Collapse Step by Step, Part 6: More on Political Realities

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool October 9, 2017

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When I wrote the last couple of episodes in this series of posts, I was well aware that I was expressing opinions that are quite controversial, in some circles at any rate. So I expected to get some push back from people whose political leanings are different from mine.

As it turns out, only one reader (who I'll refer to as BK for the sake of brevity) responded with such a comment, and he was reasonably polite and clear in what he had to say. Now, as it happens, I do believe there is such a thing as objective reality, and if you can show me that an opinion I hold runs counter to that reality, I'll willingly change it. I actually have done this at various point in the past, but in this instance that wasn't what happened. Just the opposite, in fact—what BK has done is give me a clearer understanding of my own politics and in the process strengthened my convictions. Overall, that's probably a good thing.

On both sides of our discussion, though, I think there may be a good bit of misunderstanding. It is very tempting now to go ahead with a rant about people replying seemingly without having read what I've actually been saying, and who address themselves to strawmen instead my actual points. But I suspect that the guy on the other side of the discussion may feel that I am doing the same thing to him. One of the most important skills to have in the hard times to come will be the ability to talk to and work with people who have different viewpoints, and that is a skill I am trying to cultivate.

One of the down sides of social media is that the connection we have out here in cyberspace is very tenuous. When talking face to face with friends there is real incentive to work at making communication happen. On the internet it's so easy to just give in to temptation and turn the discussion into an argument or maybe a flame war. But that's not why I am here, and I am certainly trying not to give in to the temptation.

When you get into politics, there is a great deal of ideology involved and people have a tendency to accept the party line and not bother checking it against reality. BK claims that in the last couple of posts I haven't even made any attempt to prove what I am saying. Pretty odd, since that was exactly what I had set out to do and quite a number of people have said that they think I did a pretty good job of it. But let's have a closer look at the details, and in the process perhaps I can do a better job of expressing my thoughts.

First of all, why would it be appropriate to talk about politics in a series of posts about the details of collapse?

As BK says, "In order for politics to determine how badly or dangerously collapse happens (if/when it does), there must be a dichotomy in political views regarding the causes of the type of collapse which provides the context of these articles. However, there is no such dichotomy. The dichotomy exists in precisely the opposite context, i.e., what would be a fair way to distribute the benefits of perpetual growth."

Modern politics, for the last couple of centuries anyway, has indeed been mainly about how to distribute the benefits of growth. That is certainly not the discussion we need to be having. Forty five years ago, while we were still not quite in overshoot, (right after the publication of The Limits to Growth) we needed to have a discussion about whether growth could go on forever or whether we should begin adapting to the limits of our finite planet. Serious consideration would have led to acceptance of those limits, and political discussion since then would have focused on the details of living within those limits.

However, it didn't happen that way—those who support BAU (business as usual) made sure that The Limits to Growth was never given serious consideration. We continued on, as usual, and are now in overshoot by about 150%—a very serious situation.

To be fair, it is hard to see how it could have happened otherwise. Because of the way our financial and business systems are set up, they rely on continuous growth. We really have no idea of how to stop economic growth without causing a catastrophic collapse. Politicians know this, so they are stuck trying to fix the system by treating the symptoms while still maintaining growth—the root cause of the problem. So instead, nature will take its course. There will be a dieoff and when things finally settle out, there will be a lot fewer people and they will be a lot poorer.

But even though I agree that politics is asking the wrong questions, and applying the wrong fixes, I still think that it is going to be an important influence on the course of collapse for a few decades yet. To make sense of this, I should explain where I think collapse is taking us.

Among collapse "enthusiasts" there are many who expect that someday soon there will be a fast collapse. This will take place essentially overnight, in a matter of days or perhaps weeks, but certainly not years or decades. The great majority of people would not be prepared for such an event. The ability to work together, solving problems for our mutual benefit that has been the key to much of mankind's success, would be very difficult to bring to bear on our problems during such a collapse. It seems likely that only a tiny and improbably lucky fraction of our species would survive. And I will grant that politics is not likely to have much influence over the outcome of this sort of collapse.

But I am another variety of "kollapsnik" altogether. I've taken to calling myself a "kollapsnik" lately to differentiate myself from "doomers", who think that mankind is facing imminent doom. They range from those who talk about near term extinction (by 2030) to those to expect a fast and hard collapse in the near future, with only a very few survivors left, who will fall back into a new stone age.

Instead, I talk about a slow collapse, which has already been going on for decades in many areas and will continue for much of the twenty-first century. I take this one step further and assert that collapse does not take place uniformly. It's progress is geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal. I do expect that this collapse will be a population bottleneck, but not an extinction event—I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few hundred million people make it through.

