Collapse: a helpful guide for the perplexed

My previous post about so-called ‘collapse porn’ arguably demands a sequel (it should probably have been a prequel) on the definition and nature of collapse. That’s what I’ll try to do here – first with some brief definitional comments, then with a bit of context on collapse literature, and finally with some remarks for discussion on the possible causes of future social collapse.

Though it sort of undermines the purpose of this post, I’ve got to start by saying that trying to define collapse seems to me somewhat futile, in much the same way as trying to define a ‘small farm’ or of fixing and reifying any complex human construct. Maybe collapse is only truly meaningful with long historical hindsight. In my previous post, I mentioned Charlemagne, crowned emperor of Rome more than 300 years after the continuous line of Western Roman emperors had ceased. And Rome’s legacy persists in numerous ways today, more than a millennium after Charlemagne. Yet nobody would say the Roman Empire remains. How, precisely, can we define and date its end? Maybe that’s less to the point than the fact that it clearly ended.

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter, whose book The Collapse of Complex Societies I mentioned in my previous post, uses this working definition: “A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity” (p.4). Inevitably, that poses further definitional questions – what do we mean by ‘rapid’, what do we mean by ‘significant loss’ and what do we mean by ‘sociopolitical complexity’? Spurious quantification or pernickety refinement seems unlikely to illuminate these points, but perhaps it’s worth devoting a few words to ‘sociopolitical complexity’.

I’m not convinced the socio-politics that put Donald Trump in the White House or Boris Johnson in No.10 are any more complex than those that the average member of a hunter-gatherer band has had to negotiate on a daily basis down the ages – indeed, they’re probably rather less complex. But unlike such band members, Trump and Johnson nominally lead polities that thoroughly penetrate and organise the lives of many millions of people, and that involve a highly specialised and urbanised division of labour supported by the availability of cheap fossil fuels. My feeling is that some or many parts of the world will soon be in for a dose of Tainter-style collapse, with ‘rapid’ (ie. over no more than a few decades, following Tainter) and ‘significant’ loss of sociopolitical complexity, in the sense that the political centres presided over by the likes of Trump and Johnson won’t be able to organise social life across their territories to the extent they presently do, nor sustain their present specialised divisions of labour.

That, in a nutshell, is what I mean by collapse.

Now, the idea that governments like Boris Johnson’s won’t be able to sustain their geographical reach or economic specialization, thus precipitating collapse, isn’t something I intrinsically fear. In fact, I welcome it. A major reason why historical collapses are usually painted in bleak colours is because their histories are written by elites who lose most from them – by the Johnsons, shall we say, and not by the Smajes and other Pinocchio-mangling lesser folk. Historically, such underlings have often welcomed collapse. The problem is that with rapid collapse, there’s a chance that political actors worse even than Johnson, hard though that may be to imagine, may step into power. And that’s a major reason why, as per my last post, I think we should attend to the sound of the distant waterfall as the ship of state floats down the river.

I won’t attempt anything but a cursory description of the literature analysing potential collapse, though I’d be interested to hear other people’s suggestions for worthy contributions to it. Inevitably, that literature varies from the learned to the loopy. One of the cornerstones of collapse literature in modern times has been the Limits to Growth report emerging from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and first published in 1972. Despite its academic pedigree, critics have long sought to position the report as more loopy than learned, but with increasing difficulty over the years as actual trends have pretty much tracked the ones modelled by the LTG authors (see this, for example, or this). Meanwhile, various new currents of thinking have emerged around energy, climate and economic futures that take forward the ‘business as usual is not an option’ package of LTG.

A recent iteration of these debates has been prompted by Jem Bendell’s paper ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’. Bendell, a social scientist, begins his paper with an overview of findings in climate science, from which he infers the likelihood of a ‘near-term collapse in society’. Inevitably, critics have piled on various aspects of Bendell’s intervention, often citing celebrated climate scientist Michael Mann’s views on the matter. Mann described Bendell’s paper as a “perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness” in comments to Nafeez Ahmed, and then weighed in on Ahmed’s own interesting intervention as “unhelpful doomist messaging premised on poor understanding of climate science”.

I’m not fundamentally invested in Bendell or Ahmed being right, but I’m interested in the framing by Mann and those who invoke him. Mann’s understanding of climate science is surely superior to Bendell or Ahmed’s, but the focus of his comment is on ‘unhelpful doomist messaging’, which is in the realms of politics and psychology, not climate science. ‘Unhelpful’ to whom? Who should the messaging be ‘helping’, and why? What political project is compromised by ‘doomism’? And what if ‘doomist messaging’ turns out to galvanise public opinion in favour of more radical climate action?

I’d suggest that Mann’s scientific expertise lends no greater weight to his opinions on these points than to the opinions of many others, perhaps even less weight than the opinions of social scientists like Bendell and Ahmed. Actually, a sad truth of social science is that – far more than climate science – it’s really not very good at predicting anything. So while this means that the likes of Bendell probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer inevitable near-term social collapse, it also means that the likes of Mann probably aren’t on firm ground when they infer the opposite.

Talking of firm ground, research involving another celebrated climate scientist – James Hansen – suggests that sea levels may rise by as much as several metres within a century or so. With a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from its preindustrial 280ppm, average global temperature is probably set to rise, according to recent research, by 2.6-3.9 Celsius. Given the fine-tuned ‘sociopolitical complexity’ and fragile interdependencies of our modern civilization, can anyone in good faith rule out the possibility of social collapse in such circumstances? Some years ago, James Woolsey wrote that it would take an “extraordinary effort” for any country to “look beyond its own salvation” in scenarios like this. What’s interesting here is more the commenter than the comment, since Woolsey is an ex-director of the CIA, an organisation with a better track record than most at social science prediction. Doubtless this is largely because it has more power than most social scientists to turn its predictions into reality. Perhaps a presentiment of collapse is when even CIA experts throw up their hands at impending realities they can’t game their way out of.

For my part, I lack Woolsey’s crystal ball, but I’ll wrap up with a few comments for discussion on why I think it’s eminently possible that we may indeed be facing a near-term collapse in society, which I present briefly under six headings:

Economic: The present global economy is based on a model of growth that generates proportionate returns on investment. Over the last fifty years the total world economic product has grown on average by about 7% annually in real terms, standing in 2019 at about 85 trillion in constant 2010 US$. If you project that growth forwards over the next 50 years, by my calculations the global economy in 2070 will be over 30 times bigger than the present one. It seems to me pretty clear that that’s not going to happen, so the course of the global economy in the near future will be different from its course in the near past. Perhaps, looking back, future historians will describe that changed course as a collapse.

Political: In modern times, blatant inequality – more than rank poverty – fuels political turbulence. Inequalities have been getting more blatant, while politics in many parts of the world have been getting more turbulent, with the rise of various so-called populist movements, authoritarian figureheads, renewal movements and state failures. There’s a chance of declining political legitimacy and a resulting weaker reach of state power. Perhaps this could manifest in a rapid, significant loss of the established level of sociopolitical complexity. In other words, present political trends may prompt collapse.

Energetic: as I recently discussed, our present society is overwhelmingly and increasingly reliant on fossil fuels: average fossil fuel consumption per capita globally is over 1.5 tonnes of oil equivalent, and this constitutes 85% of our energy use. We need to transition out of fossil fuels, firstly (and very urgently) because they’re the main contributor to global heating, and secondly because they’re not renewable. But no transition is yet underway, and it’s hard to see how to achieve one that furnishes over 1.5 TOE per capita, especially at something similar to present energy prices. Therefore, it seems likely that in the future per capita energy availabilities will decline, along with the highly specialised and urbanised division of labour that goes with them. This could involve a rapid, significant loss of established levels of sociopolitical complexity. You know where I’m going with this, right…?

