I hope you enjoy the beginning of the tale…
However much we like to think of ourselves as something special in world history, in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse. If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve, a reprieve both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.
Joseph Tainter, 1988
The Collapse of Complex Societies
Jared Diamond, 2005
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
Since the 1950s, the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania has been strongly associated with human origins and the Stone-age way-of-life. In this discussion the ‘Olduvai Theory’ is a metaphor. It suggests our impending return to a Stone-age way-of-life.
Richard C. Duncan, 1996
The Olduvai Theory: Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Stone Age
Delays in feedback loops are critical determinants of system behavior. They are common causes of oscillations…a system just can’t respond to short-term changes when it has long-term delays…
A delay in a feedback process is critical relative to rates of change in the stocks that the feedback loop is trying to control. Delays that are too short cause overreaction, ‘chasing your tail,’ oscillations amplified by the jumpiness of the response. Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained or exploding oscillations, depending on how much too long. Overlong delays in a system with a threshold, a danger point, a range past which irreversible damage can occur, cause overshoot and collapse.
Donella H. Meadows, 2008
Thinking in Systems: A Primer
April 3, 6:30 a.m.
Dave clambered over another group of fallen trees as he wound his way down towards the river that cut through the forest he was traversing. The sheen of a late spring frost could be seen just ahead. It was one of the few spots in this dense group of trees where early morning sunshine would be able to penetrate to the forest floor. The sunlight reflected off some crystallised ice on a few dead leaves clustered together against a tree trunk near the river’s edge.
Amongst the constantly shifting shadows and between the patches of snow that had been fighting to keep from melting into the surrounding deadwood and decaying leaves, a few dozen trilliums were fighting to shake off their winter sleep. The plants could be seen just poking their heads through the wet leaves and soil, seeking some early morning warmth.
A gust of wind blew around a few of the leaves and up into Dave’s face, leaving a touch of dirt on his nose and cheek. He wiped at his face but only managed to smudge the dirt across his cheek, giving him a dark streak similar to those worn by some athletes when playing field sports.
It was time to pause for a moment’s rest as his back was beginning to feel the effect of sleeping on the semi-frozen ground for the past three nights. Last evening was probably the least comfortable. As the sunlight was beginning to wane he had found a patch of dense forest and curled up behind a wall of thick cedars and underbrush but more importantly out of the chilling, northwesterly wind blowing down off Lake Huron.
Thankfully the wind had not picked up until later in the afternoon. He had been able to spend most of the day in bright, warm sunshine as he shuffled north on another gravel road. For three days Dave had been making his way northeast, using roads most of the way but occasionally cutting through forests and across abandoned fields.
Every few hours he pulled a compass out of his knapsack to ensure he was more or less on the right track, cross-checking the map he had found amongst his gear with local features. What he wouldn’t give for a GPS unit, he thought. This was overly optimistic thinking, however, as both satellite and cellular communication had been down for at least a couple of months.
He would not have to go through all this if he would just stick to the roads, but Dave seldom took the easiest path. He had figured that the timing would be pretty similar, about four or five days, so being somewhat more adventurous and needing to practise some old skills he chose to cut across large areas of land with no obvious roads or other significant landmarks.
He could feel the sun on his face as he glanced up through the leafless, hardwood trees. The days were getting warmer and he half-hoped today would be another unseasonably warm, spring day like most of yesterday.
Dave felt physically fine apart from the stiff back. His mind, however, continued to be haunted by the situation he found himself in. He still could not believe that everything had fallen apart so quickly. One day he was planning his next trip south for some golf and not seven months later he found himself walking through an abandoned countryside on his way to his older brother’s home instead of getting on a plane and heading to South Carolina for a few rounds of early, spring golf.
Or was it quick, he reflected. Dave’s brother, Sam, had been suggesting for years that this kind of event was likely to happen. The words of his brother during their last conversation still echoed through his head. “It is only a matter of time and if things are looking desperate, I’ll likely head north. You know you’re welcome to join me.”
So here he was, trekking north between abandoned small towns trying not to think of what was happening everywhere else in the province. But as Sam reminded him continually, it only takes a single snowflake to cause a devastating avalanche, and it’s random as to which snowflake and when a slide will start. He still recalled with vividness that first conversation with his older brother about avalanches…
“So, when is an avalanche triggered?” Sam asked his younger brother somewhat rhetorically.
“What?” Dave asked, off guard given the question he’d just posed. “I suppose it’s a combination of too much snow, current weather conditions, temper-”.
“Okay, stop for a minute,” Sam interrupted. “You’re naming all the elements involved. What actually caused the avalanche to begin at the moment it did? What was particular about that moment in time? What triggered the avalanche?” Sam asked trying to steer his brother’s thinking towards a different perspective.
“I’m not sure what you’re asking me,” Dave answered after a moment’s pause.
“Okay, let me see if I can think of a better example,” Sam offered, pausing for a moment as well. “Do you remember the scene from the first Jurassic Park movie when Jeff Goldblum’s character is trying to explain Chaos Theory to Laura Dern’s character?” Sam eventually asked, knowing his younger brother’s addiction to watching movies.
“Sure,” Dave answered quickly. He was a huge Michael Crichton fan so he had seen the Jurassic Park trilogy several times.
“So, Goldblum drops water onto the back of Dern’s hand several times in a row showing how each time the path of the water is different and will continue to follow this unpredictable pattern due to the incalculable variables involved, from the variations in her skin cells to properties of the hairs on the back of her hand,” Sam continued.
“Yes, I remember. Goldblum’s character is basically talking about the unpredictability of complex systems,” Dave responded.
“Good, you’ve still got a hold of the rope. Now stay with me,” Sam quipped. “Instead of an avalanche, think of a pile of sand and placing a single grain of sand on the top of the pile every few seconds. What’s going to happen after a while?”
“There will be a slide of sand.”
“Why at a particular moment?” Sam probed.
“Well, because the weight will be too much for the underlying grains to support and the accumulating mass of sand will overcome the forces of friction and whoosh.”
“You’re getting warm,” Sam said in a congratulatory tone. “So, if we repeat the experiment dozens or hundreds of times, do you think a major slide will occur at about the same time, if all other conditions are the same?”
“It should, all other things being equal,” Dave replied, but not entirely sure now.
“Well, in fact, experiments examining this found that there is no predictability as to how and when a major slide will occur. A major slide could occur quickly after the beginning of the experiment, when few grains of sand had been added. Or a slide could take a relatively long time to occur and require much more sand. Does that make sense to you?”
“Not really,” Dave answered after a moment’s silence. “You’d think there’d be some consistency.”
“So, think about the fact that there is no consistency, no formula for calculating when a slide will occur. What appears to happen is that each grain of sand interacts with those immediately adjacent to it. An interacting group of grains can be in something called a critical state or phase transition, I can’t remember verbatim. Anyways, this is a state that with only one more grain of sand those particular grains can overcome friction and begin to slide.
“As a slide begins the moving grains interact with stationary grains. These other grains may not be anywhere near a critical state and end up stalling the slide; or, they could also be close to a critical state and add their mass and energy to the slide.”
“Your point?” Dave responded bluntly as he was getting a bit frustrated by his brother’s long-winded answer; he just wanted to get back to watching the Canadian Open. “I asked you when you thought this collapse could happen!”
“I’m trying to teach you why your question doesn’t have an answer,” Sam explained. “Just be patient and remember this point because it’s really important to understand.”
“It’s just,” Dave started, then paused not wanting to hurt his older brother’s feelings. “It’s just that you’re starting to sound like my teachers.”
“Well, I just hope they taught you some critical thinking skills because you might need them to be able to understand life outside of sports. Anyways, critical states or phase transitions, what are they?” Sam continued.
Dave paused for a moment then responded to his brother’s question. “It’s the point when a group of sand grains are ready to overcome friction with the addition of one more grain. I guess we could think about it as the time between transitioning from one phase, say stasis, to another phase, say movement. Am I close enough, Einstein?” he asked, motioning towards the television that was on in front of him.
“Close enough,” Sam ceded but he wasn’t going to let his brother off that easy—his lesson wasn’t finished, so he continued. “The interesting thing about this research was that no matter how many times the experiment was carried out, no predictable pattern emerged that could be used to predict when or how a massive slide would occur, there were far too many variables involved.”
“Okay, I see,” Dave started, beginning to grasp his brother’s point. “There are too many variables involved in trying to predict when the world is going to collapse.”
“I didn’t say the world was going to collapse. I said that we could see a devastating series of events cascade through our globally-interconnected systems to cause a major catastrophe.”
“I’m sorry, was that English?” Dave snickered. “You’re killing me here, Sam.”
“Sorry,” Sam replied a bit sheepishly. He forgot sometimes that his brother was still in high school and more interested in sports and girls than reading. “Okay, let me try again. Our critical systems, like finance, trade, and energy, all depend on each other. And these systems rely on similar systems worldwide. That’s our current state of affairs on a global scale, and I know you know about positive and negative feedback loops. Well, these feedback loops are riddled throughout all these systems and their subsystems.”
“Yes, like a thermostat, I remember that conversation well,” Dave added and pretended to nod off.
Sam ignored his brother’s antics and continued, “Yes, a thermostat is a good example of a simple system; one without many variables involved, however. Think for a moment about all the systems around the globe and how fragile some of them are: oil supplies, for example.
“So, if we have many systems in a fragile or critical state, ready to transition from stable to unstable, when might a catastrophe or an avalanche happen?” Sam asked, his body language suggesting that Dave should now get that light bulb going off over his head, indicating he understood.
“You can’t tell. I understand now,” Dave responded proudly.
“Good. I can’t tell you when this transition might happen. I can only tell you that I believe we are getting closer to that point. I can confidently argue that some results are more likely than others but no one outcome is guaranteed. There are surprises everywhere and as far as when, anyone who claims to be able to predict the future is mad. Or an economist,” Sam added.
…Dave used to get so frustrated with these lessons from his brother. He did, however, have to admit that he had learned an awful lot during them. It was all in the way Sam asked questions; it made Dave have to come to the correct answer himself. He had to really think about what was being asked and where Sam was leading him. It was so tortuous at times though, especially when he was younger and just wanted to play or watch sports. No, maybe it was tortuous all the time he thought, and smiled thinking fondly of his older brother. Smart guy but no—he searched for the words—no social skills, especially around women.
A quick rinse of his face and he would be ready to move on. Despite the warming weather, the water was extremely cold. His hands tingled almost to the point of being painful as he dipped them into the water and splashed his face to help shake off the sleep. His mind flashed back to a canoe trip as a youngster and washing in clean river water for the first time. Since that day Dave had found washing in spring-fed river water better than coffee to shake off a night’s sleep. He hadn’t canoed in years, however, and he had to remind himself where he was.
This was no spring-fed river in northern Ontario. He knew that this water was not nearly as clean as those he had canoed in years ago. Even the ones he used to ply with a paddle were no longer as clean as they used to be. Being close to farmland would assure that there would be fossil fuel-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers, not to mention other chemical agents, in the local water. His small filtration unit could filter most of these chemicals out but if he could go without, he would. He only rinsed his face this morning as he still had enough clean water in his pack to last another day or two. In fact, he could stretch out his clean water supply almost indefinitely, if he was forced to.
He brought up another handful of water and rubbed his face somewhat vigourously. He had not had a restful sleep these past three nights. It wasn’t so much the cold as Dave had learned as a child how to survive in the wilderness regardless of weather conditions. It was the unfolding of world events over the past few years and months that haunted his thoughts, making it difficult to sleep.
When he did sleep, his dreams were filled with morphed, post-apocalyptic scenes reminiscent of the movies The Book of Eli and the Resident Evil series. Social chaos loomed heavy in every aspect of his dreams during his fitful REM sleep. No vampires, zombies, or mechanical terminators entered his dreams, only a few abandoned children looking for their parents. They had lost their way during this nightmarish clash among people just trying to survive another day. It wasn’t all bad, he thought in retrospect. Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale had been there to help him.
Dave opened his pack to retrieve his canteen, a birthday present from his brother along with everything else in the knapsack he now found himself carrying through some woodlot in the middle of southwestern Ontario.
Sam had stolen Dave’s pack during a visit last year and then returned it to him full of survival gear on his last birthday…
Dave looked at his older brother with a puzzled grin after opening the large gift bag Sam had surrendered to him when he had arrived for a birthday visit. “When did you take this?” he asked with amusement.
“Last time I was here. It was sitting in the corner of your front closet and I thought I’d fill it with some goodies for your birthday.”
“Thanks, brudda,” Dave said using the nickname he had given his older brother when he was still a toddler. “What goodies might I find? A few Titleist, Calloway—what is this stuff?” Dave exclaimed as he opened the bag and looked inside.
“Just do your older and much wiser brother a favour, put this back in the corner of the front closet and in an emergency take it with you. You’ll find a lot of familiar toys and some new ones. Just keep it safe and always accessible. You never know when a black swan might swoop into town.”
“Black swan?” Dave asked, and then regretted it immediately.
“Let me explain,” Sam began as he placed an arm around his younger brother’s shoulder.
As soon as he had asked the question, Dave knew they weren’t going anywhere for his twenty-third birthday without having to be subjected to his brother giving him the abridged version of some philosophical treatise that he’d read about, or scientific model he had been thinking about, or—whatever. He wished his brother would show interest in something other than reading and writing.
Sam suggested they stay in and catch whatever was on CBC. He then proceeded to explain to Dave the idea of a black swan. But, it was over a beer while they watched the Leafs playing the Canadiens, a classic original six game. So there was that, Dave thought, as he tried to tune out his brother during the game.
…Here he was in the middle of a black swan, he thought. Well, no, it wasn’t really a black swan for him because he had been warned about this possibility. But, for most people this was definitely a black swan; it was an unknown unknown. Everything had seemed relatively normal up until about six months ago.
He opened up the pack a bit wider and looked in. His brother had put a small camp stove and a litre of fuel in the pack but Dave skipped making tea this morning. He had more than enough fuel to get him to his brother’s but he wanted to get going as quickly as possible because he knew, deep down inside, that tea every morning was a luxury.
He stood to stretch his back and legs then knelt to pick up his backpack, noticing that its straps were fraying badly. By the end of today, he hoped, he would have no further need for it. Adjusting it firmly across his back, he took his bearings and headed towards the sunrise.
His brother had been preparing for this event for years and Dave knew that he had a greater chance of survival, if he got to his brother’s…
“What makes you so sure that the world is going to end?” Dave replied to Sam’s latest diatribe.
“I never said the world was going to end. Did you never listen to the debates Susie and I used to have? Or anything I’ve been saying for the past hour?”
“No, not really, you and Susie have always been way too serious. Besides, there’s a Leafs game on and they might actually make the play-offs this year.”
“Okay, it’s intermission. Turn the TV off and listen to me for three minutes,” Sam began. “This isn’t about the world ending; it’s about being prepared for the unexpected. It’s about recognizing that it’s the things you don’t know about that are the ones that can have the most impact on you.”
“What? The things I don’t know about? Oh yes the, ah,” he paused, taking a moment for his brain to retrieve the memory. “The unknown unknowns as Rumsfield stated to the press during one of those interviews regarding the US invasion of Iraq, yes?”
“Were you watching that stuff? I thought you’d be watching hockey or golf at that age.”
“You and Susie were watching it. I was just there being tortured by the two of you and your constant arguing.”
“It was debating. Anyways, the idea of a black swan event comes from earlier times when the term ‘as likely as a black swan’ arose around the probability of an event being impossible. You see, early Europeans only had experience with white swans and-.”
“But there are both black and white swans,” Dave interjected as he got up to grab another Canadian. “Another?” he asked Sam, holding up his bottle.
“Correct, and no thanks,” Sam replied. “So, language around event probability evolved without the knowledge of black swans. Europeans had only been exposed to white swans,” Sam continued as Dave walked into his adjoining kitchen.
“A black swan event then is when you encounter something outside of your expectations or knowledge” Dave suggested, as the line of thinking his brother had started in him began to come together.”
“Yes, so always be prepared,” Sam replied in return.
“Be prepared. Yes, I remember the Boy Scout pledge Dad always reminded us about.”
“In hindsight, Dad just maybe lucked upon preparing us for what could be coming our way: a massive social collapse on a scale no one alive today has truly witnessed.”
“Yeah, yeah, world-ending collapse, I got that part. Listen, seriously, the third period is about to start and there’s still no score. You’ve got about one minute left,” Dave informed Sam.
“Well, you understand what a black swan event is now, right?”
“I think so; it’s about encountering things outside our, what would Dad call it? Paradigm, right? Experience, models-of-the-world kinda stuff.”
“Yes, but what about if your model of the world includes realistic possibilities that others don’t have?”
“So, my worldview differs from others—then, I guess a certain event might not be a black swan to me. It would be a black swan, however, to the person whose model of the world didn’t include that event.”
“Exactly, for some, it might be being prepared for a collapse of, say, ah, the fiat currency system,” Sam suggested, struggling for a moment to think of something that might appeal to Dave’s senses.
“So, I buy gold and silver as a hedge against inflation. In the meantime, the fiat currency system collapses and I’m golden because humans have trusted gold and silver as a type of wealth for thousands of years. It can’t be printed out of thin air by the elite like paper money,” Dave said giving his brother two thumbs up and a big grin.
“More or less, yes,” Sam responded as he rolled his eyes. “The pack is a survival kit in case of an emergency. It’s an insurance policy, that’s all.”
“Thanks, brudda. Good timing too as the third period is starting,” said Dave as he took another sip of his beer and returned his focus to the television.
…As he reached the top of a rolling hill Dave caught a brief scent of smoke. His mind quickly entered survival mode; wildfire was his first thought. How far back to the river and was it big enough to act as a natural break? He quickly scanned the area. It had obviously been clear-cut some years ago for although the forest was relatively thick, it was made up of a single species of tree, all about the same age. Apart from the few dense patches of cedars he had encountered, there was little else.
He noted the direction of the wind, estimated the distance back to the river, and scanned the area to determine the amount of combustible underbrush. Since it was early spring and the area was still quite damp from the recently melted snow, he guessed that the fire would have to spread primarily through the canopy with the understory being so moist.
If he could find a low area void of trees for the right distance, he could survive almost any wildfire. His other option was to retreat to the river but not seeing any signs of wildlife fleeing the direction he was heading and not smelling the smoke any longer he carried on, just much more alert to his surroundings. As he came around another clump of dense cedars he stumbled upon a recently constructed car path through the forest.
He didn’t think this was on his map. He kicked at the gravel on the path and looked both right and left in the direction of the cut through the woods. By the state of the road and nearby plant life, he guessed that the path had been made relatively recently. There were obvious signs of travel over the area as he noted some tire tracks on one side, a few metres away. In addition, the bushes and trees near the road had been recovering for at least a season or two based on the new growth he could see.
He twisted at his hips and brought his pack off his back, gently placing it on the road as he knelt down. He undid the front clasp and took out the topographic map of the area. He was not far from the last X he had marked on the map, indicating approximately where he had slept last night. It was a habit his father had taught him—track your path on your map and mark where you sleep each night, as well as other important sites. The information would come in handy if you had to retrace your steps.
He’d traveled perhaps half a dozen kilometers since he’d woken. The sun was well above the horizon by now and with the trees absent in this area, Dave could feel the sun quickly begin to warm him. He took off his outer jacket and tied it around his waist.
He laid the map out on the ground in front of him and traced a line in a general northeast direction from the clump of cedars he had slept behind. The map indicated nothing this close, no roads at all. He looked at the legend on the map. It was printed four years ago so the road was no more than four years old but likely two, Dave concluded. Might as well follow it, he thought, since it was going in the general direction he needed to travel.
Shouldering his pack and adjusting its weight, he began following the path through the forest. Periodically, Dave would see signs of small garden plots along the road. They all had the look of a child’s touch. A sign leaned against a tree in one that said Kat’s Garden, another hosted a gathering of Barbie dolls around a dining room table, and another a small home-made cross with the word Ginger written on it and a dog’s collar laid on the freshly dug soil.
God, how do you explain what’s going on to children at a time like this, Dave thought. It was hard enough for him to comprehend; he couldn’t imagine having to deal with a child right now. How had his mum put it when she talked to anyone about her children, “Just waiting for this phase to pass; this living at home phase.” Everyone knew she was only joking and loved her children passionately.
Dave stopped. He couldn’t start thinking about his parents right now because he knew that only lead to dark places. He quickly brought his thoughts back to the here and now.
He noticed that the path was taking a slight curve just up ahead and wondered if he should continue following it when he caught the smell of smoke again, piquing his curiosity. Not twenty strides further on, the path suddenly opened up and he was looking at a small cabin with smoke coming from the chimney. What the heck, Dave thought.
Suddenly a child came running out the front door yelling at the top of her lungs. A screaming adult was running wildly after the child. He stared flabbergasted, as this was not what he was expecting when he awoke this morning.
He instinctively ran forward to try and protect the child, but then was struck by a thought. Shit, another black swan!