When It All Falls Apart

Dan Gillmor is a BoingBoing guest-blogger.

Like lots of folks these days I find myself speculating about whether we're heading into something worse than a bad recession, such as the kind of calamity that tests civilization. I've suspected this before.

Back in my younger days I played music for a living. We were based in Vermont, a collection of folks who mostly saw the world as a place where music and the good life surrounding it were an end in themselves. While I subscribed to this philosophy for the most part, I was also the band member who read newspapers, and the one who had to handle details like bookings and getting paid. 

The real world intruded enough, therefore, to occasionally be as worrisome as fun; and I had a pessimistic side in any case. At one point, gloomier than usual about humanity's future, I wrote a song about how people like us would (or wouldn't) get along when the apocalypse happened, something I feared might be imminent. It wasn't, then, but I'm wondering again.

The song was called "When It All Falls Apart," and the lyrics went like this:

What will you do when it all falls apart?
Have you made your plans?
What will you be when it all falls apart?

There won't be any plumbers. 
There'll be no politicians.
Be no civil engineers.
Be no musicians.
There'll just be the farmers and the thieves.
And what do you know about the land?
What will you do when it all falls apart?

What will you be?

The song was on an album called "Road Apple," after the name of a band that lasted in one form or another for about seven years. Doug McClaran, who played piano, was the other main member of the band during that time. Besides Doug, who died way too young, this recording features Robin Batteau on violin, Tommy Steele on alto sax, Al Zanzler on baritone sax, Skeeter Camera on drums and Will Patton on bass. My brother Steve produced it, and you can listen to it here:

77

  1. Enough. Yes, times are difficult for many people. Yes, we are in a downturn the likes of which many people have never seen (or were old enough to remember). After eight years of neglect (and I would argue eight years of many squandered opportunities before that), we have our work cut out for us. The thing is, America used to be more optimistic that the future was brighter than the past, and was something to work towards. I’m getting really sick of hearing that these are the end times, and that we’re all going to be shooting each other in the streets for cans of peaches in the next 12- to 24 months. If we had the same mindset in the 1940s, the world would be a very difficult place.

    No, I don’t have all the answers – no one does. A little extra work and a lot more common sense will go a long way. The world is changing, and we have to change with it (again, not our strong suit since 2000), but change can be good, if we’re open to opportunities.

  2. “That tests civilization”
    That’s a bit much isn’t it? Times are bad all over sure, we’ve been through much worse and never fell into that bad a catastrophe.

  3. The sentiment of your song reminds me of “When the Oil Runs Out” by Newtown Neurotics:

    http://www.neurotics.org.uk/oil.htm

    When the Oil Runs Out

    Think about the fat men who wear their slippers to drive they’re cars
    while their machines are running, they wont walk very far
    they never realise what they’ve got,one day they will lose the lot
    because….

    Chorus:

    What’s gonna happen when the buses don’t run
    and what’s gonna happen when the winter comes
    what are you gonna do,
    what are you gonna do
    when the oil runs out?
    Think about the record industry and the people its used
    self indulgent pampered popstars which ones did you choose
    I’ll be far more drastic than no-more 12 inch plastic bescause….

    CHORUS:
    Are you prepared for such a drastic change of life style
    you say “yeah” I don’t believe you,look at your home
    the things that you own, the job that you work in
    they all could go

    what about the tax exiles who live in the sun
    when the oil runs out, they’ll have no-where to run

    And what about the comfortable people who just cant go without
    they’re forever panic buying, in case things run out
    they never realise what they’ve got, one day they will lose the lot because….
    Chorus:
    What gonna happen when cycling becomes a strain
    and you need a drop of 3 in 1 on your bicycle chain
    what are you gonna do,
    what are you gonna do
    when the oil runs out.
    Are you prepared for such a drastic change in life style
    you say “yeah” I don’t believe you,look at your home
    the things that you own, the job that you work in
    they all could go.

  4. America used to be more optimistic that the future was brighter than the past, and was something to work towards. I’m getting really sick of hearing that these are the end times, and that we’re all going to be shooting each other in the streets for cans of peaches in the next 12- to 24 months. If we had the same mindset in the 1940s, the world would be a very difficult place.

    What were the reasons why we could expect increasing standards of living?

    When did Romans realize, after centuries of total dominance, their predicament? Did they? When Rome was sacked?

    Civilization is not a “sure thing” as most people’s anecdotal evidence would suggest. It is, in fact, a marvel of distributed human coordination and cooperation. (Whatever else you may think about Milton Friedman, his example of the #2 pencil illustrates this point well.)

    What I’m sick of is people focusing on “confidence” or “having a positive attitude” instead of the hard work of real critical analytical thought and action about what’s actually happening and what to do about it.

  5. I don’t know why everybody’s so pessimistic. Krusty will come, and when he does, he’s gonna bring us food, and water, and smite our enemies!

