HOW NATURE WORKS AND WHY CIVILIZATION DOESN’T: A SYSTEMS VIEW OF GAIA

I‘m working on an update of the long paper that describes my ‘journey’ to environmental awareness and activism. Rather than starting the revision at the beginning, I thought I’d start with what was most important — the final section with the ‘root cause analysis’ and the ‘solution map’ that ultimately became my How to Save the World Roadmap.

When I first published this paper on my blog, the charts that accompanied it generated more buzz than the paper itself. You can find them here and here. Since then, I’ve come to realize that these variables are less cause-and-effect than components of a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating system. In Systems Thinking terminology, the ‘virtuous circle’ of life that existed in nature until about 30,000 years ago was ‘disrupted’ by events that upset the equilibrium and rippled through the system, producing a new self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating system that we call ‘civilization’.

Based on the research I’ve since done on population, violence, and on our political, economic and social systems, I’ve now updated the charts to show the circular nature and greater interrelationship of the 19 elements. The first chart shows how nature works as a self-managed, self-balancing planetary organism — a map perhaps of what is called the Gaia Theory:
Chart 1
Chart 1

And the second chart shows the equivalent man-made systems that have come into play with the dawn of civilization 30,000 years ago. This replacement system, alas, is not self-balancing — it is utterly unsustainable, though our awareness of that fact is only a century old:
Chart 2
Chart 2

How did this unfortunate transformation occur? We don’t know for sure, but the most compelling theory I have seen is that, as a consequence of the last ice age, and/or the invention of efficient hunting tools (like the spear, and the bow and arrow), there was a sudden and massive shortage of the big, lumbering game that man had hunted so easily since his emergence on the planet. So the element to the right of the red box changed from “Abundant Resources and Energy” (chart 1) to “Scarcity of Resources and Energy” (chart 2). Usually when this happens (except when it is a result of a major extinction event like that caused by the meteorite impact 65 million years ago that wiped out most of life on Earth), nature is able to fix the imbalance. It does so by causing the species suffering the shortage to reduce its fertility rate, temporarily increasing its mortality rate (more of them are eaten by predators, and epidemics arise to reduce over-crowding), and the result is a reduction in their consumption of the scarce resources (food, land etc.), until the scarce resources have had time to replenish themselves (illustrated in chart 3, below, which is based on the work of Darwin, Lovelock, and Edward T. Hall). In this sense, our planetary organism Earth behaves analogously to a human organism — when there’s a shortage of food, it goes into hibernation, lowers metabolism, and draws on internal reserves (fat) to compensate until a new external food supply is found.
Chart 3
Chart 3

But the situation 30,000 years ago was different. Man had developed enough intellect to institute some man-made solutions to scarcity instead of relying on the ones nature had always used. These human inventions included agriculture, animal domestication, and then, to make those work, a whole series of social, political and economic systems. We created man-made ‘stores’ of resources to offset the natural shortages, and tools to protect ourselves and our food supplies from, and even eradicate, natural predators and diseases. Our intellect tipped the balance of power, at least temporarily, from nature to man. Once that ‘tipping point’ had been reached, the rest of the 19 elements on Chart 1 were transformed into the corresponding elements on Chart 2. By enormous strength of ingenuity and will, we have entrenched this New World Order for 30,000 years, and exported it to every corner of the globe.

The problem is that it’s unsustainable, and the kind of tinkering with it espoused by optimists and those that deny we are in crisis, just won’t fix it — both nature and civilization are immensely complex systems, and civilization is also immensely fragile. We need to simultaneously work on many of these 19 elements to create a new ‘tipping point’ to restore the natural system that worked for millions of years before civilization. That doesn’t mean going back to a pre-civilization lifestyle — that would be foolish and impossible. It means moving forward on many fronts — political, social, economic, ecological, technological and in the way we make a living. Let’s take a look at some of the weakest points in Chart 2 to see how we might, with coordinated or ingenious small-group effort, flip some of them over to their corresponding Chart 1 states:

  1. Innovation: We need to develop:
    • Simpler, cheaper, more reliable birth control technologies (and ban technologies that increase human fertility)
    • More efficient clean energy technologies (and encourage their development by banning technologies that create massive environmental damage like coal-burning plants, dams, nuclear plants and internal combustion engines)
    • Technologies that prevent rather than treat diseases (we could learn much from nature in this area, but we had better do so before we destroy her medicine cabinet, the tropical rainforests), because families that live long, healthy lives are smaller
    • Technologies that reduce the amount of poisons we release into the air and the water
    • Production technologies that produce no waste, and whose products are 100% biodegradable — If it can’t be completely, inexpensively, easily and quickly recycled, it should not be produced
    • Technologies that eliminate expensive, polluting, dependence-creating transportation of goods, and allow local self-sufficiency and bioregionalism to work (Local wind and solar energy co-ops, and new greenhouse technologies that expand the range of foods that can be locally produced, for example) — Nothing should have to be imported unless it cannot be reasonably produced locally
    • Technologies that allow us to do more with less, that replace hardware with software and molecules with bits — and where there is no alternative to durable goods, they should be lightweight, recyclable, and unconditionally guaranteed to work for many lifetimes, so there is no need for landfills
    • Nutritious, delicious foods that use no animal products, to render obsolete current technologies that cause massive suffering, like factory farms and pharmaceutical and chemical products using laboratory testing
    • Technologies that produce more edible plant mass per acre, without using pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or genetic engineering
    • Networking technologies that allow people working on solutions to global problems to self-organize and collaborate more effectively
    • Information technologies that allow citizen and consumer groups to organize and to identify, prosecute and defeat socially and environmentally irresponsible corporations, governments and organizations
    • Technologies that allow us to learn better from nature — the languages of other animals, the mechanisms of self-regulation, self-organization, conflict resolution, and other important lessons
    • Technologies that will prevent and treat mental illness, that can be inexpensively and easily provided to all, including those on the streets and in our criminal institutions
  2. Social Activism: We need to:
    • Completely revamp our education systems and wrench them away from corporatist control — they should be community-run, autonomous, mobile, virtual, and dedicated to teaching responsible citizenship, how to learn, how to think creatively and critically, how to get along with others, and how to make a living with those one cares about (everything else they can learn by themselves — they don’t need to be force-fed anyone’s biased viewpoint)
    • Persuade people of the need and advantage of limiting their families to one child
    • Persuade people of the need and advantage of a ‘radically simple’ lifestyle
    • Demonstrate by example the superiority of self-selected, self-managed communities over both the nuclear family and larger political units (cities, states) for effective, efficient, self-sufficient social, political and economic organization
    • Think critically and creatively, never stop challenging, never stop thinking of ideas to make the world even better
    • Learn to live a healthy vegan lifestyle, and make more of our own foods instead of relying on prepackaged foods
    • Learn to compromise, cooperate, collaborate, resolve conflicts amicably, build consensus and negotiate better
    • Organize to use our very real power as citizens and consumers to end corporatism, devolve power to communities and individuals, create a more open, fair, socially and environmentally responsible and egalitarian society, and support local enterprise
    • Learn to listen, be more respectful and pay attention better — to nature, to each other (especially those with different views), to women, to children, and to our own instincts
    • Pace ourselves — saving the world is going to take enormous energy, passion, faith and courage
  3. Community-Based Enterprise Formation: We need to:
    • Encourage and facilitate the formation of innovative, locally-owned, community-based businesses
    • Pledge to buy local, so that we have more say in our economic lives, so that business is incented to invest in and take seriously its responsibility to the local community, and so that unnecessary, polluting, traffic-creating transportation of imported goods is minimized
    • Encourage and enable community-based businesses to take an active role in the education system, showing our young people how to run their own successful local business enterprise
    • Create community-based financial institutions that will exclusively fund community-based businesses and hence enable people in the community to invest locally
  4. Political Activism: We need to:
    • Revamp corporate law to make corporations once again the servants of man, not our masters — rewrite corporate charters to make them more restrictive and more responsible, and make corporations once again mere ‘economic shells’  with no political power, no place for corrupt individuals to hide, no separate ‘rights’, democratic voting, open information access and a strict size and salary cap
    • End agricultural and other business subsidies
    • End the tax subsidies to religious organizations, and treat them legally as political organizations
    • Reform election laws to introduce proportionate representation and instant-runoff voting, eliminate gerrymandering, prohibit corporate and group campaign financing, cap personal campaign financing, and have all elections supervised by international observers
    • Shift taxes away from income and employment and towards pollution, waste, resource consumption, speculation and wealth accumulation — and use these taxes to radically even out wealth and power disparity
    • Change our measures of economic ‘success’ — scrap GDP and similar measures in favour of Genuine Progress Indicators and similar measures of well-being and equality
    • Revamp and reduce property rights to cap ownership by any one individual, require public access to land with special social attributes (e.g. ocean-front), increase ownership responsibilities, prohibit property ownership by corporations and organizations (they could still lease appropriately zoned lands from the public), prohibit property ownership by non-residents, and solve the Tragedy of the Commons
    • Set aside a significant amount of the Earth’s area, across all bioregions, as wilderness land, where no development, economic activity or pollution would be allowed, and human access would be heavily limited
    • Strengthen, hone and globalize charters of human rights and freedoms to include absolute rights to free health care and education, and give them legal status ahead of domestic law
    • Scrap ‘free’ trade agreements that undermine local and national social and environmental laws and traditions
    • Set global standards for government spending — a maximum % of government revenues that can be spent on military activities and a minimum % that must be spent on international humanitarian aid, and expel from the UN countries that violate these standards
    • Write off all current third-world international indebtedness, prohibit creation of new international debt, and ban extraterritoriality (political and economic activities that compromise local or national sovereignty)
    • Reinstate usury laws (limit interest rates on consumer debts to no more than 3% above inflation rate)
    • Introduce currency reform to allow LETS systems
    • Extend anti-cruelty laws to all animals, and for the purpose of such laws define them as living beings, not as property

