Collapse or Slow Decline?

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JohnV
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Collapse or Slow Decline?

What does the future bring?  Where will the world find itself within the spectrum of collapse?  What will be the velocity of the fall?  Will it be a long slow 100 year decline as we ramp down far side of Hubbert's Peak Oil bell curve, or do the complex, inner connected systems of modern civilization set us up for a much more severe and rapidly cascading decline?  John Michael Greer makes the case that history of the collapse of civilizations argues for a slow decline as complexity winds down in fits and starts as society approaches a much simpler and sustainable equilibrium.  In his essay, “The Long Road: Decline and the De-industrial Future”, Greer provides us with a vision of a slow and painful generational decline over the course of two centuries.

Imagine an American woman born in 1960. She sees the gas lines of the 1970s, the short-term political gimmicks that papered over the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and renewed trouble in the following decades. Soaring energy prices, shortages, economic depressions, and resource wars shape the rest of her life. By age 70, [in 2030] she lives in a beleaguered, malfunctioning city where half the population has no reliable access to clean water, electricity, or health care. Shantytowns spread in the shadow of skyscrapers while political and economic leaders keep insisting that things are getting better.

Her great-grandson, born in 2030, manages to avoid the smorgasbord of diseases, the pervasive violence, and the pandemic alcohol and drug abuse that claim half of his generation before age 30. A lucky break gets him into a technical career, safe from military service in endless wars overseas or "pacification actions" against separatist guerrillas at home. His technical knowledge consists mostly of rules of thumb for effective scavenging, cars and refrigerators are luxury items he will never own, his home lacks electricity and central heating, and his health care comes from an old woman whose grandmother was a doctor and who knows something about wound care and herbs. By the time his hair turns gray the squabbling regions that were once the United States have split apart, all remaining fuel and electrical power have been commandeered by the new governments, and coastal cities are being abandoned to the rising oceans.

For his great-granddaughter, born in 2100, the great crises are mostly things of the past. She grows up amid a ring of sparsely populated villages surrounding an abandoned core of rusting skyscrapers visited only by salvage crews who mine them for raw materials. Local wars sputter, the oceans are still rising, and famines and epidemics are a familiar reality, but with global population maybe 15% of what it was in 2000, humanity and nature are moving toward balance. She learns to read and write, a skill most of her neighbors don't have, and a few old books are among her prized possessions, but the days when men walked on the moon are fading into legend. When she and her family finally set out for a village in the countryside, leaving the husk of the old city to the salvage crews, it never occurs to her that her quiet footsteps on a crumbling asphalt road mark the end of a civilization.”

Greer offers this on how we might prepare for the coming decline:

“The crucial needs that must be met in an age of decline are damage control, cultural survival, and the building of a new society amid the ruins of the old. Political and business interests aren't going to meet these needs ... all three needs can be met by individuals and small groups with limited resources, and projects of this kind are being done on a small scale already.

Damage control focuses on ways to keep the impact of decline from costing more than it has to. The great challenge here is that most people in the developed world have no idea how to survive outside the cocoon of industrial society. As technology unravels, infrastructure breaks down, and local disasters hit, people will have to provide what they need for survival by their own efforts, from locally available materials, and yet most people nowadays can't even light a fire to stay warm without matches or a lighter. People will have to learn survival, first aid, and skills of self-reliant living to meet this challenge. Groups can build on this by forming support networks and working out overlapping specialties, so people can draw on a wider range of skills.

The temptation to rely on stockpiles of food, technology, weapons, or precious metals to get through the impact of an age of decline is natural, but fatal. For two centuries machines and their products have been cheaper than skilled human beings. The result is a habit of valuing things over skills and, ultimately, a prosthetic society in which we're taught to neglect abilities and then pay for technological replacements: we use day planners instead of training our memories, buy bread machines instead of learning to bake, watch television instead of using our imaginations. That has to be unlearned in a hurry. In hard times, if you have a stockpile, you're a sitting target for other people interested in removing you from your stockpile and enjoying it themselves - but if you have valuable skills you can share and teach, everyone's your friend.”

Based on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dmitry Orlov thinks that government can play an important  role up to a point [see Stage 3].  In his essay, “Social Collapse Best Practices”, he makes the case that government's primary responsibility in a collapsing and non-functioning economy will be to provide the basics of food, shelter, transportation, and security.  

“...food, shelter, transportation, and security. Their [the government's] task is to find a way to provide all of these necessities on an emergency basis, in absence of a functioning economy, with commerce at a standstill, with little or no access to imports, and to make them available to a population that is largely penniless.  If successful, society will remain largely intact, and will be able to begin a slow and painful process of cultural transition, and eventually develop a new economy, a gradually de-industrializing economy, at a much lower level of resource expenditure, characterized by a quite a lot of austerity and even poverty, but in conditions that are safe, decent, and dignified.”

