Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Onset of Catabolic Collapse

I’ve commented more than once in these essays on the gap in perception between history as it appears in textbooks and history as it’s lived by people on the spot at the time. That’s a gap worth watching, because the foreshortening of history that comes with living in the middle of it quite often gets in the way of figuring out a useful response to a time of crisis – for example, the one we’re in right now.

This is all the more challenging because the foreshortening of history cuts both ways; it makes small but sudden events look more important than they are, and it also helps hide slow but massive shifts that will play a much greater role in shaping the future. Recent increases in the price of oil, for example, kicked off a flurry of predictions suggesting that hyperinflation and the sudden collapse of industrial society are right around the corner; identical predictions were made the last time oil prices spiked, the time before that, and the time before that, too, so the traditional grain of salt may be worth adding to them this time around. (We’ll most likely get hyperinflation in the US, granted, but my guess is that that will come further down the road.) Look at all these price spikes and notice that the peaks and troughs have both tended gradually upwards, on the other hand, and you may just catch sight of the signal hidden in all that noise – the fact that providing industrial civilization with its most important fuel is loading a greater burden on the world’s economies with every year that passes.

The same gap in perception afflicts most current efforts to make sense of the future looming up ahead of us. Ever since my original paper on catabolic collapse first found its way onto the internet, I’ve fielded questions fairly regularly from people who want to know whether I think some current or imminent crisis will tip industrial society over into catabolic collapse in some unmistakably catastrophic way. It’s a fair question, but it’s based on a fundamental misreading both of the concept of catabolic collapse and of our present place in the long cycles of rise and fall that define the history of civilizations.

Let’s start with some basics, for the sake of those of my readers who haven’t waded their way through the fine print of the paper. The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain. What we are pleased to call “primitive societies” – that is, societies that are well enough adapted to their environments that they get by comfortably without huge masses of cumbersome and expensive infrastructure – usually do so in a fairly small way, and very often evolve traditional ways of getting rid of excess goods at regular intervals so that the cost of maintaining it doesn’t become a burden. As societies expand and start to depend on complex infrastructure to support the daily activities of their inhabitants, though, it becomes harder and less popular to do this, and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society’s stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can’t be covered by the resources on hand.

It’s what happens next that’s crucial to the theory. The only reliable way to solve a crisis that’s caused by rising maintenance costs is to cut those costs, and the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster. That’s rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff. Thus the normal rhythm of history in complex societies cycles back and forth between building up, or anabolism, and breaking down, or catabolism. Societies that have been around a while – China comes to mind – have cycled up and down through this process dozens of times, with periods of prosperity and major infrastructure projects alternating with periods of impoverishment and infrastructure breakdown.

A more dramatic version of the same process happens when a society is meeting its maintenance costs with nonrenewable resources. If the resource is abundant enough – for example, the income from a global empire, or half a billion years of ancient sunlight stored underground in the form of fossil fuels – and the rate at which it’s extracted can be increased over time, at least for a while, a society can heap up unimaginable amounts of stuff without worrying about the maintenance costs. The problem, of course, is that neither imperial expansion nor fossil fuel drawdown can keep on going indefinitely on a finite planet. Sooner or later you run into the limits of growth; at that point the costs of keeping wealth flowing in from your empire or your oil fields begin a ragged but unstoppable increase, while the return on that investment begins an equally ragged and equally unstoppable decline; the gap between your maintenance needs and available resources spins out of control, until your society no longer has enough resources on hand even to provide for its own survival, and it goes under.

That’s catabolic collapse. It’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because each burst of catabolism on the way down does lower maintenance costs significantly, and can also free up resources for other uses. The usual result is the stairstep sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.

It’s easy enough to track catabolic collapse at work in retrospect, when you can glance over a couple of centuries of decline in an evening with one of Michael Grant’s excellent histories of Rome in one hand and a glass of decent bourbon in the other. Catching it in process, though, can be a much more challenging task, because it happens on a scale considerably larger than a human lifespan. In its early stages, the signal is hard to tease out from ordinary economic and political fluctuations; later on, it’s all too easy to believe that any given period of stabilization has solved the problem, at least until the next wave of crises rolls in; late in the game, as crisis piles on top of crisis and cracks are opening up everywhere, your society’s glory days are so far in the past that it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of the fact that calamity isn’t the normal shape of things.

Still, the attempt is worth making, and I propose to make it here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that it’s possible at this point to provide a fairly exact date for the onset of catabolic collapse here in the United States of America.

That America is a prime candidate for catabolic collapse seems tolerably clear at this point, though I’m sure plenty of people can find reasons to argue with that assessment. It’s considered impolite to talk about America’s empire nowadays, but the US troops currently garrisoned in 140 countries around the world are not there for their health, after all, and it requires a breathtaking suspension of disbelief to insist that this global military presence has nothing to do with the fact that the 5% of our species that live in this country use around a quarter of the world’s total energy production and around a third of its raw materials and industrial products. The United States has an empire, then, and it’s become an extraordinarily expensive empire to maintain; the fact that the US spends as much money on its military annually as all the other nations on Earth put together is only one measure of the maintenance cost involved.

That America is also irrevocably committed to dependence on dwindling supplies nonrenewable fossil fuels also seems clear at this point, though here again there are plenty who would dispute the point. Even if there were other energy resources available in the same gargantuan amounts – and despite decades of enthusiastic claims, every attempt to deploy other energy resources to replace a significant amount of fossil fuels has run headfirst into crippling problems of scale – the political will to carry out a transition soon enough to matter has not been present, and the careful analyses in the 2005 Hirsch report are among the many good reasons for thinking that the window of opportunity for that transition is long past. The notion that America can drill its way out of crisis would be funny if the situation was not so serious; despite dizzyingly huge government subsidies and the best oil exploration and extraction technology on Earth, US oil production has been in decline since 1972. As the first nation to develop a commercial petroleum industry, it was probably inevitable that we would be among the very first to hit the limits to production and begin slipping down the arc of decline. As for coal and natural gas, the abundance of the former and the glut of the latter are the product of short term factors; while press releases aimed mostly at boosting stock prices insist that we’ll have supplies of both for centuries to come, more sober analysts have gotten past the hype and the hugely inflated reserve figures and predicted hard peaks for both fuels within thirty years, and quite possibly sooner.

That being the case, the question is simply when to place the first wave of catabolism in America – the point at which crises bring a temporary end to business as usual, access to real wealth becomes a much more challenging thing for a large fraction of the population, and significant amounts of the national infrastructure are abandoned or stripped for salvage. It’s not a difficult question to answer, either.

The date in question is 1974.

That was the year when the industrial heartland of the United States, a band of factories that reached from Pennsylvania and upstate New York straight across to Indiana and Michigan, began its abrupt transformation into the Rust Belt. Hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America’s then-prosperous working class, went away forever, and state and local governments went into a fiscal tailspin that saw many basic services cut to the bone and beyond. Meanwhile, wild swings in markets for agricultural commodities and fossil fuels, worsened by government policy, pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered. In the terms I’ve suggested in this post, the US catabolized most of its heavy industry, most of its family farms, and a good half or so of its working class, among other things. It also set in motion the process of catabolizing one of the most important resources it had left at that time, the oil reserves of the Alaska North Slope. That oil could have been eked out over decades to cushion the transition to a low-energy future; instead, it was pumped and burnt at a breakneck pace in order to deal with the immediate crisis.

The United States was not alone in embracing catabolism in the mid-1970s. Britain abandoned most of its own heavy industry at the same time, plunging large parts of the industrial Midlands and Scotland into permanent depression, and set about catabolizing its own North Sea oil reserves with the same misplaced enthusiasm that American politicians lavished on the North Slope. The result was exactly what history would suggest; by embracing catabolism, the US and Britain both staggered through the crisis years of the 1970s and came out the other side into a breathing space of relative stability in the Reagan and Thatcher years,. That breathing space was extended significantly when the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, beginning in 1989, allowed American and British economic interests and their local surrogates to snap up wealth across Eurasia for pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, in the process imposing the same sort of economic collapse on most of a continent that had previously been inflicted on the steelworkers of Pittsburgh and the shipbuilders of Glasgow.

That breathing space ended in 2008. At this point, I’d suggest, we’re in the early stages of a second and probably more severe round of catabolism here in America, and throughout Europe as well. What happened to the industrial working class in the 1970s is now happening to a very broad swath of the middle class, as jobs evaporate, public services are slashed, and half a dozen states stumble down the slope that will turn them into the Rust Belt equivalents of the early 21st century. Exactly what will happen as that process continues is anybody’s guess, but it’s unlikely to end as soon as the round of catabolism in the 1970s, and it may very well cut deeper; neither we nor Britain nor any other of our close allies has a big new petroleum reserve just waiting to be tapped, after all.

It’s crucial to remember, though, that catabolism is a response to crisis and at least in the short term, much more often than not, an effective response. The fact that we’re moving into the second stage of our society’s long descent into catabolic collapse doesn’t mean that America will fall apart in the next decade or so; quite the contrary, it strongly suggests that America will not fall apart this time around. As the current round of catabolism picks up speed, a great many jobs will go away, and most of them will never return; a great many people who depend on those jobs will descend into poverty, and most of them will never rise back out of it; much of the familiar fabric of life in America as it’s been lived in recent decades will be shredded beyond repair, and new and far less lavish patterns will emerge instead; outside the narrowing circle of the privileged classes, even those who maintain relative affluence will be making do with much less than they or their equivalents do today. All these are ways that a society in decline successfully adapts to the contraction of its economic base and the mismatch between available resources and maintenance costs.

Twenty or thirty or forty years from now, in turn, it’s a fairly safe bet that the years of crisis will come to a close and a newly optimistic America will reassure itself that everything really is all right again. The odds are pretty high that by then it will be, for all practical purposes, a Third World nation, with little more than dim memories remaining from its former empire or its erstwhile status as a superpower; it’s not at all impossible, for that matter, that it will be more than one nation, split asunder along lines traced out by today’s increasingly uncompromising culture wars. Fast forward another few decades, and another round of crises arrives, followed by another respite, and another round of crises, until finally peasant farmers plow their fields in sight of the crumbling ruins of our cities.

That’s the way civilizations end, and that’s the way ours is ending. The phrasing is deliberate: "is ending," not "will end." If I’m right, we’re already half a lifetime into the decline and fall of industrial civilization. It can be challenging to keep that awareness in mind when wrestling with the day to day details of getting by in an ailing, sclerotic nation with a half-failed economy – or, for that matter, when trying out some of the technologies and tricks I’ve been discussing here in recent months. Still, it’s worth making the attempt, because the wider view arguably makes it a bit easier to keep current events in perspective and plan for the future in which we will all, after all, be spending the rest of our lives.


Glenn said...
Damn! I hate being right. Last week I said the onset of catabolic collapse would appear in better focus in the rear view mirror (to use an auto age analogy). But for years I've been saying the decline of the U.S. working class started when I graduated from High School in 1974 (Just a coincidence, I swear it's not my fault!).

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood carry water. I guess it's time to put in another row of potatoes. And make our annual tree order.


1/19/11, 9:56 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Whew, you had me worried there after your teaser comments in last week's post about nailing down a date for the beginning of collapse! That seemed out of keeping with your general themes of the grand arc that you'd then join in with the end-of-the-worlders with "May 24th 2013 will be the day it all comes down" or some such thing. As soon as I started reading this post, though, I realized you were probably going to tell us that it began quite some time ago and we have been living in the collapsing empire for many years; you didn't disappoint! I have to agree that I have been thinking for quite a while that the mid-70s would be a good candidate; though I expect you will find many people pointing out the higher material affluence, better health (for the middle class), etc. of the 1990s and argue with you. I've pondered that issue myself, but still think I agree that it was in the 1970s that the real fundamentals of our economy began to fracture irreparably, and the Clinton years were all smoke, mirrors, and numbers games. This of course means that you and I and many of your readers hardly even experienced the "pre-collapse" world ourselves!

I've wondered... have you thought about whether there might be actual quantitative indices of anabolism/catabolism in the economic sense that could be extracted from economic data? Items that would incorporate actual measures of the size of the capital/infrastructure/capacity pool, its maintenance demands, etc.? I just started pondering this today for the first time, really (while wondering what you might actually have in store for us this week), and haven't sat down to think about the nitty gritty of it yet.

1/19/11, 10:14 PM

Robin Datta said...
A very perceptive piece.

I had the impression that the first crear sign of the decline was when we quit keeping the primary and secondary economies linked to the tertiary economy thorugh gold-backing of the dollar: R. M. Nixon uncoupled the two by ending the redemption of dollars in gold by foreign governments in August 1971.

1/19/11, 10:33 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Nice work.

Do you think that catabolic collapse may also lead to a more cooperative rather than the current individualistic culture?

It seems to me that peasant farmers by necessity would have to operate on a more cooperative basis. This would be no bad thing as the current culture of individualism is unsustainable without fossil fuel inputs. It may even force civility on us, as this is a useful tool with which to negotiate mutually beneficial outcomes (which doesn't seem to concern quite a lot of people at present).

I've noticed in my travels that societies that have less stuff seem to operate on a more civil basis. I'm not saying that there is anything intrinsicly noble about poverty though.

Have you also considered that the "Green Revolution" was a bit of a turning point too? The reason that I mention this, is that any society which can't feed it's current population indefinitely is unsustainable. Pumping from aquifers, fossil fuel depletion and heavy fertiliser usage are all using non renewable resources. Therefore, regardless of current production levels, under a collapse scenario, they won't be able to meet the future requirements of the population.

Check out this interesting article about food shortages after the floods here:

The other thing I've been wondering about recently is whether the obsession with economic growth is only a recent phenomena? I never really remember hearing much about this before about 1990 which was about the time that Australia deregulated the economy and ditched a large percentage of it's manufacturing capacity in favour of the extractive (minerals and agriculture) industries.

Actually I started full time work back in the late 80's and it used to be a lot more fun before the aforementioned changes took place! Oh well.

Good luck!

1/19/11, 10:46 PM

Kevin said...
While answering my primary question of last week, this post most interestingly raises more. Which jobs will go away first, I wonder, and which will hang around? To say nothing of new occupations that may spring up, like Ruinman. How will this phase of the catabolic collapse of industrial civilization play out in Europe as opposed to the United States? How will it affect political and economic relations between these bodies politic? Where on the whole is a better place to weather this sort of storm? On the jobs front you've presented divers persuasive prognostications, but for the rest perhaps we'll have to watch and wait to find out, as there may be too many variables to predict.

