This is a lengthy response, and an implicit challenge to debate, prompted by Bill Quick’s “If Something Cannot Go On Forever, It Will Stop,” published on Thursday 27 April and duly Instalanched on Monday 8 May.
The first thing you need to do is read Bill’s essay; it’s ~4,200 words, reading time 10-20 minutes. I’ll be summarizing it below, but my (brief) summary will not only be explicitly theoretical but will be deliberately contrasted with my subsequent application-oriented response, so you will not get an altogether adequate notion of Bill’s thesis by reading this post alone.
That said, this will not be a mere fisking, and given what I believe is Bill’s current geography, only two states east of mine, a face-to-face debate is a real possibility, and one I hope to learn from.
Pi devan! (“Onward!”)
1. A Theory of Catastrophe
- apparently stable (actually metastable) systems can undergo significant disruptions from endogenous weaknesses—or poorly-anticipated failures to contain exogenous threats
- [JDM: classic examples are avalanches, forest fires, and … pandemics]
1.2 Weaknesses and Threats (note that these all overlap):
|energy||vulnerable transportation and power grid|
|logistical||JIT; weak manufacturing base|
|financial||cyberattack; e-money/banking disruptions|
|psychological||generational temperaments; coddled, inexperienced|
1.3 Cyclical History
- various models, especially Ibn Khaldun and Strauss-Howe
- population turnover leading to Crisis Era every 70-90 years
- four-part generational temperament cycle both driving and driven by crises
2. Bridge Statement
2.1 Agreement and Inspiration
Bill and I are both promoters of Strauss-Howe generational theory (augmented, in my case, by Turchin and Xenakis) as the best available means of contextualizing the struggles of our time. I believe it operates not only in the Anglosphere, but globally, and especially in China; and that much of the world has been experiencing these cycles almost continuously, not only for the past half-millennium, but ever since the Late Bronze Age collapse. There are distinct indications of it in classical antiquity in the Near East, in late Imperial Rome three centuries later, and in Sub-Roman Britain soon thereafter.
I should also note that Bill’s gripping novel Lightning Fall is what got me thinking about manifestations of large-scale failures in the real world, which I blogged at “Lightning Fall” – Review and How To Think About Catastrophe.
2.2 The Beginning of Divergence
Bill notes that the American Revolution and Great Depression/World War II crises were fought against external enemies, while the Civil War was internal, and wonders if there is a simple alternation of external and internal conflicts. I note that the late 17th-century Glorious Revolution crisis, which manifested in King Philip’s War, Bacon’s Rebellion, and (ahem) the Salem Witch Trials, was necessarily internal as well. But much of the hardest fighting in the American Revolution was against Loyalists, especially in the South, making it a partially internal conflict. That would make three out of four so far internal ones, and I have noted elsewhere that we avoided a serious fifth-column problem in 1941–45 only because the Nazis remained in alignment with the pre-existing German obsession with depopulating and recolonizing Eastern Europe, and therefore invaded the Soviet Union. Communist sympathizers in the US, and there were plenty of them, thereby became effectively loyal for the duration of the war.
In the absence of some unifying exogenous threat, it is indeed likely that the current Crisis Era will include a significant domestic component. A deeply divided America simultaneously confronting an existential geopolitical threat would be a new and unpleasant combination. But by definition, Crisis Eras hit us at our weak points—so this is not a uniquely bad situation, just another irruption of “unknown unknowns,” now appearing for the fifth time in American history:
- Glorious Revolution Crisis, 1675–1704
- American Revolution Crisis, 1773–94
- Civil War Crisis, 1854–77
- Great Depression/World War II Crisis, 1929–45
- Crisis of ~2020, 2007–??
3. The Practice of Survival
3.1 A Word About Argumentation Styles
Bill’s argument, I contend, is theoretical and deductive; mine will be empirical and inductive. And this may have something to do with our positioning within the Boomer generation, within whose first wave he was born. It is a very Boomer tendency to see the world through a theoretical framework—and perhaps seek to impose one, which is its own endogenous weakness (and to others, an exogenous threat).
To be clear, I have plenty of that in me. “Then they said to him: What shall we do, to do the work of God? Jesus answered and said to them: This is the work of God, to believe in the one he sent.” (John 6:28-29, Lattimore) Construing belief as “work” comes easy for me and tens of millions of my generational peers. Bill demonstrates it by asserting America est omnis divisa in partes tres, and predicting that two of the three will perish in our Crisis Era because their belief systems will ineluctably prevent them from adapting.