  6. It’s sweet, some kind of “apocalypse nostalgia”. I remember in the 80ies we all thought after Tchernobyl, the first Iraq war and later the war in what used to be Jugoslavia, we all thought the world was going to end soon.
    Strangely enough, it didn’t.
    I think we are all too ready to call out an apocalypse. Yes, the economy world wide is bad and yes, my business is really bad at the moment, but it’s not the end of it all. I think most of us in the US and Europe will just reset some priorities, focus on what is really important and move on.

  7. #4:

    And enough food in the countryside for zero days, unless you happen to have the tools, talent, and opportunity to hunt or harvest your own. You think the game population will survive a sudden shift back to a hunter-gatherer economy?

    How about this one? Your heart beats more than once a second and has been doing that continuously for however many decades you’ve been alive. Assuming you are at least pubescent, that’s 31,000,000 continuous beats without a break, at minimum! MY GOD, IT COULD STOP AT ANY SECOND. You better go lie down, just to be on the safe side.

    So yeah, for the record, I think all this talk of apocalypse is pretty ridiculous. Moreover, and here’s the important bit, even (and perhaps especially) if I did think there was a chance of it happening, I sure as shit wouldn’t go around screaming about it, as that only increases general panic and thereby increases competition for the resources I’m going to need to survive if it does. Plus it makes everybody anxious and unhappy, and panic itself can be very dangerous even if it’s totally unfounded. So, to what end, Chicken Little, do you cry? What good does it do you or anybody else?

  8. I’m going to call shennanigans here. The last time civilization collapsed we were overrun by more powerful militaristic barbarians. That’s the Mongols in China, and the Huns/Varingians for Rome.

    Sure, we’ve had an economic downturn, but..uh, there’s no threat of civil war or anything here. Services are still running and will continue to do so. Oil continues to be imported. When the military starts splitting into factions, then you need to be worried.

    The first world has had social revolution before, it was called nationalism. America’s was the Civil war. Even THAT wasn’t post apocalyptic, just a change in the political landscape.

    Anything short of ecological collapse wouldn’t mean anything close to apocalypse. Even if everyone in the US started picking up guns ans shooting each other, we’d be no worse than say, Zimbabwe or Columbia or other third world countries. It would be a political collapse, but not the end of the world.

  9. Apocalypse continues to hold a morbid fascination for humans simply because, for each of us, the end-time =is= coming, because each of us will certainly die someday. I think it’s very easy, and somehow comforting, to extend that to civilization as a whole.

    I suspect we’ll continue to lurch along “flailing and screeching all the while, like an orangutan with a steak knife in its side…” (thanks to Tom Robbins for that image, in his wonderful liner notes to Leonard Cohen’s =Tower of Song=).

  10. there is enough food in the cities for three days.

    James Burke – Connections

    So, you don’t admit it. You say, “Oh well, in this situation, we’ll cope.” But what happens when the effects become widespread, irreversible, devastating? What happens when what little resources you have to help you cope give up? Then what? Well, in all the disaster scenarios you read, what happens is that without power, technologically-based civilization cracks up rapidly. Without enough auxiliary power, and most major cities don’t have it, organization is impossible. It’s every man for himself. Looting and arson follow. And in a city unprepared to be a fortress, supplies run out, fast. And however frightening the thought of leaving is, sooner or later, there is nowhere to go but out, away from the danger.

    The minute you decide to move, you’re on your own, in a way that no modern 20th century city dweller has ever been in his life. And then the traps begin to close: To start with, do you even know where to go, in order to survive? Did you manage to get a map before you left? And if you did, how do you get out, walk? Drive until you run out of fuel? Are you ahead of the millions of other people pouring down these roads trying to do just what you’re trying to do? And if they catch up with you, have you got something they need? And if you have, can you protect yourself? Did you bring enough food and drink to last as long as necessary? And if you didn’t, where will you get it? Steal? How far out will you have to push on, until you’re far enough out to be safe? And can you be sure that’s far enough?

    And if even by some miracle you finally make it, do you know enough to recognize a place to stop when you see it? I mean, what does survival without technology look like? There’ll be no signs up. So, let’s say that finally somewhere far out into the country you come across a place that looks right. And let’s say you had the good sense and the good luck to look for a farm. Because that’s where food comes from, doesn’t it? Ok, so it’s a farm, so you decide to stop. Has anybody got there first? Or, are the owners still here? Because you’re going to need shelter, and people don’t give their homes away. They barricade themselves in, so, sooner or later, exhausted and desperate, you may have to make a decision to give up and die. Or, to make somebody else give up and die because they won’t accept you in their home voluntarily. And what, in your comfortable urban life has ever prepared you for that decision.

