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


The Importance of Skills

Gather around one and all, for I wish to speak with you about something very important. Practical Skills. Known by some as primitive skills, I choose to view them as something practical rather than something primitive.

These are skills such as the ability to go into the woods and come out with food, the ability to make fire without a match or a starter log, the ability to make a shelter capable of keeping you warm even during the chilliest of nights, the ability to make weaponry for a variety of uses, the ability to find and purify water, and so much more than all of these. They are not skills to take lightly. They are skills you must know if you hope to survive. You may survive without a few of them for a while, but your odds of surviving throughout the first winter without civilized comforts and without these skills would most certainly not be in your favor.

Learn these things now. They are not things to look at and think that since you know how to do them, though not know how to do them expertly, that you will survive. Learn them and then do them everyday as practice until you have to do them everyday because of necessity. Do not fall into the belief that since you know something you can move onto things that are nice to know, though not essential for survival, such as the making of shampoo. Yes, the making of shampoo would certainly be nice to know and certainly learn those non-essential things if you have the chance to, but never abandon the essentials. Do them until your muscle memory could do them without you even having to think about them.

Time is short. It would not do to carry a book in your hand listing edibles in the middle of the woods after civilization as a “cheat.” Learn them, recognize them, remember them. Rely on your memory. Do not rely on something you may or may not have with you. You may not become an expert on any of these things, but if you wish to survive in the long run, you’d better get as close as you possibly can to that mark.

– Miranda Vivian

The Crash: Transportation

After the crash, the basis of our current transportation system will remain intact. Roads will be broken up eventually, but it will take a few years. Railways will remain for even longer, but the locomotives will be useless for anything but scrap almost immediately.

The early use of the paved roads is obvious. If a party does not have to climb over and through the brush, it will be able to move considerably faster. Although it is quite likely many of the major road ways will be setup for ambush.

Interestingly enough, railways might proven to be much more useful. A small team of men with a pulley system should have little trouble moving the now useless trains off the tracks. They can be salvaged for parts. The rails themselves could be used for a long time. Small carts being propelled by horse or man power could be used to move much heavier loads over longer distances than a wagon powered by the same force. It might even be possible to use steam engines. Eventually, without maintenance, rust and decay will render the rails unusable. But, until then, survivors can make use of the rail system.

Perhaps the roads which will be the most useful over the long term will be the water ways. People in areas with lots of deep and wide rivers will find them very useful for transporting people and goods. Small river boats will be well within the abilities of any reasonably resourceful person. Although, unless they already have a working knowledge of boats they will suffer from the usual losses to trial and error.

For people with sea access larger boats might become very appealing. However, building, maintaining, and using boats of such a size are very advanced skills and difficult to master. Having said this, there is ample direct and circumstantial evidence indicating pre-historic peoples possessed very effective sea-faring boats. There is even a lot of evidence pointing towards them crossing huge distances over the ocean. Even if such epic voyages are not appealing to groups of people on the ocean, a sensible position to be sure, sailing out for the purpose of fishing might be very appealing. And with fishing boats comes the ability to build and use coastal ships for trade with neighbors up and down the shore line.

Some peoples might find advantage with using horses or wagons. Either would allow a person to move considerably further with more belongings than they could alone. There is some debate as to whether or not pastoralists must necessarily rely on agriculturalists, but having and using horses does not necessarily equate to pastoralism. Some concerns of note with the use of wagons are obvious and some are not. One of them is, naturally, can you build and maintain a wagon and it’s team? One of the ones most overlooked, however, is how useful will a wheel be on the terrain in question. Some people look down on the Ancient Egyptians and Maya for not inventing the wheel, without realizing in many climates the wheel is worthless. The Egyptians lived with deep sand and the Maya lived in dense tropical rain-forest. If you are living in the mountains or with dense ground cover after the crash, you may find the wheel is no longer an effective tool.

