In a follow up to episode 5 ("Catabolic Collapse"), Kory and Kellan take a deeper look at the concept, specifically by analzying the paper written by John Michael Greer titled "How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse".
"How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse" (PDF)
If you would like to listen to the rest of our bonus episodes, consider joining us on Patreon.
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/collapsepod)
In a follow up to episode 5 ("Catabolic Collapse"), Kory and Kellan take a deeper look at the concept, specifically by analzying the paper written by John Michael Greer titled "How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse".
"How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse" (PDF)
If you would like to listen to the rest of our bonus episodes, consider joining us on Patreon.
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/collapsepod)
Episode 36 – A Deeper Look at Catabolic Collapse
Kory: [00:00:00] So Kellan we've talked about in the past, how everything that we talk about in this podcast all ties together pretty well. But I think that sometimes we touch on so many different topics and we can kind of tend to forget how interconnected everything is. I know that like on my part, as a host of the podcast, I forget that it was 30 episodes ago that we last talked about catabolic collapse. And even then we touched on it pretty lightly.
So for listeners of the podcast who are listening from episode one up until now, it's most likely that if this was the first time they'd heard about catabolic collapse, that at this point they've already forgotten what it is. So in this episode, Kellan and I decided that we want to touch back on catabolic collapse and dive a little bit deeper into what the theory of catabolic collapse is and how it's relevant to everything that we've been talking about up to this point.
Kellan: [00:01:01] Ya know, I feel like the last handful of months as you've introduced me to collapse and you've been teaching me all this - I've done some research on some of these topics - it really has been a paradigm shift for me. It's been pretty life-changing. I see things differently. I think about things differently. My expectations for the future have changed. And I feel really fortunate because I can use this knowledge to better prepare myself and my family and to be more active in trying to do my part and mitigate the difficulties that we see ahead.
And even with all that said, as impactful as this has been, and obviously being a part of this podcast I'm much more involved than somebody who's just listening to it, but I went back and listened to that initial episode on catabolic collapse and I feel like I learned so much, so much that I had forgotten. I feel like one of the most consistent things we've said. Over and over again, almost every single episode is, "Hey, we've only scratched the surface of this topic, we're going to be coming back and talking about this again in more detail and providing additional perspective and helping anyone who's listening, learn it at a much deeper level."
And although there are still a lot of topics that we haven't even gotten to yet, it makes sense that those fundamental topics, those first several episodes include things that we need to revisit, and that we need to take a much deeper dive on.
Kory: [00:02:17] Yeah, well said I think this is something that we're going to continue to come back to. And a lot of the other things that we talked about in those first eight episodes we'll touch back on and, and rehash, because this is truly the foundation of what collapse is and why it's inevitable. When I was first learning about collapse, I kept coming back to this thought of like, okay, I'm learning all this stuff. We're talking about microplastics and soil, and we're talking about diseases and political turmoil, but, but what in all of this makes it inevitable. Like there was always this thought of like, well, maybe, maybe we can get out of it, maybe these things aren't going to 100% lead to collapse. And it seems like with a lot of these individual problems, there might be some fixes or there might be some things that we can do.
But when I grasped catabolic collapse, that was when it, to me, it was like, okay, I get it. This is going to happen. And all these other things that we talked about are all major contributing factors to why, but they're not each individually the reason why.
So if it's been a while, since you've listened to episode five, if you feel like you're a little shaky on it, I would recommend going back and listening to that episode again. And if you're just joining us on the podcast or you never listened to the first several episodes, I would recommend going back and listening to at least the first eight episodes, and then coming back to listen to this one.
So when we talk about catabolic collapse, we're primarily talking about a theory that was put together in a paper by John Michael Greer, who we had in episode 21, as a guest. There are a lot of different theories of collapse, and most of them are pretty similar. Catabolic collapse is similar to the theories of collapse from Joseph Tainter or Jared diamond. And we'll talk about the differences of some of those in this episode, but if you want to follow along, I recommend reading the paper by John Michael Greer and just a heads up it is pretty academic, like there's a lot of like equations used and it can be kind of tough to follow. Every time I read it, I have to sit there and like, it takes me an hour to read those 14 pages, right? So we're going to break it down as simple as we can in this one to help make it make sense. And the title of the paper is " How civilizations fall: a theory of catabolic collapse."
Kellan: [00:04:16] And before we really dive into that, I'm sure we will be reviewing the definition of catabolic collapse and what that really means, but I've got to admit something kind of embarrassing, which is that the first several times you said anything to me about catabolic collapse, you know, catabolic isn't a common word, at least in my vocabulary. And maybe I just am hard of hearing or maybe it was the way that you said it, but for a while I thought you were saying cannibolic and I was thinking it meant something like cannibalistic, this whole idea, you know, of a species that eats its own kind. And even as he started to explain it to me, It kind of made sense this whole idea that like we're consuming ourselves into oblivion. And so I think that's always going to stick with me and it'll be interesting as we dive into it, you know, if that kind of silly miscommunication actually provide some insight or holds true with what the real definition is.
Kory: [00:05:06] I think we're just going to have to change the name. I think from here on out, it should be known as cannibolic collapse. We'll come up with our own paper and theory and write it. But it's interesting that you say that because yeah, where cannibal would be eating your own kind. Catabolic is just eating yourself, basically breaking down yourself. So it's pretty much the same thing and so it makes sense why you would think of it that way. And so catabolism how we normally hear it maybe it's not actually eating yourself, but it's in biology terms, it's when complex molecules break down into simpler ones. And so it is exactly what we're talking about on this podcast, which is defining collapse as a complex system, breaking down into a simpler one.
So before we jump into the paper, I think we should solidify a principle that we've talked about several times on the podcast, and that is that we cannot grow infinitely on a finite planet. I think we all get that, we all understand what that means.
So I was watching this YouTube video by a professor of physics by the name of Tom Murphy. And he talks about some really interesting numbers around the amount of energy that we use, and how much energy we would use if we continue to grow at the rate that we have. So if we keep expanding exponentially, the way we have been, then 336 years from now, we would need to use every bit of solar energy that hits all of the continents on earth. So basically if we had 100% efficient solar panels and they covered every square inch of every bit of land on earth, that's how much energy we would use in our society's. Getting a little bit crazier than that 1400 years from now we would have to harness all of the energy of the sun. So not just the energy from the sun that hits the earth, but all of the energy output of the sun would have to be harnessed 100% efficiently. That's how much energy we would use. And to get totally nuts, 2,500 years from now, we would have to harness all of the energy coming from all of the stars in the Milky way galaxy. And so you think, yeah, like 1400 years from now, all the energy of the sun, that's an amazingly long way away. But I mean, if you look back 1400 years, we're on this side of Jesus already, right? Like we're already in the AD years. And so what this goes to show for me is that at some point along that line, it is obviously completely unrealistic and unsustainable. Not only is there no way to harness all of the power of all the stars in the galaxy, there's not a way to harness all the energy of just our sun nor is there any way to create 100% efficient solar panels that will cover every square inch of the continents. So even just 300 years out from now, we're looking at something completely unrealistic and frankly impossible.
Kellan: [00:07:36] Yeah. And if you would've told me that early on. I might've thought like, Oh, wow, crazy. While at the same time, thinking to myself, but at the rate that we're advancing technologically, we'll figure it out. However, we've now done a few of these episodes on technology and can technology save us. Looking at the most advanced technology that we have currently, and also the rate at which we are advancing technologically, and then all of that we've discussed just how unrealistic and far-fetched it is.
You know, even if the technology was there, the cost and the resources and the space and deploying all of that, it's something we just can't do. And when you look at the numbers, at least the numbers that we've discussed in the past, even if we could do all of that, unfortunately we're probably too late to stop or even more specifically to reverse all the other things that are coming our way.
Kory: [00:08:24] Yeah. And it's really interesting that you say that because professor Murphy in that video, which we'll link to in the description, put into words something that I had been thinking and feeling that I couldn't really express and he basically said we are basically like a child that's asking their parents for a pony. And the parents say, well, a pony is a ton of work and responsibility. And so let's start you out with a gerbil and see how you handle the gerbil, how you take care of that. And once you prove that you've taken care of the gerbil we'll get you a kitten. And now you've got to change the litter box and care for that kitten, so it gets a little more complicated. After that we'll get you a puppy. Now you gotta take it on walks. You got to clean up after it. You have to care for it. If you do good with the puppy, we will buy you a goat. Now we're talking a lot more maintenance, you've almost got yourself a little farm, right? And then if you can take care of that goat, finally, we will buy you the pony.
And what he said was we have shown that we can't take care of the gerbil. Like we've been given this amazingly precious resource of fossil fuels and we've taken it and we've just abused the crap out of it. We've screwed up our biodiversity. We screwed up the atmosphere, we've caused climate change. We've dumped plastics into our oceans to a degree that it's affecting our health. We've destroyed our soils. We've proved that we cannot handle the gerbil so what makes us think that we could ever possibly handle the responsibility of the pony, which in this case would be having the ability to harness enough energy to continue at this rate for another 300, 1,000, 2,000 years. If we've done the damage that we've done up to this point with fossil fuels to our environment, how much more havoc would we reek on the planet given unlimited energy resources.
And so I thought that was really cool. Basically, just explaining that it doesn't matter if we find the technologies and harness the technologies to give us that infinite energy, we've done enough to the planet otherwise just screw ourselves up to a degree that in the case of what we're talking about, we're going to collapse.
Kellan: [00:10:09] Well, Hey, if you can just explain the rest of this topic in terms of gerbils and ponies, I'll be right there with you. But really some of these analogies and metaphors do help a lot. And it takes me back to the first time we talked about catabolic collapse. You gave a little story, a little imaginary story, and you even made me to star of that story.
Kory: [00:10:26] Or the villain.
Kellan: [00:10:27] Yeah. If you remember, you said, Hey Kellan, imagine you invent this amazing gadget. You become filthy rich. You've got a big house with maids and a Butler and nanny for your kids, gardeners and chefs. But your profits start to shrink on that product that you're making so much money on because the cost of material goes up and up. And as it does, and your profits keep shrinking, you've got to decide what to cut out just to maintain all that you have. And as you're running out of money and you have limited resources, do you use that to fix the hole in the roof? Do you use it to maintain the yard? Do you use it to fix the paint that's chipping? Do you keep any of those people employed that allow you to maintain this lavish lifestyle? and for me, it was a fantastic illustration of this whole principle of catabolic collapse.
And even as I read through John Michael Greer's paper, I kept thinking of something kind of silly. My sister at one point kind of became obsessed with the old classic show I love Lucy. And whether you've actually ever watched, I love Lucy or not it's likely that you've at least seen a really famous clip where the main character, Lucy and her friend get a job at a chocolate factory. And these chocolates come by on a conveyor belt and they're supposed to package them. And it's really comical. It's really well done the way they portray it because more and more chocolates just keep coming. And they're in a panic and they're trying to shove chocolates into their pockets and even into their mouths and trying to find any way to keep up with all the chocolates that just keep coming.
And then all these episodes that we've done talking about every aspect of collapse it makes me think, you know, each one of those chocolates is kind of another problem that comes our way. And as you get less and less resources, and yet you're trying to deal with these ever increasing problems. There's no way to keep up with it. So anyways, I really appreciate those more simplified ways of thinking about it, but I know we're going to dig deeper into John Michael Greer's more academic approach here.
Kory: [00:12:19] I do love that episode of, I love Lucy. It's like the one that I can really remember. And I think that's a really great example of what we're talking about. and so yeah to put it simply before we kind of dive into the minutia of this, catabolic collapse is when a society or a system becomes so complex that it basically can't keep up with itself any longer. And so to really explain what that means now, we're going to dive into this paper. We're going to break it down a little bit.
And he starts by explaining there are four main elements to assist them when considering catabolic collapse. So the first is resources, and I'm just going to read his definition of each one from the paper. So resources are naturally occurring factors in the environment, which can be exploited by a particular society, but have not yet been extracted and incorporated into the societies flows of energy and material. Resources include material resources, such as iron ore not yet mind and naturally occurring soil fertility that has not yet been exhausted by the societies agricultural methods, human resources, such as people not yet included in the workforce and information resources, such as scientific discoveries, which can be made by society's methods of research, but have not yet been made.
So when he's talking about resources, it's pretty much anything that's untapped that we have access to what have not yet accessed that can be used in order to create capital. So capital is the next one. Capital consists of all factors from whatever source that have been incorporated into the society's flows of energy and material but are capable of further use. Capital includes physical capital, such as food, fields, tools, and buildings, human capital, such as laborers and scientists, social capital, such as social hierarchies and economic systems and information capital such as technical knowledge.
Kellan: [00:13:51] So just to make sure I understand, a resource would be, you know, iron ore, but when I do anything with that, you know, I make it into steel, then it becomes capital and especially if I've used that to make some sort of a tool that is a form of capital. Whereas resources, according to him, or just the raw material or the people or the information or whatever that hasn't really been molded or used yet.
Kory: [00:14:14] Yeah, exactly. And if you remember in episode six, when we talked about our financial system, we talked about the different types of wealth. So the primary form of wealth is resources. It's exactly those raw materials that you're talking about. The secondary form of wealth is once you've made those raw materials into a good, basically a physical asset. And he talks about how currency, for example, is a type of capital, but really it's just used to exchange capital. Money in and of itself doesn't really have any worth. Right. And we also talked about that in episode six, when we said that it's a tertiary form of wealth. And capital, isn't just physical things. You know, he mentions things like information, inventions, knowledge, people.
So the third one is actually one that we did not talk about at all in our catabolic collapse episode. And that is waste. Waste consists of all factors that have been incorporated into the society's flows of energy and material and exploited to the point that they are incapable of further use. So basically what he's saying is waste is capital that is no longer useful. Materials used are converted into pollutants, tools and laborers at the end of their useful lives and information garbled or lost all become waste.
And the last is production. So that's the process by which existing capital and resources are combined to create new capital and waste. The quality and quantity of new capital created by production are functions of the resources and existing capital used in production.
He says in any human society, resources and capital enter the production process and new capital and waste leave it.
So basically waste can come from the production process. But waste also happens to all capital outside of production. So uneaten food suffers spoilage and unemployed laborers still grow old and die.
Kellan: [00:15:54] Okay. So again, in simpler terms, a resource is basically something out there that we could exploit but we just haven't tapped into yet. Capital is when we actually have tapped into it, we're using it. Waste is when we've used it and now we can't use it anymore and waste is a natural result of the creation of capital. Production, like you mentioned, is when any type of capital kind of goes in as an input and as an output you get more capital and you get waste.
So going back to the example before, in the earth we got this ore, this iron ore. That's the resource. Turn it into steel, that's capital. Go through a production process to make that steel into a tool. You're changing it from one form of capital to another form of capital. There's waste during that process, like the pollutants in the air, or the chemicals that burn off or the human labor that you've now spent. And then at some point that tool reaches the end of its life and it alone becomes waste. Am I understanding this correctly?
Kory: [00:16:50] Yeah, that was really well said and is a great, really simple example. And obviously when you multiply what you just said by every resource and every piece of capital and all the waste and all the production that goes into it in our complex society, you know, it's what you just said times a trillion, right? It's this insane machine that we have built up full of all these moving parts.
So this is where he starts to get into some of the equations. And while I'm not going to use all the letters that he does in equal signs, I'm just going to explain them out in paragraph form. So he says that a steady state is when the amount of capital produced equals the maintenance cost of the capital.
So what the maintenance cost of capital is, is the amount of waste from spent capital plus the amount of waste in the production of replacing that spent capital. So, as an example, we'll use building a road. When you build a new road, you're not only replacing that existing capital that's now waste. So the road that's full of potholes, for example, but also the existing capital used in building the road. So Kellan you just went through an example of that with iron ore, but in this case, we could be talking about gasoline for the machines that are going to be used, the wear and tear on the machines themselves, the few cones that you're going to lose directing traffic because the cars run into them, the workers labor. We're even talking about like the administrative staff in an office building 20 miles away, the gasoline that they had to use to get themselves to and from work every day and the wear and tear on their vehicles.
So there's a whole lot of waste that goes into replacing that road beyond just the materials for the road itself. So the maintenance cost of capital is all of the new capital that we have to produce just to maintain our existing capital. In this case, to stay at the exact same number of roads.
So a steady state then would basically be able to say that the amount of capital that we're producing is exactly the same as the amount of capital that we're wasting. Now we know that in our societies, we are not in a steady state. We're not staying flat. The number of roads, for example, has increased exponentially over time as have all the other types of capital that we have. And so for that to be possible, production of capital has to be much higher than the maintenance cost of the capital that already exists.
Kellan: [00:19:04] Yeah. It's a fascinating concept. I liked your example of roads. A stable state just means we don't build a single new road and yet we still need to continually have more and more capital because we have to maintain all those roads. So that term maintenance cost of capital essentially just means all the production that has to happen in order to replace all the waste. Ya know, it kinda makes me think of that example from before of living in a big fancy house and having all those expenses. And even for myself, you know, I'm in a home. I've got years until I will have paid off my mortgage. And sometimes I think if I can just get my mortgage paid off, that'll be a dream because then my expenses are at zero. Like I'm done, I've paid for it. And sometimes I forget that I would have to pay to fix everything that keeps breaking, have to pay for the utilities, just to keep it running. You know, there's so many costs just to keep anything that we have, I guess, in this case, any form of capital going, just to maintain it.
Kory: [00:20:00] Yeah, exactly. And the more capital that you have, so the bigger your household was, the more stuff you had, the more complex it was, the more capital you're going to have to replace. The more money you're going to have to put into its upkeep.
so the world over the last 300 years or so has gone through this process of just rapid expansion. You know, you think of, for example, the Western expansion of the United States, and there was just seemingly unlimited resources, cheap, available , . Land, all of these things that just allowed for an explosion of growth. And it's a positive feedback loop. As you create more capital that capital can then be used to create even more capital. As we come up with more and more tools and technologies that make us more efficient it allows us to create more capital, to acquire more land, to have more people. And we took full advantage of that for sure.
So when we're creating more capital than is required for the maintenance cost of capital we have this growth and that growth is called the anabolic cycle. And there are really two main things that can slow or reverse that anabolic cycle, which would make it really difficult to have levels of production high enough that would allow us to meet the maintenance costs of capital.
The first is a limit on resources. And the second is when there's so much waste from all the capital that new capital cannot be created to replace it. And we'll talk about each of those. So first when it comes to resources, Each different resource has a replenishment rate. So that's the rate at which new stocks of that resource become available to a society. And that rates determined by three different factors. So there's natural production of that resource. There's new discovery of existing deposits of that resource. And there's the development of alternative resources capable of filling the same role in production. So to use an example of those three, the replenishment rate of oil would be the rate at which it's produced naturally, so over millions of years. New discovery of existing deposits would be new oil Wells being dug, finding undiscovered oil. And then lastly, the alternative resources would be the creation or the discovery of oil substitutes.
And what's really interesting is that in almost every single scenario with every single resource, those last two options are both subject to decreasing marginal returns. Meaning that eventually you run out of finding new deposits because resources are finite. So eventually you find that you're running out and also the discovery of substitutes also decreases until it becomes efficient. We only come up with so many technologies. We've talked about before how we have declining marginal returns on technological advancements. So this is where that comes back into play. So basically what that means is that in the end, Eventually the replenishment rate of any resource is in line with the natural production rate of that resource.
So, while for awhile we were finding lots of new oil, that started to decrease. We're not finding much new oil anymore. You know, we've tried coming up with substitutes for oil. We've found some, there might be some more to come, but there's marginal returns on that as well. So eventually when it comes to oil, we are just simply reliant on waiting for nature to create more of it for us, which in our case over millions of years is pointless.
Kellan: [00:23:00] Yeah, that replenishment rate seems particularly important because so much of what we use and what we depend on is non-renewable. And it's crazy to think just how compounded it all is because it's not just the fact that we're running out of resources, right? I think of like, if I'm on a boat with a handful of people, we get stranded on a tiny Island and there's a hundred units of whatever resource, you know, that we depend on to survive. Like that alone would be alarming because we know at some point we're going to run out of it. But you add that the fact that everyone on this little Island is multiplying, the population is growing and individuals are using way more of that resource than they actually need to. Their consumption just keeps going up. Like this intersection of resources decreasing and our consumption increasing means that that rate of anything being able to replenish puts us into more and more of a crisis.
Kory: [00:23:51] Yep. Exactly. That is what makes this so terrifying and why to so many people it seems so far off. But it's like we're falling out of an airplane and also the ground is coming up to meet us. We have about half as long as we thought. So when the rate at which a society uses a resource in order to meet the maintenance cost of capital is greater than the replenishment rate, the resource will eventually become depleted. And that's pretty obvious, right? If in order to replace and maintain all of our current capital, we're using a ton of resources to do that, and we're using it at a faster rate than it's being replenished, then obviously we're going to run out of that resource at some point. When a resource is depleted, we still have to produce enough to meet the maintenance cost of capital. Just because we run out of a resource, doesn't mean that we're off the hook for anything. The capital's still there. We still have to maintain it. But because we can now use that resource less and less as it's running out, that means there's an exponential increase in the amount of existing capital that we have to use to meet that maintenance cost of capital.
So in other words, if we're not putting anything new into the system, we have to use existing parts of the system to meet the maintenance cost of capital. This is where the whole idea of catabolic collapse comes from and why I said, it's kind of like we're eating ourselves from the inside out because we have to start to use the capital that's already in place to create new capital.
Kellan: [00:25:06] And to put this into what we're actually seeing, you know, what takes place in real life. So I think about all the natural disasters that are increasing, the wildfires, the hurricanes, the damage caused by civil unrest. On top of all of the damage, there's just the fact that stuff gets old and it breaks. And our infrastructure, ya know our roads, our water treatment facilities, our bridges, all of that needs to be maintained, there's a cost to that. And yet we've got more people consuming more. So the cost just keeps going up and up and up while we're running out of resources and energy. So at some point we have to make some really difficult decisions. When you're on a limited budget with your resources or your capital do you pull from the welfare system to replace roads or do you pull from the cost of maintaining roads to support our education system?
You know, and there's probably thousands of examples of all the things that as a society we're having to put our resources towards and that's where we start to see that breakdown. That it can't be maintained at such a complex state forever.
Kory: [00:26:07] Yeah. You know, a student of economics would know that there are two different types of economies. You know, we turn on the news all the time and hear that the economy is improving and stocks are going up, but that's not what the real economy is. The real economy is what's backed by production, by us meeting our maintenance cost of capital, really. And we know that over the last 20 years or so, the real economy has peaked, it's stagnated and it started to decrease. And what all of this means is that we aren't getting a high enough input of resources to match our maintenance cost of capital.
You know, a quick example of what we're talking about here. When you start to run out of a resource and so you have to pull existing capital. If we're talking about human or human labor as resources, you know, if for example, people started having less children, which is what's starting to happen, right? The birth rates decreasing. Which means that untapped labor, so people under the age of 16, for example, is decreasing. There's less of that amount of resource. But on the capital side, people who are currently working in doing jobs in order for our economy to grow, those jobs had to continue to be filled. Well, if there's less resources coming through the pipeline to fill those jobs then we're going to have to move some of that existing capital away from one part into another. So it becomes the sort of maybe unnecessary jobs that start to go away. Right now in the labor market there are people I see all the time, business owners of like restaurants, begging for people to come work for them because there's not enough workers. And so it's obviously right now decided by the market because waiters and waitresses aren't paid much. That's what's deciding where it's being taken from. But in other cases, like you said, in government systems choices have to be made to say, where do we allocate the resources and our existing capital?
All right. So we had mentioned that there was two ways that the anabolic cycle can reverse. So the first was a lack of resources. The second that I'd mentioned was that an increased amount of waste relative to the amount of new capital being produced. So to put that simply all capital that is produced eventually will become waste and need to be replaced, but not all capital is being used in the pursuit of creating more capital. So what that means is that because not all capital is being used to make more capital, most of that production that's helping to meet the maintenance cost of capital has to come from new resources. But when the amount of capital becomes so much that resources aren't keeping up and not enough of the existing capital is being used to help create more capital then the maintenance cost is capital simply becomes too high.
At that point the only way to meet the maintenance cost of capital is again, to dramatically increase the amount of resources being used, to convert more of the existing capital into the production of new capital, or ultimately simply let that capital decay without being replaced. And in the end, that's what catabolic collapse is, is when we've exhausted all the other efforts to keep the anabolic cycle moving we're left with the simple option of just allowing the capital to decay.
And speaking of ways in which societies try and keep the anabolic cycle going, there's really two options. A society can either level off their growth and aim for a steady state in which things kind of just remain the same there's no growth, there's no de-growth, or they can try to rapidly increase the resource intake by creating new technologies through military conquest or other endeavors.
If they choose that second way, it's just going to further exacerbate the problem. And it seems that that's what we're trying to do, you know, as a, as a nation in the United States and just as a society as a whole. The other option though, choosing a steady state, would mean putting a halt on capital increases and limiting resource intake. Resources would have to be used at less than or equal to the replenishment rate. And that has to be enforced. So we're talking about, you know, a fascist approach of requiring people to not acquire more capital and to only use a certain amount of resources. This would definitely require a decreased standard of living. It would probably still require a decrease in population.
We've talked about this before. It would basically be a collapse in and of itself a lesser collapse, but it's one that's not likely to happen to our societies, as it's just simply a path that it seems no one is going to take.
The last part of the paper that we're going to talk about today is he basically just says there's two types of collapse in these scenarios. So there's one called a maintenance crisis. And one called a depletion crisis. A maintenance crisis happens when there's enough resources, but the society simply become too complex. So there's too much waste. The maintenance cost of capital cannot be met. At that point, capital is sacrificed, populations decrease, but it's self-limiting and society might be able to catch itself. So because there's still resources, it can rebound because the resources can make up for it. But a depletion crisis is one where resources cannot make new capital and existing capital is being sacrificed because it's maintenance cost cannot be met. That means that virtually there's no new capital to be created, whether that's from resources or whether it's from existing capital. And that's a self-reinforcing feedback loop downwards in which there's decreasing capital, and there's a decreasing ability to meet, the maintenance costs of capital because we have less capital to work with. And eventually that hits a point where all capital is lost.
Kellan: [00:31:11] As you mentioned those two different types of crises, it makes me think of some examples that he listed in the paper. You know, he talks about Imperial China and the Roman empire and the collapse of these individual societies and how that looked a little bit different in each case. But according to him, it still followed the general model of catabolic collapse.
It makes me think, ya know, there have been societies that have collapsed before, but as we've had these conversations, it seems like we're always talking about kind of this global society. We're so interconnected and it's not that collapse will look the same everywhere or that it will all happen simultaneously. But you can't really have resources being depleted on a global level and not have it affect societies across the globe. And with the way our economies, our politics, our resources, our interdependence, you know, everything about how we operate globally is so tied together. I don't think that China could collapse and America would be fine. I don't think the United States could collapse and Russia would be okay. Or any countries in South America or Europe.
And so this whole idea of catabolic collapse seems really compelling and it seems like it's destined to play itself out in a way that's never been seen before.
Kory: [00:32:24] Yeah, this is where it gets really interesting because JMG, John Michael Greer, describes collapsed in a way, pretty unique to others like Joseph Tainter or Jared diamond, because JMG says that it's going to happen over a pretty significantly long period of time, over centuries. Whereas. Joseph Tainter and Jared diamond in their definitions say that it's something that happens in a short period of time, within decades.
And when we had JMG on the show doing the interview, we asked him about that and he had some interesting things to say about Joseph Tainter's theory specifically. And why he didn't feel that collapse would happen rapidly. And while I agree with JMG in a lot of ways, I also don't feel that he takes everything into account. You know, in that same episode, he told us that he doesn't believe that climate change is a huge contributor to collapse. He basically dismissed climate change is something that happens cyclically, which while that's true. I don't think that just because it's happened in the past, doesn't mean that it wouldn't have a huge impact on us now and on our systems.
Likewise, you know, we talk a lot about the problems, the introduction of problems into a system that's going through catabolic collapse and how that can really further exacerbate it. That's just something that, you know, we've kind of talked about and throw it in there. It's not really discussed in JMG's paper on it. So while yes, I agree that this is something that could play out over centuries, I think that we are uniquely positioned in our society in such a way that it looks like we're coming upon the culmination in the next several decades of a lot of things happening at once. From climate change to soil depletion, to oil depletion to decreasing birth rates, to intense growth of microplastic pollution and other pollutions, to the advent of nuclear weapons and all of these different things that make it feel like while yes, collapse could happen over a very long period of time, I don't think it's necessarily guaranteed. And in fact, I think I tend to believe that at least to some scale collapse will happen at some point over the next several decades.
But I think this is where it's really important to make some distinctions because what John Michael Greer is talking about when he talks about it happening over centuries, you know, he's talking about at what point we're going to finally hit a rock bottom. The whole idea of catabolic collapse, according to Greer, is that it's a step down approach. Society will fall a distance, it will catch itself momentarily as we, for example, get rid of some of our capital that's a waste. Capital. That's not really efficient and therefore decrease. What the maintenance costs of capital are. And for a while that works until it becomes unsustainable and again, we fall. And that happens over and over again over time until we've gotten rid of so much capital that it's basically all gone.
But when I view that, I think that for example, if the world were to fall so hard in that we lost access to global food supply, the electrical grid, communications, those types of things. And the population fell by 70%. That to us would seem like a full-scale collapse. We had completely collapsed, right? But in John Manco, Greer's theory that might just be one step down in the ladder. And there's still more to go until we actually hit what would be considered a rock bottom of collapse. So anyway, all of that to say that we can see serious changes in our lifetime that can still be considered collapsed, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we've hit rock bottom.
Kellan: [00:35:39] Yeah. And it's a good reminder for me. Initially a lot of my questions when you first introduced me to collapse were based on my assumption that it was kind of a single event. And yet, this is a good reminder that it's a process and catabolic collapse as a concept is a gradual process.
Kory: [00:35:55] And it's a process that's already begun. We're going through it right now. I saw an interesting YouTube video where John Michael Greer was responding to a question about people's reactions through collapse. And he was talking about how people simply refuse to believe that it's happening. They think that what we're going through is a temporary problem. And one funny thing that he said was, you know, I could see 200 years from now, the President of the United States, speaking to his people who are fighting each other with jawbone clubs over their campfires and subsistence farming saying, "don't worry, this is just temporary. We're going to make it through." you know, just this idea that we kind of refuse to believe that things are happening, but if we look around, you know, things are happening. And I think that right now, we're in a really crucial moment of time where EROEI of oil, for example, is so low. We've just gone through this horrific period of the pandemic where demand for oil was so low that companies were going out of business left and right because they couldn't afford to produce it at the cost that consumers were willing to pay. And now that demand's coming back, there's not enough supply and so prices are going up. At the same time, we're seeing these sort of cascading supply chain failures. There's all sorts of stuff that we're out of, it's getting worse. Prices are beginning to increase, there's inflation in the market because of it.
And while in some ways it may be temporary, it is a sign of overall complexity, of overall maintenance costs of capital that we have not been able to maintain because we're running low on the availability of cheap and readily accessible resources.
So now that we've hashed this out a bit further, I think it will be interesting to call out more often in the future when we see things happening in current news or local events that are pertinent to this. And I know that we'll touch back on this. We hope to have JMG back on the show and maybe explain in his own words the things that we talked about today.
and we hope that you guys find it valuable as well as we continue to go back and touch on topics that we've already lightly touched on, but dig in deeper. I'm sure we'll continue to do that, but we also have lots of new content that we're gonna be talking about as well in upcoming episodes.
As always we welcome your feedback. Please feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] You can find us at @collapsepod on Twitter, or you can reach out to me on Reddit, I'm user u/koryjon. K O R Y J O N. If you haven't left us a review yet, please feel free to do so now and also please consider joining us on Patreon.