Collapsing Down the Plum Tree

Neither a slow or fast collapse of industrial civilisation are pre-ordained. How (s)low can you go?

Having recently started this From Filmers to Farmers blog, one which quite often brings up the topic of peak oil, I was recently confronted with a question that I had unintentionally been avoiding for some time: Do I envision a fast collapse or a slow collapse?

In case you aren't aware of the context here, the "collapse" being referred to is in regards to the collapse of industrial civilization, that itself being due to declining energy supplies and other resources. "Slow collapse" being in the range of decades or centuries, with "fast collapse" being in the range of decades or even just years.

First off, although I'm not a student of history and my readings on the collapse of previous civilizations are rather meager, my readings on peak oil are much more thorough and so I'm a bit more familiar with several of the viewpoints and models out there.

Hubbert's 1956 short-term prediction of future extraction levels for the world (PDF source)

The first model that came along would be that by M. King Hubbert, the late Shell petroleum geologist who, before it was even known as peak oil, got this peak oil thing started back in the mid-1950s with his paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. However, while Hubbert imagined a fairly symmetrical bell curve of up the oil curve and down the oil curve, there's quite a bit more to this than meets the eye. While Hubbert's bell curve for the US has pretty much worked out to the T (the major aberration being the current fracking binge, but which is little more than a blip whose financial bubble is quite possibly about to burst), its gentle downwards slope may very well be due to increased supplies of oil from other countries that made up for declining domestic supplies. In other words, increasing amounts of readily available imports meant that the US wasn't forced to have to pump like crazy to maintain needed supplies (which could have induced a quick crash once its supplies were maxed out), but could instead be rather ho-hum about the whole thing and see its production levels gently decline.

Hubbert's 1956 long-term prediction of future extraction levels, and nuclear energy expectations, for the world (PDF source)

For if you take a look at Hubbert's long-term estimation for world oil peak, not only does it also have a symmetrical and gentle downward slope, but the model was based on the expectation that nuclear energy would step in to take the place of oil. And in case you haven't noticed, that's certainly not happening. It's worth wondering then what Hubbert might have envisioned, or what might very well happen, based on these updated circumstances.

Step into the present, and although collapse is spoken of only in marginal circles and remains mostly taboo for the majority of people out there as well as for the mainstream media, there are actually quite a few models out there based on various understandings (historical, geological, geopolitical, economic, and more).

While might be called the clearing house for articles of the slow collapse persuasion, the most well-known model along these lines is probably John Michael Greer's notion of a Catabolic Collapse, which rather resembles a stair-step descent.

As Greer sees it, repeated crises will be followed with, and punctuated by, repeated recoveries. The recoveries of course won't outweigh the crises, and so a descent will ensue. But rather than a quick descent where society quickly collapses into a pre-industrial state in a matter of a few years, Greer sees the collapse occurring over a long enough time-span that nobody today will be alive to witness its eventual outcomes. (However, this certainly doesn't mean that Greer sugar-coats collapse, something the "ruinmen" of his post-peak oil book Star's Reach: A Novel of the Deindustrial Future attest to.)

On the other end of the spectrum, what you might call the clearing house for articles of the fast collapse persuasion would be While more models seem to be out there which predict a fast collapse than a slow collapse (for whatever reason), one of the more well thought out ones is Ugo Bardi's notion of the Seneca Cliff.

(image courtesy of Ugo Bardi / Cassandra's Legacy)

Bardi's model (and its name) is taken from the Roman statesmen and philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who a couple thousand years ago stated that "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Bardi has matched this Seneca Cliff to a variety of previous collapses (the Roman Empire, Mayan civilization, the North Atlantic cod fishery, and more), and is basically understood as slow growth followed by a more rapid decline. (For argument's sake, there's also the notion of a Catabolic Seneca Cliff Collapse – a fast, stair-step decline.)

So after taking a look at these and other models, having read several books on the topic, and having attended two Age of Limits conferences, the conclusion that I've drawn from all this has been, disappointingly, "I don't really a conclusion." That is, arguments from both the fast and slow spectrums bring forth valid points and can be pretty persuasive, so it's been pretty easy for me to jump back and forth between the two. Fortunately, a way to explain this recently came to me, and is what I now call my "Plum Tree Collapse" understanding ("theory" would probably be a bit too strong of a word).

A few months back I spent a couple of weeks visiting a mate of mine on New Zealand's North Island, and with one of his three plum trees (all of different varieties, and all fortuitously in fruit at the time) used simply for pollinating the other two (which are used for various kinds of preserves), a thought couldn't help but enter my noggin: "If my mate doesn't currently have any pigs to fatten up on the drops, and if they're all just going to be devoured by the birds, why don't I beat the birds to it all and make a serious pile of booze!?"

And that's exactly what I did. I grabbed his picking bag and proceeded to pick about 100 kg of fruit, and so currently have about 70 litres of wine brewing back at his place (please don't use that as a ratio for future reference – this was all off the seat of my pants).

Now here's the thing. Although I was able to pick quite a bit of fruit by just reaching up and grabbing it, as well as with a ladder on the peripheries, the densest and most copious amounts of fruit required me to climb up the middle of the tree, which is also what I did.

Like most people (I hope), I've climbed my fair share of trees, and I knew exactly what I was getting into. (Perhaps that should have stopped me, but the allure of all those extra plums and all that extra "free" booze was too much of an attraction to avoid.) What I'm getting at is that while it can be relatively easy to climb up a tree, it generally requires a lot more attention and effort to go back down.

When going up a tree it's often just a matter of getting your foot wedged in the right place and then using your legs to push while your grip on an upper branch or two is used to pull yourself up. As well, your vision is focused upwards, so everything not only looks just fine but is also relatively easy to see. However, coming back down is a whole other story.

First off, one problem that can result from simply turning your gaze downwards is that you get spooked out once you notice how high you actually are, and how far down you have to go. Secondly, once you do attempt to make your way down, your body and other parts of the tree can obstruct your vision and hamper you from seeing where you're trying to get your foot or feet a purchase upon. You might also feel a few butterflies in your stomach or even a slight weightlessness and queasiness in your leg(s) which you have doubts about.

On top of that, if you've accumulated stuff on your way up (and who hasn't accumulated piles of stuff?), it means your girth for your way down can be significantly larger and restrict you from squeezing through the same nooks and crannies that you got up through in the first place (me, I repeatedly had about five or ten kilos of plums in a picking bag).

Plums, or booze berries? (photo by Starmaid Products)

In other words, going down – collapsing – requires a different kind of effort than what is required going up. On top of that, much potential energy is built on the way up, and to release that energy relatively slowly requires not only a very careful and attentive effort, but a greater amount of energy must be expended to release that potential energy if the idea is to expend it slowly rather than quickly.

As John Michael Greer often reminds us, energy is required to collect dispersed energy into more concentrated forms – such as collecting disperse sunlight into fossil-fueled batteries via fossil-fueled solar panels. Similarly, the slow release of potential energy requires more energy than a fast release – the careful effort of climbing down trees versus the non-effort of falling down.

Bringing all this over to the situation of modern civilization, this may very well imply not only a different kind of effort required for collapse, but that a slow collapse requires extra effort (read: energy) to prevent a fast collapse. (On top of that, it's worth noting that the extra energy needed for a slower collapse versus a faster collapse is required at, and has been put off to, a time when energy supplies are beginning to shrink.)

I mention this because this is something I've seen glossed over a few times too many in eco-circles, particularly in respect to the Montreal Protocol.

For those who aren't aware, the Montreal Protocol was an agreement reached between nations in 1987 to eliminate the use of ozone-hole creating chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). With CFCs since then banned, the Montreal Protocol has been ballyhooed by more than a few as an example of how with enough political support and funding, our problems can be readily solved (in this case I'm specifically referring to peak oil, but climate change is also mentioned by these go-getters).

This, I've figured, could hardly be further from the truth, so to confirm my suspicions, and while at the 2014 Age of Limits conference, I threw this comparison by none other than Dennis Meadows, co-author of the seminal Limits to Growth study. Suffice to say, he didn't bother mincing his words in reply: "Completely different. Completely different!"

Now, putting aside the recent discovery that the replacements for CFCs, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), are unfortunately rather potent greenhouse gases, the difference here is that peak oil is not a simple problem of which we can legislate or invisibly hand(le) our way out of by substituting one input for another. Not with biofuels, not with hydrogen "energy," not with Tesla Powerwalls, nor with any combination of these and/or other alternatives. They can certainly help us out on our descent, but there's no chance that they'll be able to make up for the 90 million or so barrels of oil that we use every day (on top of all the coal, natural gas, etc.).

What is in fact needed then are not so much techno solutions or bureaucratic workings, but behavioural changes. This, however, ideally requires actual effort on the part of pretty much all of us, and much more than simply enlightened purchases and voting habits.

To put this a bit differently, while a small problem can be solved with a small solution, big problems are not however solved with big solutions – they are solved with many small solutions. In other words, what is needed is a lot of effort, not by a few "experts" and with a bunch of money thrown at them, but by many regular people. That being the case, the issue then is not how we can figure out how to maintain our current ways of living, but how we can learn to restrain ourselves and create the systems amenable to that.

In the meantime, and as already mentioned, while we may or may not go about any of this, there are a slew of factors that will make unfolding circumstances hard to predict: geological ones, geopolitical ones, and most perplexing of all to me, economic ones. That is, how does an economic system which is based on interest-bearing debt and fractional-reserve banking – namely, growth – function amidst declining energy supplies which cannot spur on growth anymore? How "low" can negative interest rates go? How long can the "extend and pretend" shenanigans of bankers and their political shills continue? How many rabbits can they pull out of the hat, and for how long?

Frankly, I have no idea.

But what I do know (or at least think I know), is that while a slow collapse can happen, it is by no means pre-ordained, any more than a fast collapse is. However, if these issues are left up to the "experts," then a faster collapse is more than likely to occur.

Therefore, if one is stuck up a tree and either (a) won't put in the effort to come down, (b) avoids looking down and pretends they aren't up a tree, or (c) denies that they're up a tree in the first place (!), then the sun is eventually going to set, things will get dark, one will fall asleep, and then quite possibly fall out of the tree and break their neck, and possibly even the neck of somebody below who has already managed to make their way down.

"So," you might be wondering, "how did Allan get down the tree?" Well, I knew there wasn't a chance I was going to make it back down with the plums with me, either because the straps would catch on a branch and the fruit would come pouring out, or, on trying to squeeze my way down I'd misstep, fall, and possibly break my back (I know of backpacking apple pickers who have broken their backs).

So instead, and metaphorically speaking, I kind of cheated. I tied the bag's opening somewhat in a knot, tossed it down, and rather than carefully try and make my way down, I said "stuff this," got myself into a good position, and jumped the few metres down – "Collapse now, avoid the rush," as John Michael Greer put it, although my plum tree collapse was certainly not of the slow variety.

Granted, such a fast collapse is not advised, as this can easily end up in disaster – a twisted or broken ankle, or worse. But I'm still a bit nimble and so could readily pull it off.

But putting off acknowledging and acting upon the onset of peak oil, and expecting a last-minute, safe collapse?

Not advised.

"Double darn" (photo courtesy of Jack Milchanowski)

A former filmmaker, now jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion and the renewal of culture. .