Archive for June, 2012

Hold Your Applause! (But not for much longer)


I am hard at work on my next book, The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit, due out in print and digital from New Society Publishers next June. As you can probably imagine, financial collapse is turning out to be a bit of a doozy; I am saving it for the end. And so I decided to take a break from relentless weekly blogging, and instead to republish Hold Your Applause! in Kindle format. It\’s been out of print for a while now, but people keep asking me for copies, so here it is. In the introduction, it says:

…this book is not so much for you to read as it is for you to slap other people upside their fool heads with. In the coming years, you will no doubt run across countless people who will say to you things like “Nobody could have seen this coming!” or “Who could have ever imagined it would be like this?” or “Why wasn\’t anyone able to predict this?” That will be your cue to whip out this book, and… give it to them.

This, of course, points out a major downside of ebook readers: the little electronic devices are too fragile to be of use in hand-to-hand combat. And so you will need to hold your temper as well—just until The Five Stages comes out: I plan to make it weighty enough to thrash all cornucopian techno-triumphalist polyannishness (not to mention just plain old cluelessness) out of even the wooliest of heads.

Willful Blindness

As we read the morning headlines, we are offered one surprise after another. The 2008 economic crisis seemed to come out of nowhere. The rampant fraud at Enron and MCI caught us off guard. BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was like a freak accident.

The truth is that there are very few surprise in life. Most of what’s happening, whether it’s corporate misbehavior or government coverups or relationship gone awry, are visible but we cast a blind eye to the truth. This phenomena of not seeing what’s right before our eyes is called willful blindness. We chose to ignore what we can see because we don’t want what we see to be true.

Thomas White interviews Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril, and myself.

Disaster Communalism

Oleg Kulik

[This is a guest post by Keith Farnish: an edited, unpublished extract from his online book Underminers: A Practical Guide for Radical Change. It would take too long to explain precisely what Undermining is and who the Underminers are, so please recommend reading the Introduction. The whole book is free to access and redistribute.]

The following essay was triggered by dialogue between Dmitry Orlov and Keith Farnish, both of whom have a deep interest in the power of community to combat and rise above all sorts of situations. The essay attempts to show that not only is community a powerful binding force, it is also a powerful combative force against the culture that threatens to obliterate the majority of life on Earth.

Community is the natural state of human beings: dependent upon each other, working together to ensure the stability and success of whatever collective form we take. Community is the antithesis of how civilization wants us to live. Sadly, as we seek the company and mutual assistance of others like us this need is exploited by civilization to devastating effect. The Veil of Ignorance places us in a position of dependency far removed from our natural state – instead chained to a system that only wants to take what we can give for the system’s benefit. If we can learn to embrace genuine forms of community once again then we not only remove the “need” for civilization that has been instilled in us, we create an environment that is far more resilient than any city, any government, any corporation and any civilization, however large and powerful.

The future of humanity – how we live, work and thrive as a species – lies not with civilizations, but with communities. We have to undermine the civilized (and divisive) ideas that we must at once be homogenous, global citizens and atomised, selfish individuals.

* * *

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit is an astonishing piece of work. If any one thing has inspired my desire to use community as a force against civilization then it is this book. This short extract takes us straight to the heart of the matter and provides many clues to how communities may actually be used as a powerful weapon against the Culture of Maximum Harm:

You don’t have to subscribe to a political ideology, move to a commune, or join the guerrillas in the mountains; you wake up in a society suddenly transformed, and chances are good you will be part of that transformation in what you do, in whom you connect to, in how you feel. Something changes. Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that the change means chaos or destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster – and real political and social change can result, from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges. Too, the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters. But many others who don’t hold radical ideas, don’t believe in revolution, don’t consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and rejoice in it.

This takes a little explanation, which is why I recommend you at least read the compelling introduction to the book. In a nutshell, there is a myth about what happens when groups of civilized humans are faced with disaster situations. That myth is what leads those who feel they are “responsible” for the rest of us (e.g. those who have the most weapons) to prevent our natural community spirit from coming to the fore. Civilization fears a lack of control, which is one reason why the word anarchy has so many negative connotations. A lack of authoritarian control leads to people pulling together and dealing with things in a far more equitable manner. If equality reigns and inevitably people are able to connect with each other on a human level then the Tools of Disconnection have failed. As we know, the industrial system relies on fear to keep us disconnected – fear of each other, fear of difference, fear of the system’s own might – so it tries to impose fear at times of stress. Hell, it creates disasters and makes people believe bad things are going to happen just to keep us scared all the time. Through this means the status quo is re-imposed.

As the book goes on to show, there is not a single case of a disaster-type situation where humans have not mutually acted to make things better for themselves as a whole in the absence of authorities imposing control over the situation. Now, I would add just one caveat to that, which Solnit doesn’t make clear, perhaps because the book would not have been published had she done so. The fact is, the fear by the elites that post-disaster changes may undermine their authority is fully justified. The changes that take place after a disaster, which ordinary humans acting in communities cope so well with, completely undermine the authority of the industrial system. Indeed those changes are so powerful that – say this quietly – they can even be the trigger for entirely new forms of society.

So, we know that communities emerge as a natural human response to crises. How these crises happen is, as Solnit’s and as other recent examples have demonstrated, doesn’t seem to matter. The important factor is a loss of authority and a need for a survival response to take place. In fact, that survival response need not necessarily be to a life-threatening situation. To take a small example, I remember power cuts and water shortages in the 1970s causing minor hardship, yet creating remarkable, spontaneous dialogue and subsequent action between neighbours, many of whom would never have dreamt of working together under normal conditions. Next time you are on public transport and something unexpected happens, see how people react in the absence of some authority (such as a conductor) taking a lead – people talk, they open up, they plan… and then the train starts moving, and everyone returns to their little worlds again.

There is something rather exciting about the possibilities encompassed in this scenario – hold your horses for a second, though, because the second aspect of this, the return to normal, non-communicative, non-community activity, is also vital to consider. Naomi Klein famously described a concept known as Disaster Capitalism in her book The Shock Doctrine as being synonymous with the “softening up” that torture is used for in working towards a state of mental compliance, but on a far larger scale:

The shock doctrine mimics this process precisely… the original disaster – the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane – puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners.

While there is an element of pop psychology attached to this (Rebecca Solnit is a fierce critic of Klein’s view that populations are so compliant in the face of disaster) there is also a great deal of truth in the historical events Klein reports upon, especially when – as Machiavelli so vitally pronounced upon in The Prince – there is something, such as a new regime, ready to fill the political void created by the disaster. Thus we must address the problem of having this “void” filled with something other than our natural tendency to create communities.

Undermining to Build Communities

Beware the backlash. I don’t think anyone will be surprised that for every undermining action there may be an equal and opposite reaction. I’m not talking about protecting against the reaction of the industrial systems of power in their defence, but rather the reaction of ordinary people who see themselves as civilized. Never is this more true than in the case of creating a situation, real or otherwise, where a community response is likely. Let’s take a simple, localised example.

