|One of many possible Tipping Points for Humpty|
Cartoon by Tom Toles of the Washington Post
All the King's horses
And all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
Musings on the Archdruid's Comments on Korowicz
I am one who reads both the works of David Korowicz, with whom I largely agree, and John Michael Greer, with whom I largely disagree. They represent reasoned poles of the fast vs. slow collapse debate.
David Korowicz has written numerous papers examining Catastrophic Collapse (fast and deep). Principal among them is Trade-Off: A Study in Global Systemic Collapse. It's tough going, but well worth the effort.
He describes the global economy in systems terms.
The global system includes a handful of hubs - agriculture, energy, finance, IT, transport, water/sewage - critical to the on-going function of the global system. All elements of the system are interdependent to some degree and most are dependent on one or more hubs. A failure in one element can spread to the next in a process called contagion. Failure of interdependent elements can infect a hub. Failure of any one hub brings down vast swathes of the system, and likely one or more others. Enough loss of function and the system collapses, fast and furious.
Historically, crises in the modern global system have been overcome by adaptive and negative feedback mechanisms (directed and reflexive responses which curb runaway behaviors and ease the system toward normal function). But there are limits. He writes, "...our experiences of diverse system collapses, albeit on a smaller scale, should warn us to be cautious in our assumptions.
Korowicz builds his case and concludes that the global system is stressed and near a tipping point, beyond which contagion spreads at an accelerating rate which overwhelms available response mechanisms, and the system as a whole fails.
Okay... what does Greer think?
John Michael Greer blogs eloquently at thearchdruidreport.com, and has proposed a theory of Catabolic Collapse (slow and staged in the Long Descent). This theory is founded on the assumption that history is a reliable guide to the future, specifically in respect to the rise and fall of civilizations.
In his post, The Far Side of Denial, he devotes a large portion to an effort to rebut the Fast Collapse conclusions of Trade-Off.
In essence, he argues that some combination of actions and effects can and will always halt runaway collapse on the scale of a civilization. Always has, always will. No reason to think it's different this time.
Greer concurs with Korowicz' assessment of current affairs and that collapse is imminent or underway. He differs in that he believes that responsive actions and mechanisms limit the drop. That multiple collapses will continue in more or less descending, stair-step fashion, playing out over generations.
To my mind, his rebuttal misses the mark. I will argue that a) capacity to arrest collapse is limited , b) Korowicz addresses actions that might be attempted and c) we are in historically uncharted waters.
Greer supplies the historical example of the systemic US banking crises of 1932/33, introducing the crux of his rebuttal. He writes:
It’s the sequel, though, that didn’t get into Korowicz’ analysis. Faced with the imminent reality of national collapse, the US government did not sit on its hands, which is what those with the capacity to do something are always required to do in fast collapse theories.
A nation facing collapse, it bears remembering, has plenty of options, and it also has the means, motive, and opportunity to use them.
First, in fast collapse theories, it is definitely not required that anyone sit on their hands. One the contrary Korowicz (among others) anticipates a great deal of effort to recover, contain or regroup once a tipping point occurs. But his analysis indicates that, beyond a certain threshold, these efforts are insufficient. Crises spread faster than damage control mechanisms can cope, thier own systems failing as the crisis deepens.
In this quoted passage, Greer is challenging Korowicz' assessment that "governments will respond to the crisis by choosing the minimal option they think will solve the immediate problem" (JMG's paraphrase). He considers this an assumption, rather than a conclusion.
Yet, taken in context Korowicz concludes that governments are unlikely to take decisive action in advance of a crisis, and lag behind a rapidly unfolding one. This itself has plenty of historical precedent.
Korowicz explicitly discusses inhibitions to prior action and several drastic response approaches (historically more or less effective) with detailed analysis of why they would come up short should the global system tip. He further examines radical approaches that have never been tried and finds them wanting.
In other words, he very much includes action on the part of those able to act.
I'll stipulate that a nation (aware that it is) facing collapse has plenty of options and motives to use them. But are those options both viable and sufficient to the task? Unproven at best. Past success is no guarantor of future success. Many of the options available in past crises are long gone from the table.
Future options are unspecified and can only be guessed at. At best, they are likely to be improvisational (see Greer's 'kluged together response' from his defibrillation analogy, below).
Means? Maybe; but in many cases doubtful. Means to avert some threats are physically out of reach, some technically so and others would break the bank.
Opportunity? There's the little matter of adequate time. Responses require time. In any given crisis there is but a window of opportunity before responders are overwhelmed.
