The above graph is adapted from Limits to Growth, Revisited. It is not a hard and fast prediction, but rather the product of a model with 40 years of high correspondence with developments. We are, at present, at the top of the growth curves, many of which have already begun to plateau. Slopes of decline do not factor in such worst-case scenarios as widespread urban- or domestic nuclear facilities collapse consequent to economic collapse.

I've added the shading and 'crossover' circle' (coincident with 'peak everything') to indicate my best guess as to the high probablility zone for global, economic collapse, triggering the onset of TEOTWAWKI.

I fear a hard landing... no 'reboot' or 'transition' to a lower functioning economy. I urge high priority preparation now.

I've got a short glossary of terms at the bottom of this page... if you come across an unfamiliar term, please scroll down and check it out.

Information I'm including or pointing to doesn't mean I necessarily agree with it. Rather, I've found it to be stimulating and worthy of consideration. I'm sure you'll exercise your own judgement... we're nothing if not independent! 8)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It IS Different This Time

This is a poor graph, I admit... scales to left an right of the 'peak' are not consistent.
My Bad.

The overfamiliar cry of “but it’s different this time!” is popular, it’s comforting, but it’s also irrelevant. Of course it’s different this time; it was different every other time, too. Neolithic civilizations limited to one river valley and continental empires with complex technologies have all declined and fallen in much the same way and for much the same reasons.
-- From TheArchdruidReport by John Michael Greer
Here, he's speaking of 'Cornucopians' but same goes for 'Doomers'

It IS Different This Time

Let me start by stating that I am a fan of the writings of John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and avidly follow his blog,

I find his thinking and presentation clear, his knowledge of history wide-ranging and that his ruminations run deep. He never fails to widen my horizons, nor to stimulate a flurry of fact-checking (almost all of which holds up, btw... rare exceptions are subject to interpretation), cross-reference and further readings.

My cup o' tea!

So it is with the greatest respect that I venture to differ with one of his central assumptions; that  nothing is different this time.

Greer proposes an explanation of How Civilizations Fall: A theory of Catabolic Collapse:

At a certain, peak moment, an ascendant culture's accumulating assets become too expensive to maintain with available resources. Some assets are converted to waste (let go) in a period of contraction, beginning a long period of descent. 

'Assets' everything from institutions, mores, hierarchy and education to infrastructure to soil fertility. 'Waste' may involve the overthrow of dynasties, debasing of currencies and crumbling or abandoned infrastructure to retreat, defeat and/or revolution.

Contractions are typically (though not necessarily) chaotic, involuntary and violent.

Following each contraction, a temporarily affordable equilibrium is reached at a lower level, and things even out for a while, with perhaps partial recovery. But, so long as no new resources become available, the cycle repeats in a downward trend, following a generally stair-step trajectory.

This theory arguably accounts for the (rise and) fall trajectories of historical civilizations. 

The question arises, does this theory predict the course of our own collapse, or are things different this time?

Greer, himself, is dismissive of the notion, and considers our civilization to be fundamentally the same as all its predecessors. In his view, it will collapse, and follow a similar, stair-step trajectory of slow descent into coming Dark Ages.  

Here is an evocative sample he provides of the narrative one might expect for our future Long Descent, analogous to those of the past.

I, myself, believe the are fundamental differences between our present and historical cases, and that the collapse will be catastrophic (I guess that makes me a 'Doomer').
A contraction can only 'fetch up' at the next lower step while its survivors possess assets which are both sufficient and viably intact at a lower level of function. 

To fundamentally change our situation from those past in ways that make us vulnerable non-catabolic, catastrophic collapse, there must be non-trivial differences which render our fall-back assets insufficient and/or non-viable.

So what's new? Here's a minimal list, for starters:

The Global Economy

For the first time in human history, the economies of the world are fused into a single, global dynamic, utterly dependent on continuity and collectively continuous growth to maintain its vital functions.

Production is widely distributed, with markets and essential components found half a world away from one another. Energy flows ditto. Communications are networked via surface, sub-surface and satellite connections.

Complex systems - such as the global economy - are chaotic. That is to say, resistant to successful modelling, subject to the Butterfly Effect, strange attractors, abrupt phase shifts.