To borrow a the term from John Michael Greer, I call the first stage of this long period of collapse the "age of scarcity". During the last couple of centuries some parts of the world experienced an "age of abundance" due to the windfall of cheap energy from fossil fuels, and became industrially and economically developed. In the process, supplies of industrially important natural resources (particularly fossil fuels) were depleted and sinks for industrial by products (pollution) have started to fill up, with unpleasant results such as economic contraction, climate change, ocean acidification and so forth.

Many parts of the developed world have been in the age of scarcity for some decades now and their governments have struggled to keep up appearances (and growth) under less than ideal conditions. A few have been so successful that you still meet people who think these are the best of times and that we should expect things to get even better. But such an opinion can only be held by those who are very careful about where not to look.

During the rest of the age of scarcity our industrial society will gradually weaken until eventually it will be "down for the count". We will then transition into the age of salvage, making use of the materials left behind, which we will no longer have the wherewithal to make from scratch for ourselves. Of course, this transition will occur at different times in various places around the world. And while it will certainly be a big step down from current conditions in the developed nations, it will be a long way from the stone age. There will be a lot of salvage left to work with and we now know a great deal that we did not know even a few centuries ago.

Because I am expecting a slow collapse, I believe there is a lengthy period ahead of us when governments will still be in charge and have some resources available to pursue their policy objectives. What those objectives are will have a large influence on how collapse progresses, and to what extent it can be mitigated. If we are not going to just stoically accept what comes, we will need to choose between the various sorts of actually, realistically achievable politics, searching for the ones that can do the least worst job for us.

Yes, there will eventually come a day when federal, state (provincial) and, in the case of large cities, even local governments are so resource starved that they are no longer effective (or exist at all, perhaps) and local communities are left to their own devices. But it seems to me that even then the sort of politics that has been popular in a society will have a lingering effect on the workings of those communities.

Since it is now clear that it going to take two, if not three, posts to cover everything I want to talk about on this subject, I think I'll bring this post to an end. Next time we'll look in detail at how two of those political positions will differ in their approach to life in the age of scarcity.

And BK, please be patient. In your comments you made several other points that deserve a thoughtful response, which I hope to be making in my next post, or maybe the one after that….

8 Responses to Collapse Step by Step, Part 6: More on Political Realities

  • EtyerePetyere says:

    Slow collapse  BS ! For the pussyfooting collapser  This is all fantasy . speaks about salvaging materials and going back to a low energy and consumption lifestyle . Where he assures you that there will be hundreds of millions of people left alive .  This is all BS folks it is all bs and it it bad for you . He completely disregards abrupt climate change . And all the geopolitical conflicts arising in a scenario like this . as if he is telling " Oh yes all those unfortunate folks will just lay down and peacefully die while you will be living in a scavenging bucolic paradise ever after .. Go back to sleep ,also forgets to mention safely dissasembling  450+ nuclear reactors and its waste products disposal . What an idiot !

  • steve says:

    well I don't think he is an idiot…. central banks are likely to keep producing credit for 'as (long) as it takes' to prevent too drastic an economic scenario for those that have access. This will allow us to continue accessing fossil fuels to continue overfishing and wrecking the place to oblivion as we are doing now. Yes, climate change will become the issue… depending on how fast tipping points arrive.  And yes there is recent evidence that every conservative forecast relating to climate has been frighteningly cautious. But until those tipping points bring rapid enough changes that everyone can observe… and life become more and more difficult for the wealthy and their supporters….there will be little paradigm change. The only possibility for this is in effect rapid climate disruption to our means of food production.Based on what we have experienced here in NZ this last 9 months in terms of continual rainfall, this cannot be discounted… the sooner the better in my view, because then some other of the larger mammal type species, and others; have some hope for survival past our own badly needed population decrease

  • Michael Rynn says:

    Rates of collapse would tend to be uneven, because of diverse ratios of carrying capacity to population, but globalization links of oil supply, from a few big sources that are still producing, are a systemic collapse risk.

    It is interesting that the ecological footprint analysis puts overshoot at 150%.  I am reading William Catton's overhoot carefully again, and he puts overshoot in population at about 10 times.  Thats because of the amounts of "phantom carrying capacity" created by fossil fuels. Our average food supplies is 90% fossil fuel embedded energy, especially for meat, dairy, fish eaters. It would take several times more acreage to grow, distribute and store our food without fossil fuel energy and chemical imputs, and fishing acreage yield is well down through over-exploitation. The oceans will never be the same.  

    We are in a state of food collapse now, even where it is economically and inequality mediated. On the radio this morning I hear that "food insecurity" is on the increase in Australia, where higher energy bills impact  family budgets. Higher energy bills are blamed on rising network costs, which were exactly the parts of our power systems that were privatised.

