Monday, November 19, 2012

Collapse and the Sorites Paradox

Often times those who talk about collapse run into quite a bit of difficulty. It's easy for people to dismiss this sort of talk as foolish rantings since day-to-day activities seem so normal. One way to understand the problems of talking about societal collapse is through a logical thought experiment devised by Ancient Greek philosophers called the Sorites Paradox.

Sorites is the Greek word for "heap." Imagine, for instance, a heap of sand on your desk. A heap contains maybe 1,000,000 grains of sand. If you take away a single grain of sand, is it still a heap? I think most of us would say, "of course it is!" Nothing's changed from any outward appearance, after all. If I take two grains away? Three? Four? Ten? No difference, of course it's still a heap of sand.

The problem is, I can just keep doing this - picking away a grain of sand out of the heap and asking you if it still a heap. Eventually we will be left with a single grain of sand. Is this a heap? Of course it isn't. But exactly when did it stop being a heap? Which grain did I remove to turn it from a heap to something else? Can you point to it? This concept also works with someone who is rich. Clearly if I take a dollar away from someone who is a millionaire, it will make little difference. The rich person is still rich. What if I keep doing it? At what point do they become poor? $100,000? $10,000? $100? $53.76?

A more formal statement of these premises would be: 1,000,000 grains of sand is a heap of sand (Premise 1) A heap of sand minus one grain is still a heap. (Premise 2).

Repeated applications of Premise 2 (each time starting with one fewer grains), eventually forces one to accept the conclusion that a heap may be composed of just one grain of sand (and consequently, if one grain of sand is still a heap, then removing that one grain of sand to leave no grains at all still leaves a heap of sand; indeed a negative number of grains must also form a heap). [Wikipedia]

We can easily see how this applies to societal collapse. The problem arises from vague predicates. How do we define a heap? How do we define a collapse? When does one become the other? When does pre-collapse become post-collapse? What one single thing, when removed, causes the collapse? What one switch causes a pre-collapse society to become a post-collapse one? Is there a phase shift? Can we define such a thing? If not, how can we really define collapse at all? Does the term have any meaning?

This is a point I made previously in Not Collapse - Breakdown. Breakdown is easy to see all around us. When power outages become routine, when the space program is mothballed, when cities curtail their garbage collection, when libraries cut back hours, when flights are routinely delayed and cancelled, when potholes dot the roads, when food prices rise, when strip malls lie empty for years, when the lights go out during an NFL game, when copper is stripped out of abandoned buildings, when cyberattacks shut down Web sites, when schools hold bake sales for necessities, when cities turn to lotteries for revenue; all of these are breakdowns in what we have become used to. But which one of these can be said to constitute a collapse? Like our removal of a single dollar or grain of sand, these changes are small and hardly noticeable. Often, they are merely a minor inconvenience. As I wrote:
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...To the people actually in the midst of it, however, it surely must have seemed more like a breakdown.
Yet just as we recognize a single grain of sand as something other than a heap and a poor person from a rich one, we must recognize that at some point we will be in a collapsed state relative to what we were before. To say there is no such thing as collapse would fall into the closely related Continuum Fallacy, in which vague claims are completely rejected because they are not as precise as we would like. Vagueness alone does not make such a concept invalid. It has been said that one indisputable fact about the Roman Empire is that it collapsed. But when? Numerous dates are proposed, from the Crisis of the Third Century all the way until 1453

Complicating matters is the fact that rarely is it a continuous downward slide. There are numerous periods of retrenchment, reorganization and partial recovery. The larger pattern is only evident over a longer period of time.

For example, the Great Depression, with its falling stock market, bankrupt industries, shuttered factories, bank runs, Dust Bowl and twenty-five percent unemployment would be considered a collapse by any definition. Certainly it must have seemed so to people at the time. Yet America’s global empire had not even been established and its period of greatest prosperity lay ahead. Similarly, there were periods in the Roman Empire where it looked like improvements were being made and the system might last indefinitely. Diocletian managed to oversee a reorganization of the Roman economy and political structure. Even after things had started to go permanently downhill for the West in 407, in the period 411-21 under the generalship of Constantius and before his premature death, there was a partial revival of Roman fortunes, with the pacification of Italy and the reassertion of imperial control over southern Gaul and parts of Spain. In 533 Justinian defeated the Vandals and reconquered Italy, also retaking Spain and parts of North Africa before a plague put an end to his expansion.

But it was not to be: the writing was on the wall. It's possible we might experience a similar turnaround. We cannot absolutely rule this out, we can only say that are extremely unlikely given current trends. Is it even possible to recognize a collapse except by hindsight? Often analysts will look at a graph of peaks and troughs and draw a line following roughly the average of the highs and lows, labeling it "trend." This cuts through the highly volatile statistical noise of highs and lows and is either sloping up or down. You can often be on an upswing even if the overall trend is down.

