Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not The End Of The World

You know that things are beginning to heat up when both sides of a controversy declare victory at the same time. Over the last week or so, that’s happened in the peak oil scene. On the one hand, quite a number of cornucopians – those enthusiastic souls who believe that we can get ourselves out of the hole we’re in by digging faster and paying less attention to where the dirt lands – have trumpeted the discovery of a few new oil fields as proof that peak oil is a myth.

The Bakken shale, a geological formation down in the basement of the northern Great Plains, has attracted the bulk of this cheerleading. Mind you, the Bakken’s a significant discovery; there’s apparently a fair amount of oil down there, though the technical challenges involved in extracting more than a tiny fraction of it are immense, and nobody’s yet sure if the energy that can be extracted from it will be more or less than the energy cost needed to extract it. Even if it turns out to be the oil find of the decade, though, and North Dakota oil millionaires start showing up as a recognized type in American popular culture, the most the Bakken can do is make up some of the production losses from older oil fields and slow, for a time, our descent from Hubbert’s peak.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the number of voices proclaiming the imminence of total collapse has skyrocketed. Typical is a recent post in Sharon Astyk’s useful peak oil blog. Astyk claims that recent events have decisively settled the debate between the fast-crash and slow-grind models of post-peak oil reality, in favor of the fast crash – and we’re already in it. Her argument is basically that the drastic spikes in food and energy costs over the last few months have outrun the limits of the slow-grind scenario; ergo, the fast crash is here.

I’ve commented several times in these essays about the way that linear thinking distorts our view of the future, and Astyk’s prediction makes a good example. The drastic price spikes in many commodities over the last few months offer a warning that shouldn’t be ignored, but treating them as evidence that industrial society is about to implode imposes a linear model onto the complex realities of socioeconomic change. The fact that change is happening quickly right now does not mean that it will continue to happen at the same pace, or even in the same direction.

Human societies are complex homeostatic systems that respond to changes in their environments by trying to maintain their equilibrium. Both the cornucopians and the fast-collapse theorists too often lose track of this basic rule of human ecology, but it’s interesting to note that they do so in different ways. In the face of faltering oil production, industrial societies intensify the search for new oil fields and exploit fields that would have been considered uneconomical in the halcyon days of cheap oil; that’s how they try to maintain equilibrium. These are responses to crisis, however, not evidence that the crisis is over. When an oil reservoir as geologically challenging as the Bakken looks like a good place to drill, that in itself provides a good measure of how serious the drawdown of existing reserves has become.

At the same time, soaring costs of energy and food are among the ways that a market-based society attempts to maintain equilibrium when supply fails to keep up with potential demand. Rationing by price is a profoundly inequitable way to sort out who gets food and energy in a time of shortages, and who does not, but unless the industrial world goes through drastic political changes in the very near future, it’s the way we’re stuck with, and it does have at least one pragmatic advantage: the ration coupons (we call them “money”) and the entire system of rationing are already in place, ready to use, without massive social engineering.

As prices go up, a great many of the poor and disenfranchised worldwide are sliding closer to the edge where destitution turns into starvation. That’s a tragedy, and a moral crisis of no small magnitude. Still, those who think that it announces the imminent collapse of industrial society need to revisit the history of the nineteenth century, when famines racked the Third World with appalling frequency and a good half of the population in many industrial nations lived in desperate poverty. Most people in the industrial world nowadays, I suspect, have forgotten just how much routine deprivation was a part of ordinary life before the brief twentieth-century heyday of cheap abundant energy.

At the same time, rising prices in a market society also help drive responses to crisis. Here in Oregon, much of the farmland in the long and fertile Willamette valley has been used for years to grow grass seed for the lawn-improvement market. This year, though, a good many of the grass-seed farmers are planting wheat instead – the grass seed market is weak, while the price they can expect for wheat is higher than it’s been in generations. Similar responses are beginning to show up in other agricultural and economic sectors; that’s the sort of response that can be expected, after all, from a complex homeostatic system.

That’s also why the collapse of previous civilizations follows a stairstep process that combines periods of severe crisis with periods of partial recovery. Knocked out of one state of equilibrium by the pressures driving it toward collapse, a society in decline finds a new balance lower down the scale of socioeconomic complexity; when that balance becomes unsustainable, another transition follows, and then another point of equilibrium lower still; that’s the underlying logic of the theory of catabolic collapse, the basis for most of what appears on this blog. It’s hard to argue against the suggestion that we’re entering such a period of crisis just now, and if this is the case, we can expect hard choices and troubled times in the years immediately ahead.

In the case of today’s soaring food prices, likely results include increased starvation in the world’s poorest countries, and a sharp increase in the world’s roster of failed states. Meanwhile, drastic economic, political, and cultural readjustments will hit the industrial world as income redistributes itself from urban centers to farm country. Further down the road, expect prices of many agricultural commodities to come crashing back to earth as steep increases in production intersect with the boom-and-bust cycle of commodities speculation. They’ll head back up thereafter – many centuries will likely pass before food is ever again as cheap compared to incomes as it was in the second half of the twentieth century – but the wild swings in commodity prices will place added pressure on economic systems already creaking under existing strains.

Perhaps the most likely result of the current wave of crises, however, is the twilight of the much-ballyhooed global market of the twentieth century’s last decades. That was never the wave of the future its cheerleaders labeled it; it was a temporary artifact of a world in which energy costs had been forced so low, and economic disparities between nations raised so high, that distance apparently didn’t matter and arbitraging labor costs across continents seemed to make economic sense. As energy costs have risen in recent years, nations with energy resources have done the sensible thing and recognized the political dimensions of economic exchange. Free-market fundamentalists who denounce this “resource nationalism” seem to have forgotten that the government of Russia, for example, was not elected by the citizens of America, and gains no conceivable benefit by embracing policies that benefit American consumers or politicians while disadvantaging their Russian equivalents.

The food crisis has pushed this same transformation into overdrive. Governments around the world that once made their nations’ ability to feed their own people a sacrosanct element of national policy, and were talked out of this sensible strategy during the heyday of cheap energy, have suddenly realized that the lukewarm gratitude of foreign politicians and the plaudits of economists snugly sheltered in their ivory towers don’t count for much when a hungry mob heads for the presidential palace. Most of the Asian countries that produce rice, the grain that has soared most in price, have accordingly limited rice exports to ensure that their own people get enough to eat. Where fossil fuels and food crops go, other resources will follow; my guess is that potash for fertilizer, an essential resource for industrial agriculture, will be next in line.

