Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chaotic collapse or long descent?

In the peak-oil/end of growth community there is a general agreement that we have seen the end of “this civilization”, and my post here is about the scenario ahead if you have already accepted the premise that the current growth and expansion can’t possibly continue. I am aware of that there is another camp among environmentalists that believe we can still steer clear with a mix of good policies and good innovation and that the “progress” can continue, perhaps not with a rapid economic growth, but with maintained material wealth and a society largely built on the same fundaments as this one. I think of people like Amory and Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, Jonathon Porrit and Tim Jackson. Anyway this post is not about their vision and whether it is plausible or not.

This is about what will happen when energy get more scarce and expensive and growth ends. Period. A situation which may not be very far ahead, or perhaps we are already there.  

Jason Heppenstall summarizes the debate as:
"In the fast-collapse camp are the likes of Dmitry Orlov (who bases his assessment on his experience of seeing the USSR implode) and Ugo Bardi, who expects a ‘Seneca’s Cliff’ dropoff... By comparison, the likes of John Michael Greer reckon we are in for a drawn-out era of terminal decline punctuated by serious crises which, at the time, will seem rather severe to all involved but which will give way to plateaux of relative stability, albeit at a lower level of energy throughput."

As a matter of fact the difference can to some extent be semantic. What is “rapid” and what is “slow” in the perspective of civilizations? As Ugo Bardi writes:
“Actually, the two camps may not be in such a radical disagreement with each other as they are described. The idea of the fast (or Seneca-like) collapse does not necessarily mean that collapse will be continuous or smooth.“

I agree with Ugo Bardi in that. I just finished reading John Michael Greer’s book Wealth of Nature (a review will soon be forthcoming) and I note that despite him being a champion for a long descent view (he even wrote the book with that title), he writes ”a decade from now, let’s say, when half the American workforce has no steady work, decaying suburbs have mutated into squalid shantytowns and domestic insurgencies flare across the south and the mountain west...” For me that is hardly an example of a ”long descent”, but rather a rather rapid collapse.

I think it is an interesting discussion, but it is also rather one-dimensional.

The question is also collapse of what? from whose perspective? How “deep” will the collapse be? Can we actually manage the descent or collapse as most of the authors still think? Bill McKibben says in Eearth: that we might choose instead to manage our descent. That we might aim for a “relatively graceful decline”. And of course, what will come after? I will leave that last one for this time, but clearly. “what comes after” is also influenced a lot by the answers of the other questions, in the same way as our analysis of how the collapse will unfold is dependent on our view of which are the drivers of the collapse and how do they work.

Most collapse theories or scenarios (reasonably) take their starting point in other known collapses, such as the Mayan or Roman civilizations and for Orlov, even the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Roman case is the most widely use. I don’t think I have anything in particular to add to the scenarios I read as such.

But the question I find mostly unanswered is how were normal people affected by the collapse in Rome but even more in the outskirts of the Empire? Despite the grandness of the city Rome, only a few percent of the Empire’s population was in Rome proper. What happened with the slaves? How was it for the people who were never conquered by the Romans? Did the relative development of my “ancestors” the Vikings benefit from the decline of the Roman Empire (I know they are often seen as thugs...)? Did the decline of Rome make way for the Arab Golden Age?

Population is a rather good proxy for the general situation. Population statistics for Europe indicate that the dip was really very big, with populations declining from some 67 million in year 200 to only 27 million year 700. Some attribute most of this to the Justianic Plague (AD 541–542, one of the worst plagues of history) though. But how do we know that the plague was not an offshoot of societal collapse one way or the other?

