Monday, March 23, 2009

What To Do When Your Civilization Collapses

Given that we in the industrialized world, and the United States in particular, now appear to be standing on the brink of the greatest civilizational collapse in at least 1600 years, how should one proceed? As I see it there are five viable options, each with its own merits and drawbacks.

1) Party Like There’s No Tomorrow

Crisis? What crisis?

This option is quite natural, and will no doubt be the default choice of a great many. Since partying on is all a lot of us know how to do at this point, why not have one last blow out, a Titanic-sized clusterfuck, an orgy-to-end-all-orgies before the ship splits in two and heads for the ocean floor? The main drawback to this option is that the ship may sink slowly, and no one can party forever, meaning that the hangover will be horrific--at least until your life reaches its merciful conclusion at the hands of the inevitable zombie cannibal hordes.

2) The Amish Option

Move to a small town, get to know your neighbors, start a vegetable garden, create a resilient community, rewind your lifestyle to around 1750. This is a popular choice for many well-meaning people, who have images of some kind of peaceful “power down” to a Renaissance Fair world of blacksmiths, goat farmers and lute players. But who are these people kidding? Anyone with an ounce of understanding of history and human nature knows that civilizational collapses never play out like this, especially not in a civilization as utterly unprepared for post-collapse life as our own. When America goes down, it will almost certainly be a violent, ugly, hellish conflagration, like every riot and Katrina-style disaster you’ve ever seen on TV happening everywhere all the time. Folks like the Amish will be sitting ducks for the desperate zombie hordes who will pour out of urban areas looking for easy targets to loot. This isn’t just a survivalist fantasy I’m afraid, but an obvious fact to anyone with their eyes open. Which brings us to the third option…

3) Run for the Hills!

A perennial favorite of the more fearfully inclined: hole up in a remote cabin or farm stocked with a ten year food supply, stable water source, guns and ammo and sit with your back to the wall awaiting the arrival of the zombie cannibal hordes. This has the added advantage of giving you at least a fighting chance of surviving a real apocalypse, such as nuclear war, supervolcano, 2012 cosmic catastrophe, etc. The problem with this scenario is that a) you’ll eventually run out of supplies b) it could get quite boring and c) to be safe from the marauding hordes and government jackboots you’ll have to go so far into the wilderness that you’ll have a hard time holding out for long unless you have the skills of a true survivalist. There aren’t many Jeremiah Johnsons left, but if you’re one of them, more power to you--the world will one day be your kingdom!

4) The Alaric Option

Has there ever been a better time to storm the capitals of this corrupt and tottering Empire?

This option is for the more ambitious among you, the would-be warlords and barbarian chiefs of the post-industrial world. Take advantage of this once-in-a-millenium opportunity to position yourself as a future Alaric, Attila or Genghis Khan and start organizing your tribe now. Think of the possibilities: coastal raiding, piracy, hijacking, seizing banks, gas stations, oil tankers, Wal-Marts--the possibilities are endless. Why should looting be confined to the bankers in pin-striped suits? Why not grab your piece of the pie now, before it has all been gobbled up by the fat cats? The biggest downside to this option is the danger of being killed or imprisoned by the still-formidable forces of the Empire. The last place you want to be at a time like this is in a FEMA camp or federal detention center. But to quote a Frenchman I've never heard of: "when we conquer without danger, our triumph is without glory." Now, if you’re too cowardly to go for glory, but still crave some kind of action, you can always...

5) Fight for the Empire

Given that socioeconomic collapse, resource wars and die-off are all but inevitable, there should be no shortage of challenging work for people in the military, national security and law enforcement apparatus of the Empire. Certainly the police and national guard will have their hands full maintaining domestic order before long, as the zombiefied masses wake up to the fact that Beverly Hills 90210 isn’t going to be anyone’s future address. On the international front, slaughtering Third-Worlders to keep your neighbors’ SUV’s gassed up isn’t the most pleasant work, but it pays the bills and may even offer some opportunities for plunder. Think of this as your chance to go out in Wagnerian style amidst the coming devastation—fire up “Ride of the Valkyries”, give a hillbilly “Yeeehawww!” and ride the bomb straight down to ground zero.

Whichever option you choose, I can’t really argue with your choice--different strokes for different folks. The only option that isn’t viable is to do nothing and assume that business as usual will continue, or that the insane state of affairs we have come to think of as "normal" will ever return. It’s a new century and a new world, falling apart fast but full of opportunities. Seize the day!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lessons of the Bronze Age Collapse

The Destruction of Troy by Jan Brueghel--coming soon to a city near you?