Suppose you were to somehow prevent food being distributed to a particularly aggressive superstore on the edge of a town. Assuming there are no other food outlets available on the edge, regular customers will try their hardest not to seek other sources of food, but instead make it known how pissed off they are that the superstore cannot supply their consumer needs. They will complain to staff, to management, to local politicians, to the media. Some might seek out food sources in the middle of the town, giving much-needed funds to those shops sucked dry by the out-of-town superstore, and some might decide not to buy the unnecessary items they normally would from the bloated selection in that superstore. Others, a few, might even consider – assuming the “crisis” carried on for a while – seeking out much more localised sources of food, sharing between neighbours, having “pot lucks” and so on.

But the majority would react against whatever caused the crisis in the first place. They might seek out the perpetrator, and certainly the system would apply whatever measures it could to make sure that perpetrator couldn’t do it again. More insidiously, the attitude to the superstore might change. Yes, some might remain attached to whatever community efforts sprang up to deal with the situation, but others – probably the majority – will demand that such a thing is more strongly protected against in the future. As I say, this isn’t the power structures protecting themselves, but the civilized population protecting the system it has become dependent upon. This is the backlash. You need to be prepared for it.

There is a considerable element of basic human psychology required here. In essence, any disaster that initiates a community response must be complete enough for it not to cause a possibly more powerful backlash, resulting in a worse situation than before. Completeness takes into account whether a disaster provides enough community responses for people to invoke, bearing in mind that different people behave in different ways, which means that planning is absolutely critical for such a form of undermining. Backlash is far more likely where people feel or may actually have been harmed in some tangible way, making the “risk to others” rule particularly important to note. Even if people are not actually directly harmed, they may feel a sense of harm or even menace, while the disaster is unfolding. They will undoubtedly seek the protection of authorities, which is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. There has to be a sense that this “disaster” is something good, an opportunity emerging for something better. Clearly a multi-faceted approach is vital if this is going to be achieved.

So, let’s look at that superstore food failure, but adding various elements that might make the backlash less meaningful, and the community response deeper and longer-lasting. The following questions are all fundamental, and I have provided some sketch answers, though you will no doubt have your own. The third answer has been left blank as it is vital that an Underminer is able to apply general principles to a specific situation:

What are we trying to achieve?

A response through which people bring the purchase, distribution and production of their food to a community scale (say, within a 10 mile radius to start with). In addition this response will have various knock-on effects related to the increased level of dependency on people in the locality, including much improved social cohesion. Over time (though probably not immediately, depending on local availability) this will lead to a rejection of the industrial food system in favour of the local food network.

What are we trying to avoid?

Actual harm to others – hunger being a possibility especially for the less socially mobile; perceived harm to others; entrenched reliance on the industrial food system as a result of existing dependence and perceived risks; getting caught and punished.

How can each of these be avoided?

(This is for you to fill out – use the notes above if that helps).

How can the initial undermining be carried out?

Methods might include interfering with ordering systems / wiping data; breaking the supply chain at critical weak points; implying that orders have already been dispatched; preventing reception / stacking staff from reaching work; creating a health scare, and many others.

Notice the “headline” undermining is the last thing to be considered. This is because it needs to take into account all of the above. Obviously you have to decide whether such a thing is practicable in the first place, otherwise all of that planning will be for nothing, but without the planning and all of the contingencies in place the most likely outcome of all is you will just end up some kind of pathetic, lorry-halting martyr that no one cares about except whether you will spend 2 or 10 years in jail. It may be that removing the risks is simply too difficult, and some other less risky action could have a similar outcome.

Such as just pretending the superstore has run out of food.

You see, it is often possible to create the perception of a disaster without actually creating the disaster itself. Not only is such an approach less risky, and thus more likely to be carried out on a larger scale and also more likely to be repeated, but there is far less chance of a backlash.

FREETOWN: At least 200 people were killed when a trench collapsed at an unofficial gold mine in Sierra Leone, the West African country’s Ministry of Mineral Resources said on Friday.

The accident occurred in the Bo district in the south of the country, about 180 miles from the capital, Freetown.

“Over 200 gold miners were killed when a …trench dug by the miners collapsed,” a ministry spokesman said.

Unofficial gold mining is common in Africa where miners usually have no professional training or equipment and often dig by hand. Accidents are frequent at the sites, which do not meet safety standards found at professionally engineered mines.

“A forty feet (12 meters) pit was dug out to mine gold,” a senior police source said. “Hundreds of (miners) entered the pit, and when it collapsed it trapped them.”

Children as young as 13 were working in the mine when it caved in, police said, adding that around 20 people escaped.

Officials from the resources ministry were en route to the scene of the disaster on Friday, the ministry spokesman said.

The “disaster” was possibly a communications failure, but more likely a hoax. If we assume it was a hoax of some kind, then its origins could easily be traced to the appalling working conditions of diamond and gold miners in Sierra Leone and an attempt to expose this. Certainly that background was picked up by the mainstream press when the hoax was exposed. The next day The Associated Press, syndicated to nearly 200 news outlets, reported: “Mining accidents are common in Africa\’s unregulated artisanal mines, where poor villagers use crude instruments and their bare hands to dig through the dirt. Sierra Leone — the country upon which the film ‘Blood Diamond’ is based — has many diamond and gold mines.” People forget about hoaxes quicker than tangible events, they may even laugh about them, but they may also get the point the hoax was trying to make.

But that doesn’t mean a hoax is intrinsically more effective at making a point than a real disaster, after all not everyone is taken in by a hoax, and the time before a return to normality is going to be significantly quicker than if something genuine is unfolding. You will struggle to find anything reported more than a couple of days after the “mine collapse”. One can immediately return to a perceived lack of something, but one can’t immediately return to something if it is no longer there.

Memories of great storms and whiteouts are speckled throughout the anecdotal history of the area in which we live. A “once in living memory” period of snow took over our village in February 2010, shortly before we moved in. People talk of the local cooperative store being staffless until a brave person managed to trudge miles to open up. Soup deliveries were widespread and the elderly in particular were checked up on regularly to make sure they were warm and fed. Long conversations and frequent laughter were endemic, alongside the fallen guttering and immovable cars. Supplies of wood and other necessities were made available within micro-communities of individual roads and groups of houses.

We missed this by a couple of months, but more bitter and soft white weather was to come the following November and into December leading to a spontaneous outbreak of sledging. For the week that school buses were cancelled and schools were closed the hill down to the public golf course (for once a beauteous thing rather than an overmown eyesore) was awash with people of all ages, myself included, risking life and limb (or at least limb) for a short downhill thrill. And again, and again, on sledges, compost bags, backsides and, most memorably, an inflatable mattress which eventually became a tattered but still exciting addendum to the great community downhill experience. People were happy to hand over responsibility of their precious offspring to near-strangers and there is little doubt that the week when school was closed and the slope was open was a wonderful time for the community to become stronger. Of course no one can make it snow, but there are other ways of keeping people at home to enjoy each other’s company…

Soon after this the council changed their policy. No longer would a lack of transport be an impediment to school attendance – the local primary schools would simply admit everyone within walking distance, and every school staff member would have to “check in” on pain of unemployment. The “education” system, you see, doesn’t see learning about each other to be educational, and free time to experience pure joy is wasted time. I guess next time the snow comes down someone had better see to it that the local school is locked too.

