For decades, individual geologists, biologists, and others had warned of the unforgiving math of production versus demand in over a dozen critical resources. Branded as alarmists or apocalyptics, their words were largely ignored, or at best considered suitable material for consideration only by academics.
By 2035, it was impossible for even the foolish or the stubborn to ignore the savage reality of what would come to be called "The Great Contraction".
Critical rare earth minerals, indium, antimony, cobalt, and other resources integral to the basic functioning of the technological economy became increasingly expensive to acquire, but the relative inconvenience of these was nothing compared to the cardinal problem of demand outstripping supply in those most critical of all resources - arable topsoil, phosphorous for fertilizer, petroleum, and fresh water.
The result did not come overnight or quickly, but the devastation it eventually left in its wake would paint even the infamous Black Death as a mere footnote. The result came in billions dead; by war, by plague - but most of all by the cold hand of famine.
The formal beginning of The Great Contraction was later set as 2045 C.E., the first year of the modern era where the total human population fell rather than rose. The ending came sixty-one long years later when that trend finally reversed.
The collapse did not begin overnight. First came a period of tightening resources, of falling incomes and consolidation of wealth at the top. Humans have always been resourceful, and technological prowess and adaptation held the The Great Contraction at bay for the early decades of the 21st century.
Vast efforts to shift energy production to renewable sources attempted to stem the tide, but in the end there were simply too many people who had become addicted to a fiction of eternally expanding economic wealth. Renewable sources were, to be sure, theoretically viable - but not for 8 billion people and an environment in the throes of a mass extinction event and increasingly stressed by radical climate change.
National governments responded firmly and with a heavy hand. Security forces and police attempted to maintain order, but coming hand-in-hand with increased rationing of basic necessities, the population was in no mood to cooperate. Riots turned into insurrections, some brutally suppressed, some overthrowing their governments, the victors only to be faced with the exact problems that had defeated their predecessors.
Water wars erupted from the American Southwest to Turkey and Africa, from the Middle East to India and western China and Australia. As national governments inevitably became hopelessly overextended, local government became more important, more relevant, and more immediate to the populace. National boundaries remained intact in theory often for years past when they had in particular cases ceased to be genuine.
To be sure, not every government did fall, but those who did not fall contracted in upon themselves, regrouped and reorganized.
In the Americas, the effective area of the United States contracted to an area east of the Rocky Mountains, increasingly cooperating with allies both in Canada and the Caribbean. The European Union collapsed, although decades later it would eventually be resurrected in the form of the powerful Union. The Russian Federation and China first fought internal forces to keep from disintegrating into chaos, then turned on each other in a desperate struggle for that great reserve of resources in the remote Siberia.
By 2106, the global population crash had at last stabilized. Where in 2045 the population had stood at some 8 billion human beings, in 2106 that number stood at slightly over 1 billion. Only one nation in four that had existed in 2045 still stood in any recognizable form in 2106, and by the end of the 22nd century that number would fall even further as the surviving nations banded together for survival against the inevitable predation by other, strong nations. Many of these new polities would not survive long, but by 2250 all but one of the modern national powers of Earth had become recognized superpowers in a multipolar world.
From the early decades of the 2100s a renewed drive to colonize the solar system emerged. Partially this was a psychological reaction against never again wanting all of humanity at the mercy of any single event, but more this was simply the result of a recognition that even with the staggering reduction in global population, if humanity were not to slip back into a new dark age it would need to gain access to new resources, resources that could only be found off-planet.
Union, State, and the Oceanic League began this push into space, but by the end of the century they had been joined by the Eastern Federation and India, the latter of which would later become the nucleus of the Southern Bloc in the 23rd century.
The crisis passed, and populations slowly recovered, but the psychological scars of The Great Contraction ran deep and linger even to the modern day. The sobering reality of how close humanity had come to extinguishing itself became a defining drive to finish what it had so falteringly started but never finished in the 1960s of the C.E.
Detail of watercolor painting "The Apocalypse" by Albert Goodwin in 1903.