How Do You Like the Collapse So Far?


05 Jun 2008
View all related to Climate Change | collapse | Peak Oil | psychology
View all related to Richard Heinberg

[Originally written for The Ecologist.]

Take relentless population growth. Add decades of expanding per-capita resource consumption. Simmer slowly over rising global temperatures.

What do you get?

Traumatic information: that is, information that wounds us through the very act of obtaining it.

Everyone knows things are going wrong. But if you understand ecology, you know this in a way that others don’t. It’s not just that the current crop of world leaders is idiotic. It’s not just a matter of a few policies having gone awry. We’ve been on a perilous track since the dawn of agriculture, capturing more and more biosphere services for the benefit of just one species. Fossil fuels recently gave our kind an enormous economic and technological boost—but at the same time enabled us to go much further out on an ecological limb. No one knows the long-term carrying capacity of planet Earth for humans, absent cheap fossil fuels, but it’s likely a lot fewer than seven billion. The implication is not just sobering; it’s paralyzing.

So what to do with such traumatic knowledge? An argument can be made for denial. Why ruin people’s day if there’s nothing they can do, if it’s too late to unseal our fate?

But we don’t know that it’s too late.

As hard as it is to get up every day and remember, "Oh yes, that’s right, we’re headed toward systemic collapse," in fact we can’t afford to forget it, if there are in fact measures to be taken to save a species, an ecosystem, or a human community.

To be sure, some of us are better able to handle the information than others. Many fragile psyches come unhinged without constant doses of hope and assurance. And so for their sake we need continuing positive messages—about a project to make a village sustainable, or about a new coal power plant halted by protest. Some will cling to these encouraging news bits, believing that the tide has turned and we’ll be fine after all.But as time goes on, collapse becomes undeniable. Limits to growth cease to be forecasts; instead, we see daily proof that we’re hitting the wall. As this happens, those who can handle the information spend more of their time managing the fraying emotions of those around them who can’t.

Strategy shifts. We move from rehearsing "Fifty simple things you can do to save the Earth" to discussing global triage.

As the Great Unraveling proceeds, there may in fact be only one occupation worthy of our attention: that of identifying the qualities that make our species worth saving, and then celebrating and exemplifying those qualities. If we concentrate on doing that, perhaps we win no matter what. Outwardly, it will probably look a lot like what many of us are already doing: working to save a species, an ecosystem, a human community; to make a village sustainable, or to halt a new coal power plant.

Taking in traumatic information and transmuting it into life-affirming action may turn out to be the most advanced and meaningful spiritual practice of our time.

What to do if your 'big idea' runs out of gas

The puzzle of why we rush into the future with no clear idea of what we'll run into has clearly caught up with us. It's great that we're beginning to talk about it, though. The real question is how to recognize the conceptual error that leads to that. Impending collision with limits is highly evident to some, but to others the clue to their ignorance seems to be that it is truly "inconceivable". People really don't seem to know what to do when their definition of 'good' comes into question. I discovered this about 30 years ago when I developed a then life long fascination with how multiplying good invariably turns to bad if you're not looking for the usual signs... It’s especially fascinating result is that even the best of the environmentalists who are struggling to overcome this error of runaway growth being made by others, are continuing to make the identical error for what they call ‘good’ themselves. Nearly all of us are promising that creatively exploring the diminishing niches of economic opportunity will provide limitless expanding horizons of wealth... It’s an rather curious and explorable but indisputable fact. The main theme of solving the limits of growth problem is to make expanding resource use more profitable by switching resources. This is indeed a very strange circumstance. The key to understanding it is that 'good growth' is the exploitation of resources we have not yet explored the limits of... Take agricultural ethanol. The point is not that it wasn’t a legitimate niche opportunity. The real value of seeing the error is seeing that it was the good guys making the identical mistake of the 'bad guys' , the mistake we were trying to correct. After 20 years of well funded international research and development the 'movement' only found out about the limits of the resource when its effect of removing food resources from the world marked triggered a global food crisis. I saw the collision coming a very long way off, from the diminishing returns evident for energy resources generally. I didn't see the specific flair point of undercutting the food supply causing a price war that would cut off low productivity cultures and communities from food, until it happened. Now it seems 'obvious', to me anyway, that the real reason food supplies were unresponsive to growing demand was a kind of 'hidden tsunami' of degrading what had been an unmeasurable supply of arable land. There was a fascinating paper on soil mapping the world at this year's AAAS meeting, with the fascinating conclusion that we a great deal of work to do to even construct one. Hitting unresponsive whole system diminishing returns, then, seems to be a far *better measure* of hole system capacities in this case. When you look at independent development processes that's the universal signal nature provides for approaching limits to growth. What should we do when our plans for limitless expansion for a small niche opportunity run out of gas? Nature seems to have a variety of interesting solutions, once you find the right perspective. I think we should ask. Phil Henshaw /


...Perhaps some readers would not have understood the overshoot problem I implied (above) that results from solving one resource problem by making alternate resources more profitable. It's that compounding investment always goes into whatever is most profitable. That method of financial choice invariably multiplies the use of what provides the 'best' present return until it's returns go 'bad' by exhaustion. That makes the plan to solve diminishing resources by accelerating the use of new resources a choice to have all resource use stopped by running into 'unforeseen' consequences, as soon as possible. In that way making alternate resources more profitable does serve to extend the problem of growth, but accelerates their depletion without solving it. If you do some standard Bartlett kind of back of envelope math, asking nothing more than where the limits of 'good' are, you beging to see the problem. Given the long established energy intensity & growth trends we'd need solar panels to cover the total land mass of the earth in 350 years, etc. Phil Henshaw /

Not to worry folks! The

Not to worry folks! The Bilderbergs, Trilats and CFR's have all under control. They're engineering a global famine that they hope will cut world population at least in half. So you all should breathe easier now. They'll also be letting loose all kinds of diseases that should eliminate a few billion more. There now, don't you feel better? Of course, the trick is to avoid the famine and the bugs!

Just march in step

Think maybe that democratic freedoms might limit capacity? Maybe a facist state could carry more people? Or does the example of India versus China negate such an argument? Just curious.

Seems China and India

Seems China and India squash that theory...

No worries, when it does start to catch up, I feel like it's going to REALLY slam home all at once. Global disaster will probably start and end within 5-10 years time. 

Are we foredoomed?

If humankind was doomed from the dawn of agriculture, then the very cognition of his situation that man possesses also includes the seeds of his destruction. What about hope? See, for further speculation.

seeing errors gives better choices...

Sure, there's some satisfaction in hoplessness, but there's quite a bit more in seeing nature's method for changing run-away growth into stable adaptive systems. It's a choice quite available to us, it would seem. Keynes and Boulding both said it was the only practical thing to do in our situation. I entirely concur and have worked out a lot of it. Phil Henshaw /

psychology in climate change

I think those of us who feel realistically burdened by information about climate change need to find a way to repeatedly transform ourselves and somehow find an even keel again. Repeat performances are necessary because every day brings in new information, new emotions and new reactions. Many exercises and ideas seem tired and superficial in light of things learned about our real world. I think there is a potential method that involves "constellation therapy" and impromptu live theatre. I am still working through it. I call it, for the time being, "Channeling Cassandra". There is nothing cute or endearing about it: it is, for now, something that feels like real hard work, digging down for a catharsis that blows the wheels off your life for a while but also enables you to restore a balance. It involves a lot of ideas learned from archetypal psychologist/thinker James Hillman, it taps a lifetime of worrying about a range of things and trying to fix a range of things that seem to be finally coming to roost in the most horrible way, and it comes from a desire to be whole, virtuous and a decent ancestor to my own children and children everywhere. Anybody want to have a conversation about this? I am working with some others in my own locality to put on a "production" or event and seeing how it plays out. I am no professional nor expert in any of this and welcome dialogue from others no doubt more accomplished in this area. And from those sharing a similar sentiment. Thanks for listening.


Sometime back, while I was developing the themes of the Post Petrol Survival Guide, I had to make a decision about whether optimism was important or just hogwash. I think it is necessary to give the gloomy part of the message, otherwise you sound like Pollyanna and nobody buys the good stuff, but ultimately comes a call to action, and the action has to be meaningful. Nate Hagens makes an interesting point in this regard. He says that “An optimistic outlook actually is neurochemically self-fulfilling. Optimism leads to increased frontal cortical activity which itself is a strong predictor of idea generation, positive emotion and overall liveliness of thought. Similarly, sadness is marked by decreased activity in the frontal cortex, which has the negative side affect of reducing the number of overall thoughts and ideas produced." Choosing strategies that will produce meaningful results is indeed a spiritual path, involving discrimination and ethics. One must extend the time horizon of the analysis and do the "what if" conjecturing about scalability and unintended consequences. Then you have both a strategy and a practice, and it is the practice, day in, day out, that provides more and better ideas, satisfaction with your lot, and even joy. Martin Luther probably never said "If I knew I was to die tomorrow, I would plant a tree today." (See: but the sentiment is good. -- Albert Bates, Author of Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times and Climate In Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do

Exemplify the qualities worth saving?

I don't yet see to the bottom of your idea here. Maybe better understanding will come to me after I read this post a few more times.

Meanwhile, I suggest we try to identify which knowledge and artifacts of our species are most worth saving, and then try to preserve those for the benefit of the post-crash world. Some of us will certainly survive! I cannot imagine any plausible mechanism by which all humans could be wiped out. We supremely adaptable creatures are not about to become extinct simply because we run out of easy-to-access energy, metals, soil, water and so forth.

From a personal point of view, all of us must eventually die anyway, oil or no oil. Once we understand and accept that (as we must all do at some point in any case) it doesn't much matter exactly when and how we die.

Obviously, it will be horribly painful to watch most of our friends and families perish "prematurely," but there is no apparent way to avoid that. Our comfort must be that all those deaths would have happened in some manner, even without a crash.

Finally, I can't see any reason why the present generation's early or late demise should have special importance to future generations. Consider the death of millions toward the end of the Roman Empire. Who can now honestly claim to know and care exactly how and when each of them died? Future generations of our kind will no doubt experience the same tenuous connection with us.

Assuming, then, that some among us are able to agree that certain kinds of knowledge and tools are worth saving, we should concentrate on identifying which particular items are most important, and then taking action to preserve them.

If, on the other hand, you personally think nothing of the present human world is worth saving, act accordingly: forget this discussion and enjoy yourself! No guilt is necessary. Let someone else preserve the world.

Seriously! Someone -- possibly me -- will probably do that for you. All you have to lose is your personal say in the matter.

Reverse Shock Doctrine

This is an idea I've been thinking over for the last few years as a way to slow economic momentum and make it more sustainable.

After all these years of privatizing any and all possible public assets, the pendulum has the momentum to swing back the other way, but it has to do it as an effective step into the future and not just trying to reverse what has already happened. My argument is that money has evolved from its origins as an accounting of private property to a public medium of exchange and this point should be introduced into the public conversation.

Money is a medium of exchange, store of value and accounting device. The first two work at cross purposes because as a medium of exchange, money functions as a public utility, while as a store of value, it is a form of private property. By and large it is as private property that most people think of it, due to its historical origin as an accounting device of valuables, yet the reality is that modern monetary systems are fundamentally a medium of exchange and only as a function of that are they a store of value, as they have no real backing other than faith in the issuing institution and must be invested for the system to function and maintain value. If this understanding of money as a form of public utility, or commons, were to be broadly considered, it would have definite repercussions in the context of the current crisis. The monetary system, with its broad connectivity, is similar to a road system. You own your car, house, business, etc., but not the roads connecting them. Money is in many ways identical to the road system. Money is not private property, since you cannot print what you want, as the government retains copyrights, but effectively loans it out to the private banking system. Its value is based entirely on public faith in the institution issuing it, so the taxpayer is ultimately responsible for guaranteeing its value. The result being private gains and public responsibility.

I think the concept of abstract wealth as a store of value has reached the point of being socially and environmentally destructive. Given the human tendency toward intellectual reductionism, that ability to distill out abstract wealth from ones social interactions and environmental situation is profoundly corrosive to both society and the environment. It is similar to processed sugars, and other forms of distilled ingredients which then must be diluted to be palatable. Consider how society would function if money were to be considered entirely as a public medium of exchange, similar to a road system. For one thing, in most circumstances, it simply wouldn't be a factor, as outside of the financial system, most money is in circulation and wealth is stored as tangible assets. Even in situations where one might be selling and buying a house, or a business, it functions as a medium of exchange. Similar to a road, where large vehicles need more space and pay more taxes, while smaller vehicles naturally give them more room. Now consider the situation of storing value. The overwhelming problem with capitalism isn't that there are poor people in the world without recourse to income, as poverty has always been a problem. No, the problem with Capitalism is that by focusing on money as a store of value, it has created a large surplus of capital. Since the demand for money is so large, as everyone thinks they must have enough to personally insure their own security and health, as well as viewing it as proof of success to accumulate as much as possible, a savings glut, as Bernanke put it, has been produced that cannot be effectively invested. This encouraged ever more lax lending standards as a way to absorb savings and sustain further growth of the money supply. Now that bubble is bursting and this evaporating wealth is panicking and driving up commodity prices, I think the very basic question of whether we should even have a system of stored abstract wealth needs to be re-examined. If people cannot suck value out of their social connections and environment to store in a bank as a form of ego gratification and social status, they would have to resort to putting their efforts and desires to increase status and build security directly back into restoring and strengthening their social and environmental health. So I don't think there needs to be a currency for storing wealth, but only currency as a public utility for exchange. Not only are the enormous pools of personal wealth that it enables an excess the planet can no longer afford, but more importantly they provide an destructive role model for everyone else.

This isn't socializing wealth, but understanding what money is in the first place. The effort to privatize Social Security is a good example of the disconnect between assumption and reality, since there is simply no place to invest this amount of additional personal savings and would only be a boon to the brokers given the responsibility for handling it. We invest in our old age by investing in our parents old age, so that our children might continue the practice. Social Security is simply a modern vehicle for this age old reality. It is a clear example of investing in the larger community as a viable form of savings.

There would be personal savings accounts, but what sets the amount of total viable savings isn't the cumulative desire for wealth, but what can be productively invested. So there has to be some regulatory method for distributing the potential to invest as broadly as possible. The logical method is to reinstate higher tax rates, but there might be a whole range of ways to encourage those able to accumulate large amounts of wealth productively to be able to invest in ways that benefit aspects of society and or the environment in ways they chose, much like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are currently doing. Wealth is a convective cycle of rising assets and precipitating benefits. Stopping this process only creates large storm clouds of marginally productive wealth hanging over a parched economy and abused ecosystem, much like we have now.

Currency did originate as a store of wealth, because it started as a accounting of specific assets, but political power also started as a projection of individual influence and evolved into a very complex corporatization of personal power called monarchism before the inherent instability and corruption drove society to devise methods for making political power a public trust. It has come time to make economic power a public trust as well. Money lubricates the economy, rather than fuels it. Ideas, labor and resources are the real economic fuel.

An effective financial system must express the dichotomy of bottom up process and top down structure that is the basis of nature, from ecosystems and the organisms which inhabit them to the political model of the democratic process constantly revitalizing the republican state. How to do this is to make the currency a national function to provide broad stability and accountability, while the banking system would be a function of local and regional government, with the necessary profit, generated by interest rates required to make investment decisions be based on viability, a form of public income to support the healthy social infrastructure necessary for a healthy economy. Since money would be viewed as a form of public utility, the desire to accumulate large quantities would be curtailed, since it would be viewed as infringing on the health of the society in which one exists and this wouldn't have the desired effect of raising ones social status, or even ones economic position, as it couldn't be used to generate the increasing returns which wealth currently aspires. If hoarding wealth lost its cultural standing, inflation wouldn't be necessary to maintain circulation of currency, so accounting values would be more stable.

The basic paradigm shift is from money as private store of wealth to public utility, but this isn't a change in fact but perception, as that is what it has already evolved into. The resulting change in practice would be to make banks a function of government and by the time the debt bubble finishes collapsing, this won't be as impossible as it might currently seem. While government is viewed as slower and less efficient then the private sector, it does tend to have a consequently longer term perspective and this would result in a slower economy, with less extreme cycles.

This perspective is based on a general philosophy which views the universal state as basis, rather than apex, so what binds us together isn't an ideal to which we collectively aspire, but the essence from which we rise and to which, then the situation becomes unstable, we fall.

John Merryman

A previous essay on the topic