Monday, 9 October 2017

Collapse Step by Step, Part 6: More on Political Realities

Paddle Boarding/Surfing off Kincardine's Station Beach

When I wrote the last couple of episodes in this series of posts, I was well aware that I was expressing opinions that are quite controversial, in some circles at any rate. So I expected to get some push back from people whose political leanings are different from mine.

As it turns out, only one reader (who I'll refer to as BK for the sake of brevity) responded with such a comment, and he was reasonably polite and clear in what he had to say. Now, as it happens, I do believe there is such a thing as objective reality, and if you can show me that an opinion I hold runs counter to that reality, I'll willingly change it. I actually have done this at various point in the past, but in this instance that wasn't what happened. Just the opposite, in fact—what BK has done is give me a clearer understanding of my own politics and in the process strengthened my convictions. Overall, that's probably a good thing.

On both sides of our discussion, though, I think there may be a good bit of misunderstanding. It is very tempting now to go ahead with a rant about people replying seemingly without having read what I've actually been saying, and who address themselves to strawmen instead my actual points. But I suspect that the guy on the other side of the discussion may feel that I am doing the same thing to him. One of the most important skills to have in the hard times to come will be the ability to talk to and work with people who have different viewpoints, and that is a skill I am trying to cultivate.

One of the down sides of social media is that the connection we have out here in cyberspace is very tenuous. When talking face to face with friends there is real incentive to work at making communication happen. On the internet it's so easy to just give in to temptation and turn the discussion into an argument or maybe a flame war. But that's not why I am here, and I am certainly trying not to give in to the temptation.

When you get into politics, there is a great deal of ideology involved and people have a tendency to accept the party line and not bother checking it against reality. BK claims that in the last couple of posts I haven't even made any attempt to prove what I am saying. Pretty odd, since that was exactly what I had set out to do and quite a number of people have said that they think I did a pretty good job of it. But let's have a closer look at the details, and in the process perhaps I can do a better job of expressing my thoughts.

First of all, why would it be appropriate to talk about politics in a series of posts about the details of collapse?

As BK says, "In order for politics to determine how badly or dangerously collapse happens (if/when it does), there must be a dichotomy in political views regarding the causes of the type of collapse which provides the context of these articles. However, there is no such dichotomy. The dichotomy exists in precisely the opposite context, i.e., what would be a fair way to distribute the benefits of perpetual growth."

Modern politics, for the last couple of centuries anyway, has indeed been mainly about how to distribute the benefits of growth. That is certainly not the discussion we need to be having. Forty five years ago, while we were still not quite in overshoot, (right after the publication of The Limits to Growth) we needed to have a discussion about whether growth could go on forever or whether we should begin adapting to the limits of our finite planet. Serious consideration would have led to acceptance of those limits, and political discussion since then would have focused on the details of living within those limits.

However, it didn't happen that way—those who support BAU (business as usual) made sure that The Limits to Growth was never given serious consideration. We continued on, as usual, and are now in overshoot by about 150%—a very serious situation.

To be fair, it is hard to see how it could have happened otherwise. Because of the way our financial and business systems are set up, they rely on continuous growth. We really have no idea of how to stop economic growth without causing a catastrophic collapse. Politicians know this, so they are stuck trying to fix the system by treating the symptoms while still maintaining growth—the root cause of the problem. So instead, nature will take its course. There will be a dieoff and when things finally settle out, there will be a lot fewer people and they will be a lot poorer.

But even though I agree that politics is asking the wrong questions, and applying the wrong fixes, I still think that it is going to be an important influence on the course of collapse for a few decades yet. To make sense of this, I should explain where I think collapse is taking us.

Among collapse "enthusiasts" there are many who expect that someday soon there will be a fast collapse. This will take place essentially overnight, in a matter of days or perhaps weeks, but certainly not years or decades. The great majority of people would not be prepared for such an event. The ability to work together, solving problems for our mutual benefit that has been the key to much of mankind's success, would be very difficult to bring to bear on our problems during such a collapse. It seems likely that only a tiny and improbably lucky fraction of our species would survive. And I will grant that politics is not likely to have much influence over the outcome of this sort of collapse.

