Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How It Could Happen, Part Three: To The Brink

This week's post is the third of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse.  As the war in Kenya reaches a climax, the action shifts to the United States—and to a president who has his back to the wall and very few options left.

Back in the United States, few people had any clear sense of how bad the situation had become. The major news media, as they had done for decades, accepted whatever came from the White House and the Pentagon at face value.  Internet news sites contradicted the official story in every detail, but the internet’s low signal to noise ratio made an accurate picture hard to assemble.  Still, cracks were spreading in the wall of denial.  The photo of the USS George Washington wrecked and abandoned on a Kenyan sandbar was an internet sensation; two members of the House of Representatives had called for hearings on the war, though their request was stonewalled by the House leadership; through the sullen air of late summer, a sense was beginning to spread that something had gone very wrong.

In the White House, President Weed did not need to guess.  Reports from the US forces in Kenya came in daily via the diplomatic line; when Nairobi fell, after a bitter three-day battle near Konza, a new line was jerry-rigged from Kisumu in the far west of the country. Most of the news was bad. The Chinese had brought in more planes, as well as air-defense systems that were making B-52 raids from Diego Garcia risky—two of the bombers had been shot down by surface-to-air missiles already.  Meanwhile, there was no way to get supplies in to the American forces and their Kenyan allies; another fleet could not be sent as long as Chinese cruise missiles might be waiting for them, and the loss of air superiority made airlifts equally problematic.

“We tried to get Predator drones in to hit their air defense radar, but they were spotted and taken out,” the DCI—Director of Central Intelligence, the head of the CIA—was saying.  “Chinese technology is, well, as good as ours these days.” What he was not saying, Weed knew, was that Chinese technology was better than its US equivalents these days, and half a dozen other countries had the same advantage.  The reason wasn’t a mystery, either; most of the officials in the room, starting with Weed himself, had taken donations now and then in exchange for promoting or approving programs that were far more profitable to their manufacturers than they were useful to the US military.

“The Chinese this, the Chinese that,” said the president’s national security adviser. “We’ve talked about them every single day since this started. We need to do something about them.” The vice president, sitting next to her, nodded, and President Weed tilted his head toward her, listening.

All at once, the Secretary of Defense decided that he’d had enough.  He slammed his folder of briefings down on the table, pushed his chair back, and stood up.  “You’re crazy.  I mean that in all seriousness.  Since day one you’ve acted as though nothing could go wrong, and when it does, all you can think of is doubling down.”  He turned to the president.  “Jim, you’ll have my written resignation tomorrow.”

“Bill,” said Weed, “for God’s sake, not now!”

“Personal reasons,” said the Secretary.  “Health concerns.  I’ll give you all the plausible deniability you want, but I’m through.” The door slammed behind him a moment afterward. 

*  *  *
Marines on perimeter guard spotted the messengers first, walking up the main road from Kitale under a white flag.  Word came by radio a few minutes later to GHQ in the town of Endebess further west, under the slopes of soaring Mount Elgon. The reply came back at once:  get a technical and bring them in.  The Marines had a few of the pickups left, though fuel was scarce, like ammo, food, everything else; they managed to scrounge enough gasoline for the trip, and sent the messengers on their way.

The technical skidded to a stop in front of a commandeered primary school not long thereafter.  Lieutenant General Jay Seversky, the American commander, greeted the messengers glumly. 

After introductions, the Tanzanian colonel who led the group said, “I think you know why I am here, General. You and your men have fought very well, but—” He shrugged.  “There is only so much a man can do.  The Coalition command has ordered a final assault on your positions.  I will not say when, but soon.  Maybe you will survive that.  Maybe you will survive the next one, too.  But—” Another shrug.  “The matter is settled; it is merely a question of how many more lives are lost.”

Seversky nodded, once.  “I assume you’ve got terms to suggest.”

“Of course.” The colonel pulled an envelope from inside his jacket and handed it to him. Seversky opened it, glanced over the sheet of paper, and nodded again. “I’ll need time to consult with my staff.”

“Of course,” the colonel said again.  “Twenty-four hours?  I think we can allow that much.”

When the men had gone, Seversky took the sheet of paper back inside.  The remaining officers of his staff and the commanders of the four divisions were waiting. He handed the paper to the nearest, waited until it had circled the table.

“Anything from Washington?”  This from Tom Blumenthal, the commander of the 101st Airborne.

Seversky snorted.  “They’re, quote, evaluating options for a relief force.  Unquote.”

“Meaning the bastards can’t do a thing,” said Blumenthal.  Nobody argued with him.

For a long moment nobody in the room said anything.  They were looking at Blumenthal, and after another moment, Seversky figured out why.  The 101st Airborne.  The Battle of the Bulge.  “Nuts.”

Blumenthal cleared his throat.  “If I thought it would gain anything,” he said, “I’d say fight to the last man. But—” His gaze dropped.  “This isn’t Bastogne and Patton’s not on the way.  I think we have to face the fact that we’ve had our clock cleaned.”

Word of the American force’s surrender reached the White House half an hour before the story broke in the international media.  It was a Tuesday morning in September, with the first hint of autumn in the air.  Weed stared out the windows of the Oval Office, wishing he could take that September fishing trip he’d planned months ago.  No chance of that, not now.  Grimly, he turned to his press secretary and told him to have the news media ready for an important press conference at 6 that evening.

Before then, he would have even worse news to face.

*  *  *
At 2 in the morning local time, Chinese special forces personnel left a submarine in the middle of the Indian Ocean and climbed aboard radar-evading inflatable boats. An hour later, they crawled up a poorly guarded beach near the southern tip of Diego Garcia and found hiding places in the thick jungle just inland. Silenced weapons and explosive charges were passed from hand to hand as the four strike teams prepared for their missions. The first explosions hit without warning; by the time the garrison realized what was happening, the heavily guarded island’s radar stations and air defenses were already disabled.  Ten minutes later a dark winged shape—the first of a dozen stealth-equipped troop transports packed with Peoples Liberation Army soldiers—came hurtling out of the night to touch down on the captured main runway. By dawn, the entire island was in Chinese hands.

As details trickled into the White House situation room, what kept circling through Weed’s mind was sheer disbelief.  Diego Garcia was the beating heart of the entire US Indian Ocean presence, a key logistics and intelligence center and a base from which B-52s could pound trouble spots from Africa to Southeast Asia.  Losing Tanzania was a problem; losing Kenya was a crisis; losing Diego Garcia...  He shook his head, tried to think.

“Sir?”  An aide had come in.  “The press conference.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.”  He drew in a deep breath and went to the door.

It was by all accounts one of the best speeches of Jameson Weed’s political career.  Extempore—he had drawn up a draft before the news came about Diego Garcia, but it was sitting on a desk in the Oval Office as he walked up to the podium—he sketched out the situation, explained what had happened in Kenya, denounced China’s behavior in thundering terms, and broke the news of the fall of Diego Garcia.  “Let the Peoples Republic of China make no mistake,” he said.  “The United States will not let this unprovoked aggression stand. We will respond with all the forces at our disposal. Nothing is off the table.”  He leaned forward, haggard and minatory.  “Nothing.”

Half an hour later, the American embassy in Beijing filled in the details for the Chinese government’s benefit:  unless China withdrew its forces from East Africa and Diego Garcia, the United States would respond with tactical nuclear strikes. The Chinese response was swift and public.  Speaking to a crowd of reporters, the Chinese premier informed the world tartly that China would never bow to threats, and that any attack on Chinese territory or military forces would receive a corresponding response. As he spoke, Chinese diplomats were making it clear to their American opposite numbers that “corresponding response” in this case meant Chinese ICBMs heading for American cities.

Later that evening, the president of Russia appeared on television screens around the world.  With Slavic bluntness, he brushed aside the evasions the other leaders had used in public.  “The Russian Federation has been informed,” he told the world, “that the United States has threatened China with nuclear attack.  Such threats are impermissible in today’s world.  It is therefore my duty to state that treaties between the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of China require us, if China is attacked with nuclear weapons, to respond with our own nuclear arsenal.”

*  *  *
No one who lived through the three days that followed would ever forget them.  Seven billion people who had come to think of mushroom clouds as a bad memory of the Cold War suddenly had to face the imminent prospect of nuclear war.  Defiant words from Washington, proud rebuttals from Beijing, and frantic diplomacy by the United Nations punctuated the panic that gripped the globe.  The words of the Emperor of Japan, broadcast live to a worldwide audience—“Japan alone among nations has suffered attack by nuclear weapons, and it is Our deepest wish that no other nation should share that same bitter fate.  We ask—no, We plead—that the leaders of the contending powers step back from so terrible an abyss”—spoke for billions.  Meanwhile, in missile silos, bomber bases, and submarines, young men and women waited for orders that, for all practical purposes, would mean the end of the world.

In the United States, civil defense plans dating back to the Eisenhower administration were dusted off and activated. One of them mandated that the National Defense Highway System—better known as the nation’s freeways—be closed to civilian traffic.  There were good practical reasons for that step, but nobody had thought about what would happen when millions of Americans tried to flee urban targets and found the freeways barricaded. On the first day of the crisis, most people were too stunned to do anything but follow the instructions that filled the media—stay put, seek cover, you are safer at home than out in the countryside—but the following night brought second thoughts. 

The next morning, people in large cities all over America tried to get out. Surface streets quickly filled up, turning into bumper-to-bumper jams that in one case stretched for forty miles. Inevitably, those who found that route closed turned again to the freeways, where police, National Guard units and Homeland Security troops in black riot armor manned the barricades.  The flashpoint arrived toward sunset in Trenton, New Jersey, where a terrified mob, convinced that the missiles were already on the way, tried to rush the barricades on the John Fitch Parkway.  Someone in the crowd had a handgun; shots rang out; an inexperienced Homeland Security officer panicked, and ordered his troops to open fire.  By the time the shooting stopped, thirty-seven civilians were dead and more than a hundred wounded.

The government scrambled to keep word of the Trenton Massacre, as it came to be called, from getting out.  News media had already been put under wartime censorship, and social media online were pressured into deleting references to the shootings as they appeared, but email and telephones were harder to stop. Worse, the lack of accurate information fed terrifying rumors.  As Americans huddled in makeshift bomb shelters across the country, it was all too easy to believe that a government willing to plunge the world into nuclear war might be capable of anything.  In the process, for a very large number of Americans, the United States stopped being “us” and turned into “them.”

That would have immense results in the near future, but there were also more immediate consequences.  In Austin that night, after a flurry of calls from worried constituents, the governor of Texas pulled rank on the phone company, got a line through to a business friend of his in Trenton, and obtained a good account of what had happened.  The governor could all too easily imagine what would happen if such an incident happened in proud, gun-loving Texas, and his next call was to Homeland Security.

The official cut him off halfway through a sentence with a brisk we-have-our-orders brushoff, and the conversation went downhill from there.  Finally the governor slammed down the phone with a roar of polymorphous profanity that left his assistants awed.  He flung himself up from the desk and paced around the room—a danger sign everyone in the state government knew and feared—and then returned to the phone, calling the old Army buddy of his who was the commander of the Texas National Guard, and the close political ally of his who was the head of the Texas Rangers. Both had been put under Homeland Security authority by executive order for the duration of the crisis, but a clash between Washington orders and Texas loyalties could have only one result.

Then the governor called Homeland Security back.  “You listen to me, sumbitch,” he said, stabbing the air with a finger the size of a sausage.  “You’re out of a job in this state.  The Texas National Guard and the Texas Rangers will be handling public safety in this state, under my command.”

“You can’t do that,” the official spluttered.

“Try me.”  Another jab with the finger.  “Get your thugs out of my state in twenty-four hours.  You hear me?  Twenty-four hours.” He slammed down the phone, hard.  Minutes later, on a new phone, he was calling drinking buddies of his who happened also to be the governors of half a dozen Southern states.

Across the nation, as the third day of the nuclear crisis began and the news of the Trenton Massacre spread, the same pattern played out on many different scales, and the federal government began to lose control of its security forces.  Police officers in some places refused to man the barricades or pulled them open and waved people through. National Guardsmen in some cities stayed in their barracks or simply joined the crowds, taking their guns with them.  Texas was openly defying the national government—the Homeland Security director there, after frantic calls to Washington, fled to Denver—and four other states were on the brink of joining in.

It may have been this hard reality, added to the other pressures he faced, that convinced Jameson Weed to take the only way out of the crisis.  That night, just before midnight, he met with the secretary general of the United Nations and agreed to a ceasefire.

End of the World of the Week #44

While we’re on the subject of ice, could we please talk honestly about the great global cooling scare of the late 1970s?  Yes, it happened; books such as Nigel Calder’s The Weather Machine, which publicized the threat of an imminent ice age, can still be found in used book stores and those libraries—increasingly rare these days—that hang onto books old enough to contradict today’s conventional wisdom; those of my readers who have the chance to visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum may yet have the chance to see a display announcing that a new ice age is on the way, with an embarrassed note taped next to it stating that this no longer reflects current science.

What happened was this: a number of climate scientists noted that global temperatures had declined somewhat between the 1940s and the 1970s, that it had been about 11,000 years since the end of the last ice age, and that the intervals between ice ages average around 11,000 years. They hypothesized, on this basis, that the world might be about to begin the descent into the next round of glaciation.  That hypothesis—quite a reasonable one, given the data available at the time—got picked up by the media and assorted science writers, and turned into something much more definite than a hypothesis. Before long, Time and Newsweek were announcing that catastrophic global cooling could begin within a decade, and science fiction novelists started setting stories on future Earths mantled in snow—Poul Anderson’s The Winter of the World was a favorite of mine, and indeed still is.

All that was needed to turn this into a good solid apocalyptic scare was a theoretical mechanism to allow an ice age to begin in less than a thousand years or so, and Nigel Calder provided it with his “snowblitz” theory—a proposal that heavy snowfall across the northern temperate zone could produce a feedback loop by reflecting too much solar heat back into space, cooling the planet drastically. Before long, large areas of Canada and Russia would be under permanent snow, with plunging temperatures worldwide adding to the fun. The math didn’t really work that well, but it made for great prophecy.

For a few years in the early 1980s, some people waited breathlessly for each year’s report on the planet’s annual temperature, expecting steep declines. Instead, the modest declines that had been ongoing since the 1940s turned around, and the planet began warming up instead.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


AA said...

Waiting with bated breath for Part 4 (and Part 5).

Mister Roboto said...

I know this is just a work of fiction, but all I have to say is, good on the American people for realizing that letting the nukes fly ain't the answer.

Thijs Goverde said...

I think this is what you call, in technical terms, a 'thumping good read'. I wonder at your last sentence though... If you had left it out, you'd have an amazing cliffhanger - what's the 'only way out' J.Weed has left? Is he going to commit suicide (technically, that is a way out of every predicament, so if you have only one way out that should be it, although it would be against character in this case)? Abdication? Ceasefire? Just go ahead and damn the torpedoes?
I kind of enjoy being, so to speak, cliffhung. So your last sentence, which had the president clambering out of the moral abyss he was dangling over, more or less had me going 'Whew' and 'Awww' at the same time.

Leo said...

Why a media blackout is the worst choice you can make, people will find out anyway.

At least for the USA the people found out by eachover as opposed to chinese propagandists or other insurgents/instigators.

I'd say its either not going to be a civil war or it will be short, the federal goverment barely has the power to fight anymore and what population backs it now?

John Michael Greer said...

AA, thank you; they're already written, and ready for posting!

