I’m in Totnes UK for a 5-day writing/story-telling workshop with Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, authors of the masterful Dark Mountain Manifesto. Also home to Rob Hopkins and the gang from Transition Network. Not a bad place to spend a birthday (and thanks for the many notes about that).
June 23, 2014
June 21, 2014
I spent today outside, among the trees, silent, naked, just paying attention. It’s part of my rather clumsy presencing practice. This is what occurred to me during this meditation-inquiry-contemplation session.
There has been a conversation going on inside me almost my whole life. But at some point in childhood, around age 7, I became unable to hear it. The conversation was among four ‘factions’ that make up the complicity of me: the intuiters, the sensers, the feelers, and the thinkers.
None of these factions is located in any particular part of my body. Living creatures are more complex than that. In fact these factions aren’t really ‘things’ at all. In a real sense, we are made of processes, not components. What we perceive as living ‘stuff’ — tangible collections of atoms or cells or other components — are merely vestiges, images, imaginings, at a point in time. But time is just a concept, unreal (as any informed physicist will tell you), a made up convention, so “points in time” are similarly unreal. So this ‘stuff’ we imagine “we’re” made up of is just an abstraction, a convention, a model to make sense of this staggeringly complex world.
So these four factions that make up me are just processes, ways of knowing, ways of perceiving, ways of making sense.
What’s more, the convention of calling the collection of stuff and processes that are/happen within our bodies “us”, is just another unreal model, a simplification. Most of the cells within “our” bodies are genetically unrelated to “us”, though without them “we” would quickly perish. And most of the processes that affect us transcend in every sense the boundaries of our bodies: they are the processes that are making us “everybody-else” as EE Cummings put it, processes that are collective, associative, neither initiated nor controlled by us, yet very much part of the processes that make us “us”.
Unfortunately, our brains are not cognitively capable of appreciating this beyond an abstract level. We cannot ‘see’, except perhaps under the influence of ayahuasca, that we are not individual, not a ‘thing’ or set of ‘things’, not a ‘self’, not in any way separate from all-life-on-Earth. Our ‘being-alive’ may express itself through our bodies, but it is not our bodies, nor is it the part of us we abstractly call our ‘minds’ — those plodding, oversimplifying pattern-seeking organs invented to coordinate our bodies’ movements and sense-processing functions, that now imagine themselves to be ‘us’.
So, in this conversation, the thinkers and feelers and sensers and intuiters are talking among themselves, trying to make sense of all this, despite our brain’s interfering and increasingly dangerous oversimplifications. Trying to do their best, in good Darwinian style, to ensure that the actions of, and upon, our cells and organs are ‘healthy’ — good for ‘us’, us being the complicity of our components and processes and inseparably those of all other life on Earth.
So what happened to me at age 7 that this amazing conversation was lost to me, or at least to the parts of me that I came to recognize as ‘me’?
I think what happened first is that I became afraid to feel. Unlike how I was during my idyllic first few years of life, by age 7 feeling had become too risky, too unsafe, too painful. The joys and the pleasures just weren’t enough to compensate for the suffering that came when I allowed myself to really feel. Too often feeling meant falling victim to the terrible negative emotions of fear, anger and sadness that were triggered almost non-stop in my interactions with other people and our culture. I couldn’t bear all the suffering that came from witnessing the cruel reality of this hard, terrible, unfair world.
But we can’t, of course, just stop feeling, unless we’re one of those rare and unencumbered psychopaths who have mastered not-feeling.
So instead, what I think happened when I was 7 was that the thinking faction of me cut itself off from the feelers, pretended they were unessential, unimportant, weak. What I was feeling became ‘divorced’ from what I was thinking. This is because, as Eckart Tolle describes, our large brains can easy push us into a vicious cycle (the red circle in the chart above) of egoic mind (fictional stories that our culture has told us are true and ‘factual’) and pain-body (the negative emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, shame and grief that these stories invoke in us). This is shown in more detail in the chart below:
So, returning to the top chart again, it’s perfectly understandable that my thinker and feeler factions, at age 7, should try to divorce, to separate my thinking from my feeling, to short-circuit the vicious cycle. My thinkers didn’t want my distressing stories to trigger painful negative emotions, and my feelers didn’t want my negative feelings to recall and reinforce traumatic stories. So “I” stopped listening to their conversation.
My intuiters and sensers were quickly rendered incoherent by this disconnection. Sensers can’t make sense of what they’re sensing, and intuiters can’t integrate what they’re intuiting, without the holistic feedback of a conversation that integrates all four ways of knowing/being. So now when I see beauty (as I did today) I feel good, and I appreciate it aesthetically, but the feeling-good is thoughtless and the aesthetic appreciation is unfeeling. Likewise, my intuitions can’t be trusted as long as what I intuitively ‘feel’ can’t be rationalized, and what I think intuitively reasonable can’t get emotional confirmation. So my sensers and intuiters have become discouraged and disoriented, and, all thanks to those damned childhood fears, all-of-me has become, essentially, incoherent. Damaged. Disconnected.
Guess which ‘side’ my brain took in the ‘divorce’? The safe, ‘rational’, trying-to-be-unemotional side, the side of the thinkers. So I lived inside my head for much of my life. Avoiding my emotions (except for brief periods of fearlessness when I was madly in love). Ignoring my senses. Distrusting my emotions.
Note that our language sees these four factions as so integrated it overlaps the words used to describe them. Sense is a word that describes what both our thinkers (“making sense of” and “sensible”) and our sensers (the five “senses” and the word “sensual”) do. And feel is a word that describes what both our feelers (“how are you feeling”) and our sensers (“feel this”) do. And then there are the phrases “makes intuitive sense” and “gut feel”. When these factions of our knowing/being become incoherent, so must our use of these words.
As you probably know, I’m not a big fan of “self-improvement”, so I don’t have expectations of reconciling and healing this disconnect and re-becoming coherent. I’m still afraid to feel. “No use to the world broken”, I say.
But it seems to me that these four factions are still talking, still sending messages, still trying to communicate. That’s a part of their, and our, prime directive of being healthy, and my brain’s short-circuiting of the conversation doesn’t change that, though I imagine the unanswered messages are probably a little confused by now. Here is what I think they’re saying, that I’m not hearing, at least most of the time:
Intuiters and sensers:
Just begin. Go outside. Do stuff. Little, non-scary things. Moonlight walks. Scented candles. Path lights. Sound of the surf. Every day. Just be, as attentively as you can. No pressure. Breathe. Let yourself not think so relentlessly. Close your eyes, feel the sun, hear the birds, smell the rain. Listen to us, just a little bit. You know everything is wonderful, amazing, magical; forgive yourself for not feeling it, not yet. It will come back. It will come again. It’s OK to be discouraged. It’s OK to be afraid.
Now, open your eyes. Look, and keep looking. If you get tired, rest and then try again. You remember what it’s like to really see. You can still do that. You’re not that damaged.
Ask yourself why other people’s happiness is more important to you than your own, why the only way that you can be really happy yourself is when you’ve made someone you care about happy. And you call yourself a misanthrope! And try this, you’re smart: Imagine coherence. Imagine what it’s like to be really present, what you would be doing, how you’d be feeling and acting. And imagine (since you probably can’t remember) who you really were, and imagine you are that again, imagine and picture what it’s like to be a process not a thing, to be a complicity not an individual, to be an inseparable part of all-life-on-Earth, not apart.
During a previous presencing exercise you wrote this, and several people wrote and said you were really on to something. Awesome writing, man! Writing on all four cylinders. Think about it. Use it next time you are trying to become more present:
How do I imagine, in my moments of inquiry and contemplation, my normal state of living if I were able to awaken, connect, and realize who/what I (and the unity of which I am inextricably a part) really am, every moment?
I imagine myself in a state that is at once very relaxed and very aware. A state where my intellect is largely at rest (and damn, it needs a rest!) and where my emotions are calm, even, compassionate, and playful — not “under control” but just at peace. A state where my senses and instinct come to the fore, with my senses acute, noticing, connected, taking in, feeling-at-one-with, enjoying, and my instincts are ‘directing’ ‘me’, gently, letting go, letting things come, just being present, being generous, ‘touching’ appropriately when that ‘touch’ would be helpful.
No longer my ‘self’.
I imagine myself being just a part, flying, floating. Green and blue and white, flowing and glowing.
Softening. Getting lighter.
When you’re dead you won’t feel anything. You’ll be safe, then, you’ll be free, free from the bondage of your fears. But in the meantime, you’re running out of time to really feel, fearlessly. Yes, you could fall in love again, but that euphoria, that ecstasy, is transient. Too easy. How much do you still have to lose by listening to your feelings? How much do you have to gain? You remember, don’t you, what it feels like to really feel. To really be alive. That’s the story to remember, to recall, to tell yourself and tell others. Why not take a chance, a calculated risk? No hurry, whenever you’re ready. But you know you’re nearly ready, don’t you? Your impatience could set you free.
June 15, 2014
It seems it is both too early and too late for us to do much to prepare for what James Kunstler calls The Long Emergency — the gradual collapse, over the coming decades, of our global economic/political, energy/resource and ecological/climate systems. These systems are so complex and so interrelated, and the number of variables affecting them so vast, that it’s impossible to predict what crises will hit, where or when. All we know is that we’ve created a perfect storm, and that the systems that comprise our amazing but unsustainable and teetering civilization are soon going to fail on a scale unseen since the last great extinction of life on Earth.
So what, we ‘collapsniks’ are continually asked, should we do?
The answer, of course, depends on your point of view. If you’re a salvationist (a member of the groups on the right side of the chart above) you’re probably not a regular reader here, and you’re probably going to invest in whatever form of salvation you believe will save civilization from collapse. If you’re a transitionist, a deep green activist, a communitarian/neotribalist or an existentialist, or one of the growing number of humanists who are now doubting that a great upswell in globally coordinated human collective effort will be enough to stave off economic collapse, resource exhaustion and runaway climate change, you’re more likely to be working on projects that support those specific worldviews — creating local renewable energy systems, blockading the Tar Sands and its pipeline tentacles, starting an ecovillage, or helping Occupy block foreclosures, for example. If you’re like me, you find yourself moving between these ‘camps’ and thinking about all of these types of projects.
