Collapse Ethics: Anarchy or Coercion?

The reaction to my article on the “ecotechnic dictatorship” garnered a vigorous response on this blog, and more of a vitriolic one elsewhere (see below for a summary). So let’s ask the question outright. Suppose that all your observations and models indicated that business-as-usual would doom the global industrial system to collapse, causing the premature deaths of the many surplus billions it now supports on a “phantom carrying capacity” based on fossil fuel-powered agriculture, industrial fishing fleets, and a stable climate. In this hypothetical scenario (IMO, no longer very hypothetical at all), would it be ethical to support the coming of an “ecotechnic dictator”, a despotic Messiah, who would suppress individual freedoms in order to force an unwilling populace into making the consumption sacrifices needed to avert the Crash?

The Essence of “Ecotechnic Dictatorship” – Forcing Retreat from Collapse

Due to the limits to growth on our finite planet (in the form of resource depletion and pollution overload), business-as-usual will most likely lead to a brutal endgame of resource wars and rising chaos. Each nation will do its utmost to postpone its own collapse so as to be left the last one standing, picking on the corpses of its enemies before succumbing in turn. The ensuing collapse of the Earth’s carrying capacity and the universal demise of the state’s monopoly on violence will usher in a period of globalized anarchy and Malthusian dieoff.

Liberal democracies, beholden to a human electorate evolutionarily hardwired to favor short-term comforts and discount long-term risks, even if said risks are catastrophic, are very unlikely to be able to make the drastic cuts in consumption necessary to realign us with the planet’s limits. Even less likely to succeed are the brittle tinpot dictatorships, beholden to their corporate group backers and of an essentially reactionary character, that will proliferate in the last years of industrial civilization. Yet even the dictatorships will give up the ghost before too long, overwhelmed by the pressures of sustaining complexity on a diminishing resource base, and after them, le déluge.

True, there’s always the possibility that the current system will innovate us a technological “silver bullet” that will save us (e.g. cheap nuclear fusion, massive improvements in solar technology, or a “technological singularity“), or at least kick the can down the alley for another generation to deal with. But as I pointed out in the original post, this isn’t too likely (perhaps 20%).

However, though I am skeptical about the state’s ability to prevent global collapse, there is zero chance of individuals or communities saving us – be they Orlov’s vegan seafarers or gun-stocking doomsteaders in the Rockies – because their actions are by definition localized, whereas our sustainability crisis is profoundly global. It will be the “tragedy of the commons” writ large. Since individuals and communities get big, short-term benefits (pleasure) from increasing their material throughput, whereas the long-term price (pain) will be paid by the whole world, there is very little incentive to live sustainably until Nature forces them to.

Yes, some communities, against all the odds, against human nature, and with enough prior resources and foresight, may prove to be “resilient” in the face of collapse. Yet even they will be beset by a panoply of problems, including “zombies” (e.g. climate refugees), marauding violence-specialists, and the vagaries of the unsettled climate system itself. If there’s one thing we can be sure of, the extraordinary hardships, deflated expectations, and mortality rates that will follow in the wake of the Crash will be enjoyed only by the most committed nihilists.

I do not like the conclusions, but my research has led me to believe that the only more or less realistic chance (75% ?) of averting the Crash lies in harnessing the power of Leviathan (the state) to force through a “sustainable retreat”. In an ideal world, this “ecotechnic dictatorship” will not worship coercion or authoritarianism as ends in themselves, but it will possess a mandate to employ them when absolutely necessary in order to build a sustainable ecotechnological civilization. It will use its concentration of administrative and coercive power to implement necessary projects, foremost amongst them a transformation of the energy system from reliance on fossil fuels to nuclear, wind, and solar. The state will discard traditional measures of economic prosperity such as GDP in favor of one that fully accounts for social equity and ecological costs. It will restrict free markets, and perhaps abolish them altogether in favor of cybernetic planning that allows for the optimization of resource usage, pollution emissions, and social equity. And if it becomes absolutely inescapable, it will attempt geoengineering in a “final gambit” to preempt runaway global warming apocalypse.