As I look for historic precedents for the imminent collapse of industrial civilization, I am discovering frightening parallels between our time and a surprisingly obscure previous era of apocalyptic change: the Bronze Age collapse of eastern Mediterranean civilization circa 1200 B.C.E. As Wikipedia describes it:

"As part of the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age Dark Ages, it was a period associated with the collapse of central authorities, a general depopulation, particularly of highly urban areas, the loss of literacy in Anatolia and the Aegean, and its restriction elsewhere, the disappearance of established patterns of long-distance international trade, increasingly vicious intra-elite struggles for power, and reduced options for the elite if not for the general mass of population."

Let’s see, increasingly vicious intra-elite struggles for power....check! Disappearance of long distance trade....check! Depopulation of urban areas....check! Loss of literacy....check! Collapse of central authorities....check, and given the insolvency of Western governments, soon to be checkmate!

What I find most frightening about the Bronze Age collapse is its sudden and violent nature. Here is how Wikipedia describes events in various regions of the then-civilized world:


Every site important during the preceding Late Bronze Age shows a destruction layer, and it appears that here civilization did not recover to the same level as that of the Hittites for another thousand years. Hattusas, the Hittite capital, was burned and abandoned, and never reoccupied. Karaoglan was burned and the corpses left unburied. Troy was destroyed at least twice, before being abandoned until Roman times.


None of the Mycenaean palaces of the Late Bronze Age survived, with destruction being heaviest at palaces and fortified sites. Up to 90% of small sites in the Peloponnese were abandoned, suggesting a major depopulation. The End Bronze Age collapse marked the start of what has been called the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted for more than 400 years. Other cities, like Athens, continued to be occupied, but with a more local sphere of influence, limited evidence of trade and an impoverished culture, from which it took centuries to recover.


All centres along the sea route, now being called Via Maris, from Gaza north were destroyed, and evidence shows Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Akko, and Jaffa were burned and not reoccupied for up to thirty years. Inland Hazor, Bethel, Beit Shemesh, Eglon, Debir, and other sites were destroyed. Refugees escaping the collapse of coastal centres may have fused with incoming nomadic and Anatolian elements to begin the growth of terraced hillside hamlets in the highlands region, that was associated with the later development of the state of Israel.

Similar accounts tell of destruction in Egypt, Mesopatamia, Syria and Cyprus. There are frequent mentions of attacks by “Sea Peoples”, mysterious seafaring raiders who plundered cities throughout the region and were apparently more than a match for the militaries of the time.

Modern-day "Sea People"?

Now consider some of the proposed causes of the Bronze Age Collapse and their modern parallels:

1) Migration and Raids. Modern parallels: the US immigration crisis, kidnappings in the Southwest, cross-border raids by drug traffickers, etc. Migration is expected to accelerate worldwide as climate change and economic instability drive millions of desperate people from the Third World to the First in the coming years.

2) Drought. Modern parallels: extreme drought in the American Southwest, China, Africa, India, etc. This could be the biggest global killer this century as climate change transforms large regions of the planet into inarable desert.

3) Changes in Warfare.

“new weaponry, furnished to a proto-hoplite model who were able to withstand attacks of massed chariotry, destabilized states that were based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitated an abrupt social collapse when raiders and/or infantry mercenaries were able to conquer, loot, and burn the cities.”

Modern parallels: The Global Guerillas paradigm that John Robb has written about so insightfully. From 9/11 to Hezbollah to the Somali Pirates to the Mumbai attacks to future nuclear and biological terrorism, technologically empowered non-state actors threaten to tip global civilization into long-term disorder.

4) General Systems Collapse.

"a variety of factors - including population rise, soil degradation, drought, cast bronze weapon and iron production technologies - conceivably could have combined to push the relative price of weaponry compared to arable land to a level that ultimately proved to be beyond the control of traditional warrior aristocracies."

Modern parallels: most of these factors are still present, along with the key natural resource equation of our own age: fossil fuel production. As we enter the post-peak oil world, we can expect to see economic systems based on abundant, cheap petroleum begin to fail en masse. This includes everything from electric power to transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and finance. In fact, some argue that peak oil is the underlying cause of the current financial crisis. While it hasn’t yet brought on a general collapse and loss of control by our modern-day aristocracies, the rumblings are growing louder by the day.

The overall picture then is one of a sudden descent into anarchy around 1200 B.C.E, over an entire region and across national and ethnic lines. While the precise causes are unclear, it seems reasonable to assume that a collapse on this scale was not the result of any one factor, but some combination of environmental, socio-economic, military and technological disruptions that precipitated a cascading systems failure.

When you compare the causes of the Bronze Age collapse with the confluence of catastrophes converging upon modern industrial civilization, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that we may be facing a similar fate, but this time on a global scale. Will archaeologists of the far future (assuming there are any) uncover a “destruction layer” that covers the entire globe during the early or middle years of the 21st century? Will they excavate the ruins of great ancient cities, such as Los Angeles, London, Paris and Tel Aviv, to find buildings burned and abandoned, full of corpses left unburied? Is the collapse of our own civilization already well underway, and will it culminate in the destruction of cities globally and a Dark Age that lasts for centuries?