What I have ended up doing, only partially deliberately, is emulating the generation following ours, one whose first cohort is a mere two years younger than me. Generation X is relentlessly practical; where a Boomer asks “is it true?” a GenXer asks “does it work?” Whether I could have emulated them from pure observation seems doubtful, but in any case I have been privileged to experience a fair amount of direct contact with people living in conditions of, by North American standards, dreadful dysfunctionality.
3.2 Biographical Details (God Help My Readers)
A few days in rural northern Mexico on a short-term mission trip just after Christmas of my senior year of high school produced an—at least, partial—cranio-rectal extraction. We spent most of the week in Galeana, Nuevo León, with a memorable side trip fifteen kilometers northwest to the village of Dieciocho de Marzo, a couple of thousand meters up in the Sierra Madre Oriental. “Diesiocho,” as it was abbreviated, seems to have been named in honor of Aniversario de la Expropiación petrolera, which event, whaddaya know, did nothing for ordinary Mexicans. Certainly not these: a sort of ditch ran down the middle of the main street and was both the water supply and the drain for any and all waste. I vaguely recall a few phone lines but no electricity. Dwellings were huts with no utilities, dirt floors, and a generally … minimal ambiance. Children were dying of easily preventable diseases, often hepatitis. Meanwhile, just to make things more interesting, in a larger context, the peso was going off a cliff (of course, the dollar was too, this being upwards of three years pre-Volcker, but less drastically, analogous to a hiker able to outrun a less fit companion being chased by a bear).
Now, I was pretty far left politically at the time, but I had eyes in my head, and my overwhelming impression was: I don’t know what we’re doing in the US, but we’re getting something right, at least relative to this place. Actually it was quite harrowing to my young suburban self, notwithstanding my often-disrupted upbringing, and to this day I would recommend that nearly every American teenager get dropped into an environment like that for a week or so.
Three months short of forty-three years later and twenty-eight degrees of latitude to the east, as I was turning sixty, I was exfiltrated from La Vallée-de-Jacmel, Haiti. I was with a small team that had spent the week working on various infrastructure items (electrical, IT, and fixed-wireless connectivity) at the Merlet Center in Mizak, ten kilometers west and six hundred meters above Jacmel, besides making connections with local artisans and visiting studios and shops in town. We had already encountered one burning barricade a couple of afternoons before, but it was blocks away and easily routed around.
Things got a little livelier on the way out. Our team was picked up at Peace Inn in Mizak (18°15’20” N, 72°36’35” W) at 5:30 AM local time. We were to have taken Route Nationale #4 over the Chaîne de la Selle to Carrefour du Fort Léogâne, then RN2 to Port-au-Prince; the total distance by road is ~90 km. Our objective was the Hibiscus Guesthouse in Village Thomas Théodat, a neighborhood north of the east end of Aéroport International Toussaint Louverture (PAP). After coming in from the west on Route Nationale #2, I expected the tricky spots to be around the Champ de Mars (roughly the equivalent of our National Mall) and—my best guess—the intersection of Delmas 33 and Route de Delmas. If all had gone well, we could have reached the guesthouse by 9 AM. But only a quarter of an hour into the journey, after crossing the Pont Rivière Gauche, our van driver spoke to the driver of another van returning to Jacmel from Pòtoprens and established that the road was blocked somewhere ahead.
Understand, this was my twentieth trip to Haiti in eight and a half years, but it was the first time that I had known that the only route, whether traveling to or returning from our final destination, was impassable. I’d encountered a couple of desultory roadblocks on prior trips, but foreigners are not the intended audience for such manifestasyons, and it had never taken long to be waved through. We weren’t going to get waved through this time.
Our driver mentioned that a private plane could be chartered from the local airport for $~100 per person. The team quickly agreed. We briefly discussed waiting until the next day—none of us were scheduled to fly out of PAP for two more days—but I emphatically stated that I didn’t want to spend the next twenty-four hours wondering whether it would really work, so we headed on toward town.
… and a few hundred meters west of the Rivière Grosseline, a burning barricade blocked the road. It was still dark. Somebody had gotten up really early to get that one going.
The great question, of course, was whether it would turn out to be manned, and of course if so whether those manning it would be armed. We stopped, our driver peered at it for a moment, and we drove forward at a moderate pace. As we approached we could see that although it was substantial, probably six or seven meters across and two meters thick, and pretty much of a raging bonfire, it was just possible to pull around it on either side. No one appeared to stop us as we edged past.
