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America’s self-inflicted societal collapse

“…collapse isn’t inevitable, but depends on a society’s choices”. - Jared Diamond[1]

I have argued elsewhere that our American way of life is not sustainable[2], and I have presented compelling evidence to demonstrate that America is on the verge of imminent societal collapse[3]. The purpose of the following paper is to make the case that we—all Americans—through our distorted worldview and resulting dysfunctional resource utilization behavior, are responsible for our “predicament”, and that we lack the collective will to take meaningful action to mitigate its catastrophic consequences.

Contents

• American Perspectives • Our Heritage • Our Predicament
• The Cause • The Solution • Our Legacy

American Perspectives


American Mainstream Perspective

The vast majority of our population, mainstream America, maintains the belief that we are on the road to the promise land—perpetual economic growth and prosperity enabled by unlimited natural resources. Moreover, they believe that our American way of life is a birthright, our destiny; “the American way of life is not negotiable”[4].


Concerned Citizen Perspective

A small but growing minority of concerned citizens, the informed few, understands that we are actually on the highway to hell—the road to societal collapse. They implore us to slow down—to “conserve natural resources”, to “reduce our impact on the environment”, to “balance our budgets”… But we dare not do anything “too drastic”; it wouldn’t be “socially acceptable”.


Reality

The reality is that we are running flat out on the highway to hell, and that societal collapse is imminent—possibly within 5 years, probably within 15 years, and almost certainly within 25 years. Our only rational course of action is to “get off” the highway—to transition quickly and beginning immediately to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm. The consequences associated with “getting off” will be very painful—significant reductions in our population level and material living standards—but they pale in comparison to the consequences associated with “staying on”.

Our Heritage

Perceptions of the origins of our American way of life…


American Mainstream Perspective

Mainstream America believes that through their heroic efforts, determination, and resolve, American pioneers settled our vast, essentially uninhabited country and took control of its virtually unlimited natural resources. During the 500 years since Columbus “discovered” America, successive generations of Americans have dramatically improved our level of wellbeing through hard work, innovation, perseverance, and courage—we “earned it”.

In the process of settling this great land, we have rightfully exploited Native Americans and Nature for our benefit, both through divine justification[5] and self-bestowed justification[6]. We Americans are “exceptional” people[7]—in fact, we are the Christian God’s chosen people[8]. America has become the greatest nation the world has ever known, and it will remain so forever.


Concerned Citizen Perspective

An increasing number of concerned citizens believe that America has been involved in an “orgy of excess”, characterized by excessive consumption, excessive population growth, and excessive waste, especially since the inception of our industrial revolution in the early 19th century. The orgy has been fostered by our government and corporate “leaders”, who have created a political-economic “system” that has essentially institutionalized the orgy in order to solidify their power base and increase their material wealth.

While all Americans have benefited materially from the orgy to some degree, our leaders and their favored constituents have benefited disproportionately. Too, the material benefits provided by the orgy have come at the expense of an array of imminently disastrous ecological and economic problems including pollution, anthropogenic climate change, species extinction, habitat degradation, resource depletion, overpopulation, excessive debt, underfunded social entitlement programs, increasing foreign ownership, and persistent inflation.


Reality

A vast majority of mainstream Americans have relied upon high school text books and Hollywood for their history education—it is loosely based on a true story. The mainstream historical perspective is consequently naïve, simplistic, myth-based, faith-based, superficial, and generally uninformed[9].

American Lifestyle Paradigm EvolutionAmerican Lifestyle Paradigm Evolution

The historical perspective embraced by concerned citizens is partially accurate. They have correctly identified “what” has occurred—our orgy of excess and its consequent ecological and economic problems—but they have misunderstood “why” it occurred.

The reality is that our American “lifestyle paradigm evolution”—from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial—has been enabled by fundamental changes in the mix and levels associated with the ecological resources—the natural resources and natural habitats—that we have chosen to exploit over time.

During the past 8-10 thousand years, but especially since the inception of our industrial revolution, our ecological resource utilization mix changed from “almost exclusively renewable” to “almost exclusively nonrenewable”[10], and our ecological resource utilization levels increased from “easily replenished and regenerated by Nature” to “well beyond Nature’s capacity to replenish and regenerate”[11].

Our newly adopted ecological resource utilization behavior—our persistent overexploitation of natural resources and natural habitats—precipitated and continues to enable our American way of life, which is characterized by ever-increasing production levels, consumption levels, population levels, and material living standards.

