Friday, 26 October 2018

Responding to collapse, Part 3: Declining Surplus Energy

Canada Geese enjoying a calm day on Lake Huron

In my last post I talked about responding to changes in our "natural" environment caused by climate change. Today I'll be talking about responding to changes in the human part of our environment, the part that we have created, both the "built" physical environment and the social environment.

We are social animals and also technological (tool using) animals. For the last few million years our ancestors evolved to live in groups and use technology. In one way of looking at it, our techniques for working together in groups are an organizational technology that greatly amplifies what we could do alone.

At any rate, for a long time now we have been dependent on technology—we certainly aren't much good alone, naked and empty handed. Technology needs energy to make it work and for most of our history that energy has come from food via muscles (human or animal), biomass (mainly firewood), and to a lesser extent wind, moving water and the sun. But over the last couple of centuries we've added cheap and abundant fossil fuels to that mix of energy sources. We've gradually become dependent on a global network of complex technology powered by those fuels for the very necessities of life.

This is a cause for concern—what if energy were to become more expensive and/or less abundant? As it certainly seems likely to do in the near future. Well, in short, the way we live would have to change, becoming less energy intensive, and it seems very likely that the planet would no longer be able to support so very many of us. It can barely support the number of us that are alive today, so this would mean a significant dieoff of the human population. And the climate change related problems we talked about last time will only make this worse.

Of course this is nothing new. I've discussed the ideas of carrying capacity, overshoot and dieoff many times over the years on this blog. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and if we are to discuss strategies for living through collapse, we need to look closely at those details.

The economy is a major and critically important part of the modern human environment and one that is fueled by energy, so I see depletion of fossil fuel energy resources (often referred to as Peak Oil) as the major challenge as far as the human built environment goes. To really understand that challenge, it is important to understand a bit about "biophysical" or "surplus energy" economics. Have a look at those links for more detail, but I'll try to explain in brief.

First, why is energy so critical to the functioning of the economy? Modern industrial processes are significantly more productive than the cottage industry of just a few hundred years ago, and it requires a lot of energy to make them work. The energy that drives these processes is worth far more in terms of the goods it produces than the price that industry pays for it. As such, energy is far more than just another commodity. And it must be abundant and cheap, if industry is to be profitable and the economy is to continue growing.

Second, why are fossil fuels such an important source of energy? Basically because they have been abundant, cheap and convenient to use. When I say cheap, I am not just talking about the cost in dollars, but in the amount of energy it takes to access fossil fuel energy. This is defined as the "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" (EROEI). Early in the twentieth century, when oil came into prominence as an energy source, it took just one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground—the EROEI was 100. The "surplus energy" was over 99% and this was a tremendous stimulus for economic growth.

Since we have developed fossil fuel resources on a "lowest hanging fruit" basis, the easiest to access, highest quality sources have gradually been used up. Modern oil discoveries rarely have an EROEI better than 10. Unconventional sources of oil, such as fracking and tar sands, have even lower EROEIs. And sadly, the renewable energy sources that are being considered to replace fossil fuels also have very low EROEIs. Even lower if you add in the energy storage required if intermittent sources like wind and solar are to be put into practical use.

The important thing to understand here is that there is a very clear link between the average EROEI of a country's energy sources and the strength of its economy. As that average EROEI goes down, industry starts to become less and less profitable. Below 15 this gets very serious—it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new endeavours and existing businesses find it hard to stay profitable. As the average EROEI decreases further, infrastructure replacement and even routine maintenance of infrastructure becomes difficult to fund. Industrial civilization starts to crumble and the kinds of heroic efforts it would take to save it are beyond its capabilities.

Conventional economists are blind to this and assume that as one energy source runs out, demand will successfully fuel efforts to find a substitute. Without a clear understanding of EROEI, evaluating the merits of such substitutes can be very difficult. Already we are seeing "energy sprawl" as wind turbines and solar panels are springing up everywhere, but with such low EROEIs that they are actually lowering the average EROEIs of the systems they are being added to.

Some people argue that there are huge reserves of unconventional fossil fuels, enough to last for centuries, "so where's the problem?" The problem is that these unconventional hydrocarbons have such low EROEIs that they are not a solution—pursuing them just makes things worse.

The same is true of nuclear fission—lots of fuel, but such a low EROEI (around 9) that it's no help. If at some point we manage to design practical fusion reactors, it is pretty clear that they will be so complex that their EROEI will be even lower than fission reactors, making the abundance of fusion fuel a moot point.

The essence of our situation here in the early twenty first century is that the problem of declining surplus energy doesn't have a solution. Of course, in addition to that underlying and insoluble problem, there are lots of things wrong with our social/governmental/economic systems that make the situation even worse. Definitely it would help to fix these problems, but it is important to keep in mind that, even if they were all fixed, everything wouldn't suddenly be OK—the main problem would still exist. And because of declining surplus energy, it's going to get harder and harder to fix anything.

So, what to do? Well, we just have to adapt to these new realities. Here I am going to borrow some ideas from Prof. Jem Bendell's essay "Deep Adaptation", particularly his three Rs.

