Catabolic Collapse

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

= "the way that human societies on the way down cannibalize their own infrastructure, maintaining themselves for the present by denying themselves a future" [1]

Contextual Quote

= 2010 is the year we commit to Catabolic Collapse -- the concept that our civilization will experience a long, slow, and bumpy decline over the next several decades. \

- Jeff Vail [2]


John Michael Greer:

" The basis of that theory is the uncontroversial fact that human societies routinely build more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain. During periods of prosperity, societies invest available resources in major projects—temples, fortifications, canal or road systems, space programs, or whatever else happens to appeal to the collective imagination of the age. As infrastructure increases in scale and complexity, the costs of maintenance rise to equal and exceed the available economic surplus; the period of prosperity ends in political and economic failure, and infrastructure falls into ruin as its maintenance costs are no longer paid.

This last stage in the process is catabolic collapse. Since the mismatch between maintenance costs and economic capacity is the driving force behind the cycle, the collapse of excess infrastructure has a silver lining—in fact, two such linings. First, since ruins require minimal maintenance, the economic output formerly used to maintain infrastructure can be redirected to other uses; second, in many cases, the defunct infrastructure can be torn apart and used as raw materials for something more immediately useful, at a cost considerably lower than fresh production of the same raw materials would require. Thus post-Roman cities in Europe’s most recent round of dark ages could salvage stone from temples, forums, and coliseums to raise walls against barbarian raiders, just as survivors of the collapse of industrial society will likely thank whatever deities they happen to worship that we dug so much metal out of the belly of the earth and piled it up on the surface in easily accessible ruins.

Given a stable resource base, the long-term economic benefits of catabolic collapse are significant enough that a new period of prosperity normally follows the collapse, resulting in another round of infrastructure buildup and a repetition of the same cycle. The pulse of anabolic expansion and catabolic collapse thus defines, for example, the history of imperial China. The extraordinary stability of China’s traditional system of village agriculture and local-scale manufacturing put a floor under the process, so that each collapse bottomed out at roughly the same level as the last, and after a century or two another anabolic pulse would get under way. In some places along the Great Wall, it’s possible to see the high-water marks of each anabolic phase practically side by side, as each successful dynasty’s repairs and improvements were added onto the original fabric.

Matters are considerably more troublesome if the resource base lacks the permanence of traditional Chinese rice fields and workshops. A society that bases its economy on nonrenewable resources, in particular, has set itself up for a far more devastating collapse. Nonrenewable resource extraction is always subject to the law of diminishing returns; while one resource can usually be substituted by another, that simply means a faster drawdown of still other resources—the replacement of more concentrated metal ores with ever less concentrated substitutes, the usual example cited these days for resource substitution, required exponential increases in energy inputs per ton of metal produced, and thus hastened the depletion of concentrated fossil fuel reserves.

As the usual costs of infrastructure maintenance mount up, as a result, a society that runs its economy on nonrenewable resources also faces rising costs for resource extraction. Eventually those bills can no longer be paid in full, and the usual pattern of political and economic failure ensues. It’s at this point that the real downside of dependence on nonrenewable resources cuts in; the abandonment of excess infrastructure decreases one set of costs, and frees up some resources, but the ongoing depletion of the nonrenewable resource base continues implacably, so resource costs keep rising. Instead of bottoming out and setting the stage for renewed prosperity, the aftermath of crisis allows only a temporary breathing space, followed by another round of political and economic failure as resource costs continue to climb. This is what drives the stairstep process of crisis, partial recovery, and renewed crisis, ending eventually in total collapse, that appears so often in the annals of dead civilizations." (


John Michael Greer:

"The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain. What we are pleased to call "primitive societies" -- that is, societies that are well enough adapted to their environments that they get by comfortably without huge masses of cumbersome and expensive infrastructure -- usually do so in a fairly small way, and very often evolve traditional ways of getting rid of excess goods at regular intervals so that the cost of maintaining it doesn't become a burden. As societies expand and start to depend on complex infrastructure to support the daily activities of their inhabitants, though, it becomes harder and less popular to do this, and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society's stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can't be covered by the resources on hand.

