The Odums (A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies University Press of Colorado, 2001) seems to argue that complex living systems (ecosystems) tend to have a surge model, they boom and then they collapse or withdraw once the resources required are consumed. Or in more detail they have a cycle:
- Growth – different groups of organisms (or societies) compete and some outgrow the others and become more plentiful or dominant and hamper the others.
- Climax – the system grows until nearly all important available resources are consumed and it reaches maximum development. It may also produce pollution at a level that kills off biologies or resources it needs. Some plants for example kill surrounding plants which support the biodiversity they need, if they are too succesful.
- [Maturity – the system shifts from growth to maintenance and symbiosis, competition lowers, less resources are consumed for the outputs. There can be a degree of stability or conservation. Perhaps the societies do not consume more resources than they can replace. Maturity is not always reached]
- Descent – assets, raw materials, energy decrease because growth has used up available stores of resources, or there is a surge of destruction at the climax of growth as more resources are used up faster than ever to try and maintain stability, or cyclical ecological conditions change (eg. autumn begins). The ‘higher’ co-ordinating functions of the society/ecology can fall apart as they don’t have the available energy to support them. “By one means or another, the developed system has to adapt to coming down… An unresolved question is when is it good policy to downsize gradually [and in an organised manner] and when should [downsizing] be catastrophic?” [for example some forests may require major burns to renew and regrow]
- Low energy restoration – before another period of growth, resources have to be rebuilt up, usually naturally, as humans have few resources or little spare energy. Soil may need to be left fallow to rebuild itself etc. “Processes of environmental production must exceed consumption” for some while to rebuild. Some resources may have extremely slow periods of rebuild, such as fossil fuels and effectively not be largely available again, and some dispersed resouces may never accumulate together in a form useable in large quantities. For example phospherous or helium is not lost but dispersed, and it may be very hard to retrieve without much more energy than is available.
There is no reason to exempt human systems from these cycles, but it does mean that in human systems what is an appropriate policy in one part of the cycle “may be poor policy in another.”
The most likely result of our current growth is a collapse, “with dispersed smaller-population communities” living primarily on speedily renewable resources and energies, such as firewood or small cropping or, if we get it going, some surviving renewable energy technology.
Any relatively quick continuance. rebuilding or maturity will have to rely on renewable energy as fossil fuels are not only finite and are requiring more energy to extract, but they damage other needed systems for reaching some level of maturity.
Even worse, unless the energy generators and resources we currently use can be replaced or recycled, then the system will not have the pathways to start the regrowth phase, and we will stay at a low level after the collapse for a long time. This does not just mean limits to economic and population growth, but limits to social ‘development,’ social complexity and social comfort.
Such a cycle is probably inevitable. Regeneration systems almost certainly have limits. What is new, is that the cycle is likely to affect the whole planet, not just one ‘civlisation’ and its resource use. There will be few areas which will be immune and have the materials and energy to generate prosperity and start growing outward. People who are hunters and gatherers and slash and burn agrictulturists will probably do best.
It seems to be logically better to develop the way down now while we still have some, if lessening, slack than to wait until the crash.
Simply because I was asked, this is a simple and unscholarly look at the collapse of Rome.
Rome develops an extremely effective citizen army and military technology – the best in the world. They were almost wiped out once or twice. But they survived. One basis that keeps this military going is the gifting of land to retiring or surviving soldiers and loot to victors. This is pretty standard. Pay can be small because of the promises of land and loot. However, that also forces the military to expand into new areas to provide loot and land for soldiers. It is locked into expansion.
The military technology is great enough that the expansion proceeds relatively smoothly for a few hundred years. However, changes in the political system mean that the Roman people become less involved in politics, or less identified with politics – they are excluded and it becomes dangerous to get involved. Rome also uses up its militarisable population and has to recruit military from conquered areas. These new recruits also have less involvement with the empire other than in terms of reward, and may require more consistent payment. Eventually the empire expands too much for the loot and land it occupies to be able to support the armies and centralised, or dispersed, control. The ruling classes tend to take what land they can to make large estates to cement their power and riches, which deprives soldiers and soldiers’ families of land or potential land. Supply lines became too long, people get bored. The looted became restless and look for opportunities to rebel. It takes more effort to maintain stability. Land becomes overused and became less fertile.
To keep functional, any empire has to either generate large amounts of energy and resources (which will eventually be used up), or plunder from its conquests more than it costs to rule those conquests, and keep expanding to get more plunder when they have stripped the conquered areas. That requires potentially infinte expansion, or calling off the empire and trying to become steady state, which is hard because so much power and wealth depend on expansion. Infinite explansion is always going to run against human and planetary limits. I have heard there is some evidence the Romans reached China! but they could not keep the outpost going. Once the expansion runs into limits you eventually can’t reward or pay the people who keep it up to those limits, and have to rely on having crushed the opposition, which is not going to stay stable for ever. Maintaining Empire requires more energy than unconquered peoples can provide if conquered, and it requires energy to keep it going. When that energy depends on agriculture and forestry, then you have the problems of using up the land’s fertility and using up the forests. You also need to keep up skills training and tech of conquest, administration and building, which takes energy and often peace to store the information accurately.
After the fall of Rome, it seems fertility of the land was problematic at best, and knowledge was destroyed, dispersed, or unretrievable. While the material and intellectual poverty of the European Dark Ages, can be exaggerated, it took a long time to get anything resembling even the city of Rome going again. Similarly, without oil, the remanants of the Islamic Empires and their collapse would probably still be in relative poverty from the same kind of causes.
Societies tend to consume the resources they rely upon faster than those resources can be replenished, or their mode of destruction exceeds the modes of production. If this is not realised, and massive reorganisation is not undertaken then the societies will collapse. We cannot rely on magical technolgy to save us. But more importantly, the modes of consumption and destruction tend to get entangled with modes of power, and people fight to keep them going, rather than risk uncertainty or loss of power and riches. People get distracted supporting the growth mechanisms instead of maturity mechanisms.
A general formula is that: “the processes that make a society successful eventually kill them when circumstances change, or resources start becoming limited”.
Roman military effectiveness and expansion destroyed the empire they made