What does a collapse look like?
The first thing most people think of is the zombie apocalypse. Which makes sense, considering how popular zombie stories are. The signs of collapse are clear and present, with no room for ambiguity. The world has come to an end, and the only thing left is to pick up an improvised weapon and fight.
In the real world, though, collapses are almost never so black and white.
When the housing market collapsed in 2008 and brought down the global economy with it, I was in college. With panicked capital looking desperately for a place to go, gas prices spiked to over $4 a gallon during the height of the summer. Then, as credit markets completely fell apart, retailers were forced to sell at rock-bottom prices just to keep their cash flow problems from driving them into bankruptcy.
So what did that look like? For me, an extremely expensive road trip back out to Utah, followed by a spending spree. I bought a really nice corduroy sports jacket for $15, and thought “hey, I could live with this recession.” Two years later, I was singing a very different tune.
In any collapse, people’s experience of the collapse varies wildly. Take the Euro crisis, for example. A couple of years ago, the Germans I chatted with online dismissed any claim that the EU was on the verge of falling apart. Now, the UK is holding a referendum on exiting the union, and no one really knows which way it’s going to go. Germany has not (yet) experienced the kind of depression-level unemployment that many of the southern countries have. To the middle-class government worker in Athens who lost all their savings in the recession and hasn’t been getting a paycheck for years, the German narrative of Greek laziness as the root cause of the crisis does not conform to reality.
When Ernest Hemmingway was asked how he went bankrupt, his answer was “gradually, then suddenly.” The same can be said of most collapses.
But there are different kinds of collapses. There are total collapses, such as the USSR where the entire national system just completely fell apart. Then there are more segmented collapses, where different parts of the country (Detroit) or sectors of the economy (banking, housing, construction) fall apart, leaving the rest weakened but still standing. Then you have all the stuff that happens on the level of individuals and families, such as bankruptcy.
Each level feeds into the next. If enough regions or sectors go down, it can bring down the whole system with it. Likewise, if the disintegration of families becomes too widespread, every other aspect of society falls apart. We see this right now in a lot of Black communities right now. Police brutality is certainly a problem, but it is a symptom and not a cause.
Very rarely does a super-virus come out of nowhere and turn everyone into zombies. The collapse happens gradually, then suddenly. People who know what they’re looking for can see it coming a long ways away. Everyone else clings to their false and misleading narratives (“the housing market can only go up!” “the rich should pay their fair share!” “Black lives matter!”) because the message is comfortable and doesn’t require them to change.
That is why self-sufficiency is so important, especially for us writers. We cannot afford to be comfortable. We cannot afford not to change. Perhaps there was a time, way before indie publishing, when writers could just sit back and write pretty words all day, but I doubt it. The industry today is changing so quickly that it’s easy to be left behind.
Every career writer will experience a crisis where they will be forced to reinvent themselves or face the utter collapse of their career. That’s according to Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Katherine Rush, who have been around long enough that I believe them on this point. If you know that your career is going to collapse at some point, shouldn’t you do all that you can to prepare for it? And if you’re already preparing for a personal collapse, why not take the extra step and prepare for something larger?
Personally, I think that the collapse is already upon us. I’m not yet sure what kind it is, or how total it will be, but I do think that when we look back, we will see the Great Recession as a prelude to the main event. Right now, it is easy to ignore or dismiss because no one’s experience of the collapse is the same. We are all like the seven blind mice arguing about the elephant, whether it is a fan, or a pillar, or a rope, or a spear. That’s what makes this period so dangerous: the fact that there’s no shared experience yet. It creates the kind of environment where false and enticing narratives can thrive.
Will we reverse course and take the steps necessary to reverse the collapse? I’m not optimistic. Ever since the Great Recession, our policies have focused on putting off the pain as long as possible rather than fixing the root causes of our social and economic problems. At this point, I doubt that this nation has the political will to endure the pain necessary to fix our problems. In other words, we’re caught in a vicious cycle, and it would take an extraordinary event (like a war) to break us out of it. That, or hitting rock bottom.
But even if something extraordinary did happen, and we avoided the collapse to enter a new era of peace and prosperity, I would still strive to develop the skills and habits of self-sufficiency. Why? Because not all collapses look like the zombie apocalypse. Sometimes, the collapse is so small that no one experiences it except for you.
No matter the variety of collapse, the best way to be prepared is to be self-sufficient. Independence is the ability to take care of yourself when everything else you depend on fails. For that reason, a true indie writer is also a self-sufficient writer.