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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Our Predicament Re-stated

Our Predicament Re-stated

There is a meme doing the rounds on social media… a picture of a vegetable patch, captioned “the time is coming when only those who know how to grow food will survive.”  The idea being that, as our complex civilisation breaks down, we will be forced to return to a far simpler economy, where most people revert to roles within agriculture and food production.  As with most memes, it functions as a thought-stopper… one which hides the obvious reality – backed by millennia of experience – that, in fact, “it will be the people who know how to force others to grow food,” who will be the real winners in the post-industrial economy.

At a deeper level though, the meme is an example of the way we delude ourselves into believing that a positive version of collapse – usually in the form of managed de-growth – is possible, and that those promoting such a view will be the ones who inherit whatever benefits it offers.  History says otherwise, of course.  Life in pre-industrial civilisations was mostly short, brutal, and often marred with chronic pain.  The best most people could hope for was life in an institutional version of slavery, where at least serfdom laid some nominal responsibilities on the clergy and the nobility who ruled over them.  And again, it was those with the wherewithal to protect and/or steal food by force who got to rule and to enjoy the few luxuries on offer.

Not that most of those promoting some version of the “green” techno-psychotic vision of a future of wind turbines and electric cars are likely to fare any better.  Sure, the WEF neofascists and their politician acolytes are currently making a play to cling on to power as industrial civilisation collapses…

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Running On Empty

Running On Empty

Well, we definitely seem to have passed a threshold of sorts. For most of the sixteen years since I started blogging, one of the things I had to point out constantly to my readers was the slow pace of historical change.  Whenever I posted an essay on the twilight of industrial society, I could count on fielding at least one comment from a reader who expected the entire modern world to crash and burn in the next few months.  I’d have to patiently remind them that Rome wasn’t sacked in a day—that it takes years of breathtakingly moronic decisions motivated by mindless greed, vicious partisan hatred, blind ideological dogmatism, and a total unwillingness to think about the long-term consequences of short-term decisions, to bring a civilization down.

Now of course all through the years while I was telling people this, decisions of the kind I’ve just described, guided by motives of the sort I’ve just characterized, were standard operating procedure throughout the industrial world.  Those proceeded to have their usual effect. I still don’t expect modern civilization to crash to ruin in the next few months, but it’s reached the point that I no longer have to tell people that the Long Descent won’t show up as soon as they think. No, at this point it’s my ironic duty to suggest that they make whatever preparations they have in mind sooner rather than later, because the world shows no signs of waiting for them.

As I write this, the most obvious set of problems has to do with the economies of the United States and its client states. Those of my readers who follow financial media already know that signs of economic trouble are elbowing one another out of the way to get to the front pages…

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Why Complex Systems Collapse Faster

Why Complex Systems Collapse Faster

All civilizations collapse. The challenge is how to slow it down enough to prolong our happiness.

Dennis Jarvis
Temple of the Great Jaguar, GuatemalaDENNIS JARVIS

During the first century of our era, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius that life would be much happier if things would only decline as slowly as they grow. Unfortunately, as Seneca noted, “increases are of sluggish growth but the way to ruin is rapid.” We may call this universal rule the Seneca effect.

Seneca’s idea that “ruin is rapid” touches something deep in our minds. Ruin, which we may also call “collapse,” is a feature of our world. We experience it with our health, our job, our family, our investments. We know that when ruin comes, it is unpredictable, rapid, destructive, and spectacular. And it seems to be impossible to stop until everything that can be destroyed is destroyed.

The same is true of civilizations. Not one in history has lasted forever: Why should ours be an exception? Surely you’ve heard of the climatic “tipping points,” which mark, for example, the start of the collapse of Earth’s climate system. The result in this case might be to propel us to a different planet where it is not clear that humankind could survive. It is hard to imagine a more complete kind of ruin.

So, can we avoid collapse, or at least reduce its damage? That generates another question: What causes collapse in the first place? At the time of Seneca, people were happy just to note that collapses do, in fact, occur. But today we have robust scientific models called “complex systems.” Here is a picture showing the typical behavior of a collapsing system, calculated using a simple mathematical model (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Seneca curve, from Bardi's ‘The Seneca Effect’ (2017). The intensity of something as a function of time (going left to right). For intensity, imagine it is the value of a financial stock. It grows slowly, then it declines rapidly when the company generating it goes bankrupt.

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This is How a Civilization Collapses

What Does a Civilization That’s Beginning to Collapse Look Like? This, Here, Now

Image Credit: Lex Augusteijn

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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