wolf tattoo freetattoodesigns.orgRen stood in the middle of the stream, tossing his line into the water, not looking at all like a real fisher. He wore only a brief bathing suit, revealing the huge tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon that covered the whole back half of his body.

Gabrielle sat on the bank near him, playing with one of her piercings, her legs stretched out into the fast-rushing water. Her peasant dress was wet from wading in the stream and was now plastered to her body. She was shivering despite the day’s warmth and sun.

“You’ve gone all weird since you got into this non-duality shit,” she said to him. “I’m not sure I like you very much any more. We need you at the Lelu Island occupation. We’re not going to stop this LNG disaster by meditating. We have to block it. You’ve done this stuff, Ren, you know what we have to do to stop them.”

Ren didn’t reply, other than shrugging; he just kept casting into the water.

“You still have a great butt, though,” Gabrielle added, shouting a little over the noise of the water. Staring at the wet rocks in front of her she yelled out at him “You have an activist rep that goes back a long way, and your presence would make a difference. We need your organizing skill. Most of the people on the front lines are just kids. They don’t know what they’re doing, and the PR scum from Petronas are trying to scare them and provoke them into doing something stupid on camera so they can call in the cops. We need leadership, Ren.”

He waded over toward where she was sitting and crouched down in the stream. “You see this stream, and how it works its way around my body? I can’t stop the stream flowing no matter how I splay my hands and body. I could get 50 people out here with their arms out trying to stop this stream and it would accomplish nothing. That’s how complex systems work. They work around obstructions. The political and economic system that is working to introduce LNG is another complex system. You can’t stop it. We can’t stop it. It will just work around us. I’ve wasted too much of my life trying to change complex systems. Not going to do it any more”. He wandered back to the centre of the stream and cast his line out again.

Gabrielle scowled at him. “Activism can bring about change,” she shouted at him.

“Give me an example,” he called back at her.

“End of slavery and segregation. Women’s vote. LGBT rights.”

“Physical slavery, the ownership of people as property, was no longer needed with the advent of automated machinery, otherwise we’d still have it. Instead we have economic slavery, wage slavery. Most of the world’s people are economic slaves. We may not have legal segregation but it was just replaced by economic segregation. It costs money that most people of colour don’t have to live in the neighbourhoods with decent schools, and to pay for a university education that has any economic value at all. If your parents had wealth and power, you are pretty much guaranteed that you will have it, and vice versa. Your chances of moving out of the economic quintile your parents were in are less than 5%.

“And as for women’s suffrage, the vote was only ‘given’ to women when voting ceased to make any real difference, when the essential part of the political process had shifted from the voting booth to the back rooms. The ERA was never ratified for the same reason — it might have actually led to real change. Corporations have all the power now, and they’re totally dominated by men. And LGBT rights cost no one anything, so they were an easy ‘gift’ for the people in power to give away. Discrimination on the basis of sexual preference has been diminishing because it’s an anachronism of religious fundamentalism, and because the generation of terrified fundies is all dying off, not because people marched in the street for the end to it.”

Gabrielle jumped on Ren’s last remark: “Are you telling me that all the Pride marches had nothing to do with the incredible changes in the laws in the last decade?” she asked.

“Most of the people in the country couldn’t see why there should be discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the first place, but they don’t feel passionate about it. The fact that the marchers did feel passionate about it might have accelerated the change in laws a bit, but practices were already changing before the laws changed, and the minority of people who hate and fear them aren’t going to change their behaviours because of laws anyway. They’ll find ways to discriminate, to work around the laws, until they finally die off.

“Look at what all the marches for access to safe abortions have accomplished — the situation in many places has been getting steadily worse for four decades. The marches and activism temporarily moved the goalposts, but over time the stream of people in power — the patriarchy — who fervently believe abortion is wrong, have just found new ways to work around the laws, to erode them. Eventually the people who think abortion is evil will die off, and their kids and grandkids won’t care about the issue the same way, so then the practice, which was perfectly legal (though not safe) until around 1850, will become fully legal again. Not because anyone marched, or changed their mind, but because a new generation came along with a different mindset from the old one.”

“So you’ll admit that protests can at least ‘move the goalposts’, that they can lead to at least temporary changes?” Gabrielle replied.

“At least and at most, yes. I greatly admire people who are willing to put in the time on that basis, to do ‘holding actions’ as Joanna Macy calls them, that can at least prevent things getting much worse for a short time, and might even produce some fleeting victories. But in the long run they mean nothing. I haven’t got the heart for that any more.”

Gabrielle waded out into the stream and hugged him from behind. “Yeah, we’re getting old and tired. It’s hard. But to me it’s harder not to fight. If you won’t acknowledge the long-term value of passive protest, will you at least agree that direct action works? The work Derrick Jensen is doing to decommission dams and restore rivers is accomplishing a lot.”

“It’s ironic. The new resistance movements think they’ve invented something new with ‘Block it, Break it, Take it’. But this is precisely the tactics of the patriarchy, of the military and corporations. It’s always been that way — that’s what the system rewards. New regulation coming in to ban pollution that we profit from? Block it. Protest group chained together in the path of our new development project? Break it. New competitor threatening our margins or market share? Take it — buy them out and shut them down. Legal threats, bribery, offshoring, hiding profits in tropical island banks, numbered companies, deregulation, ghost-written laws for bought legislators, dumping toxins, paying third world authorities to kill opponents and protesters, everything involved in ‘externalizing’ costs and risks — they’re all workarounds using these same three direct action tactics to maximize profit and growth. Everyone knows its psychopathy but no one knows any way to change it. It’s the system, my dear, it’s designed and evolved to resist change and to block, break or take any attempt to change anything long-term.

“So by all means, take direct action. Just don’t expect it to have any enduring effect. For every dam that Derrick gets decommissioned there’s a huge new Site C dam to take its place. Your cleanup of the local riverbanks and oil slicks will make a difference for a while, but the effluent from the city nearby and the next deepwater or tanker disaster will undo it all soon enough.” He turned around to face her, hugged her and added, “Just promise me you’ll stay out of jail, and not get yourself hurt. No short-term victory is worth that.”

Gabrielle looked despondent. She buried her face in his shoulder and said quietly, “So let me get this straight. Your disillusionment with activism has to do with your understanding of the way complex systems work, and not with this non-duality stuff you’ve been reading, right?”

Ren smiled, and said: “The term ‘non-duality’ has a lot of very muddled meanings. Let me summarize what I currently believe before I answer your question. A lot of ‘moderate’ non-dualists argue that we have to behave responsibly, to do what we believe needs to be doing, even though they accept that there is no free will. They say otherwise we might well sink into nihilism. A lot of people who’ve studied the subject, scientists in particular, get fussed about whether our world is deterministic or subject to some degree of volition or ‘free will’. Einstein said, for example, ‘I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly. . . I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime, but I prefer not to take tea with him.’

“Radical non-dualists, on the other hand, assert that the world is neither deterministic nor subject to free will. For them, the whole question of ‘free will’ is moot because there is no ‘one’ to exercise it. And there is no ’cause and effect’ so the world is not deterministic either. They would argue that Einstein had no choice about either his behaviour or who he would take tea with, not because his actions were pre-determined but because there was no separate ‘person’ called Einstein. But the illusory self believes it is separate and has free will, and from the perspective of that illusion it can’t believe anything else. Nothing else makes sense. Einstein was getting close to this realization, though, I think, when he said ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Space and time are not conditions in which we live, they are modes in which we think.’ At the moment the radical non-dualist position is the one that intuitively and intellectually makes the most sense to me.

“So to answer your question, yes, my disillusionment with activism has everything to do with an appreciation of the intractability of complex systems, rather than my enthusiasm for a radical non-dual worldview. In fact, as long as my ‘self’ hangs around, it has no choice but to act as if it has free will and hence act ‘responsibly.’ ”

Gabrielle thought for a moment and then smiled at him slyly and said: “You’re telling me that your very intellectual ‘self’ thinks that activism is risky and ultimately futile, but also that your ‘self’ must behave responsibly as if it had free will and self-control. So what, I ask your ‘self’, is the ‘responsible’ thing to do about Lelu Island?”

Ren laughed, bowed to her, and pointed at her, and then, with a sigh, almost reluctantly said “Stop the bastards.”

“And how, oh exalted and wise ‘self’ that is under the illusion of being Ren, do we do that?”

“You know what I was saying about complex systems being like a stream? It’s all about disrupting the flows. It’s about taking actions that cause the maximum amount of time, energy and money to restore things to the position and momentum they had before the disruption. Since they have the money and the bought politicians and the police and the media and the armies of lawyers on their side, we have to be smarter, and we have to catch them off guard. I knew I wasn’t going to dissuade you, so I wrote down some ideas that might work, and which will be inexpensive to pull off with minimal risk. Shall we call it a day and go stir up some veggies and I’ll walk you through them?”

“Yay,” Gabrielle replied. “I knew you’d come around. And I’m freezing. Are you just going to lay these ideas on me or are you going to come with me to Lelu?” Tweaking his bum gently, she added “I’ll make it worth your while!”

He refused to promise, but she knew the trick to convincing him, a technique she’d learned when they’d studied complexity theory together: She made it easy, and fun, for him to agree to join her.

As they unlocked their bikes and packed up their gear, Gabrielle said, “Now, let’s suppose one of these days the illusory self that calls itself Ren should vanish into the ether of enlightenment. Should we be concerned that the character that is left will shirk all responsibility and leave us high and dry on the front lines?”

“I have no idea. Since ‘I’ wouldn’t be around to take any responsibility for ‘my’ actions, it’s anyone’s guess. But since there actually is no free will, ‘I’ would think it likely that the character that once self-identified as Ren would probably continue to do the only things it could possibly do, so your ‘self’ might not even notice much difference, other than a little less moodiness and internal conflict.”

“I think I might like the self-less non-you even more than your current self-ish self. Just as long it doesn’t act all ‘enlightened’ and holier-than-thou,” she replied. Then she added: “Oh, and just out of curiosity, since I happen to know you’re vegetarian, what’s with this fishing thing?”

“It’s for my cat. Do you know what crap they put into packaged pet foods? It’s criminal.”

“Maybe we should do something responsible about that, too,” she replied. “Even though, in the long run, it is of course futile.”

image from freetattoodesigns.org

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

Seeing Through Stories

image from Nick Smith’s friend John Wareham’s collection

This essay, like all essays, is a story. It’s my own patterning of what I’ve perceived, intuited, thought about and felt, and then recalled in an effort to make sense of it all. In the case of this particular essay, there is no empirical evidence of its veracity. In fact, it’s evidently not true. But it’s my story anyway, at least for now. Here it is, in all its apparent truthlessness:

Every story is an invention. If enough people hear it and believe it to be true — if it fits with their worldview i.e. the collection of other stories they have come to accept as true — it becomes a myth. A myth is not necessarily false; it’s just a story sufficiently widely accepted that people act as if it were true and are hesitant to challenge it. At this point it might as well be true, because anyone who denies it is likely to be, at best, ignored. Like all stories, myths are just simplifications, attempts to see meaningful and reliable patterns in the firehose of sensory and cognitive messages we are all bombarded with.

Every story is a lie. Not (usually) a deliberate one, of course. Most stories are invented with the best of intentions — they seem to make sense, and to be useful. They seem to fit with our other stories. But reality is unfathomably more complex than any story can ever tell. What we believe we perceive with our five senses and our dim brains is just an insignificantly tiny, filtered, incomplete and imprecise representation of all-that-is. Other creatures perceive the world very differently, and their stories of reality are utterly different from ours.

All stories are absurd oversimplifications, pale representations of the truth, sketches of what little our impoverished senses are able to pick up, that our muddled brains then fashion into models of reality. We do the best we can, but we have absolutely no idea what reality is. We cannot possibly know. The tools evolution has equipped us with only show us enough partial glimpses of reality to optimize our chances of survival without overwhelming us. So we make do with our stories, our sad representations, and in telling them to ourselves and each other often enough come to believe not only that they are accurate representations of reality, but that they are reality. We come not only to see our stories as reality in our minds, but to embody them with our apparently-separate whole being.

Behind every story is an attempt to rationalize what is happening. What is happening has nothing to do with ‘us’, these conjured-up ideas of separate, volitional selves. What is happening, what we seem to be deciding to believe and do, is the only thing that could have happened. ‘We’ act, seemingly with volition, and then our minds attempt to rationalize our behaviour, make it fit with what we believe we believe, what we believe motivates us. Our evolved minds are doing their best to help us, to make sense for us. But they actually are of no help at all.

It’s as if we are desperately playing along with a joke that we don’t understand, so that we don’t appear foolish for not getting it, for not expertly going along with it. It’s all a mad attempt to make sense of reality and truths that can never be made sense of, because we can’t possibly understand them, because we are trying to understand them from a perspective (that of the apparent volitional separate self) that is, like other stories, a complete fiction. Reality does not and cannot, to the separate, limited self, ever ‘make sense’.