Ultimately the most effective and most commonly used means of transportation will be walking. Walking is easy, does not require a person to build or maintain special equipment, and is low upkeep. To prepare ourselves we should begin making a habit of walking now. The suburbanites who think half a mile is too far to walk will probably die during the crash having not left their sub-division.

-Benjamin Shender

The Crash: The Eastern Seaboard of North America

It is impossible to tell the future. This fact has never stopped a single person from trying, and it will not stop me now. So much for the disclaimer.

It is possible to watch the climate trends since 1990 in this region, and to extrapolate the ways the weather is changing. One of the most obvious elements of this shift is the weakening of the Gulf Stream. Because of this, hot air and water are not being removed from the Gulf of Mexico, which encourages an increase in storm activity, particularly in the form of hurricanes. A super-heated Gulf Coast means a storm system barely sustaining itself as a category one hurricane named Katrina could be super-charged to a category five. But, in general, the increased heat in the Gulf, and throughout the region, has increased evaporation. In turn making this one of the wettest years on record. Perhaps the most interesting change has been the increase in tornadoes in the region.

Ok, what does this all mean? Its getting hotter and wetter. As the poisons in the air settle, and the active deforestation due to human activity ceases, the situation will become very simple. Hotter, wetter, an excess of carbon, a release of human-bound nutrients, a reduction of poisons, a dramatic decrease in pesticide use, and deforestation will all lead to a drastic increase in plant growth, which will cause an increase in herbivore populations, causing an increase in carnivore populations.

Hotter and wetter with a large amount of plants. The region seems to be changing into a temperate rain forest. How much hotter is impossible to calculate. But ten years ago kudzu could not grow well in Washington DC because it was too cold. It currently grows in New York.

-Benjamin Shender

Peak Oil and the Mainstream

While on vacation at the sandy beach, something struck me suddenly. I had been noticing it for a while, but as with anything else, things can be shown to you for a while before you finally see the whole picture.

We sat down to watch a show on television. Commercials were shown, of course. A while back I had decided to count how many commercials that I heard, generally on the radio, that had to do with gas prices. “Buy this car, it will increase your mileage. Less gas to buy!” “Buy now and receive free gas until 2007!” “Frustrated with high gas prices? Bring your car in for a tune-up and get better mileage!” After a few weeks I stopped counting. There were simply too many. After a while I stopped paying attention. Suddenly $2.85 a gallon started to look good. Well, during a commercial break I noticed that 4 commercials were shown in a row dealing with gas prices, directly and indirectly. There it was. It was the seeing the whole picture moment.

The past few months I have had the pleasure of talking with many interesting, and intelligent individuals. One of those occurred at a wedding that I attended. Overhearing the phrase peak-oil caused me to rush over and initiate a conversation full of collapse scenarios, possible solutions, and tribal ventures. At the Maps Meet that Ben and I attended, talking of such things as peak-oil caused very few people to blink in confusion as to what peak-oil is. There, too, talks of the future of oil and other issues that may cause the crash occurred. Another interesting conversation that occurred happened at my grandfather’s house during a visit I made. The group of us are going primitive/back-country camping next week. The mention of the coming trip brought on questions to me about my “primitive experiences.” Apparently I am the expert of the family in that regard, which does not surprise me, but the fact that my family wishes to go primitive certainly does. This conversation turned to the collapse of civilization, also something that surprises me. I would have categorized my family as the “technology will save us” grouping, though apparently this is changing as civilization does. My mention of peak-oil was greeted with knowledge of the situation and understanding of what it means, no additional explanation required.

It would seem to me that peak-oil is something that is understood even by the most unlikely of people. What does this mean? Well, my friends, I do believe that peak-oil has gone mainstream! How long till more people understand the water wars? Water shortages? Global Warming? How long until they put the puzzle together and realize what these all mean to civilization combined?