Bendell is mainly concerned with climate change and after doing a review of the current findings of climate science, he concludes that "collapse is inevitable, catastrophe is likely and extinction is possible". Considering declining surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction as well as climate change leads me to the same conclusions, maybe more so. Even without any catastrophic events, the slow collapse of industrial civilization, brought on by the falling EROEI of its energy sources, is surely an inevitability. And we should be planning our response to such a slow and tedious collapse, which will require a great deal of adaptation to our new circumstances.

There are many forms of denial that people fall into when faced with the certainly of collapse. Not surprisingly, most people see their continued livelihood and their feelings of self-worth as being dependent on the possibility of ongoing material progress. This is the "religion of progress" which is so central to our modern society. Collapse, of course, means the end of material of progress, and immersion in a complex predicament beyond our control. Admitting this is even possible has, at least initially, a crushing effect on most people.

But, for those who have overcome their denial, Bendell's three Rs hold the key to successful adaptation.

First comes "Resilience". This means having the personal resources—emotional toughness to keep going in the face of collapse and the willingness to adapt to conditions that we have been taught are simply unacceptable (involving a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience). I am currently reading Resilience, by Rick Hanson, which gives an abundance of advice on achieving a greater degree of personal, internal resilience.

The alternative is to continue with denial, or having accepted the reality of the situation, give up and abandon any attempt to adapt. To do so is a great pity, since the situation is potentially survivable. Not to minimize the rigors of collapse, especially of the kind of dieoff we will eventually be facing, but there is good reason to think that some of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

In order to be among those who survive, resilience also involves having accumulated some physical and social resources which will tide us through when the system that currently supports us falls apart, allowing us to hang in there long enough so that we have a chance to adapt. These are the things we will decide we do really need to keep in order to meet our basic needs—safety, satisfaction and connection. Our ancestors did this for millions of years without the help of industrial civilization, so I think there is some chance we can do so as well.

Next comes "Relinquishment". This means deciding what we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse. Clearly, many aspects of modern industrial society cannot be sustained and will have to be abandoned.

Lastly comes "Restoration". This means deciding what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies. In building our modern world there is much that we have set aside, old things that can brought back and put to good use in our low energy future.

I could spend one or more posts looking at the details of these three Rs, and it is likely that I will. I think there are many different approaches that should be tried, and of those, quite a few that will be successful to some degree. The main thing is that people actually give it a try.

So, we started out to have a closer look at the details of collapse in order to gain a better perspective on strategies for living through collapse and after it. I think an understanding of surplus energy's role in economics and the three Rs outlined above is a good start. But to delve deeper into this, I think we need to take a look at mankind's disturbing tendency to group together in ever large settlements. We tend to focus on the advantages of living in cities and to ignore what it takes to make a city work, how it can stop and what might happen when it does.

Cities rely on long supply lines and extensive infrastructure to supply their inhabitants. Our failure to maintain that infrastructure and its resulting decay is already leading to intermittent outages of services for which there is no local alternative. At some point the line between outage and catastrophe blurs and not long after that it becomes unavoidably clear that collapse is really happening.

Now I am a country boy, so perhaps I am biased, but it is my contention that cities are going to be very hard hit by collapse, even the sort of slow collapse that I am talking about. I think that escaping to a more rural area before collapse progresses much further would be a good idea.

The key question, though, is why do I think things will be any better in rural areas?

There is no doubt in my mind that the crises related to supplies of energy, water and food (the basic necessities), which will no doubt occur as industrial civilization crumbles, will effect rural areas just as much as urban ones. People in rural areas are just as much a part of "Business As Usual" as people in the city, just as dependent on long supply chains and complex systems. And when there are disasters, relief efforts are likely to be focused on large population centres, ignoring the rural areas just on the basis of what will help the most people with the least effort.

But we are already seeing the US federal government tapering back on relief efforts in response to hurricanes and passing the responsibility off to the private sector. There is little reason to believe they will do any better. And not far down the road local communities, be they urban or rural, will find themselves essentially on their own when the going gets tough.

The good news is that there are many rural areas where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood which can be cut by hand
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps and surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery

Sure, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to adapt our lifestyles, but it is all quite doable. This is not the case in the city, where local resources for self-sufficient living are simply not available.

When I speak of rural areas, let me make it clear that I am talking about small towns of a few hundred to a few thousand people, surrounded by farmland, not isolated farmsteads. It will take more than a single family or two to make this work. Indeed isolation is one of the most debilitating conditions that you can find yourself in as a human being.

During the last few decades neoliberalism, in its endless search for profit, has done its best to monetize every human relationship and to isolate individuals from each other. The declining economy is leading to increased under employment and unemployment, poverty and homelessness all of which stresses our communities and isolates their individual members. And civil unrest is growing as inequality between the upper and lower classes increases and the degree to which the lower classes are being abandoned becomes more obvious.

But many small towns are a long way behind cities on that curve and their communities are still intact enough that co-operation is possible when it becomes clear what is required. And during a slow collapse it will gradually become more clear what the situation really is. To enough people, at least, that those advance preparations will get made. Collapse aware people have an important role to play there.

