Links of the Month: November 8, 2013

10 11 2013

Another guest post by David Pollard, who has a knack of condensing all my thoughts into six succinct points!  originally posted here.

David Pollard

David Pollard

I‘ve just been interviewed by Janaia and Robyn at Peak Moment TV (video will be up soon). The Conversation inspired me to try to come up with a short summary of why I am so convinced that our civilization is in its last few decades, and that our efforts to mitigate its collapse are largely a waste of time and energy, and what someone who shares this worldview could or should do now. This is what I came up with:

  1. We’re already past the tipping point. For ten years I have been studying our civilization, our culture, who we are and what makes us human, and the nature of complex systems. That has led me to believe that our civilization, like any system dependent on complicated technologies and unsustainable processes, is hurtling towards energy, economic and ecological collapse, any one of which would lead inexorably to our civilization’s collapse.
  2. There are three global unsustainable systems headed for inevitable near-term collapse. Inherent in these systems are both positive feedback loops and negative feedback loops. The positive (reinforcing) loops tend to lead to collapse. An example is how greater human numbers lead to greater production of human foods and vice versa, in an accelerating loop that has led to an utterly unsustainable 7.3 billion humans on the planet, a number that would reach 11-12 billion by century’s end barring the certain collapse of our industrial food and other systems. These positive feedback loops are pushing us towards three catastrophic Endgames shown in the chart above:
    • The exhaustion, in just two centuries, of billions of years’ of stored energy and other natural resources, which currently enable us to produce goods at hundreds of times the rate we could if we depended on human and animal power alone.
    • The collapse of the industrial economy, which depends on ever-increasing production, consumption, growth, indebtedness, capacity to repay that indebtedness, and Ponzi-style faith that such growth can somehow continue forever.
    • Runaway climate change, as human activity pushes our fragile atmosphere’s Earth-regulating temperature higher than it has been in million of years, with the increase between now and 2050 almost certain to be greater than the decrease during the coldest known ice age, with comparable planet-altering effects. Arctic and Antarctic melting, and the burning of what’s left of the world’s great forests, are releasing massive amounts of methane gas and other gases much more potent than CO2. So instead of warming a degree or two Celsius by 2100, climate scientists now say we are on track for 4-6C of warming by mid-century, leading to unliveable conditions of heat and storm and fire and flood everywhere but on the poles by 2100, even if we were to institute a herculean program to change our behaviours globally and immediately.
  3. Attempts to intervene and rebalance the systems are defeated by the Jevons Paradox. Complex systems also have negative (balancing) feedback loops, but in a phenomenon called the Jevons Paradox, these systems have evolved in such a way that instead of balancing and mitigating the ‘runaway’ positive loops, the negative loops act to prevent and defeat attempts to rebalance and mitigate them. So for example when we pass laws requiring greater fuel efficiency standards, one consequence is the invention of vehicles such as hybrid cars. These cars’ greater fuel efficiency alleviates both the cost and guilt feelings of driving a gas-gulper, with the paradoxic result that owners of such vehicles drive them so much more than their older cars that they actually burn more hydrocarbons than did the more carefully-driven gas gulpers they’ve replaced. Another example: In a large impersonal and hierarchical society, when we impose taxes or caps or laws to penalize pollution, or profligacy, or waste, or other foolish behaviour, instead of getting behaviour change what we get instead is more and more clever ways to circumvent and cheat the rules, and more and more money spent to buy politicians who will undo these rules. So “solutions” such as large fines for the banksters’ massive “white-collar” crimes and the Koch brothers’ ecological atrocities accomplish nothing — they actually quantify the limits to risk and hence encourage and reward such behaviour. And any activist who seriously threatens the status quo of the positive feedback loops will be quickly labeled a terrorist by those who profit from them, and neutralized.
  4. Even monumental coordinated global human interventions will only delay and worsen the inevitable collapse. So it is pretty clear to me that we are going to lurch in fits and starts over the next few decades towards energy/resource, economic and ecological collapse, and our attempts to mitigate them and balance one off against the other will simply forestall for a few more years the inevitable collapse of all three systems over the next few decades. The order of collapse hardly matters now. And there is nothing we can do to prevent or significantly lessen or delay it.
  5. It’s time to move “beyond hope“. This is a pretty bleak reality for most of us to face. Most would rather continue to believe in magical thinking — that markets or new leaders or new technologies or “human ingenuity” or some collective global consciousness-raising or the Rapture will rescue us in time, or that some deus ex machina, some white swan event or discovery will save us, that somehow things will work out OK because “they always have before”. John Gray’s Straw Dogs explains why such belief is foolish and self-defeating; we cannot be other than who we are — just another Earth species too smart for its own good driven by the needs of the moment, doing what we must.
  6. What we can do, now. But if you’ve reached the stage where you can no longer believe in such magical solutions, you need some other course of action. You can’t do nothing, especially if you have a conscience, or children, or a love for this planet’s non-human life. What you have to do, I think, is give up hoping and trying to bring the systems back into balance through interventions like progressive voting and activism and composting and solar power, and instead start learning to be resilient so that when these crises hit, you and those you love will at least be better equipped to cope and respond to them than most of us are now. I think there are four ways to do that:
    • Live an exemplary, joyful, present life: Be a model of living in the present, joyously, every day, living a life that’s aware, generous, responsible, sustainable and full of learning, wonder and love. Rather than dwell on the future or the past or what could have been done or is going to happen, focus on making the world better for yourself and those immediately around you now. Perform what Adam Gopnik calls “a thousand small sanities“. Seek to exemplify what Richard Holloway calls “an attitude of contemplative gratitude“.
    • Second, re-learn essential skills and knowledge that will make you and your community more self-sufficient and resilient when centralized global systems — governments, big corporations, trade, industrial agriculture, energy etc. — fall apart. Learn to make clothes, or to grow your own food organically, or how to mentor a student to learn how to learn, or how to facilitate a group to work more effectively together. And learn more about yourself as well — how to make yourself well, what triggers you or frightens you (and why), what you do really well, and what you really care about.
    • Third, discover your neighbours and connect with them, and learn how to build and live in community, where sharing is more important than owning. Learn how to care about, and even love, people you really don’t like very much. When hierarchies collapse, what we’ll be left with is community. Get to know yours.
    • And fourth, work with others to help them, and you, to heal from the damage this culture has already done to us, physically and emotionally, and to cope with the fear, the guilt and the grief we all start to feel when we realize what we have done to this planet, with the best of intentions, and what we’re going to face as a consequence.

That’s about it, I think. Ten years’ learning and writing about complexity, culture, ecology and collapse condensed into six points.