But I am another variety of "kollapsnik" altogether. I've taken to calling myself a "kollapsnik" lately to differentiate myself from "doomers", who think that mankind is facing imminent doom. They range from those who talk about near term extinction (by 2030) to those to expect a fast and hard collapse in the near future, with only a very few survivors left, who will fall back into a new stone age.

Instead, I talk about a slow collapse, which has already been going on for decades in many areas and will continue for much of the twenty-first century. I take this one step further and assert that collapse does not take place uniformly. It's progress is geographically uneven, chronologically unsteady and socially unequal. I do expect that this collapse will be a population bottleneck, but not an extinction event—I wouldn't be surprised if quite a few hundred million people make it through.

To borrow a the term from John Michael Greer, I call the first stage of this long period of collapse the "age of scarcity". During the last couple of centuries some parts of the world experienced an "age of abundance" due to the windfall of cheap energy from fossil fuels, and became industrially and economically developed. In the process, supplies of industrially important natural resources (particularly fossil fuels) were depleted and sinks for industrial by products (pollution) have started to fill up, with unpleasant results such as economic contraction, climate change, ocean acidification and so forth.

Many parts of the developed world have been in the age of scarcity for some decades now and their governments have struggled to keep up appearances (and growth) under less than ideal conditions. A few have been so successful that you still meet people who think these are the best of times and that we should expect things to get even better. But such an opinion can only be held by those who are very careful about where not to look.

During the rest of the age of scarcity our industrial society will gradually weaken until eventually it will be "down for the count". We will then transition into the age of salvage, making use of the materials left behind, which we will no longer have the wherewithal to make from scratch for ourselves. Of course, this transition will occur at different times in various places around the world. And while it will certainly be a big step down from current conditions in the developed nations, it will be a long way from the stone age. There will be a lot of salvage left to work with and we now know a great deal that we did not know even a few centuries ago.

Because I am expecting a slow collapse, I believe there is a lengthy period ahead of us when governments will still be in charge and have some resources available to pursue their policy objectives. What those objectives are will have a large influence on how collapse progresses, and to what extent it can be mitigated. If we are not going to just stoically accept what comes, we will need to choose between the various sorts of actually, realistically achievable politics, searching for the ones that can do the least worst job for us.

Yes, there will eventually come a day when federal, state (provincial) and, in the case of large cities, even local governments are so resource starved that they are no longer effective (or exist at all, perhaps) and local communities are left to their own devices. But it seems to me that even then the sort of politics that has been popular in a society will have a lingering effect on the workings of those communities.

Since it is now clear that it going to take two, if not three, posts to cover everything I want to talk about on this subject, I think I'll bring this post to an end. Next time we'll look in detail at how two of those political positions will differ in their approach to life in the age of scarcity.

And BK, please be patient. In your comments you made several other points that deserve a thoughtful response, which I hope to be making in my next post, or maybe the one after that....

Links to the rest of this series of posts:
Political Realities / Collapse Step by Step / The Bumpy Road Down


Anonymous said...

I think you've nailed it very well, Irv. Collapse will be slow...history tell us that that's the way it goes. I have no opinions about the end result....climate change will be an uncertainty, not normally present in a simple ecological/overshoot type collapse.

I disagree that polticians 'know' that economic growth is the problem. That understanding needs the sort of systemic knowledge that is foreign to their mindset. Even dyed-in-the-wool systems thinkers have problems with the complexity that is earth system science, especially when you factor in human systems, the most complex of all. Interesting times ahead. Thanks for the clarity with which you write about it.

Irv Mills said...

Thanks, Bev. I am striving for clarity, but I'm not sure I am always achieving it. If I said that politicians know that growth is the problem, or even implied it by saying that they refuse to acknowledge growth as the problem, then I apologize. It was certainly not what I meant.
I think that most politician don't know that growth is the problem they need to solve. There may be a tiny minority that do, but if so, they have learned that keeping quiet about it is the price of political success. What I did say was, "We really have no idea of how to stop economic growth without causing a catastrophic collapse. Politicians know this, so they are stuck trying to fix the system by treating the symptoms while still maintaining growth—the root cause of the problem." So, what they know is that stopping, or even slowing economic growth, has nasty consequences. They look no further than that, operating on the certainty that the only way to avoid those consequence is to keep growing. Whereas you and I know that the consequences of continued growth are much, much nastier.

