Collapse, Hard and Soft Collapses, and Why You Should Care
In my previous essay, Tyranny, Exploitation, and Unsustainability, I covered why societies based on unsustainable lifestyles, those that take more than they give and reduce rather than maintain biodiversity, necessarily lead to systematic violence, slavery, and a host of other illnesses of civilization. This is obviously important to anyone who wants to better the world, since we need to have working models that are just to replace those that are unjust and unsustainable. So many activists overlook this fact, because our culture as a whole discourages direct relation to the land, to physical reality, in order to keep subjects dependent on empire. So political theory ends up flawed, simply by virtue of ignoring the physical limitations of the world.
This essay picks up where that one left off. Now that we understand the effects to humans (and non-humans) that civilization naturally engenders, it is necessary to understand its ultimate terminal result: collapse. Collapse is inevitable for any unsustainable system. It's the fate we've seen countless other civilizations meet in the past, the Romans having been one of the best recorded collapses. Geomorphologist David Montgomery notes in his fantastic book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations that all past empires have collapsed as their soil turned to sand after centuries of agriculture. In case you don't understand this simple fact, I'll quickly explain: if you use more than is freely provided by the creatures you share the landbase with, and/or are not giving back enough, you will necessarily degrade that landbase and its ability to support life. You therefore have to either collapse down to a manageable size, or expand. And you can only expand so far until one constraint or another, usually energy or logistical concerns, stops you, and you collapse. Clear enough?
Collapse is, overall, a good thing, particularly in the long run. Collapse of civilization will mean that empires will no longer be able to use military might and economic exploitation (insomuch as they're separate) to kill, enslave, and emiserate the vast majority of humans on the planet. It will mean a reduction and eventual end to militarism. It will mean corporations will no longer be able to destroy landbases, to poison rivers and fields, nor will they be able to keep control of over 90% of our food supplies in the hands of six companies. It will mean human communities will be able to once again create autonomous cultures with self-determination. As fellow rewilding writer Jason Godesky explains, Collapse is an Economizing Process, and the bulk of people do better economically after a collapse. Derrick Jensen describes his definition of taking down civilization as "depriving the rich of the ability to steal from the poor, and depriving the powerful the ability to destroy the world".
The likely cause of this culture's collapse seems to be Peak Oil, if Peak Soil or Climate Change doesn't do it first. I'm hoping for Peak Oil, which luckily seems to be going according to projections. I see it as preferable because the other two are either dependent on or cause massive ecological breakdown. Because our economy is based on oil, and because it takes twenty years at best to convert an infrastructure to another source of power like wind (which is also unsustainable, by the way, and requires oil), as the oil costs get too high it will not be worth the effort to extract the oil to run the industrial machines, and industrial civilization will collapse. This is obviously a simplified explanation. For more thorough explanations and nuanced understandings, I recommend searching for LATOC (Life After the Oil Crash) and Mike Ruppert.
Collapses occur in two ways, or at least that's how I'm going to simplify it for the sake of this piece (they occur in numerous ways, but I think two categories can help us characterize these collapses in a useful way to understand the similarities). The two types of collapse are hard and soft. This is of primary concern to those living in cities, as cities are places that resources flow into. They require constant importation, because too many people are living there for the land to support. This importation is largely true in the suburban and rural areas, but because this is imposed by lifestyle and not generally population concentration, the effects of collapse do not hit as hard there.
So what is it that make collapses typically softer in less populated areas? To simplify it greatly, there are more resources. Because in our current society "rural life is just city life with a view", everyone is effected by collapse, but not equally. Resources available outside of the cities, like more small farms and wild spaces to hunt, fish, and forage, are more common, even as they're divided up for fewer humans. There might still be too many people for the landbase to support indefinitely, but the difference isn't so great as in cities. In most cases, it's more a matter of people living in the suburbs don't even recognize the resources available, and therefore won't utilize them. In some cases, their cultural bias stops them from even using available resources. The Donner Party resorted to cannibalism, reportedly while camped in a grove of Pinon Pine.
Cities, once the just-in-time delivery systems of the supermarkets dry up, have little in available resources, and far more people vying for them. Add to this the fact that city populations are generally already more stressed from being packed in, from economic factors, and from lack of connection to wild nature, and the picture doesn't look so good. And while those living in cities with more privilege (whether it's white, male, and/or socio-economic privilege) have more to lose from the collapse of the system that gives them those privileges, it is those with less privilege that can be subjected to further violence and exploitation in the initial stages. As it has been for a while in this system, the deck is stacked against them. A collapse in a city could easily turn out to resemble Octavia Butler's post-apocalyptic (and eerily prophetic) novel Parable of the Sower, in which issues of race, class, and gender during collapse are examined.
