Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

What is "collapse"?

by Aric McBay (March 09 2005)

The word "collapse" is, like "civilization", often used to mean very different things. When someone says that civilization is "going to collapse", do they mean that the power grid is going to go out at the stroke of midnight, and never come back on? Do they mean that it is going to crumble away over decades of gradual decline? The word certainly brings to mind things like the Y2K scare, or the Mad Max movies. Really though, it could mean any number of things, from a very rapid, catastrophic, overnight failure to a years-long economic and industrial decline.

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter is the author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, 1988). His book is a survey of numerous historical collapses which includes suggestions about their likely causes and common threads. Tainter writes: "A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity". He elaborates:

Collapse is manifest in such things as:

o a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation;

o less economic and occupational specialization <1>, of individuals, groups, and territories;

o less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites;

o less behavioural control and regimentation;

o less investment in ... those elements that define the concept of 'civilization': monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like;

o less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups, and between a center and its periphery;

o less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources;

o less overall coordination and organization of individuals and groups;

o a smaller territory integrated within a single political unit. <2>

And any given number of those changes could occur in a given place during the process of collapse. These changes could occur over a short or longer period of time (although in our case, the timescale is likely to be relatively short).

What one may see also depends on the scale that one is looking at. For example, collapse could include "less sharing, trading, and redistribution of resources" at an international level as increasing fuel costs shrink the global shipping industry. But at the same time, there could (and will) be an increase of sharing and barter at the community level, which will strengthen bonds between people.

Some of these changes are just the sorts of things that social justice activists have been working towards for years. For example, a "lower degree of stratification" - that is, a (more) classless and equitable society. We also strive for "less centralized control", "less behavioural control and regimentation", and so on. These are some of the aspects of collapse that we can work to accelerate and emphasize.

Other aspects are less appealing to some people. Those who closely identify with the dominant culture may be displeased at the prospect of a decrease in "monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements, and the like". I don't value most of the artistic creations that have emerged from civilization - with the exception of those artistic creations that oppose the unequal power relations and exploitation inherent to civilization. Most of the "culture" created is simply a form of entertaining propaganda created to reinforce the insane assumptions of the status quo, and to distract people from the serious problems and injustices in the world. <3> I will be glad to see television go, and look forward to an when people, unencumbered by bad jobs in a wage economy that benefits the richest, will again have time to create culture and art that appeals to them. In other words, I look forward to a time when humans aren't passive consumers of manufactured "culture", but instead develop the stories and art that speaks to them, to their communities and landbases.

I often use terms like "industrial collapse" or "the collapse of industrial civilization". I use the term "industrial" to refer to a society with a mechanized means of production - that is, the essentials of life in this society are made by or with the essential aid of a machines. (And a more detailed definition and description of the terms "industrial" and "machine" is coming soon.) So an industrial collapse is a collapse of that industrial system, of a machine system. It means "less flow of information" between machines and more flow of information between people. It means less "redistribution of resources" by machines, and more sharing of the essentials of life between humans and communities.

So as a refined definition of collapse, I'll say that industrial collapse is a short-term, rapid decline in the size and productivity of an industrial system. Since the industrial system is dependant on enormous and increasing amounts of cheap oil, and oil production is peaking and will soon be on the decline, an industrial collapse is inevitable. The internal interdependence of the industrial system will greatly accelerate the speed of that collapse. That interdependence and complexity is here because civilizations tend to solve their problems by becoming more complex. Almost never do civilizations get rid of a machine or technology or institution because it causes too many problems. Rather, they create a new institution or technology to "solve" the problems of the first, which in turn creates new problems and spawns new "problem-solving" institutions and technologies. Eventually the problems become too severe to be solved (like Peak Oil), and the society can't revert to a "slightly simpler" industrial system because modern technologies are all dependent on having their problems solved by other modern technologies. So the system comes apart very quickly.

There are a couple of properties of an industrial collapse which aren't noted in the changes listed by Tainter (which isn't surprising, since he was looking at societies which weren't industrial). These include:

o A significant and continuing decline in industrial agriculture yields.

o A significant and continuing decline in the production and availability of consumer goods in general, and an increase in their prices.

o The potential for collapse to be very rapid. (This is because machines already do things extremely rapidly, and because of the interconnectedness of the industrial machines, such as the dependence of almost all machines on either gas or electricity or both.)

o And, of course, collapse yields many resulting effects, be they a global rebirth of community or a nuclear war over resources. I'll examine some more specific scenarios and timeframes for industrial collapse in greater detail soon.

Now, a couple of people have said things to me like "Well, if we build ecovillages and permaculture gardens fast enough, and provide alternatives, a collapse won't happen". That's when I clarify my definition to them: Even if there were, somehow, a smooth movement of people from the industrial system to an earth-based system <*>, there would still be an industrial collapse. That's because the industrial system will still have undergone a rapid, short-term decline towards non-existence. The ship is sinking, and will sink whether there are people on it or not.

My goal isn't to prevent collapse through the use of photovoltaics or other industrial technologies. Matt Savinar and others have exhaustively shown why this is impossible. Rather, my goal is to alter the course of collapse through a variety of creative means, in order to create the healthy and ecological communities we want, with the world experiencing a minimal level of violence in the process. <4>

Indeed, not only is industrial collapse part of the process of creating such communities, it is an absolute necessity.


1 By this he means, for example, that instead of having many very specific jobs, like gastroenterologist, dermatologist, proctologist, pediatrician, a collapsed society may just have general job types, like general practitioner. Or maybe it would just have "healers".

2 Tainter, Joseph A, The Collapse of Complex Societies, 2003 edition, p.4

3 It doesn't matter to me whether or not TV or music producers intend it as propaganda or not. What's more important is that the people on TV or in movies or novels or media in general behave in certain ways which become unthinking accepted as "normal", and that being "normal" means ignoring, accepting or actively participating in the the ruin of the world.

* A smooth transfer is, in my opinion, extremely unlikely, for reasons that I discuss elsewhere.

4 It's impossible to have a transition with no violence, because violence is already happening all over the place. And besides, there is a certain minimal level of violence that any creature participates in when they eat another creature for survival, although that is a very different kind of violence from the sort that civilization perpetuates.

Copyright 2003-2004, redistribution for for-profit uses prohibited without permission.

Bill Totten


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