For a long time now, young people have been moving from areas like the one where I live to the cities in order to get an education and find work. The day will come (as I understand it already has as conditions have worsened in Greece) when the situation in the cities will be so bad, they will start to come home to take advantage of the somewhat better situation in the country. They will be able to pitch in and help their families adapt to collapse.

So far I have been talking about adapting during a slow and steady collapse. But of course catastrophic events can by no means be ruled out. In particular, our financial systems are largely virtual and as such are subject to extremely fast collapse when they fail. They will be the first to go, and that will have a negative effect on everything else.

It appears to me that most real economic growth ended in the 1990s and since then growth has largely taken the form of financial bubbles, fueled by debt instead of energy. Those who have money are desperate to find somewhere to invest it at a good return, but profitable, growing businesses are becoming rare, so instead they invest in ever more speculative endeavours. That's fine as long as the price is going up, but every such bubble is looking for a pin to burst it. A few months ago I said that we can expect a financial crash of greater magnitude than 1929 or 2008, sometime in the next few years and nothing has happened since then to change my opinion.

Already we have had a minor spike in the price of oil, trouble for the currencies of emerging market countries, and some indication that the long running bull market may be coming to an end. We are in the middle of this and it isn't yet clear if this is the start of a recession, or if the economy will rally and put off the big crash for some months or years yet.

When that crash does happen, I think that even in cities most of the population will survive the initial days of a financial collapse, mainly because of heroic efforts on the part of individuals in shop floor and low level management positions in supply chain and infrastructure organizations. The people at the tops of those organizations will be largely paralyzed, or at worst doing exactly the wrong thing. But even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. And that's a good thing, because it means when things get really bad locally, there may well be someplace to go where things are better.

I expect there will be some reduction in our population due to supply chain failures following financial crashes. But the big dieoff that lies ahead of us will happen when industrial scale agriculture (both conventional and organic) comes hard up against resource limits—mainly fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers.

Still, it is possible that in the wake of a financial crash the stereotype of a city full of people starving in the dark with no help in sight will occur occasionally. For the vast majority of the unprepared people in that city this will not be a survivable scenario. For anyone who really has no other choice but to stay in the city for now, it might be best to have a few weeks of food, water, etc. on hand and plan to stay at home during such a situation, keeping a very low profile, until things settle down and only then head for the country.

But you and I, of course, will have long since moved to a small town at a safe distance from the city. The standard trope in discussions of collapse involves our little town being overrun with roving hordes of hungry people engaged in looting and other forms of violence. I think this is unlikely. The key is to be farther away from the city than most of its population can walk on empty stomachs, which is not that great a distance. Thirst and starvation are debilitating and most people will not think to head out until they are quite desperate.

A few people will no doubt make it through though. It is my opinion that it would be better for everyone involved to welcome them with food and medical assistance, rather than fight them off with guns. It will be a bit of a trick to be set up to do that and in my next post I will look at the practicalities of moving to a small town in the country and getting ready to cope as the pace of collapse increases.

Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:


Don Hayward said...

Another thought provoking and engaging read.
I think you lay out in clear language the situation, themes and issues I raised fictionally in After the Last Day. Of course, mine was story and not made up of details that reflect the likely stories of survivors. I do think it covers Bendell’s three stages of response. Where I might differ from him, and perhaps you, is that I don’t think any significant mass preparation applying those three Rs will take place; however, many individuals will try and that may be significant for their outcome and that of their local social group.
I do think the currency system will become dysfunctional with debt and the use of plastic the first to go and for some time cash will be king. As time goes on, fiat currency will be replaced with gifting, trade and barter.
Resilience in some ways is the hardest. We humans do not seem capable of preparing for the worst, emotionally, no matter how much prepping we do and how deeply we understand the situation. Of course, knowing it is coming will help us respond quicker and perhaps lead us into activity that will help us through, once we realise the extent of our loss and the depth of the shadows of the past. Being surrounded by like-minded, active people will help.
It is in relinquishment that I see an even harder path to preparation. I think what we have been seeing for some decades, and intensifying greatly in recent years, is the need to relinquish our entitled lifestyles and destructive way, but the response of all vested interests, which includes most of us, is refusal to do so in any serious way. It will only happen as we are forced to do it, and this is why I see a rapid collapse as being more optimistic in terms of chances of survival in some livable environment, both social, and environmental. This slow collapse we are already living means a phase of horrible Nazi like conditions before the real horror hits. I think getting to the real horror without the destructive phase will be better. We will likely have attempts at it anyway, but the shorter-lived they are the better. In this, I think the lack of outside patrons to prop up repression will beneficial.
For restoration, of course intentionally preserving skills and material would be helpful, although it is hard to know where these might survive. Much of it will be quick feet on the ground once the situation develops, drawing upon both intentional stores and salvaging the useful from the carnage. I believe we will see a long salvage phase that will enable survival in the short term while people build economic and social structures that suit the new conditions.
The short term leadership will likely be hard working, intelligent, somewhat knowledgeable and educated, but I don’t think current intellectuals and political opportunists should delude themselves into think they will assume leadership.
The reality will be that collapse will be unevenly distributed in place and time, so anything could happen in any particular place.
I think it’s hard to anticipate in detail what is needed. As you say, the situation will vary greatly. That is why I chose fiction to express myself. It raises the general themes, questions and possibilities without advocating anything more than cooperative responses. I still think that’s the core of it. Looking forward to the 7th.

