This is Not Your Ancestors’ Collapse Scenario

A forthcoming “NASA study” that predicts medium-term collapse has gone viral on the Internet, based entirely on Nafeez Ahmed’s advance writeup for The Guardian (“NASA-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?,” March 14).

To start with we should note, just in passing, that it turns out not to be quite a “NASA study” after all. It was the work of independent researchers at the University of Maryland, using analytical tools that had previously been developed for an entirely different NASA study. It wasn’t commissioned or funded by NASA. And on top of everything else, a lot of the authorities cited to support its premises aren’t all that pleased with the authors’ interpretation of their work (“Keith Kloor, About That Popular Guardian Story on the Collapse of Industrial Civilization“; “Judging the Merits of a Media-Hyped ‘Collapse’ Study.” Discover, March 21; ).

The study, a group effort led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei, argues for a cyclical pattern of civilizational rise and collapse in human history, based on the interaction of two mutually-reinforcing variables: 1) the growth of resource extraction to unsustainable levels and 2) the polarization of societies between economically privileged elites and commoners. The latter process insulates economic elites from fully experiencing the real costs of resource depletion, and allows them to externalize the suffering from the crisis onto the lower orders — thus delaying a rational response until it’s too late.

First of all, its line of analysis strikes me as fairly simplistic, assuming a handful of very gross variables and playing out a scenario based on a first-order extrapolation from them, with very little taking into account of agile responses to feedback — especially the rapid growth of ephemeralizing technologies that are totally changing the game compared to previous collapses.

And oddly enough, it’s being cited by a lot of commentators as evidence for why we need state intervention. But if anything, it’s the state and the model of industrial growth it promoted the past century or two that are pushing us toward collapse.

The main function of the state has been subsidizing a model of expansion based on the wasteful use of additional resource inputs rather than boosting productivity through more efficient use of existing inputs. Under the existing model of capitalism, the state does two major things. First, it enforces privileges and artificial property rights that result in large monopoly rents to the propertied classes. The overall effect is to shift income from workers with a high propensity to consume to rentiers with a high propensity to save and invest, so that capitalism is plagued with chronic crises of overinvestment and underconsumption. Second, the state subsidizes a business model based on large-batch production for large, centralized market areas using extremely expensive, specialized machinery — a model of production far higher in overhead and far more capital-intensive than would be sustainable in a genuine free market, without subsidies and barriers to competition. Because of the enormous capital outlays required for this model of production, industry is driven to minimize unit costs by running continually at full capacity, and the capitalist state organizes society around the consumption of this output, which was undertaken without regard to preexisting demand.

So we have an economy whose dominant class face an enormous glut of far more capital than it can find profitable investment outlets for, and find themselves in a constant uphill battle against excess industrial capacity and inadequate consumer demand. In short, it’s an economy organized by the state around solving the problems of a ruling class with too many resources, and every incentive in the world to use them as inefficiently as possible.

The state’s chief activity has been finding ways to waste capital and soak it up on horribly inefficient blockbuster projects as capital sinks for solving the problem of overaccumulation and idle capacity, to encourage waste investment in inefficient ways of doing things, and pay people to hold land out of use or subsidize the most land-inefficient forms of industrial farming. The automobile-highway complex, mass suburbanization, planned obsolescence and the military-industrial complex all fall under these headings.

At the same time, the state preempts ownership of the natural environment and gives preferential access to it to the economic ruling class, effectively turning it into an unorganized and unregulated commons that industry can use as a no-cost, no-liability sink for pollution and a subsidized source of artificially cheap raw materials and fuel inputs.

The study argues that “elite power” will protect the ruling classes from the negative effects of looming collapse for some time after commoners begin to experiencing it, thus allowing “business as usual” for the privileged despite “impending catastrophe.” As for the saving potential of technological advances, don’t count on it. The only effect it will have — based on what amounts to a warmed-over appeal to Jeavons’ Paradox — is to temporarily encourage even larger-scale, less sustainable consumption and resource extraction.

I’m a lot more optimistic than the authors on both counts.

First of all, the legal barriers and subsidies that insulate the elites from the real costs of the decisions they make are rapidly becoming unsustainable. While industry’s demands for subsidized inputs rise exponentially — as you might expect from the basic principles of economics — the state is becoming fiscally exhausted from its inability to keep up with those demands. And crises of Peak Oil, Coal, etc. will likely drive the collapse of long-distance industrial supply and distribution chains, and the relocalization of production, in the near future. Meanwhile, as the revolution in high-tech, ephemeral manufacturing tools makes the means of production increasingly cheaper, smaller in scale and more amenable to relocalized production by individuals and small groups, corporations find themselves forced to resort to legal monopolies and anti-competitive barriers like licensing and “intellectual property” to prevent manufacturing from being undertaken by ordinary workers and consumers outside corporate boundaries. But as the record industry or NSA can tell you, legal barriers to the free use of information and technique are becoming virtually unenforceable.

And it’s the “lower orders” themselves, the very people who experience the externalized negative consequences of resource depletion, who are being driven by necessity to develop the new, more efficient technologies that will become the building blocks for the post-capitalist culture.

So what we’re really seeing is an old state-corporate economic order, accustomed to achieving its goals by throwing unlimited cheap capital and land at them, experiencing something very much like past collapse scenarios described by Joseph Tainter. At the same time, a new junkyard dog economy of micromanufacturing, open-source hardware, free software, permaculture, vernacular building techniques and passive solar design, household micro-enterprise, cooperatives, etc., is emerging from the ruins of the old corporate dinosaur economy. It has grown up in the face of unrelenting pressure to extract every last drop of value from the merest scraps of land and capital, and will eventually digest the decaying ruins of the system it supplants.

So yes, an old system is collapsing. But it’s entirely feasible for a new and better one to take its place. The only thing the state can do, in alliance with the old order, is to obstruct the new one by enforcing the inequalities of wealth and unevenness of resource distribution Motasharrei points to. And the best way to get rid of those inequalities is for the state to stop actively promoting them.

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