Climate: alternatively, and perhaps more likely, we might carry on relying on fossil fuels, burning our way towards 3 or 4 degrees of global heating. In this scenario, we’re talking about large sea level rises, multiple breadbasket failures, mass climate-fuelled migration, greater fire risks, greater flood risks, greater storm risks and various other related scenarios. Governments may be able to retain their territorial reach, their political legitimacy, and their ability to organise political space so as to retain established levels of sociopolitical complexity as they wrestle with these profoundly challenging issues. Then again, they may not…

Nuclear: the mutually assured nuclear destruction of the Cold War, along with its proxy conflicts, have given way in the 21st century to situations exemplified by US foreign policy in Iran, North Korea and the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq. Nuclear proliferation is clearly in an individual state’s interest as a bulwark against US military power. But globally it makes nuclear conflict more likely. Meanwhile, the disposal problem for high-level nuclear waste has been endlessly kicked down the road, seemingly because it’s too expensive even for wealthy modern states to deal with. Imagine how difficult it might be for non-wealthy states of the future wrestling with a plethora of other problems. I’m not exactly sure what the association between modern nuclear civilization and collapse might be. But I suspect it could prove quite strong.

Infectious disease pandemic: Well, we’re in one now. But unless we’re afflicted with something as or more infectious than Covid-19 and considerably more lethal, I can’t see this as an agent of collapse in and of itself. Not even the Black Death achieved that, with its vastly higher mortality. Indeed, it was arguably a source of social renewal. Then again, the Black Death afflicted societies that didn’t have a highly urbanised and specialised division of labour, and where a large portion of the population produced their own subsistence. I doubt modern societies would be so resilient in the face of such a pandemic, which may indeed cause a rapid and significant loss of sociopolitical complexity in them.

But probably the main way in which a pandemic may work as an agent of collapse – indeed, the main way in which all of the factors mentioned above might – would be as one part of a multifactorial story. Economic decline plus political disorder plus failed energy transition plus global heating plus new health challenges (let’s not even mention nuclear issues) might easily, to borrow Michael Mann’s phrase, create a perfect storm prompting sociopolitical collapse. To rule this possibility out of our reckonings about the future seems to me a case of futurological cherry-picking or selective messaging that I can only describe as…unhelpful.

84 thoughts on “Collapse: a helpful guide for the perplexed

  1. I guess my issue with the collapse narrative is that it sounds overly negative. If what is meant is something more like “a major societal change” then why not frame it more positively? The other issue I have is the suggestion that it’s “inevitable”. You say

    And what if ‘doomist messaging’ turns out to galvanise public opinion in favour of more radical climate action?

    If this were the case, I’d be less opposed to the “doomist messaging”. However, it often seems to be framed as if there’s nothing we can do to avoid catastrophe, rather than as a call to more urgent action. I quite liked Ketan Joshi’s recent article where he says:

    The very concept of ‘too late’ is a major misunderstanding of climate science. It is a “slope we slide down”, not a cliff we slipped off.

    • There is a huge ammount of normalcy bias , we are past time arguing about wether its happening or not ,farmers and ranchers are at the blunt end be it covid or weather we see production dropping , go look around the world at weather related crop damage , it reminds me of the story of the bishops in constantinopal arguing about the number of angels that can dance in the head of a pin while the moslem armies took the city .
      Round here thousands of head of beef cattle are awating slaughter , no where open to process them , eating their heads off , no money to feed them , no money to pay for anything including taxes and beef prices doubled in the shops , ranchers have stopped breeding their cattle so a year down the road there will be sortages .
      the question is not global warming , its what you are going to eat ? living in a ivory tower echo chamber does not insulate you from the REAL world , hyping the hot weather while ignoring the cold is the greatest humanitarian disaster the world will ever see the time of I am right and you are wrong is past

      • What do you mean by “arguing about whether its happening or not”? Do you mean, arguing about whether or not climate change is happening, or arguing about whether or not the inevitable societal collapse is happening? My issue with the inevitable societal collapse narrative is that, in my view, it implies that there is nothing/little we can do to avoid it, or to limit the impact. I just don’t think this is true. By and large, we (collectively) are doing this, and we can do things to influence the outcome. It may not be easy, but I do think that a “societal collapse is inevitable” narrative is not very helpful.

        • Yes the climate is changing , and its too late to do anything about it arguing about it is pointless ,on the ground the problems have allready started and it aint polar bears thats the problem its FOOD and its being ignored by the MSM , they are stuck in the ” theres trouble ahead ” well its here NOW , 30 million chickens slaughtered and buried , 600,000 pigs slaughtered and buried cattle not so much yet but its coming as the feed runs out , a million tonnes of seed potatoes distroyed , all human food all gone what the hell are we goung to eat ? , China has lost 1/2 to 2/3 rds of its pigs to fever and now its drowned its main cerial crops , Australia grew 2/3 of a normal crop this year , I could go on ,
          Sociatal colapse is three missed meals away , society is badly fractured , they are willing to riot in the Uk over a guy killed in the USA , man will there be trouble when Tesco’s has empty shelves .

          • My heart goes out to all the farmers going through this terrible collapse of their industry. What you are describing is the failure of industrialized agriculture because of a pandemic that closed schools and restaurants. CAFO’s supply cheap food to the market…at a cost in environmental damage. The warnings were on the wall but most farmers kept trying to win a rigged game. The sad thing is that the corporations that have profited from this system for decades will use bankruptcy and reorganization and still come out ahead. The losers will be the farmers, the communities where they live, and most Americans who can’t afford rising food prices.

            What cannot be sustained will not be sustained and when it cannot continue it fails. We can warn people of the ramifications of failure but if they won’t change, if they double down on a losing game, they will suffer the consequences.

            I think most of the people who read Chris’s blog support small, sustainable farmers. My hope is that all the farmers can find a way to recreate agriculture….assuming they can survive and still hold onto their land.

        • “societal collapse is inevitable” is an over generalization. It should be looked at as a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. In reality, people will be impacted by failures differently. For example, the economic shut down due to COVID-19 affected my family differently. Three of the four of us could still work, one could not. My family also has the financial ability to help the one who lost his job.

          We are likely to soon witness millions of Americans lose their home as foreclosure and evictions unfold. We are likely to read about bankruptcies. We are witnessing a failure of our system, but it will impact us differently. Those who have little debt, who can feed themselves, who can help their children…will recover more easily. This is what is meant by resilience.
          If we want to survive the trials and tribulations of life we need to work towards resiliency, as opposed to our current economic system that relies on global supply chains and corporate control over goods and services.

  2. Here is an example of collapse
    This is a major city , what would a small farmer do if this was in his comunity ?
    Weather not climate change will reveal the outcome of the future read the first few stories here
    or here
    China has cleared Brazil out of Soy bean and bought large ammounts of corn , they are buying large quantities from their enemy, the US market , there are rumblings of ration cards in the UK , it only takes one frost at the wrong time to distroy a years crop production , I lived in the UK a long time I never heard of frost in july , or norway digging out after a blizard .
    Everything is about covid , burying / ignoring the crop losses that the world is enduring from the news bulk carriers are why there is no starvation now but the crop losses are working their way thru there will be nothing for them to carry .
    Instead of predicting the climate fifty years hense we neet to know where the hell the jet stream will be during the growing season so we have an idea what to plant , its instability pulling cold air south and warm air north is causing havoc with crop production ,Russia / Ukraine feed the middle east yet their crops look lousy , the emergency is NOW not fifty years down the road , if crop failure carries on as it is there will be few left to worry about global warming .

    • I did a quick check of the sources you suggested we read and all three of them are highly questionable sources of information.
      PJ media “A questionable source exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, consistent promotion of propaganda/conspiracies, poor or no sourcing to credible information, a complete lack of transparency and/or is fake news.”
      Electroverse is the work of a climate change denier funded by fossil energy companies.
      Ice age is categorized as “quackery”.

      Perhaps you might consider reading better sources of information, particularly if you want to spread it.