"Follow the trendlines, not the headlines."
What would be the "trend" in the United States since the nineteen-seventies?

Possible Resolutions

Two traditional resolutions to this paradox might be instructive for our purposes: setting a fixed boundary and group consensus.

Setting a fixed boundary in this case means a specific definition of collapse. In other words, when 'X' happens, we have collapsed. This is equivalent to defining a boundary in our example above, say anything over 10,000 granules is a heap and less than that is not. Of course, there is an arbitrariness to this that many find unacceptable; clearly 9999 grains is still a heap for all intents and purposes, whether we choose to define it as such or not. Often this is done with the Roman Empire by picking a specific event and date, say the sack of the city of Rome in 410 by Alaric or the deposition of the last emperor in 476 by Odoacer. Of course, this too falls into the Sorites Paradox: most people living in the years 411 and 477 did probably not think of themselves as living in a situation very much different than the previous year. Nonetheless, if we give specific criteria of what constitutes a collapse, we can clearly see when it happens.

The two big contenders here are either political dissolution or financial crash. Two common examples are the dissolution of Austria-Hungary in 1918 and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 caused by ethnic secessionist movements and political unrest. By this same token, a dissolution of the United States can be said to constitute a collapse. So too could a successful secession of one or more states. Secession petitions are now routinely filed after presidential elections by an increasing number of people, and there are small but active movements in a number of states. If one or more succeeds, do we have our collapse?

Numerous countries have gone through economic collapse. A repudiation of debt and fall of the currency (such as through hyperinflation) are the most likely descriptions of this scenario. The United States repudiating it’s debt would cause the global economy to topple and is nearly unimaginable. A Wall Street crash like October 1929 could also be considered a collapse scenario. Argentina went through a major collapse in 1999 - 2002. Many countries have as well, from Brazil to Mexico to Thailand to Zimbabwe. It should be noted that none of these countries ceased to exist as a result.

Currently the southern fringes of Europe are going through a situation that to all appearances looks like a total financial collapse, with soaring debts, mass unemployment, homelessness, suicides, evictions, foreclosures, hospitals lacking medicine, people rummaging through dumpsters to eat, labor strikes, violent public protests, political extremism, separatist movements, etc. Yet even in those countries, most people still have jobs, most businesses are still open, elections are still held, and most public services still function, albeit at a reduced or subpar level.

So those are our criteria - a state seceding from the union or a financial crash would be a collapse. I think when people use the term collapse in reference to the United States, it is one of these two things they are actually predicting, whether they specify it outright or not. Is there some other definition we could agree on? No more postal delivery? A closing and withdrawal of military bases from overseas locations? No more social security checks? Selling off the national parks? Cancelling football season? Something else? And what if none of these things occur? Have we "avoided" a collapse? Is everything then A-OK?

Group consensus means, in essence, that we’ve collapsed when a majority of people believes that we’ve collapsed. Are we far from that point? Are we, in fact, collapsing?

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on New York City, the largest city in the United States and it's cultural capital, there was a story about how America's satellite system, a technological marvel, had been crippled by decades of mismanagement and neglect, impairing prediction of the storm's path. Three years earlier, in 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers, who routinely give a grade of 'D' to nation's aging infrastructure, advised installing surge barriers and tide gates to prevent flooding of the city. They were ignored. It was eerily reminiscent of the flooding of New Orleans years earlier, where the locks on Lake Pontchartrain were routinely cited as being inadequate and had failed to be upgraded for years. In the aftermath, utilities struggled to restore power, and gasoline was rationed based on license plates.

When a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in August 2007 causing fatalities, attention was paid to how decrepit the nation's infrastructure really was. And this was only the most noticeable instance of many local ones which go unreported in the wider media. In my own town, a hunk of concrete fell of a major highway bridge over the mouth of a river (no one was hurt - it was closed and repaired), and pieces of the facade began falling off our city hall. We also had a high-speed rail connection between our two largest cities cancelled by the governor because "we can't afford it." Nor is this unique. One of the largest civil engineering projects in the country, two new rail passages under the Hudson River, was cancelled a few years earlier by the governor of New Jersey, who claimed that the state could not afford it and would be on "a never ending hook" (similar language was used with the rail line here). A report later proved most of the governor's financial claims false.  New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out:
Demand for public transit is rising across America, reflecting both population growth and shifting preferences in an era of high gas prices. Yet New Jersey is linked to New York by just two single-track tunnels built a century ago — tunnels that run at 100 percent of capacity during peak hours. How could this situation not call for new investment?
It's not just transit: investment upgrades like a smart DC grid which are necessary for more efficient energy usage and renewable energy are opposed by a combination of stinginess and paranoia. Tighter regulation of our diminishing collective resources is perpetually denounced as "socialism." We must be reminded that this is the country whose engineering marvels were once the envy of the world - the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the Mackinac Bridge, the power plant at Niagara Falls, the Interstate Highway system, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Great Plains Shelterbelt, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the list is endless. Krugman also wrote in 2010:
The lights are going out all over America — literally. Colorado Springs has made headlines with its desperate attempt to save money by turning off a third of its streetlights, but similar things are either happening or being contemplated across the nation, from Philadelphia to Fresno.

Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.

And a nation that once prized education — that was among the first to provide basic schooling to all its children — is now cutting back. Teachers are being laid off; programs are being canceled; in Hawaii, the school year itself is being drastically shortened. And all signs point to even more cuts ahead.

We’re told that we have no choice, that basic government functions — essential services that have been provided for generations — are no longer affordable. And it’s true that state and local governments, hit hard by the recession, are cash-strapped. But they wouldn’t be quite as cash-strapped if their politicians were willing to consider at least some tax increases.
That same year Americans were shocked by a story in which firemen stood by and let someone's house burn down because they had not paid the requisite fees. Detroit and Flint in Michigan and Cleveland and Youngstown in Ohio (among others) have bulldozed large swaths of the city in order to shrink to a more manageable size. The largest ever municipal bankruptcy was declared by a county in Alabama (eclipsing that of Orange County, one of the nation's wealthiest, in 1994), with others like Stockton, California perennially threatening. A book was recently published by two French photographers called "The Ruins of Detroit," documenting, in the mode of a latter-day Piranesi, the current condition of a city that was once one of the ten richest cities on earth and the very symbol of American Industrial might. America's Internet speed has fallen to twenty-sixth worldwide, just behind Hungary and its rail system is often compared to Eastern Europe, with slow, bumpy, tardy service and rail lines dating back to the era of the Robber Barons. Are we in denial? Those who argue that we were overbuilt in the first place, or that such projects are a "waste" miss the larger point: This is not what nations on the upswing of history do.

Young people today literally cannot remember a time when we weren't "tightening our belts," or "making do with less." They have never lived when times weren't "lean" unlike their parents and grandparents. To them it is simply the way things always were. As another New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, succinctly put it, travelling to the United States from China is like going "from the Jetsons to the Flintstones." A recent commenter to this article said "Flying from Singapore into JFK, you wonder whether you really left the developing world and arrived in the developed -- or did you actually leave the developed world and arrive in the dis-developing (undeveloping? Unraveling?)." When governors regularly campaign on and gain widespread popularity from cancelling, curtailing and shutting down major civic works and public amenities rather than building or expanding them, you know things have changed dramatically in the fortunes of a nation.

A recent report from the census bureau puts the number of Americans in poverty at a record 49.5 million when expenses are taken into account, or over 16 percent of the population, the size of a large country. A similar number lack basic health care. When concepts like "financially fragile" or "living paycheck to paycheck" are used (meaning little or no savings and income just covering expenses), numbers of over 50 percent are common. The amount of unemployed equals the population of Illinois, the nation's fifth largest state, meaning there are more unemployed people in the U.S. than there are citizens in all but Florida, New York, Texas and California. The percentage of people actively in the workforce is down to what it was in 1981, before two-income families became the norm. Life expectancy is actually decreasing for the poorest members of society. Doubling up”, or multiple generations living under the same roof (dubbed “reduced household formation” by economists ) has been on the rise, and homeownership is down for the first time in decades. The age of cars on the road is an all-time high. Food banks are regularly overwhelmed with demand. From three to six workers exist for every new job opening, and job fairs regularly attract thousands from all over for just a handful of available jobs.

The U.S. incarcerates more of it's citizens in absolute numbers than anywhere else on earth, even countries with larger populations; in fact, there are more prisoners than farmers. The top 1 percent earns a greater share of the nation's income than the bottom fifty percent. Educational achievement and social mobility are persistently on the bottom of the ranking of OECD nations (referring to advanced industrial economies). The U.S. spends more on the military than the next fifteen nations combined, most of whom are close allies. China is set to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in the next five years. The United States once has the world's largest steel and concrete industry, now China alone accounts for over half the world's concrete production. The United States runs permanent trade deficits, routinely taking in more that in exports. Once the world's largest creditor nation, it is now the world's largest debtor nation. Corporate profits are at historical highs (one single corporation, Apple, has more cash on hand that the U.S. government), while workers' share of profits is at an all-time low. Many American companies pay more to their chief executives in compensation than they remit in taxes to the U.S. government. The nation’s largest employers used to be Ford and General Motors. Now they are McDonald's and Wal-Mart. The median income is no higher now in real terms than in the early 1970's while costs for education and health care have increased on the order of 3-400 percent.

