Collapse? Really?



[…] What’s interesting about the examples of Cuba is that it is further evidence to suggest that fairly small energy resource shocks can cause fairly serious consequences – one-fifth of all oil shouldn’t have led to serious hunger. Most people would reasonably argue that waste in the system and proper allocation of resources should have been able to absorb this – or will argue that the fault was the Cuban government’s. To some extent that last point is probably true, but we should remember that we have examples from the US that show that small energy supply disruptions can be extremely destructive – the oil shocks of the 1970s and the major recession that followed resulted from a reduction in imports of just over 5 percent.

So yes, I think we’re on a path toward some kind of collapse, without necessarily assuming cannibalism or even roving gangs of white-supremacist kale-stealers. I would like such a collapse to be averted very much, but it seems less and less likely that we will do so. And the evidence is becoming compelling that we are going to be facing economic, energy and climate crises all at the same time – and that I find it hard to imagine us navigating successfully. Is it impossible? Probably not, but certainly improbable.

What are the common features of collapsed societies? I could go back to Rome, of course, but there’s probably no need. There are some common features of modern collapses that we can speak of:

  1. People get really mad at their government. This usually leads to some measure of civil unrest, and often changes of government, some of which are meaningful and some of which are not. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad – it also, as we know, can lead to the government or others scapegoating someone or other, which is really bad. Generally the better outcomes occur when the government seems to respond to the people, and also, when the government gets out of the people’s way and also lets them respond to events.
  2. Crime rates go up and services like police protection are less available or privatized – one universal feature of collapsed societies is that they are more violent. But that doesn’t tend to mean warlords killing everyone in their path – it tends to mean more street violence, robbery, rape and murder, sometimes along with for-profit kidnapping. It tends to mean that people are vulnerable, and afraid, and often can’t trust the authorities – it could be rather like being African-American in many poor urban neighborhoods, or it could be like living in Baghdad. Generally speaking, you don’t want your kids to go out very much, you tend to avoid going out yourself and safety becomes a serious issue.
  3. Everyone gets poorer fast. When societies collapse, the percentage of people who are poor goes way up – in Argentina, for example, the 2001 collapse virtually wiped out the middle class and pushed poverty levels up from lows around 20 percent to nearly 57 percent. This, I think, is the one universal likely outcome, and of course, one that is happening now.
  4. The cost and attainability of food becomes an issue. Accounts from Argentina, which was previously both stable and affluent, suggest that many desired foods, particularly imports, are often unavailable, and more importantly, widespread economic impacts make it harder to buy food. This, and a lack of medical care, impacts people’s health, and depression and drug and alcohol use begin to rise.
  5. Services and utilities are widely disrupted. Sometimes the disruption comes, as is common among the US poor, because people can’t afford to pay the bill – thousands of US households, for example, will have their utilities cut off on April 1, just as soon as it is legal (most utilities can’t cut off a household in the winter). But people also endure service interruptions because of aging infrastructure and social disruption. You are much more likely to spend time with no power, have no trash pickup, run out of gas and have the delivery trucks not come through….
  6. People are pushed together – whether they are herded into ghettos or lose their housing, extended families, biological and otherwise, come to rely on each other. So do communities and neighbors – when someone has food, you share; when someone needs a place to stay, you let them in. A culture of sharing emerges, and it is extremely useful to have stuff to share.

These are the near-universals – all these things happen in collapsed societies pretty much inevitably. In some collapsed societies, your neighbors start murdering you, or gangs terrorize your neighborhood – but this isn’t inevitable…

If a collapse of some sort does happen, what helps? We know, for example, that social supports make an enormous difference in a collapsing society. Reinventing Collapse, for example, finds that the major factors in keeping the Russian people from disaster were a system of social supports. Making medical care, food and shelter available to people in crisis keeps things from being too awful.

Faced with the “special period,” the Cuban government, for all its limitations, did some things that were remarkable, because they are precisely the opposite of what America has been doing – they strengthened social supports at the expense of potential growth. They expanded educational programs into more, smaller campuses, put more clinics out into rural and underserved areas and expanded food support programs.