Here is a partial catalogue of human stories:

  • What apparently was: histories and recountings and gossip and tales and reports
  • What apparently is: perceptions and conceptions and beliefs and worldviews and identities and selves
  • What could be: hopes and dreams and imaginings
  • What apparently happened: rationalizations and judgements
  • What allegedly happened: news and documentaries and essays and non-fiction (in all forms and media)
  • What might have been or might be: fiction and fantasy (in our heads and in all forms of media)
  • Why/how things apparently happened: models and theories and science and teaching
  • Art in all its forms: art re-presents all kinds of stories, meandering freely among all seven of the above types of story

So there is this blizzard of stories, those compiled and stored in a hopeless jumble in our heads and many more bombarding our senses. The pattern-sense-making that is the story of you is buffeted by trillions of other stories, the stories of other people, their pattern-sense-making, all of the stuff in the catalogue above and more. People telling you to listen to their story, to believe it instead of the story you already believe, to become that story instead of the story of you. And sometimes you will do so.

All of these stories are fictions, made-up imaginings, attempts to assemble a coherent whole from the tiny fraction of reality we can even begin to fathom. At one stage, a few of these stories might have seemed to have been useful, might seem to have helped us cope or get something apparently accomplished in the short run. They seemed to confer some evolutionary advantage. But even the appearance of accomplishment is just another story.

‘What seemingly happened’ was actually the only thing that could have happened, and it happened to no ‘one’, no separate ‘person’, and it was in any case just another story. There is actually no time within which anything can happen, can be ‘accomplished’. We just piece the results of our patterning, our sense-making, together by inventing time as a matrix, and then we fit what seemingly happened into it, to try to make sense of it. Our minds are good at such inventions, and it is all they can do to try to make sense of ‘what seemingly happened’.

But there is no sense to ‘what seemingly happened’, no purpose. And a little voice inside us whispers to us that something is not quite right with all these stories we want to believe, but we don’t know what it is. We have no other way of making sense. So we’re always unhappy, always searching, trying to make the ‘story of us’ turn out, somehow, a little better. We are perhaps intuitively seeking the wholeness that the accidental emergence of the separate self inadvertently destroyed.

You may say this story does not make any sense. And it doesn’t, it cannot. It’s just another oversimplified raid on the unknowable. But unlike most stories it might just point to something that is not a story. It might point to an intuition, a remembering, of what it was and is to be not-separate, to just be, indistinguishable from all-that-is. But since we lack any knowledge of how ‘we’, somehow, got separated, or how to get back home, ‘we’ are inclined not to listen to this little voice, and its annoying intuition that all our stories (including the story of us) are untrue, and that what is actually real is outside and before our apparently separate selves, that what is actually real is only and entirely and always all-that-is (paradoxically including all our stories). That not only is ‘all-that-is’ real, independent of any observer, but that there is no observer. There is only, unfathomably, all-that-is.

There had to be a story of you before there could be any of the other stories in the above catalogue. The story of the volitional separate you was an evolution, an adaptation or exaptation, a random variation tested out by Gaia to see if it might ‘fit’ better than what was there before the story. There is some evidence that something of the story of self exists in all creatures in brief times of stress. They see their ‘selves’ as a somewhat horrifying illusion that nevertheless enables them to escape from some acute crisis through fighting or fleeing or freezing. Gaia is merciful to those whose existential threats are rare and fleeting — she invokes the ghastly sense of self in such creatures only as long as the threat lasts, and then enables them to shake it off, as the nightmare it was.

For those of us who live in constant stress, however, we ‘smart’ domesticated creatures, the ghastly story of the volitional self endures until it overcomes us, until it becomes us. For us, the wonderful adaptation of the temporarily separate self becomes a horrific maladaptation, an eternal nightmare, a lifelong prison.

This is just another story, and a particularly useless and frustrating one, one that cannot be ‘realized’. Why then am I so attracted to it? In those rare astonishing moments when I seem to fall away and remember what it was like to just be, without story, what is happening?

When I watch the birds, I can sense that they are free from the horrible affliction of stories. They are not selves, they just are. They exist in the world raw, not sheathed inside the false protection of the illusory self. They have no illusion that anything can be other than the way it is. They have no illusion that they exist apart, or that ‘they’ will die. They are much wiser and freer than I, burdened with this self and these terrible stories, can ever be.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

The Admission of Necessary Ignorance (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

citizen scientist
image licensed cc-by-2.0: NOAA National Ocean Service via flickr

The title of this article comes from an interview earlier this year with the distinguished biologist and philosopher Richard Lewontin. Richard has fought for years (often alongside his more famous colleague Stephen J Gould) with scientific absolutists of every stripe, from genetic determinists like Richard Dawkins to the neo-phrenologist pop neuro-“scientists” who would have us believe that we will soon understand what it means to be human (and accordingly understand and be able to modify all human behaviour) by deciphering the patterns of coloured lights in brain scans.

Richard, now in his mid-80s, begins the interview by asserting “You can’t be overly humble.” We all want to know the truth, to have something we can believe (and believe in) with certainty, but Richard is here to tell us the limitations of science and the dangers of believing we will ever know more than a tiny fraction of the whats, hows and whys of our lives and our world.

And while the new cult of scientism produces louder and louder assertions of grand theories of everything and promises of immortality and singularity, scientists and philosophers who know “you can’t be overly humble” marvel at the mystery of how the more we know and learn and examine with a critical and open mind, the more mysteries and inextricable complexities we discover and the faster absolute knowledge of anything retreats from our grasp. As Marshall McLuhan famously said: “Learning creates ignorance.”

Richard’s work is steeped in an appreciation of complexity. In his book The Triple Helix he argues that attempts to determine causality in complex systems fail to acknowledge the difficulty of separating causality from agency — stress, for example, is an agent that appears to trigger many auto-immune diseases and other increasingly-prevalent modern chronic illnesses. But stress is not the cause. Determining the possible causes requires a more nuanced, patient and holistic study of the entire system and all its inter-dependent parts.

He explains, for example, that 90% of the drop in rates of infectious diseases between 1830 and 1960 occurred before 1910 — before the emergence of understanding of germs or the use of isolation procedures, and long before the development of modern antibiotics. Why such an astonishing drop in the rates of these diseases? Nothing to do with science or medicine at all, he says:

The most plausible explanation we have is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations, and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. So, although they may still have fallen sick, they survived. Infectious diseases were not the causes of death, but only the agencies. The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the Third World: overwork and undernourishment. The conclusion to be drawn from this account is that the level of mortality in Africa does not depend chiefly on the state of medicine but on the state of international production and exchange.

Still, today’s scientists pore over the model of the human genome in the unquestioned belief that most if not all human diseases will soon be cured by finding and fixing the “defective” genes. It is perhaps not surprising that brain scan images look much like modernistic crystal balls.

Richard’s appreciation for complexity comes from the realization, as he explains in his book Biology as Ideology, that science’s — and notably biology’s — modus operandi is to disconnect, separate, and study things “in isolation”. When you study biological systems you discover that they are inextricable — there is no clear and functionally distinct boundary between genes, the organisms they seemingly comprise, and the environments within which we imagine them located and moving about as discrete things. Genes, organisms and environments co-evolved. Early living creatures exuded an oxygen-rich environment which then evolved other living creatures (including, unremarkably, humans) that thrived as part of that environment and evolved it further.

Likewise, the study of permaculture teaches you about succession, and that in order to create the most abundant garden you may have to encourage some plants that are ultimately of no use either in our diet or in the “mature” garden that evolves from these intermediary agents. Alas, even many permaculturists lack the patience and humility to spend decades studying and learning about the local ecology before they can understand how to intervene effectively, starting from today’s desolated soils, the legacy of ubiquitous catastrophic agriculture and, carefully following nature’s own sometimes convoluted and inexplicable pathways, yield an edible forest garden that — surprise! — thrives without further human intervention in precisely those ecological areas humans evolved to thrive within.

What complicates the role of the scientist in the 21st century is that they are tethered to the modern ideology of progress. Just as politicians and economists would have us believe that life is, on the whole and over the long haul, getting better and better, scientists have now been sucked in to believing and asserting that human knowledge, and hence our ability to apply that knowledge to solve problems, is getting better and better.

As Richard’s friend and colleague Stephen J Gould spent a lifetime demonstrating, there is no evidence for evolution being a “progressive” process. Evolution, we are learning (slowly) is a process of experimental adaptation and exaptation — full of the emergence of unexpected consequences of random variations that could never have been predicted or even imagined.

Evolution is not from lower to higher, or from less advanced to more advanced, or even from simpler to more complex. There is nothing progressive or intentional or foreordained about it. Humans are not the crown of creation or the culmination of any inevitable and extraordinary evolution — we are just one tiny new branch in the tree of life, a species whose only remarkable feature has been our inability to appreciate the necessity of living in balance with the rest of life on Earth, and our commensurate large-scale destruction of the very environment of which we are a part.

Of course, science doesn’t like to acknowledge that. That would require humility. It would require acknowledging that for all our learning the most important thing we’ve discovered is how staggeringly little we know and how unlikely it is we will ever really understand anything beyond the absurdly simplistic models of reality we have cobbled together so far. It would require admitting that we aren’t progressing, and aren’t likely to. It would require an admission of necessary ignorance.

What might happen if we were to emulate Richard Lewontin’s complex-systems approach to scientific exploration, discovery and appreciation?

What if we were to look at our feeble scientific models of reality with humility, and appreciate that we can’t hope to fully understand anything we study? What if we took a nuanced and holistic approach to complex phenomena, the type of analysis that leads to the discovery that the best approach to eliminating devastating diseases is probably political and economic, not medical?

What if we were to give up trying to control our genes and our people and our environments and instead sought to increase our adaptability and resilience and mobility, and to liberate ourselves from dependence on large centralized industrial systems — including the health-care, pharmaceutical, agricultural, educational and high-technology systems that currently fund, employ and draw their value from the scientific community?

Sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that our economic, energy and ecological systems are unsustainable and will, unevenly but inevitably, collapse, probably sometime in this century, in the lifetimes of our grandchildren if not our own. The Union of Concerned Scientists has already said this, and you can read it on the faces of climate scientists, even if they dare not say it in front of their employers, or to audiences not ready for the truth.

How might scientists shift their role from servants of a bankrupt industrial civilization to scenario planners, teachers of complexity, imaginers of possible ways to adapt to extreme and unpredictable change? What if we could put all those minds together, not to plan an escape from the planet or to conduct some reckless adventure in geo-engineering, but rather to look as cultural anthropologists at the collapse of past civilizations, and help us discover how to bravely, intelligently, creatively and even joyfully embrace and adapt to the hard road ahead. As a journey in humility. For our grandchildren.

We should ask them.


Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on The Admission of Necessary Ignorance (repost)

Beyond Belief (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

I’m not spiritual. Really.

meditation 3

image: from a video made by a fan of Deva Premal’s Moola Mantra, original source uncredited

People often ask me if, in my self-proclaimed state of joyful pessimism and contemplative gratitude, I’ve finally discovered spirituality.

I insist that I have not.

Just about everyone I know who self-identifies as “spiritual” also believes our civilization will somehow be ‘saved’ from collapse (by science or technology, or the market, or wise leadership, or human ingenuity, or by a god or gods, or by a massive human consciousness-raising). What good is a ‘spirit’, after all, if he/she/it can’t save you from perceived disaster?

No thank you, no salvation needed here.

I’d like to think that most non-spiritual people have moved on, as Derrick Jensen puts it, “Beyond Hope” for saving our culture and our species. Tom Robbins says we now have no choice but to “insist on joy in spite of everything”.

We who are resigned to the inevitability of civilization’s collapse strive instead to be unattached and equanimous, but not nihilistic or depressed about it. We humans can only be who we are, and who we are is ignorant of complex systems and preoccupied with the needs of the moment. So it is. Life is wonderful and worth living every minute anyway. No soul or striving or sacredness required.

But a little voice inside me says: “That sounds kinda spiritual to me. Borderline Buddhist even. Are you sure you’re not spiritual? You throw around the word Gaia as a shorthand for all-life-on-Earth, but it sounds pretty Goddess-like. You have a picture of her in your mind, some kind of wise, wild, beautiful meta-creature?”

And I must confess that my belief that complex systems are unfathomable, and cannot be known or understood or ‘managed’ or predicted or changed or controlled by humans, no matter how rich or powerful or organized or skilled or motivated, sounds not dissimilar to the faith that some ancient peoples had in some higher, invisible, awesome power.

And I am on a journey these days to try to really see what I know intellectually – that my self, my mind, my sense of being all-of-a-piece, my sense of separateness, my sense of self-control and my sense of time are all illusions, conceptions, ideas that are extremely useful in surviving day to day, but ultimately false. If that truth-seeking isn’t a spiritual journey, what is?

Although it’s defined a thousand ways, spirituality is ultimately about belief, and faith. For most who call themselves spiritual, it is about belief in something larger and more important than ourselves and our species, and faith that there is a purpose to our struggle and a meaning to our lives.

I don’t understand the need of spiritual people for purpose or meaning or something larger than everything-that-just-is, the need for something to strive for and to progress towards.

My great-great grandfather, who lived through the Long Depression (which lasted from 1873 more or less until 1896) wrote in his diary about his duty to do whatever was necessary to leave things better for his children than they had been for him. This was the era of robber barons, urbanization caused by bankruptcy of family farms, and child labour, an era which followed a period of relative agrarian prosperity and equality. He was spiritual. He had faith that his struggle and belief would be rewarded in the afterlife and through increased opportunity for his children. He never lost his faith. His children and grandchildren would contend with WW1 and the Great Depression. Whether he was rewarded in the afterlife is anyone’s guess.

