Pathways to Community Collapse: Can We Intervene?


As communities are facing high unemployment, economic hardship and deteriorating infrastructure, they will be left even more vulnerable when fossil fuel once again rises in price. In the early stages of distress, appeals to the “common good” or “cooperative engagement” may be met warmly and enthusiastically by townspeople.

However, there are predictable changes as hardship, deprivation and even violence escalates, which impacts on this spirit of altruism. One size does not fit all when working within a community setting. It is a skill to recognize the level of community functioning, or at what stage of collapse the system is functioning, and to artfully navigate within these circumstances. Is an important skill for concerned citizens and community activists alike.

In this first of a multi-part series, I will outline the ways in which researchers have dissected the elements of community deterioration, and outlined the ways in which this cooperative effort between external forces, leadership, and individuals, contributes to its escalating violence trajectory. In later writings, I’ll look at the way researchers have actually worked with communities experiencing high levels of violence and social deterioration, both in the US and in other countries.


Community deterioration is a cooperative endeavor between the larger “mega-forces,” individuals living in that community and the leadership they elect. In a fascinating article that looks at altruism, Stuart W. Twemlow, M.D. of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas (Twemlow, 2001) and his colleagues outlines the systemic spiraling cycle of deterioration within a community that contributes to its further demise. These cycles can be seen, for example, in economic job loss, which intensifies the demand for chemical distractions, which promotes drug trafficking, which increases the incidents of violent crime. Crime increases fear, which increases isolation and detachment, out of concerns that one will be victimized. Trauma and stress shrinks the mindset to our most immediate concerns, and broader perspectives such as community cohesion and compassion, become viewed as too distant to contemplate. Self-concerns and those of one’s own immediate family become sole priority.

As the community becomes less cohesive, pride in living on that “patch of ground” sinks, and we see more defacing, pollution, litter, careless home maintenance, broken windows and the like. Residents begin badmouthing their community, and morale continues to deteriorate. As community pride drops, civic and charitable organizations also cease to function as effectively, “with an envious and greedy spoiling of the cultural context of the community’s knowledge, traditions, and attitudes,” according to the researchers. Money remains the only ruling value.

As deterioration continues, community tradition and pride are eroded deliberately and senselessly, and new rules are enforced that benefit few people, or the ruling elite. Ruthless businesspeople flourish, and all demonstrate less courtesy, and more thoughtlessness in day-to-day interactions.

Flagships of Community Deterioration

In the home, it is the “pair of socks on the living room floor” that begins to communicate to the residents, however unconsciously, that “no order need reign here.” In the community, we might see broken street lights, potholes that aren’t repaired, or litter blight. In the early stages, symbols or celebrations that were once symbolically significant are stopped. The yearly town cookout is canceled for “lack of funds.” As deterioration escalates, we see politicians calling for the abandonment or bulldozing of entire neighborhoods, as a cost-savings measure.

Religious attendance and political involvement drops off. Drinking and domestic violence begin to increase. Local police are more aggressive during traffic stop violations, and the drivers are more arrogant. More and more, people don’t see a “point” in working together for a common good or community socializing as the cultural context of the group gets lost.

Twemlow and his colleague, Frank Sacco observed stages and key elements of collapse in their research, and these attributes contribute to violent communities where a “tough-minded, unforgiving violent mindset of its leaders and members has severely damaged the cohesiveness of the community.”

Here are the key elements:

Artistic pursuits, music as a worthy goal, community discussion and other “genteel traditions” are rejected in favor of the hard sciences or “mindless entertainment.” (Rome’s fall can be seen in the busts of the Emperors over time: As the collapse continued, the artwork became crude and generic.) Anything requiring introspection or careful planning is scorned. Damaged communities increasingly reject the value of carefully thought out future plans. Town meetings spend less time on reflection and discussion, in favor of an action-oriented, stop-gap or short-term focus. Energy is wasted on solving minor problems, and “much to do about nothing” results in extreme measures involving the use of force, the purchase of new weaponry, or restrictive new measures of control.