During the 20th and 21st centuries, as historically abundant-and-cheap ecological resources have started to become scarce-and-expensive, we have been able to continue to improve our level of wellbeing by employing pseudo purchasing power—that is, by liquidating previously accumulated economic asset reserves, by incurring ever-increasing levels of intergenerational debt, and by deferring indefinitely investments critical to our future wellbeing.

Our newly adopted economic resource utilization behavior—our persistent fiscal imprudence—has enabled us to continuously expand both the mix and levels of ecological resources and finished goods and services available to us, thereby perpetuating our American way of life, despite tightening supplies and ever-increasing global demand.

While we have certainly experienced spectacular innovation, growth, and wealth accumulation over the past several centuries, the fundamental enablers of our “success”, of our American way of life, have been our chosen resource mix and resource utilization levels—choices that will have dire consequences for our future wellbeing.

Our Predicament

Perceptions of our current situation…


American Mainstream Perspective

Mainstream America believes that we have experienced transitory economic, social, and political problems throughout our country’s history; and that since we have always successfully resolved our problems in the past and have continuously improved our level of material wellbeing in the process, we have nothing to fear today.


Concerned Citizen Perspective

Concerned citizens believe that our orgy of excess caused a litany of ecological and economic problems, which are placing ever-increasing stress on our overtaxed ecosystems and economy. As a result, we are rapidly approaching various “tipping points” that could cause serious lifestyle disruptions if we fail to “act soon” by stopping the orgy and addressing its consequent problems.


Reality

Because they perceive “cyclicality” to be the “natural order of things”, mainstream America trivializes or totally denies our current predicament. They hold a faith-based belief that our problems will always resolve themselves favorably, because they always have in the past.

Concerned citizens correctly perceive that our orgy of excess and its consequent ecological and economic problems pose serious threats to our American way of life, but they erroneously conclude that the orgy itself and its derivative problems are our primary concern.

American Overextension - Divergence from SustainabilityAmerican Overextension - Divergence from Sustainability

The reality is that our American way of life—300+ million people enjoying historically unprecedented material living standards—is not sustainable; it is not even close to being sustainable[12].

Overexploited sources of the critical ecological resources and economic resources upon which our existing lifestyle paradigm depends will prove to be woefully inadequate to support our ever-increasing population level and material living standards in the not-too-distant future.

Overly-depleted natural resource reserves, overly-degraded natural habitats, and overly-stressed sources of pseudo purchasing power will be unable to meet our rising domestic requirements, let alone ever-increasing global demand. We are grossly overextended—living far beyond our means—both ecologically and economically.

Our transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm is inevitable; our choice involves the process by which we effect our transition. We can transition voluntarily, thereby mitigating the associated lifestyle disruptions—population level reductions and material living standard degradation—or, we can refrain from taking meaningful action and allow Nature to orchestrate our transition, the results of which will be horrific.

The Cause

Perceptions of responsibility…


American Mainstream Perspective

Mainstream America believes that “they” cause all of our societal level problems. “They” can be politicians, congress, big business, the system, the government, corporations, foreigners, or anybody who is not “us”. To the extent that “we” share any responsibility at all for the ecological and economic morass that currently confronts us, we have forgiven ourselves because we are merely innocent victims of forces beyond our comprehension and control.


Concerned Citizen Perspective

Concerned citizens place the blame for our orgy of excess and its resulting ecological and economic problems on “it”, our broken political-economic system, and “them”, our self-serving and out-of-touch leaders who perpetrate “it” on innocent and powerless “us”. “We” are culpable only indirectly, as victims of a “defective system” and “poor leadership”. We have forgiven ourselves, however, because we cannot possibly make informed decisions; “they” have continuously deceived and misled “us”.


Reality

Because their realm of cognizance is typically narrow—i.e., self, family, home, friends, career, and possessions—and their grasp of history is limited, most mainstream Americans have developed only a vague understanding of the broader economic and ecological context within which we exist; they simply presume its ongoing viability.

Since they lack the perspective necessary to understand societal level problems and their causes, the mainstream assigns responsibility for these problems to amorphous systemic factors and forces.

While the concerned citizen perspective is more comprehensive and sophisticated than that of the mainstream, it too transfers responsibility for our societal level problems to systemic factors and forces, thereby failing to properly assign responsibility to the real fundamental cause of our predicament—“us”.

The reality is that “they”, “it”, and “them” are all “us”. All Americans past and present, but primarily those of us living since the inception of our industrial revolution, are responsible for our predicament. We are directly responsible through our individual unsustainable resource utilization behavior; and, more importantly, we are indirectly responsible as beneficiaries of unsustainable resource utilization behavior perpetrated on our behalf by our political and economic representatives.

