Many are shocked that it’s this bad, but do we deserve to be surprised? Haven’t we been saying for a long while now that we’ve been moving toward collapse? The culture, full of unresolved tensions and strains it could no longer hold, has been so clearly unsustainable for a long, long time. Those tensions and strains have been bred into the very nature of the society since its founding days, fed on a steady diet of western economic thought, the kind that wasted Europe before Europeans came to North America to begin wasting this continent as well. And in the last two centuries of industrialization and exponential population growth, those tensions were bound to implode.
We have said this. Many have seen it coming for decades – all through my adult life, actually, because it was the projections of collapse from way back in the 1970s that were part of what propelled me into the work of social justice and from there to the work on eco-justice and the connections among ecology, spirituality, and culture that is the orientation and content of the work I have been doing since leaving Washington DC in 2006.
I’ve been browsing through the book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, written by archaeologist Joseph A. Tainter – first published in 1988 (Cambridge University Press). I recommend it. Along with the seminal work, The Limits to Growth, by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, published by the Club of Rome in 1972 (updated for both a 30th and 40th anniversary), and other scholarly work, like Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down – Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Island Press), there has been a large body of research looking into the dynamics that bring civilizations to the irreversible point of collapse. That point is when the complexity and the effort to maintain that complexity begin to have diminishing returns.
Tainter: “…while initial investment by a society in growing complexity may be a rational solution to perceived needs, that happy state of affairs cannot last. As the least costly extractive, economic, information-processing, and organizational solutions are progressively exhausted, any further need for increased complexity must be met by more costly responses. As the cost of organizational solutions grows, the point is reached at which continued investment in complexity does not give a proportionate yield and that marginal return begins to decline. The added benefits per unit of investment start to drop. Ever greater increments of investment yield ever smaller increments of return.
“A society that has reached this point cannot simply rest on its accomplishments, that is, attempt to maintain its marginal return at the status quo, without further deterioration… As stresses necessarily arise, new organizational and economic solutions must be developed, typically at increasing cost and declining marginal return. The marginal return on investment in complexity accordingly deteriorates, at first gradually, then with accelerated force. At this point, a complex society reaches the phase where it becomes increasingly vulnerable to collapse.”
This is in part what is meant when people say that trying to do the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result is a form of insanity. More economic growth, more complex models of productivity and efficiency, more environmental destruction, more consumerism to create jobs, more drilling to get the energy we need for all of the above, more population with demands for all of that – thinking that more and more of this will save us, or will buy us more time while we figure out what to do, well, this is our collective form of socio-cultural insanity.
The path that leads to collapse is not the path to avoid it. We know this. We have known this for a long time – at least since the 1970s, and indeed before that. The Limits to Growth could only be written because the research had been going on for a long time.
Tainter again: “Once a complex society enters the state of declining returns, collapse becomes a mathematical likelihood requiring little more than the passage of time to make probable an insurmountable calamity.”
I used to read this stuff with a voracious hunger-to-know, thinking, my God, if everyone knew this, we would realize we have to shift course quickly and radically. I thought back then that knowledge would change things, and so I would work to disseminate this knowledge. But I overestimated a civilization’s capacity to shift course this drastically when it is so set in its ways. My trust in knowledge turned out to be naïve.
Once our lives are so caught in the intricate webs of complexity, as embedded in a culture as they are in ours in this end-stage of global capitalism, when there is no room left, not enough resources left, not enough money in the system to sustain civilization (unless we just keep printing more, which is what we’ve been doing now for a long time), collapse is inevitable.
How it plays out in each society, of course, will be unique to that culture. And as we in the U.S.A. sit atop that complexity, with our financial system fully invested in it, with our military budget higher than the next eight countries combined, with our growing need for more extreme forms of energy, mineral, and metal extraction to keep the economy moving, with all our major public and private institutions supported by it, embedded in it, co-dependent in every way upon these complex unsustainable systems… well, one can look at this political moment in a wholly different and perhaps more enlightened way.
But we’ve said this for decades. We moved beyond the biocapacity of the planet to support the human species at the level of extraction, technology, and consumption back in the 1980s! That was the decade when, ecologically, we entered “the state of declining returns.” And we have been feverishly proceeding since then, going faster and faster, eating up more and more resources, destroying more and more habitats, spewing more and more carbon into the atmosphere, destroying more and more arable land with industrial agriculture and chemical spraying, flying farther and faster, developing more and more land, forests, beaches, and deserts, making Christmas into an orgy of shopping – all in an effort to keep this thing going for a while longer.
And, boy, are the returns diminishing!
- Global population when I was born (1949): 2.5 billion
- Global population when The Limits to Growth was published: 3.8 billion
- When Tainter wrote his book: 5.1 billion
- When Homer-Dixon's book was published (2006): 6.5 billion
- Now: 7.49 billion
- Projected by 2050: 9.7 billion (UN estimate)
This is both a driver of diminishing returns and a reason for it. It doesn’t occur to us to ratchet down industrial society and look at distribution rather than growth. Population growth becomes another reason for economic growth, to provide consumer goods and services to all those people arriving on the planet every single day, and therefore more profits for investors.
But population growth alone is not the issue, it’s also the economy that thrives on “growth” as its raison d’être. The intention is not to scale down, redistribute, and re-create cultures in which it would be possible to sustain population growth like this. The point is to feed it as a driver for global capitalism to continue its industrial economic growth model which most of us in this country have come to enjoy (if we are wealthy enough) or to expect (if we are struggling to enjoy it) or long for (if we are poor and unable to participate, left on the margins and unable to participate in it).
I am saying nothing here that has not been written about, analyzed, taught in some enlightened places, discussed among elites of right and left for a very long time. Knowledge did not lead to change. Knowledge led much of the culture to keep trying to find ways to beat this inevitable recipe for collapse.
We know this. I’ve been in groups talking about it. But we didn’t see it coming so soon, or want to see it, not now. Hillary Clinton would not have saved us. “Establishment” politics is part of what is collapsing. Another attempt to hang on to a status quo of investment in late stage global capitalism was not going to save us, maybe just fool us for a while longer.
But a few other factors entered in to speed us toward collapse, among them, our history of genocide and enslavement which have come back to haunt us. You see, this economic model was not sustainable from its origins, because it never depended on so-called “free” markets where the value of products, inputs, labor, and ingenuity were determined by their actual market value. If that had been the case, we would never have become the economic power that we became. That the White House was built by slaves is perfect metaphor for the foundations on which this nation was really built, a very pretty symbol of democracy built by enslaved people. What would it have cost in today’s dollars to build the White House with the decently paid labor of free people?
In the last two centuries, workers rose to organize and struggle collectively for their rights. After World War II, many of those rights were finally won – the 40-hour work week, decent wages and benefits. In the 1950s and 60s, the civil rights struggle reached its peak and more space was opened for the exercise of a broader set of rights. Women gained access to more spaces in the political life of the nation. A growing environmental movement started putting legal constraints on how much corporations could pollute or mine or chop down forests or bring other species to extinction. More public land was protected. More people became consumers, finding their way into the mainstream of economic life.
And here is the point: this was not sustainable in a capitalist economy that had grown on the backs of free or cheap labor, access to natural “resources” as needed for the industries, free flow of investment, and access to land for commercial development for more retail and more consumption. Something had to give.
What now sits in the halls of power in Washington DC and many of our state houses is the full-on reaction to the expansion of democracy, the middle class, the rights of non-white people, demands for reparations for centuries of enslavement, and respect for treaty rights of those tribes who bore the costs of “American (meaning white) Exceptionalism.” What was voted into office is in one part the simplistic emotions of resentment, insecurity, and fear aimed at the wrong targets – non-white citizens and immigrants. The real target is an economic system that cannot support the growing global population, that has fiercely concentrated wealth (as Marx predicted), that has overshot the Earth’s biocapacity by a lot and is destroying the atmosphere and biosphere in which we live because it needs the resources and the ability to pollute in order to keep growing, which is the central heart and soul and energy of the capitalist system that is pushing us rapidly toward collapse.
And didn’t we say for a generation now that this time was coming? Are we shocked? Do we not see how inevitable this all was?
We have precious little time to learn how to live in and through a time of collapse. The worst thing would be to try to keep it from happening. The best would be to get serious about what it means to create new ways of life as collapse approaches, to rethink how we live together and how to get ourselves out of a co-dependent relationship with what is failing. We are not yet serious enough about what this means. We are not prepared for how to support workers, families, marginalized peoples, local resiliency, and diverse communities in which all the talents and creativity we have within each of us are put to use in creating those new ways of life.
Because we knew this time was coming. Yes, sure, we thought it would come later, another generation down the road. We would look at the small children and think, what a hard time they’re going to have as adults and we lamented about what kind of world we were leaving them. Well, the time didn’t wait for that. It’s here now.
We knew the time was coming, and now we have little time to get our act together. Which brings me back to the question I asked nearly a decade ago now as I was writing the last chapter of my book, Living Beyond the ‘End of theWorld;” A Spirituality of Hope, (Orbis 2008):
What kind of human beings will we be as we go through the crisis?
Friends, we have to answer that question together, and quickly. We have to answer that in diverse communities across lines of oppression and separation that have plagued this society since its founding days. There are patterns of economy and culture that must be broken down. The answers must come “from below” and must evidence the kind of inclusivity, sharing of resources, simplicity of life styles, and respect for the sacred nature of the web of life that is necessary for the work of “new creation.”
It’s not about staving off collapse. Collapse is necessary and inevitable. It’s about how we live through it and what we create in the midst of it. Because that is what will determine the outcome.
~ Margaret Swedish
~ Margaret Swedish
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