Saturday, July 23, 2011

Commerce after the end of the world?

I was reading a guest post at The Survivalist Blog
It was title “Commerce and TEOTWAWKI
All I can say is, “what an odd post.”
It is this type of logic that leads to the idea that a collapse of our government through failure to extend our debt limit is a good idea (see here for why it is not).  After all, we are prepared.  We will sit in our bunker for a few of years, and then we will be trading wheat cakes with our surviving neighbors.
I can only gather that the author has been influenced by reading too much cozy fiction.  It has to be the novels, because even Hollywood, land of the optimists, has their collapses lasting longer than a few  years.
There is no basis for the assumption that the 19th century is the limit to our technological collapse: none.  The author clearly has no idea how complex and interlocked the 19th century economy was.  It had assembly plants, mass production, and world trade in all resources, transported by a combination of steam, and very sophisticated sailing craft.
Based on the archeological and, when present, historical records, the die-off is likely to approach 90%.  That is how bad it was in Dark Age Greece.  Many parts of the Roman Empire effectively collapsed right past the Bronze Age into the pre-historic agricultural level of technology.  The remnants of both the Maya, and the Hittites wound up in completely different geographic areas than their original homeland.    It would be similar to a time traveler  goes forward to visit the year 2500 AD and finding the United States is composed of Eastern Kamchatka and Western Alaska straddling the Bering Straits.
If advanced pre-industrial revolution cultures can fall that far, it certainly stands to reason that the collapse of today’s just-in-time, electronically coordinated, world economy can be at least as bad.  That there are no longer any serious non-advanced groups on the periphery to move in and take up the slack may be something of a mixed blessing.
The post goes on to talk about a happy little trading post.  Well with both the Dark Age Greek and Roman collapse, villages got much smaller, and moved away from central locations.  Even as late as the 11th century, on the Baltic, you have villages sited away from the coastline and navigable riverine routes; they were too dangerous.
As for regional trade hubs, the Champagne Trade Fairs are generally felt to have started around 1137 to 1164.  From the early date, that is 727 years after the 410 AD sack of Rome.  If you want to credit the Carolingian’s with a “renaissance” or at least a partial recovery:  307 years from the 830AD collapse of their empire, or 341 years (751-410) from the sack of Rome to the establishment of the Carolingian empire.
So the net:
Don’t worry about commerce in a bad TEOTWAWKI unless it is in the sense of keeping your grandchildren alive so their great grandchildren can participate in it.


PioneerPreppy said...

I would have to differ with your conclusions a bit. For one thing the average educational and intelligence levels are much higher today and more widespread. I certainly agree that overall we could fall beyond 19th century industrialization but there are too many educated people to go much further back then pre-steam era on a cottage industry basis.

While long range commerce was sporadic in the inland areas, coastal areas showed some contact and trade from very far off during the "Dark Ages". The real reason for the death of overland trade had been the almost complete abandonment of the Latifundia before Rome fell. There simply wasn't any surplus to go that far.

I agree with your evaluation that trade like the champagne/wool trade between England and France would take years and perhaps centuries to evolve but local trade will commence fairly quickly I imagine. It would almost have to honestly.

russell1200 said...

Obviously, people can do some basic barter. But when someone uses the term commerce, it implies a little more sophistication.

I think your point about education levels is a good one. You also have a much stronger culture of entrepreneurship today that goes along with that.

I have an article (not with me today) that I will try and find the link for. It is a study of the history of the Champagne fairs , and the very deep legal structure that built up to support them. It is relevant, because some economists (who in my experience are often awful historians) had argued that they were an example of large scale trade in the absence of a organizing legal structure.