1974 was a watershed year for me too, and not in a happy way, but for personal reasons unconnected with the subject of this blog. It tolls a bell.

1/19/11, 11:14 PM

Denise said...
"...until finally peasant farmers plow their fields in sight of the crumbling ruins of our cities."

Do you think that most of us will become peasant farmers (rather faddish to be so these days), or do you think that the giant "super store" corporations will become even more gargantuan, limiting our purchases of everything - including seed stock - to only that which they allow? Meaning that, in effect, the entire globe - if the collapse is global - will become, more or less, indentured to those who feed, clothes and house us.

1/19/11, 11:19 PM

Galen Gallimore said...
As a fan of Strauss & Howe's concepts on generational turnings, I'd say we ought to be seeing that period when,

"the years of crisis will come to a close and a newly optimistic America will reassure itself that everything really is all right again."

in about 15-20 years. If 2008 is the kickoff into the crisis period (fourth turning) then by 2030 we should be entering the next period of stability. Whether or not we'll resemble a third world nation by that time depends on the depth of the crisis and the strength of the rebuilding period leading into the next 'high' or stable time.

If I'm reading you correctly, and overlaying these generational turning ideas isn't too far off base, then fossil fuels have added more energy to the systems of life and enabled our highs and lows to be exponentially higher and in the same way lower. The turnings continue as they have for generations, but population growth, technological progress, a move into increased complexity (anabolism) has been essentially on on fossil fuel steroids. The perks get nicer but the weapons get more devastating also.

So do you think that we'll really stair step down in catabolic waves of de-complexifying (cars to wagons to walking) or is it likely that we've been so long without a good catabolic period of contraction and simplification that we cut through a few layers and really fall down the whole staircase in one great tumble? For example, cars are no longer an option but horse and wagon tech has been lost on a broad social level and reskilling would take too long so we go directly to walking?

Thanks for continuing to flesh out this catabolic idea.


1/19/11, 11:58 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
Thanks again JMG, your writings are always a revelation (not meant in the biblical sense!).

The early stages of catabolic collapse in our societies do seem easy to spot in the rearview mirror. I'm in my late thirties now and I remember, as a kid, my father being laid off from the factories where he worked, usually as a manager, in the (English) Midlands. He worked at Automotive Products in Banbury for around fifteen years until the late seventies. Today, where the thriving factory once stood, is a McDonald's and a Tesco supermarket.

It seems, in fact, as if the last thirty or so years have been a kind of dream. Finding myself hard up and having to provide for a family (which in Denmark, one of the world's most expensive countries isn't easy, let me tell you) I recently bought two cookbooks: The Pauper's Cookbook and Delia Smith's Frugal Food. I didn't realise it until they arrived and I looked inside but they were first printed in 1971 and 1976 respectively and have recently been reissued (with a couple of new chapters on things such as pasta, which were too exotic back then) and are currently doing well in the book charts.

A third book I bought was a second hand edition of Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, which I had owned once at university but tossed out when I realised it wasn't relevant to the economics degree I was studying.

There is a foreword in it, written in 1991 by the British environmentalist Jonathan Porritt It says (to paraphrase) "On some issues Schumacher's views have not weathered so well. Like many other environmentalists writing in the early 1970s he was convinced of the imminence of serious oil shortages and deeply fearful of the economic and social dislocation that these would cause. Twenty years on, the emphasis is not on oil running out but the environmental damage that will be done if we continue to use it."

That itself was written twenty years ago - could this be what two steps in a catabolic collapse could look like?

BTW as an aside, maybe you're aware, but a couple of your Druidry links are broken. Jason

1/19/11, 11:58 PM

Bob said...
John, I read your blog all the time but seldom comment. Recently I've been listening to and reading Niall Ferguson. He seems to have a different view than yours. He makes a pretty strong case that "empires" have a moment when they collapse quite rapidly and seemingly unexpected (from within). A sort of tipping point occurs and things fall apart very quickly. He cites numerous historical precedents for this pattern. This may just be a matter of language, but I don't really think so. I would like to hear your response to his views. If you're not familiar with his work, I recommend it.

1/20/11, 2:14 AM

Matt and Jess said...
I think I was kind of spoiled, growing up in the 90s. Being told, as a generation, that you can have anything as long as you work hard enough for it, and then realizing while you're still in your youth that although that point has some merit, life is pretty much going to be completely different, is really depressing. Of course, reading your post while going through an extremely stressful struggle with your state department's medicaid staff just makes it all seem that much worse. Ugh.

On the other hand, it's kind of interesting to theorize about what the future holds, even if it's not going to be the shiny hi-tech future we've all been told to get used to. I've been reading lately about gypsies and medieval peasants and so on and I feel like land access/ownership is really important. I also wonder about the cultural split in our society that you mention. I'm a recovering conservative religious person -- meaning, I guess, fundamentalist Christian -- and I find it all too easy to imagine a recurrence of holy wars or some kind of loss of religious freedoms. Personally, I'm just hoping that we can take the good things about our society--things like our knowledge about, for example, the importance of hygiene, and our relative freedoms--and effectively implement whatever we can ...

Anyway, I'm always hearing about people wondering about Post Peak Oil jobs/trades and so on and I thought I'd share this very interesting link on Edo Japan, with trades mentioned: job descriptions include things like candle drippings recycler.

1/20/11, 2:33 AM

Jason said...
Aside from a missing 'of' at the start of the 11th para ("That America is also irrevocably committed to dependence on dwindling supplies [?] nonrenewable fossil fuels also seems clear at this point") this is a perfect statement of your theory and a convincing demonstration of it in practice. I'm going to pass this one around a lot.

In the UK we remember the early Thatcher years for mining pit closures which remain a wound upon which national conversation regularly pours vinegar. Our present coalition government of austerity is piling into the catabolic necessities and will be hated for it... the increase of vitriol could yet propel a Nick Griffin to power. (Or someone else like him, since he so constantly trips over his own shoelaces.)

Those who do not see ecologically see antagonistically. -- Catton

1/20/11, 3:36 AM

Simon said...
Interesting parallels with stages of ones life, approaching retirement, many couples go thru a process of divesting themselves of the accumulated stuff and simplify.
As you said, it costs money to maintain its presence in our lives.

1/20/11, 3:38 AM

Justin said...
JMG, if you find yourself in need of a good laugh, check out David Wilcock on YouTube:

I'm pretty sure he thinks he's the reincarnation of Edgar Cayce - very entertaining!

1/20/11, 4:01 AM

Don Plummer said...
Yes, 1974 sounds about right. We were still feeling the effects of the Arab oil embargo from the previous October. And it was also the year that the Watergate scandal came to a head, resulting in President Nixon's resignation in early August. (I don't know whether political events like that fit into the profile of catabolic collapse, but the scandal surely cut a deep wound in our nation's faith in its political system, a wound from which, arguably, we have never recovered.)

1/20/11, 4:47 AM

Jim Brewster said...
Interesting post. Of course it could be argued that we had long overshot by 1974.

The Great Depression demonstrated how dependent we had become on an elaborate infrastructure of trade and transportation by the 1920's. Perhaps the economic trends of the 1930's represented a natural stabilization toward a sustainable society. Many analysts predicted that after WWII we would slide back into depression, and they may have been right, had we not grabbed the imperial superpower ring. (Gollum!).

1/20/11, 5:15 AM

Edde said...
Greetings John Michael,

Hope you are enjoying this wonderful Wolf (full) Moon.

Good post!

Korean Conflict's stalemate and then Vietnam Conflict's defeat can be seen as an indication of USA Empire shrinkage?

Beats and then hippies signaled a cultural turning away from mainstream notions of "more stuff = good/essential?" '70s back-to-the-land movement was a rejection of urbanization and return to ruralism?

Try the Kinks "Low Budget" to get a taste of Brit rock's view of late '70s/early '80s. (And more mental health suggestions;-)

Stay healthy and in high spirits!


1/20/11, 6:04 AM

Robo said...
1974. The first time the US came up against a serious resource shortage outside of wartime. Remember "don't be fuelish"? Odd-Even rationing? Reduced speed limits on the interstates? The National Petroleum Reserve? CAFE standards? These were surprisingly pragmatic and honest national reactions to a real problem. Some of us were encouraged.

Then, after a few years of restraint, denial set in. By 1984 Sammy Hagar was singing "I Can't Drive 55" and by 1986 Ronald Reagan removed Jimmy Carter's solar hot water heater from the White House roof. Why was the US determined to go backwards and pretend that energy supplies were suddenly plentiful? Some of us were discouraged.

Now, we've come to another step on the staircase, and this time more than a few of us are getting discouraged. This next step seems to be much more of a stretch than the last one.

The next round of denial won't be so easy, but that won't stop us from trying. Just this week an article was published that detailed a new technology that would use genetically modified bacteria to produce biodiesel:

"The company, Joule Unlimited, was granted a patent in Sept. for their first in a series of microscopic organisms -- genetically altered versions of the E. coli bacteria -- that use sunlight and water in a process similar to photosynthesis to convert captured CO2 into usable crude oil.

They called it "Liquid Fuel From The Sun," which uses their "proprietary organism" to devour waste and defecate custom hydrocarbons. Joule ultimately hoped such technology could fill the gap in human energy needs as fossil fuel production declines worldwide." (from RawStory 1/18/11)

Renewables? Green energy? Electric cars? Biofuels? Remember those?

1/20/11, 6:12 AM

LRogers said...
Great post! I was wondering if you have read Feasta's "Tipping Point" paper which, like Niall Ferguson as Bob mentioned, makes the assertion that we are in for a huge crash.

1/20/11, 6:32 AM

Fleecenik Farm said...

My opinion is that the further down this road we travel the shorter we will have to travel.

In other words, the idea of a big box store only works if there is enough affordable oil to get the goods to market. The model of the big box store falls apart when the price of strawberries from Argentina in January cost more than the the fuel to get to the store to buy them. Oh and that fuel is too expensive to use too.

Our lives will be come much more local out of necessity not just because it is a fad.

I just look to the response to the lat time that oil prices spiked to 147.00. Seed sales were off the charts. I saw small veggie gardens triple in size and I saw new veggie gardens in what was once vast swathes of mowed lawn.

We adapt to meet our own needs. Some folks do this by looking to the state for help and others just start digging their own patch.

1/20/11, 6:39 AM

LynnHarding said...
I read Jacques Barzun's "From Dawn to Decadence" awhile ago and I wonder how your notion of 'catabolic collapse' relates to his concept of 'decadence.' I would also guess that Nietzsche's statement 'God is dead and we have killed him' says that, at least culturally, the underpinnings of western cultural hegemony were knocked out long ago. Usury set the stage for a lot of this as money joined with fossil fuels to cover up the emptiness/unsustainability of our culture and consumption patterns.

I am from New England. Our mill towns were hollowed out much earlier than 1974 as the capitalists sent clothing and furniture making jobs down south in an early version of wage arbitrage.

I think that WWI was the first big lurch downward. We didn't know what to do with all of the gases and industrial products we had generated so we gave up on the whole enterprise of organic farming and local industry. It has been all downhill for America since then, even though we have learned some amazing things.

1/20/11, 6:43 AM

BruceH said...
Last night Jon Stewart of the Daily Show interviewed author Paul Clemons who has just published a detailed account of catabolic collapse called "Punching Out:One Year in a Closing Auto Plant." Long after this plant in Detroit had stop producing cars, he followed the actual dismantling of the plant for a year.

He got to know the people doing the work and some of them even seemed to be aware of their place in the bigger picture in America's decline.

He noted that there is essentially an entire industry devoted to this kind of work. Parts of the plant were cut up and sold off for scrap. Other parts of the line were shipped to Mexico, reassembled there and are now producing Chrysler products once again.

So, JMG, when do you think Stewart will give you a call?

1/20/11, 6:53 AM

GHung said...
"Dig your well before you're thirsty"....

I've been watching a video series at; this week's installment an interview with Nocole Foss. She's discussing some of the details of our ongoing catabolic collapse and where she thinks we're headed. The other side of the mirror, so to speak. Her insights seem spot on with most of what we're discussing here.

1974..... I mentioned in last week's thread that that was the year I traveled with a Russian studies group to several countries in the USSR (the "fearsome evil empire" of the time). Still in highschool and impressionable, I could now write pages in retrospect about the things I saw there. I'll spare my fellow readers from my "memoirs", but watching folks stand in line for hours to buy a piece of meat or some toilet paper imparted a feeling of empire in decline that changed me. Upon my return to the US, I never again quite fitted into the highly consumptive upper middle class society into which I was born. Walking the streets of Atlanta, I kept flashing back to the streets of Kiev, somehow knowing what the future of my hometown looked like; not a sudden fall from some peak, but a slow wearing away of things no longer supportable. To get a sense of what Kiev looked like in 1974, I suggest a long, slow walk through Detroit, or Gary perhaps.

While we are discussing the slower, stair-step likelyhood of collapse, I feel we should look at other possibilities. One of the countries I visited, Yugoslavia, despite it's economic woes and corrupt Soviet police state, was quite notable for the level of enlightenment I witnessed on the street. Within less than two decades, this working blend of ethnic and religious diversity had devolved catastrophically into murderous chaos. Christians and Muslims no longer shared a game of chess in the park. It occurs to me that, during its long decline, Rome was also sacked from within and without. Historically, societies frequently turn on themselves as factions first blame each other, then lay claim to what they perceive as their birthright; big, nasty steps down. I fear there are many who view this as an option, a way to reclaim past glories and promises. "We need to take back OUR country" is their patriotic call to action. Best hopes for a more enlightened sense of purpose.

1974 was a turning point for many things, it seems.

1/20/11, 7:18 AM

Evan said...
This week I am feeling the reality of catabolizing resources. I am taking down parts of a large barbed wire fence around my property (a remnant of when cattle and horses were kept here) to build smaller fences for a duck yard and an orchard. Some of the wooden posts will make for nursery box-beds in the front yard for tree seedlings to re-forest the rest of the property, and others will likely be used to terrace some slopes for planting. I still have to scrape up some cash for chicken wire, which I'm not thrilled about, but I'm putting that off until the last possible moment in hopes that I might find a roll or two in the dumpster for the landfill. The ducks will find a home in a scrapped together of a bed frame, tin roofing and lumber from a collapsed barn.

