Politics Blog

Book review: Whatcom planning commissioner predicts collapse of civilization

Review of Walter Haugen's books "The Laws of Physics Are On My Side" (Jan. 2013) and "Hints For Managing Collapse" (April 2014).

Available at Amazon (see links above).

"It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine." -- REM

"One of the things I don't like about mainstream journalism is how assumptions are made that us environmentalists are the wackos. It is just the opposite. Those who deny climate warming are the wackos. Those who trade short-term profits for the health of their grandchildren are the wackos." -- Walter Haugen

To read Walter Haugen, whether in his two recent self-published books or on The Bellingham Herald's online comments, is to gain insight into the frustrations and the anger of a 45-year activist who admits that raging against the machine so diligently over those decades hasn't accomplished much.

Haugen gained a more public profile in February when he was seated as one of the new members of the Whatcom County Planning Commission. Haugen says he prefers doing real work to sitting in meetings, but he suggested in his application for the commission that he wanted to change how the nine-member advisory body approached decision making.

"All decisions seem to be made under the false assumption that good times are 'just around the corner.' There is no Plan B," Haugen wrote in his application.

By Haugen's own logic, his foray into working within government is set up for failure. As Haugen writes, Plan B is working within the system.

"The problem is that getting governmental change is itself dependent upon massive citizen involvement, which has proven ineffective over the last 40+ years. ... Plan B is a dismal failure," Haugen wrote in "Hints For Managing Collapse."

It may be best, then, not to look to Haugen's actions on the Planning Commission for what he hopes to accomplish. That can be found in his books: "Collapse" was released on Amazon.com last month. He published his original text on the collapse of American civilization, "The Laws of Physics Are on My Side," in 2013.

Haugen's dire take on the status quo is not new. His books are well researched and lean heavily on earlier texts, including Joseph Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Societies," first published in 1988.

Apocalyptic thinking seems to echo in the cultural corridors these days. Everywhere you turn, there's another reference to how we're wrecking the planet. Headlines in large type jump off the newspapers declaring new, frightening predictions for the rise of sea levels owing to global warming. Author Elizabeth Kolbert declared in her book from earlier this year that we are in the midst of a mass extinction.

Al Gore reviewed Kolbert's "The 6th Extinction" in February in the New York Times. Gore wrote,

In the modern era, three factors have combined to radically disrupt the relationship between civilization and the earth’s ecosystem: the unparalleled surge in human population that has quadrupled our numbers in less than a hundred years; the development of powerful new technologies that magnify the per capita impact of all seven billion of us, soon to be nine billion or more; and the emergence of a hegemonic ideology that exalts short-term thinking and ignores the true long-term cost and consequences of the choices we’re making in industry, energy policy, agriculture, forestry and politics.   

This aligns well with Haugen's take on the state of the world.

The book "Collapse" by Jared Diamond was published in 2005 but has maintained its currency. Diamond wrote that if you don't believe the world is already coming apart, then you're not paying attention:

Just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of getting politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing. When people are desperate, undernourished and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.   

The line of thinking that leads Haugen to the collapse of our consumerist, fossil-fuel-dependent society is summarized thusly by the author himself, in "Managing Collapse:"

In a nutshell, we have been using culture (sets of behavior passed between generations) for the last two million years. Culture acts as a buffer between us and the environment. However, since the Second Industrial Revolution (post-Civil War, cheap oil, more sophisticated manufacturing processes), we have been replacing culture with cheap oil energy. Now that oil is not so cheap, we face civilization's collapse since there are far too many humans for the planet to support without massive quantities of cheap oil. This means die-off and a return to real farming with human labor.   

What Haugen really means here, as he explains elsewhere, is that there are too many Americans on the planet.

"It is time to lay the blame at the door of the people who consume the most energy," Haugen writes in "Physics." "Since World War II, the greatest threat to civilization has been the energy wasted in the United States of America."

If we haven't reached peak oil production yet, it is just around the corner. Extracting oil from shale in North Dakota or tar sands in Canada may have prolonged the peak, but not for long. Once the readily accessible oil becomes more scarce, the price will shoot up. That pressure on world economies, coupled with the increasing pressure exerted by climate change, will induce the collapse.

From "Physics:"

We have overshot the carrying capacity of the earth several times over. This has only been possible because of large quantities of cheap oil energy we use to grow food and make products necessary for our lives. ... Large-scale die-off is inevitable -- UNLESS we adopt alternative means of feeding ourselves.   

After reviewing all of Haugen's references to die-off, I don't give much credence to this "unless." At times, as in this passage in "Managing Collapse," he comes out with a more certain prediction of doom:

"As I said before, we WILL have global die-off and that will destroy markets, interstate infrastructure and most governmental programs."

Haugen says the collapse will begin in the 2020s. By 2100, the population will fall from about 8 billion to 1.5 billion.

"Most of us will not be here to see this unfold, but your children and grandchildren will be spending a significant amount of their time burying bodies. It will NOT be pleasant," Haugen writes in "Managing Collapse."

Despite this grim picture, Haugen's description of the future isn't unpleasant enough.

After state society collapses, community organization will revert to tribes, bands and clans. Haugen urges people to grow their own food, and/or enthusiastically support farmers who are already growing food. (He even suggests that people mail cash to farmers with the note, "Keep up the good work.")

He gets to the nub of the solution in this passage from "Managing Collapse:"

"The simplest solution is to utilize more human labor on smaller patches of land that can provide a lot of food in a small space. These small patches can be intensively managed to increase soil fertility, increase diversity to deal with the vagaries of climate and weather."

As Haugen writes in "Physics," "The best preparation you can give your children and grandchildren for the future is to teach them how to use a shovel."

Haugen writes of the ascendance of alternative currencies, the effectiveness of silver as a currency (he's already holding some), gifting between clans as in the Northwest native tradition of "potlatch," and putting those who come knocking on your door to work:

When you have food while others do not, you have the ability to direct other projects. For instance, if many people are coming out to your farm because they need food, you can persuade some of them to start distribution networks. This is just one example of how to advance your agenda to benefit everyone. ("Managing Collapse")   

Haugen likens the American Empire to the Roman. The next Dark Ages, as Haugen sees it, won't be that bad. His vision borders on utopia: like-minded people trading food, goods or skills directly or via a locally developed currency; more people learning how to grow their own food; the expansion of a local network Haugen has been trying to establish over the past decade through farmers markets.

I see a couple roadblocks to this scenario: the U.S. government and desperate people with guns. "Guns" never get a mention in either of Haugen's books (except within the title of Diamond's earlier book, "Guns, Germs and Steel"). Armed bands will be intent on stealing whatever they can get to survive, including the food and water of vulnerable families. Already established farms would seem to be a popular target for these groups. I suspect those people who come hungry to Haugen's farm won't be as polite as the author suggests.

And who thinks the federal government is going to just lay down and let its power slip away? The U.S. has a strategic reserve of about 700 million barrels of oil. That's enough for 36 days of normal national consumption at 2013 rates. But how long would it last if the government were to hoard it for use by military and other state vehicles? Who would get to the Whatcom farms first, the armed band of hungry citizens or the soldiers marching behind a tank?

Haugen's books advocate a lifestyle change. They are a how-to guide for optimizing planting space in a garden -- information made all the more useful because the local grocery store shelves will be empty. The books also are social commentary, the product of 45 years of thinking about and acting on the issues the author writes about. The books are compelling both as a gardener's guide and as an indictment of American profligacy. The marriage of the two themes, however, doesn't work in that its pastoral depiction of quiet farming in the post-collapse world isn't convincing.

Haugen gives us tantalizing glimpses of the turmoil to come after the collapse, but he doesn't take it nearly far enough:

We may console ourselves that we live in a rural area here in Whatcom County, Washington, but it seems to me we should not forget we have a large metro area to both the north (Vancouver) and the south of us (Seattle). Nor should we forget the human misery likely to ensue in the near future -- concentrated in the urban areas and spreading the effects all around each region. ("Managing Collapse")   

Haugen's words in another context are worth repeating here: "It will NOT be pleasant."