Bev said...

Another good one Irv, thank you. Your comment... "but with such low EROEIs that they are actually lowering the average EROEIs of the systems they are being added to" is something I hadn't thought of. Very relevant. I've been trying to point out the unsustainability of fossil-fuel based 'renewables' to people without success. It's so hard.

The Tullet Prebon report you linked to is going to take some going through. I'm already following Tim Morgan's SEE blog with interest.

Bill H said...

Great read and I too conclude that collapse is inevitable. On climate, we're gonna burn fossil fuels till we can't. So if that's causing climate change then that too is inevitable.
I do not agree with the Neoliberal, profits are bad paragraph. A lot of people worry if some have a lot more money than others. I don't worry about that. I just think it would be bad if I lived in a society were it is impossible for me to have more. It's not a zero sum game where if I have more I just stole it from you. Wealth is always being created and destroyed so the pie is never fixed. Profits are good.

Irv Mills said...

@ Don Hayward
I think your thinking on the subject of collapse and mine are close enough together that we can discuss the issue without it devolving into a flame war and yet different enough that I, at least, benefit from the "new to me" ideas you bring up.
I do agree with you that any preparations we make will be mainly on the individual, family and very small group level. Anyone who thinks collapse can be managed is kidding themselves. This a paraphrase of something Bendell said, by the way.

The key, as you say, is to see co-operation as the goal, rather than aiming to come out on top of conflict. When conflict occurs the difference between winning and losing will be so little as not to really matter. I once worked with a guy who used "coming second in an axe fight" as the definition of a bad outcome. My thought is that coming first may not be all that much better.

I am predicting a slow collapse not because I think it will be better or easier, but because all the indications I see are that it is more likely to happen that way. There is much about a slow collapse that will be unpleasant. But I also think that when many people (you excepted, of course) dream of a fast collapse, they are concentrating on all the irritating things about the modern world that they think will suddenly come to an end, whilst conveniently ignoring the extremely severe consequences of such an event.

But what I mean by slow versus fast is pretty flexible and I've talked to some who are actually talking about a slower fast collapse than I'm thinking about, and I'm talking about a faster slow collapse than they're thinking of, if you see what I mean.

In the coming recession/depression if you lose your job, get evicted from your apartment and end up living under a bridge and dumpster diving for food, all in a space of a few weeks, that will seem like a fast collapse. The people driving their SUVs over that bridge may be blithe unaware that anything significant is happening.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing you on the 7th, and maybe exchanging more comments in the meantime.

Just to get that started, I know you've moved around to several different rural communities during your life. What was your experience with the challenge of fitting in? And what advice would you give others about to tackle that challenge?

Irv Mills said...

@ Bev
Thanks for you kind words.
People seem very determined to misunderstand when EROEI is really about--I think it is yet another form of denial.
That Tullet Prebon report, "perfect storm" was written by Tim Morgan while he still worked there, before he struck out on his own and set up his Surplus Energy Economics website. I'd say it is an excellent summary of what's happening today and more important to read than anything I've written.

Irv Mills said...

@ William Hornstein
I suspect there are lots of things we actually disagree on, but we are both polite enough that we can still have a civil and interesting conversation. Something to be proud of, these days.

Politically I would say I am an anarcho-communist or maybe anarcho-syndicalist. Economically I haven't come across a label I am happy with yet, though biophysical or surplus energy economic certainly appeals to me.

I do make a distinction between personal property and private property, the later not being a good thing. So I am not keen on capitalism, although I am not against individuals, families and even small co-operative groups prospering as long as they aren't screwing with others in the process.

But it seems to me that when the economy is growing, it is a positive sum game. And when it is shrinking, it is a negative sum game. It may be a zero sum game briefly when switching from growth to contraction, but that is a technicality that hardly matters.

Of course, I am talking about averages there. When you get down to particulars, I think there are often eddies in the stream of collapse where one area, for a while, does quite well while things go all to hell elsewhere. A good strategy, as long as too many people don't do it, is to identify such an area and move there. It may even be possible to take action that creates such an eddy.

My beef with "neo-liberalism" or just with "the rich and powerful people of the world" is that they clearly feel we are playing a negative sum game. They want to make sure they still come out ahead and they don't care one bit what effect that has on the lower and middle classes in the process. Considering that we live in a "consumer economy", this is very shortsighted and will end up making things even worse than they have to be.

As Canadian, I am quite content to live in a social democracy where wealth gets redistributed to reduce the degree of inequality and alleviate the suffering of the poor. Just wish we could do a better job of it. And I am sure we could do that without more than a minor inconvenience to the rich.

Irv Mills said...

