Thoughts on civilization collapse

Epistemic status: an idea I believe moderately strongly, based on extensive reading but not rigorous analysis.

We may have a dramatically wrong idea of civilization collapse, mainly inspired by movies that obsess over dramatic tales of individual heroism.

 

Traditional view:

In a collapse, anarchy will break out, and it will be a war of all against all or small groups against small groups. Individual weaponry (including heavy weapons) and basic food production will become paramount; traditional political skills, not so much. Government collapse is long term. Towns and cities will suffer more than the countryside. The best course of action is to have a cache of weapons and food, and to run for the hills.

 

Alternative view:

In a collapse, people will cling to their identified tribe for protection. Large groups will have no difficulty suppressing or taking over individuals and small groups within their areas of influence. Individual weaponry may be important (given less of a police force), but heavy weaponry will be almost irrelevant as no small group will survive alone. Food production will be controlled by the large groups. Though the formal "government" may fall, and countries may splinter into more local groups, government will continue under the control of warlords, tribal elders, or local variants. Cities, with their large and varied-skill workforce, will suffer less than the countryside. The best course of action is to have a stash of minor luxury goods (solar-powered calculators, comic books, pornography, batteries, antiseptics) and to make contacts with those likely to become powerful after a collapse (army officers, police chiefs, religious leaders, influential families).

Possible sources to back up this alternative view:

  • The book Sapiens argues that governments and markets are the ultimate enablers of individualism, with extended-family-based tribalism as the "natural" state of humanity.
  • The history of Somalia demonstrates that laws and enforcement continue even after a government collapse, by going back to more traditional structures.
  • During China's period of anarchy, large groups remained powerful: the nationalists, the communists, the Japanese invaders. The other sections of the country were generally under the control of local warlords.
  • Rational Wiki argues that examples of collapse go against the individualism narrative.

 

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Most of the pessimistic people I talk to don't think the government will collapse. It will just get increasingly stagnant, oppressive and incompetent, and that incompetence will make it impossible for individual or corporate innovators to do anything worthwhile. Think European-style tax rates, with American-style low quality of public services.

There will also be a blurring of the line between the government and big corporations. Corporations will essentially become extensions of the bureaucracy. Because of this they will never go out of business and they will also never innovate. Think of a world where all corporations are about as competent as AmTrak.

hmm, blurred lines between corporations and political power... are you suggesting EU is already a failed state? (contrary to the widespread belief that we are just heading towards the cliff damn fast)

well, unlike Somalia, where no goverment means there is no border control and you can be robbed, raped or killed on the street anytime....

in civilized Europe our eurosocialist etatists achieved that... there are nor borders for invading millions of crimmigrants that may rob/rape/kill you anytime day or night... and as a bonus we have merkelterrorists that kill by hundreds sometimes (yeah, these uncivilized Somalis did not even manage this... what a shame, they certainly need more cultural marxist education)

It's comments like this that make me pine for the downvote button. Please keep your points specific and precise, free of vague and vast politicking.

You have started with "politicking". Now you don't like that anymore?

Too bad!

Political discussion is mostly fine as long as it is reasonable. tukabel's comment looks like kekistani babble to me and it doesn't do well on the reasonableness metric.

Political discussion is prone to be look like "kekistani bable" if you disagree. But once you've started a political discussion there will be some disagreement which will be interpreted as "kekistani bable" - or worse.

By every side in this discussion.

Political discussion is prone to be look like "kekistani bable" if you disagree

That's not true at all. Within pretty much any political ideology you can find grunt-and-scream babble (kekistani babble in alt-right, sjw babble in progressive, exploitation babble in marxist, etc.) and you can find reasonable people making reasonable points.

It's not an issue of agreeing or disagreeing, it's an issue of the level of the discussion.

Well, I haven't seen that yet. I mean a reasonable discussion between different political affiliations. Inside one camp, yes. Across some wider divisions, not yet.

Emotions are just too strong, reasons are just too flimsy.

So, how do you characterize 'Merkelterrorists' and 'crimmigrants'? Terms of reasonable discourse?

And you think your concern trolling is contributing to reasonable discourse?

Perhaps. But doesn't matter who started.

