Tuesday, June 15, 2010


In all of the descriptions of perilous situations that I have studied, arising during adventures on the high seas or in the high mountains, or during armed conflict, a single mistake rarely proves fatal. More often than not, death comes as a result of a sequence of bad choices which reinforce each other. These choices may not appear bad at the time—but they certainly do in retrospect! The end result is a situation in which no further steps can be taken that would not be either harmful or futile. This is the essence of checkmate: no moves left. At that point, none of the previous moves can be undone. Nor do they even exist, really: they have gone off to an imaginary universe populated by the regretful ghosts of those who didn't make it.

As one should expect from a natural phenomenon, failure is fractal—observable at every scale. The same pattern of maladaptive strategy leading to untimely demise constantly replays itself at the level of viruses and bacteria, and all the way to individual plants and animals, populations, societies, countries and civilizations. Nature moves forward by canceling its unsuccessful experiments, which far outnumber its successes. Most people have come to terms with the theory of natural selection, and can understand individual and group failure. But over the last few decades—quite recently, in fact—it has become unacceptable to speak of accepting the failure of very large corporations, societies and countries as a terminal state. They are always considered to be in need of bail-out, reorganization, aid, reform, reconstruction, development and so forth. Perpetual degradation and decay followed by a headlong plunge into merciful oblivion is simply not on offer. Haiti will one day be prosperous, Somalia a model democracy, and perhaps even low-lying coastal and island nations can have a bright though wet future, provided the people there are fitted with snorkels to help them cope with rising ocean levels. When attempting to come to terms with the regularly observable demise of civilizations, and the forthcoming demise of this one, our failure to cope is complete: ancient pagan archetypes take over our thinking, our unconscious mind takes over, and we are transported to a realm of second-rate fantasy films. All reasonable people agree that the future is either Mad Max or Waterworld; take your pick, end of discussion.

The concept of strategy, and of games of strategy, is a useful one, although when applying it to serious matters (instead of childish distractions like sports) our thinking tends to be distorted by the bad habits that sports instill in us. We tend to think of games as enjoyable learning experiences that teach us to play better the next time. The idea that there always has to be the next time is insidious. The vast majority of the games we can observe being played out, both in nature and in society, are played specifically to determine whether there should be a next time. "But I have learned my lessons and the next time we play I will win!" says the defeated champion. "That won't be necessary," says Death. "We must hurry. There is a horny old man who's dying to meet you. He'll be your personal trainer for the rest of eternity." But even this ageless little narrative has a flaw, for Death is rarely in much of a hurry, and the leading edge of eternity is quite fuzzy. Defeat overlaps decay, which overlaps demise. We continue playing far beyond the point at which our defeat would have become clear to us in retrospect. In the meantime, we come to accept our personal trainer as the devil that we know, and might even delude ourselves into thinking that we are winning.

It is a serious matter that much of life has been recast in terms of sport. We are all supposed to be good sports, team players, when we fail we pick ourselves up and try again, or fall into a safety net. When we get into trouble we can always call for rescue. When someone dies, it is always the result of an accident, never the inevitable result of bad judgment. People who fail repeatedly yet always try again are lauded for their persistence, never mind that they are serial failures. This isn't necessarily bad; people should and do safeguard each other. What's worse is that the higher in society one goes, the more dilute the consequences of failure tend to become, until we rise up to those exalted places whose existence is safeguarded by the magic incantation "too big to fail." This incantation is quite effective: many people are hypnotized by it. It prevents them from seeing something quite obvious: when serial failures are continually rescued, this allows them to bloat up until they are too large for the rescuers to deal with, at which point they become too big to not fail. When any one of them can no longer be rescued, the result is a cascaded failure that overwhelms the rest, and failure becomes crippling. Past that point, nobody gets to try much of anything ever again: society has checkmated itself.

What happens after that point bears a striking resemblance to what came before. After all, there were many insoluble problems before, and many degenerative cultural trends could be observed. It's just that there are more of them afterward, and they are more severe, but there may not be an obvious qualitative difference. It may not be immediately apparent that checkmate has arrived, and the specific point in time can become visible only in retrospect, if at all. Emergencies come and go, and people get used to the fact that the beaches are black and sometimes catch fire and burn for weeks, or that there is a ravine running through the center of town where the riverfront used to be, or that electricity is only on for a couple of hours a day. Dogs and children turn feral, but nobody remembers when that started happening, so everyone assumes that that's the way it's always been. Nor does anyone remember when it became fashionable to tattoo corporate logos on one's scalp, or to proudly display one's naked buttocks in public. An expatriate who leaves and later comes back might think that this now is a completely different country, but those who stay would be at pains to detect the difference because for them changes were too slow to rise above the threshold of perception.