These are all worthy projects, but they each depend on a certain level of faith that the enormous effort, and in some cases risk, entailed in them will be justified by the result. Or they depend on a somewhat perverse but perfectly human and understandable belief that “we can’t just do nothing”.
Are there some “common denominator” projects, I wondered, that all of us leaning to the left side of the chart above can agree upon as worthwhile, and work on together? Projects that will have been worth doing even if we are preposterously wrong about the severity of crises awaiting us in the next ten or twenty or thirty years?
I think there are four such ‘projects’. I’ve written about them on my blog, and in my articles for SHIFT Magazine, and I’m now starting to talk about them at public events because they seem to resonate with a lot of people. This will be my first attempt to explore them in a bit more detail. Here are the four projects:
1. Relearning essential skills. We have become utterly dependent on centralized economic, health and education systems, global supply chains, expensive specialists, corporate employers, manufacturers, repairers, agents and intermediaries. As systems continue to collapse, and as we start to create alternative community-based systems to replace them, we’re going to have to relearn many capacities, skills (hard and soft) and practices that our ancestors took for granted.
I’ve distilled an earlier long list of essential capacities and practices down to these 21 categories:
It’s not essential that everyone in a community have all these skills, but the more present they are in community members, the more resilient the community will be in challenging times. I rated myself, and my community of 3800 people, on each of these categories of capacities, and came up with the following:
So my focus now is on improving my capacities and practices in the left column of this chart. I think it’s too early to be trying to get others in my community to do likewise, and to start developing and improving collective capacities — there’s not yet a sense of urgency to do so, and besides, I have no idea whether, when these crises hit, I will still be living where I am now, nor who will be living in my community with me. At the same time, I suspect the bottom row of this chart (the missing essential capacities of communities collectively) is pretty consistent from community to community. I’m not sure what to do with this knowledge at this point, but it’s useful to know your vulnerabilities nevertheless.
There’s nothing magic or scientific about the above list, which is probably incomplete in any case. The important thing, I think, is to take stock, and to decide what will be most useful to learn, and practice, to be liberated from dependence on civilization when it no longer serves us, and to be of service to those in your community who will urgently need these capacities as it falls.
2. Learning to create and build community
My late friend Joe Bageant famously said “Community is born of necessity”. Efforts of idealists to build ecovillages and model intentional communities have been, with some remarkable exceptions, pretty unsuccessful. I think that is because the situation for many of us in affluent nations is not yet bad enough to force us to create community with the people who are here, rather than the people we imagine we’d like to live with. That includes living in community with some people (who happen to be neighbours) who we really don’t like at all. There is not yet the “necessity” to create the kind of communities that will enable us to weather collapse.
Nevertheless, some interesting things are happening already. The homeless in our own countries, the displaced, and the billions living in makeshift ‘unofficial’ homes in struggling nations’ slums are showing us how to build community, because for them the necessity is indisputable. We can learn a great deal from visiting with them and studying them, about what works and what doesn’t when centralized systems no longer serve us.
The endless recession that began in 2008 has also jump-started the Sharing Economy, as hundreds of millions who once owned, or aspired to own, their own homes and cars and other ‘stuff’, have shifted their mindset to renting, borrowing, and gifting to/from others in their community. That mindset will serve us well as we move from isolated ‘private’ homes full of ‘private’ property on ‘private’ land to a more communal, sustainable style of life.
The Syracuse Cultural Workers poster at left provides some more essential ideas on building community, things that you can practice right now, no matter how fractured your community is.
One form of community-based living that is thriving is co-housing. Under this model, people own their own home unit and share in a much larger common area that provides a shared large-event kitchen and eating area (for potlucks), guest bedrooms, workshops, kids’ play areas, hot tubs etc. This means individual homes can be much smaller while the co-housing community still provides all the amenities of a much larger home.
Another initiative that helps people trying to establish stronger communities is the network of Resilience Circles. While this group was originally designed to help people struggling with unemployment and basic security needs in their communities, it has a complete, well-thought-out facilitator’s guide for establishing local circles, and has recently begun to work with the Transition Network.
There’s a simple first step: Invite all of the people in your immediate neighbourhood to a potluck. That may mean finding out who they are, first. No agenda, no exclusions. Just start, and see what happens.
In the introduction to his new compendium Communities That Abide, long-time student of collapse Dmitry Orlov tells the story of a flock of birds that nested in a dead tree and then, after it was cut down by a thoughtless neighbour, quickly regrouped and established themselves in another. His three essential qualities of a sustainable community: Self-sufficiency, the ability to self-organize and recover in the face of crisis, and mobility (not being tied to any one place). I don’t know many communities today that have these qualities. The birds can show us the way.
3. Living an exemplary, self-aware, purposeful, joyful life as a model for others
It’s one thing to tell people what they “should” do to prepare for collapse. But I’ve always found “show, don’t tell” to be useful advice if you want to bring about real learning, engagement and change.
So what does it mean to be a model? I think an important precondition is self-knowledge. A good model is someone who is authentic, transparent, vulnerable and honest, rather than a poseur pretending to be what s/he wishes to be but is not. You can only pretend for so long before the mask falls and your audience feels they’ve been had. Being a model, I think, more than anything else, means knowing and being who you really are. We are all, I believe, doing our best, and what will help us most is seeing others candidly and articulately talking about their struggles and their anxieties, as well as their successes and joys. Despite the image of the term ‘model’ — of ‘perfect’ representations of beauty on raised catwalks or pedestals — I think models, to be of any use (other than selling us stuff we don’t need) have to be accessible, caring, and real. In science, in art, in any field other than fashion, a model is as true a representation as possible of some reality.
And a model must be of use. We should be able to pick up things from ‘playing’ with a model that are interesting and useful in our own lives. I’m not talking about leadership, but rather setting an example, not to be followed or emulated, but adapted by each observer to their own circumstances.
I describe myself as a “joyful pessimist” and I try to model that, to show that it’s not oxymoronic. I’m not a very good model, but I’ve learned that not being very good at it can be useful to others as well. My honesty about my failure to be truly present, my paradoxical love and fear of the wild, my moments of self-doubt, I have been told, all have helped others to see that their struggles are not unique, that it’s OK to fail, that “self-improvement” is a fool’s goal. My blogging, which has progressed and become less aimless since I began it over 11 years ago, has also become less popular as it’s come to offer fewer easy answers and more difficult questions. What it offers of value, I’m told, is a contextual reassurance to people that they’re not crazy, that the thoughts and feelings they have that they are uncomfortable talking with others about, because no one else is talking about these scary things, are perfectly rational, understandable, and appreciated: It’s OK: You’re not alone. It’s an essential part of the imperfect, evolving model of me.
The people who I see as my models are not charismatic, but they do have several qualities that I try to practice and learn from. They’re very aware to what’s happening, and self-aware. They’re pragmatic and unpretentious. They’re humble but happy, not martyrs for their cause. They’re articulate, each in his or her own way, both intellectually and emotionally. They do things locally to make others’ lives easier, more joyful, less of a struggle. They are generous — they give without the expectation of reciprocity or recognition, and they sometimes give even when they’d rather not. They don’t dwell on the past or the future, but don’t pretend not be be affected by what has happened or what might be to come. They perform what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities” and carry themselves with what Richard Holloway calls “an attitude of contemplative gratitude”.
Perhaps the best way to figure out how you can be a model for others is to ask others what they value in you, and what they value in other people they admire and have learned from, and then figure out how you can be “nobody-but-yourself” in a way that still exemplifies as many as possible of those qualities and values.
4. Healing ourselves and helping to heal others
We all have to heal from the trauma that parents, teachers, adults, peers, employers, co-workers, lovers and friends have inflicted, to some extent, on each of us, mostly unintentionally — they were damaged and didn’t know better, and so were we. Our civilization culture’s chronic stresses have taken their toll on all of us, and the healing will be for all of us a lifetime’s work.
On top of the damage this culture has already done to us, physically and emotionally, we are now struggling as well with the fear, the dread, the guilt and the grief that comes from realizing what we have done to this planet, with the best of intentions, and what we’re going to face as a consequence.
We have a lot of healing to do, and we can’t do it alone. And the task is far beyond depending on ‘professional’ healers.
James Truong has written a chapter on “resilient health care” in the aforementioned book Communities That Abide that describes what we as individuals and communities can do to heal ourselves and others, both to supplement what ‘professionals’ do and to replace them when centralized health care infrastructure and systems collapse (caveat: James is not a big fan of alternative medicine, and IMO dismissive of some forms of ‘modern’ psychological suffering). Some of the key means to more self-sufficient, community-based health care are, he suggests:
- A healthy diet, hydration, hygiene, exercise and lifestyle and other illness/accident prevention actions
- Adequate rest, freedom from stress, social interaction, meaningful work and recreation
- Learning to self-diagnose and self-treat non-critical acute (e.g. minor injuries) and chronic conditions
- Democratizing knowledge of how to treat critical acute conditions through self-directed learning, so that every community has broad lay skills in health care (and being aware that the people in our community, people we care about and who care about us, are the most important part of our ‘first aid kit’)
- Shifting to a mindset of taking personal responsibility for and experiential learning about our own health
- Maintaining community toolsets of supplies, medications and equipment that can help us self-treat many illness and accident conditions (and frequent use of their contents, hopefully mostly in non-critical cases, to familiarize us thoroughly with their use)
- Realizing that some acute illness and accident conditions, even those that may seem innocuous, may not practically be treatable at all in a sustainable health care system, and coming to grips with the limits of what any sane health care system can reasonably offer
The chapter, and another in the same book by another Canadian doctor, Peter Gray, focus principally on physical illness and accidents. What about psychological illness, both acute and chronic?
Just as many of us are moving (either out of necessity or out of a desire to be less dependent on unsustainable centralized health care systems) to self-managed, alternative and peer- and community-based physical health care models, so we are moving to more peer- and community-based psychological health care. Many in the ‘alternative’ culture have adopted programs like NVC and Co-Counselling to help each other cope with grief, depression, trauma, stress and other emotional challenges. Even skeptics of such programs appreciate that we have a responsibility to be more aware of effective ways of coping with the emotional damage we all, to some extent, suffer from, as part of our self-care practices and as a means of strengthening relationships with others and being of more value and support to them.