Stuart Armstrong has a lot of excellent posts about AI. But every now and then he thinks, that he should do some politics. Which is also a good decision. But then he argues from a (liberal) default, which is not as clever as his AI related views. By far.

This is from my POV, of course.

This is utterly LUDICROUS.

Look at what happened. tukabel wrote a post of rambling, grammar-impaired, hysteria-mongering hyperbole: 'invading millions of crimmigrants that may rob/rape/kill you anytime day or night'.This is utterly unquestionably NOT a rationally presented point on politics, and it does not belong on this forum, and it deserves to be downvoted into oblivion.

Stuart said he wished to be able to downvote it.

Then out of nowhere you come in and blame him personally or starting something he manifestly didn't start. It's a 100% false comment.

Upon being called out on this, you backtrack and say your earlier point didn't actually matter (meaning it was bullshit to begin with), complaining that he's gasp liberal.

But here it didn't take being liberal to want to downvote. If I agreed 100% with tukabel, I would be freaking EMBARRASSED to have that argument presented on my side. It was a really bad comment!

That much anger, for what? What does it mean?

Spreading this shitty argumentation in a place that had otherwise been quite clean, that's what's gotten under my skin.

This is not a good argumentation, at all. "It use to be fine, until I was offended by that".

It was never really fine. At first, the politics were pretty much prohibited as a "mindkiller", this was the rule of the game here. Then the standard PC views became accepted, as a kind of a default. Then some reactionaries put their views on a display and shortly after went away.

Now, the unspoken norm is to not go too far away from the PC platform, again?

It's possible to talk about politics without explicitly invoking Boo lights like 'crimmigrants' and appeals to exaggerated risks like 'may rob/rape/kill you anytime of day or night'. You can have a reasonable discussion of the problems of immigration, but this is not how you do it. Anyone who says this is A-OK argumentation and that calling it out is wrong is basically diametrically opposed to Lesswrong's core concepts.

Basically, you're accusing me of outright lying that I think that argument is quite badly written, and instead being blindly partisan. It was badly written, and I am not. I don't even know WHAT to do about the problems arising from the rapid immigration from the Middle-East into Europe. I certainly don't deny they exist. What I DO know is that talking about it like that does (ETA: not) help us approach the truth of the matter.

appeals to exaggerated risks like 'may rob/rape/kill you anytime of day or night'.

Except that risk is not in fact exaggerated.

Basically, you're accusing me of outright lying that I think that argument is quite badly written, and instead being blindly partisan.

Here's an idea. If you don't want to be accused of outright lying and being blindly partisan, try not outright lying and not being blindly partisan. Crazy idea, huh?

Your certainty that I am lying and blindly partisan appears to be much stronger than justifiable given the evidence publicly available, and from my point of view where I at least know that I am not lying… well, it makes your oh-so-clever insinuation fall a touch flat. As for being blindly partisan, what gives you the impression that I would tolerate this from the other side?

At the very least, I think this chain has shown that LessWrong is not a left-side echo chamber as Thomas has claimed above.

Except that risk is not in fact exaggerated

If so, the original expression of that risk was presented in such a fashion as to make that claim as non-credible as possible through explicit emotionally enflaming wording.

Now, the unspoken norm is to not go too far away from the PC platform, again?

No.

I'm quite far from the PC platform and I don't have any issues (that penetrate through my very thick skin, anyway :-D).

'invading millions of crimmigrants that may rob/rape/kill you anytime day or night'

Well, they are in fact robbing, killing, and raping people, and the authorities are remarkably uninterested in doing anything about it besides accusing the victims of "racism". In fact in most western European countries some who says something mean about the migrants gets a harsher sentence then a migrant who engages in robbing, killing, or raping.

This is utterly unquestionably NOT a rationally presented point on politics

Why not? Because he said something false? A better question is why you refer to the truth as "hysteria-mongering hyperbole"?

they are in fact robbing, killing, and raping people

Just like the the natives :-/

in most western European countries some who says something mean about the migrants gets a harsher sentence

Bullshit. Yes, I know, there are cherries you can pick. Still bullshit.

Why not? Because he said something false?

