|Kathy Sierra, on Twitter, challenged us to identify the good things that sometimes come out of bad circumstances. In complex systems — social and ecological systems particularly — the number of variables is infinite, so there are no discernible causes and effects, no consequences, no predictability, just trillions of things affecting each other. It’s inevitable that something intended to have positive effects will have, or appear to have, negative effects, sooner or later. And vice versa. Every technology invented has had unintended consequences, and every malicious invention has had some silver lining. Fireworks, gunpowder. Nuclear power, nuclear bombs. Smallpox vaccine, population explosion. Antibiotics, virulent drug-resistant strains. Butterfly wing flap, tsunami. Internal combustion engine, global warming.
One of the interesting things about complex systems is that they tend towards temporary equilibrium states. Quantum states. Orbits. Most remarkably, Gaia, the collective work of all-life-on-Earth, modifying the atmosphere to moderate temperature on the surface below, so that life proliferates, becomes more diverse, and hence more resilient to catastrophic change.
When things are going well, that’s good news — small negatives will tend to be overcome. But when things are going badly, it’s terrible news — when the car’s spinning out of control, slamming on the brakes won’t help. Inertia and momentum. A body in motion tends to remain in motion, even if that body is a country whose lunatic administration is deliberately bankrupting it. Even if that body is a planet heating up at an astronomical rate, such that melting glaciers expose dark earth that attracts even more of the sun’s warming rays.
A body at rest tends to remain at rest. Politicians may have good (or bad) intentions to make changes, but they’re unlikely to make any that stick, unless changes in that direction were already underway. Ailing economies tend to stay sick, until something extreme like a war comes along to shake them out of their equilibrium, until some new equilibrium state, of motion or stasis, is found. Ice age. Hyperinflation. Extinction. And then whatever comes next. After us, the dragons...
We are instinctively aware of this. We sense when things are stuck, or running amok, out of our control, for better, or for worse. For our first million years on Earth, we self-managed our numbers. We had just enough children to keep human population, net of those who were eaten, in the normal course of living every day, in a steady state. Always changing, but in balance. We knew it was good.
And now, we know that those numbers are accelerating into an impossible-to-navigate curve. A normal curve. We know in our bones that our civilization, like every civilization before it, is nearing its spectacular end, and that there is nothing we can do to stop the skid. We know it’s bad. We hope, but we know better.
Our behaviour betrays this knowledge. Acts of staggering violence and nihilism. Inuring ourselves against feeling. Massive hoarding. Eating our young, metaphorically for now, through our desperate theft of the world’s last resources, the ruination of our planet, the accumulation of monstrous debts, all to be left to our children. Look around, you’ll see the signs: 150,000 debt-ridden farmers in India have committed suicide in a decade.
The media, who try to make this complexity simple, have no clue. They throw out random data, and leave it to us to make sense of it. Pattern-recognition is not their forte.
But the normal curve, pictured above, the picture perhaps of oil production 1900-2100, or of human population 1900-2200, is just one of millions of normal curves that define the inertia and the momentum of all things, everywhere and always, connected by the complexity of all things. They are indifferent to our time, our place, our species. They have gone on for billions of years before we emerged from the cosmic soup, and will go on for billions more after we are gone. At the bottom and at the top of everycurve, there is a pause.
We are catching our breath.
Other Writers About CollapseAlbert Bates (US)
Andrew Nikiforuk (CA)
Carolyn Baker (US)*
Catherine Ingram (US)
Chris Hedges (US)
Dahr Jamail (US)
David Petraitis (US)
David Wallace-Wells (US)
Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
Derrick Jensen (US)
Doing It Ourselves (AU)
Dougald & Paul (UK)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Jan Wyllie (UK)
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jem Bendell (US)
Jonathan Franzen (US)
Kari McGregor (AU)
Keith Farnish (UK)
NTHE Love (UK)
Paul Chefurka (CA)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Richard Heinberg (US)
Robert Jensen (US)
Roy Scranton (US)
Sam Mitchell (US)
Sam Rose (US)*
Tim Bennett (US)
Tim Garrett (US)
Umair Haque (US)
William Rees (CA)
Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
My Other Sites
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons License.