That these allusions to unspecified 'drastic' options 'bear remembering' presuppose Greer's conclusion, and fail to address Korowicz' well-developed and explicit arguments to the contrary.
It is insufficient capacity to stabilize a tipped system which implies fast collapse after a tipping point.
Should the system tip and hubs fail, those who might act are in the dark without power. Lost without communication. Immobile without transport. Starving without food or water. Blind, toothless and very soon struggling to survive. Yesterday's plenty languishing undeliverable. Tomorrow's waiting for the smoke to clear.
Capacity degrades even as opportunity slams shut. Like the rest of us, all the King's horses and all the King's men are constrained by the resources on hand..
Is the past a reliable guide to the future in terms of fast vs. slow collapse?
Greer's assumption that 'nothing is (fundamentally) different this time' dismisses critical technologies that demonstrably and fundamentally alter the contexts through which historiical events must pass.
To pick one example, in 1859, the Carrington Event (high magnitude solar storm) caused telegraph systems around the world to fail and spark, causing many fires. Telegraph wires acted as antennas, capturing enough energy to exceed limits.
Before about 1850, the Event would have had little to no impact whatsoever, as telegraph technology had not yet become widespread. By 1859 its impact was profound. Now... well. Now we're wired.
Sophisticated circuitry doesn't hold up nearly as well as telegraph wire.We might have the means to shield all our vital electrical and electronics (as one might against EMP). But we haven't yet shown the will. In another such event we'd certainly develop that will.
But all the King's horses and all the King's men would arrive too late with too little. Would Humpty merely suffer a few cracks, or be reduced to egg drop soup? The past cannot rule the latter out.
Clearly, to state that X has never happened does not mean it can't or won't. Or that we survived a previous (superficially) similar event, so we will survive the next. All history plays out in context. Solutions to previous problems cannot be simply repeated. Cause and effect propagate differently as linkages change.
New technologies create new conditions:
They multiply the number of interacting parts, (inter)dependenciesparts and overall complexity. They supplant historical infrastructures - organic agriculture, beasts of burden, localized economies. They interrupt or degrade the transmission of skills all but lost after a single generation's hiatus. They supplant and degrade whole ecosystems. They expose us to dangers our species never imagined, much less faced.
Change the context (system), change the flow of history. In matters of kind, quantity, complexity and tempo, we live in a changed world. Despite historical resemblances, guidance and intact commonalities, we are in new and uncharted territory.
Greer concludes with the following (emphasis mine):
Korowicz’ study points to one very plausible way that the next major round of crisis could slam into the industrial world. The fact that the nations affected by it could kluge together responses to it, slap the equivalent of defibrillator paddles onto their prostrate economies, and get a heartbeat again for the time being doesn’t change the fact that a financial collapse followed by even a partial supply chain breakdown would be a massive crisis, the sort of thing that could well plunge hundreds of millions of people into permanent poverty and push the global economy further down a long ragged decline that will be much less amenable to drastic responses. We’re in agreement, in effect, that the patient is terminally ill; the question is simply whether first aid measures available to the paramedics on site can get his heart beating again, so he can drag out the dying process for a while longer.As a paramedic I feel this analogy (patient in cardiac arrest) is apt, but weighs in against Greer's thesis..
It is not at all a 'fact' that defibrillation, even at the hands of skilled technicians, can reliably 'get his heart beating again', much less a "kluged together response". Nor is it sufficient. Once a patient tips over into cardiac arrest, they are in crisis with severe danger of whole system collapse.
Absent prompt, correct action and well managed recovery, the patient will likely die in very short order.
Here's the concluding analogy from Trade-Off:
Collectively, it is like we are passengers traveling in an unimaginably complex plane locked onto a perilous course. Our understanding of the engine and guidance system is partial, nor do we know many of the connections between them. We may want to change course by retooling the guidance system, but there is a meaningful risk it will stall the engine, and we’ll plummet to the ground. Good risk management might argue that before repairs are done, we ensure the passengers have parachutes, but time is running out, maybe it already has.Greer presumes a Horn of Plentiful Options to intervene should this plane begin to plummet He appeals to the authority of the past.I can't follow him there. But...
Collapse - fast or slow - is the unproven negative until it happens.
We all come to believe, one way or another. Life is an act of faith. I believe the value of debate is refinement one's understanding. Through debate, we may confirm our conclusions, be persuaded of our opponents' or be inspired to new possibilities.
My advice is to prepare for the worst (fast collapse), hope for the best (slow collapse) and take what comes with prepperation!
For more on the Carrington event, see NASA news and analysis. In 2012, a solar storm of similar magnitude narrowly missed the earth.