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  • damariszehner

Anticipating Collapse

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

[If you prefer to hear this post instead of read it, click here and scroll to Audiofile #49.]

Collapse can’t happen soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. By collapse, I mean the breakdown of the complexities of our current society. Those would be government bureaucracies, educational and credentialing systems, laws and regulations of all sorts, tax codes, the interconnected layers of our identities on the internet, the ballooning administrative sector, insurance, the stock market, multinational corporations, the military-industrial complex – all the way down to the proliferation of single-purpose kitchen gadgets cluttering our cupboards.

It's not that I long for the feral world, red in tooth and claw, portrayed in collapse fiction, although I know there are those who fantasize about mastering a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I acknowledge that the collapse of complex societies (the name of a great study by Joseph Tainter) is both the result of problems and the cause of problems in human relations and survival. Collapse seems always to be tied to environmental degradation, although there are many other related causes, and is often accompanied by war, hunger, displaced people, and a fall in population. I would have to be a monster to want my family and neighbors to suffer all those things, and I'm not.

But there are two points I want to make about collapse: that it is inevitable; and that it is necessary before genuine reform can take place.

First the inevitability. History and archaeology show that every complex society that has ever arisen has fallen. Ancient China, Babylon, Assyria, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Mayans, Incas, Mali, Zimbabwe, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire – these all followed a similar pattern of expansion, administration, and dissolution. Some have fallen spectacularly and vanished from history, while others have rearranged themselves and emerged in another form, but none has survived for long at its peak of power. There are lots of theories about timelines and patterns that you can read if you’re interested, but the central point is that complex human societies, like everything else in this universe, do not expand infinitely. Eventually they all collapse, partially or completely, and something different rises in their place. This process will certainly be compounded and sped up in our generation by the looming climate catastrophe.

Discussion of the issue of collapse often takes a moral tone, asking what we've done that God, gods, or nature is punishing us for – and that is an appropriate and helpful process, one we should spend a lot of time thinking about, because we are moral creatures. But the moral element sometimes distracts us from the natural inevitability of collapse, the pattern that we see when a sapling sprouts in a forest, grows, ages, falls, and leaves a gap for other saplings to fill. Too often the moral approach assumes that we can avoid that natural pattern if we just shape up. To a degree and for a time that’s true, but ultimately it is hubris to expect that we and our institutions can live forever.

So the current Western society that we take for granted will collapse. I don’t know when or how or to what degree, but I know it will. It would be wonderful if we could assert our collective will to downsize voluntarily, to “collapse now and avoid the rush,” as John Michael Greer puts it. It would be great if we could restrict our appetites, break away from our expectations, and be willing to imagine an unknowable future, rather than fighting to preserve the status quo. I have a tiny hope that some people might being willing to collapse well, which is what keeps me writing about human-shaped institutions.

On the whole, however, I expect that the collapse will be messy, not carefully managed by people of goodwill. I expect there will be conflict and competition, selfishness defending itself against need, and a dearth of imagination about how things could be different but still good. Western society has made enemies of people and nature in its expansion, and those enemies will pour in when they get the chance if we don’t make peace with them first.

But the future doesn’t need to be a Book of Eli scenario of blasted landscapes, gangs, and cannibalism. My second point is that collapse is also an opportunity for new life, new systems, a new attempt at balance. In the gaps left by the fall of complicated, ossified institutions, more human-shaped ones can grow. It will be messy, but it could be good.

Think about this as an example. I’ve been writing a lot about educational reform. I have a picture of the kind of school I’d love to start, and have even worked on making it a reality at various times in the past. But starting a small, sane, countercultural school right now involves a lot of complexity: at minimum, credentials from states and/or independent agencies, which would dictate the training and qualifications of teachers; building codes; insurance of all sorts; and financing to rent or buy space. It involves competing with other schools for families who assume that interschool competitions in sports, music, debate, and other areas are necessary. It involves dealing with colleges who have become ever more demanding about transcripts and activities, and with parents who are afraid that alternative education would interfere with their children’s ability to get scholarships. And even if all of those issues could be successfully addressed, it means that only wealthy families could send their children to the kind of school that I think all children should go to.