Here’s a more hypothetical example, but one that still relates to real-life events. All across our area, and probably near to you as well, there are music events, live theatre, interesting talks, workshops and demonstrations of practical skills, clubs and societies doing their best to bring people together with common interests. All of them, almost without exception struggle to bring in more than a tiny proportion of the people who live even round the corner from those things. Ok, not every event is of interest to a great number of people, but the only reason most of these things keep going is because of community grants (for once not an anachronism) and sponsorship. People stay away, and it’s not, strictly speaking, because of the overused term “apathy” – it’s because most people are staring at a flickering screen in some form or another. We have often semi-joked that if someone were to cut off the television signal on the last Friday of the month then our local music club would be bursting at the seams, and it probably would. But this goes deeper: the presence of so-called “connecting” elements of technology, with television being the classic one-way communication, are incredibly potent forces in keeping people disconnected from the real world and from each other. The Human Community is a victim of technology so it follows that in the absence of television, the internet and, to a lesser extent, radio and mobile phones, the Human Community would flourish as it did prior to the mass adoption of these things.

One element of this that is critical is the lack of risk to the people affected by any technological shutdown. Sure, there are examples where people have been saved from possible harm or even death by the intervention of communications technology. Equally so, there are examples where communications technology have led directly to deaths. But we are talking about what are essentially entertainment media here – I wouldn’t, for instance, ever advocate interfering with emergency communications equipment as the immediate risk to life is too high to justify longer term undermining; but television, the internet and especially entertainment web sites, commercial radio and instant messaging are certainly ripe for intervention in the name of recreating community.

Feeling Loss

Speaking to a friend about this concept, he said something which brought me sharply back to sickening reality: we are already in a disaster situation. If you read the first section of Time’s Up! or just browse through the increasingly stark reality of the changing and rapidly degrading global environment (something I find it harder and harder to do nowadays) then it’s impossible to ignore the fact that we are already in a disaster scenario whether that be in the form of climate change, food scarcity, habitat destruction, environmental toxification or any other horrors we currently face. Yet we are not acting as though this is the case. So, to paraphrase my friend: “How do you help people feel the disaster which is already upon them?”

In any disaster people are our first priority. For instance, despite the best efforts of certain (non-human) animal charities, I struggle to take reports of dogs and horses washed away by floods as seriously as those reporting on human casualties. Some people, washed out by the tide of civilized humanity would prefer to spend time with non-human animals, and I can understand that; but if we are trying to understand the minds of the civilized then we need to accept that civilized people care for other civilized people…a bit. Non-civilized people, too, will seek to protect the human before the non-human (regardless of culture), leading to the unavoidable conclusion that whether operating on base instincts or at a highly-filtered cultural level, the most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact.

That’s not quite enough to get through, though. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was a disaster that few people can comprehend in anything but purely mathematical terms. A quarter of a million people killed by a wave and its after-effects. That’s just too many for one mind to deal with: a quarter of a million human beings is, to put it in its crudest terms, a mass of people. As Wendell Berry so eloquently stated in a 2012 lecture:

To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we “know” that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail”—and that appears to have the force of truth.

It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits.

We cannot separate the individuals from the mass at vast human scales. Loss only becomes personalised at far smaller scales – at community scales, such as when a village is buried by a landslide or a family is killed in a house fire. Such small, yet tragic events affect us in a way that belies their apparent scale. It follows then that the most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact at a scale we can easily comprehend.

But there is still something missing. A phrase returns: what matters, is what matters to us. What matters to us is our fellow human beings; what matters to us more is the human beings that matter most to us. I remember a sketch from the 1980s British television series “Not The Nine O’Clock News” which seems to address this missing thing perfectly. It went something like: “Two Britons were killed in an air crash today. The other victims were, in order of importance, 4 Americans, 1 Australian, 3 French and 213 Africans.” Whilst shocking, it is also significant in highlighting what it is we value and, with surprising congruity, what we have been conditioned to value, in terms of disasters. Rightly or wrongly, we value those that are most like us whether in terms of cultural beliefs, genetic similarity or personal experience. It rocks you to the core when someone you love dies. The raw human emotions that come from a close loss are unequivocal. That kind of loss lies at the root of community cohesion. It also lies at the root of helping people feel the disaster that is unfolding at this very moment.

The most effective way to make people feel a disaster is to emphasise the human impact at a scale we can easily comprehend upon those we most care about.

I don’t think there is any need to go into the crude mechanics of this, but I must emphasise that this is anything but an excuse to cause hurt deliberately. What has to happen is a focussing of minds upon those events that actually mean something to people as a catalyst for change. Whether referring to a disaster that has happened, one that is happening at present or one that may happen in the future, if we are to garner any kind of effective response to it then we have to allow those we are engaging with to feel its impact at a personal level. It has to be their disaster, and they have to feel as though they can do something about it.


Some of the information in this essay will feel deeply uncomfortable, but in the context of a culture where the ultimate desires are no longer clean air, water, food and a place to rest our head, but the accumulation of wealth and status, then we have to accept some discomfort in order to achieve meaningful change for the better. The world is changing for the worse and humanity will be its own victim, not just civilized humans but those who still live in a deeply connected and sustainable manner.

Aside from the need to actively undermine the very things that keep us impotent and subservient to the industrial machine, we need to embrace ways of living that give us a future in that changing world. If that means using everything we have at our disposal to make that happen then that is a small price to pay for a wonderful, long-term reward. Community is a paradigm that doesn’t come easily to the civilized individual; to a human being, though, community is the way back to a survivable future.

Absolutely Positive


With ClubOrlov just over four years old, I am publishing a \”best of\” book of essays. These are 30 of the most popular articles chosen from the ones that have been published on ClubOrlov.

A lot has changed during this time; four years ago this book would have been largely about the future, but now it is largely about the present. In preparing the manuscript for publication, I haven\’t found anything that I would want to change or retract.

This book is only going to be available via Amazon Kindle; I have no plans to produce a paper version. While not quite as long-lasting as a bound volume printed on acid-free paper, it is somewhat less ephemeral than a blog, and a lot easier on the eyes. It is also much cheaper: $4 gets you your own copy, which you can keep forever and lend to friends and family as many times as you like, because it doesn\’t get lost and doesn\’t fray.

The book\’s title should be self-explanatory. I am absolutely positive that collapse is underway. I am also absolutely positive that with a bit of preparation and adaptation, some physical, some mental, a lot of us can pull through if we really try. Lastly, I am absolutely positive in my overall outlook and disposition, and hopeful that a fast but thorough collapse will leave enough of the planet in a non-toxic, non-radioactive, non-strip-mined, non-cratered state to allow for our continued existence as a species.

To promote this virtual book, I am going to go on a virtual book tour. If you would like to interview me for your radio show, publication or podcast, please contact me at my first name dot my last name at gmail dot com. Furthermore, if you wish to invite my non-virtual, physical self to appear in person and give a talk, and can pay for my travel from/to Boston, please let me know and we will try to work something out.

Order this book from

Our Brave Experiment

Pete Revonkorpi

[This is the last in the series of three posts based on the talks I gave at the first annual Age of Limits conference in Artemas, Pennsylvania.]

Exactly six years ago—a year or so before my first book was to be published—my wife and I sold our condo in a Boston suburb, liquidated most of our belongings, moved the rest either into storage or aboard Hogfish—our 32-foot sailboat—and sailed off into the North Atlantic.