Our Unsustainable American Way of LifeOur Unsustainable American Way of Life

Our cornucopian[13] worldview—our perceived entitlement to perpetual economic growth and prosperity enabled by unlimited natural resources and natural habitats—is completely inconsistent with reality.

And our resulting detritovoric[14] resource utilization behavior—our persistent overexploitation of natural resources, our persistent overexploitation of natural habitats, and our persistent fiscal imprudence—is physically impossible to sustain on a finite planet.

Ironically, it is our distorted worldview and our dysfunctional resource utilization behavior, which enable our 304 million inhabitants to enjoy historically unprecedented material living standards, that are also causing us to eliminate systematically the very ecological resources and economic resources upon which our existing lifestyle paradigm depends.

The Solution

Perceptions of the resolution to our predicament…


American Mainstream Perspective

Mainstream America believes that any conceivable problem can and will be resolved through some combination of American ingenuity, technical innovation, market forces, and hard work. “They”, presumably a different “they” than the “they” who cause all of our problems, have always developed timely solutions to our problems in the past—and they always will.

Most mainstream Americans are willing to “do their part” in contributing toward the resolution of societal level problems by becoming more “environmentally involved” and “fiscally responsible”—so long as such efforts cause no inconvenient disruptions to their existing lifestyles.


Concerned Citizen Perspective

Concerned citizens believe that we must fix “it”—our broken political-economic system—and replace “them”—our self-serving, out-of-touch leaders—as a prerequisite to permanently stopping our orgy of excess and resolving its consequent ecological and economic problems. Unfortunately, while both ecologically concerned citizens and economically concerned citizens agree that the solution starts with a “responsible and responsive political-economic system” and “responsible and responsive leadership”, their views vary diametrically regarding solution specifics.

Ecologically concerned citizens would significantly increase government intervention and control in order to implement national, state, and local programs to reduce natural resource depletion and natural habitat degradation. Economically concerned citizens would significantly decrease government intervention and control in order to promote fiscal responsibility at all levels and reduce costly government waste and inefficiency.


Reality

Because mainstream America is essentially clueless regarding our real predicament, its fundamental cause, or its catastrophic implications, it is not surprising that their implicitly endorsed solution to our societal level problems is the stuff from which fairy tales are made. We will simply “live happily ever after” through American ingenuity, technical innovation, and the unfettered free market.

Paradoxically, it is precisely the ingenuity, technical innovation, and free market to which mainstream Americans look for salvation that are driving us toward societal collapse, by increasing our rates of natural resource depletion, natural habitat degradation, and fiscal imprudence.

Because most concerned citizens perceive our fundamental problem to be systemic, and are therefore targeting “it”, “them”, and the specific ecological and economic problems spawned by our 200 year orgy of excess, it is not surprising that their diverse and sometimes contradictory solutions to the litany of discrete problems that confront us fail to address our fundamental predicament and its underlying cause.

Interestingly, solutions supported by both mainstream America and concerned citizens share a common element; they erroneously presume that our American way of life can be perpetuated—the American mainstream “as is”, concerned citizens “with improvements”. Neither group understands that “sustainability” is inevitable; nor do they appreciate the catastrophic consequences that await us if we fail to transition voluntarily to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm.

Sustainability: The Inevitable ConsequenceSustainability: The Inevitable Consequence

The reality is that our American way of life cannot be perpetuated through “American know-how”; nor can it be perpetuated through “systemic fixes”—it cannot be perpetuated, period. Our American way of life is not sustainable—it must and will come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

Our predicament—grossly overexploited sources of the increasingly scarce ecological and economic resources that enable our very existence—cannot be resolved within the context of our existing lifestyle paradigm, which is responsible for our predicament in the first place. No amount of “know-how” or “system modifications” can create unlimited natural resources and habitats or perpetual economic growth and prosperity on a finite planet.

We must refrain from further futile attempts to make ecological and economic reality conform to our distorted cornucopian worldview and dysfunctional detritovoric resource utilization behavior, and adopt a worldview and resource utilization behavior that conform to ecological and economic reality[15].


American Cultural Revolution

The only solution to our predicament is an American Cultural Revolution (ACR), during which we would transition quickly—within 25 years—and beginning immediately from our unsustainable American way of life to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm.

An ACR would require fundamental changes to both our worldview and our resource utilization behavior. It would require that remaining nonrenewable natural resources be directed toward facilitating our transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm, rather than being wasted on futile attempts to perpetuate our unsustainable American way of life. And it would require the universal participation of all Americans; it is an all-or-nothing endeavor.