Once we are back below the limits, have discarded individualist and accumulative values in favor of voluntary commitments to sustainability, and are enjoying a decent measure of ecotechnological prosperity, there can be a gradual relaxing of controls, as the strong hand of the state slowly withers away  into “Green Communism“.

Even should the “ecotechnic dictatorship” fail in its endeavours to avert a Crash, at least the work it did to mitigate it and to preserve our cultural and scientific legacy in secret repositories across the world, will stand humanity in better stead to retain and rediscover civilization in the Tenebrae after the lights go out.

I acknowledge that the above – a strict but fair “ecotechnic dictatorship” – may really be a wildly optimistic best case scenario, rather than a realistic one. Privilege may subvert its egalitarian ideals – after all, any state’s supporters are always more richly rewarded than its detractors, otherwise what is the point of serving such a state? Maybe the paranoia of its rulers, stoked up by a few coup attempts or insurrections, will cause it to go overboard on repression. Perhaps it will even degenerate into a kind of millenarian cult, like Pol Pot’s Cambodia. As the commentator T. Greer correctly pointed out, the ideological foundations for a descent into unbounded chiliasm are certainly there.

Is this the choice we are going to face, and will it even be ours to make?

To summarize. Our Brave New World has no future (business-as-usual). Ahead of us, we can choose between Brazil followed by Mad Max in Waterworld (tinpot dictatorship followed by collapse into anarchy and climate havoc), or alternatively, a global Project Cybersyn Reloaded if we’re lucky or Equilibrium if we’re not (“ecotechnic dictatorship”), after which the world may morph into Avatar (“Green Communism”).

Finally, in response to the critics who say I am an aspiring tyrant, I should note that I am not forcing these ideas of “ecotechnic dictatorship” on anyone. I am not an activist, I am an observer and theorist. The sum total of what I have done is outline why our Faustian bargain with fossil fuels may yet be our undoing, and argued that at this late hour the surest way of sidestepping this bargain will entail substantial, perhaps prodigal, restrictions on the freedoms that we have gotten used to in the fossil fuel-enabled Age of Exuberance. You are free to take it or leave it at your own, and the world’s, risk.

If you want more discussion on “collapse ethics”, head over to Lou Grinzo’s blog Cost of Energy and read his post Simple steps and dark hopes, which asks the question of whether it is ethical to hope for a dramatic climate catastrophe if we’re convinced it would be the only way to force us to take meaningful action before it’s too late. To those who say yes, let’s go even further out of the comfort zone: would it be ethical to actually orchestrate those catastrophes, like the villains in Michael Crichton’s book denier propaganda tract State of Fear? Have fun with the dilemmas.

  • georgesdelatour


    I think you want Dictatorship for all kinds of complex reasons not specifically tied to “collapse”. But you don’t feel you can win over people to your preferred system on its own merits. So you give us the zombie movie future predictions to scare us into agreeing with you. “Look, I’d prefer not to bring back Stalinism, but don’t you see we have to to save us from the monsters”.

    I don’t think those predictions are right. You want them to be right – or at least you want us to believe they’re right – to emotionally blackmail the rest of us into supporting your preferred system.

    • AK

      You do realize that a Stalinist would delete this comment of yours? 😉

      • georgesdelatour

        True. Actually, a Stalinist would delete me, not just my comment.

        You’re a god host.

        • georgesdelatour

          That’s “good” – not “god”

        • AK

          Love the Freudian slip! 🙂

  • Andrew

    Well, I voted for it. I’d actually arrived at essentially the same solution after you started posting about the problem, so having you post it was nice. Still, the response here will probably be skewed for you, while outside this website, it will be strongly against you (in the US and Europe, at least; probably not in Africa or Asia, but the most important demographic for this is in the Western world).

    • georgesdelatour

      Hi Andrew

      I’ve just come from China. They don’t think they’re on the brink of collapse. They utterly love the economic growth they’re enjoying.

      No Jeremiads there.

      • AK

        No surprise at all.
        China is still in its “age of exuberance”. It has had nigh a generation of 10% annual GDP growth, so inflated expectations are… expected.
        The problem is that this ideology of economic growth has displaced all other ideologies in China. If or rather when the rapid growth falters, I suspect the CCP is going to have major problems.

  • Andrew

    I wasn’t implying that China is on the brink of collapse. I was simply pointing out that as it comprises the richest, most technologically advanced and powerful nations (and largest polluters/energy-users), any international attempt at this problem would fail without the West. And despite the people on this website being for it, you’d have a very hard time selling this idea to them. Any movement to implement this theoretical dictatorship would almost certainly be undemocratic.

    • AK

      No doubt about it. I agree that the chances of an ecotechnic dictatorship being established anywhere, except in the endgame, is vanishingly small, and that the most likely way for it to be established is through an undemocratic coup in a time of social and political instability.

      And even if only one country embraces it, that still won’t really resolve the issues because the sustainable transition has to be global. The surrounding Powers would in fact probably try to strangle any such new government in its cradle, as was the case with the USSR.

  • I voted for collapse, even though on the other thread I was sort of in favour of some kind of dicatorship.

    Why? Human nature.
    This hypothetical dictator and his inevitable henchmen. Like all revolutionaries, they start out good and well intentioned and end up in Tyranny and contradiction. How long before this (presumably mustached) dictator decides that he and his select band of ‘enforcers’ should have the trappings of a western industrialised society, while everyone else toils the fields.

    Overpopulation is of course a problem, and of course realistic powers to limit it are unrealistic in the structures of a Democracy. There lies the problem.

    • AK

      That is an entirely valid possibility, and perhaps the likeliest one.

      As I noted, if we are lucky with our “ecotechnic dictatorship”, it will be something along the lines of a cybernetic socialism run according to quasi-democratic principles – think Allende’s Chile with Web 3.0. If we are unlucky, it will be more like something out of 1984 or the film Equilibrium.

      I also suspect that the later that an ecotechnic dictatorship is actually implemented in the pre-Crash period, the more coercion will be needed to actually keep it from falling apart (because of its greater “potential gap” on Tainter’s complexity curve), and hence the more it will resemble the 1984 Party / prole totalitarian model.

  • It depends where you live. I imagine living in a densely populated city in a desert region where millions are dependent on sophisticated systems to keep them alive would lead many citizens to favor your view Anatoly. But because I’ve spent a lot of time considering exactly the world scenario we now find ourselves in, I don’t live in that sort of place. I moved around until I found something that fitted my criteria for a reasonable chance of survival. That’s because I don’t believe your idea would work.

    I’ve had similar ideas myself, but have lived long enough to see the results of such ideas work out in reality and realized the fundamental flaws in schemes such as yours. These flaws don’t proceed from a weakness of character, but from a misunderstanding of the nature of human thought. Now I like your blog and your out-there scanning of reality. I admire your power of creative thinking and the breadth of your interests. I envy your powers of expression and the depth of your knowledge. But you need to realize the limits of human thinking. The power of our thinking can make us drunk with splendid visions and we can imagine ourselves so very easily as the equal of the gods. But the nature of reality is such that our very best thinking can only model it in the sketchiest way.

    The real, living world has reached it’s present state partly through the operation of two simple facts: the enormous depth of time in which life has existed on this planet, and the constancy, inevitability and universality of death. Evolution has through these two facts produced a material reality that is so fantastically complex, random and unpredictable that it can never be modeled except in the crudest way — the only accurate model of the world is itself. But we don’t see that! We fasten on what we know and fail to see the vastness of our ignorance. A great illustration of that is how long it’s taken technology to produce machines that can move around a complex terrain unaided. The value of computers has partly been to reveal the extent of our ignorance by allowing us to attempt such things as AI.

    This is a long-winded way of me getting to my point which is that no group of wise men or women has ever existed or can ever exist who could control the physical environment of a society for any more than the shortest time: weeks or perhaps months at the outside as in the case of space travel. It’s simply too complex! And no society can exist with such a requirement for its survival. That survival must depend on us throwing ourselves at the mercy of the environment we live in a fairly profound way. And simple knowledge of how hierarchies work shows how badly they handle complex tasks, like living in a complex and delicate world. By taking advantage of the massive flows of energy which have resulted from the discovery of fossil fuels we have bent the rules for a long time — several hundred years — but it’s over! Heroic materialism is dead.

    Our “success” in dealing with the coming crash will be measured solely by those descendants who may be walking the earth in one thousand years time and the thoughts and tools they will be using. I tell you, those people will be almost exclusively local, tribal and immediately practical in their focus. The objects they use will have with few exceptions been locally made. They may well have a developed intellectual life and quite complex knowledge of the wider world, but it will be of no practical use to them because their power will be largely that of their muscles and those of their domesticated animals.

    I cannot see in any way how politics of the type you envisage have anything to contribute to that future — I should say that I had similar ideas to you until I realized how blinded by contemporary fashions in thinking I’d been. Naturally we are the children of our time — and place — but when the civilization we live in is dying, we must get clear of such entanglements if we are to have any place in the future.

    • m.

      could i possibly get in contact with you, the projection, as in correlation with human nature is the right path of thought, i was brought to the same (for now) suppositions.

  • AK

    Fascinating how the two options – 80% chance of collapse or ecotechnic dictatorship – are level pegging. And how everyone is treating it as a binary choice, with absolutely none having voted for “Other”. I must admit to being surprised. I imagined I’d be more like 50% collapse, 30% ED, and 20% other. Thank you all for voting.

  • georgesdelatour

    I’m not yet convinced we’re heading for apocalyptic collapse. So, for me, the eco-dictator isn’t yet needed.

  • I went ahead and voted for “Other.”

    I suspect there will be some form of authoritarianism that emerges. However, I wonder about the nature of such a potential regime. I suspect it will be more based on religious or quasi- religious ideas than technocratic language and that it may well have a deeper reservoir of support than a mere technocracy would be able to have. In turn, it may actually be able to be less heavy handed than your posts would imply.

    At the end of the day I believe the voice that will speak to the people will not be one that has intonations derived from Al Gore or the contemporary “Global Warming” crowd.

  • entropy.

    Places like China and India that rely on fossil fuels such as coal to power an infrastructure better suited to nuclear power are the primary cause for the current problems. The free-market is not to blame, as there is no free-market. There is merely the illusion, and the fascist fact. An institution of actual free-markets (which have rarely existed) would quickly provide a vastly more efficient solution then Project Cybersyn and Central Planning. However, there’s even less of a chance of that coming to fruition even in a post-collapse environment then otherwise.

  • Scowspi

    On the general subject of collapse. I just found this site, by someone who directly experienced Argentina’s recent economic meltdown. It discusses both the social consequences of such collapses, and strategies for surviving it:

    What’s especially sobering about this is that Argentina used to be a rich, well-off country. It makes for scary but essential reading for all of us sitting comfortably in the so-called advanced world.

  • Ryan

    I’ve always been facinated by how people on the most left-leaning side of politics are absolutely convinced that the worst case climate change scenarios are guaranteed. This belief can’t be based on an understanding of the underlying data and methods of climate forecasting as they are some of the worst in the whole (legitimate) scientific community. It seems more like people on the political extreems simply choose their opinion based on the sorts of policies they want. Lefties know the worst scenarios are definitely going to happen, the right wingers know the whole thing is a scam.