      • yup they have bias , of course they do , just as the NYT Google also have bias , normalcy bias ,
        move in nothing to see here everything will be OK , reading between the lines used to be tinfoil hat country , now not so much , Pravda versus the financial times . Dont take what either side publishes as wrote , make your own mind up after reading both sides of the argument and there are many , the NYT are still beating the anti Sweden no lock down that has the lowest death rate in the developed world , Denmarks met office says there is no ice loss on Greenland , ( its their teritory / country they should know why believe NASSA with their remote sensing versus the guy slogging round on the ice ) totaly ignored as herrasy , Big oil ( whose days are numbered and they know it look at their investment in new resources ) , versus the green new world that will turn the westerners into medieval pesants ,( ya think even the uk can generate enough electricity to replace oil / replace every cable in the country to carry the load ? just turn oil derived killowatts into electric derived killowatts ) . Aint happening .
        Small farmers are the way BUT mega grocery stores are not , thats how most people shop , , they will not buy small ammounts or even talk to small producers , Wall mart dont want fifty cattle from me they want a thousand a day , same with all the goods in every grocery store in the west !

        • When you read sources of information that are highly biased, intentionally written to ellicit an emotional response, and generally provide false or unproven information the result is confusion, anger, and partisanship. Your style of communication appears to resemble a rant more than a thoughtful, well articulated argument.
          There is bias and then there is extremism, fake news, conspiracy theories, and quackery. I find it helpful to read information published by scientists. When I search a topic I include “scholarly articles” in the search. With respect to media sources I look for those that are known to have minimal bias with a high degree of accuracy, who provide sources for their information so I can check for myself.
          Both Reuters News and Associated Press fall into this category. You can always check a media source here.

          “These sources have minimal bias and use very few loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes). The reporting is factual and usually sourced. These are the most credible media sources.”

        • I also want to point out that the New York Times is good source of information. Yes, their bias is left of center but this is far from the left wing extremism that they are often portrayed to have by right wing extremists.

          “Overall, we rate the New York Times Left-Center biased based on word and story selection that moderately favors the left, but highly factual and considered one of the most reliable sources for news information due to proper sourcing and well-respected journalists/editors. The failed fact checks that occurred were on Op-Ed’s and not straight news reporting.”

          • the nyt has just had an editor resign because of mysogany and bullying they ran wholeheartidly with the steele fantasy about trump since the election , that has just been destroyed in the uk high court where steele admitid his document was fiction under oath ,
            the nyt is Pravda in disguise .

        • Another example of media that is questionable. “Questionable based on Extreme Right Bias, promotion of propaganda, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.”

          • buying elections questionable ? down here in te boonies at the last election the proposed democrat standing admited he had recieved $50 000 for his party from a soros backed group , normal election spending here does not exceed $5000 ,
            Nyt ran with the hot not the revised numbers
            We both agree something has to happen BUT what , blaming the oil companies is pointless , fining oil companies is pointless , what if exxon limited the ammount you could buy ? the wails would destroy any government that agreed to it . Have you ever seen the BBC say turn off the telly and go to bed ? no they have multipal channels running 24/7 to keep people out of bed , time they put their money where their mouth is and close at midnight , or anyone even thinking of closing down the net af 11pm , cutting energy use is the primary problem , pointing fingers at hot days / weeks gets us nowhere .

  3. I believe in multifactor reasons for collapse, also because many of them are related, economy, energy, climate and inequality for example. In addition, I think societies’ responses to challenges may by themselves aggravate the issues instead of bridging them because societies are in denial of the true reasons. Which is why people go for technological solutions to climate and energy crisis instead of adjustment to a new reality.

    Covid 19 is an interesting case in point where the measures taken to combat the disease most likely cause more harm than the disease itself. In addition the acceptance by the public of severe infringements on civil and human rights with a war time rhetoric, doesn’t bode well.

    • just as a side , my county has 7 sheriff deputies now down to five after retirement , it has advertised for replacements LOCALY and had over 200 applications from officers in NY Detroit Chicago Seattle and other parts north in the riot zones , we are a bit bemused how they found out about jobs in the boonies .

  4. Richard Heinberg’s recent article (24 July) looks at the underlying psychological role of denial, which shows up in different forms, and to varying degrees, in the Deep Adaptation controversy.

    “Knowledge of death creates a psychological conflict between our self-preservation instinct and our knowledge of our own eventual demise, and we as a species have gone to great lengths to overcome that conflict… As a result, denial has become a deeply entrenched human capacity… Over time, our denial muscle strengthened—and it has arguably done so especially in recent decades, as a great collective death via nuclear war or climate change has become a distinct possibility.”

    Heinberg also points out that “perhaps a couple of billion poor people around the globe are already experiencing many of the horrors that are likely to follow in the wake of the collapse of modern industrial societies… These people, whose plight is likely to worsen, don’t have the luxury of sitting back and philosophizing about the future; they spend each day doing what’s necessary to survive, which sometimes means fighting back against the forces of capitalist exploitation, which usually coincide with the major causes of climate change.”

    • Thank you for the reference to Heinberg’s post. I usually read Resiliance every day (but only after SFF, of course), but missed that one due to recent hurricane preparations.

      The comment section broke down into the usual two camps: some people, including me, opt for family and community scale prepping-for-collapse as our highest priority and others think that concerted political action to avert collapse should be the highest priority.

      I think the second camp is far more popular than it should be simply because, for most people who live in cities, the only choice is political action. There is not much in the way of real preparation that an urbanite can do.

      There may actually be a third camp. Those who see collapse as nearly inevitable but who decline to do much to enhance their chances of surviving collapse or even do anything in the way of political action and concentrate instead on a graceful acceptance of doom. “Deep adaptation” as therapy.

      That’s OK, I guess, but I’d rather take the path prescribed by Dylan Thomas and concentrate on living:

      “Do not go gentle into that good night,
      Old age should rage and burn at close of day;
      Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

  5. societies’ responses to challenges may by themselves aggravate the issues

    Indeed! My biggest fear is that a gradual breakdown of resource availability, even prior to effects from severe climate change, will lead to inter-state conflict. When lots of little wars break out it will not take too much for them to turn into bigger wars and perhaps a nuclear war. I have yet to hear from anyone how modern civilization is going to be able to survive a major nuclear war.

    Covid 19 is an interesting case in point where the measures taken to combat the disease most likely cause more harm than the disease itself

    There are plenty of cases where the measures taken to combat the disease were far less harm than the disease itself. Just consider China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam as examples. The ideal scenario is to keep the case rate so low that new cases can be kept at a very low level by contact tracing and isolation, which is just what these countries did. Except for China, which was first to experience the disease, all of these countries kept their economies running at close to normal levels.

    And there are plenty of cases where half measures were taken to combat the disease resulting in damage from the disease spreading to the economy as the pandemic progresses. I’m thinking of countries like the US, Brazil and perhaps India.

    The UK tried to follow in Sweden’s footsteps and then chickened out when the deaths got to be too many. Just letting the disease run rampant will quickly result in a much higher death rate as medical facilities get overwhelmed with cases. We’ll probably see plenty of “run rampant” situations as time goes on. I doubt that those countries will revel in their lack of measures.

    There is a whole spectrum of options to combat the pandemic, but it has become clear to me that “early and hard” attacks on chains of transmission works out the best. I’d take Taiwan’s measures over other countries’ any day (including Sweden).

      • OK Joe, I think I drop the covid 19 discussion here as it risks diverting the discussion too much from the post.

        The bigger question I tried to address was that societies might be unable to manage various challenges and create bigger problems than the one they wanted to tackle…..

        • Absolutely. The challenges facing modern civilization (the rich world) are virtually insurmountable. I expect our attempts to manage them will end in failure and, as you suggest, might easily result in even bigger problems.

          One of the big reasons I expect failure is the “free-rider” problem, which Chris didn’t mention in his “Political” section, but which will make slowing down the growth juggernaut very unlikely. Any nation that decides to get serious and rapidly reduce its resource consumption (and pollution emissions) will only make those resources cheaper and more accessible for those countries that pursue growth.

