Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Collapse Is All Around Us

My Blogger colleague over at The Hipcrime Vocab wrote an outstanding piece back on April 29th called, "What If A Collapse Happened And Nobody Noticed?" basically asserting that those in the reality based community who have been patiently waiting around for the collapse to begin should instead just take a good look around them. The whole post is fairly lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety, but concludes thusly:
People often wonder if the Romans knew at the time that their society was collapsing. Even if some intelligent and literate Romans did recognize it, could they have done anything about it? We who know better at least know that we are on our own to deal with this. You know the truth. You don't have to flee to a bunker, and you don't have to die off either (of course we all will someday, but that's a different story...). Don't wait for politicians to tell you the truth about austerity, because they never will. You can see that this engineered collapse is exactly what we've been fearing all this time. No reason to fear the collapse-look around, you're already living though it even as you read these words, and you're presumably still here. Take a deep breath. Relax. Have a beer. Listen to some music. No Zombies Required.
It's a point I've been trying to make around here, but don't think I have ever expressed nearly as well in a single post. It also got me motivated to get off my behind and do something I've been meaning to do for awhile now. Namely, go and document the evidence of collapse that lies right outside my own doorstep.

But first, a little background. I live in Fairfax County, Virginia, a well-to-do suburban burg that lies just west of the Capital Beltway outside Washington, DC. Fairfax County has long sat near the top of the list of wealthiest counties in the country on a per capita income basis. Thanks to the close proximity of the federal government, to say nothing of being the headquarters for a galaxy of Beltway Bandit government contract companies, unemployment around here has remained well below the national average all through the Great Recession, and home values didn't take nearly the hit locally that they have elsewhere. If one is living around here and is particularly numbed by the desensitizing effects of the Hologram, one might actually be forgiven for not recognizing that there is anything unusually bad going on with the economy right now.

Yet the little signs of economic collapse ARE there. All you have to do is open your eyes to them. For instance, one would think a jurisdiction as wealthy as Fairfax County would have little trouble keeping its roadways and public spaces in good order, but one would be wrong about that. Since 2008, the overall condition of the streets and roads around here has deteriorated considerably. More dramatically, the county apparently no longer has the money to keep the medians well mowed. I've lived here for 20 years, and prior to four years ago the grassy center strips were always immaculately kept, maintaining an appearance befitting a large upper middle class enclave.

To show you what I mean, this past weekend I left my house and walked exactly one block out of my subdivision and onto the main roadway that passes by our community. The following series of pictures documents what I see everyday whenever I leave to go anywhere:

What you are looking at in the photograph above is waist high weeds that have been allowed to grow completely unkempt on the roadway median. And this is not some rural highway, but basically a four lane divided street running through the middle of a residential neighborhood. Note the two houses visible on the left. Those are two brand new, hideously ugly McMansions that have been built just in the last year--the second of which is still under construction. My guess is that each of them probably cost around three quarters of a million dollars despite being placed on quarter acre lots right on the main roadway. What you see in the picture is not an aberration, but is instead typical of how similar roadways now appear all over Fairfax County.

For this second shot, I merely turned around and faced the other way. Here you can see the deplorable condition of the street surface, in which the county has now taken to literally putting patches on top of patches. This street has not been resurfaced in a at least 10 years, and this is what is happening as a result. It also is not an aberration. Although there is still street resurfacing going on in Fairfax County, these days it isn't happening nearly fast enough to keep up with the widespread deterioration of the roadways.

This last shot gives some perspective as to just how high the weeds on the median really are...basically up to above the hood level of the car passing on the opposite side of the roadway. This problem is so bad that there are actually intersections where you have to be careful when making a left hand turn because you can't easily see the oncoming traffic. That's not to say the county won't have this mess mowed at some point this year. Last summer, I think they actually did it twice when the weeds got really bad, and each time left huge mounds of clippings strewn everywhere afterwards.

