Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Alternate Perspective on Collapse

The buzz has been growing steadily since 2008 that something is desperately wrong, that the world economy is somehow broken, and that Western civilization is collapsing or heading for a collapse. I've been reading about this extensively over the last 2 years, and what I've found has reshaped my thinking completely, even philosophically. 

Originally, I thought the decline of our civilization would be too intense a topic to start with. But it's looming too large in my mind now to put off any longer.

The usual story you'll hear about how we got where we are today goes something like this. During the 1600 and 1700's, the scientific method was discovered and spread throughout Europe by a number of learned societies. This eventually led to the invention of the steam engine, mass production, the automobile, and modern progress as we know it. This progress will be a continual process as long as scientists continue to make new discoveries, which it seems they do at a faster and faster pace as our knowledge and expertise grow. It is true that our economy is having a rough time as fossil fuels become scarcer, but human ingenuity will pull through as it always has if we work hard and "go green."

Here's the alternative story, currently becoming more mainstream as "peak oil" theorists publish more books and film more documentaries. During the 1700's, a number of engineers in England discovered that coal-powered steam was the most efficient way to pump water out of mines. Soon, factories all over Europe were using steam-engines to mass-produce a variety of goods. By the 20th century, we learned how to use natural gas and oil as well, and this led to a boom in population and civilization. Unfortunately, it turns out that fossil fuels are non-renewable resources, and since we neglected to plan for they day that these resources become scarce, we are now facing the consequences. Oil production is becoming increasingly more expensive since peaking in 2005, and coal and natural gas are soon to follow. Since most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, and nonrenewables aren't growing fast enough to fill the gap, our economy is now shrinking at an accelerating pace. Their conclusion is normally that it is time to stock-up on food and ammunition, and beat ourselves over the head for being so dumb.

I'm far from satisfied with either of these ways of looking at things. Both stories are too materialistic. In the first story, human life gets better and better simply because we keep inventing, producing, and buying new gadgets. In the second story, the quality of human life is at the mercy of plentiful portable energy, without which we automatically become barbarous brutes.

I think most people -- including both utopians and collapsitarians -- realize that spirituality, compassion, truth, and beauty are far more important than either gadgets or oil. But it's easy to get lost in the sheer size of it all: the billions of people now living, the dizzying heights of our technology, and the utter desolation we might be facing. My point is, if it's really so scary (and personally I think it is) why are we not going any deeper than the economics of the thing? Why aren't we on our knees praying?

Life is not simply about survival. I do suggest stocking up on food, getting some land, and building a local community. But people also need meaning. World War II wasn't simply hordes of machines and soldiers shooting each other. It was the story of the rise and fall of Fascism and Social Darwinism, both genuine evils, and how they were defeated by Freedom and Social Harmony. Similarly, the question we need to ask ourselves now is: what evil are we facing? What good or nobility in us is being tested?

I was about to end the post here, but suddenly my dream from last night came back to me. In that dream (coincidentally?) I was asking my dad almost exactly this question. I was worried about something and needed advice. I asked, "How am I going to do what I need to do?" He answered, "Integrity."

A ship has integrity if it can whether a storm without getting a cracked hull. A leader has integrity if he does what is best, rather than what is popular. A soldier has integrity if he can act with courage and compassion when his life is in danger. The enemies of integrity are fear, doubt, and dishonesty.

It is no accident that Christianity spread fastest when Rome was collapsing. At the time it seemed that the world was turning upside-down. Christianity provided a new, stronger foundation. "If you have faith and do not doubt," taught Jesus, "you can say to this mountain, 'Go throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done."

If integrity is the good in us that must be tested, what is the contrary evil we are facing? Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29:

Trying to improve the world by force
Will not succeed
The world is sacred
It can't be forced
To force it is to harm it
To control it is to lose it

In the way of things
Some lead while others follow
Some breathe heat while others breathe cold
Some are strong while others are weak
Some accumulate while others collapse

Therefore the sage avoids extremes
Avoids extravagance
Avoids excess

This is what is missing from the two stories above. In addition to technical progress and the unlocking of fossil fuel energy, there was another additional ingredient that created Western civilization, and that is the drive to control, improve, and perfect the world itself.

I'm not entirely sure whether the powers that be -- the bankers, politicians, and CEOs who control our wealth -- truly believe in progress, or are simply cynical misers. I'm sure both types exist out there, perhaps struggling secretly for dominion of the world. In any case, they are all mistaken. The world cannot be controlled, whether to fix it or to rule it. No amount of wealth lasts forever. All wealth is fiat wealth; no amount of gold can buy a loaf of bread from a starving man.

The divide between rich and poor has never been greater in human history. There are businessmen today with more money and power than most countries. The United States is so rich that though it makes up about 5% of the world's population, it consumes over 30% of its resources. It takes more oil than we're shipping to ship it to us from the middle east. Similarly, it usually takes several times more energy to ship our food to us than the amount of energy in the food. Argentina has some of the most fertile farmlands in the world, but since its economy collapsed in 2001, its people are starving because the corporations that own the land make more money shipping it to the United States than by selling it to the locals. In Africa, similar circumstances, as well as free food from the UN, has driven most local farmers out of business. This situation has prevented them from getting a foothold in the food market for decades (see Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo). We use enough water in one shower to keep a man alive in the desert for a month. And so on -- I'm sure you've heard plenty of similar facts.  (The most careful and plentiful data I've found are in The Little Green Handbook, by Ron Nielsen.)

So it's not simply a story of the development of science and fossil fuel energy, but of how we used this power to exploit other societies around the world. This divide between rich and poor only widens every day. It is hard not to think that there will be some justice in our fall.

"The Lord takes his place in court;
  he rises to judge the people.
The Lord enters into judgment
  against the elders and leaders of his people:
'It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
  the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people
  and grinding the faces of the poor?"
                     declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty."

-Isaiah 3:13-15

All civilizations have eventually fallen, toppling the wealthy and leading to simpler times when people lived self-sufficiently. (See Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, and David Hackett Fischer's The Great Wave.) As Isaiah puts it:

"They will build houses and dwell in them;
  they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
  or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
  so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
  the works of their hands.
They will not toil in vain
  or bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
  they and their descendants with them."

-Isaiah 65: 21-23


  1. I'm so grateful for your posts! They are really are something else

  2. Wow. This is really fascinating. I like how you take a freighting topic and bring it into perspective. Thanks for posting.