They tend to be robust, so long as a critical set of vital nodes (aka hubs) continue to function. But, should one of these fail, a series of cascading failures can be (with very high likelihood) set in motion which destabilize the system, leading to a system crash.

Add to this the effects of economic dependency on unlimited growth within the closed system  of planet earth. All growth is exponential.

Until it isn't.


Unique to the modern era, our civilization is supported by a suite of interdependent technologies which, in the event of sufficient interruption, can neither be 're-booted' nor function in a contracted environment.

Technical expertise has become ever more specialized, with the effect of rendering the implementation and maintenance of all core systems a vast, team effort. At the same time, these teams are ever more dependent on the tools they service, and the environment in which those services function.

Production has become ever more dependent on inter-linked technologies which are themselves far beyond the reach of the human artisan.

A power grid is one example. 

Power grids distribute necessary electrical power for virtually all aspects of modern civilization. This includes their own, continued operation. Communication and control of the grid itself depend on some unknown but considerable level of grid function.

Should even momentary, grid-wide failure occur, reboot (black start) is a delicate matter whose success is not assured. Should the down period extend, every hour decreases the chances of a successful reboot, as support systems (such as parts deliveries) degrade for lack of power.

Other, codependent technologies would fail as well, further disrupting reboot efforts.

To reconstruct the grid at a lower level of function, or even break it into gridlets, would require massive changes, by specialists, to existing soft-, hard- and firmware, unsupported by grid power. Not a chewing gum and baling wire operation. 

That's the point.

Food and Farmers

Historically, even the most technologically advanced civilizations were built on a preponderant majority of farmers and countryfolk whose tools, methods, seedstocks and know-how were able (by and large) to withstand the upheavals of catabolic collapse. Each tread in their civilization's long descent relied on those assets.

Our codependent, global economy cum civilization, in contrast - through a succession of green revolutions which put world food production on a petroleum footing, hybridized most primary seedstocks, mechanized virtually all farming tasks, encouraged monoculture and long distance transport - has fundamentally, albeit temporarily, altered the historical relationship between food producers and civilization.

Should the current, interlocked, computerized and satellited systems of fuel / power, transport and finance fail for any extended period at all, current crops will fail and/or languish in the field for lack of labor, fertilizer and pesticide and transport, far from their markets. Hybrids revert to diminished parent stocks. Irrigation systems fail. 

Especially in the First World, farmers themselves will face malnutrition, even in the midst of monocrop abundance. Even where (non-hybrid) seedstock is on hand, the interval between seed and harvest is a long one, with initial output vastly diminished.

Farms are no longer subsistent. Farmerfolk have not preserved, by and large, the country skills that once saw themselves and others through each round of contracted equilibrium. The ways and means lie, for the most part, some three to four generations past in the First World, and considerable losses in the remainder.

We can no more return directly from present practice to viable, organic farming than peasant farmers of the past could return directly to viable hunter-gathering. The tools and skill-sets are different, and the learning curve that separates them, vast.

And when city folk go hungry, farmlands no longer spread around their walls.

Population Mass and Urban Concentration

The planet's population of some 7 billion+ human beings is now half-urban (54%).

By contrast, 1800 saw roughly 1 billion souls (roughly double world population at the height of Rome, and less than presently live in China or India) of whom only 3% were urban dwellers.

Another way to put it: in 1800, 97 persons embedded in a rural economy supported 3 persons embedded in an urban economy. Now, less than 3 rurals support those 3 urbans.

In the event of systemic disruption, sheer weight of numbers will exacerbate any collapse via resource exhaustion / pressure and competition by the living and putrefaction of the dead.

Cities are, for the most part, serviced by long chain and Just In Time logistics. Without constant resupply, limited food-on-hand is quickly consumed. Two choices: fight for what's left, or fan out into adjacent countryside (which is not necessarily farmland).

My guess is that the cities will first implode, then explode.

Much of the world's core business is conducted within, or orchestrated from cities (finance, ports, fuel terminals, communications, etc.) . They go down, and world commerce goes with them.

