Article


Silly me. Here I had thought that world leaders would want to keep their nations from collapsing. They must be working hard to prevent currency collapse, financial system collapse, food system collapse, social collapse, environmental collapse, and the onset of general, overwhelming misery—right? But no, that's not what the evidence suggests. Increasingly I am forced to conclude that the object of the game that world leaders are actually playing is not to avoid collapse; it's simply to postpone it a while so as to be the last nation to go down, so yours can have the chance to pick the others' carcasses before it meets the same fate.

I know, that sounds unbearably cynical. And in fact it may not accurately describe the conscious attitudes of leaders of some smaller nations. But for the U.S. and China, arguably the countries most likely to lead the way for the rest of the world, actions speak louder than words. (Mental health advisory: readers with a low tolerance for bad news should turn back now; there are lots of cheerier articles on the Internet and this might be a good time to find and enjoy one.)

For these two nations, avoiding collapse would require solving a range of enormous problems, of which at least four are non-negotiable: climate change; peak fossil fuels (in effect, stagnating and, soon, declining energy supplies); the inherent instability of growth-based financial systems; and the vulnerability of food systems to factors like fresh water scarcity and soil erosion (in addition to global warming and fuel scarcity). If they fail to address any one of these, societal collapse is inevitable—in a few decades certainly, but perhaps in just the next few years.

So how are our contestants doing? There's not much to report on the climate score—just vague promises for future action. So their apparent strategy in this case is to delay (not to delay the impacts, mind you, but to delay efforts to address the problem).

Likewise, there is little positive action occurring regarding food systems: the assumption appears to be that conventional industrial agriculture—which is responsible for most of the global food system's enormous and growing vulnerabilities—will somehow shoulder the task of feeding seven to nine billion humans. We just need to continue with what we are already doing, but on a larger scale and using more gene-engineered crop varieties.

Officially, peak energy is not even a concern, so evidently the strategy being adopted here is denial. We'll see how that works out.

How about the financial mess? Here the U.S. and China are in situations so different that a more extended discussion seems justified.

China Surges to the Lead!

The U.S. is in debt up to its eyeballs and has mortgaged the paychecks of every generation approximately until hell freezes over in order to bail out its "too-big-to-fail" banks. In contrast, China has piles of cash (resulting from its enormous trade surpluses) and has bought a mountain of U.S. debt in order to keep its main customer's currency from losing value. It would seem that, in this department, one nation is set to flag while the other is poised to leap into first place as world economic superpower.

And that happens to be the conventional wisdom on the subject. It's not hard to find commentators who say the United States is a has-been for a variety of reasons. In addition to its huge debt burden, the U.S. also suffers from a shrinking manufacturing base, a big trade deficit, eroding quality of education, and a foreign policy that serves the interests of arms manufacturers while undermining the long-term interests of the nation. Regarding the last of these items, a 2006 World Public Opinion poll showed large majorities in four leading ally nations (Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia), together accounting for a third of the Muslim world's population, believe the U.S. is determined to destroy or undermine Islam. Within those countries, most people surveyed support attacks on American targets. And it just so happens that most of the world's future oil supplies will be coming from Muslim nations. Brilliant.

By contrast, China is enjoying springtime on amphetamines. It now has the biggest car market in the world. And, according to Stuart Staniford in a recent fact-filled article, "if present trends continue, the Chinese expressway system will likely grow larger than the U.S. interstate highway system within the next couple of years, and Chinese car ownership will exceed U.S. car ownership by somewhere in the neighborhood of 2017." As of 2010 China is the leading producer of hydroelectric and solar power and by 2011 will be the top producer of wind power. China's smart grid investments dwarf those of the U.S. by 200 to one. The Chinese are also investing heavily in nuclear energy. Staniford goes on: "Oversimplifying greatly, it's as though the U.S. borrowed a pile of money from China in order to fight a war to free up oil supply in Iraq in order that China could become the greatest industrial power the world has ever seen."

China's foreign policy consists largely of buying friends by purchasing rights to oil, gas, coal, and other resources (in Canada, Australia, Venezuela, Iraq, Kazakhstan, and throughout Africa), while the U.S. spends money it doesn't have rooting out bad guys and making more enemies in the process.

In an October, 2009 lecture, George Soros showed refreshing candor about the seriousness of the continuing global financial crisis: "What differentiated [the recent economic crisis] from the Great Depression is that this time the financial system was not allowed to collapse, but was put on artificial life support. In fact [however], the magnitude of the credit and leverage problem we have today is even greater than the 1930s." Soros then went on to discuss the relative positions of the U.S. and China:

In the short term, all countries were negatively affected. But in the long term, there will be winners and losers. . . . To put it bluntly, the U.S. stands to lose the most, and China is poised to emerge as the greatest winner. . . . China has been the primary beneficiary of globalization, and it has been largely insulated from the financial crisis. For the West, and the U.S. in particular, the crisis was an internally-generated event [that] led to the collapse of the financial system. For China, it was an external shock [that] has hurt exports, but left the financial, political, and economic system unscathed.