The inestimable benefit associated with an ACR would be maximum sustainable American population and material living standard levels going forward.

Achieving Sustainability through an American Cultural RevolutionAchieving Sustainability through an American Cultural Revolution

Our new worldview would reject the flawed fundamental premise underlying both our current worldview and our American way of life—that we can live indefinitely beyond our means ecologically and economically—in favor of living sustainably within our means, forever.

Our new resource utilization behavior would be defined by a sustainable ecological resource mix consisting entirely of domestically available renewable natural resources, recycled nonrenewable natural resources, and natural habitats; and by sustainable resource utilization levels involving no net depletion of natural resource reserves, no net degradation of natural habitats, and no utilization of pseudo purchasing power—ever.

Because our total resource utilization level would be significantly lower following our transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm than it is today, our maximum sustainable population level and material living standards would be significantly lower[16] as well—but not nearly as low as those awaiting us if we fail to act and allow Nature to orchestrate our transition to sustainability.

Our return to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm is inevitable. An ACR will enable us to optimize both our transition process and our sustainable population level and material living standards. All alternative courses of action will result in societal collapse.

Our ChoiceOur Choice

Our Legacy

Perceptions of our future…


American Mainstream Perspective

The mainstream believes that America is still the land of opportunity—every American generation must and will have it better than the last. Our American way of life is the model for the rest of the world; it will last for hundreds or even thousands of years, perhaps forever. “The American Way” will prevail—because we want it to…


Concerned Citizens Perspective

Concerned citizens believe that we must adopt a downscaled version of our American way of life—we must curtail our orgy of excess, address our ecological and economic problems, and transition, with minimal lifestyle disruptions, to a “more sustainable”—not “sustainable”, just “more sustainable”—way of life.


Reality

The inevitable consequence associated with our continued blind adherence to “the American Way” is imminent societal collapse—we are grossly overshot ecologically[17] and technically bankrupt economically[18]. Attempts to become “more sustainable” will, at best, only temporarily delay our inevitable collapse. And, should we opt to transition voluntarily to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm through the implementation of an ACR, we will still experience population level and material living standard reductions on the order of 80%[19]. There can be no soft landing.


The Real “Inconvenient Truth”

Unfortunately, the probability that we will choose to modify our distorted worldview and our dysfunctional resource utilization behavior is essentially zero. We will not implement an American Cultural Revolution; and we will not opt to transition voluntarily to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm. As human beings, and especially as self-entitled Americans, we have demonstrated little capacity for self-limiting behavior—especially if it involves drastic reductions to some combination of our population level and material living standards.

We simply lack the collective will to reduce voluntarily our ecological/economic “footprint” to a sustainable size, and to live forever within the constraints imposed by that reduced footprint.

Instead, we will use the remaining ecological and economic resources available to us in futile attempts to perpetuate our American way of life at all costs, even as we encounter increasingly severe resource supply shortages and disruptions. Nature will inevitably intervene through disasters, disease, pestilence, and famine to force our transition to sustainability through societal collapse—unless we annihilate ourselves in the meantime through domestic and international resource wars.

We may have forgiven ourselves for being uninformed or misinformed; but Nature has not forgiven anybody…

References

  1. Jared Diamond; “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, pg 21; Penguin Books; 2005.
  2. Chris Clugston; “On American Sustainability (Summary)”, 2008.
  3. Chris Clugston, “Our American Way of Life is Unsustainable: Evidence”, 2008.
  4. George H. W. Bush, at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
  5. Since the time of the Puritans, we have derived divine justification for our exploitive worldview and resource utilization behavior from the Bible: “And God said, Let us make man in our image after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26
  6. Examples of European Settler and American pioneer self-bestowed justification for our exploitive worldview and resource utilization behavior abound; for a representative sample see John Winthrop’s bio - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Winthrop; John Cotton’s sermon to Winthrop and his Puritans prior to their departure to the New World - http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USABmapM.htm; and the perspectives of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson in David Stannard’s “American Holocaust”, pgs 119-124.
  7. Deborah Madsen offers an excellent explanation of the Puritan’s view of American exceptionalism in “American Exceptionalism”, pg 3 http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=hOW1KB026LcC&dq=american+exceptionalism&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=i4rxAwjo5L&sig=aFA-SPBjbBcJS0moYd67XeH0ZYc&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result#PPA3,M1; see also the Wikipedia overview - http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=american+exceptionalism.
  8. See John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon: “wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies [Native Americans], when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us;” - http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/winthrop.htm; and (5) and (6) above.
  9. For a more realistic depiction of America’s heritage, especially as it pertains to the relationship between European settlers, American pioneers, and Native Americans, see David Stannard’s “American Holocaust”. For a more realistic depiction of America’s current “predicament” and its inevitable consequences, see William Catton’s “Overshoot”.
  10. For specifics regarding America’s transition from renewable resource utilization to nonrenewable natural resource utilization see Chris Clugston’s “Our American Way of Life is Unsustainable: Evidence”, pgs 1-2.

