Let Her Go Down: On Collapse

Sharon January 27th, 2008

And all of the crew they were brave men,
But the Captain he was braver.
He said “Never mind the ship me boys
There’s none of us here can save her.

Let her go down. Swim for your lives!
Swim for your children, swim for your wives
But let her go down.” - Knight, sung by Steeleye Span

I was going to write about something else entirely today, when this song sequenced through, and I was reminded of an email I got recently. It was from a man who asked that I not his name - he asked me (and this is a question I get asked fairly often with variations for personal experience):

“Can you tell me when you think a crisis point will be reached, and what a collapse will look like? I have to make some decisions - my daughter is headed to college in a couple of years, my wife wants to move, and I just don’t know what to do - do I try to get a piece of land, or do I go on acting like everything will be ok? Do I save for retirement or put my money into gold? I’m a peaceful person, but this makes me want to get guns and defend my own. I feel like the world is changing under me and I’m not ready!”

As I said, I get this kind of email fairly often. They always worry me - that’s an awful lot of trust to be placing in someone who simply can’t read the future much better than anyone else. I never know what to say, and my emails are generally heavily hedged with comments like “well, if it were me” or “That’s not to say that…” I don’t much like the idea of having someone lose their retirement benefits if the culture at large shrugs things off and goes on as expected, nor do I like the idea of having someone underprepare.

This also comes as I’m feeling inspired by Stuart Staniford’s potent (and I think partly justified) critique of the relocalization movement’s inspecificity about what we imagine the future to look like. Staniford points out that if we’re going to call for a relocalized society, we have to articulate why - what we imagine the future to look like, and how relocalization will improve things.

I think he’s largely right. For example, peak oil thinkers (including me) tend to take some kind of major crisis, often a large scale social collapse, as a given. Now I’m not really sure, as Staniford implies, that we can calculate the likelihood of systemic collapse out to the percentile, or that, in fact, we need to prove that a collapse is anything like inevitable - a reasonable likelihood - even 10%, is probably sufficient to justify a major precautionary shift of society (if we could arrange one - not especially likely), because the negative results of collapse are so potentially disastrous.

Personally (and for reasons I’ll write more about soon), I also believe that in fact, relocalization would be a better system for us than the present model. That is, I think that relocalization works whether or not we undergo a widespread crisis or not, whereas the growth capitalist neoliberal economic model only works when things are fairly good, and works unethically, externalizing real costs, and stealing resources from the world’s poor and from future generations. Actually, in some senses, I think the case for relocalization has been largely made by Staniford himself, who calculated that industrial agriculture and society were likely to kill an awful lot of people - up to 40% of the population in the worst case scenarios - simply by allowing markets and the growth economy to keep going. Now all relocalizers really have to prove is that if we adopted those practices, our worst case scenario is that we would kill only 39% of the world’s population or less ;-). (Just FYI, I actually think relocalization is unlikely to do any of the above).

In addition, my own case is (and has always been) that peak oil and climate change related “collapse” are somewhat fungible terms. It is true, of course, that societies as a whole can completely collapse from fuel shortages or economic crises - look at the Soviet Union. But it is also possible that a society could become wildly balkanized, with a functioning rich class, a few people in the middle, and a lot of really poor people stuck making bad choices. That is, as I’ve said for years, peak oil and climate change will hit each of us at different times. If you lived in New Orleans, you may already have undergone a climate change related collapse - most of the victims of New Orleans, the vast majority of whom were already poor, are project to never regain their prior levels of stability, health or economic status.

And here’s the question. If you think you are likely to remain one of the rich and fortunate, there’s a good chance that you don’t need or want my advice. That is, even in the most collapsed of circumstances, there are always people who stay rich and priveleged. That class may be increasingly small, and who is in it may shift, but there have been rich people forever, and there will be some even if the US or the world completely collapses economically. The question, to my mind is this - what are the odds that any one of us is going to be part of the fortunate few? My own observation (backed up by plenty of studies about the consolidation of wealth) is that the fortunate tend not to be terribly uncomfortable impoverishing other people - they may later give some of their money away in the form of philanthropy, but they are pretty much ok seeing money consolidate in their hands. So I tend not to want to bet on the goodness of those in power, and their desire to make sure that middle class people don’t get poor. That is, I tend to assume that if peak oil and climate change make us poorer (as it seem pretty reasonable to believe they will), I’m going to be one of the poorer people. And thus, whether everyone is having a collapse or not, it may be collapse time at my house - and at the homes of a lot of my readers.

