Most of the people working on collapse scenarios are working from the current state and trying to maintain essential services at about the current level. On noting that this is impossible, in most cases a sort of Mad Max / Former Soviet Union model takes over.
Dimitri Orlov and the American Survivalists are pretty much the epitome of this way of framing the problem. If you are not familiar with Orlov’s work, this ten minute video is a very fair overview of his perspective, or check this long transcript of a talk on social collapse.
I’m going to suggest there are three reasons why we do not need to go down the FSU “it’s all gone horribly wrong” path.
The first is simply that in living memory we’ve seen a full-on five stage collapse. I’ve talked to a couple of people who saw the bolts come off the FSU up close, and – like Orlov – they are mines of hard-won perspective that can be used to get a different outcome in Europe and the USA. It’s not like we have to refer to events of our grandparents time, like 1930s Germany, to see the worst of economic collapse up close. No, we can see the worst quite a lot closer to home and have the luxury and privilege of having read access to people with that perspective, Orlov most visibly.
The second is that at least in America, the war for control of society between the people and the government was not won by the government until relatively recently. The stubborn, ruthlessly individualist, survive-at-any-price attitude of the wagon trains, and the Keep Calm and Carry On approach of the Blitz represented a clear time when people viewed themselves as independent agents which collaborated with the State to attain their goals but were not formally owned or commanded by it. I’m a little young to talk with any authority about WW2 British culture, but my strong impression is that society closed ranks to fight for its survival, with the Government as the spearhead behind which that national will aligned. This is extremely important: the haft of the spear is what generates the power, not the penetrating tip. Society and Government are two separate systems and, in extreme crisis conditions, either one can force failure on the other. A public attitude of apathy and defeatism would have finished Britain, just as much as incompetent government would have, but we survived because Society and Government both did their job well enough to tough it out. This is a reserve of resilience which is not strongly present in areas with long histories of authoritarian government. It is not an easy or convenient kind of resilience, rather it is the epitome of the messy complexity of life itself – many multiple interlocking systems, each with its focus and capabilities, cooperating and collaborating to attain their own ends. Current British policy is a little heavy-handed to fully take advantage of this kind of resilience at this time, but that is something which could be amended at a policy level, and there is a lot of discussion of these approaches at a cultural level.
The third factor is that we know much more about keeping people alive “bottom up” than anybody would think. We know how many calories, how much energy, what kind of access to education and to transport are necessary for societal and personal survival. This stuff was well understood during the austerity of WW2 and deployed effectively at a national level to enable whole society response to an external threat. In the current mess, one of the hardest problems to repair is the public perception of government collusion in creating the crisis – the rich lining their pockets with the savings of the poor, aided and abetted by the power of the State. Indeed, unpicking that knot is going to take time and wisdom, for there is more than a little truth in it. But with that work done, if we are willing to get serious fast, we can actually start trimming the fat from the areas where we all know it is astonishingly wasteful to continue business as usual. I’d like to point out four areas which have the potential to make meaningful dents in the upcoming hardship without requiring significant life changes for most people.
1. Increasing end-use device efficiency across the board using a combination of tools like bans and feebates, which use a tax on inefficient devices to subsidise the purchase of efficient devices. The goal here, to be blunt, is to squeeze everybody a little – green lighting and a slightly more efficient car – to create more room for everyone to breath. Incandescent lighting is 5% or 10% of the total national electricity consumption of most nations, and if you compare the cost and convenience of banning incandescents in favor of LEDs, CFLs and other efficient lighting technologies with the cost of building 5% or 10% more power stations it becomes fairly apparent that this is a winner. There are critical infrastructure maintenance reasons for doing this kind of work now – by reducing load on the national grid we reduce the odds of failures due to deferred maintenance and staffing cuts and cushion ourselves against the consequences of deferred investment in new capacity. Cutting demand is a way to protect the grid. Similar reasoning applies to transport, insulation and various other fundamental efficiency measures, but few are as easy to implement as a flat-out ban on incandescent bulbs or a strong feebate to bring the relative price of efficient devices down compared to normal devices. The payoff is cheap-to-acquire grid stability. There are few bargains in this game, and this is the best of them.
