Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Foxtrot Collapse

Salvador Dali's 1957 'Dance' 

There’s always a lot of discussion on peak oil forums about whether the decline of industrial civilzation will take the form of a vertiginous descent, or whether it will be something long and grinding that will be measured in decades and centuries rather than years or months. In the fast-collapse camp are the likes of Dmitry Orlov (who bases his assessment on his experience of seeing the USSR implode) and Ugo Bardi, who expects a ‘Seneca’s Cliff’ dropoff. James Kunstler, Michael Ruppert and any number of others can probably also be added to the fast-collapse camp.

By comparison, the likes of John Michael Greer reckon we are in for a drawn-out era of terminal decline punctuated by serious crises which, at the time, will seem rather severe to all involved but which will give way to plateaux of relative stability, albeit at a lower level of energy throughput. At the end of this process we will be back to something resembling the Middle Ages, with smoking nuclear power plant dead-zones. His basis for this is a study of history, and in particular the work of writers such as Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler and Joseph Tainter, whose books emphasised the cyclical nature of all civilizations  These, they assert, can  be seen to go progress serially through stages of ebullient expansion, cultural dynamism, acquisition  entropy, overshoot, decay and eventual collapse. Our current industrial civilization, he argues, is but the latest in a long line of civilizations shuffling slowly towards the global compost bin.

But is it? Many would argue that scale matters and that today’s too-big-to-fail hyper-complex, bisophere changing civilization is such a different kettle of fish to its predecessors that when it enters the overshoot and collapse phase, as can be observed to be happening right now, the resulting calamity will be on a scale never before seen or experienced. All buildings fall down eventually, but would you rather be standing next to a fisherman’s cottage or a skyscraper when that happens?

In addition to these criticisms, some would point out that today’s global economy, aided and abetted by instant communications, is far more prone to cascading collapses, in which one strand in the web breaking leads to the whole web being destroyed. A bank collapse in China, for example, could lead to other banks seizing up and cause commerce to freeze as notes of credit go unwritten. By comparison, a mercantile trader in 15th century Venice would not have known that the bond guaranteeing his cargo was worthless for up to several months following the bankruptcy of a creditor, and trade would have carried on as normal in the interim. Inefficient communications, in this case, meant resilience.

Anyway, all the talk about fast collapse/slow collapse can seem a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. The simple facts of the matter are that we have exhausted all of the cheap energy options available to us, which is causing the global financial system - an entirely fabricated construct that can only run on blind optimism, greed and political largesse - to exist in a state of total crisis. Virtually every large economy in the world is facing up to its own pet crisis, although the scope and nature of each one is quite different. Europe is mired in unpayable debt, the US is addicted to pumping illusory ‘money’ via the Print button on the Fed’s keyboard and is just starting to realise there is no way back down the ladder, China’s gargantuan credit bubble is deflating, Japan is playing Russian roulette, and commodity producing countries such as Brazil and Australia are reeling from lowering demand from formerly insatiable importers. This is not just part of the business cycle as most talking heads assert.

It does seem quite likely that we are facing an uber Minsky Moment - that moment where investors realise their assets are vastly over-valued and stampede for the door. But where will they stampede to? The US dollar and world stock markets look like safeish havens for the time being to many, which would explain the Dow Jones’ and FTSE’s phenomenal head-scratching rises in recent weeks. Precious metals and land are being snapped up, especially by China which wants to simultaneously dump risky American assets and build a global network of agricultural land to feed its too-late-to-the-game middle class consumers (leaving ravaged ecosystems and raging mobs of dispossessed people in their wake). It’s a game where the stakes keep getting higher and higher with every passing week.

But the planet, of which our human economy is simply one small subset of, is a complex system to say the least, and complex systems are difficult to break all in one go. That’s why in my opinion collapse will not come about in a neatly linear fashion, but will be of a stop-start nature, like a badly-maintained fairground ride with a sadistic teenage operator. Of course, when I say the word ‘collapse’ I am mostly talking about the impacts it will have on the lives of we who live in the ‘West’ - most countries and people in the world have been living with collapse for centuries. Try telling a Malawian subsistence farmer that we may be in for a bumpy ride and see how he responds.

As has been noted before, global financial collapse is likely to be the first step, and that could happen overnight. Hot on its heels will be commercial collapse and a very sustained period of, shall we say, discomfort. Political collapse, as well as the rule of law, are next up on the Magical Mystery Collapse Tour, and we can only pray that we don’t get to social collapse too soon.

But all of these will take time. There will be grey areas and stages that overlap one another. Some locations will be worse off than others that might be just down the road, and some regions and countries might get lucky and find they are suddenly in a far better position than they were previously. Indeed, the whole thing will bloom like a fractal - or should I say is blooming like a fractal because we are already several years into this adventure. Individuals, communities, families, governments, militaries, religious groups and organised crime syndicates will all have their roles to play as the game changes, and only those most able to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances, or just the downright lucky, will be in a position to see the next stage of collapse.

Some stages are likely to be faster than others. The collapse of credit availability, insurance and investor confidence will be more or less instanteous once the first big domino falls, but national currencies, cooperative arrangements and various forms of trade will no doubt linger on for some time. Commerce is complex, with some supply chains being more fragile than others, so we’re likely to see the availability of most high tech items severely curtailed, while more basic items that don’t have to be shipped halfway across the globe and rely on several hundred individual suppliers, will be available for longer. Rationing will prolong the agony and the black market will step in as people get used to the idea that things are not as they used to be. 

So, for most of us I expect to see collapse happening at different rates. Sometimes they will be fast and brutal, and other times they will be slow and unnoticeable to those concerned until viewed in the rear view mirror of history. It’ll be a case of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow - which we might as well call a foxtrot collapse, after the ballroom dance with the same moves. 

I’m sure that, when all is said and done, nearly all of those in the reality-based community who regularly write about peak oil, civilizational decline and environmental crisis (with the exception of the Near Term Human Extincion folks) would agree that collapse occurrs by stages and it is merely our own standpoints which determine how direcly we are affected and when. After all, a credit meltdown could seem like Armageddon to a Hong Kong banker, but would barely even register as news to someone living a sustainable life on an island in Greece. Conversely freaky weather caused by climate change could destroy the Greek islander’s livelihood, but the banker, unaware of the natural elements outside his air-conditioned trading floor, would not even notice.

Becoming aware of the proximity of the stages of collapse should be a priority for individuals and governments alike, but for a multitude of human reasons this is not the case. Nevertheless, if you’re reading this then you’re probably also one of ‘the choir’ and are acutely aware of all the mounting problems that we face. It’s a catch 22 situation, aided and abetted by most media, which are desperately blinkered when it comes to nebulous predicamants, and keen to focus on blaming individual people for their follies. Oh, and it doesn't help shift advertising space.

So for the time being we have blogs to use as communication tools, although when they are gone one day we might be back to the days of printed mailing lists and subscriber magazines and journals. In fact, I think I’ve already come up with one ...The Entropy Times - your daily dose of doom

You heard about it here first.

By the way - this is my 100th post. I can't believe I have actually got this far with this blog, and further can't believe that there are some 10,000 page views a month (although probably at least half are robots/government spies/friends checking that I am still batty). I'm thinking about actually trying to earn a few pennies from my endeavours and writing a book, making it available to buy from this site. It already has a working title - Mind the Vortex - How to Survive the 21st Century - but I'd be interested to hear if anyone thinks this is a good idea or a bad one. With all the work I am doing over at Fox Wood (this week I dug a humungous hole by hand and cleared half an acre of brambles with a sickle) I could do with a project that doesn't involve getting covered in mud and coming home with bleeding forearms and blistered hands. 

Thanks for reading 22 Billion Energy Slaves!


  1. Congrats! If we are comparing notes, after 3 years and 250 posts, you have five times the bots etc reading!

    Write a book. Whatever books. You should put your novels out there too, if not for money, just for download. I'm thinking of letting go the cultural commentary and focusing on fiction ;) More fun. Besides, the more direct I speak about the thing, the less people read. Might as well make it entertaining, and write about the thing without writing about the thing, if you know what I mean.


    1. Thanks! I'll get on with the book … but I'm also thinking about fiction. I've come to not care about how many people read it (or not) - which is strangely liberating. The worst mistake I made with the other book I wrote (the one about Spain, which I'll also offer up as well) was that I kept trying to please literary agents and it ended up getting distorted and not what I had originally set out to write.

      Over here you never hear the words 'peak oil' uttered. I doubt 99% of people have ever even heard of the concept - so hopefully it'll be somewhat original over this side of the water.

  2. Have you seen how even China has problems with surplus graduates?

    The whole urban society there suddenly went into overdrive trying to get their kids into the best schools, universities and jobs, with the result that supply exceeds demand.

    The same thing is happening here in India, too. I know a lot of students who come from the countryside and study subjects like commerce and tourism. I've suggested a few times they might consider going back to their family farm way up in the mountains.

    Such words are entirely alien to them. Their own family wants them to "get an education" and get into the urban middle class.

    When such hopes go unfulfilled there is social tension. That's why these big Asian countries spend so much on internal security (and probably why most western countries are beefing up their own).

    But what happens when there isn't enough for it? Or when factions in the elites see an opportunity to get disenchanted youth behind them?

    1. Shakya - I had read somewhere that China has a burgeoning problem with too many graduates and not enough jobs for them. Given the frankly suicidal growth rates decided upon by the political elites of both China and India it can only be a question of time before there is widespread disappointment and anger at the situation.

      It's totally understandable for parents to want their kids to 'get and education' and be successful. Unfortunately I fear that they are getting the wrong kind of education for the future that they can expect.

      Of course, if the social tensions become too great then the temptation for leaders is to find some kind of external threat and then turn all those over-qualified young people into cannon fodder. Let's hope that doesn't happen - it would be far better to send them back to the countryside where they came from and re-learn the skills that they have been un-taught. But that would be just too anti-progressive, wouldn't it?

  3. I get that many Bot Hits every Day! :D


  4. Jason,
    Congratulations on your 100th post, and thanks for the effort to keep writing. I haven't commented before, but I've been a regular reader of you posts as you've been moving around Europe, and really value your insights and just reading about your activities.
    I'll now add Fox Wood into my other reading list (more oriented toward permaculture & homesteading).
    - José

    1. Thanks, Jose (sorry, my keyboard is missing the accents). It's good to know that for every robot there's a real person reading this blog!

  5. Jason,
    Go ahead and write the book if book writing is what you know how to do. And as another comment suggested, make it entertaining. And tell the truth as you see it. Honesty is in short supply these days and always finds an appreciative audience, among those who appreciate honesty, of course.
    I have various writing ideas myself and start on them and then abandon them because other things have higher priority. My life always intrudes. I have yurts and boats to build and the folly of contemporary life to marvel at. Such an entertaining circus. How can the written word compete? Perhaps better to get a video camera and stand in front of it and rant, hair tossing and spittle flying, eyes bulging and then post the thing on youtube.
    As for predictions of the future, fast vs. slow collapse, I am starting to lose interest in that topic. Seems like regardless of which rate of collapse the various writers imagine, they all have a favorite landing place for the post-collapse societies. Kunstler seems to favor late 19th century America with small towns linked by railroads and the towns surrounded by small farms. Given that the farms are now large and owned by corporations, turning them back into small farms might take some doing. And so it goes, everyone has their favorite post-collapse scenario.
    In a way, my compatriots and I are already living the post-collapse life. We are a group of artisans/craftsmen who have set up shop on a navy base that was decommissioned after the Soviet collapse. We are surrounded by stage set from the times when America was in its glory. During the Vietnam war, five aircraft carriers were based here and much of that war was provisioned from the immediate neighborhood. Now of course, the hangars and maintenance buildings of the base are not serving the war effort any more and those huge marvelous buildings are acquiring post peak scum like ourselves, welders, blacksmiths, tinkerers, wood workers, boat builders, brewers, wine makers, bus repair facilities and so on. There are also some high tech endeavors such as wind power projects, but the majority of the folks are just here because the rents are relatively cheap. There is no grand plan or government intervention, so the place has its own dynamic rather than a grand vision of some sort of high-tech future inventing skunk works.
    Meanwhile, across the bay in San Francisco, food foraging classes are all the rage. I don't know to what extent people who take the classes are motivated by the notion that this is cool or out of a sense of preparing for hard times. Still, regardless of what shape the future will take, a subset of the larger population is working on scavenging and re-use skills, top among which is making a living without working for The Man, and The Man is cooperating by daily throwing more folk out on the street.