Personal Power Comes from Violence

Altruism is seen as a “weakness,” to be ridiculed and avoided. Competition becomes a way of separating out the “winners” from the “losers.” The scorn felt by the losers produces resentment, anger, and retaliation. (Mr. Wong, the “Binghamton Shooter,” felt “disrespected” and killed 13 innocent people, after being harassed and belittled.) Caring about one’s fellow citizens becomes a vaguely religious virtue, not a cornerstone of civic responsibility. Citizens increasingly protect themselves from each other, put up gates, hire security or organized crime. Those representing law and order often become corrupted by the situation, and begin to pick and choose who they will “protect and serve.”

Immediate versus Delayed Gratification
Violent communities aren’t pretty. Repairs are shoddy, and new buildings are cheap and ugly. When a business closes, the windows are boarded up carelessly and graffiti results. There is extreme pressure to solve problems quickly, without attention paid to the consequences. These communities become a less desirable place to live, so real estate prices drop off and investment in new business evaporates.

Lack of Stable Political and Family Systems

Leaders may be feared, but not respected. People believe, in general, that “all leaders are corrupt” and “the situation is hopeless.” Family systems deteriorate, feelings of security, stability and belonging, falter, and the demands to “exist in this rat race” intensify exhaustion, burnout, rattle nerves, and test patience. Children are left without the reassuring structures that support them, and they bring this fear, anxiety, hostility or violence into the school setting with them. Consequently, there are increases in school violence, bullying and harassment.

Powerlessness, Despair, and Anomie

As violence and deterioration increase, feelings of powerlessness, apathy, and lack of purpose intensify. There is less time, money, and interest in community centers, civic duties, boys and girls clubs, charitable organizations, community service groups, and religious attendance. Those volunteering for leadership positions are seen as “saps” to be dumped on or blamed. “Whatever!” replaces a genuine sentiment of investment and concern.

Escapism as a Response to Helplessness

As healthier forms of creative escape, such as sports teams, drama clubs, and other recreational activities drop away, they are replaced with more destructive substitutes. Vice and drug/alcohol abuse increase. Parents and teenagers alike appear to show lack of interest in other forms of entertainment or healthier forms of stress management.

The Bully-Victim-Bystander Relationship Dominates

Bullying, sexual harassment, or weapons found in schools and in the work place escalate as the quality of community deteriorates. Bullies, whether they are children, coworkers or bosses, provoke, insult or assault while bystanders either applaud, or remain in fear or are cowered into silence. As the culture coarsens, both children and adults fear ‘causing waves,’ or ‘being next’ should they object to what they see happening in front of them.

Denial of Violence

Denial and projection is often a feature of the coercive power dynamic. One particular group, neighborhood or “the other” is accused of causing the problem and scapegoated for it. Denial may take the form of oversimplification, such as promoting “mandatory jail sentencing” or “stricter gun control,” as a universal solution. When force doesn’t work to control crime, more force is recommended. Stereotyped and over-generalized responses to problems are promoted, and military solutions are instituted to resolve civilian unrest.

Disconnection and Corruption of the Police

“The police in violent communities are very often under fire and become more and more alienated from those whom they are suppose to protect. Community policing efforts become trivialized or nominal, and thus, unsuccessful. Police corruption increases with the populace calling police derogatory names like “pig” (USA) or “animal” (Jamaica)”(Twemlow, 2001). Police consider the citizenship ignorant, selfish, and unresponsive. Crime increases as community/police cooperation unravels.

Population Increase and Redistribution

Shantytowns emerge, squatters take up residence, tent cities pop up and the homeless are more visible on every city street.

In the USA, we see older cities, some of whom have lost half of their population over the past decades, now being essentially “re-designed,” mostly by demolishing hundreds of abandoned homes. While the focus is on the “problem” of empty neighborhoods, few wonder where these long-time residents have gone, and how many more will be driven out of these small cities because of increasing unemployment.

As these empty lots are turning into parks, recreational facilities and gardens, those returning are not the working-class residents who left. News reports tell of upscale architects, and high-tech worker who are only too happy to gut large buildings and turn them into comfortable upscale work/dwellings.

Lack of Social Welfare Programs

The weak and poor become viewed as “lazy freeloaders.” Assistance is cut, or co-payments are raised. Issues such as minimum wage or workers rights are ignored. The ‘social contract’ is broken. Those advocating for the needy are seen as “bleeding hearts” and “unrealistic.”