Unknown said...

Hello Irv, this is BK or Blaise Kroma, and thank you for a very reasonable response to my points.

Before I write anything else I'd like to note that I am something of a collapse blog lurker, i.e., I prefer to listen and verify what other collapse bloggers are saying rather than try to break new ground as it were. Although I have only explored the explicit issues/themes of collapse for a few months, this subject has been at the back of my mind for a lot longer.

I believe I have already stated in one of my comments that I am more or less in agreement with you about the broad causes of collapse itself. The points where we *differ* seem to be either about the actual process of collapse, or the way that societies, governments and masses of people will react to the aforesaid. It should be noted that the latter point of disagreement is not about politics or collapse as far as I am concerned. It is an ethical and ontological - in other words philosophical - question.

And since the latter point is where you vehemently disagree with what you think I said, I shall address that for the moment.

My point was that human morality has essentially remained the same as it was before the industrial era. People were always happy enough to live and let live as long as their lives were pleasant enough. The arrival of industrial production, relative stability and resource surplus in the developed nations of the world made the peoples of those nations more tolerant and accepting of liberal policies. They weren't really sacrificing what they had already for the benefit of others, but what they had more than enough of anyway. The Christian parable of the widow's mite expresses the same moral dichotomy as I do here.

You argue that governments will continue to function more or less in the same way that they do now during a slow collapse. I very much doubt this, since the functionality of modern governments is dependent on thriving industrial economies. I imagine such functionality will be hampered to the degree that industrial economies are hampered. For example, democracies tend to become technocratic oligarchies with political parties campaigning for the majority's choice. Ultimately that choice depends on which party convincingly promises higher benefits to the majority. The actual differences between the benefits seem to be trivial, and do not seem to have any overwhelming effect upon the general direction of resource distribution.

The trend towards liberal policies in first world nations is an effect of the increasing desire of the populations themselves for such policies, and the corresponding lack of resistance from the elite to the same because there was no need for such. We all know what transpired when at various points in history countries like Germany, Italy, Austria and Russia faced imbalances between resource availability and the expectations of same by their respective populaces. When it comes to social democracies, most everyone is a winner (at least in terms of basic needs), as long as there is enough to go around.

Now, the point on which you are *decidedly* wrong is my view of this reality. It's a very simple concept: just because someone points out a bad thing does not make them a supporter of that bad thing. Of course you can still validly disagree with me about whether the bad thing is, in fact, as I describe it. I admit the possibility that my analysis of the connection between resource distribution and liberalism, and between their respective opposites, may be wrong. I may well have gone too far with my conclusions and exaggerated certain things. These are all debates that we can, and should, have. However, I hope that in the future both of us will avoid hasty judgments about our respective views merely due to our emotional reactions to those views.

Irv Mills said...

Hello Blaise, Irv here and I must say I am glad to hear from you. I am just doing the final editing on my next post and your latest comment is going to be quite helpful.
First off, let me apologize for assuming that just because you are expecting events to follow a certain course, that you want them to do so. This happens often enough to me, when people assume that I actually want collapse to happen, just because I am so sure it is going to. That's certainly not the case--I'd love to continue my quiet retirement in the high tech paradise that the 21st century is shaping up to be (from one viewpoint).

Some of the things you said got under my skin, especially the part about "jettisoning reason and deliberation at the first sign or trouble".

So, can I assume then, that you are quite content with the move in the "liberal" direction that happened during the age of abundance? But that you have observed that when times get tough, there is a tendency to move in the "conservative" direction. I actually agree with you on that. I think our main difference is on the degree of movement we expect to see. I'm expecting a relatively small amount and a lot more movement in some parts of the world than others. You are expecting much more movement.