The “free market,” for that matter, was never that free in the first place; a slanted playing board designed to maximize the flow of wealth to the world’s industrial nations and minimize flows in the other direction, it replaced more straightforward forms of colonialism while maintaining unequal patterns of exchange that allow the 5% of the world’s population who live in the United States to dispose of about 30% of the world’s natural resources. It’s not surprising that countries assigned the short end of the stick by these arrangements would throw them off as soon as they could get away with it, and the resource crunch now underway offers them a perfect opportunity to do so.

The end of the global economy may make life a good deal harder for those of us in the United States and those other industrial nations, such as Canada and Australia, that have become used to the absurdly lavish energy and resource expenditures of the recent past. It bears remembering, though, that people in Europe maintain a standard of living in many ways higher ours on roughly one-third the energy per capita Americans seem to think is necessary for civilized life. We can get by, and get by tolerably well, on much less energy and many fewer resources than we think.

This is likely to be a crucial point to keep in mind as the present crisis unfolds. It’s not the end of the world, or even the end of industrial civilization, but if history is anything to go by, we could be in for a couple of very rough decades. A crisis phase in the downward arc of catabolic collapse is not a pleasant thing to live through, and we can expect it to have social, economic, political, and (unless we’re extraordinarily lucky) military dimensions that will transform most people’s lives for the worse, temporarily or forever. That need not stop us from facing the emerging crisis with as much grace and humanity as we can muster, while doing our part to lay the foundations for the ecotechnic societies of the future – unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.


Peter said...

Thank you for this most thoughtful and balanced post. The "black swan" phenomena is but one way of reminding ourselves that there are surprises in store, and not all of them will be dire. I suppose it is an understandable response for people to try and discern clear indicators of imminent collapse, I found myself doing it more and more, but I'm moving to a more sober and healthy mind-set, thanks to posts such as yours. It's too easy to sit here and read blogs like Hanson's (just as an example) and become paralyzed by dread. Not that there isn't much to ponder there, and in Sharon's writings, and many others. But I get the sense that you've been contemplating all this for some time, and doing the deep study required to begin to appreciate the complexity, without taking the easy out of metaphysical "trust". Consciousness is primary, I believe, but you ground it so well! Thanks, think I'll spend the next week going back and catching up on earlier posts.


Bill Pulliam said...

Very few people seem to have a strong grasp of the interplay of the grand long-term trend with the wild short-term fluctuation. Virtually everything in nature and society functions at an infinite hierarchy of temporal scales; the human mind so often seems to want to extrapolate from the scale most obvious to us upwards and outwards to infinity and eternity. Tectonic plates slide steadily and relentlessly at geological scales, but at the human scale they do it in occasional, violent, unpredictable spasms that create mayhem. We have one cold winter, and *poof* global warming is declared over.

One just has to look at the volatility of commodity prices from minute to minute, much less month to month, to see what a large role speculation and psychology play in them. Anything that can soar from $50 to $119 in just a matter of months is not doing this purely because of a fundamental shift in global macroeconomic realities. Of course, the trend in petroleum and other forms of energy will remain generally upward for the coming centuries. But as to the question of "Will oil go up to $200 or back down to $50???" -- well, the answer is in all likelyhood it will do both. When it hits $50 we'll all be told "see, everything is just fine, the party never ends!" When it hits $200 we'll be told "see, the party is over, times will never be good again." And it hardly matters which it does first!

The grand arc of history bends very gently. The chaos of current events is always confusing and volatile. Looking for the former amidst the latter is like looking for the curvature of the Earth while traveling through the Himalayas. But it is there, and a clever geographer can note how the lengths of the shadows and the heights of the distant peaks shift as the miles pass, and make a pretty good estimate of the underlying shape of the globe.

Danby said...

The current global food crisis is not primarily the product of actual shortages. It is a product of the commodities market. When the housing mortgage market collapsed in February, all those thousands of professional investors, sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars needed someplace to invest that money. With the stock market on the edge of a precipice, the financial derivatives market coding, and the bond market being officially undercut by the Fed, and the retail downturn posing a prospect of actual deflation in precious metals, a great many investors started putting their money in the commodities market.

This, of course, drives up the prices of commodities (more money seeking for the same quantity of goods will do that). That's not so bad if the commodity is orange juice concentrate or tankage meal. It's very bad when the commodity is rice, wheat or soybeans.

In a sane world, the commodities markets for food staples would be closed and any deals since February unwound. In our world, these parasites will get rich and poor people will starve.

John Michael Greer said...

Peter, thanks for the encouragement! Yes, the future of industrial civilization has been a concern of mine for more than thirty years now, and that necessarily intersects with my other interests.

I could easily spend a whole post talking about the "easy out" you mention, the claim that we can trust metaphysical realities to bail us out of the physical consequences of our own mistakes. That's what the schools where I had my training call a confusion of planes. Sub specie aeternitatis, "all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well," as T.S. Eliot put it, but pain and death, and more generally the limits of the human condition, are part of that perfection, not a denial of it. But I'll leave off here, since this blog isn't really about theology.

Bill, one great advantage of history is that it helps filter out the short-term noise from the long-term signal. There are probably other ways to do it, but history's the one I know.

Dan, speculators have a huge role, but it doesn't help that the US government has helped finance an ethanol program that's turned something close to 1/3 of last year's corn crop into auto fuel. Take that much grain out of the world food supply and something's going to give.

Watts0n said...

Americans seem to be unable to grasp the ever-changing circumstances of this crisis. So
they coast between the ideology of revolutionaries who want to torch the system down and reactionaries who want no social/economic/cultural change.

I can't help but think that this is going to make this crisis worse then it needs to be. As moderation will be drowned out and an 'organic' evolution of society is retarded for everyone grasping at short-term fixes to real and imagined problems.

Asturchale y Chulo said...

These are some pictures you will find, I am sure, mostly fascinating:

You will see there the terraces that eventually got cultivated in the Canary Islands along the 50s, when scarcity and overpopulation reached worrysome levels in the island. People eventually took their crops to the very barren top of the mountains, as a desperate measure.
Something of the sort might happen again if food prices rise fast enough, especially when we consider that a large deal of the best farmable land lies now beneath the urban sprawl and motorways.
As usual I enjoyed your post very much, especially the part about "grace and humanity". Funny that you, being after all a priest, seldom touches the moral aspects of the controversial topics that your blog deals with.
Incidentally, I am going to Portsmouth, Devonshire, England, next week, to work as an interpreter. I must thank you, Kunstler, Barbara Ehrenreich, Fred Reed, Justin Raymondo and a handful more guys and gals for having helped me to improve my English along the years.
Thank you.