China Stumbles!

But remember: without solutions to climate change, peak energy, and the looming food crisis, winning the financial contest is only temporary solace. Consider just the energy conundrum: China may be building nukes and windmills, but there's no way it can maintain 8 percent annual growth for long with flat or declining energy from coal. China and India, between them, are currently planning to build 800 new coal-fired power plants by 2020. Where will the coal come from? Both countries are already experiencing domestic production shortfalls and are starting to import the fuel. But coal-exporting countries will be unable to keep up with their growing combined demand.

Moreover, there is a school of thought that says China's apparently unstoppable economic miracle is a bubble waiting to burst. Beijing's housing market is overheated, like that of Las Vegas circa 2006. Last year, the Chinese economy enjoyed 9 percent GDP growth—on paper. But in order to achieve that goal, the government and banks had to loan out 30 percent of China's GDP (the rate of growth in loans accelerated during the latter part of the year; at year-end rates, banks were on track to loan out an amount equal to the nation's entire GDP in 2010). In any case, much of that growth probably occurred through speculation on real estate and questionable stocks.

Generally, China is at a Wild West stage of economic development: it is a collection of powerful local capitalist power bases unaccountable to anyone, all jockeying to create and inflate assets and credit. While the central government has recently exerted control over the banks, its ability to halt regional Ponzi schemes is still limited.

In January the Chinese banking regulatory commission attempted to rein in lending in order to slow the rapid increase in real estate and stock market values. (On the other hand, during the same month, China's cabinet agreed to permit margin trading and short selling of stocks and to launch a stock futures index.) Significantly, there is evidence that China's central bank's attempts to harmlessly deflate the housing and stock market bubbles may be going badly. The sudden suspension in lending has, according to Joe Weisenthal in Business Insider, "caught importers, along with many other companies, by surprise and could cause turbulence in China's import orders. Letters of credit (LoC) suddenly became unavailable, despite previous agreements. We believe that this will inevitably lead to delays or cancellations in China's imports. Import orders for commodities and machineries could be affected most." Translation: the government was faced with the options of letting a rapidly growing bubble burst, taking the economy down; or deliberately deflating the bubble, risking taking the economy down by another route. The central bank chose the latter, and the risked takedown may be unfolding.

Meanwhile Google and the Obama Administration have been exerting external pressure on China to relax its censorship of electronic communications—moves that some see as reducing the central government's options for controlling both information flow and the economy.

In a recent op-ed, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman countered worries about a bursting of the China bubble with a robust display of confidence in Beijing's unstoppable expansionary momentum. Given Friedman's record (remember his columns in 2003 extolling the benefits that would flow to America from an invasion of Iraq?), this alone should be cause to doubt whether the Chinese locomotive can stay on its tracks much longer.

What Does It Mean to "Win"?

In his book Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects, Dmitry Orlov discusses the "collapse gap" between the United States and the old Soviet Union: the latter, he argues, was in effect much better prepared for economic crisis and the fall of its central government; when the U.S. eventually goes the way of the U.S.S.R., the pain and suffering of its citizens will be much greater. (I can't adequately summarize Orlov's evidence and reasoning here, but they are persuasive; if you haven't read the book, do yourself a favor.)

So: How is the U.S. doing today in terms of collapse preparedness as compared to China?

After six decades of nearly uninterrupted economic growth, Americans have developed unrealistic expectations about the future. They are urbanized consumers whose manufacturing capability has shriveled and whose practical survival skills are in most cases vestigial. The Chinese, in contrast, have less of a steep fall ahead of them. Most still dwell in the countryside, and many who live in the cities are only one generation removed from subsistence agriculture and can still draw on their own, or their parents', practical skills learned during decades of poverty and immersion in a traditional farming culture.

Both nations face fierce political challenges. In the U.S., the central government has reached nearly complete paralysis: it is evidently incapable of solving even relatively minor problems, and confidence in it among the citizenry has largely evaporated. Political leaders have succeeded in polarizing the people geographically with "hot-button" issues, few of which have anything to do with the factors currently undermining the nation's ability to survive. The Chinese central government appears far more capable of acting decisively and strategically, but it is confronted with nasty facts of geography and history: there is an extreme and growing economic and social division between the wealthy coastal cities and the poor, rural interior; and a demographic schism between those 40 years old or younger who have high economic expectations, and the older generation who grew up under Mao, with an ethic of collectivism and self-sacrifice. The young, especially, have accepted a trade-off between civil freedoms and economic prosperity. If the latter is not delivered, there will be shrill demands for the former. These divisions are so deep and profound that they could tear society apart if expectations are dashed—and the leaders know this.

