Wednesday, August 27, 2008

No Different This Time

The chorus of “Georgia On My Mind” that has flooded the Western media with broken-record persistence for the last few weeks, though it’s accomplished little else, has at least provided a few delicious snippets for connoisseurs of historical irony. We’ve seen the same politicians who backed the invasion of Iraq and the partition of Serbia insist that nations should not invade other nations, and that the territorial integrity of even the most jerry-rigged of today’s nation-states must be considered sacrosanct. Even by contemporary standards of moral posturing, this is breathtakingly ingenuous.

The Russians, for their part, are having none of it. The insistence of Western powers on treating Russia as a conquered province, rather than a proud nation with valid security concerns along its own borders, made an explosion inevitable; goad a bear often enough, and sooner or later it will turn on its tormentors. The war in Georgia, furthermore, is much more likely to be the beginning of a Russian response than the end. When the United States raised the stakes by signing an agreement to base missiles in Poland, the Russian government promptly replied by promising a military response. It seems unduly optimistic to hope that this response will consist of harmless gestures.

Amid the gunfire and oratory, though, a point with much broader application seems mostly to have been missed. Fifteen years ago, by most definitions of the term, Russia was a failed state, with a government coming apart at the seams, a military on the verge of mutiny, an economy being systematically looted by Western business interests and homegrown plutocrats alike, and an impoverished population struggling to survive in the face of food shortages, collapsing public health, and spreading pockets of local anarchy. All this followed one of the most dramatic discontinuities in modern history, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That collapse has been used as a central piece of evidence for the claim that other industrial nations, especially the United States, could face similar discontinuities in the near future. Uncomfortable though this suggestion might be, it has quite a bit of merit, and several recent books – Dmitry Orlov’s mordant Reinventing Collapse in particular – have made a solid case for the possibility. Still, that case needs to be put in a wider context. Two decades on, Russia is no longer the failed state it briefly became at the bottom of the arc of collapse. Resurgent, resentful, and by no means unwilling to use its substantial natural resource base as a geopolitical weapon, Russia is back, and its return to the international scene as a major player is just as relevant as its earlier collapse.

The Russian trajectory from superpower status through collapse, contraction, stabilization, and recovery makes an interesting contrast, in particular, with the more common imagery of collapse that circulates in the peak oil community and elsewhere these days. While the events of the Soviet collapse were dramatic enough, the things that did not happen during that collapse are in many ways as important as the things that did. Despite economic collapse, for example, urban populations did not turn into starving mobs roving the landscape. Instead, as existing supply chains broke down, local entrepreneurs jerry-rigged new ones, and the backyard gardens of the Soviet era went into overdrive to keep most Russians fed even in the darkest days of the collapse.

In the same way, while Russia’s social order frayed to the breaking point and entire regions became battlegrounds for warring criminal gangs, this glimpse into the abyss of a Hobbesian war of all against all was not followed by the vertiginous plunge into anarchy that plays so large a part in today’s imagery of collapse. Instead, the great majority of Russians responded by moving in the other direction, backing the reestablishment of state power in the late 1990s even at the cost of individual liberty. Given the way that the rhetoric of democracy had been used to justify the looting of Russia’s economy and natural resources in the decade before then, after all, it’s hardly surprising that a common bit of Russian humor these days twists demokratiya – the Russian word for “democracy” – into dermokratiya, which works out to “rule by excrement.”

More generally, one of the crucial lessons of the Soviet Union’s collapse is that it was a self-limiting process. As bad as it was – and as Orlov and others have documented, it was much worse than anything Americans have experienced in living memory – it did not keep on getting worse; it bottomed out, stabilized, and then gave way to recovery. While Orlov’s own take on the prospects of American collapse is much more nuanced – and, at least to my mind, much more realistic – it’s very common to see this side of collapse roundly ignored in discussions of the fate of industrial society in America and elsewhere.

In these essays, and in much more detail in my book The Long Descent, I’ve suggested that this gap between the realities of collapse in history and the imagination of collapse in contemporary culture unfolds from the presence of cultural narratives that were originally borrowed from religious sources and repeatedly mapped onto secular history despite their consistent failure to anticipate the shape of any actual future. Recently, that claim has come in for some sustained criticism, ranging from suggestions that it misses the real points at issue to claims that it’s simply a rhetorical straw man used to brush aside competing viewpoints.

It’s not surprising that an attempt to contextualize today’s peak oil debates in this way would come in for criticism. Still, it can be shown that talking about the wider context of those debates is neither an irrelevancy nor a rhetorical gimmick. Perhaps the clearest way to do this is to point to another example of the same phenomenon – one that, just now, shows the relationship of narrative to reality with unusual clarity.

Two or three years ago, it was quite common to hear people insist that investing in real estate was the opportunity of a lifetime, a can’t-lose deal guaranteed to make the fortune of anyone canny enough to get on board. An impressive array of pundits, many of them equipped with Ivy League degrees, backed up these claims with books, articles, and seminars arguing that a new economic era had dawned and prosperity was within reach of all. The few critics who challenged these claims were denounced, often in heated terms, for failing to notice the huge and important differences that distinguished the real estate boom from failed speculative bubbles of the past.

Today, with housing prices in freefall and most of the industrial world’s largest banks scrambling to stay solvent under a cascade of failed mortgage loans, it’s clear that the pundits were wrong – totally, wildly, disastrously wrong – and their critics were right. What makes this relevant in the present context is that most of those critics did not make their case by examining the real estate bubble in fine detail. Instead, they recognized the real estate bubble shared a common cultural narrative with every other speculative bubble in modern history, from the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century to the tech-stock bubble of the 1990s. They understood, as a result, that whenever anybody claims that a new economic era has arrived and some asset or other will increase steeply in value forever – no matter what the asset is, or what the circumstances happen to be – the proper response is to head for the exits as fast as possible.

This insight proved accurate because the arguments for a permanent real estate boom weren’t simply the straightforward response to circumstances that most real estate speculators believed they were. The speculators, and the pundits who encouraged them, were projecting a cultural narrative onto the inkblot pattern of a temporary and, to start with, relatively modest rise in real estate values. That narrative isn’t simply the generic conviction that real estate, or tech stocks, or tulips are destined to rise in price forever; it includes nearly all the rhetoric deployed in defense of that indefensible claim. (Read John Kenneth Galbraith’s trenchant The Great Crash 1929 and then look through the overenthusiastic articles on real estate that peppered the popular press in 2004 and 2005, and you’ll find any number of stock-jobbers’ claims from the flapper era recycled, sometimes word for word, for the twenty-first century’s first boom and bust.)

One of the essential claims made by the speculative bubble narrative, in turn, is precisely that “it’s different this time,” and the hard lessons of the past not only can but must be disregarded. Since any speculative bubble you care to name has some unique features – there had never before been a global real estate bubble, for example, and the ramshackle financial architecture tacked together to keep the bubble going was mostly brand new – it’s always possible to defend, at least to the satisfaction of speculators, the claim that the bubble in question isn’t a bubble and won’t pop. Events refute that claim over and over again, but it remains unassailable in each instance until and unless the underlying narrative is seen for what it is.