Robin said...

For those used to a profligate lifestyle, some belt-tightening may be forthcoming. But for those on the edge of starvation, it may well be "The End of the World"

John Michael Greer said...

Watts0n, exactly -- the fast crash theorists and the cornucopians, though they disagree on everything else, agree that the crisis of industrial society is a problem they can fix. Central to my argument is that it's not a problem that can be fixed; it's a reality that will not go away, no matter what we do, and our actions need to be focused on coping with that reality rather than trying to make it disappear.

Asturchale, congrats on the new job! As for talking about moral issues, I've tried to soft-pedal that here; it's simply not useful for a religious leader, especially in a very small and oddball faith, to make moral pronouncements and expect people to act on them.

Robin, of course that's true. One of the challenges we face is trying to manage as much of the former as possible, so as to minimize the latter.

Maeve said...

I appreciate the moderate voice of reason in your posts. Too many people tend towards a tone of hysteria, and I don't find hysterics to be at all useful.

Sure, times are tough and getting tougher. Eventually we'll run out of "grace periods" with fossil fuels, because finite supply doesn't have infinite production. We'll adapt. That's what humans have done for thousands upon thousands of years, after all.

I can spend my time running around in my house panicking because I've "run out of time"; or I can go outdoors and plant a few more seeds, or visit with a neighbor, or take the kids to a park. Life goes on, and I think a lot of people simply wish to feel apocalyptic and refuse to just accept the natural rhythm of life.

John Michael Greer said...

Sharon Astyk, by the way, has a thoughtful response to this post on her site -- well worth a look.

Bill Pulliam said...

"As for talking about moral issues, I've tried to soft-pedal that here; it's simply not useful for a religious leader, especially in a very small and oddball faith, to make moral pronouncements and expect people to act on them."

Certainly understand why you don't want to add even more fodder for digression, distraction, and endlessly irreconcilable debates here. However, there are some of us loyal readers who might be interested in discussing and even debating (in a polite and friendly manner, of course!) these matters with you, if you have some other forum where they are more appropriate.

yooper said...

Hello John, no it's, "Not The End Of The World". I once said, that we had been educated in a similar fashion....I suppose, that one would have to have been there, to see it in others. There are no substitutes...

You are a man of "vision" John. I look foward to staying focused as you reveal yours.....

Thanks, yooper

Megan said...

A friend of mine, with whom I often discuss such topics, is what you might call cynically optimistic in his view of the whole situation. He predicts, for instance, that for the fortunate sons and daughters of the first world, food security will only ever be something we argue about over breakfast. I am less certain, but I agree with his larger point - the misery of the next quarter century will fall largely on the already miserable, while the already fortunate will get off comparatively lightly. Not that they - we - will moan any less loudly because of this; as my friend puts it, the Whining Times are upon us.

That appears to be Astyk's point, too, more or less. I can sympathize (despite my near-terminal compassion fatigue) with her outrage that this should be so; I can also see that inequality, and thus unequal ability to weather a storm, will indeed always be with us. As several commentors on her blog have noted, you two don't seem to really disagree on most of the points you're making, so much as you react to the information differently. Is it time to panic, or isn't it, and what ought we to do?

Astyk has a hundred-point plan, broken down by season, for how to prepare for the times ahead. Much of it is predicated on things getting quite bad, quite quickly. I would be interested to see what 'Greer's 100 Handy Tips for Surviving the Whining Times' would look like, for a contrast. Different expectations lead to very different preparations, after all - if Astyk is right we should all be buying gardening supplies, but what should a wise person do if you are right?

Astyk also includes in her plan an element of evangelism (though wouldn't malangelism be more apt?) - several tips urge you to try and persuade your friends and family of the gravity of the situation before it's too late. Really, while I think her blog is a wealth of practical information, I can't stomach reading it myself and would never dream of sending a skeptic (even my cynical-optimist friend) the link. I've handed out the link to yours, though. Radicalism gets more attention than moderation, but moderation gets more resepct than radicalism. If you want to convey an unpalatable truth to an unreceptive audience, it is often wiser to use understatement than brutal honesty.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I'll consider that.

Yooper, I don't have a vision so much as a lot of history books and a deeply ingrained suspicion of the claim that today's societies can make the same mistakes as their predecessors and avoid ending up the same place. But I'll keep posting.

Megan, most of my hundred points would be reminders that what works depends so much on local factors, personal talents, and the vagaries of an unpredictable future that lists of a hundred points aren't actually that useful. I'm also less sure than your friend that the current privileged classes will be as fortunate as all that. Privilege depends on specific social forms and rarely survives their collapse; among other things, the skills that make someone successful as a late Roman bureaucrat (or, for that matter, a modern corporate executive) are useless or worse in dealing with the very different exigencies of the following dark ages.

boomy said...

Your comment came true months ago:

"Where fossil fuels and food crops go, other resources will follow; my guess is that potash for fertilizer, an essential resource for industrial agriculture, will be next in line.

In Saskatchewan, Canada the Saskatchewan Potash Corporation has been red hot for a while now. Possibly hotter than rice or wheat.

RAS said...

Potash has all ready risen in price -by 300% in the past year:

And now there are shortages:

Danby said...

Hundred-point plans may work for individuals. They might even work for a family. They cannot work for a society. It's simply not possible to know 20 years in advance what conditions are going to prevail.

The only plan I could offer would be: Be wise. See what is, not what you fear and not what you desire.

Robin P Clarke said...

Dear John,

I'll first get the positive bit out of the way! I'm most impressed to see such realistic wisdom/experience backed up evidently by plenty of study of history. I wish I'd had opportunity to do more study of history myself but we are where we are.

On the other hand, I see some mistakes in your work. Fisrtly, like so many you make a false equation, in this case you make a false contrast between the sensible sober person and the undue alarmist twitching at the latest trends. But the proper contrast could just as well (and all too often in history has been) one between the sensible sober (Noah's Ark) person who sees the imminent danger in contrast to the futureblind many who indulge in the customary fallacy documented in Tonybee's Study of History ("the illusion of immortality").