We boomers were really the first Western generation in recent history to challenge that faith en masse. Many of us became secular humanists in youth, and believers in the gods of money, markets and technology in middle age. Or were “born again”. Most of us have now become salvationists of one kind or another, seeing the world through very different evolved worldviews, and defining life’s meaning and their purpose accordingly.

These days we also have the advocates of scientism whose faith is, paradoxically, in scientific certainty and the knowability of everything. Science, its advocates contend, can ultimately solve any problem, reduce everything that can be known to simple equations and perfect models, and allow us to transcend our bodies and live anywhere, forever. It’s the new salvationist religion of science that, preposterously, self-identifies as atheistic. The myth of progress expresses itself in many different ways, each with its fervent and unshakable believers.

But every generation has its skeptics, and I think the boomers, the first generation whose rebelliousness was largely celebrated rather than suppressed, has retained more than its share. And just as we have politically moved Beyond Hope, we have culturally and philosophically moved Beyond Belief.

Stephen J Gould argued in Full House that the emergence of vertebrates (let alone humanoids), even in a physical environment ideally evolving for life as we know it, was a one-in-millions long shot. If we manage to render life on this planet extinct, he said, there is very little chance of it re-emerging in any fathomable time span, and even if it did re-emerge, it would almost certainly be unrecognizably different from the web of life that emerged from the primordial soup a few billion years ago. Our search for extraterrestrial life (at least in the sense we define the term) is foolish, he would assert, and the search for extraterrestrial “intelligence” (some form of life we could communicate with), is absurd, and based on nothing but faith, a will to believe in something in spite of its staggering improbability.

This does not sit well with people who argue that life tends to emerge and grow in complexity and resist “death” tenaciously whenever and wherever it can. Life, these believers assert, is predestined, the will of all existence. No matter that such belief is tautological.

So what does it mean to be “Beyond Belief”? It means appreciating and embracing complexity, and accepting that we cannot ever hope to fully know, predict or control complex systems (including our bodies and the microcosms within them, and social and ecological systems, and our planet, and all the macrocosms beyond it). It means accepting that in our study of science and technology (including the so-called “social sciences”) we may devise interesting and useful, within limits, models of reality, but that these are only absurdly simplistic and limited representations of reality — stick men on cave walls.

It means challenging everything you are told, everything you believe and everything you want to believe. It means appreciating and accepting what is without pretending or hoping to fathom it. It means becoming humble. It means learning to live without the need for meaning or purpose or progress or something larger and more important than the miracle of what just is, what has evolved from the universe’s infinite random walks through possibility.

OK, I used the word ‘miracle’. That’s pretty spiritual, isn’t it?

Nope, afraid not. ‘Miracle’ comes from the proto-Indo-European word meaning to wonder and to laugh. That is what awaits those who can let go of their beliefs and faith. To wonder, and to laugh. To notice. To really see. To really be.

Beyond belief, that is all that you need.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

The End of Politics (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

new political map 2015

image by the author; click on image to view full-size

If you’ve contemplated the possibility of civilization’s global collapse, you probably envision its social and political consequences to be violent and chaotic — a world dominated by struggle to fill the power vacuum, leading to despotism and ruthless ethnic, class, intertribal and inter-gang warfare.

A study of history, and of collapse scenarios, suggests however that Mad Max, Taliban, clash-of-civilizations, and history-going-in-reverse outcomes (like those portrayed in Jim Kunstler’s wild-west-again cli-fi novel A World Made by Hand) are improbable. If the prognostications of futurists and sci-fi/cli-fi writers seem imaginatively impoverished, perhaps it’s because our global human civilization is now so all-pervasive and homogeneous that even creative writers can’t imagine a future radically different from our present, or from our recent colonial and industrial past, projected forward or run in reverse.

If you want a more nuanced sense of what politics in a post-collapse future might look like, here are a few things to consider:

  1. Cultural homogeneity is abnormal and maladaptive: For at least 1000 millennia, up until just a few millennia ago, our planet probably offered a staggering diversity of human cultures, behaviours, languages, and political systems. There was likely very little contact between these cultures, since human population was less than 1 person per 30 habitable acres, and not perceptibly growing, so even ‘adjacent’ human cultures would likely have been unrecognizably different in their social and political makeup. Most collapsnik demographers envision human population quickly falling back to these levels, and similarly low-complexity, low-tech, low-interaction, widely-divergent societies emerging.
  1. Politics is a very recent human phenomenon: The whole idea (and even the etymology) of ‘politics’ came about with the evolution of fortressed city-states: high-density, high-hierarchy, resource-scarce societies where the need for arduous work, slavery and repression of human freedoms meant that the powers of decision-making and law-making needed to be delegated to expert, elite ‘representatives’. The concept of politics was unknown in pre-civilization rural areas, where, presumably thanks to abundance of space, resources and leisure time, politics was simply unneeded. Anarchy worked just fine. Unfortunately, the repressive, political city-states quickly colonized and destroyed the surrounding apolitical societies, and warred with neighbouring political states, until politics became endemic to human presence on the planet.
  1. Political states are extremely costly to run and inherently unsustainable. They require massively complex systems to be constructed, and massive levels of security, repression, bureaucracy, law enforcement, maintenance, concentration of wealth and power, and continuous expansion to acquire ever more resources. These needs grow exponentially as size increases linearly, so political states and civilizations (urban-centric social-political-economic states) will inevitably collapse.
  1. Despots, warlords and gangs require the machinery of a still-functioning political state to operate. They need weapons, security forces and armies, which in a collapsed society are too expensive to manufacture and maintain. They need access to wealth when, after collapse, the preponderance of pre-existing wealth, being either paper or resources (like gold) with no intrinsic utility, will be worthless. They need access to people in power they can bully, bribe and corrupt, but since collapse bankrupts governments there is no one, after collapse, with power to do much of anything. When the collapse is a global one, and everyone is broke, poor, and powerless, there is nothing to do but cooperate with one’s equally destitute neighbours to just get by. The collapse of a global civilization culture means, essentially, the end of politics.
  1. Collapse does not happen all at once — in a week or a year or even in a single ‘fall from grace’. Whether collapse is ultimately brought about by the end of the unsustainable growth economy, the end of affordable energy and resources, or the end of stable climate, or a combination of all three, we will likely see periods of partial collapse and then partial recoveries, until the crises begin to pile on faster than our reeling civilization can cope with them. We will have at least a few years to learn how to deal with collapse, which means we will be able to learn from some of our mistakes. That won’t prevent or mitigate collapse, but it will at least psychologically prepare us for it, so that rather than panicking, most of us will be able to accept it with some equanimity.

Past collapses and prolonged depressions provide some clues as to how humans will behave in a global collapse. In areas where there remains a huge inequality of wealth and power between rich and poor, there is a motivation for the rich to defend their wealth and repress the poor, and a motivation for the poor to seize the wealth of the (presumably unfairly) rich. But in areas where everyone is left poor, and there is little inequality, human nature, it turns out, seems to be to share and help each other.

This behaviour was evident during the Great Depression. Farmers whose monoculture, no-longer-viable farms had to be abandoned in favour of work in the city, left their homes and property open to the homeless and to other farmers.

In many of today’s third-world slums (where collapse has already happened), whole collaborative infrastructures spring up to provide needed resources and utilities, and to defend against (wealthier and powerful) outsiders. Crime statistics repeatedly show that rates of violent crime are highest not in poor communities, states and nations, but in communities, states and nations with the highest levels of inequality of wealth and power.

My recent work with intentional communities has made me a fan of direct decision-making by consensus, rather than representative democracy where decision-making is delegated to elected officials. Direct consensual decision-making doesn’t scale — it probably only works in radically relocalized situations with small numbers of people. But that’s what I think the post-collapse world will be mostly about — there will be no centralized governments, distribution networks or economic systems to make decisions about, because they’re just too complex and costly to sustain.

I see direct consensual decision-making as essentially a tribal form of anarchy. It worked for many indigenous cultures before we colonized and destroyed them. Anarchy is, after all, just the absence of governance, of hierarchy, of “power over” and inequality. It is not essentially violent. It can in fact only exist in the absence of power structures, which are inherently violent. In the absence of overcrowding, resource scarcity, and other stresses, such power structures are unnecessary and unsupportable. In a future with many fewer humans, we can and will live without such structures.

Far from being disordered and chaotic, an anarchic society is one free of coercion. It’s not amoral — anarchy does require a prevalent respect for the freedom and life and well-being of others. This is why misanthropic conservatives believe ‘peaceful’ anarchy is impossible. We will show them they are wrong.

Anarchy is a state of reality — the absence of inequality of wealth and power and hence the absence of the abuses that inherently stem from that inequality. (This is in contrast to anarchism, which is the ideology that espouses, somewhat ironically, that anarchy be nurtured and managed).

For those of us who have grown up in a culture of massive and self-perpetuating inequality — one that rewards and prides itself on the relative ‘successes’ of its rich and powerful, and which looks dubiously on the poor and powerless as somehow lazy or weak or stupid — the end of politics and a future of unimaginably diverse anarchic societies seems inconceivable. But the issue, I think, is not the viability and inevitability of such societies emerging after collapse (that is, if our species survives collapse at all) but rather the issue of how we can, relatively painlessly, get there from here.

We know that, as collapse worsens, the rich and powerful will retrench and do everything in their power to protect themselves and their wealth and power base. We know that those who suffer most from collapse (as always, the poor and powerless) will, at once, resent and envy the rich and powerful (and strive to join their ranks). That process is already visible everywhere.

So what happens next? Here are the questions we need to be asking now, I think, as we plunge inexorably off the collapse cliff:

  1. A duty of activism?: Is there any point to creating or joining activist groups trying to reduce political and economic inequality now, and reform these teetering systems before collapse levels the political and economic playing field? If we don’t join the ranks of activists, what should we do instead?
  1. Fight the rich or smash the system?: As the actions of the rich and powerful to insulate themselves from collapse become ever-more extreme and abhorrent, and as the situation worsens and demagogues arise prescribing various extreme ideological panaceas for our growing malaise, should we try to take them down? Or should we instead work to take down the economic system they depend on (and, if so, how do we best do that)?
  1. How to prepare for an unknowable future?: When we can have no idea what post-collapse society will ultimately look like — what forms of governance will last the longest, what power will devolve to who, what resources will disappear and what infrastructure will collapse first, where we will live (after probably a series of migrations to avoid some of the worst crises of cascading collapse), and what skills will be necessary wherever we may find ourselves — how can we best prepare now to be of use to those with whom we will find ourselves living, no matter how collapse unfolds?

Dmitry Orlov’s recent essay on collapse and climate change suggests that the various ‘camps’ of collapsniks depicted in the New Political Map above seem to be converging and coalescing with remarkable speed. I find this encouraging — together we constitute a significant, educated and growing minority of the human population. The recent Great Debate between several collapsnik factions held at the Melbourne Sustainable Living Festival also demonstrated this convergence.

The last time I can recall a similar global phenomenon was in the 1960s, when we grew large enough and loud enough to be noticed, and for awhile at least everyone jumped on the bandwagon and claimed to agree with us. And we weren’t even really very coherent.

We collapsniks all agree, I think, that politics has now all but given up the pretence of being representative and has devolved to being theatre: today’s politicians are entertainers, distracters, actors reading the scripts written for them by their corporate sponsors, for our consumption, not for our consideration.

It might be useful, now, to try to figure out how the energy and momentum of the 1960s got so lost in the 1970s and 1980s. If we can get our act together again, so that preparing for collapse is taken seriously in public discourse and in social, political and economic decision-making, we don’t want to blow the chance again. We can be sure to face opposition, as we did in the 1960s, from those who want to crush us, jail us or co-opt us. This time, we can’t afford to let the deniers and salvationists re-take the political centre-stage.

The various ‘flavours’ of collapsniks, from humanists to near-term extinctionists, bring different viewpoints and answers to the three questions I pose above, but they increasingly understand and appreciate these differences. We could be formidable and awesome allies.

Not that this is likely to change the endgame, but it could make the final chapter of our civilization less psychologically devastating, more civil, and a lot more interesting, and might get the survivors of collapse off on a better footing. Regardless of how each of us would answer the three questions above, we owe them that.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Technology’s False Hope (and the Wisdom of Crows) (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

innovation graphic

“What have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
in an age which advances progressively backwards?”
— TS Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Only a decade ago, I was part of the Strategy and Innovation Core Team for a huge multinational consultancy, and writing exuberantly on my (then-new) blog about innovation and technology and how they could possibly save the world. The image above, from the Credit Suisse First Boston New Economy Forum Synthesis, describes a universal “technology development process” popular at the time. One of the leading business speakers in those heady days was Chris Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, whom I more or less idolized.

And then something happened. My own research into the history of innovation and technology suggested that, rather than being the result of rigorous process, excellence and inventiveness, most enduring technologies of any value seemed to be the result of fortuitous accidents, or were the throw-away byproducts of massive, outrageously expensive military programs. Complexity science was by then throwing serious doubt on a lot of accepted theories about how change actually happens in organizations and societies. Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress and similar works by Jared Diamond and others argued that ‘progress’ was an illusion, and that all civilizations inevitably collapse (taking the capacity to support their technologies with them).

