Let’s Talk About Collapse

I’m a reasonably even tempered sort of a bloke, but recently I’ve been feeling a bit, well, shall we say, unsettled.

The feelings began after reading David Holmgren’s essay Crash on demand. It was no less than a moral call for action. At first the article really irritated me and I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. It wasn’t even that I reckon calls for action based on morals don’t seem to be particularly effective (abstinence and temperance anyone?)

It was a thoughtful and beautifully written essay and that it made it worse for me, because I felt very negative towards it.

It took a while for me to ponder the essay and understand what annoyed me so much about it. One day, I finally put my finger on the sticking point for me. The sticking point was that there was an underlying assumption throughout the entire essay that economic collapse would in turn lead to a reduction in Greenhouse Gas Emissions. This may be true in the short term, but I believe it is incorrect in the long term.

So, I began a journey which involved reading about the topic of collapse. Over that journey, three things became clear to me.

  • The “Limits to Growth” study of 1972 still appears to me to be the best description of the interactions of: world human population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Of course, it is a model so has limitations, but the general conclusions of the interactions between the variables in the study seem as valid today as they were 42 years ago. Essentially the message I got from the study was that there is no possible way to cheat nature;
  • The upward trending of Greenhouse Gas Emissions since the fall in 2008 were driven by the simple fact governments at that time took actions to prevent further economic collapse. It doesn’t matter that some of those actions had unintended consequences and were unsustainable in the long term. There is an underlying assumption in most discussions of collapse that governments will in the face of a challenge respond by doing nothing and this is patently false; and
  • In any downturn in demand even by 10% of the population, Jevon’s paradox would come into play and the remaining 90% of the population would simply take up the consumption of resources made available by the economic withdrawal of the 10% over time.

Would it be helpful for that 10% of the population to commence building alternative production, supply and economic systems as a cushion for any potential economic recession or depression? You bet. However, the social and economic returns from joining in the mainstream still exceed the sacrifices that you have to make to live outside that mainstream. (I have a great deal of first hand experience in these matters.)

After much further reading, I came to the conclusion that David’s opinion was at the less extreme end of opinions. Some people believe in a future zombie apocalypse, others fervently discuss technology that hasn’t even been invented yet, whilst still others again say that we’re facing a near term extinction crisis. All of that talk is pure rubbish, because those same people have no credibility as they’re still saving for retirement, having families and aren’t doing anything at all to develop those supposed new technologies. It is not even a difficult thing to call them out on their lack of credibility.

Unfortunately, I have a more disturbing thought to share and for people to explore. Slow economic and environmental collapse is already here. It is just that the speed of that collapse is slow, so few people notice it. I’d suggest that it is more frightening for people to consider this situation than hanging onto delusions that the zombie apocalypse will save them from having to go to work on a Monday morning.

So, I’ll tell you a little story about three typical Australian families separated by time:

1) Baby boomers: Back in the 1960s and 1970s contraception wasn’t as easy to get as it is now, so people hooked up young and had larger families. Generally one income was sufficient for a family (my mother was a single mother during the 1970s and it was financially difficult but possible) and three years of an average single income was sufficient to purchase an average house. It isn’t often spoken about now, but many professions were taught by apprenticeship in those days. However, if you wanted to go to University in Australia, by 1972, those institutions were fee free.

2) Gen X: Generally during the 1980s and 1990s the Gen X generation left home on attaining adulthood and as contraception was a lot easier to purchase (thanks convenience stores) you could delay marriage and children. The average house at that time cost approximately three years of income, but now that had changed so that it required two people’s incomes, instead of just the one. There was a subtle change and the term "income" was replaced with the term “household income”. For a job, if you wanted to enter a profession you had to undertake a degree at a University. University course fees were introduced in 1989, so you started your job already in debt — that was if you could get a job during that time because of the “recession we had to have” in Australia during 1991-2 which gave us 10% unemployment.