The emotion can bias one either way from the reality. So the reality cannot be determined from dismissing one or other side as emotionally biased. Instead one has to stick to examining the facts and reasoning.

A second error of yours. Rightly you say that short-term trends can reverse. And that history indicates that they usually do. Rightly there are reasons for expecting some homeostatic corrective processes. But you put too much faith in them and your historical parallels. The whole point of peak oil and peak everything is that nothing of this sort has ever happened in history before. Previous civilisations didn't have oil, so they did not have peak oil to terminate them. An additional thing unique to the present is the extraordinary complexity of current society/economics/tech. This gives a uniquely fragile vulnerability without historical precedent. MILLIONS of people are crowded in cities awaiting mega-starvation if those trucks stop bringing the food in.

A third factor you overlook is threshold effects. For instance the point where an exporter becomes an importer. Or where for many people the sums no longer add up to make sense for them to drive etc to work. At such points a society could indeed collapse, very suddenly.

Your point about no useful list is good. As my theory of civilisations points out, what is needed is genius!

yooper said...

Danby, "Words of wisdom Lloyd, words of wisdom.."

Danby said...

robin p clarke,

Despite your declaration that what are needed in the discussion of peak oil are facts and reason, your little diatribe reveals not a trace of either needed component.

Your screed is full of errors. The first is to come to someone else's forum and declare, obviously without reading his previous posts, in essence "You're full of error and incapable of rational thought. I'm right because I am full of facts and reason." This might be acceptable if you presented a rational argument, logically constructed, with facts, analogies and examples. Instead you assert and denigrate.

Your assertions themselves are laughable. The idea that anything in history has never been seen before is extraordinary and should be supported with argument. The plain fact is that our society is neither more fragile than previous societies, nor is economic collapse unique in history. Indeed we seem right now to be on the cusp of another economic collapse (the 4th in 100 years) that is unrelated to peak oil.
Some counter-examples of societies living with the sudden loss of cheap and freely available energy? Cuban 1960-now, The US South 1865-1880, Japan 1930-1941, Africa 1700-1850, Iraq 2003-2008.

Sometimes the energy source was oil, sometimes it was slave power, sometimes it was freemen. In all cases it was traumatic, but not catastrophic. Are the parallels perfect? Of course not. That's because each moment in history is unique. Still, each of these examples can teach us, if we will learn.

I said above, "learn to see what is, not what you desire or fear." You are obciously wedded to the MILLIONS WILL STARVE!!! RIVERS OF BLOOD!!! scenario peddled by some in the peak oil business. I don't know if that's because you fear it or desire it or perhaps both in some proportion. Either way, it's an irrational view.

Oil will not run out overnight, and no-one is claiming that it will. There will be oil available for decades. For a price. The price will ratchet up, just as it's doing now. Up and down, but always more up than down. Sometimes it will seem to approach levels we were used to in the mid-1990s. Still over time it will get more and more expensive.

People will react to that increase in price. Some irrationally to be sure, but many, even most rationally. They will curtail use, will continue to buy the cheapest goods they can, which will increasingly be locally and efficiently produced. They will arrange their lives to decrease their dependence on petroleum, not intentionally, but in reaction to changing circumstances.

Which is all you can really expect of people.

Stephen Heyer said...

Robin P Clarke: “The whole point of peak oil and peak everything is that nothing of this sort has ever happened in history before. Previous civilisations didn't have oil, so they did not have peak oil to terminate them.”

Sorry, wrong, totally wrong. Read, for example, Jared Diamond’s excellent “Collapse” and you will find that the peaking of essential resources was a common cause of the collapse of civilizations. Ditto for industry where “Peak Wood” (the exhaustion of wood supplies within economic reach) was also a frequent cause of collapse or limit.

This is why the introduction of fossil fuels, coal to begin with, changed everything and allowed vast wealth and hugely increased populations and living standards – for, it now seems sadly, awhile.

John Greer has already covered this on a number of occasions as has about everyone else who has studied the collapse of civilizations, even the archeologists I read on the 60s. Nothing new here, just something a lot of people, especially the endless growth, hysteria of greed, neo-con types frantically try to avoid admitting, especially to themselves.

Robin P Clarke: “An additional thing unique to the present is the extraordinary complexity of current society/economics/tech. This gives a uniquely fragile vulnerability without historical precedent. MILLIONS of people are crowded in cities awaiting mega-starvation if those trucks stop bringing the food in.”

Part wrong, part right: The great complexity of modern civilization gives us a lot of room to adapt, and/or if necessary fall back, while still retaining quite pleasant lives.

For example, my friends and I were only recently discussing how pleasant Australia (where I live) was in the 50’s when many people managed just fine without cars and coal fired steam trains were the backbone of our transport system. We were also discussing how a very simple electric car with performance little different to a 1912 electric car would be adequate for many of our urban requirements, provided the other vehicles on the road were similar (and we can easily do much better).

As another example, people like the Amish live seemingly rather pleasant and healthy lives at a lower and fairly easily maintained technological level than we do. Again, we could in principle fall back to this kind of level, then perhaps regroup and have another go at the technological event horizon.

Unfortunately, Robin P Clarke’s comments about huge, modern cities are probably fairly accurate. I suspect that if anything pulls any of the Western countries down into full collapse it will be the large cities.

hapibeli said...

Thanks again John. Now that I've found your essays, a voice of reason has entered my consciousness like few I've encountered. My tendency towards thoughts of imminent collapse have abated dramatically. It could be because you are another step in my evolution of self awareness, but for whatever reason, I'm thankful for the knowledge.

RJ said...

Well said sir, the path between hubris and hysteria is indeed narrow. "Free" market sycophants conveniently ignore the brutal realities of unfettered speculation within the context of population overshoot. Of course, denying the existence or even the possibility for existence of overshoot will take care of that potentially conscience jarring factoid. That's assuming a conscience is involved.

yooper said...

Hello Robin, you will stick around, eh? I'm going to agree with almost all of your thoughts here, inasmuch, this is what I've been trying to convey here all along...Furthermore, anyone that can digest your "theory of civilisations", may find parallels to this...

This is the second time I've came across your theory of civilisations,"The Causes of Decadence and Renaissances An Evolutionary Basis for Toynbee's Theory of Civilisations".

I fear, anyone that is not a "scientive" or holds a doctorate in Psychology, is going to be lost in what you're trying to convey here. I'm going to agree with all the mechanics in your thought process. This is rather new to me, however it helps explain, "The Fourth Turning",1997, by Strauss and Howe, and where they may have been coming from. It is being suggested to me by others to go back and look at this again... Guess, I missed something, again (being innative)..

