Thursday, May 28, 2009

Red Cliffs and collapse

Not so long ago, I went with my girlfriend to watch "Red Cliffs". She was somewhat disturbed by the main characters' over the top fighting style – even though it was rather tame by Chinese standards – but what surprised her was that the film was based upon historical events. In 208 AD, the combined forces of the southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan defeated the numerically superior army of Cao Cao, making sure that China would remain divided into three distinct polities for the next sixty years. It was an event of tremendous importance in the history of China, and therefore of the world, and it is only because of the ethnocentrism of the French educational system so few people know about it.

Yet, its European counterpart, the Battle of Chalons, is still less known. I am not talking, of course of the second Battle of Chalons, where Aetius and his hodgepodge romano-germanic army defeated Attila's no less hodgepodge germano-hunnic army, but of the first one, where Aurelian forced the surrender of the last Gallic emperor Tetricus the First, ensuring the Roman Empire will remain united... and collapse far more completely than China ever did.

That is where those ancient battles matter for us, men of the twenty-first century, at the eve of a collapse quite similar to the one which befell the Roman and the Han Empires.

Societal collapse nearly always translates into political disintegration. It is a normal consequence of the way complex society works. Whenever a polity increases in size, the percentage of its resource base it has to devote to its internal functioning increases as well. As long as the increase in productivity or gross resource base makes up for it, all goes well, but the law of decreasing returns means that at some point the polity is caught between rising costs and stagnating income. Its net resource base, the one it can mobilize to face an emergency shrinks and it slowly loses the control of its territory. It can then be taken over by foreign invaders, or disintegrate as warlords or local governments seize effective control of the territory. The net result is always the same : a large polity, endowed with large potential resource it can no longer mobilize is replaced by smaller polities, with a smaller resource base but a better mobilization capacity.

That is what happened in the third century AD in both China and Europe and the outcome of this crisis is quite edifying. It was what John Michael Greer calls a maintenance crisis, a temporary, self-limiting, overshoot and it remained so in China. Cao Cao, the northern warlord failed to reunify the Han Empire, and the one Chinese Empire was replaced by three, leaner and more efficient, kingdoms which laid the foundations for the Jin dynasty.

In Europa, however, the Palmyrene and Gallic breakaway states couldn't ally and were separately defeated by a resurgent Roman Empire, which then reorganized and proceeded to exploit more efficiently – that is more ruthlessly – its resources. The result was a longish period of relative stability, followed by a depletion crisis which tore away the very fabric of Western European society.

We are at the eve of a depletion crisis. Present day polities are so complex – and therefore costly – they cannot exist without a constant inflow of energy only fossil fuels can provide. With the advent of peak-oil, they will less and less able to pay for the cost of their existence and will disintegrate. The way they will do it, however, will matter quite a lot and if they cling to their unity too long and fail to decentralize, they will only exhaust resources their successor will need to firmly establish themselves. So instead of the warring but reasonably stable Three Kingdoms, we will end up with squabbling fiefdoms.

This is, I think, a vital task peak oil activists unfortunately tend to overlook : how to make sure that will curent polities will fail, they won't be replaced by a reincarnation of the petty kingdoms of England. That certainly does not mean encouraging every wild secessionist scheme – some are reasonable project, like in Scotland, Wales or Catalonya but most others are just recipes for disasters – but encouraging decentralization, growth of regional identities and empowerment of local authorities, so that, when the time will come, we won't need a Battle of the Red Cliffs to avoid fighting the one of Badon Hill.


  1. After the last power blackout, there will be no transportation and no communications. Everything will be very local. Not even local governments will be able to govern without transportation and communications.

    Independent studies conclude that global crude oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time, demand will increase. Oil supplies will be even tighter for the U.S. As oil producing nations consume more and more oil domestically they will export less and less. Because demand is high in China, India, the Middle East, and other oil producing nations, once global oil production begins to decline, demand will always be higher than supply. Because the U.S. represents one fourth of global oil demand, whatever oil we conserve will be consumed elsewhere. Thus, conservation in the U.S. will not slow oil depletion rates significantly.

    With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, state and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated building systems.

  2. Clifford, I agree with you that no kind of government can function without some kind of transportation and that infrastructure decay will play a key role in shaping the future. Remember yet that this decay takes a long time. VIth century British warlords led their war parties along old Roman roads they certainly couldn't maintain, and while our road network may be more brittle than the Roman way, it will still be usable for decades or even centuries, even if it is only by horses.

    Beside, modern polities are very good at handling shortages and crisis. That's what they evolved for to begin with. Faced with permanent shortages or infrastructure failures, they will do what they always do in such situations : they will ration strategic commodities, including food, and focus their dwindling resources upon the most critical infrastructures, leaving the rest going to the wolves. Privatization may be a way of achieving that, by the way.

    Eventually they will lose the fight for power to warlords or local authorities, but those will work hard to keep crucial services working, just as all successor states did in the past. The Visigothic kingdom might have been less powerful and prosperous than the Roman Empire, but it was still a viable polity and so was the Kingdom of Kent or of Gwynedd.

    Moreover, transportation does not have to mean 'motorized transportation' – and motorized transportation might even be viable on a local level. There were a lot of large, reasonably centralized states in the past, and they worked reasonably well. They did not have the means to micro-manage the way we do, but trifling with their tax collectors was still a bad idea. The same way, the end of the grid, which will be a process rather than a clear-cut event, does not mean the end of electric power. Electricity can be generated locally. The problem is that it is pretty useless outside of an industrialized society.