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Clarifications on Collapse

This stems from a comment thread on Doug Lain's Facebook page:

The bold items are Doug's first attempt to summarize my position on collapse.


One: Social Collapse is very likely because of our reliance on fossil fuels.

think society can and probably will survive the decline of industrial civilization. To get away from a strawman presentation of the set of ideas that I'm hoping to communicate it will be necessary to differentiate between different sorts of collapse. I think Dmitry Orlov's Five Stages of Collapse provides a pretty workable set of distinctions. I'm willing to work with more distinctions than Dmitry presents, but not fewer. 

This morning I was listening to an excerpt of my first interview with Dmitry which took place in early 2007, and I noticed that, at that time, I was talking about the collapse of society as a result of petroleum shortfall, and it wasn't until later that I started to use more precise language and differentiate between the collapse of banking and financial markets, the collapse of global distribution systems, the collapse of nation states, the collapse of local commercial economies and the collapse of the basic structure of civil society. That last one, the collapse of the basic structure of civil society is the penultimate worst case scenario. That's stage 4 in Dmitry Orlov's stages of collapse, and the only thing worse is cultural collapse, which is what Cormac McCarthy depicted in The Road. I do think it will take considerably more than the disappearance of cheap fossil fuel energy to make that happen.

Two: That the way society is structured now relies on complex, abstracted, relationships that work on a level beyond the human scale. That these systems must have cheap oil to function.  Cheap oil is leaving the scene.

Some of this is on target, but you're conflating the collapse of the sprawling, hypertrophied infrastructure of global corporate capitalism with the collapse of society.

Three: That this society cannot be changed through direct efforts.  That efforts to reform the system are useless in so much as radical measures are required, and that efforts toward radical measures to get at the root causes are doomed from the start.

I'm not sure I know what you mean by direct efforts and radical measures. Given that you want to castigate people you regard as being apolitical, I take both of these phrases to refer to some sort of class-centric, mass movement meant to wrest control of the apparatus of state power so that it can be re-aligned to promote the common good rather than to concentrate wealth and preserve the priviledge of an elite few. I think these sorts of movements certainly can change society, as numerous Marxist revolutions have demonstrated. I just think that the changes these sorts of actions are likely to effect are undesirable and would likely produce a worse outcome than a process in which human-scale communities adapt organically and spontaneously according to local needs and conditions.

But this is a tangential consideration. I only make statements like those in my previous paragraph when I'm responding to criticisms from you. They are not something that I make a point of articulating and reiterating on the C-Realm Podcast. Given what you have left out of your attempted summary, your third item seems intended more as a necessary component in an argument you intend to make later than in a concise formulation of the core C-Realm message on collapse. If you are really trying to demonstrate that you grok what I'm saying, this item does not merit inclusion in so brief a summary as you have presented.

Four: 4. That we must work in small ways to build lifeboats, small permaculture efforts, in our communities.

I want people in different places and situations to explore a wide variety of responses to our predicament and to share the results of their efforts with other, far-flung communities. For example, if we are to avoid a dramatic dieback, we will need to find ways to make city living sustainable and/or ways to redistribute the population, hopefully without violence or overt coercion. I think if everyone were to attempt to implement the same response, no matter how sensible it might seem from a particular perspective, that it would end badly. I think the outcome would be even worse if everyone were coerced into implementing a uniform response to the challenges we face.

I do think that it would be helpful if more people noticed their dependence on sprawling, impersonal networks of abstracted relationships to meet needs that their great-grandparents either met for themselves or satisfied via local networks of mutual interdependence. I think that the more people who become aware of their dependence on these systems and take steps to increase the autonomy and resilience of their local communities the better society will fare as the growth-dependent modus of global corporate capitalism falters. I'm counting on the creativity of people to conceive of approaches that are appropriate to their local situation; things that would never occur to me based on my own experience.

Five: Some small part of you would like to see economic collapse speed up or intensify so that more people will build lifeboats.

The longer we forestall an adaptive response to energy descent and attempt to continue on a growth trajectory, the more pronounced and traumatic the correction will be when it comes. To borrow Jim Kunstler's vocabulary, “The longer we attempt to sustain the unsustainable the less say we will have in the creation of whatever new arrangements replace our current arrangements.” The sooner awareness of the implications of energy descent penetrates what Joe Bagaent calls the Hologram the better. To the extent that a shock would disrupt our cultivated torpor I think it could be salutary.

That said, I'd rather see people get hip to the workings of the corporate media than have circumstances overwhelm its capacity to saturate our waking lives with the message that more growth is the answer to all of our troubles. The C in C-Realm stands for consciousness, and collective trauma is not my preferred means of consciousness expansion. I do not want to see starvation, civil (or 'normal') war, or slavery; much less cannibalism. I think that the longer we attempt to prolong the growth phase of industrial civilization the more likely these possibilities become. We have options open to us now that will not be available later, but our conditioned expectations, more than anything else, prevent us from acting on them. I would rather transcend my own conditioned expectations now than have my circumstances render them moot later.