    1. Wolfgang - "post peak scum" - I love it ;-)

      It certainly sounds very interesting, your setup. I used to live near Christiania in Copenhagen, which used to be a naval base and sounds quite similar. With all the things going on there that you describe it sounds like one of Dmitry Orlov's 'model' anarchist setups.

      As for slow or sudden - I'm also a little tired of the topic - part of me hopes that 'something' will happen to conclusively prove that I'm not a raving loon, and another bit is quite worried about what that might mean to me and my family, yet probably the greatest part of me is quite content for BAU to carry on a few more years so I can make more preparations and get my woodland project ticking over. I've read Kunstler's 'World Made by Hand' - I liked it, although apparently people say he has an obsession with trains.

      BTW I'd rather write a book than make a video. I'm not good at real-time ranting, and I once appeared on a news TV show in Denmark and was horrified to see myself on the screen when it aired. I think I'll take your advice and stick with the truth - and try and inject a little gallows humour. In any case, I don't seem to be able to write in any other way, even if I try to be all serious and academic ;-)

      Thanks for your insights!

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  7. This is an interesting montage of pictures documenting catabolic industrial decay - mostly in Britain, but also a few other places.

    See it here

    I contributed the one on Greece (I'm 'NoneTooClever')

  8. hello Jason,

    I'd be interested in your book.
    I think downscaling as you posit in this post is how our descent into a lower energy-hungry state of being will/is pan(ning) out. I'll be interested in reading your particular take on that seen you're someone who is actively engaged in resilient adaptation.

    Both a Panglossian and/or a NTE outlook is strictly relative to most and are likely to personally experience both at different times as lack of energy/resource prevents us from staving off entropy as done in the last few generations.

    Is all relative. Take The Greate Plague of 1665, in London, killed 15-20% of the population there. Quite the NTE to those that died, quite Panglossian to those tradesmen who survived and found themselves dealing directly in business with Lords as not many middle men were left to dip into their contracts. Like Albert Einstein said, "When you're courting a girl, hours seem like a second. When you're sitting on an ember, a second seems like hours. THAT's relativity."

    The thing is to accept we will have less and less control over entropy, thus resilience, a stoic non-boastful demeanor that has us controlling only that over which we have control, our individual selves, are likely to be qualities of sages.
    Like Kipling says in IF: "If you can meet with both Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same..."; except for the bunch of entitled egocentrics in "advanced" economies who rarely ever have had to consider anything outside their bubbled existence and are now finding themselves forced down into a lower-energy state of consumption, this is very hard to comprehend for them --oh the calamity, to have to live from paycheck to paycheck, like an immigrant, oh poor them, such injustice to them; never having to define stoicism or courage outside a classroom, they naturally crave NTE for everyone else too, so they don't feel so alone I think.

    1. Well, I don't think either panglossianism or its evil twin, NTE, even crosses the minds of 99% of people. For this who are tuned in, one way or the other, it does seem odd that so many would go to one extreme or the other.

      Living with entropy is something that many of us will have to re-learn, I guess.

  9. The only issue I would note is that the various collapse theories don't agree as to the cause, and peak oil doesn't fit in particularly well with any of them (I am willing to stand corrected though). So while I think we have a serious problem with peak oil, it is not an unreasonable argument that it is somewhat different this time.