-Miranda Vivian

The Crash: The Big Picture

This post begins a new series on Aftermath. This one will deal with different aspects of what might happen, and quite probably will happen, during the crash. It is based on the best data I have available. Please keep in mind that what is discussed here is possibility, not a guarantee. If you want a guarantee I'm sure your favorite local retailer would love to sell you something you don't need. This post discusses the big picture, subsequent posts will deal with more specific instances like costal cities, flood planes, desert plateaus, etc.

Between 2010 and 2020 many of the problems that we have been watching develop over the past fifty years will come to a head. While individually each problem might be solvable, in a combination that makes each of them far worse than they would be individually, they will likely be insurmountable.

The first problem is the old favorite: climate change. Climate change is a general term referring to any large alteration in the general weather patterns of a given region. In this case we are looking at every region on Earth changing in such a fashion. The details of that change vary from region to region, as one would expect. Also, predicting things in that amount of detail is very difficult. But, as climatologists have been aware for years, climate is much easier to predict than the weather. There are several major features of this shift. First, humans are releasing carbon into the carbon cycle that has been dormant for over 100 million years in the form of fossil fuels. This release has received a large push recently due to the industrialization of China and India. The last time all of this carbon was active in the carbon cycle the planet consisted of a single global rain-forest. The second feature is that humans have been systematically removing forests from around the world for millennia. What this means is that the global carbon sink has been crippled. The carbon sink, mostly consisting of rain-forests, refers to the well known feature of green plants called photosynthesis. Basically, we have been pushing more and more carbon into a system that we are simultaneously making less and less able to use it. As temperatures rise, due to the heat-trapping properties of carbon, other elements of this problem are coming to light: for instance, the Siberian permafrost holds many tons of methane gas, a carbon molecule that is more effective at blocking heat than carbon dioxide. As the permafrost melts, which is occurring even as you read this, that methane will be released into the carbon cycle. This indicates what climatologists call a tipping point. A tipping point is a spot after which a steady change turns into a rapid change. The tipping point for climate change is usually put between 2010 and 2020, if not before. In the end, this means that climate zones on Earth will shift pole-wards by a significant, but difficult to calculate, amount. The low end projections place Virginia in the climate zone currently occupied by South Carolina and the high end projections include tropical polar regions and an otherwise uninhabitable planet. The first is probably closer to the truth.

A second major problem coming to a head is less well known, but is becoming increasingly mainstream: peak oil. There is nothing modern civilization makes that is not dependent on oil in a fundamental way. Plastics, transportation, and even food are completely dependent on petroleum. The problem with this is that oil is a finite resource that replenishes at a rate somewhere along the lines of one field per geological epoch. In the 1950s an oil geologist by the name of Marion King Hubbert discovered something that is now called Hubbert's Peak. Essentially, when an oil field is approximately half depleted its value 'peaks.' This peak occurs because of the nature of oil as an energy source and the processes used to extract that energy. A barrel of oil has an energy value and it takes energy to use that oil. The deeper the oil is, the harder it is to extract. When a field peaks the energy that is needed to use the oil is equal to the energy that oil is worth. After this point the oil is no longer an energy source, but an increasingly expensive resource. This is a bad thing. Currently, for every calorie of food we ingest, ten calories of energy was expended. The difference is made up using oil. When the total global production value of oil peaks, oil will no longer be sufficient to make up this difference; indeed, oil will create a new deficit that will need to be made up if we are to continue using oil-based chemicals and plastics. No other energy source currently available, or on the drawing-board, is capable of making up this difference. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear power are all incapable of generating sufficient energy individually or in tandem, and certainly not in the time frame being discussed. Hydrogen is not even a power source, but a power carrier. And a very poor one as well. There is a substantial amount of disagreement about the timing of peak oil, but most people studying the issue put the date before 2020, and most of them before 2015.

