Friday, July 29, 2011

Ghost Town Blues

I saw a very interesting piece (here) on the shift of population from America's rural areas to the cities, especially the northeast.  This really isn't news to anyone who has spent any time in a rural town in recent years.  If you go to "main street," you'll see most of the beautiful old brick buildings have fallen into disrepair, with cracked or boarded up windows, peeling paint, water damage.  They no longer serve any use, no more than a castle in the countryside in Europe.  Yeah, sure, you might find something like a photo studio in one, a pizza parlor in another, maybe even a government office, but mostly, the occupants are like pigeons living in the loft of an abandoned mansion -- they're there, but just because it's there and have no real tie to the place.

Interestingly, the piece even talks about post offices closing up.  This is in addition to sheriff's departments who are increasingly unable to provide patrol services to rural areas as their own budgets evaporate.  So, not only are rural areas losing population, they are also losing any kind of political organization.  Roads, also, are going back to gravel and bridges that are in need of maintenance or are damaged are often simply closed until the necessary funding can be found (good luck).  Of course, some roads aren't all that passable to begin with. 
Part of the problem is the loss of jobs in the rural areas.  Farming is increasingly done on a very large scale, requiring lots of energy input and expensive machinery, putting it out of the reach of most people as a practical way of making a living.  A number of the plants which were opened in rural areas (due to low land costs and lower living costs) are closing or relocating because of the economy and rising shipping costs.  Of course, as population shifts, all the service-based businesses close as well, as there's no one left to patronize those businesses.

This seems to be a trend with most empires, at any rate.  Rome, for example, was relatively decentralized for quite a long time, with the bulk of the population being composed of small-scale farmers.  As slavery increased, and landowners grew and consolidated their holdings, the population tended to move to the cities and seek handouts, leaving the rural areas relatively deserted.  In turn, this put considerable pressure on the administration and stability of the Imperial cities, that of trying to make sure the populace was fed and didn't riot or revolt.  While arguably not a factor which directly contributed to the fall of Rome, it isn't hard to imagine that it made the Empire somewhat less flexible and able to respond to other problems.

There are some obvious implications for modern America here.  One is that the loss of smaller-scale farming, distributed populations, and close ties to rural areas, means that agriculture and food distribution is going to wind up being even more "brittle" than it has been in the past, and dependent on effective transportation.  Another is that the population which moves to the cities is probably not any more likely to find work than it would have in the countryside -- the continuing Depression, combined with the fact that many people are going to be competing with an established labor force that already has existing social connections, means that opportunities will be limited, even on a generational basis.  Politicians are going to face the dilemma of trying to fund social programs to appease an increasingly restless urban population and further ruining the budgets, or are going to face a situation like the Paris communues -- modern "ghettos" which erupt in violence from time to time (I'm reminded of "Mega-City One" from Judge Dredd, too).

As it gets harder and harder to maintain a workable economy, too, the cities are obviously going to see a serious degregdation in living standards.  While people have advocated staying in urban areas during periods of collapse, it may get to the point where they are not worth occupying any longer, by any rational measure.  The larger the population, the worse these problems will be. 

On the other hand, this does present some opportunities for people who are interested in transitioning to a post-oil, post-industrial lifestyle.  Entire towns are up for sale now, apparently, and more and more land is going to simply be abandoned and allowed to become overgrown again.  One aspect of the Leibowitz Society's philosophy has been the exploration of forming communities around the preservation of knowledge, similar to Dark Ages monasteries, meaning that these efforts would find plenty of open and unused space.  It is obviously up to the individual to decide what their best course is, but this is still some food for thought.  The key idea to remember is that what a person who has grown up in the information age is looking in terms of dwelling space or lifestyle is going to be vastly different from a person who is contemplating the transition to post-collapse life. 


  1. Its really hard to say. First of all, the trend towards robotics and automation, where technology is putting more and more people out of work, is running headlong into peak oil and slowing innovation. One will undercut the other. But the whole go to work/ get paid/ spend money or save money paradigm is a product of the industrial revolution, and will probably no longer hold in a deindustrialized world. I have no idea how long this will take or what will replace it.

    Also, is a better to be in a place that has already essentially collapsed, like these depopulated rural areas, where land is cheap but there are no jobs or services, or in a place that is still functioning and where you can continue the twentieth century lifestyle for a little longer, but with increasing stress and difficulty? Again, I have no idea.

    I don't think analogies with the Roman Empire are very appropriate. First, as Tainter pointed out, the Roman Empire was well managed enough to go through a very slow decline, lasting centuries. Emperors had no compunction in abandoning entire provinces when they could no longer afford to administer or defend then. I don't think the American elites are that competent. Second, while civiliation collapsed pretty completely in the Western provinces (mainly, as it happens, due to the cutting of the Mediterranean trade routes by Arab raiders), we are dealing with going from a proto-industrial level of technology and organization back to unconnected farms and villages. Reversing the Industrial Revolution, which is what we are talking out in our instance, will play out very differently.

  2. Ed,

    I've wondered for a while myself about where it's best to position yourself at. I think that we still largely can have one foot in each as long as there's a halfway operational shipping infrastructure. Whatever you need, you can still send off for. Obviously, there's a larger question of finding work and being economically self-sufficient.

    I've always had troubles with Rome as a perfect analogy, but I think we can draw parallels with the overall structure. One facet was the fact that Rome was continually in a state of war or near-war out of attempts to preserve the security of the Empire, something we've really found ourselves in for a long time now. Of course, Rome faced massive barbarian migrations and credible external military threats, something we don't necessarily face (in spite of the hysterics of people trying to convince us that Mexican immigration constitutes the apocalypse).

    Good point also, about the fact that the West collapsed and it look the East a millenia longer, while everything we see now is likely to be gone.


  3. ,,,,,,,Kill all the JEWISH Bankers, and Banks, eliminate the Jewish Owned Central banks, I.E. FEDERAL RESERVE, Ben SHALOM Bernake, and the rest, and there would be world peace in 90 days, however, that would not be good for Jew business, would it.

  4. I live in a small town, but within driving distance of work and own about 10 acres. Every year I owe less, and am becoming more self sufficient. I clear land for gardens, grapes, berries, fruit trees, asparagus, rhubarb, garlic, grain crops, etc. I tap maple trees, have a breed of chickens that free roam and feed themselves, burn wood from on the property. I am constantly looking for ways I can lower my cost of living and learn anything that will make me more self sufficient. Some of the perennial crops I plant are intended to be large enough plantings to be used as a cash or barter crop if I should need to do so. I still use technology but am learning skills or knowledge that would help me to be more self sufficient. I look at other cultures and countries and history to get new ideas. I have hand tools as back up for any "machinery" that I use. Some have actually made my life easier. For everything I spend money on, I ask myself, "Is there a way I can provide that for myself off my own land?" Little by little I keep finding more things that I can do for myself. You have to start, if you wait and wonder it will be top late. It takes time and work to get to where you need to be. Right now I live in both worlds, but if this one falls apart my "other" one is well on it's way. Good Luck to Everybody!

  5. ",,,,,,,Kill all the JEWISH Bankers, and Banks, eliminate the Jewish Owned Central banks, I.E. FEDERAL RESERVE, Ben SHALOM Bernake, and the rest, and there would be world peace in 90 days"

    Killing for Peace? You f*cknuckle! Ignorant, retarded, halfwitted, dimsh*t, numbnut, racist, dodo anachronism! Apart from that, you're probably an inbred redneck sister-humping, uncle-sucking 25 Watt lightbulb.
    Y'all come back now!
    Karaoke Every Thursday!

  6. I thought about deleting the comment about Jews, but I figured I'd just let it stand to remind people of the kind of mentality they're going to have to deal with once the trappings of "civilization" are gone again. Old prejudices are going to rear up and people are going to find new ones to take their anger out on. I've already seen a little of it, from time to time, directed toward Indians who own or work in convenience stores and other similar jobs. What about Catholic vs. Protestant, Christian vs. Moslem? Atheist vs. Religious? Black vs. White vs. Brown? You'd think that people who were facing the end of industrial civilization and the prospect of personal and national ruin would be a little more introspective.

    1. Jews represent approximately 2% of the population in the U.S. and yet I've seen lists detailing the Jewish members of an Administration/Congress/Fed/regulators etc. etc. and it's WAY WAY more that 2%. It's an order of magnitude more.

      And the explanation for this is ???? What... they're just smarter, they are more diligent, better schooled? Come on. That's ignoring the elephant in the room.
      They get in these positions because there's a agenda to place them there. Which means ergo... that those powers that be at predisposed to surrounding themselves with those of the Jewish persuasion.
      And why would that be?

      Another example. Congress recently prostrated themselves in providing support for Israel (yet again). And the reason for this??? I'm waiting for a convincing argument other than MONEY power.

      Address this please and don't try to beg off or deflect the question and pretend it is racist.

      I am sick and tired of Jews sticking their hand in my pocket and also BRIBING politicians.

  7. I do agree the FED and the fractional reserve money system need to go.

  8. Banking has made trade possible, but no one really looked at the consequences of bad banking where the system would eventually eat itself. Given enough time, when inflation begins to be a painful factor in the lives of people, I would expect that calls to abolish the Fed are going to drastically increase, regardless of whether or not there is merit to that move (I tend to be skeptical of its benefit, but that discussion is probably getting off on a tangent). One interesting note is that back in the late 1800s, the problem was not having too much currency in circulation, but too little (the basis of the whole silver movement with William Jennings Bryan).

  9. This will probably sound a little strange but I'm quietly optimistic about all this. I don't know exactly why, but I am. I see much of our current society as absolutely stultifying for young people, who often seem to face the choice of college and cubicle employment or the french fry machine. Soon there may be different choices as people need to fix and grow things far more than they do today. I don't see us devolving to the middle ages, but I suspect we'll all be a whole lot more on our own.
    My own interest is metalworking, and I have a shop full of machine tools to fix things. I've been working on ways to generate power when needed.
    Some of the changes ahead will be gut wrenching, yet some may lead to a deeper, fuller life....

  10. I agree about having some hidden optimism in an otherwise ugly picture overall. I don't know if you ever saw Fight Club, but the overarching message in that movie was that of trying to find some meaning in a time when it was next to impossible to lead a meaningful life. Obviously, meaning is going to be subjective from person to person, but we have reached a point, as a society, where we are endlessly "managed," in terms of our education, our career, our lifestyle, etc. If nothing else, the decay of all those mechanisms of management means that we would at least be able to find meaning in what we do.

    In some ways, we think of collapse and of privation, but we're so excessively materialistic that we conflate the acquisition and dissipation of material wealth with meaning itself, something that would be alien to our ancestors and is alien to people who reject that sort of lifestyles (monks, both Buddhist and Catholic, for example, and other people who choose to simplify in a meaningful way). In truth, every time I get rid of something I don't need -- that I once thought I had to have -- I feel good. Maybe it's insanity, who knows, but it is what it is.

  11. I agree with Ed and others who noted that your Roman analogy is weak.

    Do you actually have any evidence that the Romans used proportionally more slaves then previously.

    Slaves (or serfs) tend to be expensive. So if you cannot get them cheap and work them to death (thus lowering the maintanance cost) you have to pay for the upkeep of someone who is not likely to work very hard (as George Washington found).

    Agricultural slavery and serfdom tended to be popular in areas where there was more land then people. The market rate for workers then would be higher then the maintance rate of slaves. England did not slowly end serfdom because they were nice, they ended it because population increases going into the 1300s (prior to Black Death) made it cheaper to pay then to enserf.

    The Romans were often at war because in a no or low growth environment, the zero sum game of conquest worked very well for the conquerors. Prior to the Empire, it was critically important to a Senator who wanted advancement, that he be able to show that he had successful military experience. It is what made Rome an Empire. When they ran into trouble is when they ran out of profitable conquests. The Germans had nothing worth taking that would justify a conquest, and the Parthians were too tough.

    History is full of the expansion and contraction of zero sum game empires of conquest. The U.S. really only fits this catagory in the area of some resources, not territories. The modern economic system allows countries to get necessary materials in large quantities without having to have actual possession. I think it is an important distinction, because there is no real geographic pull back that will solve our problems.

    How quickly Rome collapsed would look depend a lot on where you were. In Britain it was extremely quick.

    One correction on an earliet comment. It was not Arab raiding that caused the primary problem in Africa, but the Vandals conquest of the Rome's North African bread basket in what is now Tunisia (earlier site for Carthage).

  12. Russell,

    I'm not really sure what you're asking -- an increase in slavery in Rome? Or of Rome compared to other classical societies?

    A couple of references for the increase of rural slave populations:*/Servus.html

    I would agree with some of the objections raised about historical parallels. There's no such thing as a perfect analogy. Rome, for example, did not have nuclear weapons, and therefore could not use them as either a shield or club when conducting foreign affairs. The massive availability of information in the modern age is probably shaping society in an emergent way that we don't understand (and would have been completely alien to Romans). However, the near-total dominance of Rome in the late classical world can't really be ignored, as the near-total dominance of America in the modern world. We maintain bases in over a hundred countries, English has become something of a "lingua franca," we still lead the world in terms of technological development (open to argument, of course), etc.

    That said, I do regret having used the example of Rome here, simply because it distracted from what I feel are still valid points, that profound shifts in the nature/orientation/location, etc, of the population of nation-cum-empire is going to have long term effects on the stability of that nation.

    Thanks for the insights, though. It's not a subject which will ever leave these types of discussions until when/if Rome itself is ever forgotten.