Mister R., there's something about the thought of being blasted to smithereens by a bomb your own government's bad decisions brought down on you that just doesn't sit well with most people. Funny how that works!

Thijs, I considered leaving this episode as a total cliffhanger, with Weed's finger still hovering above the nuclear button, but decided against it. It's important for the broader storyline to watch the US government blink and back down -- that sets the stage for the consequences that follow.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, stay tuned!

Steve said...

The Diego Garcia invasion caught me by surprise at first, but given a moment's thought it makes perfect sense. A rising power would not miss an opportunity like this to take advantage of an adversary's fall, especially not one as careful as China with such a long memory.

The political implosion of the US is pretty clear in this picture: longstanding resentment of DC is a cultural phenomenon across most of the country, especially in the south and west. Once the jig is up militarily, the type of orders needed to maintain "order" would be the last straw for a whole lot of people. Whether the fractionation is immediate, complete, and permanent matters only in the short term - in the long term the cultural divide will become too strong.

The USSR had Afghanistan, and I guess in this case the USA has Tanzania. So far this story is uncomfortably believable, JMG. Well done. I guess tomorrow's as good a day as any to get the insulation put up in the basement and the leaves from the vacant house up the street into the compost pile.

John D. Wheeler said...

Thijs, I disagree about the cliffhanger aspect. Knowing that there are still two parts left to the story, I kind of get the feeling in a horror movie when you think they've just killed the monster but it's only an hour into the movie so you know something has to be coming...

As to the global cooling, I actually remember that personally, and I am not at all convinced that is not the natural trend. Factoring in peak oil, I think it's possible we may have just delayed the onset of a new glacial period by a few millenia.

Tim said...

A very entertaining piece of fiction! I can't wait for the last two installments. It feels like it all could happen so easily, especially with the escalation to the threat of nuclear war. It almost reads like it's actual history, but then I'm not surprised at all by that considering how much you value real history as a guide for what's to come.

John Michael Greer said...

Steve, thank you! The scenario needed a sudden shock to push Weed to the point of threatening nuclear attack; Diego Garcia was simply the one that fit the strategic situation best -- in today's world, China's already establishing naval bases in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to give it force projection capacity in the Indian Ocean, and Diego Garcia would be a prize worth having as well as a masterstroke against American interests. As for the insulation and the leaves, make that happen!

John, looking at the last ten million years or so of climate history, it's quite possible that you're right -- climatologists of the far future, distantly descended from raccoons, will note the sudden heat spike that happened before the next round of glaciation, and scratch their heads, wondering what caused it.

Tim, thank you! I'm tempted to do a sequel talking about the historical examples I used as models for the scenario; it'd be serious history geekship, but then I'm a fairly serious history geek.

Koshka said...

I see a film rights auction and a defense department consulting contract coming up.

Or maybe just more official scrutiny.

NMObserver said...

I really like the governor of Texax you've portrayed here. He's got backbone.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Well, this certainly keeps me coming back every Wednesday evening. :-)

From reading the comments, and in my own estimation, your closing paragraph is the weakest part of this installment. I think the problem is the next-to-last sentence: you imply an inevitability to this decision.

I don't think it's inevitable at all, or (for that matter) even all that likely. That's why your next-to-last sentence rings false.

I was recently skimming comments by Chomsky about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he managed to convey a sense of how very close we came to mutual incineration, largely due to an ingrained culture of the Divine Right of US hegemony in the world. We see no shortage of this arrogance in the current US government, and it is my general observation that people become more rigid (rather than more flexible) as you put their core unexamined assumptions under challenge.

It's absolutely fine that Weed backs down in the end, for the purposes of storytelling -- that's entirely plausible. What isn't plausible is the omniscient third-person commentary claiming this was "the only way out of the crisis."

My two cents.

Gary said...

Wow, I finally caught up with these fiction pieces, it is eerie and alarming how much of it reads like something that could really play out. Great work.

About the fracturing of the U.S., it's a subject I have thought about for a little while seeing regional interests diverging more than I ever recall, though I am fairly young (28) and maybe never noticed it before.

Living in California I am often shocked at how often I encounter other people online in other parts of the country that outright despise California, describing it in hyperbolic terms like it was some communist power elsewhere in the world. And already seem prepared to let it go despite being an economy about the size of France and where much of the salad greens and fruits are grown in the US.

It also raised my eyebrows recently when subtly inserted in a recent interview, Mayor Villaraigosa referred to Los Angeles and other mega region cities as "city states"...

Leo said...

If it does go for civil war it be interesting where the lines are drawn. And where the army chooses to side with, after the soldiers and generals are all from one state or another.

If i remember right, one of the civil war generals on the confederates side only joined because he didn't want to take up arms against his home state of Virginia, otherwise he would have fought for the union. A similar dynamic happened in the WW2 german forces (submarines i think).

At this point it dosen't look like any state earns from the federal goverment, just paying an overbearing beaucracy.

goedeck said...

"but email and telephones were harder to stop."

...also Tweets (e.g. this is how news got out of Bahrain when there were protests).

RickG said...

Great read, although I have to admit to feeling oddly uncomfortable throughout. I'm firmly in the anti-Empire camp, but the notion of America being defeated and humiliated made me squirm in my seat. I suppose it's a vestige of being a Boomer--coming of age in a time when we honestly believed we were always the good guys in sole possession of the moral high ground. (Until Vietnam, that is.)

gigglingwizard said...

That was terrifying!

Really, after the second chapter, I felt the story had climaxed. Our army got whooped, we lost the ability to dominate the world, China stepped in to claim title as the new hegemon. End of story. I wondered if you weren't going to be discussing an entirely different possible scenario today.

Instead, you pulled the trigger on what has felt to me for years like a situation that's waiting to explode into reality. I'm almost afraid to read the next part! It's like I'm four years old again, hiding in the back seat of my aunt's car at the drive-in showing of Jaws, saying, "Tell me when the scary part's over!" I don't think you were aiming to write horror, John, but you've clearly got a knack for it.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Wonderfully satisfying stuff, JM. Sort of Tom Clancyish, but much better, because of the realworld realism.

I notice a somewhat uncomfortable fact about my own response to your story, though, which may upset you and other USAmerican readers a little; it's this:

A lot of the satisfaction that the story gives comes -- for me -- from seeing the US empire begin to get its comeuppance, and all the overwheening arrogance of its protagonists -- the massed Clancys as you might call them -- having to confront a realworld nemesis which they never imagined to be possible. Oh naughty schadenfreude!

I suppose you tend to feel like that when all your lifetime, and longer, your own people have lived under the oppression of someone else's empire. Doubly so for such as me, with my patrial nations, Cymru and Eire, having been subsumed under Anglo-Norman imperialism for the better part of a thousand years (though 'Yma o hyd!' -- We're still here! -- as Dafydd Iwan famously sings*); and now included also into the province of the US empire which England and its rump-empirette have now become. Briefly...

It will be seriously interesting to watch the knock-on effects of Scotland's progress towards sovereign independence after the referendum in 2014 -- the seven-hundredth anniversary of Bannockburn -- on Cymru, on the foreign-occupied six counties of north-eastern Eire, and even -- in my fond dreams -- on Kernow; a little submerged Celtic country where I lived briefly as a child. (The white-cross-on-a-black-ground flag of Kernow flies constantly over Redruth town-hall these days; the union flag doesn't :-))

All of these become interesting live issues again, real possibilities taken out of the deep-freeze and thawing right now even if small, parochial and far away from your viewpoint, as the US empire begins its final death plunge, and its outlier provinces such as the wretched fake-democratic uk-state -- and apartheid zioIsrael too, of course -- are left totally without overlord support, like Wile E Coyote, feet spinning frantically in thin air over the void.

Interesting Times...


Mean Mr Mustard said...


Regarding history geekship, I was wondering if the Diego Garcia attack had been inspired by the Pebble Island Raid?

Whatever, a cracking read. You should expand it into a book, or maybe rework it as a 50 part blog story - 'Over Reach'...



Odin's Raven said...

American Peterloo?

Georgi Marinov said...

It is quite clear that in your scenario the nukes will not be used. But how certain can we be that this will indeed be the case in real life as industrial civilization falls apart?

You have been an outspoken defender of the slow protracted collapse view, and if there is indeed nothing qualitatively different about a global industrial civilization compared to all other civilizations who have walked the overshoot and collapse path in history, it is true that this is the more likely course of events.

But there is a qualitative difference and it is the nukes. There are two possibilities for their fate - they either get used eventually or they are dismantled and/or left to rot as the technical expertise on how to manufacture and maintain them is gradually lost. A lot of things will have to happen right so that not a single nuclear weapon is fired between now and the moment nobody has the ability to fire one any more. In your scenario, the war is averted because the people in power behave at least somewhat rationally. But what if the president is not someone named Jameson Weed, who would rather go fishing than have to navigate such situations, but a Michelle Bachman-like figure and there is no official threat sent to the Chinese but a direct strike instead (after all it's not as if the Chinese officially declared war either)? That there will always be at least somewhat sane people in charge in all nuclear armed countries is not something one would want to bet the future of the planet on.

jollyreaper said...

I want to see all the details that aren't shown because this ain't a doorstop book. The Chinese shouldn't be able to resupply much of anything in an open war, the US should be able to interdict on the high seas. But the same goes for the Chinese, they can threaten any vessel nearing the theater. This would make for a weird tactical situation but with the advantage to the Chinese of having prepositionsd critical supplies and fighting defense for a population that wants them there, relying on local ties and resupply, beans if not bullets. While both sides are in a rough spot with few resources, the US has it worse.

I also really want to see the calculation made in the highest levels of the Chinese political structure. This whole affair is one hell of a gamble and I keep coming back to the Japanese misread in the pacific. The Japanese were a local power who wanted to become a regional power, displace the old colonialists and become the new masters. They had a pretty good read on the commonwealth powers and at that could have forced the Brits out. They misread the abilities and will of the US. They also could not create a situation where we were forced to accept that we would lose more by fighting than surrendering. The Japanese national myth could not accept that foreigners had fighting spirit like the Japanese or the stomach to do what was necessary to hold on to empire.

. josé . said...


You might be amused by the timely coincidence of this week's Time magazine cover. It features a picture of Xi Jinping, and the tagline "... the new president who really matters."

Thank you for another great episode in the scenario. I would miss your thoughtful weekly essays, if it weren't for the fact that I still haven't read through your collection of published nonfiction.

John Michael Greer said...

Koshka, I wouldn't mind the film rights auction, but I'm not holding my breath expecting any of those three possibilities.

Observer, he's a Texas type. I modeled him partly on LBJ, partly on half a dozen Texans I've met.

Joseph, blowing a couple of nations to smithereens isn't a way out of crisis -- it's a way into much worse crisis. My point was that a ceasefire was the only way for Weed to extract the US from the mess he'd made.

Gary, California rubs a lot of people the wrong way. When I lived in a small Oregon town 14 miles north of the California border, people were very standoffish until they found out I'd moved there from Washington state, not from California. The Californian expat community there had a massive and, I'm sorry to say, well-earned reputation for arrogance and smug sanctimoniousness. I suspect it's the clash between regional cultures that makes a lot of people elsewhere in America wish that California could just pack its bags and go its own way!

Leo, you do indeed remember right, and it was none other than Robert E. Lee -- the Union offered him supreme command of its armies, but he refused to go to war against his home state.

Goedeck, true enough -- I don't use any of the avant-garde social media, so don't tend to think of them.

Rick, if it's making you uncomfortable, good. It's supposed to make you uncomfortable. Follow the discomfort down into the crawlspaces of your psyche, and see what else it teaches you about your unnoticed assumptions.

Wizard, thank you. The essence of suspense is upping the ante with every turn, and doing it in a way the reader doesn't see coming -- that's something every author has to learn sooner or later if he or she wants to get into print.

Rhisiart, I know the song -- my wife's family came from Caernarfon, and music from all the Celtic nations gets a fair amount of air time in our house. "Empirette" is a keeper, btw! As for devolution, I expect to see quite a bit of it in various corners of the world as the energy needed to maintain empires (or empirettes) on the current model becomes scarce.

John Michael Greer said...

Mustard, good! The Falklands war was in fact one of the models I used for this scenario -- notice the way that Argentina's defeat in that war led to a crisis of legitimacy and, not too far down the road, the collapse of what had been a relatively stable military government.

Raven, excellent! You get a gold star for historical awareness.

Georgi, I think it's quite possible that some nuclear weapons will get used in the next few decades. For reasons I'll discuss in detail in a future post, I don't think nuclear war on the large scale is likely except by sheer dumb accident. As I mentioned in response to an earlier post, though, there's no need to presuppose sane people in charge of nuclear weapons; Stalin and Mao were homicidal megalomaniacs in possession of nuclear weapons, and you notice that they didn't blow up the world. (As I commented then, they may have been crazy but they weren't stupid.) More on this down the road a bit.

jollyreaper said...

Comment continued. Still, this is all just the old geopolitics geek in me asking too many questions. For the purposes of the story, the how and why of an American military defeat really doesn't matter because we are looking at the aftermath on the American political structure. We have seen the myth of invincibility shattered. We are seeing the unspoken bonds that keep us civilized put to the test and snap. And what happens next?

But I still keep coming around to wondering just what the Chinese leaders were thinking. Bluff and gamble at the poker table is one thing but on the international stage when you cannot trust the other guy will see things rationally and do what you want... I'm thinking of mob and gangster movies where someone is presented with an out that will save his face and his life and he could take it but pride makes his own death with the merest chance of revenge preferable to life as one who has been unmanned.

What if the president called the Chinese bluff? We will make tactical strikes in the theater. Or what about a conventional cruise missile strike against the Three Gorges Dam? That could wreck their economy and kill millions. This is a nation with its back against the wall resorting to terrorism but calling it foreign policy.

Ugh. There's just too much to this scenario to be satisfied with a thumbnail treatment! Even if the military disaster were left out completely and the story consisted solely of a pov slice of life of a family that doesn't follow the news living through the end of belief in the American dream, a great constitutional crisis, only the briefest news clips of what had happened leaving the reader to infer almost everything, that would still be a big story.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

A gripping story and the best installment so far. Can't wait for parts 4 and 5.

I wish people would stop banging on about nuclear weapons as the ultimate fighting tool though. It is a bargaining chip and that is about all as once your opponent has them then the threat is neutered. The reason for this is that self interest is a strong driving force in people and this extends to their progeny which they are usually unlikely to put in harms way. Simple really.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey everyone,

I have a shameless plug for my latest article giving an update of all of the things going on here. It is Spring here too Down Under. There's also a bit of footage just at the end of the video of wombat here going about its business.

Fernglade Farm Mid Spring 2012 Update



John Michael Greer said...

Reaper, remember that according to the story, there have been previous near-clashes between the US and China -- one in Gabon, for example, where the Chinese backed down. Set in the context of a rising spiral of crises between the two powers, the Chinese government in the story sees a military clash as inevitable, and they've simply chosen the place and time where they think they're most likely to win. Yes, it's a gamble; most wars are. As for the rest, yes, if I had a book contract and a year to work on it, I could probably come up with something that would satisfy my own geopolitical geekhood, too!

Jose, I saw that! The article's funny, in an unintentional way -- the pot calling the kettle oligarchic and imperialistic.

Cherokee, true enough, but this is another of the many situations in which the apocalypse meme is distorting people's thinking. The temptation to twist history into a shape that ends with a really big bang is very deeply rooted in our collective imagination. More on this in that future post!

jollyreaper said...