Unfortunately, that’s not the culture we live in – Americans uniformly respond to economic and social crisis by beefing up government and military programs and by cutting social safety networks. We’re already seeing this.

The other thing that matters to reduce the rate of descent toward the basement are self-help strategies. In Cuba, for example, small-scale agriculture in urban centers did a lot (not everything, imported staples also mattered) to alleviate hunger and nutritional deficiencies. In Russia, according to all contemporary economic analyses, there should have been widespread starvation – but there wasn’t, largely because small-scale localized economics arose to replace what was missing. In Argentina, cardboard scavenging came to support forty thousand people – just barely, though. In the US during the Great Depression, an example of near-collapse in many ways, the number of informal economy jobs skyrocketed. In 1932, The New York Times observed that there were now seven thousand people, most of them adults, shining shoes in NYC, while in 1928, there had been less than two hundred…

…If we are going to have better for ourselves, we have to find it in things that are not vulnerable to collapse – in beauty and community, in the pleasure of good work and family, in things that are low-cost, simple and available. We’re going to have to find a new definition of better.

The good news is that other societies have proved that you can have things like good health, an education for your children, enough food, strong community, support networks for the vulnerable, the pleasures of home and family – all during periods of decline from one level to another. We know that this is possible – so our central project becomes ensuring that it is feasible for us, that we can offer our children something worth having, even if we have less…

Complete article here


One Comment

Personally, I prefer to use the word ‘composting’ economy, since whenever something dies, no matter how rapidly or unexpectedly, new seedlings will sprout in its place in a regenerational cycle of continued existence of creative expression.

The movie “Power of Community’ is a must see to understand how quickly collapse can and does happen. To believe that it could never happen here in the heaviest using, largest importing, most at risk dependent country on the black gold is pure naivety giving the many, many warnings we have these days of coming scarcity (scare city!)

Collapsing the centralized planning, centrally controlled and ‘regulated’ big corporate industrial/military/lobbyist complex is happening in real time. We are seeing the Feds dumping down onto the State, because they are broke (but they can continue the charade a little while longer because they print the money).

The States dumping down onto the cities and counties, because they are broke (and can’t print money). (i.e. The CA State prisoners being released, the severe budget cuts to our schools, and the State defunding of the Williamson Act (AG/Farm tax breaks) being just a few examples.)

The Counties cutting and cutting social services, while the Save the ‘ …..’ require all locals to dig into the their ever depleting piggie banks to keep the (check one or more..) health care, parks, food banks, schools, pensions, et al. from collapsing.

And the many, many who drank the ‘Free Debt’ Koolade of the new millennium that believed real estate was a one direction train ride to maximum wealth entitlement was there sole birth rite. Only to see the banksters get bailed out and grow stronger while the 99% end up the losers in this real life game of Capitalist Monopoly.

This is the new YOYO (Your On Your Own) world we are experiencing in real time as the de-leveraging of the Grand Debt Wahoo of endless growth without consequence is coming to a close much faster than most are ready for.

Simply put to date, we (through the Government Sachs Feds) have borrowed on our account 14 dollars for every dollar in currency . We out source everything that could get us out of the massive debt load that we all are responsible for. (FYI, the Feds also support California to the tune of 40% of the money we need each year to stay solvent.)

Mendocino County will be able to manage the resulting transition better than most due to the natural resources available and rebellious community but the question remains, what do we want to create in its place?.

Maybe, the big upside surprise will be the American ingenuity and creative expression will rise up to where neighbors turn to neighbors for support and reliance. Where trade, barter, swapping, giving, become communal. And we, once again, re-learn that Life is not only about material wealth but about our relationship to soil, society and soul. As well as the hard lessons to learn that borrowing money with interest will always, always result in collapse and debt servitude to the many. (Great book by David Graeber ‘5,000 years of Debt”)

What are our collective visions of a much better way? What does a truly self sufficient, self empowered community look like?, How would a gift economy of mutually supported sharing and caring actually function? And how do we go about designing a much better future for our children and their children to thrive and flourish in abundance and balance?

We truly are the ones we’ve been waiting for in these extraordinary times. Tag your it.