@ William Hornstein
I absolutely agree with you that "we're gonna burn fossil fuels till we can't". Until the EROEI is so low that the infrastructure is falling down around us and we no longer have a choice about it.
I also suspect any successful attempt to lower our carbon emissions would signifcantly increase the pace of collapse to the point that any government doing this would fall at the next election, if not sooner. All in all, though, that might be a good thing if it reduced the degree of climate change and the suffering we experience because of it.

epicurean.empiricist said...

Again a great piece. Thanks for taking the time to write.
In one way I hope you are right about a slow collapse. Slow collapse helps some of us who have tried to become resilient and prepared help establish communities that can cope. However, I am fearful that a slow collapse will allow us to continue burning fossil fuels which will only exacerbate the climate collapse that may/will cause our extinction. See Jem Bendell and Paul Beckwith.
At the same time that I think a fast collapse may make the survival of our species a slight possibility (and keep those remaining hydrocarbons in the ground) I fear that none of us can survive a fast collapse. All we can do is watch in shocked horror.
Thanks again for writing.

Irv Mills said...

@ Allen Thoma
Thanks Allen!
In the period leading up to and following the financial crash in 2008 there was quite a big up tick in interest in Peak Oil and collapse. Sadly, this withered away during the middle of this decade, with the rise of fracking and the "Peak Oil is dead" idea. But I see interest rising again and no doubt it will continue to do so in the years to come, with another financial crash of even greater magnitude on the way. So no one who is half awake will have any excuse not to prepare. Most people, unfortunately, are not awake.

There are lots of fossil fuels left to get us into a very bad place climate wise. And they are of low enough EROEI to also get us to a pretty bad place economically too. This may offer just a small glimmer of hope. After that next crash most of us are going too poor to afford to burn fossil fuels and the demand for them will go way down. This will be very hard on the fossil fuel industry, driving much of it out of business. The overall result will be a big reduction on carbon emissions.

The hard way to do it, for sure. And yes, it would have been much better to do it voluntarily, starting back in the 1980s. But better late than never.

A world wide fast collapse would be a very bad thing, indeed, with very few people managing to pull through. But I just don't see how it can happen. The very inertia that makes it so hard to change the system means that it isn't going to fall apart overnight. And a lot of very powerful people have a huge stake it keeping things going for just a little while longer. This makes collapse even more inevitable in the long run, while at the same time assuring that thing will crumble slowly, as well as unevenly (geographically), unsteadily (chronologically) and unequally (socially).

Joe said...

I expect there will be some reduction in our population due to supply chain failures following financial crashes. But the big dieoff that lies ahead of us will happen when industrial scale agriculture (both conventional and organic) comes hard up against resource limits—mainly fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers.

Isn't industrial scale agriculture totally vulnerable to the supply chain failures that will happen following a financial crash? Like every other aspect of the global market economy, the organizing of industrial agriculture and the distribution of its production is managed through the exchange of money. Without money and without some other means of organizing the supply of farmers and the distribution of their crops, industrial agriculture fails to function.

It's true that after a financial crisis destroys the confidence in monetary exchange, it might be possible to institute a command economy that forces all the players in the supply chains to and from industrial farms to keep doing what they are doing without monetary compensation. But that works only within countries. How is the US going to command Morocco, China, Algeria and Syria (the top four suppliers of phosphates) to send their production to North American farms, especially if the command economy needs to be implemented quickly?

I think that the global market economy has intertwined so many players, in such a bewildering array of interconnections, through the processes of its self-organizing global trade, that it will be very difficult to impossible to recreate that organization following a financial panic. Only a world government would stand a chance of organizing a command economy over the entire globe and we don't have one.

The resources are certainly available enough to ensure a slow collapse, bad as that would be for the climate, but only if resource depletion were the only deciding factor. No nation is an island anymore, except perhaps for some very poor ones that rely on subsistence agriculture to keep their people fed, so in a situation where every country is dependent on many other countries for essential goods, a financial crisis could very easily precipitate a very fast collapse.

Add in the possibility of a pandemic or a major war to the danger of financial failure and the odds of a fast collapse go up considerably. I think the odds of one are high enough that a prudent community should be preparing for it. And since a prudent community needs to be composed of prudent individuals, everyone should be prepared for fast collapse, whether it happens or not.

epicurean.empiricist said...

Joe, I couldn't agree more. If you haven't had the pleasure read David Korowicz ( He makes the point that we are so interconnected that any financial collapse will entail a very fast collapse. I disagree with Irv in that I don't think the wealthy could stop a fast collapse. Sure, the wealthy and powerful have an interest in having a slow collapse v. a fast collapse but we don't have a global command economy. The parts are so intertwined that one part collapsing (say financial) brings down transportation, supply chains, etc. and pretty rapidly. I hope you/we are wrong about the speed but I think not.

Joe said...


The Korowicz papers (including his consideration of the effects of a pandemic) are so widely known that I assume the everyone who follows a site like Irv's will have read them. Both papers are several years old by now and the interconnections in the world economy have only become tighter and the dangers greater since their publication.

