Collapse, Crash, or Shift?

Will we crash, collapse, or shift? The answer is: I don’t know, and despite what some people say, neither does anyone else.

First a quickie on definitions. A crash and a collapse are very similar, and sometimes the words are used interchangeably. Which has been the cause of no few arguments in my experience. The core difference is the velocity of the change in civilization. Either way it is an unsustainable culture becoming a sustainable one due to an end of their ability to continue whatever unsustainable policy drove them. A crash is a relatively sudden change characterised by general famine, death, and possibly gruesome cannibalism. A collapse would be a more gradual deflation characterised by economic depression, an increase in the instance of famine, and possibly polite cannibalism. The commonalities are many. Both are undesired by the majority, and unexpected. There is no conscious control of either at any level, and the result of both is a culture that is devoid of most of the luxuries many of us have come to enjoy. But both ways the new culture is sustainable, not through any particular desire on the part of the people, but through a lack of alternatives.

A shift is very different. A shift is a conscious change from our unsustainable methodologies to a fully sustainable culture. The advantages of this are many. First and foremost, famine, economic depression, and even cannibalism become very unlikely occurances, unlike in a crash or a collapse. Another advantage, is we might be able to retain our luxuries. Probably not all of them, but with effort and genius most of our luxuries could be made in a sustainable fashion. The difficulty is found in the fact doing this would require the conscious and active will of the majority of the people on this planet. And we are somewhat lacking in heroic leadership at the moment.

Very few of the people who have studied the problem to any extent disagree that we are reaching the limit of our civilization. Our practices are unsustainable, and we are running out of necessary resources. If nothing else, this would mean a complete collapse of our economy. Such a collapse would make the Great Depression look like a holiday. If such a collapse was extreme enough, it would be a crash. Obviously this is not preferable and the result of a very short-sighted economic policy. That we still do this, when we know better, is criminally negligent at best, and genuine evil at worse.

The main disagreement between people is two-fold. First is the question of whether it is still possible to shift to a sustainable economy. The answer to this is usually either no, or people won’t do it even if it is possible, or the respondent’s unfailing humanism. The second major disagreement is whether we would collapse or crash, and there really is no general consensus on that question.

The main question is one of scale. We have historical records of many civilizations ending. Typically, the larger ones collapse, while the small ones crash. But, there has never been a civilization as large as ours. And those small civilizations where usually on islands, isolated and alone. Which would make it analogous to a planet-sized civilization without extra-terrestrial colonies, and hence, would argue for a crash. But, large civilizations were usually near enough to the whole world, especially for their time. And they collapsed. So are we a big civilization with a small outside or an island civilization? Do we collapse or crash?

My personal opinion is we should shift and leave the question unanswered. I am not sure a shift is possible at this point. But I have studied enough history to not write us off without a fight. The scale of the problem is almost without par, and the time we have is so short future archaeologists will have trouble differentiating then and now. To top it off, most people choose to bury their heads in the sand. And our global leadership is impotent, while most of the counter-culture leaders pushing for sustainability almost seem schizophrenic sometimes. But, people have the most annoying habit of surprising you when you least expect it.

-Benjamin Shender



  1. Amos Keppler said,

    December 11, 2006 at 6:46 pm

    I think we are looking at a collapse that will end in a crash after about a decade of disintegration. Or it could happen over night, during just a few months’ time. There is a lot of bottled up energy here. Once released it WILL BE cataclysmic, that’s for sure.

  2. Aftermath said,

    December 12, 2006 at 12:25 am

    That is a perfectly viable possibility for a Crash scenario. One aspect a lot of people have a problem with is just how delicate and fragile our system might prove to be. Everything that we think makes us powerful also makes us vulnerable. We maybe on top of the mountain, but we may also be silhouetted by the moon. But I’m not completely convinced that we will crash, although if we do it is likely to happen much faster than most people would credit.

    -Benjamin Shender

  3. Emily said,

    December 15, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    I am so glad to know there are other people out there worried about this and preparing. I think I agree with Amos Keppler- a period of collapse followed by a full-out crash. In terms of resources (like oil, which makes our entire American way of life possible) and global warming, it seems inevitable.

    But yeah, you’re right, who really knows.

  4. Aftermath said,

    December 17, 2006 at 5:05 pm

    Don’t forget a global economy means we’re all in this together. Oil makes everyone’s way of life possible at this point. There are maybe a handful of peoples left on the world with the potential to be unaffected by the loss of oil. And various governments and businesses are working against them. No oil means no cargo ships. No trucks. No planes. No helicopters. No fertilizer. No pesticides. No harvesters. No refrigeration. No oil means no food. No food anywhere. Unless you are prepared to obtain your own food, you will starve. Which really stinks.

