Sunday, February 28, 2010

An uneven collapse (Hint: It's already happening)

When we think of collapse, we often think of a building or bridge or other structure suddenly giving way. We have a tendency to take this physical model of collapse and translate it into the social and political world.

Thus, when Joseph Tainter or Jared Diamond write of societal collapse, we are inclined to think of a relatively rapid process that acts equally across an entire area and even perhaps across the entire globe. But I believe that the collapse of the globalized society we now inhabit will be exceedingly uneven geographically and one that is spread over many years. And, I believe that that collapse has already started to appear in places which might be considered the periphery of our global system.

My index of collapse in this case will be reasonably objective: When population in a country or region declines persistently and the main cause is not a voluntary decline in birth rates, but a persistent rise in death rates, then collapse has been confirmed. Notice I didn't say "collapse has begun" for the engines of collapse are set in motion long before such demographic proof shows up.

Exhibit number one is Russia which has had a persistently declining population since 1991 when population was close to 149 million versus just under 142 million today. A broad range of factors are said to explain this decline. But despite the slight uptick in population this year, few experts expect the trend to be reversed. Russia may be a foretaste of how such a decline might be experienced elsewhere in the world once it arrives.

The reason the Russians have a head start is that their fall from Joseph Tainter's perilous tightrope of complexity began in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event that continues to rain its cataclysmic consequences down on the Russian Federation and all the former Soviet republics that are now independent countries.

One key element has been the collapse of the public health system in Russia. AIDS is racing through the population and tuberculosis has resurrected as a major killer. Certainly, the famously low Russian birth rate has something to do with the decline in population. But that rate was already low before the Soviet Union collapsed. It has declined since then as the life chances that Russians perceive for themselves and their children continue to darken. Death rates meanwhile have shot through the roof, up 40 percent since 1992.

Surely, a country as rich in natural resources as Russia should be able to turn things around, especially since a strong central government (some say too strong) has been re-established under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. But such has not been the case. And, the Russian example shows that once collapse begins it tends to be self-reinforcing. More deaths and fewer births now lead to more deaths and fewer births in the future as the cohort of women able to reproduce shrinks and as the capability of the country to respond to the crisis shrinks with the declining population. And, remember, this is all happening in a country in which health care is provided to all people by the state and which has had one of the best educational systems in the world, at least until now. And, it's happening inside the world's leading exporter of oil, revenues from which have been swelling state coffers in recent years.

Perhaps you will say that Russia's situation is unique. But other parts of the former Soviet empire are also experiencing significant population declines. Ukraine suffers from similarly high death rates due to AIDS, alcoholism and smoking. Many parts of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc are facing both declining births and rising death rates, the latter a sign that public health systems are inadequate to handle the problems they face. (See several of them in this table.)

But these countries have had histories of low birth rates. What about countries with historically high birth rates? There too we find a cluster of countries in southern Africa that are suffering heavily from an out-of-control AIDS epidemic. South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia appear to be on a trajectory toward population decline despite their high birth rates as their death rates spiral upward.

This cannot simply be put down to AIDS. There are AIDS sufferers in many countries. But wealthy countries such as the United States have spent considerable resources to keep a lid on AIDS infections. In some of those countries AIDS has even become a managed chronic condition rather than an automatic death sentence.

Resources, financial and otherwise, then must be the key. In a world of shrinking resources, especially shrinking energy resources, we will have less wealth to spend on the multiple threats to our complex global society such as climate change, epidemics and depletion of fisheries, forests, water, soil and minerals.

The first stage of collapse, Dmitri Orlov tells us, is financial collapse. We have just witnessed the most colossal financial collapse since the Great Depression. And, despite protestations to the contrary, we are following very closely the script of the last depression. (Both then and now markets rose about 60 percent from the bottom of the crash and experts everywhere were claiming that the worst was over.) The financial collapse is followed by a commercial collapse, i.e. an economic collapse in which businesses continue to fail and unemployment continues to rise.

These collapses cut revenues to local, state and central governments and force cuts in services that are critical to the health and nutrition of the population. It will likely be a long time before the average American or average Western European enjoys the same health as the average Russian or South African does today. But the wheels are in motion to undermine the very supports critical to public health even in wealthy societies. And, if economic stagnation or decline persists, the decline in income and employment among the middle and lower classes will inevitably lead to inferior diets and health care. Already many people in the United States are about to lose their unemployment benefits and many others who have reached time limits for public assistance must now sell their food stamps to pay their bills.

Today, the world's wealthy countries still enjoy several advantages in the collapse game. Many have large tracts of excellent and highly productive farmland. Some like the United States, Canada and Australia have extensive energy and mineral resources left. Circumstances that force wealthy countries back on their own resources would be traumatic, but not as traumatic as what's in store for many of the world's poor countries, the resources of which have been transferred over many years at bargain prices to the wealthy countries. Those countries poor in resources and lacking well-developed public health and other administrative systems will certainly collapse first.

Now, collapse doesn't mean annihilation. In Tainter's view it means returning to a less complex society. Complex, large-scale systems would be abandoned because they are no longer effective in the face of new realities. It would be wise to begin building the replacements for those systems before they collapse. To a certain extent the local food movement is doing just that. But to build a truly resilient society there are so many other areas that require our attention--health care, education, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and the arts to name a few. And, even though those of us in wealthy countries will have some extra time to prepare, we will be doing so against a backdrop of increasing chaos and decline which will be made all the worse by the failure of governing elites to correctly diagnose our situation.


Anonymous said...

As usual, a very good article except for the abusive use of the word "collapse". That word seems to be in fashion now. When a building collapses, the result is rubble which needs to be hauled away before a new building can be erected. Nobody would talk about a collapse of a building if serious cracks in its walls are showing up. Such a building can usually be repaired (with some effort).

Neither Russia nor the US or any other country which is part of the civilized world is near anything which can be called a collapse. A drop of Russian population from 147 million to 142 million is definitely not a sign of a collapse. In order for the population to "collapse" we need a drop in population of at least 50% if not more. The Russians experienced a "hiccup" after the bloodless collapse of communism (which by itself is an astounding achievement). Anybody who has visited Russia during the past few years can not honestly talk about "collapse". To the contrary, Russia has taken a stunning development after Putin took over. The country is debt free, in effect a creditor nation to the rest of the world. The population is recovering in part due to financial incentives offered by the Russian government to young marriages. In Russia, women go in retirement at the age of 55 - not at 67 like in the US. Talking about collapse of Russia is total nonsense.

Similarly, the financial crisis of 2007/2008 was a crisis where we got close to a financial collapse in the US. However, financial collapse did not happen and, most likely, will not happen during the next few years. Financial collapse could happen in perhaps in 20-30 years but not right now given that oil production did not really start to fall. The best forecasts for future oil production predict that in 2030, world oil production will still be more than 60% of present production. We are at least 20 years away from any collapse caused by the decline of oil production.

So Mr. Kurt Cobb, keep up the good work, but please be a little bit more careful with the words you use. Your credibility can only increase if you distance yourself from mindless fashion.

Kurt Cobb said...

I'll stand by my use of the word collapse since I made pains to cite both Diamond and Tainter who talk about societal collapse as a drawn out rather than instantaneous process. As for conditions in Russia, Anonymous is no doubt correct, but he or she doesn't really respond to a very important part of Russian society that has indeed collapsed, the public health system. Perhaps this front edge of collapse will be forestalled or reversed at some point. But I don't see any evidence of such a reversal.

As for the notion that the issue of societal collapse has become "mindless fashion," I would welcome such a development since it would imply serious discussion everywhere on the planet about what steps we as a global society need to take to prevent collapse or at least to prepare for it. Alas, only a tiny and largely ignored minority is actually discussing collapse as a real possibility and thinking about how we might respond to the threat intelligently.

John Hollenberg said...

In California, the public health system is certainly becoming frayed, with Medi-Cal cuts that took place July 1, 2009. Medi-cal no longer covers adult dental, optometric and optician, podiatry, speech therapy and audiology services.

I hope those cuts will be restored at some point, but given the severity of California's budget problems, it appears unlikely.

Good article.

sparc5 said...

I can say with certainty, the economic collapse in Europe and the US was caused by poorly designed economic systems. You can also attribute it to degenerating ethics in the country, for example those who made and sold NIJA loans, and hid the risk, but those type of rats have always been with us. The lack of ethics in the media also has contributed to the economic woes.

However, oil for now, is still plentiful, there is no demographic issues in the US. As Jarred Diamond would say, we are on a river, this hiss is getting louder, there is a fine mist in the air. What everyone would like to know is if we will jump off that boat, or will we stay on and see what mother nature has in store for us.

John Andersen said...

In response to "Anonymous":

You draw a false analogy between economic collapse and the collapse of a building.

All uses of the word "collapse" aren't created equal.

For instance, you can collapse a tent, and that doesn't mean it is no longer good. That's just what you do when you are ready to put it away.

Collapse of a society into something simpler and less complex sounds really good to me.

Sounds like a dream come true actually.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for posting as an anonymous, but not having a google account I do not have any other choice. Continuing with my earlier comment, I wish to address the issue Kurt has emphasized: The declining quality of medical services in Russia. Well, Russia used to have during the Soviet Union times a free medical service (among many other free services like free apartments - if one could find one). Clearly, quality medical service can not be free. Somebody has to pay for it. So perhaps the Russians like their fellow Americans are not yet ready to pay for a quality service. The medical profession in the Soviet Union was totally dominated by women simply because the salaries paid in that sector of the economy were very low which meant that men did not feel attracted to medicine. In many ways, the situation was like in the US educational sector where salaries are pretty low with the result that women dominate the teaching business. After the fall of communism, the situation did change because better salaries were paid to women in other parts of the economy resulting in a drain of talent from medicine.

This issue is also related to the supposedly drop of the Russian population after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Millions of Russians have left Russia in the early 1990's simply because better jobs were available abroad. Just take a look at the number of Russian mathematicians and physicists now working either at US universities or US corporations. The number of Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union is in the hundreds of thousands if not more.

Russia had a huge supply of very well educated specialists who could not earn a competitive salary is the new Russia. Many of them left Russia. Of course, the resulting drop of population was immediately viewed as a sign of collapse of Russia.

If the US is indeed to collapse one day (which I doubt), then perhaps the immigration wave may reverse one day. Many of the Russian intelligentsia might return to Russia one day if living conditions in the US indeed deteriorate in the future as Kurt predicts.

One final comment: The Soviet Union lasted more than 70 years. The damage done to the Soviet economy by communism was catastrophic - that was the reason why the Soviet Union collapsed. It will take a long time - at least one if not two generations before Russia can fully recover from that failed historical experiment. It should also be remembered that Russia went from a feudal society to a communistic society which failed. After communism collapsed, they did not receive much help from the West either. To the contrary, lots of bad and immoral advice was given to Yeltsin by his Harvard educated US economists. Progress is slow, but definitely taking place making me confident that Russia has a solid future.

The problems in the US are different. However, the issue of a generational change does apply here also. The main problem is our way of thinking. That must change. The change can come only from a new generation of younger leaders. We just have to wait for them to arrive.

Robert Happek

The North Coast said...

Agree with the first comment.

A managed contraction is far different than a collapse, and is what we should be striving for. A reduction in the population through lower birthrates and natural attrition is what we should strive far and is in no sense a sign of "collapse" or societal dysfunction.

Rather, it is the ONLY rational and humane response to the reduction in energy and resources available to feed our population and fuel our critical systems.

Let's hope we manage our situation as well as Russia has. We look like we're headed for a real collapse of systems here, due to our extreme denial of emergent realities and our frantic efforts to support the unsustainable systems and approaches of the late twentieth century.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #2

>>The best forecasts for future oil production predict that in 2030, world oil production will still be more than 60% of present production. We are at least 20 years away from any collapse caused by the decline of oil production.-posted by Robert Happek

I take issue with that statement by Robert. It is nonsensical to say we have AT LEAST another 20 years when you have just posted that another 20 years is the most optimistic we can hope for.

Zeke said...

Frankly, I don't think we have a clue as to what the "collapse" will look like. Optimists see a "relatively" smooth transition to some sort of nice lifestyle based on locally produced food, etc. Pessimists see a disaster with all sorts of dire consequences. Of course, as with any transition, the possible scenarios can be anywhere along a continuum between the optimist and the pessimist.

On thing I do know, the human mind does not deal with insecurity well at all. So we create scenarios and treat them as true to avoid feeling insecure.

In my mind, create a scenario that suites your particular personality but keep in mind what it really is: a creation of your own mind.

Anonymous said...

This discussion reminds me of this comment:
As Chairman Mao said when asked what is the impact of the French revolution, he famously replied: “It is too early too tell.”

Attempting to identify turning points and trends is much trickier to do when you might be living through them, it isn't even easy to do after a few hundred years. The arguments over the American Civil War and whether Lincoln was a hero or a murderer still go on today.