This was rather brave of us, since, up to that point, our seafaring experience was limited to a weekend sail from Boston to Salem and back, which is the nautical equivalent of dangling your feet in a swimming pool. I did have some prior sailing experience: I had sailed dinghies around Boston\’s Charles River Basin (a smallish expanse of flat water between the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and the Longfellow Bridge). Once that became too boring, I joined Courageous Sailing Center and went on to sail somewhat larger boats, including the sporty J-22, around Boston Harbor.

The typical summer afternoon excursion involved tacking out and around the nearest harbor island on the afternoon sea breeze, anchoring somewhere for a picnic, and sloshing back on the tide and the dying breeze just as the sun was starting to set. While this doesn\’t sound particularly courageous, just getting out into the harbor did take courage: Courageous Sailing Center is located in a deep, winded-in pocket between two piers, and the only way to get out of it and out into the harbor it is by short-tacking through an obstacle course of moored boats.

If you haven\’t realized this yet, the approach I am taking with this article is that too much information is generally a good thing; however, I am not setting out to write an encyclopedia of sailing, so I will throw a lot of terms around without pausing to define them. If you don\’t understand something, then let Wikipedia be your friend.
My decision to buy the sailboat was a long time in the making. I had started researching sail-based transport some time before then, having come to the realization that, once fossil fuels are gone, sailing will once again become the only way to navigate the planet. I had also realized that the world has changed since the world\’s last sail-based merchant marine (Finnish) ceased to exist (right around World War II). For one thing, there just isn\’t the supply of dense-grained old-growth timber from which to construct wooden ships using classic time-tested methods. The available timber is from new, smaller, fast-growth trees, which have loose grain structure with widely spaced rings, and even it is in short supply, very expensive, and weak. For another thing, over the course of this century sea-level rise associated with global warming will put most coastal port facilities underwater and out of commission.

If you don\’t believe this, that\’s fine by me, because I believe my own eyes, not you. Just last week a freakishly high tide put the floating docks at several marinas in the Boston area within a foot or so of floating off the tops of the pilings. If we are planning for one or two decades from now, let\’s do the reasonable thing and plan for docks and waterfronts that are awash at high tide and quickly washing away altogether. This means that the sailboats we build need to be beachable: they need to take to the ground safely and settle upright, instead of flopping over on their keels and holing their sides on rocks. Many other, similarly practical considerations occurred to me in the course of my research, and I spelled them out in an article I wrote at the time, The New Age of Sail.

I then found and purchased Hogfish, which is the type of boat I described in the article: a custom-built ocean-going sharpie. It is a shoal-draft boat, drawing only two feet when normally loaded. It is very solidly built; the builder, Chris Morejohn, who has built some 60 boats over the course of many years, had lost a boat in the Gulf Stream when it collided with something, possibly a submerged shipping container. The next boat he built was designed to survive such a collision without damage. The hull consists of over an inch of cold-molded, laminated plywood, with a very thick fiberglass hull built over that. Yachty people sometimes look at it and ask me whether it\’s ferrocement. I tell them that it\’s fiberglass with a wood core, and then they think that I don\’t know what I am talking about. Yachty people tend to have strong opinions, you see, whereas I couldn\’t care less. Hogfish could probably sail clear through a contemporary production fiberglass yacht, leaving two half-yachts foundering in its wake (but I will do my best to leave this hypothesis untested).
It is also uncapsizable: one of the initial sea trials involved sailing out into the Atlantic in a gale, with empty water tanks, and trying to get the mast to touch the water. It turned out to be impossible: Hogfish will wallow at about a 45-degree angle, with all sail up and sheeted in flat. This effect is achieved by using a low aspect ratio rig: 1 to 1.3 or so. The genoa is actually 1 to 1 (it\’s a fractional rig) and this means that it can be roller-reefed without adjusting the sheeting angle. At this point a typical snooty yachty person will snort and declare that this boat must sail like a pig. Not so; Hogfish does a perfectly respectable 7.5 knots off the wind, and 5 knots to windward, and points as high as most sloops.
Hogfish is designed to sail, not motor, and so the engine is rather underemphasized. It is an outboard that sits on a bracket under the transom, with the prop projecting to one side of the skeg. It motors at around 5.5 knots with a 10hp motor at full throttle, although I prefer a quieter ride and only go 4 knots when motoring. Where the oily, stinky inboard diesel would normally sit there is a large pantry.
The bottom is perfectly flat side-to-side (it has rocker but no deadrise) allowing it to settle upright at low tide. There is a very substantial centerboard, but it is used only when maneuvering (to make tight turns) and when sailing to windward. On other points of sail, chine runners (little lips sticking out horizontally from the chine) catch enough water to prevent leeway. The centerboard is ballasted so as to bounce easily off the bottom, making it the depth sounder of last resort: if I hear the centerboard tackle jangling, it\’s time for a quick about-face. The rudder is a kick-up rudder, its long blade normally kept down by a long nylon tensioner, but folding up and out of the way when encountering an obstacle. This combination of features makes running aground in calm waters a non-event: time to take a nap and wait for the tide to set you afloat again. I have done this on many occasions, both accidentally and on purpose.
In all, Hogfish has proven to be a versatile, safe and seaworthy design. Chris had spent 10 years living aboard and sailing Hogfish with his wife. They bore and raised their two daughters while aboard. All of the above still like sailing. And then we bought it, moved aboard, and sailed off into the North Atlantic… in mid-October, just to be funny, I suppose. Now, it may seem reasonable to buy an old sailboat to try an experiment or two, but what\’s all this about selling everything else, quitting the job, and going off sailing?

To understand this choice, you need to understand the economics of owning a sailboat in Boston. Given the prices that local marinas charge for dockage (almost same as rent or mortgage on land) there are just two purposes to which sailboats can be put here: ostentation (sport, showing off and so forth) and as one\’s primary residence. Most people manage to somehow make ends meet while owning a house and a car and holding down a job, but introducing a sailboat into the equation breaks the bank. The solution, of course, is to get rid of the house, the car and the job. Let us discuss these one at a time.

Just getting rid of the house and living on the boat is a giant leap in the right direction. The amount of stuff that can fit on a boat is much smaller, forcing people to get rid of junk they don\’t need and never use, and keeping them from buying more of the same because there is no place to put it. Entire categories of expense, such as furniture, home appliances, various collections of useless, nameless objects, simply fall away. Inevitably, the savings rate shoots through the roof, and, a short while later, it becomes unclear why having a job is all that important: you have more money than time to spend it. Plus, you hardly ever get to go sailing because this thing called “the work-week” keeps getting in the way.
And so, the next item to go is the job. Jobs interfere with sailing. You see, one of the most important facts to understand about sailing is that it does not happen on schedule. You set a general southerly direction and, some months and many adventures later, you find yourself anchored in a turquoise lagoon fringed by yellow sand and palm trees somewhere in the Caribbean; you set a general northerly direction and, a similar duration later, you find yourself anchored in a rocky bay fringed by granite cliffs and pine trees somewhere in Maine or Nova Scotia—unless you decide to stop on the way. But having to be somewhere by next Monday, or making sure that you are able to check your email at all times, or to join a daily conference call or two or three—these things all run contrary to nature\’s plan. You will end up fighting the elements instead of going with the wind and sitting out the bad weather, and will probably arrive late anyway.
Once your earthly possessions are down to a storage container full of stuff you will quickly forget is yours, there is still the car. The obvious problem with cars is that they don\’t fit on sailboats, and if you want to go sailing, it has to stay on shore. If you are intent on sailing away with no specific return date (see above as to why that is generally the case) then it\’s best to give up the car altogether. Bicycles are another story: they can be partially disassembled, bagged, lashed to the lifelines, and ridden anywhere you happen to dock next.

And so we got rid of everything that couldn\’t go on the boat, and set sail. In the course of a year, we sailed from Maine to Florida and back, with a long stop, haul-out and refit in St. Augustine. The refit was called for because, while we were sailing down to Florida, everything on the boat broke. The original design was sound, but Hogfish had a couple of owners between Chris and myself, who Mickey-Moused a great many things in a multitude of amusing but, thankfully, sublethal ways. Hogfish, it turned out, was not a beautiful and/or unique snowflake. It was a learning experience, by the end of which I had attained a level of expertise in all parts of the sailboat, from sail repair to engine mechanics. Along the way, I also introduced a long list of improvements that made life aboard much more pleasant.

Not that it was particularly unpleasant to start with. A sailboat, and ours in particular, makes a very good survival capsule. The constant motion takes getting used to (some of the sportier sailboats have horrible, lurching, unpredictable motion that will break your ribs; ours doesn\’t) but the cabin is a safe, cozy, thoughtfully appointed sanctuary from the elements raging outside. I was often amazed when, after dousing wet flogging sails or resetting a dragging anchor in a howling gale, I would descend the companionway, to find the cabin warm, dry and well-lit, my wife reading a book and drinking a cup of tea, and the cat napping on the bed. Most of the discomforts associated with life aboard have to do with being stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time: north during the winter, south during the summer, in the hurricane zone during the hurricane season. But if you avoid these pitfalls by unhurriedly sailing to and fro, life aboard can be positively pleasant.
Nevertheless, the pressures to make the experience even more pleasant are always there, emanating, as they do more often than not, from the female half of the crew. And so, I insulated the cabin, adding layers of foam, radiant barrier, and varnished plywood liner and trim throughout the cabin. I also installed a charcoal stove, for drying out the cabin on rainy, foggy days. I added solar panels and a wind generator, to make sure that we never run out of electricity for lights, instruments and other electronics. Lastly, I installed a propane-heated cockpit shower: the ultimate element of luxury is being able to take a hot shower aboard. But there are two things that make life aboard comfortable more than anything else: avoiding winter, and jobs.
And so, I have been able to validate the ideas I set down in The New Age of Sail. The boat design I described is a sound one; so sound that no amount of inexperience on my part or faulty workmanship on the part of the boat\’s intervening owners was able to destroy it or even damage it. Getting back to the idea of post-fossil-fuel-age sail-based transport, seasonal, personal sail transport to warm, sunny places and back is already a reality for those with more time than money. The wind is free, so are anchorages, it is impossible to spend money while underway, and there are desperate people giving away perfectly serviceable sailboats for no money at all. The impediments for executing such a plan are, as I mentioned, the house, the job, the car, and inexperience, although, as I have personally demonstrated, inexperience can be overcome as part of the process if the boat is solidly built and forgiving in its design.
Beyond that, small-scale cargo for inter-island trade is already a possibility. There are many islands in the world that are in dire need of transportation options beyond the big ships that call less and less often and the fiberglass boats with outboard motors that are their only other option. At some point it will become obvious that larger sailing cargo vessels need to be built (the world\’s current total cargo capacity under sail is approximately zero). These need not be gigantic ships; even a 60-foot schooner can provide a valuable service. In fact, only a hundred years ago Boston harbor was permanently clogged with such vessels.
When it comes to building such vessels, the choice of building materials is likely to be limited. Traditional wooden construction is out of the question; the old growth forests that were used to build the tea clippers in the mid-1800 in East Boston, where I am sitting now, no longer exist. Fiberglass is made using oil and natural gas as feedstocks; these are likely to become exotic along with transportation fuels. Steel, especially recycled steel plate from large, soon-to-be-useless diesel-powered ships, will be useful for a time, although welding does require a good supply of electricity, compressed gases and rare earths such as Chinese-mined lanthanum for electrodes. Beyond that, ferrocement, then fiber-cement, will be the remaining choices. Cement and short-strand glass fiber can be made using a solar concentrator from limestone and silica, in a process that can be made self-reproducing without the use of fossil fuels or advanced technologies.
I believe that the design that stands the best chance of success in an unstable environment of shoaling, unmarked channels, eroded or submerged docks and waterfronts and wild weather throughout the year is the design I have been experimented with: an ocean-going, heavily ballasted sharpie or cargo lighter that is beachable. Since Dacron (long-strand polyester) for sails is unlikely to be available, the sail plan must work with weak and stretchy fabric, such as reed or grass mat, and there is just one sail plan that fits: the Chinese junk rig. In fact, old Chinese naval architecture and practice have much to teach us beyond the rig. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if, when the time comes, thousands of Chinese sailing ships will show up out of nowhere and mop up all the remaining ocean freight business.
Sailboats, especially ones that settle upright and can be hauled out of the water, can be put to many uses beyond transportation: they can be used as libraries, as clinics, as factories or mills (anchored in a swift current, they can generate power using an undershot wheel) and as secure storage (with the surrounding water forming a moat for protection).
This brings us to the inevitable question about pirates. I would like to assure you that, since the invention of reliable, accurate firearms, mutual assured destruction has prevailed on the high seas: anything that floats can be sunk. A typical way of fighting off pirates now involves a drill similar to shooting skeet: toss a bottle in the water, and blast away at it with a shotgun. Sometimes a simple show of arms is enough: thrust a hand holding a rifle out of a hatch, and the erstwhile pirates say “Thank you, have a nice day” and move on to a softer target. Add to this the fact that one man\’s pirate is another man\’s freedom fighter/revolutionary. Piracy is and has always been about class warfare. If you are floating by in a well-appointed yacht, teak and bronze and your Rolex glinting in the sun, then it is a point of pride for a pirate to take you down. But if you are floating by in a shantyboat with patched sails, laundry flapping from the lifelines and a couple of goats tethered to the mast and trying to eat your sails, then maybe the prates will just want to be your friends. Finally, piracy is just another way of doing business: continuation of commerce by other means. And there is much more of a chance of that inland, where people can easily find you (on the road, most likely) whereas out on the water it is very much hit or miss, especially if you are in no hurry and sailing random courses far out of sight of land rather than shooting a beeline from headland to headland.
Having done all of this exploratory work, I am now contemplating actually getting started in the sail transport business. Just one sixty-foot boat would roughly double the world\’s overall sailing cargo capacity. It doesn\’t have to be built from scratch: there are many possible retrofits. These can sometimes pay for themselves, if one pulls and sells the engine.

But one thing I discovered is that it is best not to try to do it in the US. First, too many people here still have their heads up their asses, and they won\’t smell any better once they pull them out. (Pardon me for cursing like a sailor.) Secondly, there are too many laws here, and too many lawyers. Lastly, it\’s a big huge world out there, full of easy-going, friendly people who won\’t have too many issues with you not keeping to a tight schedule—which you won\’t be, because you will be sailing.

Fragility and Collapse: Slowly at first, then all at once

Josh Keyes
[In italiano]

[En français]

This article is based on the notes from one of the talks I gave at the Age of Limits conference.

