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The Collapse of Industrial Societies

by Richard Heinberg

Excerpted from From his book Powerdown

Perhaps, as I have indicated already, the collapse of industrial societies is at this point unavoidable. Still more distressing is the likelihood that the collapse will not occur in a measured, controlled manner. The managers in charge if the world’s economic, political, and military regimes are immensely powerful within the context of the present world system, but they may be utterly incapable of preventing the disintegration of that system, since the only actions they can take that will be significantly effective toward that end will also tend to undermine their own power and authority vis-à-vis competing regimes and managers. Thus, the system actively discourages steps toward its own preservation.

That is indeed a bitter pill to swallow. It takes more than a few minutes to come to terms with the implications. Perhaps for the moment it may be better just to consider collapse as a possibility, a mere hypothesis. If this is what is in store, what should our response be?


Our first instinctual thought must inevitably travel along lines of personal and family survival. Where should we go? What would we need? What sort of climate, how much garden space? What would be our water source? Should we stock up on guns and ammo?

It doesn’t take long, following that path, to arrive at a dead end. It is difficulty to plan for personal survival in the context of unpredictable social chaos. If I have a garden but my neighbors are hungry, I must either defend my land with deadly force or watch my crops disappear. But what if someone else has more guns, or comes when I am asleep?

Ultimately, personal survival will depend on community survival. But, then, if my community is prospering while neighboring communities are mired in hunger and violence, then my community will have to defend itself. And if my community does manage to preserve itself, what will life be like after the disappearance of communication networks (including television, radio, newspapers, and book publishers), the collapse of school systems and libraries – in short, the vanishing of the entire cultural infrastructure that enables us to understand our world and communicate across time and space?

Might human cultural life descend to mere existence? Pre-industrial peoples at least ha PDsmall.jpg d elaborate oral traditions that grounded their communities in the local terrain and wove together the needs and interests of generations. The industrial interval has shredded traditional cultures and replaced them with a global consumer spectacle. Once the latter is gone, the survivors of its demise will run the risk of becoming cultureless wraiths condemned to subsist on decaying memories of what life was like before the great crash, but with few living traditions to guide them.

Thus, as industrial civilization sputters and dies, it will make sense for us to try to preserve as much as possible both of nature and of whatever practical knowledge, music, art, or philosophy can help sustain us and our descendants.

It is important to draw a distinction between the preservationist communities of service that I am advocating, and mere survivalist communities. The latter exist primarily for the benefit of their members. Such communities will be regarded with suspicion and envy by others, and will be perpetually on the defensive. Preservationalist communities, by contrast, will persist through acts of service that will make them indispensible to the regional population. Members of such communities will teach important skills – food growing and storage, tool and clothing making, house and boat building, renewable energy generation, and much more; and provide healing, entertainment, general education, spiritual leadership and counseling, exchange depots for food and other commodities, seed banks, biodiversity refuges, and more. Survivalist communities will need to protect themselves from the people around them; preservationist communities will be protected by the people they serve.