It's what happens next that's crucial to the theory. The only reliable way to solve a crisis that's caused by rising maintenance costs is to cut those costs, and the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster. That's rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff. Thus the normal rhythm of history in complex societies cycles back and forth between building up, or anabolism, and breaking down, or catabolism. Societies that have been around a while -- China comes to mind -- have cycled up and down through this process dozens of times, with periods of prosperity and major infrastructure projects alternating with periods of impoverishment and infrastructure breakdown.

A more dramatic version of the same process happens when a society is meeting its maintenance costs with nonrenewable resources. If the resource is abundant enough -- for example, the income from a global empire, or half a billion years of ancient sunlight stored underground in the form of fossil fuels -- and the rate at which it's extracted can be increased over time, at least for a while, a society can heap up unimaginable amounts of stuff without worrying about the maintenance costs. The problem, of course, is that neither imperial expansion nor fossil fuel drawdown can keep on going indefinitely on a finite planet. Sooner or later you run into the limits of growth; at that point the costs of keeping wealth flowing in from your empire or your oil fields begin a ragged but unstoppable increase, while the return on that investment begins an equally ragged and equally unstoppable decline; the gap between your maintenance needs and available resources spins out of control, until your society no longer has enough resources on hand even to provide for its own survival, and it goes under.

That's catabolic collapse. It's not quite as straightforward as it sounds, because each burst of catabolism on the way down does lower maintenance costs significantly, and can also free up resources for other uses. The usual result is the stairstep sequence of decline that's traced by the history of so many declining civilizations -- half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you've got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early medieval sheep pasture.

It's easy enough to track catabolic collapse at work in retrospect, when you can glance over a couple of centuries of decline in an evening with one of Michael Grant's excellent histories of Rome in one hand and a glass of decent bourbon in the other. Catching it in process, though, can be a much more challenging task, because it happens on a scale considerably larger than a human lifespan. In its early stages, the signal is hard to tease out from ordinary economic and political fluctuations; later on, it's all too easy to believe that any given period of stabilization has solved the problem, at least until the next wave of crises rolls in; late in the game, as crisis piles on top of crisis and cracks are opening up everywhere, your society's glory days are so far in the past that it's surprisingly easy to lose track of the fact that calamity isn't the normal shape of things." (

Response: "Collapse now, in other words, and avoid the rush."

John Michael Greer:

"First, industrial society was only possible because our species briefly had access to an immense supply of cheap, highly concentrated fuel with a very high net energy—that is, the amount of energy needed to extract the fuel was only a very small fraction of the energy the fuel itself provided. Starting in the 18th century, fossil fuels—first coal, then coal and petroleum, then coal, petroleum and natural gas—gave us that energy source. All three of these fossil fuels represent millions of years of stored sunlight, captured by the everyday miracle of photosynthesis and concentrated within the earth by geological processes that took place long before our species evolved. They are nonrenewable over any time scale that matters to human beings, and we are using them up at astonishing rates.

Second, while it’s easy to suggest that we can simply replace fossil fuels with some other energy source and keep industrial civilization running along its present course, putting that comfortable notion into practice has turned out to be effectively impossible. No other energy source available to our species combines the high net energy, high concentration, and great abundance that a replacement for fossil fuel would need. Those energy sources that are abundant (for example, solar energy) are diffuse and yield little net energy, while those that are highly concentrated (for example, fissionable uranium) are not abundant, and also have serious problems with net energy. Abundant fossil fuels currently provide an “energy subsidy” to alternative energy sources that make them look more efficient than they are—there would be far fewer wind turbines, for example, if they had to be manufactured, installed, and maintained using wind energy. Furthermore, our entire energy infrastructure is geared to use fossil fuels and would have to be replaced, at a cost of countless trillions of dollars, in order to replace fossil fuels with something else.

Third, these problems leave only one viable alternative, which is to decrease our energy use, per capita and absolutely, to get our energy needs down to levels that could be maintained over the long term on renewable sources. The first steps in this process were begun in the 1970s, with good results, and might have made it possible to descend from the extravagant heights of industrialism in a gradual way, keeping a great many of the benefits of the industrial age intact as a gift for the future. Politics closed off that option in the decade that followed, however, and the world’s industrial nations went hurtling down a different path, burning through the earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves at an accelerating pace and trusting that economic abstractions such as the free market would suspend the laws of physics and geology for their benefit. At this point, more than three decades after that misguided choice, industrial civilization is so far into overshoot that a controlled descent is no longer an option; the only path remaining is the familiar historical process of decline and fall.