Of course Trump is trying to sever many of those connections through his administration's trade policies, but I think he will find that globalization has progressed too far to be easily reversed and that there will be so much resistance to tariffs and their effects by the business community that he will give up on them. If he does keep expanding his tariff based trade policy, we are likely to see a global recession.

I am personally in favor of throwing sand in the gears of the global economy, even if it is Trump who does it, since economic recession is the only proven method of reducing carbon emissions. Global recession poses the danger of morphing into a steeper economic decline, which could lead to a financial crisis, but that's better than continuing to grow the world economy indefinitely. It has got to stop growing some time, the sooner the better.

Even though my speculations as to what could happen may be mistaken, I still think it is best to try and prepare for fast collapse. Assuming that the global economy will give plenty of advance warning and that it will slowly grind to a halt over many decades is very dangerous.

My rule of thumb is to be prepared to live without money. If a family can actually provide itself with water, food and shelter without access to anything money can buy, it is as well prepared for what may come as possible. Getting that prepared is very difficult, but one should try. Then comes the task of organizing one's community for collapse, which is even harder.

epicurean.empiricist said...

I couldn't agree more with everything you said. I for one favor a fast collapse as that would put a quick stop to ever increasing carbon emissions. The two downsides to the fast collapse would be personal survival is more problematic and it might already be too late to stop a runaway greenhouse/hothouse earth (see NBL, Paul Beckwith - Blue Ocean event). I am about as individually prepared as I can be (living on 25 acres forest/farm with extensive gardening/permaculture in place - there's always room for improvement). What I fear most is community in a fast collapse - and I'm working on it.
I never assume that everyone is familiar with Korowicz, but you are right that anyone reading Irv's excellent blog probably has read them. AND again I agree we are probably more tightly wound than when those papers were written. I too figure Trump (as much as I am disgusted by him) could inadvertently be the impetus to a fast collapse.
Thanks for the response.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe and Allen
It may surprise you to know that I have read Korowicz's "Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse", and commented on it and some of the issues it raises in one of my posts on this blog:
The Bumpy Road Down, Part 2.
That post may also clarify what I expect the "slow collapse" I am talking about to be like.

Joe said...


I read Part 2 and the rest of your series. I consider your "Bumpy Road Down" chart to be generally reasonable, but think only that the slope of the down portions of the chart should be much steeper than the upswings, whereas you show them as fairly symmetrical.

I also believe that the kind of effects that Korowicz talks about will make the first big step down be deeper than your projection. But even if it is not deeper, the impact on civilization will be enormous. These are qualitative quibbles about how bad is "bad".

My comment on this most recent post of yours was about the effect of "bad" on population. It looks like you are relegating the major die-off to a time when the resources needed for agriculture are actually used up. I think the major die-off will happen when those resources can't be used (even if they still exist in significant quantities). I was simply pointing out that supply chain disruption will have a significant effect on effective use and therefore on the ability to keep people fed.

I very much agree with the general thrust of this post in that cities are likely to be horrible places to live during an accelerating collapse and that rural areas are far more amenable to technological simplification than cities. I look forward to seeing what you advise for those of us who live in rural areas, especially how to deal with any exodus from an urban calamity.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe
I don't feel any great urge to defend the details on my "bumpy road down" graph, and in the months since I published it, there are a few things that I have reconsidered.
The downward slopes of the curve were indeed supposed to be much steeper that the upswings, it may be that the curve I drew doesn't emphasize this enough. And I have been thinking that the conditions following the next big crash may well be bad enough to have a larger effect on our population that I was originally thinking.

Especially since we tend to "ration by price" when there are shortages, so that necessities will get very expensive just when peoples incomes are sharply declining. The sort of thing that is going on in Yemen will get much more common. The details will vary from place to place, and the results will be disastrous in many places. But not equally bad everywhere, world wide, nor all at the same time. My original thought was that our population may stop growing or even decline a little during the initial big crash. Now I would say that the decline will be larger than that, but still not the sort of 90% dieoff that I expect to see eventually, over a period of decades.

Where I don't agree with Korowicz is that just because the financial sector falls apart (as it almost certainly will), the commercial sector must completely fall apart too. From personal experience in agriculture and the power industry I would predict that the people at the workface in critical industries will simply refuse to set down their tools when the results would be disastrous, just because banks are no longer doing their part. Alternate credit arrangements will be set up, involving handshakes, pencil and paper records and promises to straighten it all out after the dust settles, rather than let people freeze and starve in the dark if there is any alternative at all. This sort of thing will somewhat mitigate situations that would otherwise be thoroughly catastrophic.

But yes, things will be much worse in cities. The thing is to be in a rural area a long way from the city, and to be there well in advance, encouraging cooperation rather than conflict. In Canada, distances are greater and there are many such rural areas, but still this solution will work only for a relatively small number of people.

The "exodus from an urban calamity" is a standard trope in collapse fiction, and the resulting conflict certainly makes for exciting stories. But I would suggest that the extremes of conflict portrayed are plot devices and not the way things must inevitably go. There is a deep human need to come together in crises to take care of each other, despite what is suggested by the "disaster myth" that is so widely accepted.

