Any social system, society or culture, when you get to the marrow, seems to be a style of living practiced by a population due to their shared beliefs and values. This system governs how people relate to themselves, one another, other cultures and the native environment. We are born into a social contract. It is as if a seed, an enculturalizing spore, is planted deep in our childhood minds. Taking root there, it goes on to blossom in our behavior, through our participation with, debts and contributions to, and consequential validation of the social system.
When it is said that a society collapses, then, it could mean at least three things. First, it could mean that things got so bad that people were forced to abandon their homes and the way of life inextricably hinged to it. They then were forced to set up residence in a new environment, necessitating the adoption of a new way of life. Instead, their may be internal conflicts, civil war, and the old power structures may be overthrown and replaced with a new system, ushering in a new way of life in their familiar, native environment. Last and most certainly least comforting, the populace itself may meet extinction due to their ruthless determination in plowing on forward as they were, tunnel vision fixed on their illusions of immortality, undaunted by the warning signs on their merry way down to their imminent doom.
All those scenarios spawn some monstrous questions, of course, most central of which would have to be just how and exactly why societies fall, and this is something Jared Diamond explored in his 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Using his “five-point framework” of contributing factors, he takes on a comparative study of societies in our history that have faced a fall. Early in the book Diamond outline these five points when he suggests that a more befitting title might have been “Societal collapses involving an environmental component, and in some cases also contributions of climate change, hostile neighbors, and trade partners, plus questions of societal responses.”
The first factor, environmental damage, arises out of an interaction between the resilency or fragility of the environment and the degree and speed at which the given population manages to exploit it. Resources may be renewable, but socieities have nonetheless collapsed by sucking dry renewable resources before they had a chance to cycle back. Resources may also be “nonrenewable” — which is to say that they are renewable, just not on a time scale relevant to us as a species, let alone a society. The consequences can be pretty disasterous, and Diamond draws parallels between our potential fates as a planet and the ominous Easter Island, home to all those amazing statues. When the inhabitants had finally devoured their forests, they could not make fires, shelters, or the canoes they required for off-island trade. Soil erosion caused by the deforestation effected agriculture, leading to food scarcity.
Similarly, there is the extensive damage caused by what author Daniel Quinn calls “totalitarian agriculture.” In his book, Ishmael, Quinn writes about the nature of survival strategies in the community of life. All life, he explains, is governed by immutable laws. If followed, there is survival, and if the laws are ignored, there is extinction. Consistent among all species, he explais, is the “Law of Limited Competition” which he defines as follows: “You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war.”
Elsewhere the notion is wrapped up perhaps more simply: essentially, you take what you need and leave the rest. The logic behind this law is wrapped up by the words of Peter Farb: “Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population.” Clearly our consumerist, expansionist, species-centric collective behavior and perspective would seem to imply we are on a road to catastrophic ruin in this respect, as we are consuming all the more all the more swiftly, not inching but leaping towards the ceiling in exponential growth-spurts.
Totalitarian agriculture is not the only pressing problem in this category, either, and we can see how these problems can exacerbate one another in the nightmarish scenario offered by Michael Rupert, who expressed his views on peak oil in detail in the documentary, Collapse (which is in no way related to the book written by Diamond, save for significant areas of overlap in their concerns, of course). The documentary gives an overview of just how dependent we are on oil, and its quite frightening.
We fertilize the land with petrochemicals in order to produce more food on less land, but the petroleum-based fertilizer destroys the topsoil, one inch of which can take up to 500 years to replace. Oil also is used in the transportation of the food. Oil produces nearly all the energy in transportation across the world, which accounts for some 70% of the barreled oil we use. Roughly 28 gallons of oil can be found in your tires, too, and that’s not counting the spare. Oil is in the plastic, in the paint, and in the toothpaste and the toothbrush in your glove compartment. Oil saturates our lives, and to make matters worse, this finite oil ultimately has no replacement. “There is nothing anywhere in any combination,” Rupert insists, “that will replace the edifice built on fossil fuels.”
And that is a problem, he stresses, in the light of peak oil — “the point of oil production when you’re at the top of the bell curve, and so have used up half of the available oil.” Rupert believes we are at the peak if we haven’t passed it already. “As of 2008,” he says, “the international energy agency has admitted that there is a global 9% decline rate in oil production. That’s the equivalent of about 8 million barrels a day.” He adds that we would not be going into areas such as the Canadian tar sands unless we’ve used up the good stuff, which seems to be a good point.
Over-consumption can be found in our “disposable culture,” too, given that what we waste we tend to replace with either a newer duplicate or an upgrade. This value seems to be an engineered one, as indicated by Victor Lebow in his article “The Real Meaning of Consumer Demand”, published in the Spring 1955 issue of the Journal of Retailing, in which he wrote:
“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies. These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only ‘forced draft’ consumption, but ‘expensive’ consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. The home power tools and the whole ‘do-it-yourself’ movement are excellent examples of ‘expensive’ consumption.”
As filmmaker Annie Leonard outlines in her web-based documentary, “The Story of Stuff,” this is no accident. There are, she tells us, two main strategies corporations utilize in order to make consumption our way of life. The first, planned obsolescence, deals with eingineered disposability: designing things to have a short shelf-life so as to force us to buy replacements or upgrades. The second, perceived obsolescence, deals with manufactured waves of fashion — manipulative strategies aimed at convincing us to discard and upgrade to stay in style. These strategies continue to prove effective as well, keeping us on what Leonard calls the “work, watch, spend” treadmill.
Despite being mammals, it would appear from multiple angles that we have adopted the values of a virus, as Agent Smith so elegantly explained in his Carl Sagan knock-off kind of voice. This parasitic emulation inspires us to behave, as Joe Rogan has observed, like mold growing on a sandwich. Edward Abbey was allegedly the one who wrote the great line: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Our values make us behave like a cancer upon the earth.
The second factor is (non-global and global) climate change, distinguished from the first factor in that it is a natural rather than human-produced variance in an environment that may help or hinder a society. Droughts that last for seasons, uncharacteristically long and harsh winters, and other such localized circumstances is essentially what Diamond is talking about here, though global climate change would clearly apply as well.
Then there is the matter of neighboring populations. Here you get either Hostile Neighbors, the third factor, or Friendly Trade Partners, which stand as the fourth. Considering the resources gleaned through the relationship are often quite essential to the society, trade relations provide friendly, cross-border fecal transport for when the shit in one society sucessfully hits the fan. The Friendly Trade Partner role in collapse, then, is in its act of bringing two dominoes close enough together so that when one falls, the other goes Humpty-Dumpty-fucking down right along with it. Until the rise of global trade, it was safe to assume that such issues would remain localized at worst. Hostile neighbors may be not always be hostile. In fact, they may play the role of Friendly Trade Parters when ass-kicking is in its off season. In any case, in the fashion of impatient vultures those hostile neighbors would likely percieve the weakened, vulnerable state of the enemy society as a golden opportunity to strike their epic blow.
While not every society had each of the first four factors as an ingredient in their collapse, Diamond explains, the fifth factor remains relevant to them all. In all cases cultural values influence how they manage the dire circumstances, as do the relevant social, economic and political institutions, but a society has a choice with respect to how they respond to these problems. A society could be unaware of their problems and so unable to respond, of course, but they could also have at least a lingering, dimly-lit awareness of the issues before them that only elicits a dedicated ignorance, or perhaps try to solve the problem only to fail, perhaps even exacerbating the problems in the progress. Facing a fall, yes, many societies proved to succumb to gravity, but others managed to land on their feet, averting collapse, saving themselves through ingenuity and the strength to adapt.
No longer is it so simple, however. Circumstances in our modern globalized culture present a threat far wider in scope than the more localized impacts of collapsing societies in the past, and this harkens back to the falling dominoes of friendly trade partners. Now the entire world is wound together in a web of trade, data, travel. Plucking one strand produces global reverberation. We are all dominoes, and we all fall down.
Towards the end of his book, Diamond provides a list of literally a dozen serious issues that we face as a global society today, each of which are interrelated and effect one another, he tells us, and we must solve each of them in order to survive as a global civilization. The first four problems echo issues in previous societies that collapsed, and they involve the depletion of resources, namely through deforestation and our obliteration of other natural habitats. Also included are over-hunting and over-fishing and the general loss of biodiversity due to human behavior and soil damage. In Ishmael, Quinn writes on the importance of biodiversity:
“Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself. A community of a hundred million species can survive anything short of total global catastrophe. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature drop of twenty degrees—which would be a lot more devastating than it sounds. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature rise of twenty degrees. But a community of a hundred species or a thousand species has almost no survival value at all.”
The next three have involve the finite quality of natural resources, which due to our population explosion and insatiable appetites only emerged in their beaming severity in our modern era. First mentioned is fossil fuels, and rightly so, and then issues with water management and our full use of our planet’s photosynthetic capacity (yes: evidently, there is a ceiling on sunlight). He then speaks about pollution, the introduction of non-native species to an environment and global warming, all negative effects produced by human behavior and which inevitably prove to have negative effects on human beings as well.
As a one-sentence attempt to summarize, he seems to indicate that a society collapses due to its depletion of resources (native or imported), and if that fails to do them in, their weakened state leaves them vulnerable to attacks from hostiles. What leads to the depletion of resources? Excess consumption. What force drives a society to suck the renewable eco-tit dry before it has a damn chance to replenish itself? Either insatiable appetites or overpopulation. Or both, as it seems to be in our current, global case. Last and finally, then, Diamond talks about the final two items on his we’re-in-shit list, both of them population issues. Namely its explosive increase and the corresponding impact our numbers are having on our resource consumption and generation of waste.
When societies collapse, he says, they typically do so abruptly, shortly after they pique. “An analog,” he says in his TedTalks lecture, “would be the growth bacteria in a petrie dish. These rapid collapses are especially likely where there is a mismatch between available resources and resource consumption, or a mismatch between economic outlays and economic potential. In a petie dish bacteria grow, say they double every generation, and five generations before the end the petrie dish is 15/16th empty, and then the next generation is 3/4 empty and then the next generation, half empty. Within one generation after the petrie dish still being half empty, it is full, there’s no more food and the bacteria have collapsed. So this is a frequent theme, that societies collapse very soon after their peak in power.”
In addition, Diamond framed his list of 12 problems as “time bombs with fuses of less than fifty years.” Not only is this multifaceted shirt-storm virtually around the corner, he seems to say, but it will waste no time when it gets here.
No empire is built in a day, to be sure, but evidently they can drop dead on a dime.