If you are interested, check out my peak oil review commentary for this week, which explores what collapse really is – and what we might do about it. The main issue is that it is a heck of a lot more normal than most folks imagine. The piece is a shortened excerpt taken from my forthcoming book _Making Home_. Looking at the history of collapse is really important for us to gauge from history how likely it is – and what we find is that collapse – in the sense of a radical, long term and consequential step down in complexity and comfort – is part of the background of a lot of human lives.
I don’t think I need to explain why I think an economic collapse could happen – we know that they occur all the time, and we know by most assessments that one nearly occurred in fall 2008. That is, we’ve already seen a stair-step down to a lower level of economic security in the US.
We also know energy supply collapses happen – often along with economic collapses. For example, former Soviet Prime Minister Yegor Gaider wrote a book arguing that the Soviet Union collapsed (under his watch, actually) due to its dependency on foreign energy exports and the shift of its population out of the countryside and into cities. For a long time, the Soviet Union was able to rely on energy exports to allow it to pay for food on foreign markets, but when energy prices collapsed, there were not enough farmers left to grow food for the population and the government could not hold.
We know that this caused some subsidiary collapses – Cuba collapsed, for instance, because the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped sending it oil. The country lost one-fifth of its energy imports and societal structures largely fell apart because of lack of
energy to run their highly technological agricultural system.
What’s interesting about the examples of Cuba is that it is further evidence to suggest that fairly small energy resource shocks can cause fairly serious consequences – one-fifth of all oil shouldn’t have led to serious hunger. Most people would reasonably argue that waste in the system and proper allocation of resources should have been able to absorb this – or will argue that the fault was the Cuban government’s. To some extent that last point is probably true, but we should remember that we have examples from the US that show that small energy supply disruptions can be extremely destructive – the oil shocks of the 1970s and the major recession that followed resulted from a reduction in imports of just over 5 percent.
So yes, I think we’re on a path toward some kind of collapse, without necessarily assuming cannibalism or even roving gangs of white-supremacist kale-stealers. I would like such a collapse to be averted very much, but it seems less and less likely that we will do so.