Societal ‘Collapse: The Past is Prologue
Today’s Contemplation has been once again prompted by the latest musings of The Honest Sorcerer. I believe their posts motivate me more than most others I read because we very often focus upon the same subject matter and appear, for the most part, to come at the issue(s) from a similar standpoint. In fact, I have had more than one person accuse me of being The Honest Sorcerer and simply using a different name/platform — which I will take as a compliment given how much I enjoy their articles.
Here is my posted comment on their Substack publication:
I’ve found it most enlightening (and I’m sure it’s my personal bias in having some background in the subject) to consider past experiments in complex societies and the societal responses/reactions to the cyclical phenomenon of ‘collapse/simplification’ to guide our discussion on how things may unfold. Archaeology demonstrates that despite human ingenuity and having the best ‘technology’ of the time, similar patterns emerge across both time and space as a complex society ‘dissolves’.
As the saying goes, ‘It’s difficult to make predictions, especially if they’re about the future’; however, there’s also the Shakespearean phrase ‘What’s past is prologue’ suggesting that we can learn from pre/history and its apparent oft-repeated processes as we have hints as to what may befall us as our societal ‘decline’ proceeds providing an educated guess on the future (the best we might hope for in an uncertain and complex world full of nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena, to say little about Black Swan events).
I’ve written a number of posts about this, most recently just a couple of months ago entitled What Do Previous Experiments in Societal Complexity Suggest About ‘Managing’ Our Future (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxlviii-fb2491bb08fe). Some of its points are quite similar to those you make.
In this piece of writing I focused on the aims of the ‘degrowth’ movement and why our ‘collapse’ will not likely be ‘managed’ in the way many degrowthers hope. I make the argument, based upon my understanding of archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies, that:
1) “…society’s power-brokers place the burden of ‘contraction’ upon the masses via currency devaluation, increased taxes, forever wars, increased totalitarianism, narrative management, etc..”
2) “Once surpluses are exhausted, everyday operating ‘costs’ begin to suffer and living standards for the majority begin to wane. A gradual decline in complexity ensues.”
3) “As societal investments encounter the Law of Marginal Utility due to ever-increasing costs of problem solving and its associated complexity, society experiences declining living standards. Eventually, participants opt out of the arrangement (i.e., social ‘contract’) — usually by migrating — resulting in a withdrawal of the support/labour necessary to maintain the various complex systems.”
4) “…to offset our increasing experience with diminishing returns, especially as it pertains to energy, we have employed significant debt-/credit-based fiat currency expansion to increase our drawdown of important resources among other perceived ‘needs’…”
5) “…to sustain a society’s complexity as it bumps up against limits to expanding its problem-solving ability (particularly its finite resource requirements), surpluses are drawn upon…The drawdown of these surpluses puts society at greater risk of being incapable of reacting to a sudden stress surge that may expedite the ‘collapse’ of complexity.”
6) “…once diminishing returns sets in for a society, collapse requires merely the passage of time. New energy sources, however, do little to address the issues that arise from expanded technology use–particularly the finiteness of the materials required and the overloading of planetary sinks that occur from their extraction and processing…”
7) “…pre/historic evidence also demonstrates a peer polity competition trap where competing ‘states’ drive the pursuit of complexity (regardless of environmental and/or human costs) for fear of absorption by a competing state. In such situations, ever-increasing costs create ever-decreasing marginal returns that end in domination by one state, or collapse of all competing polities. Where no or an insufficient energy subsidy exists, collapse of the competing states occurs at about the same time.”
We should be able to learn from these past trials in large, complex societies. And I recall putting this prospect to Jared Diamond about a decade ago when I heard him speak at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. His response (and I’m paraphrasing) was that just because we have this capability does not in any way mean we will use it.
Do I believe humanity will heed the lessons of the past?
In those early days of my journey down the rabbit hole of societal ‘collapse’ that began with my exploration of the concept of Peak Oil and its implications for our world (I thank the rental from our local Blockbuster in late 2010 of the documentary Collapse with the late Michael Ruppert for this), I thought we could avoid the pending decline of society. I thought that human ingenuity and intelligence could and would come to understand our plight and take remedial steps to set things right.