If the public school system and its related institutions collapsed, however, the school I’d like to start would be a valuable alternative for the people who wouldn’t even consider it now. I could start it in my house, if I had to, and barter goods and services with parents who couldn't afford cash, all outside of the current bureaucracy. The same is true of all other fields: I know there are doctors who would love to open a practice independent of the nationwide networks, and, not dragged down by the crazy costs of education and insurance, treat patients for a reasonable price. There are farmers who would be more successful if they were no longer crushed by regulations designed for industrial-level food producers and no longer competing against the subsidized foodlike substances sold throughout our fast food nation. The same is true of producers of all sorts: clothes designers, carpenters, builders, writers, artists, and others.

(Let me insert a quick explanation here: I am not against regulations guaranteeing safety and quality. I have no problem with reasonable government at the appropriate level for the issues being considered. I’m just saying that the expansion of complexity ultimately stifles freedom and creativity, and that collapse creates an opening for freedom and creativity.)

The next question that needs to be asked, then, is what should we do in anticipating collapse, and how should we participate in the process? Is violent revolution inevitable, as Marx said? Should we proactively start a violent revolution to hurry things along, as Soviet Marxists thought? Should we use heinous methods to destabilize the status quo like the accelerationists? Should we try to work through our current institutions of law and government to create reform, as activists want? Or should we retreat to woods and communes to start a parallel society apart from our metastasized system, as used to happen millennia ago when there was more unoccupied land to retreat to?

I’m not confident that any of these methods would yield the results that I’d like to see. Nor am I sure that revolutions and reforms can direct the mighty forces of expansion and collapse that rule the universe. I see us more like people on a raft hurtling toward a surf-torn shore, arguing about whether we should be paddling forward, paddling backward, or jumping overboard.

Can we really change anything, or are the forces driving us forward too powerful to divert? I don’t know. You can go ahead and try the method that makes sense to you, so long as you act within moral bounds and don’t assume that the ends justify the means; I just don’t think it will make that much difference to the ultimate collapse of society. However, the choices we make will mean everything in the world to the kind of people we become and the future society we form: either motivated by greed, competition, and entitlement, or founded on kindness, humility, and balance.

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16 תגובות

26 בינו׳ 2020

It’s pretty hilarious for us to feel safe about the term "lock down" how do you close off areas for a longer period if they must be resupplied by trucks?? There are few places that can survive very long without resupply by the outside. Plus, many areas that might be locked down are critical to other areas for supply. This almost assures a spread even if discretionary travel is locked down. What happens when 10% of the critical people in an economy go sick? These issues that are in this reference below:

Catastrophic Shocks Through Complex Socio-Economic Systems: A Pandemic Perspective korowicz

“The globalised economy has become more complex (connectivity, interdependence, and speed), delocalized, with increasing concentration within critical…


23 בינו׳ 2020

(I intended this as a further point to my comment before I was asked about "tech" it addresses the importance of behavior gate keeping tech)

I have found a key to this tricky behavior is accepting collapse first then going forth as an optimistic pessimist finding the journey is what is important not the destination. The destination is death for all and all things. Behavior that is optimistic in an overall pessimism is actually more robust and the reason is humans naturally are motivated to survival when confronted with danger. Tap into your instinct and in addition tap into what is going on around you with the planet. The planet is dying in succession from complex to less complex. Thi…


23 בינו׳ 2020

By tech I mean both our knowledge and our things produced by that knowledge. Of course, the subject is beyond a short comment but I present two techs in my REAL Green discussions with one being modern high intensity and the other being the low carbon capture of the old ways. Modern tech is concentrated energy driven, complicated, and joined in networks. The old ways tended to be slowly advanced ways over multiple years of evolving tradition, capturing of dispersed energy, with simple tech, and primarily local. While both conditions exist in the modern and the old ways the differentiation tends to be between a global and a local. Global allows value chains that make possible energy, resources, and talen…


Jeanne Melchior
22 בינו׳ 2020

By technology I mean everything—all the tools that humans have created. It is the computer driven complicated ones that change on a regular basis, those that are unable to be repaired or even understood by anyone except very specialized technicians that are the problem. It’s also all the unnecessary clutter that accompany this latest technology, all the toys, the gadgets etc. An example would be something minor like using gadgets like power windows instead of manually operated ones. Another example is farming technology that uses huge complicated machines instead of simple ones that someone without specialized training could fix, thereby replacing honest work with a short term fix. Since disposable plastics (fossil fuels) which are a good part of th…


22 בינו׳ 2020

Could djf and Jeanne Melchior, either or both, clarify what they mean by "technology"?

The word is used so broadly nowadays that its hard to assume that others have the same set of stuff in mind. I think when a lot of people say"technology," they mean their smartphone and nothing else.


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