Posts Tagged ‘collapse’

There comes a moment in the lives of most of us (thankfully, we almost all live long enough to experience this) when we discover that “it’s not just my kid that thinks of the events of my life as ancient history, it’s a whole lot of those folks out there!” When I think about the millennial generation (Net Generation, Gen Y, etc.), whose leading wave has seen its feet come ashore on the beach of “never trust anyone over thirty”, I reflect on the fact that between them and the trailing edge of Gen X about half the people on the street don’t share the experiences that I, as a boomer, found as formative. Considering, in turn, that the experiences of the 1930s and 1940s are as alien to me as those of the late 1960s and 1970s are to them, I can only conclude that Santayana’s aphorism about history and its repetition is about to be lived out again.

History as taught in schools has tended to fall into two main camps;

  • Categorization via the periods of war, the reigns of rulers or some other means of treating the clock and calendar as a line punctuated by reference marks. This is not only generally a method that bores 90%+ of the class into intellectual sleep; anyone who turns an active mind to it immediately sees that broad historical strokes don’t nicely align with centuries and decades, the throne-spans of rulers, or the like (this is the problem in the philosophy of history, of periodization, and an underlying reason why Henry Ford claimed “History is Bunk”).
  • The modern anti-historical method of taking an ideological stance (be it Marxist analysis, primacy of a nation-state, feminist theory, or many other forms) and “reading it back” into historical periods in order to establish clearly that they have nothing to teach us. This leaves the student with the clear notion that there is nothing history can contribute and thus a purely functional approach to current issues is defaulted to.

In history, there are significant events that warp the course of peoples. Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on 11 September 2001, for instance, is one such. All the analysis and attempts to predict in the world did not and could not predict the exact timing, the exact form of the attack and the form the reaction would take. (Who, amongst us, would have predicted that a pioneering nation proud of its primacy would have turned its over 300 million citizens into people willing to give up their hard-won freedoms in a quavering desire for “security”? There are many others on this planet that that would have been a reasonable prediction for: the American people weren’t likely candidates. Yet others — including those who have also suffered attacks — have kept calm and carried on far better.

Yet winding through history as well are long-term processes that unfold. Most of these, unfortunately, are processes of positive feedback: in other words, they produce imbalances that intensify over time. These are the processes that end in a “tipping point”, one where there is a jump into the chaotic from a domain of apparent simple and comprehensible order. While societal innovation — what Toynbee in his A Study of History called the reaction of a creative minority who separate themselves from the conditions at hand to reinvent the process (in the realm of growth, this is Quigley’s [The Evolution of Civilizations] “creation of a new economic engine”) — is one response to the breakdown of order at a tipping point, the far more common one has been the emergence of “The Man on Horseback”, the “Leader” who takes charge and establishes a new order.

We are rife with metaphors for this moment of tipping: the collapse of the camel when one more strand of straw is added to his load; the avalanche that starts when one more snowflake is added to the snow pack on a mountain side; the collapse of a dune when one more grain of sand or small pebble is blown onto it. We remember those who step up to seize control after the collapse as well. Most signal a second slide (think of the Roman Empire once Augustus seized control and became Imperator, of the French Revolution when Napoléon seized control, of the seizing of power in Russia by Lenin and his faction, or the election of Hitler in Weimar Germany): what appears to go well at first decays into terminal collapse.

All of our policies have been designed to add, gram by gram, to the weight the system carries. Positive feedback processes about social welfare, life extension, correcting “injuries of the past” and many others have been wound around our society. For those who have taken on the responsibility of maintaining order in the world (originally the French, then the British, now the Americans) each in turn has reached a point where they are trapped, unable to abandon any outpost of power without opening up another point of weakness and yet unable to afford the cost of maintaining those outposts — and meanwhile, as none have achieved global order (despite global presence) new weak points constantly get added to the mix. (What else is a Somali coast or South China Sea pirate?, to name but one class of case.)

But there are limits to everything. I do not know (and neither does anyone else, despite their claims to the contrary) where the tipping points are. We can at best know two types of things: taken this far previously, this happened; and by experience, the process in its field of conditions is about “here”. That “field of conditions” is relevant: the shift from money as metal to money as a symbol of metal to money as a symbol, tout court, to money as the velocity of debt that unfolded throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century is what has allowed us to be where we are today. At what point will the accumulated debt “grains of sand” collapse the dune and force the economy to reset at a much lower level of potential? We don’t know.