In fact, we are already in the early stages of a collapse of some sort - if by “collapse” we mean a “accellerating reduction in quality of life” - the question is how far this will go. That is, I believe that if can essentially say “we’re not going to rebuild a major American city, and we’re going to write off a large chunk of the population” or in response to crumbling infrastructure say “We’re not going to pay to keep it up, we’re going to have more sewer and water and bridge collapses,” or “We’re going to compromise on all the rights articulated in the Bill of Rights except for quartering Hessian soldiers in people’s homes” we’re already no longer the nation we once were (note, we were never the nation we believed we were, but still). And I think a number of rich world nations are already showing these early signs of collapse. Does that mean it is impossible to arrest the process? I honestly don’t know - and I’m not sure anyone does. How long, how far, how deep - I don’t know. Perhaps we will have only a little collapse, merely a downward slide to some mid-level steady state. We’ll become somewhat less rich, somewhat less stable, maybe (G-d forbid) a little less of a democratic. Perhaps the world will change under us.

What will it look like? I have no idea, but I’ve been struck recently by the voices coming out of the former Soviet Union. Here’s a new article I just saw:


And here are several by the incomparable Dmitry Orlov:


Now I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Orlov’s book _Reinventing Collapse_, and I strongly recommend it. It was wry, fascinating, beautifully written (good prose in the peak oil movement is sometimes hard to find) and fascinating. Some of that material is in the above articles.

But the thing that most struck me about both accounts of living in the Soviet Collapse is their symmetry - that is, both describe in many respects, the same issues, in much the same way. And they remind me of my husband’s grandmother’s stories about living first in Nazi Germany and then in London during the blitz.

I was particularly struck by the first author’s brilliant articulation of a central question - when do we try and just survive, and when do we try to focus to do more than that? That is, do we risk failure trying to hang on to what we value, trying to make sure there is more than just survival, that we remain the people we want to be, or do we simply accept that surviving requires different choices of us? His conclusion, that there isn’t a single answer, I think may be one of the most important truths we can learn - one may carry more risk, or less risk, but sometimes we have to choose based on where we are. What we need most may be flexibility, an ability to reimagine ourselves, and live with our reimaginings.

All this was in my head as I was listening to Steeleye sing “Swim for your children, swim for your lives/But let her go down.” That is, when it is the “braver’ thing to accept that change is coming, and that it is time to let go of our hope that everything will go on as it has?

My own personal take on this is that the time begins now, because the collapse, or downward slide, has already begun. I don’t know where we’re going to end up, or what, if anything, will change over the next few years. But I do know this - we are not as we once were now, and the rate of change appears to be accellerating. Perhaps it is not time yet to abandon ship, but it is, perhaps time to make sure that there are lifeboats at hand and start putting supplies in them. Perhaps it is time to begin making sure that if you put your energies into repairing the boat, those energies will also serve you to make floating devices if it sinks - that is, perhaps it is time to say that our purposes should be doubled - we have to serve the functions of our daily lives, hedge our bets and continue in the world as we know it, but to the extent we can, we might look at that world through the lens of future utility, making sure that we put our efforts in the places that will serve us best in both worlds.

The only answer I can give anyone on what is coming is this. Remain flexible. Be prepared for change. Be brave - and sometimes brave means saying “ok, I have to protect what I can.” Stuart Staniford, in our discussion of relocalization on TOD articulated the concern that sometimes relocalization means essentially “I’ve got mine, screw the rest of you.’ And that may be a fair critique of a few strains of the movement. But what I’ve seen is the contrary - that thousands of people out there are reaching out to protect their own, but also, to extend their preserve to include some small piece of the world that belongs to them because they have claimed its preservation as their own work. That is, I think most of us, once we begin to move past our immediate panic response to the changes in front of us, realize that we serve ourselves by serving others, that our communities (and both of the above authors articulate this quite clearly) matter as much as our homes and families.

That is, there is a degree to which relocalization, as a response to potential collapse, focuses on the personal. But instead of imagining the majority a kind of clutch-fisted self-preservation at the cost of the society, I see it far more often as a host of birds taking flight, men and women outstretching their wings, reaching as far as they can to cover, with their preparations as large an area of “my own” as they can. Sometimes their wings can only overstretch their own territory, and a small bit beyond. Others find ways to make far away people and places part of “their own.” But the net effect of enough outstretched wings is a vast, sheltered place, growing larger by the day. And in the shelter of those wings, hopes are nurtured, futures born, and the possibility of surviving, thriving, retaining and growing our essential selves begins.


5 Responses to “Let Her Go Down: On Collapse”

  1. Susan Ochon 28 Jan 2008 at 1:27 am

    All you can ever be sure to take with you is your education, so it makes sense to try to learn, and teach, the sorts of skills that will be useful should the hard times come.

    When I was in my twenties, it seemed that we were on the edge of post industrial times and the only logical thing was to learn to garden and do for myself. Thirty years later, we seem close to the edge again, but I’ve learned that every time can be seen through this lens. But it turns out that preparing for post industrial times is less a matter of collecting the seeds and tools and more a matter of mastering the skills.

    Even if I never absolutely need to know how to sew, or can, or garden, or eat weeds, or dig a well, or capture wild yeast, or anything else, knowing how to do these things has enriched my life. The quest to learn and pass along these skills has provided a meaningful contrast to the often frustrating and trivial work that I must do to pay the mortgage and buy health insurance.

    Perhaps the hard times won’t come until my daughters’ time. They are already the ones, among their peers, who know how to cook and check the oil and change a tire and give CPR to a baby. When the world needs them, they will have to skills and sense to step up and care for their own families and others. Now I realize that when my elders were passing these skills on to me, whether it was in school, at home, in 4-H, or in books, it was not a transaction between two people but between the generations.

    What else would you do with a life, anyway?

  2. LisaZon 28 Jan 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Thanks for the links, Sharon. I was hoping for some long reading today, to do some thinking.

    Over at my own blog I post one example of why I’m needing this today. The economy is disheartening right now. I’m happy to “buckle down” and prepare to make do even more than we are already. I wish I could take your class on storing food. For now I’ll just use the internet to learn, and perhaps soon I’ll be the one teaching others in my community.

    Lisa in MN

  3. risaon 29 Jan 2008 at 12:36 am

    Why relocalize? Umm, because it’s way more fun?

    We homesteaded in the 70s after reading the Nearings and did it all — 12 volt, built our own house, and so on — and those were our BEST years.

    Where we are now — one acre instead of 12, and working in the city — not as much fun, but we still think growing our own stuff, and networking with those who do, is the best part.

    Stuart kind of wags his finger, like “who do you think you’re kidding?” But I don’t think I’m kidding anyone with my beets and Jerusalem artichokes and winter squash — I’m enjoying them, and wish as much happiness on everyone else in all our short lives.

    So, go, Sharon. You are on the right track. But you knew that.

    risa b

  4. Danon 30 Jan 2008 at 11:13 pm

    Though I am one of the “market will solve the problem” type persons that argued against you on the oildrum I have just come to this site and I applaud your efforts.
    I think you are broadly right that the type of thing here that you describe will certainly help those who become disenfranchised during the downswing. I think you are broadly right that many people will be able to eke out an existence by e.g. container gardening during the period of reconfiguring around much reduced personal transportation.

    Personally I figure we are looking at the great depression mark ii followed by a recovery based on an electric economy using renewables, nuke and some much reduced oil from tar sands and venezuela heavy crude.
    I expect the middle class to be gutted, with maybe 4/5 of the current size made poor.
    I expect the remainder to be the only ones who can afford cars and the total U.S. private automobile fleet will be reduced to perhaps 30 million vehicles.
    The remainder will make do with buses and trains.
    The delivery system will be based on a combination of long distance freight trains, shipping and local electric delivery trucks.
    Walmart will still exist and so will supermarkets though the prices will be much, much higher than they are today.

    The rest of the infrastructure will *not* collapse though it may seem like it to those who have been used to 250 million vehicles zooming around the interstate at all times of the day and night.

    We will make it.

  5. Yiedyieon 01 Feb 2008 at 7:18 pm

    I actually live in Romania, I know about peak oil for about 2 years. I think your suppositions about Balkans countries and about balkanization is from the books you lack the actual living experience.

    You are right about the elite and their continuity but is not so easy they tried so hard to keep a stability using a lot of manipulation and coups d’├ętat and they didn’t survive all. They needed badly a peaceful climate that they had,but in the onset of the decline you elite will not have it. It’s not a mere case of history repeating. People are sick and tired and will not swallow it. I think history is not on anyone’s side (as the Archdruid put it). And the people are silently boiling i talked to some people on the train, there are a lot of economic scams in Romania right now and i heard a lot of people saying we need another revolution(and our wasn’t peaceful).Revolution that the elites might easily capture in their favor. But what elites lack this time is a peaceful aftermath.

    You should do better your homework: The situation in Romania was similar to that described by Orlov,
    but Romania was long past the peak and the elite didn’t build their structure so rapidly and so good as in Russia.

    When the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe disintegrated the people splashed over Europe and over the world with it was a difference of potential(culturally and financially speaking), and the discharge took place(or osmosis if you like).

    We don’t have now this difference of potential we are all culturally homogeneous (blame the Globalization), where are we to go on the Moon?

    I have a question for you: if USA gets balkanize the Balkans how would get ?

    After all you are probably right USA would get balkanize but not for long, balkanization is not a steady, stable process.

    P.S. I don’t think you can learn from Soviet Union more than the actual lesson of collapse, everything else is different in the situation of USA, and the world today.

    Keep up the good work!

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