Defining Collapse

Anytime Richard Duncan posts an update to his Olduvai Theory (OT), it gets quite a bit of attention from the peak oil crowd, myself included. The Olduvai Theory details Duncan’s vision of a collapse of society… it’s an attention grabber because it predicts a collapse that is both swift and devastating. It’s a powerful vision, which is why it gets so much notice, but it’s only one plausible scenario of what may await us in the future. Other e readers some perspective on several of the possible futures that await us.

First off, let’s define what the term ‘collapse’ really means when we talk about ‘societal’ collapse. Most people when they think of collapse think of it in terms of sudden, final failure: a building or bridge suddenly falling apart and turning into a pile of rubble for example. For a civilization, something like the Olduvai Theory or ‘Mad Max’ would be the equivalent, with society experiencing a rapid loss of necessary inputs like food and energy, which result in a rapid decline in services and population levels.

Another definition of collapse is “loss of significance, effectiveness or value.” Note that there is no mention of timeframe or permanent in this definition unlike the previous one. The NASDAQ stock index, for example, lost around 75% of it’s value between 1999 and 2002. This is surely a collapse as any stock investor would tell you, though it took three years for the full drop to take place, and it has since recovered some (but not all) of its value. The path down was bumpy, with intermittent rallies, and once it reached bottom it started to pull it’s way back up.

This type of collapse is similar to John Michael Greer’s theory of ‘catabolic collapse,’ where it takes a society several generations to lose effectiveness and fall back to a lower level of technology and economy. Greer has several articles on this theory here and here, and has also written a series of short stories detailing his view of how a collapse would occur. While both Duncan and Greer seems to agree that society will revert back to a similar level of technology, Greer has it occurring over around 150 years whereas Duncan has the process more or less over sometime around 2030. Another longer-term scenario is Jim Kunstler’s Long Emergency.

So, which view is more accurate? Beats the hell out of me. Both Greer and Duncan have put a lot more effort and thinking into this subject than I have.

I do agree with Duncan that once the power grid fails, modern society cannot function. However, I am not sure that the grid will fail across the board in the time-frame he thinks it will. The grid is a fragile thing, and by some reports, we will need to replace the majority of it in the next decade or so if we are going to keep up with forecasted demand. I could easily see rolling blackouts and portions of the grid blinking out while other parts continue to function. In a case like that, it could take much longer for the process to work out than Duncan thinks. For what it’s worth, though, some areas of the USA have experienced regular rolling blackouts in the last few years, and based on comments I saw on The Oil Drum last week, the Phoenix, AZ metro area is looking at upcoming blackouts thanks to developers building more houses than the local grid can handle.

I am inclined to agree more with Greer’s theory of catabolic collapse. Some of it may be wishful thinking on my part, but I think that modern society (at least in the first world) is resilient enough to withstand several major crises before the lights start going off permanently. The main unknown for me is how large the resource wars will get as the situation becomes more evident. If things remain relatively tame, then it will take decades for things to unwind; if not, then all bids are off.

Another set of scenarios to consider (if you haven’t already) are the ones laid out in the varis editions of Limits to Growth.

Is collapse inevitable if energy production declines? I think it is, for the growth and prosperity we have experienced over the last century has been due to seemingly unlimited supplies of high-quality and cheap energy. There is still plenty of oil and natural gas left, but it is getting more expensive to produce, and that will put the brakes on out growth-based economy. Once energy gets expensive (and $5/gallon gasoline is not expensive; just ask any European), we will start seeing population declines.

Consider this: in a recent interview, Thomas Homer Dixon stated that in the last century the human population has exploded, rising from 1.5 billion to 6.3 billion. During that same time-frame, the boon of cheap energy allowed us to increase the amount of energy used in food production by a factor of 80. So, we’ve used 80 times the previous amount of energy to create enough food to increase the population by a factor of four. What happens when we can only put in 40 times the old amount? Or 20? Intensive organic farming will only get us so far.

To sum up, collapse means different things to different people. I think a collapse is almost unavoidable at this point, but the open questions as always are when, how fast and how bad. I’ll be revisiting this subject in the future, for I think it’s an important one, and as much of a bummer as it is to discuss such things, I think it’s necessary, and I’d be doing a disservice to all of you who visit here if I deliberately ignored it.

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2 Responses to Defining Collapse

  1. Jared says:

    I’ll be following you regularly then, because many of my friends don’t have time or interest in researching it as I do, so there’s little to discuss with them. Also, I’m very concerned over the when of all these shenanigans.

  2. Bart says:

    I grew up in the 1970’s and early 80’s… we didn’t have things like cell phones, the internet, satellite TV (well most of us didn’t), DVD’s, etc. and we didn’t feel impoverished because of it. A ‘collapse’ of the modern US economy in the short term at least *could* be something as minimal as returning to that era technology-wise, at least for non-essential services.

    As far as the ‘when’ goes, I personally think that we can keep things going for at least the next five years or so, albeit with rising energy and food costs. The only thing we can really thank global warming for (in the upper Midwest at least) is three mild winters in a row, which have kept the natural gas depletion story under wraps.

    If things stay more or less status quo, we’ve got some time. If things get ugly in Iran, we’ll have less time. The only scenario I could see for a sudden collapse is something like the plot for the TV show ‘Jericho,’ where an EMP is triggered somewhere above the USA and shorts out 98% of the electrical circuits in the states…

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