We can benefit from learning to self-monitor, self-diagnose, and self-manage both our physical and emotional health, and support others in our community to do likewise, to wean ourselves off dependence on an increasingly dysfunctional health care system, so that we can manage without it when it is no longer there.
I wish I’d known about these options when I worked, for the better part of a year, on a large government emergency preparedness project a few years ago. The sentiment then was that we couldn’t depend on citizens to do anything to prepare for or cope with crises like pandemics or earthquakes; citizens, they said, were too preoccupied and disorganized, so governments would have to take charge and tell them what to do. If you’ve ever had to scramble for an emergency first-aid kit, a fire extinguisher, or a back-up generator, you’ll know how well ‘just in case’ tools and processes work if you’re not familiar and practiced using them. I knew then that such top-down projects were doomed to fail, but didn’t know what might work better. Now I do. We have to do it for ourselves.
There is perhaps a fifth type of activity we can all undertake to prepare for crisis and collapse: supporting radical activists who are fighting the systems’ most grievous and dangerous activities — the Tar Sands, fracking, coal extraction, offshore and arctic drilling, pipelines and tankers, nuclear reactors, foreclosures, the plundering of the third world, corporatist corruption, ever-growing inequality, and more — hopefully mitigating the degree of suffering our inevitably collapsing economy will cause, or the rapidity and extent of now-unstoppable runaway climate change. They are doing this work, mostly, without expectation of significant success, undermining these systems even as they crumble. We don’t have to join them on the front lines, or in the prisons and hospitals many of them will spend time in fighting this good fight — we can support and help them by providing them with information, funding, asylum, legal and moral support, and safe harbour. We owe them no less.
Re-skill, build community, exemplify, heal, and help undermine. Those of us who know, and care, about our teetering civilization and what its collapse is leading us to, should at least be able to agree on these common actions. These are things we can do, ways we can be, no matter what we face in the decades ahead.
June 14, 2014
This is a synopsis of a talk and mini-workshop I gave recently in Vancouver. It introduces a model for identifying and dealing with both the complicated and complex aspects of issues we face in our own lives, in our organizations and in the world, and presents an elementary method of thinking about and diagramming systems (both complicated and complex) as a means of better understanding and appreciating them.
There are four main purposes for learning about complexity and systems thinking:
- To appreciate how organic (complex) systems (bodies, organizations, cultures, ecosystems) really work
- To appreciate why mechanical, analytical approaches to change in organizations usually fail
- By studying and diagramming complex systems, to be able to anticipate how they might respond to interventions
- To be able to embrace complexity in all its ‘unknowability’, instead of fearing it as most people instinctively do
The book I recommend for studying the nature of complex systems and how to think about and diagram systems is Rosalind Armson’s Growing Wings on the Way: Systems Thinking for Messy Situations. If you buy the Kindle edition, you’ll find the illustrations unreadable, but you can download and print them in legible format free from her website.
Rosalind is a British engineering PhD, and what makes her book exemplary to me is the accessibility of her examples, that run from the destruction of downtowns by big box malls to the challenge of coping with an ill and aging parent living in another town. She uses the term “messy situations” where many of us refer to “complex predicaments”, and doesn’t specifically differentiate between “complicated” and “complex” the way Dave Snowden and others do (she calls all fully-solvable problems “simple” rather than separating them into “simple” and “complicated”), but otherwise we’re totally on the same page. Here’s an excerpt from her introduction, which includes a wonderful definition of complex predicaments and some excellent examples:
This book is about dealing with messy situations. Sometimes known as ‘wicked problems’ [or complex predicaments] they are fairly easy to spot:
- it’s hard to know where to start
- we can’t define them
- everything seems to connect to everything else and depends on something else having been done first
- we get in a muddle thinking about them
- we often try to ignore some aspect/s of them
- when we finally do something about them, they usually get worse
- they’re so entangled that our first mistake is usually to try and fix them as we would fix a ‘simple’ problem
Examples of messy situations might include: the healthcare system in your country, dealing with a family break-up, exploring change and making it happen in your organisation, and worrying about how to look after your elderly parents. [Other examples include coping with poverty, addiction, inequality, a fragile economy, and runaway climate change].
The ‘butterfly’ model above includes elements of Dave Snowden’s ontology of systems, Rosalind’s approach to dealing with complex predicaments, and some of my own thinking about complexity and systems thinking. It differentiates between
- Complicated systems: those that are not so obvious as to be ‘simple’, but are fully-knowable with study, where it is possible to thoroughly understand the causality relationships between the variables, which are finite in number, and to use that understanding to predict the outcome of interventions in the system with some degree of reliability, and
- Complex systems: organic systems, such as the human body, organizations, cultures and ecosystems, which are not fully knowable, have an infinite number of variables affecting them, and cannot be understood with sufficient precision to assess causality with any certainty or to predict the outcome of interventions reliably. Studying complex systems and issues will allow you to appreciate them (see why they are the way they are, how they probably got that way, and what keeps them going), but you can never fully understand them.
Many of the issues we deal with in our lives involve both complicated and complex systems, and hence have both complicated and complex aspects that need to be teased apart. I use the terms ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ in dealing with the complicated elements, and the terms ‘predicament’ and ‘approach to addressing’ in dealing with the complex elements, since predicaments by definition cannot be ‘solved’ or ‘fixed’. The approaches to addressing them often entail accepting and working around them, or adapting to them. Trying to intervene to change them in a desired direction is usually ineffective and can often lead to paradoxical results that make the situation worse.
Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success in changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy.
The left side of the model describes the steps involved in dealing with a complicated problem (or the complicated aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). If my car won’t start, for example, this model would instruct me to, first, analyze the situation (what are the possible reasons for it not starting, how do I diagnose the problem by testing each possible reason etc.), by imagining what might be wrong, questioning why and how it failed to start and whether each possible diagnosis makes sense, and conversing with others who might have useful insight or experience with the problem.
From this, I can understand the situation and deduce the most logical causes of the problem and the appropriate solution to each possible cause. And finally, through collaboration with others, and through accepting offers from people who know and care about the issue, I can intervene ‘systematically’, until the right solution is pinpointed and my car starts again. It may be an iterative process, but it is not a complex one. There are only so many variables, causes, and things that can have gone wrong, and there are only so many ways to rectify the mechanical malfunction.
The right side of the model, by contrast, describes the steps involved in dealing with a complex predicament (or the complex aspects of an issue with both complicated and complex components). As an example, I suffer from a chronic disease called ulcerative colitis. Although the incidence of the disease is soaring and globally it seems to correlate closely with affluence and stress, its causes are unknown (and, despite medicine’s hubristic claims, probably never will be known), so we can only treat the symptoms. Unlike my car problem, I can’t analyze and understand the possible causes and ‘fix’ the problem. All I can do is explore what is known about the symptoms, and the hypotheses about how some treatments appear to alleviate symptoms in different sufferers, and appreciate the complexity of the predicament and the options available to me.
Then, by imagining what might have happened to make me vulnerable to this disease (e.g. taking high doses of oral tetracycline as an acne treatment in my teenage years), questioning theories and options (e.g. will taking a ‘maintenance dose’ of an anti-inflammatory help or hinder), and having conversations with people who have studied the disease and people who know my lifestyle, and by rigorously tracking correlations between my diet and lifestyle and my feelings of well-being (something I’ve been doing since it was first diagnosed), I can begin to make sense of its sudden occurrence in 2006 (after I received some extremely stressful news), and its non-recurrence since then (except for two mild flare-ups in 2007 and 2013).
And then, by collaborating with and accepting offers from others (e.g. acknowledging the wisdom of my GP’s recommendation to immediately quit my high-stress job, discussing my situation with other sufferers and seeing how they have dealt with it, and accepting a low-stress job that came to me most fortuitously late in 2006) I can adapt my diet, exercise regime, work life and other aspects of my lifestyle to try to reduce the risk of flare-ups and work around this disease that will be with me the rest of my life.
Here’s an example of how this model might be used by an organization which is going through a ‘culture transformation’ process to deal with a lack of knowledge-sharing and collaboration among its people. This is a predicament that has both complicated and complex components:
- First, the issue at hand must be separated into its complicated and complex aspects. One of the complicated aspects might be poor IT systems that don’t provide a means to capture and disseminate what people know and have learned. Two of the complex aspects might be cynicism that useful knowledge can be ‘captured’ at all in a database that lacks context of the situation, and a performance assessment system that rewards individual achievement and provides no incentive for sharing or collaboration.
- The complicated aspects of the issue are then addressed using the analyze to understand / imagine, question, converse / deduce / collaborate, offer / intervene process. Why don’t the existing IT systems have a mechanism to capture knowledge? What is the most useful knowledge to capture and what are the options for structuring it so that entering it into the system is easy? How does this new database fit with existing IT architecture and how might it most effectively be accessed? What technical problems does this present? Who do we need to talk with to understand how this will be used, updated and maintained, and whose ‘job’ will it be? Who will we need to promote this new resource, and how will this be done? Who has real passion for testing this, and whose collaboration will we need? It’s not simple, but it’s not a complex process. It should not be hard to deal with these ‘merely complicated’ aspects of the issue.
- The complex aspects of the issue are more perplexing; they need to be addressed using the explore to appreciate / imagine, question, converse / intuit & ‘make sense’ / collaborate, offer / adapt & workaround process. Why aren’t people explicitly sharing knowledge already? The exploration might reveal that knowledge is already being shared generously, through mostly-informal iterative context-rich conversations. Then what? Should we tell the boss that trying to capture this in databases might seem to be efficient but is actually very ineffective? How might we, instead, enable and encourage more such conversations? Is it fruitful, and practical, to try to record and ‘reuse’ such conversations? The exploration might help us appreciate that most of these conversations are based around stories that don’t lend themselves to capture in rigid data entry formats. How might we then capture and organize stories in a way that would be useful, or can we do so at all? Rather than capturing stories, should we be training our people how to be better story-tellers? How do we deal with the fact that we grade performance individually on the curve, which necessarily provides a disincentive for collaborating and helping others improve their performance? How do we ‘make sense’ of the fact our people collaborate and share generously despite this disincentive? As you can see, this is a very different process than the one that worked for the complicated aspects. It generally leaves us with a greater appreciation of why things are the way they are, and how people have worked around the existing formal processes to do their jobs as well as they do. It can be a pretty humbling process, one that leads more to actions around “how can we help you do what you already do more easily and effectively” than “how can we get you to change your behaviour”.
