forth. It doesn’t even factor in, for example, the global microchip shortage, that was essentially caused by climate change.
So how much is that? Easily twice as much again — so now we’re at another 15% of global GDP. And even that’s sure to be a significant underestimate. We don’t know how much climate change is really going to cost us — all we know is that the costs are going to be singular in human history. The costs are going to be so great at some point they can never be repaid at all — do you know how to make the Arctic ice freeze again, how to make a rainforest? I didn’t think so. So doubling that estimate of climate change’s costs is far too conservative. I’d put the truer number at closer to 25% of the world’s GDP. But we can put it on a spectrum from 15% to 25%, because even that conservative math makes the point frighteningly clear.
In a world of Covid plus climate change, we’re already close to hitting Omega. Covid costs us 10 percent of the world’s GDP, and climate change another 15% to 25%. That’s 25% to 35% of global GDP — just on these two threats alone. Omega’s hit somewhere near fifty percent, remember. That means that we are more than halfway to hitting Omega, right now. That we are almost sure to hit it by the end of the decade or so.
We haven’t even factored in the biggies yet: mass extinction and ecological collapse. We are used to living in an alienated, hyper-technological, disconnected way. But the truth is that the basics of our lives come from…the earth. The insects and worms turn the soil in which we harvest our crops and medicines. The fish clean the rivers which supply our reservoirs. The trees, like the ones in my park, breath out the air we breathe in. The earth’s great ecosystems are reaching tipping points, because industrialisation and its predatory economics rips their roots out at the bottoms, killing off the most vulnerable things: little insects, fish, young saplings. Where and when they’re “replaced,” monocultures are made, which are no substitute for natural ecosystems and their complexity and productivity.
As the planet’s great ecologies collapse, our civilisations basic systems will fail. The most basic of all. Air, water, food, medicine, energy. The ones we have long taken for granted. And that’s when the fireworks will really begin. Life will become a bitter, brutal battle for self-preservation. Neighbour will turn on neighbour, and friend on friend — not just at local scales, but at national and then international ones. What will you do when the food, water, medicine, and air begin to run out? Well, the first thing you’ll do — have to do — is pay through the nose for what’s left. And the ensuing despair, poverty, and rage will kickstart a new wave of fascist-authoritarian movements globally.
If you think all that’s some distant fantasy, take a hard look at how long it took America to collapse. The middle class became a minority in 2010, and by 2016, Trump was made President, by an enraged, downwardly mobile white majority. That is how fast a society comes apart — even the richest one in the world. And in that way American collapse is a tiny warning of what awaits the world in an age of civilizational collapse. People turn ugly and stupid as they fight for self-preservation. Politics turns fascist. Economies go south. And a sense of indifference takes over. Because life becomes a bitter struggle for each isolated, disconnected individual. If you’re living, like the average American, a life of unpayable debt, facing an impossible challenge till the day you die — what emotional or economic room do you have to care about anyone else? You don’t. Bang. That’s how societies collapse: poverty.
So how much will ecological collapse and mass extinction cost us?Physicists have a point called a singularity — where all the laws of physics break down. This is an economic singularity. Nobody knows, and in a sense, it doesn’t matter, because the question makes no sense. How much does it “cost” to live on a planet where the air isn’t breathable, the water isn’t potable, and the food isn’t edible? Where life itself is poisonous? The question itself is absurd. The only good way to frame it is the opposite: it costs so much that nobody really realises their potential. People live short, dull, stupid, angry, desperate, lives, where they get sick, die young, and nobody much cares about anyone else. That’s what it costs. Attempting to quantify all that is an exercise in futility — all that we can say is that the cost is civilisation itself.
Still, for the sake of argument, let’s say, conservatively, again, that ecological collapse and mass extinction cost us another 25% of global GDP. They do so by causing widespread shortages of the basics. You used to be able to go the store, and buy anything you liked — now getting good water and fresh food is a daily challenge, which often goes unmet. Then there are the pandemics, which seem to erupt every five years or so. There’s the shortage of life-saving medicines, which cost a society huge numbers of life-years. There are the costs of migrations — people simply abandon those places which have become deserts, as the topsoil eroded away. Fire Belts, Flood Belts, Plague Belts — all these are the vocabulary people speak now, and the price of being poor is living in one. If you have the money, you flee, at all costs.
As a result, financial systems begin to break down. Who’s going to insure a Fire Belt, Flood Belt, Plague Belt?Those who did go broke — bang! There goes a whole asking sector and insurance industry. Who’s going to write a mortgage against a home that’s going to be incinerated or flooded — or already is, every year? Who’s going to insure a life whose expectancy is declining due to a new pandemic every few years? As financial crashes follow ecological ones, as natural disasters metastasise into economic catastrophes, whole economies begin to seize up. Banks don’t lend, businesses shutter their doors, mass long-term unemployment is the new normal. Getting money out of the bank is an iffy affair. Paying your bills — who knows if you’ll do it this month.
All that? Easily another 25% of global GDP.
And that puts well past the Omega Point. 20% Covid. 15 to 25% climate change. 25% ecological collapse — in truth, the number will be much higher. Still, all that is enough to put our civilisation past the point of no return. Add those up, and you get somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of GDP as the costs of our existential challenges. Bang. That’s too much. We can’t pay it. We can’t afford it. It makes us broke. And growing, poverty produces across our civilisation what it always does in societies: despair, rage, hostility, cruelty, stupidity, violence, fascism.
Omega. Game Over. The point at which the costs of our existential threats exceed our civilisations economic resources. When that point is hit, there is no turning back. Collapse is inevitable. We are, in my estimation, somewhere between 10 to 15 years away from hitting Omega.
Those are words that are frightening for me to write. They take my breath away. I’m not often wrong on issues of economics — I predicted everything from the crash of ’08 to the wave of authoritarianism sweeping the globe to American collapse. That’s not to toot my own horn. It’s to warn you.
The problem of imminent civilizational collapse is not being taken nearly seriously enough. How do we fix it? We invest, right now, like never before.
While we still have the money, energy, time, While we still have the resources to address our existential problems. Before they swamp us, flood us, incinerate us, spin out of control. Take Covid as an example. It was better to swallow a bitter pill, like New Zealand and Taiwan and Vietnam did, and lock down swiftly and hard — they have, by and large, bounced back. Those that didn’t swallow the bitter pill, like America, Britain, and Europe, are now paying a price without end — a pandemic that has spiralled out of control and won’t go away.
The lesson couldn’t be clearer. We have to get serious about our existential threats now, before they spin out of control.The closer that we come to Omega, the uglier life will get. The poorer we will grow as a civilization, and the uglier, stupider, more violent life will get — and the more powerless we will be to change it all. Just like it has in America.
I’ve estimated it will cost about $20 trillion to begin really addressing all these problems — a quarter of global GDP.
That’s the scale at which we’re talking right now. Do you hear anyone — a single prime minister, politician, leader, CEO, talking at those scales?
I didn’t think so. And that, my friend, is the problem. We are about to be engulfed by our existential threats, and it is already hitting us faster, harder, and more severely than anyone much thought. Civilizational collapse is now the theme that will dominate the rest of our adult lives. Covid is a warning. This is the dawn of the age of collapse.