Thursday, February 04, 2010

Collapse Gap Revisited

Richard Heinberg has done something that sorely needed doing: he has performed a Collapse Gap analysis for USA and China. In a lengthy and detailed article he argues that, just as the USA is less prepared for collapse than the USSR was, the USA is less prepared for collapse than China. This is perhaps unsurprising (few countries are less prepared than the USA). Collapse-preparedness affects how many people will be able to survive the collapse, and how bad a time they are likely to have in doing so.

But there is much more to it than that. Richard makes several excellent new points that should be taken on board. Here, I will mention just three (perhaps adding a slight personal twist to each). For the full details, please go and read the full article.
  •  The governments of both USA and China are not trying to avert collapse but simply to delay it. Averting collapse would involve overcoming problems caused by fossil fuel depletion, ecosystem limits such as soil and fresh water, climate disruption due to global warming, and an economic system predicated on exponential growth. Neither government is up to the task of solving any of these, and so the obvious choice for them is to stall for time, hoping that the other one collapses first.
  • Although whichever country collapses first will immediately find itself at an obvious disadvantage vis à vis the other, that advantage is likely to be short-lived. Unlike the collapse of the USSR, the collapse of either USA or China will devastate the other, with major repercussions for the other major economies. There will be no country left standing that will be capable of effecting an economic rescue. The collapse of either USA or China will trigger the collapse of the other, marking a permanent, global transition to a new state.
  • Since collapse is unavoidable, the obvious fall-back strategy would be to invest in local resiliency and self-sufficiency. Since neither government appears the least bit interested in such matters, it is time for us to recognize them for what they are to us: utterly irrelevant. Paying attention to national politics can only distract us from doing whatever we can as individuals and local communities.
In the past Richard has done his best to nudge governments in the right direction, especially with regard to adjusting to fossil fuel depletion, whereas I have always felt that they can go and nudge themselves. You see, from my point of view, only a fool would want to go a-nudging the Central Committee of the Politburo toward adopting better policies. Here, perhaps once there was hope; and now it's gone. Unfortunately, many people continue to believe in the miraculous properties of national politics and policy. However, Richard is no longer one of them, and this makes me a bit more hopeful for the rest of us.


Terrace said...

The USA-China comparison is interesting, but let's not forget that China can never feed itself even in the best of times, and is currently furiously polluting its own water and natural environment at rates that I don't think most observers in the U.S. can fathom. In any case, this isn't an "us vs. them" thing except to point out what the U.S. could do better. As Joseph Tainter points out convincingly, all global societies will collapse at the same time, or not at all. Nobody's going to be too concerned with how well the other country is or isn't handling collapse. Collapse is collapse. What you experienced in Soviet Russia, while very useful for hinting at what a collapse might look like, was not global collapse. It was the failure of a regime, not of a global civilization.

bryant said...

"they can go and nudge themselves"

If there was a Nobel Prize for sardonic humor, you would certainly win it! We are going to hell in a hand basket, but thanks to you, we get laugh along the way.


Brad K. said...

I cannot help thinking that at least some nations will resort to military action, to mitigate or avert their own collapse. I fear it will be unavoidable.

And I think there is a serious gap in national defense for the US to weather a significant military threat. China may be in worse shape, though their internal security may be less fragile due to "not as far to fall" issues of starting out with a low average level of technology.

There are too many versions of "manifest destiny" fueling aspirations around the globe, for me to be sanguine about everyone being rational and trying to build a new economy and food supply.

Wars are fought for money. When there is a perception, right or wrong, that a neighbor has some and things are unstable, armies will roll. When governments face instability and discontent, nothing secures their hold on power like creating, and attacking, an enemy.

Al Quida broke the bubble of the mystique that the US is invulnerable. We cannot count ourselves secure if our national defense - including economy and food security - isn't capable and prepared.

There are too many irrational people willing to risk nuclear winter, if they can take down their opponent.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Brad K. -

That's the mentality that makes me want to get out of the US until the dust settles are the militarists are done killing each other. The US hasn't had the privilege of getting bombed halfway to oblivion, so the people here think that war is about security. It isn't. It is about shame, humiliation, and death.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the collapse of USA will be so devastating for the rest of the world. Peter Shiff once said in an interview about that collapse that in the current moment - the interview was in 2007 - the USA are in the role of the man who is eating for free - the free is actually the exchange of paper-printed dollars that are worthless for goods - while the rest of the world are in the role of the group of low-paid workers that produce food for the eating man and they cut from their meal so the man who is eating for free can eat.
Once the USA collapse the rest of the world would be able to eat all that that has been given till now to the eating man for his dollars. And the man will have to starve or start working to earn his food.

I believe this is the more like scenario.

Tony said...

@ angel-suriel

At the risk of over-simplifying the issue because I don't care to write a treatise at this time, I'd like to point out that the USA exports a great deal of grain around the world. On the one hand, this breeds dependence on our food exports and destroys local agriculture around the world, and so is A BAD THING. On the other hand, if that supply of food suddenly evaporated, many more millions would suffer famine and die, particularly in Africa, the continent most worked-over by neo-liberal trade policies.

So, I'm not really convinced that 'once the USA collapse[s,] the rest of the world would be able to eat all that has been given till now to the eating man for his dollars.'

In the long run, sure. In the short run... not so much. That said, I'm with Dmitry on this one... national politics is, at best, a somewhat interest sport - but completely irrelevant in terms of its efficacy in the face of peak oil and climate change, et al.

Brian Gordon said...

@Brad K - my concern is also that military action will also be used, to distract the populace from internal troubles and in the hopes of securing resources to stave off collapse (or at least the worst of it) for a time. I said as much in a recent post:

John Michael Greer of the Archdruid report thinks it unlikely the US will engage in much more military behaviour, as he believes that the US will be riven by internal factions and fighting:

I would like to believe he is correct (I am Canadian). However, even mid-collapse the US is going to have all kinds of military hardware lying around and people eager to use it.

Nobody in the former SU used their military capabilities to invade anyone during the breakup of the SU, so perhaps Greer is correct.

fritz said...

global or partial collapse hardly matters. except in determining who gets to name the new global regime after themselves.

gracias on the serious writing that many find so painful it feels ticklish.

Brad K,
National (and smaller) governments will resort to military tactics in direct proportion to their investments in arms and their greed. whether it's internal or external targets will depend on their political opposition and the resource locations. What boogeyman will they use next to frighten and cow internal and external opposition. Al Qaeda is already too old a chiche.

the desire to get out until the dust settles is understandable. Unfortunately the mentality driving us to agree to that is the majority (for now). Meanwhile some of us are plannin on stayin. Do you have any family or friends who stayed? And survived? And/or flourished?


You're right too in that short term the country's most dependent on (and exploited by) US Empire will suffer. Those who survive the initial food gaps will be far better off than they were and than the remaining Empire too probably.

Brian G,
Not sure I agree about the former USSR not using leftover hardware. Guess it depends on how much one talks w/ Chechens. That was considered internal though, right? Kinda likely the US'll have similar derrangements to distract the sheeple here too? And yeh, US emperors to come will probalby still be trying to distract sheeple by sending more out on failed imperial aggressions.

Shouldn't folk in Canada be more concerned with their own neolibs and neocons at home though? Last I heard parliamentary law is pretty much out the window. Sorry if that sounds disrespectful. That seems to be the trademark tactic of neocons and neolibs though. Attack from within and get reinforcement from corporatists.

To all,
C'mon folk. part of community is keeping focused spontaneously or otherwise on the common goal. Survival and possible improvement on life are the goals right?

While most of us aren't going to fit in DO's lifeboat, nor the safe harbors he finds, we're going to make due where we are. Right? Any clues for those of us fortunate enough to avoid the epicenters of coming probable destructions?

Not everyone was downwind of Chernobyl nor conscripted to fight in Afghanistan and later Chechnya right?

Twilight said...

There is no hope of saving the present system. It was fantasy to have thought we could - and a terrible waste of precious time and energy. Whatever survives the coming collapse will not simply be a scaled down version of what we now have. It will be fundamentally different. So let's get on with it. Forget trying to convince our so called leaders to actually lead. They won't. We are quite literally on our own.

Michael Dawson said...

Well, the counter-argument is that there will be a great deal of wealth around even in an implosion, so it's still worth debating what to do with it. Also, it seems to me that one's analysis of why the collapse arrived is going to be a major factor in how people form survival communities, and in how they interpret opposition to same. Capitalist or socialist seems to me to matter, even in the imaginable future.

So I'm a bit against this militant apolitical take.

Sharing matters. Selfishness is a danger. If we allow the present to confuse us on that, then we really are fucked, no matter what one dones at the personal level.

kathy harrison said...

A war would come in in very handy in an "us versus them" meme in assuring that "them" remained far outside the existing polital power center. It only recently occured to to me that I have probably voted in my last national election. In my work toward creating a resiliant community, I am far more interested in local power and a leadership. Those communities with intelligent and moral leaders will fare far better than those with entrenched sadists and psycopaths.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate your comment but I'd like to say that those that are dependent on the US's wheat will just have to remember how to cultivate it themselves. Like in Zimbabwe for an example - the country was exporter of wheat and now is starving. So they have the land, they have a workers - or at least some parts of the population that are not AIDS infected or just lazy. So it's up to them to survive or not.

I don't want to sound like a Nazi but the current situation in Africa is like running in a circle. They starve and rely on food import and that can't go on forever.

ReedPerry said...

I do not know if this message will make it through because Blogger is blocked here in China, but I'm using a proxy and sometimes things slip through.

I am an American currently in Shanghai and although I find many of your critiques dead-on I have to say that I disagree with both you and Heinberg here entirely, 99% WRONG. sorry. I would love to write extensively on it, but to be basic as hell..


-The utterly catastrophic state of the environment and complete absence of regulation.


-Soil depletion, desertification, water contamination.


-The fact that the PRC is now the largest consumer of oil on our world and as (if not more) reliant on outside inputs than the USA.

-Also, the one child policy is largely a lie, you see a great many starving families in the countryside with half a dozens kids or so.

Unknown said...

What can I say - the prefect commentary on a most excellent article. More than anyone else on the Peak Oil scene you and Richard UNDERSTAND

fritz said...

Reed Perry.
Yah. Family in China so far concur. Trying to get their comment here. THAT is the entire point. Founder of Patagonia (Chouinard) has stated all along, everything is an environmental issue. Samazdat. Everything is whatever wrecks our means of survival. Environment is overpopulated.

Angel Suriel.
The only nazi sounding thing about your last is that it sounds like victims are being blamed. The reason third worlders underproduce is that their own crops were devalued by IMF, WorldBank, Free Trade whatever intentionally. "Life and Debt" video presents case in point in Jamaica and how it's done. Haiti's an intentional and planned nightmare. Same as all third world. The lame attempts at resolving such endless poverty are just that - lame attempts that shovel vastly larger sums of money into corporate pockets and bigger loads of debt on to third worlders. Look at Monsanto's attack of farmers in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the highest failures and suicide rates - and how Monsanto's doing the same to Iraqi farmers now.

Kathy Harrison.
Wars are already here and growing. The unelected leaders already agree with those comments plainly. The horizon looks darker than the 1930's. Anyone else see it brightening before it gets worse?

Excellent point. Not sure how that's gonna go when we need help from some Palin loving crazy who insists that their help is predicated on my worshipping at the REAL AMERICA alter. The best done so far is to replay for them the HokeyPokeyParty Politics. So far those who used to call me a radical for sporting impeach bush shirts are lightening up a very little bit.

Probably everyone here is over trying to resolve current nightmare problems and getting back to a former life the way things ever were. Hopefully we're all about surviving the worsening storm and then moving on to survive and perhaps even flourish after the storm.

The genius of DO here and elsewhere is that he seems to feel as dark as this comment and yet still comes off calm, caring and determined to do well and right. That frees him up to see the ironies comfortably.

Does anyone and/or DO concur? If so, please keep on with help for us stay at homers intent on achieving and maintaining that same calm and focus while riding through this storm.

Susan Nasus said...

The United States still has thousands of active nuclear weapons. And I think, once things get really hard, we'll blame everybody else. We'll have "end of days" nutcases running amok, and much more. And we'll throw a gigantic temper-tantrum and use those weapons.

I hope I wrong, but it would fit our current character quite well.

Pete said...

i am a teacher in hong kong for 26 years, and taught 4 years in China. it is not the 'little people' who are to blame in china. it is the g'vt elites, the completely non-representative and very stupid Party members, and the military. they would sell their own grandmothers to keep the present system going.

Anonymous said...


I don't blame anyone just pointing the facts. And the facts are that till 1980's Zimbabwe was the bread-basket of Africa and now is one of the poorest countries with virtually no agriculture. And the problem is not in IMF or Monsanto or someone else but in themselves.
The government of Mugabe intentionally destroyed the white farmers and the modern agriculture. The same government that was so appraised by the black population that is now starving and dieing from diseases thanks to Mugabe.

The same is happening right now in South Africa and the result will be the same - Zimbabwe 2.0

Dmitry Orlov said...

angel-suriel -

I gathered that the problem with Zimbabwe had much to do with the fact that the whites thought they "owned" some piece of it and had the "right" to do so. From what I've seen, these little post-imperial ethnic enclaves of Britishness can be quite horrible and vile - the Falklands inhabitants, for instance, Britisher than thou - and the Zimbabwe whites were, I believe, no exception. Once they got kicked off the land, the British did all they could to undermine Zimbabwe. So I would tend to blame HMS Cecil Rhodes and all who sailed in her, not the poor Zimbabweans.

Larkin said...

I read with interest, Richard Heinberg's article. He states that what goes on and what is going on in the national political scene is becoming less and less relevant. I believe that is true.

Upon the Election of Obama I was temporarily buoyed but so little is different that I my hopes have faded. It has proven to me that both parties are irrelevant but not without some small influence...

Before the election, it seemed to me that the Republicans actually wanted out of the Executive because of the total mess they had made and the looming financial crisis. The strategy was to lose the election placing a Democrat in office just in time for the shit to hit the fan.. I realize that who is in office at the time is insignificant over all, but not to these two cynical and self interested parties.

As long as Obama is in office the Republicans will not only be no help but they do what they can do to hesitant a collapse so that they can blame the Democrats for the whole thing and then try to regain the executive. If it doesn't happen by the end of his first term then they will repeat the strategy of producing candidates that will not be likely to win.

After voting my whole life, I have cast my last vote in any US election.

sendoilplease said...

I agree very much with the sentiment "collapse is unavoidable," the federal government is impotent and a distraction, and that we need to invest in local resiliency and self-sufficiency.

Unfortunately in my experience most locals who are positions of authority are content to follow the lead of the state and federal government. Or worse, they want change but are thwarted by the state and federal limitations.

More and more I think the advice "leave the USA until the dust settles" might be the "safest" course of action. But there is no "safe" - at least none that I know of - and I'm not sure where in the world it would be "safer" (especially for a former "gringo/ugly american).

Anonymous said...

In as much as the commentary here is correct or in correct as the case may be, there is a solution to all. The solution is to remove ones self as far as possible from either side. I don't believe there is any one correct answer to these problems, be it Chinese, American, or both. It doesn't matter who is right or who is wrong. In reality it all comes down to you, an individual. Just try to be ready. And only the individual can decide for themselves if they are ready or not.

Unknown said...

Zimbabwe is the destiny of every country that do not transition away from modern conventional industrial agriculture.

Don`t know the details about Zimbabwe but Monsanto et al. are very good at corrupting many levels of society. Here in Veracruz, Mèxico an organic management plan was made for sugar cane production, good production and quality were achieved but the sindicate kicked the profesionals doing it out of town becouse they were getting the exclusive for agrochemical distribution.

fritz said...

laucaku said...
Zimbabwe is the destiny......

yep. this is why understanding the who, how, when and why of collapse matters. What imperial corporate fascism has done to third and second world is now coming to the first world.

Takes too much time to go into detail on specifics of how Mandela signed on with a banking industry that crushed and crushes S Africa worse than under Apartheid. And too much time to rant on with infinite examples: Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Fiji, Phillipines, Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados,....

All it takes to understand any of these cases is to find the financing for folk like Mugabe. For confirmation in the end find out where and who got the profits. Did Marcos lose any money when they left Phillipines? Did Baby Doc Duvalier lose his looted wealth in Swiss accounts? How bout Pinochet? What about the corporations who propped up all these dictators? Anyone hear of Nike or the Walton family giving back any of the slave labor profits to the slaves they've crushed for generations?

Agreed. There is no side. There's hokeypokey politics trying to fog the landscape with their Fox (faux) News War.

Our choice is between folk with integrity who comprise a few small informed groups (like Patagonia or Grameen) trying to do right, and folk lacking some invaluable quality who are killing the entire system with a thousand tiny cuts (some not so tiny).

For most of us working with integrity (informed or not), leaving is not a likely option. None of us will know if we're ready until after what's coming is long past. Now, how to get ready?

Thank you DO for the sea bound common sense. Anyone got clues for us land lubbers in suburbs and semi rural midwest?

Unknown said...

Just last week J.M.Greer sounded alert in 'Endgame' and now Heinberg. Has the pace of the collapse quickened? Signs are there?