It’s no surprise that, for many organizations that have tried to introduce a ‘knowledge-sharing’ culture, the job quickly focused on the easier merely-complicated aspects — it became all about IT, and in fact many people began to see Knowledge Management as being just an aspect of IT (all about content and collection). No one really wants to deal with the complex aspects (having the hundreds of challenging conversations necessary to appreciate the status quo and the very human motivations behind it, and helping people in modest ways to do their best work better) because this work is hard and thankless and difficult to measure meaningfully.
Because of that, and the lack of insight, imagination and courage by executives in charge of such ‘culture change’ programs, most such programs, in my experience, fail. It requires a very different skill set to deal with the complex aspects, a skill set that in most organizations is in short supply, and is much underrated by the mostly-analytical left-brained thinkers who make the final decisions. Sadly, the only truly successful large-scale culture change programs I have seen entailed the firing of a large proportion of the staff and the hiring of new people who already embodied the desired ‘new’ culture. For the same reason, many organizational ‘consolidations’ and ‘mergers’ (takeovers), both in the private and public sector, end up with almost all of the acquired organization’s people leaving.
This incapacity is equally true, unfortunately, in our attempts to deal with complex predicaments like poverty, inequality, our fragile economic system, the exhaustion of cheap energy, and runaway climate change, in our larger society. And in this larger society there is no one ‘in charge’ to make the decisions that would be needed to bring about large-scale imaginative adaptation to the challenges we face.
So we’re left to deal with such predicaments personally, and in communities that are sufficiently small-scale and sufficiently enlightened to appreciate both the predicaments and how imaginative adaptations and workarounds can alleviate their pain and their harm, at least locally. Most people don’t want to hear or believe this; they want to believe there are miraculous ‘fixes’ to these now-global predicaments. But the more you study complex systems, the more you realize there are none. Geoengineering proposals now being made to ‘fix’ our atmosphere are a classic case of trying to ‘solve’ a complex predicament as if it were a merely complicated problem, and its outcome will almost surely be disastrous.
[At this point I gave participants their first exercise: Thinking about some of the challenges facing them in their industry currently, what are the complicated vs. complex aspects of each? We drilled down into 5 such challenges, and they all had both complicated and complex aspects; the complex aspects were the harder ones to deal with in each case.]
Systems diagrams are a useful tool to help with both the analysis and understanding of complicated systems and challenges (and the complicated aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects), and with the exploration and appreciation of complex systems and challenges (and the complex aspects of systems and challenges that have both complicated and complex aspects). Here are the basic steps in using such diagrams:
- Identify the elements (variables) in the system
- Show the apparent or possible causal connections with arrows
- Discover reinforcing loops (“vicious cycles” and “virtuous cycles”) in these systems
- Identify the balancing elements that keep the system in stasis
- Consider how interventions, adaptations and workarounds might affect the system and what outcomes they might produce
These diagrams are used differently in complicated vs complex systems. In complicated systems, they can be used to analyze, understand, predict, and intervene optimally. In complex systems, many of the benefits of diagramming emerge from the process of diagramming rather than the finished diagram, i.e. from the exploration and appreciation of the predicament.
The diagram, and the system, are models of reality – they are inherently incomplete and flawed. The map is not the territory!
There are many different ways of documenting systems and challenges, and Rosalind’s book explains a number of them. For purposes of this workshop I introduced just one systems diagramming technique that’s easy to learn and quite intuitive and robust. Here’s an example of this technique, looking at the complex predicament of introducing a big box mall supermarket into a town and its impact on the downtown (called the ‘high street’ in the UK) retail stores:
The chart shows two ‘vicious cycles’ shown as A and B on the chart. The first of these leads to the bankruptcy of downtown food stores, and the second to the bankruptcy of other downtown stores and the deterioration of the downtown as a whole.
The next exercise for the group was to watch or read the Jack Kent children’s story There’s No Such Thing As a Dragon. The synopsis of the story is:
This is the story of Billy Bixbie, who finds a tiny dragon sitting on the foot of his bed. His mother is firm in her assertion, “There’s no such thing as a dragon.” Yet, the more she denies the dragon and, in turn, convinces young Billy to ignore the dragon, the bigger he grows. By the story’s end, the dragon is filling the Bixbie’s home, with his head and tail spilling out of the top and bottom windows. Finally, Billy can no longer deny the dragon and points this out to his mother. As soon as they acknowledge that there indeed is such a thing as a dragon, the fire breathing fellow returns to his original size–small, like a lap dog. Mrs. Bixbie asks how it was that he grew so big. To which Billy ends the book by saying, “I guess he just wanted to be noticed.”
The group was asked (1) to identify and diagram the “vicious cycle” (a type of reinforcing or “resilient” loop) in red, then (2) to add the “balancing element” that pulled the system out of the cycle before it collapsed, then (3) to identify a possible “virtuous cycle” (another reinforcing or “resilient” loop) that might result in the dragon disappearing entirely, in green, and finally (4) to add another “balancing element” that might pull the system out of the virtuous cycle and back into the vicious cycle. The finished diagram looked like this:
This is a simple example of a system in balance or stasis, where the cycles that might tend to collapse it are held in check. Because it’s a complex system, and we are only identifying the more obvious variables, it’s a delicate balance, and another variable of which we’re unaware, or a “black swan” event, could pull it out of stasis. You could substitute the word “addiction” or “trauma” or “urban decay” or “economic inequality” or “climate change” for “dragon” and the model would still more-or-less work.
There are three reasons why such system diagrams are useful, especially for complex predicaments:
- To appreciate why something is happening that might not be obvious or intuitive
- To appreciate why well-intentioned interventions are failing to work
- To identify possible workarounds and other interventions that might be useful, and their possible consequences
The next exercise was to draw a system diagram to appreciate the challenge of never-ending annual budget cuts, a predicament in both the private and public sector. The task was to diagram the “vicious cycle” in both sectors, and then to explore possible ways to imaginatively adapt or work around the predicament. The vicious cycle diagrams looked like this:
We discussed the fact that because of oligopolies in the private sector, and because government employees often can’t just leave and find comparable work when their job gets difficult, the kind of ‘market factors’ that might end this vicious cycle and produce a system in stasis just aren’t present. So both sectors add user fees endlessly without improving service, and eliminate or cut back or outsource or offshore services to reduce costs. Customers and employees are both unhappy but have nowhere else to turn in oligopoly markets, so the demanded profit increase and cost cutting are achieved. And since it was achieved, shareholders and citizens believe it can be achieved again each year, and keep demanding it. Such a cycle can only end in collapse.
We discussed possible collapse ‘end games’ that could result if this cycle continues — complete privatization of government services, for example, or, to introduce another variable, wide-spread business (government) failure if customers (taxpayers) are no longer able to pay for the industry’s products (their taxes) because of a continuing stagnant economy. We also came up with some imaginative adaptations and workarounds that might pull us out of these cycles (the ones we came up with were industry-specific and not particularly useful to document here).
We briefly looked at climate change as another complex predicament, studying the vicious cycles in the systems charts I developed for my SHIFT magazine articles. There was an appreciation, I think, that most of the current “solutions” to climate change (cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, sequestration etc.) can’t be expected to work because they’re defeated by the reinforcing feedback loops in the system, and there was an appreciation of why saying that “if we all just did x it would solve the problem” is mostly wishful thinking, and an improbable way to get out of the predicament.
Finally, I discussed six other tools that I’ve found useful in systems thinking:
- Visualizations, especially other kinds of systems diagrams, such as the famous Lawrence Livermore graphic showing all the sources, uses and losses of energy in the US.
- Cultural anthropology and specifically ‘business anthropology’ to observe and document behaviours in organizations as they actually occur rather than as the ‘procedure manuals’ say they should.
- Future state stories to imagine how things might work x years in the future, and then, after collecting current state stories, and engaging a cross section of participating and affected people in iterative conversations, devising a realistic ‘map’ to get to that future state from the current state.
- Games and simulations and ‘table-top’ exercises to explore more deeply the variables in play in complex systems and how they are correlated, and to envision the impact of attempted interventions, adaptations and ‘black swan’ events.
- Whole system in the room exercises — that allow multiple perspectives on how the system really functions and what diverse ‘stakeholders’ think would make a difference, leading to some convergence and viewpoint shifts.
- Biomimicry: the appreciation that nature has been adapting to and working around the predicaments and challenges of complex systems for billions of years, and the value of studying natural systems to appreciate how that has happened.
It was a challenging session, and obviously just touched the surface of this difficult subject. I’m grateful that the audience was an exceptionally bright and animated group, and not too large, and would like to thank them for their participation and helpful suggestions. They seemed to appreciate it and find it enlightening, so I may get called upon to talk with others on this subject. I would welcome any thoughts on how to tweak or add to this workshop.
June 8, 2014
(I suppose I should start calling this “Links of the Quarter” since that’s about how often I’ve been posting it.)
Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economics is on my Save the World reading list not because I think his vision of transition to a new economy is achievable but because I think it’s practical, articulate, moving and worth striving for even if we’re not very successful at it. His new book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, is, to me, everything Charles himself feared it was: “tedious, obvious, sophomoric, and unoriginal.” But that’s fine; humanists seem to really like it, and if it helps them cope with what’s ahead, it was worth writing. We’re going to need everyone: the deep green activists, the humanists, the transitioners, the communitarians, and the existentialists, to guide us through civilization’s slow collapse together and, if our species escapes extinction because of what we’ve done to this planet, to co-create working models of how a much smaller number of us might live in the world that’s left.