I no longer believe this; in fact, I chuckle somewhat at my naivete in those early days as I struggled to move through Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving. I experienced an awful lot of denial and bargaining.
Pre/history appears to show that every complex society has reacted to their decline in somewhat parallel ways. Not exactly the same, but pretty damn similar despite the vast differences between them in terms of time, geographic location, and sociocultural practices.
Despite all of this evidence, most of us involved in the current iteration (at least those that have the ‘privilege’ to contemplate such things; many in our world of course don’t) have a tendency to believe that this time is different — especially because of our ingenuity and technology leading to our perpetual ability to ‘solve’ any issue that arises — and the narratives we craft in light of this belief system. But our responses appear to be unfolding in ways not unlike those that previous societies have experienced.
In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that our ‘modern’ responses are even more broadly and significantly detrimental to our future prospects because of the ever-present and widely disseminated propaganda that aims to keep the masses ignorant of the various revenue-generation/-extraction rackets siphoning resources towards the top of our power/wealth structures, and that appear to be expanding and speeding up as the surplus energy that has sustained our growth moves towards zero and then goes negative.
And as I conclude in the piece referenced above,
Little to none of the above takes into consideration our current overarching predicament: ecological overshoot (and all of its symptom predicaments such as biodiversity loss, resource depletion, sink overloading, etc.).
Having significantly surpassed the natural environmental carrying capacity of our planet, we have strapped booster rockets to the issue of complex society ‘collapse’.
We have chosen to employ a debt-/credit-based economic system to more quickly extricate finite resources from the ground in order to meet current demands rather than significantly reduce stealing them from the future. We have created belief systems that human ingenuity and finite resource-based technologies are god-like in their abilities to alter the Laws of Thermodynamics (especially in regard to entropy) and biological principles such as overshoot…
Given we cannot control complex systems, we also cannot predict them well (if at all) and thus we cannot forecast the future with any certainty. But there exist physical laws and limits, biological/evolutionary principles, and pre/historical examples/experiments that all point towards a future quite different from the optimistic ones painted by those who believe we have control over such things.
I expect one last ginormous pulse of energetic ‘consumption’ in a most wasteful binge (and likely mostly towards geopolitical strife over the table scraps of finite resources) and a significant amount of narrative management by society’s wealth-extracting forces before ‘the great simplification’ and Nature’s corrective responses to our overshoot take hold — showing Homo sapiens who is really in charge…and it’s not us.
Also see these:
Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Six — Sociopolitical ‘Collapse’ and Ecological Overshoot (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-lvi-1f3de97ef6e9)
Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part One (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-lix-800413db180a)
Energy Future, Part 3: Authoritarianism and Sociobehavioural Control (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-xciii-78f4f61f8a1d)
Energy Future, Part 4: Economic Manipulation (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-xcix-1eaf7ac0c5c6)
Collapse Now to Avoid the Rush: The Long Emergency (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxxxv-5b9d26816e33)
Declining Returns, Societal Surpluses, and Collapse (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxli-c3a58b371496)
Ruling Caste Responses to Societal Breakdown/Decline (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxliii-a063a8dee7ff)
If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website or the link below — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers).
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You can also find a variety of resources, particularly my summary notes for a handful of texts, especially Catton’s Overshoot and Tainter’s Collapse: see here.
It Bears Repeating: Best Of…Volume 1
A compilation of writers focused on the nexus of limits to growth, energy, and ecological overshoot.
With a Foreword and Afterword by Michael Dowd, authors include: Max Wilbert; Tim Watkins; Mike Stasse; Dr. Bill Rees; Dr. Tim Morgan; Rob Mielcarski; Dr. Simon Michaux; Erik Michaels; Just Collapse’s Tristan Sykes & Dr. Kate Booth; Kevin Hester; Alice Friedemann; David Casey; and, Steve Bull.
The document is not a guided narrative towards a singular or overarching message; except, perhaps, that we are in a predicament of our own making with a far more chaotic future ahead of us than most imagine–and most certainly than what mainstream media/politics would have us believe.
Click here to access the document as a PDF file, free to download.