Dougald Hine

Collapsonomics

The Institute for Collapsonomics is one of those jokes that turn out to be for real. Our mission is to keep a sense of humour while those around us are losing theirs.

PJ O'Rourke says something sensible in the introduction to Holidays in Hell, about the unnecessariness of that attitude of grave importance which journalists often assume when covering important stories:

Earnestness is just stupidity sent to college... No matter how serious the events I've witnessed, I've never noticed that being serious about them did anything to improve the fate of the people involved.

And remember, as Vinay says, "Collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee."

Get some perspective

There's now a bulging genre of collapse writing. Others can offer more authoritative lists of the best factual books on climate change, Peak Oil or economic crisis - and the more apocalyptic or survivalist end of the genre rarely holds my attention. What interests me are writers who, for one reason or another, are able to offer a longer perspective on our situation:

  • Dmitry Orlov writes from his experiences of the fall of the Soviet Union. There's a dry, dark humour and common sense to Reinventing Collapse, his comparative study of superpowers in decline. His blog - Club Orlov - is also worth keeping an eye on.
  • John Michael Greer is another blogger, author of The Archdruid Report. (He is an actual Archdruid - the Grand Archdruid, no less, of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, est 1912.). The Long Descent (2008) includes thoughtful treatment of the cultural aspects of living through decline.
  • Another essay I keep coming back to is Charles Hugh Smith's 'The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States', in which a self-declared "hick" explains why survivalists who set up cabins in the woods are making fools of themselves. "The best protection isn't owning 30 guns," he concludes, "it's having 30 people who care about you."
  • I'm pretty sure I found Smith's essay through Ran Prieur. Certainly, Ran's blog is an unfailing source of quality links and unexpected learnings. He doesn't go out of his way to publish elsewhere, but the collection of essays on his site is a treasure trove. I've already mentioned 'Beyond Civilized and Primitive' - other highlights include 'How To Save Civilization', 'How to Drop Out' and 'Your Life As Pornography'.
  • It was definitely Ran who led me to Huck Finn on Estradiol, the blog of Anne Tagonist, one of the smartest people I've found on the internet. Anne is equally likely to be writing about collapse, socioneurobiology, sexuality or the cultural assumptions implicit in modern medicine.
  • Last in this list of Collapsonomic bloggers, Sharon Astyk is too prolific for me to keep up with. What I do read of Casaubon's Book makes it worth recommending, though - not least for her interweaving of the personal and the practical with the big questions.

Money

At some point, I will add a whole separate page covering books about money. For now, Bernard Lietaer's The Future of Money (2001) is a good starting point. Lietaer started out as a Belgian central banker, one of the designers of the ECU (which became the Euro), became a currency speculator, then an advisor to governments on how to protect their currencies, and finally an academic studying the history of money and its possible futures. How's that for a career trajectory?

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

There is an emerging genre of mainstream nonfiction offering narratives about the sense that something has gone wrong in our economic lives. This is interesting, apart from anything else, for what it illustrates about how the public conversation about our situation is changing, as the possibility of a return to "business as usual" recedes.

One line, which has gathered traction lately, frames the problem in terms of the Baby Boomer generation having profited at its children's expense. See Ed Howker and Shiv Malik's Jilted Generation (2010), Tory minister David Willetts' The Pinch - or, for a US perspective, Anya Kamenetz' Generation Debt (2006). (Where British commentators emphasise the cost of housing, Kamenetz focuses on the role of student loan costs, illustrating the variation between different countries in where the strain is showing most acutely. Her follow-up, DIY U (2010), looks at the coming disruption of higher education - and includes an interview with me.)

Collapsonomic fiction

One of the earliest versions of the "intergenerational theft" thesis is Douglas Coupland's cult novel, Generation X (1991), which revolves around the idea that middle class America has been in decline since 1974.

A great piece of Collapsonomic fiction is JG Ballard's Millennium People (2003), a novel which plays amusingly with the idea of a middle class revolution in London. (I only got round to Ballard after John Gray made a big deal of his omission from the Dark Mountain manifesto - a correction for which I'm grateful.)

Another book I haven't read is PD James's The Children of Men - but Alfonso Cuarón's film is one I can watch again and again, not least for the careful detail which threads its nightmarish future back to a very familiar present. So much of the world he constructs already exists, just on the other side of the wall from some of us.

Finally, on the apocalyptic front, there's Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It is a masterly novel, but I'm equally fascinated by its huge cultural reach. Of all his books, why is it this one that led to an appearance on Oprah?

My hunch is it has to do with a wider taste for the Apocalypse - and the way in which this reinforces some very conventional American beliefs about the unbearableness of human existence outside of "The American Way". What McCarthy gives us is a photographic negative of that way of life: the characters are pushing a shopping trolley... down a road... and, at one point, what may just be the last can of Coke in the world is consumed with sacramental reverence.

The author may well be aware of and playing with this, but I suspect the book's success owes a lot to the ease with which it can be read as a straight reinforcement of American cultural absolutism.