My argument, basically, is that the narrative of total collapse is another example of the same kind. Since the late 19th century, when religious apocalyptic began to lose its grip on the Western imagination, a narrative as stereotyped and dysfunctional as the narrative that drives speculative bubbles has circulated in the industrial world. That narrative claims that the world faces collapse of a historically unprecedented kind: sudden, complete, and final. Like the bubble narrative, the collapse narrative brings its own rhetoric with it, and applies that rhetoric to currently favored catastrophes – peak oil, global warming, the Y2K crisis, nuclear war, race conflict, every major comet of the last century and a half, you name it – in the same way that the bubble narrative applies its rhetoric to the asset class du jour. Like the bubble narrative, in turn, the collapse narrative always insists that the failures of the past don’t matter, because it’s different this time.

The narrative of collapse shares another feature with the bubble narrative: it produces consistently inaccurate predictions about the future. Again, people have been predicting collapse in the terms of the narrative for around a century and a half, using arguments identical in form to the ones now being used to justify the same predictions today, and the results have not exactly been good. This isn’t simply a function of the future’s obscurity, for other approaches – based on other, more nuanced narratives – have yielded better results. Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler both made predictions about the cultural evolution of the modern West, for example, that have proved quite prescient. For that matter, the central argument of The Limits to Growth – that unlimited economic expansion would bring industrial civilization up against hard planetary limits in the first half of the 21st century, leading to an age of crisis and contraction – seems far more plausible now than it did when first published.

This reasoning undergirds my suggestion that it’s crucial to recognize the collapse narrative for what it is, and set it aside as a guide to the future, just as anyone hoping to make sense of economics in the real world would be well advised to start by setting aside the bubble narrative. Insisting that it’s different this time, and a way of thinking about collapse that has consistently produced false predictions for a century and a half is going to turn out accurate this once, just doesn’t seem plausible to me.

I suspect Dmitry Orlov is right that America is facing a collapse along the same lines as the Russian experience. If that happens, though, it’s just as likely that twenty years on, something like the rest of the Russian experience will have replicated itself as well, and an approximation of today’s United States will have undergone some degree of recovery from collapse. Equally, other regions of the world will likely be experiencing their own trajectories through the twilight of the petroleum age, and some of those trajectories will include sudden downward jolts of varying severity. Over the long term, as I’ve suggested, all those trajectories will trace out a broad pattern of decline, but history shows that the decline of a civilization is a complex thing, and there’s no reason to think that it will be different this time.


Mary said...

Thank you! That hits the nail on the head. At last I understand why the bomb shelter that my parents built, the pails of wheat stored in nitrogen that I moved from house to house, were of no use. But Sharon Astyk has written something I find useful. ("Not Preparing, Living my Life") We will be poorer in "things" so get ready by living more simply now, and enjoy life.

David said...

Best. Internet. Ever.

Thank you for another nice hit of sanity, much in demand these days.

First post for me since the new guidelines. Nice. I like this bit:

I'm quite aware that the concept of polite discourse is hopelessly dowdy and out of date, but then so are a good many other things we will have to preserve, or laboriously reinvent, on the long road down from Hubbert's peak.

As Atrios, says, heh.

Between Eternal Growth and Apocalyptic Flameout, that's where you'll find us. It certainly meshes with my view of things: nicely caught up between happy-talk braindead and haut-gloomism, neither talking sh*t nor eating *t, sleeves rolled up and ready for duty. Sign me up.

Thanks, JMG.

Frank said...

Thank you for your perspectives and insights. Jared Diamond in "Collapse" paints a picture somewhat different from yours about the collapse of the Anasazi, the Maya, and the Norse on Greenland. Colin Turnbull in the "Mountain People" writes of his two years with the African Ik people in the midst of cultural collapse. I doubt their end approximated the recovery of the Russians. While your prognostications seem well reasoned and likely, in particular based upon your grounding in history, I would like to point out the future is fundamentally unknowable. With some confidence, one might even say, because of the nature of complex problems, even God does not know the future. While we know significantly fewer of the details, other collapses, seemingly much more catastrophic than the Russian one, seem to have happened in the past.

Bilbo said...

Personally I think the collapse that will occur in the USA will mark the end of globalization. The recovery that will eventually occur will vary considerably from place to place. Some artificial habitats like Las Vegas will never recover. Some locations will see a Camelot-like recovery depending in part on access to water and other resources. The USA will not recover as a whole the way that Russia has.

RDatta said...

Even the ArchDruid has suggested that a forthcoming change in the carrying capacity of the Earth would result in a correction in the world population. That would be a change quite different from anything in the recorded history of Homo sapiens.

This does not imply that it has to be precipitous, nor necessitating passage through a "bottleneck". The Descent could indeed be Long, and follow stair step pattern extending well past the lifetimes of individuals. Or at least, let us hope so.

Bill Pulliam said...

Suddenly I am reminded of a "Doonesbury" strip from the mid 1970s (shortly after Watergate), when Ginny Slade discovers that her bid for congress is being threatened by the Republican candidate, Lacey Davenport. Ginny exclaims, "Doesn't she know her party is dying?" Well, we all know how that turned out. And, yes, I am old enough to have read this strip in the newspapers, not just in the compendium volumes...

I've commented before that the imagery used in popular discourse and media for the collapse of civilization is all imagery taken from scenes of battle and crisis, natural and man-made disasters. We do see these scenes in the real world: Manhattan on 9/11/01, New Orleans three years and one week ago, etc. But these are scenes of urgent crisis, sudden catastrophe. The idea that this sort of anarchic chaos can and will continue indefinitely doesn't jibe with history, as JMG points out. The TV news phenomenon just seems to have increased this fantasy; this scene is almost always playing out somewhere in the world, and that spot is where you will find the cameras and journalists. Thus we get the false impression that it happens everywhere in the world, all the time, and will soon enough become the normal everyday experience for all of us. But people don't just stand around screaming, weeping, and throwing bottles forever. Soon enough they take stock of what is left, and try to piece something together out of it that at least allows minimal survival. Even in the "Mad Max" fantasy world they eventually formed towns powered by biogas ("Not s***, energy!").

John Michael Greer said...

Mary, I'm also a fan of Sharon's work. Dmitry Orlov makes the same point: make sensible preparations, and then cope as things unfold.

David, many thanks, and I'm glad you like the guidelines! I think you've signed yourself up.

Frank, Diamond gave far too little space to the Maya, and I'm not sure he was up on the latest research; the Maya collapse took well over a century and a half. Most of his key examples were very small human populations in marginal environments, and drawing sweeping conclusions on that basis is problematic.

Bilbo, globalization is already on its way out; lacking cheap abundant fossil fuels, it's an anachronism. As for the recovery or lack of same of the US, I'm not anything like as confident at making predictions as you seem to be.

Rdatta, Russia's going through a demographic transition that -- at current rates -- will reduce its population by half before 2100. The rhythm of collapse and partial recovery doesn't rule out population decline.

Of course you're quite right that on a planet that can support 2 billion over the long term, current population levels won't continue, but that doesn't require mass death; ordinary demographic shifts over decades and centuries will do the trick. Still, human populations have fluctuated sharply before now, and will doubtless do so again.

Bill, exactly. History shows that once the initial shock of disaster wears off, the survivors pick themselves up and get on with life. One of the things I like about Kunstler's novel A World Made By Hand is precisely that sense of getting on with life.

Alan said...

Just because assertions of the uniqueness of conditions underlying previous predictions of collapse have been shown to be false or at least overstated, doesn't mean that the current situation doesn't contain elements which are of a "historically unprecedented kind".

American "civilization" has reached its present level because of inexpensive energy more than any other single reason. There is no realistic prospect that such cheap energy will ever return.

When Westerners pick themselves up and begin to rebuild, the cheap "slaves" represented by boundless supplies of easily found and extracted petroleum (and other resources) will be nowhere in evidence.

Moreover, as Orlov claims, the Russians began their fall from a much lower (using the term loosely) level with much lower expectations and found themselves at the bottom with a much larger supply of petroleum with which to rebuild their economy.

A great many Americans believe that food comes from a supermarket or a fast food stand and haven't the vaguest idea of how to grow vegetables or grain. Russians were under no such illusions.

I suspect that if you handed a hungry Russian a spading fork, he would look around for some unused land to prepare for gardening or at least hire himself out to someone with a garden plot.

If you handed that fork to a hungry American, he would probably drop the dirty thing and try to trade you his I-pod for enough cash for a bucket of KFC chicken and a six-pack of beer. Or alternatively, he might use the fork to smash a store window and steal some food.

Cynical stereotyping, I know, but there is always truth in stereotypes or the wouldn't exist.

Megan said...

There are monotheists, and for them history is shaped this way: things begin, they rise to a peak, then they cross a threshold, and after that they continue on in the same unchanging state forever. Like a story - beginning, rising action, climax, happily (or otherwise) ever after.

There are pagans (I do not say polytheists or what-have-you, because they are defined by other things than their theologies, and I use a small P here for the same reasons I use a small M above), and their history is shaped differently. For them, all things go in circles. Trends rise, fall, rise again, fall again; nothing remains in the same state 'forever', but keeps retracing the same path it has covered before. Like the seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, spring again.

Our host is a variety of pagan, frustrated that he is surrounded by people who see the future monotheistically. He looks at our collective condition, and sees late autumn after the harvest is long over, and sets about preparing for winter. And some try to tell him, we have already passed a threshold into a new era, when winters don't happen anymore; while others are sure a threshold is fast approaching, after which it will be either winter forever, or summer forever.

And our host points out that, look, winter has always followed autumn before, and spring has always followed winter, and people who have expected anything different have always been wrong. And his opponents say, that's just it; once we cross a threshold, your pattern no longer holds true. And because this is an argument between different shapes of time, there is no resolution.

When I started reading this blog I was surprised than an Archdruid would make so little reference to religion. Now I realize that was naive; it's *all* about religion, because underneath the funny hats, underneath even the ethics and theology, religion is about ontology - the shape of reality.

Noah Scales said...

For me to square away your view that civilization will collapse (very slowly), that collapse could include:

* a reduction in technology manufacture, development, accessibility, maintenance, education and use.

* a simplification of fossil fuel driven global, regional, and local networks of information and resources.

* some collapse in national governmental authority.

It is true that reduction in technology use could accompany an increase in technology education (for example, the possible hundreds of millions of 21st century engineers who will use an elevated container to serve passively-heated water to their showers). Pragmatic criteria determine the technology suited to tasks (for example, sewing a rip with a needle and thread versus mass-producing carbon nanotubes for solar panels) when marketing influences do not dictate our technology choices.

Your argument seems to take us in a positive direction, toward an evolving civilization that continues to advance technology while its birthrate declines. However, despite short-term advances in conservation, long-term horizons of resource availability look grim. Technology advance could halt the stabilization of a global society that maintains its population to old age, controls its birthrate, and respects ecological limits relative to its population size.

Any alternative teleological focus for global civilization, such as one that presumes expansion and contraction of population, precludes either an advance in technology much past what we have now, or an advance in global culture enough to prevent wars and economic disparity. Putting that focus aside, though, business as usual should continue indefinitely.

For ethical reasons, you pursue advancement of our civilization by imposing knowledge of ecological limits and effective technology use on our current population because you want to preserve it. That's great, but our culture does not compare to Mayan culture.

Certainly, marketing and technology combined have destroyed many cultures over the last 100 years, but no one called them civilizations before. These days, where you live has less and less impact on the cultural influences available to you, so place has no necessary connection to culture. Personally, I welcome a shift in the long-distance influences that create my culture, particularly if ecological concerns shape the new culture transmitted through my educational networks.

Thank you for your educational and informative post, Mr. Greer.

Danby said...

I'm old enough to remember the '70s with their endless series of existential crises. By this point in our history we were supposed to have run out of: Food, clean water, oil, wood and clean air, leading to devastation, and total societal collapse. We were also supposed to have been destroyed either as a civilization or individually by overpopulation, nuclear annihilation, nuclear winter, revolution in the global south, earthquakes, a Velikovosky near approach, the coming Ice Age, and pollution. Even leaving aside religious claims about Armageddon, that's a lot of dying and collapsing that just never happened.

You'd think the fact that none of the predictions have come true would tend to damp down the public's enthusiasm. Yet there's an appetite for this stuff, as Gore's profits for An Inconvenient Truth show. I think that's because it replaces the psychological function of sin and repentance for the modern Creator-adverse reader.

John Michael Greer said...

Alan, every event has elements that are of a historically unprecedented kind, and stereotypes of the sort you've presented are poor guides to the future. A lot of Russians did the equivalent of window-smashing, too, just as a lot of Americans know perfectly well how to use farm tools. Nor is America as resource-poor as all that; if we used the same amount of energy per capita right now as the average European, we'd be a net exporter of petroleum.

Megan, excellent! Of course there's a pervasive religious dimension to the discussions here. What conceals it, more than anything else, is the fact that the dominant religion of the modern industrial world -- faith in progress -- denies that it's a religion in the first place, and so its proclamations of faith have to be answered on a different plane of discourse. Still, I don't think it's fair to monotheism to confound it with the sort of linear history into which it's been flattened by those who have applied Biblical imagery too literally to secular events.

Noah, it's a bit more complex than that -- you might find it useful to have a look at my catabolic collapse paper, which sets out the theory in more detail.

Dan, you left out Comet Kohoutek! Still, you're right, of course. In the absence of a meaningful sense of the sacred, modern people prop up the most remarkable range of things as surrogate religions.

green with a gun said...

It might be worth having a listen to Orlov's recent interview. The interviewer makes the same point, that the FSU had a recovery after a decade or so of misery, so might the US not do the same?

Orlov replies that the FSU's recovery has depended in large part on the Communist system's vast inefficiencies: because they were so bad at extracting oil and gas compared to the Arab countries, there's plenty left over for Russia to export today, winning it much income to rebuild itself. Had the SU been more efficient, that oil and gas would be gone now.

He didn't mention that the FSU recovery also depends on a large world market for those oil and gas exports. If people weren't burning so much of the stuff, then Russia wouldn't have had the money for the recovery.

So we can look at the US and ask ourselves if similar things are likely to occur. Is the US currently inefficient at extracting resources? Nope, it drags them out as fast as humanly possible. Does the US produce anything which is likely to be in demand in a fossil fuel constrained world (whether constrained by post-peak production or by avoiding climate change)? Nope. The difficulty is that the same things which cause a US collapse - fossil fuel constraints and climate change - will affect the rest of the world, too. When the SU fell over, the rest of the world was still around, at least as a market, if not to actually deliberately help them. But the things which knock over the US will affect the rest of the world, too - so where would the US get the funds from to recover?

This makes the prospects for a US recovery after a collapse much less shiny than for the FSU.

Nonetheless, the US has many things in its favour. It does have large amounts of natural resources, and large amounts of well-educated people who can organise things - this might be matched with a large number of very poorly-educated people, but so it is in India and still millions of them do alright and the country is a significant one.