In his book “Reinventing Collapse”, Orlov lays out five distinct stages of collapse that can be used to describe the spectrum of a future decline/collapse defined by the collision course of financial system that must grow married an addiction to fossil fuels that cannot grow.  We are currently in Stage 1 and one can see the faintest glimmers of the beginning of Stage 2 and hints of Stage 3.  Russia was able to arrest their collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union well into Stage 3, however I would argue that the Soviet collapse was just an opening act to the global economic collapse we are experiencing today.

Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in "business as usual" is lost. The future is no longer assumed resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out, and access to capital is lost.

Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that "the market shall provide" is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down, and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.

Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that "the government will take care of you" is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.

Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that "your people will take care of you" is lost, as local social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.

Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for "kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity" (Turnbull, The Mountain People). Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes "May you die today so that I die tomorrow" (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago). There may even be some cannibalism.

Orlov loses me with his Stage 5 description although I can easily imagine pockets of the stage 5 behavior he describes.  However, the first four stages seem to be a reasonable vision of a possible future that we can use as a basis for making preparations.  

One question remains.   Will the future we face be primarily my problem, my children's, or my grandchildren's cross to bear?  The history of ancient civilizations like the Romans and Mayans argue in favor of Greer's belief in a long slow decline.  However, compared with today's developed world, the Roman and Mayan empires were relatively simple, low technology, agrarian, and therefore more resilient.  In today's urban world of interlocked complex systems subject to single points of failure, Orlov's vision of financial, commercial, political, and social collapse could be compressed into one or two decades.

John Robb, author of “Brave New War” and a 4th generation warfare expert, makes the case for the hair trigger vulnerability of our urban centers in his essay the The Coming Urban Terror. Robb makes a very pervasive case that terrorists, urban gangs, Mexican drug cartels, or angry and determined economic refugees could easily and cheaply attack and disable critical nodes in our urban and national infrastructure.  For example, a system or human caused failure in our electrical grid at the regional for national level lasting no more than several days would quickly cascade, causing failures in our transportation, water, sewage, communications, and food delivery systems.

Personally, I think events will unfold very quickly and that the urban and suburban systems we depend on for food, water, and energy will at best become unreliable.

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

http://www.countercurrents.org/lundberg030410.htm

Post-Peak Oil Reality Trumps Right Wing Trend

By Jan Lundberg

03 April, 2010
Culturechange.org

The direction of the U.S. has been questioned, analyzed, feared and condemned with increasing intensity since the 1960s. Things got a little quiet and complacent in the 1980s, as cheaper oil and no major war enabled the U.S. to get on with the business of making money at the expense of the poor and Mother Nature. Income disparity and official cruelty were not outrageous enough for open revolt. Cheerleaders exercised their right to support the status quo or press for more corporate supremacy. But all the while, critical observers have anticipated or foreseen the rise of U.S. police-state totalitarianism, invasion of privacy, further erosion of freedoms, the growth of the Pentagon, and globalism.

Many of these critical observers also realized that the environment, and later the climate, was deteriorating at an accelerated rate. But only some of them were looking at specific resources' limits, such as oil's completely giving out one day in our lifetimes. Now the post-peak oil age is staring us in the face, with the Great Recession signaling the end of bubble prosperity. There is no consensus on how things will play out -- whether a Depression, total collapse or prosperous green technotopia -- or when.

However, many of us know that the end of cheap, abundant oil means a new chapter of history is opening up now or very soon. More and more authorities are acknowledging an imminent peak in oil extraction or a major oil-supply crunch. The "optimistic" and contrary view out of Exxon is becoming marginalized. Since "peak oilists" understand that the new chapter has begun, and we can visualize energy scarcity causing radical change in lifestyle and social structure, isn't it time to place the traditional left-right view of politics and conventional economic theory aside? Today's political conflict is dominated by those who see a constant or growing pie to fight over or redistribute. Their worldview will be swept aside when everyone from neo-Nazis to peaceniks have their cars permanently idled, without fuel, and have to dig up lawns and depave driveways to desperately grow food.

EnergyBulletin.net is a peak oil website with a lot of new articles daily on related matters such as gardening, farming, climate change, and psychological aspects of economic collapse. Occasionally there are articles on politics, but they have something to do with energy or U.S. consumerism. A recent article the website posted didn't seem to have anything to do with energy: "Is America ‘Yearning for Fascism’?" by Chris Hedges (writing originally in truthdig.com). That it was on a peak oil website says a lot about the power of the article, and says something about many peak oilists' views of the future.

The Shallow Focus on Federal Politics

Hedges is a strong critic of U.S. policies. How much he knows about peak oil and overpopulation isn't known to me, but his latest article ignores entirely the possibility of petrocollapse or a new, very different future due to the end of abundant oil and energy. Like most commentators, Hedges focuses on politics and political trends. He happens to be passionate about ending war and for protecting "democracy" (an idealized notion or myth). It also happens that many people concerned with peak oil are quite concerned about his issues as well -- so much so that ideas or fears on politics and social (in)justice sometimes color peak oilists' energy outlooks.

As is the case with most citizens, Hedges does not see much change soon in our daily way of life as consumers, if at all. His big concern is change for the worse politically: in terms of fascist thugs breaking down your door. Or, almost as horrible to liberals and progressives, another Republican President gets in. After all, this might mean war on Middle Eastern countries, expanded offshore drilling, reviving nuclear power -- oh, wait, Obama and the Democrats are doing all that now, with no intention of changing direction. The Democrats might think this buys them some points with the Right, but it doesn't -- revealing that today's raging political differences are mostly about power. After all, the main gripes against the new health care law seemed to be stretched or manufactured.

The unemployed, the uninsured and the oppressed minorities are probably only going to rise up in hunger, when collapse really hits, rather than at the urgings of political demagogues. After all, there's no mass revolutionary fervor when the entrenched idea of working one's life away for others, to buy more personal stuff, is the modern form of freedom.

Oil reality trumps political trends

Hedges quotes the independent minded ex-Democrat of Congress Cynthia McKinney who blames "the people who put us in this predicament” and laments “Our problem is a problem of governance." She refers to the nation's political challenges and right-wing trends, and not the looming utter loss of abundant, cheap energy. If she and Hedges believe that strife between left and right is going to be a big deal up ahead -- and this may well be true -- just wait until the trucks don't pull in to the supermarkets because of a massive oil shortage. It will be triggered perhaps by a revolution in Saudi Arabia, an Israeli attack on Iran, or other geopolitical event. But the biggest pressure on the whole situation is the fact that global oil supply has peaked. Peak oil (along with the related crisis of climate distortion) is bigger than fascism or any other social movement. What about wars, for example over water?

It is often pointed out that dwindling fresh, clean water will be the biggest resource crisis, causing more fighting than oil will. Events may appear to play out that way, but the water crisis is inseparable from the issue of petroleum because of (1) how water is pumped (often with petroleum energy) and (2) how water is consumed in relation to petroleum applications. And (3) the extra mouths drinking water today were fed and brought about by fast-growing petroleum-centered agriculture and food distribution.

The amount of crude oil estimated to remain in the ground, "reserves," is commonly assumed to be available for the market, as if nothing can disrupt it; rising cost and diminished net energy return are thought to be the only constraints. Collapse as a governing factor is ignored, ironically and optimistically, by many peak oilists. The quantity of remaining diminished reserves is thought to entirely determine the timing of post-peak decline and resultant socioeconomic impacts. This view is bolstered by what peak oilists see as no alternative forms of energy coming to the rescue. This is a reasonable position, but what most peak oilists and renewable energy advocates don't seem to grasp is that the oil market's extreme reaction to an inevitable, sudden shortage of 10% or more will be the whole driver of collapse. The unprecedented, destructive socioeconomic spasm -- 1970s oil crises on steroids -- will allow no recovery, notably a hoped-for intact oil-industry capability to bring less and less product to the market -- following the famous Hubbert bell curve in such a way to allow the perpetuation of industrial nationalist power.

Fears of fascism have some validity but seem to omit the understanding that the U.S. -- like any corporate state now or in Europe in the 1930s and '40s -- is already a fascist society, when it fits the definition by Mussolini: "corporatism." The U.S. citizenry has been treated to a domestic version for many decades: "friendly fascism," whereby our pluralism and tolerance (not great, but real) have allowed us to say we are not like those brutal Axis nations of World War II. The several million civilians killed around the world by U.S. militarism since World War II might disagree, but U.S. citizens aren't much aware of other people's problems "over there."

As we cannot control collapse that must stem largely from the loss of cheap, abundant energy -- a process already begun -- it is time to put our "political" energy into building local economies and forming our family-neighborhood tribes for the tough future and eventual sustainable culture ahead. This will help prepare everyone for the post-peak oil dissolution of the U.S. as we know it -- no matter who next holds the White House or is kissing the ass of today's Wall Street elite.

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

Thought provoking.....Nice post. So much hinges on OIL!

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

I believe in the oil price spike then oil price crash cycle. Crude pops, demand plunges, supply gluts ensue. This pattern will be mesmerzing for decades.

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

Great post!

Taken within the historical context of The Fourth Turning, my personal expectations are for the looming changes to unfold over two decades.