Criminal Enterprises

Organized crime increases. Governmental authority is vague or non-existent in any meaningful sense.

Abuse and Rejection of the Vulnerable

Socialized care of the young, the old, and the disabled becomes less tolerated, and those who can’t work to earn money are rejected or devalued. The lowest status jobs involve caring for the vulnerable, and a wider sense of social and cooperative responsibility is rejected.

Gender, Ethnic, and Religious Insensitivities

Violent communities are intolerant of difference, and power is a mediating arbiter. Rape increases. Hate groups emerge and are tolerated.


Many of us can see these elements in our own communities, today. However, researchers suggests that four systems: public safety, education, health and social services, and spirituality can be strengthened to catalyze dramatic change. They have successfully instituted such change in their community consulting work. I will review these systems in my next blog entry.


Twemlow, S. (2001, October). Modifying violent communities by enhancing altruism: A vision of possibilities. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 3(4), p. 431-462.

Twemlow, S. & Sacco, F. (1999). A Multi-level conceptual framework for understanding the violent community. In H.V. Hall & L.C. Whitaker (Eds). Collective Violence: Effective strategies for assessing and intervening in fatal group and institutional aggression. Chapter 19 (p.566-599). New York: CRC Press.

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. John Richardson says:

    Good Morning Kathy,

    A relevant and well written post. Action to address these issues needs to be taken at the outset, not later. Folks have observed that there is a tipping point beyond which the deterioration becomes self sustaining and much more difficult to halt. Here is our modest city (pop. 50,000) there is a new ordinance being considered that encourages business owners and private parties to remove grafitti within 48 hours, after which the city will (without notice being required) remove or paint over the grafitti for them.

    I’m looking forward to reading your following post on this subject.

    John Richardson

  2. Kathy,

    My adventures in helping to fortify resiliency mechanisms in communities has been eye-opening.

    In Portland, we have successfully deployed a community system with Bright Neighbor that augments the modern communications methods used by people: Facebook, Twitter, mobile devices, laptops and desktops.

    We have truly become wired into a constant buzz-buzz-buzz about who is doing what. The government doesn’t need laws to institute Big Brother’s playbook, we have done it for them. People want everyone to know what they are doing, all the time.

    If there ever were a concentrated effort to overthrow the capitalist system as it stands, everyone would know about it because if it’s cool, it grows and it spreads.

    Right now, while everyone is so upset about the economy, we still go about our days tweeting and Facebooking about whatever we decide to publish.

    Because community has now moved online, and it knows no geography for communications, but it is relevant when it comes to immediate real world needs.

    If we need something, we go to the store and get it. Or we ask a friend, or a family member. And we get what we need. Now, we have lots of ways to track ourselves, sell things to one another, and everyone knows we are all in this together.

    Whether you are a kid in Tibet, or a spoiled American brat, we all know that we need to change.

    We need to stop valuing nuclear weapons as monetary policy checks and balances. Just alone, the cost of all the Air Force plane crashes of the last year could help install enough organic gardens in America to feed every person. The answers are very simple to solve our many crisis situations.

    Until, however, that we either make it mandatory or offer incentives for all citizens to go through gardening training courses, we are not serious about solving our greatest problems.

    I suggest that the leaders of governments around the world come to gether for a G20 like meeting focused only on boosting global support for instantly focusing all global efforts on soil restoration, water-harvesting mechanisms for both cities and rural towns, as well as local commerce systems based on time-banking and b2b/b2c/c2b/c2c trade.

    b2b/ Business to business: All businesses source locally for their raw materials within a 300 mile radius.

    b2c/ Business to Consumer: Support local entrepreneurs starting up soil farming, vermicomposting, tilapia farming, urban chicken, or other micro-farming and permaculture based businesses. Give them easy access to loans to start their business, and create a standard for local permaculture guidelines that allow us to reverse engineer bad 1950’s era home policies. We must not only encourage, but give incentives to do things like give up your dryer for a clothes line, or converting your lawn into a micro-farm.

    Micro-farmers can specialize in their lawns and grow local organic produce to feed micro-livestock. This creates a fruit/vegetable/meat source for city dwellers, while supporting local food commerce. Add in materials providers such as soil makers, vermicomposters, and other positive-impact businesses, and you have a recipe for reversing capitalism to do good for the planet while still making a profit. This can be achieved by home owners becoming lawn farmers, as we have always said over at our blog, Lawns to Gardens.

    Consumer to Consumer: Whether it is two moms connecting over the sharing of baby car seats, or neighbors trading produce, skills, firewood – you name it, it is happening in Portland. Bright Neighbor has created an alternative-economy way of living supported at the government, community, business, and faith-group levels.

    These 4-pillars of society are what hold communities together. As the monetary system continues to crumple, we must focus our efforts on connecting around our common agreements, namely food. At the local level, all other arguments can be resolved without violence as long as their is access to food, water, and shelter.

    People will always argue over possessions, including ownership of one another. Whether this relationship is economic, erotic, or plutonic – it comes down to each human’s own way they go about the preservation of their life, living standards, and hope for more before they die.

    We all die in the end, so I say let’s party and have a great time while we fix this place up and leave it in the best shape we can for the next set of kids that are going to pop out. Religion or not, we should all work together to preserve our entire species, as well as our neighbors in the animal, plant, and insect kingdoms.

    – Randy White / Bright Neighbor

  3. Hi Kathy,

    …can this be right?

    As a European I am immersed in a large culture which reacts to threat by increasing cohesion, not falling apart. Such a scenario as you portray is alien to my experience; both in my parents generation and in my own the response has always to support each other and to present a unified face to all adversity (e.g. London’s reaction to bombings

    Does this depend on context? If the oil just – stops, we’ve about 3 days food in the distribution system then it’s time to go hungry (perhaps leading to mass fatalities). Yet if we loose a few % of oil each year for 20 years… perhaps a slow degradation of life would then ensue.

    I also wonder if the scenario described is enabled by the “move on” syndrome apparently normal in the US. In the EU, there is basically no-where to go as all desirable places are heavily populated and have been for thousands of years. There is little tradition of moving on (a straw poll of 3 adults in this house: they are 10, 11 and 230 miles from place-of-birth). And it seems to me that the degradation described needs “worthy, solid” people to quit and go find somewhere else.

    Now, religion. The EU has 1 person in 5 believing in God and the churches are near empty; many have been converted to useful purposes too. Yet free of God people pull together as one and recognise each other’s worth. What place then does religion have?? Clearly, its presence or lack does not change the “goodness” of a person, nor their behaviour in the community.

    Finally, the threats of the future are causing social movements to collect to address these issues constructively ( – now a worldwide phenomena. Aware people would surely see that such collective action is in everyone’s best interest.

    Interesting piece…

  4. There is a lot of writing going on in the peak oil movement these days, but this series may be some of the most important. My first emotion after reading this column for the first time was a sudden wash of despair. But by the time I had read it three times, I am feeling empowered. As I often say, we don’t have to be at the mercy of giant impersonal forces. But one of the first steps to an empowering liberation is to know your enemy as well as you know yourself. The first step to casting out a demon is to name the demon that is afflicting you. I think this is a difficult series to write, but I encourage you to persevere.

  5. And write I will. I think we need to define our terms a bit, before jumping into “solutions.” I agree, Bob, that if you don’t know what you are dealing with, you are at a disadvantage. I’m working on a discussion of “Forgotten Cities,” the 150 older, once prosperous industrial towns that are in close proximity to larger cities and rural places, with walkable downtowns and neighborhoods, often with access to rails, rivers, canals, dams, bridges, ports and parks, remarkable architectural features like historic mills, underutilized industrial facilities
    homes and churches, and they often have cultural assets such as symphony halls, museums, small colleges, universities, and remarkably affordable housing. It is important to pay attention to what happened to them socially, after their factories moved overseas. I want to trace not only the ways in which they declined, but the spin that researchers put on that deterioration and the ways they are being talked about today.

    As we begin to pay attention to relocalization, there is a need to take an active interest in how these “forgotten cities” are “remembered.” Such “solutions” will no doubt be promoted in other areas that experience similar job loss. In the days when those older cities were ‘forgotten,’ there were other places to move to. When much of the world will experience setbacks, we all might be a lot better off to “hunker down” to our own “plot of ground” and stand up to these “giant impersonal forces.”

    John, it is remarkable what an effect graffiti has on crime. NYC is a prime example.

