When I write about the demise of unsustainable systems, readers often ask me to describe the collapse I see as inevitable. This is a tough assignment, as there are as many kinds of collapse as there are systems: fragile ones can collapse suddenly, and resilient ones can decay for years or even decades before finally imploding or withering away.
Another way of describing collapse is: complex systems become much less complex.
Certain features of modern life could collapse without affecting everyday life much–for example, the derivatives markets could stop working and the impact would be enormous on those playing financial games and those who entrusted money to the gamblers, but the consequences would be extremely concentrated in the gambler/speculator class. Despite the usual cries that financial losses in the gambler/speculator class will destroy civilization, the disruptions and losses would be widely dispersed for the economy as a whole.
Other collapses–in food or energy distribution, digital communications, etc.–would have immediate and severe impacts on daily life.
My three primary models of decay and collapse are:
1. Historian David Hackett Fischer’s masterwork The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History (given to me by longtime correspondent Cheryl A.)
2. Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization
3. The decline of the Western Roman Empire (the process, not Edward Gibbon’s epic 6-volume history). My recommended book on the topic (a short read): The Fall of the Roman Empire
Fischer’s primary thesis is that society and the economy expand in times of plentiful resources and credit, and this increased demand eventually consumes all available resources. When demand exceeds supply and excesses of credit reach extremes, inflation and social disorder arise together.
Though we have yet to see inflation on a global scale, it is inescapable that demand will soon outstrip supply of essential resources and that the global credit bubble will pop, depriving the economy of the means to buy resources regardless of cost.
The Upside of Down describes the process of increasing complexity adding fixed costs to the system, and the way in which this diminishes returns: more and more labor, capital and resources must be devoted to maintain production. At some point, the yield is negative–costs are higher than the output.
At that point, systems start unraveling, and people simply abandon costly complex systems because the means to support them no are no longer readily available.
This is similar to John Michael Greer’s process of catabolic collapse, in which costly complex systems go through a re-set to a much lower energy consumption and less complexity. The system stabilizes at that level for a time, and then as costs rise and resources dwindle, it goes through another downsizing.
The Western Roman Empire (along with the Tang Dynasty in China) is the premier historical template for slow decline/decay leading to an eventual collapse. (Recall that the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, endured for another 1,000 years.)
Depending on how you slice it, Western Rome’s Imperial decline took a few hundred years to play out. Unusually competent and energetic leaders arose at critical junctures in the early stages, and these leaders managed to stem the encroachment of other empires and “barbarian” forces and effectively re-order Rome’s dwindling resources.
By the end, The Western Roman Empire was still issuing a flood of edicts to the various regions, but there was no one left to follow the edicts or enforce them: the Roman legions existed only on parchment. The legion had a name and a structure, but there were no longer any soldiers in the field.
A number of real-world examples of decline/collapse are playing out in real time. Venezuela is one; Greece is another. Both demonstrate the opacity of the process of collapse; it is not as clear as we might imagine. A recent first-hand account of a sympathetic visitor to Venzuela captures the flavor and despair of slow-moving, uneven collapse:
Venezuela: Is There A Driver At The Wheel? (via Arshad A.)
“A dollar traded in the bank officially, or pulled out of an ATM machine, however, is worth about six bolivars only. This is how big the gap is between the black market rate (600-700 to the USD) and the official rate.
Despite the fact that the price of petrol is incredibly cheap, the government has not raised the prices even a slight amount, although this would create revenue for the state and despite the health risks of pollution.This suggests that the government is engaging in populism by refusing to take a step demanded by common sense due to its need to get reelected in December when parliamentary elections will take place.
One can easily get assassinated, as Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America and there are enough people who would not mind killing someone for the fee of $200.
However, when there is massive violence in the streets and many in the government seem to be corrupt, while a sense of anarchy prevails and it seems that the government turns a blind eye to violence when it takes place by local bandits, preferring to continuously blame outsiders, then there is indeed a source for concern.”
Reports out of Greece demonstrate the dynamics of decline and collapse:medicines are unavailable, pensions have been slashed and many households are now below the EU poverty level in income.
But we also hear that life goes on; the social order does not appear to have broken down into anarchy.
Clearly, the Greek economy has contracted, and millions of households have less income than they did before. But has daily life broken down? Have the institutions of public order collapsed?
Perhaps not, but what is collapsing is public trust in these institutions’ ability and willingness to manage the financial crisis and the political disorder that follows.
There is no good solution to the multiple crises in Greece, and the small circle of financial and political elites that benefited from Greece’s entry into the Eurozone remains largely untouched by the crisis. When the status quo is rigid and unbending, the odds of sudden collapse rise: what doesn’t bend will snap.
The process of collapse is thus heavily dependent on how the financial and political elites respond to the decline of resources and credit. If they manage the contraction skillfully and absorb their share of the inevitable losses, then the re-set will likely be successful and the pain short-lived.
If however the ruling elites cling to every scrap of their power and wealth, and begin fighting over the spoils while forcing the underclasses to absorb the losses of the re-set, then the fragility of the system rises in direct proportion to the policy extremes being pursued by vested interests focused on protecting their privileges regardless of cost.
The ultimate cost of protecting the privileges of the few at the expense of the many is the dissolution of the social order that enabled the rule of the privileged few.
My new book A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology and Creating Jobs for All is being published in China later this year.