    -Benjamin Shender

  5. Glenn said,

    December 18, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    Hey, Ben and Miranda.

    Long time no hear. Wish you had been at Falling Leaves, you would have loved it. Plus there was a gentleman there who had alot to say on these subjects and was in a strong position to know what he was talking about. Even those present who follow this stuff closely were shocked by what he had to say. You would have found it very informative.

    OK, collapse, crash and/or shift. Well, that depends on two things where you are on the “food chain” and if we get some kind of “fat tail” event. (Fat Tail: a statisticly improbable, but not impossible, event. i.e. the failure of a single, seemingly insignificant, part of a complex system that causes a cascade failure and destruction of the the whole.)

    Will we collapse, yes. We actually have been actively in the collapse stage for just about a year now, give or take a month or two. Makes one think of that spider in the Sahara that dig a pit and waits for something to get too close to the edge. The sand starts to slide and, tread mill like, the prey makes no head way and in fact slides back ever so little at a time till it is at the bottom and Bang! it’s breakfast. We are still with in sight of the rim but we are in the hole and our end is just as certain. Funny thing is we dug the hole for yourselves, and it ain’t a spider at the bottom it’s our own arrogence and shortsightedness. Still pretty deadly though.

    Will we crash? Maybe, could happen any day, may never happen. The longer we fight the collapse, however, the more likely it becomes. Crashes, in any complex system, are an absolute certainty, given enough time. Planes crash because of malfunctions in the toilet, space shuttles crash because of cracked “O” rings or thermal tiles. Horrible and tragic, but it can’t be stopped only put off. This is the nature of all complex systems.

    So, will we crash? Maybe. Our system is designed to go up and only to go up. The longer it goes down the more stress to the overall system and the more likely small failures in diverse parts become. The right failure in the right part, perhaps at the right time and BOOM! However, if we collapse reasonably quickly we may be able to avoid a crash, at least in the current system. Any system the comes after, if complex, is going to have crash too, but it could take centuries or maybe even weeks.

    Will we be able to shift? Dirty little secret here, if you happen to be well off in the asset department and actually informed (it’s striking how seldom the two go together) then your plan is to shift. Problem is that while the well healed try to shift the people on the other end of the economic spectrum will go through the collapse and maybe crash. Watching the events unfold you can see that the “rich” ( the ones that actually know whats happening) are seeking a “soft landing”. What they don’t bother to say is that that landing is for them not you or me. Slowly, the “lower” and “middle” class will be eaten up by the collapse ( been happening for sometime already and is gaining speed). The hope being that if all the “little” folks get eaten then maybe the “big” guys will be able to sneak away with their lives and most of their toys intacked. We are being thrown to the wolves. Of course, a crash would nagate their hopes and plans but crashes while inevitable and also unpredictable, so who knows maybe that can pull it off. I know it doesn’t help me any, and I’m not really pulling for them.

    So bigger question, what can we poor fools do about it? If we collapse/shift we will be in a new social order that is likely hard if not impossible to predict and we will have to make our way as best we can. If we crash the we are back to the stoneage and will have to start again as stoneage people.

    Why the stoneage and not something like 1850 like I’ve heard some say? One really big reason. 1850 or any technological time period was predicated on an underlying set of agreements and more importantly infrastructure and the knowlege of how to use that infractructure. We don’t have the tools or the knowlege of how to make them or use them that they had in 1850. We don’t have to resources that they had in 1850 and we don’t have the social structure and international trade systems that they had in 1850. We do, however, have rocks, and a fair number the last time I checked. If we are to have and maintain any level of technology above early stoneaged then we have to learn how to build it and use it all from scratch and begin to build the infrastructure to support it all, right now. It is rather unlikely that we will be able to do this in any way that approches 1850 or anything close. Personally, I’m still working on early stoneage and hope I might make it to early bronze age before we hit bottom. Not to say that I’m not also learning how to shape scrape that can be savaged and how to build simple machinies, but everything is contingent on the position that we find ourselves in. Water wheels and windmills are great unless you are force to be nomadic just to survive.


  6. Aftermath said,

    December 19, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    Hey Glen, welcome back. Yeah, Falling Leaves sounds great, but we didn’t know about until just recently and it would have been impossible for me anyway.

    I think you’re probably right that we’ve already begun collapsing. Let’s go down the list:

    Climate Change: Very weak winters across the planet. (Too hot for skiing in the Alps!) Flowers blooming in winter. Plants and insects migrating. Bears hibernating late. Etc.