Perhaps you could fill me in on things in the US. I have a vague impression that in many areas the big cities are so close together that there isn't much room for the sort of thing I am suggesting. And watching the news I also get the impression societal breakdown is somewhat farther along in the US than here in Canada, which would make co-operation harder to arrange.

Unknown said...
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Joe said...


I hope you are right about the ability of folks to manage the physical underpinnings of the economy, particularly the electric grid, industrial agriculture, communication and transportation systems, all without money. But since so many aspects of those parts of the economy have been fully integrated into the global economy and global supply chains, I just wonder how "handshakes, pencil and paper records and promises to straighten it all out after the dust settles" will work for getting critical raw materials and spares that come from foreign countries. I guess we'll find out, but a failure in any of the categories I listed would be catastrophic.

Your point about the prospect of people not fleeing cities in large numbers is a good one. I tend to think that most people will stay at home in the city and hope for the best. But it would take only a very small percentage of people leaving urban and suburban areas to overwhelm sparsely populated rural farms and villages. I do think it is likely that anyone under extreme stress in a city will be tempted to go on an extended 'visit' to friends or relatives they may have in the country. This is certainly something I am planning for within my extended family (I'm the person in the country in this case).

You are perfectly correct that the time to make a life in the country is well before it is truly necessary. It is so difficult to do for so many reasons that only an inconsequential number of people will make the attempt. A set of very strong government policies encouraging the move would make a lot of difference, but I doubt that we will see any.

During the Great Depression, my mother's family went bankrupt, lost their house and machine shop business in Kansas and most of their other assets, but they were able to start over from scratch on 120 acres of free homestead land in Oregon. That kind of thing could possibly still happen in the US, since there is so much federal land, but very little of it is productive (lacking irrigation water). Another possible solution is the collectivizing of existing farmland and using urban workers as the labor pool, but that is even more unlikely.

Yes, social breakdown is slowly happening in the US. As modern civilization is more and more constrained by resource limits it will gradually put more and more stress on the economy and thereby on social cohesion. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the incipient social breakdown we're seeing is a good sign.

The climate may not yet be damaged to the point where it will become hostile to human life and since economic collapse and social breakdown is inevitable, I see no reason why it wouldn't be better if it happened now rather than later. The longer we put it off, the worse it will be. I am hoping that Trump's trade war policies will trigger the partial disintegration of the global market economy and shove us closer to a tipping point leading to that first big step down. They may not be enough, but at least the prospect is hopeful. Being a 'doomer' about the short term is to be an optimist about the long term.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you are saying. I just don't see anyone moving from the city to the country. Unless the collapse is so slow that the economy continues to function, how will they get there. I have idiot friends in California that tell me if there is a collapse they are coming to my rural doomstead in Oregon - 700 miles away. How are they going to do this? Walk - never hardly anyone is that fit. Drive - who along this 700 mile route is going to give them scarce gas (or food)? I think most people will be trapped in the cities by lack of resources and lack of a fully functioning economy. Only those who get out ahead of time can make it. I doubt that the few who can get out will overwhelm the rural folk who might not be so welcoming. IMHO the time to get out is now or yesterday. Living off your rural land is HARD! - the chickens are calling me now.

Joe said...


I think there might be enough time for some early movers to leave the city. For example, my children's families live in a city. I told them that the time to come live on the farm with my wife and me would be indicated by one of two things happening; either they lose their job and can't find another one or, even if they still have a job, there is so much social unrest that they feel uncomfortable going to their job.

If there is an extremely rapid crisis, like a grid-down event or a major disruption of the internet, they may be stuck, since they would need to take a plane flight to get to my farm. So a fairly slow collapse would be the best thing for my family, even if it meant introducing some other dangers.

I live in a rural community that is a mix of commercial ranches/farms and "gentleman farms". The nearest town is five miles away and has a population of 2500. If food stops being delivered to the stores or if too many people fail to have enough money to buy food, there will be a great temptation to engage in theft from fields, orchards and ranches. I don't need to worry about big cities, since there are none on the island I live on, but hungry town folk who can grab a rifle and walk to a nearby pasture and shoot and field butcher livestock are very possible. It happens occasionally now and I see no reason why it wouldn't happen even more frequently in times of economic distress. A really rapid crisis that stopped incoming containers of food from arriving would make for a lot of desperate people in a matter of days.

I think that, for the most part, farmers and ranchers will be willing to exchange food for work, especially if fuel gets scarce, but there is always the chance that a desperate person will run into a farmer determined to protect the production of his farm. That is when things could get ugly.

Where I live the adverse effects of collapse will be mitigated by the fact that there are thousands of acres of pasture within walking distance of small towns that can be converted to small arable farms when times get tough. This is the scenario that Irv is describing and I think it's a plausible one, but the learning curve for new farmers will be very steep. I see the numerous gentleman farms as another resource, since the houses on them are big enough to house more than one family and allow many families the opportunity to make work-for-food deals.

All of these possibilities will make for interesting times.

Irv Mills said...

