Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

More often than not, death comes as a result of a sequence of bad choices which reinforce each other. These choices may not appear bad at the time—but they certainly do in retrospect! The end result is a situation in which no further steps can be taken that would not be either harmful or futile. This is the essence of checkmate: no moves left. At that point, none of the previous moves can be undone.
Most people have come to terms with the theory of natural selection, and can understand individual and group failure. But over the last few decades—quite recently, in fact—it has become unacceptable to speak of accepting the failure of very large corporations, societies and countries as a terminal state. They are always considered to be in need of bail-out, reorganization, aid, reform, reconstruction, development and so forth.
[...]  when serial failures are continually rescued, this allows them to bloat up until they are too large for the rescuers to deal with, at which point they become too big to not fail. When any one of them can no longer be rescued, the result is a cascaded failure that overwhelms the rest, and failure becomes crippling. Past that point, nobody gets to try much of anything ever again: society has checkmated itself.

What happens after that point bears a striking resemblance to what came before. After all, there were many insoluble problems before, and many degenerative cultural trends could be observed. It's just that there are more of them afterward, and they are more severe, but there may not be an obvious qualitative difference. It may not be immediately apparent that checkmate has arrived, and the specific point in time can become visible only in retrospect, if at all. Emergencies come and go, and people get used to the fact that the beaches are black and sometimes catch fire and burn for weeks, or that there is a ravine running through the center of town where the riverfront used to be, or that electricity is only on for a couple of hours a day. Dogs and children turn feral, but nobody remembers when that started happening, so everyone assumes that that's the way it's always been. Nor does anyone remember when it became fashionable to tattoo corporate logos on one's scalp, or to proudly display one's naked buttocks in public. An expatriate who leaves and later comes back might think that this now is a completely different country, but those who stay would be at pains to detect the difference because for them changes were too slow to rise above the threshold of perception.

The population can dwindle quite rapidly, but this too is often imperceptible. Large swaths of the landscape become depopulated, but that is not noticed by anyone because nobody goes there any more. When births exceed deaths, population increases exponentially. When deaths exceed births, population declines exponentially. There are always some maternities, and there are always some funerals; the change in the ratio of the two is not something that can be directly perceived. Societal extinction doesn't make any noise when it finally happens. Survivors simply move on. Non-survivors might as well have not existed, and the more gullible survivors come to believe the extravagant ruins they left behind to have been the work of extraterrestrials.

How does a society go about checkmating itself? There is no shortage of real-world examples, but real life is complicated, so here is a simple allegory. [...]

Dmitry's allegory is a little laboured, but to the point and worth a read.

The Oil Drum article is pretty scary. I dunno about unbreathable air and mass evacuations or a complete collapse of the Gulf sea floor -- it looks ugly enough even without going to the China Syndrome place.  (Though mass evacuations are not entirely to be ruled out -- remember the more bizarre excursions of "high Soviet" bureaucracy?)  A  complete collapse of the ocean food chain in the Gulf and possibly neighbouring waters does sound terrifyingly possible to me.

Oh hell, I really, really wish that I didn't have to know about this and I wish even more that it had not happened.  If I really, really believed that it would teach us a lesson of the "never again" flavour, I might feel a little bit better.  But since we seem to have learned nothing from (a) the historical record of collapsing civilisations or (b) the escalating "cascading disaster" track record of our own... why should this learning disability suddenly cure itself now?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Jun 17th, 2010 at 01:11:20 AM EST

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