The Collapse: Catabolic or Catastrophic?

Seminar of the 27th of May 2011 by Yves Cochet

Let us call “the collapse” of contemporary globalised society the process at the end of which basic needs (water, food, housing, clothing, energy, mobility, and security) are no longer provided to a majority of the population by state-controlled services.

In the wake of research by Joseph Tainter2, Jared Diamond3 and John Michael Greer4 it is possible to sketch this collapse in just a few pen strokes. De-stratification: regional societies (European, American) that are stratified on the basis of class, sex, ethnicity or other factors, become increasingly homogenous, more egalitarian. De-specialisation: the number of specialised jobs decreases; individuals, groups, and areas become more multifunctional. De-complexification: the quantity and the diversity of exchanges of information, goods and services decreases. De-structurization: central institutions become weaker or powerless, local lifestyles become more autonomous. De-population: population density decreases.

We posit that globalised society is in the process of collapsing under the weight of different factors, specific to globalisation and productivism: a positive feedback loop of decline fed by the interaction between resources, capital and waste.

The central question can thus be formulated as follows. Will this collapse be slow (over one or two centuries)? Or will it be fast (one or two decades)? Will it be catabolic (slow) or catastrophic (fast)?

I. The bell-curve of evolution

Many natural or cultural phenomena evolve according to a “bell curve”. Following their emergence, these phenomena increase rapidly and then the rate of increase slows under the impact of various factors, until it reaches a maximum point, a peak, after which it inevitably declines.

The Belgian mathematician Pierre-François Verhulst was the first to formalise this type of evolution in certain phenomena, around 1840. He was looking for a model of evolution of animal populations which impeded initial exponential growth. This model, which he called the “logistic function”, could be applied to the simulation of many evolutive systems; for example, the total quantity of oil extracted at a given moment, from the beginning of industrial extraction.

The derivative of this logistic function is the “bell curve”, described above. This is the presentation of the Hubbert curve5, which models the depletion of oil reserves in the world. “Peak Oil”, the period of maximum oil extraction was undoubtedly reached prior to 2010.

The production of boric acid in Tuscany resembles an imperfect bell curve; as does the world production of phosphates, fundamental fertilisers in agriculture. We can live without oil, we cannot live without phosphates. Another bell curve which has nothing to do with mineral resources is the curve which represents the production of whale oil for lamps, and whale bones for corsets in the 19th century. In theory, whales renew their population through reproduction, but the whaling industry was so intense that the cycle of their population is similar to that of a non renewable resource like oil.

The application of this model to human societies, and particularly “complex” societies, was the work of Joseph Tainter. By “complexification” Tainter means the diversification of social, economic, and political roles, the development of infrastructure and the increase in the service economy, all of which rely on significant energy consumption. In general, in terms of social benefits three phases can be observed in the complexifcation of a society.

The first phase is characterised by a substantial increase in benefits compared to costs of complexification (the marginal rate, that is the evolution of the cost/benefit ratio, is greater than 1). The simplest solutions, those that are the least expensive and the most general, are very efficient. This is “progress”

A second phase begins when the marginal rate drops below 1: an increase in complexity still brings benefits for society but they are outweighed by the costs. Society is therefore weakened, complexification becomes less attractive, compulsory taxes and social security contributions are less readily accepted, the people’s trust of those in power declines, society becomes fragmented and its members are less willing to support central political objectives.

Finally, in the third phase, when the marginal rate becomes negative, any increase in complexity (and its associated costs) leads to the decrease in social benefits. Social and economic collapse is then probable.

Another bell curve model can be constructed from a thermodynamic perspective of the world. This very simple model has three stocks: resources, capital and waste. Resources are factors in a given society that are not yet exploited: material resources from the earth, such as iron mines or arable land to be exploited; or human resources to be included in the work force; or information resources such as future scientific discoveries. Although they are numerous, complex and constantly changing, all these resources are treated as a single variable. Capital includes all the factors in the flows of materials and energy in a society that are already exploited, and which continue to be able to be exploited: physical capital such as electricity, fields, machines and buildings; but also human capital such as workers and engineers; and social capital such as institutional hierarchies and economic intelligence; and finally informational capital such as technical knowledge and skills. Wastes include all factors incorporated into the flows of materials and energy in a society which are no longer exploitable: used materials, obsolescent machines, retired humans, information that is spoilt or lost.

The economy is a motor that transforms resources into wastes. Its energy source is essentially the chemical potential of fossil fuels. This model is extremely general. It is a bit like Newton’s law of gravity which can be applied to the description of galaxies, planetary systems, satellite trajectories, or the free-fall of objects. In this model, there is no force equivalent to gravity, which attracts elements to each other. But there is a powerful entity that nonetheless drives the system: entropy.

