Collapse Step-by-Step, Part 1: Unevenly, Unsteadily and Unequally

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Published on The Doomstead Diner June1, 2017

My Front Yard Garden in Kincardine, Ontario, Canada — May 23, 2017
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Some months ago I promised to finally get around to writing a set of posts dealing with the specific nature of the collapse that lies ahead of us, and how we might best cope with it. In the meantime I had a few things to cover to lay the foundation for such a discussion. Well, I have finished that foundation, and the time has finally come for a closer look at collapse.

Out there in the real world, it's gardening time and I've just finished getting the majority of my gardens planted. Beans and squash will have to wait until it warms up just a little more. But now I have more time to work on this blog.

I've just finished a series of four posts ( 1, 2, 3, 4 ) on threats to mankind's continued existence which brought me to the conclusion that there is around one chance in five that we'll be extinct by the end of this century, and almost a certainty that we'll experience at least some degree of societal collapse during that time period.

So I think my readers could be forgiven for getting the impression that I am expecting some sort of apocalypse. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The collapse I am expecting is of the slow, bumpy and "yucky" variety. I've talked about this before, but always briefly, trying to squeeze a lot of information into a few sentences. It's a topic that I think deserves to be looked at in more detail.

I was listening to one of KMO's C-Realm Vault podcasts (#247) the other day and he gave a very clear exposition of what I also happen to think about mankind's future. So full credit to KMO for putting the seeds of the next couple of paragraphs in my mind. How they grew once they got there is entirely my responsibility. And by the way, do consider subscribing to the C-Realm Vault, those podcasts are definitely worth the price of admission.

I think it likely (80%) that we will avoid extinction during this century. Eventually of course, like almost all species, our days will come to an end. But that's most likely some hundreds of thousands of years away.

I do expect we will see a significant drop in our population during this century. Also a big decline in the amount of energy we use on a per capital basis, and along with that the level of organization and technology we have at our finger tips will be reduced considerably. That's what I mean when I'm talking about collapse.

But I have to admit that the idea of apocalypse has quite an attraction. If you're a romantic kind of day dreamer (or a writer of apocalyptic science fiction), a quick and dramatic end of civilization does have a certain appeal. You can easily imagine you and your loved ones facing the challenges of survival, in a world from which have been removed all the irritating elements of modern life. You no longer have a job, you don't have to go to work and many other irritating demands on your time have disappeared. You can concentrate on what's important and the situation makes it pretty clear what that is. Further, your debts have been wiped out and along with them all those monthly bills.

If you've been anticipating something like this, perhaps you've even been developing useful skills and squirreling away just the sort of tools and supplies you need to get you through the rough parts. You might even end up being the hero of the piece. And in this sort of day dream it's easy to gloss over the unpleasant (indeed horrific) aspects of such a situation.

In contrast, I think my version of collapse is already nicely underway. Reality is already quite "yucky" for a great many people and can be expected to get worse as collapse continues and picks up momentum. The irritating parts of modern life seem to be getting worse and can be expected to continue in that direction. You may well lose your job, but the banks aren't going to go away just yet and neither are the bill collectors. And the whole thing is likely to take decades to unwind. Currently, and probably during much of what lies ahead, it won't be completely clear that a collapse is actually taking place and can be blamed for you troubles. More and more people will become intimately acquainted with what it means to be poor and for those of us who are first and foremost good consumers, this will be a bitter pill.

No doubt we will often ask, "Why me?" In large part the answer is that we've had the misfortune to be born into the period in history when the supply of high quality fossil fuels that has fueled the growth and increasing complexity of our civilization for the last few centuries is running out. And along with it the ability of the biosphere to absorb the byproducts of that burning without deleterious changes, especially to the climate. For more details, see my last post.

But why do I think the collapse will proceed slowly? Some writers who are aware of these issues point to the complex network of connections that is our modern global society and say that because those connections are so vital, that once a few of them break the whole thing will fall down like a house of cards, "apocalyptically". Perhaps, on a timescale of millennia, a collapse like this can be viewed as talking place "quickly", but for those who are living through the experience, far from it. A planet such as ours is a big place, and a society such as ours is a large and tenacious organization, with a huge amount of inertia. Powerful people, more than anyone else, have a vested interest in keeping things going more or less as they are. So we can be sure that every effort will be made to do just that. In the short term I think those efforts will often be somewhat successful. In the long run, of course, they may prove more harmful than beneficial.

Other's will point to the concept embodied in Seneca's curve, named for the Roman philosopher who noted that things take a long time to get going but fall apart quickly. I have no quarrel with this, but I must point out that our present society took hundred of years to get going—from the European Renaissance in the 1300s, to the late1900s when things started to fall apart. That's not quite 700 years. Or if you want to take it from the invention of the steam engine, starting around 1700, that's still around 300 years. So a collapse that takes decades, even most of a century, is still following Seneca's curve. Thanks, by the way, to Ugo Bardi for the graphic and a clear explanation of what's involved in making that curve asymmetrical.

What do I mean by unevenly, unsteadily and unequally? I'm talking here about the irregular progress of collapse on three different scales: geographical, chronological and social. So, geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal.

First, let's look at geography. Natural resources are not spread out evenly, nor are they becoming exhausted in any sort of regular pattern. The human population is also spread out very unevenly. The effects of climate change and other ecological disasters vary from place to place as well. It is a large planet and it's various parts are separated by physical distance and the artificial distance enforced by political borders, so what happens in one place does not necessarily or immediately effect another. I fully expect to see some countries in an advanced stage of collapse while (a few) others, or at least parts of them, are still very much living in the twenty-first century and successfully pursuing advances that seem like science fiction today.

