I’m not sure how many people outside the writer’s trade realize how much of writing is a cooperative process. That’s as true of those of us who write late at night in the privacy of a silent room as it is of the more gregarious sort of writer, the kind you can expect to find in a crowded café, surrounded by voices and music and the clatter of street noises coming in the door: every writer is simply one voice in an ongoing conversation that includes many other voices, some living, some dead and some not yet born.
As I write this week’s post, for example, it’s difficult not to notice some of the other voices in this particular conversation. The bookshelf an easy reach to my left has a row of brightly colored trade paperbacks by some of my fellow peak oil authors—William Catton, Richard Heinberg, Jim Kunstler, Sharon Astyk, Dmitry Orlov, Carolyn Baker and more. Close by, the rolling brown landscape of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, all ten volumes, confronts the twin black monoliths of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, while Giambattista Vico’s New Science offers an ironic Italian commentary from one side. Other shelves elsewhere in the room contribute other voices: biology and ecology textbooks from my college days; appropriate tech manuals from the Seventies brimfull of unfulfilled hopes; old texts on the magical philosophy that forms the usually unmentioned foundation from which all my thinking unfolds; and a great deal more. Poets, as often as not, these days: Robinson Jeffers, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot. Without the contributions of all these other voices, the conversation and thus my contributions to it would not be what it is.
Still, there are times when the conversational nature of what I’m doing becomes more obvious and more direct than usual, and one of those happened the weekend before last, at the Age of Limits conference I discussed in last week’s post. One of my presentations to that conference was a talk entitled "How Civilizations Fall;" longtime readers of this blog will know from the title that what I was talking about that afternoon was the theory of catabolic collapse, which outlines the way that human societies on the way down cannibalize their own infrastructure, maintaining themselves for the present by denying themselves a future. I finished talking about catabolic collapse and started fielding questions, of which there were plenty, and somewhere in the conversation that followed one of the other participants made a comment. I don’t even remember the exact words, but it was something like, "So what you’re saying is that what we need to do, individually, is to go through collapse right away."
"Exactly," I said. "Collapse now, and avoid the rush."
Outside of that conversation, I doubt I would have thought of the phrase at all. By the end of the conference, though, it was on the lips of a good many of the attendees, and for good reason: I can’t think of a better way to sum up the work ahead of us right now, as industrial society lurches down the far side of its trajectory through time. Longtime readers of this blog know most of the reasoning behind that suggestion, but it may be worth walking through it again step by step.
First, industrial society was only possible because our species briefly had access to an immense supply of cheap, highly concentrated fuel with a very high net energy—that is, the amount of energy needed to extract the fuel was only a very small fraction of the energy the fuel itself provided. Starting in the 18th century, fossil fuels—first coal, then coal and petroleum, then coal, petroleum and natural gas—gave us that energy source. All three of these fossil fuels represent millions of years of stored sunlight, captured by the everyday miracle of photosynthesis and concentrated within the earth by geological processes that took place long before our species evolved. They are nonrenewable over any time scale that matters to human beings, and we are using them up at astonishing rates.
Second, while it’s easy to suggest that we can simply replace fossil fuels with some other energy source and keep industrial civilization running along its present course, putting that comfortable notion into practice has turned out to be effectively impossible. No other energy source available to our species combines the high net energy, high concentration, and great abundance that a replacement for fossil fuel would need. Those energy sources that are abundant (for example, solar energy) are diffuse and yield little net energy, while those that are highly concentrated (for example, fissionable uranium) are not abundant, and also have serious problems with net energy. Abundant fossil fuels currently provide an "energy subsidy" to alternative energy sources that make them look more efficient than they are—there would be far fewer wind turbines, for example, if they had to be manufactured, installed, and maintained using wind energy. Furthermore, our entire energy infrastructure is geared to use fossil fuels and would have to be replaced, at a cost of countless trillions of dollars, in order to replace fossil fuels with something else.