That too, but mostly because the content of this rant was "I don't like immigrants" and that was basically it. Adding a lot of emotionally coloured words just makes it look like a temper tantrum.

It is possible to rationally discuss the issue of immigration in Western Europe -- basically, the Europeans are not breeding (TFR is way under 2.0 in most countries) and more warm bodies do help with the economy. But the IQ and cultural issues are a big deal. The problem is complicated and crimmigrant rants do not help.

Japan is leading the way on the "we don't reproduce and no immigrants are allowed" path. Wait a bit and things will become clearer.

they are in fact robbing, killing, and raping people

Just like the the natives :-/

There is a significant qualitative difference in amount here.

in most western European countries some who says something mean about the migrants gets a harsher sentence

Bullshit. Yes, I know, there are cherries you can pick. Still bullshit.

So basically you're conceding I'm right, but still want to call bullshit on it. Sounds like a classic sign of cognitive dissonance.

Japan is leading the way on the "we don't reproduce and no immigrants are allowed" path. Wait a bit and things will become clearer.

Well, so far they aren't experiencing a huge increase rape and general crime.

So basically you're conceding I'm right, but still want to call bullshit on it.

If by "some" you literally meant nothing but "more than zero", fine. (But "some" people get harsh sentences for pretty much anything, so "some people get harsh sentences for X" is not very informative about how little X is tolerated.)

But usually "somebody who does X undergoes Y" is used to imply something like "if you do X you'll most likely undergo Y", which in this case is very far from being the case. (I just have to spend some time on Facebook to see dozens of western Europeans saying mean things about migrants and AFAIK hardly any of them have ever gotten any sentence.) So I'm getting the impression that you were using the literal meaning as the motte and the colloquial meaning as the bailey.

If by "some" you literally meant nothing but "more than zero", fine. (But "some" people get harsh sentences for pretty much anything, so "some people get harsh sentences for X" is not very informative about how little X is tolerated.)

So you consider harsh sentences for pointing out true facts about migrant behavior to be reasonable as long as it only happens to "some" people? You may want to learn about how chilling effects on free speech work.

No, I don't. I was just pointing out that you picked a very disingenuous way of stating that. (You could have said instead, for example, "some people who said something mean about the migrants have gotten harsher sentences")

true facts

Huh. I've been living for a year in a city where most of the population is foreign-born (myself included) and it doesn't look like it's going to hell. In particular I feel safer here than in certain other places with many fewer immigrants.

You may want to learn about how chilling effects on free speech work.

Judging by the number of people I hear saying ridiculous things about migrants every day, I wonder what would happen if such "chilling effects" were not in place -- would my Facebook feed ever contain anything else at all?

basically you're conceding I'm right

LOL. You wish. Work on your reading comprehension, maybe?

so far they aren't experiencing a huge increase rape and general crime

Being extinct is a very peaceful state.

in most western European countries some who says something mean about the migrants gets a harsher sentence

Bullshit. Yes, I know, there are cherries you can pick. Still bullshit.

basically you're conceding I'm right

LOL. You wish. Work on your reading comprehension, maybe?

If what I said about people getting harsher sentences for saying mean things about migrants than migrants engaging in rape was really "bullshit", you wouldn't have to engage in accusations of "cherry-picking" to pre-dissmiss any evidence. As if there is any reason for any sentence for saying mean things about migrants to be worse than the sentence for rape.

I am not pre-dismissing anything. I'm actually quite familiar with both the sorry state of the freedom of speech in Europe and the propensity of immigrants to be not quite law-abiding. But if you want to make any specific claims, show data (and note that singular of 'data" is not 'anecdote').

There is a significant qualitative difference

Did you mean to type "quantitative"? If you didn't, what difference?

Can you explain what you mean? As far as I know, different views of civilization collapses don't lie on any strong political fault-lines.

A political action is everything what a civilization does. Has no other language to speak, but politics.

And it matters a lot what it does. If our (western) civilization is to survive, it has to do the right things - politically. To avoid fundamental political questions is not only silly to try, but impossible.

Actually, it's not really needed. When Eugine uses a new account we can also ban/delete the post.

Cities, with their large and varied-skill workforce, will suffer less than the countryside.

I agree with your post except for this. Based on reading post-WWII accounts of Germany and Japan, when the economic/trade system breaks down, it becomes hard to get food if you don't live where it's being grown.

Traditional view

You mean "convenient for story-telling", right?

In a collapse, people will cling to their identified tribe for protection. Large groups will have no difficulty suppressing or taking over individuals and small groups within their areas of influence. Individual weaponry may be important (given less of a police force), but heavy weaponry will be almost irrelevant as no small group will survive alone. Food production will be controlled by the large groups.

As far as I can see you are just describing typical human political arrangements. In particular, this fits the contemporary situation quite well.

Where is the "collapse" part?

As far as I can see you are just describing typical human political arrangements. In particular, this fits the contemporary situation quite well.

Indeed. After the collapse, things will be... typical, in many ways.

After the collapse, things will be... typical, in many ways.

So we are talking about the collapse of what?

States, systems of government, current technological civilizations, those kind of things.

You are not making much sense. "Those kind of things" are very different.

States collapse (historically) often -- e.g. Somalia. Systems of government collapse occasionally -- e.g. USSR. None of these events are usually described as a "civilization collapse".

I don't know of any case of the collapse of a technological civilization. If you want to stretch the definition of "technological" you can find something in the BC eras, but that isn't very relevant. And you still haven't answered the question: what exactly will collapse? "Civilization" is a very handwavy answer.

I don't know of any case of the collapse of a technological civilization. If you want to stretch the definition of "technological" you can find something in the BC eras, but that isn't very relevant.

So what's your definition of a "technological civilization"? Can you give another example of one? Otherwise this sounds like your arguing that you are immortal because no one exactly like you has ever died.

For example, lead and copper production create characteristic types of atmospheric pollution so we can get estimates for historical world production levels from Greenland ice cores. The resulting graph for lead shows two peaks, corresponding to ancient Rome and modern civilization. The graph for copper shows three peaks, the two for lead and also Song dynasty China. The peaks are surrounded by troughs, eg, world lead production wouldn't return to Roman levels until the 18th century, so in that sense we can objectively say that technological civilizations have collapsed in the past.

So what's your definition of a "technological civilization"?

For the purposes of this discussion I'll define it as a civilization sufficiently advanced to be become global. The relevant point is that no local calamity will extinguish it, you need a planet-wide adverse event to collapse it. I think XVII century and later would count as such.

Dying out of local societies, cultures, cities, states, etc. has, of course, been a very common occurrence throughout history.

For the purposes of this discussion I'll define it as a civilization sufficiently advanced to be become global. The relevant point is that no local calamity will extinguish it,

The problem is that the global nature of civilization can also cause calamities to become global.

The Roman Empire was more global than its predecessors but was still fallen mainly by internally generated calamities.

Life is not static. All empires fall eventually.

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

There is that sentence in the post you're replying to:

If you want to stretch the definition of "technological" you can find something in the BC eras, but that isn't very relevant.

I'm not sure what you are arguing here. I think there's a large but vague concept of societal/civilization/technological collapse that people have in mind; something involving a dramatic reduction in living standards, technological regression, more simplified society, civil wars, etc... There's also a bunch of partial examples, the older ones in that link, and more recent ones like China in the 1930s, Somalia more recently, Japan and Germany at the end of WW2, and a few others.

I'm pointing out that some common ideas about the features of these collapse seem to be wrong.

Now, if you want to give the idea a more thorough analysis, please do so! If you're saying the concept is unclear, I agree. If you say it covers examples that don't belong in the same category, then separate them. If you're arguing that actually civilizations don't/won't collapse the way they used to - then that's a view I have partial sympathy with, and would love to see proved or disproved.

Go ahead and un-wave my hand at this answer.

I'm arguing that you're thinking about fiction plots and, moreover, doing so in a fuzzy and not terribly coherent way. People do have a vague concept of a civilization collapse, but they also have vague concepts of aliens in flying saucers abducting humans and livestock.

None of your recent examples is called a collapse of a civilization and they do not match your "vague concept" anyway.

I'm pointing out that some common ideas about the features of these collapse seem to be wrong.

You're vaguely waving your hand in the direction of a certain genre of fiction and declare that those people got it wrong. That seems silly on its face to me. Genre tropes are not "correct" or "wrong".