Since I published my “New Political Map” many of the people I call “humanists” seem to have shifted from solidly salvationist to the bet-hedging middle ground (partly “if we all work together we can…” salvationist, partly “we need a Plan B if that fails” collapsnik) that was until recently occupied by the transitioners. And at the same time many of the people I would call “transitioners” have moved off the fence and clearly onto the collapsnik (focused on “resilience building” rather than “powerdown”) side of the map (while staying at its most optimistic edge). Both groups seem to be suffering a bit of a crisis of confidence as the news gets worse (mostly about runaway climate change; most people still seem pretty clueless about the fragility of our economic and energy systems). I think this shift is encouraging.
Even more encouraging to me is the openness of transitioners and humanists to doubt and existential self-questioning. Charles quotes a critic who told him “You are speaking to audiences that are addicted to the emotional high called ‘inspiration.’ But then they go back to their sorry, complicit lives, and nothing has changed. You are actually enabling them to continue doing that.” The critic is right, and Charles’ willingness to acknowledge that he might be exhibits precisely the degree of ambivalence, humility and openness to shift that will serve us all well in the decades ahead. And a lot of those ‘complicit inspiration-lovers’ are increasingly self-aware and disturbed about this propensity.
As much as those on the salvationist side of the map (the collapse deniers, rapturists, globalists, technotopians and integrals) retrench into their separate echo chambers as the situation worsens, their ideological intransigence and unwillingness to entertain different possibilities is likely to be their undoing, and it will create an extra burden on the rest of us when ‘their’ world falls apart. So we collapsniks are going to have to stick together, and get along with each other, to take up the slack.
Our capacity to embrace the value and credibility of the worldviews of all five “collapse may now be inevitable” camps — humanist, transitionist, communitarian, ‘deep green’ radical activist and existentialist — and to love each other, can give us the resilience to adapt to new information, situations and possibilities as they emerge. Humanists are, I think, the largest of these five camps, and their capacity to shift from “how do we create a better more sustainable civilization” to “how do we minimize suffering and stay mutually supportive through civilization’s collapse” will be essential to the health of our collective response to the crises ahead.
I sense they’re making that shift; perhaps Charles’ next book will signal it.
PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S COLLAPSE
Are Humans Inherently Civilized?: Great two-part musing by my friend Keith Farnish about whether humans are doomed to repeat the catastrophic experiment of civilization over and over, just because of who we are (large-brained, capable of imagining terrible things, deluded to perceive ourselves as individuals, equipped with opposable thumbs etc.) In a related post, George Monbiot (thanks to Tim Bennett for the link) reviews archeological evidence that suggests large scale extinction has always been the immediate result of human migration wherever we have moved since the invention of the arrowhead, and that, perhaps, we are inherently “a destroyer of worlds” and have hence had to “civilize” ourselves to survive in the natural poverty our rapaciousness has created.
Collapse of Complex Systems is Normal: Complexity theorist David Korowicz explains the inevitability of collapse of complex systems, and why striving for a steady-state economy is admirable but achieving it is impossible. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link. Excerpt from Part Two of the article on the futility of anger in the face of inequality and corruption:
The large-scale predicament and the emergent socio-economic stresses that we are beginning to experience have very little to with fraud, corruption and the greed of a tiny few. It has a lot to do with our human civilization running into limits. As socio-economic stress deepens and uncertainty rises we can expect anger spreading in severity and scale in the coming years. Uncomprehending rage turned outwards and inwards, fantasies of catharsis through revolution, extremism and authoritarianism, aggressive power/productive asset accumulation and scapegoating are just some of destructive behaviors we’re likely to see. The stakes involved in such transitions mean that it’s important to interrogate our anger, and question its foundations. That’s why I’d argue that in the rich part of the world there has been a huge amount of self-righteous finger-pointing that is not only delusional but may well be detrimental to how we deal with the collective challenges ahead. None of this means, for example, that fairness and inequality (especially in-group) are not hugely (and innately) important for people, and that societies who fail to engage with it in the difficult years ahead are greatly adding to the risk of catastrophic social fractures that will do nobody any good…
As societies face increasing challenges in the years ahead, and governments and international institutions fail to hold together our web of expectations, we can expect a lot more anger and more people feeding it. Some form of dis-orderly economic contraction is almost certain and nothing will change that… In fact we know very little about how a society might practically and dynamically furnish large and bewildered populations with the basics of food, healthcare, critical services, security and governance in the context of a complex society falling apart.
Another Model Predicts Resource/Economic Collapse: For some reason a small NASA study from last year, simulating the economic activities of “elites” and “commoners” tied into population and resource availability data, and predicting inevitable collapse, has received a huge amount of press. It’s a pretty simplistic model, but it’s good to see mainstream media starting to wake up to the impending collapse of our economic and energy/resource systems; maybe soon they’ll see the connection to runaway climate change and we’ll actually have a broad debate about large system (un)sustainability, and scenarios (and preparations) for collapse. Thanks to the many that pointed me to the original study and the articles about it.
Everything is Broken: An interesting essay by young hacker-journalist Quinn Norton about how “computers are broken” due to their unmanageable complicatedness and massive vulnerabilities, “people, as well, are broken” and “in the end, it’s culture that’s broken“. Very techie, savvy enough to perceive that in the end we humans are just collections of “gray matter with a god complex”. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the link.
Resilient Health Care: A chapter in a new collection on resilience called Communities That Abide, edited by Dmitry Orlov, is about resilient health care. Written by Canadian doctor James Truong, it focuses on the primary importance of developing and drawing on community lay skills, on prevention, and on community-consultative self-diagnosis and self-management. It also advises what tools and basic skills to have/develop in your community, and what, if all else fails, will need expert treatment. And it talks soberly about mindset — the acknowledgement that often our craving for maximum health and longevity at any cost is irrational and self-defeating.
The Wisdom of Local Solar: An excellent article by Eerik Wissenz on the value of creating self-replicating community-based solar energy capacity. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link. [But as Albert Bates has explained, this technology doesn't scale; technophiles take note]. Excerpt:
Solar concentrators are a technology that can make a sustainable local economy possible. Other important parts of this technology suite include: Permaculture, forestry and forest gardening, aquaculture and water management, making shelter and clothes out of locally sourced materials. [We also need] water and heat to cook and preserve food, food and energy to transport and build things, thermal and mechanical energy to transform materials, and a heat source to maintain comfortable temperatures…
A much better plan [than relying on centralized energy production] is to provide the plans and the know-how to build and maintain solar concentrators out of locally sourced materials, with the energy supplied by these same solar concentrators, training local people to build and maintain solar concentrators in the process. The question then becomes one of bootstrapping a solar concentrator self-replicating process, standing back and watching it run.
A Culture of Fear: Permaculturalist Tobe Hemenway explains how fear and coercion are essential to keeping people “civilized”. Excerpt:
To what state have we declined when only the revocable permission of the powerful can guarantee our basics? We gave up a staggering number of freedoms to have our food source guaranteed. Why would anyone trade their freedom for poor health and a life of slavery? I’ve come to doubt that people became farmers voluntarily, and there are many recent examples of hunter-gatherer groups who took one look at farmers, saw what the trade entailed, and said no thanks… Foraging peoples are almost always converted into farmers by a combination of terror, coercion and the extinction of even the memory of an alternative.
The Collapsnik Register: Recent article by Craig Comstock in HuffPost lists many of the best writers about civilization’s collapse; I’m honoured to be included in the list.
Rob Hopkins Interviews Paul Kingsnorth: In case you still haven’t seen/heard it, here’s the interview the founder of Transition did with the co-founder of Dark Mountain.
cartoon by jim benton
Ten Ways to Show Love to Someone With Depression: Good to see this list, and especially what’s not on it. Takes courage to do these things, but it is what they need. Thanks to Tris Hussey for the link.
Parked: Fascinating and lovely short film by a Bowen friend Sylvaine Zimmermann about the homeless men who live in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
Thinking Like a Creek: On one level this article is about simple, thoughtful methods for stream restoration and natural habitat preservation. But on another it’s about appreciating the way complex systems really work. Like our human body, like communities, like organizations and like larger-scale ecosystems, creeks function by workarounds. They “know” what needs to be done, and, despite interventions trying to prevent them, they’ll find the easiest way to do it. Thanks to Tree for the link.
Artists and Climate Change: Chantal Bilodeau’s blog about the important role artists have in communicating about climate change and the importance of place.
Cli-Fi Books: Mary Woodbury’s listing of novels about life in the future with a radically altered climate. Alas, almost all are dystopias. Thanks to Janaia and Alex Smith for the link.
The Gift Economy and the Art of Asking: Amanda Palmer explains why the Gift Economy (the most altruistic and least commercial edge of the Sharing Economy) is gaining strength, and some ways to help it bloom. Thanks to Tree for the link.
The Best Diet: Another research study shows that the best diet is a variety of real (unprocessed, un-chemically polluted, un-factory farmed) food. And that no specific diet is “best” for everyone. So stop reading about what you “should” eat (and otherwise ingest) and stop listening to self-styled “experts”, and start observing and managing your own health. Thanks to Meribeth Deen for the link.
A New Kind of “Mobile” Home: Riffing off the exploding tiny homes movement, there are now some very innovative, affordable, attractive and portable homes that, while designed for refugees, could allow any and all of us to live self-sufficiently and comfortably, even during a Great Migration. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.
An App That Triples Your Reading Speed: A simple tool that mimics and optimizes the way our eyes and brain process words can be used to triple your reading speed almost instantly while increasing comprehension. Try it out. Thanks to Nathaniel James for the link.
What Collapse Can Inspire: I’ve often said that if we want to know how to prepare for collapse, we should look at places where it’s already happened. Last year Jackson MS elected the late Chokwe Lumumba, a long-time radical, its mayor, and while his son failed to get the nod to succeed him this year, Jackson had already launched and is continuing to pursue a broad movement to create worker-owned co-ops to address its poverty and unemployment (and other) problems. Worth keeping an eye on. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the link.
Iran’s Astonishing Birth Rate Decline: Alan Weisman explains how change really happens, describing how Iran’s fertility rate went from being the highest in recorded human history to below replacement level in a few short years. It was done on horseback, and with the gruelling work of visiting every small community in the country and speaking with millions of locals (women especially) face to face, and giving them the capacity and resources to make decisions for themselves.
POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL
protest sign in kansas, via sandy griffin
The Disappearance of the Middle Class: It’s most noticeable in the US so far, but is occurring everywhere there is a middle class. The median US family income is now just above the poverty line, meaning that about half of Americans are “poor” or nearly so. And even these dismal numbers are terrible lies: If true rates of inflation were used, rather than the doctored “official” ones, you’d see the hollowing out much more broadly and deeply. What’s worse, the median net worth of Americans (value of assets less value of debts) is about zero, so that means that the veneer of “wealth” of the lower-middle to upper-middle classes in the US is illusory — if/when they cannot pay those debts back, all of their assets will have to be liquidated to pay off the balance. Half of America is that close to living on the streets.
Canada: “A Rogue, Reckless Petrostate”: Marianne Lenabat explains how Canada’s fall from being one of the most progressive nations on the planet to one of the most heartless and destructive has been carefully wrought by an exploitative conservative minority against the will and without the consent of the large majority of Canadians, and what their ability to do that means for our political system. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link. Former Canadian budget officer Kevin Page chimes in with an insiders view of what’s “grotesquely wrong”.
The Secrets of Food Marketing: An actress impersonates a food marketer, but the facts she tells the astonished audience are the unvarnished truth. Hint: It’s all about not wanting to know. Thanks to Lisa Marie Whitaker for the link.
FUN AND INSPIRATION
grammar pirates from scott clark; sent to me by several english majors
Those Dudes Were Really Chill: See what classical sculptures look like when dressed in modern clothes. Thanks to Iris Carr for the link.
Humans Have Covered the Globe Longer Than We Thought: Simplistic anthropologists would like us to believe that we migrated slowly and opportunistically from proto-human African settlements to the rest of the planet, but evidence keeps confounding them. Recently, we learned that aboriginal Australian cave art dates back 100,000 years, and now we’ve found 22,000 year old rock art in Brazil.
Sexy Naked Women Everywhere: Kate Fridkis describes how the advertising and entertainment media’s depiction of women demeans us all and entrenches the patriarchy.
Sixty Years of the Most Common US Names for Baby Girls: Fascinating map shows the trends year by year.
How the 2008 Recession Reshaped the US Economy: 255 charts show how job numbers have changed in 255 industry sectors over the past decade. The sectors are also ranked by average salary.
What America Cares About Now: A graphic that shows Upworthy’s page hits over the past year by subject. The bad news is that economic collapse (or even unemployment), resource exhaustion and runaway climate change are pretty much not even on the list. The good news is that what is on the list are things people feel that we (collectively or individually) have some agency over. Not that Upworthy, which shuns celebrity news, is a representative arbiter of most humans’ preoccupations.
Whole Foods: Wonderful People, Awful Customers: A customer tries to understand what Whole Foods customers are so chronically angry about. Thanks to Colleen Wainwright for the link.
Fifty Shades of Awful Writing: The delightful Dave Barry explains the “women’s porn” hit and takes brilliant potshots at its dreadful prose.
Etegami: I’ve often wanted to be able to write smart short sayings and illustrate them graphically the way Hugh Macleod does. Now Nancy White tells us about Etegami, a way to do just that.
Ice Tsunami: A rare but astonishing natural event when thawing ice is pushed up from the shoreline to the homes nearby, and advances at a startling rate, in some cases engulfing or destroying buildings in its path. Thanks to Ryan Stones for the link.
Things Are a Little Different in Canada: Some things you’ll only see in the Great White North.
THOUGHTS FOR THE MONTH
Gail: “Nature abhors a vacuum and nature also abhors energy that has not been dissipated. And one of those things that dissipates energy extremely well is civilization… It is as though [in trying to 'fix' civilization] you are trying to fight a hurricane. “
John: “A hurricane is a dissipative system, but it has properties like tending to maintain itself, and behaving according to its own internal dynamics, and there is not much you can do to it to disrupt that process until it runs through to its conclusion. [So] civilization is like a slow hurricane. And once it gets started, it is going to go through a certain swath of destruction until it finally peters out. There has actually been quite a lot of work along the same lines with regard to civilizations. [Toynbee and Spengler argue] that civilizations have a predictable life cycle, as a hurricane does.”
From Laura Burns: “Myth puts us in our place.”
From Dmitry Orlov:
In case you missed it, the US is not a democracy. A Princeton University study by Gilens and Page performed a regression analysis on over a thousand public policy decisions, and determined that the effect of public opinion on public policy is nil. That’s right, nil. It doesn’t matter how you vote, it doesn’t affect the outcome in any measurable way. By extension, that also goes for protesting, organizing, dousing yourself with gasoline and setting yourself on fire on the steps of the US Senate, or whatever else you may get up to. It won’t influence those in power worth a damn…
So, what is it that you do when, on election day, you proudly march into the voting booth and pull a lever, or touch the touchscreen of a voting machine? You are certainly not making a decision; that’s been proven already. But you are still doing something: you are voting in support of your owners—the ones who make public policy decisions on your behalf. If you vote, then it must be because you approve of what they are doing. And what is it that they are doing? Well, job one for them seems to be to make sure that the rich continue to get richer while the poor get poorer and the middle class is… well… class dismissed. If this sort of public policy seems self-destructive to you, that’s probably because it is.
From PS Pirro, writing about the leftover pieces of lost love. There is too little about love, and its importance and fragility, on my blog, so this is my feeble attempt to compensate.
I have a few things of yours,
dusty in the bottom of a drawer
I haven’t opened in years,
rags and bits of old news,
a birthday card from your mother,
tacky with the spillage from a small
plastic bottle of cherry body syrup
you brought home one night
to pour across my skin, vivid
like movie blood, sticky as
everything we were to become,
even after all this time it remains
as it was in the beginning,
content in search of contour,
cloying on the tongue, unable
even at the most earnest bidding
of love and time to become solid.
From Timothy Leary: “Find the others”.
June 2, 2014
Sitting out on the back deck drinking tea and writing, and occasionally snapping photos of some of the birds and other flying creatures that stop by:
Other regular visitors are black-capped chickadees (my totem bird), double-crested cormorants, (murderous numbers of) crows, mourning doves, bald eagles, ‘happy-bird’ house finches, northern flickers (rattling on my eaves at 6am to attract mates), black-headed grosbeaks, a variety of gulls and hawks, geese and woodpeckers, sparrows and wrens, anna’s and rufous hummingbirds buzzing around like bees, steller’s jays, dark-eyed juncos, mallards on the ponds, barred owls (attacking my ponytail when I run in the park nearby), robins, swainson’s thrushes and cedar waxwings.
May 31, 2014
Graphic courtesy of SHIFT Magazine (click on the graphic to view full-screen)
The third and final part of my series of articles on complexity and collapse is now up on the SHIFT Magazine site. Here’s a synopsis of all three parts, with links to the online versions of the articles:
Part One: The Energy Predicament
A look at our global energy and resource systems, and the complex relationship between resource prices, regulation, exploration, supply and demand, and how they are pushing us towards disastrous resource exhaustion. An overview of how the three systems — energy/resource, economic and ecological/climate — are related.
Part Two: The Economic Predicament
The complexities of our global economic systems, and an exploration of whether, although it won’t ‘save’ civilization, the dismantling or crumbling of our current industrial growth economy, sooner rather than later, might lessen the hardship and suffering of drastic climate change that we and our descendants are likely to face.
Part Three: The Ecological Predicament
How our biosphere is yet another complex system, a look at some of the latest climate change scenarios, and an attempt to paint a picture of a future world as much warmer than our planet is today as it was colder at the coldest point in the “ice ages” of Earth’s recent past – and posing the question, in the face of this grim certainty, what a rational, useful, human response might be.
The three articles together constitute a sort of manifesto on complexity and the futility of attempting to change these three, massive, global, interconnected systems — and what we can do instead.
Please take a look at some of the other excellent articles in the first three editions of the new magazine, and if you like what you see, please let the editors know, and consider subscribing. They’re doing some great stuff.
May 30, 2014
image: Paul Stevenson, from flickr, Creative Commons CC BY 2.0
When the members of the non-profit Group Pattern Language Project developed the 91-card Group Works deck [download 1-page summary of all 91 patterns; download a deck free; buy a professionally printed deck], we intended it mainly to help facilitators and participants in meetings and other deliberative work to use their time more effectively and to improve their collaborative processes. But we’ve discovered that this Pattern Language is being applied by some of the 2000+ people and organizations using it in ways we had never imagined. Many of these creative applications can help people work smarter, more effectively and more joyfully, and show their “best stuff,” and not just in a meeting context. Here are ten of them:
1. Unearth Your Organization’s Shared Values (and those you share with the people using your products and services)
image: chart from City of Calgary Cultural Transformation Project Dream Phase 2013 draft report
The City of Calgary consulted with a large proportion of their workers, and with a group of the City’s citizens, and used the 91 pattern cards to identify the top 7 Shared Values of each group (they’re illustrated above). Remarkably, 6 of them were the same. The exercise brought into sharp focus what was most important to both groups, and provided the impetus to assess actions that would help the City’s workers improve the quality and value of their services, and improve the processes they use throughout the organization.
What are your people’s shared values? Do the people who use your products and services share them?
2. Create “Spaces” Big (and Safe) Enough to Encourage Candour, Trust and Boldness
Chris Corrigan, one of the many facilitators who helped develop the Pattern Language of group process, is using the cards all over the world to support his Art of Hosting practice of holding space — creating a generative and safe ‘container’ within which people can be honest, creative, and courageous. In his book The Tao of Holding Space he writes:
“[The space is] the ground in which structure organizes the support and growth of action from ideas. From that empty place, small invitations emerge. From the small invitations, conversation nurtures growth. From that growth comes the momentum that attracts the resources of time and attention and money to see the ideas to completion. The emptier the space the more giving it is and the more intricate the action that emerges. There is no need to talk about it, because that only confuses things. Just offer it and hold it open.”
Do you create such spaces for your people? Do you know how to “hold them open”?