Third, these problems leave only one viable alternative, which is to decrease our energy use, per capita and absolutely, to get our energy needs down to levels that could be maintained over the long term on renewable sources. The first steps in this process were begun in the 1970s, with good results, and might have made it possible to descend from the extravagant heights of industrialism in a gradual way, keeping a great many of the benefits of the industrial age intact as a gift for the future. Politics closed off that option in the decade that followed, however, and the world’s industrial nations went hurtling down a different path, burning through the earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves at an accelerating pace and trusting that economic abstractions such as the free market would suspend the laws of physics and geology for their benefit. At this point, more than three decades after that misguided choice, industrial civilization is so far into overshoot that a controlled descent is no longer an option; the only path remaining is the familiar historical process of decline and fall.
Fourth, while it’s fashionable these days to imagine that this process will take the form of a sudden cataclysm that will obliterate today’s world overnight, all the testimony of history and a great many lines of evidence from other sources suggests that this is the least likely outcome of our predicament. Across a wide range of geographical scales and technological levels, civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall, and there is no valid reason to assume that ours will be any exception. The curve of decline, to be sure, is anything but smooth; it has a fractal structure, taking the form of a succession of crises on many different scales, affecting different regions, social classes, and communities in different ways, interspersed with periods of stabilization and even partial recovery that are equally variable in scale, duration, and relevance to different places and groups. This ragged arc of decline is already under way; it can be expected to accelerate in the months, years, and decades to come; and it defines the deindustrial age ahead of us.
Fifth, individuals, families, and communities faced with this predicament still have choices left. The most important of those choices parallels the one faced, or more precisely not faced, at the end of the 1970s: to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to their current lifestyles until the system that currently supports those lifestyles falls away from beneath their feet. The skills, resources, and lifeways needed to get by in a disintegrating industrial society are radically different from those that made for a successful and comfortable life in the prosperous world of the recent past, and a great many of the requirements of an age of decline come with prolonged learning curves and a high price for failure. Starting right away to practice the skills, assemble the resources, and follow the lifeways that will be the key to survival in a deindustrializing world offers the best hope of getting through the difficult years ahead with some degree of dignity and grace.
Collapse now, in other words, and avoid the rush.
There’s a fair amount of subtlety to the strategy defined by those words. As our society stumbles down the ragged curve of its decline, more and more people are going to lose the ability to maintain what counts as a normal lifestyle—or, rather, what counted as a normal lifestyle in the recent past, and is no longer quite so normal today as it once was. Each new round of crisis will push more people further down the slope; minor and localized crises will affect a relatively smaller number of people, while major crises affecting whole nations will affect a much larger number. As each crisis hits, though, there will be a rush of people toward whatever seems to offer a way out, and as each crisis recedes, there will be another rush of people toward whatever seems to offer a way back to what used to be normal. The vast majority of people who join either rush will fail. Remember the tens of thousands of people who applied for a handful of burger-flipping jobs during the recent housing crash, because that was the only job opening they could find? That’s the sort of thing I mean.
The way to avoid the rush is simple enough: figure out how you will be able to live after the next wave of crisis hits, and to the extent that you can, start living that way now. If you’re worried about the long-term prospects for your job—and you probably should be, no matter what you do for a living—now is the time to figure out how you will get by if the job goes away and you have to make do on much less money. For most people, that means getting out of debt, making sure the place you live costs you much less than you can afford, and picking up some practical skills that will allow you to meet some of your own needs and have opportunities for barter and informal employment. It can mean quite a bit more, depending on your situation, needs, and existing skills. It should certainly involve spending less money—and that money, once it isn’t needed to pay off any debts you have, can go to weatherizing your home and making other sensible preparations that will make life easier for you later on.
For the vast majority of people, it probably needs to be said, collapsing now does not mean buying a survival homestead somewhere off in the country. That’s a popular daydream, and in some well-off circles it’s long been a popular way to go have a midlife crisis, but even if you have the funds—and most of us don’t—if you don’t already have the dizzyingly complex skill set needed to run a viable farm, or aren’t willing to drop everything else to apprentice with an organic farmer right now, it’s not a realistic option. In all likelihood you’ll be experiencing the next round of crises where you are right now, so the logical place to have your own personal collapse now, ahead of the rush, is right there, in the place where you live, with the people you know and the resources you have to hand.
Now of course the strategy of collapsing ahead of the rush is not going to be a popular thing to suggest. When I’ve brought it up, as of course I’ve done more than once, I’ve inevitably fielded a flurry of protests, by turns angry and anguished, insisting that it’s not reasonable to expect anybody to do that, and how can I be so heartless as to suggest it? Fair enough; let’s take a look at the alternatives.