We actually likely lived healthier, happier (and often longer, when we weren’t eaten by predators) lives in prehistoric times, it seems, way back before the inventions (or more accurately discoveries) of the first great technologies (the arrowhead, fire, the wheel, and then abstract language and later, agriculture (which Richard Manning in Against the Grain says should more accurately be called “catastrophic agriculture”), enabling the unnatural human evolution we call “settlement”. Settlement brought with it a blizzard of new problems for technology to solve (most notably infectious and emotional diseases), and each well-intentioned new technology has produced yet more problems, arguably greater in number, size and intractability than the benefits the earlier technology provided.

Nothing is new in any of this. Back in 1994, in his book Beginning Again, David Ehrenfeld described our civilization’s technological underpinning as a ragged flywheel, over-built, patched and rusty, spinning faster and faster and now beginning to rattle and moan as it inevitably comes apart.

In the past decade, disillusionment with innovation and technology has grown. Christensen’s work has been largely discredited by a review (by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker), with the benefit of hindsight, suggesting that “innovative” companies don’t ultimately fare any better than those they “disrupt”. A recent study by Peter Thiel in MIT Technology Review claims “technology stalled in 1970”. As global corporate power is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, he explains, there is less and less motivation for innovation and more wealth to buy it out and squelch it, with the help of armies of IP lawyers.

My own research in recent years substantiates this claim. My greatest learning from 35 years in (and studying) organizational culture has been that size is the enemy of innovation and that most of the useful and creative things that happen in large organizations happen through workarounds by people on the front lines, in spite of, not because of, the cultural tone and processes established at the top. Looking back at hundreds of expensive strategic and change-oriented programs and projects I was involved with (including not a few that I led myself) there is almost nothing left to show for them ten, or even five, years after they were conducted.

The most damning critique of the Kurzweilian technophilia that so many bright people now embrace comes from John Gray, who devotes an entire chapter of Straw Dogs to deconstructing the idealistic and uncritical notions that technology, in the long run, steadily and sometimes astonishingly improves our lives. He writes:

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

Whether we believe that innovation and technology ultimately make the world better or worse, there is now overwhelming evidence that they are unsustainable in any case. Between economic over-extension, energy over-dependence, and the ruination of our atmosphere and other environments by our civilization and its technologies, it is now almost inevitable that we will soon see a collapse that will make the Great Depression, and perhaps even the five previous great extinctions of life on Earth, look like nothing.

This collapse is going to require us to live a much simpler, more local and more diverse and place-dependent life. We are destined to be very nostalgic for the good old days of modern technology as soon as it is gone, and that’s likely to happen soon. Modern technology requires cheap energy, and, notwithstanding the recent power games between the US and Russia temporarily and artificially driving down oil prices, we are quickly running out of it. Modern technology requires massive standardization and globalization, and without cheap oil, cheap foreign labour and cheap raw materials, none of which is sustainable, we cannot expect it to last much longer. A barrel of oil replaces six person-years of labour, and when those barrels become unavailable or unaffordable, the vast majority of what we all do is going to change drastically.

But at least, you may insist, the Internet will survive and it will allow other technologies to continue to thrive even if they must be manufactured and operated more frugally and locally. Dmitry Orlov, as he explains in The Five Stages of Collapse, clearly doesn’t think so, and the staggering cost and time required to keep the Internet afloat when the economy is in free-fall seems utterly unsustainable as server farms become luxury items and people’s time is diverted to living sufficiently in the real world.

Likewise with other technologies we pin great hopes on for our future, or have come to take for granted: solar panels and other expensive and resource-dependent goods; the private automobile; non-emergency airplane travel; the miraculous products of the pharmaceutical and plastics industry (including synthetic fibres); industrial agriculture; the mass media, and anything that depends on a reliable and consistent electrical or communications grid.

What will life look like without oil-powered technologies? It will vary hugely from one increasingly-isolated community to the next. Much will depend on the state of the land (the quality of the soil, its capacity to produce sustainable food, the proximity to abundant healthy clean water, its vulnerability to drought, floods, pandemics and natural disasters induced by climate change), the number of people in the community that must be supported, their cohesion as a community and their physical and mental health, essential skills and capacities.

It will depend on our collective ability to live sufficiently, not extravagantly, and to be resilient to change. Dmitri Orlov, in Communities That Abide, says such communities need three qualities: (1) self-sufficiency, (2) able to self-organize and recover in the face of calamity, and (3) mobility: not being tied to any one place. Most modern technologies don’t fit well with such a model.

Ronald Wright not only wrote the aforementioned A Short History of Progress, but also the novel A Scientific Romance, which depicts life in the present-day UK centuries after collapse. When I read it, I was struck by how much our ancient human nature (as scavengers, more like crows than fellow mammals) comes out in his vision, and how much the world he describes resonates with the world described in Pierre Berton’s book The Great Depression. Both books describe worlds that are accepting (or even resigned), self-supportive, full of struggle and joy, and only occasionally (and briefly and spectacularly) violent.

Both books describe people initially trying to perpetuate their technologies, to make them work illogically in a world where the underlying infrastructure can no longer support them. And both books describe how people finally let go of these technologies, and free themselves from dependence on them.

It is not so terrible, a world without modern technologies and the Internet. It is the world hoped for in Mark Kingwell’s The World We Want and Thomas Princen’s The Logic of Sufficiency, though it will not come about as elegantly as their authors would have hoped. Technology has always offered us false hope, and continues to do so (the latest technological “miracle” sold to us was fracking). The sooner and more gently we let go of it, and our dependence on the systems that it underlies so precariously, the sooner and more gently we can begin to make our way to a more resilient way of living.

Crows, a spectacular evolutionary success both with and without us, have much to teach and show us in this regard. They have almost no technologies, and those they have discovered (e.g. the elaborate use of hooked sticks) they hold lightly, using them for non-essential, amusing tasks. They have a sophisticated sense of fun, and creatively use their leisure time joyfully and exuberantly whenever and wherever it’s available. They love, support and teach each other without expecting reciprocation. They adapt themselves to places, instead of foolishly attempting to adapt their chosen places to them.

Technology’s false hope can bring us only disappointment, sorrow and suffering. It’s time to learn to let it go, gradually but starting now, and give up our dreams of “smart” technologies that are too smart for our own good. In so doing, we will embrace not progress and the wisdom of crowds, but resilience and the wisdom of crows.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

See No Evil: The Morality of Collapse (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

new political map 2015

image by the author; click on image to view full-size

As we wade into discussions about the consequences of collapse, and the most effective ways to become resilient in face of it, most of us would prefer to avoid getting mired in discussions about morals (personal standards of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) and ethics (collective standards of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ behaviours). It doesn’t matter whether climate change is human-caused, we assert, we need to focus on how to deal with it, not who to blame for it.

Alas, it is not so easy to avoid the issue, because our worldviews are inevitably rooted in our beliefs, including our moral and ethical ones. Libertarians have tried to avoid such issues for centuries, and have failed utterly, which is why “left libertarians” and “right libertarians” have so little in common (mainly the shared belief that laws should only be imposed when absolutely necessary) that the word, unmodified, becomes meaningless. They will never agree, for example, on whether the exclusion and discrimination, by a group of racists, or a group of radical feminists, of those not of their colour or gender or creed, should be illegal or not.

When it comes to preparing for collapse, as much as we might want all of the different groups who have come to accept the near-term collapse of industrial civilization as inevitable (or at least requiring immediate and drastic action to avert), these various different groups’ worldviews are rooted in different moral and ethical standards that, I would argue, are almost irreconcilable. That makes collaboration, or even agreement on what to do, fraught with difficulty if not impossible.

In the chart above, I’ve identified several such groups, each of which has come to accept that our civilization either may not or will not be ‘saved’ from collapse. They are in that regard distinct from the many ‘old-style’ political groups, and from some new age groups that I call (without meaning to be disparaging) ‘salvationists’ (groups A through E on the chart above). They believe, for a variety of different reasons (listed on the chart) that civilization can and will be ‘saved’ from collapse.

In contrast, there are five groups (groups H through L on the chart above) whose members no longer harbour serious doubts that industrial collapse is either imminent or already underway, and that this collapse is unstoppable; I call them ‘collapsniks’. They differ in how they believe we (all of us) should be preparing for the fall (these reasons are also listed on the chart). Both ‘salvationists’ and ‘collapsniks’ fall along a spectrum that indicates how strongly they believe in humanity’s capacity to change (higher in the chart, stronger the belief in that capacity). See the value judgements creeping in here already?

In addition, there are three groups that straddle the salvationist/collapsnik divide – they aren’t sure (groups F & G) or don’t care (group M) whether collapse is inevitable or not.

Few of us ‘fit’ neatly into any of these groups – we migrate among them as our learning and context evolves and shifts, much as many old-school politicos have come to embrace social liberalism and economic conservatism, and then may flip to the opposite as they get older, more fearful and more dependent.

I have argued that we ‘collapsniks’, including the Humanists and Transition/Resilience movement fence-sitters – everyone, in other words, who shares some of the worldview of any of groups F, G, H, I, J, K, and L – need to work together if we are to have any hope of being at least somewhat prepared for the collapse to come. At one point or another over the past year I would describe myself as being in fundamental agreement with each of these seven groups, and I am constantly inspired by articulate speakers (notably at the moment Charles Eisenstein, Rob Hopkins, Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, Paul Kingsnorth, John Gray and Guy McPherson respectively) espousing these seven diverse worldviews.

The different moralities and ethical beliefs underlying these seven worldviews surface pretty quickly, and these differences have driven wedges between us and made us, to some extent, our own worst enemies. Consider these questions:

  • Is it acceptable to use violence when pacifism seems inadequate to the task of confronting the most devastating aspects of industrial civilization, of getting the job done?
  • Are large public protests an essential means of raising awareness and political pressure, or a useless distraction from the real work of preparing for economic and political collapse?
  • Is social justice and the end of inequality of wealth and power an essential precondition for collectively addressing climate change, or just a proposal to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic?
  • Would we be doing the world, and human society, a great service or a great disservice to deliberately provoke a collapse of markets and the economy in order to reduce consumption and energy use?
  • Is giving up on environmentalism and attempts to bring about large-scale change in our response to climate change, and focus instead on local initiatives and personal and community preparedness, a realistic and pragmatic strategy, or dangerous, irresponsible defeatism?

On all these questions, and more, there is strong disagreement among collapsniks. This disagreement stems in part from different interpretations of what we know about what is happening in the world and what is technically possible, but it stems I think principally from different worldviews informed by different moral and ethical beliefs on what is humanly possible.

Humanists, for example, tend to have a worldview that suggests humans are, essentially, good, and that hence by sheer force of numbers (say, 99%?) we can accomplish anything we put our collective minds to, even at this late date. Reform the systems by popular demand and save the world. Others will argue that the 1% don’t have nearly the power that is commonly presumed, and certainly not enough that their conversion or demise can prevent the juggernaut of industrial civilization from its acceleration off the collapse cliff. Still others will argue that the so-called 1% are doing their best, like the rest of us, and that the enemy is all of us (leading to a wide variety of prescriptions on what that realization might lead us to do, if anything). And others will argue that the 1% are psychopaths, and that the only thing that will work is to smash the systems that they lead (and, presumably, hope that what fills the resultant power vacuum will, perhaps improbably, be significantly better).

There is no ‘right’ perspective on these issues, no answer that is certain or even highly probable. There are too many variables, too little appreciation of the sheer unknowingness of the massively complex systems industrial civilization has (perhaps with the best of intentions, perhaps not – it doesn’t much matter) produced, and the reinforcing feedback loops that have evolved to perpetuate it to our peril, and hence the impossibility of knowing how, or even if, we can intervene in these systems effectively.

If that weren’t enough, the two ‘newest’ groups on the collapsnik spectrum, the Voluntary Human Extinctionists (group K on the chart) and the Near Term Extinctionists (group L) add a whole new layer of moral complexity for collapsniks to deal with. The Voluntary Human Extinctionists would have us believe that (see if you can detect any moral judgement here) the human species is inherently violent, aggressive and destructive, and hence the world will be much better off if and when we vanish from the planet. The Near Term Extinctionists would have us believe that climate change is accelerating at such a pace that the human species will be extinct (i.e. not one of us left) as soon as mid-century, along with most complex life forms on the planet.

If the world would be better off without us, does that mean we should do nothing, or even try to accelerate our demise (perhaps by working on some new viruses)? If the human species is doomed in our lifetimes anyway, does that mean we should party like it’s 1999 (or perhaps 2049)?

Every time I find my worldview shifting along the group F-to-L spectrum, I find myself asking myself all these questions, and apologizing to the true believers in different places along that spectrum with irreconcilable worldviews and action (or inaction) plans. And apologizing to myself for my earlier, and recurring, foolishness. I’m living in a philosophical, epistemological, ontological and moral minefield, navigating it as my viewpoint constantly shifts.

Guy McPherson’s ‘Near Term Extinctionist’ advice is to act to make a better world even though people are not going to be part of it, for the sake of those species that might survive. He has also said that we should act as if the Earth is in hospice, and treat it with commensurate respect, and honour its decline by living full, joyful, responsible and meaningful lives. How many people do you know who could handle doing that?

