Avoiding Societal, Economic, and Ecological Collapse

“A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” – The Collapse of Complex Societies – Joseph Tainter

“Any society that displays broad increases in most measures of capital production coupled with signs of serious depletion of key resources is a potential candidate for catabolic collapse.” – The Long Descent – John Michael Greer

“By collapse, I mean a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” – Collapse- How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Jared Diamond

“When irrupting populations surpass … available carrying capacity, the ensuing crash [collapse] may occur by different means among humans, animals, or plants …these differences do not affect the basic principle:  die-off is the sequel to overshoot [of carrying capacity].” – Overshoot – The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change – William Catton

“Collapse is not an attractive future.  The rapid decline of population and economy to levels that can be supported by the natural systems of the globe will no doubt be accompanied by failing health, conflict, ecological devastation, and gross inequalities.” – Limits to Growth – The 30 Year Update – Meadows, et al

Peak Oil, near economic meltdown, species loss, growing food insecurity, rising sea levels, jobless recoveries, decades long stagnant wages – is the United States and the industrialized world heading toward collapse? — has it already begun?  Can we avoid our own ecological suicide and and abandon the folly of infinite growth on a finite planet?  This post attempts to catalog different theories of collapse and various solutions proffered for it’s avoidance.

Theories of Collapse – Anthropological, Ecological, and Sociological

That civilizations rise and fall is historically (Rome, the Mayan, Easter Island, the Anasazi, etc.) evident.  The question for today’s global industrialized society is why.   Can we collectively see our own collapse on the horizon, and can it be avoided?

Joseph Tainter gives us a view of societal collapse based on a theory of diminishing marginal returns in complexity.  According to Tainter societies invest in complexity (agriculture, government bureaucracy, militarism, monetary and market systems, infrastructure, etc.) as a solution to problems.  Initially those investments have a high return and the society flourishes, but as that society grows and it and it’s problems (most of which are self induced) becomes more complex, the marginal returns on those investments fall and eventually turn negative.  As returns turn negative, and problems and stresses (resource limits, environmental degradation, competing societies, etc.) continue or emerge, the society is no longer able to cope and eventually succumbs to collapse.  The resulting collapse leads to a decline in complexity and after much turmoil and suffering, the eventual return of positive marginal returns.  In effect, Tainter’s theory of “peak complexity” leaves us in a kind of catch 22 in which we are hard wired to seek solutions which doom us to endless cycles of success and failure.

Tainter's Model of Complexity and the Law of Marginal Returns

In his book the The Long Descent, John Michael Greer builds on Tainter’s work with a model based on perspectives from human ecology. His theory of catabolic collapse is based on the interplay of the core elements of resources, capital, waste, and production.  In a human society where new capital derived from production C(p) is equal to or greater than the sum of the waste from production W(p) and the  waste from capital W(c) [called maintenance production M(p)] and the replenishment rate of resources r(R) is greater than the depletion rate of resources d(R) is sustainable.  However, a human society whose new capital from production is less than maintenance production [W(p) + W(c)] and whose depletion rate of resources d(R) is greater than it’s replenishment rate r(R) of resources, is subject to catabolic collapse.  According to Greer, catabolic collapse is a self-reinforcing process in which C(p) approaches zero and the lion’s share of a societies capital is converted to waste.

Jared Diamond (Collapse) sees societal collapse as the result of an unintentional ecological suicide (eco-cide) in which  growing consumption and population eventually push up against natural ecological limits.  As a society strains the limits of it’s natural resources, it either causes a decline (deforestation, top soil erosion, etc.) in the carrying capacity of the those resources, or by operating on the edge without any margin of safety succumbs to a drought or other stress the societies organic carrying capacity.

William Catton (Overshoot) takes a global, ecological and very contemporary view based on human carrying capacity.  Catton see’s humanity much like the yeast in a vat of crushed grapes, wildly consuming the sugar content of the mash until the sugar is depleted or the yeast succumbs to by-products of that consumption (alcohol).  In our case, the “sugar” is millions of years of solar energy converted by photosynthesis and geology into apparently vast stores of fossil fuel.  Catton asserts that fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) combined with technology, amounts to nothing more than a “phantom” carrying capacity, and when these nonrenewable and energy dense natural resources reach their peak extraction rates and begin to decline, today’s industrial and global society will suffer a catastrophic collapse.  The following chart overlays global population with my estimate of the Earth’s organic (relying only on renewable resources) carrying capacity. The difference between the global population and the organic carrying capacity is Catton’s Phantom Carrying Capacity (labeled as Trust Fund Carrying Capacity).  If Catton’s theory is correct, some 5-billion lives hang by the thread of these depleting fossil fuel resources.

Phantom (Trust Fund) Carrying Capacity

Avoiding Collapse – Possible Solutions

“A framing premise of this paper is that the sustainability dilemma is not merely an ecological or technical or economic crisis as is usually assumed, but rather it is a crisis rooted in fundamental human nature. More specifically, it is a crisis of human evolutionary success – indeed, we have reached the point where our success is killing us!” – Is Humanity Fatally Successful? – William Rees

Limits to Growth, The Thirty Year Update – A Systems Theory Approach

In The Limits to Growth – The 30-Year Update, the authors describe the results of a systems theory model [World3] that was used to generate “broad sweep” future scenarios using the following key global metrics:

  • natural resources
  • food
  • population
  • pollution
  • industrial output
  • life expectancy
  • consumer goods per person
  • food per person
  • services per person
  • human welfare index
  • human ecological footprint

Nearly every scenario modeled by the authors lead to an overshoot of the earth’s carrying capacity resulting in a collapse in population and human welfare.  Only one scenario’s underlying assumptions were successful in avoiding collapse and only if the assumptions used for the basis of the model were implemented in time.  The three critical assumptions in that scenario included:

  1. All couples limit their family size to 2 children and have access to effective birth control technologies
  2. A fixed goal of industrial output per capita (i.e. a steady-state economy)
  3. The development  and investment in powerful technologies for pollution abatement, land yield enhancement, land protection and nonrenewable resources (assuming 20 years for full implementation)

When this model was run with a start date of 2002:

“The population leveled off at less than 8 billion people, who remained at their desired standard of living throughout the century.  Their life expectancy is high…per capita services grow to 50% above year 2000 levels.  By the end of the century there is sufficient food for everyone.  Pollution peaks and falls before it causes irreversible damage.  Nonrenewable resources deplete so slowly that nearly 50% of the original endowment is still present in 2100.”

To see the effect of start date on the scenario the author’s ran the same model with start dates of 1982 and 2022.  As you would expect the 1982 model results in a lower ultimate population, improved life expectancy, and a higher standard of living.  However, if action is delayed until 2022, resource and pollution problems reach an unmanageable level and it is too late to avoid decline and collapse.

However grim the outlook, at it’s writing, the authors held out hope that collapse could be averted.  Factoring in a margin for error in the model and the passing of eight years, one might conclude that we now have anywhere from zero to less than two decades before we pass a point of no return.

Post Carbon Institute – The New Real Deal
In the New Real Deal, the Post Carbon Institute outlines a plan to transition the industrial world to a post fossil fuel economy.  To be fair this is not a prescription to avoid collapse but more of a plan to minimize the impact of the inevitable industrial decline due to the depletion of fossil fuels.  The key elements of the plan include:

  1. Make a massive and immediate shift to renewable energy
  2. Electrify the transportation system
  3. Rebuild the electricity grid
  4. De-carbonize and relocalize the food system
  5. Retrofit the building stock for energy efficiency and energy production

The focus of this comprehensive post carbon plan is consistent with the third assumption of The Limits to Growth scenario discussed above.

From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy — Herman Daly – An Economic Policy Approach to Avoiding Collapse
At the bi-annual conference of The United States Society for Ecological Economics in June of 2009, Herman Daly was honored for his many contributions to the field of ecological economics.  During his acceptance speech, in which he vilified the religion of growth hardwired into mainstream economic thought, he offered ten policy proposals directed at transitioning us to a sustainable steady-state economy and by implication, saving us from our own “ecological suicide”.

