An unsustainable way of life is bound to end in collapse. Numerous civilizations and empires have met the same end. In this piece, Kara Huntermoon discusses patterns of civilization collapse.

For further reading, check out John Michael Greer on the onset of collapse, Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” the collapse scenarios in the book “Deep Green Resistance,” and Max Wilbert’s recent piece about the collapse of the American empire.

Understanding Patterns of Civilization Collapse

By Kara Huntermoon

Ecology is the basis of all economies. No human economic system can exist without the gifts of  water, land, plants, animals, insects, air, and other members of our ecological communities.  When capitalism treats “natural resources” as free and unlimited, it ignores the fact that these are living, spirit-filled entities who have needs, preferences, and boundaries.  All over the world, we have already crossed their limits.

 ‘Economy’ means how humans meet their daily needs.

Human groups have options about how to meet their daily needs.  Capitalism is only one option.  It is a relatively new and short-lived option which is coming to an end.  Capitalism is inherently oppressive and relies on separating people into constituencies which are given more or less power and privilege.  Capitalism is also inherently destructive to the ecological basis of all life.  It is not possible to have capitalism without oppression and ecological destruction.

Humans need direct relationships with ecology in order to receive feedback about whether their economic activities are enhancing, destroying, or neutral to the systems of life that support daily human needs.  Ecological feedback is often so slow that multiple generations of humans must be engaged in the conversation before the feedback is understood and human communities are able to respond to the information.  The information received through ecological relationships is often coded into religious practices and educational systems, including stories told to children.

‘Civilization’ means a human community organized around cities and their adjacent exploited ecological communities.

When human populations concentrate in cities, large areas of surrounding ecology are required to support urban human life, but the ‘consumers’ are not able to directly listen to the ecological feedback.  Consequently, the human culture becomes disconnected from the information needed to support all life.  Humans throughout time and place have tried organizing in urban centers and importing their needs from their surrounding ecology, including through empire (controlling adjacent ecological communities and importing goods from them).  

No civilization has ever been sustainable. Civilizations collapse when the human-ecological relationship breaks down far enough for the ecology to be unable to continue supporting the urban infrastructure and population.  Cities are not a sustainable way to organize human communities and ecologies. When city-states are organized into empires, the civilization collapses unevenly.  In some areas, life seems to continue in a way that would support the city continuing.  In other areas, cities collapse and are abandoned earlier in the widespread empire’s collapse.

‘Collapse’ means that social and physical infrastructure is abandoned or destroyed as it becomes obvious that it is obsolete.   The amount of true wealth available from ecological relationships is no longer enough to maintain the unsustainable infrastructure.  The amount of physical infrastructure decreases, the overall population of humans decreases, and a greater proportion of the human population returns to a direct relationship with ecological communities (subsistence agriculture, foraging, hunting).

The Early Stages of Civilization Collapse.
During the early stages of an empire’s collapse, people flee collapsing cities and move to other cities that are not yet collapsing.  Sometimes those cities collapse because of empire-related economic shifts (as in the “Rust Belt” cities of the US), sometimes because of ecological destruction (as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or Paradise after the Camp Creek Fire).  Regardless of the reason, the cities are not rebuilt because the ecological basis for creating true wealth (the capacity to meet human needs) is unable to support the rebuilding.

Later stages of collapse.

During later stages of an empire’s collapse, people flee cities to return to the countryside where they can grow food and attempt to meet their needs.  There is a steep learning curve while the relationship communication between humans and their ecology is not robust enough to support the current human population size.  People die because they do not know how to relate to the plants, animals, soils, and waters who support life.  The conversation also begins with the ecological communities running at a deficit, impoverished by the collapsing civilization’s exploitation.

It takes time for recovery, relationship building, and forgiveness.

Historically speaking, the average time it takes a civilization to collapse is about 300 years.  Civilizations collapse in a stair-step pattern, with large-scale economic shocks followed by partial recoveries.  In our recent history, collapse shocks happened in the 1970s (“Energy Crisis”),  in 2007 during the sub-prime mortgage crisis (“The Great Recession”), and now during the Covid-19 Pandemic (“The Global Downturn of 2020”).

Most of us remember the “Great Recession” and the Occupy Movement, and we have heard federal officials claim that the economy recovered from that and was booming (“the best ever” before Covid-19).  Concurrent with these claims, visible markers of decline have led to an increase of the number of homeless people on the streets in most major cities, including Eugene. Buildings are demolished without funding to replace them, including Eugene’s City Hall. There is  increasing personal and government debt and decreasing possibility of gaining stable well-paid employment, even with a college degree.

It is reasonable to assume that we are in the early stages of our civilization’s collapse, and that we will continue to see stair-step degradations in physical and social infrastructure.

Considering history, it is likely we will have a partial economic recovery after the pandemic ends.  Considering climate change, we need to be prepared for further rapid down-steps as ecological shocks increase and spread.  We may not live to see the end of our civilization, but we will see continued disorder, political circuses, domestic and international violence, and rapid economic shifts as a ‘new normal.’

Within seven generations, our descendents will see the end of our civilization.

Marked by a complete abandonment of city infrastructure and a return to direct relationship with ecological economies.  There is much we can do now to prepare them. For the purpose of our own preparation for the future, we should assume that there will never be a recovery. This is it.  Things will never “return to normal.” We are not going to get through this and continue our previous lives. We cannot expect our children to have access to the same privileges we have enjoyed.

How can we impact the way our communities respond to the Covid-19 Pandemic and the resulting economic crisis?  In what ways can we support and organize alternatives to the current economic system and its inherent systems of oppression?  How can we organize our own lives to be fully in service of sustainability and liberation?  How can we reach for people we love, people in our neighborhoods, people in our workplaces, and model for them the changes we wish to see?

The pandemic will bring up early feelings that are not about present time.   

Unhealed emotional scars from childhood can confuse us as we try to think about responding to novel situations. To help free our minds of early distresses, we can spend time journalling, talking to trusted loved ones, or meditating on the following: In what ways do you try to avoid suffering? What suffering of your earlier life do you never want to experience again? Go back there and give that young person a hand. You survived that. You won. It’s actually over, and you won. I know it doesn’t feel like you won; it feels like you barely escaped and you are irreparably harmed, no longer intact. But that is just a feeling.

The truth is that you won.

If you can make friends with those feelings―of loss, isolation, hopelessness, discouragement, terror, powerlessness―you will be able to notice that you are intact. You survived. You won. You get to have a big life now. You don’t have to settle for what you can salvage. You get to have people close-in who can fully support you.

We get to work together to make big lives for ourselves.

It is possible to see the current pandemic, economic collapse, and climate emergency as a fascinating challenge that will never stop giving us meaningful work to do.

It is possible to feel satisfied that we are fulfilling our reasons for coming to this life, that we are giving fully of our gifts to our communities.

Let us reach for each other, reach for full acceptance of ourselves at all stages of our lives, and reach for implementing our visions of a sustainable society in full communication with its ecological community.

Kara Huntermoon is one of seven co-owners of Heart-Culture Farm Community, near Eugene, Oregon. She spends most of her time in unpaid labor in service of community: child-raising, garden-growing, and emotion/relationship management among the community residents. She also teaches Liberation Listening, a form of co-counseling that focuses on ending oppression.

Featured image: Deep Green Resistance food distribution in response to the CoViD-19 pandemic.

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