I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.
image by the author; click on image to view full-size
If you’ve contemplated the possibility of civilization’s global collapse, you probably envision its social and political consequences to be violent and chaotic — a world dominated by struggle to fill the power vacuum, leading to despotism and ruthless ethnic, class, intertribal and inter-gang warfare.
A study of history, and of collapse scenarios, suggests however that Mad Max, Taliban, clash-of-civilizations, and history-going-in-reverse outcomes (like those portrayed in Jim Kunstler’s wild-west-again cli-fi novel A World Made by Hand) are improbable. If the prognostications of futurists and sci-fi/cli-fi writers seem imaginatively impoverished, perhaps it’s because our global human civilization is now so all-pervasive and homogeneous that even creative writers can’t imagine a future radically different from our present, or from our recent colonial and industrial past, projected forward or run in reverse.
If you want a more nuanced sense of what politics in a post-collapse future might look like, here are a few things to consider:
- Cultural homogeneity is abnormal and maladaptive: For at least 1000 millennia, up until just a few millennia ago, our planet probably offered a staggering diversity of human cultures, behaviours, languages, and political systems. There was likely very little contact between these cultures, since human population was less than 1 person per 30 habitable acres, and not perceptibly growing, so even ‘adjacent’ human cultures would likely have been unrecognizably different in their social and political makeup. Most collapsnik demographers envision human population quickly falling back to these levels, and similarly low-complexity, low-tech, low-interaction, widely-divergent societies emerging.
- Politics is a very recent human phenomenon: The whole idea (and even the etymology) of ‘politics’ came about with the evolution of fortressed city-states: high-density, high-hierarchy, resource-scarce societies where the need for arduous work, slavery and repression of human freedoms meant that the powers of decision-making and law-making needed to be delegated to expert, elite ‘representatives’. The concept of politics was unknown in pre-civilization rural areas, where, presumably thanks to abundance of space, resources and leisure time, politics was simply unneeded. Anarchy worked just fine. Unfortunately, the repressive, political city-states quickly colonized and destroyed the surrounding apolitical societies, and warred with neighbouring political states, until politics became endemic to human presence on the planet.
- Political states are extremely costly to run and inherently unsustainable. They require massively complex systems to be constructed, and massive levels of security, repression, bureaucracy, law enforcement, maintenance, concentration of wealth and power, and continuous expansion to acquire ever more resources. These needs grow exponentially as size increases linearly, so political states and civilizations (urban-centric social-political-economic states) will inevitably collapse.
- Despots, warlords and gangs require the machinery of a still-functioning political state to operate. They need weapons, security forces and armies, which in a collapsed society are too expensive to manufacture and maintain. They need access to wealth when, after collapse, the preponderance of pre-existing wealth, being either paper or resources (like gold) with no intrinsic utility, will be worthless. They need access to people in power they can bully, bribe and corrupt, but since collapse bankrupts governments there is no one, after collapse, with power to do much of anything. When the collapse is a global one, and everyone is broke, poor, and powerless, there is nothing to do but cooperate with one’s equally destitute neighbours to just get by. The collapse of a global civilization culture means, essentially, the end of politics.
- Collapse does not happen all at once — in a week or a year or even in a single ‘fall from grace’. Whether collapse is ultimately brought about by the end of the unsustainable growth economy, the end of affordable energy and resources, or the end of stable climate, or a combination of all three, we will likely see periods of partial collapse and then partial recoveries, until the crises begin to pile on faster than our reeling civilization can cope with them. We will have at least a few years to learn how to deal with collapse, which means we will be able to learn from some of our mistakes. That won’t prevent or mitigate collapse, but it will at least psychologically prepare us for it, so that rather than panicking, most of us will be able to accept it with some equanimity.
Past collapses and prolonged depressions provide some clues as to how humans will behave in a global collapse. In areas where there remains a huge inequality of wealth and power between rich and poor, there is a motivation for the rich to defend their wealth and repress the poor, and a motivation for the poor to seize the wealth of the (presumably unfairly) rich. But in areas where everyone is left poor, and there is little inequality, human nature, it turns out, seems to be to share and help each other.
This behaviour was evident during the Great Depression. Farmers whose monoculture, no-longer-viable farms had to be abandoned in favour of work in the city, left their homes and property open to the homeless and to other farmers.
In many of today’s third-world slums (where collapse has already happened), whole collaborative infrastructures spring up to provide needed resources and utilities, and to defend against (wealthier and powerful) outsiders. Crime statistics repeatedly show that rates of violent crime are highest not in poor communities, states and nations, but in communities, states and nations with the highest levels of inequality of wealth and power.
My recent work with intentional communities has made me a fan of direct decision-making by consensus, rather than representative democracy where decision-making is delegated to elected officials. Direct consensual decision-making doesn’t scale — it probably only works in radically relocalized situations with small numbers of people. But that’s what I think the post-collapse world will be mostly about — there will be no centralized governments, distribution networks or economic systems to make decisions about, because they’re just too complex and costly to sustain.
I see direct consensual decision-making as essentially a tribal form of anarchy. It worked for many indigenous cultures before we colonized and destroyed them. Anarchy is, after all, just the absence of governance, of hierarchy, of “power over” and inequality. It is not essentially violent. It can in fact only exist in the absence of power structures, which are inherently violent. In the absence of overcrowding, resource scarcity, and other stresses, such power structures are unnecessary and unsupportable. In a future with many fewer humans, we can and will live without such structures.
Far from being disordered and chaotic, an anarchic society is one free of coercion. It’s not amoral — anarchy does require a prevalent respect for the freedom and life and well-being of others. This is why misanthropic conservatives believe ‘peaceful’ anarchy is impossible. We will show them they are wrong.
Anarchy is a state of reality — the absence of inequality of wealth and power and hence the absence of the abuses that inherently stem from that inequality. (This is in contrast to anarchism, which is the ideology that espouses, somewhat ironically, that anarchy be nurtured and managed).
For those of us who have grown up in a culture of massive and self-perpetuating inequality — one that rewards and prides itself on the relative ‘successes’ of its rich and powerful, and which looks dubiously on the poor and powerless as somehow lazy or weak or stupid — the end of politics and a future of unimaginably diverse anarchic societies seems inconceivable. But the issue, I think, is not the viability and inevitability of such societies emerging after collapse (that is, if our species survives collapse at all) but rather the issue of how we can, relatively painlessly, get there from here.
We know that, as collapse worsens, the rich and powerful will retrench and do everything in their power to protect themselves and their wealth and power base. We know that those who suffer most from collapse (as always, the poor and powerless) will, at once, resent and envy the rich and powerful (and strive to join their ranks). That process is already visible everywhere.
So what happens next? Here are the questions we need to be asking now, I think, as we plunge inexorably off the collapse cliff:
- A duty of activism?: Is there any point to creating or joining activist groups trying to reduce political and economic inequality now, and reform these teetering systems before collapse levels the political and economic playing field? If we don’t join the ranks of activists, what should we do instead?
- Fight the rich or smash the system?: As the actions of the rich and powerful to insulate themselves from collapse become ever-more extreme and abhorrent, and as the situation worsens and demagogues arise prescribing various extreme ideological panaceas for our growing malaise, should we try to take them down? Or should we instead work to take down the economic system they depend on (and, if so, how do we best do that)?
- How to prepare for an unknowable future?: When we can have no idea what post-collapse society will ultimately look like — what forms of governance will last the longest, what power will devolve to who, what resources will disappear and what infrastructure will collapse first, where we will live (after probably a series of migrations to avoid some of the worst crises of cascading collapse), and what skills will be necessary wherever we may find ourselves — how can we best prepare now to be of use to those with whom we will find ourselves living, no matter how collapse unfolds?
Dmitry Orlov’s recent essay on collapse and climate change suggests that the various ‘camps’ of collapsniks depicted in the New Political Map above seem to be converging and coalescing with remarkable speed. I find this encouraging — together we constitute a significant, educated and growing minority of the human population. The recent Great Debate between several collapsnik factions held at the Melbourne Sustainable Living Festival also demonstrated this convergence.
The last time I can recall a similar global phenomenon was in the 1960s, when we grew large enough and loud enough to be noticed, and for awhile at least everyone jumped on the bandwagon and claimed to agree with us. And we weren’t even really very coherent.
We collapsniks all agree, I think, that politics has now all but given up the pretence of being representative and has devolved to being theatre: today’s politicians are entertainers, distracters, actors reading the scripts written for them by their corporate sponsors, for our consumption, not for our consideration.
It might be useful, now, to try to figure out how the energy and momentum of the 1960s got so lost in the 1970s and 1980s. If we can get our act together again, so that preparing for collapse is taken seriously in public discourse and in social, political and economic decision-making, we don’t want to blow the chance again. We can be sure to face opposition, as we did in the 1960s, from those who want to crush us, jail us or co-opt us. This time, we can’t afford to let the deniers and salvationists re-take the political centre-stage.
The various ‘flavours’ of collapsniks, from humanists to near-term extinctionists, bring different viewpoints and answers to the three questions I pose above, but they increasingly understand and appreciate these differences. We could be formidable and awesome allies.
Not that this is likely to change the endgame, but it could make the final chapter of our civilization less psychologically devastating, more civil, and a lot more interesting, and might get the survivors of collapse off on a better footing. Regardless of how each of us would answer the three questions above, we owe them that.