Gibran Rivera of the Boston-based Barr Fellowship community describes the importance of tapping into “the power of authentic relationship and a trust in the organic power of emergence. Emergence is not implementable, a fact that seriously challenges our dominant (and industrial) paradigm for change. We don’t ‘do’ emergence, we create conditions for emergence so that emergence can happen all by itself.”
In complex systems sustained change is predominantly something that emerges, rather than something that can be designed and imposed top-down. The Pattern Language provides a vocabulary for exploring and discussing the complexity of issues and recognizing and enabling emergent possibilities as they arise.
Do you know how complex emergent systems differ from merely complicated mechanistic ones? Do your programs, plans and projects appreciate this difference?
All of us have valuable information, insights and perspectives that can improve decision-making, collaboration and work effectiveness, but not everyone is articulate and forthright at conveying them. Stories provide a context-rich vehicle by which people, when asked in genuine curiosity, can explain how ‘their’ world really works, so that others can make sense of it at a deep and actionable level.
The City of Calgary used a ‘story’ process, with the Pattern Language cards as its framework, to interview its people across all its service areas, from roads and bridges to regulations, parks and recycling. The story format allowed people not used to being asked about their work and its issues to talk about them easily. One employee in the roads department, for example, told a story about how astonished and delighted he was when the new administrative head of the department took off his tie and spent a day in the field learning how to lay cement.
Such stories have immense power. How many of them in your organization remain unheard?
5. Facilitate Conversations That Matter
The Pattern Language we’re using was designed for group deliberative activities, and an important subset of such activities are conversations. My experience as a Knowledge Officer for a large organization taught me that information, ideas, insights and perspectives are best conveyed through context-rich, iterative conversations among people with shared passion and mutual trust. But most of us are not very skilled at conversation, for all the practice we have at it. The Group Works Pattern Language provides a vehicle for self-assessing, self-monitoring and practicing these skills. When we are preparing for an important conversation, or reflecting on one that went especially well (or badly), we use the cards to “storyboard” the conversation. Gradually, we’re learning the qualities of great conversations and invoking them at every opportunity.
How skilled are you and your colleagues at the art of conversation?
I wrote in my book Finding the Sweet Spot the importance of discovering the work that lies at the intersection of what you do uniquely well, what you love to do, and what’s needed in the world. As part of their process, the City of Calgary asked their people to identify the Patterns and qualities that made (or would make) the City a great workplace. This Appreciative Inquiry approach inevitably helped their people identify what they love, and care about, in their work, and the degree to which they are working in their “sweet spot”. And nothing can make people shine more than an appreciation of what they care about and do well, and the opportunity to do more of it.
Do you know your own “sweet spot”? Are you working in it?
There is an iPhone app of the Pattern Language (and an Android app is in the works), but some people have been using images of the cards online to “speak” with others familiar with the Language in more novel ways. One that has been particularly appreciated is, after a meeting or conversation or event in which someone has exemplified one of the Patterns, sending them an e-mail with an image of that Pattern card and a short accompanying thank-you note saying something like “This is a personal ‘thank you’ for having recently exemplified the ____ pattern of excellent group process by ___”.
It’s a unique and quick way to specifically recognize and reward outstanding group process work (whether as facilitator or participant), and recipients are often so taken with this gesture that they take the first opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ by sending a similar note to the next person they notice doing exceptional work. There’s a free zip file of all 91 Pattern card images you can download, that makes this easy to do.
Who is demonstrating excellent group process in your organization? Do they know it’s appreciated?
In most organizations, management calls the meetings and sets up the task groups. By teaching your people the Pattern Language of exemplary group process, you give them the knowledge and tools to self-organize well designed and highly effective get-togethers, peer to peer. And you give them the skill to intervene effectively in any deliberative activity that is not being well facilitated, or is not being facilitated at all (but should be), and in the process improving its effectiveness and value. That’s a skill sure to be appreciated by anyone who’s suffered through horrible meetings.
How well-facilitated are your meetings and deliberative and collaborative activities? Could a workforce of skilled “guerrilla facilitators” make them more productive?
9. Learn, and Teach Your People, a Shared “Appreciative” Language
All of the 91 Patterns we decided upon are framed appreciatively — they are things that have been shown, over and over, to just work, at many scales and in many contexts. We deliberately avoided “anti-patterns” and found, finally, that they weren’t really needed, or particularly helpful. We all know the ingredients of poor group process.
Those who have, either within their organizations or as part of facilitator communities of practice, had the opportunity to learn the Patterns are now speaking to each other in this amazing shared Pattern Language. When they say to each other “Follow the Energy” or “Not About You” (two of the Pattern names) they immediately know what that means, and have ideas for how to apply it. It’s a wonderful shorthand of shared understanding and experience, and a powerful way to learn, internalize and institutionalize better group process.
How many of the 91 Patterns are part of the “language” of your organization?
10. Re-envision Your Organization’s Essential “Gestalt”
image: Gene Stull
Permaculture teacher Delvin Solkinson has been using the Pattern Language of group process for three years as part of his permaculture design courses (the photo above shows all 91 cards in a spiral, and was taken at a recent course at the home of visionary artists Alex and Allyson Grey in New York). The purpose of the courses is nothing less than “to learn to map and design our land and our lives.” What Delvin calls “pattern literacy” is a powerful means to appreciate and articulate “why we’re here” — our entire purpose and the gestalt, the essential quality, of our community or our organization.
What are the Patterns that differentiate your organization powerfully from other organizations performing similar functions? What are the Patterns that make your community’s members a true community, one whose members care about each other?
What we’re starting to realize is that life is substantially a “group process,” and that tools that help us recognize and invoke the patterns of exemplary group process can help us in much broader ways than just meetings. They can help us, and the people we live and work with, do many things better: In a word, they can help us shine.
May 29, 2014
During the late 1960s, like many of my peers, I wrote lots of poems and short stories that featured pretty young people with flowers in their long hair –gentle, spontaneous, uncivilized “children of the Earth”. Joanne, the love of my life at the time (pictured above) challenged me on the one-dimensionality of these characters, and their lack of complexity, but that was what I wanted the world, and my own life, to be — simple, unmarred by trauma, untouched by the weight of civilized culture. Wild and free.
At the time it seemed political — we were all about peace, ending the war, protecting the environment, civil rights, freedom to be whatever we wanted to be. And many of us were idealists who believed our generation could accomplish anything, and that it was our responsibility to remake civilization in accordance with those ideals — peace, love and joy. In my more hopeful moments I still sign my messages with those three wishes.
Dan O’Neill cartoon from the 1969 Jefferson Airplane CD Volunteers
My political worldview revolved around the belief that it was “the system”, “the machine”, “the empire” that was to blame for everything wrong with our world, not individuals, that even the most monstrous of us was simply another victim of this system that gutted us of our humanity, our connection, our capacity to bring about positive change. That was my first inkling of what complex systems were like, how impossible they are to reform, and the source of the great disillusionment that plunged me into a deep depression through much of the seventies. I felt like a wild creature caged, unable to find any way to freedom, but constantly telling myself it’s never too late to break free and reunite with my fellow idealists and save the world, or at least a few of us.
The person who recovered from that depression was not me, but a poseur, safely bunkered in his own head for the next quarter century, broken and quietly disconnected from reality.
Now, with the benefit of a decade studying our culture, I’m finally able to make, I think, some sense of what happened in that astonishingly brief and amazing era of the latter 1960s, and why, like me, the movement seemed to fall apart.
I now realize that we’re all broken, wounded, made ill by the chronic stresses of our omnipresent civilization culture. “The system” not only destroyed the planet and prevented us from our plans to “save the world”, it damaged all of us, filled us with the anger, fear and sadness that we articulated so well through our music in the 1960s. And what we espoused and sought — peace, love and joy — was not just an idealistic plea for sanity and revolution, but the very antithesis of the anger, fear and sadness we were feeling caught up in and sharing with each other. It was an escape from the suffering that stemmed from that stress-induced anger, fear and sadness, that we wanted more than anything. And escape we did — sex (and love), drugs and rock and roll were (and still are) our escape vehicles, our way of coping with and sublimating our anger, our fears and our sadness.
We embraced “free love” and casual, frequent sex with true escapist passion – nothing is more effective at making us feel less fearful than the potent cocktail of chemicals that love and lust arouse in us. Nature does this deliberately — she doesn’t want us to be too fearful to express our love to a potential partner, or too fearful to get carried away when that partner says “yes” and hence make babies and protect them with our very lives. Likewise, drugs help us escape from our sadness and grief, and music often helps us escape from both anger and sadness.
When the whole world seemingly embraced this prescription for peace, love and joy, we mistakenly took their jumping on the bandwagon as sympathy and solidarity for our idealistic cause. We thought that we had become the first generation in history to overtly reject the messages and beliefs of our damaging dominant culture en masse, and the first generation privileged enough to hear and follow the desperate message of need for self-healing and reconnection that our bodies were giving us.
What we didn’t realize is that many (across the political spectrum, and people who were apolitical) who seemingly signed on to the movement had a much simpler agenda than ours. They didn’t want to join us to “smash the system” that was causing the suffering and damage, and replace it with a humanist utopia. They just wanted in on the sex, drugs and rock and roll that were easing our pain, to ease theirs. Like us, they wanted escape. They shared our pain, but not our ideals. In many cases their choice of sex and music was (and is) violent and misogynistic, and their choice of drugs was (and is) the opposite of “mind-expanding”.
We found ourselves, after this revelation (in retrospect not surprisingly) alone, embittered, exhausted and disillusioned. While some of us “flower children” are still fighting the good fight, most have lost faith or health or energy or moved on to different priorities.
We are meant to be wild. We are suffering, every waking hour, from the chronic, relentless stresses that never give us rest. Our bodies are hurting, our souls are beaten and disconnected. And we’re fighting a system that is larger than all of us, that no one can control (or ever could), that no one is to blame for. We’re all doing our best. Our escapism isn’t hurting anyone, is it?
Well, of course, it is. We’re hurting ourselves, because the “peace, love and joy” we feel under the influence of oxytocin and endorphins and testosterone and alcohol and dope and a wall of sound are transitory, addicting, unreal, disconnecting and ultimately unsatisfying. As long as we live in their fog some would say we are not really alive. And as tempting as it is to say “the system is broken, it’s too big to defeat or to fix, it’s collapsing anyway, so wake me when it’s over”, if we live that way we are, I think, living a shadow of a life.
So what is our responsibility now, those of us still crazy after all these years to make the world a better place, and those of succeeding generations who never got the chance to blow an entire civilizational reboot, as we thought we did? What are we wounded surgeons to do? I have written a lot lately about four modest actions: (1) relearning essential skills, (2) learning to create and build community, (3) living an exemplary, self-aware, purposeful, joyful life as a model for others, and (4) healing ourselves and helping to heal others. And, I should add, supporting those activists driven to do more, those driven to fight the system without expectation of significant success, even as it crumbles. Surely this is enough to do?
I think it is. But the fourth of these actions — healing ourselves and helping to heal others — is essential for each of us, and we cannot hope to do it very effectively as long as we keep succumbing to escapism. That escapism isn’t just sex, drugs and rock and roll either. It’s escapism in our work, in our entertainment (TV or movies or online distractions or books), or in the mall, or the casino, or any other unnatural place we go or unnatural thing we do just to feel good, just to get away, to be numb to the pain for a while.
I’m not sure there is any escape from escapism. It’s natural, it’s human, it’s completely understandable that when we’re suffering we want to escape. I confess I’m an escapist and that this is probably impeding my ability to be more present in the world, more really alive, more able to pursue the four actions above. But I don’t believe any more in self-improvement or “self-help” programs. An escapist is part of who I am, now, and it’s enough, I think, to recognize that everything that’s happened before and since the 1960s has quite understandably made me this way. I suspect there are many like me, of every generation. We all have our coping mechanisms. I am tired of insulting, patronizing prescriptions to “face your fears, move past your anger, and learn to cope authentically with your grief.” They are like telling a paralyzed person that with practice they can learn to walk.
Better, I think, to know and accept who we are, and appreciate how we got here. The 1960s were a blast, and despite the half-century hangover I wouldn’t have missed them. They taught me so much — about what is possible and what is not, about myself and “my generation”, and about what it means to belong, and to feel, and to ache, and to dream, and ultimately, to fail. No shame in that.
May 28, 2014
National Center for Atmospheric Research projected chronic drought areas mid-century; purple and red areas may be essentially uninhabitable
Students of past civilizations describe a civilization’s end not as a sudden tumultuous collapse but more a ‘walking away’, a giving up on the whole way of being and living embodied by the civilization, in favour of a simpler way of being and living. Civilizations, being inherently large and complex human creations, require a huge amount of infrastructure, resources, transportation networks, hierarchy and propaganda. They all collapse, eventually, when the cost of this complexity ceases to be sustainable, usually either because of resource exhaustion or climate change.
What collapses, most notably, is people’s faith in their way of being and living. People need to believe that the culture they live within is the best one for their community and descendants, and when they cease to believe, the political structure of that culture will inevitably collapse. You can only promise the impossible and lie to the people who ultimately have to keep the social fabric together, for so long, before they simply cease to believe. Like the Anasazi whose thousand-year-long North American civilization disappeared so quickly without a trace seven centuries ago, when the people cease to believe in the viability of their culture and walk away, the political system, and its governments, disappear.
I think this is beginning to happen to our civilization. Conservatives generally want strong central governments to sustain a military to ward off attackers. Progressives generally want strong central governments to create a social safety net and help ensure the well-being and education of the people. But now we have conservatives utterly dedicated to the dismantling of government, “starving it until it can be drowned in a bathtub”. And we have progressives so appalled by ubiquitous government surveillance and military misadventure that they are refusing to pay taxes. And we have young people who see governments as so inherently corrupt, inept, and unredeemable that they don’t bother to vote or even follow what they’re doing.
All factions seem to have lost faith in the value and integrity of government. Only the corporatists want the government to continue as it currently operates — siphoning from increasingly disgruntled taxpayers to subsidize the extremely rich and their global corporate enterprises, and engaging in colossally costly wars to steal resources and extract slave labour from struggling nations to enrich them further.
The corporatists own the propaganda arms of the culture — the political parties, the business ‘leaders’, the media, the advertisers — and they are doing their best to mislead and sedate those who have not yet caught on, and discourage those who have. They cannot last much longer.
This culture has pushed us headlong into runaway climate change, and the sixth great extinction of life on Earth. It has exhausted the essential resources on which it has gorged itself for two centuries, and deluded its citizens to believe that somehow innovation will create more from nothing. And it has indebted struggling nations, future generations and the natural world to an extent utterly impossible to repay or sustain. So soon enough, collapse will be upon us.
So how will we walk away, this time? What will it look like? How will central governments come to an end this time?
I am fond of saying that things must get much worse before most people will give up trying to sustain what has been for many a wonderful, astonishing culture. But there are different ways of giving up. This culture will not end, I think, in revolution or bloodshed. It is not worth such a price, nor will radical ‘reforms’ work. Nor will it degenerate into Mad Max-style anarchy and violence. In a crisis, most people tend to be surprisingly rational, protective (of those they love) and cautious, especially when the crisis is prolonged.
Many of those who live with constant struggle — people in most non-affluent nations, the homeless, the chronically poor — are already living in a sort of collapse. They haven’t ‘walked away’, because there was nothing for them to walk away from, or to. They still aspire, mostly, to live the affluent lifestyle we are accustomed to. They do not pay into, or receive anything from, central governments now, and in many nations are unenumerated, not even considered part of the populace.
Warlords and organized crime (and other forms of crypto-government) need access to centralized infrastructure and resources as much as established political organs do. Warlords need transportation, political, financial and military infrastructure in order to sell heroin, or oil, or people, and in order to buy guns and ammunition. Organized crime needs a stable real estate and construction industry to launder their wealth and enrich themselves, and functional currencies and networks for whatever people need that they can’t get through ‘legal’ channels.
When these systems fall apart, everything tends to go local, and there is much less to support inequality of wealth and power. Things that are available locally become relatively abundant (because there’s no economic way to export it), and things that must be imported become relatively scarce. The paper assets of billionaires then lose most of their value, and their hard assets become unmovable (physically or financially), beyond the immediate communities in which they sit. Without an industrial infrastructure to support its distribution, even hard assets — gold, minerals, oil reserves, buildings — will likely fall sharply in value. We will, I think, face a great levelling of wealth and power, and, thanks to climate change, a simultaneous great migration toward the poles.
I don’t see central governments “collapsing” so much as slowly withering away. The rich and powerful will do their best to steal what’s left of the people’s assets: government-owned land, property and cash. They will probably succeed, since they’re the foxes minding the public henhouse. They will call it “privatization” and say it’s in the people’s interests, though it will not be. They will describe the liquidation of assets of cities and then counties and states to pay off corporate debts (the richest 10% own over 90% of US municipal bonds) as “prudent fiscal management”. What is left, as many citizens of bankrupt towns and cities have already discovered, will be utterly inadequate to meet minimal needs of citizens. I think we will see essential services — health, education, security, infrastructure maintenance — largely move into the hands of for-profit corporations that will charge prices only the rich can afford, and will provide inadequate services for everything else (witness e.g. the disgrace of prison privatization in the US).
This could lead to a devolution of service to communities, which may of necessity start to fend for themselves and self-organize the provision of essential services to community members, possibly through co-ops (as has happened in past depressions). This may provide a much lower level of service than what we’re used to, but at least it will be ours. The privatized services tailored to rich urban dwellers will almost inevitably go bankrupt as the value of the paper wealth of the rich plummets as a result of economic collapse. The rich may then try to organize their own walled-community services, but they probably won’t be able to find anyone willing to work in them for what they are able to pay, so eventually they may have to join neighbouring communities which have found successful ways to provide subsistence services, peer-to-peer. The high-priced medical specialists, pharmaceuticals, lawyers and private schools will, by then, probably be gone, unaffordable vestiges of the great levelling.
In many struggling nations, there is currently a vast disparity of wealth. But that disparity depends substantially on the largesse of the corporatist interests in affluent nations, and these interests will have little money left to spend to support them, so in those countries, too, there will likely be a great levelling of wealth. Even the drug czars will probably find that organized crime no longer pays, as the value of currencies collapses. There will be little value in oil reserves and pipelines if there is no money to produce and maintain them, and no money in customers’ pockets to pay for them — especially with the plunging EROIs of modern energy supplies.
As in many struggling nations today, and as in the Great Depression and the Long Depression before that, millions will likely flock to the cities fruitlessly in search of jobs. This could mean that the cities and suburbs will be hollowed out, as the cost of maintaining bridges, expressways, elevators and other infrastructure becomes too high to continue. They may simply be scavenged for what is of transportable value, and then abandoned. The majority of us will likely move towards areas with nearby land that is arable without artificial oil-based fertilizers, and away from the many increasingly intolerable and desertified areas shown in purple and red on the map above.
It is this Great Migration that, I think, could bring the end of most national governments. These governments currently own the security apparatus — the bombs and border militias and armies and security agencies — in most countries, and most people will, I think, continue to believe that security is essential, especially in the face of masses of climate change refugees seeking a habitable place to live. But the astronomical cost of “home security”, which is almost certainly the least efficient and effective of all government services (for complex but perfectly logical reasons), can probably not be maintained through economic collapse, especially with the end of cheap (high EROI) oil. Once national governments admit they cannot afford to maintain armies, borders and weaponry, it’s probably game over for them. And there will almost certainly be no capacity at the regional level by then to devolve authority for security to. On top of this, as people move from the cities towards the remaining arable hinterlands and thousands of miles towards the poles, they’re not likely to care much if someone wants to invade the areas they’ve abandoned.
We’re already seeing a loss of faith in the value of centralized governments, across the political spectrum. If they prove unable to cope with economic collapse, and the great uprooting and great migration brought on by runaway climate change, we may see, in a few short decades, the disappearance of most of the national governments on the planet. As they were until just a couple of millennia ago, political boundaries may then get fuzzy, and largely unimportant and, for better and for worse, it may be the decisions made in each local community, face to face, that will once again determine the well-being of citizens.
Community-building anyone? And where will we be trying to build communities by the middle of the century?