By KL Cooke*
Sometimes I think about the “good old days,” and by that I do not mean my youth. Rather, I refer to the time following my retirement, but prior to becoming aware of the imminent collapse of civilization. The time when I still believed in the future. The change occurred with the financial crisis of 2008, though it was not caused by it directly. There was a series of events that began some years before with the so-called dot com meltdown. In 1999 I was involved in the launch of a telecommunications business that turned out to be like a small boat leaving harbor and sailing into the teeth of a hurricane.
Technology recovered, of course, and E-commerce is alive and well, having shaken out the early, ill-starred ventures in on-line dog food and the like. But my business remained on life-support, kept alive by heroic measures until futility forced my retirement. I was in my early sixties, with a portfolio of mutual funds, so contentment was brief. There was the oil shock of 2007, when filling the gas tank became a major budget item. More worrisome were the implications for the economy, as I was insulated from direct impact by no longer having to commute.
But then came the financial crises of 2008, when value went into free fall and there seemed to be no bottom. There has always been a business cycle. One trimmed the sails for a year and fair weather returned. But this time it was different. I had the sense that something was very wrong. I searched the Web, where for good or ill there is more information (not to be confused with knowledge) than one could ever hope to process, and came across the term “collapsitarian.” This refers to the theory that industrial civilization is about to tumble into a new Dark Age, precipitated by overpopulation, fossil fuel depletion and climate change, which will bring about global conflict, famine and epidemic disease. The more optimistic proponents foresee a near term population reduction to ten percent of the current load. The less sanguine envision mass species extinction to include Homo sapiens.
I became a collapsitarian, immersing myself in a large body of literature that has come to be known colloquially as “doomer porn,” presumably due to the addictive properties of morbidity. I found an on-line collapsitarian community. It is not quite a cult, but certainly has cult-like properties. There is no single charismatic leader, but rather a variety of gurus who keep blogs with updates detailing the process of devolution. The weekly entry is followed by a forum where a screen named commentator provides strophe and antistrophe.
There are three superstars of the doomer porn blogosphere, each with his own approach. I will refer to them here as the Wizard, the Curmudgeon and the Provocateur. They are all prolific writers who use their blogs to promote the sale of their numerous books (which I do not disparage, as given the current state of publishing, this seems to be the only way authors, save a chosen few, can hope to rise above the noise floor). That they are able to support themselves on their royalties, presumably supplemented by the occasional honorarium, speaks of their talents.
The Wizard (so called due to his background in mysticism and the occult, though this is not particularly featured in his collapse blog) takes an historical approach. Drawing from Spengler and Toynbee, he emphasizes the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of civilizations, puncturing the “myth of progress” as the fore defeated driver of economic theory since Adam Smith. His forum is strictly moderated for civility and propriety, but his followers are generally high minded. Typically they offer mélanges of social theory, religion and philosophy to answers to the coming crisis, or else describe their preparatory efforts through organic gardening and cottage industries. Political correctness is practiced to a degree.
The Curmudgeon’s background is ‘60s activism. His slant is cultural, aimed at the degradation of the American polity. His pieces are short, but highly entertaining, due to his capacity for hyperbolic vituperative hurled at the governing and elite classes, as well as the proletariat. The so-called “sheeple.” But ultimately he sounds like an exasperated missionary who has spent a lifetime watching his converts backslide. His forum is a looser ship that attracts a rowdy crowd of armchair Black Bloc types who misuse the space to express identity politics, anarchy and class envy en paroles. But the dialectic invariably
The Provocateur is Russian, though he chooses to live in the United States, as our harshest critics often do. Formerly his writings emphasized technical analysis of the unfolding crises, with suggestions on how to prepare. More recently, however, he has become a gadfly of the “West” (meaning primarily the U.S.A.), which he characterizes as a Great Satan, responsible for all ills, and upon which retribution will fall the hardest. This is not to say he lacks a case, but he presents it from a Russian centric point of view. The Motherland is held up in comparison as a paragon of stability and virtue that will weather the storm on national character. (The Soviet Union has failed, but the canard of the worker’s paradise lives on.) His tone is similar to RT, the state channel that seems less intent upon informing the viewers as on discouraging them. And both seem to assume a lack of awareness of Russian history and current events. The Provocateur’s following tends to vote the party line, like good apparatchiks.
Despite divergent points of view, these writers and their followers agree on one thing: Collapse is certain and the only questions concern depth and timing. There is little to be done to mitigate the descent and reparation such as homesteading, stockpiling or relocation will ultimately be of small value. So we talk about it week upon week, parsing the lugubrious details. But it occurs to me that the blog gurus are not so much issuing jeremiads as exploiting a niche market. A market that seems to be expanding, for where collapsitarians were once a fringe group, articles on the subject are beginning to appear in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Economist. We have scorned these publications as “cornucopian;” promoting a false doctrine of infinite resources on a finite planet. So this new mainstream interest suggests a growing undercurrent of doubt in a public formerly concerned with business as usual. Also worth noting, the purveyors of media entertainment are increasingly proffering apocalyptic fare,
Prophecies of end times are not new. If I properly understand Spengler (not an easy challenge, even in translation), the West has been in decline for a thousand years. There is also a long American tradition of predicting the exact date of Judgement Day, by preachers whose followers dispose of employment and worldly goods to await the end, only to find themselves embarrassed. Further, the current issue ofglobal warming caused greenhouse gasses follows an opposite concern from a few years back, predicting global cooling due to solar activity. Maybe the two will offset each other. Wouldn’t that be nice?
What then is the attraction of doomer porn? Is it the pleasures of the game that Dr. Eric Berne called Ain’t It Awful? I note the blog participants are typically middle age or older, with an “outsider” mentality. It may be that intimations of mortality and general frustration have given voice to a subconscious wish to bring down the roof like Samson. Further, the millennialism of the Abrahamic traditions of the West and beyond is possibly being amplified by overcrowding, wealth disparity and “red queen running,” striking a harmonic on a string of Thanatos. That we are facing global constraints of resource scarcity, climate change and financial instability is undeniable, though there are those who continue to deny. But the West, particularly the United States has a history of technocratic optimism. And for every prophet of destruction there is another predicting the triumph of technology.
When doctors disagree, who is to decide? Usually lawyers, but in this case it will be history. The more measured collspsitarians advise that collapse is a slow process. Barring a “Black Swan event,” celestial or man-made, the projected Dark Age is many generations away. We know what became of the grandeur that was Rome by accounts such as that of Rutilius in the 5th Century CE, and not long after the Eternal City was virtually empty, with the Old Forum used to raise wheat. Yet modern Rome stands atop its past, as do Istanbul and Jerusalem. Machu Picchu, by contrast, turned into a ghost town in short order, remaining such for centuries before becoming a tourist attraction. The Incas experienced a Black Swan event in the person of Pizarro. So one speculates upon the future of cities like New York, London, Beijing or São Paulo a thousand years from now, and one is tempted to fiction.
* KL Cooke is a retired project manager and veteran of the Silicon Valley. He has a new job watching grandchildren, with the rest of the time spent fishing, reading and dabbling in painting and writing.