One alternative strategy that gets brought up now and then has at least the advantage of utter honesty. It has two parts. The first part, while the benefits of industrial society are still available, is to enjoy them; the second, when those benefits go away, is to die. Often, though not always, the people who bring up this option have serious health conditions that will probably be fatal in a deindustrial world. I have no quarrel with those who choose this path; it’s an honest response to a very challenging predicament—though I admit I wonder how many people who say they’ve chosen it will be comfortable with their choice once part one gives way to part two.
The problem with most other proposed strategies for dealing with our predicament is that whatever they claim to do in theory, in practice, they amount to these same two steps. Consider the very widely held notion that advocating for some alternative energy technology is a workable response to the twilight of fossil fuels. I have no quarrel, again, with people who are actually doing something concrete to get some alternative energy technology into use—for example, the people whose enthusiasm for the Bussard fusion reactor leads them to build a prototype in their basement, or to help fund one of the half dozen or so experimenters who have already done this—but that’s rarely what this approach entails; rather, it seems to consist mostly of posting long screeds on the internet insisting that thorium reactors, or algal biodiesel, or what have you, will solve all our energy problems.
As Zen masters like to say, talk does not cook the rice, and blog posts do not build reactors; with every day that passes, despite any amount of online debate, more oil, coal, and natural gas are extracted from the planet’s dwindling endowment, and the next round of crises comes closer. In the same way, those who put their hopes on grand political transformations, or conveniently undefinable leaps of consciousness, or the timely arrival of Jesus or the space brothers or somebody else who will spare us the necessity of inhabiting a future that is the exact result of our own collective actions, are not doing anything that hasn’t been tried over and over again in the decades just past, without doing anything to slow the headlong rush into overshoot or the opening stages of decline and fall.
Check out the glossy magazines and well-funded websites dedicated to portraying "positive futures" and you can find the same sort of thinking taken to its logical extreme: soothing pablum about this or that person doing this or that wonderful thing, and this or that deep thinker coming up with this or that wonderful idea, all of it reminiscent of nothing so much as the cheerful tunes the Titanic’s band played to keep the passengers calm as water poured into the hull. There’s quite a lot of money to be made these days insisting that we can have a shiny new future despite all evidence to the contrary, and pulling factoids out of context to defend that increasingly dubious claim; as industrial society moves down the curve of decline, I suspect, this will become even more popular, since it will make it easier for those who haven’t yet had their own personal collapse to pretend that it can’t happen to them.
The same principle applies to the people who donate to environmental causes and put solar panels on their roofs in the same spirit that led medieval Christians to buy high-priced indulgences from the Church to cancel out their sins. T.S. Eliot countered that sort of attitude unanswerably when he described salvation as "a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything". What we’re discussing belongs to a much less exalted plane, but the same rule applies: if you’re trying to exempt yourself from the end of the industrial age, nothing you can do can ever be enough. Let go, let yourself fall forward into the deindustrial future, and matters are different.
It’s difficult to think of anything more frightening, or more necessary. "In order to arrive at what you do not know"—that’s Eliot again—"you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. In order to possess what you do not possess, you must go by the way of dispossession." Which is to say: collapse now, and avoid the rush.
End of the World of the Week #25
Those of my readers who don’t happen to remember where they were on May 5, 2000 should probably be glad of that fact. According to Richard Noone’s 1997 bestseller 5/5/2000: Ice: The Ultimate Disaster, a planetary alignment on that day would destabilize the world’s ice caps and send them rushing toward the equator, flattening everything in their path. Before it was swamped in the rising tide of panic around the Y2K computer bug, Noone’s prophecy attracted a fair amount of attention in the American alternative scene, and believers discussed plans to loft themselves into the upper atmosphere via high-altitude balloons to wait out the cataclysm, and then return to repopulate the ravaged Earth.
It would have taken only a few minutes with a pocket calculator and a high school physics textbook to figure out that even the most dramatic planetary alignment doesn’t have enough gravitational pull on the Earth’s ice caps to budge them any distance worth noticing, but none of the believers seem to have taken the time to check that possibility. In the event, the polar ice caps stayed put that day, as they normally do.