@ Joe
Make no mistake, I don't mean to suggest that Business a Usual (BAU) can continue on after a major financial collapse using jury rigged credit arrangements. But there is a vast distance between BAU in all its glory and complete collapse where everything quits working. And there is a lot of inertia in the systems which we most need to keep working: the power grid, industrial agriculture, the various systems by which fuels, especially diesel fuel are distributed, transportation and communication. Spare parts will be a real pain. There will be lots of reverse engineering and reverting to analog electrical and plain old mechanical controls.
But I do think an effort will be made to make the most critical parts of the system work at least part of the time, and thereby save a lot of lives. The critical period will be the first few weeks and months after the crash, when people haven't got work-arounds figure out just yet.
And that is why it will be really important to have emergency stock of food, water, medicines and so forth on hand. This authorities in both our countries used to advise stocking supplies for 72 hours, now they are saying 2 weeks. No doubt it would be wise to have more than 2 weeks supplies on hand, and to be set up so as to simplify conversion to a more localized, low tech way of life.
And it would help a lot if the local community could organize to make that conversion go smoothly. Like arranging to get food from nearby farms into the town before people start to get hungry and panicky and take things into their own hands, as someone else in the comments on this post has suggested they might do.
But getting out of the city ahead of the crash is vital. Waiting until things settle down afterwards and then trying to join relatives in remote small towns is the kind of adventure that makes great reading but is no fun at all when you're doing it.

Gaia's sister said...

Humans may be one of the few species that start to show stress induced behaviour changes as environmental cues of negative trophic flows develop... have you never wondered why people have houseplants and make gardens? We even bring aquatic ecosystem miniatures inside... and stay healthier if we have access to parks and woodland and other bits of "nature". We bring other animals into our orbit: so many exotic wild birds are trapped each year for the "pet" market many species are now endangered.

This sounds a bit nuts, but if you want a consistent behavioural feature of humans, here are two: 1) solitary confinement is torture for most human beings, and 2) the majority of people bring wild plants and animals into their homes and design gardens in every urbanized culture to attract as much wildlife as they can, even if only wild birds and insects.

And look at the stirrings of concern worldwide over loss of species, loss of corals and fish and insects. This is met with emotion. Why? Because we are a creature that evolved as an ecological engineer, a keystone species that integrated the activities of a myriad of other life forms - ones we recognized as important the maintenance of diversity. We humans have sensitivities to these aspects because this was our role within nature. Because it IS our role, still. Today.

And without our niche, without living within an ecosystem and generating positive trophic flows, we are as good as dead, extinct, finis. Heck, even the dreams of colonizing new planets circle around recreating our ecosystem cocoon on earth.

The most significant tool we have, collectively, is an intelligent analysis that appeals to the next generation.

Ecological engineering and a keystone role in any local ecosystem is the human cultural adaptive niche.
The development of domesticates was an intensification of this hyper-keystone role, under conditions of increased seasonal risks and longer term risks of drought or other temporary decline in food supply.
Boserup's model addressed the next step; development of more intensification under conditions of denser population and more limited options to utilize wild species as these become locally extinct.
Intensified agriculture also was a response to inclusion in expanding states that had urban food needs, necessitating higher local surplus production to supply them.
Humans, in other words, have until very recently, always raised the carrying capacity of every ecosystem they inhabited in ways that successfully supported a steady increase in population (averaging about .04 - .07 % per year).
That was the norm until vaccines and antibiotics and other measures began to reduce infant and childhood mortality... when this "predation" was lifted, the doubling time speeded up to unsustainable levels, although I have my doubts about whether this is the main source of our current predicament.
Unsustainable mono-cropping with chemicals, I think, will be abandoned as soil degradation makes them untenable, but the destruction, of all the other ecosystems, is a disastrous departure from all past successful and sustainable niche construction methodologies.

So can a devotion to democratic and humanitarian principles save us from our current crisis of mismanagement? Can it restore our place in nature - can we regain our hyper-keystone niche and save enough of our fellow travellers on this planetary adventure to see a common future?

Of course it can. It is human nature: we are the ecosystem-manipulating and engineering species. We are also a deeply egalitarian species due to the levels of empathy we exhibit. Being politically "left" of centre, in voting among political parties these days, is simply because it means that a person is willing to put some political clout behind efforts to alleviate poverty, to create equality of access to basic necessities within our society, like shelter, food, education, health care, and basic services like transportation infrastructure, civil institutions, and the right to vote.

Gaia's sister said...

In other words, the "us" that the government works for should be all of us, not some special interests. Political systems that even approach this are totally cool.

In a democracy, the human species can regain the hyper-keystone niche it evolved to generate and occupy.

We are already beginning to do it, in small experimental forays. Mosaic ecosystems can be generated by forest gardening, various kinds of permaculture, and by regeneration of high biomass grassland savanna. The "Savory" system and intensified cropping systems like SRI are being developed even now. These may be the only long term food production systems capable of mitigating the looming climate disaster. Giving marine and other water ecosystems a chance to recover by ceasing industrial scale harvesting might be enough to bring many back, although the corals may never recover.

All of these efforts may involve short-term but very high labour intensity and even a fairly desperate struggle to initiate, however. And personal danger.

But we are literally out of better options.