The Many Flavors of Doom

Change the incentives and feedback loops and you change the flavor of Doom we’re about to be served.

There are many flavors of Doom, and new flavors are being introduced at a dizzying rate. We’ve gone from chocolate and vanilla (thermonuclear war and mass starvation) to if not quite 31 flavors, certainly a colorful array of options.

Climate change has been quite the rage (ahem), but war is rapidly increasing its share of the doom mindspace.

The competition includes both ends of the spectrum: Doom Porn and Empty Optimism. On the Doom Porn end, there’s the crowd favorites (Zombie Apocalypse, nuclear war Apocalypse, climate Apocalypse, etc.) which feature the complete collapse of human civilization, and on the other end, the magical thinking of Empty Optimism, which features fantasies of everyone flitting about in electrified car-helicopters and abundance so cheap that it’s basically free to the entire world.

The reason why the flavors of Doom are enduringly popular is human history offers a plentitude of examples of collapse and very few of abundance so cheap that it’s basically free. Civilizations tend to expand up to the carrying capacity of available resources, and then something or other slides down the slippery slope and resources are no longer available at prices that are affordable to the masses.

I’ve often recommended books exploring the dynamics of decline / collapse, including:

The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization

Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History (2016)

End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Political Disintegration (2023)

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

The Collapse of Complex Societies

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The fall of the Roman Empire: a new history of Rome and the Barbarians

Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century

There are many others, of course, but these ten offer a fairly comprehensive overview of historically grounded Doom.

Two things are generally overlooked in Doom Porn: feedback loops and self-interest. Collapse doesn’t serve the interests of everyone enjoying the relative security of stability, and so they will devote themselves to staving off collapse. As for feedback, collapse tends to occur when the forces of positive feedback–feedback that is self-reinforcing–overwhelms negative feedback–feedback that arises in response to positive feedback. For example, higher concentrations of CO2 cause higher rates of growth in flora, which increases their uptake of CO2.

In human history, collapse often seems to occur as self-reinforcing positive feedback or polycrisis overwhelm the system’s buffers and stabilizing efforts. I discussed the role of polycrisis in Western Rome’s collapse in Why Rome Collapsed: Lessons For the Present (8/11/23, first sent to subscribers).

To reduce costs, systems are optimized for a specific set of conditions and challenges. Redundancy has a cost, but the value of redundancy (for example, having two eyes) far outweighs the modest expense. On the other hand, we don’t place two engines in vehicles in case one fails because the cost is simply too high and the payoff too meager.

The same is true of buffers such as stores of grain and energy, cash in savings accounts, etc. Buffers tend to be maintained for “normal” drawdowns / crises: levees are maintained for “normal” floods, for example, and the sacrificing of consumption to build up cash savings is limited to stashing enough cash to tide the entity / household through a “normal” drawdown.

The longer the “good times” of stability and a scarcity of crises, the greater the pressure to further reduce redundancies and buffers. Why maintain a full reserve of grain, energy, water, etc. when it’s never tapped? And so the pleasures and conveniences of consumption today override the expensive prudence of reserves.

Institutional expertise in dealing with polycrisis also atrophies as the experienced managers retire. The Old Breed who had actually managed the chaotic response to polycrisis are gone and so the institutional memory of that experience has faded.

Instead, managers do more of what’s failing, not only because their experience is that “this will be enough to solve the crisis” but also because any larger, more comprehensive response will demand sacrifices of financially-politically powerful constituencies who will resist making any sacrifices until it’s too late.

In other words, clinging to the magical thinking that a modest, no-sacrifices-necessary response will be enough to restore stability is a core cause of collapse. This is of course an extremely compelling form of denial, a topic I recently explored in The Peculiar Power of Denial (9/18/23): we don’t want to deal with chaotic multiple crises, so we wave a magic wand and declare that a “normal” response will be enough, blind to the potential of the tepid “normal” response to make things even more destabilized and precarious.

In my book Global Crisis, National Renewal, I argue that no nation clinging to the current waste is growth / landfill economy will survive the emergent global polycrisis. Only those nations that embrace a set of values other than maximizing waste in the name of an illusion of “growth” and boosting the financial gains of elites will have the means necessary to adapt and emerge not just as survivors but as more adaptable and resilient.

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