(Yes, I pulled the trigger on this week’s post a little earlier than normal; my schedule for the week is a little odd, and I wanted to make sure I got to the discussion. Things should be back to “normal,” or whatever passes for it, next week…)
Responding to last week’s post, DemLib asked my opinion of the most likely scenario for collapse, as well as its nature, signs, and extent. I thought I’d take a little time and expand upon my answer.
As I replied before, I think the winds are blowing in the direction of what John Michael Greer calls “catabolic collapse;” I’ve seen it described elsewhere as the “Long Descent” (as in Greer’s book of the same name). My personal favorite term for it is “the Slow Collapse.” The theory itself is complex-ish, but in a nutshell is this: Our resources (in terms of raw materials, or manpower, or energy, or whatever else) are finite; when we brush up against the end of one of those resources, we’ve got to cut back somewhere, so as to get around needing that resource. Sometimes, we can re-tool in such a way as to make things seem “easier” than before, but this is a temporary condition–most often, we end up utilizing another (more available) resource at a faster rate. (Or, we take steps that previously would have been unsupportable–drilling in Alaska, anyone?) The end result of the various contractions is a “stair-step” downwards in complexity (using the scientific/”systems” sense, not the “ease-of-use” sense).
If I’ve made a hash of that, I apologize; really, to get a more cogent, coherent grasp of it, I recommend reading the book and/or Greer’s blog.
Greer puts the start of the collapse at 1974, which is when the bulk of America’s heavy manufacturing industry swiftly became the “Rust Belt.” At the risk of dating myself, I wasn’t old enough at the time to form any real memories, but from what I’ve read/seen, that looks like a logical enough place to put the start. We had just emerged from the first real oil crisis (the end of a resource–albeit an artificial end), and many industries discovered that labor was cheaper outside the manufacturing centers of the states along the Great Lakes. A myriad of other things happened, as well–too many to list, really; I’m told there are some good studies of the time, mostly in economics texts. Long story short, our way of doing business changed. (And as a prime display of how collapse can be localized, we have Detroit–many parts of which almost define “Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland.”)
Now, that may not look like much of a step down–and, to be fair, it wasn’t a big one, as far as I can tell. But there were a few mitigating factors: the oil crisis was artificial (due to an embargo), and much of the manufacturing headed to the South, but stayed within the U.S. By most counts, Peak Oil occurred in 2007 (or 2005, or maybe next year sometime…); that’s not an artificial crisis. Heavy manufacturing has largely left the country–one of the unpleasant side-effects of the “Global Economy.” Personally, I believe the 2008 financial crisis overshadowed the beginning of the next “step,” which is an inexorable climb in fuel prices. Here again, we’re likely to make some choices that we wouldn’t necessarily have made–increased offshore drilling, for example, or opening up the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge–in order to “ease” things. If we’re lucky, we can ramp up renewables (wind and solar) to help cover some of our energy needs, but I’m not sure it’ll last, or that we’re that lucky.
What will the next big step be? Really, it’s anybody’s guess. Retracting a bit from our global reach would be a good one, I think, but it isn’t likely for a host of reasons. We’ve currently got troops on the ground in over 120 different countries, and they’re expensive to maintain over there. I’m all for supporting the troops–I was one of them, until fairly recently–but some consolidation is probably in order. Figuring out a way to bring jobs back from overseas would be handy, too. But at present, I don’t know what the trigger for the next contraction will be. (It may have already happened–it’s strikingly difficult to see these things as they’re occurring; they become much clearer in retrospect.)
What will the extent of it be? That’s another tough call. I agree with another of my readers, TheAuthor, when he suggested that things will likely start to look much more like then 1920’s. (I might go a step further, and suggest 1920’s Britain, for some aspects of life.) On the personal level, economies were much more local–a given family would support themselves from a garden, with occasional trips to the store. The things purchased from the store would very often be locally-produced. The things that weren’t local were more expensive. I don’t believe we’ll get all the way back to the Dark Ages, but the “House of the Future” as pictured in the 1950’s is probably a pipe dream, too.
Next week, I’d like to address TheAuthor’s other comment/request: How I’m implementing my “third point,” on community. In the meantime, I’d like to hear what you think the next “turning point” will be in our slow collapse.