John Gray’s book Straw Dogs is my favourite treatise on the current state of the world and the actions available to us as we face collapse. He says unequivocally that have not changed and cannot change what we are, what we do, how we behave or what we value, and that we are doomed by the coding in our DNA to continue along our inexorable path of self-destruction, and to inflict large-scale but ultimately transitory damage on our planet in the process. He writes:

A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth… [Quoting Reg Morrison, The Spirit in the Gene] If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion…

Climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden…[or] new patterns of disease could trim the human population…War could have a major impact…weapons of mass destruction — notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons, more fearsome than before…It is not the number of states that makes this technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment… By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace, [governments] have colluded in their own powerlessness…

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction… What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter…

Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.

I found John’s book liberating and exhilarating, though most of my collapsnik friends found it negative, unconvincing and depressing.

But recently, reading his more recent works, I’ve begun to wonder whether John’s brilliant intellect was being steered by an unstated worldview, a profound misanthropy that might be rooted in part in some trauma he has suffered through, some indignity in his past that has coloured his thinking. Is he really a Voluntary Human Extinctionist, or is he rather a wounded and disillusioned Humanist or Existentialist?

This month, in his new article in the Guardian John builds further on this pessimistic view of the human species. He writes:

It’s not that [western leaders] are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don’t really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.

No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.

Paradoxically, this belief in the evanescence of evil is what underlies the hysterical invocation of evil that has lately become so prominent. There are many bad and lamentable forces in the world today, but it is those that undermine the belief in human improvement that are demonised as “evil”.

As radical as my beliefs may be, I can’t quite accept that “evil” is a propensity that is humanly universal. I think what is missing from Gray’s argument is that, yes, we are an inherently destructive and aggressive species, but only when we are suffering from chronic and severe stress. I believe (perhaps I have to believe) that, like the bonobos, rather than the chimps, when we are free from stress these traits of destructiveness and aggressiveness are recessive, unneeded and therefore unexercised.

John would probably laugh this criticism off, and likely provide more forceful arguments for this being naive and faith-based thinking than I could muster in its defence. But I would also argue that we can’t know, because civilization has been an incessantly stressful experiment (likely evolved in response to some great natural stresses like climate change), and because we therefore have no credible data to show, or know, what we are like in the absence of great stress.

Robert Sapolsky has studied bonobos in the wild for twenty years, and admits he doesn’t like them much – they’re violent, arbitrarily cruel and self-traumatizing creatures. But he tells the story about one baboon troop whose alpha males all died from eating tuberculosis-tainted meat from a garbage dump. The survivors quickly evolved into a peaceful, gentle, egalitarian matriarchy and remained so generations later.

Gabor Mate has similarly argued that almost all human violent behaviour and stress is rooted in childhood trauma, suggesting that a human ‘reboot’ (perhaps after a collapse), allowing children to grow up trauma-free, might produce a human society so gentle, healthy and egalitarian we might hardly recognize it.

So unlike John I continue to use the word ‘evil’ very cautiously, either to describe the inherent nature of individuals or the propensity of groups and our entire species. When we are ill, I think, we are not our true selves. And our species has been ill, and getting more so, for 30,000 years. We can’t know or remember who we were when we were well. And though it may be wishful thinking or faith, rather than profound instinct, I believe that when we were well, and when the descendants of the survivors will be well again after the dust of collapse has settled, humans were and will again be good to each other and to the world.

I’d like to believe that’s a pragmatic and rational perspective, a healthy one. But I may be deluding myself. Those who believe the Earth will be better off without humans may well be right. Those who believe the Earth will be without humans within a short few decades, centuries or millennia (an instant in the planet’s long history) may well also be right.

But I don’t believe they are. I can’t believe they are. My worldview can’t accommodate such beliefs. And therein lies our quandary, fellow collapsniks. We need to open our minds, and hearts, to a much broader range of possibilities, including those we may, in our quiet moments, think ‘impossible’, if we are going to be able to prepare, together, for anything.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Fireproof (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

fire photo courtney schoenemann

(This is a work of fiction. The characters are invented, and build upon the characters in the stories Flywheel and Distracted. The painting is real, and awesome. And the fires were real. Fire photo by Courtney Schoenemann. Artwork “Burden of Guilt” is by Rogene Manas.)

“Jeez, look at that. There’s fires up ahead as far as you can see, some of them right beside the highway! I wonder if this is part of that combined mega-forest fire they’ve been fighting for a month now. Awesome.”

Rafe took his cap off as the four of us stopped our bicycle ride home to survey the flames running along the ridges ahead and to the right of us, on the far side of the highway our trail paralleled. He looked frightened and awed by the sight. There were dozens of fire trucks with flashing lights along the highway, and several helicopters hauling water from the river to the fire sites. Smoke blew across the highway and the bike and hiking trail beyond.

“Believe it or not,” said Lori, “this isn’t even big enough to make the papers, unless there’s a photo op in it. This is a grass fire not a forest fire, and it’s too far west to be part of the Deception Complex fire. If it were a serious or uncontained fire with any risk of jumping the highway they would have closed the highway. They’re probably focused on reverse-911 calls to tell area residents that they should keep the 911 lines clear unless the fire comes within a certain distance of their homes or barns. This thing’s well under control.”

“Wow, I’m impressed, Lori,” Daria chimed in. “How do you come to know so much about fires?”

“I took a Fire Science course a couple of years ago. I thought I might want to sign up as a wildfire fighter, since I figure as global warming accelerates, it will be an increasingly handy skill to have, especially around here.”

“What made you give it up?” Daria asked, watching intently as firefighters extinguished a line of fire no more than 100 yards from them.

“Too macho for me,” Lori said. “The training regimen is military, which is where a lot of firefighters come from. I decided I could do just as much good as an EMT, without all the heavy lifting, so I chose to do that instead.”

I looked up at the helicopters and commented: “I read that if the atmosphere had just a little more oxygen than it does, a single lightning strike might be enough spark to ignite and burn every tree on the planet,” I said. “Guess it’s not surprising that our messing up the delicate balance of gases in the atmosphere is having such dire effects.”

“Yup,” Rafe said. “Seeing fires like this break out almost spontaneously is going to become commonplace. Mega-fires are now expected to pretty much extinguish the boreal forests of North America and Asia by mid-century, if the north-migrating insects don’t wipe them out first. Ironically, more rain in the tropics is supposed to actually reduce naturally-occurring forest fires there as the climate changes, but the tropical forests are being cleared for crops, mostly using slash-and-burn, fast enough to clear them out by the mid ‘30s anyway. Get ready for tree museums, I guess.” He sighed.

I pondered out loud whether, as climate change made fire and flood insurance unaffordable and then unavailable, if it might cause people to become less attached to their ‘stuff’.

Rafe looked at me dubiously, and replied: “People can’t imagine things getting that bad that fast. They read Berton’s book about the Great Depression, when sisters had to take turns going to school because they had only one dress between them, and they think he’s making it up. People from the 1% in 1929 going door to door asking to do odd jobs for food in 1931. People can’t change that fast; it’s too hard. No one believes it will really happen, that the economy will collapse or that billions of people will have to migrate or that runaway climate change will wipe out all the forests in their lifetimes. Complexity and punctuated equilibrium and tipping points are all too unfathomable for the human mind to comprehend.”

I laughed. “If people can think it is even slightly sane to live in a big house in a big city or suburb that produces almost no essentials of life, and expect that civilization’s systems will always be able to provide them with whatever they want and need as long as they have this magical stuff called ‘money’, then how can we expect them to imagine anything changing that much?”

burden of guilt rogene manas

We resumed our bike ride home from the gallery tour we’d been visiting. We rode silently for a while. Then Lori said “Remember that amazing painting by Rogene Manas we saw at the mayor’s gala? That one with the woman with all the ‘arrows of guilt’ in her basket and sticking into her body, each one with a label? I really related to that as a woman. I’m curious if you guys feel guilty about the same things she and I do?”

Rafe asked what some of the labeled arrows said, and Lori and Daria rhymed a few off that they remembered from the painting.

Not calling home guilt.”
Not giving money to the homeless guilt.”
“Unhealthy eating guilt.”
Not exercising guilt.”
Not picking up hitchhikers guilt.”

Pretty soon Rafe and I chimed in, and soon between us we were coming up with new ones every few seconds:

Watching TV guilt.”
Not spending time with the kids guilt.”
Working too hard guilt.”
Slacking off guilt.”
Forgetting birthdays guilt.” (Lots of agreement on that one.)
Driving instead of walking or biking guilt.”
Eating meat guilt.”
Not signing petitions and not demonstrating against corporatism guilt.”
“Guilt about being poor.”
“Guilt about being too wealthy.”
Yelling at loved-ones guilt.”
Eating out and ordering in guilt.”
“Guilt about our bad habits.”
Not flossing guilt.”
“Guilt about climate change and species loss.”
Complicity with factory farming and animal testing guilt.”
Calling in sick guilt.”
Sleeping in guilt.”
Not cleaning the house guilt.”
Not weeding or lawn-mowing guilt.”
Using power tools guilt.”
“Guilt about being late.”
Daydreaming guilt.”
Buying something you don’t really need guilt.”
Not listening/paying attention guilt.”
Not being good enough guilt” (More nods and sighs.)
Letting people down guilt.”
Not knowing the right answer guilt.”
Trying to ‘fix it’ instead of just listening empathetically guilt.”
Not caring enough guilt.”
Caring too much about crap guilt.”
Half a load in the washer guilt.”
Throwing out anything guilt.”
Not picking up the phone when you see who it’s from guilt.”

“It’s funny,” Daria said. “The ones that are just about guilt are funny, and probably pretty universal. It’s the ones that go beyond guilt, to shame, that are more serious, more personal, more likely to remain unspoken. The stuff that makes you shudder and blush.”

“And the ones that go beyond guilt to grief, like climate change and animal suffering and not knowing how to prevent a future full of fires like the one we just saw,” Lori added. “The stuff that makes you rage and cry and fills you with dread.”

“When our world becomes more precarious, more improvisational, more full of punctuated lurches from crisis to crisis, I’m guessing we’ll put a lot of the guilt and the shame and the grief behind us and get more focused on the real needs of the immediate moment,” Rafe said.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “How do you see this all unfolding, let’s say, for someone living in a coastal North American city, a couple with a young kid?”

“Well, to start”, he replied, “I think cities and suburbs will mostly be abandoned, over a period of several decades. In response to past Depressions, government and military spending soared and the cities were the major beneficiaries, but these days there is no money left, even before the economy fails, for those kinds of major spending rescues. So I see millions — the young and able-bodied mostly — gradually abandoning the cities, especially those cities most affected by coastal storms and growing Western and Southern droughts. And as industrial agriculture collapses, I expect most of them to take up jobs as small farmers or as service providers to small farms, living in towns near arable land. They will include the former 1%, whose paper wealth will be mostly eliminated but who will have the means to buy land and equipment. Foreclosures will be huge at first, but as the value of urban and suburban homes plummets and the jobs there disappear, they’ll be occupied by poor squatters and their mortgages will be written off, as the banks collapse one by one. I think it will be an interesting and exciting time for those healthy and resilient enough to manage the transition.” Rafe, ahead of us on the trail, looked back with an ambivalent shrug.

Guilt about being totally dependent on unsustainable systems,” said Daria, adding to our list. “Or maybe that’s shame.”

“So that means we should all expect to be sorta homeless as we migrate to our new countryside places?” I said. “Glad I bought that book on tiny homes. I was just reading a book by a guy who’s deliberately chosen to live a homeless life for 20 years. His three top pieces of advice were: (1) keep or get a car big enough to migrate and sleep in; (2) stay fit, healthy, dry, out of the sun, and accident-free; and (3) find a troop of 5-7 people who all trust and look after each other. Wanna be in my troop?” I smiled at my friends.

“You wrote that article about the four things we can all do to prepare for collapse: reskilling, community-building, helping people heal, and exemplifying presence and joy for others,” said Lori. “But you also wrote that it’s both too early and too late to do much of anything. I agree with you that it’s too early for reskilling and community-building — we can’t know what skills we’re going to need, or who or where our ‘community’ will be when the shit hits the fan. So if we focus on your other two ideas: helping people heal and exemplifying presence and joy for others, I’m curious to know how you all think we might do that, right now?”

“You’re way ahead of us on ‘helping people heal’ with your EMT work,” said Daria. “But I think before we can be of much help to others healing from ‘civilization disease’, we have to heal ourselves. And to do that we have to know ourselves better than I think most people do. And I think we learn most about ourselves when we’re stretched — when we have to deal with a crisis, when we do something hard in collaboration with others, when we travel to a foreign country and immerse ourself in their culture, when we try things outside our comfort zones. And my sense is that most people don’t do much of any of that. So most of us, I think, are not and won’t be very good healers.”

I nodded to Daria as I pulled up alongside of her: “I think the key to healing anyone is appreciating that we’re all very different, and that we’re complex creatures, that we can never hope to really understand how either our bodies or minds work, let alone our culture, and that just being open and accepting and appreciating what is is most of what we can do, to heal and to help others.”

