This Is What Collapse Looks Like

Every day now, the news is replete with evidence that, everywhere, things are falling apart faster and faster, and nothing of consequence is being, or can be, done about it. Every civilization collapses, but the collapse of our current global industrial civilization is occurring at a breathtaking and accelerating pace.

Today, the city of Philadelphia announced that it has given up trying to deal with its share of the US’s epidemic of mass shootings, and has instead outsourced its handling of the horrific trauma these mass murders create to a private consulting firm. Sure to fix the problem, no? The country’s ‘supreme’ court helped out by ruling that the banning of ‘bump stocks’, devices that turn ordinary guns into rapid-fire machine guns, was unconstitutional. When a hastily-prepared new law was proposed outlawing them, Congress blocked it.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, arguably the country’s most horrifically polluted and dysfunctional state, has its priorities straight: It’s mandating that the Christian “ten commandments” be posted in every schoolroom in the state. Nothing in those rules about mega-pollution, so why not? Honour thy father and mother, ’cause they’re the ones who bought you the guns with the bump stocks. It’ll surely make God real happy to see when the Rapture comes.

And in Europe, the bumbling governments of both the UK and France have called snap elections they’re bound to lose, so out of touch are they with the electorate that they think all they have to do is convince voters that the current economic collapse in their countries isn’t their fault.

And so it goes. I could respond to most of each day’s top news items these days (including the celebrity gossip) by just reciting the title of this post.

Just to clarify, all of these systems are interrelated, and things that precipitate or accelerate the collapse of one are going to have follow-on effects on the other systems. Secondly, these systems collapses are well-advanced in some places (especially among the poor, and in Global South nations), while in other places they may not yet be much evident at all.

And third, collapse is not going to be a single, brief event, nor will it happen in a hurry. As I’ve explained before, history of previous civilizations suggests that we’ll have a series of collapses of varying intensities, with hiatuses between them. Much of the collapse is likely to occur in the earlier stages (probably by the end of this century) to the point our lives will have utterly changed by then, and be unrecognizably different from how most of us live now. But after that we’ll see the ‘long tail’ of collapse, which could well last centuries or more, as population continues to slowly decline, and as we experiment with many possible radically relocalized and diverse replacements for our currently globalized civilization culture.

Depending on how much damage we have done to our climate, and how we manage our propensity for using WMD including nuclear weapons, the human species may well go extinct during that long tail. If not, we’re very unlikely to survive in large enough numbers, or have the technologies and resources for more cohesive organization, to have human ‘societies’ on a scale beyond subsistence local communities and inter-community confederations. And no cheap easy oil to power any societies more complex than that.

Since I keep blathering on about “This is what collapse looks like”, I thought it might be useful to create a kind of ‘scorecard’ to assess, for each of the systems that comprise our civilization, how far along in the process towards (IMO inevitable) collapse we are. This is very incomplete, but here’s a chart that asks what I think are some of the most pertinent questions to make that assessment. ‘Yes’ answers to these questions suggest we’re not yet into the first waves of collapse. ‘No’ answers suggest that collapse of that system is underway:

System System health questions
Ecological • Do we have a globally coordinated, assured program to stabilize the planet’s climate before climate catastrophes make life on most of the planet unliveable?
• Do we have a guaranteed supply of sufficient clean water to meet the essential needs of future inhabitants of earth?
• Do we have sufficient self-regenerating, healthy soil to support and sustain all the critical life forms that depend on it, indefinitely?
• Have we protected the ecological integrity of most of the planet’s surface to ensure all the species that play essential roles in our biosystems (eg insects) can thrive?
• Do we have adequate processes to minimize waste and pollution to prevent the permanent degradation of land, water, air and resources and buildup of toxic wastes?
Economic • Are we living within our means in a way that can continue to provide the essential needs of future generations indefinitely without incurring un-repayable debts?
• Do our economic systems equitably support substantially all of the planet’s inhabitants without causing large-scale suffering to many or most?
Political • Do our political systems respond to and meet the articulated needs and priorities of substantially all citizens?
• Do we have fail-safe processes to ensure WMD that would make life unliveable on the planet can never be deployed?
• Are our political decision-makers sufficiently experienced, educated, informed and competent to navigate the complex political landscapes we face today?
Social • Do we have a sustainable human population?
• Are most of us living in social arrangements that connect us powerfully to each other and to the world we are part of, and teach us the essential capacities needed to forge and sustain viable, peaceful, productive communities?
• Do our lifestyles mostly ensure that we get the kinds of exercise, creative, cultural and recreational activities to keep us healthy, happy and engaged with each other and with the natural world?
Educational • Do our ‘learning systems’ imbue in most of us the critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, cooperation, facilitation, creative and imaginative competencies needed to function in a complex modern society?
Health Care • Do our health care systems provide the vast majority of us with the essential resources needed to prevent, diagnose and treat most common acute, chronic, and infectious illnesses and injuries?
• Are we capable of largely eliminating most of the severe stresses (eg poverty, scarcity, insecurity) that cause the mental illnesses and traumas that in turn underlie most of the dysfunction, anger, fear, hatred and violence of complex human societies?
• Do most of us have the skills to self-manage our physical and emotional health, and to help each other heal from illnesses, injuries and traumas?
Food • Do our food and agricultural systems ensure that almost everyone’s diet is healthy, balanced and nutritious, and free of industrial toxins, so that diet-related illnesses are minimized?
Transport/Trade • Are our communities mostly self-sufficient in producing essential goods and services locally, to minimize the cost and risk of dependence on long-distance trade?
• Are our communities laid out effectively so that most necessary travel can be done by walking or other low-energy means of transportation?
Housing • Does almost everyone in our society have a safe, healthy, affordable, comfortable place to live?

These aren’t idealistic questions: These are the minimum requirements for a system to be fundamentally functional and sustainable. If the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then the system is simply not sustainable; until steps are taken to to address the problem it’s going to create enormous social turmoil, and if steps can’t be taken to address it, then the system will inevitably break and ultimately collapse.

Complex systems, societies and civilizations are inherently fragile, because they have all these factors to juggle and all these interrelated potential points of weakness that can easily give way. Human societies simply do not scale well. It is just not in our nature to live in massively complex, dependent, anonymous societies that must be ever-more-tightly controlled to keep them from flying apart. That is why all civilizations eventually collapse. And this — what we are seeing all around us — is what collapse looks like.

I would argue that the honest answer to all of the questions in the table above is no. And that there is no possibility of avoiding the collapse of all these systems. No one is to blame for that. We built up these systems the best we could, based on how we were conditioned, and what we thought we knew and what we thought should work. We didn’t deliberately create them to be fragile, increasingly dysfunctional, and easily subject to collapse. But the end result of all our actions is a civilization falling inexorably apart. It’s tragic, but it’s the only thing that could have happened.

All we can do now is watch it crumble, and adapt ourselves as best we can as, in waves, collapse transforms every aspect of how we live. We can’t fully prepare for it, because we can’t know even approximately how it’s going to impact us, or when, even if our lives are relatively simple and self-sufficient. Our best-laid plans to return to the land could be smashed by desperate marauders with bump stocks. Or we might be among the billions migrating from a part of the world that can no longer support human life, to one that possibly can.

This is what collapse looks like.

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6 Responses to This Is What Collapse Looks Like

  1. realist says:

    All your whinings raise one question:
    Why do YOU care?
    How is this YOUR problem?

  2. Mike says:

    Hi Dave, I was wondering if you could tell me if you’re familiar with the works of Robert Sapolsky? I know you talk about free will often, and wanted to know if you believe, or if Radical Non-Dualism believes it’s possible for people to be changed, if not change themselves?

  3. Tim says:

    Here’s another take on your list of questions–alas I think both your questions and the 10 items on this list are pretty hard to refute:

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    That’s a good list, Tim; thanks.

    Mike: Short answer, yes, I’ve written a lot about Robert’s take on free will, and like Robert I believe that people can be changed (conditioned) by others, but that we cannot change ourselves. Radical Non-duality asserts there are no people to change; that all there is is what is apparently happening, outside of time and space. I think it’s fascinating that this is obvious to ‘them’, but I still seem to have a self, and time and space and separation still seem ‘real’ to me.

  5. Kevin Hester says:

    My answer to the 10 questions is a resounding no!
    Yeah sorry, I know I’m predictable :)
    The reality is “Collapse: The Only Realistic Scenario”
    Sooner than expected!

  6. Carole says:

    Devastatingly, I agree, the answer is ‘no’ to all 10 questions.

Comments are closed.