If you are critiquing real analyses of potential aftermath scenarios, please link to them.

to give the idea a more thorough analysis

I don't see any idea other than that you find dystopian tropes, ahem, unrealistic.

You could talk, instead, about much more specific scenarios. For example, defeat in a war (Germany, Japan). Or failure of the political structures (USSR). Or inability to maintain any sort of a centralized control (Somalia). They do not fit your "vague concept", but they have a big advantage of having actually happened.

I'll take a shot at it. What may collapse is the ability of any significant group of humans (say 100K+) to coordinate and to feel secure enough that they can specialize deeply enough to make digital watches.

Asteroid impact on scale of dinosaur killer. Super volcanic eruption. Regular eruption under Antarctic ice sheets or the middle of Greenland raise water levels by 10m. Total nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia.

I'm all of these cases actual societal collapse would be caused by sudden worldwide famine, not the disaster itself.

I do think you can find examples of societal breakdown in the recent past if you narrow yourself to consider local regions, such as various failed colonies, New Orleans in the days following Katrina, or Somalia or parts of Iraq.

Asteroid impact on scale of dinosaur killer. Super volcanic eruption. Regular eruption under Antarctic ice sheets or the middle of Greenland raise water levels by 10m. Total nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia.

As an aside, one of these is not like the others :-D

But sure, let's consider an dinosaur killer. So what will happen? A lot of places will lose much of their population, either directly or because of famine. A great deal of land will become nearly empty of humans. But once the nuclear winter is over and the population stabilizes, humans will rebuild.

It might take a while to get back to microprocessor fabs, but the knowledge of e.g. how to make steel and electricity will not be lost. So what if the humanity will be thrown back to the tech level of Victorian England? That was merely a century and a bit ago.

Of course, we're now in movie-plot land.

There are lots of potential proximal causes. Root cause likely to be that humans aren't well-suited for the level of peace and scale of cooperation that we've seen for the last few hundred years.

I was trying to get to something less handwavy. "Humans aren't well-suited" isn't it.

And anyway, your line of argument leads to the conclusion that we are just living constantly and permanently in the "post-collapse" state. Past the Golden Age, kicked out of the Garden of Eden, etc. etc.

Yeah, I can't predict more concretely than that - the obvious paths are somewhat preventable/recoverable. My intended argument is that we're not past the golden age, we're in a golden age. It may be so golden that it's the last one, or it may be just one of an very long series.

we're not past the golden age, we're in a golden age

Does that imply a coming collapse? Or can the ages get more and more golden?

Cities, with their large and varied-skill workforce, will suffer less than the countryside.

Cities have a large and varied workforce, but many of their skills lie in things that rely on civilisation remaining intact. Tax lawyers, bartenders, yoga instructors, investment bankers etc. all seem like they would be more of a liability than an asset in such a scenario. Whereas the countryside has skills more focused around food production, and a lower population density reduces the risks of food riots.

It would be interesting to test this. Scratch that, it would be interesting to look at natural experiments that test these theories; setting up a deliberate test would be a terrible idea.

It's not so much the tax lawyers and yoga instructors, but the population of skilled and flexible people from among which some have become tax lawyers and yoga instructors. These could become cheap accountants and work crew leaders, for instance. Bartenders would still be needed, to dispense drinks to the population; I'm pretty sure there were still bartenders in Berlin, just before it fell to the Red Army.

If I'd reading the Argentine situation correctly, cities fare much better under minor collapses, which makes sense seeing how little agriculture represents in GDP. And, everything being interconnected, this means that the countryside is dependent on the city for tools, fuel, maintenance, knowledge.

It may be different for a larger collapse, but a country will still need an industry, transport, maintenance, a functioning economy (which means ways of allocating resources, including some forms of banking), etc... these things are much more likely to be designed and adapted in cities than in the countryside.

It is possible, thinking about it, that both cities and countryside could suffer immensely, as the cities starve and the countryside is deprived of resources (and then starve for lack of modern agriculture). And there may be a short term vs long term issue; food reserves are practically non-existent for the moment, which is a huge vulnerability.

Scratch that, it would be interesting to look at natural experiments that test these theories; setting up a deliberate test would be a terrible idea.

Katrina?

Katrina?

You need larger scale. Something like Russia in 1917-1920 or one of the Chinese famines.

+1

I don't think many people would support the "traditional view" in a direct comparison, but it's probably the case that it persists as some kind of a media illusion. There's always the danger of acting on unendorsed cached thoughts. Good catch.

Assertion: Statement about heavy weapons in OP is incorrect.

In collapse scenarios any entity capable of bringing modern military technology with the attached organizational requirements to bear can and will dominate organizations which cannot.

In many collapse scenarios, political wrangling over who controls the institutions capable of managing that force becomes the dominant struggle. In Venezuela of today, for example, the government is incapable of guaranteeing security or access to reaources for the population at large, but is capable of staying in power. The standard scenario assumes that individuals can win against large, well resourced militaries, this has been true at various times in the past, but is not true today.

The 'bronze age collapse' is instructive, when everyone learned to make iron, barbarians destroyed every hierarchy and the cities fell. Today, any technology that can have a similar effect requires specialist knowledge and access to the fruits of infrastructure (Home-made explosives can be made from common industrial chemicals, but not really from things you can grow in your yard).

Destruction of social infrastructure will not create individual liberty, but it will scatter a bunch of toxic waste that will require even greater levels of development to clean up.

In Flint, MI, institutional collapse was followed by a loss of control of infrastructure, which lead(pun intended) to a collapse of control systems, and the resultant toxic pollution will destroy the population resident there without external intervention.

Bad news all around when entropy wins.

The standard scenario assumes that individuals can win against large, well resourced militaries, this has been true at various times in the past, but is not true today.

Individuals like Julian Assange or Snowden manage to hit sizable blows against nation states.

In Flint, MI, institutional collapse was followed by a loss of control of infrastructure, which lead(pun intended) to a collapse of control systems, and the resultant toxic pollution will destroy the population resident there without external intervention.

That's not a good description of the system. Flint made a bad decision that resulted in increased lead in the water but the the amount of children with elevated levels of lead was still lower than it was a decade ago.

They certainly swung. I'm not certain that they successfully imposed their will on the activities of the nation states they attacked. Neither of them are comparable to Alaric, one is comparable to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Délicieux who despite making a big scene, had no immediate or meaningful impact on the institution he rebelled against.

Do you have a better, easier example of what I've described, or do you disagree with the broad statement in addition to the specific example of Flint?

The 'bronze age collapse' is instructive, when everyone learned to make iron, barbarians destroyed every hierarchy and the cities fell.

Not sure what your point is here - early iron-smelting cultures were not "uncivilized" in any real sense, they're just understudied! We've even discovered entire sets of royal archives near Hattusa - the Hatti or Hittites being perhaps the most prominent early-iron-age civilization. Indeed, the Iron age itself may have enabled the formation of large, internally-peaceful 'empires' in the longer run - clearly a significant advancement in social organization!

Thank you for clarifying, in the long run, there was stability and we do not fully understand it...I believe that my assertion about the transition being messy and involving the collapse of bronze age civilizations rather than their persistence still stands though.

My point is that new developments upended the old social order, and cleared the way for the eventual rise of alternatives. Today, similar levels of destruction will be challenging to recover from, because infrastructure, once trashed, leads to things like the birth defect rate in Fallujah, not just empty space where new things can be built, and battlefields which yiels bumper crops.

Another data point: the existence of prison gangs (typically organized along racial lines).

I'm not sure that's a very relevant data point. Prison is very structured, and all the physical needs of the prisoners are guaranteed, and anarchy and fighting is punished, at least to some extent.

Hm. I think there is a quote in this podcast about how prisoners form prison gangs as a bulwark against anarchy: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2015/03/david_skarbek_o.html

Agree with the initial statement - the most accessible picture of collapse is unlikely. I'm less sure about the probability of your alternate - the space of possibilities is large. Also, timeframe matters. Anarchic collapse may be followed by small-group/warlord dominance.

avega.org/dgr.pdf might give you some insight into what Orlov and others say about collapse and various scenarios of collapse. not very detailed but well put in social and ecological context.