    Peak Oil: Oil companies still merging. And now that the war-scare prices are gone, we can begin to see where we are actually at. We’re not sitting pretty.

    Water Wars: Exactly on schedule.

    Overpopulation: Still here, still getting worse.

    Deforestation: The amazon rainforest is being depleted even faster now that Brazil needs to the land to grow sugarcane for ethanol.

    Sustainability: still a swear word to most economists.

    Yeah, I’d say we’re in pretty bad shape. To top it off, the economy is responding in ways you would tend to predict. Insurance companies are charging more and more for flood insurance along coastal regions. Car companies are merging like there’s no tomorrow (which is ironic, because companies usually only merge if otherwise there would be no tomorrow). Etc.

    Nothing is, as of yet, necessarily indicative of a crash, or even a recession. All of these things can still be dismissed as “within variation,” especially if you don’t actually know what you are talking about, or are quite selective of where you get your information. Of course, nothing will be clenching proof until it’s half over. And I don’t recommend waiting that long. It would be the same has only quitting smoking after the lung cancer has metastasized into your brain. Too little, too late.

    Oh well, I’m working on it. Miranda’s working on it. You’re working on it. Anyone else out there? Come on, give a shout out. Sometimes it helps just to know you aren’t alone.

    -Benjamin Shender

  7. Rix said,

    March 2, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Amen to the knowing you’re not alone, Ben. You guys have been a big inspiration to me in getting myself prepared.

    I tend to feel that Crash/Collapse will be hard to determine, that the voice of the media will downplay everything–and not even intentionally. The global mindset is and will be that this machine is too big to stop turning. Like the picture Quinn painted in Ishmael, we think this contraption we’ve built and pushed off a cliff is flying, but it’s not. It’s going to crash at the bottom of the gorge just like every contraption before it. But to the people on board, this fall is flight, and all of us weirdos and doomsayers (I’m being hyperbolic for the effect of looking at it through the commoner’s eyes) are the one’s whose perspective is off.

    I also agree with Glenn that any shift going on is not going to be available for the masses. The Tesla Roadster may bring hope to some, and it may help slow the crashing down for the ones who can afford this type of technology. Even if I could afford one, all it can do is get me around. It makes up for the missing oil issue as far as filling my current car’s gas tank is concerned. But my present state of living relies on a lot more oil than that. It may get me to work and to the grocery store, but will it provide my work and supply my groceries? Is Tesla going to develop electric semis? Or electric harvesting equipment? Or electric cargo ships? Can the Roadster fertilize the dying land that feeds the grain that feeds my family? I’m picking on this one piece of technology merely as an example of how the current ideas for Shifting are only band-aid for the minor issues at stake.

    I saw a GE commercial–the one where the frog jumps around to all the different GE facilities that prove they are in the process of Shifting–and one of the facilities they were bragging about was a “green” coal processing plant. And it made me think about the fact that we probably will try to fall backwards on our previous fuels of industrialization. Once the oil is peaks, we’ll go to natural gas. Once that peaks, we’ll go to coal. Once that peaks, we’ll go to wood and peat and garbage in order to fuel our economy.

    As much as the machine of civilization has to grow in order to stay alive, I also think that it will do everything it can not to die. I don’t think it will be as simple as the image of the Anasazi walking off to become the Hopi. The Civ will use up every possible resource in order to try to hold on long enough to bounce back. And most everyone will believe that it will bounce back.

    The good news for those of us that want to get out (and would want to regardless of any impending collapse) is that while the Civ is busy trying to keep itself alive, it won’t notice those of us who want to sneak away. You can’t just go live anywhere you want to right now, but in the collapse, fewer and fewer people/agencies/governments will care about the weirdos in the woods.

  8. Rix said,

    March 2, 2007 at 6:03 pm


    I just noticed that you added my site to your “Ideas” section. Much thanks.

    Again, your thoughts and ideas and examples are a big inspiration.

  9. Aftermath said,

    March 5, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    Miranda and I thank you.

    The problem with relying on coal, natural gas, and wood power again is that they aren’t enough anymore. As we progressed from wood to coal and then to oil each time we found a denser form of energy. To provide us with the same energy we are getting from oil we would need a much greater amount of coal. I know this would speed our depletion of coal. I’m not sure what the effect on the economy would be, nor am I sure if it would be possible to increase our use of coal to that extent at this point. Most of the really good and easily accessible coal is long gone. And with the general increased awareness of environmental impact it would not be political viable to burn it without “sequestering” the carbon or something equally pointless but politically viable.

    -Benjamin Shender

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