@georgi some things will just amount to that's the story he wanted to tell so when several things could have gone different ways, they break the way he wants to tell the story. If we want to tell the tragedy of a great man, his flaws must destroy him. If they didn't it wouldn't be a tragedy. If everything went right or wouldn't be a tragedy.

Now the two ways something could be tragic would be 1) if it didn't have to be and isn't it a shame people made those poor choices or 2) it's inevitable and nobody could have done anything different.

The only obligation of the author is making the scenario seem like it could happen. Street thug rises to become biggest gangster in city? Long odds but it can happen. Poor kid from a poor state rises to become president? Long odds but you can sell the story if its written well enough. Al Capone becomes president? Not very likely. Openly gay man becomes president? Wow that would be really hard to write convincingly. Openly atheist anyone becomes president? Even less believable. Or with this crisis in particular, even less likely is the Techno-thriller solution where the whole conflict is nearly resolved with a daring aerial mission flown by warriors in high tech wonder weapons who can drop bombs in just the right place to fix everything, a Death Star trench run of American awesomeness.

Or to make another comparison, main character is cheated on by wife. Dies he forgive her or divorce her? Either scenario could be plausible but whether they are believable depends on how the characters are written. If the choice made doesn't ring true for the characters, that's not good writing.

Camillus O'Byrne said...

Well done JMG. Seriously, you have a best-seller here if you wanted to invest the effort into it. The time is right. You could do a bit of good with what that would bring, no doubt. Hang on to the movie rights.

For what it is worth, my long-standing observation (~40 years) is that the US is delusional in thinking it is a military (i.e. martial) power. That Americans are a martial people. Before anyone gets hot under the collar and all indignant and quoting this battle or that war at me, I'm not saying Americans aren't tough or aren't fighters. Sure they are - more than some . . . but not as much as some others. But as a people they have never had - and never had to develop - the qualities that define a people as "martial". Like the Romans, as a for instance.

The qualities that built their empire were indomitability, steadfastness in adversity and boldness. Now they were a martial people.

I say this as someone with military experience in an army small enough that it cannot afford the profligacy of granting subalterns the authority to call in a million dollar airstrike, but where it was actually expected that you have to think and fight your way out of tough spots. An army that has operated at close quarters with the US military over many, many decades and as a result has accrued a corporate wisdom that recognises that when the Americans are your allies you are much better off keeping your distance from them and engaging the enemy on your own terms. It is safer that way. No matter what your own politicians might say.

America's power is based on wealth. America's prodigious economic power has been projected as firepower at times, but firepower does not - of itself - represent military prowess. Much as many Americans would like to believe otherwise, they did not "win" WW2. The USSR won the contest on the ground by breaking the back of the Wehrmacht, with heartbreaking sacrifice and vast quantities of US supplied materiel. Japan was never an existential threat to the US, though they worked wonders militarily with many disadvantages. America became the global hegemon because they were the only major power not significantly damaged by the war.

Circumstances have been such that it has been possible to spin a national myth of warrior-heroes that in a time of decline can only serve to create the hazard that believing your own b.s. always does. That arrogance and misplaced pride always have. Of a very hard fall.

For outsiders with some knowledge of the US military, they have never deserved respect. US soldiers have been observed to be over-specialised in training, over-indulged and lacking in the basic skills of soldiering. US senior ranks are corrupt and thoroughly politicised.

(For an American insider's similar conclusions see David Hackworth's "About Face".)

Hitler's prophecy that Russia was a rotten structure that would collapse when the door was kicked in may prove to be much more true of the US. American wealth has cultivated softness. Dangerous when you like picking fights.

Phil Knight said...

Of course the intellectual progenitors of the British Empire were all either Welsh (Robert Recorde, Humphrey Llwyd), or of Welsh parentage (John Dee, Richard Hakluyt), who were able to expound their expansionist ideas to the sympathetic Anglo-Welsh Tudor (Tewdwr) monarchs of their time.

Dunno why some people keep insisting it was a purely English invention, tbh.

phil harris said...

What an amazing place, the USA. I have a vision of heterogeneous hundreds of millions living an apparently homogenous but wildly unrealistic dream life. Mostly cut off it seems even from the startling beauty if dangerous reality of the US natural environment. To try to make the world work like the inside of one’s own head looks a collective dead end. One can digitize rigid certainties as much as one likes, but they end on the same usual scrapheap. I have a vision of the US as an island surrounded by a vast and listening and much better informed world; out-there where pennies are dropping the whole time.
PS. Saw a program the other night on the archaeology and document translation of the Hittite empire. The latter whacked the Egyptian pharaoh by deploying superior rigid certainties and then pretty soon after disappeared out of sight this last 3000 years. They made an even quicker and more complete exit than the British Empire pulling the flag down in India.

susan said...

Although I've never commented previously, I've enjoyed reading your articles regularly for the past few years. Your willingness to share your deep historical knowledge and clarity in doing so is most commendable. This current story is a marvelously logical appraisal of just how many things are already placed in such a way to allow everything else to slip. I'm looking forward to the next part.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Gary and JMG

As to California versus Oregon and Washington, their English-speaking populations originally came from different regions of the Atlantic seaboard. Washington and Oregon were mostly settled from New England, but California (in its Northern and Central parts) was heavily settled from New York state. You can still see the traces of the two different settlement patterns in the fine details of the American-English dialects spoken on the West Coast.

On the East Coast New England and New York have scorned one another for centuries, and the attitudes just moved westward with the early settlers.

Evan said...

Very entertaining read, JMG. I have an alternative scenario churning in my head for how a shift in power could go from the US to China, but I want to wait for the last two parts to suggest that narrative.

Sixbears said...

This is in reference to your "end of the world week 44." In New England, especially where I lived in NH at the time, the winter of 68-69 was a bad one. The snow never seemed to stop coming down. We ran out of places to put it. Roofs caved in. There was serious talk about a glacier forming on Mr. Washington.

With that as background, it didn't seem to far fetched in the early 70s that a new ice age was on its way.

Of course, the future isn't what it used to be.

Robert Mathiesen said...

RickG wrote:

"the notion of America being defeated and humiliated made me squirm in my seat. I suppose it's a vestige of being a Boomer--coming of age in a time when we honestly believed we were always the good guys in sole possession of the moral high ground. (Until Vietnam, that is.)"

It may well be a generational thing. I am from the so-called Silent Generation, and I never could believe that the good guys would always win. WW2 was such a close call, and so much depended on chance and blunder. (If Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor, we might have sat the war out, or even entered it on the side of Germany.)

For me, this hard fact of history was best expressed by Tolkien, who in his wisdom had even Frodo fail at the very end of his quest to destroy the ring. At the end of the tale, none of the great and good protagonists, none of the virtuous characters, could save their world.

No, it was Gollum, with his base and desperate hunger, who saved the world, even though he lacked anything that we might call virtue. At the very last moment when everything hung by a thread, Gollum did what no other character anywhere in the story could or would ever have done, and he did it for the most wretched of motives.

This is how the history of our world, too, has always looked to me as it has unfolded through the long ages.

blue sun said...

Yeah, when I started learning about US's involvement in the rest of the world over the past 50 years, it never made sense to me why we would sell weapons to any other countries at all, let alone unstable countries who were hostile to us. And train them how to use it! Why don't we just invite some South American militias to run mock invasions of US soil and point out all our vulnerabilities? Who's minding the store?

It seems to me even a child can figure out that its a risky to your personal safety to arm random tribes and militias with your most advanced weapons. To say nothing of the adult notion (to those who follow spriritual guidelines) of the morality of making and selling weapons period.

I'm no military strategist by any means, but it seems common sense that if you possess superior weaponry, why would you give it away?

Its amazing to me how attitude trumps common sense precaution at the highest levels of authority. I think Bill Clinton's attitude towards Osama bin Laden in the 1990s personified the whole country's attitude at the time. There were lengthy interviews with bin Laden published in major national magazines, where he stated repeatedly, basically, 'I'm going to kill your whole family and destroy your entire country.' And I remember the national conventional wisdom (because it wasn't just Clinton) at the time was, "Oh, that's nice" (chuckle). Somebody somewhere in the bureacracy knew he had the capacity to do it. Clinton could have been the one to steal Obama's moment of self-congratulation and nail Osama. (Either Bush could have done it too.) But I think he really thought we were invincible. If asked, he probably would have said, oh, somebody in the CIA will take care of that. And it wasn't just his attitude, it was all of ours (at least those of us who were plugged into the mainstream media at the time).

Ian said...

My favorite installment so far, thanks. I think it is the snapshot of the sort of simmering tensions at all levels of the U.S., from the oval office down through the state and into town and the way those could fuel each other in surprising ways. Probably because my mind thinks more easily in those terms than in military ones.

It seems like the decline of the nation-state as we know it (as a node in an international network) can't be too much further beyond this sort of scenario. A few more decades on as it becomes clear the limited reach of the new's not easy to wrap my head around all that will shake out of that!

Sue said...

This is all too realistic and possible, and absolutely terrifying.

I cannot even imagine how horrifying it would be to have this sort of scenario play out. As a child of the cold war era, the threat of nuclear holocaust was ever present, and still is to a certain extent. I remember saying to my classmates something to the effect of "if the USSR bombed us with nuclear weapons, we should just surrender and not retaliate." My thought was that keeping what remained of the planet intact, and not killing innocents on the other side, would far outweigh the "need to retaliate." Needless to say, my sentiments were considered outrageous at the time.

Just as seeing the Earth from space was paradigm altering, if we as a species ever do use nuclear weapons (again), especially in quantity, with the modern more powerful ones, it is going to fundamentally alter how we see ourselves and the Earth.

These thoughts all make the logging operation happening next door to us, seem like a very minor problem.

Robert said...

Yes and Frodo and Sam don't kill Gollum even though he's a serious threat. It turns out that showing compassion is what saves the situation since on his own Frodo could not have destroyed the Ring.

steve said...

I'm so dumb. 3 weeks in and I only just got that "Jameson Weed" is a reference to a potential real-world Presidential candidate...

wvjohn said...

JMG - A fine yarn indeed so far, with so many possibilities. I suspect that would you likely see some interesting things on the micro level as far as non-cooperation with central authorities. As you have previously explained, the culture of the Appalachian region is distinct from the north and south and the masses heading east from the coast just might find entry into that region a bit more difficult than expected. A heavily armed population with good defensive geography can disappear a few bridges and fill in places where interstates cut through mountains with relative ease. On the cyber aspect, you might want to take a look at "Cyber War" by Richard A. Clarke, which provides a pretty good primer on the subject.

jollyreaper said...

, the Chinese government in the story sees a military clash as inevitable, and they've simply chosen the place and time where they think they're most likely to win.

Understood. I agree with Churchill's sentiment "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war" and generally regard war as a failure of human wisdom. So I'm not a proponent of it by any stretch.

With that disclaimer stated, I never trust any plan that relies on the enemy's cooperation. Beaten into the ground, utterly defeated, sure, he has a choice: unconditional surrender or death. There's no choice C, no Samson option of collapsing the temple and taking his enemies with him. If the answer to "But what if he doesn't go along with it" is "Let's hope he does," that's not any plan I want any part in.

All that being said, there's always the gap between theory and reality. The war college professor will tell you why you should never ever invade Russia in the winter, get involved in a land war in Asia or go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. And then the reality of the situation is you're forced to do something against your better judgment.

Come to think of it, in the doorstop treatment your admiral would probably be having exactly those thoughts as he's sailing up to the coastline, making a mental checklist of his known-knowns, known-unknowns, unknown-unknowns, and exactly how exposed and vulnerable his battle-group is. And when the you-know-what hits the you-know-what, he'll have a name for the scenario he's getting hit with. "Ah, so it looks like War Plan Yellow, Scenario 4. Ran that one and won it. Of course, I was playing as OPFOR then. Crap." Five minutes later he's one of the casualties. What we got of him in the thumbnail sketch was, by necessity, sketchy.

Someone going into a situation against his better judgment because of the mistakes of superiors he's unable to question, that feels real.

Hal said...

Well, now the role of Russia very much blindsided me. Very well done! It seems to me their role is absolutely crucial, but maybe not.

One could argue that the Russians would have more to gain by allowing the Chinese to (figuratively) crash and (literally) burn while taking out the top dog. But your scenario is at least as believable, and the more I think of it, the more so.

I have some more comments that come in the form of (mild) criticism and suggestion regarding your fiction in general, which I will post separately for off-list. But while in the mode of suggestion, might I suggest that this become another fiction competition? As you pointed out elsewhere, there is no end to the flashpoints and circumstances that could bring this about, and I think it would be interesting to see what others would come up with. If it means more work for you, forget it, but maybe some of us could pitch in to handle it on the Green Wizards forum.

Jim R said...

Couple minor nitpicks, but good read overall.

* the shelves in big box stores would be empty within a few days of an outbreak with China. Of course, you had the satellites going dark a couple episodes ago. Lots more high tech might start acting strangely as well.
* in Texas, the governor, for historical reasons, has relatively little political power. LBJ was never Governor, I believe; he was a Senator. Of course in this case, he'd have the gov'nr-lite, the sheriffs, constables, rangers, JPs, dog-catchers, and police behind him, along with the NatGuard. Texas has some *large* military bases, however, that are quite solidly in the grip of Washington.

Brother Kornhoer said...

I sense a second Southern seccession in the upcoming episodes.

This series and discussion that preceded it has made me think more than usual about regionalism, and how tenuous the bonds are that hold the dispirate parts of the US together. And the edges between regions seem more sharply visible to me lately. For instance, while camping in New Hampshire on the shore of Lake Champlain this summer, I heard an educated man expound on how important the battle of Plattsburgh was during the War of 1812, because otherwise New England would have become part of Canada. My internal reaction as a native Georgian and current Floridian was that it woundn't make the slightest difference in my life if suddenly I was transported to an alternate universe where New England was the 11th Canadian province.

More darkly, I stumbled upon an anti-Southerner diary on a well-known liberal website, and I was a bit taken aback by the hatred towards white Southerners which many of the site users exhibited. These same users showed no cognitive dissonance when they wondered aloud why Southerners don't vote their way, apparently oblivious to the fact that it's against human nature to make political allies with those who hate you. Many would be glad to kick the South out of the Union, expressing no concern about the fact that such a move would instantly create a neighbor with a powerful military, indigenous oil production and refining capacity, control of the Mississippi River outlet, etc.

Then I was in the bookstore and saw Colin Woodward's "American Nations," which openly discussed the US being an empire in decline and subject to breakup - it surprised me to see this in a mainstream publication.

It made me wonder about how an independent South might be governed - would the crazies be in charge? Would we see an exodus of intellectuals, bright young people, and minorities, the decline of our universities and creative classes, rule of the countryside over the cities? Or would pragmatists put an end to the political grandstanding to the far right, and fashion a reasonably tolerant and inclusive society? Would Southern women rise up to preserve their rights, the same way Southern blacks have organized to become an effective political force?

Thanks for the thought-stimulating writing!

Shauna Lynch said...

I like your regular blog format better. Here's hoping you finish this story quickly and go back to non-fiction.

Twilight said...

The military and strategic aspects of the story have been quite thought provoking, and I think plausible, but now we're getting to the part that interests me more: What happens at home and how that might play out. I think many of us sense the divisions forming and feel the social pressures building. At the same time the central government tries to assert ever more control and authority, the populace is going the other way and fragmenting along regional and/or cultural fault lines. Sooner or later this must be reconciled.

Odin's Raven said...

Surely in this story the Chinese have more freedom than some suppose, and the Americans can avoid an open war with them by sticking to diplomatic protocols.

Chinese forces are fighting in the Tanzanian livery and can be claimed to be 'volunteers'. As long as no obvious attack comes from China, the American government could accept defeat with what grace it can muster, claiming it was an unlucky occurrence in a minor theatre which got out of hand, and not worth taking further. An admiral might have to be sacrificed to carry the blame for his political masters (Byng/Pearl Harbor), but the public uproar would subside and politics would resume, probably with a little more caution for a while.

The Spanish Civil War allowed the Russians and Germans to intervene without themselves coming to blows, and despite McArthur the Americans did not attack China over Korea.

Both powers have the same strong motive to avoid direct conflict.

Michael Petro said...

Simply riveting.

Shining Hector said...

Hah, yeah, we Texans all know in our bones we'll be seceding one of this days. Probably has something to do with that year of required Texas history in middle school where they keep telling us we're the only state that joined the U.S. a sovereign nation and get to fly our flag the same height as the U.S. flag. And oh yeah, we can withdraw from the Union whenever we please. And something weird about splitting up into up to six different states whenever the fancy strikes us. Don't remember them ever addressing if the Civil War but the quietus on that whole bit, because we're all pretty sure it didn't.

Gary said...

@ Robert & JMG

On the subject of California and regional differences, there is probably almost as much difference between Northern California and Central California, and Southern California as people perceive between California and elsewhere. There are also strong inland vs coastal differences. It was not that long ago a representative from an inland part of the state seriously put forward an idea to split inland and southern California (except for LA country) off from the rest of the state (really).

As for my own experience, born and raised in LA county my whole life, it may be a strange place to some but is my sense of normal baseline. It has it's absolute arrogant side, but to me at it's best, it's about having a laid back attitude, live and let live.

I know in the long term LA is not a sustainable arrangement as it became vastly over-scaled for the carrying capacity of it's water resources, but I'm not quite ready to abandon my place of birth. For the moment anyways, LA feels like the best it has ever been in my lifetime, the public transit system has improved dramatically (though pales compared to LA in the 1930's), violent crime is the lowest it's been in decades, and after a time of healing following intense racial conflicts in prior decades (I was kid during the LA riots in Korea town), cultural fusions are now producing new wondrous things like Korean tacos.

I do really wonder though if that language of places like LA as a city state, might become a reality at some stage of the long descent, and what that means for things like coastal military resources based to the north and south of the region.

Odin's Raven said...

It's nice to see nuclear weapons discussed as something fallible rather than as invincible tokens of magical power.

It is even conceivable that they may not actually work as the public has been led to believe. Apparently in many tests their yield differed wildly from what had been predicted.There's even a strange idea associated with Bruce Cathie, that the result depends on the astrological conditions for the time of detonation at the target! Thus the choice of target is limited and predictable and possible targets might be defended better.

I love the notion that we could have an Emperor's New Clothes situation where most of the secrecy is to cover the embarrassment of all those highly intellectual scientists and so-serious politicians that their magical super weapons depend on much derided astrology.

Michelle said...

Scary and plausible. Beautifully written. You actually used a word I had to look up in a dictionary! *swoons* That happens incredibly rarely. (it was 'minatory,' in case anyone's curious)

Paul said...

As far as your end of the world bit goes,

Back in the 1970's, humankind was pumping collosal amounts of chemistry up into the atmosphere. We still do, but the composition has changed.

You see, back then, we weren't just producing CO2. We were also producing CFC's, Dioxins, and crucially, Sulphur Dioxide.

There is one significant difference in atmospheric CO2 and atmospheric SO2. SO2 reflects the sun's radiation. CO2 allows solar radiation through, but stops it escaping. So one is an agent for global cooling. The other is an agent for global warming.

By the early to mid 1980's we were starting to realise that what we were doing was affecting the global environment. From holes in the Ozone layer, to forests stripped bare by acid rain, to african famines caused by changeing weather patterns.

And so a remarkable thing happened. We made a fundamental global change. We banned CFC's as a refrigerant. We implemented measures to radically reduce the amount of SO2 sent up the chimneys and flarestacks of our industrial processes.

To anyone that believes that solving global warming is too great a task, and that we may as well just party on, it's a lesson that given the political will, big changes are possible.

So in the 1970's, there were two polluting processes that to some extent balanced each other out.

SO2 causing global cooling.
CO2 causing global cooking.

And then we took action to reduce one but not the other.

I wonder how that's likely to pan out?

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Here I show in a two-part posting how JMG's events-to-date are received in my imaginary Abbey of St Fictivia, somewhere in Canada or the USA. My references to "Z__" and Arkhipov-Petrov-Gordievsky are factual, as is the quotation from "Gaudium et Spes" ("The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this time, particularly the poor or those who are in any way afflicted..."):

Morning Office and breakfast concluded, our Abbot and his little family of a dozen monks, with me allowed to tag along as a kind of Noviate-wannabe, took themselves to our usual Chapter Room.

"Well," someone said in the ensuing free-for-all discussion, "things would have gone better if we had all been a bit more serious about the techniques of peace."

And so we talked about this for a while - how few institutes of peace research there had been in Canada and the USA; how few graduate schools had been offering "Peace Studies"; how scant had been the regard paid even by Bishops to Catholic Worker foundress Dorothy Day's principled stand against Truman's incineration of Hiroshima; how few people had taken to heart even the fact that the CP-USSR, the KGB, the Politburo, eventually yielded to nonviolent agents - with our own Polish pontiff acting in his own behind-the-scenes capability as just one of a whide, thoughtful grouping.

Although we at St Fictivia's favour a joyous Hebraization of our so-deadly-solemn Roman Church, we do try to keep up our Latin. And so we were happy enough to hear someone recall the sonorous opening phrases of "Gaudium et Spes", a Conciliar document from the Kennedy-or-LBJ era: "Gaudium et spes, luctus et angor hominum huius temporis, pauperum praesertim et quorumvis afflictorum, gaudium sunt et spes, luctus et angor etiam Christi discipulorum, nihilque vere humanum invenitur, quod in corde eorum non resonet."

On the theme of "pauperum praesertim" ("particularly the poor"), our Abbot remarked that it is the poor, the weak, the inwardly insecure, who crave military things, and that they have now a special call on our sorrowing sympathy.

Kurt Cagle said...

More! More! Looking forward to this coming out as a novel at some point ...

Absent human intervention from about 3000 BC on (the rise of agriculture), several climatologists have come to the conclusion that the global climate would be in a long term (10,000 year) cooling trend. Assuming Peak oil and AGW collectively knock civilization below a critical level, and figuring the 30 years for the Methane cycle and 100 years for the CO2 cycle to eventually clear the the greenhouse gases from the air (starting from say 40 year from today), we'll be looking at a positive feedback loop that should overshoot and start the glaciers moving back south again by 2150 or so. Humanity will get hit worse than Wile E. Coyote.

Georgi Marinov said...

Hal said...
Well, now the role of Russia very much blindsided me. Very well done! It seems to me their role is absolutely crucial, but maybe not.

One could argue that the Russians would have more to gain by allowing the Chinese to (figuratively) crash and (literally) burn while taking out the top dog.

A few decades from now, it is expected that a further warming climate and falling water tables will be seriously affecting food production in China while making Siberia an increasingly hospitable place. The Russians have always had this fear of a billion Chinese pouring into the thinly populated Siberia - I wonder how that would figure in any calculation of that sort that would have to be made...

John Michael Greer said...

Camillus, no argument there. America is a violent culture but not a martial one; we don't have the instinctive sense of discipline or the commitment to collective values to make really good soldiers. The lone gunslinger, not the legionary, is the classic American warrior type.

Phil K., yes, I figured Rhisiart's comments would get a response from the English contingent here!

Phil H., the current American state of collective delusion is fairly common in the last days of an empire -- a lot of people in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s were caught up in a fantasy of Britain's everlasting empire at a time when everybody else was watching the timbers crack. Spain went through the same process in its turn, and so on back through history.

Susan, thank you!

Robert, actually, the Puget Sound area of western Washington got a lot of its original population from the Ohio River valley, while the dryland half of the state was next thing to uninhabited until the Grand Coulee Dam gave a lot of Okies somewhere new to farm. It makes for an even more schizoid state than most!

Evan, there are any number of alternative narratives. There may be a contest coming up -- we'll see.

Sixbears, here in Cumberland everyone talks about the winter of 1977, when there was so much snow they took to loading it on deadheading coal cars and sending them down south to melt. I remember news stories from then, and how plausible a new ice age sounded just then.

Toomas (Tom) Karmo said...

Someone recalled how odd it was that, in the crises of 1962 and 1983, it had been lower-ranking Soviets who had quite efficiently worked for peace - in 1962 Vassily Arkhipov, by his countermanding a submarine comander's wish to detonate a nuclear-tipped torpedo against some American hull near Cuba; in 1983, Stanislav Petrov, who had refused to tell Andropov's top brass that certain (non-credible) computer software was postulating five incoming American ICBMs; and in 1983 also, KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky, who as double agent had signalled to Reagan's Oval Office the Kremlin's perilous misreading of USA intentions.

I then chimed in by relaying a hopeful remark from an ex-Soviet friend of mine, Z__. Z__, I noted, had compared the USSR rather favourably against the USA in one respect. Whereas, Z__ had said, many people in the West accept and endorse the locally ruling ideology (whereas, in other words, many inwardly assent to kinky Uncle Sam's "generalniye linie"), in the USSR cynicism was complete. In the USSR, Z__ had said, everyone - the Party members themselves, the dissidents, the ordinary miserable working people - everyone, right across the sorry Soviet board, knew their own local General Party Line was wrong. Nobody, that is, got suckered.

We talked some more about the end of the USSR, about (for instance) the "dear little Brezhnev packages", or "armsad Brezhnjevi pakikesed", that would turn up in the market in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic - a bit of sausage, a few additionaly revolting foodstuffs, maybe some safety pins and a spool of thread or a bottle of iodine or something - all packaged in opaque paper, to be bought for maybe a couple of roubles, in the expectation that when you at home undid your opaque wrapping, you would find at least a couple of items you could actually use.

And then someone started singing the Anthem, in the tempo you get at , fitting appropriate nonsense syllables to that most rousing of all anthem tunes - to that tune more rousing, albeit more fake, than the Star-Spangled Banner, more rousing-and-fake than the Marseillaise and Hatikvah and O Canada and God Save the Queen put together: "Bonkle de schtonkle de bonkle de HONG..."

At first it was done solo, almost like the Gregorian chant that is our meat and potatoes at St Fictivia's.

Then, however, fully nine of the brothers launched it in nine-part harmony, in high Renaissance style, in a polyphonic Vivaldian bravura befitting the Renaissance Popes:

Zong, zingle-zingle HONK de ponk,/
Zingle, zingle-thingle ZONK de plonk;/
THONGLE ga zoople da BLING-EE de-SCHLONG...

So began our working day at St Fictivia's, as the American Empire wound down.


Toomas (Tom) Karmo
www dot metascientia dot com
Toomas dot Karmo at gmail dot com
(near Toronto, Canada)

Glenn said...

Robert Mathiesen said...
"@ Gary and JMG

As to California versus Oregon and Washington, their English-speaking populations originally came from different regions of the Atlantic seaboard. Washington and Oregon were mostly settled from New England, but California (in its Northern and Central parts) was heavily settled from New York state. You can still see the traces of the two different settlement patterns in the fine details of the American-English dialects spoken on the West Coast.

On the East Coast New England and New York have scorned one another for centuries, and the attitudes just moved westward with the early settlers."

Robert, I would add that the early Anglo settlers in Oregon Territory (which included Washington) were primarily farmers from New England; the major Anglo settlement in California came in the gold rush of 1849. Regardless of origins, you have traditional rural farmers in the NW vs quick get rich argonauts and entrepreneurs in California defining their disparate cultures.

The history of my family (third generation Californians) belies this hypothesis, but the example of the individual does not necessarily invalidate the general. You may know more Californians than you think. When I retired from the Service and took up residence in Washington it was still common practice for immigrants from California to visit their Plastic Surgeon first to have the tell tale horns, barbed tail and cloven hooves removed.

Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Blue Sun, precisely -- there's a peculiarly American kind of arrogance that comes out of the national myth of equality: if you're way ahead of the game, since everybody supposedly has the same chance as everybody else, that means you're smarter and better than the others, doesn't it? Of course it doesn't, but try telling that to the true believers in their own sense of entitlement who dominate American culture these days.

Ian, the nation-state in its modern form is not long for this world, but then it's a fairly new thing; the older model of nation-state might be more resilient, but we'll see.

Sue, today's nuclear weapons are less powerful than the ones you grew up with -- as the technology has developed and missiles have become more accurate, the bomb geeks have moved away from extra megatonnage. That said, you're right that the next use of nuclear weapons is likely to be a major historical event.

Steve, it's a complex pun, and the botanical reference is the more important part of it.

Wvjohn, thanks for the tip! As for cutting off the Appalachians from the rest of the world, no question there -- if folks here decided to do that, it would be a piece of cake: a few blasts to bring hillsides down on freeways and rail lines, a few more to vaporize bridges in awkward places, and you're good.

Reaper, if the doorstop version ever happens, Admiral Deckmann's POV is going to be central to the early part of it.

Hal, as I see it, Russia has much more to gain by backing China and humiliating the US than by letting China get boxed into a corner where nukes might end up flying. An American president might gamble on a first strike against the Chinese nuclear arsenal in the hope of taking it out all at once; nobody's going to try that on Russia's nuclear force, because it's so big and dispersed that even a really effective counterforce strike will leave Russia with enough to bring the history of the United States to a sudden and incandescent end.

I'll consider a contest for end of empire scenarios, though I won't have the spare time to do an anthology this time around. As for your offlist comment, not a chance -- it's nearly finished anyway.

Jim, given more space I'd have had a lot to say about the economic and social impact of a proxy war with China, but these five episodes are already crammed. I wasn't aware of the governor's status in Texas -- hard to keep track of fifty different constitutions! Thanks for the pointer.

Brother K., stay tuned!

Shauna, you're outvoted. The first episode of this narrative, just two weeks after its publication, is already the fifth most read post in this blog's history, and rising. That said, I'll be back to nonfiction in November.

Glenn said...


As you know, I frequently disagree with both your historical analysis and your predictions, usually off line; you and I seem to interpret the same events in different lights. But I am enjoying this one greatly, have no quibbles, and wouldn't change a thing.

I don't know if it's the logic of the story, your caveat at the beginning (which many of your readers seem to be disregarding) or the power of your writing. But it's very good, and I think it's some of your best writing expressing some of your best thinking. To the point where, if you decide to flesh this out for publication I _will_ buy it in hardback. If it becomes a movie I _will_ watch it in the theater. Don't settle for selling the movie rights; hold out for royalties _and_ residuals.

Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, good. Stay tuned...

Raven, yes, that's also a possible scenario, but it's not the one I chose to explore. The US has shown a bad habit of doubling down on failed policy moves; I decided to use a worse than usual example of that to structure this narrative of imperial collapse.

Michael, thank you!

Hector, I have friends from Texas, thus picked up on that a while ago. Mind you, there are plenty of people elsewhere in the country that would be happy to see Texas go -- which is also part of the issue.