    Randy, thanks for your comment.

    Steve, Everything depends on context and culture. I’m speaking to a culture that has already been plagued by violence, to see what are the elements of that decline. Social movements must also be contextualized, as I’ve mentioned in my three-part series on Transition Towns. The EU and the US are very different places in a number of ways. However, I think that using the example of WWII in England, or Y2K in NYC, might not be the best examples of how a community responses to stress. Such “outside threats” often do bring people together. Internal deterioration, such as a loss of jobs, may be quite a different phenomenon.

    In the meanwhile, the end of the semester is fast approaching, and I have papers to grade….

  6. guamanian says:

    A couple of thoughts…

    While several of the example symptoms seem to come from urban decay realities, it seems to me that several more are common suburban ‘affectations’, that required no hardship to generate. In fact, they seem to be at the self-satisfied intersection of individualist dogma and the current lack of need for community. These two pathologies are separate but linked, and of course neither is constructive.

    A possible source of techniques for organizing atomized and broken communities can be found in Latin American liberation theology, popular education, and revolutionary organizing practices. Specifically I recall that the Sandinista revolution organized in the Somoza era under exactly the worst-case conditions you describe. The subsequent failure of the revolution and similar attempts should not cause us to overlook the remarkable success these organizing techniques had in the early years. Adapt and adopt!

  7. Working in contingency planning for the last 23 years, I can tell you one of the hardest events to address is the “slow motion disaster”, one that plays out over an extended period of time. That is what community collapse will become. The problem with slow motion disasters is that the movers and shakers, political big wigs, etc refuse to acknowledge that there is something out there slowly creating a huge problem, and therefore refuse to commit sufficient resources to contain it until it is overwhelming in size and scope. Government most generally works in that fashion, be it local, state, or national.

    Community collapse won’t generally occur over a 3-6 month period, instead it will play out over a 5 to 10 year period. Unfortunately, the key decision makers will change out every 2-4 years, so you generally don’t get a consistent steady response to the problem(s)over the decade or more it takes to come into full bloom.

    Even when a sudden community collapse occurs because of a natural event such as New Orleans in hurricane Katrina, three and a half years and billions of dollars later they are still trying to figure out the best way to restore the community, while it continues a slow collapse around them.

    If you ask most political leaders what constitues community, they may pay slight lip service to the people living there, but generally they will point to the number of houses, parks, wide streets, schools, companies,entertainment, shopping areas and other inanimate objects as what makes community. We fall into the same trap individually, defining community by inanimate objects. Certainly those trappings make a location nicer, but the most important ingredient is the people living there and paying for those trappings. What happens when they can no longer pay for the political leader’s trophies?

    Community collapse will occur one broken window, one boarded up store front, one grafetti at a time. We will go by and remark “isn’t it a shame that they don’t fix that, use that, clean that up”, etc day after day, but leave it to someone else. After we accept that, then we will accept all the other horrible results that follow, and continue re-electing people who say “isn’t that a shame” to lead us through this.

    Two images come to mind when I think of community collapse, one from the Batman series of movies, where Gotham is a dark, oppressive, foreboding kind of place, full of evil and unattractive surroundings. Even after the evil power de jour is dispatched, the place still stays dark and foreboding until the next sequel unfolds. The second image is from the movie “Network” some 33 years ago when one of the main characters, a network news anchor, goes berserk on air, shouting “I’m mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore”. It may take a long time before we find out what direction our community inhabitants settle for, or will it be a compromise of some sort between the two images? Stay tuned, film at 11!

  8. This is great, Kathy. I’ve been trying to think through community resilience and blog about it a little bit to get the word out around this community. But it’s really interesting and valuable to look at the flip-side: what exactly are the threats to resilience and how do they manifest themselves and spread?

    One thing I find really frustrating and challenging is this society’s pervasive need to be surrounded by ‘happy talk’. There is a taboo against dispassionately examining the threats we face and then working out ways to oppose them in the most efficient way. We seem to believe that to invoke the name of our ‘enemies’ is to bring them into being. It’s very primitive stuff, but I suppose that these strange mind games have always afflicted human life.

    I look forward to the continuation of this series. Thank you.

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  1. […] solutions are local, not global… communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” […]

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