The Many Flavors of Doom
October 9, 2023
Change the incentives and feedback loops and you change the flavor of Doom we're about to be served.
There are many flavors of Doom, and new flavors are being introduced at a dizzying rate. We've gone from chocolate and vanilla (thermonuclear war and mass starvation) to if not quite 31 flavors, certainly a colorful array of options.
Climate change has been quite the rage (ahem), but war is rapidly increasing its share of the doom mindspace.
The competition includes both ends of the spectrum: Doom Porn and Empty Optimism. On the Doom Porn end, there's the crowd favorites (Zombie Apocalypse, nuclear war Apocalypse, climate Apocalypse, etc.) which feature the complete collapse of human civilization, and on the other end, the magical thinking of Empty Optimism, which features fantasies of everyone flitting about in electrified car-helicopters and abundance so cheap that it's basically free to the entire world.
The reason why the flavors of Doom are enduringly popular is human history offers a plentitude of examples of collapse and very few of abundance so cheap that it's basically free. Civilizations tend to expand up to the carrying capacity of available resources, and then something or other slides down the slippery slope and resources are no longer available at prices that are affordable to the masses.
I've often recommended books exploring the dynamics of decline / collapse, including:
The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History (2016)
End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration (2023)
The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire
The Collapse of Complex Societies
Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
The Fall of the Roman Empire
The fall of the Roman Empire: a new history of Rome and the Barbarians
Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century
There are many others, of course, but these ten offer a fairly comprehensive overview of historically grounded Doom.
Two things are generally overlooked in Doom Porn: feedback loops and self-interest. Collapse doesn't serve the interests of everyone enjoying the relative security of stability, and so they will devote themselves to staving off collapse. As for feedback, collapse tends to occur when the forces of positive feedback--feedback that is self-reinforcing--overwhelms negative feedback--feedback that arises in response to positive feedback. For example, higher concentrations of CO2 cause higher rates of growth in flora, which increases their uptake of CO2.
In human history, collapse often seems to occur as self-reinforcing positive feedback or polycrisis overwhelm the system's buffers and stabilizing efforts. I discussed the role of polycrisis in Western Rome's collapse in Why Rome Collapsed: Lessons For the Present (8/11/23, first sent to subscribers).
To reduce costs, systems are optimized for a specific set of conditions and challenges. Redundancy has a cost, but the value of redundancy (for example, having two eyes) far outweighs the modest expense. On the other hand, we don't place two engines in vehicles in case one fails because the cost is simply too high and the payoff too meager.
The same is true of buffers such as stores of grain and energy, cash in savings accounts, etc. Buffers tend to be maintained for "normal" drawdowns / crises: levees are maintained for "normal" floods, for example, and the sacrificing of consumption to build up cash savings is limited to stashing enough cash to tide the entity / household through a "normal" drawdown.
The longer the "good times" of stability and a scarcity of crises, the greater the pressure to further reduce redundancies and buffers. Why maintain a full reserve of grain, energy, water, etc. when it's never tapped? And so the pleasures and conveniences of consumption today override the expensive prudence of reserves.
Institutional expertise in dealing with polycrisis also atrophies as the experienced managers retire. The Old Breed who had actually managed the chaotic response to polycrisis are gone and so the institutional memory of that experience has faded.
Instead, managers do more of what's failing, not only because their experience is that "this will be enough to solve the crisis" but also because any larger, more comprehensive response will demand sacrifices of financially-politically powerful constituencies who will resist making any sacrifices until it's too late.
In other words, clinging to the magical thinking that a modest, no-sacrifices-necessary response will be enough to restore stability is a core cause of collapse. This is of course an extremely compelling form of denial, a topic I recently explored in The Peculiar Power of Denial (9/18/23): we don't want to deal with chaotic multiple crises, so we wave a magic wand and declare that a "normal" response will be enough, blind to the potential of the tepid "normal" response to make things even more destabilized and precarious.
In my book Global Crisis, National Renewal, I argue that no nation clinging to the current waste is growth / landfill economy will survive the emergent global polycrisis. Only those nations that embrace a set of values other than maximizing waste in the name of an illusion of "growth" and boosting the financial gains of elites will have the means necessary to adapt and emerge not just as survivors but as more adaptable and resilient.
One of the more amusing flavors of Doom is the one hawking the fantastic possibilities of getting rich as the financial world collapses around us. What makes this amusing is "wealth" in any form only retains its viability in an intact system / civilization. Once the system disintegrates, there's no mechanisms left to protect and make use of the "wealth." Consider the caches of gold coins that were buried in past eras of tumult: they're still in the ground because whomever buried them was unable to return to unearth the wealth.
Then there's the little matter of governments desperate for revenues pursuing desperate measures, first reducing the masses to impoverishment, then consuming the middle class and then finally, everyone beneath the top 0.01%, who find barbarians at the gates of their sprawling estates once the state's ability to protect them decays.
History is replete with examples of governments taking a wide variety of extraordinary measures in polycrisis, for example closing stock markets for months, as in World War I, confiscating gold, and so on. The US already considers any income earned anywhere on the planet as taxable, and wealth is nothing but stored income.
The approach favored by the elite is to push any haircut on the powerless masses, but this stops working when the powerless have no more hair to cut. Then this offloading of sacrifices to the powerless triggers social disorder of the kind that can't be quelled with the usual bread and circuses kibble tossed to the restive crowd.
History suggests a corollary to the "get rich in the crash" scenario: whatever form of wealth emerges unscathed will immediately be targeted for expropriation by the state, which is after all an organization whose Prime Directives are 1) survival and 2) expanding control / power.
All get rich and stay rich strategies presume the state will fail to expropriate the piled-up wealth because of some "normal" hindrance such as "the money is in a British tax haven." That has certainly worked wonders to date, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and governments devoted to protecting the super-wealthy from any sacrifices for the common good tend to fall in favor of governments that see the stashed plunder of the super-wealthy as ill-gotten and illegitimate, that is, not just ripe for expropriation but expropriation is the only right and moral option.
Apparently the super-wealthy fear their security guards may conclude their salaries are peanuts compared to the potential of transferring their employers' wealth by, ahem, more direct means. Once expropriation is understood as the only right and moral option, then the Earth shifts beneath the feet of the status quo.
Another interesting flavor of Mild-Spicy Doom is The Great Reset, a mythological event that magically maintains the status quo as-is: the bottom 50% own virtually nothing that generate unearned income and the top 1% own a third and the top 10% own 90%.
In this scenario, there's a brief spot of bother--a bank holiday, etc.--and then a new currency is issued, and the powerless masses trudge off to work as usual while the top 0.1% resume their pathological drive to maximize their gains by any means available.
This is certainly a pleasant fantasy, but it overlooks the inconvenient reality that this Great Reset has already happened, not as a one-off bank holiday but as a 15-year slow drip transfer of wealth and income from the bottom 80% to the top tiers.
The disempowerment and impoverishment of the masses resulting from the coming Great Reset has already happened. You'll own nothing (of real value) is already the reality for the bottom 60%. This suggests the next Great Reset will be more or less the opposite of the envisioned Version2.0 of the status quo.
A rebalancing of consumption, efficiency, debt writedowns, wealth and income can be managed such that sacrifices are distributed to those with an excess available for sacrifice, i.e. the top 1%, who will still be doing just fine if their share of the nation's wealth was reduced from over a third (35%) to say, 10%.
Such a rebalancing would reduce extremes and positive feedback, reduce waste and enable greater investment in the common good of efficiency, durability, resilience and the values / skills I describe as Self-Reliance, a set of values and skills that are scale-invariant, meaning they benefit the entire spectrum, from households to communities to regions to nations.
Change the incentives and feedback loops and you change the flavor of Doom we're about to be served.
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