Gary, if it's your home, it's your home. You've got some rough sledding ahead, but for all I know LA may be able to keep going as a Chinese naval base after the US crumbles. Odder things have happened in history.

Raven, er, I'm by no means dismissive of the old wisdom traditions, but I'd want to see some evidence for the claim that the yield of nuclear blasts is dependent on astrological conditions.

Michelle, thank you!

Paul, that's an interesting theory.

Tom, good to hear from you. If there's going to be a scenario competition -- I'll be deciding if I have time to manage that over the next couple of weeks -- by all means consider entering it.

John Michael Greer said...

Kurt, it'll take quite a while for the glaciers to start moving; it's the sharp cooling of the northern hemisphere's climate that'll make for rough going. Still, the next million years or so may be very interesting indeed.

Georgi, another good reason for Russia to back China's reach for empire -- if all those young Chinese men are going to make their fortune in the new empire overseas, they're not going to be heading to Siberia!

Tom, okay, I don't think I'll ever be able to think of the old Soviet anthem in quite the same way ever again. ;-)

Glenn, the ones who get their horns polled aren't the ones who fed the southern Oregon stereotype. It's the ones who talk all the time, at high volume, about how they left California to get away from X, Y, and Z, and then go around complaining at equal volume because X, Y, and Z aren't there for them when they want them. As for the rights, no worries -- I've dealt with plenty of dubiously honest publishers, and never sign away all rights to anything.

Richard Larson said...

"What else are nuclear weapons for"? The infamous President Weed's last public utterance...

Nice twist including the Republic of Texas. The folks promoting the Republic even have a website.

wall0159 said...

One thing in this story that was quite noticeable to me was that for most of the time it was a proxy war, with Chinese soldiers fighting under Tanzanian colours. I know little about international politics, but this seems reasonable to me.
However, the capture of Diego Garcia by PRC troops without a declaration of war seems different. Is this the case?

I understand that the US has never formally declared war in a few cases (Afghanistan, I think?) so perhaps it has set a precedent for this type of action? Interested to hear comment on this issue...

Also, I'd be interested to hear what sort of force would be required to disable Diego Garcia's air defences -- this sounded a bit dubious to me. I would have expected such an installation to have multiple layers of highly-sensitive perimeter security that would be quite resilient to penetration in that way. Over-complacency? (I know a bit about the fall of Singapore)

Finally, Diego Garcia's capture would put Australia in a fairly uncomfortable position, I'd imagine, as the largest remaining US base in SE Asia (I think?), and a rich source of minerals and fuels. Anyway, people's thoughts on this would be interesting too...

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, nah, his last public utterance comes in a later episode. All in good time...

Wall, the US has invaded scores of countries over the last century or so without troubling to make a declaration of war, so I figure it's not out of line for the Chinese to do the same thing. Yes, it's upping the ante considerably for them to do so, but they have important reasons for the move -- tactically, it hampers any further US military action against China's East African client states; strategically, the Indian Ocean is crucial to China's own imperial ambitions, so seizing Diego Garcia gives them the same kind of advantage the US previously had there.

As for Diego Garcia's defenses, those are no highly classified; my guess, and it's only a guess, is that there are holes, and that a sufficiently clever and well-informed enemy could find and exploit them. The specific trick used by the Chinese in the narrative was inspired by the German seizure of the supposedly invincible Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium in 1940: in that case it was a small force of glider troops landing right on top of the fort, where nobody thought to put defenses, and using shaped charges to cripple the fort. That sort of unexpected approach has won a lot of battles down through the centuries!

Stephen Heyer said...

wall0159: “Finally, Diego Garcia's capture would put Australia in a fairly uncomfortable position, I'd imagine, as the largest remaining US base in SE Asia (I think?), and a rich source of minerals and fuels. Anyway, people's thoughts on this would be interesting too...”

Yes, we could see some very interesting political developments here in Australia.

On one hand, our ruling elites of both (slightly different) political persuasions (that’s all we have) are desperately attached to the USA’s coattails. However, I detect a gradual cooling of the public’s attachment to the USA and an increasing involvement with things Asian, including, perhaps especially including, China.

This could lead to a split between the rulers and the people with the people choosing to sit this one out and not behave hostilely towards our major customer for minerals.

After all, Australia has a long and highly successful history of attaching to the winner. If China is the obvious winner this time, then hey! their old mate down here in the South Pacific is all ready to help them build the Chinese Century.

Ok! Learning Mandarin as a second language is a bugger, but probably no worse than having to watch all those crappy American TV shows.

Dan said...

I think a more likely problem is the breakup of China, something it does from time to time and would be a disaster for the US. That is not to say that we are without warts, some of whitch you nailed. But the biggest reason it is in our strategic interest to avoid a war with China is that they may shatter into another stateless region. The peace of Westphalia is in the dock and that is the big problem we face globally.

godozo said...

Brother Kornhoer: Assuming a peaceful breaking away of the South from the rest of the nation, I would expect that the first few years you'd see something of an exodus of certain intellectual types from the South. Then, as the strategic importance of the south gets more noticed and the ephemerality of both the Bakken field and the Pennsylvania Fracking plays becomes more obvious there will start an evacuation towards the south of the better part (and part of the not-so-better part) of the northern population. At some point the southern elites will figure out ways to smooth the entry of useful northerners into Southern society while keeping out (or getting rid) of the "economically useless" portion of the Northerner population.

And if there's a battle...I would come to expect the capitol of the nation to move. Not too far, mind you – just down the road to Richmond, if you get my drift (you can guess where the Armed Forces' sympathies lie, in my opinion).

Richard Clyde said...

Canada is already rolling over and giving up sovereignty to the Chinese:

Once the treaty takes effect Oct 31, any company in which a Chinese corporation or public body owns even a confidential minority share will be able to bring secret suit, heard in secret arbitration tribunals outside of Canada, demanding compensation for any Canadian government action-- federal or provincial, executive, legislative or judicial-- that diminishes its expected profit or changes its regulatory environment. These suits, the decisions taken, and the damages awarded, will run into the billions of dollars, remain secret from the Canadian public, and will not be subject to judicial review.

I think the collapse schedule must be advancing quickly indeed.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Camillus--I agree with your read on the Second World War, but if Americans are not a martial people, why is it that we have been getting into a war on average every twenty years since the country became independent?

War of 1812
Mexican-American War
Civil War
Indian Wars
Spanish-American War
Great War
Korean War
Vietnam War
Gulf War
Afghanistan-Iraq War

I'm not including all the sideline invasions of small island nations and Central and South America.

Perhaps you meant to say that American culture does not cultivate military virtues. Except in some Southern states, that is certainly true and has always been true. It has not prevented the federal government from being engaged in wars of choice frequently, even before we developed a continuously operating war lobby.

As to American fighting abilities, I have no information. However, history shows that when the U.S. is at war with an enemy strong enough to defeat it, it usually loses most of the major battles for the first couple of years. Eventually the government is able to get the people behind the war and figure out a winning strategy. Then we either fight the enemy to a draw or trounce him. I would not rule out that happening one more time.

Snoqualman said...

Great little series, prompting me to venture my first comment here.

One big premise of your thought experiment here is the fact that many, maybe most, of the Empire's expensive weapons are really of use only against people who can't shoot back. No better example than aircraft carriers, the prime example of the generals, or admirals in this case, fighting the last war.

Thirty years ago during the Falklands war it was shown just how vulnerable warships are to relatively cheap cruise missiles, as Argentine Exocets sank the Queen's ships. I believe the Royal Navy was able to quickly get the French to deliver up the means of disabling the threat. No such luck for your imaginary American fleet here.

It almost beggars belief, but don't they know that their fancy carriers could be easily sunk by cheap missiles? Surely the more intelligent people in the military must realize this. But yet they sail on. Your unbelievable scenario is all too believable. I guess reality can be ignored, but not the consequences of ignoring reality. People can convince themselves that anything is true if it fits their worldview. "The Iraqis will welcome us as liberators...."

Thanks much.

Matt and Jess said...

Hi there ... I'm enjoying this story immensely. Can't wait for the next installments. I feel my lack of American history education very strongly, however...

We recently relocated to southern Appalachia (pronounced Appa-LATCH-a here!) and I can definitely see the closing off of the mountain roads, and importantly, the people here would be able to survive. It's crazy verdant in the summer and fruitful, and water is everywhere. I do get the feeling that it's southern but not southern at the same time, and there's also a pretty big local herbal tradition and foragers, etc.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

The meme is a scary one.

On a different note, in the fictional scenario the federal government is pursuing a short term goal of obtaining resources by pillaging other countries resources.

In doing so, they almost (I haven't seen parts 4 and 5 yet - any hints please?) lose their own legitimacy and are almost unseated.

The implications are fascinating and it must have been based on historical accounts? At least they must have been in the back of your mind when you wrote it?

Yes, we listen to, feed and support the chiefs and priests as long as they deliver the goods. Heaven help them if they don't deliver though and there are too many hungry mouths to feed.

I wonder at what point in history our leaders stopped focusing on long term solutions in favour of short term solutions?

Your blog is a thought provoking as usual.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi jollyreaper,

Err, our current prime minister is openly atheist and no seems to have much drama about that.

A couple of years back a dirt unit dug up a story about the previous prime minister visiting a strip club and you know what? His popularity rating actually increased significantly.

Don't count your chickens before they're hatched!



Rhisiart Gwilym said...

@Phil Knight: Damn' right Phil! No empire has ever been short of collaborators from the conquered nations, willing to throw in their lot with the imperial thugs, and change their spots to suit.

The DicSionDafyddau swarmed to London after Henri Tewdwr's victory at Bosworth field. The native cockneys would complain hyperbolically at their incessant chattering in Yr Hen Iaith, though in fact chances are that the old British language had never actually disappeared entirely from LLoegr: take a look at the number of places in Domesday Book called Walton, Compton, Comberton, and such (= Welsh Village), even in places like Essex and Walton-on-Thames...

But come on Phil: TBH, who can pretend that the English empire has ever had anything but its essentially English character, despite the steady trickling in of such as Dafydd LLoyd-George, Gordon Brown, and all the rest the collaborationist politicians from all the Celtic nations. And now, of course the leader of the current unmandated, power-usurping, US-compliant junta in Westminster, the thoroughly anglicised David Cameron.

And then add on all the deluded young Celtic men -- and women enough too -- who've volunteered, or been dragooned, to fight in England's imperial wars.

But despite all this -- and you're right, it's been a steady influx from the first -- the English empire has always been controlled from London, and has been hatched and masterminded from the first by Anglo-Norman uchelwyr; and characterised in its world-known manners by the English raj of the Home Counties (for English [sic!]speakers in other parts of the world, thats the counties immediately surrounding London, where the English imperial ruling 'elite' have usually based themselves in large numbers, and their most loyal henchpeople too.)

Go to Gwynedd, in Cymru Gogledd, and speak of Dafydd LLoyd George there, where he was born, and in a considerable percentage of cases, your interlocutors will murmur, at some point in the conversation: "Bradwr...." As would Michael Collins and friends after the Easter Rising in Eire, too, though probably they'd use the Gaelige equivalent there: "Brathadoir"; those of them who still happened to know their own language...

Despite all the collaborators, the empire was -- and in its uk-state remnant still is -- essentially an English racket. You won't hear any Cymraeg, Broad-Scots or Gaelige spoken in the private Board-Room meetings of the ponzi-gangsters in the City of London. All those scams are operated in the upper-crust accents of the English 'aristocracy'; chap-speak, exclusively; and I do mean exclusive. For contemporary English imperialists (the last generation of them, I do hope!), the City is the last gasp of their world-looting imperialism; that and the current English military; both very much US-compliant and US-serving, note.

You have to be as much of a several-generation assimilated English chap as David Cameron is, before you can even get to be one of their leading political servants.

CGP said...

**There was a typo in the last post. Please print this one**

JMG, once again your writing is compelling and illuminating. Thank you.

I want to ask you a more personal question as it may provide some useful perspective. Regardless, I'm curious. How will you, personally, feel if the American empire collapses and if American states secede, bringing the union to an end? What sort of an effect, if any, will this have on your psyche, outlook and wellbeing?

Yourmindfire said...

Recent reports and this week's accompanying End of the World "apocalypse not" - resonated with a book I read recently - John Christopher (Samuel Youd)'s novel The World in Winter (1963) known in the USA as The Long Winter which has the ice-world apocalypse and sets it neatly in a context of rising African power (Nigeria in this case) and the foibles of a falling imperial power (the British - which was already creaky by 1963 mind). The novel too is creaky in parts (its not up there with his Death of Grass or my childhood memory of The Tripods series), but it has some period charm and interesting comment on how people deal with changing fortunes.

JP said...

The point of thinking about things from a generational perspective is that by the time you get to the next major emotional war that everyone who remembers the horrors of the last war is dead.

Xenakis's opinion is that you use the nukes toward the *end* of the war, not at the beginning.


What your fiction is leaning toward here is what happens during a cabinet war, meaning that the population is *not* unified against an enemy. Every war since WWII in the U.S. has been a cabinet (elite) war.

The only two non-cabinet wars in U.S. history have been the Civil War and WWII.

Although I will say that your fiction is probably pretty good generally for the macro-decision phase of the next portion of the "World Leader" selection that is set for about 2030.

U.S. vs. China

However, historically, this has pitted the land power in Europe against the sea power in Europe. Germany vs. U.S./U.K.

I suspect that you are somewhat accurate in noting the transition from the ship era to the air/tech era.

What you are missing here is the spirit of unity and political will that sweeps through a polity during so-called crisis eras.

We are still in decline and have not yet hit bottom in this cycle.

Devin said...

Dear JMG,
finally had to chime in here, after finding your site months ago through a link at the Rigorous Intuition forum.
You are a wonderful writer and thinker, and your blogs really get my imagination going!
I will continue to try to support your blog as long as I can. I am only sorry I can't contribute more for your hard work!
all the best to you,

hapibeli said...

John, I think you may have lost your perspective? OR, your the mad genius foretelling the fall...:-)

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, while China does break up from time to time, that usually happens after a dynasty peaks and declines. The current one -- I suppose future Chinese historians will call it the Mao Dynasty -- is still very much on the ascending arc of its trajectory, so I'd put China's next Warring States era some centuries in the future.

Richard, fascinating. In other words, Canada's giving China the same rights that the US has effectively had for the last half century or so -- more evidence that people outside the US see which way the wind's blowing.

Snoqualman, most people decide on their beliefs using their emotions, and then use their reasoning powers to come up with rationalizations for what they already want to believe. That's as true of fleet admirals as it is of anybody else. If your career and your ego are invested in carriers, you'll believe in the invulnerability of carriers until the deck blows up beneath your feet.

Jess, glad to hear the move went well! Yes, most parts of the mountain country are pretty well prepared to deal with just about anything.

Cherokee, sorry, no hints!

CGP, it's always hard to say how any human being would respond to a change on that scale. My guess, though, is that I'll be bitterly depressed for a while. Like everything made my human hands, the USA has fallen far short of its ideals, but I have a fairly strong attachment to the ideals in question; I think we could have done better than we have, and if we get through the approaching crisis of imperial collapse as a nation sharing the same ideals, we might well be able to do better at manifesting those ideals than we have to date; and it will be very bitter to see the dream die because its current custodians -- and that means you and me, as well as the politicians and all -- weren't able to get it together and see past the increasingly bitter and increasingly pointless partisan hatreds that are tearing this country apart.

John Michael Greer said...