2. Medical care costs require triage. There are toxic measures which hurt like hell – reduced care in the last part of life being the obvious one – and benign measures which are less obviously critical but also have very significant benefits like preventative medicine, switching to harm reduction approaches in managing addictions, comprehensive use of checklists and other healthcare quality improvements and so on. Health care is more complex than mere energy supply because people are involved, and worse, professionals, but there is hope for change and faced with two options – grinding budget cuts in the current status quo, or a comprehensive re-engineering of critical cost centers, I think many medical professionals and patients would welcome the opportunity for real change in how our health is protected.
3. Managing the causes of social unrest is vastly more effective than managing unrest. A lot of people – the old and the young – have lost their chosen futures. Pensions have evaporated, and graduating into a recession is a horrible experience. People need to see real accountability from those who skimmed the cream off the good times, and continue to skim it off the bad times. Yes, I understand the argument that paying reasonable salaries to top brass in banks will cause talent flight. Yes, I understand that the Duke of Westminster really does need all that land. But you are not explaining this to me: you are explaining it to bankrupt store managers who slotted themselves into a machine that promised a stable life and future, and then fired them out the back end when the economy turned. You’re explaining it to kids who did four years in university to graduate into a world they cannot practice their profession in. People are angry and they are going to force change. The question is in what areas can ground be given – in what areas can people be made accountable for their behavior on the way up the curve – which is not simply beheading people who are standing in the wrong crowd? The rich are not by their nature villains, and those who profiteered on lax regulation and more fundamentally, on unrealistic expectations are hard to pick out of the crowd in a manner which will satisfy people who have witnessed their pensions evaporate. People, in general, do not want blood, but they want to feel that the hardship is shared in at least a somewhat equitable manner. Irrational things like seeing the ultra-rich abandon their sixth home sooth people at a level which has little to do with reason. Strategic management of public outrage to produce positive change where possible (national transformation) without it turning into, ahem, class war requires real political innovation in government. Very serious thought should be given to designing those pressure valves before Summer 2009. Remember: creating positive ways for people to manage their outrage is vastly cheaper than policing. Destructive rage can be turned into constructive measures if there is a public perception of integrity and shared sacrifice in the process. In 2009, however, a public perception of integrity means actual integrity must be present and the same is true of shared sacrifice. Welcome to the panopticon.
4. How the young are to shape their lives when deprived of hope of progress through stable career paths. The vast majority of young people today will be poorer than their parents, often far poorer, and there are few if any cultural reserves to tell people that money is not the goal of life at that stage. Unrealistic expectations not backed by real productivity have built up most people’s understandings of their rational entitlements to implausible levels, and yet there is no clear path to puncturing those expectations in a manner which does not make a mockery of the investments that people have made in education, in simple work, and in career. The social contract between the individual, the state and the market has been violated, and there is no way to repair that damage in the short term, although sincere apologies help. The way out is offered by education, particularly liberal education and broad-based vocational training (plumbers who do roofs,) the arts, sports, musical culture – any area where a person can define themselves as successful, as worthy, even as great – without requiring massive access to money through a healthy, functioning economy. The “brass ring” is gone for perhaps an entire generation, but creative and productive use of talent should not have been artificially restricted to market success in the first place: money was how, not why, and it is by examining this fundamental identity again that we can find the creative freedom to offer cultural roles to people who might have wished to be rich, but find that path blocked. The most important single part of this cultural shift is recognizing that in a time of 10% unemployment, if you are without a job, it is likely not your fault: who is unemployed might change, but the number of unemployed and underemployed does not. Policy changes to permit people to develop non-market-facing success in the liberal arts is incredibly cheap relative to the difference it would make in the British mindset, and this is likely even more true abroad.
It is simply not true that nothing can be done to prepare for severe and prolonged economic hardship. If we have even six months or a year of lead time measures can be put in place which will significantly mitigate the effects of the recession, depression or collapse on the general public, and particularly on the most vulnerable parts of our society.
I have picked a few items which are suitable for consideration by central government. The criminal justice system is another key area where massive savings are possible, while offering more effective protection to society. Medicine, education and social services all have similar potential interventions, and rafts of potential policies exist for regional and local government too, of course.
The Institute for Collapsonomics is a place for thinking about these issues with the gloves off. How can we help everybody to adapt to the upcomimg changes? How can we help you?
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