The weaknesses really are in its social structures and defining myths. Race and class problems are very strong. And that whole "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, self-reliance is the American Way" thing doesn't work too well if you've been kicked out of your home and entire suburbs have the power cut off for non-payment.

So while I consider collapse as less likely than described by Greer or Orlov, I do think that if a collapse does come, recovery for the US will be more difficult than it was for the FSU.

FARfetched said...

Like Alan, I'm sure that Russia's relatively rapid resurgence was fueled (ahem) by the rising price of oil — just as it was oil, or the collapsing price of oil, that led to the Soviet collapse to begin with. That suggests an American resurgence could be similarly rapid: once energy consumption falls to levels that can be supported by production, we ought to see things stabilize and regroup. After all, we have resources that the Russians don't — is Russia still a net food importer? I also wonder about what things are like in Siberia and other parts of the country east of Moscow and St. Petersberg.

As for the roving mobs, that's just one more item in a long list of conservative fear-mongering fantasies. People tend to project their own faults onto the rest of the world: if people are of a mind to take by force what they can't provide for themselves, why then they'll expect everyone to do the same. The reality may well be, people (including them!) may simply try harder, dig deeper, and win a real victory.

As for the "polite discourse": Kunstler, or more likely someone pretending to be Kunstler, has begun demanding the commenters on his blog "elevate the tone of the discussion." But his own heavy reliance on gutter language and imagery sets the tone for the discussion. Sure, it's his blog, his rules, but you at least are consistent: you give polite discourse & expect it in return. No problem.

BigDoug1053 said...

Hello, John Michael. I appreciate your sense of balance and agree emotionally with your argument that innate homeostasis tends to regulate transitional processes. When friends who are in the panic stage concerning Peak Oil ask me how to process this uncomfortable knowledge, I usually refer them to you for some thoughtful balance.

At the same time, I do feel that what we face is an unprecedented crisis - primarily because of the immense size of our population, and the associated exponential factors that are speeding up all processes relating to energy and food. It's true that some will muddle through and survive just fine, but there will also be very rough spots for many. And I fear the rapid adjustments to new metastable states are still going to be serious crises, even if they are "gradual" from a historical perspective.

And given that few will respond without a crisis in active squeeze, how does one manage to advocate common sense preparation and planning for Peak Oil without warning of potential imminent calamity? Just like the speculators shilling tulips, the doomers are also acting in a homeostatic manner to sell preparation for the collapse.

Yes, both positions are exaggerations from the perspective of thoughtful reflection, but most people are not very thoughtful or capable of reflection.

tristan said...

I've read Orlov. He may not propose that we are all going to end up wearing mohawks and driving incredibly fast across deserts searching for gasoline but he also points out that there are scenarios in which things can get very grim relatively fast.

Of course that depends on really consistent, really bad decision making on the part of governments and people but looking back over the last 8 years that does not seem like such an impossibility.

It still strikes me that collapse is terribly relative. I don't expect to be living in a cave in my lifetime but I would not be surprised to see protests and riots in the street that could be worse then the King riots in LA. I don't believe that I will need to resort to cannibalism but I could easily see that we could end up facing food problems such as Cuba faced during their "special period" (which might not be bad for me I could lose 20 lbs and be healthier - but still that would not be fun). Whole countries could (and some like Haiti and Zimbabwe are pretty close) collapse into something that looks like a religious apocalypse.

Anyway the point is I can see some people living in the most devastated areas of the world or country saying "yes, this is it, this is the collapse I had heard is coming." While others might be saying "wow, this is awful but we will muddle through somehow."


Jeff said...

JMG, your insights are great, as ever. A level and calming voice is so appreciated.
Without disagreeing with your overall comparison to Russians experience, it should be pointed out that they came roaring back from the abyss due largely to their large energy reserves and their willingness to wield those reserves in their own best interests. Our decline, which has been going on to some degree for a few (20?) years, will not necessarily get that boost. And I suppose that a loooong decline without a big turn-around at the end is preferable to what Russia has gone through on more than one occasion.
Lastly, I might add that on any given day there are poor souls who are going through their own Apocalypse with famine, war, hurricanes, floods, etc. and they do recover.
Regards, Jeff

Murph & Freeacre said...

John and commentators,

I hope to add a little bit to the discussion.

One problem I see in talking about collapses of large societies is that the circumstances surrounding the collapse have similarities and differences. Both must be taken into account. Comparing collapse of Mayan society to American has few similarities. I suppose that is why I give Orlav credence. Lots of similarities and not as many differences.

It also appears to me that we have far more expansive reaching circumstances now, it is global. Previous collapses were mostly small regions. Even Rome was not global.

Another factor that might influence how collapse progresses is another different circumstance: Nearly instantaneous global communication. That was not possible before and might just speed up events considerably.

I am concerned that there are so many potential catastrophic events on the horizon, not just one or two. Civilization might handle one or two, but half dozen or a dozen?

Not much discussion of whether this is a planned collapse or not either. Just finished reading Sitchin and it makes me wonder. It is a tad difficult to argue with one of the worlds top authority on ancient civilizations.

I follow the view that if you don't know the blows coming at you, you can't duck and cover.

guamanian said...

Some day, the "This time it's different" doomers will be spectacularly right. A single non-linear species-terminating event (nuclear winter, global heating, GMO gray goo...) will happen. We gradualists will be wrong. Once.

This, after all, is why we're not sitting here discussing the issue over coffee with dinosaurs and really large pill-bugs... every species, no matter how successful, meets a slate-wiper sooner or later.

However since this only happens at the end of the show, there is not much point in using it a the basis for planning. Might as well acknowledge the wildcards, take steps to prevent them where possible, and concentrate on the range of futures that one can actually plan for, including energy descent.

But on to my main point: Doomers need not succumb to a lack of despair! There is one aspect of energy descent that JMG has touched on in recent posts that is likely to deliver all of the personal apocalypse anyone could ever want.


If I read JMG right, he believes that war-fighting may be more widespread in the decline period. If so we are in for a very, very rough time. Because war IS apocalyptic for the individuals and communities involved.

So far, for most of us in North America, war has been like DDT: a global product that we manufacture for export, but not something we are prepared to consume locally. But since modern war is an industrial process, it is subject to the logic of relocalization. In the future, war is likely to be manufactured and consumed locally, rather than than being exported abroad.

Initially, at least, energy wars will be fought by states and factions that have access to stocks of high-energy era munitions. A skim of recent history shows that this is not good. As a thought experiment, we might want to visualize Fallujah in 2004 or Hiroshima in 1945. But in our home town. With us and our families as the collateral damage.

Negotiating the energy descent staircase while avoiding war and atrocity will be a massive moral and practical challenge, and one we will likely have to confront again and again in the coming years.

The set-up for this is not encouraging. For the past several decades, times have been good, media has brought war into our faces, and we have had the leisure to contemplate it at length... and we still have not ended war, since peace might have been mildly inconvenient. It is hard to see that we will do any better when we are scared, hungry and cold... but we must try!

Matt said...

I think we do have tough times on the horizon, but I would hesitate to discount the human capacity for compassion as a check on chaos. I'm a legal services attorney in a cold Northern New England state. Last winter was bad, but the coming winter will really be a case study in incremental collapse I think. Most all apartments and homes heat with oil here, and people are worried. People as diverse as cops, clergy, tenant organizations, landlord organizations, state officials, the utilities, oil dealers and hippy lawyers are meeting and trying to plan for the winter.

Its not always about all against all as you point out. Things will change no doubt as a result of the end of cheap oil, and people will suffer, but it might not be all that bad in long run. People are tough and adaptable.


Bootstrapper said...

Hi John,

Thank you for another excellent installment.

I've come to the conclusion that 'collapse' and 'decline' refer to two different things; Industrial civilisation has entered decline, but in all likleyhood will endure for as long as 'fossil' energy (for which it's infrastructure is optimised) remains available. However, certain sub-systems within the Industrial paradigm - growth-based Capitalism for example - are likely to suffer collapse. These I think, will be the 'events' that Historians record, against the "plainer cordage of ordinary life" that represents the decline of Industrialism.

While I appreciate that predicting the future is by definition impossible, there is value in understanding the world, in realistic terms. A vague map is better than no map at all - particularly now that we're all having to navigate a treacherous passage of Industrial decline, littered with rocks and shoals of sub-system collapse.

The concern that exercises my mind, is that these unsustainable elements of our current civilisation - growth-based Capitalism in particular - are hardy plants (weeds?) that will take a long time to die. Growth-based Capitalism for example is mandated by debt-based money. This socio-economic 'common' is 'privatised' and it's 'owners' are unlikely to relinquish the power that accompanies this privilege. The outlook therefore, is for an unremiting cycle of boom-and-bust which will consume (waste) rescources that would be better conserved for the purpose of building a 'post-growth-based-capitalist' economic infrastructure.

Regards, Paul (Sydney, Australia)

Lionel Orford said...

John, thanks for another thought provoking post.

I agree that a full scale apocalyptic collapse involving decimation or extinction of humans is unlikely. However, the claim that the conditions we now face are unprecedented is correct.
• Never before have we based our entire food chain on a finite and rapidly depleting resource – all previous civilisations were based on renewable energy.
• Never before have we put such an extraordinary impact on our climatic system, causing such widespread loss of agricultural land.
• Never before have we grown our population to such an extraordinary number.
• Never before have we built a system of food production and supply so complex and therefore vulnerable to systemic failure.
• Never before have we consumed our stocks of natural capital (forests, fisheries, agricultural land and ancient ground water) on a planet wide basis in order to grow our population to such an unsustainable level.

Together these converging crises form a Sustainability Emergency. It is feasibly still within our capability to manage our decline by recognising the emergency and prudently managing it. However, it does seem much more likely that we are headed the way of Easter Island, which is the closest historical parallel that we have for the destruction of natural capital within a closed system.

Yes – a staircase decline is likely – but they’re very big steps – particularly the one we are about to take.

John Michael Greer said...

Green, the US has its own astonishing inefficiencies -- for example, we use three times the energy per capita of European nations to yield a standard of living that isn't even as high. We also have the huge and very unproductively used resource of America's agricultural potential; my guess is that in a future of high food prices, that'll be what pulls America up from the bottom of its approaching collapse.

Farfetched, well put. Most of the standard narrative of collapse is a projection of fears and fantasies about the present onto the blank screen of the future.

Big Doug, the problem with trying to scare people into making preparations for collapse is that it's been done so often, for so long, that most people nowadays just shrug and go on with their lives. Seems to me that it's time to try something else, and talking about historical realities rather than fear-based fantasies seems like a good place to start.

Tristan, of course collapse is relative! That's one of the central points I've been trying to make all along: it's not an all-or-nothing affair. Still, even in the places that undergo very harsh conditions, those conditions will not simply get exponentially worse forever.

Jeff, as I suggested to Green, food production will likely do for America what oil production is doing for Russia. It will also provide us with a geopolitical weapon parallel to Russia's oil weapon, and we will doubtless use it just as they are doing.

Er, Murph, I don't know any historian who considers Sitchin "one of the world's top authorities on ancient civilizations". I certainly don't; I find his claims wholly unconvincing, except as proof that you can rewrite Mesopotamian mythology as second-rate science fiction.

Guamanian, I don't think we face a despair shortage any time soon! Still, you're quite correct. I expect warfare, as well as less officially sanctioned violence, will play a huge role in making the bumpy road down the curves of catabolic collapse worse than it has to be. The US has assumed its own invulnerability to war on its own territory for far too long; whether we produce it ourselves or import it from abroad, warfare here in North America is far more likely than not during the Long Descent.

Matt, very well put. Yes, I think the response to the winter ahead of us may well be a gauge worth watching.

Paul, I suspect you're right that current economic arrangements will amplify the boom-and-bust dimension of the decline, for a while. Still, it's important not to put that in its perspective. As recently as the 1930s, free-market capitalism was on the defensive, and more nations than not had adopted state-controlled economies of one kind or another as an adaptive response to the Great Depression. My guess is that today's capitalist system may be an early casualty of the Great Recession now arguably taking shape on the economic horizon; Russia and China, not the US, are the economic models most other nations are watching just now.

John Michael Greer said...

Lionel, I think to some extent you're confusing differences of scale with differences of kind. The problems we face, compared to the scale of our civilization and the resources we have to mitigate them, are about as challenging as the problems the ancient Maya faced were in the context of their own geographical scale and technological means.

That being the case, though, I don't disagree that some of the crises that will punctuate the Long Descent may be drastic ones. Don't assume, though, that they'll hit everywhere at once with the same intensity. A calamity that pounds the stuffing out of one nation or continent may actually improve the situation of another, at least for a while -- just as the collapse of the Soviet Union probably played a larger role than most people like to think in making possible the last quarter century or so of American extravagance.

Danby said...

Those at the top of the ladder will give up power when it is taken from them. No sooner. The problem for them is that much of their power rests in the financial markets and the laws that uphold them. As the financial markets collapse, more and more of the financial elite are being forced out into the cold. IF the dollar should collapse (quite possible at this point) or the government (quite possible in the longer term), then their control is likely to be broken. The only hold the financial system has over individuals is the ability to foreclose their property, and the ability to deny credit. If you've already been foreclosed (a sector of the popluation that will only grow for the next few years) and there is no functioning credit market, what hold do they have?

Ultimately, in a democratic culture, when 30% or 40% of the population has been screwed over by the banks, people start looking for was to exact revenge. And no 30% is not an exaggeration. In California, right now, some 18% of homeowners are in delinquency. That number will increase as the prices of homes drop further and further.

The resource wars of the post-peak era have already started. The Us has been working intensely to isolate and threaten Russia for 10 years, buying color-coded revolutions, enticing former SSRs into NATO, making unkeepable promises to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Why? Russia is Europe's largest energy supplier. Why would the US care in the least about a tiny country halfway 'round the world? There's an oil pipeline through it. Why is one half the US fleet in the Persian Gulf right now? Iranian Oil. Why does the US have 120,000 US troops and 160,000 mercenaries in Iraq right now? Even Afghanistan is about keeping oil out of the Chinese market.

We are even considering a trade embargo against Iran. Embargoing Iran would be an act of war. The only two effective responses that Iran would have would be to refuse to sell their oil, or to interfere with the Gulf oil tanker traffic. Either course would likely push oil over $300/bbl. It would destroy the economy of the US, except of course certain parts of Texas, California and Alaska.

The US army and Air Force use 40,000 bbl per day in Iraq, but that's a small price to pay to control the world's supply.

Noah Scales said...

Interesting stuff, the catabolic theory.

Making sense of it, I get:

The US has a lot of W(c), and W(p), and a d(R)>r(R) for some resources.

Greater production efficiencies can raise C(p) above M(p) by lowering W(p).

Better recycling technologies can lower d(R) to equal or be lower than r(R).

W(c) can have a nonlinear relationship to C as C rises, depending on circumstances. For example, increasing the amount of food in a freezer reduces spoilage rates or the energy required to keep the freezer at a temperature, and population can increase while lifespan

A number of resources without definable replenishment rates influence the circumstances of our 21st century, industrialized society, including:

* climate change
* energy supply
* technology development

A change in culture can follow reduction in W(c) or W(p), despite the fact that C(p) might rise at the time. That is not equivalent to a societal collapse.

Please correct any errors you find in this presentation, if you have time, Mr. Greer.

Bilbo said...

I'm really curious. How do you see the US as a large food exporter without fossil fuels? It currently takes on average 10 cal of fossil fuels to produce 1 cal of food. Meat production has even a worse ratio. I am curious as to your point of view.

Many small farms? A return (shudder) to plantations with slaves or indentured servants?

robertmp said...

Lets say there is a re-build from the ashes 6 generations from now, built on scientific method, organic food, and slide rules. Which of the two camps does this outcome fall, apocalypse or perfection of mankind. I wondered about this while watching a kingfisher at my this eveing.

w g carr said...

Nice as usual, but donj't u mean DISingenuous?

RJ said...

I've read it posited that some of the current crop of recycled Reaganites were in fact responsible for the Saudis ramping up production in the early to mid eighties, in an effort to collapse world energy prices and thus deprived the Soviet Union of the one thing it needed most, hard currency. Sounds plausible, the concurrent collapse in Texas real estate prices being collateral damage.
Pardon my cynicism, but what is it exactly which will engender a recovery in the United States? Our debt levels and future governmental obligations are staggering. We import 60% of our energy needs and the populace (for the most part) seems oblivious to the hard realities now faced by industrial society.
Putin has penned a very telling opinion piece, in which he details what sets the United States apart. It's our propaganda system.

Frank said...

Richard C. Duncan, PhD has spent great time and attention towards what he calls the "Olduvai Theory". He uses just two variables; human population and energy. The result, energy per capita, when plotted for all human existence yield the left side of a bell shaped curve. Extrapolating the data beyond the peak (occurred about 1978)yields the "single pulse theory of industrial civilization", lasting from 1930 to 2030; the end point being defined by the collapse of the electric grid. The "cliff" begins in 2012. You can read the theory here

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, no argument there. Once a large enough fraction of Americans give up the last shreds of hope that the current system is capable of improvement, I expect an explosion.

Noah, technology development isn't a resource -- it's production of capital, and thus dependent on resource flows -- and nearly all energy sources used in the US today are being used at rates far beyond their replacement rates. The US also has a huge burden of unproductive capital to maintain, to the extent that maintenance costs have already outrun our ability to meet them -- thus the disintegration of infrastructure across the US. That being the case, we're a good candidate for catabolic collapse.

Bilbo, the US was a huge food exporter in the 1920s, when its agricultural system was powered by horses; furthermore, in a crisis situation you can bet that agricultural fuel to grow export crops will be prioritized -- and the US is still a major producer of petroleum, and will be for many decades more. My guess, as I've suggested in previous posts, is that we'll see the emergence of a two-tier agricultural system, with huge agribusiness farms turning out bulk crops for export, while most of the food Americans eat will be grown on little allotments and small farms. Cultivating a taste for potatoes and rabbit might not be unwise.

Robert, neither one. That's my entire point: there are more possibilities than the progress-or-apocalypse model allows.

Alfreddo, you're quite correct.

RJ, the US will deal with its huge debt levels and bloated government obligations in exactly the same way Russia did in 1994: by defaulting on them. The government bailouts that are eliciting so much angry bellowing from the right might best be seen as an effort to transfer as much debt as possible from businesses and individuals, who face penalties for defaulting on their debts, to the government, which can do so pretty much with impunity. Once the cost of debt service for overseas borrowing exceeds the gain from further borrowing, expect a default in short order.

Frank, Rich Duncan is a friend of mine and I've cited his theory in The Long Descent. You'll note that his theory argues that by 2030 we'll be back to something approximating the energy use per capita of 1930; that seems quite plausible to me, but it isn't the end of the world by a long shot. The British Empire rose and fell without ever passing that threshold, after all, and doubtless the Chinese empire of the 21st century will do the same.

nen said...

Hi John,

Great post.

In response to your statement that the US was a net exporter of food during the 1920s with only human and animal power available, might I point out that there was a population of 106,021,537 according to census, whereas now it is north of 291,421,906, and we have also built out over much of the good fertile land in the interim.

Danby said...

JMG said:
"The government bailouts that are eliciting so much angry bellowing from the right might best be seen as an effort to transfer as much debt as possible from businesses and individuals, who face penalties for defaulting on their debts, to the government, which can do so pretty much with impunity."

I think it's mostly about the financial industry privatizing profits and socializing losses, which they've been trying to do for decades. They finally got someone into the WH so unapologetically pro-corporation that they got what they wanted. Did you know that the recent housing bill was written by Bank of America? Right now, just about every financial institution in the world is trying to arrange their cards so as to avoid blame for when the global economy tanks.

Noah Scales said...

Hi, Mr. Greer.

Government and taxpayer priorities determine whether energy technology is developed and government infrastructure is maintained. While it might be true that the US middle class is giving all it can toward both taxpayer-funded efforts, corporations and the upper class do less than is needed.

There is a difference between limits on physical resources and limits on other resources, such as taxpaper priorities, political will, educated workers, and favorable climate.

The collapse of the US government is a scenario of personal and cultural failure. If collapse of my civilization requires that my government (the US government) collapse, then I think I would rather participate in a cultural shift toward frugality and low-carbon living, but stay an American. There's nothing in the US Constitution that says I have to drive a car or watch lots of commercial television, for example.

Have you written anything on the form of government you desire, or made any critiques of the form (rather than the corrupted function) of the US government?

roy said...

First off, I am enjoying and being rewarded by my reading of "the Long Descent". I do worry ,though, that the insanity of the american establishment could prove catastrophic. Even Obama is regurgitating the Russian "agression" mantra and we may find ourselves in a "hot" war. ROY

John Michael Greer said...

Nen, that's quite correct. Now please read the rest of my response to Bilbo.

Dan, granted, but offloading debts onto the government, which can default on them with relative impunity, is an aspect of that.

Noah, the main driving forces of the decline ahead of us are economic, not political. You may be willing to surrender a privileged lifestyle -- and yes, in today's world, owning a car and a television counts as a privileged lifestyle -- in order to keep what's left of your constitutional liberties; most Americans demand both, and as a result, will end up with neither.

Roy, put yourself in the shoes of the American political class right now. They're in control of a huge and crumbling empire on the brink of collapse; they know it's going down, and they know that if it goes down, they go with it. As the situation worsens, they're going to take bigger and bigger gambles -- if they do nothing, they fall, so what do they have to lose?

In such a situation, war is pretty much a foregone conclusion sooner or later. I've suggested that the era of warfare between 1914 and 1945 was the first period of crisis in the decline of Western civilization, and that the second period now upon us will probably be similar, if somewhat worse.

Noah Scales said...

JMG, near as I can tell, you are a patriot. In particularly, your work to create economic change, self-reliance, and a low-energy lifestyle among Americans contributes to the resiliency of our government and our people.

