|This is a poor graph, I admit... scales to left an right of the 'peak' are not consistent.|
-- 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, thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com.
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.
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.
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.