Fourth, while it’s fashionable these days to imagine that this process will take the form of a sudden cataclysm that will obliterate today’s world overnight, all the testimony of history and a great many lines of evidence from other sources suggests that this is the least likely outcome of our predicament. Across a wide range of geographical scales and technological levels, civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall, and there is no valid reason to assume that ours will be any exception. The curve of decline, to be sure, is anything but smooth; it has a fractal structure, taking the form of a succession of crises on many different scales, affecting different regions, social classes, and communities in different ways, interspersed with periods of stabilization and even partial recovery that are equally variable in scale, duration, and relevance to different places and groups. This ragged arc of decline is already under way; it can be expected to accelerate in the months, years, and decades to come; and it defines the deindustrial age ahead of us.

Fifth, individuals, families, and communities faced with this predicament still have choices left. The most important of those choices parallels the one faced, or more precisely not faced, at the end of the 1970s: to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to their current lifestyles until the system that currently supports those lifestyles falls away from beneath their feet. The skills, resources, and lifeways needed to get by in a disintegrating industrial society are radically different from those that made for a successful and comfortable life in the prosperous world of the recent past, and a great many of the requirements of an age of decline come with prolonged learning curves and a high price for failure. Starting right away to practice the skills, assemble the resources, and follow the lifeways that will be the key to survival in a deindustrializing world offers the best hope of getting through the difficult years ahead with some degree of dignity and grace." (


The U.S.A

John Michael Greer:

"the question is simply when to place the first wave of catabolism in America -- the point at which crises bring a temporary end to business as usual, access to real wealth becomes a much more challenging thing for a large fraction of the population, and significant amounts of the national infrastructure are abandoned or stripped for salvage. It's not a difficult question to answer, either.

The date in question is 1974.

That was the year when the industrial heartland of the United States, a band of factories that reached from Pennsylvania and upstate New York straight across to Indiana and Michigan, began its abrupt transformation into the Rust Belt. Hundreds of thousands of factory jobs, the bread and butter of America's then-prosperous working class, went away forever, and state and local governments went into a fiscal tailspin that saw many basic services cut to the bone and beyond. Meanwhile, wild swings in markets for agricultural commodities and fossil fuels, worsened by government policy, pushed most of rural America into a depression from which it has never recovered. In the terms I'm suggesting in this article, the US catabolized most of its heavy industry, most of its family farms, and a good half or so of its working class, among other things. It also set in motion the process of catabolizing one of the most important resources it had left at that time, the oil reserves of the Alaska North Slope. That oil could have been eked out over decades to cushion the transition to a low-energy future; instead, it was pumped and burnt at a breakneck pace in order to deal with the immediate crisis.

The United States was not alone in embracing catabolism in the mid-1970s. Britain abandoned most of its own heavy industry at the same time, plunging large parts of the industrial Midlands and Scotland into permanent depression, and set about catabolizing its own North Sea oil reserves with the same misplaced enthusiasm that American politicians lavished on the North Slope. The result was exactly what history would suggest; by embracing catabolism, the US and Britain both staggered through the crisis years of the 1970s and came out the other side into a breathing space of relative stability in the Reagan and Thatcher years. That breathing space was extended significantly when the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, beginning in 1989, allowed American and British economic interests and their local surrogates to snap up wealth across Eurasia for pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, in the process imposing the same sort of economic collapse on most of a continent that had previously been inflicted on the steelworkers of Pittsburgh and the shipbuilders of Glasgow.

That breathing space ended in 2008. At this point, I'd suggest, we're in the early stages of a second and probably more severe round of catabolism here in America, and throughout Europe as well. What happened to the industrial working class in the 1970s is now happening to a very broad swath of the middle class, as jobs evaporate, public services are slashed, and half a dozen states stumble down the slope that will turn them into the Rust Belt equivalents of the early 21st century. Exactly what will happen as that process continues is anybody's guess, but it's unlikely to end as soon as the round of catabolism in the 1970s, and it may very well cut deeper; neither we nor Britain nor any other of our close allies has a big new petroleum reserve just waiting to be tapped, after all.

It's crucial to remember, though, that catabolism is a response to crisis and at least in the short term, much more often than not, an effective response. The fact that we're moving into the second stage of our society's long descent into catabolic collapse doesn't mean that America will fall apart in the next decade or so; quite the contrary, it strongly suggests that America will not fall apart this time around." (