The population can dwindle quite rapidly, but this too is often imperceptible. Large swaths of the landscape become depopulated, but that is not noticed by anyone because nobody goes there any more. When births exceed deaths, population increases exponentially. When deaths exceed births, population declines exponentially. There are always some maternities, and there are always some funerals; the change in the ratio of the two is not something that can be directly perceived. Societal extinction doesn't make any noise when it finally happens. Survivors simply move on. Non-survivors might as well have not existed, and the more gullible survivors come to believe the extravagant ruins they left behind to have been the work of extraterrestrials.

How does a society go about checkmating itself? There is no shortage of real-world examples, but real life is complicated, so here is a simple allegory. Let's suppose that there is a tribe called the Merkanoids, which remains quite ordinary for most of its history, but which at some point undergoes a strange cultural mutation. An accidental synergy between atmospheric electricity and chemicals in the water produces a strange effect on their minds that causes them to decamp from the towns and villages wherein they had hitherto happily dwelt, and take up residence in little huts scattered throughout the surrounding pasture, fields and woods. They then proceed to move around and switch huts a lot, until few of them know or trust their neighbors. This makes them feel rather unsafe, and the way the Merkanoids decide to make themselves feel safer is by burying land mines about their property and posting signs that read "No trespassing! Land mines!"

This makes them feel a whole lot safer while in fact making them much less so: the social predators among them become reasonably good at avoiding land mines, while the rest of the population generally does not, producing a large subclass of people whose legs have been blown off. These, being relatively immobile and defenseless, present an even more desirable target to the social predators, and naturally compensate by acquiring more and bigger land mines. This cycle repeats a few times, until two-legged people become the minority. Since people who are missing a lower limb or two are somewhat less productive than two-legged ones, in due course the Merkanoid economy can no longer produce the surplus necessary to invest in anything beyond more land mines (which they now find it cheaper to import from China on credit than to manufacture themselves). As debt service swallows up more and more of the Merkanoids income, their disposable income plummets. As a consequence, crutches, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs became luxury items which fewer and fewer of them can afford. Without these devices the ever more numerous legless people can no longer move around, making it more difficult for them to remain productive members of the Merkanoid economy, causing economic output to plunge even faster.

When this vicious cycle becomes too obvious for any half-intelligent Merkanoid to ignore, a reform movement springs up. Activists organize community de-mining activities and promote the idea of an annual "land mine-free week." Entrepreneurs work to develop "green mines" which stun people instead of maiming them, but these come to be regarded as less effective and therefore unsafe. Some political extremists take the radical step of de-mining their own properties. A lot of them then find their huts repeatedly burgled and quietly put the land mines back in. At one point a brilliant Merkanoid visionary has an epiphany and exclaims: "It's not the land-minds that are killing us! It's the huts!" Everyone thinks that he had gone off the deep end: how can anyone not live in one's own private hut? It's the Merkanoid way of life!

In the meantime, small groups of as yet two-legged people begin to band together on the margins of Merkanoid society. Instead of living in widely dispersed huts, they live compactly in tents, moving about the non-mined parts of the landscape. They eschew land mines and defend themselves (and each other) by keeping a sharp look-out at all times, and, if necessary, with pointed sticks. They also spontaneously develop a sort of crazy talk that turns out to be highly disruptive to the mainstream Merkanoid mentality. So disruptive is this effect that Merkanoid society, having no energy to oppose these outside groups, is forced to strenuously deny their existence. In turn, the outsiders happily ignore much of Merkanoid society, patiently waiting for it to fade from view, which, in due course, it does.

I hope that the meaning of my little parable is clear. A society takes a series of bad turns (which may not seem bad at the time). Once that happens, it's all over but for the waiting. The turns are irreversible, and attempting to make a society undo them is futile. In this situation, the only adaptive thing any of us can do is to learn to live as if these turns had never been made in the first place. This, of course, is very difficult and, should you succeed, will make you unpopular, so you should definitely consider the alternative: do nothing. In the timeless words of the I Ching, "Perseverance does not further. No blame."


pheikki said...

Reading your essay and parable, I remember why I have always enjoyed escaping to a chessboard, where at least immediate resurrection and eternally-springing hope are always available. I notice though that while I am playing chess, the garden is not planting itself and the weeds are running amok. Phil

RebelFarmer said...