I notice that you made no mention of the distinction between 'quality of life' and 'standard of living.' This is a central tenet of the memeplex I hope to propagate. You also made no mention of economic or population growth, nor of debt. I would encourage you to work these conceptions into your summation.

Finally, I have recently completed extracting audio excerpts from the 11 interviews that make up Conversations on Collapse for use in an audio CD that I will send out as a Kickstarter backer reward. I think this collection stands as a workable primer of the C-Realm memeplex essentials on the topic of collapse. I will send you a download link and ask that you not attempt to reformulate your presentation until you have listened to and reflected upon it.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 24th, 2010 11:06 pm (UTC)
I think that these discussions between the two of you have been very interesting. I've re-listened to them recently and have a few comments. First, there was a discussion about whether the economy is a part of nature. It seemed to me that you guys were hung up on a false dichotomy. Economy is both natural and artificial. Every living thing has a personal economy, that is, it's give and take with its environment. Our economy is built upon the natural world and everything that we have comes from the Earth. However, the term "economy" and our conception of it is an artifice. An apple that you pick off of the tree and eat is a natural act of economy. An apple that is grown on a farm, purchased as a commodity, handled by a dozen middle men, and sold halfway around the world at a profit is an act of artificial economy. The more abstract the transaction gets, the more artificial it becomes. The more artificial it becomes, the more energy it requires to maintain.

Regarding the points 3 and 4, I have to say that although I think Doug is great and I love Diet Soap, I find his infatuation with radical politics to be irksome. The reason that Marxism has failed is the same reason that democracy fails in the middle east. That is, grassroots forms of organization like Marxism and democracy must arise from the people. Not political leaders with backs to scratch. Not privileged intellectuals with more theories than life experience. And definitely not from people with clean fingernails. The revolution will not be overnight and it will not be violent and it will not be political. It will be from people in their communities pitching in and making their world the way they want it to be, slowly and with intent. Politics is the art of interacting with people you don't know. The revolution will be apolitical. That is, a revolution of the community, from the individual out and from the bottom up.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 25th, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the response, Doug!
My "definition" of politics is an intuitive one rather than a literal one. But I think it holds true in a general way. One time I was listening to a conservative friend of mine go off on some Limbaugh-esque rant about poor people leaching off of the system. And while he was talking it occurred to me that he had no idea what these people are going through. That he was really clueless about the lives the other half lives. As quickly as that thought dawned on me, the idea scaled back and back to show a macro view of the same idea. Essentially, everyone's political view is based very shallow information at best, and is really an extrapolation of our own psychology upon the world. If my friend, who is a funny, kindhearted, generous person despite being a conservative knucklehead was face-to-face with someone receiving government aid, he wouldn't have been so blustery. That's why I, in a nutshell, say that "politics is the art of dealing with people you don't know."

"If you know somebody then issues about power will naturally work themselves out." Issues about power will work themselves out if the parties involved want to work them out. The more resistance there is to the conversation, the more likely the issues won't be worked out. But if the parties involved know each other, the process is lubricated somewhat.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 29th, 2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
This essay is not a reply to your essay above...

That's good, because that would be the exact opposite of what you agreed to do in this exercise.

...but was inspired by it and I thought I'd share a link.

I'm going hold off on reading it until after our Extraenvironmentalist conversation.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 29th, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC)
Thinking it over I don't believe I can recapitulate all of the conversations in your book Conversations on Collapse. I can respond to what you've written here, I can summarize it, but your request that I listen to and summarize your book is something I can only do in part.

Dude, please read my last paragraph again. What I've prepared for you is a collection of excerpts designed to summarize and distill the points I'm trying to get you to incorporate into your thus-far-unworkably-simplistic understanding of what I'm trying to communicate. The total running time is 1 hour and 3 minutes, only slightly longer than a single episode of the C-Realm Podcast. Is that really more than you can manage?


Edited at 2010-08-29 07:38 pm (UTC)
Aug. 29th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
Caveat: Dmitry Orlov's bit about money being too concentrated such that it is, in permacultural terms, a pollutant is a perspective that I find interesting, but it's nothing I'd care to try to defend. Most everything else in the list of excerpts is something I think has value beyond simply being interesting.

Edited at 2010-08-29 07:47 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 29th, 2010 08:47 pm (UTC)
What's acceptable
You being a writer and all, you could probably pack a lot into one sentence, but given that you're having trouble staying out of your critique mode, I see no reason to add the burden of concision to an already challenging task.

Do what you think best serves the spirit of this exercise, viz. showing that you're willing to make a good faith effort at understanding rather than simply formulating a caricature of my notions and attitudes on collapse that fits your critique.
Aug. 29th, 2010 09:04 pm (UTC)
Re: What's acceptable


The description of the audio file on Archive.org lists the clips in order:

Dmitry Orlov
Albert K. Bates
Thomas Homer-Dixon
Sharon Astyk
Albert Bartlet
Cornelia Butler Flora
Bill McKibben
James Howard Kunstler
Colin Tudge
Joe Bageant
Daniel Pinchbeck (and Dmitry Orlov)

That is also the order of chapters in the book.

Edited at 2010-08-29 09:04 pm (UTC)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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