    Ok, let’s say that by some miracle the place is empty and it’s all yours. Is there enough food in the house? How long will it last? How will you cook it? Wood fires? Are you fit enough to chop all the wood you need before winter comes? If you’re lucky, you’ve got livestock on the farm. Great, meat. But can you slaughter, and bleed, and butcher an animal? Ok, supposing you manage that, you’ve got enough meat to eat, until you’ve eaten all the cows. But at least you could start running a farm. But it’s a modern farm, remember? It’s mechanized. There’s a gasoline pump, but it’s empty. So you can’t use the tractor. What you need is a horse and cart, but when did you last see a horse and cart on a modern farm? And everything else here, the saw, the power drills, the light, the sterilizer, the water supply, the sewage system, the hoist, the milking parlor, the pumps, and everything on this control panel demands the one thing you don’t have: electric power. Everything that you’ve found on this farm doesn’t work. The place is a trap.

    But there’s no where else to go. The only way you’re going to survive is if you find the one thing you need to keep on providing the food you’ve got to have. And you don’t need the mechanized version of that thing. You need the kind people haven’t used in 100 years. You need that kind of plow. You’re saved. Or are you? Because what it comes down to at this point is this: Can you use a plow? It’s taken a series of miracles just to get you this far, and here you are with the biggest miracle of all: a plow, and animals to pull it. So maybe after a few days with fumbling around with the harnesses and the bits and pieces, you manage to yoke up the oxen and plow the land. And then, and only then, can you say that you’ve successfully escaped the wreckage of technological civilization and lived off the land and survived. If you know how to use the furrow you plow. I mean, can you tell the difference between an ear of corn and an ear of geranium seed? Do you know when to sow whatever it is you think it is? Do you know when to harvest it? And eat the bit that you think isn’t poisonous?

  11. “Sure, we’ve had an economic downturn, but..uh, there’s no threat of civil war or anything here.”

    Actually, I believe the 2nd Civil War is scheduled for this Friday. That big pussy Chuck Norris says so. We may get to use those Haliburton detention facilities after all.

    Did you know that Chuck Norris doesn’t read books? He just cries on them until they tell him to stop being such a little pussy and just give him the information he wants.

  12. Ah, @Tarlss but you are forgetting all of the advantages we have over Zimbabwe and Columbia. Nukes, biological weapons and the most potent weapon of all, a sufficient entanglement in every other country in the world to drag them down with us. Columbia could descend into madness tomorrow and other than stockbrokers detoxing from cocaine withdrawal, the world scene would not be that much affected. America experiences a recession and the world starts circling the drain. Imagine how much worse it would be if we got serious about tearing things up.

    And let’s not forget the reverse. If one of the less stable countries gets some big ideas about how much nicer the world would look without so many people in it, we are vulnerable like never before.

    Everything dies with time, even America. Although I have heard that Cthulhu may have found a loophole

  13. I’m going to call shennanigans here. The last time civilization collapsed we were overrun by more powerful militaristic barbarians. That’s the Mongols in China, and the Huns/Varingians for Rome.

    Uh, no. They were roaming gangs feeding on the corpse of a superpower.

    Historian Michael Rostovtzeff and economist Ludwig von Mises both argued that unsound economic policies played a key role in the impoverishment and decay of the Roman Empire. According to them, by the 2nd century A.D., the Roman Empire had developed a complex market economy in which trade was relatively free. Tariffs were low and laws controlling the prices of foodstuffs and other commodities had little impact because they did not fix the prices significantly below their market levels. After the 3rd century, however, debasement of the currency (i.e., the minting of coins with diminishing content of gold, silver, and bronze) led to inflation. The price control laws then resulted in prices that were significantly below their free-market equilibrium levels.

    According to Rostovtzeff and Mises, artificially low prices led to the scarcity of foodstuffs, particularly in cities, whose inhabitants depended on trade in order to obtain them. Despite laws passed to prevent migration from the cities to the countryside, urban areas gradually became depopulated and many Roman citizens abandoned their specialized trades in order to practice subsistence agriculture. This, coupled with increasingly oppressive and arbitrary taxation, led to a severe net decrease in trade, technical innovation, and the overall wealth of the empire.

    Bruce Bartlett traces the beginning of debasement to the reign of Nero. By the third century the monetary economy had collapsed. Bartlett sees the end result as a form of state socialism. Monetary taxation was replaced with direct requisitioning, for example taking food and cattle from farmers. Individuals were forced to work at their given place of employment and remain in the same occupation. Farmers became tied to the land, as were their children, and similar demands were made on all other workers, producers, and artisans as well. Workers were organized into guilds and businesses into corporations called collegia. Both became de facto organs of the state, controlling and directing their members to work and produce for the state. In the countryside people attached themselves to the estates of the wealthy in order to gain some protection from state officials and tax collectors. These estates, the beginning of feudalism, operated as much as possible as closed systems, providing for all their own needs and not engaging in trade at all.

  14. #4, Takuan:

    there is enough food in the cities for three days.

    But I only go shopping once a week.

    #6, zuzu:

    When did Romans realize, after centuries of total dominance, their predicament? Did they? When Rome was sacked?

    I’m not sure that’s such a great example. The Roman Empire declined for centuries, and continued throughtwo sackings of Rome.