I don't know what to say, except "thank you". We have all been evolving in our thinking over the last several years, but we seem to be arriving at the same point in our own fashion. It's nice to know that others are going to be with us in that "tent" of mutual interdependence and defense. It is helpful to know that we may be in separate tents, divided in space, but not in spirit.

Welcome to the future that is evolving in the now.

JJF said...

Superb as ever, Kollapsnik. Many thanks.

Stephen Bach said...

I wish I could come back in a thousand years to learn what people - if there are any remaining - know or think about what we have wrought. Meanwhile, yeah, I need to keep up with the garden also. I have a full-time job, which, nowadays I really appreciate having, and then I go home to the much-more pleasurable full-time job of maintaining my humble urban homestead.

Chris R. said...

"would be at pains to detect the difference because for them changes were too slow to rise above the threshold of perception."

Great point and unquestionably a key factor in our inability to discern the factors of our demise...See "New World, New Mind" by Ornstein & Ehrlich...

C. Ryan
The Localizer Blog

dc nelles said...

all gardening or other activities aside, if i am reading this correctly, i do not think our comrade is suggesting we align ourselves anew or we keep up with anything at all. i believe he is saying something much more profound yet harder to accept, both in culture and counterculture, which dovetails with what john trudell has also concluded under the circumstances...we must do nothing, we must think. the action we must take is inaction. let our action be thought and our thought be action.



teetering said...

Wu Wei, or Not Doing, is a key concept in both Taoism and Buddhism. It's not easy to understand, since it kind of assumes understanding what it means when the term is used. One could, I guess, also see it as a sort of Koan. I don't, but one could if that helps. Ie, only when you come to comprehend non-intellectually what underlies wu-wei will you understand the term.

In the West it's generally described as doing without intention, acting without acting (with self centered ideas, that is). I'm not a huge fan of how this stuff has been translated, but you have to start somewhere.

What it definitely is NOT, is literally doing nothing, quietism that is. In other words, do nothing does not mean do nothing, although it's pardonable to mistakenly believe it does.

Language has problems when it hits these points, and people who need things to be literal are going to be out of luck.

However, with this said, I completely agree with, and share, Kollapsnik's conclusion, doing nothing is certainly going to be the way out of this particular mess.

Sports guys, by the way, refer to this state as being 'in the one', that's where all actions are perfect, and fit into the flow of all other actions surrounding one, and do not require previous thinking to carry them out. So flow is a good metaphor for doing nothing. A logical conclusion, by the way, given that we are facing an unprecedented re-alignment and correction, a deflating bubble, where unpredictability continues to be the only thing you can count on.

Over the coming years, the truth of Colin Campbell's observation that one key component of peak oil would be extreme volatility in the planets financial (and other_) systems will become more and more apparent. As will, I believe, the idea that such events can actually be planned for. One of my exes had a wonderful little saying: how do you make God laugh? Make a plan.

Ie, do something with an intention of achieving a certain outcome.

AK said...

Can we still sharpen our sticks? The sharpened stick being mightier than the doing or the not doing doing.

Looks like more Merkanoids are catching on.

kollapsnik said...

Sorry, Kevin, we won't be plugging that link in here.

vertalio said...

Ah yes; the hole is too deep, put the shovel down.

It seems valuable in some way to be seen not-doing...riding the bicycle, weeding the garden, playing with the children...at times one ought to be "working". Visibly dropped out, and glad of it.

I've begun calling it "our" oil spill, to mixed reaction; some get it right away, and some seem confused, but none seem to understand that it's going to keep on gushing for months, longer if the 2 wells underway don't lead to a successful re-topkill. There are something like 2 billion barrels down there, under pressure, and the crust the pipe pierces appears compromised.
It's a self-digging shovel in this case.

Does anyone know how oil in this quantity might affect the ocean's rising acidity?

TragedyOfTheComments said...

Maybe another one applies:

"Seriousness when footsteps run crisscross serves in avoiding blame."

Kevin said...

I was kind of hoping you would do a rebuttal of the assertions made on that page. Lovinsism is quite popular in my region, and it's well to be armed with facts against its adherents. I know you've made such arguments many times before, but I feel they can never be repeated too often, given the number of people who still don't get it.

I was in Berkeley today, where such folks are thick on the ground. Many really do believe that with a Prius and some PV panels they're taking great strides to save the world and stave off ecotastrophe. It's the kind of place where you're liable to see "No Blood For Oil" bumperstickers on SUVs. Factual information is urgently needed!

teetering said...