          To really tackle the various challenges facing us requires a globally organized approach, with collective sanctions against those who try to be free riders and avoid making the difficult decisions needed to mitigate our problems. Unfortunately, as tensions rise between the larger economies of the world, mostly due to the intransigence of the US and, to a lesser extent, China, the spirit of global cooperation is getting weaker and may disappear altogether. Lack of cooperation greatly enhances geopolitical dangers and makes an eventual collapse even more certain.

          As to Covid19: I agree that a detailed discussion of public health mitigation strategy is a distraction and I apologize for my part in it.

          I do think it is too early to tell whether this pandemic will precipitate or catalyze collapse. It doesn’t look like it now, but we are still in the early stages; supply chain collapses may be lurking just around the corner. We should know in a year or so.

          In the meantime it gives us a taste of what even a modest challenge can do to disrupt things. Far bigger challenges are waiting in the wings. If we can’t manage this pandemic, I wonder how we can manage the really big problems Chris listed.

  6. Chris, my favorite book on collapse is still “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization” by Thomas Homer-Dixon. Wikipedia describes it well: “The book sets out a theory of the growth, crisis, and renewal of societies. The world’s converging energy, environmental, and political stresses could cause a breakdown of national and global order. Yet there are things we can do now to keep such a breakdown from being catastrophic. And some kinds of breakdown could even open up extraordinary opportunities for creative, bold reform of our societies, if we are prepared to exploit these opportunities when they arise.”
    I still think the message of this book is still important because Homer-Dixon explains very clearly on how complex systems naturally reach a point where they need to reduce complexity…regroup and rethink. It is the natural order of how systems work. We don’t need to argue, point fingers or assign blame. We simply need to recognize our weaknesses and change them. But we can’t wait forever to change because when the systems (i.e. complexity) we rely on fail without back up and redundancy, the results can cascade in unexpected ways making renewal increasingly more difficult.

  7. Thanks for the comments and references – some I’m aware of, others less so … more reading.

    A complexity in discussing collapse is that while it’s widely regarded as an unremittingly negative outcome, many of us who are unenthusiastic about the present global political economy see it more as a mixed blessing, or a mixed curse. One problem we have in raising the issue of collapse is the deep cultural attachment of our times to a narrative of inevitable and unalloyed improvement and progress.

    Regarding messaging in relation to some of …and Then There’s Physics’ points, I guess if the break-it-to-them-gently approach had yielded adequate action on climate I’d find it easier to concede the dangers of excessive doomism, but it seems to me that the gentle approach itself has been paralyzing. Maybe one lesson of Covid-19 – whatever one’s views on appropriate strategy – is that people can be willing to take radical action if the need for it is presented to them appropriately. All I’m advocating really is for the possibility of collapse to be within the Overton window – one strand of cultural response to our times that we’re able to look at squarely.

    Regarding metaphors of cliffs and slopes, speaking as a sometime mountaineer who’s gone down a few slopes in his time (sometimes slowly and in control, other times not so much ) I’d say it’s a difference of degree and not kind. Where the metaphor perhaps breaks down is that it’s usually possible to get back up a slope or a cliff somehow, whereas history doesn’t quite work like that (the species that have gone extinct, the cultural ideologies that have been forged in the fire etc.) Bear in mind too that collapse isn’t only about climate change, but also about socio-political outcomes with their own path dependencies.

    In terms of Joe’s distinctions between individual/community prepping and political action, wouldn’t it be interesting if mainstream politics geared itself to assisting individual/community-level adaptation and resilience? I suspect there are some lessons in the improbability of that course.

    Steve L’s points via Richard Heinberg about the global poor are another important context. For many people, collapse is an ongoing experience – the way they try to build autonomies from the systemic forces ranged against them is going to be critical to how the future unfolds.

    And thanks for the various other interesting comments. Many points of interest.

    • Chris,
      Thanks. I agree with your point about the break-it-to-them gently approach not having been particularly effective. However, it also seems that the more doom-laden approaches provide effective targets for the likes of Shellenberger, Lomborg, Ridley, etc and their narratives certainly seem to appeal to quite a lot of people (unfortunately).

      One thing I do think, though, is that the robust scientific messages have been effective in some sense. We do have a remarkable level of global agreement about this issue. I accept that this hasn’t translated into particularly effective action, but I’m not convinced that being more extreme in the narrative will suddenly do so.

      What I will add is that where we could do better is carefully highlighting some of the worst case outcomes. Some of what is presented by what I would regard as the excessively doom-laden narrative are certainly possible outcomes. My issue is that they’re often presented as inevitable, rather than as possible if we don’t do something to avoid them.

      I do think that carefully discussing these could help to motivate action, especially if it is done in a way that makes it more difficult to be misinterpreted by the self-professed Lukewarmers.

  8. I’ll leave another quick comment that I probably won’t have time to return to and defend (seems to have been my operating model on your last few posts).

    I found your comparison of socio-political complexity in different societies interesting. It reminded me of a conclusion I came to after reading David Graeber’s “Debt: The Last 5,000 years” and Yuval Noah Harari “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” in quick succession. Both pop social science, but they did make me think. Varoufakis’ “The Global Minotaur” was probably around the same time period.

    Anyway, what I realised is that empires (or societies) need an organising logic: a social contract that allows people to act socially – i.e. to cooperate. I don’t mean act in socialist ways, just to achieve the division of labour and specialisation that is the basis for any society. So far, so trivial. What I found fascinating is that the simpler the organising logic is, the easier it is form a large, complex society.

    Our modern globalised society organises itself through the simple belief in the US dollar and the international financial system which is based on it. It doesn’t require any further common beliefs other than the belief in the value of a US dollar. I don’t need to speak the same language, or even to have any awareness of the broader culture of cash crop farmers in Guatemala for example, to purchase cocoa that they have grown. So far, that’s mainly Harari’s ideas. Graeber simply reinforces the point by examining the underlying threat of violence against anyone who opposes the hegemony of the US-based financial system.

    In boom times, it’s easier to be a small, poor player in a large empire with extreme division of labour than to be a subsistence farmer. In times of crisis (or collapse), the balance of benefits shifts.

  9. “This could involve a rapid, significant loss of established levels of sociopolitical complexity. You know where I’m going with this, right…?”

    While Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America” , written in 1977, still reflects the continued urbanization of the populace, enabled by the industrialization of agriculture.

    I think I see the earliest signs of the resettling of America. Further increase of this trend will be a result and a necessary response to the “decomplexifing” of America and the other wealthy nations. Food is paramount, and as global supply chains and commodity markets wither and decentralize, we will return to human scale ag.

    As cheap energy wanes, more human labor inputs and shorter supply lines from field to table means we will be moving to a Small Farm Future.

    The path to that future might be rational and planned, with facilitation from the political sphere, but at this point it looks like it will be organic, random responses to unworkable cities and desperation.

    Many aspects of collapse do not perplex me. Kind of like Justice Stewart and pornography- hard to describe, but I know it when I see it. : )

    We are like any other organism responding to a source of energy, and will go on exploiting it till we can’t. I wonder how much DNA we share with that of yeast floating happily in a sugar solution?

    What does perplex me is trying to figure out the best personal actions to take, as the breakdown can result in surprising impacts. Covid 19 introduced TP hoarding, who would have guessed? We are currently preserving from our garden, so I went to buy some more canning lids, and everyone in town was sold out. Were there many brand new gardeners? Were past gardeners increasing storage? Were there supply disruptions? Was it all three? It made me think that I need to stop assuming BAU, and consider that it could possibly become like 1990s Russia for a while, till things readjust and balance (hopefully).

    • canning lids , canning jars , freezers , for some reason electric fense wire , aint complexity wonderfull .

  10. The “collapse” debate often polarizes to “catastrophic collapse is imminent” versus “collapse will be avoided because technology” or “collapse, if it happens, is hundreds of years away.”

