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Things fall apart - slowly

Actually, it isn't all that slow, because a decade ago, all of this would have been largely unthinkable. The problem is that we don't see the gradual decline and fall - we are only vaguely aware that some things aren't quite what they used to be, and our progressive narrative tells us that they will soon be much better. But the problem is that's not necessarily true - there's little evidence for it. Even the most optimistic economists (and I don't recommend the most optimistic economists ;-)) have to admit our long term economic problems are extremely pressing. Add in resource depletion and climate change, both of which we know are major drivers both of economic decline and other kinds - more natural disasters, more struggle over natural resources, less excess to cushion our choices, and what we are experiencing is decline, steady, inexorable, and very hard to pull out of.

And yet, our natural inclination, of course, is to view these as temporary inconveniences, not a fundamental decline. And, of course, the jury is out - but the mounting evidence suggests that we are going to have to run faster and faster just to slow our declines - much less keep pace. Consider this New York Times piece from last week:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further -- it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation and sending working parents scrambling to find care for them.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

Faced with the steepest and longest decline in tax collections on record, state, county and city governments have resorted to major life-changing cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety that, not too long ago, would have been unthinkable. And services in many areas could get worse before they get better.

The length of the downturn means that many places have used up all their budget gimmicks, cut services, raised taxes, spent their stimulus money -- and remained in the hole. Even with Congress set to approve extra stimulus aid, some analysts say states are still facing huge shortfalls.

Cities and states are notorious for crying wolf around budget time, and for issuing dire warnings about draconian cuts that never seem to materialize. But the Great Recession has been different. Around the country, there have already been drastic cuts in core services like education, transportation and public safety, and there are likely to be more before the downturn ends. The cuts that have disrupted lives in Hawaii, Georgia and Colorado may be extreme, but they reflect the kinds of cuts being made nationwide, disrupting the lives of millions of people in ways large and small.

Fundamentally, this is different from everything else - violating the 180 day school year rule is different. Turning off the lights, shutting down public transport - these things are different. And they are signs of fundamental decline, of things that cannot be maintained. They are signs that we are not holding things together - and the reality is that at the state level, more and more things are not being held together. As a Salon piece by Glenn Greenwald, building on the Times one points out:

It's probably also worth noting this Wall St. Journal article from last month -- with a subheadline warning: "Back to Stone Age" -- which describes how "paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue." Utah is seriously considering eliminating the 12th grade, or making it optional. And it was announced this week that "Camden [New Jersey] is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free."

Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries and street lights -- or once it chooses not to be able to afford those things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast Surveillance and National Security State -- that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability? Anyway, I just wanted to leave everyone with some light and cheerful thoughts as we head into the weekend.

I realize that probably a majority of readers (maybe not of my readership, though) will be skeptical of the idea of decline and fall happening in their world, of America and other Global North countries having to give up on basic assumptions. It will get better - we are told - in 2013 or 2014 or eventually, because it has to - we aren't remotely prepared for the alternative. And yet things do fall apart. Empires end, countries collapse, expectations decline.

As I wrote in an essay about what collapse actually is some months ago, collapse happens quite a lot actually, and what kind of collapse you have matters a lot:

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.

The central project, in a collapsing society is to make sure your collapse is as good and mild a collapse as possible. But this is only possible when you have to come to the point of admitting that you are falling apart, and that the project is no longer to keep it together, but to mitigate the experience of collapse. Until we can stop pretending we are not falling slowly towards disaster, we cannot begin to do what is most needed - have an honest conversation about what resources we have and what we can and can't actually achieve.

Aiding us in our collective commitment to believing that this isn't really happening is the fact that we demonize the poor so very much - those poor cities, those poor people, we definitely assume that they and we could never have much in common. We have accepted the assumption for decades that there would be a radical difference between the kind of resources available to the poor and rich - we implicitly see as normal the fact that the poor die younger, lose their babies more often, have worse schools, face more pollution, have lower access to basic services. So in some way we are able to rationalize this as more and more people are poorer as just the natural order of things - they are different than we are, and thus what happens to those other people, those other cities, those other states - that doesn't really say anything about us or our future. It is a very convenient story, although it is not true.

Because, of course, those others are us - I spent last weekend at a gathering of professionals from CAP, Community Action Programs, and of energy depletion and climate change folk. CAP is one of the largest and oldest agencies in the US providing services to low income people, with more than a thousand agencies in almost every county in the US. They administer almost half of all Head Start Programs and a range of services in rural, urban and suburban communities across the country that cover from cradle to grave.

The purpose of the meeting was to talk about how peak energy and climate change and our financial crisis will change the realities they are facing on the ground in low income communities. What is the future of the American poor? How can they begin to address changing realities and needs? And what is the future likely to consist of.

Those of us who came at this from the energy, money and climate end of this story had a remarkably similar narrative, given that we all have substantive differences in our thought in many ways. The folks from CAP know perfectly well that they are seeing populations needing their services that they've never seen before - that will continue. They know perfectly well that they are already overwhelmed by need - that will only continue and get worse. The one thing all of us agreed is that the future is poor - for most of us.

And what we can do to make the transition into a society where the middle class is hollowed out, where many people who were once making it are no longer, depends on how quickly we recognize the real likelihood that we're not going back. Only then can we make the difficult choices that deal with the resources we really have - and without the expectation that magic fairies dropping dollars, oil reserves or fewer climate disasters will appear. Only then can we begin from where we are and start asking, as CAP so bravely did "ok, now what."

And the answer to that is complex and profound - now we take care of people. Now we do everything we can to mitigate. Now we prioritize. Now we struggle - but struggle together as best we can. Now we find out what we are made of. Now we focus on subsistence and basic needs. Now we organize. Now we salvage. Now we focus on making life livable. Now we put all hands on deck. But to get there, we have to accept that all hands are needed, that things are falling apart, and they can't be put back together without the work of every hand on this one, most necessary exercise. And that requires that we begin to see ourselves through the lens of a society that is falling apart.

It isn't a cheerful view. I do not blame people for preferring the idea that the funding will come back, that their own jobs, their own homes won't be affected because it is so much nicer to think that. But that's probably not true. Sometimes people ask me whether I think X or Y job or location will be immune - and the answer to that is that we don't know, but I wouldn't be my life and future on it. My colleague, Rhett Allain writes about the choices his University is about to make - and none of them are pretty.

I don't have a picture of this storm, but basically, the universities in Louisiana are going to have seriously reduced funding. How is Southeastern Louisiana University going to deal with this? Who knows. All they have done so far is lay off some staff and cancel the French program. Here are some of the possible things they could do to meet the rest of the budget deficit:

Axe some more programs. What to cut? Some say low-completer programs. Physics is a low-completer (true at most universities)

Everyone gets a 20% pay cut.

Fire the highest salary people (full professors) and re-hire them as instructors

Charge faculty $7,000 for a parking tag

No longer provide faculty with pencils. Instead, they must provide their own.

So, you see, some of these things could really suck. Suck to the point of me having to leave (especially if I get fired).

Most of us can be expected to spend the next few years struggling with unpretty choices - but we have the option, if we are prepared to go forward, of not struggling alone.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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