But we do know (by pattern recognition) that toward the end of a positive feedback process, just before it snaps (either under its own weight or via an external event) it grows rapidly — the exponential curve’s famous “hockey stick” moment.

Having destroyed much of the available investment capital in our society in the technology bubble (itself a creature of the transition to “money as velocity of debt”), and then followed that with attempts to continue to increase debt velocity in the face of the destruction of growth to pay off prior debts that led to the housing bubble (still unfolding, with a second US, UK and EU wave to come and a first major Canadian and Australian wave later this year?), we have now moved to the notion of government as the “spender of last resort”. But global demand for capital to buy the Treasury notes and bonds that, in turn, finance these deficits exceeds the available monies.

Will we see a series of dominos fall? (The domino theory, to return to the starting point of this little essay through history, was the rationale for Vietnam and Cambodia — as defining for the late 1960s and early 1970s as Iraq, Afghanistan [and likely Iran and Pakistan to come] are now — for years.) Or will there be a sudden collapse due to an external event that suddenly seizes all the debt markets and immobilizes them (as was Al Qaeda’s intention in 2001)?

Again, we don’t know — but we rest on the edge of a knife.

Meanwhile, the politics of our countries is rife with proposals for ever more deficit spending, ever more engineering of methods and results, and ever more ways to “set money aside” for a retirement no longer a part of employment (except for a select few) and thus dependent on highly liquid markets to extract wealth trapped in real estate or stocks, and the endless pumping up of growth. I would not be surprised that the next wave of change will either wipe out the tax status of retirement funds, or mandate that they be invested in the debt ponzi scheme now offered by our central banks and Treasuries worldwide, or both. Meanwhile our analogy to the hyperinflation of Weimar or the wiping out of assets in the transition from Czarist to Bolshevik Russia will be the traps that our mortgages, lines of credit and credit cards have become — all recourse instruments, and with escalating rates of interest to shield their rentier owners from a diminution in revenues — while taxes and fees accelerate upward, both to offset the overspending, and to pay for the “final programs” now being discussed by politicians anxious to buy one more vote.

We are, I fear, past the point of soft landings. A crash is coming, one it will be hard to rise from again. Governments will end up falling; much more of the world — including parts of it we consider “developed” — will become failed states or rigid dictatorships.

If this worries you, the time to act is now. Not next week, but now. We are but a few grains of sand away from the crisis.

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The Haitian earthquake and its aftermath has been much in the news these last few days. There’s been no shortage of calls for help — and a speedy response of aid workers and materiel has been forthcoming. (There’s also been the usual whinge that “it’s not enough” or “it’s not fast enough”, but this time, in general, there’s little to complain about on that front when you really look at the speed with which a meaningful response was able to be mounted for an unanticipated event.)

However, at the same time, I read a work of semi-speculative fiction by William Forstchen, Professor of Military History at Montreat College in North Carolina, entitled One Second After. The science in this work is grounded not only in his discipline, but in effects that have been known throughout most of the twentieth century, and which were first made popular knowledge during the 1980s in connection with former US President Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative.

What this book asks is: what happens, if the technology dies? I don’t want to spoil the book — this is a page-turner, and a cracking good story, one that brought me to tears several times as events unfolded for one character or another — but I’ll summarize it simply by saying that within a year without the technologies we know and depend on available the North American population has shrunk by 75-80% — or, to put it another way, in the forty-eight “continental” American states, the remaining fifty million have buried two hundred fifty million of their family members, neighbours and friends. All this, mind you, without losing a single city or town.

Over the past several years, in connection with research work I was doing on our energy profile, our approach to regional planning, our infrastructures and the warning signs in the economy that the dénouement of the dominance of financial capitalism (the degenerate form of industrial capitalism) was at hand, I have given much thought to how sustainable life in our cities, our suburbs, our exurbs and our independent rural villages and small towns would be. I have modelled population possibilities based on local availability of resources. The scenarios for “good places to live” that resulted from this, and an assessment of how urgently one would need to consider uprooting and moving if you didn’t already live in “a good place” for the future, ranged from an uplifting future to a set of grim options.