“You sound like a woman,” Lori said, smiling at me. We stopped cycling and sat beside the river to watch the sunset. “A different kind of fire,” she said, nodding to the sun in a blaze of red and purple clouds, the result of haze from nearby forest fires. “What Daria calls ‘civilization disease’ is so much a part of our culture and our everyday lives that most people won’t even recognize it; they think it’s normal, the only way to live. It’s pretty hard to help someone heal if they can’t or won’t acknowledge that they’re even sick.”

“Well that’s where the ‘exemplifying behaviour’ comes in,” I replied. “If you show people that there’s a more self-knowledgeable, more present, more healthy, more informed way to live, that is still joyful, still full of wonder, that’s far more compelling than telling them they’re sick, or living in denial or illusion. It’s like telling a story instead of telling people what they should do, except that the story is your whole body, your whole life.”

“Maybe,” Rafe said, sounding doubtful. “Or you might just make them feel jealous and resentful and they’ll rationalize that you have what they don’t because of your privilege. People want things to be easy and fun, and showing them an awesome example of what they aren’t can be intimidating, not encouraging.”

“Daniel Quinn says you have to wait until people are ready to listen, that it’s a waste of time and energy to try to convince them of anything until then,” Daria chimed in. “Maybe that applies to exemplifying as well. Or maybe your model of how to live joyfully, like the stories you tell, are just subversive seeds you plant in the hopes that they will germinate when the ‘soil conditions’ are right for those other people, until they are ready to listen. Stories have staying power, and maybe exemplifying behaviour will stick in people’s minds a while, too.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” I replied, “though it’s also true that people tend to reject anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview of how the world works, and only appreciate stuff that confirms what they already believe. Your stories need to be pretty carefully crafted and your exemplifying behaviours need to be pretty subtle and modest to avoid triggering that ‘not-my-worldview’ rejection before the story or the memory even takes root.”

We were quiet for a while until the sun had set and we busied ourselves layering up for the rest of the ride home and getting our bike lights on.

Then I realized Rafe was crying. I embraced him and asked “what’s up, man?”

He composed himself and replied “I’m afraid… I’m afraid of everything. Of not being able to handle the hardship and the suffering and the loss ahead. Of not knowing what’s ahead. Of not knowing whether we’ll even survive it, whether all the struggle will be even worth it… I’m not a believer in any religion or any higher power. I think it’s just us, and we’ve really fucked up, and it’s going to be awful and I just won’t be able to handle it.”

“We’re your troop, man, we’ll make it together. You just finished saying it’s going to be an exciting time for those who are healthy and resilient enough for the transition.” I looked him in the eye.

He looked exasperated. “No one is that healthy and resilient,” he said. “This isn’t like recovering from a storm or a war or a forest fire or a Depression. This is going to be decades long, one thing after another.”

“All the more time to cope with each thing as it comes. We’ll have time in between the struggles for recovery, for healing, for joy. We know it’s not going to be about rebuilding, about getting back to some unsustainable nirvana. It’s going to be about discovery, moving on, learning new things, discovering new places and people, learning to collaborate and help and love people, and be helped an loved in return. We’re in this together. It is going to be exciting. It’s just that it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves, learn from our mistakes.” I was making it up as I went along, trying to reassure him, thinking these thoughts for the first time, not sure if I believed them myself.

Daria and Lori joined us and we hugged, the four of us, bikes around us like a circle of wagons protecting us from this terrible, wonderful world.

“So the question for this troop,” Lori said, leaning in and putting her face against Rafe’s shoulder, “is whether this is the right place for us, as things start to change faster and faster. Remember that Sharon Astyk article about when not to ‘adapt in place’? She said there were a bunch of situations when you should move, now. Let me see if I can recall them. One was ‘if your mortgage is under water’; one was ‘if you’re living far away from family or loved ones’, One was ‘if your area is especially vulnerable to climate change’. One was ‘if you don’t share the values of the people in your neighbourhood’. One was ‘if you’re planning on moving anyway, for yourselves or because your kids will have to’. One was ‘if the culture that (once the trappings of civilization are swept away) is inherent to the place you live isn’t a culture you like’. One was ‘if you live in a suburb or exurb that is resource-poor or far from arable land’. And one was ‘if the place you live just doesn’t feel right, to your body or soul.” I think that was the list. How does our ‘home’, our ‘place’ fit with those criteria?”

We thought about the list, going through the criteria one by one. As we mounted our bikes to finish the trip home, Daria said “Awesome list. Makes me feel much better about where we live, now. This is it. This is our place. Billions may have to migrate, or choose to, but I think we’re set, we’re right to make our stand here, take on all comers. What do you think?”

Rafe said, smiling, “Yeah. We’re not there yet, but the values, the culture, the ecology of our place is pretty solid and headed in the right direction. If my troop’s in, so am I.”

“OK then,” said Lori. “Ready for anything. No guilt, no shame, and soon, no time for grief. Agreed?” She looked at me.

“Agreed,” I said, toasting my troop with an invisible wine glass as we rode. And smiling at each of them I added:

“We’re fireproof.”

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on Fireproof (repost)

Them, You, Then, Now, Always (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

them you image 1

photo credit: photoshopped image from wallpaperstock.net

“50 blackbirds nest in a dead tree, congregating and socializing raucously each evening, the babies squawking for food. Then someone cuts the tree down, and the birds scatter. Collapse. The tree-killer sells the wood and the empty nests for profit. The birds circle and regroup, and in a few hours find a new tree and start building new nests. Three days later, for the birds, it is exactly as it was before the fall. They understand community, and resilience.” – story taken from the writings of Orlov|Dmitry, c. 2014 Old Calendar

Cultural Anthropology Visit, 6462 New Calendar: Notes

The Tsilga people cannot tell you their story. At least, not in words.

Like many of the survivors of the Sixth Extinction, now thriving all these millennia after the Great Burning of the Earth, they have no need for words. They have gestures and sounds for the important concepts to communicate: danger, love, joy, anger, pleasure, grief. What more is needed? Their faces will express more to you than you can imagine, or ever hope to say. If you visit them, they will not tell you about themselves; instead, they will show you.

They will show you that they love music. They will play, and dance, and sing, making beautiful sounds with their voices, sounds that seem like words bristling with significance, but are just cadences, patterns, vocalizations that sound wonderful together, and that is their only meaning. They mean to be beautiful. Their life, you see, is about beauty, and its appreciation.

The way they adorn their unclothed lovely bodies, their hair, their faces, it will astonish you. You cannot help falling in love with them, all of them, male and female, young and old: They paint themselves to be a reflection of the sky, the forest, the water, the earth, the fire that still burns, spontaneously, over much of our planet’s face.

They will show you that they love food, and sex, and other pleasures of the senses. They will teach you, by covering your eyes, that fruits can seduce you just with their scent, can get you high with the mere anticipation of their touch on your lips and tongue, and their taste is just the orgasm of the delicious and prolonged process of eating, the love-sharing of taking in and becoming one with this exquisite composition of flavour, texture and smell.

And after that you will not be surprised to see that their love-making is as complex and delicate and nuanced as a symphony, and lasts so many hours you lose track of time, the passing of day and night, the space between bodies and worlds.

They will show you, too, that they love games, and play. They will show you how to invent a game with only winners, an impossibly new game, improvisational, changing every moment, a brilliant and razor-sharp and magical co-composition, and in so doing they will teach you a million different ways to laugh.

And last, they will show you their art – sculpture, drawings, paintings, pottery, weavings – more intricate and perceptive than anything you’ve ever seen, and containing such understanding and intensity, such synaesthetic power, that you will just stare at them, stunned, mouth agape.

Their art, you see, is their story. Not in the sense of past, and present, and future, since they have no sense of time, no need for such constraint. No, their art is a story of how they belong, how they are a part of all life around them, of their dreams, their connection, their oneness… There are no words to explain this. Just look, take it in, shake your head in wonder and disbelief, as if you were seeing faeries and supernovas and the birth of galaxies and creatures morphing in a flash of blinding colour into gods. Because you are.

Their art conveys the continuity of their make-up, our make-up, the make-up of everything from sub-gluonic minisculae endlessly smaller and more complex than you can conceive, to magisculae whose gravity and splendour dwarf universes, transcend meaning, explode mythologies. All there – in that tiny dish, that urn, that sketch, that crafted splash of paint across his or her rippling, muscled thigh – everything, you included, right there, captured, explained, presented, and represented.

So you ask, even after seeing this, their story, who they are, their magic – you ask, “What do they do?” And their response, since they can intuit your question from your puzzled expression, even without hearing your words, is to smile, and point first to the tree above you, filled with the songs of blackbirds, and then to the sea just beyond the ridge, where a pod of great whales are breeching, plunging, glistening in the sun, calling to the stars, and to you.

And then they give you this raised-eyebrow smiling shrug which you know, somehow, means “Do you understand now?”

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A Complex Predicament: How Our Energy, Economic and Ecological Systems are Connected (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

complex predicament map export

image courtesy SHIFT Magazine; click on image to view full-size

Part One: The Energy PredicamentFeedback loops, the Jevons Paradox, and the three End Games

It’s called the Jevons Paradox. It explains why increases in the efficiency of resource-consuming technologies tend to lead to an increase, rather than a decrease, in resource use. So, for example, it would explain that drivers of hybrid cars, rather than banking the savings on gasoline their vehicles provide, because of reductions in both cost and guilt, instead drive them further, sometimes even to the point they use more gasoline than they would have if they owned a non-hybrid.

In a broader sense, the Jevons Paradox is a way of explaining a puzzling behaviour of many complex systems. In essence, because we humans don’t really like to change, we will tend to ‘work around’ interventions in a system that were designed to bring about some desired change, so that the status quo of the system is maintained.

So, for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s research has discovered that you are actually safer driving in a convertible than in an SUV, because drivers of convertibles know the dangers of an accident and compensate by more careful and attentive driving, while SUV drivers, in the (mostly false) belief that their risk of and in an accident Is much lower, tend to drive more aggressively and less attentively, so they have significantly more accidents per mile (and in total face more injuries and deaths per mile as a result). (Don’t try to sell this logic to your insurance company, however.)

In addition, there are Jevons Paradoxes inherent in complex systems, that lead to undesired results that have nothing to do with deliberate human behaviour at all. For example, if we put a ‘carbon tax’ on fuels in the hope of reducing consumption and encouraging conservation, we may find that the reduced consumption will temporarily lower prices (as a result of lowered demand). But those lower prices will enable drivers to buy more gasoline for the same outlay, so they will fill their tanks more often — until that increased demand enables the gasoline vendors to raise their prices, completing the cycle.

And when the vendors can increase their prices, they can also economically justify exploring for and developing more costly, marginal hydrocarbon resources (fracking, deepwater oil, shale oil, tar sands). That increased supply starts another cycle, since more supply relative to demand tends to lower prices until the new supply can be fully sold. It’s all a delicate balance.

That is, until affordable oil (and other resources) run out entirely. The energy industry is fond of telling us there are centuries’ worth of potentially extractable hydrocarbons in the ground. But with the cost of extraction getting ever higher and the life of each new find getting ever shorter, the amount that can be extracted at a price consumers can afford is finite, and when it is used up we reach what Derrick Jensen calls EndGame.

This is where complex systems get especially tricky to explain, because they’re interrelated. What exactly is ‘a price consumers can afford’? This depends on our economic system, not our energy and resource systems. That system, as I will explain in Part Two of this series, is hurtling towards its own End Game. But the bottom line is that, as we come to realize that our unsustainable industrial growth economy is already hugely overextended (the debts we have incurred could only ever be repaid if we lived on a planet of infinite wealth and resources), the entire Ponzi scheme of our markets will collapse, and what ‘consumers can afford’ will plummet. End Game.

And all of this economic activity and resource development has pushed atmospheric CO2 and other global warming gases past what many climate scientists believe is the tipping point, so that ‘runaway’ climate change, and with it, massive droughts, desertification, fires, storms, water scarcity, species extinction, pandemics, infrastructure destruction and sea level rise are now, they say, inevitable in this century – a third End Game. (More about this system in Part Three below).

The very busy diagram on the next page of this article attempts to capture the most essential variables in these three systems – energy and resources, economy, and climate/ecology, and the three End Games that provide us with no futher possibility for intervention, and could well precipitate the end of our current globalized human civilization. It’s an expanded version of a chart in (Transition Movement co-founder) Rob Hopkins’ and (Post Carbon Institute Executive Director) Asher Miller’s excellent paper Climate After Growth.

It shows some of the major self-reinforcing and self-sustaining ‘feedback loops’ (e.g. how a destabilized climate characterized by rapid polar and glacial melting leads to increased methane release which in turn leads to more destabilized climate and more melting, with ‘runaway’ climate change as the result). It also shows the balancing ‘feedback loops’ that currently keep our energy/resource, economic and climate/ecological systems in ‘net stasis’ – not appreciably changing – for now.

But because of the three End Games, this stasis is not sustainable. We will, sooner or later, run out of economically affordable resources. Or we will run out of faith in the possibility of perpetual economic growth. Or we will face the realities of runaway climate change. All systems collapse when they fall out of stasis, and all civilizations end. The question is no longer how or whether we can prevent one or any of these End Games. It is, now, how do we prepare for the consequences of any or all three, as we enter the decades James Kunstler has called The Long Emergency, and how can we gauge whichever of the three is going to hit us first, and hardest.