    It has been argued that the idea of a ‘fall’ of the Roman Empire, and ‘dark ages’ following (as popularized by Gibbon) is a misrepresentation of a gradual transformation.

  15. I suspect there are a few reasons for entries like this one (and it’s not the only one, by far):

    – Pessimism is much easier than optimism.
    – World doom sells.
    – Morbid fascination.
    – The author is scared and looking for someone to present an argument to prove him/her wrong.
    – If you can make others scared, it allows you to exert a measure of control on a situation where you feel you have no control, thereby giving you some amount of peace.

    I’ve never posted a “hate” message to BoingBoing, and I certainly don’t intend to start now, but I’m just not sure where this sort of post gets us.

    I grant you that positive thinking will not stop your fall if you jump out of an airplane. But positive reinforcement does allow for creativity and resolve–two things that we need right now. It seems to me that pessimism feeds on itself and allows fear to run unchecked. If you’re worried, scared, or nervous, that’s OK. A lot of people are, but there’s also a lot of really good things going on.

    I’m very glad that there are some positive, and on topic, entries on BoingBoing as well.

  16. #6, all I meant was that some amount of optimism is necessary to do the work that needs to be done. If you don’t believe that there’s a chance at improvement, you have no energy. If you have no hope, you have no reason to get up in the morning.

    We’re not promised a higher standard of living (or even the same standard of living) in the future. We’re not promised tomorrow at all. That undetected aneurysm could hit you at any time, and yet you still make plans. You still go to work, save for retirement, and look forward to the next “Star Trek” film (or whatever trips your trigger). If there are reasons to look forward to a better day tomorrow, it will be because we laid the groundwork for them now.

    Or, we can just give up and hope that our deaths aren’t too horrible.

  17. …The thing is, America used to be more optimistic that the future was brighter than the past, and was something to work towards.

    “Back in my time we looked forward to a brighter future instead of pining away for the past. Boy, those were the days.”

  18. @ Beanolini

    But…. but… that doesn’t fit with Zuzu’s right-wing extremist ideology. Don’t you know? von Mises has the answer for everything! Here, have some kool-aid.

    @ BarkingSpider

    I think you’re right. Both Nouriel Roubini and Warren Buffet are saying about the same thing. That things are bad, pretty bad, but not end of the world, welcome to the Mad Max Thunderdrome bad.

    Everyone wants to sell you something. Or they want you to be afraid just like they are because that justifies their fears.

    Angry White Male = Cluster B Personality Disorder

    o A grandiose sense of self-importance
    o Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
    o Believes that he or she is “special” and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
    requires excessive admiration
    o Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
    o Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
    o Lacks empathy and is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
    o Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
    o Shows arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes

    Perhaps we need an fMRI study to locate the Wingnut Libertarian lobe?

  19. I’m with Dan Gillmor. I think Dan and I are about the same age … I grew up on A Boy and His Dog, Soylent Green. I graduated to Mad Max and the Terminator.

    I think if you look around the world though, and find the most backward-ass place (let’s pick Darfur for example) it’s hard to imagine we could collapse any lower than that. Not that that’s encouraging but it sets establishes a sort of bottom endpoint that is at least a notch or two above Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog, right?

  20. Just to give credit where credit is due, Friedman is referencing the essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard E. Read.

    Word up, thanks for providing that attribution!

    The part that always resonated with me in Friedman’s version is this:

    Literally thousands of people cooperated to make this pencil. People who don’t speak the same language, who practice different religions, who might hate one another if they ever met

    I’m not sure that’s such a great example. The Roman Empire declined for centuries, and continued throughtwo sackings of Rome.

    I think our time scale is accelerated, but even so, like the subversion of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, the United States is also witnessing the culmination of decades of misguided monetary policy — each boom-bust cycle being larger and more destructive than the last, because the remedy prescribed for each bust is an even bigger boom. Now they’re big enough that entire national GDPs are wiped out by them; approaching the point where the most wealthy nations in the world don’t have enough real capital to underpin the oversupply of credit.

    I agree that it will be a transition, rather than a revolution, as it has been already for some time (and just as it was for Rome too). However, it’s the vector of the change the concerns me: increasingly lowered standards of living and diminished personal freedoms due to increasingly draconian quick fixes atop quick fixes — which are themselves the actual causes of the problems to begin with.

    Hence my reference to “Bart the Mother“:

    Skinner: Well, I was wrong. The lizards are a godsend.
    Lisa: But isn’t that a bit short-sighted? What happens when we’re overrun by lizards?
    Skinner: No problem. We simply release wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes. They’ll wipe out the lizards.
    Lisa: But aren’t the snakes even worse?
    Skinner: Yes, but we’re prepared for that. We’ve lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.
    Lisa: But then we’re stuck with gorillas!
    Skinner: No, that’s the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.

  21. Civilization has never collapsed on a global scale. When the (western) Roman empire ceased to be (somewhere around 476 CE ) – that was not the end of civilization. People continued to live in cities. The closest thing people have experienced to an ‘end of civilization’ might possibly be the take over of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The Khmer’s actually emptied the major cities and forced all citizens to forage in the country. All “ends of civilization” have thus far been local. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ‘local’ and temporary ends of civilization. Nuclear winter (on a global scale) would end civilization – though not necessarily forever.

  22. I have my own theory about why this is happening. I believe that we’re experiencing the social and economic shocks of a system where the nation’s most affluent and influential and numerous population (as an aggregate group) is exiting the marketplace. The baby boomers are leaving the stage. They are a greedy group (like any but they just happen to be more numerous than the generation preceding it and the one following it so the effects are multiplied) that will loot the store on their way out to a posh last couple of decades of life.

    The Gen X will always be in that shadow but the Y and beyond will have a shot at rebuilding the world according to some new modern values. The next economy will incorporate more advancements in medicines as ethical questions about cures are left behind in favor of results. For good or for bad, change is coming, as always. But for now, if we use the analogy of generations proceeding through life as a piece of food through a snake, the Boomers have just arrived in the rectum and that snake is about to take a huge dump. Expect consequences.

  23. I think if you look around the world though, and find the most backward-ass place (let’s pick Darfur for example) it’s hard to imagine we could collapse any lower than that. Not that that’s encouraging but it sets establishes a sort of bottom endpoint that is at least a notch or two above Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog, right?

    I imagine the people of Darfur wish it were as civilized as Bartertown.

    “Where there was desert, now there’s a town. Where there was robbery, there’s trade. Where there was despair, now there’s hope. Civilization.”

    …not to mention the methane powered electricity generators and vehicles.

  24. #18 – A good addition to this is Arnold J Toynbee. You can find a nice wikipedia trail starting from “civilisation collapse”, but to quickly, badly, mis-quote him (based on my understanding so far – I really need to read a book of his!):

    “Inside every civilisation there is a creative majority. This civilisation begins to die when the creative majority gets sidetracked or loses touch.

    There is then a new creative minority, which is aware of the coming collapse, and begins to sow the seeds for a new society. This group goes on to inspire and form the basis for the new culture that replaces the old one.”

    So creativity plays a huge part in the formation and destruction of cultures. I can therefore say when shit happens – be creative. But also, these are emotional issues and when you hear that life as you know it may change or even fall apart, you can easily have a negative reaction. Of course it’s much more complicated than that and they say it’s like addiction counselling – you go through lots of stages before you can break away from what even a couple of years ago might still have been a strong reality for most people. Here are the 3 main views I see, and I go for the middle one:

    1) I alone will make it, everyone else is expendable.
    2) We can try and get most of us to make it, it will be hard and we will make mistakes etc. but we can do it.
    3) No-one will make it so let’s just party like it’s 1999/What recession? We’re fine.

    As far as I know, civilisation collapse has been happening here and there all through these past 20+ years of continued economic growth and resource destruction, and collapse as well as re-growth is happening all the time, just that it happens in different degrees from country to country, and place to place within that. There are so many examples of fallen states or economies and stories of what people did then. Naomi Klein’s “The Take” is a good film on what happened in Argentina, should be available to watch online (google video?), and lots of studies on other countries.

    The US I think is disadvantaged due to the suburb/driving culture meaning everything is miles away from you, and that most people can’t even cook some vegetables together in a pot, let alone grow them, but around the world people are more in touch with old world skills, yet generally have less resources so they have a very different set of problems.

    The set of quotes you posted point back to one simple thing: get back to growing food. This is not only simple and pleasant, friendly, fun and tasty, it can save your life. Another is – don’t just base everything on consumer items that you’ve accrued. Another is community – working on improving your existing ties with other people. In Spain, people get most of their vegetables from their grandparents, who are also the principal nannies for their children. Community has very real value to it. Creative skills – from conflict resolution to making safe drinking water are much more useful than a room full of canned food and an ak47, and skills are much harder to steal from someone.

    And not to mention there’s a whole IT landscape starting to grow, with the emergence of open source hardware, into things like appropedia (http://www.appropedia.org/), fablabs and hexayurts. In a way, all the years I knew about oil depletion, climate change and all the other modern threats and was freaked out, and no-one believed me or the few others who were trying to get to grips with it all, were very very useful. We’ve gained so much from this preparation time, that I hope we can feed back to the wider population now that climate and financial problems are very real and in our faces each day. These are all ways we can get our old skills back, mixed with some new ones we got along the way.

  25. Thanks for the musical memories from long ago (Patton 1967, McClaran ~1970, Gillmore ~1972) and far away (Vermont). Good times on very little money, last performance I heard was Close Enough.

  26. Don’t have to look so far as Rome. If you’re in America, the Maya is much closer both in time and distance.

    All this talk of doom reminds me of 1999. Don’t anyone remember that? Is every one here less than 20 years old?

