Big Picture article

14 12 2018

It’s so nice reading an article that joins the dots….  I get so sick of people concentrating on one issue or another, ignoring everything else troubling civilisation.  From Consciousness of Sheep, who else….?

Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight.  Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland.  In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany.  Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war.  We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.

Well, yes indeed we are.  But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer.  These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.

Two far greater symptoms of our predicament have gained at least some public traction this year.  First was an all too visible plastic pollution crisis that is increasingly difficult to ignore now that China has ceased acting as the West’s rubbish dump.  Second is the somewhat less visible insect apocalypse that has seen the near extinction of a raft of pollinating insect species; without which we humans are doomed to starvation.  Interestingly, while these two symptoms are only tenuously related to climate change, they have tended to be included under that shorthand heading.  Plastic certainly damages the environment, but its build up owes far more to the ongoing power of the petrochemicals industry and the myth of recyclingthan to changes in climate.  The same goes for the insects.  While there may have been some climactic impact on migrations and reproduction, the main cause is the vast quantities of chemical insecticides required by an industrialised agriculture tasked with feeding 7.5 billion humans on a planet that could barely feed one seventh of that without fossil fuels and agrochemicals.

In the affected areas, local populations have been stunned by a series of “red tide” events that result in the mass deaths of fish and other marine creatures.  Climate change is indirectly involved in these events because of the increased rainfall from warmer storms.  But once again it is our industrial agriculture that is the primary cause – the giant oxygen-free zones beneath algae and phytoplankton blooms that form because of artificial fertilisers washed off the land when it rains.  When marine creatures stray into these oxygen-free zones (which are pinkish-red in colour due to concentrated hydrogen sulphide) they suffocate before they can swim to safety.

Off most people’s radar is the ongoing sixth mass extinction, as we lose thousands of species every year.  Again, while some of this is directly due to the changing climate, the larger part is due to human activities like agriculture, deforestation and strip mining simply chewing up natural habitats to make way for the creation of the various resources – including food – required to sustain a human population that is projected to reach 10 billion by mid-century.

The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive.  If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”

Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.

The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves.  Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).

Energy is an even bigger problem.  For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar).  We are – allegedly – choosing to do this.  However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy.  As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.

This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities.  Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament.  Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t.  In reality it is, and always was central bank growth.  Why?  Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached.  In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy.  The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.

To be clear, since 1980 the western economic system has inflated a series of asset bubbles, each of which has subsumed and outgrown its predecessor.  In the 1980s companies bailed out failing companies to save themselves.  In the 1990s stock markets bailed out companies to save stock markets.  In the 2000s banks bailed out stock markets and then states and central banks bailed out banks.  Next time around it will be states and currencies that need bailing out.  And in the absence of space aliens, it is not clear who is going to be riding to the rescue.  What that means, dear reader, is that everything you depend upon (but didn’t know it) for life support – inter-bank lending systems, letters of credit and freight insurance, international trade arrangements, employment, state pensions, etc.  – is going to go away (at least until some kind of debt-write-off (either directly or via “helicopter money”) and a new currency system can be put into place.

The other legacy from this period of debt-based asset inflation is a series of grossly unequal societies; divided, ultimately, between those who get to spend the (uninflated) debt-based currency first and those (the 99 percent) who only get the currency after its value has been inflated away – primarily those who depend upon a wage/salary from employment rather than an income from shares and other investments.  Most people accept some inequality.  However a lack of economic growth (outside banking and tech) has created deep hostility to those political parties that cling to the pre-2008 neoliberal orthodoxy.  The result has been a growth in populist movements claiming to know how to restore the economy to rates of growth last seen in the 1990s.  Political economist Mark Blyth summed up the difference between the left and right wing variants of populism thus:

  • The right says neoliberalism ruined the economy and immigrants took your jobs
  • The left says neoliberalism ruined the economy and capitalists took your jobs.

Needless to say – as the boy Macron is learning to his cost – now is not a happy time to be a neoliberal politician.  The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot.  China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium.  It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete.  To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest.  The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.

Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy.  Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves.  Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.

Most green growth advocates imagine a switch from extraction and manufacturing to (largely digital) services that will somehow decouple resource and energy growth from GDP.  That is, we can all continue to prosper even as our use of planetary resources falls back to something like the amounts consumed in the 1750s.  Writing in Resilience, Jason Hickel gives the lie to this:

“This sounds reasonable on the face of it. But services have grown dramatically in recent decades, as a proportion of world GDP — and yet global material use has not only continued to rise, but has accelerated, outstripping the rate of GDP growth. In other words, there has been no dematerialization of economic activity, despite a shift to services.

“The same is true of high-income nations as a group — and this despite the increasing contribution that services make to GDP growth in these economies. Indeed, while high-income nations have the highest share of services in terms of contribution to GDP, they also have the highest rates of resource consumption per capita. By far.

“Why is this? Partly because services require resource-intensive inputs (cinemas and gyms are hardly made out of air). And partly also because the income acquired from the service sector is used to purchase resource-intensive consumer goods (you might get your income from working in a cinema, but you use it to buy TVs and cars and beef).”

And, of course, without the income derived from making all of that stuff for service providers to consume, nobody can afford to buy the services and the economy will collapse.  Not that anyone has noticed this for now, as we are descend into the politics of blame in which widening inequality and poverty at the bottom is blamed on one or other of a culture’s preferred out groups – Tories, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, migrants, the banks, the European Union, Israel, Angela Merkel, the Rothschild family, Donald Trump… choose your favourite pantomime villain; but don’t expect to be going anywhere but down.

Politics matter, of course.  In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.


Preparing for Collapse: Non-Attachment, NOT Detachment

21 12 2012

Guest post by Dave Pollard.pollard

This essay was originally published at

There is something seemingly unfathomable to the human mind about exponential curves. As I wrote last fall:

There is an old story about the invention of the chessboard, in which the inventor as his reward asks for one grain of wheat on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and doubling until all 64 squares are full. The seemingly modest request adds up to many times more than all the wheat the world has ever produced. The purpose of the story is to teach about our inability to grasp the impact and unsustainability of accelerating increases in anything, particularly in the final stages. Even when more than half of the squares have been filled the inventor’s request still seems manageable. It is only when it is too late that its impossibility is realized.

Even when almost all the squares have been filled, the request still seems manageable. We are now living in a world where almost all the squares have been filled. We have used up the easy-to-get half of the Earth’s resources, which accumulated over billions of years. We have used most of that in the last two centuries, and most of that in the last two decades. In the process we have destabilized the planet’s climate systems. We are nearing what is now being called “peak everything”.


And there is certainly nothing “normal” to human eyes in what mathematicians call a “normal curve”, at least when time is the independent variable. We always seem to perceive the future as much like the present, only more so, and our favourite works of utopian and dystopian fiction turn out to be mostly somewhat hyperbolised reflections on the best or worst of the world as it was when the authors wrote them.

Even when we try to conceive of the downside of the normal curve — sharp at first and then tailing off slowly — we can only see everything going backwards, back to the way it was when the curve was at that height before. A simple, rapid decline, like those that befell previous civilizations and unsustainable cultures, is unimaginable. We can’t picture it because it’s never been that way for us. Even the current set of collapsnik writers, like James Kunstler, portray a post-collapse future that is almost nostalgically like the old American West.

In recent months, we have seen the news from climate scientists become exponentially worse. A decade ago we were hand-wringing about a 1C rise in average global temperature by 2100. A year ago it was a 2C rise by 2050 and a 4C rise by 2100. Now it appears all but certain that our failure to consider the “positive feedback loops” inherent in our astonishingly delicately-balanced climate systems made us absurdly optimistic, and a 6C rise by 2050 is quite possible. I can’t blame you if you haven’t been keeping up — neither had I. Two recent videos, one by Grist’s David Roberts and a second, even more recent one by fellow collapsnik Guy McPherson, will bring you up to speed.

The message of these videos, and the data underlying them, is simple, but it’s a lot like hearing news of a terrible and sudden loss in the family, the death of someone you knew was at risk but somehow believed would get through it, or at least last a while longer. It’s too soon. It can’t be that fast. We cannot accept it, as the trickster piles a mountain of grain onto the third-to-last square of the chessboard.

The message is two-fold:

Not only are we fucked, but it’s coming much sooner than we expected. It’s coming in the first half of this century, not the second. By 2050 life for all but the simplest and most well-protected species on this planet will almost certainly be impossible, except for small numbers in a few marginal areas.
The whole issue of mitigation and the need for activism is now more-or-less moot. Even if we were to collectively and massively change our behaviour starting tomorrow, it would only delay collapse by a few years, and quite possible make the collapse even more catastrophic. Until recently there was at least a chance that perhaps a combination of behaviour change and the reduced availability of cheap fossil fuels might combine to pull us back from the brink, or at least make a much-changed and simpler life possible for a much smaller population of humans and other creatures. That chance is gone.

The climate scientists, abetted by the ecological economists, have pronounced the certain and imminent (i.e. within most of our lifetimes) death of the vast majority of life on our planet, including the human species. Now, we can mourn. Most of our human family will continue to fall into one of the three categories of non-acceptance of this pronouncement that I wrote about in my If We Had a Better Story post:

The incredulous: Those who either know so little or haven’t had the opportunity to think about what they know, that they find the idea of collapse preposterous, unimaginable, and/or unthinkable.
The hopeful: Those who believe that collapse is not inevitable or can be significantly mitigated, or believe that even if it is inevitable and can’t be significantly mitigated, we should try anyway.
The deniers: Those who are intimidated or offended by, or overwhelmed with anger and/or guilt at, the very idea of collapse.

None of these are unusual reactions to horrific news, but they’re likely to be crazy-making to those of us who are past this stage, and trying to get on with preparing ourselves and those we love for what is to come.

The most intriguing reaction is from collapsniks like Derrick Jensen and John Duffy who, against hope, want us to work (as they do, indefatigably and to their great credit) to kill the economy. John starts out his essay by saying “We are going to go extinct.” and near the end says:

If we want to not die, then we need to stop doing the things that are going to kill us… We need deindustrialisation, and we need to wring the bloody neck of capitalism, before hanging it, drawing it, quartering it, and setting the remaining bits of its corpse on fire to make sure it can’t rise from the dead like the unholy zombie that it is… This is all to say, I can’t fight my enemies and my allies at the same time. Liberals, lefties, environmentalists and everyone else who purports to give a damn has to give up on being capitalism apologists who somehow think we can keep this gravy train of mass consumption going.

It’s a great rant, but he’s like the lover of the recently-declared-dead patient who insists on trying CPR interminably and punching the people trying to take the defibrillators away from him. Or, perhaps, he’s like the angry griever trying to assemble a posse to kill the ones he believes caused the death of the one he loves. It’s understandable, but it’s futile. It’s too late.

In the comments to John’s post, Paul Chefurka writes:

I’m not particularly angry or outraged any more. Once I was, but now I’m just fascinated, amazed, amused, bemused, curious. I attach no moral dimension to this unfolding any more, though once I did. Now there is no blame, no more agonized wishes to rewrite the past, no more fearful visions of a shattered future.

We are what we are, we did what we did, we ended up here.

I’m very curious to see what comes next. Aren’t you?

Paul didn’t get a terribly sympathetic response, so I wrote to Paul and asked him how he had managed to reach this stage of acceptance. I also asked him about a gorgeously-written and deeply-moving recent article in Orion, Gaze Even Here, about “evoking a consciousness of brokenness”, in which the author, Trebbe Johnson, says that she and her companions found solace in spending time “gazing” at clearcuts and videos of animals dying in oil-slicks until their grief and anger and revulsion turned to curiosity, acceptance, compassion and even love. I mentioned that some people in my circles had seen my attempts at non-attachment, at letting go of what I know I cannot change, as detachment, as an emotional shutting down or turning away. Paul replied:

I’ve faced the same accusations about detachment. They generally come from activists for whom action is the inner imperative, and who have no exposure to Buddhist principles. Also, they haven’t hit bottom yet, which is why the still think that action is an answer. Only once someone hits the bottom and bounces off the rocks do they usually start looking for truly radical responses like non-attachment.

As a first thought – perhaps what Ms. Johnson is suggesting isn’t really that radical at all. What she’s suggesting is a starting point for someone who wants to wake up in this new world. It’s where Joanna Macy begins as well. The bigger question may be, where do you go once you’ve taken the grief on board – how do you find the will to move, and how do you pick your direction? This is where doing deep inner work around grief, shame and the Shadow come in.

Out of that work comes the beginning of non-attachment. To people who conflate it with detachment, I explain that non-attachment is what allows me to confront the big issues directly, to engage fully but not be paralysed by emotion. It’s not an abdication of feeling, but a way of seeing the world around me with complete clarity and doing what the world needs, rather than being selfish and getting mired in my own suffering.

Sometimes that helps people understand, but for a lot of activists it’s still a step too far. They are still focused on their own suffering, and in order to validate their response they have defined that suffering as a virtue. It’s not, it’s a trap. Non-attachment is the most functional way out that I’ve discovered so far.

What are the elements of non-attachment that might be applied to coping with the knowledge of the inevitable collapse of organized society amidst the chaos of economic collapse and runaway climate change? What makes sense to gaze at, and what should we, for our own sanity, leave unseen? How can we be, and act, in a fully engaged, joyful, curious, productive, useful-to-others way, without becoming either “detached” (emotionally disconnected or inured) or exhausted? Here are some of my early thoughts on this:

1. We cannot, must not, prescribe one “right” behaviour or approach for everyone. We are all different, and the best way for each of us to cope will be different. What’s important is to patiently wait for those we care about to realize what is ahead, and then support them to find their own way to cope with it productively.

2. I think it could help to develop, working with climate scientists and enlightened (non-classical) economists and energy analysts and artists and musicians and film-makers, a set of nuanced, candid, non-idealized, non-sensationalized visions or stories of what our world in collapse will look like, by 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050, and then, as Trebbe might put it, to “gaze” at them. These stories would be based on data, and on an appreciation of history of how people behave in an accelerating (but not relentless) series of cascading crises where there is no scapegoat, no one to blame, where everyone is largely in the same boat. These stories would be focused on what collapse will mean for the day-to-day lives of people living in cities, towns, the country, in nations at different levels of “development”. My guess is that for most of the world, in the already-struggling nations and places, life will not be much different, except that the death rate (mostly from disease and malnutrition) will be somewhat higher and the birth rate much lower. We have a lot to learn, I think, from people in the third world, in impoverished cities, and in the streets, who are already living with collapse. The image below shows in red/purple/white areas that, due to climate change-induced chronic drought, will be largely uninhabitable within a few decades, so our stories for them, billions of people, would likely be stories of migration. The stories would be varied, and stark, and, perhaps to our surprise, inspiring and astonishing.

Map of serious chronic drought areas, per research simulations by UCAR/NCAR, an agency of the National Science Foundation. This map is forecasts for the 2060s, but is based on outdated climate change data, so it is likely to come true considerably earlier. Thanks to for the link.

3. Perhaps most importantly, we will all be better off, I think, if we were to learn non-attachment, empathy, presence, resilience, relocalisation, community building, and a host of other skills and capacities, technical and ‘soft’, so that we can tolerate the changes we will face to our way of living and the very foolish actions many (with the most to lose, in wealth or power) will inevitably try to do, unsuccessfully, to “control” the situation. We must expect the emergence of charismatic dictators, genocides, civil wars, geo-engineering, the burning of almost everything flammable for fuel and electricity, and cults, and deal with them the best we can without letting them unhinge us. We may be fortunate enough that as our centralized systems collapse, the resources for possible authoritarian atrocities will rapidly diminish, so the decline could be relatively peaceful, if not free of suffering or misery. We may well discover that crisis brings out the best in us, but should be prepared in case it brings out, in some, the worst. We may find that, with a sufficient voluntary decrease in birth rates (not an unlikely scenario), over the coming decades we might reach a human population level well below one billion without a dramatic increase in death rates, though we should be prepared for a rising death toll and what it may do to our collective psyches. In all of this, non-attachment and presence can enable us to live, even through these crises, lives of love and joy and appreciation for the miracle of life.

A final thought, and one that perhaps is the most unimaginable of all for those of us brought up to believe the way we live now is the only way to live. What’s on the right side of the normal curve, after collapse, isn’t another growth cycle. It’s the proverbial long tail. We may become an endangered species by century’s end, but we’re unlikely to become extinct for several millennia after that — just increasingly few in numbers and increasingly irrelevant to the ecosystems and recovery of the planet from yet another great extinction. Without vast amounts of cheap energy to power technology, we’re just not going to be very well adapted to post 21st-century Earth. Just as we don’t notice the 200 species going extinct every day, I doubt that the species that thrive after the great extinction will notice the death of the last of the species that once believed it could rule the Earth forever.

Thanks to Tree for the link to the Orion article, to the authors of the articles/videos cited above, to Sue Bullock for the link to Kill the Economy, to John Duffy for the link to the Grist video, and to Paul Chefurka for the ideas prompting this article.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.