And, once collapse comes, how we can learn from this astonishing life experience – from being at this pivotal point in human evolution – so that those living after the fall will be able to create sustainable, joyful societies (probably very localised, small scale societies that will, because they will be adapted to place, seem amazingly diverse to those of us living in our current homogeneous global human culture). And how we can help our descendants draw upon the best of pre-civilization (‘prehistoric’, since in our arrogance we presume that history only began with our civilization) ways of living, and also on the lessons of (civilization’s) history and the scientific and technological learning of today’s world, to create future human societies better than we could dream of.

But back to our complex energy/resource system chart. What this diagram explains is the futility of us trying to intervene politically or economically to bring about significant, sustained changes in the systems pushing us inexorably to the End Games. Carbon taxes, energy conservation and innovation, protests and blockades of dirty energy and resource exploitation are admirable and necessary, but they cannot hope to fundamentally change the status quo which will ultimately take us to resource exhaustion. Our entire civilization depends upon the ready availability of cheap resources that enable us to feed 7.5 billion humans today, and by mid-century 9.5 billion or more, most of whom will want to live, and hence consume resources, as we do today. If we run out – when we run out – we will find that such a horde cannot live on what we can produce with the energy of our hands and that of domesticated animals. (The average human can produce about 0.1 horsepower of energy in sustained manual labour; a car requires 150 hp or so, a train 4,000 hp per engine, an airplane 60,000 hp, a cargo ship 100,000 hp, a power plant 3,000,000 hp.)

I would like to believe, as Donella Meadows so eloquently explained in her Places to Intervene in a System paper, that a transformational human evolution, a way of fundamentally changing our whole global way of thinking and acting, our whole paradigm, is possible. As a student of history I don’t believe such changes happen, however, at least not on a large scale, not persistently, and not quickly. But even if I did believe, I would want to understand what we are facing if we are not successful in such a transformation, and how we might prepare for it.

I believe the key to doing that – to understanding what we are facing and what is possible – is through the use of story. That is how we have always learned and come to understand these things. I believe it is never too early to start to study and learn from the stories of previous civilizational and economic collapses – Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, Jarod Diamond’s Collapse, and Pierre Berton’s The Great Depression are excellent starting points for this. And I believe it is the right time to start to write the story of the unfolding collapse of our current energy/resource, economic and climate/ecological systems, and hence the collapse, over the next few decades, of our own fragile civilization. Not as a story of apocalypse – the Mad Max scenario may make good cinema but a study of human history suggests it’s highly unlikely, and that collapse will occur more gradually and unevenly than we might expect, and our collective response to it will be gentler and more generous than we might imagine. We could probably learn much, too, from the homeless in our own communities, and from the people in the massive, sprawling slums of the third world, who are already living in cultures of collapse.

Through an understanding of how the complex systems of our world really work and how change happens, and through an appreciation of history and the telling of stories, I think we can move past denial and blame and start to move towards preparation for a future that will be unstable and unpredictable and much different from how many of us in affluent nations live today, but also exciting and satisfying and engaging and meaningful in a way our current culture does not provide. And that work can make us collectively resilient – not in the sense of ‘bouncing back’ to an unsustainable style of life, but in the sense of moving forward, courageously and joyfully, to a relocalized, communitarian style of life that is sustainable.

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Part Two: The Economic PredicamentShould We Try to Precipitate Economic Collapse to Mitigate Runaway Climate Change?

David Holmgren, one of the founders of the Permaculture Movement, recently stirred up a firestorm of controversy with his Crash on Demand essay, suggesting that it would be useful for us to precipitate economic collapse as a means of mitigating both energy/resource exhaustion and runaway climate change. He summarizes:

My argument is essentially that radical, but achievable behaviour change from [being] dependent consumers to [becoming] self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff. It may be a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers… My argument suggests this could happen by reducing capital enough to trigger a crash of the fragile global financial system.

This insight shows David’s appreciation of the nature of complex systems and the interrelationship between our global energy/resource, economic and ecological/climate systems.

As the chart at the top of this post shows, economic expansion is dependent on energy/resource supply, which is itself a function of the price, demand, investment and regulation variables I described in Part One, and in any case not endlessly sustainable even if the economy is able to support higher and higher extraction and development costs. A significant drop in energy/resource demand and use will precipitate a strong economic contraction (which has happened each time energy costs have moved significantly above the $100/bbl level).

But an even greater threat to the continuation of our current “grow or collapse” economy is the realization that current levels of debt in our economy are unsustainable. When that realization becomes impossible for markets to ignore, we will face the greatest depression in human history; no amount of ‘stimulus’ will be able to mitigate it, and there is no deus ex machina like war spending or the discovery of new cheap resources to get us out of it. More about that scenario, which even many economists can’t seem to comprehend, later in this article.

Back to David Holmgren’s proposal: The reactions to his article have been swift and sometimes harsh. Transition founder Rob Hopkins called David’s suggestions “a dangerous route to go down”. Rob remains firmly in denial about the inevitability of collapse, citing several optimistic ‘prosperity-without-growth’ economists in support of his belief that a concerted global effort by a broad coalition of knowledgeable, influential people can pull us out of the positive feedback loops currently leading us towards economic collapse (and indeed, End Games in all three major systems). I’ll look at that argument later in this article as well.

Dmitry Orlov essentially dismissed David’s argument as being inadequate to the task, but said that despite its futility, “Don’t let that stop you from trying because, regardless of results (if any) it’s a good thing to be trying to do.”

Nicole Foss, who David acknowledges as one of his influences, takes the opposite point of view to Rob’s. She has repeatedly argued that economic collapse will come soon in any case, with or without our attempts to undermine the current economic system (or for that matter, prolong it). She writes:

Once the financial system has the accident that is clearly coming, we will be looking at a substantial fall in societal complexity, but that fall in complexity will eliminate the possibility of engaging in such highly complex activities as fracking, horizontal drilling, exploiting the deep offshore or producing solar photovoltaic panels and inverters… [Because they will be completely unaffordable, none of these will ever be] a meaningful energy source.

In fact, some US states are already dealing with large-scale abandonment of quickly-exhausted fracking sites (with their commensurate ecological damage), and Shell recently announced it is abandoning its Arctic drilling programs because they are not economic, even at today’s $100+/bbl oil prices.

Nicole’s concern about David’s approach is that, since economic collapse is (she believes) inevitable and reasonably imminent anyway, taking an activist approach to opting out of the dominant economic system in order to accelerate that collapse runs the risk of stirring up virulent opposition from the rich and powerful, who could then demonize the entire transition/collapse preparation movement as anti-human, and ultimately shift the blame for the suffering that collapse will inevitably bring about to the “anti-growth” activists. She writes: “Inviting blame for an inevitable outcome seems somewhat reckless given the likelihood that many will be casting about for scapegoats.”

It is hard to explain why the Ponzi scheme that is our modern growth-dependent industrial economic system is unsustainable. It’s all really about faith in the value of money. And on the surface it seems to be holding: Governments and corporations, working together, have been able to suppress interest rates to near-zero levels for more than a decade now. The banks and institutional investors don’t need high interest rates when they can make greater profits through a combination of high user fees, arbitrage, hedged speculation, the sale of high-risk bundled ‘investments’ to unwary investors, usurious credit card and poor-credit interest rates, and foreclosures – and be bailed out by their government friends with taxpayer money when their investments go bad. They also lie about real rates of inflation and unemployment to suppress citizen dissatisfaction about the true state of the economy.

The Australian group Doing It Ourselves have put together a terrific 12-minute explanation of why and how our economic system is dependent on perpetually-accelerating growth and commensurate levels of debt – and on our faith that that is possible. That growth cannot continue because the remaining energy and resource supplies of our planet are becoming exponentially more expensive, and because the current staggering levels of debt – government, corporate, mortgages and other personal debt – can only be repaid as long as land and other prices keep going up, and incomes and borrowing capacity combined keeps rising to make the payments on those debts possible (and as long as interest rates remain very low). When this capacity peaks – and Nicole Foss and her Automatic Earth colleagues have eloquently argued it already has – buying freezes up, housing and investment values commensurately tumble, lost collateral means a plunge in available credit and an explosion of foreclosures, margin calls and debt repayment demands, falling sales, layoffs, and defaults, to the point that a positive-feedback-loop – a chronic deflationary spiral – kicks in. Japan has been suffering from this for two decades, and most Western nations are poised for a similar collapse – starting with the current fall into poverty of most of the middle class.

To get an idea of what this means, consider that the median household net worth in real currency in most Western nations is not significantly different from what it was in the 1940s, before the Ponzi scheme and the era of cheap money began – that is, a net worth essentially not much more than zero. All of the increase in apparent affluence – owning instead of renting, much larger average homes, two cars per family, more expensive ‘average’ cars, more clothes, more energy use, more stuff of every kind – has been borrowed, in the expectation that all these debts can and will be repaid. How? By whom? We dare not ask, because the answer is, nobody knows. We just keep hoping against hope that growth can continue forever, real incomes will rise, more efficiency will keep prices down and profits rising, more cheap energy will be found, our pension investments will keep rising in value, and someone will be willing to offer us more for our home than we paid for it, so we have more collateral to borrow even more against.

The Great Depression and the Recession of 2008 are just two indications of what happens when we realize this is not sustainable.

Advocates of “austerity” claim that theirs is a response to this unsustainability. But history has shown that austerity programs simply precipitate collapse faster, and place the entire burden for it on the poor, disadvantaged, ill and unemployed. That’s why progressives keep arguing for “stimulus” programs that crank up the illusory growth machine even more. But when the stimulus amounts to just printing of more money, most of which ends up in the pockets of the bankers and the already-rich, it is just an acceleration of the unsustainable, and will inevitably lead to even more spectacular collapse and greater suffering for all.

A number of “third options” to prevent economic collapse have been proffered. A transition to a steady-state economy, coupled with a large-scale re-localization to a world of more self-sufficient communities producing more themselves, living within their means, and hence more resilient to collapse, is the most popular of these options. If our economic system were not global, and was simple, with a few people controlling the whole economy, this might be feasible. But we live in a staggeringly complex, global economic system with no one in control, not even in individual countries with autocratic regimes. The “market” determines and affects our economic actions, and it is the product of all of our activities, and cannot be stewarded to some idealistic, better economic reality, even if we could agree on what that would look like. Billions of people in struggling nations want an economic life like that of the wealthy in Western nations, and they will act in accordance with that desire, regardless of what we, or their governments, seek to impose on them. It is our nature to attend to the needs of the moment, to seek short-term betterment for ourselves and those we love, and to hope that future generations will be able to do likewise, even when faced with growing evidence they will not.

Top-down reform of our economic system cannot succeed for the same reason top-down climate change prevention has not and will not succeed. No one is in control of large complex global systems. It is not the evil rich or evil corporations driving us to collapse. It is the ever-evolving systems in which we all participate and which no one influences enough to change direction in any coherent and sustained way that determine our trajectory to collapse. We want someone to blame, and even argue that “we are the system”, and we are all to blame, but we are not. The system will take its own course, as it always has. And all signs are that the courses our energy/resource, economic and ecological/climate systems are on, lead in each case to an End Game.

The economic collapse End Game has been vividly portrayed by Nicole in a ghastly list of “40 Ways to Lose Your Future”. No surprise that we don’t want to believe such collapse is now inevitable.

So back to the question that David Holmgren raises – about whether precipitating such a collapse before it happens anyway is (a) possible and (b) a good idea. I think it would be fair to say that David says ‘yes’ to both, Rob says ‘no’ to (b) and is afraid the answer is ‘yes’ to (a). Dmitry says ‘no’ to (a) but ‘yes’ to (b) anyway. And Nicole says ‘not really’ to (a) and hence ‘no’ to (b). I’d love to know what Charles Eisenstein would say. I suspect he’d agree with Eric Lindberg, who in a new article on the Historical Problem of Agency draws brilliantly on historical examples and the evolving narrative of human agency to these very tentative, thoughtful and honest conclusions:

What little agency humans might have [in complex systems] can only be achieved by understanding the underlying logic of history and by accepting the limits that logic imposes. When we realize this, we won’t try to grow the economy, develop the “developing world,” depend on genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilizers, look for a new source of fuel on Mars, and so on. Instead we will accept the coming contractions and adapt to them as best we can… Rob Hopkins is one of my heroes, but I read his response to Holmgren as a rather desperate attempt to maintain a course set by a narrative that is crumbling beneath us [as the runaway climate change narrative is eclipsing Transition’s peak oil narrative]…

Many of us understand the perils of revolution and violence, the simple fact that it has so infrequently worked. We understand, moreover, that the collapse of global economies, of civil society creates its own predictable violence. We understand that the result and consequences of any action that pursues radical, human designed change is neither controllable nor predictable. But at the same time, refraining from radical, potentially destructive, action is also a choice whose results are unpredictable and almost certainly dire. The stakes are as yet beyond comprehension.   The question is no longer whether we can make history as we please, but whether “history” itself will continue to exist.

Eric concludes with a call for patience and tolerance and dialogue, and I think that’s a very sensible response to trying to cope with three intertwined complex global systems, all overextended to the breaking point and heading in disturbing directions very quickly. The economic system is the only one we may be able to intervene in (lunatic plans for geoengineering to prevent climate change aside), and the result of any intervention in our economic systems is doubtful and probably unpredictable. We can act, or we can, as Eric says, just accept what comes and adapt to it as best we can. The question of whether or not to try to precipitate economic collapse before it happens anyway, can only be answered in the context of your own personal (who you think you are) and cultural (who you think we are) narrative.

