Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Great Pause Week 19: The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Thirty years ago The Futurist magazine named my book, Climate in Crisis, to their 1990 top ten books list. I liked that much more than when I made the Village Voice Heroes of the Revolution list because while revolutions may come and go, the passing of the Holocene will change our future like no other event in history.

In these intervening three decades, I have been forced to live, like many, as an amphibian, caught between two worlds. In the Old World people get born, go to school, become socialized to modernity, go to work and make a home, maybe have a 9-to-5 job and a 40-year mortgage, maybe pay off student loans and manage to keep their health insurance or pension, grow old if they are lucky, pay taxes and die. In the New World, few to none of those things may happen.

Perhaps you were midway through high school and looking towards college and a career. That future might be gone now. We don’t even know if the college system will survive another year. Perhaps you were employed in a comfortable, medium-skilled job related to the tourism industry. Gone. You had savings. Gone. You had a home. Gone. Shit happens. An advanced civilization from Alpha Centauri, never mind your own government, is not coming to rescue you. Your future is a story you were told like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

As an amphibian, my lizard eyes see alternative futures. Some are transpersonal. We all get ported into the cloud and live in avatar bodies, powered by robot mini-nukes. Sounds like the stuff of Vedas and sagas, doesn’t it? You could have it that way if you like: become Lord Krishna. Perhaps you prefer Captain Jean-Luc Picard? Some of them are dystopian — nuclear or geomorphic holocausts; zombie-movie-like war zones and death camps; slow death by suffocation and sweat, as Earth’s atmosphere dies.

I also partake in the occasional hopium orgy; ecovillage bioregions joyously performing ecosystemic revitalization with biochar terra preta and milpa agroforestry. Como no?

In these posts, I’ve often stared into the psychobiology of tribalism and generally conclude it has a bigger downside than upside, such that it could be a fatal flaw for our species, as consequential as say, the MORT gene, or opposable thumbs. At times we have used the trait to advantage — “The Union forever, hoorah boys hoorah;” kibbutzniks making aliyah; the Suffragettes — but most of the time it is a rallying cry for all manner of division, from anti-judaism and Deutschland Über Alles to Keep America Great against Black Lives Matter. You are with us or you are against us. You are woke or you are irrelevant.

Wokeness in its anti-intellectualism and disrespect for historically repeating patterns is merely itself a pattern identified by historians such as William Catton, Joseph Tainter, and Jared Diamond. It is a moving-out phase from the high degree of complexity that exemplifies an apex in civilization into the post-classic devolution phase that comes next, where systems lose complexity, cities are abandoned, and a dark age descends upon the land. Science and inquiring, liberal culture get tossed onto the bonfire.

In the collapsitarian genre, one of the standard texts assigned to freshmen has always been Dmitry Orlov’s The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit (2013). As Orlov later summarized:

Ideally, it would start off with a global financial collapse triggered by a catastrophic loss of confidence in the tools of globalized finance. That would swiftly morph into commercial collapse, caused by global supply chain disruption and cross-contagion. As business activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, political collapse wipes most large-scale political entities off the map, allowing small groups of people to revert to various forms of anarchic, autonomous self-governance. Those groups that have sufficient social cohesion, direct access to natural resources, and enough cultural wealth (in the form of face-to-face relationships and oral traditions) would survive while the rest swiftly perish.


Our best-case scenario would go something like this: a massive loss of confidence and panic in the financial markets grips the planet over the course of a single day, pancaking all the debt pyramids and halting credit creation. Commerce stops abruptly because cargos cannot be financed. In a matter of weeks, global supply chains break down. In a matter of months, commercial activity grinds to a halt and tax revenues dwindle to zero, rendering governments everywhere irrelevant. In a matter of years, the remaining few survivors become as Captain Cook saw the aboriginal Australians: almost entirely inoffensive.

Orlov recognized that too many Black Swans floated about to make this sequence entirely reliable. Later he added a sixth stage, eco-collapse:

And so it seems that there may not be a happy end to my story of The Five Stages of Collapse, the first three of which (financial, commercial, political) are inevitable, while the last two (social, cultural) are entirely optional but have, alas, already run their course in many parts of the world. Because, you see, there is also the sixth stage which I have previously neglected to mention — environmental collapse — at the end of which we are left without a home, having rendered Earth (our home planet) uninhabitable.

In particular, Orlov said global warming in collusion with its evil twin, global dimming, could accelerate near term human extinction although the process would be a slow one, lasting centuries, he thought. He also considered the potential effects of plastic in the environment as under-appreciated although that might destroy enough ecosystem health to doom us, but again not very quickly.

The book did not consider viral pandemic resulting from zoonosis, although that might be placed in the eco-collapse category. If we track the sequence we seem to be following, we, meaning our global human population, have had enough political collapse to withdraw people’s faith in a culture of science and thereby to allow, and accelerate, an ecological collapse bringing pandemic upon us and with that financial and commercial collapse, leading next to widespread starvation and social collapse, and in due course to even more rapid climate change auguring near term human extinction.

“You cannot pass,” he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.

— Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”

On January 15, 3019, the Fellowship of the Ring came to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm pursued by Orcs and a Balrog of Morgoth. Gandalf stopped on the Bridge, standing in the middle of the span, allowing the others to escape. He leaned on the staff in his left hand and held the sword Glamdring, gleaming cold and white, in his right. The Balrog stepped onto the Bridge, facing Gandalf, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised its whip, and the thongs whined and cracked. Fire came from its nostrils. But Gandalf stood firm and declared that the Balrog could not pass. They fought, and the Balrog’s sword was destroyed. Then the Balrog leaped full upon the Bridge, and Gandalf lifted his staff and smote it upon the bridge. His staff shattered, but the Bridge cracked at the Balrog’s feet. The stone broke and fell, taking the Balrog with it into the abyss, but the thongs of its whip snared Gandalf about his knees, and he too plummeted with the Balrog into the depths of the mountain.

— The One Wiki to Rule Them All, Bridge of Khazad-dûm

Of course, nothing goes as quickly as most doom writers predict. I watched the devastation wrought upon the former Soviet Union when I visited my friend Volodya Shestakov in St. Petersburg in 1991. High rise apartment houses were being abandoned on the upper floors because the electric service for elevators could not be relied upon. City blocks on the outskirts got more food than those near the center because rural producers need only get that far, open their trucks to customers, and sell retail. They would sell out in minutes, no matter what the commodity. Outside subway stops, people stood in long ranks three deep to sell family heirlooms or a single bottle of Pepsi. If someone bought theirs, they could leave to stand in a longer line outside a bakery, and the next person behind them in the subway column, who had perhaps been waiting since dawn, would move up to the front rank. Untold thousands drank themselves to death on rotgut vodka or froze in the winter. And yet, when I visited again three years later, the city was still there. It went on to become more prosperous than before and today is quite a trendy metropolis with clean streets and healthy citizens wearing the latest European fashions, sipping green tea in cyber cafes while peacefully hacking the servers of political parties in distant countries on their late-model laptops and iPhones. While they sip their tea they stop the war. 徐行踏断流水声

The Russian experience reflects what John Michael Greer has described as a catabolic collapse. Rather than a Seneca Cliff and Olduvai Gorge, there is a gradual stair-step down. Crash. Recovery at a slightly reduced standard. Crash. Recovery at a more reduced standard. Crash. The inertia of accumulated wealth and technology slows the fall. The inertia of disassembling systems — political, social, financial, ecological, climate — propels it along.

While I was composing this essay on Thursday, Dmitry Orlov was writing his own, updating his 6 stages theory. He wrote:

It has been 12 years since I published my essay “The Five Stages of Collapse” in which I first proposed a taxonomy of collapse, teasing it apart into financial, commercial, political, social and cultural collapses, together with what I conceived of as a canonical collapse sequence, where each stage of collapse triggers the next. It worked well enough, in hindsight, for the USSR and, as a thought experiment, for the US, but now, in 2020, in the harsh light of actual collapse that is unfolding in many parts of the West and especially in the formerly United States, it appears that my initial assessment was based on an overly positive view of human nature, at least as far as the nature of the humans who inhabit these parts.


I have been predicting since 2006 that the USA will follow the same collapse trajectory as the USSR, and have been drawing analogies between the two in order to make specific, detailed predictions about the collapse of the US. In light of current events, my method has been vindicated and my predictions were prescient. However, there is one area where I need to issue a correction: the canonical collapse sequence does not apply to the US, and it may apply only partially or not at all to other Western countries.

I first developed an inkling that this would be the case two years ago, in May of 2018, when I published the article Cultural Collapse is in the Lead. In that essay, I listed the many techniques being used to destroy culture in the West, with the US by far in the lead and described “…an attempt to undermine and destroy cohesive society and common culture ahead of the coming financial, commercial and political collapse”:

“It may seem like an odd thing to strive for, but consider this: if society and culture are destroyed ahead of time, then when collapse comes there is no intact community of humans left to observe it and understand what is happening. With everyone’s reasoning abilities sufficiently hampered, it will be trivial to diffuse blame when the rest of the collapse sequence occurs, to get the people to blame themselves or to scapegoat each other, or to simply ignore it because most of the people have bigger problems than collapse, be it their dysfunctional families, their various addictions, their religious zealotry or their extremist politics.”

This has turned out to be true enough: currently, plenty of people in the US are running around blaming their collapse the not-terribly-lethal virus (pretty much not lethal at all for those below retirement age) or racism (which has been a fixture of American life for centuries, so far with few adverse effects for white people) or Donald Trump (who, sure enough, has few skills beyond hogging the limelight), or the Russians, or the Chinese, or… None of this ridiculous blame-a-thon would would have been possible had a strong and cohesive culture remained in place.

He then made a long, elegant foray into the Russian concept of Rodina (Родина; kinship with motherland) and concluded that the US’s worship of wealth above all else, going back to its colonial founding, bore the seeds of its cultural collapse which Facebook and Twitter have merely fertilized or perhaps genetically modified. Without culture, as he said in the extended quote above, there will be no chance for the USA to reconstitute after financial and political collapse the way Russia had. We are all witnessing that in the moment as it unfolds in slow motion, whether it is to be climaxed in a Trump administration or a Biden one.

There is great suffering in this lingering death by 1000 cuts, which cannot be torniqueted at the US border. The UN’s refugee relief staff says it has never faced a greater crisis than it faces in 2020. Hundreds of millions may die of starvation and disease.

This week, 75 percent of one US border detention facility in Virginia have active Covid cases. They did not have any cases there until US Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred in Covid-infected detainees from Florida and Arizona after the fashion of American colonials giving smallpox blankets to the Indians. Germ class warfare.

Lest we forget, the only reason for these victims’ imprisonment, including children and elderly, was not because they had committed any crime, but rather it was because they fled starvation and oppression and knocked at the door of what they mistook to be a free country, and asked, respectfully, for sanctuary. When Virginia refugee concentration camps become death camps, Virginians should ask, is that snow in summer or are those the ashes from human incineration falling from the sky?

Standing up against our seemingly ordained future, on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, raising our staffs to the Balrog and chanting, “You cannot pass!” we find ourselves, a small rag-tag lot of earthlings, hopelessly outgunned, rallying the eagles, dolphins, and elephants to our call. Where there is yet science, if only an ember, hope yet lingers. The dystopian shall not pass.


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