Thus, in the event of collapse, both nations face the possibility of a breakdown in their political systems, entailing widespread violence (uprisings and crackdowns).

China still maintains a crucial advantage in one key area: its food system. Far more of its citizens still grow food, even taking into account recent trends toward rapid urbanization (in the U.S., full-time farmers make up only about two percent of the population and the average farmer is approaching retirement age). This is not to say that China will have the capacity to feed all its people; it is already moving in the direction of being a major net food importer. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains a significant food exporter. The key difference has to do with the resiliency of the two nations' respective food systems: that of the United States is more centralized, more highly fuel dependent, and therefore probably more vulnerable.

The Geopolitics of Collapse

It's easy to see the advantage of collapse preparedness for the citizenry—with better preparation, more will survive. But does a higher survival rate during and after collapse translate to some sort of geopolitical advantage?

The process of collapse will be determined by many factors, some hard to predict, and so it is difficult to know the size or scope of the political power structure that might re-emerge in either country. It's possible that one nation, or both, could devolve into smaller political units squabbling among themselves and unable to engage much in global jockeying for resources. All new political units emerging within the present territories of China or the U.S. would be immediately beset with enormous practical problems, including poverty, hunger, environmental disasters, and mass migrations.

Presumably some potent weaponry from the age of global warfare would remain intact and usable, so it is possible in principle that one or another of these smaller political entities could assert itself on the world stage as a short-lived, bargain-basement empire of limited geographic scope. But even in that case "winning" the collapse race would be small comfort.

The possibility of armed conflict between the two powers prior to mutual collapse is not to be entirely excluded if, for example, U.S. efforts to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions were to set off a deadly chain reaction of attacks and counter-attacks possibly involving Israel, with world powers being forced to choose sides; or if the U.S. were to persist in arming Taiwan. But neither the U.S. nor China wants a direct mutual military confrontation, and both nations are highly motivated to avoid one. Thus all-out nuclear war—still the worst-case imaginable scenario for homo sapiens and planet Earth—seems thankfully unlikely, though in the few decades ahead the use of some of these weapons, on some occasions, by one nation or another, is probable.

Trade wars are another matter, and we might even see one this year, according to Michael Pettis at Financial Times, who notes that

. . . trade imbalances are more necessary than ever to justify increased investment in surplus countries [i.e., China], but rising unemployment makes them politically and economically unacceptable in deficit countries [i.e., the U.S.]. Rising savings in the U.S. will collide with stubbornly high savings in China. Unless a long-term solution is jointly worked out immediately, trade conflict will worsen and it will become increasingly hard to reverse offensive policies. Most importantly, if deficit countries demand structural change faster than surplus countries can manage, we will almost certainly finish with a nasty trade dispute that will . . . poison relationships for years.

How likely is the prospect for the last nation standing to be able to, as I put it in the first paragraph above, "pick the carcasses" of its competitors? Such a scenario presupposes that one nation will be able to stay on its feet for at least a few years after others fall. But this may not be possible. Recall the prophetic words of Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988):

"A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates, its population and territory will be absorbed by some other [or bailed out by international agencies]. . . . Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse."

When the U.S.S.R. crashed, the U.S. and various multinational corporations were able to sweep in and gobble up some of the treasure left lying around. One example: U.S. nuclear power plants have for many years been using uranium fuel cannibalized from old Soviet missile warheads. Soon, international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF helped organize new financial structures for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and the other nations born from Soviet political and economic disintegration, so as to limit and reverse the process of social disintegration that had already passed beyond its early stages.

But now the game has changed. A collapse of the U.S. would leave China devastated. Not only would Beijing lose its main customer, but the hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of treasury notes it has accumulated would be rendered worthless. If China were internally stable, such impacts could be absorbed with difficulty. But in light of China's own simmering social and financial predicaments, a U.S. collapse would almost certainly be enough to tip Beijing's economy into a tailspin, resulting in both social and political crises.

A collapse of China would similarly devastate the U.S. Obviously, the loss of a source of cheap consumer products would discomfit WalMart shoppers, but the shock soon would go much deeper. The Treasury would lose its main foreign buyer of government debt, which means that the Fed would be forced to step in and monetize that debt (in common parlance, "turn on the printing presses"), undermining the dollar's value. The result: a hyperinflationary economic crash. Such a crash is probably inevitable at some point anyway, but a collapse of the Chinese system would hasten and worsen it.

In neither instance would international institutions be capable of preventing substantial social and political fall-out. The last nation standing would not stand for long. We have reached the stage where, as Tainter says, "World civilization will disintegrate as a whole."

The Transition Marathon

Okay, so there is no serious effort on the part of U.S. or Chinese leaders to avoid collapse in the long run (say, over the next 10 to 20 years). Perhaps this is because they have concluded that it is impossible to do so—there are just too many trends leading in the same direction, and actually dealing with any of those trends head-on would entail huge, immediate political risks. In reality, however, it is much more likely that they simply refuse seriously to think about these trends and their implications, because they do have another option—to postpone collapse through deficit spending, bailouts, and more financial bubbles, while enacting their parts in a climate-policy kabuki play and engaging in resource geopolitics. This way blame will at least fall on the next set of leaders. Postponing collapse is itself a big job, enough so as to take all of one's attention away from having to contemplate the awfulness and inevitability of what is being postponed.

Do these short-term efforts in any way reduce the risk of dissolution? Hardly. In fact, the longer the reckoning is delayed, the worse it will be.

What would make more sense than just trying to put off the inevitable is quite simply to build resilience throughout society, re-localizing basic social systems involving food, manufacture, and finance. There is no need to rehearse the existing discourse about this strategy: readers who are not familiar with it can find plenty of useful pointers at www.transitiontowns.org, or in the books and articles of authors such as Rob Hopkins, Albert Bates, David Holmgren, Pat Murphy, and Sharon Astyk (and in some of my own writings, including Museletter #192).

It is understandably hard for national politicians to think along those lines. Building societal resilience means disregarding the dictates of economic efficiency; it means systematically reducing the power of the central government and national/global commercial institutions (banks and corporations). It also means questioning the central dogma of our modern world: the efficacy and possibility of unending economic growth.

So if the best outcome lies in a strategy of resilience and re-localization, and our national leaders can't even contemplate such a strategy, that means those leaders are, in one sense at least, irrelevant to our future.

Some blog readers are so in tune with this line of thinking that they no longer see any point in paying attention to the global scene. They may even think this article is a waste of time (and I expect to get an email or two to that effect). But following world events is more than a matter of infotainment: when and how China and the U.S. come apart at the seams is a question of far greater consequence than that of whether the New Orleans Saints or the Indianapolis Colts will win the Superbowl. The reality is that no nation, and no community will be able to completely protect itself from the sudden, harsh winds that will rush to fill the vacuum left by an implosion of either superpower.

By the way, my apologies to the other 190 or so nations of the world, large and small: my singling out of the U.S. and China for discussion does not signify that other countries are unimportant, or that their destinies will not be as unique as their cultures and geographies; merely that those destinies will probably unfold in the context of a global collapse spreading from the two nations we have been discussing. For any nation—India, Bolivia, Russia, Brazil, South Africa—and for any community or family, survival will require some comprehension of the direction of large events, so as to get out of the way when debris is flying and to anticipate opportunities to regroup.

So: Pay attention to the weather reports from Washington and Beijing, but meanwhile build local resilience wherever you are. If the roof needs mending, don't dawdle.

Meanwhile, after a long day of organizing neighborhood Transition gardens, you may want to get a foretaste of post-collapse America by reading James Howard Kunstler's A World Made by Hand; or savor an entertainingly erudite discussion of collapse as an extended process (which it will likely be), rather than as a sudden, all-out event, by reading John Michael Greer's books The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future.

Just because the sky is falling, that doesn't mean it's time to stop thinking.

View a Spanish translation of this article

Photo credit: NYC photo - lifson/flickr

Like this article?

Keep the information flowing: Donate to Post Carbon Institute
Stay connected: Receive our monthly e-newsletter
Reposting: See our reposting policy

blog comments powered by Disqus

Reader Comments

34 comments

self destruction

From: the prophet john, Mar 8, 10 05:57 AM

a man works in a sawmill for many years. through the course of events, he loses the tip of a finger here, a knuckle there. until, after many years, he pauses to look at his hands, to discover he no longer has fingers or thumbs. aaah, he thinks to himself,"perhaps this was not the thing for me to do after all"

Stark reality

From: Denis Frith, Feb 25, 10 08:16 PM

All the operations of our civilizations entail depleting limited irreplaceable natural material resources (INMR), including oil and familiar climate, while also using replenishable natural material resources (RNMR). Globally INMR is being used at the rate of about 2.6% per annum and it is becoming scarce. Heinrich mentions soem of the consequential problems. Humans have made the decisions behind the development of civilizations but natural forces have invariably done the irreversible work. Money has been a major factor in these decisions to make use of what is possible with natural forces.
This fundamental dependence of the operations of civilization on using INMR, which is really natural material wealth, is the prime causative factor behind the developing crisis. The financial crisis has many political, economic and social implications. But it will have little impact on the inexorable decline in INMR. The vast appetite of cities and the like will continue to be satisified to some degree. Civilization, particularly in the US is addicted to using INMR at a high rate. It cannot turn back the clock. It is into its senescence. China is tending to belatedly emulate the US but cannot buck the stark, physical reality. Humans have devised the means to use natural forces to fatally ravish our life support system

Future of China

From: Christopher Logan, Feb 16, 10 08:39 AM

The fact that a large proportion of Chinese citizens is engaged in agriculture sees to bode well, but the migrant workers and elegant middle class are not eligible to return that way. The land is being worked to its absolute limit as it is, and is having trouble supporting any returned migrant workers. Mao was able to return intellectuals to the countryside because there was plenty of it to work. The same will not be true in the future.