There aren't something like 2 billion barrels down there in the Macondo reservoir unless '50 to 100 million' is like '2 billion'. But at that point, if one number is like any other number, using numbers becomes kind of pointless.

But the actual real, published, estimates are 50 to 100 million barrels recoverable, 150 million tops.

It's odd the tendency to jump at the chance to make things worse than they actually are in one's mind. As if things weren't bad enough on their own. Though the size of the reservoir was not prominently featured in most news reports, possibly because... well, because it's only between 2.5 and 5 days US oil consumption, 7.5 at the very most. Which sort of highlights just how close we actually are to looking at the down-hill side of the peak of global oil production. And this was considered a good prospect too.

So to get 2.5 to 5, max 7.5 days supply of US oil consumption, we create the worst oil spill in US history. I think either now or soon worst in the world's history as well, all to keep those cars driving around for 2.5 to 5 more days.

I say 'we' because as I understand it, BP and other Gulf operators have to sell the oil on the US market first, so this well was created to meet our demand.

Man I hate cars. My favorite thing to try to visualize as I ride down the road is no cars on that road, and the roads surrounding. Takes some work, but you can do it if you squint and pretend, or if it's late at night and you're in a not so great neighborhood.

Now people can stick 'stop the bp gulf oil spill' bumper stickers next to their faded old 'no blood for oil' ones...

kollapsnik said...

Kevin -

In my experience people do not respond to fact or argument. They only accept arguments that fit their preconceived notions. You mention that I've made certain arguments before that bear repeating. Why? What is that, proof by repetition? I am not in advertising.

Nature's way is to patiently wait for the results of experiments and to terminate those whose experiments fail. I "know" the experiment of replacing cars with hybrids is a stupid idea. I would prefer it if people would stop making cars, or, if they do make them, make cars like the old Model T that are slow, simple and don't need pavement. But then I don't even drive.

What you are suggesting sounds like work. What I am suggesting requires a bit of patience and a sense of humor.

Kevin said...

I suppose I'm expressing my frustration at the phenomenon you describe kollapsnik, viz., the general determination to not understand what is happening. Watching nature terminate those who've chosen badly will surely not be pleasant. And for that matter how do I know I will be among those selected for survival? I'm not assuming I won't suffer the consequences of other people's bad choices, because those are society-wide, and I largely lack the means to insulate myself from them.

Repetition isn't just for advertising, teachers use it a lot too, but perhaps you're not in that business either - nor am I, it must be quite exhausting. I'm just disturbed to notice how very few people choose to be aware of what's going on, and how resistant most are to hearing it. This strikes me as odd, because I can recollect a time (the mid 1970s) when many Americans recognized a need for limits on consumption, of energy and otherwise; even the President of the United States understood this, and made it part of his policy. What's happened to us? Where did our brains go? This general abdication of intelligence is a disquieting thing to observe.

Tony said...

Hi Kollapsnik,

First, thanks for the great post. I love having something to read in the morning to make me laugh. You're one of those guys I turn to for a bit of sanity and humor in these feckless times. cluborlov is real medicine!

I've also really enjoyed the discussion on "doing nothing", or wu wei. I'm rereading the Tao Te Ching currently, after having read another book (In Over our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, which discusses evolving ways of knowing), which has given me a new way of approaching the ancient Taoist text. I'm not much for mysticism, generally, but having a degree in physics has helped me to realize how little we know about the universe, and how much the frontiers of knowledge support these ancient understandings.

Ironically, I'm also a town planner, and I've come to think of my job as something to do to help pay the bills (in line with your writings in Reinventing Collapse, and others, such as The Lonely Crowd). Still, I try in my work (professionally and personally) to help ease the descent we are currently experiencing -- by talking about it. More people get it than I would otherwise have expected.

This brings me to your last reply to Kevin. While I can't fault your logic, I've heard it said that "people need to hear something seven times" before they really hear it at all. Now, that sounds a bit numerological to me, but I think there is some virtue in repetition. Of course I wouldn't ask you to do such a thing, as that would be "doing something" in the negative sense of the term. Just, please, keep doing what seem to enjoy, and I'll keep reading and smiling on Monday mornings at work.

fritz said...

Ok. I know I'm late in more ways than one. A little help all the same?

- In the timeless words of the I Ching, "Perseverance does not further. No blame." Is that writ right?

Am I gettin it right by translating as "once too deep in a hole stop diggin - and stop blaming diggers. Just stop!"?