  1. Use a Cap-Auction-Trade system for basic resources – Caps would limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas would capture scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade would allow efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. It would limit  the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are quotas or limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. The quota would typically be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. The resulting higher price of basic resources would promote more economical use at each upstream stage of production.
  2. Institute Ecological Tax Reform (as an alternative or supplement to cap-auction-trade)
    Shift the tax base from a tax on value added (labor and capital)  to a tax on “that to which value is added”, namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion), and returned to nature (pollution). This internalizes external costs as well as raises revenue more equitably. It prices the scarce but previously un-priced contribution of nature. The value added by labor and capital is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them.
  3. Limit the Range of Inequality in Income (establish a minimum income and a maximum income)
    Without aggregate growth poverty reduction requires redistribution. Complete equality is unfair; unlimited inequality is unfair. Seek fair limits to the range of inequality. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality of a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work, or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum. A sense of community necessary for democracy is hard to maintain across the vast income differences current in the US. Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500 become almost different species. The main justification for such differences has been that they stimulate growth, which will one day make everyone rich. This may have had superficial plausibility in an empty (resource abundant) world, but in our full world (resource limited) it is a fairy tale.
  4. Free up the Length of the Working Day, Week, and Year
    Allow greater freedom for part-time or personal work. Full-time external employment for all is hard (impossible) to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the US.  For the Classical Economists (versus today’s neo-classical economists) the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker balanced the marginal disutility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable. We need to make it more of a variable subject to choice by the worker. And we should stop biasing the labor–leisure choice by advertising to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. Advertising should no longer be treated as a tax deductible ordinary expense of production.
  5. Re-regulate International Commerce
    Move away from free trade, free capital mobility and globalization, and adopt compensating tariffs not to protect inefficient firms, but to protect efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition. We cannot integrate with the global economy and at the same time have higher wages, environmental standards, and social safety nets greater than the rest of the world. Trade and capital mobility must be balanced and fair, not deregulated or “free”.
  6. Reduce and amend the authority of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization
    Transition to something like Keynes’ original plan for a multilateral payments clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances. This arrangement would seek balance on current account, and avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’ plan the US would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties, and if need be by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called the bancor by Keynes. The bancor would serve as world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency. The IMF preaches free trade based on comparative advantage, and has done so for a long time. More recently the IMF-WB-WTO have started preaching the gospel of globalization, which, in addition to free trade, means free capital mobility internationally. The classical comparative advantage argument, however, explicitly assumes international capital immobility! When confronted with this contradiction the IMF waves its hands, suggests that you might be a xenophobe, and changes the subject. The IMF-WB-WTO contradict themselves in service to the interests of transnational corporations. International capital mobility, coupled with free trade, allows corporations to escape from national regulation in the public interest, playing one nation off against another. Since there is no global government they are in effect uncontrolled. The nearest thing we have to a global government (IMF-WB-WTO) has shown no interest in regulating transnational capital for the common good.
  7. Move to 100% Reserve Requirements instead of Fractional Reserve Banking.
    This would put control of the money supply in hands of the government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to create money out of nothing and lend it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements. Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings account depositors) and providing checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned would be a dollar previously saved, re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. The government can pay its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money to make up for the eliminated bank-created, interest-bearing money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and/or tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar.
  8. Stop treating the Scarce as if it were Non-scarce, but also stop treating the Non-scarce as if it were Scarce.
    Enclose the remaining commons of rival natural capital (e.g. atmosphere, electromagnetic spectrum, public lands) in public trusts, and price it by a cap-auction–trade system, or by taxes, while freeing from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and it increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Existing knowledge is the most important input to the production of new knowledge, and keeping it artificially scarce and expensive is perverse. Patent monopolies (aka “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions”, and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared.
  9. Stabilize Population
    Work toward a balance in which births plus in- migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but as a start contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere.  Support voluntary family planning, and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted in spite of the cheap labor lobby.
  10. Reform how we measure and manage national well-being
    Separate GDP into a cost account and a benefits account. Compare them at the margin, stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal or exceed marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries GDP growth delivers no more happiness, but continues to generate resource depletion and pollution. At a minimum we must not just assume that GDP growth is “economic growth”, but prove it. And start by trying to refute the mountain of contrary evidence.

Daly concedes that these policy prescriptions are radical, but also offers that they are amenable to gradual application.  The question is whether we have the luxury of time.  If the Limits to Growth model is anywhere near correct we have no more than about twenty years and that assumes that we start a coordinated and global effort immediately.  If we take climate change as a example of our ability to take action on a global scale, it has been more than 20 years since we first recognized the problem and we have yet to forge and began to implement an integrated global plan of action.

Given that the prescriptions to avoid or mitigate collapse offered by the authors of the Limits to Growth, the Post Carbon Institute’s New Real Deal, and Daly’s Steady State Economy are orders of magnitude more disruptive and contentious as those proposed to combat climate change, the prospects for any meaningful and timely action are near zero.

In all likelihood, change will only come in the face of crisis as we begin  to stair step down the uncertain and painful face of collapse.  By then we will have crossed the threshold from the possibility of averting collapse over to the unstable ground of mitigating the effects of the fall.  The signs that growth is no longer economic and that we have entered Tainter’s zone of negative marginal returns are all around us.  Couple that with resource depletion rates that exceed replenishment rates and we have met Greer’s criteria for Catabolic Collapse.  Add Peak Oil to the mix and we are in the early stages of the collapse of Catton’s “Phantom Carrying Capacity”.

Even in the context of crisis and decline, all the “solutions” discussed in this post are still  valid, however their value will diminish with the passing of time as resources and capital become increasing dear, our choices begin to narrow, and vested interests continue the fight to retain advantages that are destined to slip away.

Whether our future turns in the direction of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the more hopeful but still difficult direction of Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand, or a more sustainable future anchored in renewable energy, re-localized agriculture, with higher levels of satisfaction, and with much lower levels of consumption will depend on the choices that we make.

One response to “Avoiding Societal, Economic, and Ecological Collapse

  1. The economy is a runaway train and casualties are already mounting. A sustainable, steady state economy (with stabilized population and per capita consumption) is not in the imminent offing, but until then, the runaway train may be slowed as the perils of further economic growth are recognized by a wider swath of the public and polity. Toward that end, thousands of individuals (and hundreds of organizations) are endorsing the CASSE position on economic growth, and you are welcome to as well:


    Brian Czech, Ph.D., President
    Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

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