I have been predicting collapse for over five years now. My prediction is that the USA will collapse financially, economically and politically within the foreseeable future… and this hasn’t happened yet. And so, inevitably, I am asked the same question over and over again: “When?” And, inevitably, I answer that I don’t make predictions as to timing. This leaves my questioners dissatisfied, and so I thought that I should try to explain why it is that I don’t make predictions as to timing. I will also try to explain how one might go about creating such predictions, understanding full well that the result is highly subjective.

You see, predicting thatsomething is going to happen is a lot easier than predicting whensomething will happen. Suppose you have an old bridge: the concrete is cracked, chunks of it are missing with rusty rebar showing through. An inspector declares it “structurally deficient.” This bridge is definitely going to collapse at some point, but on what date? That is something that nobody can tell you. If you push for an answer, you might hear something like this: If it doesn’t collapse within a year, then it might stay up for another two. And if it stays up that long, then it might stay up for another decade. But if it stays up for an entire decade, then it will probably collapse within a year or two of that, because, given its rate of deterioration, at that point it will be entirely unclear what is holding it up.
You see, the timing estimates are inevitably subjective and, if you will, impressionistic, but there are objective things to pay attention to: how much structure is left (given that large chunks of concrete are continuing to fall out of it and into the river below) and the rate at which it is deteriorating (measurable in chunks per month). Most people have trouble assessing such risks. There are two problems: the first is that people often think that they would be able to assess the risk more accurately if they had more data. It does not occur to them that the information they are looking for is not available simply because it does not exist. And so they incorporate more data, hoping that they are relevant, making their estimate even less accurate.
The second problem is that people assume that they are playing a game of chance, and that it’s a fair one: something Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the “ludic fallacy.” If you drive over a structurally deficient bridge every day, it could be said that you are gambling with your life; but are you gambling, exactly? Gambling normally involves games of chance: roll of the dice, flip of the coin, unless someone is cheating. Fair games form a tiny, insignificant subset of all possible games, and they can only be played in contrived, controlled, simplified circumstances, using a specially designed apparatus that is functioning perfectly. Suppose someone tells you that he just flipped a coin 10 times and all 10 were heads? What is the probability that the next flip will be heads too? If you think 50%, then you are discounting the very high probability that the game is rigged. And this makes you a sucker.
Games played directly against nature are never fair. You could say that nature always cheats: just as you are about to win the jackpot, the casino gets hit by an asteroid. You might think that such unlikely events are not significant, but it turns out that they are: Taleb’s black swans rule the world. Really, nature doesn’t so much cheat as not give a damn about your rules. But these rules are all you have go by: a bridge is sound if it corresponds to the picture in the head of its designer. The correspondence is almost perfect when it’s new, but as it ages a noticeable divergence takes place: cracks appear and the structure decays. At some more or less arbitrary point it is declared unsafe. But there is no picture in anyone’s head of it collapsing, because, you see, it wasn’t designed to collapse; it was designed to stay up. The information as to when it will collapse does not exist. There is a trick, however: you can observe the rate of divergence; when it goes from linear to exponential (that is, it begins to double) then collapse is not far, and you might even be able to set an upper limit on how long it will take. If the number of cement chunks falling out of your bridge keeps doubling, you can compute the moment when every last piece of the bridge will be in the river, and that is your upper bound.
Still, your forecast will be subjective (or, if you like, based on your luck as a forecaster) because you are still just playing the odds. If you measure that the deterioration in your bridge is linear (say one chunk falls out per month) then you extrapolate that it will remain linear; if it is exponential (2x chunks from the previous month) then you extrapolate that it will remain exponential, and, if you are lucky, it will. But the odds of it remaining one or the other are strictly in your own mind: they are not predictable but subjective. Calling them “random” or “chaotic” doesn’t add much: the information you are looking for simply does not exist.
To summarize: it is possible to predict thatsomething will happen with uncanny accuracy. For example, all empires eventually collapse, with no exceptions; therefore, the USA will collapse. There, I did it. But it is not possible to predict whensomething will happen because of the problem of missing information: we have a mental model of how something continues to exist, not of how it unexpectedly ceases to exist. However, by watching the rate of deterioration, or divergence from our mental model, we can sometimes tell when the date is drawing near. The first type of prediction—thatsomething will collapse—is extremely useful, because it tells you how to avoid putting at risk that which you cannot afford to lose. But there are situations when you have no choice; for instance, you were born into an empire that’s about to collapse. And that is where the second type of prediction—that something will collapse real soon—comes in very handy, because it tells you that it’s time to pull your bacon out of the fire.
Let me stress again: the process of coming up with such predictions is subjective. You might reason it out, or you might base it on a certain tingling sensation in the back of your neck. Still, people like to theorize: some declare that the events in question are random, or chaotic, and then go on to formulate mathematical models of randomness and of chaos. But the timing of large-scale, “improbable” events is not random or chaotic, it is unknown. With regular, small-scale events statisticians can cheat by averaging over them. That is useful if you are selling insurance—against events you can foresee. Of course, a large-scale event can still wipe you out by putting your reinsurer/underwriter out of business. There is fire insurance, flood insurance (not so much any more; in the US it is now underwritten directly by taxpayers), but there is no collapse insurance, because there is no way to objectively estimate the risk.
Plugging in everyone’s favorite Yogi Berra quote: “Making predictions is hard, especially if they are about the future.” Well, I beg to differ: making predictions about the past is just as difficult. The USSR collapsed unexpectedly in 1991, taking the “experts” by surprise. The root cause of the collapse remains veiled in mystery; the reason for the exact timing remains a complete mystery. Expert Kremlinologists were geared up to bet on minor power shifts within the Politburo, expert economists were entirely convinced about the superiority of free market capitalism over a planned socialist economy, expert military strategists could debate the merits of the Strategic Defense Initiative (there aren’t any) but they were all blindsided when the whole Soviet thing just folded up and blew away. Similarly, most political experts in the US are confident in their estimation of the odds that Obama will or will not be reelected in November 2012; what they can’t give you is the odds that the elections won’t be held, and that nobody will get to be president. Mind you, these odds are not zero, and we can be sure that such a day will come; we just don’t know when.
Experts can make predictions only within their area of expertise. They are constitutionally incapable of predicting when their area of expertise will undergo a spontaneous existence failure. Not being an expert in any of these disciplines, I knew that the USSR was going to collapse a year or so before it did. How did I know? By watching carefully, and by realizing that things can’t go on much longer in the same direction. I am doing the same with the USA now. So, let’s watch together.
* * *
The US Federal government is currently spending about $300 billion per month. To do so, it “borrows” around $100 billion per month. The word “borrows” is in quotes, because most of that new debt is created by the Treasury and bought up by the Federal Reserve, so in essence the government just writes itself a check for $100 billion dollars every month. If this continues forever, then the US Dollar will become worthless, so a push is on to get foreign central banks to take on some of this debt as well. They can do that, of course, but, seeing as the US Dollar is on track to become worthless, they have been decreasing their holdings of US Treasuries rather than increasing them. Nobody can tell how long such a scenario can continue to unfold, so what one looks for in a situation like this is signs of desperation.
Recently there was a flurry of activity around China: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, each with a large retinue, went to China on a high-level visit, during which the news coverage in the US was dominated by reports about a blind Chinese activist who was kept under house arrest, from which he escaped to the US embassy, and was eventually allowed to leave the country and come to the US. Hardly anyone in China knows who this person is, and the Chinese official reaction to demands that he be released were, pretty much, “Okey-dokey.” (The fact that Hillary seems to have given up on wearing makeup was considered newsworthy as well.)
Why such a powerful smokescreen? What were they hiding? Well, a couple of items of interest. First, it turns out that China can now monetize US debt directly. That’s right, the ability to print US currency is now distributed between the US and China. There is a special private line between Beijing and the US Treasury, and China can buy US Treasuries without going through any market mechanisms or making the price public. Secondly, China can now directly buy US banks. Back in the good old days attempts by foreign powers to use US Treasuries to buy equity in enterprises in the US was considered as akin to an act of war; nowadays—not so much. Basically, Hillary and Timmy went to China and said: “Take our financial system, please!” What they got is the financial equivalent of a subcutaneous morphine pump: something they give to terminal cancer patients, for continuous pain control. But what if it runs dry before the patient expires? That would be painful, wouldn’t it?
The US is bleeding money in other ways: wealthy individuals are moving abroad and renouncing their US citizenship in increasing numbers, like so many rats fleeing a sinking ship. A high-profile example is Eduardo Saverin, one of the founders of Facebook, who renounced his US citizenship prior to the ridiculous fiasco that was the Facebook IPO. Congress is busy drafting legislation to stop this sort of thing from happening, or at least make it a huge boondoggle from a tax perspective. There is also a provision in the works to take away people’s passports if the IRS decides that they owe more than $50k. Somebody ought to do something! Is it not possible to renounce your citizenship and buy votes in Congress at the same time? It should be… In any case, we can be sure that what is now still a trickle will turn into a flood. That is what I saw in Russia after the Soviet collapse: the former Soviet elite lost all faith in the system and tried to grab a chunk and run away with it. This pattern continues to this day: once something collapses, it tends to stay collapsed for a long time.
And why wouldn’t you want to flee like a rat, if you happen to be one of the many temporary millionaires who made a fortune in the US economy and do not wish to lose it? The US financial system is broken, and by now it is clear that it is not going to be fixed. Case in point: Jon Corzine, former Senator, former Governor of New Jersey, former head of MF Global, made some bad bets, then dipped into his customers’ accounts to cover his losses. Is he in jail? No, he is still at large and has nothing to fear. Furthermore, he is high on Obama’s campaign donor list. JP Morgan just reported a $2 billion trading loss (actually more like $8 billion). Is anything going to be done about it? Of course not! JP Morgan has a long and proud history of mismanaging risk, be it by using preposterous mathematical models (Value at Risk) or by having traders with nicknames like “the Whale” spontaneously decide that they are God and go hugely “naked long.” Since this was all done with taxpayer-backstopped funds (like other big US banks, JP Morgan is on government life support) there was some discussion as to whether the Whale was hedging, or betting, or gambling (with public funds). But nobody even knows the difference any more, and you can be sure that nobody will go to jail over this either.
And that brings us to the political system. Are the politicians even vaguely interested in reforming the financial system? No, they are too afraid of it. The financial reform legislation, such as it is, was drafted by the financial companies themselves and by their lobbyists. The politicians would be afraid to go near it, for fear of endangering their electoral campaign contributions. As long as campaign funds are flowing into their coffers, and as long as none of their banker friends ever goes to jail, they will remain unconcerned about finance. What they are increasingly paranoid about is their own physical safety. Both parties have repeatedly exhibited an unseemly amount of bipartisanship when it came to passing legislation to compromise civil liberties, to increase social controls and surveillance, and to take away their citizens’ rights. The 2013 national security budget promises to top $1 trillion. Again, the parallel with pre- and post-collapse USSR is striking: the political system there too was unreformable, hollowed out, and used for personal advantage, as a private service to the wealthy and the powerful. Criminals, such as Boris Berezovsky, ran for public office simply in order to gain the immunity from prosecution that came with it. This pattern continues to this day, especially in Ukraine: lose an election—go to jail. Get reelected—and you can use the voters who didn’t vote for you for target practice. Once a political system collapses, everyone strenuously denies that it has, but then it tends to stay collapsed for a long time.
What does tend to change rather suddenly is commerce. If you have enough financial and political shenanigans, high-level corruption and rule of law going by the wayside, daily life goes on just like before, for a while—until suddenly it doesn’t. In St. Petersburg, Russia, the difference between the summers of 1989 and 1990 was quite striking, because by the summer of 1990 commerce ground to a halt. There were empty shelves in shops, many of which were closed. People were refusing to accept money as payment. Imports dried up, and the only way to procure sought-after items like shampoo was from somebody who had traveled abroad, in exchange for jewelry or other items of value. And that occurred in spite of the fact that the USSR had a better overall business plan: theirs was: “Sell oil and gas, buy everything.” Whereas the business plan of the US has come down to: “Print money, use it to buy everything” (most consumer products, plus ¾ of the oil used for moving them and everything else around).
The imported oil is, of course, the Achilles’ heel of US commerce. The US economy was built around the principle that transportation costs don’t matter. Everything travels large distances all the time, mostly on rubber wheels, fueled by gasoline or diesel: people commute to work, drive to go shopping, taxi their children to and from various activities; goods move to stores in trucks; and the end product of all this activity—trash—gets trucked long distances as well. All of these transportation costs are no longer negligible; rather, they are fast becoming a major constraint on economic activity. The recurring pattern of the recent years is an oil price spike, followed by another round of recession. You might think that this pattern could continue ad infinitum, but then you’d just be extrapolating. More importantly, there is a reason to think that this pattern comes to a rather sudden end.
* * *
It is something of a general property of things that things build up slowly and collapse quickly. Examples of this sort abound (buildings, bridges, dams, military empires, economies, supernovae…) Counterexamples—things that appear suddenly and then slowly decay—are harder to find (mushrooms and cucumbers come to mind, but these are manifestations of an associated process of slow growth and sudden collapse, the collapse normally occurring right after the first frost). Some time ago it occurred to me that the symmetrical bell curve which is commonly used to model global oil depletion, known as the Hubbert Curve of Peak Oil theory, should actually be lopsided, like almost everything else, but I lacked the math to illustrate this point.

Eventually Prof. Ugo Bardi came through with a wonderfully simple and clear model, which he called the Seneca Effect. Unlike other models, such as the original Limits to Growth model, which, although vindicated, is too complex for most people to grasp at a sitting, the Seneca Effect is simplicity itself. This model initially includes two elements: a resource base and an economy. The rate of development of the resource base is proportional to both the size of the resource base and the size of the economy. Also, the economy decays over time at a rate proportional to its size. Set up the initial conditions, run the simulation, and you get a symmetrical bell curve. Now add a third element, which can be variously named “bureaucracy” or “pollution” or “overhead”: all the inescapable requirements or inevitable side-effects of having an economy. This element does not contribute to the rate at which the resource base is developed. It also decays at a rate proportional to its size. Divert some fraction of the resource flow to this element, run the model, and out pops a lopsided curve: rising slowly, falling swiftly: the Seneca Cliff. The larger the fraction being diverted, the more lopsided the curve:

There is one problem with this model: we don’t really know which elements of the economy are productive (in terms of contributing to the rate at which the resource base is converted into capital) and which ones are non-productive and belong in the bureaucracy/pollution/overhead bucket. When we look at the world, we see the two summed together and can’t tease them apart. With this detail hidden from view, collapse becomes hard to see in the aggregate: the people may be starving, but there is also a lot of fat bureaucrats carving up, roasting and eating each others’ ample buttocks, so it all averages out for a while longer. But you can still tease it apart based on the fact that certain things simply stop happening. The progression to watch for is: things get bigger and bigger, then suddenly stop.