  11. For specifics regarding the extent to which America’s natural resource/habitat exploitation levels are exceeding the levels at which they can be replenished/regenerated by Nature, see the “Habitat Degradation and Renewable Resource Depletion” section of www.wakeupamerika.com.
  12. For specifics regarding the extent to which America’s current production, consumption, population, and living standard levels exceed pre-industrial (sustainable or “nearly sustainable”) levels, see Chris Clugston’s “On American Sustainability”, pgs 7-8.
  13. For a general explanation of the cornucopian worldview see Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornucopian; for a critical assessment of the cornucopian worldview see “The Cornucopian Fallacies” by Lindsey Grant - http://dieoff.org/page45.htm.
  14. On page 168 of “Overshoot”, William Catton offers a general explanation of detritus ecosystems, in which organisms, detritovores, consume the finite food supply available within their habitat, bloom in the process, then crash (die-off) once the food supply becomes exhausted. He then goes on to explain detritovoric behavior as it pertains to human beings, “It is therefore understandable that people welcomed ways of becoming colossal, not recognizing as a kind of detritus the transformed organic remains called "fossil fuels," and not noticing that Homo colossus was in fact a detritovore, subject to the risk of crashing as a consequence of blooming.”; “Overshoot”, page 169; also - http://dieoff.org/page15.htm.
  15. The roots of America’s existing unsustainable worldview and resource utilization behavior are found in the Bible - Genesis 1:28 - "…subdue it [the earth]: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth". The worldview and resource utilization behavior to which Americans must subscribe if we wish to transition to a sustainable lifestyle paradigm are summarized by the following Native American proverb - “We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children”.
  16. Chris Clugston; “On American Sustainability”, pgs 16-18, 2008.
  17. William R. Catton Jr.; “Overshoot”; University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  18. Lawrence Kotlikoff; “Is America Bankrupt?”, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, July/August 2006; http://www.minyanville.com/assets/File/Kotlikoff_USBankruptcy_paper[1].pdf.
  19. Chris Clugston; “On American Sustainability”, pg 18, 2008.

Author Bio (Chris Clugston)

For the past three years I have conducted extensive independent research into the area of sustainability, the goals of which are to quantify from a combined ecological and economic perspective the extent to which America is currently overextended—having diverged from a sustainable lifestyle paradigm—and to understand the causes, implications, and possible solutions associated with our predicament.

Prior to that I spent thirty years working with information technology sector companies in marketing, sales, finance, M&A, and general management—the last twenty as a corporate chief executive and management consultant. I received an AB/Political Science, Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Penn State University, and an MBA/Finance with High Distinction from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.

Editorial Notes: UPDATE (Sept 19) Phil Henshaw writes Chris Clugston's article: “America’s Self-inflicted Societal Collapse” (http://www.energybulletin.net/node/46564 ) is insightful and passionate. It misses the simplest ways to point to the deep cause, though. Money has to multiply for stability, and the earth can't. What confuses things is the kind of signal the earth gives of trouble. The signal the earth gives is diminishing returns on our increasing efforts, that are only made worse by our redoubling our efforts. It's naturally confusing. Here's my short course: Money will multiply as long as there are profits, because people with money multiply their own profits that way. As JM Keynes among others pointed out, when real productivity approaches limits, multiplying money will drive profits to zero. Driving profits to zero triggers waves of collapse, providing a means for our responding to our limits on earth. It takes a little exploration to lead people to just how the present waves of money collapse are directly related to declines in the profitability of the earth, but that’s a major contributor and the first cause. Correcting the various immediate causes won’t fix that first cause. None of the other causes would have mattered if profits were still multiplying dramatically as compounding money needs to remain stable. Do yourself a favor, though, read about it to find better open questions for yourself. Explorers starve or get buried by avalanches for reading to pass judgment. You can come up with open questions in a blink, so don’t turn any page without finding one. See: www.synapse9.com

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