Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LX

This is Part Two of a contemplation regarding what humanity’s future path ‘may’ look like. Part One can be found here.

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part Two

Based on the evidence found in our pre/history and our biological proclivities (both of which I touched upon in Part One), it would appear we are likely to experience a variety of crises as we increasingly encounter diminishing returns on our investments in complexity and go through the withdrawal of surplus energy[1] that has fed our ‘growth’ and supported our organisational ‘problem solving’ abilities, but also because we have created and come to rely significantly upon systems that require such growth to keep from collapsing (for example, our increasingly debt-based financial/economic/monetary systems that, in turn, support our expanding energy-averaging systems and ensuring overexploited regions can be ‘maintained’ — i.e. globalised trade).

Throw on top of this the overshoot predicament and one should realise that the future is sure to not be the one painted by the techno-cornucopians who optimistically envision more of a Star Trek future than a Mad Max or The Road one.

I, personally, am of the opinion that ‘collapse’ of some type is imminent[2] primarily due to our overwhelming reliance upon important finite resources (especially fossil fuels) that we are now experiencing significant diminishing returns upon (and, yes, it’s an opinion; as is every other view of the future no matter how much ‘science’ is behind it or how sophisticated the model used to project the trends going forward — some are better than others but only the passage of time can ultimately decide which, in retrospect, were accurate).

At the same time we are going to be increasingly impacted by environmental/ecological crises brought about by our ecological overshoot and its concomitant overwhelming of the planetary sinks that previously helped cleanse the waste products of our expansion and technological creations[3] — to say little regarding the impacts that are going to be experienced around diminishing returns on food production and its very real reliance upon fossil fuels. Whether it be increasing frequency of extreme weather events and/or toxic environments leading to physical/physiological consequences for its inhabitants, including humans, the repercussions of our expansion appear to be growing in nature and impact.

How we view ‘collapse’ depends very much on our interpretation of it. It may be ‘the end of the world as we know it’ but that does not mean it will be dark and dreary. That perspective may be one that has been widely propagated in order to ‘scare’ people into believing the status quo economic and power structures need to continue and be supported at all costs. They do not.

‘Collapse’ seems scary because it is mostly about uncertainty, something humans abhor. We don’t know what the future holds and it reduces our cognitive dissonance greatly to cling to some certain future, even if completely and utterly wrong.

I’ve shared before what Tainter says about ‘collapse’ and it’s not all that bad depending upon one’s point of view:

“Collapse…is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity…[It manifests itself] as:
· a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation;
· less economic and occupational specialization, of individuals, groups, and territories;
· less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites;
· less behavioural control and regimentation; less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of ‘civilization’: monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like;
· less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a center and its periphery;
· less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources;
· less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups;
· a smaller territory within a single political unit.”[4]

Some (most?) of these consequences may actually be welcomed by some, especially those who rail against what appears to be a growing tyranny of the ruling elite as we creep further into the banquet of consequences of our overshoot and diminishing returns on investments in complexity.

However, the ‘collapse’ that may accompany overshoot — a massive ‘die-off’ — seems a tad bit more cataclysmic depending upon how quickly such population reduction occurs. A relatively short recalibration of our population would, for all intents and purposes, appear truly calamitous to those experiencing it and most certainly would create a chaotic disintegration of the complexities we have come to rely upon for our survival. We have recently experienced the knock-on effects of shutting down world trade/economies over the fears associated with a relatively mild novel coronavirus[5]; the disruption of something far more impactful would make this seem very tame in comparison.

It seems clear to me that we have predicaments creating a vice on our continuation of any type of complex society. And my thinking about how this might all unfold has led me to review more closely John Michael Greer’s thesis that attempts to develop an ecological model of ‘collapse’. This ‘catabolic collapse’ suggests, at least in my interpretation, that we will see ‘crises’ that lead to more ‘simplified’ levels of society that then later experience more ‘crises’ resulting in another step down to an even simpler state and so on due to the fact that “production fails to meet maintenance requirements for existing capital…[and as a result get caught up in] a self-reinforcing cycle of contraction converting most capital to waste.”[6]

Given the increasing likelihood of ‘collapse’, it would seem we have two stark choices/strategies (very similar to what Greer argues regarding Catabolic Collapse). Continue on attempting to sustain unsustainable systems, virtually guaranteeing an overshoot die-off of gargantuan proportions. Or, attempt to ‘manage’ our ‘collapse’ as it unfolds by being pre-emptive via purposeful downsizing[7], degrowing[8], and simplifying[9].

What this second option looks like depends almost entirely on those agreeing with this approach. In fact, I sense a growing bifurcation of opinions even within the ‘degrowth’ movement with some arguing for a very slow transition and movement towards ‘green/clean’ technologies and others countering that such an approach is far too late and much more radical shifts need to be made if we are to have any ‘hope’ of making it thru the bottleneck we have created for our species (and others).

Unfortunately, given the lack of consensus, the psychological processes that lead to significant denial and bargaining (to reduce cognitive dissonance)[10], and the fact that the ruling elite will likely fight with all their ‘tools’ to avoid the elimination of their control/expansion of the wealth-generation/extraction systems that provide their revenue streams (their primary motivation), it is most probable we will go with the first option above: attempt to sustain the unsustainable (probably via ‘green’ technology), which will then lead to mother nature choosing how the planet is rebalanced — and our wishes and concerns will be null and void in this scenario.