    It would be better to take a risk-assessment approach. Risk = likelihood x consequences. Chris lays out some important dimensions where it is plausible that “collapse,” or let’s say, serious dislocations with frightening consequences, could unfold over the next few decades (I refer to the time period as, “on our watch.”).

    Obviously the consequences would be pretty massive and would likely lead to serious suffering by an awful lot of people (and ecosystems).

    So unless someone thinks the likelihood of collapse or major calamity on the timescale in question has essentially zero probability, it makes sense to allocate substantial effort and resources to contingency planning, preparation, down-shifting and shifting away from unsustainable systems (e.g. fossil fuel dependence).

    Allocating those efforts and resources would incur some short- and medium- term opportunity costs compared with continuing full-steam ahead on BAU. But, again, I don’t think it would be hard to make the case that it would be totally worth it. Worst case in hindsight, we were too conservative and cautious and end up over-prepared, and/or prepared too early.

    Given that our society seems to usually be reactive (moving after a crisis) rather than proactive (e.g., applying the precautionary principle), I doubt we’ll find ourselves too prepared or prepared too much in advance.

  11. Only time to comment briefly on a few threads from above.

    …And then there’s physics: as I see it more or less ANY position one takes on environmental issues becomes a target for Shellenberger et al, unless it aligns completely with their own, and trying to soft pedal to keep them onside is at best a hiding to nothing, more likely an easy concession they don’t deserve that rules out discussion of feasible scenarios. The question of why they’re not able to entertain a range of possible future outcomes and why their “nothing to see here” rhetoric is popular becomes interesting, and takes us into realms of culture-history that go far beyond scientific messaging. Why, for example, is the kind of position staked out above by Josh such anathema to them? For me, it’s not a case of being more ‘extreme’ in the narrative, but of calling it as I see it and expecting a place at the debating table. I don’t think such positions are more ‘extreme’ than Shellenberger’s – it seems generous to even call him a lukewarmer these days. I agree that simply insisting collapse outcomes are inevitable is unwise, but I think it’s worth appreciating why a significant minority of folks do think this – largely because of the deep cultural inertia that Shellenberger and his ilk exemplify.

    Joshua – interesting points. I agree – simpler organising logic, though complex organisation to underpin its realisation. And hence many contemporary problems. BTW I haven’t really read Harari, but calling Graeber’s ‘Debt’ pop social science is a bit harsh!

    Like Steve C, I think I also see early signs of ‘resettling’. I want to do everything I can to support them. And yeah it’s funny the things people hoard. In my case lockdown saw me doubling up my spark plug order for the various small machines on the farm…

    Thanks also for the debate on sources and political bias. I don’t think I’m going to weigh in on that right now. Possibly I’ll have some things to say at a future date. But please, no more links to Breitbart articles about George Soros on this site. I mean, I suppose if it was balanced up with a discussion of the Koch brothers. Actually no, it’s still too much of a trope…

    • Ok, ok. Possibly a bit harsh. I just remember reading some convincing critiques of Graeber by other anthropologists (which I can’t find right now, nor can I remember their main thrust) and decided to treat his work with a pinch of salt…

      To be fair, I think the label “pop social science” applies more to Harari. His discussion of history is very present-centric – everything led up to where we are now…

      • If you do locate the critiques of Graeber, I’d be interested in a reference. I guess anyone who tries to write a history of the world over the last 5,000 years opens themselves up to academic critique from specialists. Perhaps one point for discussion is the way that we tend to elevate specialism and fine empirical particularity as superior kinds of knowledge in our culture…which perhaps is a contributory factor to the various nightmare scenarios under discussion above. Though saying that, Britain seems to be largely run by people with degrees in PPE from Oxford… Anyway, generally I find Graeber a thought-provoking guide to our perplexing world, but I guess it’s wise to treat everyone’s work with a pinch of salt.

        I read a newspaper article by Harari heralding his first book, which I thought was OK but susceptible to the critique you mention. It didn’t entice me into reading his book, but it’s certainly been popular … perhaps arising from the same presentist ideology that afflicts ecomodernism and capitalist self-congratulation.

  12. I’m going to criticize my own post and say, “yeah dude but what world are you living in?”

    Sure it would make a lot of sense to take a risk-based approach, but what indication is there that we, as a culture, would indulge in that kind of common sense activity?

    There is actually, believe it or not, a pretty durn good news program about US politics on you tube called Rising. Their nominally right-of-center host interviewed Shellenberger recently, and Shellenberger’s responses were remarkably substance-free even in this softball setting. I have, since-forever, thought the “eco-modernists” were completely full-of-it apologists for growth and the status quo, but there is seriously nothing behind his vapid responses in this interview and I presume the book he’s flogging as well.


    This is all a demonstration that, if you are putting forth ideas congruent with the “deep cultural inertia” they can be really flimsy and shabby and still garner success and popularity (and make you money). The standards are way higher, and sometimes it even seems impossible, to put into consideration and action things that run countercurrent but are actually way smarter and more beneficial.

    That’s a downer note to end on, but obviously there are a lot of other people who get what I am talking about on this blog and all over. Can we form a critical mass to start subverting things in helpful directions? Rather than argue with words against Shellenberger and his ilk I’d prefer to make them obviously absurd and obsolete by creating practical attractive working alternatives. Is that a strategy that could work?

    • I’d prefer to make them obviously absurd and obsolete by creating practical attractive working alternatives. Is that a strategy that could work?

      That’s the only strategy that will work. And the best “practical working alternative” is to become a small farmer. The next best would be to learn the skills of small farming so you’ll have a chance to work on one when that become the main “alternative”.

    • critical mass , theres the problem , we allowed TPTB close farmers markets yet keep WM open , theres the critical mass problem in a nutshell .

  13. “deep cultural inertia”


    I live in a small city surrounded by agricultural land. I am going to make a wild guess and say that my county is net-zero, more or less with import/export of food calories. Which involves much burning of fossil fuels, of course…

    But as I wander around town, and chat with my friends and neighbors and coworkers, I meet very few people who have much contact, or interest in the material world of producing the material substance that we live on. Everyone is nervous, edgy about the future, but nobody seems much interested in the practical matters of how much stuff has to be hauled around to make food and shelter happen.

    This is doubtless a consequence of the division of labor in our complex society, but the current situation is that everyone more or less assumes that our needs are met out of thin air – if we have enough money. Even the people who actually know how to do useful things like the old redneck farmers and the working-class welders still rely on a century of infrastructure and capital equipment, and if they can’t just go get another tank of diesel, they’ll be up the creek.

    People may worry in an abstract way about the power shutting off one day, but nobody gives any thought to the full meaning of those 200 rail cars of coal that arrive at the local power plant every week. Myself included.

    I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a community where we had to take full responsibility for meeting our own needs. It is just too different from everything we have experienced for the last 80 years in the US. And there is no way to go back to how it was before this energy bubble. All I can guess is that all of the bullshit jobs (like my own) will go away, we will all be much poorer, and things will be a lot different.

    But it seems that the first huge hurdle is for some large portion of the public to wake up and realize that the material world actually matters. If people put even a fraction of the energy they devote to arguing about politics, or whatever social situation instead toward learning useful skills, I would be much more optimistic. I am not seeing much of that yet – maybe a glimmer.

    This: “practical attractive working alternatives”

    • Well said. And I agree with focusing ‘practical attractive working alternatives’. Perhaps a problem is that it’s hard to be fully ‘alternative’ in any society, and certainly in our contemporary society, which opens us up to objections of hypocrisy, free-riding etc.

      • Nail on the head .
        which iss freeloading , shuffling paper and making millions of paper / fiat money out of thin air , or growing your own potatoes ?
        the world has it assbackwards .

    • And there is no way to go back to how it was before this energy bubble.

      Actually, there will be no way to avoid going back to how it was before this energy bubble. The real question is: how many people are already back, how many will go back, and how many will die?

      The answer depends on how far the distance to “back” is in one’s neighborhood and daily life. For those millions of poor subsistence farmers in the world it’s not very far and going back is relatively easy.

      For the rest, it’s going to be very traumatic. The only “way” for them to go back is to get as close to “back” as they can before the need arises. Most people who have never done anything to provide for their own subsistence have no idea how long and steep the subsistence learning curve is.

      Those poor subsistence farmers that most people pity (for being stuck with grinding out a livelihood for themselves every day with backbreaking work in the fields) are really the fortunate ones. They have acquired a wealth of knowledge from a lifetime of participating in, and learning the intricacies of, procuring food, shelter and water with their own hands. They have the skills. They can live directly from the resources of the natural world; they can live without money. Those that can’t live without money will soon be in deep trouble.

  14. ” Those that can’t live without money will soon be in deep trouble.”

    Amen, brother.

    And yes, we will be going back, but not to how it was. Worse.

    The fish are gone. The old-growth forests are gone. Maybe as much as half of the topsoil is gone. Thousands of miles of good farmland have been paved over.
    And there are (at least) twice as many of us.

    With the pandemic, I have been saying: ‘Anyone who claims to know anything for certain is only demonstrating their ignorance.’
    Maybe that holds for a bunch of other topics too, like the future…

  15. Perhaps I am an incurable optimist on these matters, and feel free to shoot my arguments down…

    I fully concur with the sentiments of commentor Eric F that “If people put even a fraction of the energy they devote to arguing about politics, or whatever social situation instead toward learning useful skills…”

    The whole internet space is occupied by people like me dropping by to type out a complaint of one form or another. Having been over the years involved to a greater or lesser degree with the academic system I’m viscerally aware of the distinction between “talking/writing about doing stuff,” and “actually doing stuff.”

    The postulate for optimism I wish to make is that surely there is a substantial number of people out there possessing a temperament such that they are just going ahead and doing the stuff we’re talking about but aren’t represented online because they have no patience for this kind of bullshit. They’re not bothered with worrying about their online presence. So who we hear from are mostly the complainers who aren’t doing anything themselves and this biases our impression towards pessimism.

    If so, it won’t be nearly as bad as the eco-catastrophists claim, just like it won’t be as utopian as the neoliberal pro-growth apologists (Shellenbergeristas?) claim.

    “We’re just here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is” ….an apocryphal statement attributed to Kurt Vonnegut’s son in conversation with his dad. Can anyone improve on that? I can’t.

    • Participants at SFF who are actually doing something relevant to farming and food production: Me; Chris, of course; Michelle; Clem; Diogenese. There may well be many more. Doing and commenting aren’t mutually exclusive. For me, commenting is just a pleasant hobby. I have no illusions that it will effect even the slightest change in the real world.

      On the other hand, you are right that it is impossible to know how many people are “actually doing stuff” but who never participate in on-line discussion. I suspect it’s the vast majority even in the rich world. But that number (in the rich world) is so small as to be almost irrelevant. In the US, 82.5% of the population lives in an urban setting. Most of the rest commute into a city. Only 1.3% of the population are farmers and most of them are industrial farmers. Industrial farmers have plenty of skills, but how many of them are relevant to life after a collapse of industrial farming I can’t say.

      The places where the vast majority of people are actually living in ways that prepare them for the collapse of industrial civilization are poor countries with lots of small farms. Many of those small farmers have smart phones, but I doubt that they are often used to comment on the vulnerabilities of folks in industrialized countries. For peasants in poor countries, I am certain that, as you note, “it won’t be nearly as bad as the eco-catastrophists claim”. Indeed, unless there is a lot of nuclear fallout, they may not even notice when industrial civilization collapses.

      It’s the people in the rich world, whose lives are totally dependent on the smooth functioning of global supply chains for everything they need to live that need to ponder their vulnerable situations. They should know that there are unlikely to be a sufficient number of rural preppers out there who are willing or able to ride to their rescue (or take them under their wing) when things get tough.

      The best line I remember about this kind of situation was from a homesteader/prepper who was asked by a city-dwelling friend if he could join them in the country and get ready for collapse together. The response? “Sure, come on out. Bring a goat”.

  16. Chris,

    It seems to me that there ar a number of people here in the UK & elsewhere whowould like to go ‘back to the land’ if they could.

    Any suggestion as to numbers?

  17. As someone who spends an awful lot of time online writing about doing stuff, I suppose I feel the need to push back just a little against Josh’s comment. While I agree with Joe above that “Most people who have never done anything to provide for their own subsistence have no idea how long and steep the subsistence learning curve is” I’d nevertheless suggest that the biggest obstacles we face aren’t actually doing the stuff, but creating the politics, the institutions and the stories that help rather than hinder people from doing the stuff.

    I started writing this blog partly because I was interested in discussing and analysing the best ways of ‘doing stuff’ and partly because I came to realise very tangibly as I tried to make my farm work that there were some big stories and structures abroad in the world that made its success unlikely, however skilled I was at doing the stuff. Over time, the focus has drifted more to the politics and less to the practicalities, as I’ve increasingly come to think that the former is the real stumbling block.

    Though I’d agree that *just* talking is problematic, both talking and doing are deeply inscribed in the human spirit, and I don’t accord greater priority to one or the other. One aspect of talking, though, is responding to other people, and I fear I’ve spent too much time on this blog responding to counter-ideologies to the ones I want to develop, of the kind that in my previous post I called business-as-usual porn. So an aspect of doing that I want to develop more in the future is creating for myself – through talk – a more positive and rounded worldview, a small farm spirituality, perhaps. I’d see this as a part of what Josh earlier called ‘practical alternatives’.

    Apologies if that reaction seems too defensive. Talking has become a big part of what I do… But ultimately I agree we have to invest the talk with practice.

    To John’s comment – sorry, no, I have no idea as to numbers. What I will say is that when I first went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference about ten years ago, I was in rooms with a few tens of people who were mostly older than me. Whereas now it’s hundreds of people who are mostly younger than me … and not just because I’m ten years older. Of course, land prices and the planning system here are major impediments to people going ‘back to the land’. Now that Boris Johnson is talking about ‘build, build, build’, we’ll just have to try and make sure that we build the right things in the countryside.

  18. Damned if we collapse, damned if we don’t… or should that be doomed?
    I always thought Vonnegut’s ‘just be kind’ advice was good enough.
    As for typing about it versus actually doing it, there’s a healthy space for both. Not everyone has to farm, remember (now that could be truly dystopian!)… but for anyone thinking of trudging the path to embracing landwork, you can always start small, which may be the only way in at first. On a good year from the garden we might only produce all our year’s garlic, carrots, onions, J.artichokes of course… down to sometimes just a handful of something that didn’t succeed, and maybe saved about tuppence in the process. Largely irrelevant! Still I’d say go for it, the sooner the better – there’s so much scope, endless things to learn, and it’s often so wonderfully Sisyphean when it doesn’t feel so god-awfully Sisyphean. Fail, and at least you tried – you might still be tempted to ‘fail better’ next time (Sam Beckett). Yes, the prerequisite of enough affordable land nearby is often the stumbling block, and Chris is wise to put his efforts toward addressing the politics of this, a tougher task in many ways than growing food. Other than that, gardening/smallholding/sensible-scale farming can be the remedy to all kinds of foolishness (sometimes a downside) that may well get you thinking ‘should’ve done this sooner’. Good luck and godspeed!

    • There used to be the homesteading act giving away a half section of land , near all failed in the midwest , water weather and the lack of productive soil broke them , much of the US midwest only works on scale of farms and diesel / irrigation , local farms on the east and west coast are the only answer , it would take a very hard man to farm the old ways in the midwest , today here at 9,30 its 95 degrees with 80 % humidity , not condusive to hard work !

    • There is still good, productive land available for a (relatively) reasonable price here in the middle of the US.
      What makes land affordable here is that nobody (with money) wants to live in deep flyoverland.

      If you are willing to live in a very small town, and can scrape together maybe $40,000, you can do quite well.

      I think it is the social aspect that keeps most people from doing this.

      As Diogenese says, a strong tolerance for adverse weather is a plus. And don’t go too far west, or water will be a problem.

      • A producing pecan orchard here sold for $3500 an acre , yes there is decent land but to make money anywhere west of DFW it has to be irrigated .

  19. Some excellent and thoughtful comments! Back in the 1970’s when the oil embargo hit, long lines formed at gas pumps, and President Carter installed solar panels on the White House…many people feared the collapse was immanent. There was a wave of homesteading across the US (some perhaps an extension of Hippie communes). One such homesteader/writer was Gene Logsdon, a prolific writer and excellent small farmer. His family has maintained a website where you can still read his blogs.
    I have collected a small library of his very well written and practical ‘how to’ books and highly recommend them. He learned by doing, making his small farmstead a sort of real world experiment and he loved teaching others, both about his mistakes and his successes.
    In my own life I have enjoyed learning and refining skills and then teaching them to others. I believe this is truly the most beautiful part of being human. That and our ability to laugh at life, to rise to the challenges we face, and to help and love each other. I am saddened by the partisan bickering that has overtaken America. It diminishes us all and makes it harder to actually address problems.

    • I have been using his book “Small Scale Grain Raising” as a guide, and can confirm there is considerable gap between reading and doing. There is considerable learning curve for effective scything technique, as well as small scale threshing and winnowing strategies.

      I also followed his blog, and enjoyed his homey , practical stories.

      • I’ll second all of that, steve c.
        I love “Small Scale Grain Raising”.

        When I first bought my field south of town, we scattered wheat in the eroded places, just to hold the soil over winter. The next July we discovered we had a wheat crop.

        So easy, but what to do with it?
        My favorite method was plastic toy baseball bats and a bed sheet on the driveway for threshing. Though leather gloves rubbing grain heads through hardware cloth was faster and more effective.

        I never got the hang of scything either. Cutting is easy, but laying the stalks down neatly – that I fail to understand.

        My small scale home-harvesting friends use a sickle and dump in a plastic tub as they go.

        • The knack seems to be swinging the blade smoothly like the end of a clock hand, a beautiful arc 180 degrees or so, letting the land take the weight of the blade whenever possible, advancing millimetres at a time – the feet leave a shuffling pattern on the cut grass. The speed of the cuts always seem to lay the grass down for me, but for a season or two I went through a period of hacking the blades like a golfer. The Scythe Book, co-authored by Peter Vido, really led me in the right direction. After that it’s just finesse-ing, like the passionate cyclist forever seeking, almost meditating, on the perfect ‘souplesse’.

          • Thanks for the book reference. I just ordered it. I’ve got a scythe, but I need to also get the peening an other proper sharpening gear.

          • A far superior instruction book, “The Big Book of the Scythe”, was written a couple years ago by Peter Vido and his family, and is available for free.

            The entire book can be downloaded as a PDF file (rather large), or individual chapters can be downloaded here:


          • Joe, for peening I recommend the table anvil seen on this page. When I first started peening freehand I made a mess of the blade edge, creating a wave along the admittedly cheap scythe blade. No such problem now. A good whetstone and you’re all set (though a whetstone holder is useful).

  20. Thanks everyone for a lively discussion. One point I think worth mentioning that Simon touches on is that while it’s good to learn subsistence skills, you also need access to land to subsist on. This is going to involve a lot of talking and politicking, and as I see it is likely to be the maker or breaker of a tolerable or a dystopian future. Luckily, this is all charted out in my forthcoming book…

    Meanwhile, any comments on this little article about Mike Shellenberger and climate change denial?

    Mr Carrington writes that “almost all the technology needed [to avert worst case climate change scenarios] already exists”. While I think that’s true, I suspect he and I may have quite different views as to what that technology is. But I’m hoping to write about that soon.

    • Carrington muses:

      I can’t profess to know what Shellenberger’s motivation was…..

      I would start with notoriety and the money it can produce if well marketed. Look at Trump. He made a successful presidential run almost entirely based on bad publicity. He may yet do it again, but this time he’ll have to up his game into the stratosphere of bad publicity where autocrats roam, you know, the place where elections are canceled, the treasury is looted, and the secret police roam the streets looking to “disappear” opponents.

      But I won’t be reading Shellenberger’s book until it is out of copyright, if then, so I can’t speak to his case against the urgency of dealing with climate change, but I think that even though a variety of strategies have always been available to prevent damaging climate change they will never be used except in token amounts. Most of the really effective strategies look too much like economic collapse for popular taste.

      Perhaps this is why I have such an emotional investment in accidental collapse. I see it as our only hope to avoid a “hothouse earth”. For me, it can’t come soon enough. Ever the optimist, I tend to see collapse around every corner. I still have some faith that this pandemic just might be a tipping point. I hate to say it, but another Trump term might be another. How we might suffer just to get a climate change silver lining, but that’s what it’s come to in these late days.

    • Agreed – lots of interesting discussion here the last several days. Almost more than I can keep up with.

      Rather than take on Mr Carrington (who makes plenty of sensible comments from where I sit)… I’d rather pile into Simon H’s quite sensible (and Chris’ acknowledgement thereof) idea that land availability will likely be a dominant issue down the road.

      Agreed – access to land will matter. But there is enough land, and Chris’ calculations to that end here at SFF make just such a point.

      Will people be able to move from a cubicle in an air conditioned office… where a text message, email, or phone call can summon a delectable morsel to sooth the demands made by the gut – – – out into the cold (or miserably hot) real world where insects bite, sweat drips from the forehead, weeds devour resources meant for next week’s dinner, rain comes in buckets or not at all…

      Can today’s urbanite handle such a transition? I think so. Some won’t, and Charles Darwin has already suggested what their fate might be. For those not willing to try, or that want to quit at the first sign of difficulty… well, my heart ain’t that big. However, if you’ve the nerve to pick yourself up every time something knocks you down, get in touch, I have a little land, decades of experience, bumps and bruises from my own failures… and I still think there’s a way out. Optimism grows, like most garden plants… among lots of weeds and pests. But with the help of an attentive gardener, optimism can yield something worthy of the effort.

      Jody makes a great point about the value of teaching others… it warms the cockles when you see someone pick up a hoe and use it properly – after you’ve demonstrated how to make it work with the least effort. It’s still hard work, but having something to eat beats going hungry – just as true today as it was 10,000 years ago.

      I see folks at the grocery picking over the food on offer… have to have the prettiest, or the “best”… and I wonder, have they ever raised such a fruit or vegetable? Do they even know what the plant that came from is? Forget whether or not they can spell Pinocchio… do they know what it takes to produce this piece of food, how it got to be there in front of them in the first place? Some of these folks are in for a big surprise. But for me, that surprise is long overdue. Some will make the transition, and some won’t. I’d rather live among those who will make the effort.

    • I think Mike Shellenberger’s motivation was likely his belief that nuclear energy is the only way to get the world off fossil energy and maintain our economy. But environmentalists typically have a problem with nuclear energy. So it isn’t surprising to me that Shellenberger had to choose a side and came out in favor of nuclear and what appears to be critical of the climate change messaging.
      His claim that there isn’t proof that climate change was impacting wildfires in Australia is some thing I think important to talk about. Other scientists said there is evidence and I believe them, but I think the larger issue is “climate” itself. The problem with ‘proving’ climate change has an impact depends on record keeping. Climate is defined as long term weather patterns. What happens if weather is becoming more and more chaotic? The patterns from long ago no longer hold true but new patterns haven’t yet become obvious. As the temperature and gases in the atmosphere change, temperature of land and oceans also change. It must impact weather, but where is the pattern? If the rate of change is increasing we can’t yet see patterns become patterns don’t yet exist. There are no decade long trends.
      Scientists are trained to be objectively cautious in evaluating data and assigning cause and effect. This is the difficulty we face in ‘proving’ climate change is impacting weather.
      I wonder which category of climate denier Carrington would place Shellenberger; the shill, the grifter, the egomaniac or the ideological fool? My choice would be ideological fool.

