Most of the writing I have done for this blog assumes that my readers are at the very least open to thinking about the collapse of our civilization, and more likely that they have already accepted it as probable and are interested in discussing the details of how it might happen and how to cope with it. But it is pretty clear to me that the general public, even in the midst of a global pandemic, are not ready to entertain the idea that civilization could collapse. If I bring up the idea, the response is most likely to be, "Collapse, you say? Surely not."
There are a number of reasons for that attitude, the simplest being a cognitive bias against change—the feeling that tomorrow is likely to be pretty much like today. This is aided and abetted by a lot of propaganda about how great BAU (Business as Usual) really is and the progress it promises for the future. Indeed, we are told that there simply isn't any better way of running the world than neo-liberal capitalism, no real alternatives at all. We've been told this for so long (at least the 30 years or so since the USSR fell) and so forcefully that most of the world's population is experiencing an almost complete failure of imagination. And that is both a failure to imagine any better way of running things, and a failure to conceive what the consequences might be if we continue as we are.
Along with this, when the subject of collapse does come up, it is almost always discussed in terms of a hard and fast collapse—more of an apocalypse, really—which understandably stirs up such feelings of fear that people retreat into denial. But even minor suggestions of things like "degrowth" are not well received—we've been promised on-going progress, and any suggestion that a reduction in our consumption level, a little less comfort and convenience, might be in order, is met with consternation. You hear people saying that, if that's what's ahead of us, they'd rather be dead.
On the other hand, there are people like me who are convinced that the collapse of our civilization is either already happening or soon will be. Why do we think that?
It might be wise at this point to dig a little deeper into what I mean by "the collapse of our civilization". Well, one characteristic of all civilizations is that their individual members are not entirely self sufficient—they rely at least to some extent on the mechanisms of production and distribution built into their civilization for the necessities of life. What those necessities might be varies with who you ask. My list includes air, water, food, housing, health care, education and meaningful work, all provided in a context where people feel that they belong, where help is available when you need it and where you have a role to play in helping others when they need it. Of course, there are many approaches to how these necessities are to be acquired, and various ideas about what constitutes enough.
In our "industrial" society, since the invention of heat engines powered by fossil fuels, the production and distribution of what is needed has largely been mechanized. Our population is hardly self sufficient at all—only very rarely do we make anything we need with our own hands. And only a very few people, living in the remotest locations are independent of this system. We have filled up essentially the whole world, and converted it to our uses, so that a return to subsistence agriculture or hunting and gathering would not be possible for most of us even if we wanted it, and most of us don't.
When a civilization starts to collapse, its mechanisms of production and distribution begin to work less and less well. A decline in both population and complexity ensues. In our industrial society, where human and animal muscles have been largely replaced by machines powered by various forms of energy, there will also be a significant reduction in energy use and consumption of manufactured goods.
All this continues until the collapsing civilization either falls apart completely or overcomes its difficulties and recovers in a different form. In the past it often took hundreds of years for a civilization to collapse. My opinion is that our society started to collapse about 50 years ago and has a few decades, or at least years, left to go. But however long it may take to get to the end of the process, it is important to realize that, nowadays, collapse is going on around us all the time.
A scholarly expert on collapse might now offer some numerical measures to help us judge when a society has actually collapsed. I like to look at that a little differently, to turn it on its head, so to speak. I would say that if you, as an individual, are no longer being supplied with the necessities of life then for you collapse has already occurred, even though everything is going along quite normally for the people driving over the bridge that you are living under.
I seems to me that collapsing civilizations share some characteristics, and I can see those characteristics in events today:
- One, collapse progresses slowly, so that if you're viewing it from inside and it hasn't hit you with any great force as yet, you may be hard pressed to recognize what is happening.
- Two, collapse progresses uneven geographically—some places continue to do just fine while others fall apart disastrously. If you live in an area that is not yet affected, you may wonder what all the fuss is about, or at least think that while it's tough for those other folks, it can't happen to you.
- Three, collapse progresses unsteadily in the chronological sense, with long periods where nothing much changes, separated by sudden steps downward. During those long quiet periods, you could be excused for thinking that everything is just fine because, at least on the surface, it is.
- And four, collapse progresses unequally across social classes. The upper, ruling classes are in control (as much as anyone is) and have the wherewithal to direct resources to their own benefit, and away from the lower classes. And because they can get by just fine without knowing much at all about how things are going in the rest of society, they are often unaware that there is any sort of problem. Of course, when collapse finally does hit them, it is felt all the harder because they have never experienced hard times. For those at the bottom of the social ladder, collapse is just more of the same shit they've been putting up with all along.
Ideally, as an individual, family, or community in a collapsing civilization, you would like to be aware of what's coming, prepare for it and eventually succeed in adapting to it. But as you can see from the four points I've just listed, this is difficult because it's hard to tell what's going on until it's too late.
This started out as a simple, "one post topic", but now it looks like it is going to take about five posts to clearly get across why I think collapse is happening and to have a look at what options we have and where this process is likely to take us:
- This post, in which I've introduced the subject.
- Two, in which I'll look at the inputs and output of our civilization and what is wrong with the way they are being handled.
- Three, in which I'll look inside our civilization at its fundamental, structural weaknesses.
- Four, in which we'll look at how all this has been and continues to contribute to collapse.
- And five, in which, we'll look at several possibilities for our future—what the rest of this collapse may look like.