Every once and awhile I’ll be listening to a podcast with one or the other writers specializing on the subject of Peak Oil or collapse and the subject of timetables will come up. When will the collapse finally be here, the callers ask insistently, almost pleadingly, so that they can finally justify their investments in freeze-dried foods, water purification tablets and solid gold coins. Inevitably the guest will demur, and speak more in general terms. But I’m going to be the first pundit to go out on the limb and assign a timeline for the collapse. Spread it far and wide, and let’s see just how good my predictive powers are. Are you ready? Here it is:
What do they think a collapse is supposed to look like? It seems people just cannot just cannot get past the “Zombie Apocalypse” theory of collapse. They imagine hordes of disease-ridden folks dressed in rags stumbling around and fighting over cans of petrol and stripping cans of food from shelves. That’s not what collapse looks like. It never has been. In fact, there’s very little evidence that a Zombie Apocalypse style collapse ever occurred in the historical record. Instead we see subtle patterns of abandonment and decay that unfold over long periods of time. Big projects stop. Population thins. Trade routes shrink and people revert to barter. Things get simpler and more local. Culture coarsens. High art stagnates. People disperse. Expectations are adjusted downward. Investments are no longer made in the future and previous investments are cannibalized just to maintain the status quo. Extend and pretend is hardly a recent invention.
No, what happens in a collapse is very much more subtle than a Zombie Apocalypse. Things tend to look pretty normal for the following reasons:
1.) People and Institutions are resistant to change.
2.) The system has a formidable array of resources to preserve the status quo.
3.) Sheer momentum.
4.) Creeping Normalcy
This is how history says collapses go down, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Based on recent archaeology, it seems this is how the Roman collapse unfolded was well. Although images of pillaging barbarians looting burning cities sticks in people’s imaginations when they think of the fall of the Roman Empire, this was not the experience for most people according to recent scholarship. Big events tended to come down to us in the written record, but for ordinary people, it probably seemed much less dramatic. Yes, there were some famines and plagues, as there had always been. The population declined, but there were no apocalyptic battles or mass starvation. Many of the cities appear to have been continually inhabited. There were no mass graves, ruined cities or signs of malnutrition found in excavations. Most people who survived the plagues lived right through the transition from Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity to the Medieval period with remarkable continuity, just a change of institutions and expectations. But something clearly was happening, because we know it from history. Buildings got plainer. Citizens got poorer. Trade routes shrank. Economies became local. Lawlessness increased. The old Roman Empire had been around since far before anyone could remember, and as it broke down more and more and failed to do things it had once done easily, it must have seen to some people like the world was collapsing in on them. It wasn’t, but something was happening. Much depended on who you were, where you were, what your expectations were, and how much you had invested in the status quo, both mentally and in terms of status and resources.
What brought this thought about was reading the heartbreaking article: Suicides in Greece increase 40%
And I remembered a comment I head from Dmitry Orlov in an interview about how much of his high school class were now dead. Yet there were no headlines and there was never any official crisis or emergency. They did not die in gunfights over scraps of food like in The Road. Rather, more quotidian things like alcoholism, unemployment, suicide, homelessness, exposure, lack of medications and ordinary sicknesses like bronchitis and pneumonia took their lives. Russia’s life expectancy fell dramatically. It’s birth rate declined. Public health fell apart. Suicide rates went up. The population shrank. Entire towns became abandoned. In post-collapse Russia there was a slow die-off that occurred outside of the daily headlines that no one seemed to notice. They were ground down slowly by day-to-day reduction in the standard of living, a million little tragedies that, like pixels in an image, looked like nothing until the focus was pulled back.
And right now the entire continent of Europe is looking an awful lot like post-collapse Russia:
The savage cuts to Greece’s health service budget have led to a sharp rise in HIV/Aids and malaria in the beleaguered nation, said a leading aid organisation on Thursday.
The incidence of HIV/Aids among intravenous drug users in central Athens soared by 1,250% in the first 10 months of 2011 compared with the same period the previous year, according to the head of Médecins sans Frontières Greece, while malaria is becoming endemic in the south for the first time since the rule of the colonels, which ended in the 1970s.
Reveka Papadopoulos said that following health service cuts, including heavy job losses and a 40% reduction in funding for hospitals, Greek social services were “under very severe strain, if not in a state of breakdown. What we are seeing are very clear indicators of a system that cannot cope”. The heavy, horizontal and “blind” budget cuts coincided last year with a 24% increase in demand for hospital services, she said, “largely because people could simply no longer afford private healthcare. The entire system is deteriorating”.
Is that not a die-off? What would a collapse look like? What should a collapse look like? Zombies? Mad Max? Or would it look like the following statistics from this article:
In Greece, we now have record unemployment, which includes the majority of young workers. Homelessness is up 20 percent, with soup kitchens in Athens reporting record demand, and the usually low suicide rate having doubled.
Portugal has complied completely with the austerity demands it accepted for its bailout deal, but its debt is growing and its economy is shrinking, its unemployment rate continues to reach new heights, there is a crisis in medical care, and a 40 percent rise in emigration, with the Portuguese government acknowledging its own failure by actually encouraging its citizenry to leave.
In Spain, austerity has resulted in falling industrial output and deepening debt, with record unemployment and a stunning rate of 50 percent youth unemployment. And the Spanish government’s incomprehensible response is to impose even more crushing austerity.
Ireland has fallen back into recession as austerity has led to falling economic output. A better future is being sacrificed, as young workers look for work abroad, “generation emigration” expected to number 75,000 this year.
The success of Italy’s wealthy technocrat government was concisely summarized in similar terms:
Italy’s austerity measures are stunting activity in the euro-zone’s third-largest economy, recent budget and economic data show, suggesting the steps are backfiring.
Italy’s industrial production is falling while its rate of unemployment is at its highest in more than a decade, and its priceless cultural heritage is literally crumbling. But the wealthy technocrats themselves are ensuring that they they don’t have to share the suffering.
Even in the Eurozone’s stronger economies, such as Holland, austerity is hurting the economy, people, and culture, and risks backfiring even more.
The austerity program of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has led to a stagnant economy, with ten consecutive months of rising unemployment and factory output stalled and business confidence in decline.
Even economic powerhouse Germany, while taking advantage of the new flood of migrant workers fleeing Europe’s weaker economies, is facing an austerity backlash.
Outside the Eurozone, the austerity program imposed on Britain by the relentlessly mendacious Cameron government has resulted in an economy that keeps shrinking, with the OECD saying it is back in recession, with unemployment soaring, and the overall brunt being borne by the elderly and minorities and the very young. An additional hundred thousand are predicted to be out of work by autumn.
Greece appears to be just the dress rehearsal for the rest of the world. And Japan has been experiencing diminished expectations, lower wages, deflation and declining birthrates since 1989. And I don’t think I need to restate conditions in the United States: municipal bankruptcies, school closings, foreclosures, blackouts, roads being turned back into gravel, etc. And conditions are continuing to deteriorate. See this:
So many corporate-owned politicians in Washington these days seem to be going out of their way to work side by side with the Grim Reaper. They declare unnecessary wars. They tax us (not themselves) right down to the bone. They steal all our safety nets in order to have more money to add to THEIR safety nets. They bust our unions, steal our pension plans, enable Wall Street to invent pyramid schemes that ruin our economy, encourage big health insurance companies to cut us loose just when we need them the most, and allow Monsanto to poison our food, mutilate our seed stock and kill off our bees.
In America, death seems to be coming earlier and earlier to those who vote.
And now GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has come up with an even more sure-fire plan to help out his new BFF, the Grim Reaper. Now Romney wants to not only eliminate most U.S. housing subsidies, he wants to eliminate the entire department of Housing and Urban Renewal as well. That will certainly speed up the Grim Reaper’s efforts for sure.
According to Forbes magazine, “In a closed-door Florida fundraiser for donors tonight, Mitt Romney offered a rare glimpse into his policy plans if elected President. And, as NBC reports, he got quite trigger-happy.”
According to TruthOut, “Romney’s plan to eliminate HUD, assuming he didn’t shuffle its programs to other departments, would bring an end to critical programs like Section 8 housing vouchers and community development block grants. And eliminating housing assistance is even more problematic given the disproportionate percentage of veterans in the homeless population.”
But what does Romney’s latest brilliant idea actually mean in terms of you and me? It means once again that the rich continue to get richer and live longer while the rest of us just conveniently die off too soon — because homeless people have a lot shorter life span than folks happily housed in the Hamptons.
You know that senior housing complex in your town where seniors now get a rent break courtesy of HUD? That will be gone. And without HUD, frail and ailing seniors will soon be wandering the streets of your town, dying in alleyways and hogging up all the space in your cemeteries.
You know those low-income “housing projects” on the other side of your town where all the poor people now live? Those will be gone too. Too bad for them. And now desperate poor folks will be wandering around in your part of town, homeless too. And did I already mention that they will be desperate?
And all those homeless vets? There will be a lot more of them now — also wandering around your city or town.
Remember back in the 1970s when Reagan shut down all those mental institutions and suddenly we had all sorts of crazy people wandering around, hopefully taking their meds but probably not? And if Romney’s latest hot new scheme takes hold, even more of them will be back on your streets.
And physically handicapped people will have no place to live either. They too will be wandering around, trying to elude the Grim Reaper.
And the number of homeless children will dramatically increase. A lot more little kids will be living in cars — if they’re lucky.
And all of these homeless people, millions of them, will be pouring into the streets of your city or town, herded in your direction by both corporate-owned politicians in Washington and the Grim Reaper himself — who also will have a sharp eye out for YOU.
And this: Austerity In America: 22 Signs That It Is Already Here And That It Is Going To Be Very Painful (Economic Collapse Blog)
This is what a collapse really looks like: The poorest and most vulnerable die first, out of sight, and everyone else just does what they can to survive. Peoples’ priorities change: they concentrate on getting by from day-to-day rather than planning for the future. They stop getting married. They have less children or none at all. They live for today. They work harder for less. Taxes go up even as basic services are cut. Long term unemployment has been conclusively linked to greater mortality and susceptibility to illness, physical and mental. Would many of these people not still be alive today if were not for austerity measures and declining middle class opportunity? Isn’t that a die-off? It’s been said that having children is a referendum on the future. Based on global birth rates, I think the human race is collectively registering a vote of “no confidence.”
Picture the ruin porn of decaying Detroit’s vacant buildings, empty fields, shuttered factories, abandoned houses, crumbling overpasses, bursting water mains, rusting cars, and encroaching wilderness. Does this not look like collapse to you? If this had happened over a span of one or two years, would we even have any trouble of recognizing it as such? If you asked people twenty or thirty years ago what a global economic collapse would look like, would they not describe something very similar to what we are now witnessing? Why don’t we recognize it? Because it is happening too slowly? Because we believe things will “get back to normal?” What are we waiting for, a sign from heaven?
Who you are and where you are effects this dramatically too. Your position on the hierarchy determines how well insulated you are from collapse. Are you poor already? (not middle class, everyone is middle class) Then you probably won’t notice as much difference. Are you filthy rich? (if you’re reading this, I doubt it) Then you have enough power to preserve you wealth or enhance it for a while (at our expense, of course). If you are in the technocratic caste that serves global corporate interests, have the privilege an advanced education, work in certain select industries, have a vast inheritance, or are just plain lucky, you can probably safely hold on to your lifestyle for a long time to come. Your children won’t be so lucky, though. For those people who wonder why they don’t feel like they are in a collapse, please consider, have you gotten a raise lately? What’s your home worth? Has your rent gone up? Taxes and fees? Some people may answer positively to these questions, of course, but that number has a funny way of shrinking over time.
If you live in a big city it also might be easier to get by. Cities have more diverse industries and higher tax bases, There is more wealth in cites, more social momentum, and more resources to buffer the negative effects of a downturn. For those with social connections closest to the levers of power and the imperial courts, they can manipulate the system to keep the swag coming from their enclaves in Manhattan, Orange Country, suburban D.C., and the Hamptons. Just as in the Roman collapse where the cities were bulwarks of wealth, culture and commerce while countryside became depopulated, rural areas will be hardest hit. Indeed, rural towns that were dependent upon one major industry like farming or steel manufacturing have already become ghost towns, and much of rural America is already a lawless region with little infrastructure; a battleground for drug gangs dotted with marijuana plantations and meth labs.
We have a hard time imagining that in the midst of a collapse everything would seem so normal. That day-to-day life would go one for most of us, seemingly unaffected, and that only after vast stretches of time had passed would we notice anything different. That many of us could hold on to our modern conveniences and familiar things. That many people wouldn’t even notice what’s going on at all. Short of a plague situation, there are not usually piles of bodies during a collapse. Most people don’t die. Here’s what really happens: People move in with relatives. They barter services. They defer health care. They stop going to school. They sell off their possessions. They go on the dole, if they can. They stop caring. You see people happy to have food and warmth rather than the latest consumer toy. You see entire households supported by one breadwinner. You see homeless shelters and soup kitchens fill up and food banks empty out. You see people hanging out on streetcorners during the day and living in tents. That’s what a collapse looks like. Sound familiar? In fact, much of the world never moved from this mode of existence in the first place. Even during the worst historical collapses people still ate good food, listened to music, used the latest technology, and drank beer and wine with friends on warm summer evenings.
So then why is the collapse occurring? Is it all about debt, as we’ve been led to believe? Or is it about something else?
Imagine if you were the leader of one of the world’s major industrial nations, with millions of people, economies worth trillions, and huge armies at your command. Now imagine that your top generals and admirals have briefed you and told you that the fundamental substances underlying modern industrial civilization were running out. That there would be shortages. Scarcity. Resource wars. Dwindling food supplies. Decreased industrial output. A shrinking tax base. Insurrection. What would you do? Panic? Or would you do exactly what world leaders are doing right now: using economic policies to shrink the economy to a lower level and cause a slow die-off? Claim that “there is no alternative”, and that once “confidence” is restored, things will be back to normal? Consider:
Last year two military planning organizations went public with studies predicting that serious consequences from oil depletion will befall us shortly. In the U.S. the Joint Forces Command concluded, without saying how they arrived at their dates, that by 2012 surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear and that by 2015 the global shortfall in oil production could be as much as 10 million b/d. Later in the year a draft of a German army study, which went into greater detail in analyzing the consequences of peaking world oil production, was leaked to the press. The German study which was released recently is unique for the frankness with which it explores the dire consequences which may be in store for us.
And see this: Energy Security: an annotated military/security bibliography (2010 update) (Energy Bulletin)
Of course, to assuage the public’s anger, governments will promise an imminent return to normalcy. What they mean is, slow collapse down to a slow enough pace that it is less noticeable. And they’ve been saying this for four years already. Want to bet they’ll be saying it four years from now? And four years after that?
Once things did “stabilize” everything would return to a sort of normal and you would be considered a hero by the public. And things will look great, because people only judge things in contrast with the immediate past, not decades before. And in relative terms, after years of “austerity”, things will be “recovering.” Temporarily at least, until the next crisis hits. But by that time you hope there will be another sucker sitting in the White House, or 10 Downing Street, or the Élysée Palace while you spend your retirement skiing in Zurich or sunning yourself in Monaco. And the cycle begins again. Your family members, as “elites,” will be unaffected, of course. Debts can be cancelled. It’s just the excuse they need.
Really, austerity makes no sense otherwise. As Steve Keen put it in a recent interview, “they think causing an accelerated economic collapse will make it easier to pay their debts.” Indeed. Even some of the world’s most renowned economists have declared such policies insane. If even Nobel-prize winning economists think it’s crazy, then why are governments doing it? But these economists are in the main, ignorant of Peak Oil, willingly or unwillingly. They can only think in terms of reactivating “growth” in a Keynesian sense. But based on the above, it’s clear world leaders know that’s not going to happen. What other reason could there be? After all, capitalism requires growth, and only after enough is destroyed can growth begin again. Is what we are witnessing now not a slow destruction? Austerity is a wildfire set by the political/banking elite classes to get rid of the underbrush and start anew.
Certainly they could implement more humane options if they so desired. But most of those would require a diminution in the power of corporations and banks. They need not fear socialist revolution as they did generations ago, because everyone knows that socialism has failed and that wealth redistribution makes everyone poorer (right?). Entire populations can now be effectively controlled by the media apparatus, and if all else fails, you can bust out the tear gas and pepper spray. From now on, all we will be permitted is what we can claw from the impersonal and shrinking market. Social Darwinism has finally been given free reign by the powers that be.
Of course they could just as easily come clean with all this and initiate policies that minimize the pain and suffering of the general population. They could implement policies that allow for graceful and gradual decline and stop spending money on malignant things like prisons, security, war, bank bailouts, corporate welfare, and needless consumerism in favor of public health measures, redistributing wealth, work programs, etc. They could cancel the debts. But today’s governments are wholly owned subsidiaries of the banking establishments that control national economies, and they will have none of it. Over our dead bodies they say, we prefer your dead bodies. The real purpose of austerity and neoliberal economic doctrine is to get the remaining wealth of industrial society into their bank accounts before the shit hits the fan so they and their ancestors can pick up the pieces in a post oil-crash world. They will continue to have the best of everything. Someone’s going to have personalized genetic medicine and android servants, just not you or I. I myself am skeptical, however, that things will go as planned. This is why they need Authoritarian Capitalism.
People often wonder if the Romans knew at the time that their society was collapsing. Even if some intelligent and literate Romans did recognize it, could they have done anything about it? We who know better at least know that we are on our own to deal with this. You know the truth. You don’t have to flee to a bunker, and you don’t have to die off either (of course we all will someday, but that’s a different story…). Don’t wait for politicians to tell you the truth about austerity, because they never will. You can see that this engineered collapse is exactly what we’ve been fearing all this time. No reason to fear the collapse-look around, you’re already living though it even as you read these words, and you’re presumably still here. Take a deep breath. Relax. Have a beer. Listen to some music. No Zombies Required.