For many, the answer may depend on what we learn, in the coming months and years, about the accelerating melting of our planet’s polar regions, and the trajectory of runaway climate change. That’s the subject of Part Three of this series, below.

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Part Three: The Ecological PredicamentIf Runaway Climate Change is Now Inevitable, Is There Any Rational Response?

In his new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, author Clive Hamilton writes:

It was only in September 2008, after reading a number of new books, reports and scientific papers, that I finally allowed myself to make the shift and admit that we simply are not going to act with anything like the urgency required… The climate crisis for the human species is now an existential one. On one level I felt relief: relief at finally admitting what my rational brain had been telling me; relief at no longer having to spend energy on false hopes; and relief at being able to let go of some anger at the politicians, business executives and climate sceptics who are largely responsible for delaying action against global warming until it became too late…

We [now] have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate [will now] enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings [will] still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us.

Climate scientists are of necessity experts in understanding complex systems, and over the past few years, when I’ve met with them, they’ve become increasingly pessimistic, to the point they are finding it difficult to reconcile what they have come to believe with what they are required, to keep their jobs and to keep audiences from walking out on them, to say publicly. Clive’s experience has been similar, and he says “Behind the facade of scientific detachment, the climate scientists themselves now evince a mood of barely suppressed panic. No one is willing to say publicly what the climate science is telling us: that we can no longer prevent global warming that will this century bring about a radically transformed world that is much more hostile to the survival and flourishing of life.”

Beyond the shock of coming to grips with this realization comes the challenge of trying to imagine what this “radically transformed world” will look like, and how we humans are going to respond to, and cope with it. What makes it even harder is appreciating that this will not be a sudden, overnight crisis, but what James Kunstler calls a “Long Emergency” that will unfold over decades or even centuries, in waves of varying intensity. And it will not be a temporary crisis, one we can bounce back from with courage and effort, but rather a permanent transformation of everything we now think of as our global civilized culture – the only way we know to live, the only way most of us can imagine living.

What I’m going to depict in this article is a scenario I am calling the Great Migration – the displacement and movement of billions of humans in search of a more hospitable place to live as runaway climate change makes the places most of us know and love as “home” unrecognizable and unlivable, and what will happen when those billions encounter billions of others whose home places are less affected, but not able to support even their current populations, let alone a massive influx of climate refugees.

But first, I want to return to the diagram I used earlier (see top of article), which shows the interrelationship between our economic, energy/resource, and ecological/climate systems, and how crises in one system can precipitate crises in the other two. Each of the three systems has reinforcing feedback loops that tend to accelerate disequilibrium (what we call “vicious cycles”), and other balancing feedback loops that tend to mitigate these accelerating changes and bring the system back into stasis.

As I said earlier, we are quickly running out of ways to intervene and keep these systems in balance, because our global energy/resource systems are predicated on the availability of unlimited, inexpensive resources, and our global economic systems are predicated on our capacity to generate unlimited and perpetual economic growth. Since neither system is sustainable, we are now beginning to spiral into reinforcing feedback loops that will take us to resource exhaustion and economic collapse, which will likely precipitate the end of our complex global civilization culture and a return to a much simpler, relocalized, low-tech and marginal human society (with, as Clive says, many fewer humans).

In this final part, I want to focus on our the reinforcing feedback loops in our ecological systems, shown at the top of this chart. There is now little doubt that we have passed the ‘tipping point’ to runaway climate change, and that it will now radically alter the face of our planet in this century and for millennia to come, and will do so even if we were to stop all human activity tomorrow.

Here’s a closer look at the “climate feedback loops” box in the chart above, showing what climate scientists say is now happening to our atmosphere:

climate change feedback loops

Because we were, until recently, looking at these changes in our atmosphere as linear phenomena, and ignoring (or being unaware of) the reinforcing feedback loops, we were extremely optimistic about our ability to forestall climate change through coordinated human action. Now we realize that some of the natural consequences of atmospheric warming (methane release from the arctic, more heat absorption as ice cover disappears, desertification, forest cover loss and other changes reducing natural “carbon capture” sinks, and other phenomena in the oceans we are just beginning to understand) actually reinforce and accelerate warming. As a result, some recent studies now predict a median surface temperature increase of 4oC or more as soon as mid-century, and 8oC or more by end-of-century, regardless of what actions humans take to mitigate the accelerating rise. This is far more than was predicted even just a year ago.

These scientists also agree that this quantum of change, which is comparable to the change that happened when the Earth last slid into an ‘ice age’ (though in the opposite temperature direction), is catastrophic – it will render most of the planet uninhabitable to humans without using prohibitively expensive prosthetic technologies.

Here’s what “runaway climate change” means, according to various scenarios described recently by climate scientists:

  • the uncontrollable burning of most of the world’s remaining tropical, subtropical and temperate forests due to latent heat
  • the prevalence of desertification, disappearance of glacial melt, coastal flooding, massive water shortages and/or endemic high rates of heat-related deaths in many of the world’s temperate zones
  • an ice-free world, with a commensurate rise, sooner or later, of 50-70m in sea levels
  • unprecedented and chronic floods, storms and monsoons
  • the death of almost all ocean life
  • large-scale collapse and abandonment of aging physical and technology infrastructure not designed for such extreme and frequent weather events
  • massive numbers of climate change refugees, migrating (mostly north) thousands of miles in search of lands that are still habitable and arable

How might humans respond in the face of such change, transforming our planet over the course of the next few decades?

Here’s the scenario I envision we might see, based on my study of the collapse of past cultures, on the human movements that occurred in response to ‘ice ages’, and on what I have learned about human response to crisis from studying great depressions, famines and other massive cultural dislocations.

  1. Pulling together in times of crisis, and experimentation with new ways of living: I believe the response of most people to climate and other crises will, rather than panic, violence or selfishness, be more nuanced, peaceful and collaborative. The Long Emergency will give us the opportunity to try out a variety of pragmatic responses before we need to cope with the more extreme consequences of climate change.
  2. Massive dislocation: Just as during the latest ‘ice age’ a large proportion of the planet’s people would have been forced to migrate towards equatorial areas of the planet, climate change will require the people now living in tropical areas (which will be scorched out), and in many desertified and parched, or inundated coastal subtropical and temperate areas (much of the Western US and Canada, much of Australia, all of Southern Europe and the Middle East, much of Southeast Asia and most of Mexico and Central America) to migrate north (and/or to higher ground inland). At least two billion people live in these areas now.
  3. A Great Migration: What we will see, I think, is a gradual swell of people, a Great Migration over a few decades fleeing famine, thirst and disease. Those who migrate may encounter friction from those in more temperate areas struggling with resource exhaustion, economic collapse and less severe climate crises, who will not welcome climate refugees adding to their population and resource pressures. But many of these xenophobes will then be forced to join the Great Migration further north as the habitable area of the planet continues to shrink.
  4. Squatters, encampments and a “baby bust”: There will be no money to build new infrastructure for these billions of new refugees, so most of them, I predict, will live either as nomads, scrounging what they can from abandoned land (monoculture farms, bankrupt, deserted suburbs etc.), or in massive settlement camps, reliant on food handouts. Birth rates among these billions will plummet as hopelessness and malnutrition become endemic, so most of the mid-century fall in human population will be the result of rapidly falling birth rates rather than rising death rates.
  5. Emptied cities, relocalized communities, and the collapse of large institutions: For those fortunate enough to live in sub-polar and boreal areas with adequate precipitation, or in cooler temperate regions where soils have not been seriously depleted and where urbanization is modest (high density urban areas and suburbs will fare badly when the economy collapses and essential resources become unaffordable), will likely fare relatively well – they’ll be too far away for most climate refugees to reach, and not as seriously affected by the worst effects of climate change. For them, economic collapse will mean a dramatic relocalization of society – collapse of national and regional governments, large corporations, international trade and markets, leading to devolved authority and responsibility to communities, with enough time to relearn the essential skills of living in community.
  6. Most human infrastructure abandoned: David Korowicz, an economist and complexity expert with the Irish sustainability think-tank Feasta, explains that much of our social fabric is based on large-scale ubiquitous infrastructure, which will have to be abandoned due to economic collapse and the Great Migration. In his study “On the Cusp of Collapse” [http://www.feasta.org/2011/10/08/on-the-cusp-of-collapse-complexity-energy-and-the-globalised-economy/] he writes “We are deeply dependent on the grid, IT and communications, transport, water and sewage, and banking infrastructure… amongst the most technologically complex and expensive products in our civilisation… This [ever-deteriorating] infrastructure requires continuous inputs for maintenance and repair [and] specialised components that depend upon very diverse and extensive supply-chains.” The abandonment of this infrastructure (we won’t be able to maintain it or take it with us as we move) will of necessity require a shift to a much simpler, subsistence lifestyle.
  7. Food scarcity and the need to shift to organic, sustainable permaculture: The complexity and interdependence of our systems will introduce other challenges as infrastructure essential to these systems is abandoned. David Korowicz explains: “Global food producers are already straining to meet rising demand against the stresses of soil degradation, water shortages, over-fishing and the burgeoning effects of climate change… 7-10 calories of fossil-fuel energy go into every one calorie of food energy we consume… Without nitrogen fertiliser, produced from natural gas, no more than 48% of today’s population could be fed [even] at the inadequate 1900 level. No country is self-sufficient in food production today. The fragility of the global food production system will be exposed by a decline in oil and other energy production. It is not just the more direct energy inputs, such as diesel, that will be affected, but fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, and spares for machinery and transport. The failing operational fabric may mean there is no electricity for refrigeration, for example… A major financial collapse would not just cut actual food production, but could result in food left rotting in the fields [and consequent famines].” As these massive food systems collapse, relocalized, organic, more resilient and flexible permaculture systems will replace them.

The above scenario – a Great Migration, a collapse of human numbers, economic and energy systems and infrastructure, and a relatively peaceful shift to a radically simpler and relocalized way of living — is only a guess, of course, one of a million possible outcomes. We can’t know how system collapse will play out. But those who have been paying attention know that business, and life, “as usual” will not be possible much longer, especially for our children and descendants.

So how, and when, do we prepare for such a future? How do we give up trying to perpetuate the unsustainable and instead begin to prepare for failure?

In his article “Tipping Point”, David Korowicz says:

“Part of the preparation is in the acknowledgement of our predicament, that we recognise it when we see it. That as systems fail, we spend our efforts on positive change and adaption, rather than finding scapegoats or letting anger and loss drive the cannibalisation of our social fabric… Those who, through fear or avarice, try and insulate themselves from the impacts by disproportionate hoarding or land grabs will imperil not only their community’s security and wellbeing, but their own. This will be a time when we really will need the cooperation and support of others.”

If we look at the history of peoples who successfully made the transition from a collapsing civilization to a sustainable, subsistence post-civilization culture, we can identify four viable strategies:

  1. Relearn essential skills, knowledge and capacities that have been lost as our culture has become dependent on complexity, centralization, hierarchy, imports and unsustainable infrastructure. These include technical skills, “soft” skills (like facilitation, conflict resolution and mentoring), and knowledge – including knowledge of place and self-knowledge.
  2. Learn to create and build community: Practice the arts of working, sharing, collaborating and cooperating with those in your immediate physical neighbourhood. Collapse will force us to make things work at the community level, together.
  3. Heal ourselves and each other: Understand and appreciate the damage that the stress of our fiercely competitive, scarcity-creating, horrifically unequal and morally agnostic culture has done to us, physically and psychologically, and work to help each other recover from that damage.
  4. Live an exemplary, joyful life: Most people will not be swayed by impassioned arguments from strangers about “what we need to do now”. But they will appreciate, and consider emulating, those who live and act, every day, in ways that seem inspiring, conscious, sensible, and admirable.

As the philosopher John Gray has written, it is human nature to be preoccupied with the needs of the moment, and to put off thinking about or acting on issues that, however important, do not seem urgent. Most of us are therefore unlikely to change our behaviour until it is too late, and as a result the transition – through a cascading series of existential crises to an unimaginably different way of life – will be challenging, unpracticed, unprepared for, and probably quite chaotic. As Buddha put it: “The problem is that we think we have time.”

As long as we continue to mistake our complex predicament for a merely complicated problem with “solutions” – believing blindly in new leadership, new technology, new consciousness, or salvation from a higher authority – we will continue to live nostalgic, unsustainable, irrationally hopeful and hopelessly idealistic lives.

Some of us will have to do better, and be ready for whatever is to come, as unpredictable and harrowing as that may be, and show others how to adapt and live differently. We will have to do this with the knowledge that collapse is no stranger to this fragile planet, and with the awareness that we’ll inevitably make some big mistakes in the struggle to create new cultures that are viable in a strange and turbulent new world. And with the belief that beyond that struggle is a world unimaginably different from industrial civilization, a world of real peace, equality, connection, freedom and joy.

The Great Migration, and beyond it the new and smaller role of our species aboard Spaceship Earth, is our new human story. It’s not too early to start writing it, and telling it to everyone we know.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments