Collapse is the new in thing. Columnists in collapsing newspapers write about it. Historians tell us it’s coming. Prominent economists predict it. We all expect it.
What is collapse? Definitions vary from uncontrollable downturns, all the way to great culls in our population.
Lets start gently, with mild-mannered professor Dennis Meadows, one of the original authors to “The Limits to Growth“. Here is a clip from a film prepared September 2009 for leaders and billionaires at Davos, Switzerland:
“The Danger of Collapse
Technically speaking “collapse” is a process where things go down, out of control. For example, if a building collapses, it falls down not under the control of anybody. Societal collapse is for the key indicators of our society–material standards of living, peace, trust in the government, and other things, to fall, without control.
Collapse is Near
The situation for us is kind of like living in a city which has earthquakes, let’s say Tokyo or San Francisco. I can tell my friend in San Francisco that with 100% probability there is going to be another really big earthquake in San Francisco-absolutely, no uncertainty about it. But when, that is the question. And how big? These are really important questions. We don’t have any idea when. It could be tomorrow; it could be thirty years from now. The same thing with collapse. I know that the current growth in population and in material use cannot continue–absolutely, with 100% probability, that it is going to stop. When? How? How seriously? We have no scientific way to make predictions.”
[end of Meadows transcript]
Fine. It’s like a building in Chile, if you expect it and prepare for collapse, or a concrete pancake in Haiti, if you don’t. Next week we’ll look at a more dangerous definition of collapse.
In this program, we’ll hear two of the most prominent voices. Dumb media calls them “collapsniks”. I have much more respect. Dmitry Orlov keeps piercing the veil with his insights, gained partly from his bridging the gap between the former Soviet Union, and the increasingly dysfunctional United States.
John Michael Greer has moved from the edge of mysticism, into a thought leader for alternative culture. You won’t find either one on your father’s radio stations. This is Radio Ecoshock.
[Dmitry Orlov interview, 25 minutes, available separately as an mp3 on our Peak Oil page]
Many people take their lead on collapse from the work of Joseph Tainter, the Head of the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. His book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” was published in 1988. Tainter looks at past civilizations, from the Maya to the Romans, to see they fell down. To quote from Wikipedia:
“Tainter argues that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. He recognizes collapse when a society rapidly sheds a significant portion of its complexity.”
Let’s hear a short clip from Joseph Tainter, found at archeologychannel.org
“Modern society, doom-sayers tell us, may be destroyed by pollution, over-population, global warming, energy shortages, or collision with an asteroid.
Economists argue the opposite: that as long as we remain entrepreneurial, we can overcome all challenges. Most of us hope the economists are right, but wish we could understand better why societies succeed or fail.
Societies regularly face wars, catastrophes, changes in climate, and economic distress. We respond to problems today much as people did before, and from these commonalities we can learn about collapse, resiliency and sustainability.
An illuminating collapse was that of the Western Roman Empire in the Fifth century A.D. The Romans found conquest highly profitable at first, as they seized the accumulated wealth of the Mediterranean lands. But for a one-time infusion of wealth, Rome took on responsibilities to administer and defend the empire. These responsibilities lasted centuries, and had to be paid from yearly agricultural production.
When there were extraordinary expenses, usually during wars, the government often found itself short of money. The usual strategy was to stretch the currency by adding copper. This was inflationary, and by the middle of the Third century A.D., the empire was bankrupt. The government would not even accept its own coins for payment of taxes.
In the half century from 235 to 284, the empire nearly came to an end. There were foreign and civil wars, almost without interruption. Cities were sacked and provinces devastated. In the late Third and early Fourth centuries A.D., the emperors Diocletian and Constantine responded by designing a government that was larger, more complex, more highly organized, and much more costly. They doubled the size of the army at great expense. To pay for this, peasants were taxed so heavily that they abandoned lands and could not replenish the population.
In the late Fourth century, the Barbarians forced their way into the Western empire. They overthrew the last Emperor in Italy in 476 A.D.
I call this ‘the Roman model’ of problem solving. The Romans responded to challenges by increasing the size and complexity of their government and army, at great expense. Fiscal weakness, and exploitation of the population undermined the effort, and made collapse inevitable.