Yourmindfire, good heavens -- I thought I read everything John Christopher wrote, back when I was a kid! A lot of his fiction was set after a collapse of one kind or another, which added to the allure of his books. (Yes, I was into decline and fall at a very early age.) I somehow missed The World in Winter, though.

JP, except that the spirit of unity and political will doesn't always show up on schedule. It's precisely when it doesn't, in the face of crisis, that a society falls apart.

Devin, thank you!

Hapibeli, not at all. Remember that the fall of the American empire is not the end of industrial civilization -- it's just one bump on the long road down. Since most of the world would benefit noticeably if the US got its clock cleaned, and was no longer able to consume a quarter of the world's energy resources and a third of its raw materials and industrial product, it's a bump we're likely to hit sooner rather than later, and -- military and political history being what it is -- it's as likely as not to happen fast. Once the sequence of posts on the fall of the American empire is over, we'll be going back to the broader perspective of the end of the industrial age.

jollyreaper said...


My comment about an atheist president is specifically about the POTUS.

Hal said...

OK, another few thoughts came to mind. Not to really question the validity of the scenario, but just that there are so many big complications that there is no way of knowing how this thing would land (though probably not butter-side-up for someone).

Wouldn't the overt invasion of Diego Garcia bring NATO into the mix? I know all sides would be honoring treaties as convenient, but it seems to me that NATO's alliance with the US is at least as strong as Russia and China. Anyway, there are at least two more nuclear powers dragged in.

How would India take all of this? A rising economic tiger with a very uneasy relationship with China. Possible gain with, as you point out, the big energy consumer taken out. But I think they perceive themselves as having a lot more to lose with China rampant in the region than the US, which, besides being the devil they already know, speaks their language and has a pretty high amount of economic connectivity (or maybe I'm making too much of call centers). There's another nuclear power.

Pakistan? Nominally a US ally, but not a very happy one at the present. Could go either way, but more nukes in the mix. Or maybe they see an opportunity to take on India?

Gulf Arab nations? Iran's gain is their pain, and the US' pain is Iran's gain. No, they don't love us as is, and who knows who will be in charge of SA, Yemen, UAE, Iraq, etc., by the time this plays out. But China and Europe get a lot of their fuel from them. Just adds a lot of complications. The US has a lot of bases in those countries, and could do a pretty good job of putting a strangle on the flow.

Then, of course, you have Israel. Fair bet for the current home of a lot of those missing nukes. The loss of their biggest ally would be an existential threat. They could probably pretty quickly take out a lot of production and refining capacity in the region.

Yeah, this could be a mess.

Hal said...

On a lighter note, how about a first sentence competition?

My entry: "Looking back, no one could have predicted that a simple blog post by an obscure leader of a small religious sect could have set in motion the series of events that led to the fall of the world's greatest empire."

JP said...


That dovetails with my previous comment regarding the U.S. *not* exercising hegemony after WWI, which could have been partially responsible for WWII.

The interplay of the credit cycle with the national will cycle meant that the U.S. was not in a position to unify after WWI (rather, it was still unraveling), but was at the end of the Great Depression.

At the present, we are in some sort of credit-driven slog, which is correlated but much less severe than the Great Depression.

I just think there's a mass-psychology driven issue that's tied to national mood and credit.

From one of Mike Alexander's older posts:

I think I have printouts of this, but I would have to dig them out of a box and scan them. This is the best I can do at the moment.

"We see WW I as a global war. After the war, a curious thing happened. The United States was clearly the strongest nation in the world after WW I and did decisively defeat Germany. The U.S. certainly had the resources to establish naval dominance after the war, but did not. The U.S. certainly could have joined the League of Nations and when Hitler invaded the Rhineland drive him out (with French and British help) just as Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait. Instead, the Americans turned inward and retreated behind her flanking oceans desiring a "Return to Normalcy". The result was a postwar "world power" phase with nobody filling the role of world leader. As a result, Hitler's ambitions were unchecked and World War I was replayed as World War II, with virtually the same actors. This time, the U.S. did behave as a world leader afterward.

We call this failure of national will the World War anomaly because it happened after the first world war and led to the second. The anomalous position of World War II with respect to the Kondratiev cycle (it occurred at a trough rather than a peak like all the other war cycle peaks) is a direct result of this anomaly. Another consequence of this anomaly is the overlap of naval and army peaks by the world leader and future challenger right after World War II. In previous cycles, the naval power peak (which defines the world power phase) precedes the army power peak (which helps delineate the delegitimation phase).

This replay of global war did not affect the timing of the cycle, however. Toynbee, Dehio, Modelski and others identified the Soviet Union (before its collapse) as the next challenger. The rise of this challenger was immediate. There was no "world power" period of calm after World War II during which the Americans exercised hegemony. With the Berlin crisis in 1947, the Korean War conflict in 1950, and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Soviet Union was exhibiting behavior typical of the delegitimation phase. Figure 4 shows Soviet (Russian) army share rose to a dominant positions immediately after the war, which is typical of the delegitimation phase, not the world power phase. Although one can argue that the rise in naval share after World War II is characteristic of the world power phase, we argue that it was the United States, not the Soviet Union, that behaved in an anomalous fashion after the first world war. We suggest that anomalous behavior should not be used to define the cycle. We should instead draw our boundaries based on the challenger actions rather than the leader actions. The rise in Soviet (Russian) army share about 25-30 years after World War I is consistent with the behavior of previous challengers at a similar distance from a preceding global war."

The next step is Global War (China) set for 2030 as the macrodecision point chaotic attractor.

Phil Knight said...

@Rhisiart Gwilym

Not going to get into an angsty debate where we do a kind of reverse teleology of history. I'd just recommend David Armitage's "The Ideological Origins Of The British Empire" which shows how the Empire was heuristically conceived alongside putative concepts for the nation state, with the various competing aristocratic groups advancing their different ideas and concepts.

There was nothing inevitable about how things turned out, or even that one particular "nation" would win the battle of ideas. Difficult though it may be to believe now, Welsh was once considered a prestigious language, which is why, for example, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, thought it as important to translate the bible into Welsh as well as English (which is why the Welsh bible is just as old as the English one).

Alot of the founding ideas of "Britain" and the "British Empire" have been forgotten because the historical inspirations for them are long discredited, for example Geoffrey of Monmouth's histories of the ancient Britons were once taken very seriously indeed, and helped inspire many of the foundational imperial myths, such as the Brutus myth and the Madoc myth.

The latter gave rise to some very amusing episodes, btw:

In short, though, it's a much more nuanced and interesting story than the English or Normans bashing their way towards eventually creating Barclay Bank.

John Michael Greer said...

Hal, oh, it could definitely have become a big-time mess. If the war didn't end fairly quickly, it's not impossible that it could blow up into a major conflict involving many countries. The Chinese are gambling, as all sides did in 1914, that the war would be over quickly; sometimes, such gambles pay off.

As for your first sentence, funny! Yes, a first sentence competition could be enticing. Any other entries?

JP, notice that what the article is trying to finesse is that the biggest war in human history happened at a time when the theory said it shouldn't have happened at all. That's the problem with all the theories, and there are many of them, that try to impose a rigid time frame on history; it just doesn't work that well, and all sorts of ad hoc rationalizations have to be used to make the facts square with the theory.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jollyreaper,

Yeah, I knew what you meant. By the way I had never heard of the acronym POTUS and had to look it up.

It is worthwhile considering the alternative thought that such belief systems are not necessarily a prerequisite to power. It's a moment in time in a society and that is all.


sgage said...

Here's my entry for the first-sentence competition:

"It was a dark and stormy night"

No, I keed, I keed (although at the moment that's exactly what it is here in NH. Just got my electricity back after a few hours.

Here's my real first sentence:

"I have two older brothers, both highly intelligent and accomplished in their fields (artificial intelligence and electronics), one rather liberal, one rather conservative, so I knew we were in trouble when both of them became firm Peak Oil deniers, and for much the same reasons."

How I wish it were fiction...

phil harris said...

I am glad I caught one of your replies - quote
"and it will be very bitter to see the dream die because its current custodians -- and that means you and me, as well as the politicians and all -- weren't able to get it together and see past the increasingly bitter and increasingly pointless partisan hatreds that are tearing this country apart. "

I too during my British life saw us lose much of value. The value that was nothing to do with the aberrations of empire or jingoism. 'Free born', 'common rights', decency (see George Orwell), 'fairness', and etc... 'Equal in the sight of God'.

PS As a Brit I enjoyed the exchange between Rhisiart and Phil Knight. Well done! But empire was all about making money, was it not? When it consumed Welsh slate, coal or water, or the heroism of our British working class(es), Welsh singing, or Scots' whatever, much of value was lost and hope deferred. Once though when a superior army brought the breakdown of our European human values to the outskirts of Dunkerque, for a few minutes a small remnant unit put a stubborn stone under the door.

jphilip said...

What's the status of the UK? because currently Deigo Garcia is British territory.

It adds a whole dimension to it like invading Belgium. Bringing in countries who wouldn't be prepared to defend the USA directly.

Are the Chinese there to protect British soverignty Grenada style?

How are the Indians going to react if china tries to annex territory in their ocean?

The attack on Deigo Garcia to my mind could not be more than a raid. It could easily bring the Europeans(French) and the Indians in to the conflict on the US's side. The most the Chinese can expect from that is to shut down a US base, maybe part of the ceasefire but they would have to leave too (US saving face, placating euros and indians).

The mistake the US made was issuing a nuclear threat, sit on your hands while making it clear that the Chinese are occupying European territory and islands off that coast of India and you can consider China's little war in africa lost. (unless of course china has already made the aforementioned ceasefire arrangement in secret)

I'd be interested to see how deigo garcia plays out although perhaps you see it as too finer detail.

John Michael Greer said...

Sgage, I've heard much the same thing from way too many people of late. In one sense, it's good news, because it shows that plenty of people are getting into the first of the five stages of peak oil, which is denial -- but it's going to make life rugged for a while.

Phil, no argument there. The gap between those ideals and the way they were put into practice doesn't make the ideals any less worthwhile.

Jphilip, India in our time has already accepted a Chinese naval base in Sri Lanka, which is quite a bit closer than Diego Garcia. As for Britain, er, what on earth could Britain do nowadays that would give China's leaders a single sleepless night? Still, stay tuned...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

phil harris, here's an utterance that was commonplace in my youth, and which I haven't heard anyone say in at least fifteen years:

"[Go ahead]; it's a free country."

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

"Still, the next million years or so may be very interesting indeed."

Now that's what I call perspective! lol
You crazy immortals are always cracking me up with stuff like that.

Also, here's my first-sentence entry (Apologies to Ernie H):

For sale: Red button, never pushed.

May be used "tragically" or ironically as required

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

@Rhisiart ap Gwilym - llongyfarchiadau ar y cyfeiriad i 'Yma o hyd'! Congratulations on getting a reference to the Welsh nationalist anthem, 'Yma o hyd' into a discussion on TAR!

Apologies to non-Brits (or even non-Welsh) for the digression, but I don't share your antipathy to Received Pronunciation. My understanding is that it emerged as a way for people from all over the UK, speaking a variety of dialects, accents, or languages, to understand each other when they gathered at court. In the same spirit, I was happy to adopt it when I worked in Asia because, proud as I am of my own strong Welsh accent, nobody could understand me. As far as I'm concerned, the accent is simply a tool to be used. Furthermore, the lack of such a prestige accent and unifying force might be one reason why the Welsh have remained so sadly tribal and divided in the face of outside pressure :-(

As for Lloyd George... you'll find his memory still revered in the Liberal heartlands of (very much Welsh-speaking) Ceredigion and Powys.

Now, returning to the story... Someone (I didn't mark the comment, sorry) mentioned Chinese attitudes to Africa. I've spoken with influential Chinese in positions of some authority who see it as being entirely natural that the empty spaces of Africa could be used to settle some of China's surplus population. I'd say that attitude might be entirely mainstream in China.

That China will go through major internal problems seems to be inevitable. The drying up of major, glacier-fed rivers, horrific pollution, and systemic corruption will ensure it once economic growth falters and the people's dreams become obviously unattainable. The social consequences of the one-child policy are also something that will lead to big trouble. Russia is quite right to worry about the future of Siberia.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Harsh, but fair! You set the rules here, of course.

Would Texas breaking away from the union put a massive strain on the rest of the US states in relation to access to oil based energy? Do they even have the resources in Texas for a self-reliant country given a large population?

As an outsider, I detect in peoples comments some serious tribal differences regarding this part of the scenario.

It would be problematic for the US as a whole because a loss to China would redirect existing US oil imports to China, further bolstering their ability to power and feed their own population. They would have a lot to gain out of such a fictional scenario as you've drawn.

Interestingly, are you seeing articles about coal to liquids in the US? I can only imagine that it has a very poor EROEI. Doesn't Texas have quite a bit of coal?

PS: The mountain range here could be sealed off with only a few hours work, by only a few people. It’d be a tough call.



Phil Knight said...

@phil harris

I think the British Empire has meant lots of different things over the years. Part of the initial impetus was irredentist - the invasion of Ireland was partly justified by the myth that it was once part of Arthur's kingdom, for example.

I just think there's a tendency to project the current cultural and political domination of England backwards, so that the whole story of Britain is simply the story of England, with everyone else playing bit parts.

People in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods would have seen things very differently - the English language was still pretty much the low prestige language of a conquered people, and the sense of a continuum with the ancient Britons was very strong e.g. "King Lear" was seen as historical, rather than mythical. Hence there was a strong impetus to translate a lot of the classic works of Welsh mythology and history.

I tend to suspect that if Geoffrey of Monmouth's writings had proven to be more based in fact, that view would still be quite current today.

John Michael Greer said...

Zed, the perspective of deep time is one of the real gifts modern science has given us; pity so few people have been interested in learning from it. I'll be talking about that more when we get past the current series of posts.

Carp, China's poised for imperial expansion in a very big way; the one way of resolving its current and near-future problems without a messy collapse is the route of empire. (What's "lebensraum" in Chinese?) They'll get the collapse, too, but my guess is that it'll come further down the road.

Cherokee, nah, Texas is rich in oil and natural gas but not very well supplied with coal. That's mostly further west or further east. Most of the larger American states would make viable Third World countries, and of course the US is headed that way already, so I don't rule out an independent Texas with a Mexican standard of living, and Latin American standards of corruption and bad government, at all!

CGP said...

One of the main arguments for American military supremacy is that it makes the world a safer and more stable place. Do you think that the possibility of war breaking out, especially those involving larger countries occupying smaller ones, increases if America loses its ability to project power and to therefore deter such actions? Does the world become a more chaotic and dangerous place without an American superpower?

John Michael Greer said...

CGP, American military supremacy makes the world a great deal safer for Americans and citizens of close US allies. (Those that aren't in the military, at least.) I doubt the people in the Middle East who live in constant fear of being mistaken for terrorists and blown to bits by a drone share the same experience. The supremacy of an empire exports military violence to the empire's frontiers; when that supremacy shatters, the distribution of military violence becomes less unequal, that's all.

jphilip said...

I had no idea that china had a base in Sri Lanka but it would explain why India has started acquiring whole bunch of military capabilities (acceptance might be a slightly ambiguous term). I really can't see India standing on the sidelines while china takes control of their ocean.

as for the British my point was to compare them to Belgium in WW1 militarily of no consequence, diplomatically a major headache (Britain joined ww1 to defend Belgium defending France would have been too unpalatable)

which brings me onto the final part how are the dozen or so french islands in the indian ocean any different from deigo garcia (a french islands in the indian ocean anychinese invasion would seriously spook the french) The only way to avoid that would be to make absolutely clear to the Indians and french what was going on (no annexation and no new bases).