Again, prior to 2008, you never saw any of this. The medians were mowed probably about as regularly as most people mow their own front lawns. I should also again emphasize that this is happening in a community that has a huge tax base and a very high property tax rate. I can only imagining what is happening in the less affluent areas of the country.

So there you have it...evidence of collapse documented with about ten minutes worth of effort on my part. It took more than twice that amount of time for me to write this post. I will bet that everyone who reads this will upon reflection now notice similar examples where they are. For it should be pretty obvious by now that collapse is not some distant future event, but something that is already happening all around us, every single day.

Bonus: "Crazy guy with a matted beard standing on the corner...shouting out 'End Times Are Here!' but nobody notices...but I can hear him loud and clear"


  1. You call that bad pavement? Those are cosmetic flaws. Visit Chicago sometime. Potholes break axles around here. Bad potholes are the ones you go down into and don't come back out of. No, that's not a constant. Yes, it happens.

    1. The roads in Illinois were bad when I lived there 20 years ago. I can only imagine.

  2. Bill, I love where you are going with this! Those pictures say so much. It is very telling to see such disrepair in an affluent area. I truly believe much will never be resurfaced or repaired again. I just don't see where the money can come from.
    Ironically, during the summer of 2010, I saw some lavish road improvements in a few rural areas in Northern Wisconsin and even some gravel roads paved. I'm pretty sure this was from stimulus money. Meanwhile, when I drive down to Minneapolis I have to keep a sharp eye out for gaping pot holes and large, flying chunks of pavement. During the summer, road repair work is constant, but never enough. And then, the most haunting reminder of the collapse of infrastructure: several times a month, I drive over the new bridge over the Mississippi River, that replaced the one that fell into the river.

    1. Dawn--funny you would mention the stimulus money. One of my real pet peeves the last few years was watching new roads being built around here with stimulus funds even as the old ones are falling apart. Madness.

    2. Reminds me Bill of the final months of the Third Reich. Hitler used new equipment and troops to create new divisions rather than to reinforce existing ones. All those new divisions looked good on a situation map, but it was all smoke and mirrors.

    3. Dawn,
      I felt the same way when my town repaved my street last year: I don't expect it to ever be paved again. Halfway through the project, I actually thought it'd be nice to just leave it as well-graded dirt -- slower traffic and more pleasant to walk on (we're in a semi-rural area about two miles from town).

      I talked to our DPW chief more recently and he estimated the town would need six times the road money it gets for at least a decade just to catch up. That won't happen. So his reasonable approach is to keep the still decent roads from "falling off the cliff;" unfortunately, the worst roads are almost all ones that connect our town to the outside world. Infrastructure decay will force localization; we'd better have food and other systems ready for it.

  3. Of course this post, which I liked, is documenting steady deterioration, not collapse. And the one you cited makes the same mistake. Collapse -- defined (noun)

    1. The act of falling down or inward, as from loss of supports.
    2. An ABRUPT failure of function, strength, or health; a breakdown.
    3. An ABRUPT loss of perceived value or of effect

    And in so far as this is what "collapse" actually means, I object to using this term when it is improperly substituted for "deterioration". And that is why I never use the term "collapse" on DOTE.

    However, the term "collapse" is a loaded term with a lot of emotional appeal for those I simply refer to as Doomers.

    And although this may seem to be a nitpick to some, it is not, especially if you're trying to give people a realistic view of what the future looks like. I have used the "boiling frog" analogy on DOTE to convey this point.

    So please don't take this the wrong way, Bill, but I wanted to say it here directly to you rather than do it on DOTE.

    And finally there is the obvious point that one day in the unknown future steady deterioration will trigger an actual societal collapse. But we can't know when that day is coming. And at some point in the longer-term future, it won't matter in any case. I will speak about a "collapse" on the days and after those days when one actually occurs.