As the cities tear themselves and surroundings apart, another indisputably novel factor comes into play. 

Resource Depletion

Numerous surface and near-surface resources - in particular fossil fuels and metals - have been extracted well past the reach of even marginally lower levels of technology and economy. 

Generally speaking, EROEI for what remains is presently 'uneconomic' despite all our current material and procedural advantages. If dilute concentrations (low yield deposits or tailings) are not affordably recoverable, they are in practice unavailable.

Below some unknown but certain point, contractions must needs exist within a salvage/scavenge mineral budget, with entropic losses at each recycle. Fossil fuels aren't recyclable, and would cease to be an option.

In addition, energy requirements for such recycling - absent accessible, concentrated energy - make industrial scales unlikely. Furthermore, in such a transition, industrial infrastructure would require re-tooling on a massive scale; requiring energy and a highly functional industrial environment, neither of which - at least below the point mentioned above - would pertain.

Nuclear Situation

The northern hemisphere is now liberally salted with nuclear reactors. 

Without constant, specialized service, high-tech resupply and continuous flow of coolant (water + grid power or fuel), the majority of them will undergo irremediable LOCAs (Loss Of Coolant Accidents), releasing radioactive debris into widespread air- and watersheds.

No prior civilization has faced an analogous pitfall in the course of its descent.


Greer's theory of Catabolic Collapse posits collapse as inevitable, and here, we agree. 

Its prediction of stair-step, long descent, however, relies on the assumption that nothing fundamental has changed in the current civilization. That the future is analogous to the past.

But, if any of the above-listed considerations are true (along with others one might add), it IS different this time. Fundamentally, non-trivially different.

A stair-step, Long Descent may still be possible.  

If vital technologies and services can be kept running continuously through several cycles of contraction, they might be incrementally curtailed. Eventually, by this means, they could reach the lower-tech levels that would allow them the luxury of intermittency and eventual, sub-catastrophic demise.  Populations might incrementally reduce, and rural assets might regain ascendency. Nuclear plants might be safely decommissioned and their wastes stored for long-term, low to zero maintenance.

But, without a widely distributed set of assets which can be reconfigured and simplified under extreme duress; with a glut of vulnerable populations with no immediate means of support beyond the functioning global economy; without some implemented, passive alternative to nuclear plant coolant systems... well... Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall.

Should a trigger event initiate irrecoverable, cascading failures in a core system - the pillars of our civilization become dominoes. And the next step downward from here is so spaced as to ensure a tumble.

It appears to me that - rather than an inevitable repetition of historical process - the Long Descent is but one, rather remote possibility we now face among a crowd of abrupt, catastrophic likelihoods.

Watch that first step... it's a doozy! 

NOTE: The problem with growth - doubling every so often - is that ONE doubling period prior to full saturation of whatever medium, the cup only appears half full... all of human history and we've only used up half of what's available. Especially the easy access, low hanging fruit.

For the first time, it appears that we are at - or past - the halfway point.

Will it take all of historical time to use up the remainder? Or merely one more doubling period, currently estimated to be within the half-century range?

My guess is that - in this sense - the collapse of civilizations is more logarithmic than catabolic.



  1. When I think of collapse, I always go back to Cuba and how they handled their problems. I can only assume that our governments will direct what power is left into shutting down nuclear power plants as they become liabilities. PS do you accept visitors I may be rowing and sailing in your neck of the woods in july?

    1. Hi John,

      Hmm... Cuba and collapse are two notions I've never put together!

      Cuba seems to have been successful within a functioning world economy, despite the ongoing US embargo. All their internal - for better and for not so better - have been, to some degree, affected by their external trade relations.

      How a wider collapse might affect them is unclear to me, though I imagine Orlov's 'Collapse Gap' concept makes them a world leader.

      I personally doubt that, by the time nuclear plants become liabilities in a collapse scenario, governments will have lost the ability to do anything effective, whatsoever. In fact, cease to be a gov't in any meaningful sense. That goes for any institution that has to pick up a phone to speak with itself.

      Shutting a plant safely down for the long haul isn't easy, now, with all the advantages. I'm thinking that under duress, near universal LOCAs are inevitable.