As “red martyrdom” occasions go, running that barikad did not feel heroic. Mostly I just felt stupid, and utterly dependent on the judgment of our driver, which proved (as usual) entirely warranted; Hayekian local knowledge FTW.
A few minutes later we pulled into the Jacmel airstrip (IATA code JAK), a couple of kilometers east of the center of town. I had ridden past it several times on the way to Raymond les Bains and never seen any activity there, but on this morning there was a 1977 Piper PA-32R-300 (N2296Q), parked outside the terminal, a more substantial building than I had realized. We actually went through security; our baggage was hand-searched by two guards who didn’t seem any worse at it than American TSA agents who do it about a thousand times more often. We paid cash, never showed ID, and one of the team wrote our names down on the flight plan. I recall one bribe of $20 to someone hanging around who didn’t seem to have any official capacity. A Haitian woman was to have joined us as a fifth passenger but was left off the flight, reasons unknown, which I found annoying as it suggested favoritism for the grand blancs.
The flight was brief, smooth, and had jaw-dropping views of the Chaîne de la Selle, the Léogâne Plain, and Baie de Port-au-Prince. Our arrival through General Aviation at PAP meant a short delay while our driver found us, nearly a kilometer east of the main terminal. On the way to the guesthouse, I saw the first UN vehicle I encountered on that trip, a plain SUV pulling into the MINUJUSTH (Mission des Nations unies pour l’appui à la Justice en Haïti) logistics center. There were two PNH (Police Nationale d’Haïti) on a motorcycle on Avenue Gerard Téodart, where we passed the remnants of several barricades without incident. We arrived at Hibiscus somewhat earlier than originally planned.
Two mornings later, our transportation to l’aéroport was a decrepit Honda Civic with no working inside door handles, no exhaust system, and a barely functional starter. The guesthouse driver poured a liter of water into the radiator immediately before starting the engine to keep it from overheating, even though the distance to be driven was only three kilometers. Our luggage proved too big for the trunk, so most of the team’s belongings were wedged in beneath the open trunk lid, which was not secured by so much as a single bungee cord. Threading through the (non-burning) remnants of at least a dozen barricades half an hour before sunrise, we high-centered on some rubble and dragged a sizable rock for a couple of hundred meters before the driver backed the car up to dislodge it. After we made the turn onto Boulevard Toussaint Louverture, there were no more barricades, thanks to the proximity of the aforementioned MINUJUSTH facility and a PNH station. There were pedestrians, of course—Port-au-Prince is very much a city that never sleeps—but not many, and few vehicles thanks to severely interrupted fuel deliveries, which had nearly stranded us altogether. One of the team members riding in the back seat later told me that the gas gauge was on “E.”
To quote myself: John Gilmore famously said that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” The future adaptation of representative democracies will depend on our capability, as individuals, to interpret endemic institutional dysfunctionality as damage and route around it. In this regard, Haiti may be more advanced than the United States—even if only in the sense of being further along a harder road.
A much harder road; all of the foregoing is to establish my bona fides as—among other things—that rarest of creatures, a Libertarian who has directly witnessed state failure. I am acutely aware that I was spared all but the briefest glimpses of the chaos which was, and is, disrupting the lives of millions. Dèyè mòn, gen mòn.
3.3 Failure Modes and Adaptations
For all the unfavorable media coverage it gets, largely a combination of narrative bias and bad news bias, Haiti is hardly unique, even in the Caribbean Rim, most of which is seriously dysfunctional; indeed, if I were forced to choose among emigrating to Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, I would probably choose Haiti. Several other Caribbean nations are only moderately better off.
Haiti’s recent troubles are directly downstream of the destruction of the Venezuelan economy by “Bolivarianism” and attendant collapse of the Petrocaribe regional oil procurement agreement. As I described it in Ayiti Pa Nimewo Yo, “something at least twice as bad as the oil shocks of the ’70s happening to a country with 3% of our per capita wealth creation … and, per the Lewis Model, a ‘multi-active’ culture which does not plan ahead in the North American ‘linear-active’ manner.”
The result is not a simple absence of everyday amenities: energy, food, or other consumables. It is rather a years-long series of brief, unpredictable interruptions and spot shortages. Again, not confined to Haiti—see the ongoing problems with the Nigerian, Pakistani, and South African power grids.
The situation to adapt to is not one of certain collapse, but one of continual uncertainty and intermittent availability of goods and services. And the thing to notice is human behavior in that situation, because hundreds of millions of people around the world are living it this very year. Think of a dimmer switch—actually, of a whole bank of dimmer switches, some set much higher or lower than others, and fluctuating wildly—rather than a single knife switch.