Having said that, looking at Britain, we can only support ourselves on our own resources until April 15th each year. The rest of the year we live on the resources of the rest of the world. When you live in a closed system, as we do, that uncomfortable fact gives the game away doesn't it really? For America it must be worse.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is interesting though, Cuba and North Korea were cut off from cheap oil. Cuba adapted, North Korea starved. Neither Castro nor Kim Jong Il were affected. So any collapse will probably be uneven in its effects, not everybody is going to suffer at once.

Maybe we should say that the decline of global wealth appears to be accelerating! This should please the grammarians.

Robert Happek said...

It was not Chairman Mao who made that statement. It was his foreign secretary Zhou Enlai (see wikipedia article on Zhou Enlai).

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks to all for their comments, and especially to Robert for giving us some detailed insight into conditions in Russia. I am myself a Russian speaker (or used to be) and studied in the Soviet Union when it still was the Soviet Union. It was with joy that I watched the Berlin Wall tumble, something which I didn't think would happen in my lifetime. And, it was with horror and sadness that I watched the great suffering that ensued when an empire cracks up. Whatever one can say about Putin, he is certainly better than what preceded him and he has restored some order to a society in deep crisis.

Still, I think we could all learn something from Niall Ferguson this week about complex systems such as empires. Quite often things are going along fine or appear to be returning to normal after a short crisis, and then the bottom falls out. Here's Ferguson on Complexity and Collapse:

"What is most striking about this history is the speed of the Roman Empire's collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters. Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century -- inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle -- shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe. What Ward-Perkins calls "the end of civilization" came within the span of a single generation."

mattbg said...

This was a nice post, and I agree with how slowly things can unravel. If something ever does happen to our society, I wonder where they'll find the roots. What if the roots were in the victory in World War II? I'm not saying that the war shouldn't have been fought, but it's interesting when a victory leads to a demise.

Looking at North American collapse, though, you'd have to wonder "where else?". If you worry about the US dollar, where else would you put your money? If you worry about US equities and bond debt, where else would you put your money? For collapse to occur from that perspective, there has to be a better alternative.

I am more worried about European collapse, and specifically related to the Muslim influx combined with declining population issues and the funding for large social obligations stacked up over the years. They have no choice but to accept heavy immigration. If they aren't strict and serious about who they let in and about the formation of enclaves that reject the ideas that made the continent successful, they could have problems.

Niall Ferguson is one of those interesting characters because he gets supporters from both sides -- the subversive ones who just want to show they know something different and the pro-Capitalist ones. He's enamoured with the capitalist system, and one of the reasons is that it allows for collapse and rejuvenation, I think.

I believe in peoples' ability to adapt to changing circumstances -- especially severe ones -- as long as they are being told honestly what is afoot. The status quo from those with the data is to pretend that we are in a lull before we resume the next binge. That expectation combined with a collapse would be upsetting because anyone that tries to tell the truth gives the impression that they want to take something away from everyone.

Also: Cuba dealt with AIDS effectively. Simply lock up the people (mostly homosexuals) who they believed were responsible for the spread. That's one way to lower the cost of healthcare. Ironically, it was similar to the beliefs of the guy responsible for creating Canada's public healthcare system. With its costs now getting out of hand, it makes you wonder whether eugenics, institutionalization, etc. was meant to be part of the plan as well.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add a brief comment about Russia. I hope I am not repeating other comments. But having just returned from the country, I can not help but disagree regarding Russia's collapse. Russia, just like many other nations, is under an "oil curse" that is the main cause of cultural and creative stagnation there. This reflects in negative figures, such as the rise of alcoholism, criminality that in turn become leading causes of death among male population. However, whoever studied Russian history and literature, would agree with me that Russia is a special place, that could never succeed under capitalism. So I would expect a major transformation of the society (similar to the 1917 revolution). I think it will happen in about 30-40 years. But not collapse, just its own dynamic. And with the amount of natural resources that have not been discovered yet, we'll be seeing more and more of Russian money (and influence) here in the West.

Muslimah said...

I believe a new wave of thinking is taking place in the US. Not by the politicians/leaders, but some in younger generations. More and more people want to move away from the system as it stands. Things like oil and other non-renewable resources aren't even on the radar. Getting off grid, solar/wind energy and agg is the big selling points in both urban and suburban areas. While the older generation chants "energy independence", the younger generation are discussing complete independence. Thru independent energy supplies, agg and monetary system. In the next few years you will see a surge in small cities/townships that will put these things in effect. Mark my words.