Furthermore, industry has poisoned the soil, air and water of China to such an extent that parts of the Yellow River are not even useful for industry, let alone agriculture. That water will flow unpredictably in the event of serious climate change, and already the Tibetan Plateau is yielding less water than before, to feed China's major rivers. As glaciers shrink (largely due to soot, in part from massive coal burning) this vital precondition for Chinese agriculture will shrink.

Even if the population stabalizes or begins to decline, China is a used-up farm that will support ever fewer. Poisons building up in the system at this moment will mitigate any prosperity China may experience in the short term. The soil is tired, and increasingly dependent on chemical inputs.

Like America, China is a dying addict in denial. Fooled by the globalization pusher, it has become so deeply involved in phony prosperity that its demise as an empire is certain. As you point out, smaller polities into which it breaks will still have to deal with the serious problems afoot.

I wish you would not discourage the defense of Taiwan, which has enough water, farmland and lebensraum for its existing population, and a high level of education. For China to gobble Taiwan, as one of its last imperial acts, would be a very great shame. Localization means keeping poisonous empires out of healthy neighborhoods.

Excellent essay

From: Lloyd G., Feb 14, 10 06:11 AM

American politicians seem to have the attitude that the US is "too big to fail" -- i.e.: that other countries (China) won't allow us to fail because of the impact that would have on them. They think that Chinese factory workers who make $1 an hour (if they're lucky) have no choice but to keep handing over half their paychecks so their gov't can keep buying US Treasuries, so US politicians can keep buying votes with idiotic 'stimulus' and other spending. Nevermind the fact that this arrangement is not sustainable.
Oh well. It was fun to be American while it lasted.

Your analysis are correct, your conclusion not

From: Mohamed, Feb 12, 10 11:01 AM

Apocalyptic prognostication is the stuff of mythology. The law of cause and effect is real. The growth of corporate powered hyperpowers is truly unprecedented, but so is the universality of human rights, rule by concensus and understanding of the weakness of scarcity-based economics. Sadly the conclusion you made here take two questionable premises: linearity of change and the economic paradigm that rest on scarcity. So what if we run out of oil? I will leave the growing discoveries of major offshore oil deposit in brazil and other locales. But, let's stick with peak oil. What about sheer human inguineity, I am talking about solar thermal, local/organic farming, electric cars... the collapse of empires from 25 dynasties of Khemet to the USSR and the Warsaw pact

tipping point

From: anicca, Feb 11, 10 09:27 AM

We live in a concensus reality (in other words, a mass hallucination). The only thing that holds our country together is the belief that our situation isn't as bad as "doomsayers" report and that things will get "back to normal". The collapse will come when the critical mass of people believe the economy is broken beyond repair. The government/media maintains the illusion of recovery with manipulated statistics while the financial institutions prop up the stock market and constrain the values of precious metals.

It would be wonderful if a new, positive vision of reality would be ready to replace the unsustainable version we find ourselves in. We are teetering on the "tipping point" between fear and hope. I believe that FDR realized the importance of the concensus reality when he said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" We can hope for the best, while preparing for the worst.

What sustains me is my belief in karma, that whatever challenges I face in the present are the results of my past actions. My future is dependent on how I respond to those challenges. I choose to meet the challenges with love and compassion.

Sounds, smells and tastes like Anarcho-Syndicalism.

From: Louis Horvath, Feb 8, 10 12:18 AM

Your last paragraph, the transition marathon, sounds a lot like Chomsky's take on Anarcho-Syndicalism. Local power restored with community in mind. Our current political system can't possibly embrace this. We also see huge resistance all across the board to people who decide to be fully self-sufficient.
Independent people means less power to centralized states to play whatever games they want. It is very clear the rush is to put the last pieces on the board before it all goes bad.
Hopefully we'll be able to pick up the pieces and build a livable world instead of an economically viable world.

What should the strategy be for individuals

From: Drew Stevenson, Feb 7, 10 02:55 PM

I have for many years been non plused by the concept of growth based economies, particularly when they rely on non renewable resources.
The end game is obvious - disaster. What is less clear is the strategy that I, as an individual should adopt. My eldest son opted out of a large part of the consumer society and is putting much of his energy into self reliant systems predicated on the collapse of society as we know it. That's fine and I can't critise his principles or even his strategy. His timing however has certain absolute drawbacks.
To do as he proposes he has had to make enormous sacrifices and to forgo many of the very pleasant benefits of our society.
It seems that at the individual level picking and timing your strategy are two very different things.

Delaying COLLAPSE

From: Lara Morrison, Feb 7, 10 08:54 AM

I'm for buying time in both the US and China to change the way as many people as possible think about the demise of the old paradigm If people can see the opportunity to create a better world it could really change how we meet the challenges.

Last and first nation

From: pete markiewicz, Feb 7, 10 07:54 AM

For who wins (America versus China) you can do no better than read Olaf Stapledon's classic "Last and First Men", written in the 1920s. The first part of the book (which deals with future history in the near term assumes that America and China are the last countries standing. A partial solution is worked out for a First World State - but then the oil runs out.

slow vs.rapid collapse

From: Loren Soman, Feb 7, 10 01:11 AM

I'm not so sure I agree with the slow collapse ideas of John Michael Greer. Eventually,(sooner than most think possible) wide spread famine will lead to large scale rapid human die-off. Here's why. The economy can not be downscaled propotionately without begining to fall short of providing for the basic metabolic needs of an ever increasing proportion of the population. At some critical level, political stability of any kind (even in a police state) becomes impossible to maintain. Supply chains fall into chaos. Famine begins. We are living in a temporary calm before the apocalyptic storm. The markets have just begun to fail. Within weeks it will pick up speed, soon morphing into full scale total economic collapse. This year for certain. Huge job loses will follow. Soon a national emergency will be declared. Full scale rapid human die-off can not be more than 2-5 years away. Enjoy the brief pause while it lasts. Things are about to get ugly.

life after oil

From: Ron Gorman, Feb 6, 10 09:28 PM

Thanks Richard for your efforts to help those who will listen. Sincerely, Ron Gorman

Last nation ?

From: Robert, Feb 6, 10 08:54 PM

The codependents of nations are inextricably bound by Walmart and battle ships..without an enemy what could justify the cost..or the the mentally deranged obsession with warfare.. IF our nations would divest themselves of war machines and use it for the good of the planet, we could end the most desperate suffering within 6 months..within a year humanity might find many things more useful than war..it's the one thing we haven't yet tried...peace with purpose...What have we got to loose really...Armageddon ? Bad Mad Max reruns ? Zombie movies ?
The inhibitions of the elite should not be allowed to crush the hope of the entire planet..Where are all the smart people ? And what the hell are they doing ? Are we just going to burn up or are we going to take that giant step...Now..Please....

thanks

From: AutonomyAcres, Feb 6, 10 08:19 PM

This was a wonderful post. Sobering and insightful. As a human race we have a long uphill battle to face in the Post-Oil age. Having folks like yourself to so eloquently state the facts, even if a little long, is one of the things that can help all of us transition through the times ahead of us. Thank you for putting together such a great piece.
AutonomyAcres.com

Excellent

From: Robert T Bazinet, Feb 6, 10 11:59 AM

Excellent essay Sir, thank you for succinctly summing up what should be obvious to any thinking human, but sadly may not be.

Standing

From: Mike Chopapa, Feb 6, 10 09:58 AM

I wonder often these days about U.S. efforts to occupy and to control middle east oil production lands. Knowing that industrial human society is about to collapse, why would the super elites bother with such efforts? Upon reading "...Standing?", it occurs to me that controlling oil production is possibly not about securing access for the U.S. but rather about denying access to other nations to assure mutual collapse by denying energy advantage.

Musing...

thank you

From: Kathy C, Feb 6, 10 08:33 AM

Thank you Richard Heinberg for telling things as they are not as we wish they might be. As usual you write so clearly that anyone should understand unless they just don't want to. You are a very important voice in the world right now

if one collapses

From: jeyeykei, Feb 6, 10 08:30 AM

china as a country has been very resilient for the last thousand of years, while US is hardly coping in terms of sustainability in terms of resources as of......to date. now let's all do the math.

About nuclear..

From: kfj, Feb 6, 10 08:17 AM

I have followed your teachings amongst others (ruppert, simmons, cambell, kunstler), for many years but it seems to me that the nuclear issue is always the hot potato worth mentioning but are excused from any speculation. The peak oil debate has rapidly evolved over the years as current events are ticked of in the plan book.

The problem with the issue is that it's not at all mainstream how ever true it is, so the public is optimistic about a financial recovery. And that scares me. I'm not a beliver in AGW but I think the next world summit should be about nuclear weapons. I dread the day commercial news networks talks about scarce resources in a factual manner. I ask myself this but have no answer to it. How can we best have nuclear proliferation when the hopelessness of our future sinks in for everyone on this planet? That is for me the issue since we pretty much know what a domino effect in nuclear attack will mean. Maybe not every city will die of in a direct attack, but the human race will eighter perish or be massivly deformed.