So, I guess all I can say is, thanks for being an American!

John Michael Greer said...

Noah, thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

I think I've just encountered the best example of the sort of dysfunctional apocalyptic thinking this post was meant to explore. Somebody has posted comments on one of the very informative Hurricane Gustav threads on The Oil Drum -- well worth checking out, by the way -- insisting that the economic damage caused by Gustav would cause the rapid collapse of industrial civilization. Now it's doubtless true that this hurricane is going to leave a major mess behind, and cause many deaths and quite a bit of economic damage...but the leap from that mundane reality to the collapse of civilization is as good an example of the dysfunctional narrative of fast collapse at work as I could have asked for.

roy said...

Archdruid, There's a terrific video on that points out that WW1 was begun with the U.K. invasion of Iraq to keep Germany from accessing the oil. The British and German navies had recently converted from coal. I do get your point about the elites wanting,needing to stay their course. I just have no sympathy for their predicament.

yooper said...

Hello John! Excellent article! Yup, I think you're right, it's no diffent this time. The dynamics of the former Soviet Union's collaspe, is yet another example of "Catabolic Collapse". As Japans finanical collapse of the early 90's. I suspect you're also right it doesn't really matter the size or scale of collapse, the dynamics are ALWAYS the same.....

However, I still think comparing the Soviet collapse to that of what might happen here, might be like comparing apples to oranges..First and foremost, (we touched on this last spring) The former Soviet Union could not be considered a "modern industrailized" country. As of the early 80's a couple of cousins of mine who were cheif engineers of US Steel we allowed to tour manufacturing facilities behind the iron curtin. They were astonished that for the most part these plants did not have more modern technology of mass production of uniform (standized) parts. This concept is so important to comtemplate when comparing counties or economies...No wonder, the people of Russia, adjusted rather well, with mass transit, backyard gardens, etc., there were living a lifestyle Americans were, 50 or more years ago....When comparing lifestyles or economies to ours, I would suggest, Japan might be a better example. Now comparing the former Soviet Union to Roman collapse, might make an interesting study. Both were weaken by internal breakdown of goverment and had to shed failing satelite states...

As a young pup(during the Cold War), I used to enjoy playing on the beach of Lake Superior, were I'd often gaze at the Soviet Union and China's "salties" transporting grain (mostly wheat). No such ships can be found today...

Another by product of the new modern industrialization was the green revolution. Again, this (green technology) was only realized after coupling electricifaction to machines capable of mass producing uniform parts.

Of course, it took time for other countries to adapt to these modern technologies. Now, in part, these countries like China and Russia can produce more of their own food, through industrialized farming methods.

It was very interesting when a gentleman from Russia whom had access to annual grain import figures and how this correlated to the new technology (green revolution), was being brought on line....(I'm not sure, but perhaps, this can be found over at Hanson's former site, Die-off.)

thanks, yooper

Pangolin said...

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

The concept of a general systems collapse is way overblown. What will happen, is happening instead is a series of isolations and retrenchements. A population gets isolated and a supporting system crashes. There is damage, some deaths and the system repairs and retrenches from the outside.

The problem is that as the tempo of these events goes up marginal losses increase and the retrenchments don't have time or resources to become recoveries.

This can mean an area losing roads vital to commerce or it can mean the world watching as Burma drowns. The cycle repeats numerous times until stability is reaquired at higher or lower levels.

This could mean a slightly shabbier city in some places or simple abandonment in others. We cant't tell from here which scenario applies to your city though.

yooper said...

Hello John! Can't wait to get my hands on your new book! I'll wait and get it over at the Boarder's in Ann Arbor, even though, I'll likely pay double for it. The fact, that I'm buying in one of the most diversified collegiate towns in the country, is well worth it. Good luck with it!

About apocalaptic visions, you once accused me of haboring these kind of thoughts (which kind of took me by surprise) as no one else has ever done so, (why you?)... My brother-in-law (whom is very deep in thoughts surrounding the apocalypse) and I had quite the discussion over the weekend about this...and brought up some views that I hadn't realized before....

He asked me, "Do I believe in the apocalypse?" I answered, that I do not, (and never have, or so I thought....)

Ok, I looked up the term "apocalypse" in my little dictionary and came up with:

1) a revelation; discovery; disclosure.
2)APOCALYPSE, the last book of the New Testament, called the Revelation of Saint John the Divine.

For those who are not acquainted with "Apocalypse", it basically proclaims that one third of the earth's population shall parish by war, while another third expires by starvation....

John, my question to you, isn't this somewhat similar to what you've been suggesting all along?

Danby,(my favorite devoted Catholic), isn't this, exactly what you believe will come to pass?

Thanks, yooper

M said...

This is a very insightful article, although I'm not sure we can say how long the Russian recovery will last. But I don't think that the article or subsequent comments fully address skepticism about the comparability of future U.S. agricultural production to current Russian energy production as an engine of economic recovery. U.S. crop production is also largely based on depleting resources, particularly: soil (both the depletion of topsoil and the loss of arable land to development); oil (which has already been discussed); and water (a significant portion of U.S. production in the west, particularly California, the country's richest agricultural area at present, is possible only through unsustainable irrigation practices that deplete the aquifers. We may still remain at a comparative advantage in food production relative to some other areas of the world, but it seems unlikely that current levels of productivity are sustainable in the long run, while, indeed, our own population has grown significantly compared to the 1920s. Attempts to divert food to export from home consumption could be likely to lead to some nasty and costly home front responses.

The current wild card vision is the mass utilization of GMOs in food production. The corporate (and scientific and other) proponents of biotechnology argue that, theoretically, varieties of corn, wheat and other crops could be developed to grow even in deserts, e.g., in environments, and with resource inputs that would would otherwise have previously been infeasible, and thus, that GMOs are the only means of resolving the coming food crunch, here and abroad. Environmentalists point out that GMOs are likely to make the environment and agriculture ever more vulnerable because of the likelihood of unintended effects on non-target species, on soil health, and because they can only increase the tendency to monoculture which in and of itself makes food production more vulnerable and less sustainable.

If I understand correctly, what you are saying when referring to two food production systems is that conventional agriculture will bifurcate into organic for home consumption and GMO for exports. However, the compatibility of these two systems is also something that is very questionable as we see oftentimes, with GMOs capable of knocking genuine organic agriculture out of the running because of gene diffusion. It therefore would seem that betting on the success of GMOs is more of a gamble than you appear to insinuate, both in terms of economics and ecology. While GMOs are a wild card and might possibly help in the resolution of food issues, that is certainly not yet a given. And the unintended consequences, as with many other modern techniques and technologies, may not necessarily be quite as conducive as we wish to a replay of the current (and perhaps temporary) Russian recovery.

John Michael Greer said...

Roy, the First World War was a good deal more complex than that -- still, energy resources of several kinds had quite a bit to do with it. As for the plight of the political class, I understand your lack of sympathy; still, when you're struggling to get by on a fifth of your present standard of living -- which is what the US population will have left when it no longer receives the benefits of empire -- I'll be interested to see whether your opinion has changed.

Yooper, of course the Soviet and American experiences will be different. The question is whether the differences or the similarities have more to teach us.

Pangolin, you've just summed up my theory of catabolic collapse in a nutshell.

Yooper (again), the concept of apocalypse has more to it than mass death, or even very fast mass death. I expect a population decline from our current levels of around 80% worldwide, but I expect it over a timespan of a couple of centuries. Nor do I expect any supernatural forces to take an active role in the process.

M, of course the Russian recovery is temporary, and ours will also be temporary. The process of the decline and fall of a civilization always has that sort of stairstep quality -- two steps down, one step back up, repeat as needed until you've got sheep grazing around the crumbling ruins of the Roman Forum. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Russian cycle of collapse and recovery and ours stay out of sync, so that they're strong when we're weak and vice versa.

rockpicker said...

Your proposal that agriculture might be this country's salvation resource by which our crash-recovering culture could pull itself together seems to beg a bit of 'filling out.'

How 'productive' will American ag be without the fossil fuel and petrochemicals upon which it's current performance has become so dependent?

True, Russian back-to-the-landers are proving they can feed not just themselves, but most of their countrymen as well. It's an accomplishment deserving praise and examination. Yet, I don't hear anyone suggesting Russian peasant farmers are expected to 'feed the world' anytime soon.

Also, let's not forget the not-so-small matter of having to deal with deservedly bad karma while attempting to pull out of the tail spin. We now have many enemies, and very few, if any, true friends.

Rarely, when the top dog goes down, do the others rally to its aid. More often, a new alpha male takes its place and the pack moves on. It's the way of the world.

Megan said...

I`m not overly worried about the role of GMO crops in all this, because that role is almost certain to shrink. GMO suffers from the two same basic problems as Western medicine, and will probably have a diminshed role in our future for the same reasons.

One, the obscene cost of scientific R&D means the industry needs to a) charge a fortune for the resulting product and b) court clients who can /afford/ to be charged a fortune, by catering to their interests rather than the interests of the impoverished masses. This leads to niche products for niche problems - instead of the masses getting their malaria treatments and drought-resistant millet, the wealthy get their cosmetic surgery and herbicide-resistant cash crops. In general, for-profit companies don't better the Common Good(TM) not because they're malevolent, but because there's not enough money in it to be worth their while. The original 'Green Revolution' came mainly from government-funded foundations, not private enterprise.

Second, the nature of both technologies makes them better suited to targeting specific, one-issue problems than to improving overall functioning. It's easier to attack bacteria with antibiotics than to fix a dysfunctional immune system; it's easier to breed for Roundup-tolerance than to increase overall yields. Where the problems are complex or the breakdown is systemic, single-issue solutions can only play catch-up. Medicine can only compensate so much for poor nutrition and sanitation or unhealthy lifestyles; altered crops can only compensate so much for a depleted environment and erratic climate. The worse the big picture looks, the less worthwhile it is to spend time and resources on what come to be seen as 'high-class headaches'. Already in many poor countries, people aren't given treatments that are technologically in their reach because they aren't expected to live long enough for it to be worthwhile.

Between these two factors, I expect expensive, research-intensive 'solutions' of limited applicability to ... well, let's be honest, to be tried on smal scales repeatedly, until the money runs out, before being abandoned. But abandoned they will be, not adopted on a wider scale.

As for the environmental concerns, I see the justice in some of them, but I think they are unlikely to prove as serious as people fear. When we modify creatures - by conventional breeding or otherwise - the traits we favour in them tend to reduce, rather than increase, their chances of survival in the wild; the more domesticated a species is, the more dependent it is on humans. And most purely human creations need constant maintainence from us to go on functioning, quickly breaking down in our absence. We just don't build things as resilient as nature does; look at the Biodome project if you want to see how artificial environments - or artificial communities - fare when left alone.

That's another cultural narrative our host might like to examine: the creation escapes the creator and runs amok, like the Golem. Many of our dystopian scientific scenarios centre around robots turning against us, or nanotechnology rendering the world into goo. Even where there are legitimate concerns - introduced species, nuclear installations - they tend to get couched in very horror-movie terms. While I think of it, this might be another Judeo-Christian thing - after all, by their lights, /we/ are the original creations that rebelled and ran amok. Your thoughts?

jevandorp said...

Been a thankfull and captivated reader of the ADR for some years now. Just read all the comments to this installment.

JMG, you say you expect: something resembling the war years between 1914-45, imminent US debt default, peak oil, and an 80% population reduction (albeit over centuries) yet you don't expect a *really* serious, unprecendented collapse of civilisation?

I find that difficult to understand.

I guess I repeat some of the commentators opinion above: What is unprecendented about the current risks to human civilisation is the global nature of them. Climate change, peak oil, US debt default, international terrorism, trade imbalances, resource depletion, ecological services depletion, pretty much every serious 'unsolvable' problem out there is a direct threat to the entire planet and all of humanity and is only getting worse.

I suspect that the US has a major role to play in how the explosive nature of the world situation assers itself in the next decade or so. I suspect that once the US finally falters, it will be much more than a localised national collapse. I think it will change the course of human history in many ways, none of them attractive.

I am still highly charmed by Robert Kaplan's book: "The coming anarchy" I suspect you might have read it also. Could you comment on that book? In what ways does you understanding of the current world situation and prospects differ from Kaplan's?

Best regards,


John Michael Greer said...

Rockpicker, of course America won't be top dog in the future; I expect China, and quite probably Brazil, to be world powers next. We won't be feeding the world, either; we'll be using our agricultural resources to bring in hard currency -- a term that will not include the US dollar by that time.

Megan, nicely put. The myth of the golem is far too rich to relegate to a comments page; I'll see if I have anything to say about it in a future post.

Jevandorp, I think you're getting lost in semantics. I fully expect industrial civilization to end once and for all, the way that Roman civilization, Mayan civilization, etc. ended. What I'm trying to point out is that the fall of a civilization is a long and relatively slow process, not the sort of sudden catastrophe so popular in the collective imagination these days.

As for the global nature of our problems, well, of course; a global civilization has global problems, just as a regional civilization has regional ones, etc. The pessimists insist that our problems are bigger than ever before, and the optimists insist that our ability to cope with our problems is greater than ever before. Both, it seems to me, are quite correct, because they're looking at two sides of the same thing -- the fact that our technology has more potent effects on the world than the technologies of previous cultures.

The ecological problems faced by the ancient Maya were as challenging to them, given their geographical scale and the reach of their technology, as the ecological problems faced by our civilization are to us. Differences of scale, as I've mentioned more than once, do not necessarily equal differences of kind.

Christine said...

Some 9 years on from the date of this post (I'm one of the many playng catch-up) - and several seasons of The Walking Dead, my teenage son suddenly lost enthusiasm for the zompocalypse upon realising that his mother wouldn't last five minutes. Quite sweet really.

In the real world, however, I am more concerned for my children than myself (taking genetics into consideration I may only have 20 years left). If they continue upon their intended trajectories, my son as a carpenter and my daughter with the stated intent of growing most of her own food - then all power to them. As a librarian I am intent upon stockpiling a personal collection of practical "appropriate tech" how-tos for them to take with them.

However, in my neighbourhood (New Zealand) it is probably far too easy to imagine that, for the greater part, life will carry on just fine, given that 60% of our current electricity-generation needs are met through sustainable resources (i.e. hydroelectricity). We are just as fossil-fuel-dependent as anyone though - our cities may be more compact and more accessible by foot or bike, but our economy is very much export-driven and that is going to grind to a merry halt with the exhaustion of fossil fuels, not to mention the supply of plastic this-that-and-everything-else! And as for what climate change will do to our hydroelectricity generation capacity only time will tell.