- I'm not a Lovins supporter but I did buy into pv panels and a phev. I intended to slow the collapse, save some personal resources and provide a safety net in the event things get worse but not maximally worse.

My thinkin in the last couple years (thanks to Kollapsnik and others) is to save up for land and agricultural resources instead.

I haven't changed goals yet. Just priorities in reaching them. If we ever do get independent enough with food and shelter, we might then try for transportation alternatives too.

Meanwhile, we'll keep on trying to improve on our urban homestead and acquiring more skills, knowledge and equipment currently considered silly by the vast majority of Merkanoids.

Guess my questions here are to ask for confirming for the ideas I just wrote. Anyone?

jpwhite said...

Tom Englehardt seems to have caught up with your assessment of the situation:

Are We Going the Way of the Soviets?

Excellent article, as always. Will you be writing more about boats any time soon?

wagelaborer said...

The reason Americans understood the need to conserve energy in the 70s, and not now is that the mass media in the 70s, along with the government, repeated it repeatedly.

And now no one but the small people mention it.

missnikkidotcom said...

Absolutely love your blog. Thanks for being a great writer. =)

Charly Chan said...

I am the first person in my family not to buy a Toyota. Instead, I chose a Khrush-chevy, as its superior roominess will house me in greater comfort, down by the river.

SandWyrm said...

Checkmate can extend through time as well.

If looked at in the context of all of human history, the idea of the nation-state is but a small blip, being only what? Six thousand years old? And the idea of Democracy is only a small blip within that. Compare those numbers to the total human time on earth of 9 million years, or roughly 150,000 years for modern man.

Humans have lived in small tribes for most of their history. We forget that Europe had a civilization before the Romans conquered it. The legions did battle with loose collections of city-states that possessed advanced iron technology. Not mere cave dwellers.

It may well be that the nation state has served it's natural purpose. It requires a certain kind of delusional herd thinking to keep itself together, which is always contrary to the realities of nature. When that thinking becomes too delusional, it must crumble as reality overwhelms it. As soon as it starts eating itself to survive.

What comes after must be simpler, more grounded in reality, and more focused on survival/expansion than material comfort. Else it will fail also.

snuffy said...

Excellent bit of writing..too true I am afraid.The way the wealthy have structured the west,They have ensured eventual collapse by ensuring those of a certain class or stature will never lose all...and will always be on top,even as the very structure collapses.

There is a dull ,pounding rage growing in the "lower"classes that the controllers of our society will be unable to quell soon,regardless of the troops,or talent[leaders] they kill or compromise.The rage that exists at the way things are,the blatant excesses of wealth,the special treatment,and refusal to care for the neediest amongst use are the signals of decline.

The lack of empathy has played out in such a grim fashion that I am stunned daily by what I read by what is now considered "acceptable",[the poor,savaged beyond all rationality,the sick,cast into the street to die,those who fate did not bless with wealthy parents]During the span of my life have become lesser being,and no longer equal even under the law.

The less than equal treatment under the law is what I fear will destroy out society faster than anything else I can imagine.When it become so glaringly true that there is one set of rules for the wealthy,and one for the poor or minority...then your society is on the road to complete disintegration,sooner than any will believe

I am making those arrangements we all should be,though my garden this year is tiny,and I count on my orchard and stores to feed me and mine if trouble comes.I have also purchased a small sailboat as a "escape pod"if it gets too weird.

In the end,death always wins,but I would like to make it a long race anyway..

Be good or
Be careful


fritz said...

ran across this today after reading last few days how BP/Obusha made it a $40,000 felony to be caught filming the spill.


links to this youtube


how many decades have they worked hard at covering up and minimizing Chernobyl?

Aleš said...

Please consider the following from Joe Bageant:
Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball

"[...]But over the next couple of years as the poison crud circulates the world's oceans, the Deep Horizon spill will prove to be a global game changer, whether economists and court wizards acknowledge it or don't.[...]"

Jeff said...

No post on the russian spy story?

Lukiftian said...

This is an excellent blog, always well thought out and thought-provoking.
I'm posting this here because you've locked the above post, and as it is somewhat off topic so you may delete if you wish, or post if you choose. I'm surprised there is so much Anti-Russia sentiment going on right now in the US. I can't say it's going on here in Canada, but I've never experienced any, and neither have any of my Russian emigre friends. But what I can say is that RT and Pravda are way more interesting and informative than ABCBNBCBS etc, and so are you.