Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CXXXV

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
7 min readJun 6, 2023
Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Collapse Now To Avoid the Rush: The Long Emergency

Today’s Contemplation has been prompted by yet another conversation I have had with a person who prefers not to believe the stories I tell about our predicament. Which I am totally fine with. I attempt to present my case and once the person devolves into personal attacks, childish suggestions, or simply ignores/denies the evidence (usually by way of never actually addressing the points I raise), I tend to end the dialogue with an agreement to disagree. We all believe what we want to believe so little point in belabouring the discussion with someone entrenched in their narrative.

Of the rhetorical fallacies that tend to be used against me when I highlight skepticism towards certain narratives, the latest is something along these lines: You want/wish for ‘collapse’ and a massive die-off…why don’t you start by eliminating yourself.

The thing I wish to stress is that I DO NOT wish for any type of decline/collapse, and I’ve most certainly never advocated for it to happen. I am as dependent upon our complexities as the next person, although I am working to lessen that.

As I more-or-less replied to the person: I do not want what I am writing about to occur; I am a student of pre/history observing the world and sharing my story about what I see and occasionally making suggestions on what might be wise actions to help mitigate it. In other words, ‘collapse’ appears to be happening so let’s try to prepare for it.

Do I argue for certain ‘strategies’ that would seem prudent given the biological and pre/historical precedents that suggest where our future is likely headed? Absolutely. If you have the slightest appreciation of the precautionary principle, and even some awareness of what has befallen previous complex societies throughout pre/history and how they have ‘handled’ similar situations, you would too.

But this does not mean I am looking forward to the long emergency/long descent (or worse) that appears increasingly to be where humanity is headed. In fact, given the argument that we are significantly into ecological overshoot this time around the argument for preparatory actions is quite called for. In fact, much of what I argue for is because I believe it would be wise for humanity to pay heed to John Michael Greer’s advice to ‘collapse now and avoid the rush’ so that we are better prepared for the future that we are likely going to get, whether we wish it or not.

If you’re not familiar with Greer’s reasoning for this phrase, I suggest reading the above linked post. For those who wish my take, here it is…

Industrial society (and all the complexities it entails) has been possible primarily because of the “…immense supply of cheap, highly concentrated fuel with a very high net energy…” To replace this foundational energy source in order to maintain our complex, industrial society “…has turned out to be effectively impossible.” While a ‘managed descent’ may have been possible 50+ years ago, sociopolitical decisions (along with continuing unchecked population growth) have closed off that option and instead pushed us significantly into overshoot.

Rather than thoughtfully descend (i.e., the type of ‘managed’ decline the Degrowth movement advocates), we have burned through our fundamental energy resource believing a story that the laws of physics and geology can be suspended via socioeconomic abstractions, human ingenuity, and our technological prowess.

Pre/historical evidence suggests our ‘fall’ will not be sudden in nature (commonly thought of as a ‘collapse’) for “…civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall…”. This ‘fall’ — that appears to have already begun and will pick up steam — will not be smooth but a series of crises across space and time, with relatively stable interludes (perhaps even some ‘recovery’) between them.

There are still choices to be made in the face of this, particularly between clinging to current lifestyles until the floor drops out from beneath that to learning the knowledge and practising the skills necessary to live well in a world of declining energy and complexities.

Collapse now, in other words, and avoid the rush.

What are some of the suggestions Greer makes?

Figure out how to live after the next crisis arrives and begin to live that way now. For example, if your income may be in jeopardy, begin living with less now. Get out of debt. Find much less expensive shelter. Learn practical skills so you can meet your own needs or barter with others. Weatherise your home so utilities cost less. Begin growing some of your own food.

While some envision living on an off-grid homestead away and insulated from the various crises, it is better to look at where one lives currently and how that can be made more resilient and/or self-sufficient. Take note of local resources, including human ones.

As for the utopian dream of a fanciful, high-tech future, Greer argues “There’s quite a lot of money to be made these days insisting that we can have a shiny new future despite all evidence to the contrary, and pulling factoids out of context to defend that increasingly dubious claim; as industrial society moves down the curve of decline, I suspect, this will become even more popular, since it will make it easier for those who haven’t yet had their own personal collapse to pretend that it can’t happen to them.”

And as he concludes: “… if you’re trying to exempt yourself from the end of the industrial age, nothing you can do can ever be enough. Let go, let yourself fall forward into the deindustrial future, and matters are different.”

I would tend to agree with Greer as far as the idea of a cataclysmic future being improbable, not impossible, just highly unlikely on a global scale. There are such issues as nuclear war or a large meteor strike that could occur but are far less likely (although nuclear war is appearing more probable than a large meteor hitting the planet for when hasn’t the latest, greatest weaponry not been used during war).

The highest possibility of ‘collapse’ comes from the process that archaeologist Joseph Tainter lays out in The Collapse of Complex Societies. Basically, as we encounter increasing diminishing returns on our investments in complexity, fewer and fewer benefits are accrued from our support of/investments into the sociopolitical systems that organise our society and a point arises where more and more people withdraw that support until the complexities can no longer function properly and supportive subsystems begin to fail.

As Tainter points out, a society can go a very long time experiencing this decline, with each step down in living standards being relatively minor and, with time, are accepted and adapted to as the ‘new normal’.

I have highlighted in a few multipart posts what may befall humanity as we stumble into the unknowable future:
Infinite growth. Finite Plant. What could possibly go wrong? Parts One & Two.
Energy Future. Parts 1, 2, 3, & 4.
That Uncertain Road. Parts 1 & 2.

And how the psychological mechanisms we have evolved impact our beliefs around all this:
Cognition and Belief Systems in a ‘Collapsing’ World: Part One
Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Two — Deference to Authority
Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Three — Groupthink
Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Four — Cognitive Dissonance
Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Five — Justification Hypothesis
Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Six — Sociopolitical ‘Collapse’ and Ecological Overshoot

And please note that I do refer to this inevitable simplification as ‘collapse’ not because I believe it will be a sudden, punctuated, and global event but because I tend to view the process in a broader, temporal perspective. While our ‘collapse’ may play out over a number of human generations (and be barely noticeable to many except in the sense of the past being ‘better’), in the grand scope of human 200,000–300,000 year existence, a century or three is a bump in a long and winding road.

View the following graph. If you feel this is sustainable and growth can continue because, you know, human ingenuity, you can ignore everything I’ve written above and carry on. If, however, this suggests to you an impending (or passed) tipping point of unsustainability, then you need to consider the story I’ve shared…and how you will react and act.

As I conclude in one of the posts linked above:

“And, I offer no ‘solution’ to any of the above. I have increasingly come to hold that this is all one humungous predicament without a ‘solution’. The best we might hope for is to increase local self-sufficiency of communities and cross our fingers that some might make it through the impending transition that will be the result of complex society collapse compounded by ecological overshoot. On the other hand, all the other species on our planet might be hoping for our extinction given our track record of destructive tendencies…”

If you’ve made it to the end of this rather long 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 — 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). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...