An associated problem is that the fraction of resources going to bureaucracy/pollution/overhead usually starts out being reasonable (a quarter or a third or so) but the closer the economy comes to collapse, the higher this fraction becomes. We can observe this in the US: more and more resources have been allocated to bailouts, make-work “economic stimulus” projects and national security; more and more pollution (and associated costs) from offshore oil spills and from the development of marginal, dirty energy resources such as shale oil and tar sands. As the productive part of the economy begins to fail, the bureaucrats grow desperate but, being bureaucrats, all they can do is endlessly increase the bureaucratic burden, accelerating the downward slide. Most people have heard of Gorbachev’s glasnost\’ and perestroïka, but there was a third initiative, acceleration (uskorenie): the doomed attempt to get the moribund Soviet economy to perform better. It sent it into shock instead.

Things get bigger and bigger, then suddenly stop. Let us look at the example of US retail. Once upon a time there was local industry, which sold products through small shops. Over the course of a few decades, the industry moved to other countries, mostly to China, and the small shops were put out of business by department stores, then by malls, culminating with Walmart, which practices “slash and burn retail”: since most of what it sells is imported, it empties the local economy of money, and is then forced to close, leaving devastation in its wake. Walmart is now expanding in China, having finally realized that it doesn’t work to sell stuff in a country that doesn’t make stuff once that country is fresh out of money. In places where retail has ceased to exist, the remaining recourse is Internet shopping, thanks to UPS and FedEx. And once UPS and FedEx services become unaffordable because of rising energy prices or unavailable because of unmaintained, impassable roads and bridges, local access to imported goods is lost.
Similarly with US banking. Once upon a time there were small neighborhood banks that took in the people’s savings and then lent it out to individuals and businesses, helping the local economy grow. Over the course of a few decades, these small neighborhood banks were replaced with a few huge megabanks, which, after 2008, became, in effect, government-owned. Once the megabanks close their local branches, local access to money is lost.
Similarly with global shipping. Once upon a time there were many small ships, called tramp steamers, which were loaded and unloaded by longshoremen at local ports, using block and tackle and cargo nets. Then shipping became containerized, and moving cargo required a container port. Then the container ships became staggeringly huge. Then, as oil prices went up, they had to resort to “slow steaming” by pulling pistons out of their engines and going slower than the sailing ships of yore. Instead of point-to-point trade, these giant container ships can only operate within hub-and-spoke networks, with the spokes provided by somewhat less energy-efficient trains and far less energy-efficient long-distance trucking. These ships are now at the limit of “slow steaming.” The next step is, obviously “no steaming” at all.
Similarly with medicine. Once upon a time there were family doctors—general practitioners who made house calls, and neighborhood clinics. Eventually these were replaced by megahospitals and giant medical centers staffed with specialists, which, over time, became unaffordable for the general population. The US is currently spending over 17% of its GDP on medical care—an amount that is exorbitant and unsustainable. Once this spending is curtailed, many of the megahospitals will be forced to close. The population will, for a time, still have access to WebMD and to mail-order drugs, and, in case of serious illness or emergency, medical evacuation will remain an option for those still be able to afford it.
The state of the communications infrastructure in the US makes a particularly interesting case. The US is now behind most developed nations in access to the Internet. Many people in rural parts of the US must rely on their cell phones for Internet access, putting the US on par with such countries as Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. However, cell phone service is far more expensive in the US than in any of these countries. Given that most products and services are now available mainly through the Internet, and that the Internet requires a steady supply of electricity, the state of the electrical grid in the US presents an even more interesting case. It is a severely overworked network of aging transmission lines and transformer farms, some dating back to the 1950s.

There is over 100 nuclear power plants, which are growing old and dangerous, but their service lives are being artificially extended through re-licensing. There are no plans, and no money, to dismantle them and to sequester the high-level radioactive waste at a geologically stable underground location. If deprived of both grid power and diesel fuel for an extended period of time, these plants melt down à la Fukushima Daiichi. It bears mentioning that a nuclear disaster, such as Chernobyl, is a particularly potent ingredient in precipitating a political collapse. Since what is keeping a series of such disasters from happening is the electric grid, followed by diesel, let us examine each of these in turn.

With regard to the electric grid, the incidence of major power outages has recently been seen doubling every year. Yes, we are committing the inductive fallacy by simply extrapolating this trend into the future, but, given what is at stake, dare we not extrapolate? At the very least, we would need to hear a very good reason why we shouldn’t. The incidence of major power outages can only double so many times before it’s time to start handing out potassium iodide tablets and before wig prices shoot through the roof.
Unless, of course, the diesel generators can be kept running continuously for the 15-20 years it would take to shut down, de-fuel and decommission all the nuclear reactors and empty the nuclear waste storage ponds. Countries that lack a reliable electric grid tend to rely on diesel generators. There is currently a lot of pressure on diesel supplies, especially since Japan took all of their nuclear generation capacity off-line following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, with high diesel prices and spot shortages in many countries. Observing the increased incidence of power outages and price spikes, many companies in the US have installed emergency diesel generators, and are now finding that they run them even when grid power is available, whenever requested to do so by the power company.
Not much of anything continues to operate in the US once the electric grid is down. Earlier this year a central part of Boston where I was working at the time (Back Bay) went dark because of a transformer fire. For almost an entire week every business in the area was shut down. Without power, there is no heat or hot water, there is no pumped water, or, more frighteningly, no pumped sewage, there is no air conditioning (which is fatal, through heat stroke, in places such as Atlanta, Georgia, which often have 100% humidity coupled with above-body-temperature summer ambient temperatures). Security systems and point of sale systems stop functioning. Cell phones and laptops cannot be charged. Highway and subway tunnels flood and bridges do not open to let shipping traffic through—such as barges loaded with diesel. Can we be sure that diesel will continue to be supplied to all active nuclear power plants even as everything else falls apart?
This is usually the point in my talks when somebody in the audience pipes up to say: “This is all doom and gloom, isn’t it?” To which I say, “For you, maybe, if you don’t have any other plan except to wait for everything to somehow magically fix itself.” You see, building something that works takes a lot of time and effort. Things stop working in a hurry, but making a replacement takes time, resources, and, most importantly, stability. This can only be done ahead of time, and doing so takes practice (by which I mean learning from one’s own plentiful mistakes). If you wait until that last moment when, in a spasm of horror, you suddenly think to yourself “Oh shit, Dmitry was right!” then indeed Doom and Gloom will be your charming new bunkmates. But if you start your collapse early and get it over with quickly, then your chances of surviving this are quite likely to substantially exceed zero.

And so, please don’t ask me “When?”—do your own thinking! I’ve given you the tools you need to come to your own conclusions, based on which you may be able to start your collapse early and get it over with quickly.