A stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health or fortune. One theory in early medical thinking was that climacterics occurred in the human life at intervals of seven years; a variant was that they occurred at odd multiples of seven years (7, 21, 35, 49, etc), and this survives in the use of “climacteric” as a name for mid-life hormonal changes. Climacterics for human society could be taken to include the end of the last ice age, and the beginnings of agriculture and of industry.C81

The climacteric considered in Lean Logic is the convergence of events which can be expected in the period 2010–2040. They include deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change, a shrinking land area as the seas rise, and heat, drought and storm affecting the land that remains. There is also the prospect of acidic oceans which neither provide food nor remove carbon; ecologies degraded by introduced plants and animals; the failure of keystone species such as bees and plankton; and the depletion of minerals, including the phosphates on which we depend for a fertile soil.

This could be followed by economic and social fracture, taking law and order with it, and the breakdown of education systems able to pass on the essentials of culture and competence. And these events may be expected to lead to large movements of refugees and to steep reductions in population comparable with those associated with the climacterics of previous civilisations. The large infrastructures, such as those that transport energy, are likely to be out of commission. The constant supply of water, energy, money, security and professional skills needed to prevent stores of high-level nuclear waste from leaking and catching fire may not be available. Justice—which, in an affluent society, is seen as the only defensible criterion for judgment—will be open to new interpretations. This is deep, interconnected, planetary tragedy; grief reaches out to grief: one deep calleth another.C82

As mentioned in the Introduction to this book, the breakdown of Roman society in Britain in the fifth century was followed by a retreat, not to the pre-Roman Celtic Iron Age, but to an earlier form without such simple artefacts as potters’ wheels. To sustain even a technology as basic as pottery you need a supply chain to provide clay, wheels and kilns, some assurance of stability and peace, and customers who can pay—or who can at least be expected to be around long enough to keep their side of the barter agreement or reciprocal obligation. To crawl back towards this level of material comfort in post-Roman Britain took some four centuries. Small communities made those conditions survivable.C83

Lean Logic argues that community holds out at least a possibility of supporting presence, social cohesion, economic realism, shared cultural depth—and survival. In other words, the climacteric could be one of those rare historical turning points when society switches into a new mode of production—into a radically different way of using its resources; its labour, capital and land—changing its expectations and values. The shift could be partly voluntary and partly an involuntary reaction to circumstances. Potentially, this could be an opportunity, for it is at such turning points that it is practical to make deep, radical breakthroughs, before new conditions settle in which we can do little to change. We do not know, of course: the climacteric may be so severe that opportunity is the last thing on anyone’s mind; this hinge of history may turn out to be just dust and grief, but if rational judgment is to be salvaged from the depths where it has lain for so long, the coming climacteric could be the moment for it (Systems Thinking > Feedback > Time).

It is unknown how fast the climacteric will develop. One view is that it will unfold as a slow deterioration—a long descent—with periods of respite allowing time for intelligent responses to be worked out and applied.C84 Another view is that, because our civilisation is so connected, urbanised, and equipped with complex and fully-functioning energy and distribution systems—along with the property rights and financial systems that support them—the downturn will be more delayed than some expect: there is, as Adam Smith observed, a great deal of ruin in a nation.C85

But when it comes, those tightly-connected dependencies will likely make it more abrupt. This is a typical pattern. The archaeologist Joseph Tainter summarises his review of the life and death of civilisations,

Collapse is a fundamentally sudden, pronounced loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.C86

Core elements such as food provision depend on the whole sequence of cultivation and delivery working properly, all the time, from a benign climate and reliable supplies of oil, gas and electricity to transport and distribution infrastructures, peace and social order, banking services and incomes. Yet when complex systems break down, one failure can trigger more failures so fast that it seems almost instantaneous: shifts in the planet’s climate between icy and temperate have been abrupt; the financial crisis of 2008–2009 arrived in a flash, and the impact was crueller still because the rumblings we had been hearing for a few years had become so much part of life that we tended to discount them. The timing of the climacteric is uncertain.