Have enough grains of sand been removed yet?

Of course, none of these things in isolation causes a collapse by any means. But all of them simultaneously? Are they coincidences? Does anyone seriously expect these trends to reverse at some point? These are not blips – these are trends have been going on for decades. The “end” of the recession and the subsequent “recovery” will merely return us to the previous state of affairs which was hardly good to begin with.

Even in the Great Depression there was a sense of forward progress that is all but absent today. I remember hearing from people who lived through that time talking about free zoos, parks, fountains and swimming pools for the public, numerous libraries and public speaking venues, inexpensive movie houses, and a sense of camaraderie. Besides, the Depression was part of a global economic conflagration - everywhere was bad. Today we are treated to constant scenes of new record breaking skyscrapers in China or Dubai, dozens of brand new airports around the world opening every year, entire cities being built from scratch in China, renewable energy investments in Europe, and high-speed maglev trains connecting major cities in Asia.

Drive through any inner city ghetto if you dare and you’ll see crumbling buildings, broken windows, dilapidated houses, beggars on street corners, people with all their worldly goods in shopping carts, and open-air drug markets. Murders are so commonplace they are not even reported in the news anymore. America’s glorious cities have become bombed-out Bantustans out of pre-apartheid South Africa. Her formerly prosperous farm and factory towns and seaside ports resemble the rusted-out tractorgrads and magnetogorsks of the former Soviet Union. Tent cities are springing up outside metropolitan areas from coast to coast. These are not new trends, they have been going on for decades and have just accelerated. Yet we still think things will someday "get back to normal." They will stabilize, no doubt. Sure, there is still food on the shelves and (mostly) gas at the pumps. But does anyone think we will enter a long era of expansion ever again the way did from 1950-1970? And if not, can we not call that a collapse of sorts? Can we yet reach a consensus? This is not what nations on the upswing do. This point cannot be overemphasized.

This is a controversial subject because some economists say that as long as living standards across the board are incrementally better than the remote past, the vast relative differences do not matter. Thus, it does not matter that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer relative to them, all that matters is that a poor person today is better off than a poor person in 1960. After all, today's poor people have cell phones and Internet access. Cell phones! Somehow what is never addressed is that the majority of people several decades ago could support a family with one income, even without an advanced degree. They could amass savings and easily purchase or even build a house. They had guaranteed pensions and their job was probably safe for life unless they chose to move on (I know, this is the story of my grandparents). Education was affordable if no-frills, and jobs were plentiful with room for advancement. Savings were positive and debts were low. Yet we’re to believe that we’re better off today because we have iPods and Facebook? As you can tell, I don’t buy it. And I don't believe payday and car title loan shops, dollar stores, casinos, and cash for gold places were quite so abundant in 1960, either.

What we are seeing is a real reduction or plateau of living standards. While it’s true that most of the gains of the twentieth century such as indoor heating, plumbing, and universal secondary education have been retained by even the very poor, in many other ways we are regressing. New electronic toys can mask the plateau in real living standards for only so long. We have clearly passed a zenith in living standards for most people and the end of a great expansion, and are now on the downward leg. How much will it accelerate? Even in the absence of an abrupt political or economic crisis, years of steady decline in living standards and shrinking government budgets may finally embed the idea of collapse in the public consciousness, causing a consensus that it is a reality, even if no one is quite sure when the bottom will be reached or how to even define a bottom.

The concept of decline seems to have lodged itself in the public’s consciousness and become a part of the zeitgeist as evidenced by the number of articles worldwide about America’s decline (and China’s rise), the popularity of books on collapse (such as Jared Diamond’s), and post-apocalyptic depictions of society in books, movies and on television such as Revolutions, The Road or The Hunger Games.

Countering this will be persistent cheerleading efforts by politicians and the corporate-owned media designed to manipulate the public’s perception of events to keep them quiescent and inflate their expectations for economic reasons. Surely, even if we cannot specifically define collapse, we can recognize when it is happening.


The term collapse is tossed around alot but it is essentially meaningless due to the Sorites Paradox. History is a continuum. If we do not define a specific event in precise terms such as a dissolution of political ties or financial crash, we cannot meaningfully speak of it except in the most generalized terms.

Collapse is more of a long-term trend than a single event. Small, incremental and localized changes often make wider trends unnoticeable for the vast majority of people. Perception filters and cultural inertia will also come into play. Often what is in actuality a collapse may just be rationalized away as the new normal, particularly by a media which is specifically designed to peddle the status quo and demonize alternatives.

Periods of brief recovery relative to a long downward slide can seem like a collapse is ending or even reversing, when in fact they are statistical blips in a long-term trend. We cannot see the future, so we do not know with absolute certainty what future periods of recovery will bring. This means that collapse, like Peak Oil, can only be seen in hindsight.

Hopefully this article has been helpful in describing why so many ideas and theories of collapse are out there, and why there is so little agreement on the topic. This is why even experts on collapse and those who have written entire books on the topic stubbornly (and smartly) refuse to specify an exact date or even give a timeframe. It also might explain why it all too often seems like collapse, like Linus' Great Pumpkin in Peanuts, so often fails to arrive when expected. In fact, the Great Pumpkin has been here all along.


  1. 600 posts. Congrats. Love this blog

  2. I don't know, have you ever actually been able to grab less than a heap of sand? In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wonder what dissertations one could blow out when pondering the paradoxical question, "When does bread become bread crumbs?"

    Don't get me wrong, I love a good satire, but I love a short one even better.

  3. How are we doing exactly? Never sure till today. Thanks for the excellent essay which gave a bigger picture sense of history and the trends around us. Makes me think of the question is the fish aware of the water around it?

  4. How do you keep cranking out all this good stuff???!!! :-)

    I noted a reference above to a smart DC grid. Have you got a reference, or have you written on it in the past? This is a very valuable essay, will pass it on.

  5. Great post. Now that I've discovered this blog, I'll have to read the earlier ones. Seems to me a nice marker event for the current Greater Depression (open-ended into the future, BTW) was the Wall Street Too-Big-to-Fail Failure and Federal Government (US taxpayer) bailout back in 2008. Now that the borrowed money is about to lose its effectiveness, we may get another step-down event. Meanwhile, all the events nicely summarized here will continue and get worse, slowly but surely. OCED countries, like the USA, fate runs along the curve of "all liquids" production. When the plateau ends, things could get worse much more rapidly. It's just how the fabric of our modern society was woven.

  6. Thanks all!

    @Justin - I'm going to remove a single word every day. At what point will I no longer have a blog post? - LOL

    @ vera - I ran across this the other day on the smart grid:

    for DC versus AC, see:

    See also:

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  8. With our infrastructure in such bad shape, and Apple now having more cash than the U.S. govt, I propose that Apple put its cash into building extensive mass-transit infrastructure in the United States. Trains, buses, high-speed rail. Fewer drivers = more passengers = more market share for the Apple's little screens. Everyone wins!

  9. Excellent! Your point-of-view helped my process so many other blogposts, essays, etc. I've read today. I think my mind was 'clogging up', and I feel you helped to flush my mind clear a bit!

    Keep up the blogging, this is a wonderful place!

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  11. Terrific post. Your message is somber but right on point.

    I strongly agree with "a media which is specifically designed to peddle the status quo and demonize alternatives. "

    If more people unplugged from corporate media and exchanged ideas on blogs such as this one, we might start to prepare for the series of step downs that looms in our future.

    Sadly ignorance is bliss.

  12. Another exquisitely descriptive post! Having recently discovered your blog, I am working my way through it, albeit somewhat randomly. I have this sense that we have lived through the golden age of the planet and now are seeing a gradual decline from the peak, and your concrete examples are a great collection of confirmations.

  13. Is orchestrated, intentional collapse really collapse? Is true collapse only an accidental thing?

    Ruthless capitalism is willing to rip up the deck planks of the steamboat to feed the wall street boiler until all of the fuel is finally used up. Profit is realized on the way up and the way down.

    Meanwhile, the Masters of Mankind are straining to maintain empire (and their slo-mo managed collapse) while desperately playing whack-a-mole to suppress new ideas trying to gain ascendance, such as Bernie Sanders' social democracy.

    The whole disintegration of the infrastructure and third worldization of America is intentional, so profits can continue to fuel Wall Street by using "austerity" to privatize the commons. This is happening throughout the western world, but most social democracies are more resilient than the US, with its paid-for political system.

    End-stage capitalism starts to employ criminal tactics, like directing political stooges in Washington to underfund programs (like the postal service), blame the government, then take it over and deliver worse service for much higher prices.

    That's not really the collapse of civilization, it's the collapse of capitalism, because every avenue of profit -- if necessary via denial and fakery of scientific studies -- must be exploited to feed Wall Street until the game's finally up.


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