Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery

15 January 2017



Early in the history of this blog I wrote about a snowstorm in Portland during December 2008, Snow in Portland, More Snow, and Lessons from a Snowstorm, and now Portland has had another uncharacteristically heavy snowfall eight years on. I am always fascinated to watch the rapidly changing behaviors of the population of a city as it responds to rapidly changing conditions, and I can’t help but extrapolate from these observations to other disruptions to the ordinary business of life.


The initial impact of a big snowstorm (in a temperate climate where snowstorms are infrequent) is chaos and frantic activity. After the initial chaos, the city goes quiet, and driving around a city after it has gone quiet gives an apocalyptic feeling, as though the end of the world has come. A snowstorm is, in miniature, the collapse of a complex society, such as Joseph Tainter wrote about:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4

Of course, the collapse precipitated by a snowstorm is not a political collapse, but it is a rapid and significant loss of an established level of complexity, and a temporary return to a simpler way of life.


When someone abandons their car and walks away, eventually walking around their neighborhood rather than driving, this is a significant simplification of life, and the simplest level to which life can be reduced is that of mere survival, or perhaps I should say subsistence. Because the conditions of a snowstorm or a flood or some similar disruption (say, a power outage) are temporary it does not force a return to subsistence agriculture, but there are occasions when one finds oneself no longer concerned by the technical details of one’s work, and one is only fighting to stay alive, as all other considerations are thrust aside in order to deal with the immediacy of the circumstances. However, it is easy to imagine (especially with the looming specter of climate change) that a storm could be the first disruption in a series of escalating disruptions that could force society to abandon its complex institutions and way of life, returning to subsistence agriculture, or even nomadic hunting and gathering. If a large flood failed to recede after a few days because water levels had crept higher, the disruption of the the storm that caused the flood would be a mere foretaste of things to come.


There is a great deal of social momentum behind the ordinary business of life, and one can observe that people continue to go about their routines in the routine way for as along as possible — right up the moment when it becomes actually physically impossible to continue to going about things as usual. Thus one sees people setting out for work as usual even as the snow is beginning to fall, and as the snow piles up they try to continue to go about their business. It is only when, on the drive home, their car will not move forward another inch, when they abandon it and walk away. As long as a choice remains, most will choose to continue with the ordinary business of life; the routine is only abandoned when no choice remains and one is forced by circumstances to alter one’s behavior.


There is also a strong desire to return to normalcy after the disruption of a storm, so that at the first sign of conditions improving, people head out again in large numbers. In the case of the snowstorms I have seen in my years, this creates a problem because the main roads will be cleared of snow, but the secondary roads and parking lots are still icy, and many people over-confidently driving at full speed on the highways cause problems for themselves and others. The desire for the return to normalcy is a desire for the familiar normalcy, the old normal, while the conditions of the storm, strange and unfamiliar at first, dictate a new normal, and there is a tension between the old normal and the new normal as society attempt to adjust and compensate for changed conditions. As long as the conditions of the new normal are temporary, the old normal will return, but the longer the conditions persist, the longer the new normal persists, and, as the phrase implies, the new normal eventually becomes familiar if it endures for a sufficient period of time.


I imagine that in the case of the true collapse of societies, and not merely an ephemeral collapse precipitated by a weather event, that this desire to return to normalcy results in a lot of false starts, like commuters returning to the roads too soon after a snowstorm. There are probably many hopeful moments in the collapse of a society when people come out of their hiding places and venture out into the world again, hoping that they can return to their routines. When Sarajevo was under siege during the Balkan wars of the 90s, it was several years before life could return to normal. Similarly, when the First and Second World Wars began, it would be several years before normalcy would return.


When a society well and truly collapses, never to rise again, one can imagine for years or for decades people looked for a return to normalcy that would never come. Or if life seemed to return to normal for a time — for weeks or months or years — it was only a deceptive return to old ways that would soon disappear forever. When Roman cities in the west began to fail, there was probably a movement like the ebb and flow of the tide, when people would abandon their city, then go back, then abandon it again. Each time those who returned would be fewer in number, there would be fewer shops open, and fewer goods for sale, and there might be increasing lengths of time between abandonment and return, until eventually the period of abandonment stretched into years, and the city fell into disrepair, fit only for looting from the ruins.

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6 Responses to “Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery”

  1. Great piece. My favorite part about when this kind of weather comes here is that people are much more willing to interact out on the street rather than avoid each other. There are more people at the coffee shops in the neighborhood and talking in the grocery stores.

    I remember when this happened in 2008 and I was taking to our bus rides downtown to go to work because they hadn’t figured out how to set us all up remotely. 8 years later I work for myself so the weather hasn’t made any difference at all since we haven’t lost any power and therefore I have my Wi-Fi. What a difference !

    • geopolicraticus said

      Part of the rapid simplification of life is that one’s interactions become much more local, which I discussed in 2008. Part of this, I think, is because people suddenly idled from their usual pursuits have more time to interact.

      As you point out, those who work at home are much less affected than commuters. As long as infrastructure services like electricity and water continue, life can go on as normal. A collapse would have to progress much further through the infrastructure to affect this class of society. From this perspective, one could see collapse as a sequential progress through infrastructure, starting in one place and radiating outward into other forms of infrastructure. Since contemporary industrialized cities have more, and more complex, infrastructure than earlier in history this suggests possibilities such as I discussed in Complex Systems and Complex Failure.

      Best wishes,


  2. Brenton Camac said

    I agree. The past few weeks show an exogenous but transitory event which brought on a deviation towards collapse yet recoverable (we hope). I think the more permanent and unrecoverable collapses arise from endogenous events – the gradual yet persistent deterioration of social, moral, political even financial standards that propel a civilization past the point of no return.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Good point. It would be worthwhile to fully develop this distinction between exogenous and endogenous events. If we play this distinction off between the distinction between transitory and enduring events (or conditions), we get four permutations:

      1. exogenous and transitory
      2. endogenous and transitory
      3. exogenous and enduring
      4. endogenous and enduring

      How exactly do we draw the distinction between the endogenous and the exogenous? How long must conditions enduring so that we no longer think of them as transitory? Do each of these permutations have intrinsically different degrees of recoverability? If so, why?

      These would be great questions for a research program, and very relevant to the study of existential risk.

      Best wishes,


  3. xcalibur said

    When the Western Roman Empire collapsed and disintegrated, there were in fact many attempts to return to normalcy. Roman culture was not abandoned, but became an element of the new society, alongside Germanic culture, Christianity, and other influences. Medieval kings would claim to be Roman emperors, their kingdoms would be designated as successors of the Roman empire, all for legitimacy. Leading up to the fall, the Roman Empire displayed serious faults and weaknesses (eg the Crisis of the Third Century), but it maintained its status quo, in no small part through social inertia.

    There are many other examples of this. Institutions are formed, cultural practices are institutionalized, and they show remarkable resilience in their vitality, influence, and prestige. In order to make dramatic changes to civilization, one must counter its vast inertia. This can be done through persistent gradual change on a long timescale, exceedingly violent upheaval in the short term, or some other combination on the sliding scale between these two extremes.

    • geopolicraticus said

      You’re right: Roman culture was not abandoned, and throughout the Middle Ages it continued to be invoked by political forces seeking to use the idea of Rome as leverage for legitimacy. But by this time Roman civilization and its central institutions had disappeared, though many peripheral institutions remained, and the Byzantine Empire continued on with its own form of Roman culture for another thousand years.

      In order to make good on the above, however, I would need to stipulate some principle by which one could distinguish between central and peripheral institutions of a civilization. And I think that I can do this: central institutions of a civilization are those bound up with its central project, while peripheral institutions are not essential to a civilization’s central project, though also are not a hindrance to it. Or I could make an Aristotelian distinction among necessary institutions, essential institutions, and contingent (or accidental) institutions, and replace necessary institutions for central institutions.

      To make good on the above formulation in terms of a central project, in turn, I would need to be able to define the central project of Roman civilization, and this I am not prepared to do at present. The Aristotelian modal trichotomy does not require the definition of a central project.

      In any case, I agree with you that civilizations have vast inertia and typically change only slowly.

      Best wishes,


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