  27. #26 posted by NOEN

    That really about sums up my observations of many of the angry white men I’m surrounded by. Its like a whole culture of narcissists. They’ll talk about slaughtering whole groups of people for minor affronts to their perceived superiority, meanwhile, they cheer on their culture’s slaughter of others, with no sense of irony. They obsess about how anyone might make a slight social or economic advancement at perceived (real or not) costs to themselves except those they view like themselves (in most cases, super rich white men). Also, there is always discussion about the decline of America, the decline of Western Civilizations, the decline of the White Race, which seems to have been going on for over three centuries. These overblown reactions to harsh economic times (brought about by the same elites the angry white men so admired) seem more akin to a narcissistic hissy fit then a real observation of the possible future.

  28. The Gen X will always be in that shadow but the Y and beyond will have a shot at rebuilding the world according to some new modern values.

    We should have listened to Gen X and taken their lead, rather than rejecting their pragmatic realism as being “slackers”. They long since accepted that lowered standard of living and budgeting flexible work and personal life, rather than the “I can have it all if I put my nose to the grindstone” yuppies that preceded them. They also recognized early on to be cynical of large organizations of all types: governments, megacorporations, religion, etc. and to instead trust (but verify) interpersonal relationships at an individual level (i.e. your “chosen family”).

    Gen Y is an “echo-boom” — making the same mistakes as the baby-boomers, but in the fashion of a cargo cult.

  29. Don’t have to look so far as Rome. If you’re in America, the Maya is much closer both in time and distance.

    Didn’t the Mayans run out of water? That constitutes a natural disaster, AFAIK.

    What I find more apt about the Roman analogy is that they did it to themselves through the expanding warfare-welfare state.

  30. “What I find more apt about the Roman analogy is that they did it to themselves through the expanding warfare-welfare state.”

    That’s a real poor interpretation on how the Roman Empire passed away. There was no welfare in the Roman Empire. You’re just attaching a modern 20th century concept that you don’t like to them. Their decline was long, complex and a mixture of natural disasters and cultural/social decisions.

    As for the Mayans, no one knows why they collapsed, and the drought theory is just one of many.

  31. Civilization has never collapsed on a global scale. When the (western) Roman empire ceased to be (somewhere around 476 CE ) – that was not the end of civilization. People continued to live in cities.

    Certainly an enormous setback for civilization. People stopped maintaining the aqueducts, trade slowed to a trickle or stopped completely, people reverted to a miserable and laborious subsistence living, while organized religion filled people’s heads with nonsense under penalty of pain.

    Towards the end of the Roman Empire, they were utilizing steam engines for crying out loud! (Only they hadn’t figured out to apply it to industry such as looming of cloth because slave labor was so cheap and institutionalized.) They were also on their way to mechanical computing over a millennia before Charles Babbage and the analytical engine.

  32. That’s a real poor interpretation on how the Roman Empire passed away. There was no welfare in the Roman Empire. You’re just attaching a modern 20th century concept that you don’t like to them.

    What were bread and circuses then?

  33. Do I worry that this is a major setback for civilization?

    Yes.

    Do I know that it’s normal to worry, and that people have worried many times before including through every major economic slowdown?

    Also yes.

  34. Although this is a little over the top, this is a geekout topic for me.

    I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic fiction; Earth Abides, Canticle for Leibowitz, The Stand, Cat’s Cradle, etc. I have plans, and I am prepared with marketable, useful skills for the enclave lucky enough to find me.

    As a kid, I learned how to make beer & (really nasty, possibly toxic) whiskey. I learned how to grow food in a garden, raise chickens, hunt & fish, fix simple machines and build with carpentry. I even learned how to cut down, top, and prep a tree for building purposes. Now I have the trump….I know how to find, grow, and isolate the fungus that make penicillin. I also know how to extract the penicillin.
    The one man that knows how to make antibiotics will do quite well for himself, I think.

    SO BRING IT ON, BABY!

  35. Zuzu: Based on that Wikipedia entry, I’d say “bread and circuses” were the Roman equivalent of Bush’s tax rebate checks.

  36. There is really no need to worry

    1: Obama will right all wrongs

    2: the instant gratification, impatient generation will channel surf its way thru all hardships.

    3: the world will turn into a dystopian “Idiocracy”

  37. @#40 posted by ZUZU

    Bread and circuses were exactly what the article said they were, a thinly veiled attempt to distract the citizens of the larger cities of Rome from the larger problems of the Empire, like the fact that many Romans were not citizens, but in fact slaves and non-entities, because they could not hold land. There is no welfare, as in government programs of wealth and material redistribution, only a tradition of Roman elites showing off their status and wealth, that goes back to the creation of Rome, blown way out of proportion.

  38. Do I know that it’s normal to worry, and that people have worried many times before including through every major economic slowdown? Also yes.

    Joe: You ever cheat on a woman? Something, stand her up, step out on her? Ever do that?
    Jimmy: Yeah.
    Joe: Did you have an excuse?
    Jimmy: Yeah.
    Joe: What if she didn’t ask? Was your alibi a waste of time?

  39. Early in the process, a politician named Clodius ran for the office of tribune on a “free wheat for the masses” platform and won. Candidates for office began spending huge sums to win public favor and then plundered the population afterwards to pay their campaign debts. When Julius Caesar came to power in 48 B.C., he found 320,000 persons on government grain relief.

  40. D’ya want to know why ‘Rome’ fell?

    1. Plague ( the 640s CE were a helluva time )

    2. Tribal identity -> transforming into embryonic
    European kingdoms

    3. No Roman emperor after Justinian who could
    qualify as ‘great’

    4. The rise of Islam in the 8th century CE

    All of this is discussed in great detail in
    “Justinian’s Flea”
    ( http://www.amazon.com/Justinians-Flea-Plague-Empire-Europe/dp/1400103851 )

    Best book I’ve read this year so far.

  41. “When Julius Caesar came to power in 48 B.C., he found 320,000 persons on government grain relief.”

    This actually doesn’t help your argument at all. Julius Ceasar came to power at the end of the Roman Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire, which lasted for several hundred years afterwords. While I’ll concede that grain distribution did occur, you make no real correlation to the decline of the Roman civilization and grain redistribution.

  42. oh good lord… really?

    I think we must just be bored, or hyped up on science fiction books and hollywood disaster motives. I’m sorry. Our lives are not going to be this interesting.

    And at any rate, if the “end comes”, civil engineers are still going to be here along with the rest of us, and I imagine they’re going to come in damn handy.

    And what’s up with rome? Come on. Look at the USSR, UK… look at how empires have collapsed *since* the renaissance. It’s not that dramatic. I don’t think anything serious is going to happen, but even if it did there would not be people wearing animal skins involved.

  43. You weren’t here when I said it before, so I’ll say it again:

    Them that wrote the system know how to game the system, and it is not in the interest of the ruling class for the system to collapse. After all, if that happened they might not end up on top. Since they are already up there, their *only* goal is to maintain the status quo.

    Recession is a fiction to scare and subdue the proles, so they don’t ‘sack’ (to pick the Roman analogy) the Walton family or Halliburton, and take their pay-cuts quietly.

    Booms and busts are both paper games committed on Wall Street by a few thousand pathological gamblers, while millions pay the price.

    When they threaten us with Armageddon, (they made sure we felt this way) they buy our grateful compliance to whatever injustices they decide to inflict.

    The only thing to do is avoid the banker’s games as much as possible, and know that real people can work together for mutual good.

  44. Zuzu
    “Didn’t the Mayans run out of water? That constitutes a natural disaster”

    The Mayans were a Hydraulic empire and that is thought to be one factor contributing to their fall. We are a Hydrocarbon Empire.

    One of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire is that the wealthy elites were doing to their population what they are doing to us today and what they always do. The rich feed on the lower classes. It never seems to occur to them that if they destroy the base of the pyramid, those at the top will fall also.

    Julius Caesar had something of a bad rap. Like today, the wealthy and powerful were looting the state. History often get written by the victors and that wasn’t him.

    The idea that Roman bread and circuses is in anyway comparable to the welfare state only serves to highlight Zuzu’s economic creationism.

  45. No, it’s not The End Of The world As We Know It. Just another great moment in the history of Stupid. T.E.O.T.W.A.W.N.I. is scheduled for the end of the Mayan Calendar, around midwinter 2012.
    But seriously, There are still a few luxuries America can happily do without. Like:

    Imperial ambition. If the USA would stop believing in itself as the de facto World Government and being the class bully of the international community, it could close down some of the roughly a thousand bases it maintains around the globe and painlessly cut its military expenses, which are now greater than those of the rest of the world combined, by a half or more.

    The War on “Drugs”. Why not facilitate minding one’s own business instead? Enforcing laws and prosecuting and detaining those who break them cost a lot of public money. Having laws prohibiting adjusting one’s own body chemistry is a bit frivolous in times like these. You could release from prison all those who got there without hurting anybody other than themselves.

    I won’t hold my breath till it happens, though.

  46. Also, the is worth pointing out:

    “The Leges Clodiae included setting up a regular dole of free grain, which used to be distributed monthly at variously and heavily discounted prices, but was now to be given away at no charge, thereby increasing Clodius’ political status.” source

    Apparently the tradition existed before Clodius came to power, all he did was change the nature of the program.

    Actually, I’d like the source of that info. I’m curious, because the population of Rome during the Late Republic was never completely decided on, and would put those numbers in perspective.

  47. My husband and I are in a strange Gen X category, having older parents who were Depression-era children. We have recently been contemplating the (formerly) ridiculous stockpile of food that my father-in-law kept in his basement. Always had a couple of months of dry goods on hand, just in case.

    I doubt he ever lost that very real fear of a time when there wasn’t enough to go around. My own mother ate orange peels as a child, so as not to waste anything as precious as a citrus fruit.

    Maybe it’s time for stockpiling again. What’s the shelf-life of an organic soy latte?

  48. Regarding the Mayans: it was my understanding that they depleted the resources of the surrounding rainforests to fuel the fires they needed to construct their temples and cities. It’s hard to cart raw materials across vast distances without the benefit of the wheel.

    At least, that was the explanation that the tour guides in Guatemala told me.

  49. You were a moron then, and apparently things haven’t changed. This kind of talk is sophomoric and self-indulgent.

  50. For some reason I love me an armageddon scenario, (the music? Not so much, but thanks for sharing). I think it is partly because of the death thing (if everyone dies, one’s own demise won’t be so bad), but it is also a wish for change, for the world to be a better place. From the viewpoint of a hut in Darfur, pretty much any system is gonna look better than the present one (albeit there is the tricky period of “no foreign aid”); from the point of view of a large house in Notting Hill, the world looks pretty good as it is thanks very much.
    It is interesting that mostly we look to history for an answer when in fact it is possible, in this inter-connected world, this globalised economy, that history doesn’t have one – we’re in a new place, with new rules. Who is to say that the house of cards won’t come down in a week or two, tomorrow, next year? There are no rules to say that civilisation must fail slowly. Take just one small bit of the jigsaw, AIG – too big to fail, it would apparently take much of Western Europe’s banking system down with it according to the NYT. That is one company but there are dozens of them out there – the UK, where I live, has several banks that are likely in similar straits only no one is saying exactly how much toxic debt they hold because either (a) no one knows; or (b) the prospect is too alarming.
    BTW – Klenow @ 45 – you want to come live with me? I like your enthusiasm, your humour and your forward-looking, can-do attitude!

  51. oh holy poo poo.

    let’s add some zombies and I say we’re in business, everybody grab your machetes!

  52. People long for an Armageddon because they want some outside force to motivate them to do what they really want to do with their lives. Because they think that if they get to do what they really want to do with their lives, they’ll be happy. Which is true.

  53. “When you think of disasters, perhaps some secret part of you thrills at the idea of something happening, something interrupting the tedious routines that comprise existence for so many of us. You might not be ready to own up to actually desiring one, but a disaster would at least offer a chance to escape your cage and explore the unknown for a little while. What anguish, to live in longing for a reprieve from your own life, never knowing when or if it might come!

    Or perhaps you cringe at the word, thinking of all the senseless tragedy and loss of life that real disasters entail. In that case, it may have already occurred to you that we are in the midst of the most terrible slow-motion disaster in history, as the natural environment is utterly laid to waste and the diversity of human experience is steamrolled into the monoculture of capitalism. In such a disaster, you can’t cook out of the books your ancestors developed for more peaceful times.”

    – Recipes for Disaster: An Anarchist Cookbook

  54. Well, I daresay, when everything falls apart you better *HOPE* there are civil engineers around. They’re probably going to be doubly as useful, after all
    *They’re who bring clean water*

    Let’s face it. A lovely standard for “when things fall apart” and where people will stand is what skills are absolutely necessary for the building and upkeep of society.

    If we don’t want to live short, brutish lives, some things need to be secured: health, food production, and physical security. How’s your average investment banker going to help us with that?

  55. re #71
    “If we don’t want to live short, brutish lives, some things need to be secured: health, food production, and physical security. How’s your average investment banker going to help us with that?”

    for all you know, the investment banker spent his summers on his aunt’s farm when he was growing up. he could know all about raising chickens. ;-)

    The apocalypse isn’t going to happen. Poorly managed natural disasters like katrina and the australian wildfires are probably as close as we’re going to get. And with *those*, people seem to survive those based mostly on a mix of luck, ingenuity, and common sense… which span all sorts of career choices and political alignments.

  56. civilization is based on constant growth within a finite space. Don’t kid yourself, it most certainly will crash. Maybe not tomorrow, or in the next 5-10 years, but it absolutely will crash. The quality of life during and after this crash depends greatly on people’s willingness (now, and especially in the next 5-10 years) to face the facts. civilization is inherently unsustainable.

  57. I don’t doubt that this could be the end of the American Empire. I’ve been expecting a collapse for years. But that doesn’t mean that people will be shooting each other in the streets over a can of peaches either.

    Still, it would be folly for anyone to proceed about their daily life without being CERTAIN that they can live for a month or two on the food in their pantry, stored or hand pump well water, shotgun, shortwave radio, etc. I know a great many people only have a couple of days worth of food in their homes, some things have already been running short in my local super market… things that never used to.

  58. dan… thank you for posting this. i went to the country school with annie and my mother was charlotte gafford who i believe that you may have known through the times argus.
    i have been trying to find a copy or tape of road apple for a couple of years… like hen’s teeth if you know what i mean. such a great album i would love to turn some friends on to your music.

    fondly…mary… or as maggie called me…gafford

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