Robin you stated,"If the whole of humanity is not to become extinct it seems we must divest ourselves of incompetence in high places by other means other than natural selection; but the innatives have nothing to lose by this, since the alternative is universal extinction". I'm agreeing with the first part of this, however, what has brought you to conclude the second part? (I can't believe I'm saying this, me, of all people!).

Perhaps, it's "Not The End Of The World", as John, is forever suggesting? Could this be just more,"wishful thinking"? There is not a doubt in my mind that,"modern man" faces extinction, but I do believe that there will be "relatives" of us, who will emerge on the other side. Oh, oh, that might be suggesting linear thinking (other side?, threshold?) Perhaps, there are no other sides? Just a continious evolving?

John, this does not mean that I have given up on your, Catabolic Collapse. Hardly... I believe we could see the dynamics of both theories, each supporting the other. That is, I do believe there's room in Catabolic Collapse for a very sharp (not a bend) decline to be followed by periods of recovery and then perhaps not so sharp declines (more of a bend)as we make our descent. One thing is certain, we will not be able to feed the population that we have now on the same energy that we had 20 years ago, 20 years from now....

I think it may be premature, to assume that we'll have the same energy resources available 20 years from now that we had 20 years ago, for example (this resembles a bend). Sure that energy may be there, but will it be utilized at rates running in reverse? To assume a gradual rate of decline is assuming that there will be a gradual rate of change. There must not be any "threshold effects". I alluded to this point, time and again. I suspose, I'm not yet convienced that this transition from more to less won't be a threshold to bear.

It could be more of the same from me, not quite getting it, yet, and it's only taken me over 35 years to get what I have..... Rest assured, I look foward to learning from you, who has also that kind of time in it....

Thanks, yooper

Orion the Hunter said...

I read with satisfaction your post for its balanced views. It's something you don't get to see very often on the web. It's either mostly empty reports on the main media or overstated ones from alternative media.

There is one point in your post to which I'd like to make two comments, and that is when you bring famines from the 19th century into comparison with what may happen in the future. Although it is worthwhile to bring this to discussion, it's also important to keep the differences in mind.

I live in Brazil and I'm not sure if this is the same as in other (third world) countries, but I suspect the facts are quite similar. You are right on the point that famines occurred frequently decades ago, but this mostly occurred due to weather-related events. At someplaces, drought would eliminate agricultural production, in others it might have been frost or too much rain. However, as the hurricane season proves every year, it is uncommon for an area to have many bad years in a row, which meant that population could look forward for better results next year. You could migrate or "tighten your belt" with hopes that next year things would be back to normal. This certainly gave hope to people, and hope often makes people endure many things. Things may not be so "hope-inducing" in the famine scenarios we're talking for the near-future.

The second comment is related to the first one above, and centers on the fact that in the past, most people usually grew their own food and oftentimes shared with their community. If things went bad, they knew they could count on their neighborhood, or, if things were bad for everyone, they found confort on knowing everyone was on the same boat. As soon as things'd get better, they knew they could work by and with themselves to overcome their problems. These beliefs (trust on one's own work and trust on their peers) would give hope to them, and allowed them to withstand difficulties without desperation. Again, I'm not sure if this would hold in future famines, and that's why I think future famines are a greater problem than they were in the past.

The comments above do not invalidate your post, though, and I must say it was an excellent post. Thanks for sharing it with us.

John Michael Greer said...

Boomy and Ras, my prediction will come true when shortages of phosphate start seriously impacting the ability of poor countries to produce food. Unfortunately that's probably not far off.

Danby, good. I'll be addressing that next week.

Robin, every month or so somebody like you comes onto this list to insist that the twilight of our civilization must conform to whatever apocalyptic scenario their ideology of choice sets out, rather than following the same processed of decline and fall that has overtaken every other civilization in history. I used to take the time to explain the reasons why our situation differs in scale but not in kind from those past examples, but you know, it's a bit tiring to repeat myself for the fiftieth time. You'll find all your points covered in detail in the archived posts; alternatively, if you can handle waiting until September, my forthcoming book The Long Descent covers the same ground.

Dan and Stephen, nicely answered.

Yooper, I've also read Robin's theory, though I wasn't as impressed as you have been. Mind you, you're quite right that there will be periods of sharp crisis on the way down -- there always are, when civilizations break down.

Orion, both of your points are quite valid, but I'd point out that the current round of famines are just as likely to inspire people to tighten their belts and keep going as the ones that made some parts of the 19th century so difficult. Soaring grain prices are causing many farmers in the developed world to plant much more grain; the likely result is that prices will come back down -- and the collapse of the global commodities market will accelerate that by taking a good share of the grain market out of the hands of big corporations and speculative market forces. Then as now, societies are homeostatic systems, and react to pressures in ways that tend to maintain equilibrium.

yooper said...

Ok John. The dynamics in Robin's theory appear to be solid enough for me, valid. However, even though I have the equivalent of 4 or 5 years at the university in psychology and sociology, like I said, this is beyond my understanding. It appears this kind of thinking may be correct why civilizations decline, at least, this is what I'm told, especially from another intellectual out your way (in more ways than one), who I was mistaking for you...... It's only recently, that I came to realize this, my apology.

I'd like to remind everyone, that I'd like to remain open minded. By being so, it's gotten me this far. It could be my own lack of knowledge and understanding that knowledge, that I have a hard time following very valid concepts made by others...

Thanks, yooper

Dwig said...

Bill Pulliam: "However, there are some of us loyal readers who might be interested in discussing and even debating (in a polite and friendly manner, of course!) these matters with you, if you have some other forum where they are more appropriate." I'm one of those.

Megan: "if Astyk is right we should all be buying gardening supplies": that's the trouble in general with "one size fits all" advice (although I'm not sure that's what Astyk intends). If we all did the same thing, we'd be a monoculture, with its attendant fragility.

As John has pointed out more than once, what we should all be doing is a variety of useful things (although some of us may specialize in one area, and many in a few 8^).

Robin P Clarke said...

Thanks All for commenting on my effort. If ill-mannered tone was the only flaw in Danby's comment that might be ok, but without its combination with extremely imbalanced one-sidedness (hypocritical in effect though I appreciate it's not intended), I might feel more bound to reply.

