COVID-19 is far from being the end of the world, but it does signify the start of the second cycle of a process known as catabolic collapse.
The first cycle of industrial civilisations ‘catabolic collapse’ commenced with the oil price spike of 2007-08 and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC). The lingering effects of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression are still being felt; ongoing austerity for the masses in many parts of the world, increasing wealth inequality, unsustainable debt levels and negative interest rates being but some examples.
The term ‘catabolic collapse’ was coined by American author John Michael Greer and described in his 2008 book The Long Descent. Greer, building on the work of others, particularly Joseph Tainter’s seminal study The Collapse of Complex Societies, developed his theory of catabolic collapse to help explain the lengthy time it takes for a civilisation to collapse. History indicates that on average ‘collapse’ takes from one to three centuries.
Greer explains that the central idea behind catabolic collapse is that human societies tend to produce more ‘stuff’ than they can afford to maintain. This is not just a historical observation but a very real contemporary issue. For instance the 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gave the country’s infrastructure a rating of a D+ identifying a US $2 trillion shortfall in infrastructure funding. Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 Infrastructure Audit identifies that a historical under-spend on preventative maintenance, combined with the short timeframe of budgetary/funding cycles has led to an Australia wide backlog on maintenance funding across infrastructure sectors. It is likely we are already in a situation where we have far more ‘stuff’ than we can afford to maintain. Societies in this circumstance are vulnerable to catabolic collapse.
To significantly simplify Greer’s thesis, catabolic collapse results in the breakdown of complex societies due to a self-reinforcing cycle of decline driven by interactions between resources, capital, production and waste. This is not a linear process however. Even whilst a society is collapsing there can be periods, even quite lengthy periods, of expansion until a crisis precipitates the next round of contraction and decline. A society’s ability to respond effectively to each crisis reduces over time resulting in an increasing loss of complexity. After a century or two of this ragged decline the original civilisation/society is no longer recognisable as demonstrated so well by the Roman and Mayan Empires.
Modern industrial civilisation is hyper-complex. When combined with a growing population, multiple environmental stressors (including climate change, declining water resources and degrading soils), a reliance on non-renewable resources and the epic failure to address one of the primary causes of the GFC, too much debt; it appears that we are witnessing, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the second round of our civilisations catabolic collapse.
The response to the pandemics aftermath must be framed in the context of catabolic collapse if it is to be effective. This means that the response cannot be predicated on the assumption that this is just a downturn and the economy will return to perpetual economic growth and business as usual at some point in the not too distant future. Indeed under catabolic collapse the long term prognosis for the economy is the reversal of long running trends such as economic growth, globalisation, and technological advancement that characterised the ascent of industrial civilisation.
It is difficult to overstate how disruptive reaching the limits to growth will be to our economy and society. Reaching the limits should however come as no surprise. The standard run scenario of the original 1970s Limits to Growth study suggested that this would occur in the first half of this century, a conclusion confirmed by several subsequent studies. We can expect widespread business and even some industry failures, high levels of unemployment and an inability to repay debts. The magnitude of these disruptions will be far greater than the Government’s ability to respond. The net result is that for virtually all of us, we will be a lot poorer in the future than we are now.
Economist Michael Hudson has made the obvious yet incredibly important observation that ‘debt that cannot be repaid, won’t be repaid.’ With household debt in Australia at over 200% of disposable income there is a lot of debt in this country that won’t be repaid with obvious implications for the financial and banking sectors. As governments and central banks are confronted with these issues and attempt to manage the fallout from COVID-19, we are likely to witness an unprecedented level of quantitative easing/money printing to ‘save the economy.’ A debt jubilee, or quantitative easing for the people, would have the benefit of minimising the mass bankruptcies and associated hardship that the necessary deleveraging will otherwise cause whilst also providing an opportunity to kick start new businesses and private spending. The Government should also consider nationalising/part-nationalising essential businesses (e.g. utilities and financial institutions) that will no doubt require bailing out in coming months and years. It will be well beyond the capacity of the Government to save but a small percentage of bankrupt businesses, so any such bailouts will need to be focused on those businesses that are crucial to the basic functioning of society.
Many of the assumptions that underpinned the rise of industrial civilisation will no longer be relevant during its decline. Globalisation and advanced technologies are two examples. Whilst there will always be a level of international trade and travel we can expect the magnitude of that to progressively decline in the decades ahead. Whilst there are many reasons for this, a key one will be constraints on energy, particularly oil. The current under investment in the oil industry relative to the predicted future demand will only worsen as a result of current events whilst the US shale oil industry, which has been bleeding billions for years, could very well be destroyed with current low oil prices. The ability of alternate energy sources to replace fossil fuels will also become increasingly unlikely due to the law of receding horizons. The future will be more local and less global.
Technology will not be a panacea for our civilisations ills. Advanced technologies are subject to a paradox (pdf, pp. 44 – 56); the more complex they become, the more vulnerable they are to systemic failure. This has not been a problem during the era of economic growth but will become a major problem with prolonged economic contraction. There is obviously no quick fix to this predicament but the adoption/re-adoption of simpler technologies, increasing the design life of products and their ability to be repaired would be a step in the right direction.
Our society is now facing the very confronting situation of how we manage the decline of a civilisation. Attempts to continue business as usual will lead to more crises and more hardship. Recognising our predicament and adapting appropriately provides the best opportunity to maintain what is good, whilst discarding those behaviours which got us into this situation.
Cameron Leckie served as an officer in the Australian Army for 24 years. An agricultural engineer, he is currently a PhD candidate.