The Eastern Roman Empire survived the Fifth century crisis. We know it today as the Byzantine Empire. It was constantly at war, and in the early Seventh century, a twenty six year war with Persia left both sides exhausted. Arab armies seized the wealthiest parts of the Byzantine realm, and destroyed the Persian Empire entirely.
Soon the Arabs were attacking Constantinople itself, the Byzantine capital. Yet the Byzantines made a remarkable recovery. They settled their professional army of farmlands across the Empire. Soldiers now provided most of their own sustenance, and the government paid them a much lower salary.
Byzantine government and society simplified also. Cities contracted to fortified hill-tops. The economy became organized around self-sufficient manors. Literacy declined.
The simplification rejuvenated Byzantium, which not only halted the Arab advance, but eventually doubled the size of the Empire. Unlike the Romans, who met challenges by increasing the complexity and costliness, the Byzantines show us what may be history’s only example of a large complex society systematically simplifying. I label this ‘the Byzantine model.'”
[end quote from Professor Joseph Tainter, University of Utah.]
Personally, I find Tainter’s explanations a bit too business-oriented, a little too convenient for slashing employees and government help. And our understanding of collapse has come a long way from 1988, when his seminal book came out, I’m sure he would agree. Now that we’re closer to it, some of the dirt has been wiped off the lens. But Joseph Tainter continues to be a great source for those interested in collapse.
When Radio Ecoshock continues, we’ll go further, with the Arch druid, John Michael Greer. Stay tuned, while you can.
[interview with John Michael Greer, available as a separate interview on our Peak Oil page]
In 2005, John Michael Greer published a scholarly paper titled “How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse.”
Greer finds Tainter’s explanations lack some positive feed-back loops, the self-reinforcing drivers of decline emerging from things like limited resources, and failing biosphere. In the later stages of a civilization, most of the capital is converted into waste. Can anyone spell junk bonds or credit default swaps?
There has certainly been a downturn in media expectations. After the year of green shoots and drum beats of recovery, there are a slew of experts gently warning we’re still in the crapper. You may feel a little pain.
From the OECD economists, to J.P. Morgan, capital experts see another slide coming. Investigations into Goldman Sachs’ padding the books of entire nations, like Greece, Italy and more… are leaking out the awful truth. We fixed nothing in the banking system or our economy, and we’ve faked our way through another year.
Recalling the models from history, as presented by Joseph Tainter, we find that collapse isn’t all bad for everyone. For those toiling under the yoke of impossible imperialism, it is a relief when the war economy ends. For those eating industrial agro-garbage, real grown food tastes sweet and good again. The cynicism of our present failures morphs into new beliefs, as the old is cleaned away.
The wild Germans and Celts longed for the Fall of Rome, though they kept using some of their technologies and symbols. In Byzantium, simplification and self-sufficiency led to centuries more civilization.
I’m also reminded of Roberto Vacca’s 1973 book, “The Coming Dark Age”. As a computer architect, Vacca predicted modern complexity would over-reach, and fall apart. The dreaded system break down.
A version of that book, updated by the author in the year 2000, is now free on the Net.
Back in the ’70’s, Vacca couldn’t foresee how much computers would help humans organize beyond their individual capabilities. Once we survived the urge for atomic self-annihilation, we got another thirty years out of computer assisted living. Until Windows and the mega-servers hit the virus they can’t swallow. Or the power goes out in a mega storm. Richard Heinberg warns most or our ready-to-click knowledge could disappear in a day, without the machines.
Meanwhile, you can feed your worries with the new article coming out this week in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson calls it, “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.” See what I mean? Everybody’s on to it.
Find an accessible, shorter version of Niall Ferguson’s warning here in the L.A. Times, the article titled: “America, the Fragile Empire.”
We don’t know where collapse is taking us, or when. Only that it’s coming. Get more in next week’s Radio Ecoshock on-going coverage. As Niall Ferguson writes, we may not have time to figure out the theory, if collapse comes quickly, and without warning.
I’m Alex Smith. Find lots more free audio, at our web site, ecoshock.org Thank you for listening.
Our background music is “Open Up You Eyes” by Awake. The band dedicated another song, “Industrial Cemeteries” to our guest, John Michael Greer. The album is “Dark Matter”.
You also heard the bull-horn overlay from London, England found in this You tube montage titled “Everything Is OK”