The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Reasons For Hope In The Age of Collapse

We all know that civilization is in collapse due to climate change, environmental degradation and over-use of resources. The classic graph is this one.

Not pretty, and this blog tends to write about such topics a lot.

But it’s not all bad. Let’s run thru that.

Collapse will be unevenly distributed,  and that means some places and positions in society will be a lot better for a long time. The trick is figuring out where those will be. Obviously not lowlands, or places which are likely to run out of water, or places where heat will move over the wet-bulb point. I’d suggest water and stability and food are the main things to look for: so, for example, in North America around the great lakes, up by Great Bear Lake (not a nice place to live right now, though) and so on.

Some people always do well. Even in the Roman collapse, there were people living good lives. Of course, those were mostly the “masters of violence” but if you have key skills people need, including technological skills or if you’re liked by many people, that will help.

Note that in the Dark Ages the other group who did relatively well were the priests and monks. Expect a religious revival and an upsurge in real “intentional” communities: monasteries, nunneries and the like. If you’re a priest, you’ll benefit, if you’re a senior monk or nun you’ll do fine.

So, a relatively senior person in charge of violence or community, or someone with useful skills, or someone who liked by a lot of people.

Work will be hard, but meaningful. Right now we have, in David Graeber’s phasing, a lot of “bullshit jobs.” Those will mostly go away. Your work may suck, but you’ll know that it’s actually needed.

A restoration of the extended family. Leaving aside refugees, but even there only partially, the family household will be a thing again, as it is one of the most effective ways to deal with bad times, and as people won’t be leaving to find work that doesn’t exist. This is a good/bad thing, the extended family, generally patriarchal, has a lot of downsides, but people in religious communities and extended families are happier and healthier in general and have a buffer against bad times. This is pretty robust in the literature.

More local autonomy. International trade and expeditions half way around the world to beat up other people up will decrease significantly, we won’t have the resources for them. Because of this local agriculture and production will come back, and with that will come an end to a universal “Americanized/European/Han” culture. Areas will be able to make their own choices, for good or bad, and will not be overwhelmed by power and economy of scale from far away.

The consumer lifestyle will end but appropriate tech will take its place. We do know a lot more than when the Romans went into the Dark Ages, and there are lot of solutions for our problems. Green houses with shutters, non-panel solar power. Water resevoirs attached to homes, and far more. You’ll live local, you’ll be more independent as a household (if you belong to one), and you’ll spend a lot less time working for other people and much more working for yourself and your family. Again, this is a mixed bag, but there are upsides.

The Possibility of the New. What happens will break all existing ruling ideologies: capitalism, representative democracy, the CCP (China will break up at some point, my guess centers around the 70s) and so on. If your ideology was in charge, it’s going to take a huge hit. Of course much of what will happen is a reversion to household patriarchy and religion, but there is the real possibility of new forms of organization, ideology and politics.

This is why it is important, now, to win the storytelling wars. Why this world collapsed and what a good world should look like. When everything goes to Hell people will use the ideas on the ground. If they’re good ones, great. If not, Hell. In a lesser way look at the Great Depression: Germany gets Hitler, the US lucks out and gets FDR. But the times coming will be much worse than the Great Depression and the possibility of change likewise greater.

The end of something old is always the chance to create something new and that new thing may be better. In fact, I’m sure it will be, in some places, just as in many places it will be something much worse.

Hope isn’t optimism. It’s a realistic way of saying “there are possibilities and we can reach for the better ones.”

Let it be so.

(We’ll talk more specifics in future articles. There’s a category “The Green Age After the Collapse.” It will see more use.

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  1. Forecasting Intelligence

    Great post John.

    A few comments, some of your predictions are a bit later on down the collapse road (Greer thinks homesteads will only start to emerge in North America after the 2070s onwards).

    Again, the return of monasteries/nunneries will come but probably not until a good 50 years from now (again, the 2070s onwards).

    So, some of the stuff you predict (and others who study collapses) probably won’t happen in our lifestyle.

    Greer has what I think a really good terminology on this. We had abundant industrialism, we are now entering -at a macro global level – scarcity industrialism and at some point we descend into salvage industrialism.

    Of course, that ignores the local and regional variations. Much of the developing world never got to abundant industrialism for example.

    Some of the poorest parts of the world is probably is a salvage type economy already.

    We can learn a lot from places that exist TODAY and how they adapt to scarcity. I read an article in Bloomberg on how Nigerians survive without a functioning grid. Very interesting.

    What would be useful if you can provide some links to some appropriate tech that could be adapted for those of us who are keen to become more self-sufficient.

  2. Ian Welsh

    While Greer and I have similar views, they aren’t identical. I think the monastic/relgious stuff will happen sooner than he does, for example. I also think the downside is higher than he does.

  3. Greer and you are wildly different to me Ian, he tries to hide his reactionary garbage behind what seems logical but once you peel (and I spent time peeling, the magic and the politics), you see some not nice stuff.