CGP said...

Are China and Russia officially allies? I was under the impression that although their interests and worldviews do sometimes align China has taken quite an independent stance and therefore does not seek to formally ally itself with Russia. In other words is there a formal treaty that would obligate Russia to provide China with a nuclear umbrella or any form of military assistance?

LewisLucanBooks said...

From this mornings news ... looks like Russia is doing a bit of nuclear saber rattling...

Re: Received Pronunciation - a short antidote. Way back in 1968 when I first moved away from home, I lived next door to a couple of personable party girls. One night they brought home a couple of British sailors. Their accents were so thick, we had a hard time understanding them. I had a brain storm and asked them if they "spoke BBC" (Received Pronunciation.) They knew exactly what I was talking about and shifted effortlessly into "the Beeb". The evening went a lot smoother, after that.

Renaissance Man said...

I tried to post this on Thursday, but I guess it didn't get through.
When you describe the seizure of Diego Garcia, for some reason, I couldn't help but think of Shusaku's "Ear-Reddening Move".
As to potential breakup, I've long observed how regional differences in our culture have formed even though the population comes mostly from the same root stock and the same culture and under the same government. People really are shaped by their land. I could point out the differences between people in the BC interior, in the prairies, in northern Ontario, in Quebec and the eastern townships.
While I cannot speak directly about the U.S., much of what I have heard and read describes even stronger regional differences. I have met Southerners who even yet harbour resentments Sherman's March to the Sea, over 150 years ago, so I do not doubt that these regional differences could fragment the nation.
I can't help but wonder if the writings of either Prof. Igor Panarin or Joel Garreau had any influence at all on your thoughts?
Panarin originally wrote in a book in 1998 that the U.S. was already in decline and said it would breakup eventually. Unfortunately, he thought the 2008 crisis would trigger the breakup in 2010.
Garreau didn't say the U.S. would break-up, but he did write that the provinces and states that make up Canada, the U.S. and Mexico were largely irrelevant and described regional pseudo-nations already in existance across North Americam defined by geography.
As for the cozying up the Chinese, that started about 20 years ago and has been accellerating ever since under every different PM.
Hmm. Maybe it's time to learn Mandarin.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

@JMG: according to Google Translate, 'lebensraum' translates to Chines as '栖息地'. A reverse translation to English comes up as 'habitat', though, which doesn't convey the same meaning.

As you're well aware, there's a difference between 'lebensraum' as a policy of planned colonization, and 'volkswanderung' in which populations uproot themselves because they can no longer stay where they were. In the case of China, the problems of environmental collapse might lead to the latter before the former.

That said, you may have noticed media coverage of China's 'ghost cities'. My view is that that these are being planned as the 'refugee camps' of the future: that, as the Yangtze dries up and the cities beside it become uninhabitable, the Chinese government will relocate the population to these new cities, waiting empty to receive the refugees. I note that at least one 'ghost city' has been constructed in Angola...

jollyreaper said...

Did a big beach hike while listening to a book about big dreams falling apart down here in South Florida. Talks about the millionaire who built Miami Beach into the Riviera of the Americas and how his dreams fell apart. Later we see how the vacation capital turned into a nightmare in the cocaine heyday of the 80's. I wouldn't buy some of these stories in fiction but they actually happened.

History doesn't repeat, it rhymes but man, parallels between all three bubbles. Such an incestuous relationship between the promoters and the newspapers making money off the promotions, public figures trading on their reputations to work as pitchmen.

Wars come along when there's a fresh crop of cannon fodder to spend and it seems like great bubbles need a new generation of marks and suckers to come about, unaware of how badly they're about to be taken.

Funny observation made about millionaires. All their wealth proves is they know how to make money in a niche business. What about this gives them license to talk about anything else in life? Conservatives ask the same question of actors who get political. It's fine I have concerns but Brad Pitt doesn't sell himself as an expert because he's an actor, he'd just a concerned citizen whose amateur opinion is picked up by the press. Donald Trump pretends he's an expert. Honestly, acting like a CEO is any expert on social policy because he made a fortune in business is like saying Ron Jeremy is also an expert because he made a fortune in his field.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Just a comment on the "perspective of deep time." The next million years will certainly be interesting, but probably not to humans. Given the general rate of evolution in primates, it isn't a terrible stretch to say that in a million years, there will be no more "humans."

Even 50,000 years ago (one-twentieth of the million-year span) Homo Sapiens Sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis were in some kind of coexistence -- now the Neanderthal is extinct. Bi-pedalism developed only five million years ago.

Evolution is not a steady process, so it's not impossible that the current human species will stick around for a very long time. However, given our proclivities toward catastrophic bubbles -- overbreeding, widespread environmental alteration, wars of genocidal extinction, to say nothing of our general fascination with "get rich quick" strategies and other kinds of social bubble-blowing -- I find it hard to believe that our species could be considered "stable" in the way that, say, crocodiles are "stable."

On top of which, environmental stressors bring out punctuated equilibrium like nothing else. And we'll be seeing substantial environmental stresses.

My money is on saying that Homo Sapiens will be entirely gone within the next half-million years, replaced (in the best case) by some species of Homo that is inherently less depredating.

Dornier Pfeil said...

I never saved the link for the bicycle blog so could someone please pass this on to the right place.
The CardBoard Bicycle.

JP said...


With respect to theories in general, the issue seems to be that there are different waves that work on different time frames.

The most basic waves that work on humanity in general are the waves of the calendar year in the form of seasons and the general events that form the general human lifespan. Everything else is always built on top of that because it has to be built on top of that. There are certainly others that work in the realm of deep time, such as glaciers.

When you have a hegemon and you have a crisis and you don't get national unity, you certainly get disintegration because everything fragments. The Ottoman empire is a great recent historical example of this. I suppose that the Austria-Hungarian empire is another recent wonderful example.

For example, Charles Hugh Smith points to four general trends and argues that we are doomed because everything is hitting at once.

Since these are waves within the psychological and social makeup of human cultures, you see cross-currents when the trends are at odds and major events when they all line up.

I don't understand how national will works, merely that it exists and that it's relevant to the transactions between nation-states.

Even though I'm from America, I don't have the slightest idea whether the next crisis will cause national will to rise or collapse to happen. This is because I don't *understand* it enough to really comment on it except to recognize that it exists.

I certainly appreciate your approach here because it puts it in the context of a crisis that results in disintegration and decline.

I'm most confused about the current demographic profile of the world, considering that Russia (a recently shattered mess) now has a higher fertility rate than China (a reformed and rising Great Power).

I prefer to separate waves and trends and go from there.

Farka said...

Diego Garcia, eh? As you probably know, the people living there were all deported to Mauritius by the British government in order to make the island available for a US base. They've been trying to get back ever since - their lawsuit made it pretty high up before getting blocked on national security grounds. So in this scenario, I think I’ll guess that the Chinese government has cultivated prior contacts with an islanders' association. Rather than simply occupying Diego Garcia - which would be rather astonishingly blatant - they announce that they have merely helped the islanders to exercise their right of self-determination, denied them by British and American imperialism. Fig leaves like that always help smooth over international relations, and it doesn't sound like China in this scenario is powerful enough yet to just dispense with them even if it wanted to.

Ben Simon said...

Dear JMG;

The latest Scientific American magazine (Nov. 2012) presents the article "Global Warming:Faster than expected? Page 36 It contains much in the way of observational evidence.
It pretty much discounts the possibility any kind of "Global Cooling", in the short term.

It also seems to indicate that climate changes are in the position to "trump" resource depletion effects, while adding to the developing mess.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, the main plot line on this update was pretty expectable after the last one, but I have to agree with others that the Chinese attack on Diego Garcia was quite a diplo gamble. As stated above Diego Garcia is technically British territory ( or one of those terminologically confusing satrapies the Brits have ) and the last time someone thinked the Brits had no fiber or ability to strike back they got Ms Thatcher in top of them :/ And unless the Chinese have done a lot of diplo work behind the scenes, I can't see the Indian ocean powers keeping quiet after a "tour de force" like that ... All in all, all this affair looks like a huge gamble. It might look that way because we don't have all the intel, OFC, but as it is, apparently the chinese pretty much disregarded any possiblity of spillout of the actions they took. Not that they would be the first to do so :D

Anyway, we have two more chapters, that I assume that will deal primarilly with the aftermath of the lost war and the clear loyalty break between the various political and military forces inside the USA ( we still have to see what is the overall big brass reaction to a president that locked them in a military disaster by double betting until the chips were over ;) So far, we have not see any US military personality besides Mr Deckmann, that, if it is still alive will be surely court martialled "pour encourager les autres" ). Let's see what they bring ...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Absent intervention by a foreign power, I don't think that the United States will break up while it is a functioning industrial economy, and almost certainly not in the next thirty or forty years. It is, after all, a federation. The concentration of economic and military power to the federal government at the expense of the states happened gradually. It could in theory be reversed by legal means backed up by political action and popular resistance of a mostly non-violent nature.

I do think a reversion of power to states and regions is necessary, because the current government is just too unwieldy. The Tea Party isn't sophisticated or representative enough to get it done. Neither national party wants to reduce Federal power.

We have a process for amending the Constitution which has been used successfully fifteen times since 1789.

There are also means short of the amendment process. Groups of states, both regional groups and like-minded urban states, have made compacts to deal with pollution and global warming and to prosecute white collar crimes by banks and financiers. I'm also watching the progress of a workaround to disable the Electoral College without passing a constitutional amendment, by mutual agreements among states about their Presidential election procedures.

I don't see these kinds of legal activity as precursors to a breakup, but as attempts to make the federal system work better.

Jim R said...

This story just in from ZeroHedge -- In Historic First China Begins Oil Extraction In Afghanistan

It may fit the narrative of this story, or China may simply buy Diego Garcia.

The narrative that absolutely fits it is that one empire is giving way to another, as long predicted based on history, geography, and the dynamics of "civilization".

John Michael Greer said...

Jphilip, it's not as though France could give the leadership of China any more of a headache than Britain could! India's another matter, and its emergence as a major power is another likely event of the next century or so; a bipolar world in which the two great powers are China, on the one hand, and an Indo-Brazilian alliance on the other, is by no means implausible by 2100 or so. Still, China's been willing to pursue a confrontational strategy with India before.

CGP, China and Russia are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is shaping up in many ways to be a central Asian equivalent of NATO and which regularly carries on joint military exercises. You'll notice that the Russian president in my narrative acts as though the US doesn't know about the treaty, and secret treaties for mutual assistance are far from rare; I don't know that such a treaty exists in this case, but it's certainly plausible.

Lewis, yes, I noted that. Good news for everyone, since it means that mutually assured destruction is still the order of the day.

Renaissance, I read Panarin back when his book first came out, but none of his points came as a great surprise. I haven't read Garreau. The breakup of imperial states into quarrelling fragments is pretty common in history, after all.

Carp, I sometimes wonder whether the "ghost cities" are a deliberate strategy to stockpile useful resources in a form that will require much labor to extract. If China's export economy breaks down suddenly, due to war or some other cause, all those empty skyscrapers and shopping malls will have to be salvaged for their metal and other raw materials, and a couple of million people will be employed for a while doing it.

Reaper, where speculative bubbles are concerned, history doesn't just rhyme, it repeats. The identical slogans used to pitch investment trusts in 1929 were used to pitch tech stocks in 1999.

Joseph, don't mistake the bad habits of industrial society for those of humanity in general. Our species, in resource-constricted environments, has proven itself to be extremely good at finding and maintaining stable ecological relationships. Once the rubble stops bouncing from our decline and fall, I expect that a very much smaller human population will reestablish itself in less self-destructive lifeways and proceed from there, as so many other formerly invasive species have done across evolutionary time.

JP, well, to each their own. I don't find quantitative cycle models that useful in making sense of the historical past, and predictions made on the basis of cycle theories far more often than not turn out to be inaccurate -- I should give some time on "The End of the World of the Week" to a book, a fairly large seller in the late 1970s, which insisted on the basis of cyclic theory that a new world war ought to break out by 1986.

John Michael Greer said...

Farka, if Britain can do it, and the US can do it, I suspect the Chinese will do it too.

Ben, do you recall the Limits to Growth model? It included both resource depletion and the effects of pollution. One doesn't "trump" the other; each one feeds the other in a synergistic manner. All this latest article shows is that the global warming side of the vise tightening on industrial civilization is closing in a little faster than earlier predictions suggest.

Ricardo, Argentina was not a rising world power; China is. The British military as it presently exists, even before the currently planned round of cuts, would be no match for the PLA.

Deborah, stay tuned...

Jim, thanks for the heads up!

:€ said...

WRT Diego Garcia scenario, (re)capturing islands seems to be in vogue these days:

With US and Japan backing down, at least for now

yvesT said...

"The current one -- I suppose future Chinese historians will call it the Mao Dynasty -- is still very much on the ascending arc of its trajectory, so I'd put China's next Warring States era some centuries in the future. "

I agree on a short term basis, however China is now *also* part of the global techno science or industrial civilization, that is it is mainly relying on stocks for its ability to function.
And on this would say looking at ancient Chinese evolution or "cycles" doesn't change much to the globale predicament.
But doesn't change the short term aspect.
And waiting for the last parts!, very realistic and interesting overall I think.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Joseph,

Hmmm, there have been (and still are), quite a few societies that have managed to be self-sustaining even once they depleted their initial easy resources. The Aboriginals did it here for somewhere between 40,000 to 60,000 years even after they ate all of the mega-fauna causing massive environmental changes and damage right across the continent.

Dude, I see the term, "overbreeding" (your term) and I wonder whether you have contributed to the issue at hand?

In my mind, you can only be referring to a population larger than the available resources - particularly food and water (all other considerations are secondary).

I'd reckon that places like the UK and the US (and here) have certainly hit that cliff, although they may not realise it just yet. They are either dependent on food imports like the UK or they are flogging the remaining soils to death like in the US (and here too).

I'll qualify that opinion firstly by pointing out that in these first world economies approximately only 2% of the population are involved in food production. This is a massively risky strategy that is bound to end in tears. It is actually unprecedented historically.

For the past 7 years I've been mucking around / learning trying to produce food on a long term sustainable basis on acreage and it is mind-bogglingly complex. The more time I spend on the project, the more humbled I am by it and my awareness of the complexities of the ecosystem becomes greater.

Yet the alternative system which the majority of the population benefits from is dependent on both fertilisers and oil. Scary stuff, I haven't yet seen a tractor that can run for any length of time on batteries! Also, try transporting fertilisers (mined or synthetic) without oil.

So, when you use the term, "over breeding" make sure you think about your own location and choices, the choices of your own society and whether you actually mean, someone, somewhere else?

I'm not having a go at you, I'm just trying to get you to think about the issue at hand before you make sweeping generalisations. All may not be as it seems.



Schnörkels Rule said...

erm - even if I´m a minority, since this blog has taught me to think at least of three possible solutions I´m also looking forward to non-fictious posts - even if I enjoy the ficitous ones currently!

JP said...


"I should give some time on "The End of the World of the Week" to a book, a fairly large seller in the late 1970s, which insisted on the basis of cyclic theory that a new world war ought to break out by 1986."

Well, I'm much more into qualitative cycles than I am into quantitative cycles.

