Now that we've established the current set of conditions in Anytown, USA, it's time for us to predict what the future conditions will look like assuming no significant alteration in the current trajectory. Fortunately for us, we've already done the bulk of the most difficult work in the World Planning Series, where we questioned common knowledge about the possibility of infinite growth on our finite planet.
The reader should keep in mind that this post explores baseline conditions predicated on continuation of existing policies. In a future post, we will extract key lessons from these forecasts and use them to develop alternative courses of action, which we will then evaluate for feasibility and likelihood of meeting our stated objectives.
To begin this conversation, we should first review the way local planning agencies do these projections today so we can determine how we might proceed differently.
The Standard Process Today
We will assume that the reader has been following these posts sequentially, and is already familiar with the general outline of how planning projections are done as described in the World Planning Series. As a refresher: the basic concept is to review past data, determine trends, and project these trends into the future to estimate conditions at a predetermined date. The mechanics of the projection will vary depending on the data we're working with and the sophistication of the tools available.
In local government planning, we typically choose a "planning horizon", or the date we're trying to plan around, that is between 20 and 25 years out. It's not that we don't care about other timeframes, it's just that this gives us a middle ground that is close enough to feel comfortable with but far enough in the future to actually impact outcomes via gradual change. For our purposes, we will use 2040 as a nice round number for our planning horizon.
Normally, we would turn to our state demographers office as a first step of estimating future trends in population. These offices create detailed projections of statewide population and then use statistical models to distribute that future growth to individual counties and towns. From these numbers, we would see that Anytown is expected to grow by more than 50% by the time our planning horizon arrives, adding 100,000-150,000 people.
Now that we know the future population, we will use sophisticated modeling tools to predict what this means for the development pattern of the community. A land use modeling package will use the population numbers, existing land use patterns, and the future land use map and zoning map as inputs. The software applies algorithms that approximate the behavior patterns of growth and estimates where, at what time, and of what type development will occur.
The output of this model then becomes the input to our transportation model, which maps out all of the streets in Anytown. Based on the projected locations of land uses in our future year, "trips" are dumped onto the network and a different set of algorithms that approximates the behavior of travel determines how much traffic there is and where it goes. Depending on how sophisticated our process is, we may have several iterations between the land use and transportation model, where the output of the transportation system helps drive the development of land uses and then vice versa.
This process paints us a picture of Anytown in 2040 that looks mostly like it does today, only with 50% more people, 50% more cars, 50% more traffic, pollution, etc. If the future proceeds just like the past, this is what we get.
But as the reader knows by now, we cannot count on a future that looks anything like the past or present. Let us proceed with our own projection, based on what we know about the likely direction of world events.
Near Term Projection: The Next 5 to 10 Years Or So
What we know about the macro situation unfolding will have a substantial impact on our local projections. We already know that the global economy, fueled by cheap energy that is becoming unaffordable to those who need it, is teetering on the brink of another meltdown. All indications are that there will be some kind of major financial "situation" comparable to 2008-2009 within the next few years. Because governments and central banks have already spent most of their ammunition (NIRP/ZIRP, QE, fiscal stimulus, bailouts, monetization of debt, etc.), we would expect that this leg down will be much more severe and will have little or no chance of substantial recovery.
But right now in Anytown, life is good. The economy is whirring along and everyone is fascinated by the stock markets rocketing ever higher. Real estate is still booming, construction is rolling right along. It will be a complete surprise to most when things rapidly fall apart.
At some point during the next few years there will be a massive shock and panic from the local credit union, to City Hall, to the Chamber of Commerce and into each and every home. The business leaders, finance people, and government officials who have been reveling in the comparative boom time we're experiencing will wake up one day to find frantic bank executives on CNN, congressional hearings, presidential press conferences. As the stock market plummets, financial institutions become illiquid. Credit that used to flow into Anytown to fuel growth and consumption grinds to a halt.
Many businesses in Anytown, even successful ones, are heavily dependent on consistent cash flow. As credit freezes, some businesses will begin having trouble meeting obligations in the very first month. Within a few months, it will simply be unreasonable for them to continue operations while they lose money they don't have. This will be particularly true for the smaller local companies that don't have the support of a larger corporate network to keep things afloat. Pink slips start flying, as jobs are cut across all industries in a desperate attempt to stem the bleeding.
At this point, the people in Anytown are beginning to panic: especially those impacted by the wave of layoffs. Social media rumors and hysteria drive runs on banks and stores as people try to hoard cash and goods. In some instances, the crowds cast aside the idea of "buying" things entirely and devolve into episodes of looting. Like the businesses, the people in Anytown are largely living paycheck to paycheck. The lucky ones are able to withdraw what little cash they have from the local banks, but there will likely be cash shortages and limitations on withdrawals. For many, their savings are really only enough for a month or two, assuming they can get access to it.
What this means for the governance of Anytown is break from the expected normal way of doing things into management of the crisis of the day. While the local economy limps along for a few short years after the initial shock, critical services become strained under the weight of high demand and dwindling resources to meet that demand. More people seek government services at the same time that tax revenue falls and layoffs are required. Maintenance of infrastructure is deferred, non-essential services are cut, and the problems of homelessness and social strife become highly visible. In the beginning, many people continue to go to work and try to behave as they normally would; but as time progresses fewer organizations have resources to provide goods or services or to pay employees. One by one, businesses, nonprofits, and finally government agencies simply shut their doors because there is nothing left to do, and no money left to spend. We would expect that the critical utility infrastructure underlying the normal function of Anytown is kept operating at any cost- whether this is by the local government or through intervention by state or federal authorities. At least for the time being, electricity, water, and sewage keep flowing.