    Regardless, I very excited about the green age category and articles in it, I think it’ll spark something in me and can’t wait 🙂

    As always, unsure how long I’ve got but I’ll try to put the stuff coming out of “green age category” to use as best as I can in the time I’ve got.

    Stay safe my friend

  4. sbt42

    For inspirational reading, I strongly recommend Low Tech Magazine:

    Personally speaking, I bugged-out of typical civilization and live at an “eco-institute,” and it’s been over a year now. I have no regrets about this decision based solely on the skills I’ve learned and practiced. Of course, the air is cleaner (well, outside wildfire season I suppose), it’s quieter, and I’m fortunate enough to have my immediate needs attended to, either from the institute itself, or my meager savings.

    I know that cultivating my own food and working with my hands will be invaluable in the years to come, and I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to learn those vital skills. So long as I’m able-bodied, I want to keep learning and growing in this way.

  5. Bullweather

    Hi Ian,

    Do you have any books that you would recommend to have on hand for such an age? Maybe something on farming/cultivation, practical engineering (you’ve mentioned water harvesting in the past), etc.? I’d assume in civilizational collapse the internet will be limited in the best case scenario.

  6. Heitzso

    I’ve often gotten my back up when people post Limits to Growth (and their associated studies) graphs of possible outcomes and say “doesn’t include climate change”. POLLUTION is the big bucket they used for all POLLUTION related negative effects. Climate change is a result of pollution. Yes, I’m nit picking a small thing. But it bugs me when people misinterpret that study and the subsequent follow up reports/books.

  7. Joan

    Sure, move up to the Great Lakes, but be willing to commit to protecting that lake when someone comes to pump it and ship the water elsewhere, or sell it back to you. If you’re not part of the community that is well-armed and well-connected, you’ll just be the community that gets “removed” for trying to stop a rich entity from taking the water. Are you willing to get shot for that lake, and see your children and grandchildren shed blood for it? I anticipate things to get as ugly as what we saw when the Native Americans tried to stop pipelines through their lands.

  8. Purple Library Guy

    Monasteries were, in a way, otherwise known as “libraries”. My people may also do OK.

  9. StewartM

    Ian, do you think (in Jungian terms) there will be something of a ‘collective memory’ of the collapse and an aversion to behaviors thought to have created it? I’m thinking of how hunter-gatherers know that they should ‘just take what you can use/eat now’ as they know that trying to maximize hunting and gathering depletes resources and you end up going hungry, or worse.

    Of course, this depends that the survivors will have an accurate notion of what caused the collapse. If they deduce that ‘people who don’t look like us’ caused it, or that same-sexual relations caused it, then their social mores will be far different. In either case, I see gender equality taking a hit, as well as the acceptability of same-sex relations, if many return to some more primitive form of agriculture. We see it on the evolution of morality on Tennessee’s (hippie) Farm (babies good, gays bad, at least the last time I heard about it…adopting a lifestyle similar to the Amish led these hippies to similarly adopt many of their social mores).

    As for gender equality, people who have ‘gone primitive’ (insofar as agriculture) have also noted that men will gravitate to the jobs requiring more upper body strength, while women will take other work, and a gender divide develops. As one woman interviewed admitted, “you see it just makes sense” or something to that effect.

  10. different clue

    If we commit ourselves to an all-or-nothing approach, the danger is that if we can’t do it all then we will do nothing.

    If we can’t do total self-sufficiency, then we will do total helpless dependency.

    Those who can live with incompleteness, insufficiency and partialness will settle for doing some things even if they know they can’t do it all. Those who know self-sufficiency is impossible for themselves can still do some incomplete partial self-reliance. This could be true for groups or communities as well as individual persons or individual families.

    I think I remember Greer writing about a lumpy uneven eco-technic future. I wonder if the word ” artisandustrial” could be coined for the tiny-scale little thingmaking and/or thingfixing micro-industries which could arise and be sustained in a deep-resource-shortage future. I offer that word to anyone who thinks it might help with future-survival-oriented thinking and doing.

    Those who expect the internet to disappear and stay disappeared forever over the medium-run future should probably bring as many possible links, resources, etc. here as they can so others can read them, learn them, maybe even apply them, certainly copy them over onto acid-free paper if they think they are valuable enough to deserve preserving after every digital thing is erased and extinct.

    Perhaps people should take inspiration from a historical example of a culture-load group of persons saving valuable information through a long Dark Age to benefit people who might use it in a following Age of Restoration and Recovery. Perhaps this example could be a motivator for people to save some things that can be saved and might be useful to people after our present Digital Dark Ages have run their course.

  11. bruce wilder

    I hold out some hope that we humans might learn “constrained (or self-restrained) industrialism” as a viable alternative to the “scarcity industrialism” imposed by the avalanche of collapse. Not a lot of hope honestly. Our shared ideas of economics are mostly way too stupid. But, we are so bad at social, collective self-governance that it would be hard not to learn from experience even if our not-learning is practically an art-form at this point in history’s “progress”.