    • I fear this may be something of a rant, but it seems to me that Mr Carrington’s fourth category, the ‘ideological fool’, is a little broader than he’s willing to acknowledge. Ultimately, ideology of one stripe or another makes fools of us all, but to get an editorial post at the Guardian Mr Carrington will have had to demonstrate that it’s only unreasonable and impolite people that have ideologies, not moderate people like himself.

      Let’s divine Mr Carrington’s thoughts on the way forward, following his entirely reasonable and unarguable acceptance of the climate science. He credits the ideological fool with an ‘inane, no-limits version of the free-market creed.’ Other versions are presumably available.

      Mr Carrington believes that ‘the climate crisis is urgent, and we need debate to drive action’; but it’s ok folks, ‘vigorous debates over action are already taking place in good faith all over the world, from the tops of governments to the smallest local action groups’, and there are ‘many credible climate action plans being pursued, including by those on the political right’.

      Indeed, ‘the world of finance and business is catching up fast with the science, and almost all the technology needed already exists.’ I would suggest that Mr Carrington performs a near-perfect centrist balancing act here: just the right amount of urgency and forward-thinking logic on the one side, and just the right mount of appeals to existing mechanisms of debate, development and production on the other; he’s safe home.

      The various fringe monsters in Mr Carrington’s first three categories can be written off as trivial. He shapes the fourth category for Shellenberger, but in truth he’s in there as well, exhibiting all those liberal demands for sensible moderation: of course we follow the science, and it must inform the world of finance and business, and we must have ‘vigorous debate’ in ‘good faith’ to assemble ‘credible plans’. I think Shellenberger’s only real sin in Mr Carrington’s view is straying too far from a reasonable acceptance of the science, and so he must be denounced as a foolish ideologue.

      I suspect Mr Carrington is as haunted by collapse porn as Shellenberger, and that as devoted to his extreme centrism as Shellenberger is to his ‘inane free-market creed’. Shellenberger is credited with a right-wing anti-communism here, but I would be fascinated to see Mr Carrington’s reaction any remotely left-wing analysis that advocated the subversion of business-as-usual.

      Perhaps I’m too harsh. I know nothing about him after all. Perhaps I’m tired of reading and writing, but not doing. But I’m afraid I can’t see anything here except buzz words spewed into the ether, and the line held against those whose commitments might threaten the liberal status quo. Is anyone else tired?

      • I can’t see anything here except buzz words spewed into the ether

        I can’t either, but then again, that’s the function of a commentator. That’s all any of them can do.

        But sometimes “buzz words into the ether” can indirectly shape actual policy. Very rarely actual policy gets adopted by someone with access to power. Once or twice in a lifetime that access gets the powerful to change their minds and then their behavior and then the ship of state is nudged.

        Usually the only things that can speed up this process are “events, dear boy, events.” Unfortunately, with a slow burning crisis like global warming, once mind-changing events arrive it’s too late to prevent disaster. Thus, the need for a “smaller” disaster (collapse) to prevent a larger one (extreme warming).

        And yes, I’m tired too. The only consolation for me is to do something in advance of events to prepare for them. “Be prepared” is the motto of the Boy Scouts and “Semper Paratus the motto of the US Coast Guard. Good enough for me.

          • BBC Player is only available in the UK. Sorry I couldn’t watch it.

        • Been meaning to ask you, Joe, as you’re a PV technician, for your take on solar tracker ‘actuators’. From what I’ve heard, by tracking the sun a photovoltaic could produce around one-third more energy than if static. A tempting advantage. One ‘con’ I heard regards the expense – you might as well just buy more panels. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

          • PS It was this vid that turned me on to PV trackers. It’s a bundle of technology, certainly, but while it lasts, solar-assisted electric bikes/recumbents such as these seem to be good for daily rides of around 2-300km, if the Sun Trip event is anything to go by, thus extending a horse’s daily range by about tenfold.

          • When I was active in residential and micro-grid installations we didn’t use trackers. Even the passive trackers that used moving liquids (Zomeworks) or gas actuators were prone to breaking down. Electrical two-axis mechanical trackers were the worst. There are a few in my neighborhood and they have long been converted to fixed arrays after breaking down so often.

            The structural loads from wind forces on even a small array are enormous. It is much easier to deal with those forces with fixed mounts, especially if you already have something robust to anchor them to like the roof of a building.

            And usually the cost of the tracker is the same or more than additional modules for the same output. We did use seasonal one-axis trackers on several projects. The homeowner changed the array tilt 5 times per year bracketing the solstices and equinoxes. The array support was simple and structurally strong, basically a fixed array between moves, but I wouldn’t bother with it anymore.

            Utility scale projects often use single-axis trackers, with long torque tubes rotating the array through the day, but they get some scale advantages (only a few actuators for many modules). But lots of utility projects are fixed, too.

            If space or weight is not a real problem, and it rarely is in terrestrial applications, I wouldn’t even consider a tracker.

  21. Access to land is definitely a huge obstacle in transitioning to a Small Farm future. Will we be freeholders or serfs?

    In the mean time, acquiring skills in preparation for a life closer to the land is getting more possible as a network of folk schools has grown in the last several years.

    The folk school concept originated in Denmark, so wondered if the UK has any?

    I am on the board of a small one in Wisconsin. While the pandemic has torpedoed this year’s schedule and plans, we hope to recover and do a limited offering later this year.

  22. A quick catch-up on all these excellent threads:

    Scything: nice to see some discussion of this fine art. On another forum I got into a debate with a small-scale farmer who described it as a ‘neopeasant fantasy’ … so I’m hoping to write a fantasy scythe post soon. To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ve fully mastered the art of peening. However, not fully mastering things is an occupational hazard for the jack-of-all-trades smallholder, as I hope to relate in that post.

    Education: some nice comments here, and as ever a pithy summation from Clem. No, I’ve not come across folk schools. I’m not sure it’s a thing in the UK. There have been a few ‘Farm hack’ events here – not a term I particularly like. I’m dimly aware of various efforts to invigorate skill shares and training in alternative/small-scale farming here, but it seems early days. A point Tim Lang often makes is that agricultural/horticultural training in the UK has been sorely neglected in recent years. The sector has come to rely heavily on workers from Eastern Europe. The main media narrative around this (aside from an anti-immigration one) concerns their relative poverty and willingness to work hard for low wages. The fact that they actually know what they’re doing is rather lost on us. But that may soon change.

    Messrs Shellenberger and Carrington. Thanks for your rant, Andrew. Nice to provide a forum for others to let off steam, so I don’t have to. Possibly willing to give Mr Carrington more benefit of the doubt, but yes I’m also tired. As I said in my previous post, the most interesting questions aren’t about why people like Mike Shellenberger do what they do, but about the cultural anxieties that enable them to cash in. And on that point, I think you’re right that Mr Carrington has more in common with Mr Shellenberger than might be supposed, with his own ‘apocalypse never’ narrative. Perhaps the Martin Luther King quotation that’s doing the rounds in another context at the moment is a propos: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”.

    PV actuators: I’ll be interested in Joe’s – or anyone else’s – answer to Simon’s question. We’ve just upgraded our PV array, putting the new panels in at a winter angle on Unistrut frames. The angle can be changed by an actuator in the form of a human being climbing onto the roof and actually changing it – I doubt we’ll get much more high tech. I’m slightly worried that the winter storms may have some say in how this setup fares, though those other solar panels we installed almost 20 years ago have now grown tall enough that in their leafless winter state they provide some pretty good wind protection. As to a daily bike ride of 2-300km, I’m just wondering how I’d fill the rest of my day…

    • With a good sleep (post epic bike ride)… thanks Chris and Joe for the input re solar trackers. As ever , much to ponder.

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