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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Counterpoint to Mad Max type doom

Here is an excerpt from an article on the ArchDruid blog, entitled "No Different This time." Click first paragraph to go to full article.

This writer, John Michael Greer, is quite good and worth reading. He's written a book entitled, "The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age" (New Society, 2008)

I realize this kind of writing, which is a bit abstract and philosophical, is not completely pertinent to prepping. However, Greer doesn't believe that the "Mad Max" type scenarios painted by the Survival Acres writer are very likely. He believes that a decline and contraction is underway, but that we will adapt and form new types of social and economic arrangements, with few big "die-offs."

Who is right? Time will tell. Let's discuss it below. And then the next articles will be more practical, I promise.

My argument, basically, is that the narrative of total collapse is another example of the same kind. Since the late 19th century, when religious apocalyptic began to lose its grip on the Western imagination, a narrative as stereotyped and dysfunctional as the narrative that drives speculative bubbles has circulated in the industrial world. That narrative claims that the world faces collapse of a historically unprecedented kind: sudden, complete, and final. Like the bubble narrative, the collapse narrative brings its own rhetoric with it, and applies that rhetoric to currently favored catastrophes – peak oil, global warming, the Y2K crisis, nuclear war, race conflict, every major comet of the last century and a half, you name it – in the same way that the bubble narrative applies its rhetoric to the asset class du jour. Like the bubble narrative, in turn, the collapse narrative always insists that the failures of the past don’t matter, because it’s different this time.

The narrative of collapse shares another feature with the bubble narrative: it produces consistently inaccurate predictions about the future. Again, people have been predicting collapse in the terms of the narrative for around a century and a half, using arguments identical in form to the ones now being used to justify the same predictions today, and the results have not exactly been good. This isn’t simply a function of the future’s obscurity, for other approaches – based on other, more nuanced narratives – have yielded better results. Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler both made predictions about the cultural evolution of the modern West, for example, that have proved quite prescient. For that matter, the central argument of The Limits to Growth – that unlimited economic expansion would bring industrial civilization up against hard planetary limits in the first half of the 21st century, leading to an age of crisis and contraction – seems far more plausible now than it did when first published.

This reasoning undergirds my suggestion that it’s crucial to recognize the collapse narrative for what it is, and set it aside as a guide to the future, just as anyone hoping to make sense of economics in the real world would be well advised to start by setting aside the bubble narrative. Insisting that it’s different this time, and a way of thinking about collapse that has consistently produced false predictions for a century and a half is going to turn out accurate this once, just doesn’t seem plausible to me.

I suspect Dmitry Orlov is right that America is facing a collapse along the same lines as the Russian experience. If that happens, though, it’s just as likely that twenty years on, something like the rest of the Russian experience will have replicated itself as well, and an approximation of today’s United States will have undergone some degree of recovery from collapse. Equally, other regions of the world will likely be experiencing their own trajectories through the twilight of the petroleum age, and some of those trajectories will include sudden downward jolts of varying severity. Over the long term, as I’ve suggested, all those trajectories will trace out a broad pattern of decline, but history shows that the decline of a civilization is a complex thing, and there’s no reason to think that it will be different this time.

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