The Onset of Catabolic Collapse

March 14, 2011 • Farming Practices, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Jack Alpert for this article. See:

The Onset of Catabolic Collapse

John Michael Greer

I’ve commented more than once on the gap in perception between history as it appears in textbooks and history as it’s lived by people on the spot at the time. That’s a gap worth watching, because the foreshortening of history that comes with living in the middle of it quite often gets in the way of figuring out a useful response to a time of crisis — for example, the one we’re in right now.

This is all the more challenging because the foreshortening of history cuts both ways; it makes small but sudden events look more important than they are, and it also helps hide slow but massive shifts that will play a much greater role in shaping the future. Recent increases in the price of oil, for example, kicked off a flurry of predictions suggesting that hyperinflation and the sudden collapse of industrial society are right around the corner; identical predictions were made the last time oil prices spiked, the time before that, and the time before that, too, so the traditional grain of salt may be worth adding to them this time around. (We’ll most likely get hyperinflation in the US, granted, but my guess is that that will come further down the road.) Look at all these price spikes and notice that the peaks and troughs have both tended gradually upwards, on the other hand, and you may just catch sight of the signal hidden in all that noise — the fact that providing industrial civilization with its most important fuel is loading a greater burden on the world’s economies with every year that passes.

The same gap in perception afflicts most current efforts to make sense of the future looming up ahead of us. Ever since my original paper on catabolic collapse first found its way onto the internet, I’ve fielded questions fairly regularly from people who want to know whether I think some current or imminent crisis will tip industrial society over into catabolic collapse in some unmistakably catastrophic way. It’s a fair question, but it’s based on a fundamental misreading both of the concept of catabolic collapse and of our present place in the long cycles of rise and fall that define the history of civilizations.

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