It's not the end of the world for me if we don't agree completely--I have close friends who disagree with me on things that I would say are matters of fact, objective reality. But I'm willing to live with that, rather than "unfriend" them, so to speak.

A question for you, then. However quick or far that move to more conservative politics is, it seems likely that, as collapse proceeds, there will still be countries (or fragments of countries) that are more liberal than others, even if they are all less liberal than they are now. From the viewpoint of a person living in those areas, which is likely to be the better place in which to live through collapse?

Unknown said...


"Some of the things you said got under my skin, especially the part about "jettisoning reason and deliberation at the first sign or trouble". "

That was a bit harsh, and I apologise for it, but if you remember I was responding to your accusation that I have no sympathy for the poor (or something along those lines). Like you say, there was a misunderstanding, but hopefully we can put that behind us.

"So, can I assume then, that you are quite content with the move in the "liberal" direction that happened during the age of abundance?"

"Liberalism" is a very broad term that encompasses even what is today referred to as "conservatism", and I certainly don't agree with all the ideas within that category. I approve of things like secularism, social and economic equality and meritocracy to the extent they are rational. I don't think those ideas are *inherently* rational or ethical, since they can be and have been implemented towards irrational ends or in an irrational way.

The mass-scale adoption of those ideas not only coincided with but was to a large extent *caused* by industrial capitalism. Note that I consider even communism or social democracy/social liberalism to be forms of industrial capitalism. The proponents of those ideas - both now and in the past - ignored the importance of this causal relationship. In many cases the relationship was *reversed*, i.e., the promulgation of those ideas led to industrial capitalism.

If we were willing to be a bit more honest with ourselves about ourselves and the world, we may have realised how much of our so-called liberalism is merely a byproduct of surplus and comfort. Many would have been perfectly happy with that state of affairs, but at least they would have known where its causes lay. That knowledge may have been prevalent even today. Instead, the prevalent idea is that most of the problems of industrial society are caused by human folly or evil. This is the complement of the "infinite growth and prosperity" idea, i.e., the final triumph over human folly and evil (whatever that may be).

"From the viewpoint of a person living in those areas, which is likely to be the better place in which to live through collapse?"

I would say anywhere that is sparsely populated but also has substantial arable land, pasture and forests. The most liberal countries right now, e.g. Scandinavia, generally fulfill those requirements. So yes, a person already living there may well find it to be a better place to live than elsewhere. But what effects will the fall of the global supply chain have? To what extent will, say, hydro power in Norway, be able to sustain a level of industrialism resembling its present state without the former?

These questions also apply to the broader issue of how exactly collapse will occur globally, i.e., fast or slow or a hybrid of the two. The last is most likely in my opinion. One might see people drying their clothes outside or milking cows, but using smartphones in their spare time. It is a difficult subject and there are no confident answers to be given, and I suspect that is why so many schisms exist amongst collapse bloggers about the exact nature of collapse.

Reverse Engineer said...

Collapse is not going very slow in CA Wine country at the moment. Didn't go too slow in Puerto Rico or the Florida Keys either.


Irv Mills said...

@ RE, from Doomstead Diner
Nice to see you commenting here, RE. The "slow collapse" I'm talking about is:

1) uneven geographically--in CA wine country, Puerto Rico, the Florida Keys, part of Texas, sub Saharan Africa, Yemen, Bangladesh, etc/ it has taken a big jump this year. In other areas industrial civilization continues on as if nothing had happened.

2) unsteady chronologically--for long periods nothing happens, then there is a sudden change, things get worse, stay that way for a while, maybe improve for a while, and so on.

3) unequal socially--natural disasters tend to be hard on those who are too poor to move away, financial disaster can be very hard on the rich, especially those who end up jump out of windows.

If you are at ground zero when any of this stuff happens it no doubt seems like your world is coming to an end. But the world isn't going to come to an end, just change a whole bunch.

Irv Mills said...

