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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXVI–Societal Collapse: The Past is Prologue

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXVI

Athens, Greece (1984). Photo by author.

Societal ‘Collapse: The Past is Prologue

Today’s Contemplation has been once again prompted by the latest musings of The Honest Sorcerer. I believe their posts motivate me more than most others I read because we very often focus upon the same subject matter and appear, for the most part, to come at the issue(s) from a similar standpoint. In fact, I have had more than one person accuse me of being The Honest Sorcerer and simply using a different name/platform — which I will take as a compliment given how much I enjoy their articles.

Here is my posted comment on their Substack publication:

I’ve found it most enlightening (and I’m sure it’s my personal bias in having some background in the subject) to consider past experiments in complex societies and the societal responses/reactions to the cyclical phenomenon of ‘collapse/simplification’ to guide our discussion on how things may unfold. Archaeology demonstrates that despite human ingenuity and having the best ‘technology’ of the time, similar patterns emerge across both time and space as a complex society ‘dissolves’.

As the saying goes, ‘It’s difficult to make predictions, especially if they’re about the future’; however, there’s also the Shakespearean phrase ‘What’s past is prologue’ suggesting that we can learn from pre/history and its apparent oft-repeated processes as we have hints as to what may befall us as our societal ‘decline’ proceeds providing an educated guess on the future (the best we might hope for in an uncertain and complex world full of nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena, to say little about Black Swan events).

I’ve written a number of posts about this, most recently just a couple of months ago entitled What Do Previous Experiments in Societal Complexity Suggest About ‘Managing’ Our Future (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxlviii-fb2491bb08fe). Some of its points are quite similar to those you make.

In this piece of writing I focused on the aims of the ‘degrowth’ movement and why our ‘collapse’ will not likely be ‘managed’ in the way many degrowthers hope. I make the argument, based upon my understanding of archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s thesis in The Collapse of Complex Societies, that:

1) “…society’s power-brokers place the burden of ‘contraction’ upon the masses via currency devaluation, increased taxes, forever wars, increased totalitarianism, narrative management, etc..”

2) “Once surpluses are exhausted, everyday operating ‘costs’ begin to suffer and living standards for the majority begin to wane. A gradual decline in complexity ensues.”

3) “As societal investments encounter the Law of Marginal Utility due to ever-increasing costs of problem solving and its associated complexity, society experiences declining living standards. Eventually, participants opt out of the arrangement (i.e., social ‘contract’) — usually by migrating — resulting in a withdrawal of the support/labour necessary to maintain the various complex systems.”

4) “…to offset our increasing experience with diminishing returns, especially as it pertains to energy, we have employed significant debt-/credit-based fiat currency expansion to increase our drawdown of important resources among other perceived ‘needs’…”

5) “…to sustain a society’s complexity as it bumps up against limits to expanding its problem-solving ability (particularly its finite resource requirements), surpluses are drawn upon…The drawdown of these surpluses puts society at greater risk of being incapable of reacting to a sudden stress surge that may expedite the ‘collapse’ of complexity.”

6) “…once diminishing returns sets in for a society, collapse requires merely the passage of time. New energy sources, however, do little to address the issues that arise from expanded technology use–particularly the finiteness of the materials required and the overloading of planetary sinks that occur from their extraction and processing…”

7) “…pre/historic evidence also demonstrates a peer polity competition trap where competing ‘states’ drive the pursuit of complexity (regardless of environmental and/or human costs) for fear of absorption by a competing state. In such situations, ever-increasing costs create ever-decreasing marginal returns that end in domination by one state, or collapse of all competing polities. Where no or an insufficient energy subsidy exists, collapse of the competing states occurs at about the same time.”

We should be able to learn from these past trials in large, complex societies. And I recall putting this prospect to Jared Diamond about a decade ago when I heard him speak at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. His response (and I’m paraphrasing) was that just because we have this capability does not in any way mean we will use it.

Do I believe humanity will heed the lessons of the past?

In those early days of my journey down the rabbit hole of societal ‘collapse’ that began with my exploration of the concept of Peak Oil and its implications for our world (I thank the rental from our local Blockbuster in late 2010 of the documentary Collapse with the late Michael Ruppert for this), I thought we could avoid the pending decline of society. I thought that human ingenuity and intelligence could and would come to understand our plight and take remedial steps to set things right.

I no longer believe this; in fact, I chuckle somewhat at my naivete in those early days as I struggled to move through Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving. I experienced an awful lot of denial and bargaining.

Pre/history appears to show that every complex society has reacted to their decline in somewhat parallel ways. Not exactly the same, but pretty damn similar despite the vast differences between them in terms of time, geographic location, and sociocultural practices.

Despite all of this evidence, most of us involved in the current iteration (at least those that have the ‘privilege’ to contemplate such things; many in our world of course don’t) have a tendency to believe that this time is different — especially because of our ingenuity and technology leading to our perpetual ability to ‘solve’ any issue that arises — and the narratives we craft in light of this belief system. But our responses appear to be unfolding in ways not unlike those that previous societies have experienced.

In fact, there’s a good argument to be made that our ‘modern’ responses are even more broadly and significantly detrimental to our future prospects because of the ever-present and widely disseminated propaganda that aims to keep the masses ignorant of the various revenue-generation/-extraction rackets siphoning resources towards the top of our power/wealth structures, and that appear to be expanding and speeding up as the surplus energy that has sustained our growth moves towards zero and then goes negative.

And as I conclude in the piece referenced above,

Little to none of the above takes into consideration our current overarching predicament: ecological overshoot (and all of its symptom predicaments such as biodiversity loss, resource depletion, sink overloading, etc.).

Having significantly surpassed the natural environmental carrying capacity of our planet, we have strapped booster rockets to the issue of complex society ‘collapse’.

We have chosen to employ a debt-/credit-based economic system to more quickly extricate finite resources from the ground in order to meet current demands rather than significantly reduce stealing them from the future. We have created belief systems that human ingenuity and finite resource-based technologies are god-like in their abilities to alter the Laws of Thermodynamics (especially in regard to entropy) and biological principles such as overshoot…

Given we cannot control complex systems, we also cannot predict them well (if at all) and thus we cannot forecast the future with any certainty. But there exist physical laws and limits, biological/evolutionary principles, and pre/historical examples/experiments that all point towards a future quite different from the optimistic ones painted by those who believe we have control over such things.

I expect one last ginormous pulse of energetic ‘consumption’ in a most wasteful binge (and likely mostly towards geopolitical strife over the table scraps of finite resources) and a significant amount of narrative management by society’s wealth-extracting forces before ‘the great simplification’ and Nature’s corrective responses to our overshoot take hold — showing Homo sapiens who is really in charge…and it’s not us.

Also see these:

Cognition and Belief Systems: Part Six — Sociopolitical ‘Collapse’ and Ecological Overshoot (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-lvi-1f3de97ef6e9)

Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part One (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-lix-800413db180a)

Energy Future, Part 3: Authoritarianism and Sociobehavioural Control (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-xciii-78f4f61f8a1d)

Energy Future, Part 4: Economic Manipulation (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-xcix-1eaf7ac0c5c6)

Collapse Now to Avoid the Rush: The Long Emergency (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxxxv-5b9d26816e33)

Declining Returns, Societal Surpluses, and Collapse (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxli-c3a58b371496)

Ruling Caste Responses to Societal Breakdown/Decline (https://stevebull-4168.medium.com/todays-contemplation-collapse-cometh-cxliii-a063a8dee7ff)

Collapse Is An Outcome, Not A Problem To Be Solved

Collapse Is An Outcome, Not A Problem To Be Solved

Technology as dinosaur. Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

There is a rule in ecology called the maximum power principle formulated by Lokta in 1925. It can be summarized as follows: “The systems that survive in competition are those that develop more power inflow and use it best to meet the needs of survival.” If one wanted to describe the animating force behind the rise and fall of civilizations, they would be hard pressed to come up with a better one. Complex systems — such as our modern industrial world economy — appear to be ruled by the same ecological principles to which all other complex organisms obey. These rules are so universal, independent from size and scale from microbes to galaxies, that one would do better to call them natural laws. Join me on a wild ride from bacteria to petroleum extraction to see how these rules govern our daily life and how they could eventually lead to the decline of what we call modernity.

Imagine a clean Petri-dish chuck full of yummy Agar Agar, a medium utilized to grow fungi and bacteria on. Now place a range of microorganisms on it and see what happens: those bacteria which use up the most food energy to multiply will simply outcompete almost any other life form in the dish. Those who use energy sparingly, and live a slow but long life with relatively few offspring, will be simply outcrowded and completely overwhelmed. Now, let’s take our thought experiment to the next level: take a clean Petri-dish, but this time fill half of it with tasty bacteria food and the another half with a not-so-yummy medium with a much lower energy content. Next, add some bacteria which double their numbers every hour. What you can expect to see here is exponential growth at its best — and something unexpected.

…click on the above link to read the rest…

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLIV–Overreach And Diminishing Returns: Contributing To Complex Society Collapse For 10,000 Years

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLIV

Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Overreach And Diminishing Returns: Contributing To Complex Society Collapse For 10,000 Years

Today’s very brief Contemplation is my comment on The Honest Sorcerer’s latest piece.