But nowhere as grim as Fortschen paints: and the surprise (which it ought not to have been!) is that the only speculative part in this entire work is would the triggering event take place. Everything else derives from “facts on the ground” that are right out in the open, waiting for us to see them: for them to be “present to us”, as Heidegger said in Sein und Zeit, rather than us looking at the world solely through the technological framework’s preference for “ready to use”.

I am kicking myself in part because I’ve read Dmitri Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse and listened to his Long Now Foundation lecture: his analysis of the last days of the former Soviet Union and the collapse of society in the former Soviet Republics pointed out many of the same problems Fortschen lays out — and Orlov further pointed out some of the “saving graces” in post-Communist society that a post-collapse American society wouldn’t have going for it as readily.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: we depend on almost everything that matters for life to be transported over longer distances than a person can walk, or a horse and cart can manage. That’s about 6 km (4 mi), in case you hadn’t thought about what that distance might be. (One of the items to look at is the distance between grain elevators on the Prairies, as these were built with the coming of the railways: farmers needed to hitch up the team of horses to a wagon/cart and ride to the elevator to sell their production, then return home, with nearly all the trip occurring during daylight hours. In October, that meant a round-trip time of about 10 hours. With unloading time — let’s assume the cart is loaded the day before, although in many cases trips had to be taken repeatedly to get the harvest to market — at the elevator, that meant a maximum of 3.5-4 miles’ travel one way. That’s why the elevators are spaced, regular as clockwork, at those distances. Similar placement occurred in the East, with dairy operations, although there the milk shed for the “milk run” on the rails were a little closer together, since it was necessary to employ more parallelism in labour to wrestle milk into refrigerated cars from icehouses to avoid spoilage, implying multiple trains/day and closer distances from farm to station.)

One in four people in North America requires chronic medication — pharmacies have, on average, a thirty-day supply of drugs. Your typical supermarket has two or three days’ worth of supplies of a product. Gasoline (petrol) in service station tanks or distribution centre tanks will spoil after a few months — paradoxically, it lasts longer in a usable form in the tank in an automobile — and so large scale supplies of refined products aren’t locally available.

The average distance from power source to point of consumption on the electrical grid today, in North America, is well over 400 km. As the East discovered in 2003, the system is also interlocked: there are only a handful of grids on the continent, and cascade failures (a few seconds’ time to collapse the entire grid, in 2003 three days’ around the clock work to restart it). Collapse base load and, even if parts and service people can rush to fix things, it takes time and deep coordination to restart semi-continental scale grids.

What One Second After awakened me to is the deep interdependence we have built between systems, all of which must work 99% of the time at least (and, in some cases, to five nines [99.999%] or better reliability.

The great failure of “continental scale” entities — whether this be the former Soviet Union, or the current Canada, United States, Australia, or China, and increasingly the European Union — is that the large scale “market” that emerges is an inducement to rationalizing activity across the scope of that entity. As a child, I remember routinely seeing something that I, living in Toronto, didn’t really resonate to: “Prices higher west of the Rockies”, in advertising. The reason, I later found out — especially after moving to the West Coast — is that the Pacific Coast and Intermountain regions of North America didn’t have the ease of transportation and energy flow over the mountains that the East and Prairies did. Local manufacturing, local companies, local markets persisted a generation longer in the West than elsewhere on the continent. That is, of course, long gone now.

What the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union found, as the system and then the country came apart, was that routine supplies of food, of power, of parts, etc. were disrupted. The USSR, in the name of “efficiency”, had mandated “country product mandates”. One plant produced all light bulbs, for instance, for a country spanning thirteen time zones. Another one produced all standard bolts. Yet another one processed all salted, tinned meats. Cascade failures in production began to occur even before the Gorbachev regime gave way to the independent republics. Once the borders went up, the economies collapsed further, as “rents” were charged to pay for the new governments and to “redress” grievances.