Perhaps, but the lessons of the Bronze Age collapse aren’t all negative. For out of this turbulent period came some of the greatest stories in all of recorded history--the era of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, and the book of Exodus, with its chronicle of the birth of the kingdom of Israel. Could the death of our civilization give rise to a new Homeric or Biblical age? After Homer came the classical age of ancient Greece, followed by Rome, which of course fell to an apocalypse of its own 1600 years after the Bronze Age collapse. In fact, if we take a cyclical view of these things, it has been almost 1600 years exactly since the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths, so by my calculations another great civilizational collapse is due any day now. Are you ready for the "Industrial Age Collapse"?

Could a new Heroic Age emerge from the ashes of our own?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Doomer Prophecies: Die-Off and the Olduvai Theory

The Olduvai Theory -- note that 2012 requires no cosmic catastrophe to be an interesting year!

When I first came across the "Olduvai Theory" and "Die-Off" writings I experienced a kind of dark revelation, perhaps not unlike what others feel when reading the Bible or the Koran for the first time. For me these writings put into rational scientific language what some subconscious but perceptive part of my brain must have long suspected: that techno-industrial civilization is unstable and has no future. Richard Duncan, Jay Hanson, Perry Arnett and many others have given us a sort of gospel of doom, so horrific in its implications that we can’t expect their ideas to ever see the mainstream light of day. After reading these writings you may develop a twitch, join an apocalyptic cult, run for the hills or just read Peak Oil blogs all day; you certainly won’t remain unaffected by them if you have any kind of independent reasoning capacity.

Every self-respecting doomer is familiar with the Olduvai Theory and the Die-Off thesis, but for the uninitiated here’s a quick synopsis. The Olduvai Theory models industrial civilization as a pulse wave that follows the curve of the world’s energy production per capita. By plotting this curve using past and projected energy and population data, Richard Duncan’s model projects a rapid drop-off in standard of living that is due to start…right about now! The upshot of the theory is that our civilization will collapse back to a medieval or even Stone Age level of development within about a century, never to rise again. The Die Off scenarios of doomer guru Jay Hanson are even bleaker. His somewhat more complicated theory is derived from an understanding of hard-wired human behavior and natural energy laws, which in his view lead inevitably to environmental overshoot, conflict over resources and a massive "die-off" of as much as 99% of the human population. Hanson predicts global nuclear war within fourteen years and a century of Malthusian horror, followed by a reversion to the hunter-gatherer mean. Not exactly the “Good News” of the New Testament, now is it?

The first thing to realize about these doomer prophecies is that they are not the work of fringe religious crazies or societal failures holding cardboard signs proclaiming "the end is near." These writers are almost all middle-aged or older Western men who have been highly successful within the belly of the techno-industrial beast: businessmen, engineers, scientists, investors, futurists—in other words, exactly the same class of forward-thinking people who 50 or 60 years ago were leading the charge toward the bright technological future of nuclear rocket cars and interplanetary space colonies. In times of apparent progress and economic growth such doomers could easily be laughed off; in the current environment of economic collapse, when the shining promises of our so-called leaders are being revealed as a tissue of lies, the prophets of doom can no longer be ignored.

As one who was born and raised to be a soldier in the great upward march of progressive civilization, when I started reading the doomer prophecies I felt like a child must feel who was groomed by his tribe to be a warrior, only to be called into a council by the tribal elders upon reaching maturity and told that a cosmic catastrophe was approaching that would wipe out the tribe within twenty years. It’s a devastating feeling to realize that your whole life’s path has been predicated upon unsustainable myths and fantasies. Maybe this is what it feels like to be “born again” for some Christians, except in this case it’s more like being “dead again”. Or perhaps a better metaphor is what Dorothy and friends experienced when the curtain was pulled back on the great Wizard of Oz to reveal a frail old man.

The Oracle of Omaha, or the Wizard of Oz?

However you characterize the experience of doomer revelation, it certainly plays havoc with your personal ambitions and ability to do productive work within the techno-industrial paradigm. The urge to click your heels and escape the Land of Oz can become overwhelming, like some primordial survival instinct calling you back to a much older and more fundamental way of life. For some this urge ends in tragedy or terrorism. For others it is a wake up call that changes their lives in less drastic ways which, if repeated millions of times around the planet, may be the closest thing to a practical solution to our predicament that we have. In fact if we're very lucky, this could turn out to be the lasting value of the doomer prophecies: they may not be self-fulfilling, but self-defeating.
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