U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler stated it so clearly in his treatise on war some 100 years ago. War is never about the narratives weaved by our ruling caste.

As he argued: “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses…

I served in all commissioned ranks from a second Lieutenant to a Major General. And during that time, I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

We learn almost nothing from history; are caught up in collective narcissism and hubris; and, are led by a socio-/psycho-pathic ruling elite that are only too willing and able to sacrifice as many pawns as possible to maintain their control of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems that provide their revenue streams and thus power and prestige.

And given our species’ proclivity to defer to ‘authority’ figures and adhere to their self-serving stories (as well as their influence over the media and the political, judicial, and financial systems), the significant majority are blind to it all and cheer the insanity on — the elite leveraging our tribal sense of ‘patriotism’.

Then there’s the whole surplus energy decline predicament that has been kept almost completely behind the curtains as the snake oil salesmen weave a tale about a ‘renewable’ energy transition…is it really any wonder that the entire Middle East is a geopolitical hot spot?

As I stated on another’s Facebook Post about this entire geopolitical morass: Overreach and diminishing returns…contributing to complex society collapse for 10,000 years.

Intelligent species, just not very wise despite its self-imposed moniker.

The Vulnerabilities Of A High-Tech Society

The Vulnerabilities Of A High-Tech Society

In the title of this piece, I use the term, “high tech” however this is about the vulnerabilities of any advanced civilization. Such societies tend to be specialized with their members dependent on services and jobs being carried out by others in the community to provide the basic necessities they need. If people were suddenly faced with losing the things they need to survive it is easy to envision a situation where survival of the fittest became the mantra of the day and things would rapidly become quite dicey.High-tech societies are particularly vulnerable to collapse due to their population being dependent on both the system and others to provide the basic items they need to survive in everyday life. Electricity, food, water, sewer systems, phone and computer connections, transportation, and healthcare fall into this category. Just about everything else we have come to expect and experience as we go through our day depends on technology.

Life has become more complex as we transferred the task we did in the past to machines, and this could come back to haunt us. Our growing dependence on computers and devices such as smartphones and computers has dumbed down society. This has compromised the skills we need to endure and survive. We have reached the point where many people can not do simple math or read a map.

A video by City Prepping reveals just how difficult it would be to survive following a massive disaster where no help or aid comes forth. Imagine being forced to exist for months on your own. The video points out many people will die if such a situation would arise. Would you know what to do? Even if you do, many of the things that would help you and your family survive are easier said and done. 

…click on the above link to read the rest…

5 Signs a Civilization is About to Fail

5 Signs a Civilization is About to Fail


Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VII

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VII

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Pompeii, Italy (1993) Photo by author

Ha! It’s poetry in motion
Now she’s making love to me
The spheres are in commotion
The elements in harmony
She blinded me with science
(She blinded me with science!)
And hit me with technology
-Thomas Dolby, 1982 (She Blinded Me With Science)

Science, it turns outs, is a process not an answer. And, it usually has many answers from various sciences, each having their own methods and standards. When someone tells you, “the science says,” be skeptical. They are usually being paid to say what they are about to say or at least have been thoroughly indoctrinated by others who are paid. There is never just one answer to any supposedly scientific question.
-Kurt Cobb (Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives)

Unfortunately, there are many other misconceptions about science. One of the most common misconceptions concerns the so-called “scientific proofs.” Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a scientific proof…all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final. There is no such thing as final proven knowledge in science. The currently accepted theory of a phenomenon is simply the best explanation for it among all available alternatives. Its status as the accepted theory is contingent on what other theories are available and might suddenly change tomorrow if there appears a better theory or new evidence that might challenge the accepted theory. No knowledge or theory (which embodies scientific knowledge) is final.
-Satoshi Kanazawa (Common Misconceptions About Science I: “Scientific Proof”)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification

The Future is Rural: Food System Adaptations to the Great Simplification

The Future is Rural challenges the conventional wisdom about the future of food in our modern, globalized world. It is a much-needed reality check that explains why certain trends we take for granted–like the decline of rural areas and the dependence of farming and the food system on fossil fuels–are historical anomalies that will reverse over the coming decades. Renewable sources of energy must replace fossil fuels, but they will not power economies at the same scale as today. Priorities will profoundly shift, and food will become a central concern. Lessons learned from resilience science and alternatives to industrial agriculture provide a foundation for people to transition to more rural and locally focused lives.

Jason Bradford, a biologist and farmer, offers a deeply researched report on the future of food that reveals key blind spots in conventional wisdom on energy, technology, and demographics. The Future Is Rural presents Bradford’s analysis from his career in ecology and agriculture, as well as a synthesis of the historical and scientific underpinnings of the astonishing changes that will transform the food system and society as a whole.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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