Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What Would a Collapse Look Like?

During more routine times at work, I've been listening to the audio book of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond My selections for work listening tend to be a bit random, in that I find I can only split my attention correctly when listening to non-fiction, and our public library's selection is a bit spotty.

Collapse looks at how civilizations succeed or fail (mostly dealing with the failures) to survive in marginal environments. What makes it interesting is reading a fairly detailed account of some of the classic civilization collapse examples: Easter Island, Pitcairn Island (and surrounding), the Maya cities, the Norse settlements in Vineland and Greenland, etc. In this regard, I've been finding it quite fascinating. What I'm more dubious of so far, though I haven't reached the later chapters where Diamond lays out his full case, is his apparent contention that the modern world with its massive population, industrialized farming, reliance on oil and complex trade networks is perched on a precipice as precarious as that which faced many of these classic examples of civilizational collapse. There are certainly precarious or non-sustainable (in the sense of centuries) things about our modern economy -- but then, there were precarious and non-sustainable things about the Western economy of two hundred years ago, and the result was that it changed, not that it collapsed.

In this regard, I found this article which I ran across yesterday in Harpers very interesting, detailing the "greener revolution" in Cuba since the collapse of its Soviet Bloc trading partners in the early 90s. According to the article, while the Soviet Union and it's satellite states were still around, Cuba pursued a classic massive socialized agriculture program, with much discussion of how large its collective farms were, and how many gigantic Soviet-made tractors it could flood the farmland with. Cuba produced primarily cane sugar for export, which the USSR bought at 2-3x market price. In return, Cuba imported massive amounts of grain (and oil and tractors) from the European communist countries. All of this worked fine until communist Europe fell apart, and there was no one to trade with. This hit hard:

The New York Times ran a story in its Sunday magazine titled “The Last Days of Castro's Cuba”; in its editorial column, the paper opined that “the Cuban dictator has painted himself into his own corner. Fidel Castro's reign deserves to end in home-grown failure.” Without oil, even public transportation shut down—for many, going to work meant a two-hour bike trip. Television shut off early in the evening to save electricity; movie theaters went dark. People tried to improvise their ways around shortages. “For drinking glasses we'd get beer bottles and cut the necks off with wire,” one professor told me. “We didn't have razor blades, till someone in the city came up with a way to resharpen old ones.”

But it's hard to improvise food. So much of what Cubans had eaten had come straight from Eastern Europe, and most of the rest was grown industrial-style on big state farms. All those combines needed fuel and spare parts, and all those big rows of grain and vegetables needed pesticides and fertilizer—none of which were available. In 1989, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the average Cuban was eating 3,000 calories per day. Four years later that figure had fallen to 1,900. It was as if they suddenly had to skip one meal a day, every day, week after month after year. The host of one cooking show on the shortened TV schedule urged Cubans to fry up “steaks” made from grapefruit peels covered in bread crumbs. “I lost twenty pounds myself,” said Fernando Funes, a government agronomist.
However, the Cuban government responded with a move back to crop diversification, and a degree of free market incentive: thousands of small collective farms were chartered such as the Vivero Organopónico Alamar, which is profiled in the article, in which farmers can sell all their produce over a certain minimum (which is turned over to the government) on the free market, and divide the resulting money among themselves.

As in China, a little capitalism went a long way in providing people with the incentive to innovate and work hard. And working hard was required, because as supplies of modern fertilizers, pesticides, machinery parts and oil dried up, people had to go back to doing things the old-fashioned way: plows pulled by oxen (the population of which has gone up ten fold over the last fifteen years), hand cultivated vegetable gardens, using natural remedies and "friendly" insects to keep pests away, rotating crops in order to keep the soil healthy, etc.

The result is that the food supply is back up to what it used to be, though it now mixes much more heavily to vegetables and fruits, while meat, dairy and grains are scarcer.

Now, some of the article's sermonizing is, I think, misplaced. This new Cuban agriculture is clearly taking a lot more work by more people in order to produce the same amount of food (though using less oil, chemicals and machinery) and that is pretty much the economic definition of becoming poorer. Also, the article is very negative on the "green revolution" of large scale world farming. Many environmentalists are, but when talking to my co-workers from countries like India and Sri Lanka, the green revolution (in all its chemical-using and oil-burning glory) marked the point where their families began to be able to get as much food as they needed, and their parents no longer had to stand in line for a few hours to get the weekly ration of rice.

But what does strike me as very interesting about this is that it suggests what is perhaps a much more accurate picture of what a modern "collapse" of the sort that Diamond is worried about would look like.


Foxfier said...

If you're listening on MP3:

I think you're right that the Cuba collapse is a better example-- although the USA would be better off, due to the large amounts of non-farmable land that is *perfect* for herd animals. (My folks run cattle on this every year--we'd have to have a smaller herd due to lack of hay-making ability, but there's be more open because hungry people aren't busy trying to wipe out the eeeeevil ranchers.)

Jim Janknegt said...

There is an article in the Statesman today about folks who believe a crisis is coming due to the peak oil theory. I checked out this web site a couple of weeks ago and I have to admit if this guy is right it sounds kind of plausible. What do you think?

Darwin said...


I'm not sure I've researched the topic enough to have a strong opinion. I looked at the site you link to, and I've read a few articles on peak oil over the last couple years, but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

As a pricer, I'd say that the companies that pump and refine oil have a very, very strong incentive to price oil and moderate production according to the amount available, so my suspicion is that although we will at some point in the next 25 years hit an oil squeeze (not necessarily so much as a result of decreased production, as much as increases in demand far outstripping the increases in supply) and that the result is that oil prices will scale steadily, and thus provide an increasing incentive to develop other technology and switch to production/distribution methods (in everything from agriculture to manufacturing) that are less transportation intensive.

So I'm skeptical of the idea we'd hit a sudden oil shock wall and civilization would collapse. But I do think that we'll come under rapidly increasing economic pressure of the next fifty years to drastically reduce oil consumption or else transportation/petroleum products.

In the very long term, we will never be out of the boom/shock cycle until we're able to master fusion. That's how nature makes energy, and hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. Once we can do that, we'll be fine.

Anonymous said...

I read Diamond's book last year, and my comment is here.

Darwin said...


I like your post on Collapse.

One of the things I've found annoying about Diamond both in this and in Guns, Germs and Steel is the extent to which he makes very modern assertions with out thinking about them, and often even without any sort of data, yet imbues them with a sort of absolute certainty.