The next major problem coming to a head is the least well known of them all: the water shortage. The world is running out of potable water. On a planet where 75% of the surface is water this might seem odd. But it is important to remember that the vast majority of that water cannot be drunk. And to further that problem, desalination and purification is an energy intensive proposition. To be more specific, it is oil energy intensive. To make it worse the places that will be hit hardest by water shortages first are places that are the most densely populated, the poorest regions, and the places that grow much of the world's food. Water shortages are very easy to plot, at least compared to the previous two problems. It is already pretty bad in Africa. It will be increasingly worse and reach a tipping point between 2010 and 2015.

This adds up to a fairly unpleasant picture. When the three are added together the picture becomes worse. Each of the three elements exasperates the problems that the other two cause. The water shortage makes it harder to get water to oil workers, who mostly work in desert climates. Water infusion, the act of pumping water into an oil field so that the water pushes the oil up, thereby delaying the peak of that oil field, is not an actual solution to the problem of the oil field peaking, and is made more difficult by the water shortage. And the lack of oil makes it a lot harder to alleviate the problems of water shortage using the typical brute-force methods, which are very energy intensive. And a changing climate makes any action difficult to undertake for fairly obvious reasons. Solar and wind power are made particularly difficult.

One of the key problems here is that all three work together to cause a third problem that will end up being worse than the other three alone or combined. A lack of water. A climate changing in unpredictable ways. A lack of fuel to transport goods. A lack of material to build and maintain roads. A lack of pesticides. A lack of fertilizers. And more all add up to one thing: crop failure. We're looking at a massive food shortage. When this is coupled with a shortage of potable water we are left in a very precarious position indeed. Within the next ten years will be unable to feed over six and a half billion people. We might not be able to feed even one billion.

-Benjamin Shender

What Is An Optimist?

For a long time people referred to me as a pessimist. My replies traditionally varied from "so you hope" to "no, I'm a realist and the world sucks." But today I was wondering about the people who were considered optimists. People who always see things as bright and good. That's not optimism, that's self-deception. Sometimes things are bad, that's the way it is. If you can only see things as good, then you simply aren't paying attention. The true optimist can look the bad thing in the eye and see an advantage. An optimist sees the silver lining, only a blind man doesn't see the cloud.

When people find out about the crash they can view it in many different ways. That blind man refuses to acknowledge it. The pessimist sees that civilization will end and everyone will die. The realist sees that civilization is doomed, but that random humans will survive. The optimist sees that civilization is doomed, and that this is a wonderful opportunity.

So long as civilization stands nothing outside of it can exist for long, because civilization must always expand. This is intrinsic to it's nature. If you don't believe me ask anyone in finance what would happen if the economy didn't grow for six months…at all. This idea will likely be fairly alien to them, so stand strong until they understand.

But, once civilization begins to collapse in earnest, it leaves cultural space in it's wake. (This is in addition to the death and destruction, of course. Remember this is the view of the optimist.) And in this wake, new things can and will grow. It's not really tabula rasa, but it is best opportunity we've had for 10,000 years. It is a chance to live without oppression from individuals. Without hunger or class rankings. With universal education and cradle to grave health care. All that it takes is the will to seize the opportunity. The only question is: will we take the opportunity to seize our only chance to achieve what 10,000 years of philosophers and theologians and politicians have dreamed of offering?

I kind of like the optimist view.

-Benjamin Shender 

Multimedia and Schools: An Expansion

Notice anything new?

Our amount of Multimedia has nearly tripled in size within the past few weeks. To make it easier for you, the people, we have moved things around, tweaked, and categorized the multimedia into sections.

Those sections are:

Climate Change, Culture, Deforestation, Gaia, Overpopulation, Peak Oil, Politics, Skills, Sustainability, and Water Wars.

What else is new? Our goal at Aftermath was to move beyond talk, and work on the practical, mainly, what can we do to survive, and hope for the future. Our new section, Schools for Primitive Learning, focuses on survival. How will we survive long-term? On this page, you'll find links to workshops and classes across the country that teach these much needed skills of survival.

Our goal, after all, is for hope.

Miranda Vivian

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