Angus Maddison’s long datasets of GDP shows that Europe’s GDP year 1000 was more or less the same as year 0, meaning that there would have been no economic growth in thousand years. But actually, as the population still hadn’t recovered, per capita GDP in Europe was considerably higher year 1000 than year 0. Also, neither India nor China had any economic growth during the same period.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t question that there was a collapse, or as explained by the Belgien historian Pirenne (1939)
“If we consider that in the Carolingian epoch, the minting of gold had ceased, the lending of money at interest was prohibited, there was no longer a class of professional merchants, that Oriental products (papyrus, spices and silk) were no longer imported, that the circulation of money was reduced to a minimum, that laymen could neither read or write, that taxes were no longer organised, and that the towns were merely fortresses, we can say without hesitation that we are confronted by a civilisation that had retrogressed to the purely agricultural stage; which no longer needed commerce, credit and regular exchange for the maintenance of the social fabric.”
But even if this was true, was it worse for the 80%-90% of the population active in farming? Was their life more miserable? It is reasonable to assume that inequality was less in the societies coming after the Roman society, for no other reason than that the remaining powers were small and certainly not able to extract a lot of wealth from the peasants. And if we believe Maddison’s GDP figures there must be something more then Pirenne’s story.

And who will be hurt by a collapse today?
After all, a credit meltdown could seem like Armageddon to a Hong Kong banker, but would barely even register as news to someone living a sustainable life on an island in Greece. Conversely freaky weather caused by climate change could destroy the Greek islander’s livelihood, but the banker, unaware of the natural elements outside his air-conditioned trading floor, would not even notice.
writes Jason Heppenstal. Will a collapse of global trade mean that African farmers will starve as nobody will buy their coffee, or will they actually be better off (and shift crops) as a result of increasing crop prices when cheap grain from the US – produced with fossil fuel – is no longer flooding the world market?

How deep will the collapse/descent be? And can we chose what we want to keep? Bill McKibben writes in Eearth: “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies that we have to abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations”. And Richard Heinberg asks in End of Growth: “Can we surrender cars, highways, and supermarkets, but still keep cultural exchange, tolerance, and diversity, healthcare, and instant access to information? 

Many see mostly good things with the transition that will come, the transition that has to come regardless of whether we want it or not. But Bill McKibben is not immune to the advances of contemporary society and its value.
”... our national and global project has been about more than accumulation and expansion, more than cars and factories. It’s also been about liberation – the slow but reasonably steady progress of valuing more and more people....The process that made us anonymous to our neighbors carried real benefits not just costs”.
The Internet is the savior here; it is both a global project that knits us together and something that allows restless globetrotters such as McKibben and myself keep in contact with the rest of the world without necessarily accruing air miles. Greer doesn’t believe, however, in that we can chose to keep the internet. It is too energy demanding and requires too many support services to be efficient in the descent.
”Very few people realize just how extravagant a supply of resources goes to maintain the information economy.... each one of the big server farms that keep today’s social websites up and running use as much electricity as a midsized city.”

The collapse will be deep according to Greer, and human population is bound to shrink ”as malnutrition becomes common and public health collapses”. Food production and energy production are two themes occupying most. A common scenario is that as energy supply declines, the trend toward specialization will be reversed and so will urbanization. Urbanization depends on surplus agricultural production from agriculture, which in turn depends on cheap oil. Whether we like or hate globalization and specialization, we will have to rely more on local resources and production capacity. “How far we will go towards being local generalists depends on how we handle the energy transition of the 21st century,” says Heinberg.

Unfortunately most of the collapse/descent scenarios are focussed on technologies (can we keep this or that) and less on institutions and relations. Orlov made a taxonomy of the collapse, not according to which technologies that are in place but which institutions and relations that are affected.
Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost.
Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost.
Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in “the goodness of humanity” is lost.
(Admittedly I have not read Orlov’s books, only his blog, will read and review it though).

I find this an interesting approach. Whether they have to collapse in this particular order is another question. Our institutions and relationships are much more interesting for us humans, and mean a lot more for our well-being than most technologies. After all according to the Global Progress Indicator 1978 was the year of global Peak-Wellbeing and the Internet wasn’t up and running then and only James Bond had a mobile telephone.

1 comment:

  1. A Global Collapse is a hope for the Earth. We can only think to a "wonderful unexpected".