Luckily, there are factors that change the character of collapses. Dmitri Orlov, a Russian man who moved between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. during the former's collapse, notes in his book Reinventing Collapse that one of the reasons the Russian people weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union relatively well was that the bulk of the population was already used to supplementing their food with gardens and forage from wild spots right outside the city. The system was inefficient, so they were less dependent on it.
While gardening is certainly increasing in popularity, it's still not that common, particularly in cities, and particularly among the working class. Since these people make up the bulk of the city population, and since they are the ones who can most benefit from gardening and foraging to lower food costs, I feel that increasing the frequency of these activities in cities is one major way to soften the coming collapse. Indeed, it is why I try earnestly to teach basic foraging to anyone who will listen, and intend to buy copies of permaculture books to donate to community garden projects in poorer neighborhoods.
Another of the factors Orlov cites include the closeness of family, which meant available supportive community. Areas with supportive, cooperative communities will fare better. This is something I think will actually exist more in certain areas of cities, and will help in softening collapse. It's largely enforced by economics, wherein a lot of working class folks, particularly ethnic minorities, still live multigenerationally. It's just cheaper and more practical, in some sense. It's also more like how we're adapted to live as a species, albeit not in cramped apartment buildings.
Any sort of ecological restoration softens collapse, for reasons I've discussed thoroughly elsewhere. There is also the matter of basic defense, but I'll cover that in an upcoming post.
I discussed in An Appeal for Community the socio-political implications of self-sufficient communities, which is based on the understanding that civilization specifically acts in such ways as to deprive traditional communities and cultures of their self-sufficiency (think purposely destroying bison populations to bring down the Lakota, or the damming of rivers to make the indigenous of the Pacific Northwest dependent on outside resources), that is when it doesn't outright kill people, or enslave them at the point of a gun. In a sense, lack of access to land on which traditional cultures are based forces subjugated people into dependence slavery, a slavery not enforced by physical force but rather by economic force with the veneer of consentual involvement. There's also the simple financial benefits of economic self-sufficiency of this manner; if you are able to gather/produce some or all of your own food, that is less money you need to spend on groceries (and for doctor's bills, since the homegrown food will at least have fewer toxic chemicals, even in cities, and more nutrient density).
So these sorts of economic self-sufficiency soften the effects of collapse, since this economic freedom correlates negatively with dependence on the collapsing system. Fostering higher levels of community and individual self-sufficiency is a major goal in my rewilding, and I'm confident to say it is the same for many rewilders. The common misunderstanding is that we're basically anachronistic reenactors, but the reality is that we're agents of a cultural rennaissance that understands that we civilized humans need to change our way of life at a fundamental level in order to be sustainable and equitable. I've discussed the fallacy of techno-progressivism and the term "Stone Age" in other posts, and while I might do another post on the ideas again soon, I won't here. So our work may look more like a series of primitive skills workshops, and that's important. But rewilding can also look like a permaculture homestead tended to by a few families. It can look like rockers singing songs on stage. It can look like a survivalist making bugout bags so her family has as much chance to live no matter what, or punk freegans tearing up asphalt in vacant lots. And it can look like starting community gardens in the middle of the city, and strolling down crowded streets picking up acorns on the sidewalk with some friends. It can look like forming gift economies between neighbors. It can look like all those things at once, even within a single community. The point is not to be purists about living like hunter-gatherer-gardeners, but to make significant efforts to make the transition to that state easier. If small communities do manage a sustainable, self-sufficient, egalitarian hunter-gatherer-gardener lifestyle, then all the better to help others!
Hopefully those radicals who read this, and even those who don't consider themselves radical but just care about human rights and freedom (remember, 'radical' just means getting to the root), will see the importance of fostering conditions to soften collapse. It's as much a way to lessen the sting of economic inequality and systemic violence as it is a way to lessen the sting of collapse, so in essence even those of you in denial about collapse can't argue that these aren't good things to do.
I've been listening to The Survival Podcast lately (feeding my renewed interest in more mainstream survivalism) and the host's first rule of survivalist mentality is that you shouldn't do something unless it improves your quality of life, regardless of whether or not there is an emergency or collapse. Gardening does this, as does foraging. Having sensible systems of food storage, particularly those not reliant on electricity, improve quality of life. Finding even a little time to do these things, to just grow some tomatoes in a pot on your window sill or harvest those edibles in a vacant lot, will improve the quality of your life. Fostering community and individual self sufficiency can only improve quality of life. And that alone can have profound effects to communities and societies. It might not fix everything, but it can do a hell of a lot of good.
Look forward to an upcoming post that builds upon this one and the earlier ones mentioned above.