If you hang your hat on rigid quantitative cycles, you will get your head handed to you because you will be quite wrong, generally sooner rather than later.

Also, a world war of sorts did break out circa 1986. What occurred was that the rising land power (since WWII) simply collapsed in it's own private crisis, leaving the United States as the sole hegemon (hyperpower).

Things worked wonderfully for the hyperpower from 1989 through about 2003 at which point, the reconstruction of Iraq failed.

I don't think that there is any question that delegitimation has begun and that the U.S. is in relative decline.

I think that people (Orlov), in general, look to the U.S.S.R. as a recent imperial collapse model. Well, it *is* a model, but I don't think that it applies to the United States. I'm *not* saying that the United States *won't* collapse, just that the breakup of the U.S.S.R. is the *wrong model*. There's something similar out there, but it's not the U.S.S.R./Ottoman Empire.

I suppose you could say that I look for signals to tell what's going to happen in terms of the way things will break with the knowledge that certain things happen in certain ways because people are ever and always people.

Your narrative here seems to be sketching out a plausable historical scenario as to what might happen. There's nothing that I've seen anywhere that would say that what you are sketching out wouldn't happen.

phil harris said...

I would like to correct a fairly recent comment of mine. I made an out of date calculation of the significant fraction of world exports of crude oil that is imported by the USA. The USA has actually significantly reduced its imports of crude since the 2008 financial crash. However, oil import costs have increased due to rising prices, which more than offset the savings from lower import volumes. I find interestingly the situation follows a previous pattern (mid 80s). But even more significantly for me I realise for the first time the extraordinary build up in US oil imports to 2005 to an all-time high. This build up seems to me the USA finally banging its head on the ceiling! See revelatory Figure 1 in this Congressional Research Service paper,
The USA is importing a lower proportion of world oil exports than it was a short while ago, (see my error; down from 20% of world exports to nearer 15%) but it seems to me the country is very unlikely ever to recover its ability to compete for this resource in the way it has up to the recent past. What do you think?
It also seems to me important that US Gross National Income per person/capita, (current US$) hardly changed at all overall 2008 to 2011, having dipped in 2009.
(US population is still growing @ 0.7 to 0.9% per year).


John Michael Greer said...

Euro, it's something that's been on American military minds since the Second World War.

Yves, of course! The Chinese empire will likely be the dominant force in the industrial world during what I've called the age of scarcity industrialism, when resource nationalism and political control over energy sources will enable some countries to maintain an industrial economy while others slide down the slope into full deindustrialization. The fall of the Chinese empire, in turn, may well be a good marker for the end of scarcity industrialism and the beginning of the much longer age of salvage societies. (All this is covered in The Ecotechnic Future, if you're interested.)

Rule, you'll certainly get them. I'll be resuming nonfiction essays in November.

JP, fair enough. I use history as a source of models with much the same intention.

Phil, you've just pointed straight at one of the key metrics for the decline of the US empire: our decreasing share of world energy and natural resource production. That's the breakdown of the wealth pump, and as that breakdown accelerates, as I predict it will, expect to see serious and increasing impoverishment here in the US.

Nano said...

"...the next million years or so may be very interesting indeed."

My Atoms, previous, current and future look forward to the play and the many parts we'll play! ;)

On a side note, an interesting commentary I found.

Damien Perrotin said...

Jphilip, there is only two French islands of any value in this part of the World.

Réunion is a nice place to spend your hollidays in, but it is resource poor and would be aburden to a conueror. It has a strategic importance, but the same purpose could be achieved by striking an agreement with nearby Mauritius, which being independent, will certainly be more open to negociation.

Mayotte is technically French, but its inhabitants sound and look quite unfrench. It is overpopulated and not even a nice tourism resort. I doubt the French people will fight to keep an island full of Swahili speaking muslims.

Besides, we have only light frigates in the area, and bringing the fleet will take time - and it won't be a match either. We have garisons in the area, but mostly in Western Africa and they are similarly lightweight. We definitely lack the projection capacity to fight a war in this area against anything that can shoot back.

And we tend to honor our alliance only when we think the cause is just. Remember what happened during the invasion of Iraq... and the then president was right wing, and a veteran of the Algerian war.

When I think about it, that's maybe why he refused to have any part in that mess

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Chris (of Cherokee Organics):

I don't know how you can speak about "deep time" in other than generalities. I was speaking of million-year time-spans, and evolutionary stability.

Humans do overbreed, and face catastrophic die-offs as a result. Not every organism does this: some are in a very stable balance with their environment, and have been for a very long time, through good times and bad. Populations rise and fall, but you don't see complete collapses, barring mass extinction events.

Yes, individual groups of homo sapiens CAN get into stable ecological balance with their closed environments. Equally, however, other individual groups fail to get into any kind of balance at all, and go through collapse, cannibalism, and then extinction. Every one of those latter groups takes itself out of the collective gene pool, and over time, the centroid of the whole human species shifts.

Even without punctuated equilibrium, our descendants a million years from now are going to be quite different from us, based on nothing more than Nature's dispensation of Darwin Awards for the stupider of our populations.

Throw in punctuated equilibrium, and all bets are off.

In a million years, the same kinds adaptive forces that caused massive expansion of the brain starting some two million years ago could reverse: unlikely, but we really don't know enough to say it couldn't happen. Or brain expansion could continue. If brains get much larger, female reproductive structure will have to change, as will skull shape. At some point, Homo Sapiens women will be unable to bear the new children, and we will have -- by definition -- a new species.

I'm merely saying that I don't think this will take a million years.

How "human" will the dominant planetary species be a million years from now? Will it be related to homo sapiens, or will humans be replaced by raccoons (as JMG has quipped)? Will there even BE a single dominant species?

I have no idea.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG: Thank you for the reminder. I struggle with this regularly -- though it always gets a lot worse in the wake of a presidential campaign -- and I wonder if it is a typical internal symptom of imperial collapse: the pervasive idea that "people are no damn good."

I know that isn't true. Sometimes I forget.

:€ said...


I consolidated several previous posts which have been intercepted by the great firewall of China into this one ;)

I think China's attempt to launch itself into hegemonic orbit using similar trajectory as USA (economic, industrial and military supremacy) may well crash. Let's compare China rocket (first half of 21th century) to USA rocket (first half of 20th). I find lots of crucial differences:

USA: Can choose its enemies, its territory is not at risk.
China: Cannot chose its enemies, India, Japan, Russia are at the borders or very close. That said, internal enemies and strifes seem to be the chief worry.

USA: effectively controls population and neutralises dissent by thaumaturgy.
China: rules by repression and crude censorship. Dedicates more resources towards internal than external threats.

USA: Excess capacity in natural resources and food. Can export both.
China: Lacks oil. Only has 7% worlds of arable land and 20% of population. Coal-to-oil projects will be an ecological disaster.

USA: Majority of the resource pie still intact, USA eats it in very devious and seemingly benovelent manner: thaumaturgy of democratic values and stealthy acquisition of Lebensraum.
China: More than half of resources used up already, backlash to Chinese expansion is already happening. China needs Lebenraum way more than USA ever did and is not nearly as sophisticated in securing it as USA used to be.

USA: Comes out of WW2 as the hegemon with no damage to speak of (at least compared to rest of the world). No rivals.
China: Not nearly close to a hegemon. Many rivals. Probably comes out of WW3 as (nuclear?) a wasteland.

USA: Future Fukushimas and Cherhnobyls not built yet.
China: Has to rely on Fukushimas and Cherhnobyls. Serious damage in years ahead

USA: the great depression
China: the coming real estate collapse alone may be worse than great depression. Many chances of perfect storm brewing.

USA: 80-160 million consumers, plenty of room for growth and consumerist thaumaturgy. Young population.
China: 1.3 billion consumers. Large domestic consumption equals ecological catastrophe. Aging population.

USA: mostly self-sufficent.
China: would collapse without ever-increasing exports of products and imports of resources. China basically depends on well-being of its rivals to keep economy afloat and its people fed. It's not called Chimerica for nothing

:€ said...

To continue, China is not nearly as centrally controlled as Chinese leadership would like. Clans and regional loyalties suppressed during Mao's reign are back with a vengeance. For example:

“Clan wars continue to be waged largely out of sight and out of mind in many rural areas, some of them having their origins in events long before the Communists took power, and even from imperial days. In August 1993, for example, in Hunan Province, birthplace of Mao, thousands of villagers fought a pitched battle armed with home-made guns, grenades and explosives that left at least five people dead, 12 seriously wounded and several buildings in ruins. Security forces had to fire tear-gas into the crowd to split up the warring factions"

“Inter-regional conflicts are no longer confined to the coast-versus-hinterland syndrome. Rich provinces and cities are pitted against each other even as poor areas pummel one another with stunning ferocity. The reasons are little more than money, resources, and greed. Take the scuffles over the delineation of borders between provinces. Since 1980, more than 10 bloody clashes have taken place between the cadres and residents in Guangxi and Hunan provinces. Fifteen hundred people were allegedly killed or seriously injured in quarrels over land and water rights. Equally venomous battles have been fought between villagers living on the Qinghai-Gansu border over gold-mine rights. Two special work teams sent by the Communist Party and State Council to the area failed to solve the problem….

“Inter-provincial confrontations, of course, go back several centuries. Since 1949, thousands of Chinese have died in more than 1,000 armed conflicts over the imprecise demarcation of frontiers. They have worsened owing to the eclipse of central authority. For most of the new-style ‘economic warlords’, local development bringing tangible benefits such as wealth to close relatives and business associates is more important than heeding Beijing’s call to promote national cohesiveness“

(China: The Next Superpower: Dilemmas in Change and Continuity, page 58)

China likes to present itself as monolithic Han (90%). But Han themselves are far from homogeneous, there are various subgroups which thought of themselves as quite distinct until forcibly hammered together on great anvil of Communism by divine hammer of Mao. Even if Han were indeed welded together (and they're not), several repressed minorities happen to live in quite strategical and resource-rich places (Sino-Indian boundary, Mongolia). And there is inherent tension between rich regions where profits flow in and regions which are pumped for resources and low cost labour. The latter outnumber the former, obviously. Contemporary China coast vs hinterland represents larger divide than North vs South in USA. I find USA much less divided and more effectively centralized than China. North-south divide ? If USA were China, homemade rockets would be flying over contemporary Mason Dixie line every week ;/

It's obvious that both China and USA are very corrupt countries, but quite different in how corruption works. Still I find Chinese kleptocracy is even more damaging to its host society than current USA one. That's really bad. You can't even compare either of these kleptocraries to USA in say 1930 ...

(My China data is primarily from )

Space station USA is clearly on descending orbit, crashing towards the earth. But Space Station China may be too fragile to ever get there. Not all Chinese dynasties were long lived, and I don't think Mao dynasty will. Cultural Revolution and Four Pests Campaign will be remembered, however ;)

:€ said...

RT the fictional scenario, let me propose two possible alternate ones. First, domestic unrest scenario happening in China as well, but on a much larger scale which would overwhelm central authority maybe even break the China itself. Second: USA is certainly heading toward a surveillance society that suppresses dissent with violence. It's possible that future repression in USA could be much effective than in China, USA being more isolated and centralized. In such future, 36 killed in homeland security incident may simply be business as usual, with news of the incident censored and those who could do something about it either complicit or too afraid do do anything.

Regarding ghost cities, I don't think there is/was a plan. Construction is great for money laundering and short term profits for aparatchiks. Cities decay very quickly if nobody lives in them and it's very hard to salvage anything of value from them.

Finally, regarding USA foreign debt and leverage it gives China: I think it may be overestimated. First reason is that leverage is mutual: China has to keep both USA and EU afloat or China exports and economy are in free fall. Second: Japan owns almost as much US debt as China does and keeps buying it. Anyone talking about Japanese leverage nowadays? And there is this interesting historical precedent with Communist China defaulting on its debts to USA. I imagine this would get dragged out of the dustbin of history if USA ever decides (or when it decides) to default.

phil harris said...

JMG & all
Forgive my coming back with another link. It has been an unusual few days for me intellectually. Firstly, there was the matter of USA imports of crude oil and for me a revelatory graph(thanks for your comment), and then a link provided by Ambrose Evans Pritchard who writes on economics and financial business for the UK's conservative 'Tory' main middleclass broad sheet the Daily Telegraph. I had to almost pinch myself to think that I was being referred to a 'research paper' from the IMF! I have still some work to do but at last get the feeling I am reading a proper account of the history of money and usury; quoted example:[Zarlenga] does not adopt the common but simplistic definition of usury as the charging of “excessive interest”, but rather as “taking something for nothing” through the calculated misuse of a nation’s money system for private gain.
Historically this has taken two forms. ...

Times they are a changing - or at least in theory. Implications for 'wealth pumps' I guess, and, Evans Pritchard thinks, for the City of London.


John Michael Greer said...

Nano, your atoms and mine should do lunch one of these millennia. Or more precisely they can be lunch, or part of it, one of these millennia.

Joseph, understood! I suspect that the equivalent stupidity of late imperial Rome is one of the reasons so many thoughtful people in the empire's last years were hoping that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would show up.

Euro, yes, you've already made that argument at some length. You're getting rather close to flogging a dead horse, you know.

Phil, good heavens. That's appearing in the Telegraph? I'll check the calendar for blue moons.

Ekkar said...

Fantastic as always.

phil harris said...

Not quite 'blue moon' time yet , but who knows? Old stories come around.

My comment re "usury" got a bit shortened late at night. The Telegraph did not actually mention the word 'usury',and sadly did not use the quote that I did. But Pritchard recognises the historical and monetary validity of the arguments, and is fair to the "modern tools" deployed to run numerical versions of later plans, e.g. Irving Fisher in the 1930s, up the flag pole, as it were; quote
"The Athenian leader Solon implemented the first known Chicago Plan/New Deal in 599 BC to relieve farmers in hock to oligarchs enjoying private coinage. He cancelled debts, restituted lands seized by creditors, set floor-prices for commodities (much like Franklin Roosevelt), and consciously flooded the money supply with state-issued "debt-free coinage."

Pritchard adds a bit about the role of later Roman elites' accumulation of wealth; quote: "Money slipped control of the Senate. You could call it Rome's shadow banking system. Evidence suggests that it became a machine for elite wealth accumulation."

The actual IMF 'working paper' is here. Something of a stunner imho.

Robert said...

@Damien I think that's exactly why he refused to have anything to do with that mess. Apparently after a confrontation with Chirac that prat Blair turned round to one of his aides and said "Poor old Jacque, he doesn't really get it does he?" Turned out that Jacques was rather more in touch with reality than Mr Tony and I suspect one reason was that Chriac had actually done military service in a real war whereas Tony was completely ignorant of anything outside professional politics.

Nano said...

HAHAH lunch it is. "Poo-poo" Platter for all atoms. Eventually...
Ok no more 1st grade funnies.

I do want to know more about those evolved Raccoons and Birds.

Watching the theatrics of the "debates" last night, I couldn't help to think how plausible something like this short story can be. Foreign policy will change very little, no matter who is in office.

Edward said...

On 19/19/12 @ 10:25 AM JMG wrote

"most people decide on their beliefs using their emotions, and then use their reasoning powers to come up with rationalizations for what they already want to believe"

Now there's somethig worth meditating on for the next week!

DeAnander said...

@Cherokee: did you notice a brief moment of sanity in -- of all places -- the NYT?

Gee. Doh. But also Yay.

Bashmu the Oracle said...

An interesting bit of news that seems to bear some synchronicity with your story: