Thursday, March 8, 2012

Not Collapse - Breakdown.

During the 300th episode of the excellent podcast The C-Realm with special guest Dmitry Orlov, there was the following exchange:

"There was, I did an episode a few months back with - Guy McPherson was on, and Kurt Cobb, and...Henry Warwick. And Henry was saying that it's just really irresponsible to talk about collapse to audiences who don't understand the very specific meaning of the word you have in mind, because generally when people hear 'collapse,' they think 'Mad Max Scenario', when in fact a collapse in the Joseph Tainter sense can be advantageous, you know, in fact it could be that we are due for some financial, political and commercial collapse, but social and cultural collapse are things you would want to avoid at all costs."

"Well, yes, it's not all one thing. The criticism that I use this word, well, you know, let them propose a different word. I haven't exactly redefined what I'm talking about, I'm just adding detail. So I don't know if that's entirely valid."

The reason this stuck in my memory is that I was about to do exactly that - propose a word to the Peak Oil community that I think more accurately describes the situation of what's going to happen in the coming years, and indeed what's already happening even now as we speak. The word that I like to use is breakdown.

Collapse is an evocative word, conjuring up strong emotions, the verbal equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Collapse is fast, dramatic, and final. No wonder people like to talk of "collapse" - it gets a response, whether positive or negative, intended or not. But is it the best word to use?

Collapse is a good word to describe a contrast between a beginning and end state. It's obvious when you look at Piranesi's etchings of the crumbling ruins of the Roman forum, or photographs of vine encrusted Mayan temples in the Yucat√°n swallowed up by the jungle, that a collapse has occurred. It had occurred before we got there, and it is final. It is a prior state to whatever state we are in now: the previous state collapsed, and now we're in this "new" state. But to the people actually living though the process, it must have seemed very different, and collapse hardly seems like the right word to describe it. This is due to the phenomenon of creeping normalcy - or what some people like to call the "frog in boiling water syndrome" (I don't like to use that term - it's not really accurate).

To the people actually in the midst of it, however, it surely must have seemed more like a breakdown. Imagine life for an average citizen in the provinces during the sunset of the Roman Empire. One day the Roman soldiers are pulled back from the fort defending your town due to lack of manpower. The harvests are smaller due to soil exhaustion and lack of rain. The ceramic and metal goods are a little bit shoddier every year, and the quality of building bricks declines. The baths run out of wood for heating, and the arena shuts down for lack of funds. The ships fail to arrive on time with amphoras full of olive oil, and the only blacksmith has left town. Stone buildings crumble for lack of maintenance, replaced by cheaper wooden ones. Administrators stop doing their jobs, and people stopped listening to their edicts or paying taxes long ago anyway. Over time, the Empire slowly decays from the far-flung outer regions in towards the center. It's like watching ice freeze - it seems like nothing special is happening. Only when you compare the beginning and end states do you realize the drama of what has occurred. Eventually, the new state just becomes "the new normal." Indeed, we've already started to hear that phrase evoked in the media, and we'll be hearing it a lot more in the years to come.

Think of a building or a bridge collapsing. One minute there's a structure, the next minute there's not. Now contrast that with your car breaking down. One day the heater doesn't work. The "check engine" light comes on, but you don't know why. Then you hear a grinding noise. You take it to the mechanic for repairs. It works well enough, but the problems keep coming faster and faster. The radiator leaks. The brake pads are going. The hoses are cracking. The body's starting to rust. Sometimes it doesn't start, sometimes it does. You keep visiting the repairman and replacing parts, but eventually there are too many things wrong with the car to keep driving it. You're spending more and more on repairs just to keep the thing running, and eventually it just isn't worth it, that is, you're experiencing diminishing returns. Finally, you send it to the junkyard, and get a new one (or buy a bike). You would probably not describe what happened to your car as a "collapse". You would, however, likely refer to it as your car breaking down. Similarly, interpersonal relationships often decay over time. We commonly refer to these as a relationship breakdown - which is accurate to what usually occurs - rather than a "collapse." Our relationship with our current mode of doing things is a good analogy (ironically, a nervous breakdown probably is more accurately called a collapse).

Cultural, economic and societal breakdown is all similar - things just get a little crappier every year. A lot of little things start to go wrong that are so minor and scattered they go nearly unnoticed, but over time build into transformational change so slowly that most people living through the events don't even realize what's going on, or in fact that anything is really happening at all. They know they can't always do the things they used to, or get the things they were formerly able to, but they're unaware of any big picture as they go about living their lives and trying to get by day-to-day. Indeed, some things may even appear to get better as the breakdown is occurring.

The price of staples at the supermarket goes up just a few cents every month. The cost of heating oil goes up just a little bit every year, not enough to kill you, but enough to take a bite out of your income. You didn't get a raise again this year. One day the pharmacy is out of your medication. The local library down the street closes, and the city only picks up garbage once every two weeks now. The street's full of empty storefronts, and your block is full of foreclosures. Streetlights are turned off. The local baseball team's raising ticket prices  to compensate for a fall in attendance. The books in the school library get older and older, and the there's no money to fix the roof leak. The potholes go unrepaired and the trees unpruned. During the last storm you were without power for a week, and the convenience store ran out of milk. Limits are placed on how often you can water your lawn due to shortages. The lights go out during a pro-football game on TV, but you don't think much of it. Whenever you fly, you wait longer and longer, and the searches get more intrusive. Politicians are promising to fix the problems, but none of them really do. Taxes keep going up while services are being cut. Do you really comprehend what's going on? Are you experiencing a "collapse?" It feels more like a breakdown - it just seems like a lot of minor inconveniences and "temporary" setbacks.

Financial breakdown happens slowly too. Profits go down, suppliers' costs go up, and sales are just a bit lower every year. Less and less buildings are constructed and less space is rented. Business trips are curtailed to save money. There are more defaults and fewer loans. Municipal defaults occur in isolated areas, and then spread little by little. Highways and bridges go unrepaired. Big infrastructure projects are shelved due to lack of funds. National governments engage in debt-swapping games to keep their budgets balanced due to a lack of tax revenue, even as the needs of those governments keep rising due to citizens' hardship. "Real" assets rise in price as paper wealth disintegrates, and people are reluctant to spend. There's never an ultimate reckoning - public services just keep getting thinner, governments more broke, and infrastructure more frayed.

A breakdown in the social order is a similarly slow process. Things people would never do to one another, they start doing. Every year, people are a little more depraved, a little more callous, and a little less empathetic. What was once fringe behavior becomes commonplace. Crime goes up; your car is broken into one day, then your garage, then the vacant house down the street becomes a drug den. College graduates stay at home rather than moving out. Household size increases and marriage rates go down since no one can afford it. Birth rates decline too, since no one can afford kids, further driving down economic growth. People get dumber as education declines. Drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide become a silent die-off that never makes the front page. Culture coarsens and nostalgia becomes rife (e.g. sequels, re-releases and remixes). Art becomes repetitive, and like "the new normal," the phrase "they don't make 'em like they used to" becomes the word of the day. Scams become more common than "legitimate" business (e.g. herbal supplements, online degrees, work from home schemes).

I once wrote a story set in the year 1960 in which a frustrated science-fiction author pitches a story to a publisher about America in the year 2010. In his story, America is a dystopia of mass incarceration, manipulated media, sham elections, crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, widespread obesity, drugged-out citizens, mass surveillance, checkpoints at transportation hubs, and numerous foreign wars, and where all goods are made by Communists overseas and sold in monopoly warehouses while Americans live in tent cities and survive on food stamps. The publisher, of course, haughtily rejects the manuscript laughing, and suggests that the author write a more realistic version of the future with moon colonies, monorails, and electricity too cheap to meter. The gag was, of course, that I used actual circumstances and statistics from 2010 in my "fictional" writer's pitch from 1960. Yet at no single point over the fifty years from 1960 to 2010 did anyone wake up in the morning and say, "yup, today's the collapse!"

Collapse is probably an apt word for describing the events in the Soviet Union. That was a very specific top-down political/economic arrangement with a specific beginning date (1922), and consequently, a very specific end date (1991). In fact, it had been breaking down a long time by 1991. For most breakdowns, it's rarely so cut-and dry. Plenty of people still live in Rome today, Mayans still refer to themselves as such, and France did not cease to exist with the French Revolution. For most of us, I think the term "breakdown" more adequately describes what we will experience in the years ahead. I have to admit, though, collapse is far more exciting a word. A book entitled "Reinventing Breakdown" is nowhere near as dramatic and exciting as one called "Reinventing Collapse." "Conversations on Breakdown" is similarly underwhelming. Nonetheless, I think its a far more accurate description, and I hope it catches on. At least I intend to use it ;-)


I sent a copy to Mr. Orlov. His reply is below:

Thank you for the quote (I posted it on my blog) but I don't agree with your argument. My use of the term is traditional and in line with a large body of literature. "Breakdown" is certainly going to be rampant, especially nervous breakdown among those who calmly expect to be watching something unfold gradually from a safe distance, and then suddenly it overwhelms them. "Breakdown" is also useful in terms of talking about social breakdown, where people who are acquainted stop recognizing or acknowledging each other because the modes of social interaction in which they participated no longer exist. But overall I think "collapse" is a better term.

Are headed for a collapse or a breakdown? What do you think?

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