Monday, July 5, 2010


In my last post I mentioned the possibility that the system--and, in fact, this society--might collapse on its own. It's not just peak oil theory that leads me to suspect this.

In fact, I am coming to believe that the collapse is already happening and you can see it if you pay attention. Part of the problem is that people think that collapse is going to be a sudden, dramatic event. I have been appreciating the viewpoint of John Michael Greer, author of the book, The Long Descent, and writer of The Archdruid Report. (For more on The Archdruid Report, see my post of 8/5/08.) He claims that there is a collapse coming, but it won't be the sudden, dramatic collapse that some of the 'doomers' predict. Instead, it will be slow and gradual, punctuated by sudden events, but mostly apparent only in hindsight.

Having done a long review of American History in this blog last year, I can see ways in which we are already into the collapse. I'm an old guy. I remember the fifties and sixties and they were quite different from life now. Not a golden age, but one with a very different economic reality. People seldom worried about their jobs disappearing, corporations, by and large, took care of their workers, and prosperity seemed to be increasing for everyone. Oh, there was a lot wrong with this time, which is why the rebellions of the sixties and seventies were so dramatic (see my posts, It All Breaks Loose, 3/14/08, and Social Movements in the Seventies, 3/30/08, for more on this), but something changed in the seventies. Nevermind peak oil, I think that the fifties and sixties were our 'Peak Economy'--a time of general affluence that we will never see again. The change is so clear it can be pinpointed to a particular year. (See my posts on 1973, 3/22/09, and Economic History of the 20th Century, 4/19/09.)

My series on US History began with a question: how did the sixties end up with the eighties? The answers, of course, are found in the seventies. I think that it's interesting that I've been to a bunch of conferences on energy, the environment, etc, where people will propose something and an old dude will get up and point out that whatever it is, it was done in the seventies. The question then arises, what would things be like if we continued doing those things, instead of stopping them in the eighties and trying to reinvent them now? The short answer seems to be that we wouldn't be in the unprepared mess we are now.

None of this stuff really disappeared totally in the eighties, but most of it (systems theory, alternative energy, conservation, intentional communities, creative shelter, etc) got scaled way back. Some of it was 'the Reagan Revolution' and corporate/Republican destruction of anything that threatened them. Some of it was the hubris of the designers. (See my post on Hubris, 12/30/09.) But I think that a big part of it was that people did not want to hear anything about needing to do with less. President Carter told the American public that they needed to turn down their heat and begin car-pooling and using public transit. Energy usage certainly went down, but Carter lost to Reagan by 91% of the vote. (See my post on The Rest of the Seventies, 3/29/09.) Telling the public to do with less has been political poison since then.

It's not that we could have the affluence we had in the fifties and sixties, only with solar and wind power (something that some folks in the alternative energy community seem to claim--see my post on Bright Green, Dark Green, Deep Green, 11/10/09, for a bit on the 'Bright Green' folks who seem to believe that the right technology will save us). Rather, I think that if we learned from the seventies, we would be better able to deal with the changes that are going on now.

For those who don't believe we are well past 'Peak Economy' and may point out the affluent periods of the eighties and nineties, I ask that you notice that those who prospered were a small segment of the population--quite unlike the general prosperity of the fifties and sixties. There were 'economic bubbles' then and there may yet be a few economic bubbles in the future that a few folks can take advantage of for a while, but like any other bubbles, they're temporary, and eventually burst. What we saw in the last years of the Bush administration and are still seeing today, is a result of some of those bubbles bursting. While I'm not a big fan of Obama, I doubt that anyone could do a lot better with this economy.

And for those who might say, how could a collapse be going on and be unnoticed, I say, look around. We are currently involved in two wars in the Middle East (one of them the longest war in US history) and experiencing one of the greatest ecological disasters the US has ever experienced, and life goes on as if nothing is happening. Sure there are some things that make people take notice (the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 and the economic woes of the last decade--especially the collapse of the housing market, to cite a couple of examples). I'm sure there will be more in the future. But, by and large, the collapse that is occurring will only be noticed by comparing the past with the present and realizing that there will be less in the future. This doesn't necessarily need to be a bad thing. Certainly, we don't really need much of what will be disappearing. But we need to be ready (as I pointed out in my last post) to replace it.

Change happens.

Quote of the Day: "This is the way civilizations decline and fall. ...

"Nearly all of our ancestors lived in times when there was no bright future on the horizon; nearly all of our descendants will experience the same thing. The great majority of the former and, no doubt, of the latter as well, found other reasons for living. That’s an equally viable option right now, given a willingness to think the unthinkable, recognize that the age of abundance is ending, and consider the possibility that doing the right thing in a time of crisis, no matter how uncomfortable or challenging the right thing might be, may be a more potent source of meaning than waiting for magic to make a bright future arrive." - John Michael Greer

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