The last of the five phases of the collapse process we’ve been discussing here in recent posts is the era of dissolution. (For those that haven’t been keeping track, the first four are the eras of pretense, impact, response, and breakdown). I suppose you could call the era of dissolution the Rodney Dangerfield of collapse, though it’s not so much that it gets no respect; it generally doesn’t even get discussed.
To some extent, of course, that’s because a great many of the people who talk about collapse don’t actually believe that it’s going to happen. That lack of belief stands out most clearly in the rhetorical roles assigned to collapse in so much of modern thinking. People who actually believe that a disaster is imminent generally put a lot of time and effort into getting out of its way in one way or another; it’s those who treat it as a scarecrow to elicit predictable emotional reactions from other people, or from themselves, who never quite manage to walk their talk.
Interestingly, the factor that determines the target of scarecrow-tactics of this sort seems to be political in nature. Groups that think they have a chance of manipulating the public into following their notion of good behavior tend to use the scarecrow of collapse to affect other people; for them, collapse is the horrible fate that’s sure to gobble us up if we don’t do whatever it is they want us to do. Those who’ve given up any hope of getting a response from the public, by contrast, turn the scarecrow around and use it on themselves; for them, collapse is a combination of Dante’s Inferno and the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the fantasy setting where the wicked get the walloping they deserve while they themselves get whatever goodies they’ve been unsuccessful at getting in the here and now.
Then, of course, you get the people for whom collapse is less scarecrow than teddy bear, the thing that allows them to drift off comfortably to sleep in the face of an unwelcome future. It’s been my repeated observation that many of those who insist that humanity will become totally extinct in the very near future fall into this category. Most people, faced with a serious threat to their own lives, will take drastic action to save themselves; faced with a threat to the survival of their family or community, a good many people will take actions so drastic as to put their own lives at risk in an effort to save others they care about. The fact that so many people who insist that the human race is doomed go on to claim that the proper reaction is to sit around feeling very, very sad about it all does not inspire confidence in the seriousness of that prediction—especially when feeling very, very sad seems mostly to function as an excuse to keep enjoying privileged lifestyles for just a little bit longer.
So we have the people for whom collapse is a means of claiming unearned power, the people for whom it’s a blank screen on which to project an assortment of self-regarding fantasies, and the people for whom it’s an excuse to do nothing in the face of a challenging future. All three of those are popular gimmicks with an extremely long track record, and they’ll doubtless all see plenty of use millennia after industrial civilization has taken its place in the list of failed civilizations. The only problem with them is that they don’t happen to provide any useful guidance for those of us who have noticed that collapse isn’t merely a rhetorical gimmick meant to get emotional reactions—that it’s something that actually happens, to actual civilizations, and that it’s already happening to ours.
From the three perspectives already discussed, after all, realistic questions about what will come after the rubble stops bouncing are entirely irrelevant. If you’re trying to use collapse as a boogeyman to scare other people into doing what you tell them, your best option is to combine a vague sense of dread with an assortment of cherrypicked factoids intended to make a worst-case scenario look not nearly bad enough; if you’re trying to use collapse as a source of revenge fantasies where you get what you want and the people you don’t like get what’s coming to them, daydreams of various levels and modes of dampness are far more useful to you than sober assessments; while if you’re trying to use collapse as an excuse to maintain an unsustainable and planet-damaging SUV lifestyle, your best bet is to insist that everyone and everything dies all at once, so nothing will ever matter again to anybody.
On the other hand, there are also those who recognize that collapse happens, that we’re heading toward one, and that it might be useful to talk about what the world might look like on the far side of that long and difficult process. I’ve tried to sketch out a portrait of the postcollapse world in last year’s series of posts here on Dark Age America, and I haven’t yet seen any reason to abandon that portrait of a harsh but livable future, in which a sharply reduced global population returns to agrarian or nomadic lives in those areas of the planet not poisoned by nuclear or chemical wastes or rendered uninhabitable by prolonged drought or the other impacts of climate change, and in which much or most of today’s scientific and technological knowledge is irretrievably lost.
The five phases of collapse discussed in this latest sequence of posts is simply a description of how we get there—or, more precisely, of one of the steps by which we get there. That latter point’s a detail that a good many of my readers, and an even larger fraction of my critics, seem to have misplaced. The five-stage model is a map of how human societies shake off an unsustainable version of business as usual and replace it with something better suited to the realities of the time. It applies to a very wide range of social transformations, reaching in scale from the local to the global and in intensity from the relatively modest to the cataclysmic. To insist that it’s irrelevant because the current example of the species covers more geographical area than any previous example, or has further to fall than most, is like insisting that a law of physics that governs the behavior of marbles and billiards must somehow stop working just because you’re trying to do the same thing with bowling balls.
A difference of scale is not a difference of kind. Differences of scale have their own implications, which we’ll discuss a little later on in this post, but the complex curve of decline is recognizably the same in small things as in big ones, in the most as in the least catastrophic examples. That’s why I’ve used a relatively modest example—the collapse of the economic system of 1920s America and the resulting Great Depression—and an example from the midrange—the collapse of the French monarchy and the descent of 18th-century Europe into the maelstrom of the Napoleonic Wars—to provide convenient outlines for something toward the upper end of the scale—the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization and the coming of a deindustrial dark age. Let’s return to those examples, and see how the thread of collapse winds to its end.
As we saw in last week’s thrilling episode, the breakdown stage of the Great Depression came when the newly inaugurated Roosevelt administration completely redefined the US currency system. Up to that time, US dollar bills were in effect receipts for gold held in banks; after that time, those receipts could no longer be exchanged for gold, and the gold held by the US government became little more than a public relations gimmick. That action succeeded in stopping the ghastly credit crunch that shuttered every bank and most businesses in the US in the spring of 1933.
Roosevelt’s policies didn’t get rid of the broader economic dysfunction the 1929 crash had kickstarted. That was inherent in the industrial system itself, and remains a massive issue today, though its effects were papered over for a while by a series of temporary military, political, and economic factors that briefly enabled the United States to prosper at the expense of the rest of the world. The basic issue is simply that replacing human labor with machines powered by fossil fuel results in unemployment, and no law of nature or economics requires that new jobs can be found or created to replace the ones that are eliminated by mechanization. The history of the industrial age has been powerfully shaped by a whole series of attempts to ignore, evade, or paper over that relentless arithmetic.
Until 1940, the Roosevelt administration had no more luck with that project than the governments of most other nations. It wasn’t until the Second World War made the lesson inescapable that anyone realized that the only way to provide full employment in an industrial society was to produce far more goods than consumers could consume, and let the military and a variety of other gimmicks take up the slack. That was a temporary gimmick, due to stark limitations in the resource base needed to support the mass production of useless goods, but in 1940, and even more so in 1950, few people recognized that and fewer cared. It’s our bad luck to be living at the time when that particular bill is coming due.
The first lesson to learn from the history of collapse, then, is that the breakdown phase doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems that brought it about. It doesn’t even necessarily take away every dysfunctional feature of the status quo. What it does with fair reliability is eliminate enough of the existing order of things that the problems being caused by that order decline to a manageable level. The more deeply rooted the problematic features of the status quo are in the structure of society and daily life, the harder it will be to change them, and the more likely other features are to be changed: in the example just given, it was much easier to break the effective link between the US currency and gold, and expand the money supply enough to get the economy out of cardiac arrest, than it was to break a link between mechanization and unemployment that’s hardwired into the basic logic of industrialism.
What this implies in turn is that it’s entirely possible for one collapse to cycle through the five stages we’ve explored, and then to have the era of dissolution morph straight into a new era of pretense in which the fact that all society’s problems haven’t been solved is one of the central things nobody in any relation to the centers of power wants to discuss. If the Second World War, the massive expansion of the petroleum economy, the invention of suburbia, the Cold War, and a flurry of other events hadn’t ushered in the immensely wasteful but temporarily prosperous boomtime of late 20th century America, there might well have been another vast speculative bubble in the mid- to late 1940s, resulting in another crash, another depression, and so on. This is after all what we’ve seen over the last twenty years: the tech stock bubble and bust, the housing bubble and bust, the fracking bubble and bust, each one hammering the economy further down the slope of decline.
With that in mind, let’s turn to our second example, the French Revolution. This is particularly fascinating since the aftermath of that particular era of breakdown saw a nominal return to the conditions of the era of pretense. After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, the Allied powers found an heir to the French throne and plopped him into the throne of the Bourbons as Louis XVIII to well-coached shouts of “Vive le Roi!” On paper, nothing had changed.
In reality, everything had changed, and the monarchy of post-Napoleonic France had roots about as deep and sturdy as the democracy of post-Saddam Iraq. Louis XVIII was clever enough to recognize this, and so managed to end his reign in the traditional fashion, feet first from natural causes. His heir Charles X was nothing like so clever, and got chucked off the throne after six years on it by another revolution in 1830. King Louis-Philippe went the same way in 1848—the French people were getting very good at revolution by that point. There followed a Republic, an Empire headed by Napoleon’s nephew, and finally another Republic which lasted out the century. All in all, French politics in the 19th century was the sort of thing you’d expect to see in an unusually excitable banana republic.
The lesson to learn from this example is that it’s very easy, and very common, for a society in the dissolution phase of collapse to insist that nothing has changed and pretend to turn back the clock. Depending on just how traumatic the collapse has been, everybody involved may play along with the charade, the way everyone in Rome nodded and smiled when Augustus Caesar pretended to uphold the legal forms of the defunct Roman Republic, and their descendants did exactly the same thing centuries later when Theodoric the Ostrogoth pretended to uphold the legal forms of the defunct Roman Empire. Those who recognize the charade as charade and play along without losing track of the realities, like Louis XVIII, can quite often navigate such times successfully; those who mistake charade for reality, like Charles X, are cruising for a bruising and normally get it in short order.
Combine these two lessons and you’ll get what I suspect will turn out to be a tolerably good sketch of the American future. Whatever comes out of the impact, response, and breakdown phases of the crisis looming ahead of the United States just now—whether it’s a fragmentary mess of successor states, a redefined nation beginning to recover from a period of personal rule by some successful demagogue or, just possibly, a battered and weary republic facing a long trudge back to its foundational principles, it seems very likely that everyone involved will do their level best to insist that nothing has really changed. If the current constitution has been abolished, it may be officially reinstated with much fanfare; there may be new elections, and some shuffling semblance of the two-party system may well come lurching out of the crypts for one or two more turns on the stage.
None of that will matter. The nation will have changed decisively in ways we can only begin to envision at this point, and the forms of twentieth-century American politics will cover a reality that has undergone drastic transformations, just as the forms of nineteenth-century French monarchy did. In due time, by some combination of legal and extralegal means, the forms will be changed to reflect the new realities, and the territory we now call the United States of America—which will almost certainly have a different name, and may well be divided into several different and competing nations by then—will be as prepared to face the next round of turmoil as it’s going to get.
Yes, there will be a next round of turmoil. That’s the thing that most people miss when thinking about the decline and fall of a civilization: it’s not a single event, or even a single linear process. It’s a whole series of cascading events that vary drastically in their importance, geographical scope, and body count. That’s true of every process of historic change.
It was true even of so simple an event as the 1929 crash and Great Depression: 1929 saw the crash, 1930 the suckers’ rally, 1931 the first wave of European bank failures, 1932 the unraveling of the US banking system, and so on until bombs falling on Pearl Harbor ushered in a different era. It was even more true of the French Revolution: between 1789 and 1815 France basically didn’t have a single year without dramatic events and drastic changes of one kind or another, and the echoes of the Revolution kept things stirred up for decades to come. Check out the fall of civilizations and you’ll see the same thing unfolding on a truly vast scale, with crisis after crisis along an arc centuries in length.
The process that’s going on around us is the decline and fall of industrial civilization. Everything we think of as normal and natural, modern and progressive, solid and inescapable is going to melt away into nothingness in the years, decades, and centuries ahead, to be replaced first by the very different but predictable institutions of a dark age, and then by the new and wholly unfamiliar forms of the successor societies of the far future. There’s nothing inevitable about the way we do things in today’s industrial world; our political arrangements, our economic practices, our social instutions, our cultural habits, our sciences and our technologies all unfold from industrial civilization’s distinctive and profoundly idiosyncratic worldview. So does the central flaw in the entire baroque edifice, our lethally muddleheaded inability to understand our inescapable dependence on the biosphere that supports our lives. All that is going away in the time before us—but it won’t go away suddenly, or all at once.
Here in the United States, we’re facing one of the larger downward jolts in that prolonged process, the end of American global empire and of the robust economic benefits that the machinery of empire pumps from the periphery to the imperial center. Until recently, the five per cent of us who lived here got to enjoy a quarter of the world’s energy supply and raw materials and a third of its manufactured products. Those figures have already decreased noticeably, with consequences that are ringing through every corner of our society; in the years to come they’re going to decrease much further still, most likely to something like a five per cent share of the world’s wealth or even a little less. That’s going to impact every aspect of our lives in ways that very few Americans have even begun to think about.
All of that is taking place in a broader context, to be sure. Other countries will have their own trajectories through the arc of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, and some of those trajectories will be considerably less harsh in the short term than ours. In the long run, the human population of the globe is going to decline sharply; the population bubble that’s causing so many destructive effects just now will be followed in due time by a population bust, in which those four guys on horseback will doubtless play their usual roles. In the long run, furthermore, the vast majority of today’s technologies are going to go away as the resource base needed to support them gets used up, or stops being available due to other bottlenecks. Those are givens—but the long run is not the only scale that matters.
It’s not at all surprising that the foreshocks of that immense change are driving the kind of flight to fantasy criticized in the opening paragraphs of this essay. That’s business as usual when empires go down; pick up a good cultural history of the decline and fall of any empire in the last two millennia or so and you’ll find plenty of colorful prophecies of universal destruction. I’d like to encourage my readers, though, to step back from those fantasies—entertaining as they are—and try to orient themselves instead to the actual shape of the future ahead of us. That shape’s not only a good deal less gaseous than the current offerings of the Apocalypse of the Month Club (internet edition), it also offers an opportunity to do something about the future—a point we’ll be discussing further in posts to come.
Photo credit: Louis-Philippe as Colonel-General of the Hussars during the Bourbon Restoration from Wikipedia. In the public domain.