Some of this isn't exactly fun, but when I think of the alternative... driving to town and going shopping (ugh)... I'd much rather be outside getting cut up by thorns and barbed wire.

1/20/11, 7:38 AM

mobiaxis said...
For some time now, I too have thought the decline in the USA began in the 1970s, which was also when our domestic oil production peaked. I am sure they are related, but am not perceptive enough to see specifically how. If we take as a given that a nation's 'wealth' is dependent to a great degree on it's access to natural resources, then it is clear that as those resources decline, so will the wealth. The detail that eludes me is how, in particular, that decline in our 'national wealth' led to the offshoring of our industrial base, both hastening and cementing out decline?

1/20/11, 7:40 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Hello JMG,

Most interesting. As you wrote somewhere, every year give something up and learn a new skill, or words to that effect.

Now I'm off to mull over catabolic collapse for awhile.

1/20/11, 7:41 AM

scratchmarc said...
Maybe contraction or curtailment might be more appropriate than collapse? I don't mean to nit pick, and certainly don't want to lullaby, soften, or spin the very real possibilities you so eloquently express into something slightly easier to swallow.

The declining steps imagery made me think of the ghats in India and Nepal, and how they're are used as part of the cycle of life and death in those cultures. I was only eleven in '74, just barely aware of what the world was about in any responsible kind of way... little realizing that we stood on the brink of an Age where there would be an explosion of technological advancement but yet the slow shuttering of our victorious post-war industries.

I suppose those quaint communities (Amish, Mennonite, etc.) that never did jump on the speedwagon that was so temptingly taught to those of us caught up in the mainstream, can serve as jumping off point for future generations who will have to adjust to a cycle of adaptation to more sensible and sustainable ways of living.

Thanks again for another very enlightening post.

1/20/11, 7:59 AM

William Hunter Duncan said...
I was born in 1973. That would mean, I've seen nothing but the on-going collapse of America. That says much about that feeling I've always had but could never name, the one I've always tried to name, the one that was not to be named.

I'm also of celtic/germanic ancestry. Historically, the savage at the gate. You say it's possible there will be several nations from the one; the division of boundaries has never yet come without bloodshed, and with two or three hundred million guns around, I expect they'll be used. We Homo sapien sapien never been very thoughtful about our technology. I'm not looking joyward to it. I've sworn myself against using one.

I had a nice evening last night with my niece and young nephew: She is seven, hispanic; my month-old little nephew is black. Strong kids, they are on the verge of losing their house.

A "catabolizing" economy isn't kind. How many more million foreclosures this year? I smell social upheaval.

A dear friend often reminds me, fear isn't anything but the body saying, "be awake."

1/20/11, 8:38 AM

Robert C. Guy said...
Thank you for continuing to share the image from your interesting vantage point John. I have a thought that I believe has been expressed in your blog before but I would like to revisit in the light of this current discussion on catabolic collapse: If a society of people standing together in caring communities valuing equality, education and the expression of thought and emotion through arts and in life, a place where the farmer is held in high regard and communities care for their own needs in every way they are able while supporting and enriching the natural world around them; supposing such a society was considered a positive end to pursue then is it possible that such success would be an abysmal failure? Would that end be a result which could be describe without dishonest words but, given the nature of the tools and language available to use in the description, to be able to be described honestly in a way which would in words call the result 'failure'. In the language and by the methods of common valuation expressed by the people around me, which I talk to and read the writings of, I find it occasionally difficult to express the value of the underlying decisions and thought process which have allowed me to live as I have and be where I am now (and contrary to the insistence of a co-worker of mine a few years ago in another state, I am not a nomad and don't have a secret heard of sheep stashed away somewhere). It is as if the language I find at my disposal is bent itself to oppose any pattern of living which does not support things like the faith in perpetual progress and the underlying assumptions which validate many processes and principles of the lifestyle of consumption (in both the modern use of the word as degrading humanity by calling them 'consumers' and the aged use of the word as a terrible disease). You wrote "In its early stages, the signal [of the onset of catabolic collapse] is hard to tease out from ordinary economic and political fluctuations..." and it seems to me (certainly an impression built on my feeble observations of the movements of ancient cultures) that the difficulty is increased in each case because the common language of each society that has passed through this process appears to have been instrumental in mediating the insight and foresight, the vision, of the people in their own time.

1/20/11, 8:39 AM

Blindweb said...
Excellent piece as always.

Is there any remote possibility that this idea could go viral in the next year or two and have an impact? I work in retail (yes, I'm trying to escape), and I just see so much fat that can be cut out there; plastic junk shipped around the world that ends up in the trash in a couple years. If only energy usage could be cut massively now to create some breathing room. I understand jobs would be lost, but it would still be a large net positive.

Charles Hugh Smith, a popular blogger who recognizes oil as the main resource, seems to think that the U.S. has one last hurrah in it.
The Great Game: Geopolitics and Oil
Essentially, the U.S. is the only country that can project hard power, i.e., 11 carrier groups to China's 0. "When two carrier groups steam offshore, they are the largest air force in the world save a very few." China has no resources and therefore has deals with other countries. A repeat of 2008 on a larger scale will crash the oil price globally, particularly in U.S. dollars. Weak oil regimes will be overthrown, with the help of covert ops I'm sure. The U.S. will exploit those countries, like you describe after the fall of the U.S.S.R. China will be blocked from accessing many markets. While I'm leaning towards stagflation I don't want to rule this out. I assume top level U.S. leaders understand the oil problem, and this seems like a logical plan they would come up with. (Not that I endorse it) Any thoughts?

The Great Game: Geopolitics and Oil

1/20/11, 9:01 AM

Resurgent Viking said...
Great post! Having read some of the books recommended here, Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies" among them, it's fairly easy to follow your reasoning.

Bill Pulliam, here's one hint to some quantitative indices: In his book "The Last Oil Shock" David Strahan quotes a study (along with a nice diagram) by Prof. Alan Carruth that links the oil price index to the US unemployment rate. Very impressive. Strahan also makes the point of catabolic collapse, not in the same words, but it is right there if you're already attuned to the general theme.

Slightly off-topic here, but while I'm at it, I might as well recommend another book. If any of you liked E.F. Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful", you might want to try "To Have or to Be" by Erich Fromm. It was first published in 1976, and I think it shares quite a few characteristics with Schumacher's book, even though he starts from a psychological point of view.

1/20/11, 9:15 AM

Lynford1933 said...
I'm an old guy as you can see by my handle. A year when the down slope started +- 10 or 15 years is close enough. As a historian I guess that would mean something important but each individual has different circumstances when their down slope started so the general question really does not apply to the individual (which is each of us). I have a friend who is 40 something with a going business and he has not reached his personal peak as yet so the argument for the peak of America has not happened in his view and further may never happen.

Above: The concept that some giant company or the government will feed and take care of you (at some reduced level) is a dangerous concept. I was almost nine when WWII started and I remember the depression well. No one took care of us. Yes, there were a few soup lines earlier but my parents did what they had to do to get by. We hunted rabbits not for the joy of hunting but for food.

Times have changed and now there are millions on food stamps and the concept of eating a little bunny is almost out of the question. If I shot a rabbit in my garden, dressed it and gave it to my neighbor, in 1939 they would have enjoyed a nice meal but now they would barf about killing a little fuzzy animal.

There is a very realistic argument by Andre and others at TOD, that each step down the slope may be associated with a period of deadly chaos. This may be where Doomers are coming from. It only takes one death (yours) to end years of speculation when the end may come. IMHO there is a gathering storm with many closely packed squall lines that will vary widely across the country but a coronal mass ejection or a nuclear event or something called a "Black Swan" could bring the whole civilization down over next week end. I sat on SAC alert long enough to realize we have the capability.

OT: Here in Reno we had a couple days of warm weather (68F mid January WTF) and there is some green showing up in the desert. This morning is was in the low 20's and the local green will die which is an analogy to the world in general. I like Dec 21 2012 as TEOTWAWKI in solemn respect to the ancient Mayan astronomers.

1/20/11, 10:31 AM

Paul said...
I wonder how much longer the Internet and the Web will be around, then. And since I work with software, I wonder what new, in-demand, and rare skillset I can take up that can both provide income now and two decades into the future. With family health issues, I am very dependent on having health insurance, so yet another difficulty. This is all a lot to consider in addition to thinking about survival as a minority in the U.S. and survival as a family with infants.

1/20/11, 10:44 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Glenn, another row of potatoes is probably the most sensible thing you could do right now.

Bill, good. I was hoping to fake people out a bit with that line. As for quantitative indices, I suspect there are, but that's something that would have to be worked out by somebody who has the necessary technical background, which I don't.

Robin, a case could certainly be made for that. I chose 1974 because that's more or less when catabolism began in easily visible ways.

Cherokee, the Green Revolution is a good example of the attempt to solve a maintenance crisis by increasing income, and like all such attempts, it ended up increasing maintenance costs -- in this case, the number of mouths to feed -- and thus made the problem worse. The obsession with economic growth? Yes, it's recent; it began around the time real economic growth ended, and was replaced by inflation of paper wealth. As for whether a future society will be more cooperative or not, well, that's really anybody's guess.

Kevin, those are excellent questions; some would take a book to answer, others won't be answerable at all until the dust settles.

Denise, you're thinking in the short term. Multinational corporations can only exist in a world with cheap abundant energy; as that world ends, so will they, and localized peasant economies -- which may be just as exploitive, mind you -- will fill the gap. Remember also that your lifetime will see only a certain fraction of this process unfold.

Galen, I'm not a great fan of Strauss and Howe; while I think they have some good points, there are other factors that play into the timing of historical crises that I don't think they take sufficiently into account, and they do a certain amount of data fudging to make history fit their cycles.

The tip into catabolism isn't driven by generational factors; rather, all of American history from colonial times to roughly 1972 rode the back of an anabolic wave driven first by seizing resources from the native inhabitants of this continent, and then by exploiting fossil fuels, combined with quite a bit of empire building in Latin America and overseas. Now we're on the catabolic wave, which has about as long a run ahead of it as the anabolic wave had.

1/20/11, 11:08 AM

Hal said...
I just have a few questions. If collapse began in 1973, then would that also set the date of Peak Empire? If so, what are the parameters of the Empire? Certainly there was am American Empire on the N. American continent, maybe beginning with the War of 1812, but is that the empire we're talking about? Or maybe constituting an analog to the pre-Punic Wars phase of the Roman Empire? (When they still considered themselves a Republic, BTW.) It seems to me that worldwide empire can't be considered till after WWI at the earliest or maybe WWII. If so, that was a mighty short empire.

Well, I guess the empire still goes on for at least a big chunk of the decline phase.

I wonder if this time it is actually a bit different. Modern media and information technology mean that things just change a lot faster nowadays than they ever did in any previous times in history, it seems. We look back and it seems that the Romans, Spanish, British, etc., got to salute the flag at the top of the mast for a long time, while we barely got ours run up before it's being lowered.

The unsettling direction that train of thoughts leads is that maybe you're a little overoptimistic on how long the collapse phase could take. If we're seeing a speeding up of the process, those down steps might come a lot closer to each other than history might suggest.

1/20/11, 11:20 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Jason, that's exactly what the first two steps of catabolic collapse look like! Schumacher saw the onset of the process -- I've borrowed a lot of ideas from his work -- and the dismissal of his very cogent take on fossil fuels by even sympathetic readers in the 1980s and 1990s is a symptom of the fear that underlay those decades -- the fear that the abyss that seemed ready to open up beneath us in the 1970s had not been banished, but merely postponed.

Bob, Ferguson's quite right; it's simply that he's talking about something a little different than I am. It took only a decade or so for the British Empire to come unglued, but you'll notice that Britain still exists! Basically, an empire is one of the things a wealthy and powerful society puts together in its anabolic days, and it's often catabolized in one of the first few cycles of the decline; the longer process of contraction then continues on a more local scale. In the same way, as I've suggested, the US will likely lose its empire and its status as a superpower in the round of catabolism that's beginning right now, but -- whether it retains political unity or not -- it will cycle through another century or two of stairstep declines before it finally bottoms out.

Matt and Jess, Edo-period Japan is a great model of how to maintain a relatively sophisticated urban society on very, very little in the way of resources. Thanks for the link!

Jason, that's one of the things I worry about. When all the other political parties refuse to talk honestly about the issues that matter, extremists have their chance.

Simon, that's a useful metaphor. If only civilizations could ditch their excess stuff with some degree of grace!

Justin, that's definitely worth a laugh. Thank you.

Don, you normally get political crises in catabolic cycles, if only because everybody's looking for someone to blame.

Jim, the difference between being in overshoot and tipping into catabolism is the difference between the moment that Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff and hangs there in midair, and the moment when he finally plummets into the canyon. For us, that hang time was some decades long.

Edde, all symptoms of the same process. That's one of the reasons why I've been working here on resurrecting 1970s-era appropriate tech; it's as well suited to the current round of catabolism as it was to the last one.

1/20/11, 11:23 AM

K said...
Very interesting post. Like you, I'd argue that the second wave of collapse is going to be much more profound than the first. As you note, we were able to recover from the oil shocks of the 1970s by exploiting with great abandon and no long-term vision the Alaskan oil fields. And the US was also able to exploit additional sources of global oil in that pre-peak world that are in steep decline now. I remember a gallon of gas, at least for a short while, costing just 69 cents (I'm sure I didn't imagine that), during the so-called oil glut of the mid-1980s. That kind of "get out of jail" card isn't available to us now. (Stating the obvious, I know...)

But despite what you say about the Rust Belt being true, is it overstating things to say that in the 1970s "most of rural America" entered "into a depression from which it has never recovered"? Honestly, I think it is a bit. (I do get that hyperbole is sometimes warranted as a rhetorical technique.) While much of rural America lost jobs then that are never coming back, and farming was transformed utterly by factory farms and the like, I'd argue that the most relevant transformation for rural America since the '70s is not widespread "depression" (a great many small towns aren't in a depression), but rather rural America's new dependence on global supply chains for even its most basic needs. Towns that are isolated by distance and in which the majority of the population no longer even knows how to darn a sock are going to be in for heaps of trouble when shipments start arriving at the discount superstore.

1/20/11, 11:28 AM

K said...
"stop arriving," not "start arriving," of course. Argh!

1/20/11, 11:31 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Robo, we can expect to get a torrent of proposals like that one in the years to come. They're a great way to demonstrate the truth of Ben Franklin's famous proverb about a fool and his money. If only those wretched laws of thermodynamics didn't interfere with such schemes! ;-)

LRogers, yes, I've read it. Like most "one big crash" scenarios, it underestimates the ability of the existing order to go to any extreme to keep things running. That aside, it makes some good points about the driving forces of catabolism.

Fleecenik, no argument there.

Lynn, I enjoyed Barzun's book! It's well worth reading. From a European perspective, catabolic collapse began in 1914; in the four decades that followed, the European empires that dominated the entire world crashed and burned, leaving the smoking wreckage of a continent divided between American and Russian spheres of influence; it's hard to find a more drastic example of decline in history than that! The Seventies were a second and less severe step down; my guess is that the next one will be a doozy.

Bruce, if anybody from the mainstream media ever gives me a call I'll fall out of my chair with sheer surprise. It's one thing to talk about the dismantling of a factory; it's quite another to talk about the dismantling of an empire we pretend doesn't even exist, and the fall of a nation most Americans believe is eternal by definition.

GHung, we'll be lucky if we scrape through the next couple of decades in the US without serious domestic insurgencies, if not outright civil war. I think that latter could still be avoided, but it's going to be touch and go.

Evan, excellent. That's exactly how catabolic collapse works; the no longer useful stuff from an earlier time gets turned into something more useful for now.

Mobiaxis, an industrial system has to be maintained and improved with continuing investment, and that can be very costly. In 1974, the big American industrial firms had the choice of continuing to invest a lot of money in their factories, by offshoring; if there had been an abundance of national wealth, they'd have upgraded, as they'd done many times in the past. but money was tight and so were resources of all kinds. That's what drove the great wave of offshoring heavy industry.

1/20/11, 11:38 AM

jal said...
Great essay and comments!

We now have THE WEB to spread the knowledge. Its different than in the 70's.

The changes, in the USA, are negative for millions of the (pretend), middle class.
On the other hand, the changes have been positive for millions living in China, and India.

Some might say its a zero sum game. However, the diminishing resources/energy wall will put a stop to GROWTH.

The 0.01% of the population have been aware and are building the very things that are being recommended by so many bloggers ...


IF I had access to the wealth that China has I would be preparing, a DOOMSTEAD for myself and my loved ones, as they are, In Africa.


1/20/11, 11:51 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Adrian, thank you. (Excellent post over on your blog, by the way.)

Scratchmarc, what happened to the Roman Empire or the ancient Lowland Maya wasn't "contraction" or "curtailment," and the same goes for us.

William, that feeling is one that's been haunting people all over America for decades; talking about it is one of our society's great taboos. Bringing it out into the open and starting a conversation about it is one of the crucial tasks of our time.

Robert, good. Very good. Yes, the definitions of "success" and "failure" in any society are political in nature; they uphold a specific set of goals, which are those the political classes of that society find appealing and useful; and what can be a "failure" in the official language can very definitely be a success in any more human terms. You might consider getting that flock of sheep, by the way; mutton's tasty, and wool makes winter a lot less uncomfortable!

Blindweb, I long ago gave up trying to guess what will and won't catch the fancy of the net-inhabiting public; I'm still bemused that anybody but a scattering of mangy looking Druids reads this blog. As for Smith's theory, those carrier groups have an unwholesome effect on the American imagination; they function as a kind of mental Viagra, convincing us that we can still perform like fourteen-year-olds.

I gather Smith isn't aware that China and Russia alike are putting quite a bit of money and effort into asymmetric weapons systems designed precisely to sink carriers at a relatively low cost. Think of the impact on the balance of power if a couple of American carrier groups, sent to put some muscle into a proxy war between the US and China over East African oil, say, were to be sunk or crippled by a sudden barrage of antiship ballistic missiles or the like -- launched by China's East African allies, to be sure, so there's plenty of plausible deniability.

The crucial problem with his analysis, though, is that China can afford to be patient longer than the US can. Why does he think they've been stockpiling such huge reserves of raw materials, to the extent of building entire empty cities that can be stripped down and recycled as needed? It seems pretty clear to me that the Chinese government knows perfectly well what's coming, and is playing their cards extremely well.

Viking, now there's a blast from the past! I haven't read Fromm's work in decades -- have to remedy that sometime soon.

1/20/11, 11:55 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Lynford, there's certainly a storm gathering, but I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about industrial civilization hitting some kind of sudden stop. We've got enough in the way of likely trouble to deal with. As for that rabbit, depends on where you are; where I live, most people hunt, and there are plenty who wouldn't turn up their nose at a nice plump bunny.

Paul, my guess is that the internet will remain in existence for a while yet, but access to it will become increasingly limited as standards of living decline and costs rise. In your place I'd keep with the IT work, but start building a second career doing something you like to do that produces something people need.

Hal, our empire began with the first rounds of westward expansion, started moving in on Latin America with the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in the 1820s, and went global with the Spanish-American War, so it's been around about as long as its equivalents. It peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.

K, I don't think it's an exaggeration. I'd point to the number of farm towns that have been depopulated and even abandoned, the collapse of local economies, and -- in the strictest sense of the word "depression" -- the extraordinarily low prices paid for agricultural produce from the 1970s until 2007 or so. As a member of the Grange, I get to hear a lot of backchannel talk among farmers, and for those who still remember the days before 1974, it's pretty clear that the current agricultural economy is still profoundly depressed compared to what it was fifty years ago.

Jal, the web is not that big a deal. Yes, I know that's heresy, but you know, information was not that hard to circulate in the days before the internet. As for doomsteads, holing up in the hills with canned beans and ammo will not do you a lick of good in a slow process of economic and social contraction that's going to take one to three centuries to complete.

1/20/11, 12:09 PM

jal said...
".... As for doomsteads, ...

I didn't mean ..." canned beans and ammo"

I mean buying up Countries and controlling resources ... like China is doing.

I'm thinking long term ... generational

1/20/11, 12:38 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Re: catabolizing empires; I think we will know that the American Empire per se has entered this phase when we see military operations being withdrawn because of economic reasons, not political ones. When the Tea Party etc. sorts actually shift to start campaigning for a scaling back of our global military presence as part of their "smaller government" philosophy, this will be a good leading indicator I think. Sure, some of them, like Ron Paul, have been saying this for years, but when the idea catches on with the rank and file that might presage a watershed. An alignment between the Peaceniks and the Teabaggers (to use terms that both groups find insulting) would be a REAL sign of change.

1/20/11, 1:07 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
Speaking of catabolic collapse, did someone mention Detroit? These pictures that were published a couple of weeks ago say it all for me. Visually shocking and thought provoking.

1/20/11, 1:30 PM

T said...
Great post. I have one comment: of course it's true that, starting in the early 1970s, "hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America’s then-prosperous working class, went away forever." But I think it's important to remember America's working class had, in 1974, not been, by and large, all that prosperous for very long.

The prosperity they did have, in the US at least, was a function of economic and political events following the end of World War II. (The Depression is the obvious example of pre-war hardship, but most working people had less-than-prosperous lives before the Depression, too.)

Tom Wolfe, though not exactly my favorite social observer, noted in his 1976 "Me Decade" essay that the then-thirty-year-long postwar boom had "pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history." Maybe that only proves how unaware people are of their own era (that Wolfe couldn't see, in 1976, that his description was already outdated), but I think the point is valid that working-class prosperity was still a fairly new circumstance in the mid-1970s.

How that relates to your thesis, if at all, I'm not sure. (Some catabolic collapse started earlier? Prosperity is a relative term, and it wasn't until the onset of cheap energy and post-WWII imperialism that what we think of as prosperity today was accessible to anyone?)

I guess I'll leave it at that, since I really don't know the answer.

1/20/11, 2:11 PM

Yupped said...
Thanks again for another great essay. I was a teenager in the UK in 1974. For me it was my first experience of crappy times, but for older Brits it was just another step down a long road of imperial decline (1914, 1939, 1956, etc). My Dad, whose family had been big cheeses in the Indian and Chinese sectors of the Empire, was put on a three-day week and we were hard-up for a while. But he gardened more, made his own wine, spent a lot less. Life went on. Small Is Beautiful was a standard part of my Economics curriculum in High School.

Interestingly, so it seemed, there was more social division in the eighties, when half the population got back on the FIRE/automation/globalization gravy trains and the other half continued to struggle. That was when more anger kicked-in, although that could be my faulty perception. But it will probably be easier to deal with hardship on the way down if people generally feel they are in the same boat. We had a little taste of that immediately after 9/11 here. I hope at some point we develop a broad consensus on what is happening to us, that we are indeed in an irreversible decline, and that those who are struggling are not just insufficiently positive/determined/pro-American Dream, etc. But that may be a little unrealistic in such a large and complex society. Would you care to predict when such a “sense of the nation” as to our true predicament might begin to gel?

1/20/11, 3:04 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Thanks, JMG. I'm honored you would visit.

1/20/11, 3:24 PM

provo said...
Great as usual! When I hear JMG describe the next step down, it sounds more like Total Collapse :-).

Still getting used to the longer timescale....

I'm reading an interesting book-- Dale Pendell's "The Great Bay". It spans from Collapse, in 2021, thru two thousand years of subsequent loss of complexity, in pretty good detail, as experienced in the American West.

Then it covers "Later Millenia" in somewhat less detail :-)

1/20/11, 3:41 PM

Doctor Westchester said...
Like Bill and other, I thought it likely that you will tell us that the start of the collapse was in the past. And I totally agree with your assessment, plus or minus a few years depending perhaps on one’s own situation.

Growing up and going to college in Houston, Texas, I can remember going to a cowboy bar in the early eighties with few chemistry graduate students and talking with some laid-off machinists from up north who came to Houston for work because the oil “bizness” was booming, only to see the oil recession hit Texas less than a year later.

I worked in the chemical industry for two decades stating in the mid-eighties, Literally from day one I was aware that I was working in an industry that’s had seen better days only a few years before, and the situation never improved.

Early on, I remember being at a chemical plant site and seeing a large area of ugly disturbed ground were their tetraethyl lead unit had been until recently. We are certainly much better off heath wise with that unit being scrapped, but even then it was for me a potent symbol of decline.

In regards to China, I would agree with you that from a geopolitical standpoint, they are playing their hand very well. But I wonder if the current leadership greatest problem is that they making their move during an industrial age with all the destructiveness that it allows. Not only am I referring to the pollution that is resulting from their effort, but also the possibly also their potential undermining of their country greatest resilient asset, their agricultural system. Besides the issue of moving so much of their population to their cities, apparent there are indications that their lands are losing their organic matter, doubtlessly due to growing reliance on industrial fertilizers, instead of that endlessly renewable source that they are famous for. They may have much further to fall this time when their next collapse comes.

1/20/11, 3:59 PM

Phil Knight said...
Hello JMG,

Thought you might like to read this:

It's nothing that you don't know already, but as it was written by somebody who was at the sharp end of trying to prop up a declining empire (the British one), I think it's useful in adding practical experiential confirmation to the tomes of Toynbee, Spengler etc.

1/20/11, 4:24 PM

Richard Larson said...
In 1995, oil was 10 dollars a barrel, natgas cost consumers 50 cents a therm, and the average cost of electricity was 7.5 cents kWh. Thanks primarily to the low cost of energy, America was humming along, unemployment was not a concern, and the US government didn't borrow sums like today.

In this year 1995, today's blog would have been scorned and ridiculed! 1974? Are you nuts?

But today you can make this point, and perhaps, in the next decade or two, you may have made an even larger point.

There will be short cycles and long cycles blending together, with not many able to discern these, through what to them will seem as chaos. Richard Heinberg has made this clear with the description of industry increasing fuel use to satisfy consumer demand - leading to higher fuel costs. Of course, higher fuel costs will lower consumer demand, and fuel use, leading to lower fuel prices...

What is important is to actually have acted on the ideas you represent. Those who have lowered their life cost will certainly not have to be worried about being thrown out into the street with no prospects for a consistent meal.

Don't scoff, it is happening right now (people being thrown out into the street).

For those who are willing to act, the cycles will not be apparent at all!

1/20/11, 5:16 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jal, well, that's called "empire." It works for a while, then the costs outstrip the benefits.

Bill, that's a signal I'm watching for as well.

Jason, Detroit's one of the places I point toward when people insist that there's no way America is in decline. It's ahead of the curve; expect similar scenes in other American cities in the years to come.

T, prosperity is a relative term. Even before Henry Ford pioneered the scheme of paying workers well enough to afford consumer luxuries, America paid its labor force very well by the standards of other countries -- that's one of the reasons so many people came here. I figure we're one to two decades from the point at which emigration equals or exceeds immigration -- a real milestone, that.

Yupped, unfortunately I expect things to move in the opposite direction, with scapegoating and fingerpointing rising to a crescendo as people try to find some reason other than the real one for the end of the American dream.

Adrian, I check it out regularly. It's a good solid green wizardry source!

Provo, I'll have to check that one out. Hadn't heard of it.

Doctor W., granted, China's headed for plenty of trouble. It's simply that we're likely to crash and burn well before they do.

Phil, good heavens. I'd read about Glubb Pasha, of course, but didn't know about this book. At first glance it seems quite sensible. Thank you for passing it on!

Richard, exactly. One of the core themes of the green wizard project is precisely that it teaches skills that can be used to solve exactly the problems most of us will face in the decades ahead -- making sure we have enough food, and don't go broke paying for heat!

1/20/11, 7:26 PM

sofistek said...
I read the appendix in The Long Descent and the theory seems perfectly rational. However, I don't see a conflict with Tainter's definition of collapse as a process of marked socio-political simplification unfolding on a timescale of "no more than a few decades". Isn't that the definition of each step of catabolic collapse?

For instance, the collapse step that occurred in the 70s and "pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered", or your projected next step when "a great many people who depend on those jobs will descend into poverty, and most of them will never rise back out of it". For those people, didn't their society collapse at each step down? If those steps can be seen as collapse for the people affected, isn't it fair to say that collapse (from the individual's perspective) can happen on a time scale of decades or less?

1/20/11, 7:44 PM

SophieGale said...
I was 23 in 1974, hanging on the fringes of the ecumenical/social justice movement headquartered in Chicago. In 1973-1974 the mood of the country was so bleak that our group was not sure if there was going to be an official Bicentennial celebration in 1976.

The Smithsonian finally put The Bill of Rights and Dorothy's ruby slippers and somebody's space suit on The Freedom Train and sent it around the country (back then trains still went all over the country). We had "Bicentennial Minutes" on TV and the Tall Ships and commemorative coins, and all that:

--But in 1974 it felt like six weeks before the Olympics opened and nobody was in the mood to finish the stadium.

Lately I been thinking a lot about our Sestercentennial (250th anniversary) coming up in 15 years. Does 250 count as a "significant" anniversary? Will the economy be on a uptick or a downtick. Will the USA pull together again for the Red, White, and Blue? Will it be fireworks on the National Mall or guns in Tent Cities? Tall Ships or Bread and Circuses? And the Tricentennial is 2076. Will we be taking stars off the flag?

Those are the years I am trying to hold in my head.

1/20/11, 10:08 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

Are all Druids mangy looking? Is it part of the job description? hehe! Thanks for the laugh and the response to my queries.

Actually, I prefer to blend in so that I'm unnoticed. Shavers, water and energy for washing clothes may actually be in short supply one day though!

I read Blindweb's comment and thought that the US can't really afford to go to war with China as it takes both resources and money which the US doesn't have. Heavy industry can't be established overnight either. China is obtaining both energy and resources in abundance (incidentally in the process also offloading US dollars) albeit at the cost to their environment and top soil. This is probably the main reason that we in Australia aren't in a recession now and unemployment is at only around 5% which is considered to be full employment.

In the past couple of days, I'll note that the US government has (I won't use the word begging, but) been making representations to the Chinese government to raise their exchange rate. I see no reason why the Chinese would change the situation which is playing very nicely into their hands. They're even considering using some of their foreign exchange reserves to help bail out some of the PIGS countries in Europe. Interesting times. When you borrow money you are effectively selling either an asset or future income (or both).

Have a look at the difference between the US national debt versus the Chinese foreign exchange reserves. The industrial world is like a household living in luxury off a credit card with no way to pay. It's not maxed out yet, but it's close. The bankers are already worried that enough is enough, but they can't unhook themselves from the structural problems either.

I've seen plenty of businesses over the years and sometimes you have to let them fail so that they can either pull themselves up by their bootstraps or simply fade away. Structural change seems to be impossible without first going through and acknowledging failure.

I think that the point of no return will be hit when the existing housing stock starts being recycled into smaller less energy intensive dwellings. I don't think we are that far from the point at which it becomes too expensive (or the system is unable to) to be able power these dwellings and hence the pressure to recycle the embodied materials.

In the early 1990's I remember the sell off of the public infrastructure (power stations, distribution networks, communications, public transport etc.) to private corporations and I always felt that this was done to reduce government debt, but also because it had become too expensive for the government to maintain at the current tax levels. Since that time I can't really recall too many examples of major infrastructure development outside of road projects (which are funded here through a tax on petrol). I've always felt that this was a sign of failure.

Good luck!

1/21/11, 12:19 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

It might also be worth pointing out to your readers that just prior to the Chinese governments visit to US shores they unveiled their version of a stealth jet fighter. It might also be worth pointing out that this is now fully operational unlike the US - Australian joint strike fighter...

Being at the top of your game is at best a transient condition and like everything else, subject to change at short notice!

Good luck!

1/21/11, 12:26 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Agriculture is not profitable here either. There's a farmer around here who says to me that farming is like "ripping your money up and throwing it into the air"!

It's amazing though how many farms around here seem to be supported by off farm professional incomes...

Good luck!

1/21/11, 12:33 AM

Cherokee Organics said...

Nice to hear about your issues with air travel. Bummer though, you'd always be welcome for a stay here though.



1/21/11, 12:47 AM

Sean Strange said...
Well I’m a bit skeptical of collapse models based on pre-scientific societies barely out of the Stone Age, or at best the Iron Age. The explosion of wealth that began in the 17th century in Europe was not simply a product of imperial looting; it’s hardly a coincidence that the Enlightenment and the rise of science occurred around the same time.

I know this sounds like modern arrogance, but we really have changed the rules of the game with the tools of science and technology. It’s not a zero sum game any more, and whatever limits to growth may exist on this planet are either far off or can be worked around. The fallacy of “peak everything” arguments is their tendency to project current capabilities into the future, and to underestimate the adaptive power that science gives us. We are not stone age tribes living on Easter Island; we are a global civilization with quantitative models, satellites, computers, etc. which give us a pretty good idea what is going on on this planet. That's not to say that it will always be smooth sailing to the stars, but honestly I think people here are engaging in a strange kind of wishful thinking if they think modern civilization is facing some inevitable long-term collapse.

I’m a cornucopian for the simple reason that it’s the most rational position to have in view of the historical facts. If there are examples of collapses of modern scientific civilizations then maybe I will reconsider, but I can’t think of any, can you?

1/21/11, 1:07 AM

Half Empty said...
JMG - Michael Grant was nothing if not prolific. Could you recommend one of his titles as a good point to start on his opus?

1/21/11, 2:12 AM

Don Plummer said...
@Jason Heppenstall:
Detroit is a great example of catabolism. Already in Detroit, as whole abandoned neighborhoods are being dismantled, plowed under, and turned into mini-farms and community gardens, we see the peasants plowing the fields in sight of the not-yet-ruins of a once great city.

1/21/11, 5:34 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
I might make a conjecture as to what form the next period of quasi-stability could take. From the guesses here this would be the phase in which many of us will finish out our elder years if we live long lives. This is a supposition, a hypothesis, a bit of speculative fiction.

I might think that this quasi-stable time will come when the "renewable" and "alternative" energy sources reach their maximum implementation and add some lasting but temporary buoyancy to the long-term energy decline. Coupled with drastic energy conservation, and supported by the ongoing subsidies from fossil fuels and residual infrastructure built during the cheap energy age, I can see that this could help things settle down for a period of several decades. It might be a much more localized and austere lifestyle, but it might vaguely resemble a highly impoverished version of the ecotopian fantasies of the present-day "green energy" boosters -- windmills, PV panels, tiny electric vehicles, bicycles, local economies, local agriculture, more localized government probably varying drastically in form from place to place ranging from neo-feudalism to communalism to small-scale democracies.

People living in this time would likely think "we've solved it, now we have a sustainable world, yay for us." They would likely ignore the on going subsidies from the still-available fossil fuels and the remaining infrastructure that they would never be able to rebuild for themselves. Eventually the continuing decline in these subsidies would destabilize the "sustainable" economy, "green energy" will become too expensive to maintain, catabolism resumes, and it'll be another slide...

Just a guess... crystal balls are notoriously unreliable

1/21/11, 6:04 AM

Robert C. Guy said...
It is interesting to observe how organizations of humanity call themselves a name and decide to extract wealth from other parts of humanity until they are an empire and proceed to crumble back down but what about those cultures that exist inside of or beside those empires who may be less observed for how quiet they are but choose other ways of existing? Like the peoples of Pueblo de Taos, that community of 1,000 year old buildings? It seems there are many others scattered, often quietly, in every compartment of the globe and through all generations. I think of the aboriginals of Australia, I have read they 'never developed an "iron age", "bronze age", or pottery, and the terms "palaeolithic" (old stone age) and "neolithic" (new stone age) are not used in Australia, because stone technology did not progress in the same way as the rest of the world.' and "They didn't farm the land or plant and harvest and crops or herd any animals. But they knew how to look after the land that fed them and gave them shelter. They tried to make sure that there would always be enough of the plants they used for food. They put part of the root of some plants back in the ground so that the plant would grow again and sometimes burned of areas of dry grass because they knew that his helped seeds to sprout" and regarding a bushman who knew he was dying from lack of nutrition "When the grave was dug with bushes and a blanket lay on the bottom, he lay down in it and wrote a letter...It is strange to see him dying so bravely when all around him were wild yams, anyeroo nuts and various wild bananas and berries." Perhaps odd, I suppose, from the perspective of my mind; raised in the U.S. But I believe many things are different in a culture where 'None of the hundreds of Aboriginal languages contain a word for time.' I think too of the oasis villages I remember seeing in The Silk Road documentary that have been farmed for untold generations and claimed by one empire or the next but inhabited by people who have carted their produce to the market every week for literally thousands of years. Essentially all of the methods and concepts we refer to as new in our efforts to live in a way which allows our chosen life style to continue in harmony with the world around us are referred to between ourselves as new or progressive but they appear to be variations on ancient practices as well established in the fabric of the world as the underlying truths they grow out from.

1/21/11, 6:30 AM

Tom said...
With the advent of the Tea Party and the continuing move to the right, states rights have once again come into vogue at the expense of needed action on a federal level. Continued stripping of federal aided and abetted by the Supreme Court will give us less and less reason to preserve the nation as currently constructed.

Even those on the left will be further encouraged to break off part of the union, including most or all of those people living on the Pacific Coast.

Maintenance of our bloated empire is only hastening the collapse making it impossible to maintain much less expand or create new infrastructure.

The U.S. has long been the most corruptive influence on the biosphere and the destruction of needed natural capital. Desperate attempts to maintain the empire in the face of the new "threat" from China will only hasten the demise of that same empire.

Since it is clear that human kind does not have the ability to preserve the biosphere, including the plants and animals therein, the sooner the collapse becomes the better.

You have focused on the U.S. What about China? Are they exempt from this analysis or will their collapse come later? If so, when?

1/21/11, 6:59 AM

Paper Mache Fanatic said...
I've read a few books recently that discuss the issue of concentrated urban centers and the issue of repopulating the countryside with a new peasantry. Right now, most people who would like to live the "5 Acres and Independence" lifestyle are unable to, because land prices and land use laws make it too expensive. Hopefully, that will soon change.

Simon Fairlie, author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, suggested in his last chapter that decentralized food and power production is the rational solution to the loss of cheap fossil fuels, but that centralized food and power production benefits the urban elites who profit from it. He doesn't appear to be optimistic that the rational move towards land redistribution will come easily, because those who have power tend to hold onto it, with force if necessary.

The recent events in Tunisia bring up another point, however - that dissatisfied urban crowds can cause a great deal of disruption and are very easy to organize. In A Golden Thread, the authors mention in passing that Hitler stopped the building of massive apartment buildings for workers in urban centers precisely because the concentration of people made organizing too easy, which presented a threat to his idea of social order.

That puts the needs of the government for civil peace in opposition with the needs of the corporations' need for centralized production and control of profit streams. This could become a noticeable issue when the US government finally admits that we can't afford our massive military. If thousands of men and women, all educated in guerrilla warfare tactics and the use of weapons, are mustered out at once, the government would do everything it could to prevent all those potential insurgents from being dumped into cities where their future prospects are bleak. There are probably already people hiding away in Washington offices trying to figure out ways to change land-use laws and break up huge corporate land holdings so that people can be spread out - the modern version of 40 acres and a mule. This might cause us to become a nation of peasants more quickly than we expected.

1/21/11, 7:28 AM

blue sun said...
Excellent job with the teasers last I'm kicking myself for expecting you'd give us a future date...

I have to agree about the decline since the 1970s and that "depressed" is a relative term tied to our definitions of "success" and "failure." I think Kunstler hits the nail on the head calling us a nation "addicted to lying to itself." As someone from the younger generation, I see it very clearly in my contemporaries. Rather than admit that our lives are less rich than our parents' generation, we convince ourselves that fast food / iPad / Netflix / Facebook are an improvement to owning a home and starting a family. From a biological perspective, those of us who have decided to forego starting a family in lieu of having endless self-gratification or endlessly climbing a ladder, have got nothing. Just a generation ago, it was possible for factory workers to raise children and even own a house with only a high-school diploma. Imagine that! Thus, the wealth decline/ birthrate decline is not recognized for what it really is, but rather is justified as a "change in attitudes." Meanwhile, the national media and corporations that sell us masses our opium are more than happy to back up this reasoning (I commented back in June about a "study" which discovered that childhood doesn't actually end until 30, who knew?). Maybe America's slogan should be "we buy things to solve problems." (...I can never understand why so many people who support the new healthcare bill don't realize that forcing people to buy something is not a solution to a problem...)

Tangentially, I wanted to ask you, would you agree that the US federal government currently operates as a de facto plutocracy/ oligarchy?

I find myself curious about how our government is evolving. But come to think of it, on the long term/ big picture level, the type of government we have (whether plutocracy, democracy, dictatorship, etc.) really will not affect the overall shape of our descent, but on the short term/ local level it could mean the difference between half your family being sent to the gulag or not.

Just some thoughts, thanks for yours....

1/21/11, 9:03 AM

Mean Mr Mustard said...
Regarding Bill P’s comment and your looking for significant military cutbacks as a collapse marker - Military operations being severely constrained by affordability - euphemistically described as 'capability gaps' – well, that's already a hard reality here in the UK.

The last of our three small aircraft carriers has now gone. No Harriers either, these, until recently, considered essential equipment in our latest Afghanistan campaign. (We used airpower there in the Empire era of the 1930s too...) No Nimrods either, so this is now an island nation without maritime patrol aircraft.

But we do have two huge new fossil fuelled(!) aircraft carriers still under construction, if only because it seems the contracts were even more watertight than the ships could ever be. Though I'd personally prefer that they be converted from Her Majesty's Ships to Her Majesty's Prisons, to serve as hulks to contain the several thousand members of our thoroughly corrupt power elites. Room for more inside...

1/21/11, 11:40 AM

jnaegele said...
From reading todays post I'd like to know what you believe signifies the "end" of a civilization. In my understanding of the history of civilizations in general, they don't normally end, but rather they evolve into something else. There are of course exceptions, but most of these exceptions have to do with war or some natural disaster on a scale that the civilization in question is unable to deal with.

Catabolic collapse in my opinion doesn't cause a civilizations to end, rather it accelerates their evolution. Survival of the fittest and all that.
The situation facing America and the rest of the world today seems to me to be one which will cause the (historically speaking) rapid evolution of civilizations around the world, America included.

But evolution does not equal end.

1/21/11, 11:47 AM

sofistek said...
A couple of things.

Your date about the onset of collapse sounds about right, comparing with Dave Cohen's ideas in his blog "Decline of the Empire". He does mention a date somewhere (but I can't find the post) which I recall as either mid 70s or early 80s. It's a US centric blog but well worth a read.

The notion of a stepped collapse seems entirely rational and fits with the collapse of past societies/civilisations. However, I would say that for the people affected (some of who will never recover from each step down), the collapse is pretty much complete at that step. I think this accentuates the urgency for preparation, as you often propose. Though total collapse may take centuries, be careful that you're not caught in one of those steps down, after which, your options become far fewer.

1/21/11, 12:52 PM

aangel said...
In our preparation courses we get people from and Mike Ruppert's as well as people who hear about us from elsewhere on the Net.
We often discuss your theory of Catabolic Collapse and especially the difference between that and what the other two gentlemen foresee. Definitely the people from are more concerned that everything just stops.

I explain my view, similar to yours, that even if the financial systems fails, we will issue another currency and keep going. The transition period will be severe, however, and without the government stepping in to make sure food is distributed somehow things will get ugly. For countries on the Failing States Index things will get bad and likely stay bad.

The interconnected nature of our electronic systems, though, is something that the CollapseNet people regularly — and rightly — warn strongly about. I'm personally not planning for a grid crash or similar but the chance is certainly non-zero that it occurs.

1/21/11, 12:55 PM

EBrown said...
Thanks for an interesting post, JMG. It sparked several thoughts and memories.

Last year the local art museum (the Fenimore in Cooperstown, NY) had an exhibit it called "American's Rome". It included many striking paintings by American artists from 1800-1900 set in the Roman ruins all around the Italian countryside. The descriptions of the works went into some detail about the rising affluence of America during the time that enabled the leisured class a cultural examination of the massive Roman feats of engineering and architecture in various states disrepair with illiterate goatherds and shepherds among the few inhabitants still around. As a moderate doomer I found the artistic introspection of an ascendant empire fascinating.

K, when I drive around upstate NY I often think how much it looks like a depression hit a while ago and stayed. One need only role 1/2 a mile down the road from my house to pass dilapidated barns and abandoned farmhouses. My older neighbor, a retired dairy farmer now about 80, says often how the prices of farm goods used to be better. My whole valley used to be a patchwork of farms ranging from 75 to a few hundred acres. Now there are only three operational dairies. All those people who used to work on these farms have moved away. My "village" also used to have several small businesses, a cheese factory, and a post office. Now the only two institutions left in the village are the church and the volunteer fire company. One could easily shoot a book's worth of Walker Evans photos within a few miles of my house if one was so inclined.

And yet I'm optimistic too. The collapse may get a lot worse, in many respects, but with adjusted expectations I think there is still so much room for hope and optimism. Just because there won't be enough diesel to run mega dairies like the one up the road that milks 3200 cows doesn't mean there won't be any more milk or cheese. I see a resurgance of small creameries being built unless the State makes it impossible. With the regulations as they currently are enforced the capital costs of dairy processing plants are high. In the resource, and capital constrained world I foresee in the coming decades the rate of building smaller facilities able to handle produce from within only a few miles will depend on the speed with which the State encourages (or simply allows) such distrubuted, resilient manufacturing vs. subsidizing the continued use of larger energy intensive processing plants. I remain hopeful that the state will lose legitamacy, or perhaps just the ability, to enforce stupid laws quickly enough that build some resiliency and redundancy into our systems.

I'm not at my most lucid tonight for some reason, but I hope you get the drift...

1/21/11, 6:05 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Sofistek, that's an interesting hypothesis. The problem with Tainter's theory is that it doesn't explain the overall pattern of decline and fall, which is what he explicitly sets out to explain.

Sophie, well, there are people making a big deal about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so it's a fair bet.

Cherokee, I prefer to avoid air travel as much as possible, and that's partly because there's the occasional time when it's not -- say, visiting Australia. I may take you up on that one of these days.

Sean, yes, it's arrogance, and a very common kind of arrogance at that. Every civilization insists that it's different and special, and therefore exempt from the common fate -- and it tends to make that claim more and more stridently as it slides down the arc of its own decline and fall. Thus you can expect to have plenty of people agreeing with you, often at the top of their lungs, in the decades ahead; it's the standard faith-based response to an unacceptable reality, with faith in progress filling the niche usually occupied by more overtly religious ideologies.

Half Empty, The Fall of the Roman Empire is excellent, and relevant to the current topic.

Bill, that seems quite possible. Still, it's anybody's guess at this point.

Robert, that's quite true. One of the options open to us right now is figuring out some such sustainable lifeway that can be adopted here and now, getting to work on it, and letting the larger society go its own way.

Tom, I focus on the United States because that's where I live, and getting accurate information about the rest of the world isn't all that easy when you live here. Will China crash? Of course; every empire does sooner or later, but it's hard to tell this far in advance how soon that day will come.

Fanatic, if that happens, it would be a major step in the right direction. We can always hope.

Blue Sun, I consider the US government a democracy -- not, mind you, democracy as it's imagined be in the minds of idealists, but democracy as it inevitably works in practice. That is to say, it's a system where pressure groups of various sizes and kinds struggle to buy and bamboozle as much of the electorate as possible, and where corruption and influence peddling consequently are a way of life. Check out every democracy in history and that's the way things actually happen. That said, it has certain very noticeable advantages, such as a shortage of gulags; when it breaks down, as it eventually always does, those advantages often go away. The fact that the current system is bad doesn't mean its replacement can't be worse!

1/21/11, 6:35 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Mr. M, I was frankly stunned by that aspect of the latest round of UK cutbacks. It's a pleasant fantasy, last indulged in during the decades leading up to 1914 and 1939, that war is a thing of the past.

Jnaegele, er, I'd encourage you to read a good book about the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of the classic Lowland Maya, or the collapse of any other civilization. Labeling it "evolution" does a very poor job of describing the nature of the transformations involved.

Sofistek, I've been saying that on this blog for almost five years now, you know.

Andre, it's quite possible that we'll get a grid crash, and if we do, there will be some days, weeks or months (depending where you are) of crisis before sections of the grid get brought back on line again. The problem with sudden collapse scenarios, as I've pointed out here repeatedly, is that they assume that nobody will do anything constructive to respond to crisis. Now of course the aftermath of a grid crash will probably see large sections of the grid permanently abandoned, but that's going to happen anyway.

EBrown, I think there's certainly grounds for optimism, as long as what you're hoping for is within the reach of a deindustrializing society -- and some very valuable possibilities fall well within that range.

1/21/11, 6:49 PM

Gingersnap said...
Dear JMG,

I was wondering where Canada stands in all of this catabolic collapse. Do you have any insights there?

1/21/11, 9:37 PM

team10tim said...
Hey hey JMG,

First I appreciate the service you are providing through your analysis. Your level headed, historically informed, and eminently reasonable assessment of this modern world is what keeps us all coming back for more. Good job, god speed, keep up the good work, and all of that.

Second I have a serious question that deviates from your decentralized, individual action, disensus theme but is on topic for this posting. The question I would like to pose is what can we leave for our descendants that is comparable to the Roman roads and aqueducts?

To be clear I would like to known what capital goods we can presently make which are expensive to produce but cheap to maintain. In the present era of high tech, disposable, cheap plastic crap is there anything that we can build that will last for thousands of years and benefit society at large? I ask because the the Roman roads and aqueducts were beyond the capacity of subsequent populations to build. But they were capable of using and maintaining the infrastructure to their advantage for centuries.

If you have any thoughts on the matter I would love to hear them.


1/21/11, 9:55 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Gingersnap, Canada is one of only two countries on earth that use more energy per capita than the United States -- the other one is Australia -- and it's benefited hugely from being a member of the inner circle of US allies. When the US empire goes down, and the economic imbalances that keep so much of the world's wealth flowing to North America unravel, Canada's going to be in a world of hurt. Will it undergo catabolic collapse at the same rate as the US? Heck of a good question, to which I don't have a good answer.

Tim, anything that we're going to leave on any scale has already been built. One of the downsides of catabolic collapse is that spare resources for big projects stop being available by the time catabolism starts, so that even if it's theoretically possible to do something about decline, nobody can afford the costs involved. The one great favor we've done for our descendants is that we've dug up a fantastic amount of metal from deep under the earth, refined it, and put it in highly concentrated deposits called cities, where even in the form of rust it will be readily available and refinable for millennia to come.

1/21/11, 10:06 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
RE: our infrastructure legacy...

Long after the asphalt has crumbled and the original bridges have been replaced many times over with easily-maintained wooden structures and ferry crossings (likely complete with tolls and trolls; always have to pay the ferryman!), I believe our roadbeds will remain immensely valuable for foot and cart traffic for many centuries. All that diesel-powered earthmoving will leave behind superb routes for trails, with their gentle grades, direct routes, and smoothed surfaces. It'll take thousands of years for them to be completely obliterated by the elements. I'm sure the interstate corridors will long outlast our civilization as routes for intercity (intervillage...) travel, just as long, gentle, natural ridgelines served in earlier millennia. Would be funny, too, if they retained names that were derived from their old numerical designations, morphed into jibberish by the evolution of language, many generations after the origins of the name were lost -- the Oyfferdy, that runs between the ruins of the ancient cities of Memphis and Nashville, where it crosses the Axstyfeef and the Ittwinfur

1/21/11, 10:35 PM

LewisLucanBooks said...
Paper Mace Fanatic: Reminded me of the Roman veteran's colonies. A complex, fascinating topic. But basically, the Roman government would send out a large group of recently mustered out vets to a large chunk of land and tell them to form a community. Hierarchy was all ready established. Among their ranks were architects, engineers, doctors, etc..

EBrown: I think we're all ready beginning to see that. In my part of the world (Western Washington State, rural county.) The county government is beginning to be pared down. Less enforcement. But justice is also suffering. Several times, recently, the County has decided not to prosecute some offenses or has not pushed for a 'full extent of the law' trial, due to expense.

The "old hands" around here tell me you can get away with building some things as long as you keep a low profile and children aren't involved. Nothing too grand. And, your neighbors don't complain. But now the powers that be are using satellite imagery to detect new, or additions to, structures. But someone has to sit down with those images and compare the old to the new. Resources will prevent that as time goes on.

1/21/11, 11:19 PM

sofistek said...

It really is this simple: We live on a finite planet - finite resources (both renewable and non-renewable) and an environment with a finite ability to safely absorb our waste and a finite ability to maintain a circle of life that includes humans.

Science and technology cannot overcome the laws of nature. It is simply not possible no matter how many smart people you can get together in one room to try to make it otherwise.

If you think our problems don't now constitute a predicament (which doesn't have a solution) then you have to explain how each problem can and will be addressed to remove it. Wishful thinking doesn't provide those explanations. But please have a go; I'm sure that there are quite a few, even here, who would rather not go through the pain of adjustment, including myself, if it were not necessary (though they might go through that adjustment at a more leisurely pace because it, well, just seems right).


1/21/11, 11:26 PM

sofistek said...

"I've been saying that on this blog for almost five years now, you know."

Sorry. It may be just me but I got confused with your The Long Descent because it seemed to me that you were saying (even though you weren't) that there's no need to worry about a rapid collapse because there isn't going to be one, then, on the next page, saying we'd better get on with preparations for the collapse right away.

In the end, I realised that you were saying that complete collapse of our societies and civilisation is a long way off, if history is any guide (and there is no reason to think it isn't) but that, for an individual, he or she may experience life changing circumstance over a short time, and, in some cases, quite soon, so there is urgency in preparing for that change.

So, whilst an historian wanting to write the story of the collapse of our industrial/technological civilisation will have forego that pleasure in his or her lifetime, for each individual, the collapse may well happen within a lifetime, and possibly very soon.

But I still can't quite let pass your remarks on collapse happening over centuries because that likely fact will become irrelevant to increasing numbers of people as each year or decade fades into history.

1/21/11, 11:41 PM

Ruben said...
@Sean Strange

Could you have them whip me up a few million Atlantic Cod? Either science or technology is fine...I'm not fussy.

1/22/11, 12:07 AM

Nick said...
Just curious if from the perspective of thousands of years if you see progress occurring over the cyclical rise and fall of empires?
Even after this collapse we still will probably hold on to radio communication, electrical production (for critical applications), steel working,heat engines of some form and a good deal of useful science and medicinal knowledge. Though a dramatic fall from the current anomaly might it not be easier and more informed than previous periods?

1/22/11, 7:09 AM

Jim Brewster said...
Tim, another legacy we leave, one that JMG has pointed out, is sustainable organic agriculture. By pulling together traditions from around the world, Albert Howard and the rest created systems that were flexible and adaptable to all kinds of situations. This happened in the context of the British Empire at its peak, when civil servants could travel the world and spend lots of time on experimenting.

1/22/11, 8:30 AM

joshuarencher said...
"The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate; the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had. The storm-blast whistles through the branches of the Empire even now. Listen with the ears of psychohistory, and you will hear the creaking." Isaac Azimov, Foundation

1/22/11, 8:36 AM

Jason Heppenstall said...
JMG, it's interesting that you say there will be a lot of finger pointing on the way down. I was thinking of that as I read this article today about the deindustrialisation of Youngstown

Saying that, someone in a previous post asked if there would be a greater sense of coopertaion if we all reverted to localised economies again. I would say that, on a local level then, necessarily, yes, there will be.

I have spent three years living in rural Spain in an essentially 'peasant' setting. People get on pretty well because there is so much more at stake if you rub people up the wrong way. I could, for instance, have fallen out with one of my neighbours over his insistence on hunting wild boar on my land. But, if I'd done that he might not have been so generous diverting some of the water from his stream to my property during the height of summer. So, biting one's lip, was a skill that settlers like me had to learn. Those who moved into the area with all guns blazing, proclaiming their 'right' to do as they pleased no matter if it upset the locals, were invariably the ones who had nobody to help them out when something bad happened to them.

So, I suppose, libertarianism withers on the vine when the consequences of your actions have very real effects. Not something we're encouraged to believe these days, I know.

1/22/11, 8:52 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Jason re: getting along with the neighbors -- bingo! People from urban and suburban backgrounds really don't comprehend the nature and function of old-fashioned neighborliness. It's not about manners, those are just the structures used to enforce it and teahc it to children. It's about survival. Rural life without cooperation is tenuous if not impossible. You get along because you HAVE to, not necessrily because you like each other or have the same ideas, beliefs, and values.

And how many "communities" intentionally constructed from people with "shared beliefs and values" have disintegrated within a year or two because all these like-minded people (mostly from urban and suburban backgrounds) did not get along? Countless numbers of them...

Fortunately these skills can be learned later in life even if you did not grow up in this environment. Humility is helpful in this regard

1/22/11, 10:03 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, good. Very good. Odder things have happened in the history of language!

Lew, I've heard much the same thing from a great many corners of the country. Whole categories of crime are no longer being investigated or prosecuted, because of budget limits.

Sofistek, if Sean is actually doing something about the predicaments he dismisses so airily, I have no complaints; most of the people I've encountered who use the same rhetoric of progress uber alles, though, are using it as an excuse not to do anything.

Ruben, I'd be satisfied with a replacement for petroleum that's as cheap and abundant as the original, and can be scaled up in the real world!

Nick, there tends to be a gradual accumulation of knowledge from cycle to cycle, though that's not guaranteed -- depending on the severity of the collapse, a lot can be lost. The difficulty in the current case is that most of our knowledge is in very transient forms, and a vast amount of it could vanish forever when the internet goes away and the cheap paper on which most of today's books are printed turns back into the sawdust it was made from.

Jim, a very good point.

Joshua, I really do need to reread that sometime soon! Thanks for the quote.

Jason, well put. What now passes under the name of libertarianism is a philosophy of privilege that could only look reasonable to people who are deliberately not paying attention to the benefits they get from the system they claim to despise.

Bill, that's a crucial point, of course. Real community means that, like it or not, you have to get along with the jerk next door.

1/22/11, 10:34 AM

kayxyz said...
Saw a great analogy today: a bee (worker) will take nectar (resource) from the flower (source) and use it to make honey (more complex product); however, a bee never harms the flower (source)

1/22/11, 11:58 AM

joshuarencher said...
I think I have to disagreen with Jason Heppenstall on Libertarianism: it is surely the doctrine of the individual againt a faceless bureaucratic state, rather than the individual againt the local community.

In fact, considering myself to be a Libertarian, I totally support the formation of credit-unions, co-operatives and the like... Organisations that make the most of local understandings and compromises in exactly the way Jason describes, precisely as a way of avoiding state interference, and the defiance of large international corporations. I say this from a UK perspective, where large amounts of the population have become dependent on our welfare state over the past few decades.

Can I also just say, as having only just discovered this blog, how impressive the level of interest and discussion in the comments section is.

1/22/11, 12:32 PM

Anne Johnson said...
This is a very interesting post, and I don't have time to read all the comments, so I hope I'm not being repetitive. We are now a global economy, and this catabolic collapse, at its height, will be global in scope. Even now machines are being devised that will replace the Third World workers who have replaced the workers in the Rust Belt. I'm no soothsayer, but I see real strife ahead.

1/22/11, 2:38 PM

Kathleen said...
@ Bill Pulliam: No, don't pay the ferryman! Don't even fix a price!

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Actually, there's probably some metaphor for our current situation in that song, but I can't quite work out what it is.

(Incidentally, my verification word for this post is "sucki". How's that far a descriptor of our current situation?)

As for the original post, I too thought there was going to be a future date...but I thought it would be for the *next* stage of collapse! All this talk of the 1970's almost makes me wish I'd been there, just to see what every one is talking about.

I was slightly surprised by the 2008, though...I thought everything went crazy in 2007? What makes 2008 a better starting point?

Re grid collapse: even without the grid collapsing, electricity may well get to be too expensive to use frivolously. In either case, having non-electric backups, or switching entirely, seems like a good idea to me. Along these lines, my current green wizard project it researching and starting to use various food storage strategies that don't require refrigerators. Who knew eggs could be stored at room temperature? (OK, a lot of people. I didn't, though.)

This summer: a Zeer pot!

1/22/11, 3:19 PM

EBrown said...
Jim Brewster (and everyone),
I've been reading a lot of Albrecht's papers lately. I think he, more even than Howard and Rodale, uncovered valuable truths about the growth of plants and animals.

On that line I should put in a plug for Steve Solomon's book, Gardening When It Counts. It is the best book on gardening I've ever read and he incorporates many of the principles Albrecht's research demonstrated.

Yes, you point out the downside to an absent or delegitimized State.

1/22/11, 5:37 PM

Straha said...
I'd personally date the beginning of the west's collapse to 1914, with the start of WWI.

1914-53(date chosen since it's after korea/europe's recovery) was one big downwards slide.

I'd say another, lesser one happened 1963-81.

Based on what's happened since the 2000 stock market crash, I'd argue we're in the early stages of something more on par with 1914-53 than 1963-81.

1/22/11, 7:12 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Kathleen -- but the ferryman does an honest job, he deserves honest compensation! Seriously, I doubt I'll be encountering many ferrymen in my lifetime other than that metaphorical one at the very end of it. It's gonna be a good long while before the highway bridges actually do crumble into the rivers (at least on a widespread basis; obviously we've had a few do this already!). The main ones between here and Nashville just survived 1000-year floods so they're probably good for quite a few more decades, and there's nothing in our home county that can't be spanned by sturdy locally-grown timbers if need be.

Eggs -- I have been told that eggs store best at room temperature if they have never been refrigerated or washed. This is really only practical with home-grown eggs; USDA requires all sold eggs to be washed and refrigerated. It makes sense to me; unwashed eggs still have the bloom that helps keep bacteria from entering, and if they have not been chilled too far they are still living things, presumably with some measure of immune system. I know that our own eggs have never spoiled at room temperature even over many weeks. Store-bought eggs are still pretty tight and inert and they do keep fine for a good while, but probably not for the month or more fresh unwashed ones survive easily. Oh, they also have to have never been set on by a hen (if fertilized) for more than a day or so. Once the embryo begins growing, it will die and the egg will go bad quite quickly if the incubation then stops.

I have found hidden nests in the middle of a hot summer containing huge numbers of eggs that must have been out in the heat for weeks in some cases, floated and candled all the little rascals, and found them all to be just fine. No harm has ever resulted from eating them.

1/22/11, 8:46 PM

Andrew H said...
You may see a resurgence of small creameries etc due to lack of enforcement of laws and regulations by federal and state authorities. However if history is anything to go by, your local warlord will try to enforce them at least until you decide to contribute to keeping him in the manner to which he is accustomed.
One thing to keep in mind. All aspects of life will become more localized and that includes corruption and influence peddling. I think JMG was suggesting this when he referred to the breakdown of democracy.

1/22/11, 9:41 PM

Mike said...
Catabolic ... cataleptic ...

1/22/11, 11:19 PM

Cherokee Organics said...

You would be most welcome.

Hi Bill,

I've read that most commercial eggs are washed here too. The shells are porous. However, I've also read that you should never wash eggs because it washes off a protective layer on the outside of the egg which then allows bacteria and other nasties to enter the egg. Off eggs are very unpleasant and a truly memorable experience! I've read that it's better just to brush them clean. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

I've also read that raw eggs are dangerous in some parts of the world because they harbour E. coli, salmonella + other nasties. Fortunately this doesn't seem to be the case here and I can confirm this due to exhaustive testing over the years in egg nogs! Must admit though, I haven't bought a commercial egg in years...

Catabolic collapse might also mean an end to those strange manufactured egg roll things I've seen footage of in fast food kitchens. They seem just wrong to me...

Good luck!


1/22/11, 11:31 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Mean Mr Mustard,

Err, decommissioned naval ships used as hulks moored in the River Thames were actually tried in the 1800's! Some of Australia's early immigrants (actually criminal repeat offenders hehe!) served some of their time in these prior to being shipped off to sunnier climes (for their health of course).

Hi Robert C Guy,

I have a great respect for the aboriginals who maintained a stable society and population in what is quite a difficult environment (unlike the current population).

Yes some of the early explorers were both ignorant, arrogant and died stupid deaths (Burke and Wills was a classic example). Well that's my take on them anyway.

The aboriginals changed the face of the country though. Prior to their arrival on the continent, the country was about 1/3 rainforest and had been for quite a long time. The effect of their arrival was that mega fauna was eaten and became extinct, fuel built up in the rain forests and fire was encouraged. This in turn favoured the eucalypt forests and grasslands. We now have an ecology based on fire which is quite a strange place to live.

That's a 20 word or less summary of a very complex history, but what I'm trying to get at is that people have impacts where ever they reside. You are part of the ecology and it's a constant struggle between competing entities for survival and it is in a state of chaos rather than some sort of neat order.

I recommend to you an ecological history of the Australian continent by the scientist Tim Flannery called "The Future Eaters". Well worth the read.

Good luck!


1/22/11, 11:49 PM

Jason Heppenstall said...
@ Joshua

I take your point about being free of faceless bureauocracies and meddling government officials, however I was really thinking about it from a very local 'on the ground' perspective.

David Boaz, a libertarian writer, defines it as thus:

"Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others"

Which is all well and good in theory but can run into the sand in situations where local conditions curtail your 'rights'. (And I always think those who extoll libertarianism the loudest focus on the first part of that statement and tend to forget the second bit.)

Thus, I had a 'right' to stop my neighbour hunting on my land, which he'd been doing since he was a boy - and he would then exercise his 'right' to cut my water off meaning my orange trees would die.

I'm just saying that when you are struggling with other people to live in a tough environment you don't have much time to get bogged down in semantics.

Regarding eggs - I had a neighbour in Spain (no, not that one) who would rub bees wax on them and swore they would keep for up to a year.

1/23/11, 1:07 AM

Jim Brewster said...
Bill, remember the rest of the line: "'til he gets you to the other side." Of course in my neck of the woods there are some long scary bridges, over 4 miles in the case of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It's hard to tell whether lack of structural integrity or lack of law and order will be the first factor to lead travelers toward other options. The county I live in is only 400 square miles of land but has over 500 miles of shoreline on the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries. With all those peninsulas there are many trips that were traditionally done by boat and will be again, at least until the rising sea inundates them. Then of course the lower bridges upstream will be under water...

1/23/11, 7:05 AM

jim burke said...
JMG, I'm going to call you on this one.

If we consider the fossil fuel bubble/Industrial Revolution/Globalized economy to have started with Britain in the late 18th Century, then we need to view it as a global phenomenon. Otherwise, we might decide that Britain peaked in 1913, or that the US peaked in 1973, but what really matters is when the global phenomenon peaks.

So what criteria should we use? Two stand out.

1) the total BTUs of fossil fuels to pass through the globalized system, and

2) the gross numbers of people included in the globalized middle class.

Number 1 has yet to peak, since coal and natural gas use are still climbing.

2) Appears to still be growing; large numbers of Indians and Chinese are joining the middle class, even as a few Americans and Europeans may be falling out.

If we consider the ASPO chart, we note that the oil price shocks of 1974-1982 were a very important development, in that it changed the basic shape of the curve and made it shallower so it has lasted longer. It's like a meteor smashed into the side of the bell curve, deforming it.

But the start of catabolic collapse? Why not start it at the Great Depression?

The various depressions of the 19th Century, the period 1914-1945, and the OPEC price shocks should be seen as crises that affected the global economy as it grew. After we peak and start the descent, the crises will still come, but the aftermath will be far different.

As for when catabolic collapse began, or when it might begin? I'm going to be giving that a lot of thought.

Love your work. Always thought provoking.


jim burke
bisbee, AZ

1/23/11, 10:23 AM

DIYer said...
Karl Denninger has published a chart asserting that has the economic decline starting in 1953. This particular chart doesn't go back much before 1953, and there's a big spike at the end, but it's another data point for you. (disclaimer: I am not a fan of his politics)

I dunno, it's kind of like debating whether peak oil happened in 2005 or 2008, and whether there might possibly be another high point in 2015. We seem to be going around the bend, and by many measures that bend occurs in the past.

And future horizons keep receding.

1/23/11, 10:32 AM

Gingersnap said...
Thank you for the insights into Canada. I'm American and married to a Canadian, so that's why I asked. We currently live in Washington State.

This post makes me glad I learned to knit and crochet to an advanced degree, as well as how to re-purpose yarn. Now I just need to learn how to spin. Best wishes to you all in the coming years.

1/23/11, 11:00 AM

Patz said...
@ Sean strange

When I see a comment like Sean's I tend at first to think it's a send--up, then I remember it reflects the majority opinion. His points have been well enough criticized that I don't have to pile on. Except to say that there is such wonderful irony in an appeal to science and technology as the game changers this time when it is paying attention to science itself that tells one where we're at. Toast!

1/23/11, 12:31 PM

Steve said...
Thanks for this post, JMG. You articulated something that's seemed apparent but nameless for me my whole life. I grew up in the Rust Belt in the 80s and 90s, so I watched the early catabolism of that region closely.

My father tells stories of the industrial city he's lived in for 45 years - how when he first arrived high school graduates could get a factory job and support a family. Now the city unemployment rate is 15-20%, and he's surrounded by foreclosed, bank-owned houses and unfinished condos in a formerly prosperous working-class neighborhood.

I gave up flying some years ago, and I now travel back from Denver to Michigan by train. This trip, moreso than driving the interstates, really shows the abandonment of the region. Whole towns have been completely abandoned, and those still in use are contracting and decrepit; old factories, warehouses, and grain elevators sit abandoned and half-demolished alongside the tracks. The only new economic activity seems to be the giant ethanol plants and food processors, and more than half the rail traffic now is coal trains.

The farms that are still operating are huge, resembling a sea of corn, soybeans, or bare dirt. Tractors plow over old fencerows and right up to stream-banks. Erosion gullies are everywhere, and it's obvious that farmers are sacrificing their topsoil to squeeze a few more dollars out of the USDA subsidy programs.

It's comforting to know that my disillusionment with middle-class ambition is not misplaced. Thanks for your writing.

1/23/11, 1:12 PM

Bob said...
JMG and Bill Pulliam,

Speaking of Tea Partiers calling for reduced military spending...

That sure was fast; maybe the staircase of this step-wise descent is going to be a bit steep...

1/23/11, 2:43 PM

Hal said...

"sacrificing their topsoil to squeeze a few more dollars out of the USDA subsidy programs."

Actually, you have it backwards. The USDA has been offering what was until recently pretty good money to farmers to set aside land near streams, and in other critical areas for wildlife. Unfortunately, the high prices commanded by the market for commodity crops these days is making the govt programs less competitive. A lot of the buffer strips you see now are locked up in 10-year contracts to the USDA, but I think you are going to see a lot coming out of the programs as contracts end, if the govt can even afford to keep the programs going.

For my part, I put about 40 acres in trees last year. Some think it wasn't a good move, economically, but I just think of it as getting some help in getting started on a woodlot.

1/23/11, 5:42 PM

EBrown said...
Andrew H,
Yeah, I'm aware of that aphorism that nothing is certain except death and taxes. I harbor no illusions that this immutable truth will change in a collapsed state.

1/23/11, 6:41 PM

Tom said...
Eggs. When I worked on a fishing boat in Alaska we stored eggs in lard for the season as they were a lot cheaper here than in Alaska. Eggs keep for a long time if protected from the air.

1/23/11, 7:13 PM

mageprof said...
Great-grandmother preserved her fresh eggs in big stoneware crocks filled with water glass (sodium silicate) mixed with water. I'm not sure about the proportions of water to water glass, but it shouldn't be too hard to find out.

1/24/11, 12:04 AM

das monde said...
It must be worth to look at those 1970s closer. The oil embargo and stagflation are talked about with mythical esteem, but how much did they really follow from ecological or social or political necessities? How much did those year had to determine the future, and what was exactly (and “irreversibly”) catabolized already then? I don’t see the Arab and the Fed choices as particularly moved by catabolic concerns, unless we assume sly endgame calculation. The 1970s were a kind of unique non-bubble crisis but with intense political consequences, and that makes me skeptical of the modern accounts of it. Can’t we check the NYT editorials and other media of that time, how really severe the situation and the perspectives appeared then? Gosh, why it was USSR not the USA that collapsed?

Things really became different before and after the 1970s. The Reagan-Thatcher policies can be already seen as neglecting public infrastructure, slashing basic services, abandoning people. Was this an example of going to any extreme to keep existing things running? Yet, electronic technology and financial bubbles just started then to swell like there is no limit. Looks like an opposite of catabolism. One clear thing is that while before the 1970s it was a reasonable climate to debate environment, science, guns and whatever, that climate went gradually worse from the 1980s on. Weren’t “limits of growth” discussions not fringe at all that long ago? What emerged from the 1970s is a political choice to go full speed ahead with growth, with a radically “free” distribution of its benefits and strains. The limits of growth were first politically ignored, then publicly ridiculed eventually. Hence a thirty years vacation from reality.

How was that political process related to the civilization predicament? How did it happen? Some political and industrial interests got increasingly a free pass to do and take whatever they want, without any responsibility. Others seemed to be pushed to pander all perceived voters’ preferences, with knotty restrictions to put an argument. Or was the feeble and self-discrediting opposition a key part of a total society corruption? Imagine that.

I see quite a few holes in the particular catabolic picture, particularly in timing of supposed catabolisms. How do you tell that, say, transportation infrastructures were left to rot from the 1970s but not with the later privatization drives? How much transpiring catabolism can happen in less than a decade? The relative stability of Reagan and Thatcher years is easily explained by the embrace of the growth at whatever cost. While markets for suckers are growing, you can run Ponzi schemes and you can rob people of the future while still indulging them in new comforts. What does catabolism explain that simpleminded or sham cult of growth cannot?

1/24/11, 6:14 AM

Steve said...

I know about the buffer strip programs and set-asides and such. My point was that the mega-farms are plowing up buffer strips that used to exist to squeeze more tilled acreage into cultivation, thereby promoting erosion and sacrificing the future.

There's more than one USDA subsidy program, as I'm sure you're aware. I'm referring to the direct payment program that pays farms based on tilled acreage, not the conservation reserve program.

Either way, kudos for putting in 40 acres of trees - I hope they do well by you.

1/24/11, 1:58 PM

Avery said...
I just read in an article that "class mobility in the US peaked around 1980", which supports your theory strongly. But I can't seem to find a graph or the source of the statistic.

1/24/11, 3:52 PM

GHung said...
Our hens began laying again late last week. I don't 'force' them through the winter, figure they need a break, so we go without their eggs for a couple of months. We celebrated with a HUGE pile of scrambled eggs Sunday morning, complete with local bacon and steel cut oats, topped with our blackberry jam. I do love the ebb and flow of things when one surrenders to earth cycles.

BTW: RIP, Jack Lalanne. "Fitness starts between our ears."

1/24/11, 4:35 PM

sgage said...

"Eggs keep for a long time if protected from the air."

Does that mean calling in air strikes and such?


1/25/11, 1:20 PM

Kevin said...
The following is a bit off topic for the week, but I can't resist commenting on it. I've just heard a public radio interview of a scientist from Livermore lab who assures listeners that the problems of fusion power will be solved in the lab within the next year or two, and promises that we'll have economically viable fusion power plants within ten years at most. The program host's conclusion, enthusiastically affirmed by the interviewee, is that there will power aplenty to go round for all in the times ahead.

This was immediately followed by a talk with economists from Goldman Sachs about how the west has ruined itself with well-intentioned but foolish policies like expensive pension plans and that politicians need to save it from decline by making tough unpopular decisions. The final note was that we will save ourselves with technological innovation which will very likely come from China.

I hope readers will be as reassured as I was that we can trust "public" broadcasting to give us the lowdown about what's *really* happening in the world, and that those in charge are doing a great job, Brownie, of steering this planet toward an ever brighter and more prosperous future!

Maybe this isn't entirely off-topic after all...

1/25/11, 2:50 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Kayxyz, bees are smarter than most modern businesspeople.

Joshua, that may be a US/UK difference. Most American libertarians seem to believe that corporations can do no wrong.

Anne, we don't actually have a global economy; we have an imperial tribute economy with the US temporarily in the driver's seat. I think you'll find that the decline will play out, as it usually does, at very different speeds in different places.

Kathleen, if you'd rather use 2007, I won't argue. I was thinking of the date when the current crisis really began to impact people outside of the investment sphere.

EBrown, I need to reread Albrecht.

Straha, if you want to talk about the decline of western civilization as a whole, of course it began in 1914, and in fact I've argued repeatedly here that the next round down will be comparable to 1914-1954 -- I use Dienbienphu as the anchor for the far end, as the last big event in the collapse of Europe's colonial empires. Still, that wasn't exactly what I was discussing here; I was talking about the catabolic collapse of the US specifically, which began a good sixty years later.

Bill, true enough.

Andrew, er, I wasn't speaking of the breakdown of democracy; corruption and influence peddling is democracy. That's how democracy always works in the real world.

Mike, funny!

Cherokee, I second the recommendation of The Future Eaters -- an excellent book.

1/25/11, 7:39 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Jason, I don't know if this is the case elsewhere, but in America, once people start talking about rights, their brains shut off. It's as though the label makes them forget that all rights are agreements negotiated with other people, and precisely paired with responsibilities.

Jim, the Chesapeake and many other large bodies of water used to have substantial fleets of small commercial craft traveling from one little port to another, providing transport for people and goods. I'd expect something similar to begin to emerge in the not too distant future.

Jim, well of course, if you change the subject and ignore the point that I'm trying to make, you can claim to "call me" on whatever you like. If you'll examine the decline and fall of other civilizations, you'll discover that the process usually proceeds at dramatically different rates in different areas. Since this post is talking about one of those areas -- the United States of America -- it makes perfect sense to talk about when catabolic collapse begins there; after all, it will be cold comfort in 2030, say, for people in an American shattered by energy shortages, dire poverty, and domestic insurgencies, to know that people in China and India are living in relative comfort -- as indeed they may be, for a while.

DIYer, and of course that's the point. It's less important to know the exact date that things began going south than to recognize which way they're going.

Gingersnap, good for you. My spouse spins using a drop spindle, and my next sweater (she also crochets) will be of handspun wool.

Patz, I'm never sure when something like that gets posted if it's a parody, a display of honest folly, or one of these people who's paid to pump viewpoints into the blogosphere.

Steve, I also travel by train, and have seen the same thing over and over again: this country is falling apart. I wish more people would ditch the rose-colored goggles labeled "progress" and see what's actually happening.

Bob, that was fast indeed!

Hal, good for you. Have you considered learning how to coppice?

1/25/11, 7:53 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Das Monde, the trigger for catabolic collapse is always some conjunction of circumstances that didn't have to happen exactly where and when it did. It's like death -- how you will die is contingent, that you will die is inevitable.

Avery, I've also seen comments to that effect. Given the rise in income disparities since that time, it's plausible enough.

GHung, stay tuned for tomorrow's post.

Sgage, I have to admit the idea of a nest of eggs protected by camouflage netting and antiaircraft missiles is, well, striking...

Kevin, it's an interesting question how many times the folks from Livermore can keep on spouting that nonsense before people just plain stop believing scientists about anything at all. Same goes for Goldman Sachs, of course. And they'll never know what hit them.

1/25/11, 7:59 PM

Fungus FitzJuggler III said...
The credit boom creates malinv estment that is unwound in the inevitable collapse of credit.

It is all about excessive claims on assets rather than on assets themselves? The incentive to make rational investments disappears as credit forces higher returns on riskier investments. Two sides of the same coin?

1/25/11, 9:55 PM

Ruben said...
For North American readers--Tim Flannery wrote a book about NA called the eternal frontier. Lions and short-faced bears. Oh My! It is a great read.

1/26/11, 12:00 AM

SophieGale said...
Innovators are getting older, working fewer years

[Tyler[ Cowen, in his new book "The Great Stagnation," points to work that shows that 80 percent of America's economic growth from 1950 to 1993 came from the application of ideas that had been invented or discovered before that time, and heavy investment in research and education. "In other words, we've been riding off the past," he writes.

1/26/11, 11:23 AM

JP said...
JMG says:

"I'm still bemused that anybody but a scattering of mangy looking Druids reads this blog."

Well, when you start talking about civilizations, catabolism, and long historical cycles, you end up attracting people who are interested in civilizations, catabolism, and long historical cycles, even if you are a druid.

It's a feature of the Internet.

Post, and they will come.

1/28/11, 2:25 PM

Gary said...
JMG, I first came across your theory of catabolic collapse via one of Richard Heinberg's Museletters a few years ago, and it has become a good lens through which to view the world. This post sent me thinking again about how this onset of decline shows up - or doesn't - in national economic data. See:

Kevin - just spent that last few days in a booth at the Photonics show right across from the LLNL NIF folks. Kept watching their 3D video of the big lasers making big fusion. I became disillusioned with the fusion community a couple of decades ago (I was doing particle beam fusion expmnts) when it became clear to me that the fusion energy game was really a weapons game. It's pie in the sky - but the folks I talked to in that booth had drunk the Kool Aid.

1/28/11, 5:43 PM said...
A beautifully written essay. As much as I like the material, I just have to comment that your prose is hitting its stride, with great musical and rhythmic balance. You should be very pleased.



2/1/11, 10:32 AM

Mary said...
Dear Mr. Greer,

I've just started reading your blog --- clicked on over from Small Batch Garden -- and am, well… enchanted? Maybe not that, but touched, withal. Reminded. It's all so thoughtful and lucidly explained -- it's fairly easy to get over my head with this stuff.

And it's a pleasure to read something on the web written by one who knows and cares about the distinction between it's and its.

I was a young mother in 1973, and I remember the 5:00 a.m. gas lines and the trading license plates with friends who had numbers ending in evens or odds, the regulations that limited gasoline purchases to $3.00 and the further regulations prohibiting the sale of less than $10.00's worth. I remember pushing my 10-year-old Renault Dauphine up to the pump, glad I was able to make it to within a few yards of the station and that I had such a small car.

I had occasion to go to Pittsburgh in 1984, and my friend and I took what was optimistically billed as a scenic cruise up the Monongahela River. I had never seen anything like this stupendous desolation. The Jones & Laughlin steel mill, in particular, was monumental, a vast unpeopled wasteland on both sides of the river. The boat was slow. It took half an hour to make our transit past acre upon blasted acre of abandoned machinery of recondite purpose, colossal derelict buildings open to the sky, once-haughty chimneys stripped of all eminence but their height. And all of it silent, the weeds withered on the riverbank and no cry of birdsong on the cold hillside.

"I get it," I said to my pale prince. He said, "The future is now."

But I was young, and I went back to my life in Brooklyn. Now all these years later I've settled into a rural backwater and am making progress toward a self-sufficient existence. I do get it, finally, a little. I've lived very comfortably through a winter that a few years ago would have had me weeping and cursing on my family's doorstep. There's still the possibility of more weather, of course, but I'm cozy and snug, solitary but neither nasty nor brutish. Short, yes, but in stature only. And with ample off-grid capability for light, heat, and water. I've bought a small publishing business and work almost entirely from home. With diesel fuel for my VW Jetta closing in on $4.00, I'm happy not to have to go anywhere.

I love the beginning of your novel, about there being only one great and nameless tale. Robert Graves said it: "There is one story, and one story only, that will be worth your telling."

Thank you for all your good work, and I will continue to read. I'll try to do your homework assignments, as well. I do take all this real serious.


2/10/11, 9:02 AM

Jan Steinman said...
"... the window covering should contain a vapor barrier. Ours didn’t, which meant that the windows were thick with condensation when the shades went up in the morning."

I'm not disagreeing that the covering should have a vapour barrier, but that won't solve the condensation problem when you move the insulation around.

The problem is that the insulating blind created a temperature gradient through the night, and the inside window glass cooled to nearly the outdoor temperature.

When you then remove that covering in the morning, warm, moist air contacts the chilly glass and condenses.

The reason for a vapour barrier is not to keep the glass from condensing, but to keep the condensate out of the insulating material, which then loses insulating value.

But this is a minor nit in an otherwise excellent article, John!

3/7/11, 10:07 AM

Jan Steinman said...
As for the peak of human civilization, I don't think it was in the '70's; I think it will be when the space shuttle stops flying later this year.

The yeast has not managed to escape the cider jug.

3/7/11, 10:09 AM