      But then, I'm a born skeptic! 8)


      PS... We'd love to meet you, but not sure where we'll be in July. Drop me a line via, and we'll see what we can set up.

  2. Hi Dave, I have been reading ADR for years, and the difference between yours and his hinges on the definition of how big that first step is. I would expect, that after the first step down is complete, that North America will have to survive with zero imports, which is an 80% drop in the standard of living off the bat. I would expect a significant drop in population, where 60-80% of the current urban population is gone as well, as they do not have the required skills to survive without access to hi tech medical and delivered food. Does that make it a collapse or a stair step down? Even if you drew an exclusion zone around every reactor in the US, the size of the one around Chernobyl, you have a lot of land left. Overall life expectancy will certainly drop, but nature only cares if you make it to reproductive age, not retirement. So my prediction is a very large step down, but not collapse. Of course, if you are part of the population that does not make it through that step, you would call it a collapse.

    Examples: Number of nuclear plants in North America is 67 (most plants have multiple reactors, but the danger does not really change) times the size of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone (2600Km2) equals 174,200 Km2 or about 1/50 of the US land area. Most Hydro dams would be reconfigured into gridlets, so there would be pockets of electricity around the country.

    1. Hi Dennis,

      Well put... 'how big that first step is', and how narrow the 'treads' (temporary equilibria) are, mark the difference between abrupt vs Long Descent. And you're right, my analogy is more like a near vertical ladder missing (at least) its upper rungs!

      My answer, here, is pretty much semi-informed speculation... please consider it in the spirit of lively conversation. 8)

      Underlying differences between JMG (and other Long Descenders) and myself (and other Catatsrophists, for want of a better term), can be seen in our answer to one question:

      How robust is our system?

      JMG sees it as relatively robust, yet, in that the actions of people and government, he believes will provide sufficient negative (damping) feedback to avert catastrophe, reorganizing at a lower level of function.

      I (with Korowicz, among others) see it as non-robust, in that - given a sufficient trigger event - no actions can provide sufficient negative feedback to halt cascading failures which destabilize and eventually topple the system (no reorganization possible; abrupt, catastrophic descent to 'the bottom').'

      'Sufficiency', I suppose, is a matter of faith.

      The drop in urban population you mention leaves 20% to 40% (200k -400k per initial million, 20k -40k per initial 100k). Pre-industrial urban populations never came close to this percentage of, say, NYC or LA's present multitudes. And that was with all the advantages of evolved systems of farm production, transportation and exchange.

      In the catastrophic scenario, evolved systems have become globally disrupted (likely through contagion following initial failure of a core system ('hub' or 'node' in Korowicz). If the system is not robust, the means to reboot impaired systems will be lost. The world, in this case, would abruptly come face to face with having to rally around our great-grandparents technologies - lost to us both in terms of means and know-how.

      Unless a contraction has a) left most steady commerce intact (i.e., is non-catastrophic), or b) invented a new, functional system on-the-fly (improbable to impossible in catastrophic conditions), I see no way that such numbers could be sustained.

      Food still has to be grown - presumably without resupply of seedstock, fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides. Transported - presumably without fossil fuels or passable roads. Exchange has to be made - presumably without currency. And all this done in the face of presumed desperation and the violence born of it.

      I dunno!


    2. ...Continued.

      RE Nukes... Chernobyl underwent massive interventions by the Soviet government. I understand that its 'sarcophagus' (temporary, ferrous containment shell) helps mitigate the spread of radioactive steam, etc., by sheltering the core from rainwater. Meanwhile, its spent fuel was removed.

      As I understand it, spent fuel rods are the real bugaboo. They must be kept cooled by active (vs passive) systems. If the main plant goes LOCA in a (catastrophic) collapse scenario, chances are high that interventions will be slight and ineffectual. That means fuel storage is very shortly next in line (think Fukushima, left to its own devices). The amount of 'dirty debris' released into the atmosphere can dwarf the (remediated) output of Chernobyl.

      As you point, each generation only has to reach reproductive age (with enough time and resource left-over, collectively, to rear children). But genetic damage from radiation is cumulative, and mortality rate increases reduce population (JMG had an excellent post on the subject, minus radiation). In conjunction with other mortality factors associated with collapse (contractional or catastrophic), even low rates would stress surviving populations.

      A last thought; I'm guessing that those 62/100 plants/reactors (after a spate of 2013 closings) are in the midst of some prime lands. For instance, 21 are spread out over a wide swathe of the Mississippi Delta. Thus, their collective exclusion zones (even if proportional to Chernobyl's) would have a disproportional impact.

      As the Emporer said to Mozart (in the movie, Amadeus), "You are passionate, Mozart, but you do not persuade."

      I'm passionate... am I persuasive? 8)

      I appreciate your writing and am open to rebuttal!

      Dave Z

  3. All good points, and from the relativly unpopulated Canadian praries, m view has some bias. The other way to look at it, as an optimistic doomer, is if it is a stair step decline we can affect our little corner of the world. If it is the broken ladder down, the odds of any of us surviving is so low that the effort would be futle, so why bother?

    1. Hi Dennis,

      Personally, I think the 'why bother' question is one we all have to answer, civilization-wide TEOTWAWKI or no. After all, we each of us face our very own, personal version in the form of our own death, whose likelihood is VERY near certain.

      Despite my 'catastrophic' position, I'm not a gloomy doomer.

      We eat, drink and be merry as we have ever done in the past, through times thick and thin. These are poignant and fascinating times, so we may as well make the most of them!

      While I think there will be an abrupt 'slide to the bottom', I think we have a fair chance, as a species. And if we do, I think collapse may be the best thing that's happened to us in history (the 10,000 years or so in which we discovered agriculture, with all its ugly consequences).

      For most of human existence, we were hunter/gatherers - the life for which we are adapted. If humanity has a chance of future happiness and well-being, I believe it lies along that road, and not the detour we find ourselves upon.

      I take heart from the New World apocalypse which followed on contact with the Old World. NW civilizations fell so hard, fast and far that their descendents - a mere 200 years later - had no memory of a fall, or even that things had been different before. And yet, many of the societies I most admire (e.g., the Iroquois Nations) arose from ashes of cultures every bit as civilized and savage as any in Europe or Asia.

      So I think things are bleak for the survival of our civilizations. Things are hopeful for survival and thrival of humankind.

      But this is going to hurt...

      Dave Z

      PS... Sounds like you're in a good place re urban masses, with no nukes west or north of you(?). My guess is your big issue will be water in a time of increasing drought... but locating water is a skillset that can be acquired.

  4. I am in about as good a spot as the gamblers dice allows. I built a passive solar ICF house, rain water harvesting, deep well and am putting in permacultue swales and ponds (one done this summer). I still have a plan B to build a T8x32.As a side note on boat design, I have a old Mercedes 2400 cc Diesel engine, and the marinizinrg kit is avalible. The question is, I am looking at using a jet drive to maintain the shoal draft Even though it is not as efficent at slow speeds, I think it will work. Have you heard of anything similar?

    1. Hi Dennis,

      We looked into jet drive, which works. You can buy commercial jet lower units for many outboard power heads.

      Upside is it works on the 'every action has an equal and opposite reaction' principle. For every kg of water hurled aft, you get a kg of thrust.

      Downside is that it sucks fuel relative to already profligate props.

      Alternatives to consider:

      A 'weed chopper'... heavy prop at one end of a shaft, engine at the other, balanced on a fulcrum. In shallows, raise up as necessary. Used in wetlands in southern US and parts of Asia.

      An electric motor powered by a portable genset (Hondas are quiet, compact and efficient).

      Wood fired steam power (if you're sailing along a wood rich coast). Has potential to keep working after Collapse.

      A push pole... if you're too shallow to run a prop, a pole works great.

      For further boat stuff, if you like, you could drop me a line at triloboats swirl gmail point com.

      Dave Z


Hey Folks... I'm not in a position to moderate comments. If discussion remains respectful and on topic, I welcome comments (passion okay). If it spins out of control, I'll have disallow them... I thank you for your civility.

I've opened comments to all 'Registered Users' (whatever that means!) to help weed out pesky spam.

- Dave Z