Saturday, August 10, 2013

Crime in a World of Declining Resources

As humanity plunges ever more deeply into the age of declining resources, what will be the future of crime? The particular problem of which I am thinking might be called, more specifically, "future violence," since other acts that are now deemed criminal may seem trivial in later days. And where, if anywhere, is the ignition point for violence?

Accounts of the nineteenth-century Irish potato famine, an earlier example of "resource decline," include little reference to violence (Woodham-Smith, 1962). But it was the "peace" established by the presence of the English army, as grain was being shipped out of Ireland, that made possible the "peaceful" starvation of millions of Irish. On the other hand, an Internet article written after the economic collapse of Argentina in 2001 includes many references such as the following:

By far, the most dangerous moment of the day, is when I (or my wife) leave/enter my house. A solid, secure house cannot be broken in easily, so criminals wait until you are standing on front of the door with the keys on your hand to jump on you. This is why we are extra alert when approaching our house, look all around us and if we see anything strange, keep walking around the block or keep on driving. No door is ever opened when there is a strange person around. (Fernando, 2005, October 21)

One reason why violence is unlikely to end is that it can be one of life's greatest pleasures. In "The Coming Anarchy" (1994, February), Kaplan refers us to an exclamation in André Malraux's Man's Fate: "Oh, what a relief to fight, to fight enemies who defend themselves, enemies who are awake!" Kaplan then quotes from Martin van Creveld's Transformation of War:

Just as it makes no sense to ask "why people eat" or "what they sleep for," so fighting in many ways is not a means but an end. Throughout history, for every person who has expressed his horror of war there is another who found in it the most marvelous of all the experiences that are vouchsafed to man, even to the point that he later spent a lifetime boring his descendants by recounting his exploits. (Kaplan, 1994, February)

An anonymous American police officer, in an essay entitled "The Thin Blue Line," offers a somewhat parallel comment about human nature:

There is one general rule to remember about all of humanity: it is at the core of our sinful nature to do that which is best for ourselves, regardless of what effect that may have on other people. We are a murderous and self seeking race. . . . So we must prepare ourselves spiritually and physically, with the assumption that we will soon be facing unimaginable evil, and it will be in the form of a human face. (Deputy W., 2009, January 9)

One might imagine that violent behavior is ultimately self-defeating, especially in cases where a strong government has the opportunity to referee disputes. However, if we live in an age in which so much else has reached a peak and begun to decline, the same may be true of what Green et al. refer to as "civil society." While the decline in world oil supplies seems to belong to the early twenty-first century, the rise in criminal behavior seems to go back a few decades. In the foreword to Green's Crime and Civil Society, Judge Alan Taylor says, with reference to the UK:

There is widespread public concern about the high level of crime in this country. Although the statistics fluctuate a little year on year, the picture is clear: over the past two generations crime has increased enormously. A great deal of crime goes unrecorded, and much of the crime that is reported to the police is not adjudicated upon by our criminal courts. (Green, D. G., Grove, E., & Martin, N. A., 2005)

There has also been a transformation on a much larger scale over the last few years. Kaplan emphasizes that "crime and war become indistinguishable" (1994, February). He also tells us that war is no longer between state and state, but closer to the medieval world in which the state as such did not exist. He quotes from Van Creveld's description of this ancient world:

In all these struggles political, social, economic, and religious motives were hopelessly entangled. Since this was an age when armies consisted of mercenaries, all were also attended by swarms of military entrepreneurs. . . . Many of them paid little but lip service to the organizations for whom they had contracted to fight. Instead, they robbed the countryside on their own behalf. . . .

Given such conditions, any fine distinctions . . . between armies on the one hand and peoples on the other were bound to break down. Engulfed by war, civilians suffered terrible atrocities. (Kaplan,1994, February)

Toward the end of his essay, Kaplan claims that "future wars will be those of communal survival, aggravated or, in many cases, caused by environmental scarcity. These wars will be subnational, meaning that it will be hard for states and local governments to protect their own citizens physically."

But how do we define the present-day "failed state" of which Kaplan and others often speak? Kaplan later incorporated his essay into an entire book called The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia -- A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy (Kaplan, 1994, February). His area of concern is enormous, stretching out over more than a quarter of the circumference of the Earth.

The US itself is characterized by vanishing natural resources, high unemployment, severe income inequity, colossal private and public debt, and unrestrained warmongering. American government at all levels does not even bother hiding its corruption, its unrepentant dishonesty, its conflicts of interest, and the slick salesmanship of the electoral process. The general populace, meanwhile, is stunned into apathy and silent obedience. Is that or is that not a description of a failed state?

Several accounts in the US and the UK indicate that long-term crime figures are understated in government reports, no doubt to make the politicians look as if they were doing their jobs. Even in particular events such as natural disasters, the extent of crime seems to be misreported in the press. A witness to Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 says:

Law enforcement problems will often be "glossed over" and/or ignored by authorities. In many cities housing evacuees, there have been private reports of a significant increase in crime caused by their presence but you'll find that virtually all law enforcement authorities publicly deny this and/or gloss over it as a "temporary problem". . . . All the LEO's (law-enforcement officers) I speak with, without exception, tell me of greatly increased crime, including rape, assault, robbery, shoplifting, vandalism, gang activity, etc. However, you won't see these reports in the news media, and will often see senior LE figures actively denying it. The officers with whom I speak are angry and bitter about this, but they daren't "go public", as their jobs would be on the line if they did so. They tell me that often they're instructed not to report certain categories of "incident" at all, so as not to "skew" or "inflate" the "official" crime figures. (Anonymous, n.d.)

While Green is no doubt correct to say that strong policing is significant in crime control, there has always been a good deal of documentation to indicate that crime is also strongly correlated with economic inequality -- not with the average income within a particular society, but with the difference in income between those at the top and those at the bottom (Daly, W., & Vasdev, S., 2001, April; Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K., 2009). The UK and the US are perfect examples of such a problematic situation. It seems that high crime rates are, in particular, a reflection of the perceived injustice of income disparity. "When rewards are inequitably distributed and those at the bottom of the resource distribution feel they have little to lose by engaging in reckless or dangerous behaviour, escalated tactics of social competition, including violent tactics, become attractive." (Daly et al., 2001, April)

No doubt the police will be overburdened in the coming decades, in view of the fact that the police force is not even large enough to accommodate the present levels of crime. In a condition of true social collapse, there will be greater opportunities for crime, while conversely the police force will be unable to increase in numbers, mainly because the money to do so will be unavailable. The author of "The Thin Blue Line" offers a view of the future:

Proceed with me through the following scenario. A major economic collapse occurs. Millions are unemployed and have no way to earn honest money. The rest of the citizenry is crippled by inflation. Through various economic events, the entire economy grinds to a halt. Trucks and trains stop moving, which means that coal is not delivered to power plants, and food is not delivered to stores.

Things quickly grow desperate. The average family realizes all too late that they have only a few days worth of food in their cupboard, with no available means to acquire more. . . . Hungry people with weapons will have no reservation about doing unspeakable evil on others if it means their own family will survive a little longer. . . .

Here's where it gets really scary, and the vulnerability of the thin blue line becomes apparent. At most, the agencies in my area could muster about 50 officers. . . . It would be impossible to maintain order with this ratio. We would be lucky to be able to hold a few buildings, let alone provide law enforcement service to 1,000 square miles of rural area. . . .

If law enforcement agencies can't answer calls in a timely manner during normal times, how could a reasonable person expect law enforcement to be there during a societal collapse? (Deputy W., 2009, January 9)

The firsthand observer of the Hurricane Katrina disaster has little positive to say about any authorities who became involved in that event:

The idea of a "team" of friends with (or to) whom to bug out, survive, etc. is looking better and better. Some of the team could take on the task of keeping a home maintained (even a camp-type facility), looking after kids, providing base security, etc. Others could be foraging for supplies, trading, etc. . . .

People who were prepared were frequently mobbed/threatened by those who weren't. . . . There were many incidents of aggression, attempted assault, and theft of their supplies. . . .

When help gets there, you may get it whether you like it or not. There are numerous reports of aggressive, overbearing behavior by those rescuers who first arrived at disaster scenes. It's perhaps best described as "I'm here to rescue you -- I'm in charge -- do as I say -- if you don't I'll shoot you.". . .

I'm more and more convinced that in the event of a disaster, I must rely on myself, and a few friends, and never count on Government or relief organizations for the help I'll need. (Anonymous, n.d.)

Crime-fighting will be further complicated by the ambiguity of the "bad guys." Powerful weapons are not of much use when it is not even clear at whom one should be shooting, and this enigma has been around for decades. American soldiers in Vietnam were often plagued by not knowing who constituted the enemy. An Iraqi friend of mine tells me that the lengthy fighting in his country is mainly "street fighting," block by block. Certainly the modern trend in combat is toward urban warfare.

Because of this great mixture of uncertainties, as society crumbles the average person will be less able to turn to the police for protection against the aforementioned "greatly increased crime, including rape, assault, robbery, shoplifting, vandalism, gang activity, etc." Blind faith in perpetual peace and good-neighborliness might not be the best way of preparing oneself for a world that no longer has "liberty and justice for all."

The moral and political structure of western society, like its economy, has become hollowed out. When it is far too late, we may realize how much we have lost. Westerners often ridicule their own inherited political ideals, but they may be suffering from a misunderstanding of the difference between those ideals and the present conditions. Democracy, equal rights, civil liberty, the "rule of law," and so on, cannot be explained clearly in less than a few hundred pages. The people who disparage those ideals are generally those who have enjoyed living in that world since the day they were born, and they are unaware of the reality of life under other regimes except as temporary vacationers at an American-owned hotel.

If my comments about western ideals sound rather conservative, I should add that I have no sympathy for the thieves and liars who make up the present governments of the western world. In so many western countries, the distinction between democracy and demagogy has utterly vanished, and perhaps we should not laugh at Edward Gibbon and the eighteenth-century belief that it is moral decay that causes the collapse of empires. If I compare the visible with the ideal, it is only because I admire the tradition that stretches from Magna Carta to the American Constitution. Without good government, we have a problem.


Anonymous. (n.d.). Thoughts on disaster survival. Retrieved from

Daly, W., & Vasdev, S. (2001, April). Income inequality and homicide rates in Canada and the United States. Canadian Journal of Criminology.

Deputy W. The thin blue line. (2009, January). Retrieved from

Fernando, an Argentine Architect. (2005, October 29). Thoughts on urban survival (post-collapse life in Argentina). Retrieved from

Green, D. G., Grove, E., & Martin, N. A. (2005). Crime and civil society: Can we become a more law-abiding people? London: Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society. Retrieved from

Kaplan, Robert D. (1994, February). The coming anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from

-----. (2001) The ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia ― A journey to the frontiers of anarchy. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith Publisher.

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. Toronto: Penguin.

Woodham-Smith, Cecil. (1962). The great hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)