Second, there's time. Events are going to proceed at different speeds over time, even reversing themselves occasionally. Sometimes things will get worse so slowly that only by looking back over a period of years will we be able to detect any changes. At other times it will seem like the bottom has suddenly fallen out of our lives in a single day or hour. And sometimes, to the delight of those who don't believe in collapse, things will recover to some degree. The argument will then be made that this is just part of an economic cycle—the sort that "happens all the time".

Third there's society, or class within society. This is largely a matter of power and wealth, which are clearly related.

Those with power and wealth have the ability, to some degree at least, to isolate themselves from negative changes. Of course, when things finally catch up with them, they are probably less mentally prepared to cope with the situation, having become accustomed to a high standard of living and having copious resources close to hand with which to solve problems.

The poor, on the other hand, have long experience coping with the sort of circumstances that occur as collapse takes a step forward. To them it's just more of the same old shit. What can't be changed must be endured and they are good at that. But some things are beyond endurance and if you are without the resources to respond, you're out of luck and it may be the end of the story for you.

One of the obvious responses of the rich and powerful to a contracting economy is to make sure they get a larger share of the shrinking pie. As a consequence those outside of their select circle are left with a smaller share of that smaller pie. Inequality between the various strata of society will keep increasing, in fits and starts of course (staying with the theme of this post).

And of course we'll see combinations of all three sorts of variation—things collapsing at different rates in different places and differently for those in different socioeconomic classes. Some areas, as desertification or sea level rise progresses, will be largely abandoned. In the cities, more and more people will join the ranks of the homeless, abandoned as worthless by the society around them.

For those of us in the middle and upper classes (the top 20%), living in peaceful and economically successful western countries, it may be hard to tell that collapse is even happening—certainly not right now, not locally and not to the people we associate with. Even though things aren't going nearly so well in other parts of the world or for less fortunate people in our own area.

It is very easy not to look beyond our horizons (geographically, socially or chronologically), and live within a false cocoon of security. People living in such a cocoon are unlikely to take collapse seriously, to prepare for what is coming or to respond quickly enough when it starts to happen to them. Nor are they likely to offer much help to people who are farther along the collapse curve.

The conventional mass media do a good job of reinforcing our sense of security by largely ignoring "collapse-like" events in other parts of the world. Examples that come immediately to mind are the triple-digit inflation, rising crime, and shortages of food and medicine in Venezuela and the famines in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, which, so far, have been almost completely ignored in the western media. Syria is, I suppose, something of a counter example, although the news coverage we've had has missed important points about what is really going on there.

Of course, if you go looking on the internet, you can find lots of information about things you hear hardly a word about in the conventional media.

Another thing that varies is the social acceptability of the idea of collapse. I remember reading books back in the 1970s that predicted collapse, then the subject was largely unheard of for years, until the first few years of the new millennium when it appeared in the guise of "Peak Oil". This really got going after the economic crash in 2008 and continued until 2012 or '13. Then it petered out—with the "success" of fracking, Peak Oil was declared dead and the concept of collapse was once again not something to discuss in polite company. And now in 2017, perhaps spurred by events in the USA, collapse is once more being discussed by ordinary people, not just us dedicated kollapsniks.

At this point I find myself in danger of straying into areas that are the subjects of my next few posts. So, not wishing to trip over my own feet, I'll bring this to an end, and wait until my next post to continue talking about the bumpy path that lies ahead of us.

Note: in my last post, I was a little confused about the exact relationship between EROEI and "surplus energy". I have now edited that post to correct the problem. Thanks to Anti Troll at the Doomstead Diner for pointing this out. And thanks to RE at the Diner for allowing me to cross post to his site.

2 Responses to Collapse Step-by-Step, Part 1: Unevenly, Unsteadily and Unequally

  • JJGrey says:

    I still disagree with the chances of human extiniction being so high as you claim in this article, but otherwise I think your article is spot on. And would add to you types of collapse, there are SCALES of collapse – who is effected : personal only, family/ close friends, entire local community, city/state/region wide (like hurricane Katrina hitting the gulf coast), and larger national and global issues causing collapse. Collapse hangs impending over every facet of the lives of all of us, just one disaster away, it is truely collapse when the disaster can not be fully recovered from – again hurricane Katrina and New Orleans are a good example. I know that many of the people from there are still, to this day, unable to resume their lives at the levels they had lived. Just like I remember fuel prices of less than a dollar a gallon, the new normal is much more and that effects how people live day to day, that increase faster than inflation of the price of gasoline has been a slow motion hidden disaster with improvements and further declines but never any return to the old 'normal'. 

    Piecemeal, a little here, a little there. Collapse wont be recognized even as we pass through it, not until long after a new normal is established and historians piece the thing back together – if we can even afford historians at that point.

    Far worse for our survival as a species than some big sudden slate wiping catastrophy of appocalyptic fiction unfortunately.

  • Irv Mills says:

    Thanks for the kind words, JJ. And I think what you're saying is spot on as well.
    My 20% estimate of our chances of extinction is just a "wild assed guess" and may wellbe high. I am quite optimistic, but we will see, or at least some of the younger generation will. It is interesting to note the variety of opinions people have on this subject. I posted a link to this article on the Collapse subreddit and the only two commenters thought my predictions quite rosy. As if I "don't know about  AGW and the 6th extinction" one of them said. I do, of course, but I think people are a lot more clever and tenacious than they do.
    In my next post, coming up in a week or so if all goes well, I'll be talking about the end points of the collapse process. I'll be interested to see if you think I'm optimistic or pessimistic.

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