    Greer’s perspective on civilizational cycles is interesting particularly because of its imaginative cultural and religious focus. I respect his effort to resist the temptation to compress the anticipated time-frames in order to fit the drama into a frame comprehensible as happenings within a human life span. I think he’s right to imagine a “fall of civilization” taking at least 300 years. And he is right, I imagine, to anticipate long quiet periods punctuated by short accelerations of catastrophes — plateaus on the downslope of Seneca’s Cliff.

    The extreme centralization of power and control into the hands of a corrupt elite and its supporting class of credentialed “expert” bureaucrats will impose much suffering in our immediate future, but their brittle rule will break and that will be experienced as a relief by the survivors. Somewhere in the cycle of trying to organize humans as productive societies, the “learning” I hope for might take place.

  12. DMC

    For some of the skills you’ll need for long term survival, you could do worse than the Foxfire books. They encompass a range of old times and rural skills from the people that still use them, from butchering hogs to making whiskey.

  13. capelin

    Yeah, the Foxfire books. Also, the Whole Earth Catalogues – sort of a big freaky paper precurser to the internet. A gathering of brief reviews and contacts for tools, skills, books, ideas, etc.

    If/when we have the Big Collapse, well, between the crazies, and entropy acting on our fragile toxic built legacy, it’s just a matter of time. Lotsa systems that gotta keep cool.

    There’s lots of low-hanging-fruit when it comes to “prepping”. Grow a window garden. Buy whole foods as direct to source as you can. Cook from scratch. Un-addict from your phone; treat it like a tool that you sometimes use. Use cash. Learn how to keep your own body well. Be physically part of community (there ain’t gunna be no workin’ from home in the end times).

  14. sbt42

    For the Foxfire books (looks like the institute is still going strong, by the way):

    And the Whole Earth Catalogue and its offshoot publications are available online, at no cost to you:

  15. Quite Likely

    I will believe you about this survivalist prepper stuff if I actually see any of those metrics that were supposed to peak in 2020 on your graph take a sustained downturn – food, industrial production and services per capita seem likely to continue their centuries long trend upwards to me.

  16. sbt1942

    @Quite Likely:

    You don’t need to believe anyone in an effort to reduce your heating bill, reduce your grocery bill, and reduce the amount of pollution you and yours have produced. You just need to Do The Thing. That’s what the Foxfire books and Whole Earth Catalogue (and other efforts) are going on about, anyway.

  17. different clue

    The “low tech magazine” site offered above looks so different from the “low tech magazine” site I had used to visit that I thought it was a whole different website. But looking at it I see that it is the same, just made physically uglier recently, the same as so many once-attractive websites are.

    No matter. If nothing has been erased from it then the information is still as good. And I see that they are offering a way to save all this information into and past the Bonfire of the Every Digital Thing. They are printing ink-on-paper books of all these articles, to save and use even after every wire, chip, computer, etc. has grown cold and dark. Here is the link to their article about that, while it is still possible over the next few years hopefully.

  18. different clue

    Low tech magazine has a ( possibly related) “sister” magazine called No-tech magazine. Unfortunately, just now, none of the links can ” open this page”. I hope that is only temporary.

    I did happen upon a link to the name of the person himself who is behind Low-Tech magazine. At the end of the page it lists a bunch of talks and workshops which this person and/or like minded people have given, which may not be mentioned anywhere on Low Tech Magazine itself.

    Here is the link.

  19. different clue

    Here is a super-short video from The Weather Channel about a physically destructive hailstorm in Changsha, China. This could be relevant to green future thoughts because global warming will give us bigger better hailstorms with bigger better hailrocks and hailboulders at random times at random places.

    This could be relevant to any plans or concepts for ” indoor” or “under shelter” agriculture. If such hailstorms get big enough to destroy the covering material which keeps the under-cover crops under cover, the people growing those crops under cover will have to have stored up enough replacement cover material to be able to repair hail-destroyed cover . . . like greenhouse windows and etc. And if civilization were to collapse deeply enough that greenhouse glass and/or other sorts of cover material can no longer be made, then the replacement cover which people have not stored up for things like this is the replacement cover which people will never be able to get ever again.

  20. different clue

    Here is an example of high-concept high technology from the deep analog past. It is a purely wind-driven air-conditioning system from hundreds of years ago in Iran. A version of this could surely be built today at any scale from single house to multi-dweller apartment building. Perhaps re-learning perfectly workable solutions from the past could be called retrovation. Applying this system to present day buildings would be very retrovative.

    Anyway, here is the link.

  21. different clue

    It appears that ” No Tech Magazine” is findable again. It also appears to be linked to Low Tech Magazine and may be a semi-different outlet of the same group. In case some of its material is different than the material at Low Tech Magazine ( and I think some of it is), here is the link.

    Also, it retains its earlier look and has not become visually ugly like the new improved Low Tech Magazine site.

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