Once you’ve followed the intellectual trail of resource limits in a closed ecosystem, potential Liebig minimums, phantom carrying capacity, and the concept of ecological overshoot you eventually come to accept the inevitability of a global economic, societal, and ecological collapse. At that point thoughts of sustainability are trumped by the ecological need for resilience in the face of industrial decline, and the mind turns to questions of how soon and how severe.
No one attempts to answer these questions with more rigor and insight than John Michael Greer. In his most recent book, The Ecotechnic Future, Greer draws on both historical precedent and the science of ecology to sketch a possible post collapse future. He predicts that the modern industrial age of abundance based on 500-million years of photosynthesis (i.e. fossil fuels) will end in a matter of years. From there the next human ecological sere will likely be a decades long age of industrial scarcity in which we attempt to maintain the myth of infinite growth and technical progress in a age of declining non-renewable resources. As those myths die a natural death humanity will enter the next sere, a century or more of a salvage society whose economy will be based on mining the artifacts of the industrial age. An age in which we recycle and capture the embodied energy of an age of abundance and massive waste. Based on the ecological principle of succession and the second law of thermodynamics, all of these sere’s will be R-selected and ultimately unsustainable. If we are fortunate, the climax sere following the salvage society will be a K-selected Ecotechnic sere, an ecologically balanced and fully sustainable society.
According to Greer these sere’s are merely generalized stages and the actual reality is likely to be “complex, messy, and idiosyncratic”, and seasoned with the chaos of depopulation, mass migration, political and cultural disintegration, and disruptive ecological change.
Although I tend to agree with Greer’s vision of ecological succession as a general path towards a more sustainable future, I’m not convinced that the drama will play out over a period of several centuries. The parallels with the decline of the Roman Empire (and other collapsed societies) are compelling, however the differences in the level of complexity, interconnectedness, reliance on non-renewable resources, and ecological devastation between then and today are vast. I do not envision an apocalyptic future nor do I envision the long stair step decline described so eloquently by Greer. I suspect the actual future will be somewhere firmly in the middle and far more messy than a long slow descent would imply.
In the spirit of prediction is which everyone is bound to be at least a little wrong, I propose the following laws of collapse as additional fodder for discussion.
THE PRIMARY LAW OF SOCIETAL, ECONOMIC, AND ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE
The severity of collapse will be equal and opposite to the level of complexity and environmental degradation that preceded it.
COROLLARIES TO THE PRIMARY LAW OF COLLAPSE
- The level of reliance on non-renewable resources or phantom carrying capacity further increases the severity of collapse in proportion to the level of reliance on those resources
- The velocity of collapse is a function of the number of single points of failure and potential Liebig minima embedded into the levels of complexity achieved prior to collapse
- Catastrophic collapse is possible only when the number of cascading points of failure reach a critical mass far exceeding a society’s ability to cope on even a temporary basis.