Tag: <span>Catabolic Collapse</span>

Eschatological Frameworks

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I just finished reading the book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. It’s an explicitly Christian book, and it sets out to discuss eight different modern belief systems—things like individualism, scientific naturalism, or consumerism—and then to demonstrate why these other worldviews are inferior to Christianity. I’ll have a review of it in my monthly round-up, but I found the structure to be very interesting: this idea of explicitly breaking down the different ways one might see the world. It gave me the idea of explicitly breaking down and examining the different ways people have come up with for envisioning the future, of exploring the various eschatological frameworks, some religious, but most of them secular.

As I mentioned in my very first post (which, coincidently, went up almost exactly six years ago) the future can really go in only one of two ways. We could achieve some sort of technological singularity, a development so radical that the world is unrecognizable. This term is most commonly used with AI, but there are other possibilities, for example the internet was a soft singularity. Alternatively, modern civilization could take a sharp downward turn into collapse and catastrophe. There is no middle ground. The world of 2122, or 2100, or even 2060  is going to be very, very different from the world of 2022. I am not the only one making this claim. Holden Karnofsky, founder of GiveWall, has said that this is the most important century ever for humanity. Ian Morris, professor of Classics and author of such books as, War! What is it Good For? (see my discussion here) goes even further and says the same thing but claims it will all be taking place within the next 40 years

To be fair, basically everyone thinks the world of 2060 will be different than the world of 2020, the question is how different? Will it be surprisingly similar to today, just better? Or will it be unrecognizable? If so, will it be unrecognizable in a good way or in a bad way? Will it be an undreamt of utopia or a horrible post-apocalyptic wasteland?

I’m not sure, I have made some predictions, but revisiting those is not the point of this post. No, in this post I want to look at various frameworks people might use to make such predictions, examine the fundamental embedded assumptions within those frameworks and, most of all, discuss where each framework thinks salvation, or potential destruction, lies. Let’s start with the framework where the least is expected to happen:

Pinkerism/Neoliberalism/Fukuyama’s End of History  

Embedded assumptions: All of the statistics show that things are going great. Poverty is down and living standards are up. Everyone has more rights. Violence has dropped across the board, including that most important category: war, which hasn’t happened between Great Powers for 75 years. Beyond that, as long as we don’t sabotage ourselves, progress and technology will take care of problems like climate change and political discord as well.

What is the source of our salvation: We basically already are saved; people just don’t realize it because the process has been so gradual. But by any objective measure, the violence and want of the past have been left behind.

When Fukuyama declared an end to history in his book of the same name, he was making an eschatological claim. If you’re just going off the title, he appears to be declaring that we have already and permanently been saved. If his critics bothered to read the book they would discover that he is far more nuanced about how permanent things actually are. What he’s more arguing is that we have discovered all the tools necessary for salvation. Tools like science, market economies, free flow of migrants, etc. And there don’t appear to be any better tools out there. This is the end he’s talking about.

Steven Pinker goes even farther and claims in his book Enlightenment Now, that not only do we have the tools for salvation, but that they’re working great. We just need to keep using them, and not toss them away because they’re not working fast enough. That to the extent we have a problem it’s that we don’t have enough faith in these tools, and the minute they don’t work perfectly we immediately jump to the conclusion that they don’t work at all. 

Of course, speaking of faith, Pinker has been accused of having too much faith that these tools will continue to work in the future, despite whatever new problems arise. This is why this framework ends up with the least dramatic view of the future, because it asserts that even if something changes, and we have to transition to a new reality, that our current tools are more than capable of smoothing that transition. There will be no hard takeoff due to AI, nor a global catastrophe due to climate change. The scientific method and progress more broadly has everything necessary for success and salvation, we just need to not abandon them.

Transhumanism

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This allows us to change what it means to be human, making them better or develop powerful artificial intelligence, or other amazing things we can scarcely imagine.

What is the source of our salvation: Technology is going to allow us to get rid of all the bad parts of humanity, things like death, scarcity, and stupidity, but also violence and want. Once we’ve gotten rid of all of those things, and added lots of cool things besides, we will have essentially achieved a secular version of heaven.

Once again this framework is based on the tools of technology and progress, only in this case it’s focused not on the tools we already have, but on the tools that are being worked on. It is, of course, always possible that these tools won’t be able to do everything transhumanists imagine. As an example, some people still think that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will prove to be far more difficult to create than people imagine, but to be fair these people are rarely transhumanists. Rather transhumanists are those who believe that such developments are right around the corner. 

Robin Hanson, who doesn’t consider himself to be a transhumanist, and who also believes that AGI will be difficult to create, nevertheless wrote an entire book (see my discussion here) on uploading our brains to computers called The Age of Em. (Em is short for emulated person.) I bring this up both to demonstrate some of the debates within this ideology, but also because it’s one of the clearest examples of transhumanism’s eschatological bent. It combines immortality, a postmortal utopia, and a single salvific event. Hanson doesn’t imagine a day of judgment, the Age of Em will actually last two years in his opinion (the book is remarkably specific in its predictions) but during that time Em’s will experience a thousand years of subjective time. My religious readers may see a parallel between this and the concept of millennialism.

A few people, like our old friends the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA), who have not made an appearance in this space for a long time, but who have been on my mind a lot recently, explicitly link religion and transhumanism. Similar to Pinker they believe that technology has reduced violence and want, but they go beyond that to imagine that it will completely eliminate it, and allow resurrection and eternal life as well—that most of the things promised by Christianity (and specifically the Mormon version of it) will be brought to pass by technology.

Despite the foregoing, I don’t want to play up the religious angle of transhumanism too much, but it does rely on two kinds of faith. Faith that the miraculous technology envisioned will actually materialize, and faith that when it does it will be a good thing. For a group that doesn’t have that second form of faith we turn to a discussion of:

Existential Risk

Embedded assumptions: Technology is changing the world with incredible rapidity. And the rate at which this change is taking place is only going to increase. This acceleration will shortly outstrip our ability to manage the risks that inevitably accompany new technology. Not only will we be unable to keep ahead of the risks, but the more technology advances the bigger the risks get.

What is the source of our destruction: While the possibility exists that we might be destroyed by a comet or an asteroid. It’s far more likely we will be destroyed by the tools we’ve created, whether it be nukes, or bioweapons, or an aggressive AI. 

As you might be able to tell there is broad overlap between transhumanists and people who worry about existential risk. You might say that the former are technological optimists while the latter are technological pessimists. From my limited perspective, I think most of these people have been drifting towards the pessimistic side of things.

For an illustration of why people are pessimistic, and this eschatological framework in general, it’s best to turn to an analogy from Nick Bostrom, which has appeared a couple of times in this space:

Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

Bostrom puts forward this analogy as a way of describing the potential benefits and harms of new technologies. Many, perhaps most will be beneficial, but some will be harmful, and it’s possible that one will end up causing the end of humanity. Unfortunately it’s probably impossible to stop the development of new technology, to stop drawing balls from the urn, but we can try and imagine what sorts of technology might be dangerous and take steps to mitigate it in advance.

For most people in this space the thing they worry about the most is AI Risk. The idea that we will develop AGI but be unable to control it. That we will create gods and they will turn out to be malevolent.

Speaking of God…

Christian Eschatology

Embedded assumptions: Christian eschatology comes in lots of flavors, but at the moment the discussion is dominated by the aforementioned millennialism, which assumes that things like the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ are right around the corner. 

What is the source of our salvation: God. 

It might seem strange to discuss Christian eschatology alongside things like transhumanism and neoliberalism. On the other hand, as it’s the OG eschatology, it would seem strange not to discuss it.

As the original eschatology, Christian beliefs and language are woven all through this discussion. This is what allows me to discuss Robin Hanson’s version of “heaven”. This is what enables the MTA to imagine that technology will be the means of bringing about the end of the world, but in a good way. This cross-pollination has also gone the other way.

To be a modern eschatological framework, you have to have something to say about progress and technology. For many, perhaps even most Christians the modern world is evidence that the end must be close, that we are essentially building the Tower of Babel. (As you might imagine the MTA disagrees with this.) In this sense Christians are somewhat related to the people who worry about existential risk, though in this case they have faith that while things are going to get bad, that eventually Jesus will return and everything will turn out okay. As I’ve said before, when considering the alternatives, I think this view has a lot to recommend it.

New Age Spiritualism

Embedded assumptions: That the world has passed into a new, more enlightened era. As a consequence, we have left behind much of the evil and selfishness that used to afflict humanity, and we are on our way to embracing universal acceptance, tolerance and love.

What is the source of our salvation: An underlying spirit of progress, paired with a greater awareness of the higher morality brought about by this spirit of progress. 

It is my impression that almost no one uses the term “New Age” any more, so if you have a better term for this framework let me know. However, if you followed the link in the section heading you’ll see that “New Age” beliefs are still very common, as such it seemed worth including.

Whatever you want to call it and whatever its current influence, this framework is far less “in your face” than preceding ones. In part this is because its adherents generally feel that it’s going to be eventually successful regardless of how people act. That love, tolerance, and kindness will eventually triumph. That the arc of history is long, but that it bends towards justice”.

That said, there does appear to be a lot of frustration—by people who have a vision of what progress entails and where we’re headed—with those who don’t share their vision. It might be too much to declare that “woke ideology” overlaps with modern New Age eschatology, but it does seem to borrow a lot of the same principles, albeit with a more militant twist. But both imagine that we’re progressing towards a utopia of tolerance and kindness, and that some people are dragging their feet. 

I confess that this is the framework I understand the least, but it does seem like the foundation of much that is happening currently. And overall it translates into an eschatology that doesn’t revolve around technology, but around human attitudes and behavior.

Catabolic Collapse

Embedded assumptions: That civilization is reaching the point of diminishing productivity, growth and innovation. As a consequence of this we can’t build new things, and shortly we won’t even be able to maintain what we already have. 

What is the source of our destruction: A slow cannibalism of existing infrastructure, government programs, and social capital. 

Here we have come full circle. This is yet another slow moving eschatology, similar to Pinkerism, but in this case we’re not already saved, we’re already damned. This particular eschatological framework was first suggested by John Michael Greer, who got his start as part of the peak oil movement and has gradually shifted to commenting on late capitalism from kind of an ecosocialist perspective. Which is to say he’s very concerned about the environment and he talks a lot about the discontent of the average blue collar worker.

As a formal framework, it’s pretty obscure, but as a generalized sense of where the country is, with gas at $5/gallon, inflation, all the after effects of the pandemic, and a divided country. I think there are a lot of people who believe this is what’s happening even if they don’t have a name for it. 

The point, as I have mentioned before, is that the apocalypse will not be as cool or as deadly as you hope. There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation and it’s going to take a long time for that ruin to manifest. Even if there’s a huge worldwide pandemic, even if there’s a nuclear war. Humans are tenacious. But absent divine intervention I don’t think permanent salvation is in the cards. And I think destruction is going to end up being long and painful. 

Conclusion

In 1939, Charles Kettering, a truly amazing inventor (He held 186 patents!), said:

I am not disturbed about the future. I think it is going to be a wonderful place. I don’t like people to talk about how bad it is going to be, because I expect to spend the rest of my life in the future.

You may have heard the shortened version, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.” But what form should that concern take? And will it be a “wonderful place”? These are incredibly important questions, and it is my hope that by going through the various frameworks I’ve helped you develop some answers. 

As to my own answers to these questions, first we should note that the years immediately following Kettering’s pronouncement ended up being anything but wonderful. Instead war broke out on a scale never before seen and never since equaled. And yet I strongly suspect that Ian Morris is right, that the next forty years will be more impactful than the forty years leading up to the end of World War II. Even though those years contained World War I. And more impactful than the 40 years which started at the beginning of World War II, even though we landed on the Moon.

Because of this I think we should have an enormous amount of concern for the future because there’s a significant chance that it won’t be a wonderful place. We’ve never before been in a situation where things are changing so fast on so many fronts. And the faster things change the harder it is for us to adapt and the less likely a “wonderful” future becomes. 

I certainly hope that Pinker’s right, and we have been saved, or we will soon be saved. And certainly that idea deserves a seat at the table, but as you can see there are several other ideologies also seated at the eschatological table. Some are scary, some are interesting, but they’re all dramatic. Which is to say hang on, the next few decades are going to be bumpy.


I considered putting in Marxism as a framework, but is that really still a going concern? If it is let me know. The best way to do that is to send me money, which is both a great idea anyway, but also, if I’m not mistaken, ideologically appropriate. 


Infrastructure, Trump and the Hoover Dam

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In 1912, over the course of 11 months, the Anderson Memorial Bridge was built over the Charles River in Boston, connecting Boston with Harvard Square. 100 years later, in 2012, the government decided to repair the bridge. Those repairs have so far taken four and a half years and cost $26.5 million at last count, and that is not a final tally, they are still working on the bridge. In other words, repairing this 232 foot long bridge has taken at least five times as long as building it in the first place, and while I couldn’t find the original cost, I’m confident it’s also costing more as well (even if you adjust for inflation). This is not an isolated example. You don’t even have to leave the city of Boston to encounter another legendary example of cost and time overruns, the Big Dig, which took twice as long and was three times as expensive as originally planned. Is Boston just bad at infrastructure, or is this a problem the entire nation is grappling with? There’s certainly reason to to believe that it’s a nationwide problem, not just something unique to New England. On top of that there’s evidence that our infrastructure costs much more than similar infrastructure in similar countries.

But I’m jumping ahead, there is actually another question we should be asking first. You may be wondering what that question is. But more likely you’re wondering why we’re talking about infrastructure at all. Well, sometimes we have to put on our big boy pants and talk about stuff that, while mundane, is actually super important. We can’t spend every blog post talking about cool stuff like nuclear apocalypse, or artificial intelligence. Sometimes we have to look at the boring stuff. Though I’ll do what I can to make it less boring.

But back to the questions. Before we ask whether we’re any good at building infrastructure these days, we should be asking how bad our current infrastructure is. If our current infrastructure is fine, and we don’t need to build much in the way of new infrastructure, and the need for repair is infrequent, then it may not matter how good we are at building and repairing infrastructure. But of course this is a trick question. All right thinking people believe that our infrastructure is horrible and we should spend lots of money on it. In fact, despite not agreeing on nearly anything else, both Trump and Clinton (not to mention Sanders and Rubio) had plans to rehabilitate the American infrastructure. Of course Trump won, so whatever infrastructure improvements that actually happen will be carried out along the Trump model, which has some interesting quirks, but before we get into that, it might be useful to look at how bad the infrastructure really is.

One of the most commonly cited measurements for the quality of our infrastructure is the Infrastructure Report Card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers. For some reason the last report is for 2013, but in it the US got a D+. This sounds pretty bad, though to be fair that’s up from the last report which gave the US a D. There’s also the question of what that D+ really means, if it gets down to an F does the country’s infrastructure spontaneously collapse into rubble and dust? I hope not.

The story of how the infrastructure got to this point is one of those fascinating tales where a lot of factors ended up working in combination. I can’t possible cover all the factors, but there are a few that I find particularly interesting.

To begin with, general infrastructure, and in particular infrastructure maintenance, is one of those things that lends itself to being put off. If you’re looking to cut your budget as a municipality or a state then infrastructure maintenance is an easy place to cut. For one, there’s very little immediate impact. As I joked about above there’s not some point where roads start spontaneously disintegrating, though presumably if you go long enough you might have a bridge which spontaneously collapses. (Though thankfully that’s pretty rare.)

It’s not hard to imagine how constantly putting off or lowering the priority of maintenance could lead to poor infrastructure, but it’s also useful to place it into the larger category of things which increase fragility. Fragility being a major interest of this blog. As I have already pointed out in previous posts, fragility comes from taking small, limited profits. In this case the savings you realize from forgoing annual maintenance. The problem is that forgoing or shortchanging annual maintenance, creates the risk that you’re going to end up with a large unbounded loss. In this case a bridge collapse. Further complicating things, maintenance does not have a large built in political base pushing for more spending. Of course that all changes when something catastrophic actually happens. At that point there will be a huge outcry, but it will be too late. The damage has already been done, and most of the people responsible for shortchanging maintenance will have already retired.

Another thing to consider is the fact that most infrastructure is hidden. When you say the word infrastructure, most people think of roads, but that’s only one of the 16 categories the American Society of Civil Engineers tracks. The other 15 categories consist of areas like ports, levees and dams which the average person has very little opportunity to stress test on a day to day basis, unlike roads. One category which is a particularly good example of this is water. We all expect water to come out when we turn the tap, but some water mains are over 100 years old, and I’m sure we all know someone who has a story of a water main breaking at the worst possible time, for example on Thanksgiving. (I know someone who claims this has happened to him twice.) But even in a situation like that, most people are too busy cursing to think about governmental underinvestment in infrastructure.

It takes something like the crisis in Flint Michigan to make people realize how bad the problem is. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Flint, but to briefly review, Flint switched its water supply, and in the process failed to realize the need to add corrosion inhibitors to the new supply. Without that lead leached into the water leading to the exposure of thousands of people (at least 6000 of them children) to extremely elevated levels of lead. It may have also lead to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease which killed 10 people. In other words it was bad, and there’s plenty of blame to go around, but for our purposes I want to draw attention to the role played in the disaster by 100 year old lead pipes. No lead pipes, no lead exposure. Flint had 100 years to fix this problem and they didn’t. But of course this is a problem that no one fixes. It is not unique to Flint. In fact there are vast numbers of 100 year old lead water mains spread out all over the country.

Of course it’s not just water mains that are old, lots of our infrastructure is showing it’s age. The real infrastructure boom in the US was after World War II, which means that many of the bridges and roads and schools and power lines were built 50-60 years ago. Of course just because something was built 50-60 years ago doesn’t mean anything by itself. To take an extreme example the Pyramids were built 4500 years ago and they’re still standing. But this is where we come across one of the more fascinating stories in this whole saga. The story of reinforced concrete. It’s an interesting sidenote to the entire infrastructure crisis. And if you’ll forgive me this slight diversion, I think it’s worth delving into.

Concrete, by itself, holds up pretty well, the Roman Pantheon is made out of concrete and it’s still around after 1,900 years, so why should we be having problems with our current reinforced concrete after only 50 or 60? Well, perhaps ironically, it’s the reinforcement that’s the problem. Reinforced concrete is reinforced by steel. Steel is mostly iron. Iron rusts. Thus you have a situation where buried in every reinforced concrete structure is a slowly ticking time bomb. And it can blow up in a couple of different ways. It’s easy to see how a structure designed around new steel will bear less weight once some of that steel has been eaten away by rust. But the rust also causes the reinforcement to expand (by up to four times) which breaks away concrete, weakening the structure and letting in more water. Yet another hidden weakness in our infrastructure, and one that’s particularly hard to repair.

You may be getting a pretty good sense of why the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a D+ on infrastructure, but beyond saying things are bad it’s hard to know what to do with a D+ grade, obviously it’s subjective to a certain extent. Fortunately in addition to the letter grade they provided a dollar figure which is hopefully more concrete (get it? Concrete… Infrastructure?). The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the estimate that $3.6 trillion needs to be spent before 2020. To give you a sense of scale the entire federal budget for 2015 was $3.8 trillion. So if we could just have one year where we suspend all Social Security payments, temporarily lay-off the entire military, avoid paying interest on any bonds and route all that money to infrastructure we’ll be okay. But if we don’t? Again this is the part that I’m unclear on, but maybe running some numbers will clear things up.

I mentioned the federal budget, but, of course, much if not most of infrastructure spending takes place at the state and local level. If we add in their budgets we get a figure of somewhere in the $6.6 trillion dollar range for annual spending. So it’s not quite as bad, but if we take the $3.6 trillion recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013 and divide it up over seven years (2014-2020) we get just slightly more than $500 billion per year. This is about 8% of all government spending for a given year, or to put it in different terms it’s about what the Federal Government spends on the military every year. So it’s a lot of money.

The next step in the analysis would be to look at what we actually are spending. If we need to be spending $500, how big is the shortfall? As best I can tell we’re spending somewhat north of $400 billion once state and local spending are included. Which means we’re missing the American Society of Civil Engineers target by about $100 billion per year.

Hmm… I started this section by wondering if running some numbers would clear things up, and I’m not sure that they have. I can see several different arguments. One might argue that a 20% shortfall is not that big of a deal, and our infrastructure is probably mostly fine. It should be mentioned, since I haven’t already that the American Society of Civil Engineers is not necessarily a neutral third party. They definitely have a stake infrastructure spending. In other words it’s not inconceivable that the $3.6 trillion I started with is inflated.

On the other hand I can see making an argument that the $400 billion we are spending puts out all the short term fires and buys enough infrastructure to keep things from completely collapsing, but it’s the extra $100 billion which would help you get out in front of things. An example of this argument might be the LA freeway system, which by all accounts is constantly under construction and constantly expanding, but you never hear someone say that after this last bit of construction that everything moves smoothly. It’s a constant traffic jam and all the new construction ends up being just enough to keep the entire system from collapsing into a parking lot.

At this point I’ve spent so long talking about how bad the infrastructure is that you’ve probably forgotten the original question: Are we any good at it? But if we accept that the US infrastructure is in bad shape, then the next, obvious question is what should be done about it, and if the answer is, as Trump, and all right thinking people agree, throw a lot of money at it, it’s useful to ask how effective that will be. Interestingly Obama was in a similar position when he was elected in 2008. Before he even entered office he had proposed an $800 billion stimulus package targeted at “shovel ready” projects. In other words, when Trump proposes a big round of infrastructure spending, it’s important to remember that we’ve already been in this position and it might be instructive to look at how it turned out the last time it was tried.

After being elected Obama had no problem getting the stimulus package passed, and it was signed into law in February, shortly after his inauguration. Only after it was passed was it discovered that “shovel ready” was something of an exaggeration, a point that Obama himself admitted later in his first term. So the first lesson we should take from this is that just dumping a bunch of money into infrastructure and getting immediate results is harder than it looks.

Another takeaway from the 2009 stimulus is how underwhelming it was. As I’ve said $800 billion was spent (and to be fair, if you look at the bill it was spread out all over the place) and yet what great infrastructure projects can we point to as a result of this $800 billion? In the past spending on infrastructure got us stuff like the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the Erie Canal, the Three Gorges Dam (no, wait that’s China). But what did we get out of the 2009 stimulus? Or perhaps more appropriately what should we have expected to get? I mentioned the interstate highway system as an example of impressive infrastructure from the past. It had a total cost of $119 billion dollars. This was the finally tally in 1996, so I would assume that those are 1996 dollars (which would be $183 billion today) but it’s possible that since the interstate system took decades to build that those are not all 1996 dollars. Regardless it’s clear that the 2009 stimulus should have been able to build something equivalent to the interstate highway system perhaps several times over. Unless I’m overlooking something massive, I presume that it did not do that. I also mentioned the Hoover Dam, which cost $49 million at the time, and $700 million in today’s dollars. As I mentioned above the 2009 stimulus was spread out over a lot of different areas. But it was the equivalent of well over 1,000 Hoover Dams. I assume that as part of Obama’s stimulus we could have squeezed out at least one project of a similar scope, but yet, I’ve seen no evidence of anything which fits the bill.

Again, I ask the question, are we any good at building infrastructure? I think the answer is we aren’t, though perhaps we used to be. Does this mean Trump’s proposals are doomed? Well perhaps not doomed, but I can guarantee that it’s going to be harder and have less eventual payoff than any of the proponents of the plan think.

And here at last we tie this whole subject into the theme of the blog. Is it possible that it’s not just something wrong with infrastructure, but something wrong with us? Have we lost the ability do really impressive things? Is this evidence of a civilization in decline? For the answer to that I’ll turn to a concept I haven’t mentioned since my very first post: catabolic collapse.

Lots of people imagine that there will be some dramatic event which will cause the complete collapse of civilization. Before the event, normality, after the event and in an instant, a cannibal wasteland where only your stockpile of guns and ammo stands between you and a giant stewpot. Other people imagine that things will go on pretty much as they are, only possibly better. My position is that neither of those is very likely, though both are possible. A full scale nuclear exchange could still result in the former, or, on the other hand, maybe we have reached the End of History and things are just going to get better from here on out. My position is that over the next several decades will experience something in between.

As I said the term for this is catabolic collapse. It uses metabolism as an analogy. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As something of an oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use it as energy. Applied to infrastructure the analogy is that when we’re in an anabolic state we’re building new infrastructure, but in a catabolic state we have to consume some infrastructure (or more accurately stop maintaining it) to support the critical infrastructure. Just as in a famine your body might consume muscle mass to keep your heart working.

This is all straightforward enough, but how does a society go from an anabolic state to a catabolic state? Imagine that a society has a certain level of productivity. A large chunk of this productivity has to go into maintaining what we already have. It’s easy to see this process at work if you look at the federal budget. In any breakdown of the federal budget you’ll see a giant category labeled mandatory spending. This is money we’ve dedicated to fulfilling promises which have already been made, and to maintaining the status quo. Of course even when we look at the, somewhat inaccurately named, discretionary spending, there’s not a huge amount of wiggle room there either. No one’s just going to decide to one day eliminate the Navy. Which means that as far as new stuff goes we either have to go deeper into debt or raise taxes. Our resources do have a limit and the maintenance budget just keeps growing. Reduced to the level of infrastructure it’s very similar. We have a certain amount of resources to dedicate to infrastructure and a big chunk of that goes to maintaining what we already have and if there’s anything left over we can build new infrastructure. So far so good, but what if the resources available for infrastructure aren’t even sufficient to maintain what we already have? If that happens we enter a catabolic state. And unless the resource limitation is temporary we start down the road to catabolic collapse.

One of the problems with detecting this and doing something about it is that it can sneak up on you. For example, just because you’re building new infrastructure doesn’t mean that catabolic collapse hasn’t started. As I already mentioned, new stuff can be built at the expense of maintaining the old stuff, until of course the old stuff breaks and then you’re faced with having to conduct costly repairs and find money for new stuff as well. It’s only when that pinch occurs that catabolic collapse really becomes apparent, and even then you can expect a lot of denial.

Are we in catabolic collapse? Are the resources available for infrastructure less than the cost of maintaining what we already have? For the answer to that question it’s important to know what we mean by maintenance. And for this I’d like to turn to the story I started with. The story of the Anderson Memorial Bridge. That bridge repair has taken so long and been so costly in large part due to our expanded definition of maintenance, an expanded definition that brings on expanded costs. This expanded definition includes ordering special bricks to preserve the historical character of the bridge, additional permits, the bureaucracy, safety requirements, etc. etc. All of which didn’t exist when the bridge was first built in 1912. And the trend is to add even more “maintenance” of this type in the years to come. Is all this indicative of a robust and growing nation or more indicative of a nation whose best days are behind it? In other words, when all is said and done we’d all like to put on more muscle, but when you’re old and tired sometimes it’s just easier to sit in your recliner and yell at the TV.