I apologise that I am living in very difficult time-pressuring circumstances and don't have leisure to ponder at length, but I'll just reply to one theme that seems to be sticking in some readers' metaphorical throats!

This is the rejection of my assertion that there is no historical precedent/parallel for what is happening. Yes, I quite understood that there has been "peak wood" on Easter Island. But it remains the case that never before in history has it been a global, whole-planet system that is peaking. And never before has such a very exceptional fuel as oil been involved, which vastly has exceeded the erori and other convenience of previous fuels. As the crude awakeing video etc point out, for 20 cents you get several weeks human labour equivalent.

Again, previous societies have been complex, but not nearly so complex as this. Again, complexity can provide stabilising feedback, but it can produce (and is doing) precarious dependency like a stack of dominoes. Never before in history has so much of our lifesupport technology not been understood by so many people. There is simply no-one around who has a grasp of everything, not even of partial everything. An oilfield requires 500,000 parts to operate, I am told. And that's just an oilfield. Of the million people in this city, it is most unlikely that even a handful would have the knowledge and equipment to grow their own food if the imports stopped for any of a zillion reasons. And that's just food.

I hope sometime eventually I will be able to find the time to do justice to your discussions, but I regret I can't just now.

Just one point I'll add which is closely tied to the preceding paragraph. That is that we also now have an unprecedented information overload. No-one seems to have the time to properly distinguish between superficiality and reality. Peak information, peak time-pressure, peak superficiality and pretence are unprecedented severe problems which seem bound to lead to peak malfunction and thereby inevitable collapse of an over-complex and under-understood lifesupport system.

PS to John, No I'm not just another of those visitors who have made the same old errors. Rather I beg to suggest you are also suffering from peak info/timepressure and getting a bit stiff above the neck in consequence (aren't we all?). The greatest intellectual deficiency of humans seems to be the inability to unthink their prior thinkings.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, an open mind's a good thing, but when it's the same arguments being rehashed over and over again, sooner or later responding becomes a waste of time.

Dwig, good. One of the basic lessons of ecology is that the more diversity you get in subsistence strategies, the more stable and viable the ecosystem becomes.

Robin, all the other people who made the same points you do also insisted that their ideas were completely unique, and not to be confused with those of all the other people making the same points. It reminds me forcibly of that scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where the crowd, in perfect unison, shouts, "YES! WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS!"

One of the most ironic features of contemporary culture is the way that conformity so often dresses up as iconoclasm. The belief that our civilization will end in a sudden, total collapse is almost universally held these days, and has been rehashed so often in the media that it's basically become a cliche. Yet the people who argue for that cliche, one and all, insist that they're being original and unique and edgy. Sigh.

yooper said...

Hello John and Robin,

My education of resource depeletion and die-off began in the 6th grade, back at the old school house. Can you imagine this? I'm not trying to "one up" on anyone here.... This is a fact.
Even though, I've time and time again have referred to this, no one has EVER had the balls to question me of this! I suspose, people don't want to know...(this is after 250,000+ reads) If this is true what I say, what would that imply to you? Better think about this the two of you! (Better go to my site and really read this over and over, again and again, until you get this "thought exorcise".)

Anyone who thinks that the countries of the U.S.A. or the U.K., doesn't have "think tanks" is only kidding themselves (not that I'm apart of them)...

Might I suggest, John, that yes, things can go into a "hand-basket" and quick, here? Millions upons millions, upon millions could expire within weeks here, prove to me this can't happen? I've been here for a year.. (I know, that you know, this could happen). This is what certain govermental agencies (thinks tanks) suggest would happen under certain scenarios. Are you any brighter than these people? If so, tell me what you think the most likely scenario will unfold in the next ten years, not 50 years from now, nor 100 or 150?....... Perhaps, the information that you present has been hashed over and over and over yet again? Maybe, just maybe, you haven't seen all the information there is view? Think about this , eh?
You're definitly not the first person who has held a "long view". Nor the first to suggest not everyone is going to die. This long view was held before you were born,(before I was born)...... Can you imagine how many times I've heard this? Perhaps, you better inform Danby that yes, millions (not millions but billions, you know this is very likely) will die and you don't know if there will be a river of blood? Yet, I'm here, LEARNING from YOU. Rest assured, I wouldn't have my butt parked at your site week after week, if this wasn't so. I've searched the world over for someone, anyone, like me.........................

Robin, I don't know you except in probably passing (here?). Your arguement is solid on all points. If the people on this site cannot see this, that is their problem (I don't believe they've gotten your full message). Even though, this isn't my field of study (sociology), I've heard enough from other people proclaiming the same thing you are. However, what do you have to offer? How do you propose to change the hierarchy? And if this isn't possible now, then what makes you think this kind of information would survive on the other side? Would it even be relevant? I think not. And if so, I challenge you, to show me different! Don't give me that crap that you're too busy! You had enough time to come here in the first place, see it through! Look, I came here proclaiming that only 300 million (if that) would survive if a sudden crash could come about! I've yet to see any FACTS (and/or assumptions backed by theory), in supporting a sudden crash, from you...

To all,
Look, I've recently been accused of playing some sort of "game" (on Sharon's site by some idiot). I can assure all of you, this is no game for me (me, of all people know better), it's been an almost lifelong academic quest for me (at best), that is all. Some may consider this as, "bullshit". I've yet to meet the person to call me on any of this...........

Thanks yooper

Bill Pulliam said...

Often I think there may be a simple reason why the belief that "the End of the World is coming soon" is so attractive to so many. Consider the alternative: if the End is not Near, then that means that the world will continue pluggin' along, for years, decades, centuries, millenia after I am dead and gone. The notion that the day after I die, the sun will still rise, and existence will just continue on and on without me in it is a rather rude shock for the ego to absorb. I think most egos might prefer the idea that the whole world is going down, not just their own individual bit of it; especially so for modern secular materialist egos that have little faith in any sort of afterlife or other post-mortem continuation of individual existence.

[Post-modern egos, of course, consider "end," "world," "existence," etc, to be just culturally dependent subjective notions peculiar to each particular context and circumstance, thus devoid of absolute or universal significance anyway!]

FARfetched said...

I really have nothing to add to JMG's article this week, so I'll chime in on some of the comments.

Yooper: «I do believe there's room in Catabolic Collapse for a very sharp (not a bend) decline to be followed by periods of recovery and then perhaps not so sharp declines (more of a bend)as we make our descent.»

AKA the "shark fin" curve, as opposed to the bell curve. The same curve is suggested as a possible model for oil depletion in fields that have had advanced extraction techniques applied — once they peak, they decline quickly. The UK's North Sea fields are an example.

Quick collapses of animal populations are fairly well-documented; I just hope that we can rise above the animal level.

Robin: «Of the million people in this city, it is most unlikely that even a handful would have the knowledge and equipment to grow their own food if the imports stopped for any of a zillion reasons. And that's just food.»

Overblown? Filling buckets with dirt and sticking seeds in them isn't exactly rocket science or equipment-intensive, and can be done by any city dweller with a rooftop, balcony, or even a window. That handful of people who know how can spread the word pretty quickly; like I said, growing stuff isn't rocket science.

Neither is fertilizer: get a bucket with a lid, "do your business" in the bucket, then when it's half full you can top it off with grass clippings, leaves, or other dead plant matter, and snap the lid closed. Come back next spring. Rather smelly, but I think we all agree that the future won't be antiseptic.

Buckets are a throwaway item today, but I suppose "peak bucket" (or "peek bukkit" for LOLcat fans) will be a real problem when everyone's trying to grow enough food to survive on… it won't be enough to save everyone, but it might blunt the shark fin somewhat.

yooper said...

Hello John, Since I was a child, I've viewed extraordinary material. I've also conducted considerable experiments with myself, and others (some I can't tell you how ashamed, I am over this). Over the years, I've learned to suppress much of this in order to live somewhat a "normal" life. As I've said before, it's once in awhile that I take this out of the box and examine it once again, only to fold it back up neatly and put it back in the box.... However, having said that, there's not a day go by, I don't think about what the conseqences of this might mean to "industrail man", my friends, neighbors and loved ones. I wouldn't be "human" if this weren't so.... One of the consequences of this is that I have to sedate my mind to sleep, most nights.......

I cannot express the pain this has caused me and others. I know precious little about oil fields, energy, or how much "time" we have left. However, what I do know is that eventually our "industrial society" will run out of time as energy depletes.

I'm an extremely sensitive person. For one, I'd like to be extremely sensitive to everyone, whatever their position or situation may be. It's a very thin line to cross when juggling what one precieves as the truth, what is real(or to be real) and being sensitive to all...............

In closing, I'd like to commend you on your "sensitively" on this matter. This is perhaps the greatest lesson, I've learned from you.

Thanks, yooper

Bill Pulliam said...

Interesting the way people in the Dieoff camp seem to somehow think you are some sort of sunshine-and-daisies PollyAnna in your ideas of the future, JMG. I wonder if they have read your fictional future narratives, which are filled with hardship, loss, and disorientation; or your essays in which you discuss "depopulation" as one of the central processes in your Long Decline model (of course Yooper has read most of your writings, so that question is mostly rhetorical I suppose). Your "depopulation" scenarios include pretty much the same forces and phenomena on which the "dieoff" scenarios are based; the major difference may be just that you envision a longer and more episodic time frame. It is still war, famine, and disease; just not everywhere, everyone, all at the same time.

It is true that singular and unprecedented events do happen, both in history and in nature, very, very, rarely. But they are not generally your best bets when trying to anticipate the future. And indeed most events that are perceived as singular and unprecedented by the mass of people experiencing them in fact prove to have ample and lengthy precedent in the historical record, human or natural, if you study it well enough.

Around here we are *ahem* blessed with many aficionados of the New World Order school of apocalypticism. They of course see "peak oil" as just another part of the great socialist-totalitarian conspiracy engineered to enslave and exterminate us all. They, too, anticipate the eradication of most of the World's population in the near future, and by the same mechanisms of war, famine, and disease (and probably secret death camps, too). The primary difference is that they see this as being stage managed from above by the Trilateral Commission rather than a consequence of self-catabolizing environmental and economic collapse. Polar opposite world views as starting points, but the same end scenario. It's almost as though the apocalypse is taken as the starting point, and the rest of the social theorizing is structured primarily so as to reach this preordained end.

Panidaho said...

Farfetched said:

"Buckets are a throwaway item today, but I suppose "peak bucket" (or "peek bukkit" for LOLcat fans) will be a real problem when everyone's trying to grow enough food to survive on… it won't be enough to save everyone, but it might blunt the shark fin somewhat."

Buckets do make great self-watering containers for growing vegetables and herbs. You're right, even a little bit helps - I grew lots of stuff in containers in the days before we had a real garden to till.

On the subject at hand and the comments after: honestly, folks - all we can do on this is take our best guess. Some of us have very educated guesses (like JMG) and some of us have much less educated guesses (like me.) But in the end, this is a very complicated equation and I don't think we'll be able to see the full pattern of it until long after. I see Sharon's point of view, I also see JMG's. I don't think they are necessarily mutually exclusive scenarios. I do agree wholeheartedly that concentrating too much on exactly how this will all play out is a distraction we probably don't need. I find myself getting too drawn into it at times and have to sit back and take a breather and regain some much needed perspective. But I think we also have to acknowledge that everything about our current civilization is so much more intense than that experienced in civilizations past.

For instance, we now have a global, highly interdependent economy. Yes, Rome in its way controlled a sort of global economy - but not one that could potentially collapse in an eyeblink. We also have the potential for nuclear war. Yes, war is also nothing new, but the lightening speed with which we could potentially destroy or be destroyed is. The third area of concern is biological warfare. Yes, civilizations in the past had plagues. But now we have super plagues, and the means to spread the germs far and wide in literally days. We have billions of people, highly concentrated into huge cities living on this finite blue ball. We have lost the foresight of our ancestors when it comes to keeping stores of food for famine. Just In Time shipping has nearly eliminated having more than a few days worth of basic foods at hand in many countries, and even in many areas of this country. If something happens to seriously interrupt shipping on a grand scale, then people will die on a scale that has never been seen before in the history of our species.

These four differences in degree - to my mind - give our civilization at least the potential for a much more rapid and complete collapse than any the world has ever seen in the past. We are just so overextended in every way. While I agree that the most likely form collapse may take is the gradual stair step downward to equilibrium, I can also see the whole staircase being knocked right out from under us by the sheer weight of what we ourselves have created.

Stephen Heyer said...

What everyone who is looking forward to an imminent collapse and “the death of billions” forgets is just how resistant modern, industrial societies proved themselves to be time and time again during the Twentieth Century. They survived not only being smashed in Super Wars but even being on the losing side without millions dying of starvation.