Remember, the population of these countries is increasing; Nigeria and Pakistan are growing by well over 2% a year and will easily double by mid-century. Even Haiti is growing slowly, notwithstanding a torrent of emigration.
So our expectation should not be a population crash. It should be of adaptation. Difficult and stressful adaptation, to be sure, but not our world ending with a whimper. What would you do if, from now on, filling stations had gasoline only two days a week, and you couldn’t know in advance which two? Your electric utility implemented load shedding twelve hours in every twenty-four, with minimal advance notice? Grocery stores started getting deliveries practically at random rather than any kind of steady flow?
The details of adaptation are, in one sense, a matter of local conditions. But I think it very safe to say that we as Americans would begin striking a very different balance between τέχνη and φιλία, and would begin incorporating a good deal of ξενία too.
There is an almost direct tradeoff between institutional functionality and the number, and purpose, of friendships that the average person has. As American society has grown more technologically convenient, with a vast array of automated services requiring no direct physical presence, the percentage of people reporting no close friends has grown from 3% to 13% over the past three decades. The percentage reporting three or fewer close friends has grown from 27% to 49% over that time span. I note that 13% + 49% = 62%, which would be a landslide majority in any election.
American TFR notoriously remained at or below replacement level beginning in 1972, and is currently only about 1.6. For comparison, Haitian TFR, although it is declining, is still nearly 2.9, and was nearly 5.5 in 1990. Haitian families are far larger than American ones, and Haitian extended families are huge, with scores of members. The overall gregariousness of the place is obvious to any foreign visitor, and even in rural areas, households of 6-7 people are rarely more than a couple of hundred meters apart, and usually less, yielding population densities of hundreds per square kilometer. In all likelihood, the average Haitian has more close friends than those in the best-connected decile of people in the US.
In any general breakdown of availability of reliable utilities, regular food supplies, or—perhaps most importantly—information about their near-future availability, technical skills will recede in importance, and friendship advance in importance, by comparison with their prioritization in American society today. That’s how a noticeable fraction of humanity survives, contrasting with our materially wealthy but (historically) strangely isolated existence.
Hospitality, up to and including deliberate welcoming of strangers, will become important as well, because some parts of the country are going to be a lot more livable than others, and word will get out. To be sure, movement won’t be as easy, but there will still be some general ability to move toward more prosperous or otherwise tolerable places, and a few years of Third World functionality could easily see close to a hundred million people move to a different state or even a different time zone.
3.4 What I Am Not Saying
While my scenario differs greatly from Bill’s, the above is not a pollyannaish prediction. In any long-term, large-scale disruption, plenty of people are going to die, or at least die noticeably younger; to give you some idea, male life expectancy in Haiti is 60.
And I again emphasize the differential nature of the effect, and reiterate a favorite saying from a friend of mine who spent much of his career in the KCPD’s Office of Emergency Management: “All disasters are local.” Looking at the WaPo’s “Super Zips” evaluation of a decade ago, I find 64126/7/8 in the bottom centile of the entire country. MHI and educational attainment may be taken, in some cases, as proxies for social capital, and social-capital-as-φιλία, to say nothing of an abundance mentality, are literal orders of magnitude more prevalent in (to cite an extreme example) 64113 than they are on the East Side. This is where I give my readers the homework assignment of digging up the numbers for various neighborhoods in their own localities.
I can easily imagine 64128 losing most of its population, much of it people dying in place, while the likes of 64113—and of course most of Johnson County, KS—remain nearly unscathed. De jure institutional functionality may be largely lacking in a broadly disrupted environment, but Americans are going to self-organize, and the better off they are to begin with, the more effective that Tocquevillian response will be.
Specific aspects of the breakdown will, of course, be highly unpleasant, often the ones that affect systems running in the background of our lives, which have been as transparent to us as water to fish. A missions worker I once lodged with in Port-au-Prince told me that he found it intensely stressful to lie in bed at night wondering if, or when, the power was going to go out and he would have to get up and start a generator. Such lifestyle elements may become common in our Crisis Era, and people who for any reason resist making emotional adjustments will be among the most vulnerable.
Those emotional adjustments are certain to include both ξενία and its complement of becoming self-supporting as quickly as possible in the event of displacement, which will constitute a whole second wave of selection pressures. Many will fail—but many will succeed.
In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
— Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition