BREAKDOWN: A Convalescent Collapse

By Joshua Headley / Deep Green Resistance New York

Talking about collapse can prove to be quite alienating. Most people quickly denounce those of us who start these dialogues as “alarmists” in an attempt to nullify all arguments and keep us safe from all evil and depressing thoughts.

An obvious reason to dismiss talk of collapse is that there are far too many examples of groups who come along and yell about the end of the world only for their “insight” to turn out rather dubious. But I don’t choose to speak out about collapse for the sake of “the end of the world” or to preach my morals – I bring it up because there are real, tangible limits to a globalized industrial civilization and this intrinsically implies there will be a peak and subsequent fall. This is inevitable and we cannot escape it no matter how long we choose to not talk about it.

No one can say absolutely when collapse will occur but we can say with a degree of certainty, based on current levels of complexity, diminishing marginal returns, and the latest climate science, that we are much more likely to experience collapse in the near-term rather than in the far and distant future. This is not meant to scare anyone into submission, religious folly, or isolating despair – it is simply meant to allow us to start seriously discussing our situation, its implications, and how to move forward.

How can we manage to proceed through this process in any meaningful capacity if we keep ignoring and denying its possibility?

The studies of complex societies and their subsequent collapses have fascinated archeologists and scientists for centuries – understanding the past can help illuminate our future. Industrial civilization has never been exempt from these studies. As another form of a complex society, questions concerning its peak and collapse have been around for quite some time.

In 1972, an environmental study known as The Limits to Growth used computer projections to try to determine when this peak might occur based on population growth, remaining non-renewable resources, food per capita, services per capita, industrial output per capita, and global pollution. Its projections estimated that by the year 2030, population would begin to decline following a collapse. This study was revisited last year by Australian physicist Graham Turner in which he placed the observable trends from 1970-2000 over the computer model projections and – (not so) shockingly – he determined that we are right on course. [1]

It’s worth spelling this out: our current situation is even more “alarming” – current emissions of carbon dioxide alone have us locked into a 3-6C global temperature increase within the next 30 years. [2] In half that time (or less), it is probable that we will reach global tipping points that will set off catastrophic runaway global warming, threatening nearly all biological life on this planet. [3]

To a certain extent, even though we continue to ignore and deny these facts in our day-to-day lives, we all feel that the worst is yet to come. Is it any wonder why “apocalypse” is incredibly popular within our consumer culture? We have blockbusters depicting burgeoning populations of walking zombies, machines conquering humans, vampires sucking the life out of every living being on the planet, and just about every possible “end of the world” scenario imaginable permeating our consciousness.

Despite all of this, we never force ourselves to think critically about the situation we are in, and a large part of that is because we live in a culture that rapidly produces legitimizing propaganda and misinformation at every turn. Too often when we do realize the state of decay we’re in, we force ourselves to consume and enjoy the spectacles to drown out our own despair.

Collapse as an apocalyptic nightmare is certainly one way of viewing the situation – it does have dire consequences that we cannot avoid – but the only results that can come out of that perspective are rampant anxiety, fear, and immobilization. We do not have the time to sulk and isolate ourselves from our problems any longer; we have to start seriously discussing what lies ahead. Make no mistake: this will not be easy. The task at hand is terribly daunting and it requires immense courage. A great first step is learning to understand collapse as merely a process and not solely a “doom and gloom” scenario of utter destruction.

Joseph Tainter wrote one of the most impressive and thorough analyses of this topic in his 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. He defines these terms as such:

Complex societies are problem-solving organizations, in which more parts, different kinds of parts, more social differentiation, more inequality, and more kinds of centralization and control emerge as circumstances require. Growth of complexity has involved a change from small, internally homogeneous, minimally differentiated groups characterized by equal access to resources, shifting, ephemeral leadership, and unstable political formations, to large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all. This latter kind of society, with which we today are most familiar, is an anomaly of history, and where present requires constant legitimization and reinforcement.

The process of collapse… is a matter of rapid, substantial decline in an established level of complexity. A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterized by fewer specialized parts; it displays less social differentiation; and it is able to exercise less control over the behavior of its members. It is able at the same time to command smaller surpluses, to offer fewer benefits and inducements to membership; and it is less capable of providing subsistence and defensive security for a regional population. It may decompose to some of the constituent building blocks (e.g., states, ethnic groups, villages) out of which it was created.

The loss of complexity, like its emergence, is a continuous variable. Collapse may involve a drop between the major levels of complexity envisioned by many anthropologists (e.g., state to chiefdom), or it may equally well involve a drop within a level (larger to smaller, or Transitional to Typical or Inchoate states). Collapse offers an interesting perspective for the typological approach. It is a process of major, rapid change from one structurally stable level to another. This is the type of change that evolutionary typologies imply, but in the reverse direction. [4]

“Complexity” does not refer to a specific society and its ability to do “complex” things (i.e. medicine, technology, art, and music) nor the degree with which it is considered to be an “advanced” society. To objectively study collapse as a process it is necessary to understand “complexity” solely in terms of increasing levels of sociopolitical organization – a continuum from small, self-sufficient autonomous communities to large, hierarchically organized interdependent states.

This process of collapse occurs because complexity (at every level) is subject to diminishing marginal returns. Put simply, this point is reached when the amount returned for any given investment begins to decrease. This is not the same thing as stating that complexity (at every level) is not beneficial for a given social group or that its yields always decline – complexity is usually pursued for the exact reason that it is beneficial in some capacity. The point here, as Tainter suggests, is that societies very often

reach a level where continued investment in complexity yields a declining marginal return. At that point the society is investing heavily in an evolutionary course that is becoming less and less productive, where at increased cost it is able to do little more than maintain the status quo. [5]

Eventually, further complexity becomes too costly and impossible to pursue, and the society is increasingly vulnerable to collapse. Certainly, when we apply this analysis to the global industrial civilization we find ourselves in today, there is much to be concerned about and it is no surprise why many of us are so fearful.

This way of living (characterized by the heavy use of fossil fuels, massive urbanization, and the expansion and domination of nearly all of the earth’s land and people) cannot be sustained indefinitely, no matter the energy source. As growth continues, greater levels of complexity will be required to support the population and we will reach a point when the costs become too excessive.

We can already see this occurring in global energy production today, as we are no longer able to access cheap, efficient, or productive energy sources. We are increasingly reliant upon some of the most expensive (economically and ecologically) energy intensive extraction and production projects the world has ever seen – oil production from tar sands, deepwater drilling, hydraulic fracturing, mountain top removal, rapid and expansive clear-cutting of forests, industrial agriculture and fishing, etc. These are the productive processes of maintaining the “status quo” of industrial civilization

We will ultimately (via economic, ecological, or social collapse) be forced to live more simply and that change will mean the loss of almost all of the support structures and services that most of the 7 billion people in this world currently depend on.

Remaining populations must become locally self-sufficient to a degree not seen for several generations. Groups that had formerly been economic and political partners now become strangers, even threatening competitors. The world as seen from any locality perceptibly shrinks, and over the horizon lies the unknown. [6]

Another reason we tend to be so fearful of this drastic and rapid change is that we are significantly separated from the majority of the human experience. Industrial civilization itself can barely claim 200 years out of the several million that recognizable humans are known to have lived, and yet its expansion and domination within that time has left us completely alien to our own natural history.

When we perceive that all we have ever known is hanging in the balance and vulnerable to collapse, it becomes overbearingly frightening for most of us. But it doesn’t have to be perceived this way – what would we truly be losing in this situation? What benefits are we even getting from participating in industrial civilization today? It turns out that, if we understand that we have passed the point of diminishing returns, the benefits of this society are actually decreasing – and rapidly.

A quick glance at the current condition of the global population confirms this rather easily. Less and less people are finding work; fewer people have access to education, healthcare, water, food, shelter, clothes, etc.; states all around the world are “cutting back” and implementing some of the harshest austerity measures in recent memory; rates of incarceration are increasing at the same time that police all over the word are becoming heavily militarized; security-states are growing in size and scope; and political upheavals are occurring rapidly, even in surprising places under the most repressive regimes.

Conquest abroad and repression at home are fundamental aspects of a society’s ability to legitimize and reinforce the level of complexity in which it functions. But as it becomes more vulnerable to collapse (due to decreasing marginal returns), these societies are pushed ever more into militarism in order to maintain the “status quo,” control the population, and protect the ruling power of the elite classes.

It is actually within our best interest (socially, politically, economically, and ecologically) to put an end to industrial civilization. Because collapse is just a change in the levels of complexity – from a highly complex society that becomes infeasible to a simpler society organized at the lowest level sustainable – there is much to be gained. As Tainter reminds us:

Complex societies, it must be emphasized again, are recent in human history. Collapse then is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity. The notion that collapse is uniformly a catastrophe is contradicted, moreover, by the present theory. To the extent that collapse is due to declining marginal returns on investment in complexity, it is an economizing process. It occurs when it becomes necessary to restore the marginal return on organizational investment to a more favorable level. To a population that is receiving little return on the cost of supporting complexity, the loss of that complexity brings economic, and perhaps administrative, gains. [7]

Is there, then, hope for our future?

To even begin addressing this question, it’s important that we understand what it is that we are even asking. What is hope? A definition I find useful is one provided by Derrick Jensen – “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.” [8] To hope for a desired result is to step away from your own ability to participate and actually create that result.

It is not enough to hope that those in power will stop the march of industrial civilization in a time frame that actually matters in terms of having a living and thriving planet and biosphere. In fact, the latest propaganda on the future of the United States’ natural gas production indicates the exact opposite of addressing the severity of the problem. [9] It is not enough to hope that the majority of the population will become consciously aware and join the struggle – people are most likely to latch onto (and defend to their own death) their way of life, even as it becomes increasingly obvious that it is in the midst of collapse. It is not enough (and is incredibly naïve) to hope that the future will be bright and beautiful and devoid of any hard consequences.

Complexity has allowed us to overshoot the earth’s carrying capacity on a massive scale and this brings with it consequences we cannot avoid. This level of global population is only possible because of industrial agriculture and global trade, which will both cease to function completely as industrial civilization begins to collapse. It will become economically infeasible to provide food and resources to the bulk of the population as marginal returns continue to decrease and costs skyrocket. The world’s urban poor are the greatest at risk as they are the most dependent on complex global trade networks for their basic survival. But there are things that we can do to materially improve our lives today and in the future – and we don’t need excessive amounts of hope or false securities to get there.

If our ultimate goal is to have not only a living planet – but a thriving planet that increases in diversity and life, year after year – then we need to stop industrial civilization before it destroys what little we have left of the world’s biomes and biosphere. Our resistance to this culture must continue to escalate in tandem with the severity of the problem. Our strategy not only has to be broad and more militant in order to be effective, it also has to be more reliant upon alternative structures and the re-building of just and sustainable communities.

After collapse, there will be little left behind to rebuild a civilization out of, or even enough intact land bases for most of us to return to a lower level of agrarian life. What makes our circumstances different from many of the great empires that have fallen before, is that most of our population does not have a village or smaller unit of organization to return to after industrial society. What is absolutely necessary in our cultures of resistance, then, is that we learn other ways of existing so that we become as independent of civilization for survival as possible.

As we will be forced to live in simpler societies, it’s important to remember we will lose many of things that define complex societies – such as hierarchical oppression, inequality, and centralization. We will have to be self-sufficient in order to survive and this will give room for more egalitarian, autonomous groups characterized by equal access to resources and mutual aid. A less complex society provides the space for richer and fuller lives. We have much to gain in this process. However, this will not be created for us and it is not enough to just hope that it happens – we have to mobilize to create it for ourselves and we have to be fully committed to our work no matter what adversities we may face.

BREAKDOWN is a biweekly column by Joshua Headley, a writer and activist in New York City, exploring the intricacies of collapse and the inadequacy of prevalent ideologies, strategies, and solutions to the problems of industrial civilization.

[4] Tainter, Joseph; The Collapse of Complex Societies, pg. 37-38
[5] Tainter, Joseph; The Collapse of Complex Societies, pg. 117
[6] Tainter, Joseph; The Collapse of Complex Societies, pg. 20
[7] Tainter, Joseph; The Collapse of Complex Societies, pg. 198

2 thoughts on “BREAKDOWN: A Convalescent Collapse”

  1. “As we will be forced to live in simpler societies, it’s important to remember we will lose many of things that define complex societies – such as hierarchical oppression, inequality, and centralization. We will have to be self-sufficient in order to survive and this will give room for more egalitarian, autonomous groups characterized by equal access to resources and mutual aid. A less complex society provides the space for richer and fuller lives…”

    Yea right. Guaranteed the military will be used to pacify the populace to ensure continuity. People with guns will always control the food, policy, and the future. Egalitarian, autonomous, just communities with equal access to resources and mutual aid is a dream that won’t be realized unless people secure it for themselves, instead of writing about it. People live by being obedient.

    How are you securing equal access?

  2. I as a Christian don’t know why the signs you and I see of impending worldwide social, economic, environmental, and what-not collapse should not be entirely consistent with the end of the age and the return of the Lord Jesus. The much-touted ‘end of the world’ in Christian parlance depends upon the translation of the word aiôn, whence our aeon, as ‘world’, rather than ‘age’. Wherefore I say, ‘Come soon, Lord Jesus…’

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