    To my mind, at times it seems like we are in a race against competing collapses. But some of the collapses have the potential to put a check on some of the others: as in peak oil slowing up overreach in other areas to give us more time to work with.

    1. I'd say that our access to oil and other fossil fuels has allowed us to catapult ourselves forward in such a way that several different tipping points are reached more or less simultaneously. Water shortages, topsoil erosion, climate change etc etc have all been brought to a head through our recklessness. Whereas in the past these would have just been local problems, no our global economy - that allows us to transplant capital to wherever the regulations are weakest - makes collapse inevitable.

  10. Jason,

    Well done on the 100th Post. I'd certainly be interested in reading a book that you write.

    As far as the progress of the Collapse... like many of us, I fell deeply under the spell of Matt Simmons, Kunstler and even Mike Ruppert (when I first read 9/11 research, it was too much for me)

    It seems to me now that our decline is taking it's own time, and moving in many unexpected directions.

    Back in 2006, when I left the Matrix for a Green adventure in permaculture, I had an instinct telling me, there was another choice in front of me... I could take this hard line, life changing trip into Green, or I could "Change the world in me", with a meditation mat representing the place that I would "go".

    With some hindsight, I'm glad I'm not so ignorant of the world's plight anymore. But, I keep most of what I've learned to myself, especially when I'm hanging out with friends who have kids (especially new parents).

    As it turns out, I had no say in being born at this time (from the rational perspective), just as I have very little say in how things will unfold.

    Accepting what is is the first step to accepting what might come (and indeed, realising there is no difference). Letting the oft maligned ego go, might be the first step in being more compassionate with other beings, people particularly.

    A little less greed can't possibly deliver anything but soften the landing we are heading to.

    1. Thanks Ben. It's funny and ironic that you should use the word 'spell' while talking bout JHK, because of course he rails against 'too much (technological) magic'. But, you're right, those who talk of violent cataclysmic collapse hold us spellbound - more so than those who see it as a long and boring slump into entropy.

      I half- wish I could keep these things to myself, but on the other hand I think that if you are aware of the mess we're in then there is a duty to communicate it (if you are any good at communication). We're going to be talking about this on a Doomstead Diner podcast - probably next week - so be sure to tune in!

  11. Jason,

    I glanced over this post and some of the comments. Got here via a link in one of Jay Hanson's A2.0 list mails.

    In my mind there's no doubt that humanity will disappear. First some bumpy ups and downs of BAU, followed by an increasingly steep downslope, collapse with end time resource wars, famines, illnesses, effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, (radioactive) pollution etc.. By 2050 it may be all over and done.

    In my view overshoot of carrying capacity is at least 400 times since 1712 (Newcombe steam engine). An ordered contraction is impossible. Moreover all our people in power and the media and NGOs blindly profess their unbroken belief in growth.

    There cannot be a sequence of civilisations, once the material base has been depleted and completely polluted. It'll be the end of mankind, and possibly of all developed life, because of radioactive pollution.


    cf, eg:

  12. "Of course, when I say the word ‘collapse’ I am mostly talking about the impacts it will have on the lives of we who live in the ‘West’ - most countries and people in the world have been living with collapse for centuries. Try telling a Malawian subsistence farmer that we may be in for a bumpy ride and see how he responds."

    I like that observation a lot. And if we add the perspective of that these people to some extent are victims not of our collapse, but of our success, she (the Malawian farmer is more likely a woman) may not at all be in for a bumpy ride, but actually an improvement when she doesn't have to compete with the energy slaves used by her Western competitors in a global market. The price of her crop is perhaps a third in "real value" than it was hundred years earlier.

    The "Collapse" narrative is mostly from the perspective of the ones benefiting from the system. The reality is that some will lose a lot and some will benefit from a "collapse", unless we see one leading to all-out war etc. For many other species a collapse of human civilization is probably the most promising prospect...


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.