3) Gen Y: By now house prices require almost 7 years of household income. University fees have steadily increased over time too. In Australia, one advantage for this generation is that they have never yet had to face wide-scale unemployment. There are however indicators that the employment they do have is often less than full time which further disadvantages them economically. It never surprises me when I read anecdotal accounts of this generation having to transition back and forth between the family home and independent dwellings. Also, on average they are marrying later and having families later.

What you can see is a steady worsening of the economic conditions over time for those three different families. In fact, that decline in wealth, if it were to be mapped onto a chart, would look pretty similar to the downward slope of Hubbert’s curve. That is what collapse looks like. It is driven by the interactions of the variables mentioned in the Limits to Growth study and also the decisions of millions of people to pursue their own self-interest.

It is worthwhile mentioning that youth unemployment in many industrial countries – right now – is at scary levels. There are many possible responses from our elected politicians to this situation. However, the most common response I have seen so far from governments in the industrial world is to maintain business as usual. It is no easy task and I sympathise with many of the politicians because they have to reapply for their jobs every four years and so are duty bound to support whoever supported them by keeping them in their jobs.

However, thinking about the Limits to Growth study, if resources are retracting whilst demand for those same finite resources is growing along with the population, how do you maintain business as usual? It is a tough call. One response to this conundrum is withdrawing access to resources for those on the margins: the young; the vulnerable; and the very old.

If you fail to believe this is happening, it may be worthwhile having a quick look at the Australian Federal Government’s budget which was handed down to the media a few week’s ago. Here are some choice examples:

  • University fees have now been uncapped so some of those institutions can now charge whatever the market can bear paying;
  • If you are under 30 years of age, and unemployed, you will be obliged to wait 6 months before being eligible to receive welfare. The eligibility rules for collecting a disability pension for people under 35 years of age will be tightened too; and for another example
  • For my generation and younger, the eligibility to receive the age pension will be lifted to the age of 70. I can’t possibly imagine how a brick layer can continue in their occupation right up until the age of 70.

It might be worthwhile mentioning that many policies which fuel wealth inequality in Australia have not been addressed by either of the main political parties, and there seems to be little will to do so. If anyone is interested, two examples of these policies are negative gearing and concessional (i.e. tax freebies) treatment of superannuation (i.e. retirement funds) for baby boomers.

The situation reminds me of the treatment of the horse in the George Orwell story Animal farm. As a bit of background, the horse was a faithful, supportive and tireless worker who was to retire and live out an idyllic final few years. However, the pigs who were actually in charge of the farm decided that this situation would cost too much, which in turn would reduce their own perquisites. The pigs therefore developed a cunning plan — giving the horse a fond farewell party and then waiting until the horse was out of sight of the farm, so that the other animals didn’t see what was going on and then shipping him off to the knackery.

There are plenty of alternative methods for redistributing wealth within a society too. Many have been tried and plenty have failed. I’ve noticed that there has been a resurgent interest in Marxism and I see posters for this movement all over Melbourne, particularly around the Universities. Don’t be fooled into supporting this movement because as a system it is no better than our present system and it too fails completely to address the conundrum of the competing interacting variables analysed in the Limits to Growth study.

David doesn’t need to make the call for portions of the population to disengage from the formal economy as it is already happening and can potentially only accelerate over time. This is what collapse looks like. A true cynic would say that on a global scale, the treatment of the PIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) since the 2008 global financial crisis is the exact same scenario of reducing economic costs in a civilisation or society by abandoning the periphery, just a whole lot bigger in scale.

I genuinely believe that there is little scope for any effective activism within the mainstream economy. The only appropriate response to all of the above is to build a strong and cheap informal economy. There are plenty of things to do, but most importantly, given that historically in Western cultures 90% of the population was involved in agriculture, get off your backsides – now – take a PDC if you must and learn to grow stuff whether it is fruit, vegetables, grains, herbs, animals, insects. Just get out and do it.