There is much concentration on permiculture and local farming for the survivers but the nuclear issue is largely ignored. I'm thinking about this and sabotage seems like a good idea since I don't see much good in debating this in the reactionary politics systems we have created.

For me it's the first step in getting to survive. And I wonder what we can do, and why it's not being discussed.

Local is the only place I have any hope

From: John Andersen, Feb 6, 10 06:34 AM

What heartens me each day is to live in a community where so many people "get it" and are working towards transition.

I find I need to get out often to learn new ideas, meet people with deep knowledge, and build ties.

Isolation is the enemy. Community involvement is the only answer that makes any sense.

Last nation standing.

From: Joe Flamini, Feb 6, 10 06:09 AM

Well said, Richard... well said.

Collapse consensus growing!

From: Samoht, Feb 6, 10 02:15 AM

It would appear that the current economic and fiscal crisis is a direct result of peoples belief in an imminent collapse. You can not raise credit unless the lender and yourself belief in the economic growth necessary to repay the debt AND the interest. Interest bearing debt necessitates growth - as otherwise a world wide zero sum game only works if some win and most lose. World wide economic growth has run headlong into the wall of our one-planet reality. Physics has not and will not deliver 'Star Trek' and in a nutshell that is the hinge point of all our troubles as long as we live the lifestyle of the exponential growth junkie. The transition into a shrinking and perhaps one day stabilizing world economy will be hard. Some of the old tribal communities living medieval or stone age subsistence life style will be looking smart.... fasten your seat belts!

The year 3000 will be so last millenia

From: xhmko, Feb 5, 10 11:25 PM

I saw you speak with David Holmgrem at the University Of Western Australia a few years back. One comment that David said that has stuck with me was how he used to go around practically demonising the 1950's as one of the most decadent, unsustainable boom times in history, and how now, when he looks back at the sense of community and self reliance that folks who had not yet been handed the throw away plasticity of the late 20th century still depended on, he sees it almost as a model of sustainbilty.

That was the era my parents grew up in, and when I was a kid in the 80's, she was keeping every scrap of paper and every glass jar and growing small amounts of food and pretty much seeing a use for everything that entered into the house without the multi billion dollar industry of trying to convince people to reuse-reduce recycle. It was par for the course, and it will be again.

Re: Slow vs Fast Crash

From: Kitaj, Feb 5, 10 09:15 PM

It has to be understood that without precise definition, one persons "fast collapse" might be "slow" to someone else.

I think people like Greer are wrong in using the decline of the Roman Empire as a model, or the Mayans.

Our situation today is unprecedented in so many ways. The point is, neither Greer, Orlov or Kunstler have really factored in worst-case-scenario climate change into their prognostications, and in this aerticle, neither has Heinberg.

To answer the ideas expressed by one of the posters here about "before" and "after", I think what some are pointing to in making such distinctionswould be, for example, before and after hyperinflation, or complete meltdown of the global financial system.

But the real before and after would be if we hit a climate tipping point, in which case Greer's ideas about the process taking centuries would be way off. If we cant stop climate change, peak oil will be trivial in comparison.

Apples and Oranges

From: Stumptown , Feb 5, 10 08:17 PM

Interesting and probably quite true. But comparing the United States (and Canada) with China is like comparing apples and oranges. North America, while we have depleted our natural resources, still has more oil, gas, coal, uranium, ariable farmland, water etc than China and can sustain itself better with a little downsizing of lifestyle on the part of its inhabitants. The billion plus Chinese Empire (yes it is an Empire, perhaps the last one standing), cannot sustain itself without importing everything. And it pays for imports with exports. No exports no imports. Hence Empire collapse into historically fragmented and hostile competing states is inevitable. North America will withdraw into a somewhat self sufficient state (or states) and our main concern with China might be Oriental piracy off the West Coast. But that is some years hence.

Overuse of "collapse" construct

From: EconDemocracy, Feb 5, 10 02:20 PM

35 or so uses of the word "collapse" Like any construct it can be useful; it IS useful to have a single term to describe what are quite varied in type (energy, infrastructure, social, etc) and in time (no single time at which even one of these strands of collapse "happens" but rather, a series of steps or stages).

But overuse of the construct - but by Heinberg individually but by the entire Peak Oil movement and many other movements (especially here in the US, we love apocalyptic genres) means we are forced to use such broad brushstrokes so as to ignore the different types, and forcing us to ignore that even for one of these types of 'collapse' individually, it's not a single temporal event. There is no "before and after" there are many stages (some reached graduatelly, some via a discontinuity of course).

It then pushes all of us (myself included, not just R.H.) into talking about "when..China and the U.S. come apart at the seams" as if there is a single such "when"

The same is true about climate destabilization, talking about "When" the sh*t hits the fan, when there is not single "when" but a variety of damages (ocean acidification, more extremes of wet/dry and some weather events, rising sea levels and lost coastlines etc) each of which itself, does not have a single "when" but many stages.

We give enemies of sanity a weapon by overusing the meme and having such "Whens" because then they say, "it still haven't happened" and we have to go back to explaining there is no single "it" event but bad things that have already happened, and worse to come, unless we act.

Collapse consensus growing?

From: Brian Gordon, Feb 5, 10 01:59 PM

It appears to me that more and more of the types of people who are aware of the problems of peak oil, climate change, resource depletion, political-economic corruption, etc, are predicting collapse - soon. I have suggested we have at most 25 years until major social breakdown: http://www.briangordon.ca/2010/01/countdown-to-the-apocalypse-predicting-the-end-of-the-world/. I may have to revise that down; given the realities of peak oil and political corruption, it seems increasingly unlikely we'll get through the next 10 years without a major step down.

I now count John Michael Greer (Archdruid Report) and Richard Heinberg as looking to Bad Things Happening within a few to ten years. Not promising....

Chinese Wisdom

From: Winfield, Feb 5, 10 09:18 AM

I find an irresistible urge to repeat the ever-optimistic and quaint wisdom that the Chinese word for "oppotunity" is the same word used to describe "shitting one's pants". The time is ripe.

The world oligarchs don't care.

From: i, Feb 5, 10 08:00 AM

Countries and nation/states were a convenience to them at one time, but no longer. The world's wealthy don't care. They can live anywhere and be taken care of. Democracy has become inconvenient. Their final solution is worldwide corporate feudalism.

doomed

From: Chris, Feb 5, 10 02:29 AM

Surprisingly, Richard failed to mention Europe, the largest economy and the biggest exporter in the world.Surely, it will be the region most hard hit due to its dependence on export income and energy imports? The prize for worst collapse-preparedness goes to Singapore though in my opinion, a place where I used to live. Zero agriculture or natural resources, total dependence on world trade and surrounded by hostile neighbours. They're basically f§cked.

When on ship, options are few

From: John Mack, Feb 4, 10 05:02 PM

I think it's delusional for people to think they can isolate themselves from the major effects of Peak Oil, unless you have the appetite of a mouse and the imagination of an ant. The use of oil is too deep and broad for people to avoid the effects of declining production. As when on a ship, the options available are few and limited.

From: Jane, Feb 4, 10 02:46 PM

Thankyou for clarifying all of this. After years of political and social activism, I have been retreating to my own community (a small town) and working on this very resilience that you're talking about, local production and re-skilling, and what I call supporting the community that is here already. I don't know what is going to happen, but I do have some enthusiasm for the future... for myself and my children and grandchildren. "We live in interesting times."

Re: The Future

From: Kitaj, Feb 4, 10 02:43 PM

Both China and India are facing huge shortages of fresh water. With the size of their populations, they are in huge trouble.

Water is also going to be an explosive issue, more so than now, in the Middle East.

More than that, by mentioning the number of coal-fired plants China and India intend to build, and how many cars, you have deeply illustrated illustrated that human beings will not be able to stop rising greenhouse gas emissions, so we are all toast, together.

Will the carbon run out before we drown?

From: David Shipway, Feb 4, 10 12:03 PM

It's clear that the current economic circus of nationalistic competition epitomises that saying "he who dies with the most toys wins", but I think Richard underemphasises the dire consequences on Earth's climate for such a string of one-liners like "800 new coal plants in the next 20 years".

If one was to imagine this anthropocene epoch as a long day, then the ignition of all those billion years of stored carbon would be like a huge explosion at high noon. But in the dreadful silence of the afternoon, with carnage and debris falling around our ears, the incredible heat output of that blast will become most apparent, as the forests burn and the oceans rise to swallow most coastal cities and river delta farmlands.

The trouble is, the fuse was already lit, and was so short no one dared go near the bomb to diffuse it. Some saftey squad could have aimed a fire hose called "economic contraction" at it, but they would have risked being mobbed by the partiers who just want to watch the fireworks.

Instead, we've finally decided on a safer solution: cranking up this big sideshow distraction called "The Green Economy" filled with busy beavers making new gadgets that take even more fossil fuels to manufacture.

So now we have two burning Juggernauts, one brown, one green, in competion with each other. Each band of lobbyists are rooting for their side like drunken fools at a cock fight. Meanwhile, the fuse has started the ignition, which has just gone critical. Who needs nukes when you can blow off a billion years in a flash?