    -- Dave

    1. Dave, I understand your points. I guess then the semantics would be in what is defined as abrupt. If the U.S. is no longer a unified nation state in 20 years, is that an abrupt downfall? I would argue that compared to the long downward trajectory of the Roman Empire that it is.

      But you're right, no one can say for sure exactly how this is all going to play out or when, and right now the boiling frog analogy is most apt.

    2. Hello, and thanks for the shout-out. I actually dealt with this exact topic in this post: Not Collapse - Breakdown. In it I argue that breakdown is actually a more accurate term for what we are experiencing from day-to-day, and less loaded with emotional baggage. It also gives people a more accurate sense of what's occurring that they're less likely to deny - it's hard to see collapse; it's easy to see breakdown. I still use the term collapse, however, perhaps lazily, because it is still valid for the longer process, and it does get attention. Plus, you can read why Dmitry Orlov prefers to use the term collapse.

      In the industrial Midwest, it's hard not to notice, especially with our freeze/thaw cycles.

  4. The term "abrupt" needs some context to have meaning. For instance, I would argue that the trees are dying, and hence the entire ecosystem that is dependent upon them for habitat, forage, and climate control, is in collapse. This may be just a decade or two, or even a century-long process, but considering that the species that exist today evolved tens of thousands of years ago, I would still define that as abrupt collapse. The same can be said for the chain of life in the sea.

    The issue is that humans are too stupid to notice what is unfolding before their own eyes, as long as they can point to something that isn't dead yet, or a business that hasn't folded yet, they will cling to the notion that we can deteriorate slowly and gracefully, and deny the violence of cataclysmic disaster.

    Besides, I prefer champagne to beer...and I'm glad Bill that your resolution to restrict your posts to short referrals to news stories only lasted the couple of days I was away from the computer and too busy to check in at TDS!

    1. Yep. It's also mass extinction en route: we've lost 30% of the globe's biodiversity since 1970, (the year before I was born). Not a great way to mark one's lifespan. Can we start putting heads of bankers and stockbrokers on our walls the way some put deer there?

  5. I enjoyed this post very much. I appreciated the observations and the photographs. The point is well taken.

  6. Gail is right, we are objectively in a mega extinction event right now. There are 5 or 6 mega extinction events in the fossil records. The rate at which our species is destroying other lifeforms on land and in the oceans, is such an event and rivals any in our planets history.

    The great reptiles dominated the earth for many millions of years. The age of modern humans, when our species dominated the earth is only about 200,000 years old. In evolutionary terms we are a blink of the eye. If we destroy ourselves, and our civilization, in the near future, which is a very distinct possibility, all that will remain of us is a micro thin layer of sediment in the geological record of the earth. We will seem very abrupt indeed.

  7. The abrupt financial collapse has already happened. There will be no return to growth.
    What we are now experiencing is the gradual decay brought on by that collapse.

    You could argue that Greece has 'collapsed' even further into the black hole that the US, and the rest of the developed world, is sliding down into.

  8. I am curious did they admit during the 1930s there was a depression going on, or did you get the blanked eyed stares from the upper class and out of touch types who told you to quit over-reacting? I never have seen the depth of delusion I have seen ever. Just yesterday I saw on newspaper, the report that 2 out of 3 Americans believe the economy is getting better.

    So anyone who is poor and down and out, not only suffers from that, but has their reality denied.


  9. This weekend I will be monitoring a bridge retrofit in the SF Bay Area that requires a full bridge closure, this is the last major bridge retrofit to be performed in the Bay Area.

    The Golden Gate Bridge started their retrofit back in 1999 and will be done sometime around 2017, The Oakland Bay Bridge looks to complete sometime in 2013 and the 4th bore of the Caldecott tunnel will finish in 2014.

    There is talk of a new BART trans bay tube and the unions are pushing hard for the "train to nowhere" to go forward despite heavy opposition from local communities getting their already sparse service cut by such a project.

    Things in California look good for road and rail transportation, if it weren't for that pesky state deficit...