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The Natural Laws of Collapse PDF Print E-mail
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by Adam D. Sacks   
20 January 2011
Image That birds fly and pigs don't is a consequence of laws of nature governing physics and biology. Nothing that transpires on physical planet Earth is any different: the laws of nature are inviolate. Always. [1]

This is a truism, and should be readily apparent, as it indeed often is in indigenous cultures where people are entirely dependent on natural forces and what is close at hand. But this truism is rendered invisible by technological and bureaucratic power, the delusional quality of human exceptionalism, and the complexity of civilizations, especially but not exclusively of recent industrialized civilization.

That is, we have imagined throughout the known history of the past ten thousand friendly-climate years that, because from time to time we have been able to use the laws of nature to our short- and long-term advantage, we are no longer subject to them. Current instances are encyclopedic: Use of fossil fuels, the Green Revolution, atomic energy, widespread dispersion of toxics, and entering the sixth great extinction are recent examples. We persistently act as if unintended consequences do not exist.

Nonetheless, such consequences abound, and are forcefully shaping our lives. If we are to address causes and consequences, whether we fully understand them or not, it's essential to be open to and explore perspectives that may be very different from prevailing ones.

Cultures evolve because they provide us with effective ways of surviving the environmental hand we are dealt, but cultures are powerful regulators of human behavior and thought, and tend to persist despite changes which may render their central assumptions dysfunctional or lethal (e.g., we can pollute and desertify the planet to our heart's content).

The culture which drives us, whether we deplore it or not, likes us to go around in activism circles whenever we threaten to question its most basic tenets -- activism keeps us busy and harmless. Notwithstanding, the forbidden point to consider here is that collapse of civilizations, including ours, is inevitable and always has been. Hidden in plain sight, we have not grasped what will sooner or later become obvious: Civilizational collapse is not up to any of us, no matter what we do. As when faced with an unstoppable Hurricane Katrina, which is only obeying the laws of nature, the best we can do is to be prepared.

To elaborate a bit: there are indeed laws of nature that govern human groups, just as there are physical/biological laws that govern any living creature. This seems as if it should be obvious. These laws, particularly in relationship to civilizations, may not be so obvious as the laws governing the behavior of a falling apple, but they are every bit as inviolable.

In order to live within the constraints of such laws, which civilized humans habitually seem to forget (not only in Euro-American civilization, but in all other civilizations throughout known history), we have to re-learn them (a central theme in Ishmael) [2]. And by "civilization," I mean human societies more or less larger than chiefdoms, industrialized or not, living in central dwellings more or less distant from sources of food and other necessities, with a distinct class structure that differentiates between a ruling oligarchy and everybody else.

What kinds of laws are these? Pretty simple really. Primarily, any biological organism, including humans, will grow exponentially until it runs into limits to growth, or overshoot of carrying capacity. The wall may be in the form of no more food, or competing species, or new competing members of one's own species. Sometimes a balance is struck, and an equilibrium is maintained for an indefinite period of time if and until an external event upsets the balance (e.g., a new species in the niche, climate change, etc.).

A critical corollary is that exponential growth is an imperative. Any species will expand its numbers if it possibly can for as long as it can.

Now with humans sometimes culture adapts to perceptions of limits, and develops norms that restrict expansion of self-defeating growth (China's one-child policy is an example of such an attempt, successful or not); island cultures may do that because the limits are painfully obvious. But, as on Easter Island, ecosystem reality may remain unappreciated, as people would often rather die than change their culture, and die they did.

As civilizations grow larger the ability to change seems to dwindle, and we witness all civilizations in history going through their birth, vigor, then death, until, as in Ozymandias [3],

. . . Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that collosal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In one of my top ten books of the 20th century, Joseph Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies) [4] explains, in terms of the flow of energy (he calls it "marginal return"), why civilizations must collapse. Social complexity is very expensive, and the more a civilization grows the less you get back per unit of input (also called "diminishing returns"). Sooner or later every civilization busts its budget, cannot afford its armies or its bureaucracies, is unable to suppress increasing dissatisfaction among the masses who must be at least nominally pacified (think bread and circuses), exhausts its resources, suffers from its environmental travesties (the most salient of which is destruction of trees and soil), runs out of food, and is eventually supplanted by simpler more sustainable groups (if there are any around) or just disperses (if there's any place left to disperse to).

I would propose that the civilizational life cycle, as described above, is a law of nature. The collapse is therefore predictable. It has nothing to do with our specific Euro-American now-gone-global deplorable civilization -- it has to do with any civilization that gets to a certain size, necessitating hierarchy and class. Cultures will vary in their metaphors and style, partly depending upon geography, as Jared Diamond has pointed out [5], but the final outcome will be the same: collapse.

And that's where we are now. The determining factor is size (relative to resources). All else is simply the stories we tell ourselves. Therefore:

We can write to politicians, we can riot in the streets, we can write learned tomes, we can cavort through the vast wasteland of talk radio, we can make impassioned documentaries, we can bring down Monsanto, we can put up solar panels and drink organic yak's milk. None of that will change the outcome one bit (as tragic as that may be now that humans have become a global force) -- because civilization is on a course prescribed by laws of nature which have no regard whatsoever for human wishful thinking.

It sounds grim, what can we actually do? Well, once we recognize the reality -- but not until then -- we can act on it. As far as I can tell, acting on it means getting ready to live our lives within planetary means. It may be too late for that, as the climate prepares to rage wildly beyond livability, but let us try what we can (which may include pulling carbon out of the atmosphere so somebody will survive). [6]

Preparing ourselves is not a salve for the terrible pain of our current predicament, but it's about as good as it gets -- and is full of relationship and a renewed sense of community, so that we may, at the very least, as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross once put it, live until we say goodbye. [7]

* * * * *

Image Adam Sacks has written four articles on climate for Grist.org, and for a while maintained a blog, Climate Chronicles. He has earned two doctorates and has had careers in holistic medicine, high-tech, and democracy and climate activism (with writing and art work on the side). Now officially retired, he works full-time as a bicycle mechanic, milks goats and takes tap dance classes in his spare time. He lives near Boston with his digital piano, kombucha mushrooms and other friends.

Notes

1 I don't care to enter a debate here on religious and psychic phenomena, intervention of the miraculous, etc. For the moment suffice it to say that plaintive human pleas notwithstanding, we live overwhelmingly by the inflexible rules the universe imposes.

2 Daniel Quinn, Ishmael, Bantam Books, 1992. An entertaining and landmark cultural critique in the form of a novel, cast as a dialogue between a seeker and a socratic gorilla. It is an indication of how difficult it is to understand one's own culture that one must become a gorilla (or some metaphorical equivalent) to have any chance at all.

3 "Ozymandias," by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the great expositions of civilizational folly in English literature:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

4 Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

5 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997

6 For an explanation of the only carbon sequestering strategy to date that makes sense, see my article on Grist, "Got Cows", January 30, 2010.

7 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and Mal Warshaw, To Live Until We Say Goodbye, Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1978. Stories of dying patients who live their lives in full until the very end.

Comments (20)Add Comment
It will be interesting to see the response of others to this piece. For my 2 cents, this is the most cogent, poignant and concise description of the current human predicament that I have ever read. Good on ya Adam!

I also came across this piece lately that is an excellent review of the Systems theory that Adam is alluding to and that supports his thesis that collapse is inevitable. http://www.jerryravetz.co.uk/essays/e01global.pdf

"It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value."
Arthur C. Clarke
John Bohland
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Votes: +6
If the concept of evolution has any validity, perhaps mankind/intelligence is nature's attempt to get beyond the tendency of organisms to expand until limits are painfully encountered.

In the meanwhile, I agree, we can only get ready to ride the wave reality is sending.....great essay!!
Kamau
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Goethe has once expressed a thought that, "Nature never wastes its treasures thoughtlessly". This could condole us somewhat. However, it indeed remains to be seen if we have any value. - Victor
Victor P
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Good piece. Nice to see warnings with prudent balance. Please, more essays like this, and fewer like the hand-waving Goodchild essay a while back. I read Tainter ten years ago, when I first became aware of the peak oil conversation. One of the best books ever on the topic of overshoot. Readers will also benefit from watching Naomi Klein's new TEDTalk (www.ted.com) on sustainability vs. risk..
John L
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It's great to read from fellow writers/ "essayists" who are writing pretty much the same type of stuff I have been, nice to have some comfort finding others whose perceptions match my own. Very well put!! I can't remember the name of it, but I watched a documentary some time ago, a great quote from it is "Extinction is the rule, evolving is the exception." or something to that affect.
W.S. Axsom a.k.a. The BluOwle
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January 26, 2011     
Who drinks organic yak's milk?
Dee Tayles
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Amazing essay.

We are watching the merry-go-round of civilization spin a little faster every day. Those along the edge are being throw off. Homeless and hungry, they try to jump back onto the ride. I've prepared the best I could, trying to move closer to the center, but I recently realized that it doesn't really matter were you sit on this merry-go-round. The screws which fasten the top to the ground are coming loose. Even the most privileged and/or prepared will crash in the end. I hope to hold on as long as possible, for nothing else, to witnessing an indelible piece of history.
R.W. Philips
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Your essay comes very close to the view I express at Decline Of The Empire. My view is that Progress is an illusion and Homo sapiens is a species -- what you see is what you get. What we see is a culturally reinforced but biologically based urge to grow. The impossibility of exponential growth on a finite planet is denied through what I have called the Assumption Of Technological Progress, which undergirds the view that expansion will continue forever, including into the solar system, the far reaches of interstellar space, etc. Running out of oil? Not to worry! Technology will solve this problem (synthetic biology, electric cars) Planet heating up? Not to worry! Technology will solve this problem too (geo-engineering on a grand scale, including eventually sucking carbon out of the atmosphere). Humans ARE really good at technology -- it's just about the only thing they're good at. Regarding self-knowledge, mature decision making, etc -- they know diddly squat.

I liked that Clarke quote above.

"It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value."

Indeed, it HAS NOT been proven. I fear that what is about to be demonstrated is that intelligence without what I called "maturity" (wisdom, consciousness) is just one long self-destructive ride. And we're taking many other species down with us, which is a shame. But as paleontology shows, over geological time, species come and species go. Life on Earth will go on until the Sun expands. We'll be long gone.

What's really a shame about this is that we may be the sole "intelligent" species in the galaxy. It may even be the case that our existence is so improbable that we are the only species of our type (with advanced technology, language, etc) in the observable universe. Or perhaps just one of a few that have appeared here and there over the last 3 or 4 billion years. In that case -- where we may be alone not just functionally but literally -- what a shame it is that we will simply be the agents of our own destruction. As though Nature suddenly turned on a light, and just as suddenly turned it off.

best,

Dave
Dave Cohen
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Adam,

Thanks for the essay, it is extremely interesting.

Three things:
1). You say, “The determining factor is size (relative to resources). All else is simply the stories we tell ourselves. Therefore: . . . (N)one of that will change the outcome one bit.” I’m afraid you are completely right in that assessment. Thinking about it is hard, however, and when we finally “get it” it leads to depression. I have been wildly swinging between preparing so I can live until it is time to say goodbye and grieving over our loss.

2). What loss? I think Dave Cohen’s comment put the finger on it:

“What's really a shame about this is that we may be the sole "intelligent" species in the galaxy. It may even be the case that our existence is so improbable that we are the only species of our type (with advanced technology, language, etc) in the observable universe. Or perhaps just one of a few that have appeared here and there over the last 3 or 4 billion years. In that case -- where we may be alone not just functionally but literally -- what a shame it is that we will simply be the agents of our own destruction. As though Nature suddenly turned on a light, and just as suddenly turned it off.”

What a poignant assessment of what we’re doing/what we’ve done.

3). About “Got Cows”, will it scale with 7+ billion of us? I’ve read Savory and am convinced of the value of raising cows under his management solutions. And yes, I agree that is the way forward for raising beef. And I agree that it would replenish the soil and sequester carbon. However, I think you are discussing replacing the agricultural practices used on much of the land currently devoted to non-meat production (grain, spuds, veggies, etc.) with beef production. I admit I skimmed the article so I may have missed it but I think, even though I agree it is a great idea, it will not get us through the bottleneck without massive starvation. Of course continuing with BAU will just as surely result in massive starvation so your plan makes sense. After all, if we have billions starve to death but in the end wind up with a livable world for our species we will have won. The alternative is extinction.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking article.

Michael Irving
Michael Irving
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Thanks to all for the comments. In response to Michael's question with respect to my Grist piece, "Got Cows" (http://www.grist.org/article/t...n-got-cows), we have roughly ten billion acres worth of desertified land on earth (desertified by us) that can be restored by managed grazing, so other productive land will not necessarily be utilized for beef and other ruminants. Of course, it's not a simple equation, but that's the bare bones.

Cheers!

Adam
Adam Sacks
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Adam Sacks sets the scene by expressing the truism that natural laws have always determined what happens in materialistic operations, both natural ones and the ones of our civilization. He fails to note, however, that technology only makes use of some of these laws, often with failure of the inventors to understand that it can lead to unintended consequences. The role of the exhausts from heat engines using fossil fuels in precipitating climate change is but one example of the misunderstanding of the technofix.

His allusion to growth as being an imperative of natural laws is, to say the very least, questionable. Organisms, including humans, invariably go through a growth stage through to maturity and then senescence before demise. His comments on the limits to growth are quite common but conflict with the reality of what natural laws are doing. The operations of civilization and the human population entails the irreversible consumption of limited natural capital. That is an unsustainable process. Growth just speeds up that destructive process.

This sound prognosis of what is happening loses some of its credibility by arguing that growth is the prime problem.
Denis Frith
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To say that civilizational collapse is the law of nature, therefore inevitable, therefore we can only prepare for its aftermath, is like saying since every living person will inevitably die one day, we should focus on preparing ourselves (or the universe) for what happens after we die, and not worry about which way to live now, because it doesn’t matter one bit.

It is also dangerous, reflecting a lack of understanding of the totality of destruction that awaits us if we don’t very proactively try to salvage our last moments while we MAY still have an influence on the earth system – civilizational collapse is not the problem, biosphere collapse, a.k.a. extinction, IS. And extinction will be brought on as the chain reactions that we trigger in the earth’s system progresses, with no intention to stop after it wrecks our civilizations, or after it wipes out billions of people. Those who hope to better prepare themselves and their community so they can outlast the rest and therefore inherit a less crowded earth will be sourly disappointed, as this time, no corner of the earth will be untouched, when the destructions are necessarily planetary and accelerating, and any chancy occurrence of escape will be impossible to predict ahead of time, and may well be temporary.

In fact, we need to tear down our current, earth-incompatible civilization, and scramble to quickly replace it with a wisened, earth-restorative one, BEFORE the chain reactions reach the point-of-no-return.

So please don’t accept the defeatist arguments in this otherwise excellent article, and instead adopt the attitude from an idiom of one of the longest civilizations (and still standing, however wobbly) of thousands of years age, the Chinese saying that let’s “treat a dead horse as if it’s still alive”, because we just might still be able to prevent extinction. But to achieve that feat will require nothing short of doing away with the capitalist, profit-driven system, which inherently prevents protecting and restoring nature as the mandate of any “business”, big or small. Simply pulling some carbon into soil with the help of cows/goats won’t do, as that is already being used to allow polluters to INCREASE their pollution, in the form of selling soil carbon “credits” on the carbon market – it’s called carbon “offsets”. Like I said, the profit motive comes first, unless the capitalist system is abolished.
Maggie Zhou
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Dear Adam,

I truly appreciate your contributions to the effort to open a forceful and open-eyed debate on what we ought to be doing, instead of twiddling our thumbs, as the world moves into high-gear collapse, but I think your argument here is seriously out of whack.

If history tells us anything, it’s that infallible, unassailable “laws” tend to be, well, wrong. Sure, over the long run, civilizations collapse and the evidence of cataclysmic climate change (not to mention the host of other looming eco-catastrophes) grows more certain with each new issue of Nature and Geophysical Science Letters. On the other hand, the global civilization we now inhabit is, in key respects, fundamentally unlike anything we have produced before. There is at least the ghost of a chance that humanity might – by acting more wisely and swiftly then we are wont to do – save our collective asses and preserve enough of what was bequeathed to us to maintain, in Thoreau’s words, “a tolerable planet.”

You entertain no such hope, almost to the point of aligning yourself with those who welcome extinction of humanity as a necessary act of Gaia self-preservation. I know you can be cranky, but you are no misanthrope, so we agree that our goal is to maximize the lives, liberty and happiness of the maximum number of people, as well as minimizing the disaster to the other denizens of the planet.

You argue that any effort to do so within present civilization is not only doomed, it’s counter-productive, because it distracts us from the more practical business of preparing to survive in post-apocalyptic conditions. “We” (by which I assume you mean environmentalists), should hunker down in our permaculture-based, localization-minded, sustainable communities, whiling away the time making furniture and quilting as we await eco-Armageddon. [Not sure how we’ll manage “pulling carbon out of the skies,” but maybe you mean standing out of the way of our liberal-corporate system as it attempts the effort.]

I totally agree with you that our present effort, embodied in US environmentalists’ failed climate strategy of the past two decades, is worse than useless, because it implies that climate is a narrow problem, addressable by incremental political means and voluntary corporate change, with technological solutions and social change on the margins. Nothing we are doing now can possible work and we have no idea of what else to do.

But yours is a Kool Aid response to a tough situation, which does not admit the lessons of history.
Catastrophic environmental change can create conditions for abrupt political change, and it is towards that possibility our energies should be devoted. When civilizations begin to crumble, the old order loses legitimacy and those, like us, who have warned of the dangers and have alternative values, ideas and approaches in hand, have at least the prospect of supplanting them. But we’ll not do this hunkered down in small Vermont towns.

The stakes are enormous. If environmentalists were in power in the US, AUstralia, Canada and Europe (and we can’t even guess other prospects), at any stage of collapse, we would have tremendous means to ameliorate the greatest destruction and prepare for the worst.

It is absolutely necessary, as you say, to come to terms with reality. The failure of our own institutions to act as if we believe what we are saying is a massive, unacknowledged roadblock to social acceptances of the dangers. If we did act with open eyes, then we would have billions of dollars, political capital and important infrastructure to devote – not, as we now fritter it away, on foolish policy crafted to meet the demands of our enemies, but on a sharp, uncompromising and brutally honest effort which we know we will lose for now, that aims only to position us to grasp power when realities make that possible.

Within that effort, of course, we need to build our communities, model the lifestyles and approaches of a liveable world; that piece is going forward.
Ken Ward
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I disagree that all the steps you say, "will not matter one bit," and that the outcomes are wholly "prescribed."

I consider such phrasing a disservice in that it suggests a course of fatalistic inaction, when action may do a great deal of good.

Yes, some day the sun will burn out and the Earth will be a cold dead rock. Does that mean we shouldn't get up tomorrow?

Yes, collapse may be inevitable, but our actions may determine whether total collapse takes place in a couple of decades or in tens of thousands of years, or more.

More importantly, our actions may have great influence over the degree of suffering that takes place during transitions between eras.

If you think we're all doomed, I don't mind if you don't get out of bed tomorrow, but please don't lobby others to do the same.

I realize that the message of fatalistic inaction is not entirely your intention, but I believe that's what many people will take away from what you've written -- it would be great if you could proof-read your posts with that in mind.

Thank you.
burro
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If only some benevolent, advanced, wise alien race could provide us with the secret to contained/controlled antimatter/matter interaction (which could, in theory, provide mankind with essentially limitless energy).

Barring this highly unlikely scenario, I'm afraid we're 'toast', not to put too light a note on it.


And one more thought; The aliens would have to make us, collectively, promise to never even attempt to weaponize said technology. Something along the lines of 'Peace everlasting, or... extinction everlasting' The choice would (always) be ours.

Love 2 All,

RtTBt
Robert T Bazinet
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It may be that our phenomenal growth to overwhelm the Earth is not due to Darwinian evolution but to catastrophic reoccurances of global dimensions. What would be a response to being wiped out over and over again? If enough survived, the population would be very hard to kill, having overcome everything nature could throw at it. And it would carry a phenomenal birth rate. And not long lived.
Historian have looked at our past and seen the stasis of the Neanders as proof of why they disappeared. No, it is proof that the period that spawned this human form was static without the catastrophic global decimation that drove the degraded form (remember the 2nd Law) us.
katesisco
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We do it to ourselves.
WE allow others to pollute us. We overpopulate. We overspend.
We elect not to live within our means. Then we seem surprised when we are forced to face what we have done to ourselves. Ah to be human.
Sam Booher
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We do it to ourselves.
We allow ourselves to be polluted. We over-populate. We spend beyound our means. Then when we are faced with the reality of what we have done, we seem surprised. Ah, to be human.
Sam Booher
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Truth tellers like this are rare (in my experience). Of course, this perspective would never be accepted by most people, if they were ever dcposed to it.
Ygdrasille
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It appears to me that there are several things we can at least begin to think about: learn how to live without fossil fuels; adapt to the end of economic growth; substitute a steady-state economy for the one we have now; stabilize human population numbers worldwide; and deal with the relentless dissipation of Earth’s limited resources, the reckless degradation of its environs, the wanton extirpation of its biodiversity as well as confront other human-induced threats to our planetary home as a fit place for human habitation. In any event, I trust most of us can agree that stealing the birthright of children everywhere, mortgaging their future, and exposing them and life as we know it to danger cannot somehow be construed as the right things to be doing.

We have to think clearly and as keep our wits about us as we move away from big-business-as-usual practices to a way of life that embraces true sustainability, I suppose. Perhaps necessary changes to more sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

Thank you.
Steven Earl Salmony
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