This phase ends with a basic collapse of economic activity, where it is no longer possible to go to the bank and get money, or buy things in stores. Paying bills becomes an anachronism. All vestiges of the economy, all transactions, are now occurring in an informal way outside of traditional supply chains, which have ground to a halt. This marks the transition to the next stage in Anytown's future.
Mid Term Projection: Sometime in the 2020s
As the financial and economic systems underlying society continue to erode, things in Anytown will reach a critical point where the problems are no longer about money, but about the very cohesiveness of civil society. For some period of time, people will band together and support the central institutions of government such as city leaders, police officers, emergency managers, and locally stationed units of state and federal government. However, as time progresses and it becomes clear that no help is coming from the outside, internal power conflicts will grow in intensity.
The basic rules of civilization, ie the ten commandments (about not killing, stealing, coveting, and all the rest), will progressively deteriorate as survival of individuals and families becomes uncertain. Likely sources of violence during this period will be disagreements about distribution of resources. Existing channels of power will attempt to keep control of that distribution to themselves, while increasingly desperate population groups will necessarily see that seizing control of that process provides the best chances of survival. It is likely that the first new social divisions will be based on racial and ethnic identity: it seems natural that the black community will band together around a shared race and heritage. Likewise with Hispanic and Asian communities. Within the majority white community in Anytown, divisions will most likely occur along class and perhaps political lines. Even within these default groups of similar backgrounds, divisions quickly develop as intra-group struggles for power and resources trump even clan identity. Police forces may become divided between those who support the existing local power structure and those who choose to focus on what is best for their own particular race/class/clan interest.
Population is now falling rather than rising, as very few births take place, migration is sporadic, and death from violence and disease is rapidly on the rise. Residential areas of town become half fortification, half ghost town as surviving residents barricade themselves in and attempt to maintain control over their belongings. Commercial areas are looted and burned, serving no real purpose other than as battlegrounds in the increasingly violent efforts to secure territory. Neighborhood groups erect makeshift fences and walls to keep out intruders, set up sentries and guard details. With gasoline and diesel fuel no longer being delivered and distributed in the community, most travel takes place by foot or by bicycle. Particularly successful (and probably ruthless) gangs will secure the last local fuel depots at abandoned gas stations, commercial and industrial facilities, and fleet yards. Access to even limited motorized travel will only increase these groups ability to dominate other less fortunate groups and confiscate their resources.
It is during this stage that the utility infrastructure that makes modern civilization possible finally stops functioning. As Anytown's society devolves into small groups fighting among one another, the blue and white collar workers who carry out the daily tasks to keep this infrastructure functioning stop going to work. There are no longer paychecks to incentivize them, nor are there supply chains to provide resources to do the job. There may be some period of time where central/federal military government attempts to operate core facilities like water and sewage treatment plants, hospitals, and electric distribution systems, but the demands of attempting this undertaking nationally will not be sustainable. Finally, Anytown's fresh water stops flowing, the electricity goes off, sewage is no longer treated, and the last semblance of traditional governance disappears. From here, Anytown progresses to it's final stage.
Long Term Projection: 2030 and Beyond
As national and state power structures dissolve, life in Anytown becomes about day-to-day survival rather than any expectation of a return to normalcy. No central government with any power or authority remains. Governance now takes the form of clan or gang affiliation, where groups of people attempt to control geographically defensible areas. These might be individual neighborhoods or areas of town, or there may be a loose association of relationships between clans interacting at a city-wide level. Population has fallen precipitously as disease, violence, starvation, and exposure take many more lives than are replaced by births. Older people, people dependent on medical care and technology, and the disabled quickly perish as the last stores of medical supplies and resources are exhausted. Without access to clean water, sanitation, and nutritious foods, disease is rampant and once established often fatal due to lack of antibiotics. Infections once again become a likely death sentence.
Buildings all over town are damaged and decaying from small-scale warfare and neglect. Repairing and maintaining buildings and infrastructure are low on the list of people's priorities, as they struggle day to day to survive. Every building in town is picked over for anything that can be helpful to survival; open landfills created during the 2020's collapse period become resources for materials to build shelters, weapons, clothing, and tools.
By the time our planning horizon of 2040 arrives, Anytown will be unrecognizable from today's perspective. Roadways left unmaintained have cracked open and deteriorated to gravel. Climate change has tipped the weather into chaos, so that many native species of plants have died. In their place, only the heartiest and most invasive species survive- attempting to swallow up disturbed and open ground. If there are human survivors, they number no more than 10,000-20,000, about a 90% drop in population over the course of 20 years. These wild creatures scavenge the desolate landscape, feeding off the remains of what was once civilization, growing whatever food they can, hunting the last remaining animals roaming the ruins (perhaps colonies of feral cats and dogs). It would be unsurprising if cannibalism becomes a common occurrence, as remaining humans (citizens of Anytown) seek any possible way to meet their nutritional needs. As the climate gets hotter, and food more scarce, more and more survivors abandon the town and set off to the north in a desperate effort to find more hospitable environments. Anytown ceases to have an identity as a place of permanent habitation, becoming one more stop-off point on a mass migration of nomads in search of life-supporting ecosystem.
In this post we have taken what we know about future global events, and applied them to the local conditions of Anytown. It it clear that there are substantial risks and extremely negative outcomes that are likely. Our task is now to identify potential alternatives that the citizens of Anytown might engage to mitigate some of the worst of these outcomes, adapt to changes that are inevitable, and build as much resilience as possible.
In the next post, we will assemble a list of possible alternatives.
How to Read This Blog
HOW TO READ THIS BLOG:
To get the most out of this blog, I recommend beginning with the earliest post and proceeding in chronological order. For the most part this blog, like a planning document, builds on data and rationale in a linear manner. You may find value in individual posts taken in isolation, but I suspect your experience will be richer if you follow the intended progression.