Fortschen doesn’t say it — it wouldn’t be essential to his story line — but we do exactly the same thing, and with one additional twist: for many items of daily use, we don’t even make them anymore. Industrial capitalism resolved itself to product mandate plants — Black & Decker or General Electric making all power tools here, all small electrical appliances there; all wiring harnesses made in one place for a variety of uses in the parts chains of manufacturers — to increase profits and “be more efficient”. (If you are building a modern factory, which is labour-shy but robot and numerically-controlled processor centric, this makes sense. Small plants with light levels of throughput can’t justify the technology on a economic basis.)

Financial capitalism took this one stage further. It encouraged companies to outsource, to handle their pollution or safety standard costs by working overseas where regulations permitted actions not allowed at home, all for a few cents per share extra earnings. In turn we, as consumers (rather than as citizens!) lusted after a few cents off the price of everything.

The collapse of the debt economy that is unfolding, energy security issues, high seas piracy, further strangling of transport with inept responses to terror worries while real terrorist issues are left to fester for lack of will to face reality, institutional breakdown leading to the rise of borders where none really exist, industrial agriculture’s products being behind many of our chronic illnesses — we have so many inter-tangled worries. No wonder John and Jane Average are more concerned with who will win on American Idol! Yet the prudent individual whose timespan is broader than their own immediate moment knows that lean years follow fat years.

Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger, when elected to the Papacy, was sending us all a message with his choice of name “Benedict”, for St-Benedict, in the face of the long dying of the Roman Empire in the West realized the need to preserve and protect something for the future and look beyond the needs of the day.

I do not know, of course, if that was his motivation (the speaker of that has known him for many, many years) but it would be a prudent response nonetheless.

James Howard Kunstler, in his book Home from Nowhere, talks about Ruckytucks Farm, located in the Hudson Valley near his home in Saratoga Springs, NY. The farm must be both organic and have local buyers: there is no market with the food chains for small producer outputs, and none for industrial agriculture’s products at a local price point versus the production of massive operations in California, México, Chile and the like. He wrote about it — as he assumed food would be the one problem society wouldn’t have in his part of the world in his novel World Made by Hand — to show that it would be possible to go back. Fortschen, on the other hand, points out that none of the expertise, none of the seed stock and none of the tools to go back are likely to be present if the jump into disruption is fast.

I keep reminding myself that Fortschen wrote a novel, but the reality is that the ability to do what he talks about isn’t futuristic at all. It is very real, very accessible and very possible today (as it has been for at least two decades now). I also keep reminding myself that even if Fortschen’s event does — mirabile dictu! not occur, our society’s systems are stretched to the breaking point. We, in our comfortable Western lives in North America, Western Europe or the Antipodes, may not have everything fall down around us as Haïtians in the Port-au-Prince area did this week, but our homes will be equally useless to most of us without power that comes reliability, fuels for transport that are always available … I think you get the picture.

I urge you, if you haven’t, to read Fortschen’s One Second After; Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse; Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, World Made by Hand and Home from Nowhere; Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead; and to then do the following:

Walk. Learn how a world made intensely local would work for you where you are now.

The time to start thinking about “what happens next” isn’t “one second after” — it’s years ahead of the need.

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Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley’s Invictus captures, at least for my sensibilities, how much we have lost in Western societies since the nineteenth century. Written as the Victorian Age wound down to give way to the Edwardian — that last brilliant decade before the West’s headlong suicidal march into the slough of despond that was World War I — this short poem does not, for a moment, pretend that all is well. Indeed, in the human condition, it is seldom “all well”: it is the nature of our lives that they be filled with challenges, and it is indeed the rare man or woman who is not repeatedly bloodied, pained, treated ill, faced with tears and cause to fear and cruel twists of fate. Instead, what Henley lays forth is something that was very much of his time, and very much lost to ours: the sense that, although society could stand a great deal of “improvement”, the liberty to be the master of one’s fate and captain of one’s own soul thereby was worth far more than “relief” from the menace of the years could offer.

Oh we, we who cannot for a moment abide the thought that governments ought to insulate us from all worries, make all things well, keep us from concern and, indeed, subsidize not only our needs but our whims, have fallen deeply away from liberty indeed! We are no longer masters of our fate, but supplicants begging, in the style of Dickens’ Oliver, for the boon of a crust from one-time servants who in fact are in control of our futures. We are no longer captains of our soul, for the emotional distress of others must take precedence over the price of being the captain of our own selves: the speaking of truths, however painful to others.

Yet none of our “national security state”, nor our “welfare state”, nor even our “equity and redress state”, bring anything other than yet another fall into circumstance and, often, the Pit. In other words, we have sold our souls, once free, into slavery, for a pottage now increasingly denied so that others, with even greater senses of entitlement and demand, can take our thin gruel as their due.

I am moved to consider this, our fate as our nations unwind, our social fabric is tattered and our lives are laid waste by the eminently predictable outcomes of decades of getting something for nothing, oddly enough, by the public outcry over the prorogation of Parliament for all of twenty-five sitting days spread over seven weeks. What, pray (or should that be “prey”?) tell would happen were our Members of Parliament sit in the House that will go undone, with the opportunity lost forever?

If you said to me, “there goes our one chance to unwind our redistributionist, socialist ‘war of all against all’ state in favour of one of liberty and entrepreneurial opportunity” (and could establish that case) perhaps I might weep for the lack of the extra time in this Parliament’s life, but I doubt sincerely, judging by the comments I see on Twitter, Facebook groups, in blog comments and the like that that was what was intended. Indeed, it is rare even to find some further application of quasi-Marxist programming on offer. It is simply the lack of jawboning that is bemoaned.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

Never did I expect that I would take comfort in the words of former American President Ronald Reagan (for he presided over a massive expansion of government during his time in office; we cannot in good conscience say that he meant what he said), but there you are. They express our plight well.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we keep mismanaged private companies that employ lots of people in business” — oddly enough, the cars still don’t sell well, favourites amongst the manufacturers putting the jobs of those at the more successful plants at risk to those at the least successful, and despite all that the layoffs of the workers continue, while the bonuses and pay of the leaders grows.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we stimulate the economy” — oddly enough, we have created a biggerbubble in real estate and consumer debt than even the Americans managed; we have done so in far less time; we have less to fall back on when it bursts (and it will be burst by the governmental debt placement needs from deficits, like it or not) — and two generations of Canadians will be impoverished as a result.

Government was the answer to the question “how do we stop hatred from threatening people” — and the result is an ever-growing list of claimants to “hurt feelings” while the ability to speak to factual truths is now subject to prosecution in kangaroo courts where the rules of evidence are set aside.

When we look at the whole question of national unity, what do we find? Governments fighting with other governments — how anyone from Québec or Ontario can hold their hand out for Alberta’s money while castigating them as furiously as was done last month is beyond me, but, then, there is no sense of responsibility, or shame, in the minds of those “entitled”. The average person has very little animus; their “leaders” bear it all for them.

That this is true in the very House of the Canadian People on a daily basis, where the nation’s business is almost never discussed — but where the “charge of the day”, the “mud of the moment”, and the unbridled bending of national interest to personal and party gain is all that is delivered? We citizens are left begging for scraps of what was ours by right.

An examination of the budgets of any level of government shows that 20¢ at least out of every dollar collected in taxes is simply lost to the operation of the system. Keeping the funds in the hands of those who earned it — something Henley could assume in speaking of his ups-and-downs in life — would do far more to achieve wealth than any amount of redistribution.

So let me revise Reagan:

Our current crisis is a direct outgrowth of the fact that we are the problem. The Leviathan that is now our government is our creation, and as it destroys us all we can take pride in the fact that we are Moloch’s author and willing servant.

We are now in a race: for many of us, the system we have created will bring us down. Some few of us will survive it, as it crashes under its own weight.

And we shall drift unconsciously toward that civilizational dénouement, and wonder aloud who will save us as the rubble is beaten by yet more falling ruble of a bankrupt society that has also gone broke. The dead will not truly begin to pile, though, until we hand the rest of our souls over to the “One on Horseback” that most of us will cry out for, rather than reclaim our human heritage to be free.

Ignatieff, Layton, Harper … these are picayune matters compared to the times that lie ahead of us. Yet you can be sure it is that nonsense, and not anything of real import, that will remain front of mind and conversation, even as we collapse into a Second Dark Age.

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