    I am sure it is worse in the USA. Nutrition affordable quality is falling.

    I would turn to catastrophe theory, as pictured by Rene Thom. Change is slow and continous, only until it isn't. Thresholds apply, especially to irrational human behavior. The age of consequences has already applied to Syria, and large population migrations are a cause and a result. When populations get above carrying capacity, scapegoats, deportations and genocides happen. The Rohingyas are not the first, nor will they be the last.

    Too bad, for idenfication of the system causes, would show that conflict won't solve anything, except to be a means of more rapid population reduction.

    Australia for instance, imports nearly all its fossil fuels, and is extremely diesel fuel and big truck dependent, for food support, and mining industry. Oil costs permeate every developed industrial economy. Now the conservative government of Australia is stuck on not admitting that the age of fossil fuels is over, and is unable to mentally adapt to the idea of lesser, variable inputs of energy from renewable sources.

    Political parties and governments are clueless, because they are only looking after the vested interests of the past, so therefore rapid collapse happens before they work it out.

    There is a big drop for when conflicts and failure of economic extraction take away the last oil supplies from the fundamentals of industrial economies, because we have so many linkages to this single point of failure. As we all know, economies prefer growth and growth is going to end, and dynamic economic feedbacks probably work backwards in reverse, to our detriment.

    After some time with a generation of conflict and poor nutrition, and collapsed health systems, we will be sitting ducks for some really powerful epidemics like influenza strains on steroids, and return of other good old scourges, now antibiotic resistant.

    William Catton puts Overshoot in the "ecological succession" paradigm. We will have permanently changed the environment that birthed our civilisations. Everything changes, the global climate systems, oceans, species makeup of the world, such that original homo techno-sapiens are no longer adapted, and this is the fate of all highly successful species, to change things for the next wave of adaptation. A very unstable complex system, but if it wasn't this way, we would never have evolved to exist.

  • AJ says:

    Irv, JMG and JHK are all on the same page of slow collapse. Maybe its like EtyerePetyere says and its a fantasy. Time will tell. To my humble and ignorant mind there appears to be a lot of systemic inertia to collapse in general, BUT Michael Rynn is right, collapse is uneven until it isn't. I keep coming back to David Korowicz's 2012 "Trade-Off" paper that I think makes good on the point that once systemic collapse starts their are so many interlinked systems that failure of one node (oil, ag, communications, trade, finance) and they all collapse. It would seem to me that if one industrial economy collapses then all the industrial world collapses. The third world can probably go on for some time without us, but who knows? What good is China if the U.S. collapses? If the Chinese economy collapses what happens to India or the U.S., do we keep sailing on as if nothing occurred? What if N. Korea nukes a city in Japan? No ramifications.

    AND I am concerned that no one seems to address what Etyere has said about all those Nuke plants (not to mention decaying Nuke weapons). Does everyone suppose those Nuke workers are just going back to work forever? To cold shut them down? To store the material away?

    I think Irv does everyone a service by articulating his position. Even if I'm not so sure he is right.

  • Irvine Mills says:

    @ EtyerePetyere

    I don't mind engaging with people who disagree with me, but I usually make a point of not responding to those who are rude. I'm making an exception in this one case. I suggest you read the blogpost at this link, which nicely sums up what I think of the likes of you.

    As for the business of all those nuclear plants, I am one of those guys who thinks that's not nearly the problem it's often supposed to be. I know that won't be a popular opinion hearabouts, but so be it.


  • Irvine Mills says:

    @ steve

    Yes, that’s the point–those in power have every reason to keep things going as they are, or at least make sure the changes that happen don't effect them. And indeed it would be better if industrial civilization packed it in before the biosphere is damaged any further. But I think we've got a few decades to go yet.

  • Irvine Mills says:

    @ Michael Rynn

    I can't disagree with most of what yo are saying. Who knows, Catton may have been right. Certainly I am expecting about a 90% reduction in population before this is over. And I can see how a 150% overhsoot could lead to that. Still, some have laughed at me for being too optimistic, but loosing 9 out of every 10 people is going to be pretty drastic, to my way of thinking.

  • Irvine Mills says:

    @ AJ

    Hey, I not even that sure that I'm right. At one point, back on my blog, I made a comment that the slow collapse I've been talking about might take another 50 years. RE (head honcho here at the Diner) responded that 50 eyars is a fast collapse. So to some extent, it all a matter off what you take the words to mean. I'm just trying to say that I think the guys who talk about collapse taking a matter of days or weeks are too far in the other direction. It's a big world and there are lots of things that can be done in response to local distasters. Yes, we are frightfully interconnected–over connected, if you ask me. But loosing some of those connection and having to do things locally might not be so bad.

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