Ok, everyone went hungry for awhile but people didn’t starve to death (except in places like some parts of Stalin’s Russia where it was intended). In some places there was outside help, in others less so.

On a scale much more like what will probably unfold in the USA, the economy in Argentina collapsed without people starving in mass on the streets. Things were and still are tough, very tough for some, but life goes on.

I’ve been in Argentina twice since the collapse, once just after it, and I can assure everyone that life does go on. In fact, Argentina, along with most of South America, is showing signs of recovery to the extent that the Twenty First Century looks like it may be the century of China, India and South America.

Sorry, but the most likely scenario for currently rich nations that have gotten too lazy, greedy and stupid looks like the long, boring, grinding “Long Emergency”.

Things that could change this are:

1. Bird Flue: If that baby ever happens to adapt to humans while we are distracted by depression and/or war, things could get real serious real quick.

Ok, we’d survive the first wave where it is estimated about half the population would get it and about half of those die. About any society can easily come through a 25% population drop fairly easily, yes it’s horrible at the time, but easily survivable. In fact some countries like China would take the population drop as a gift from the gods, be very careful never to let population get out of hand again, and never look back.

The real problem is if Bird Flue variations then became the common yearly flue (I read the common flue strains are about due for replacement). Even if the death rate dropped to around 3% - 5% humans just don’t breed that fast: Eventually it would reduce humans to small remnant populations or even extinction.

Which is one reason why I’m always carrying on about having to keep some technologies (immunization) up no matter what happens.

2. The other thing that worries me is the huge urban populations in some countries who for the last few generations have been trained for utterly useless jobs like running hedge funds or flipping burgers (ok, flipping burgers isn’t totally useless).

Like I said, I’m betting on “Long Emergency” for most of the West, a few nations to be hardly affected (the Nordic States?) and a few to suffer real collapses. But, even in the collapsed nations I’m not expecting “the death of millions”, unless Bird Flue or war intervenes.

I’m guessing, and guessing is all it is, that China, India and much of South America will emerge the winners.

John Michael Greer said...

Yooper, is it possible that millions of people could drop dead in a few weeks? Sure. Nearly anything's possible. Is it likely? No. All the arguments I've seen for that sort of apocalyptic scenario have holes in them you could fly a hippogriff through.

Bill, you're likely right that that's one factor, and possibly an important one.

Farfetched, making a container for dirt or a bin for compost is very easy, so I'm not too worried about peak bucket! Peak LOLcat is another matter...

Yooper, understood. I've lived with an intense awareness of the decline and fall of industrial civilization since my teen years, though I never had much use for medication -- the Stoic philosophers, especially Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, are my treatment of choice.

Bill, it's been a major source of amusement for me since this blog started that the Dieoff crowd call me a hopelessly optimistic Polyanna while the we-can-fix-it crowd insist I'm a hopelessly pessimistic doomer. What makes my message as offensive to so many people as it apparently is, I think, is that it's not lifted from the canned narratives of popular culture, the way the myths of apocalypse and perpetual progress are.

We've got the paranoid conspiracy theory apocalypse fans here in southern Oregon, too. It's easy to understand why that sort of thing is so popular; it's always comforting to be able to blame one's troubles on a scapegoat!

Teresa, the same complexity that you've labeled a source of weakness can also, paradoxically enough, be a source of strength. Think of the amount of discretionary energy use, or the volume of resources, that people in the developed world could do without in a pinch. The world wars and the Great Depression show what sort of strains industrial societies can absorb without cracking; we may be more complex than the Romans but we're also more resilient. That doesn't mean we can ignore the prospect of catabolic collapse; it does mean that the images of sudden collapse that are so widely circulated in popular culture have to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Stephen, we're pretty much on the same page, then, though to my mind the Long Emergency is just a stage in the long decline of the western world toward a new Dark Age. Still, that won't be global; it never is. I see China, India, and Brazil as the most likely contenders for major powers in the second half of the 21st century. They'll be getting by on much less energy, like the rest of us, but that needn't keep the world of the future from having lively international trade and complex politics -- just as the world before steam power was a good deal less backward than our self-congratulatory histories like to make us think.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Hurrah for the Stoics!! Actually a revival of philosophy, APPLIED philosophy, could be a growth industry for the future coping of American citizens, since meds seem to be so endemic and they will eventually be too expensive for this Ritalin and Prozac nation of ours.

Windowbox and bucket gardening is invaluable to supplement the diet and soothe the sense of loss of control, the reality is that lots of space is needed for true food self sufficiency. Even using the biointensive method of Jeavons and others, it works out to a need for about 4000 square feet of biointensive garden to take care of one's annual food needs. That's about 40 5 x 20' beds of vegetables, grains, root crops and composting crops. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step however, and I have an initial little 15 x 5' biointensive plot in borrowed space in another person's backyard so far, and a couple of containers in the window.

Also, in discussing the role China and India will have in upcoming years, I also predict as the U.S. fortunes decline in comparison, China and others will seek to buy up more of our croplands and otehr resources (lands with forests, ores, etc.) as no laws prevent it and they are doing so in other countries such as Cambodia in their drive for materials. This is what happened in Hawaii in the 1970s, as Japan bought up much of its real estate during Japan's period of prosperity. I would suggest to Congress it is in their best interest to make it illegal for foreign countries or multinational corporations to purchase and own U.S. land especially farmlands, forest lands, water rights etc. as we become more of a resource-shopping international bargain hunter's paradise. Yeah, I know it has happened already, but that is one loophole we had better sew shut very fast as the dollar declines in value. Many countries allow foreign investments or ownership in buildings, but exclude foreign ownership of lands. This is a real danger for our future, as arable lands and water becomes more scarce globally.

DeadBeat Dad said...

JMG noted that "...we may be more complex than the Romans but we're also more resilient."

On a strictly personal & individual level, I doubt it.

The average Roman adult could subsist on chicken scratch. He had survived childhood illnesses with no vaccines; years long forays (on foot) to the frontier for absolutely BRUTAL hand-to-hand combat ( with no bug spray); maybe a turn in the arena if he had displeased someone powerful; often terrible sexual abuse for women & children.

The protection of the laws was reserved for the Emperor and his favorites.

Your average Western couch potato today can't get by without the daily prozac or other pharmaceutical fix.

I think any resilience we have is our technological prosthetics. And if these support systems come apart, that will turn into an Achilles heel.