II. Slow collapse: catabolic

A crisis in the depletion of resources was the principal reason for the collapse of the Mayan plains society in the 8th, 9th, and 10th century. Most research uses demographic and environmental observations to affirm that the Mayan population had at that point in time increased to a level that was not sustainable with agriculture in the nutrient-poor laterite soil of the Yucatan lowlands. The Mayan people also invested a great amount of their capital in monumental building programmes, which increased the costs of maintaining their civilisation but which were useless for production. These programmes were maintained throughout the decline of the final classical period (from 750 to 950). Over a two hundred year period the Mayan populations of the plains sharply decreased and many urban centres were abandoned to the jungle.

The attachment of the Mayan people to the construction of monuments right up until the end is reminiscent of that of the Pascuense for their Moais – enormous statues weighing dozens of tonnes. From their arrival (towards the year 1000), until the collapse between 1500 and 1600, the Pascuense did not cease in their deforestation of the island, the wood serving to move and erect the statues. The classic question is: what was he thinking, the man who cut down the last tree on Easter Island?

On the other hand, certain societies created social mechanisms in order to limit the growth of capital in order to reduce maintenance costs. The most common of these mechanisms is the regular destruction of unproductive capital. The potlatch, for example, is a system of gift giving in the context of not-for-profit exchanges. This mechanism has been observed from North America to India, and also in the islands of the pacific. Potlatch evokes the notion of pure expenditure according to Georges Bataille. It is a process that comes under social rivalry, based on the need to surpass other gifts.

In other ethnic groups, these mechanisms involve ritually disposing of prestigious objects in lakes and rivers. There are many possible interpretations of these mechanisms. From our point of view, one of the key functions is to reduce the stock of capital in order to reduce the costs of maintenance and thus slow down or delay decline. Some aspects of war can also be interpreted in this way.

Catabolic decline, because slow, can also be described as oscillating. To describe this oscillating model we will take the example of oil (energy) as representative of the depletion of resources. When oil production decreases, prices increase. Given that this resource is indispensible, it is the other expenses – those of comfort or prestige – that decrease, along with the jobs and businesses associated with them. Geopolitical tensions can be seen too. The subsequent decline in economic activity leads to a drop in energy demand and thus a decrease in prices. If these prices remain superior to the marginal cost of production and supply, growth may take off, but the purchase power of the economy will not regain its previous level because production is limited by the depletion of the resource. The revival is therefore lesser than the former economy but it nevertheless contributes to growth in the demand for oil, and thus to increased prices.

In sum: economic growth + increase in energy prices → recession → decrease in energy prices → economic revival but at a lower level because of the depletion of the resource. In this model the economy oscillates by stages towards an increasingly low level of activity.

III. Rapid collapse: catastrophic

We have modelised globalised society in a single system, inspired by thermodynamics (resources, capital, wastes and feedback between these stocks). Of course the complexity and the number of parameters for the evolution of such a society are greater than in this outline6. Nevertheless, the overall state of globalised society can often be dependent on one or two key parameters. The important concept is that of integration and connectivity. Research on the theory of system dynamics shows that, in spite of their diversity, these systems react in similar ways when a tipping point7 is reached. Thus we can, by a reasonable approximation, describe globalised society by its GDP and its principle state function, energy flows.

The collapse of the Roman Empire lasted several centuries, that of the Vikings in Greenland, several decades. My hypothesis is that the speed of collapse is a function of integration, coupling and connectivity. According to this hypothesis, the collapse of globalised society is probable before 2020, and definite before 2030.

In their resounding book8, Donella and Dennis Meadows and their team at MIT modelled the consequences of world demographic growth in a world of finite resources. On the most famous graph the time scale was two hundred years (from 1900 to 2100), the curve of resources in red, that of industrial production in green and that of agricultural production in brown. All are bell curves, or Hubbert curves, including that of pollution (dark green), with the hypothesis that pollution is progressively reabsorbed by the ecosystems. In this scenario, demographic decline is out of sync with the decline in agricultural production, simply because human reproduction continues for a time, as long as there is some food available. However, the population will also eventually decrease. What this graph shows is the imminent collapse of our thermo-industrial civilisation, the principal cause being the depletion of resources. The beginning of the collapse is happening at this very moment. We can even say that it has been happening since September 2008, with the combination of peak oil and the financial crisis. This is the inevitable victory of entropy.

Yves Cochet

1 Ugo Bardi, “Entropy, Peak Oil, and Stoic Philosophy”, theoildrum.com, 25 May 2011.

2 Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

3 Jared Diamond, Effondrement, Gallimard, 2006.

4 John Michael Greer, The Long Descent, New Society Publishers, 2008.

5 Marion King Hubbert, an American geo-physician, became famous during the 1970s for having predicted as early as 1956 the 1971 peak in American oil production (outside Alaska).

6 Yves Cochet, « Les vraies causes de la récession », Entropia, N°7, Autumn 2009, pp. 11-21, éditions Parangon.

7 David Korowicz, « Tipping Points », feasta.org, 15 March 2010.

8 Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, Universe Books, New York, 1972.