Thanks for the good read John, I wish there were more posts of this quality in this community.

Best...Jeff

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

Last week I went to buy fencing for building the large animal tractors (they will hold the goats and sheep because I am sick of fixing fences).

I had to go to the back warehouse of the store and though the main floor of the store looked like everything was "normal" - the warehouse was stocked at about 25%!! The other 75% was bare as a bone. Where 15 stock people once worked - there was a single person whoc came to help load fencing rolls.

Then, the day before Easter we went into town to get a few items and noticed people out in groves in a chain store shopping for Easter candies, an when I looked at shopping carts - all small seasonal items filled the carts.

What a contrast and I would have loved to see if this store had bare bones in their warehouse too but I think I'm beginning to see a world where less is available.

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?
EndGamePlayer wrote:

Last week I went to buy fencing for building the large animal tractors (they will hold the goats and sheep because I am sick of fixing fences).

Hey EGP,

I'm curious as to what your thoughts are on the large animal tractors. I've been pondering a few different ideas on this, but if you have a system that works, I'd rather not waste time reinventing the wheel here. Care to share?

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Animal tractors

Hi Earthwise-

We are tired of fencing that doesn't keep out preditors and endlessly repairing the fencing so we are not only doing chicken tractors (see polyface.com) but we went a little bigger for the sheep and goats - 8' X 16'. The elec-Trak will pull them but we might opt for wheels (old bike wheels) if moving them becomes a challenge. We'll have pics on the MyBackAchers.com site as we progress. It wouldn't work for large cows or horses but I imagine a couple of hogs would be ok if they were trained on pasture. (Red Wattles?)

I like how intensely they can graze the area and since I have only planned on a LIMITED number of animals that we could ever support off the land we have, then (in theory) reduced the work load over time by not chasing down animals every other day. . . .the number of animals is determined by how much hay and grains we can raise ourselves.

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

Great read. Kind of puts a lump in the throat. Gulp!

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

Great read. Kind of puts a lump in the throat. Gulp!

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earthwise
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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

 

Thanks for the input EGP

I have Joel Salatin's books. The chicken tractor idea is amazing. My questions regarding larger animals were concerning square footage per animal and fence height/material and any shade/weather protection. I was considering pre-fab 6' high chain link panels like those at Home Depot. Any experience you could share is greatly appreciated.

Maybe a PM or a post on another thread (Permaculture?) would be more appropriate so as to not sidetrack this thread. Sorry everybody!

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

As I whiz down the highway at 80 MPH, I look at the clock in my truck and think, " Just 2 more hours and I'm home." I drive a little slower now since hitting that deer a few months ago. Just another casualty in the millions of roadkill that splatter red the highways of the world. And then I remember when gas was just $1.50 in March of last year; now it's back to $3 per gallon as if the financial crisis never happened. Strange, fast-paced world we have created for ourselves, this high tech, modern day civilization.

And so I read about something called "shifting baselines" or "inter-generational amnesia" in the following article:

"The Natural World Vanishes: How Species Cease To Matter

...and I think to myself that what we may predict as the inevitable pain and suffering of future generations may not be so at all. The new norm of the future will be all they will know. An they will wonder how we could have lived such an isolated, superficial, and empty "modern industrial life."

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Re: Collapse or Slow Decline?

It's interesting to me to read EGP's observations of depleted shopping carts and warehouses...

I'm here to show another confusing sighting.  After a solid year of planning, prepping, reading and general preparing and running a business and raising three kids.  I finally agreed to follow some families from our church who don't think anything bad is happening in the world except for "the economy is not great but it always gets better, just wait until Nov!" to Florida.

We went to Orlando.  Packed hotel.  Packed theme parks. Packed restaurants filled with tourists spending wildly.  It was confusing for me...where are the un-employed?  Where are the pay cuts?  Where are the I'm so scared, I better start saving people?

Are all of these people sitting in soon to be foreclosed homes...spending the cash freed up from not making mortgage payments?  I don't think so, it was pretty foot loose and fancy free in Orlando.  

Then, I visit the Motor City Casino in Detroit this past Saturday with a girlfriend and am astonished.  It's PACKED. And this is Detroit, in Michigan!  Are all these people gambling away un-employment, social security and disability checks?  What is going on? 

Now that I've poked my head out of the hole I've been buried in for awhile...I'm wondering if I havn't been a little foolish?  I mean will someone please remind me why this can't just keep on going forever....

BTW my husband and I just bought some gold at $75 above spot.  Last month it was $45 above spot. My coin dealer says that demand is up so the above spot cost goes up...why doesn't gold and silver go up?  If everyone is buying....(advertisments everywhere)  why are prices not going up on PMs?

 

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