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What is collapse, anyway?

With any reasonably successful blog, you have a conversation going on, often between an author and commenters who have a long history and background, and people coming into the conversation for the first time. Sometimes the people coming in are hostile, sometimes curious, sometimes troubled by what they are learning, annoyed by you or dismissive. Sometimes they stay, and sometimes they look in and look out. Balancing the degree to which you write for the regulars and to those new to you is always an interesting exercise. That's been an issue for me lately - I've now been at science blogs a couple of months, and so there's been an influx of people new to me. Obviously, this is a good thing, but it means a balancing act - how much background do I give? How much do I go back and cover things that many of my readers may take as a given, for those that don't?

PalMD, in a perfectly reasonable fit of crankiness, just exposed one of the places where I'm clearly not doing a good enough job of articulating for new or casual readers what my underlying assumptions are, and I'm sincerely appreciative of that. He writes,

Finally, I love love Sharon Astyk over at Casaubon's Book---I really do, but I don't really get it, on a fundamental level. I love her IRL experiment in (illusory) sustainable living, but her type of sustainable living seems really anti-social to me. It's about surviving some sort of society-disrupting disaster alone. Today's post is about getting your family on board with creating your absolutely necessary food reserve, and the day before was about how to get your family to eat all the rotten food you preserved. It's all very interesting, but hardly seems relevant in the real world where when The End comes, some white supremecist militia is just gonna kill you for your pickled kale before they resort to eating each other.

I'm clearly not doing something right - and one of those things is assuming that people know why they would want to store food, or eat locally year round. PalMD's assumption is that food storage is for the apocalypse, and it is private, rather than communal. And in some measure, that's a fair assumption - I write about collapse a lot. It is a term that comes with a fair amount of "zombies, white supremacists and killing each other for kale" baggage on it.

I'm actually going to riff for a bit on PalMD's point, which is kind of annoying of me, and I wouldn't blame him if he then found me to be a bigger pain in the ass than he does up to this point ;-). I know it is irritating when you write a funny toss-off piece and someone writes a long, terribly serious analysis in response, and I do apologize for doing it ;-). For me, it was just this was what made the lightbulb go off over my head, and I really do appreciate him giving me an excuse to stop the book review I was writing and go to something more interesting!

In fact, "collapse," as we actually use the term for most societies doesn't usually involve any cannibalism at all - odds are pretty much against the baby-on-a-spit model. The taboos against cannibalism are so strong in our society that for the most part, human beings will die in huge numbers and endure total starvation rather than violate them, as we know from societies with large famine rates - it almost never happens - see Margaret Visser's book _The Rituals of Dinner_ for why cannibalism is almost never undertaken as a response to hunger, but almost always as a highly ritualized and carefully structured practice, often associated with formal warfare. Nor does it necessarily look like Mad Max. I've already written about some of this in my response to Zuska on precisely this subject, but I thought this time I'd take a more pragmatic approach - in this century, when societies have collapsed, what actually happened? How bad is it? Are there ways of reducing the badness? While historic events can't give a totally accurate picture of the future, they can at least give us some ground to stand on.

When looked at this way, "collapse" is actually an extremely common phenomenon in nations and societies - societies rise to a particular level of function, they run into hard limits, often ecological limits, as documented by, among others, Jared Diamond in -Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail_, and Joseph Tainter in _The Collapse of Complex Systems_, and they fall to a much lower level of functioning. How low is up for grabs, and depends on the kind of response the society makes. At times this level can be extremely low - there's Easter Island for example. More recently several Rwanda and Burundi have several times in my lifetime collapsed into untenable violence and endless civil war, with horrifyingly bloody consequences for the people, ones that don't look that far off of Mad Max.

On the other hand, we could look at the most recent society that has collapsed - Iceland. In 2008 and into 2009, Iceland which had become enormously wealth and prosperous underwent an economic collapse, the effects of which are still playing out. The banking collapse in Iceland was the largest ever suffered, relative to the nation's size, in economic history.

What happened in Iceland is probably very reassuring for people who are worried about collapse - the situation wasn't at all pleasant for people, but compared to Rwanda, it was a walk in the park. There was rioting and the government was broadly speaking, changed, some suicides and emigrations. The costs of dealing with the crisis were enormous, there was widespread unemployment, interest rates shot up and imports stalled, there was a foreclosure crisis, many formerly high paying professionals had to go back to the fishing industry which promptly began to see fish stock collapses, imported goods became expensive, and people got a lot poorer. On the other hand, one's pickled kale was comparatively safe.

So the first thing we can say about collapse is that it is highly variable - you can have economic collapse, you can have an energy supply related collapse, a political collapse, collapse into civil war - and that some collapses are better than others. Indeed, Dmitry Orlov, the author of the superb _ReInventing Collapse_ which compares what he believes is the coming US collapse with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he in part witnessed, has written the very thoughtful and funny essay "The Five Stages of Collapse" where he makes precisely this point:

Although many people imagine collapse to be a sort of elevator that goes to the sub-basement (our Stage 5) no matter which button you push, no such automatic mechanism can be discerned. Rather, driving us all to Stage 5 will require that a concerted effort be made at each of the intervening stages. That all the players seem poised to make just such an effort may give this collapse the form a classical tragedy - a conscious but inexorable march to perdition - rather than a farce ("Oops! Ah, here we are, Stage 5." - "So, whom do we eat first?" - "Me! I am delicious!") Let us sketch out this process.

I admit, I find it enormously difficult to imagine a scenarion in which the US does not collapse on some level - in nearly every available measure, the US is in danger of doing so. Certainly, while we trumpet that we've averted economic collapse, more accurately, we've pushed some of it off for a few years, and made it more likely that crushing economic burdens will fall more heavily on people under 50 and future generations. Much the same can accurately be said of our energy crisis and certainly, of climate change. I think it is hard to imagine anyone who would deny that in all three areas, our policies are short term, designed to forestall us immediately bearing a burden, rather than to actually avert a crisis.

What leads me to believe that the crises in these regards will be as severe as a collapse? In general, the analysis of fairly trustworthy and impartial analysts. For example, in 2005, the US Department of Energy commissioned the Hirsch Report to evaluate whether peak oil was a meaningful threat. Robert Hirsch, the lead scientist in the report has since become a peak oil believer, but didn't start out that way. The DOE report concluded that with 20 years of WWII-level investment, we could avert collapse, but that less than 20 years means a major crisis. That's not my conclusion, but the DOE's - since we're not engaged in a WWII-level build out of renewable energies and even the USGS predicts peak oil by 2023, simple arithmetic suggests that we are headed for some fairly serious problems. The US Army has produced a similar report on peak oil with related conclusions.

What about climate change? Well, consider The Stern Review, compiled by Sir Nicholas Stern on the economic consquences of climate change. Among his conclusions (and this was based upon a now-out-of-date set of assumptions about climate targets and their viability - he assumes that 550 ppm avoids more consequences than it probably does), was that unchecked, climate change could lead to mitigation costs of up to 20% of world GDP - a burden no economy could bear without, well, collapsing. Given that we show no signs of being able to stabilize our ecology at the lower levels we know are safe, it seems reasonable to presume we are facing high mitigation costs, with heavy economic consequences.

The same is true of my assumptions about the practical, material consequences of climate change - the predictions of the IPCC and other studies suggest that among the logical effects of climate change will be large numbers of refugees, conflict over scarce resources, drought, lowered rates of food production, increases in disease, heavier storms and more natural disasters, etc... Not only do these things have economic costs, they have material ones - they result in collapsed societies - New Orleans, for example, can be reasonably said to have collapsed to a much lower level of function for quite a long time, and it isn't totally clear whether it will ever come back.

I don't think I actually need to explain why I think an economic collapse could happen - we know that it does all the time. Moreover, we know it nearly did by most assessments in fall 2008.

We also know energy supply collapses happen - often along with economic collapses for example, former Soviet Prime Minister Yegor Gaider wrote a book arguing that the Soviet Union Collapsed (under his watch, actually) due to its dependency on foreign energy exports and the shift of its population out of the countryside and into cities. For a long time, the Soviet Union was able to rely on energy exports to allow them to pay for food on foreign markets, but when energy prices collapsed, there were not enough farmers left to grow food for the population, and the government could not hold.

We know that this caused some subsidary collapses - Cuba collapsed because the Soviet Union collapsed, and stopped sending oil imports. We know that Cuba lost 1/5th of its energy imports, and the societal structures fell largely apart - people went hungry and started eating fried grapefruit peels because of lack of energy to run its highly technological agricultural system.

What's interesting about the examples of Cuba is that it is further evidence to suggest that fairly small energy resource shocks can cause fairly serious consequences - 1/5 of all oil shouldn't actually have caused people to starve - most people would reasonably argue that waste in the system and proper allocation of resources should have been able to absorb this - or will argue that the fault was the Cuban government's. To some extent that last point is probably true, but we should remember that we have examples from the US that show that small energy supply disruptions can be extremely destructive - the oil shocks of the 1970s and the subsequent major recession that followed it resulted from a reduction in imports of just over 5%.

So yes, I think we're on a path towards some kind of collapse, without necessarily assuming cannibalism or even roving gangs of white-supremacist kale eaters. I would like such a collapse to be averted very much, since I actually have other things to do too ;-), plus I've got kids, but I find it increasingly unlikely that we will avert it. When I began writing about this stuff in 2003, I felt that it was much more likely that climate change would unfold more slowly and that we might be able to tackle one crisis at a time.

Now, I think the evidence is becoming compelling that we are going to be facing an economic, energy and climate crisis all at the same time - and that I find it hard to imagine us navigating successfully. Is it impossible? Probably not impossible, but certainly improbable - the societal restructuring would be enormous - and would have to involve nearly all the things I'm suggesting anyway. Nearly everyone dealing with these issues talks about WWII style build outs and war footings - having to do something roughly equivalent to the 1940s build out (Niels Bohr famously said that it would be impossible to develop the atom bomb without turning the entire nation into a factory, and then, in 1944, observed that we had). Having to do such a thing while dealing with a multi-front crisis seems even less likely.

At a minimum, however, I think we should assume the possibility of failure. And that's a problem in a society that seems to think that there's an either-or relationship to failure - that you shouldn't prepare for lack of success, or have a backup plan for failure. I think psychologically, we tend to assume that once we begin to think hard about the possibility we might not succeed, it becomes inevitable. Thus, we don't like to make wills because it seems morbid. We don't prepare for disasters, even when they seem likely. We don't keep food around, even though both FEMA and the American Red Cross advise us to and the FEMA chief recently acknowledged that the first line of defense was personal preparedness. We tend to take an either/or approach, when in fact, we often need both - a will *and* care crossing the street, to build up the levies *and* have an evacuation plan, food in the pantry *and* stronger social supports.

Moreover, most of what I recommend works well for people who are not in an official collapse, but whose lives are undergoing collapse - they are out of work, they are losing their homes, they don't have enough to eat, they have a medical crisis and no health insurance... that is most of the things that I encourage people to do, including building up a reserve of food and strengthening social supports works for the *people* who are experiencing collapse even if their society doesn't officially get that label.

What are the common features of collapsed societies? I could go back to Rome, of course, but there's probably no need. There are some common features of modern collapses that we can speak of.

1. People get really pissed at their government. This usually leads to some measure of civil unrest, and often government change. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad - it also, as we know, can lead to the government or others scapegoating someone or other, which is really bad. Generally the better outcomes come when the government seems to respond to the people, and also, when the government gets out of the people's way and also lets them respond.

2. Crime rates go up and services like police protection are less available or privatized - one universal features of collapsed socities is that they are more violent. But that doesn't tend to mean warlords killing everyone in their path - it tends to mean more street violence, robbery, rape, and murder, along with sometimes for-profit kidnapping. It tends to mean that people are vulnerable, and afraid, and often can't trust the authorities - it could be rather like being African-American in many poor urban neighborhoods, or it could be like living in Baghdad. Generally speaking, you don't want your kids to go out very much, you tend to avoid going out yourself, and safety becomes a serious issue.

3. Everyone gets poorer fast - this perhaps the most universal outcome. When societies collapse, the percentage of people who are poor goes way up - in Argentina, for example, the 2001 collapse virtually wiped out the middle class and pushed poverty levels up from lows around 20% to nearly 57%. This, I think, is the one universal likely outcome, and of course, right at the moment it is occurring.

4. The cost and attainability of food becomes an issue. Accounts from Argentina, which was previously both stable and affluent suggests that many desired foods, particularly imports are often unavailable, and more importantly, widespread economic impacts make it harder to buy food. Health impacts from this, and lack of medical care, along with depression and drug and alcohol use begin to show up.

5. Services and utilities are widely disrupted. Sometimes the disruption comes, as is common among the US poor, because people can't afford to pay the bill - tens of thousands of US households, for example, will have their utilities cut off on April 1, just as soon as it is legal (most utilities can't cut off a household in the winter). But people also endure service interruptions because of aging infrastructure and because of social disruption. You are much more likely to spend time with no power, have no trash pickup, run out of gas and have the delivery trucks not come through...

6. People are pushed together - whether they are herded into ghettos or lose their housing, extended families, biological and otherwise come to rely on each other. So do communities and neighbors - when someone has food, you share. When someone needs a place to stay, you let them come in. A culture of sharing emerges, and it is extremely useful to have stuff to share.

These are the near-universals - all these things happen in collapsed societies pretty much inevitably. Now in some collapsed societies, your neighbors start murdering you, or gangs terrorize your neighborhood - but this isn't inevitable.

Now, the question is, if collapse is likely, where do you concentrate your efforts? Do you try and prevent it, even if that is increasingly unlikely, or do you focus your efforts on, as Orlov puts it, stopping the elevator to the basement? I think the answer is both - but that emphasis should be put on strategies that are dual purpose - whenever you face a likelihood of major systems failure, multi-purpose strategies that both reduce impacts and increase resilience are clear winners. I like to think that most of what I advocate - not all - falls in those categories.

If a collapse of some sort does happen, what helps? We know for example, that social supports make an enormous difference in a collapsing society. _Reinventing Collapse_ for example, finds that the major factors in keeping the Russian people from disaster were a system of social supports. Making medical care, food and shelter available to people in crisis keeps things from being too awful. In Cuba, for example, for all its limitations, the Cuban government did some things that were remarkable, because they are precisely the opposite of what America has been doing - they strengthened social supports at the expense of potential growth. That is, in the face of the "special period" they expanded educational programs into more smaller campuses, put more clinics out into rural and underserved areas, and expanded food support programs. As I argue in _Depletion and Abundance_ this is precisely what's needed here - that investment in health care, food security, education and safety net programs for the elderly, disabled and children should be our highest priority. What's useful about this as a political strategy, IMHO, is that it turns out that all the things that people say they care most about personally in the political sphere turn out to be what actually matter.

Unfortunately, that's not the culture we live in - Americans uniformly respond to economic and social crisis by beefing up government and military programs and by cutting social safety networks. We're already seeing this happen - which is one of the reasons I put so much effort on truly local safety nets, private (not in the sense of ability to pay, but familial and community-based for those within the community) and other smaller resources, rather than large scale programs - such programs serve as a last layer of support for people who have fallen through the sliced nets above them, but are likely to survive even in the absence of federal or state funding, because they can operate on a fairly small scale. That doesn't mean I'm for the gutting of other social programs - I'm manifestly not and have written about the importance of universal health care, funding LiHeap, Food stamps, WIC and programs for the disabled and elderly many times over the past years. But while I expend some energy advocating for these programs, I also think that building more localized backups underneath them is urgent.

The other thing that matters to reduce the rate of descent towards the basement are self-help strategies. In Cuba, for example, small scale agriculture in urban centers did a lot (not everything, imported staples also mattered) to alleviate hunger and nutritional deficiencies. In Russia, by all contemporary economic analysis, there should have been widespread starvation - instead, there was not, largely because small scale localized economics arose to replace what was missing. In Argentina, cardboard scavenging came to support 40,000 people - just barely though. In the US, during the Great Depression, which is an example, I think, of near-collapse in many ways, the number of informal economy jobs skyrocketed. In 1932, the New York Times observed that there were now 7,000 people, most of them adults, shining shoes in NYC, while in 1928, there were less than 200, almost all children.

Self-help/subsistence strategies and social support networks are not in conflict in these situations - both are needed, particularly when social support programs are under-fire or overwhelmed, as they are in the US at present. Neither alone can support the population or mitigate the worst outcomes - but simultaneously, in the best case scenarios, they can keep people alive and fed and reasonably secure.

On some level, it seems churlish, I think, to settle for that. Everyone wants better for themselves, their friends, the world, their children - I do too. Unfortunately, I think it is extremely unlikely that we can achieve much better - I realize this is a terribly depressing thing to say, and it is the kind of thing that turns people off. In some ways it would be nicer if I could believe that collapse will be good for us - but it won't. There are examples of people doing better in certain situations after a society has collapsed and reconstituted itself, but it is safe to say that no one likes the process. The project, then, is about how to avoid it being too awful, or resulting in a lot of death.

And this underlies my own assumptions about my personal project as well. PalMD thinks that my attempt to live sustainably is illusory - and he's right in some measure. I can document precisely what resources we use, because I've been tracking it for four years now - our family of six produces about 15% of the US average household emissions. We also produce about 20% of the garbage, use 40% of the water of an average US household, and spend 10% of the US on new consumer goods. The average American household has 2.6 people in it, so our actual usage is lower than that, as we are a family of six, but being that we're a large family, the least we can do is cut our usage.

But all of this does rely on a base of imported resources - our lives would be very difficult without them. But while my hope is that other people will also cut their energy usage (and since we've done this without major investments in things like solar panels, and since other members of the Riot for Austerity have demonstrated that something like it is feasible for people all over the world, in cities and suburbs as well as the countryside, for single parents and extended families and etc...etc... we know it can be done). But I'm under few illusions that this will become so trendy that it saves the world - even if it did become trendy, it is probably too late, and we'd still probably have to cut our emissions by another half or so.

Besides the moral reason to do this - because it is the right thing to do, because we know that our emissions do harm and we're supposed to do as little of that as we can, the real reason to do it, I think is that it enables you to function both individually and collectively - that is, building up a reserve of food, or organizing in your community allows you to both make sure your neighbors are eating, have something to give away, and also make sure your kids don't go hungry. They allow you to take some pressure off when you lose your job, but they also allow you to keep up the food pantry donations when your hours are cut back. They function both in collapse and out of it to make things better.

They don't function very well in the outer ends of the collapse spectrum - that is, if we start treating each other like Tutsi and the Hutu have since the 1970s, all the pickled kale on earth won't do you any good. If we install a fascist government that blames the Jews, the intellectuals, the athiests, the immigrants...we're fucked. The best strategies involve putting the brakes on where it seems most feasible to put them on. I wish very much that it was possible to hit the brakes before we get to collapse at all - I think it is probably not. Instead, I think the relevant strategies involve putting on the brakes so that you end up as close to Iceland and as far from Rwanda as you can.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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