In addition, given our current geopolitics and the frequency at which a society’s ruling elite choose war during times of stress, rather than diplomacy, I very much see the possibility of a global conflagration of conflict occurring — that could, of course, go nuclear.

As a result of all the above, I am increasingly leaning towards our future being far more dystopian in nature than utopian. The version of dystopia is still very much up to us I believe depending on what we do from this point onwards (my hope is that we make ‘good’ choices but my fear, as I admit above, is that doing so is beyond our capability because of the nature of our society’s power structures and protection of them by those who leverage crises to their benefit; along with the human tendencies to defer to authority and the need to ‘belong’).

Is there a way out of this conundrum? I personally waffle between ‘hope’ (something I wish for but really have no agency in) and despair (see image below).

My ‘hope’ is that we will come to realise that our pursuit of the perpetual growth chalice is taking us to a dark place where few of us survive (and that would be many species, not just homo sapiens) and reverse our trajectory; what can referred to as ‘degrowth’: a purposeful cessation of our current path and ‘deconstruction’ of almost all our socioeconomic and sociopolitical excesses until we reach a standard of living and population level that is ‘sustainable’.

My despair is that we will refuse to do this for a variety of reasons both psychological and biological in nature, but especially because if it is to have any positive impact we likely need to do it deeply and quickly. Instead, we will likely do everything we can to kick-the-growth-can-down-the-road to delay the inevitable and ultimately make the ‘correction’ all the more colossal in its size and scope; especially if, as Catton argues, we will have to undershoot our ‘natural’ carrying capacity by quite a bit given that everything we have done has reduced it significantly[11].

So, basically I believe that if we continue to hold that more technology[12] and money will address our issues, then I tend to think we will drift towards the darker dystopian path. If, however, we begin to ‘collapse’ on our own terms by degrowing, downsizing, and simplifying our societies we might be able to steer our future towards the lighter dystopian future where relatively small, local communities live within their region’s carrying capacity and are in ‘sync’ with the ecological systems within which they live and depend upon. We cannot and should not continue to believe that humans exist above and beyond these systems. Frankly, without them we are destined to disappear as well.

This ‘light dystopian’ vision, if you will, may appear calamitous to many because it is void of most of the technological ‘conveniences’ (what some have termed ‘energy slaves’) we currently embrace and is sure to involve much more manual labour and expose us to many of nature’s uncertainties that we have come to believe we can tame and avoid. But as nature so often reminds us, although we are reluctant to admit it, it always bats last and has the final say.

Given the evidence and my personal inclinations, more and more I’m leaning towards the realisation that it is the ‘scarier’ dystopian future that we, or at least future generations, will experience.

Of course only time will tell since making predictions is difficult, particularly if they’re about the future…

The following image was posted recently by someone on Facebook and I find it is frighteningly apropos to my personal reflections about our predicament:

Please consider visiting my website and purchasing my ‘fictional’ collapse novel series to help maintain my internet presence.

[1] See Dr. Tim Murphy’s blog for more on this: https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/professional-area/

[2] By ‘imminent’ I mean it’s a matter of when, not if. It could be a relatively long-lasting decline as painted by John Michael Greer (https://newsociety.com/books/l/the-long-descent-pdf?sitedomain=row) and James Howard Kunstler (https://www.amazon.ca/Long-Emergency-Converging-Catastrophes-Twenty-First/dp/0802142494); or a relatively quick one as suggested by Jared Diamond for Easter Islanders (https://www.amazon.ca/Collapse-Societies-Choose-Succeed-Revised/dp/0143117009). Also note that I do not ‘wish’ for this outcome; while the ‘effort justification’ aspects of my mind would love to be proven right — given all the ‘energy’ I’ve put into the ‘collapse’ narrative — I have children whom I do NOT want to experience a ‘declining’ world constantly in crisis and with significant uncertainty.

[3] See this for evidence of our breaching of various planetary limits: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries/the-nine-planetary-boundaries.html

[4] Tainter, J. The Collapse of Complex Societies. P. 4.

[5] Regardless of one’s perspective on Covid-19 and its political roots and/or implications, the millions of deaths attributed to it are but a fraction of several historical pandemics. The mortality rate for Covid has been relatively low compared to other ‘plagues’ that have spread through human populations and resulted in much more significant ‘die-offs’, such as the Black Death (1347–1351), Spanish Flu (1918–1919), Plague of Justinian (541–542), Third Plague Pandemic (1855–1960). https://www.publichealthonline.org/worst-global-pandemics-in-history/

[6] https://www.ecosophia.net/civilizations-fall-theory-catabolic-collapse/

[7] See this (https://justcollapse.org/) for one version of how to do this in a ‘just’ manner.

[8] See https://degrowth.info/degrowth for one version of degrowth.

[9] Nate Hagens’s podcast series provides some great insight into this approach: https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/.

[10] My second university degree was focused on psychology and anthropology (Honours Diploma, 1987, Western University). An Honours Diploma is equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree but Canadian universities do not give out second B.A.s to the same student and instead give these. At least that was the case during my 1980s post-secondary years. I also have a Bachelor of Education which is the field in which I spent my formal employment (Brock University, 1989, St. Catharines, Ontario); 10 years as a classroom teacher, 15 as an administrator.

[11] Catton, Jr., W.R.. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 978–0–252–00988–4)

[12] See Erik Michaels’s https://problemspredicamentsandtechnology.blogspot.com/ for some insight into why technology is perhaps our undoing, not some ingenious ‘saviour’ for humanity.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

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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...