The end of civilization…bit by bit

I don’t really think civilization is ending but like much of the rest of society I’m swept up in apocalyptic fever . I can remember, even as a teenager, looking at maps of the Roman Empire at its peak and wondering at what point (if ever) some minor government official, soldier, merchant, priest, whatever listened to the news at the forum, looked at a map of the known world or saw the dust of an invading barbarian army and thought to himself ‘Game over, man. Game over.’

The realization that this wasn’t a temporary glitch and things weren’t going to get any better. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Probably not ever. Does that sort of realization change you in some way? I suppose it has to at some level just in practical terms. If you’ve got a bit of extra food, perhaps you squirrel it away, tighten your belt and eat less because you can see days with no food in your future.

So, please indulge me as I occasionally through out indicators of the coming collapse.

As the Roman empire collapsed, cities emptied out. Farmland was laying fallow and often under the control of someone other than those who ran the cities so it just wasn’t possible to support big cities with lots of empty bellies. Rome went from its estimated peak of 1 million people to (again, an estimate) 20,000. In the dark ages, European ‘cities’ of 10,000 people were considered huge. Today we consider them a middling sized town.

What do you do if you’re one of those 20,000 people wandering around in a city that was built for a million? Well, there are a lot of empty buildings out there. Some people ‘re-purposed’ them, (in an audio course I just finished, the instructor spoke of evidence of people living in a Roman bath. After all, if everything ended today, how many of us would know how to build a house? And remember, you aren’t going to the Home Depot for materials…that’s gone too. Do you have the time, know-how and available labor to source the materials and put them together? Much easier to find a structure that’s already standing and move in.

As years turned into decades and centuries, the problem of materials was serious. You might be able to look your Home Depot for awhile (of course, everyone else will be looking to do so as well) but sooner or later, the last piece of plywood and box of nails will leave the shelves. We’d have to do what those poor sods in the Dark Ages did. Start pulling down Roman buildings for the well cut stone, pull nails out of whatever we could find. Tare down the old wolrd in order to build the new.

I suppose this has been peculating a little close to the front of my mind after finishing Soft Apocalypse a couple of months ago. It’s quite good and I recommend it. In fact, I’m thinking I might want to give it a reread and think about it a bit more deeply. It’s a fictional account of the general winding down of civilization over a ten year period beginning in 2023. I think does about as good of a job of portraying people’s lives in the midst of a collapsing civilization. No meteor strikes…no hordes of zombies. Just the accumulation of many small effects, countermeasures to retain/regain some sense of normalcy which, in turn, have their own unintended consequences which, before you know it, it’s all gone.

And what got me thinking about that was this article from Pacific Standard:

In 2008, according to the Eaton Blackout Tracker, there were 2,169 power outages in the U.S. affecting 25 million people. In 2011, there were more than 3,000 outages affecting 41.8 million people…the number of power outages affecting more than 50,000 people a year has more than doubled, and blackouts now drain between $80 billion and $188 billion from the U.S. economy every year.

I can’t evaluate the following but I think it’s what got me thinking about our Roman ancestors, realizing that Rome wasn’t coming to fix those nice roads, send the legions to beat back those raiding barbarians or anything else.

Once the province of survivalists and hippies, so-called normal people extoll going off the grid, especially after a grueling blackout. The remote Texas town of Presidio even got a giant battery to protect itself against shutdowns.

Creating private, or ultralocal, hedges against failing power without investing in the greater grid is the electric equivalent of creating a gated community. And this is what has happened in countries with lots of blackouts: Cities in Nigeria and India are full of private generators belching out fumes.

Huh…think it’s time to go and split some firewood. Winter gets cold around here.

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