In 2009, John Beddington, the chief scientific advisor to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages in 2030. Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, wrote that 2020 is more likely.C87 Richard Heinberg, the prolific commentator on energy and economics, proposed 2016 as his most optimistic (furthest postponed) date, but added,

. . . the whole conversation makes sense only as a way of motivating coordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the unwinding has begun, no more preparation is possible. Our strategy must change from crisis prevention to crisis management. That’s where we are right now, in my view.C88

Previous civic societies, having experienced their breakages, have typically—in the case, for instance, of the Roman civilisation of Western Europe—emerged in due course with a much reduced population to build decentralised, low-cost, local, lean political economies; communities which have proved to be durable. The breakdown of the Chaco culture—which, until the early years of the twelfth century, lived in what is now the US state of New Mexico—followed many years of experiment with what we would now call sustainable development: improvements in the eco-efficiency of agriculture and economics in response to resource depletion (especially water and wood) and regional climate change. In this case, the shock took place quickly, shortly after the society’s peak of wealth and artistic accomplishment. What followed was the Pueblo economy; the surviving remnant following the collapse. Jared Diamond writes:

It took many centuries to discover that, among those economies, only the Pueblo economy was sustainable “in the long run”, i.e., for at least a thousand years.C89

The scientist’s view

Here, in summary, is another, earlier view of the climacteric, from a scientist’s standpoint.

General Features of System Collapse


1. The central administrative organisation of the state collapses, with the disappearance of the hierarchy of government, almost complete disappearance of military organisation, abandonment of civic buildings such as palaces and temples, and effective loss of literacy.

2. There is disappearance of the traditional elite class, abandonment of their residences and of the manufacture of luxury goods.

3. The economy breaks down with near, or actual, cessation of large-scale distribution and market exchange, coinage, external trade, crafts, and agriculture apart from local subsistence.

4. There is “marked reduction in population density”, with abandonment of many settlements in favour of a dispersed pattern of small settlements, often in defensible locations—the hills.


5. There is transition to a lower, or earlier, social order, with a “segmentary” society—that is, small settlements lacking any common political participation within a chiefdom or a state, although chiefdoms may form quite quickly. There may, however, be “possible peripheral survival of some highly organised communities still retaining several organisational features of the collapsed state”. There may be remnants of religion in the form of folk cults and beliefs, and some crafts may survive as degraded imitations, especially in pottery. And it is to be expected that there will be “local movements of small population groups resulting from the breakdown in order at the collapse of the central administration (either with or without some language change), leading to destruction of many settlements”.

6. There will be “Dark Age” myths as new power groups attempt to establish legitimacy by tracing connections with the former state.

COLIN RENFREW, “Systems Collapse as Social Transformation: Catastrophe and Anastrophe in Early State Societies”, 1979.C91

In our own case, the crash, when it comes, is likely to be greater than those on previous occasions, with the joining up of all the elements extending beyond the regional shocks that have been experienced in the past. The regional climate changes that have affected our predecessors will, in our case, be global.C90

There are no certainties here. It is not certain that the climacteric as outlined here will happen. Some sustainable technologies are moving ahead rapidly; renewable energy is on course to transform the world’s energy economies. The likelihood, however, is that the energy gap will open up as fossil fuels deplete, well before the renewables have had a chance to fill it, and that a solution to the energy problem on its own will fall far short of holding off the other events whose combined weight can be expected—quite abruptly, and quite soon—to deintensify our political economy (Intensification). Our social and economic order may be out of time.

And yet, the question about what the future holds does not really make any difference to what we decide now: there is just one way forward, and that is to build the sequel. The focus now should be on preparing with the aim of building a social order for the probably diminished population of the future. That aim stands, whether it is realistic or not; and it stands, too, even if it is seen as an operation to prevent the shock, rather than to cope with its consequences.

The question to consider, therefore, is not whether the crash will happen, but how to develop the skills, the will and the resources necessary to recapture the initiative and build the resilient sequel to our present society. It will be the decentralised, low-impact human ecology which has always taken the human story forward from the closing down of civilisations: small-scale community, closed-loop systems, and a strong culture.


Related entries:

Lean Economy, Torments, Unintended Consequences, Wicked Problems.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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