I have deliberately put political activism as the final category of this list, because the more I learn about change, the more I am coming to believe that politics and law are much less effective levers for change than innovation, social activism or community-based enterprise formation. Political activism is an uphill battle against the status quo and against entrenched wealth and power. Social activism and community-based enterprises, by contrast, work peer-to-peer, citizen-to-citizen and consumer-to-consumer and, thanks to the power of modern communications, can spread virally very quickly, undermining the political and economic establishment by working beneath their radar, until, starved of its grass-roots citizen and consumer support, this establishment simply crumbles, no longer needed. Most of the bullets on the Political Activism list above are, in fact, more about undoing things that are contributing to ecological collapse, than about doing something else. And innovation, which respects no political or economic authority, can help immensely.

Many of my readers have told me “that’s fine, but I’m not rich, powerful, expert, entrepreneurial or innovative, so what can I do now to help, to make a difference?” That’s a fair question, and I’m developing the answer to it as the final section of the revised paper (and also as a more practical replacement for the Roadmap). I should have it finished next week, and I’ll publish it here first.

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9 Responses to HOW NATURE WORKS AND WHY CIVILIZATION DOESN’T: A SYSTEMS VIEW OF GAIA

  1. Dear Dave here i go:You said “our intellectual tipped the balance of power” to me it sounds like the most of our technology (or inventions) has been developed to attack the nature and i think that its a focus problem: the real proble is not about what we develop, but how we use it , so the problem is not the technology it self or the human intellect but the human behaviour; being more specific: knifes are a great tool (ask doctors) but some peoples use it to hurt, so the proble is not the knife it self but the people who use it in the wrong way.Why is this important to mention it? because technology is not he problem so we cant BAN it, we have to use it in the best way we could, you mentioned too about ban the human fertility technologies, that would be very unfair and dictatorial!!!! What would happend to the people who cant have childrens and need this kind of help? Do you prefer children kidnaping int he underdeveloped countries to satisfy this need? its like the marihuana discussion, noy because some people use it as a drug it has to be banned, the real discussion has been forgotten for this prejudice How can we use the marihuana to have a better quality of life? it can help to control the pain in some ill people, but our prejudice avoid the discussion the passion is showes not the reason.Another difficult point its economical point (but i dont see you gice a clear wieght on your arguments) its the economical point, here you are talking about ban some technology or products…but What will we do with people that work in that industry? ill gice you an example: In Mexico several turistic areas has been stoped for negative ecological impact, but many, many people remains with no jobs and they hace to cross the border as “wetbacks” to be humilliated, asessinated, or trated as slaves in the states so How can we balance this equation?? (im not talkink about destroy the entire ecosystem to give jobs but putting the social econimical weight too in a very real scenario).You talk about bioreginalism Dave what seems amazing to me, but once again we are forgetting the economic theory… Do you know that the cost of s imple mango in Canada would be more than a kilo (more than 2 pounds) of the same fruit in any mexican market? would not be a waste od resources too? Would not you be helping some inefficient process too? (once again im trying to show or may be to ask What is the middel point Dave?, you have to see both sides of the story) in this case the politicians are not the guilties but the people who wants to buy more product, cheaper and faster (and i dont blame them either).What i am really agree its about education, that is the real key!!!!!Another interesting point, but very polemic, you talk about forgive the debt to the 3 world (and as you may realize i live in one of those countries) but we wold have to be very carefully with this topic How many people didnt use this debt for their personal use or benefit? How many of the presidents or secretaries didnt use the debt to cover their stupidity??? they have to pay Dave, not everybody (See the Lopez Portillo case, former president of Mexico, when we went out of politics was one of the richest men int he world, and the whole country was carrying a HUGE debt) they have to pay (may be not monetary but in jail) because they betray the confidence of the other countries and the other people!!!!.

  2. Nature, red in tooth and claw? Nasty, brutish and short?Remember that 30,000 years ago only one in five of us made it to adulthood. Of those, all of them died before they were 30. Of those, many had debilitating diseases and suffered crippling injuries.There’s no such thing as ecological balance. Nature exists in a constant state of flux, moving between one catastrophe and another. Self-correcting mechanisms aren’t driven by something, they don’t exist as forces: they occurr only as a result of overuse and resource abuse. Every single population grows out of control until it runs up against a barrier.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Renee: The picture of pre-civilization life as “nasty, brutish and short” is a complete myth, a con job by those that want to subjugate us, to have us to believe “we’ve never had it so good”. The anthropologists and economists who have studied human history before civilization (Peter Jay and Marshall Sahlins, notably) now say that this was a period of ‘original affluence’, with easy hunting, a ‘work day’ of one hour, with the rest of the day for leisure activities, and mortality not from diseases and ‘crippling injuries’ but, like every other species that lives today in joy and balance with the rest of Earth’s life, by being eaten, quickly and painlessly, as part of the food chain. The risk of a joyous, easy, comfortable life being cut short by being eaten was simply accepted, not feared, much as we today accept the risk of traffic deaths as just one of the risks one takes to make the most of life. The new consensus is that those that were not eaten had a good chance of living comfortably to their 70s and 80s, much as we do today. I don’t know where you got this dreadful picture of life before civilization, but whether it’s based on religious dogma or discredited scientific dogma, it’s nonsense — and you’ve been had. That’s precisely why improving our critical thinking figures so prominently in my ‘how to save the world’ prescription.

  4. The Kalahari bushmen of today spend an average of 19 hours per week in pursuit of food – that’s about three hours per day, not one. But: they enjoy a much higher standard of living than their neighbours in non-industrialized nations. They also have 10% fewer people over 60 than their neighbours.According to an article by Jared Diamond in Discover, the average livespan of a hunter-gatherer was around 25; immediately following the agricultural revolution it fell to 19, due to the kind of epidemic dieases inherent to large populations. It wasn’t until the 20th century that average lifespans exceeded 50 years. Recent research in Shanghai has found that, 6000 years ago, the average lifespand was under 29.Hunter-gatherer societies practice infanticide as the most common form of birth control. This is because nomadic women can only have one baby every four years: they need to carry their toddlers until they’re big enough to keep up with the adults. Agricultural society results in an immediate spike in birth rate, understandably, and this perpetuates agricultural society since there are more and more people.Just some thoughts.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Renee: No argument with your data. I would guess that when South Africa abounded with wild game (before desertification and poaching and killing off much of the larger game) the hunting was easier. I’d also guess that Europeans brought many of the diseases that have lowered their lifespan. An average lifespan of 25-30 might mean that half of hunter-gatherers were eaten in their youth, and the other half lived to old age — I don’t think it necessarily correlates with quality of life or incidence of disease or injury. The infanticide data surprises me — it’s extremely rare in other species, so I wonder whether this, too, is a man-made ‘civilization’ behaviour. Thanks for keeping me honest ;-)

  6. Infanticide is probably rare in other species because so many of the infants are simply eaten.

  7. Krystle says:

    You wrote: “Many of my readers have told me ‘that’s fine, but I’m not rich, powerful, expert, entrepreneurial or innovative, so what can I do now to help, to make a difference?’I wouldn’t call it a fair question…I would call it an EASY question. It’s like saying “I’m not extraordinary and I don’t feel like doing what I need to do in order to become extraordinary in any particular area of life, so please tell me something easy that I can do every day that will be challenging in a generic, non-individualistic kind of way.” I’ve seen many people ignore their individual potential for one-size-fits-all prescriptions for change. In each of us there is the capacity to be an amazing writer, or a world-famous violinist, or the best whatever in the world, and it is in finding this niche that I believe one person can be at their most effective in changing the world.But anyhow, thanks for the fantastic content…I envy your writing skill and clarity of thought.-Krystlewww.SustainableWays.com

  8. sri@infinisri.com says:

    Thanks David. I posted an excerpt of yours on my blog – Technology Initiatives for Peace.Enjoy, Sri

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