If you were tracking the decline, what (few) numbers would you track?
Let's assume Chris et al are right, and humanity is going down in some fashion. Which would be the top-few (say, 10, but not hundreds) numbers you'd be tracking to see how far in we are? To, say, distinguish between when it's time to panic, and when to really panic? 🙂
Global hunger / malnutrition might be one of them: it seems to aggregate a lot of information about wealth, farming, ability to mitigate etc.
Maybe an energy-returned-on-energy-invested weighted average across actual used energy sources?
TL;DR summary – There are no magic numbers, but unemployment, GDP, levels of hunger/availability of basic food staples, inflation, citizen “confidence” in government, gap between wealthy and average person, levels of corruption…
Well, from the perspective of history you’d need to track the things that have traditionally preceded decline, collapse, revolution, etc. Broadly speaking, some of the factors which seem to exist in most cases are:
1) Economic decline – loss of productive capacity, declining value in currency units, stagnating wages and/or loss of jobs (whether that’s Roman free citizens losing their farms or steel workers losing their job at the factory). So, you’d want to track those things as much as possible.
2) Social inequity- A widening gap between those at the top of the hierarchy and most of the rest of society, as seen by wealth differences as well as the ways in which justice is applied to the two; those at the top enjoy near-immunity to the same laws and punishments which are directed at the mass of people. This wealth and justice gap often causes citizens to lose faith in their systems of government, and, when coupled with #4 below, can lead to violent revolt by the “peasant hordes” so to speak. How widespread and deep such revolt will be greatly depends on how many ‘peasants’ are suffering.
3) Corruption and inefficacy of the governmental system. Regardless of the actual type of governing structure, once corruption seeps in – bribery, usually – it’s only a matter of time before it loses its effectiveness, and begins to serve the interests only of the wealthy, powerful, and elite. This is both connected with, feeds, and is fed by #2.
4) Hunger- This is the big one, because as I always point out in my history classes, revolutions start in neither the head or the heart, but rather the stomach. While ideals and social dislocations may anger the people, hunger and famine among the larger segment of society cause them to act.
5) Loyalty, or lack thereof – A decline in the average person’s loyalty to, and therefore willingness to support, fight for, or in any way participate in the requests or requirements their society and government place on them. Once the people have lost all faith in the “system” to deliver even the basic daily requirements of life, they will turn to any system/power/lifestyle that will at the first opportunity. This is usually the moment when “invaders” bring down a civilization or nation, because it is inherently difficult to oppress or hold down a highly motivated and loyal populace that opposes an invader.
6) “Civilizational myopia”- this one isn’t in any history book I know of, but I’m adding it because I’ve noticed that civilizations/societies in decline seem to latch on to, or focus solely on, something. Some societies become hedonistic to the point of insanity; others focus almost exclusively on religious matters past the point of zealotry; some still on “games” or entertainment; still others focus on the military or military power. Basically, when a society loses the ability to maintain a balance between all the aspects necessary to “run” a healthy civilization, they have lost sight of what’s really important.
7) Nature – not only does she bat last, but she has a .700 batting average against both righties and lefties, and her On Base Percentage is insane. Almost every collapse/decline/revolution has nature throwing in a huge curveball somewhere. See: freezing of Siberian plateau, harshest winter in a century in France in the winter of 1788-89, shifting rain patterns in the North American southwest, etc. Healthy societies can weather the storms (see what I did there?), while tottering, weak, or declining societies can not.
There are other commonalities, and I’ve already gone way over the word count I had originally intended, but in essence you’d track things like unemployment, GDP, levels of hunger/availability of basic food staples, inflation, citizen “confidence” in government, gap between wealthy and average person, levels of corruption, etc. Of course, the trouble there is that you’d have to have accurate data (don’t trust government sources unless they are 100% transparent), which is why “Fuzzy Numbers” is required viewing in my Econ class.
There are no magic numbers or specific target levels that will tell you when shit is going to hit the fan, though. You have to look at all the factors and make a judgment call for yourself. The “Limits to Growth” study has some good ideas in it, though, so far as it pertains to modern society.