@Blaise Kroma
Some interesting ideas you bring up--you are probably doing more than anyone else to give me subjects for future posts, which is actually worth quite a lot to me.
And, for what it's worth, I agree with most of what you have to say. The parts I'm doubtful about deserve some thought before I respond at length.
I'm going to have very limited internet access for about a week and a half starting Saturday, and I am aiming to get out one more blog post out before then, so it may be a while before you hear from me again.
Just a few points that can't wait:
1) I think we need to find some better terminology for what we mean by "liberal". You've mentioned a few things that would be included, and I would agree with them. My 6 political spectrums (spectra?) may be of help here as well, since most of them range from liberal to conservative in one way or anther. Although it might be we need even more than 6.
2) The big increases in prosperity over the last few hundred years certainly enabled the enlightenment and many advances in social justice. Capitalism played a role, but it has its cons as well as its pros. But I think we will observe a ratcheting effect as collapse progresses. People who would like to roll back those advances (not you, BK), ostensibly to help them cope with collapse, may find that a lot of other people aren't up for it, and it may well prove that there is no real need to roll them back. This is central to what I am talking about, and deserves a lot of elaboration.
3) The situation you envisage in Scandinavia sounds "post collapse" to me. I was talking about during collapse, when things are on their way down. There is more about this in that blog post I'm currently working on, and still more in the one after that.

Reverse Engineer said...

"Nice to see you commenting here, RE. The "slow collapse" I'm talking about is:"-IM

You should join us inside the Diner and post up too.

What you are talking about is "punctuated equilibrioum", not "slow collapse".

We're already experiencing fast collapse. It took industrial civilization over 250 years to get to where we are now. We'll be back to here we started before the steam engine within 50, and that is being generous.

Listen to my rant this Sunday.


Irv Mills said...

You may be right about "punctuated equilibria"...
Interesting what different people mean by slow and fast, though. 5 decades sounds just about right to me for a slow collapse. Others are talking about it all going down in a matter of days or weeks, which strikes me as bizarre.

Unknown said...

"People who would like to roll back those advances (not you, BK), ostensibly to help them cope with collapse, may find that a lot of other people aren't up for it, and it may well prove that there is no real need to roll them back."

If I understand you correctly, you propose that societies can fully and independently realise the idea of universal socio-economic equality, which is what most people (including you and me) essentially defines "liberalism" to be, in an environment which is *unlike* the environment which allowed them to be realised.

As I see it, people will try to secure more resources for themselves at the expense of others when they feel that they don't have more than enough of them. This is what people have done throughout known history. This is what people in developed nations are *indirectly* doing even now by simply existing within a globalised economy that exploits the cheap labour of country X in order to afford the subsidised expensive labour of country Y.

In order for the present system liberalism to survive collapse, the people currently living within it have to acknowledge that their acceptance of it is dependent upon factors that *won't* survive collapse. They have to willingly and collectively become more honest about themselves, and you have to show why they will do this instead of what they have done in the past, when periods of prosperity and growth ended for various civilisations.

"I was talking about during collapse, when things are on their way down."

Yes I understand that, but I was pointing out the uncertainty inherent in both the subject of the exact process of collapse, and that of "post-collapse". In other words, I don't have a credible answer to your question. :)

I do tend to agree though with your pov though of a hybrid fast/slow collapse, or all-pervasive/cursory collapse. The crucial question is what happens when the globalised economy breaks down (at least in large part). This will probably happen early on *during* the collapse, and while it will affect different regions differently, some irreversible "new normals" will apply to *all* regions.

Reverse Engineer said...

"Interesting what different people mean by slow and fast, though. 5 decades sounds just about right to me for a slow collapse. Others are talking about it all going down in a matter of days or weeks, which strikes me as bizarre."-IM

5 decades is not a "slow collapse". That is VERY fast. Consider how long it took the Roman Empire to collapse, centuries.

Some things CAN go down in the matter of days or weeks, with the right triggers. Puerto Rico and CA Wine Country are examples of that courtesy of Mother Nature. A Bank Holiday nationwide such as the one in the Great Depression would take out trucking in a week on normal channels, and Da Goobermint would have to step in with a Command Economy and Martial Law. A Nuclear Missile from North Korea taking out Los Angeles would similarly cause a "change of state" quite rapidly.

I trust you have read David Korowicz' seminal paper "Trade Off: Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse"