Archive for the 'collapse' Category

Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging

By David Parkinson

Warp and weft working at cross purposes to bring about a higher-level order.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.
(Julian Assange, 2007)

We’re into the time of year when the year’s-best lists come out and we all engage in acts of reflection on the past year and preparation for the coming year in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t really think that I’m rested and distanced enough to have anything useful to say about the reflection part — except to say that the last month and a half of 2010 was a pretty riotous time, what with our community radio station suddenly kicking it up about twenty-three notches of activity. As I have told a few people, in the four years and a bit since we arrived in Powell River I have not seen such an outpouring of positive energy and creativity. I think that CJMP FM is going to be a game-changer for the region, and 2011 will be the year when we get to see what that might mean. If you’re in the region and have always harboured thoughts of being involved with community radio, check out the website and find a way to be part of this effort.

But that’s getting us into preparation for the coming year. What does 2011 hold in store? I don’t consider myself much of a prognosticator, but it feels as though 2011 will see even more failures among the institutions which make up the world we think we live in. 2010 saw the Deepwater Horizon spill, massive bank fraud, Wikileaks’ revelations shedding light on dark corners of the world of diplomacy and war, and a hundred other occasions to feel unhappy about having to continue relying on huge unaccountable opaque organizations with hidden agendas.

It takes a long time for faith to wear away. But we seem to be in the early stages of a widespread crisis of faith in all of these institutions. Fewer people affiliate themselves with the traditional political parties; fewer people vote; fewer people believe that government can — or even cares to — solve the problems they face. Closer to home, the gap between the public will and the intentions of our municipal government appears to grow wider and wider; we’ll have a chance to see how wide that gap is when we come to the municipal election in November 2011.

But it’s dangerous for people to lose faith in traditional authority without having something else to switch their allegiance to. This really worries me. People with nothing to believe in and governments and other authorities with no mandate to serve the population are a deadly combination. Once you get to that point you get irrational and dangerous populist movements contending with the arbitrary exercise of unaccountable power in the service of insane and obsolete ends. We can expect useful solutions from neither faction, only a hardening of their positions.

Meanwhile, prices will continue to rise and jobs will become scarcer. Social programs will dwindle and disappear (in the name of austerity) while corporate profits will continue to be skimmed for the benefit of those needing the least. Eventually, when there is nothing left to rob the government will declare a new golden age of personal responsibility. And we’ll be on our own.

I wish I had more reason to think that the irrationalism sweeping through society will burn itself out before things become desperate. But I think that this gigantic machine is just going to shake itself into pieces and there’s very little we can do to stop it. It’s simply too enormous and our points of access into it are tiny and closing fast. Closing our eyes and refusing to make sensible preparations are no longer acceptable. Personal responsibility might be being thrust upon us once again, after a few decades of glorious irresponsibility. This will be a tough transition, but I really see many reasons for optimism out there (and I hope that this blog conveys a sense of that, despite the occasional dips into the gloom).

I don’t believe that the collapse of major institutions means that the world will come to an end. The weakening of extremist anti-democratic corporate power is nothing to mourn. We should welcome an increase in skepticism and the creation of citizen-led organizations, collectives, cooperatives, tribes, and freewheeling gangs of troublemakers (the good kind). We need to seize the commons back from those who stole and plundered them, so that we can create our own institutions that serve human ends — as we define them in our territory, for our wants and needs, in the service of regenerating the natural world which is the only source of wealth.

Which is all well and good, if a bit grandiose. What to do? Where do we start? What could we do in the next year which would get us closer to a sane world close to home?

Obviously, I don’t have answers to questions this profound. (Although if you do, dear reader, feel free to put them in the comments to this post.) My only real answer is that — if we believe that nothing short of a full-on systemic overhaul is going to do the trick — we need to begin by opening up spaces where collective action will flourish.

Last week at the monthly Kale Force potluck, Ron Berezan talked about Cuba’s transition to organic agriculture in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. What the Cubans accomplished with a high degree of social solidarity and minimal physical infrastructure, we will need to accomplish with a low degree of social solidarity and huge amounts of physical infrastructure. I suspect that the Cubans got the better deal: it’s easier to improvise machinery and tools out of whatever comes to hand than it is to create strong social networks of mutual support and compassion out of a deliberately stupefied and disaffiliated population.

We need to shift from excessive and wasteful private ownership and control of land, tools, vehicles, and other resources to social arrangements reposing on trust and mutual obligation that allow us to share and work together more efficiently. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but until now the systems that favour privatization and individual action have been extremely strong and supported by legal, social, and cultural underpinnings which are only now weakening under attack by internal stresses which can no longer be kept under control: resource depletion, notably the end of cheap petrochemicals; an economy founded on greed and ignorance of natural limits on human action; and the devastation of the natural world.

We who live along this short stretch of the endless coastline of a huge landmass, who find ourselves here because of accidents of geography and history, face impending challenges which are fundamentally the same as many other local populations: how to live within the limits of what the earth, water, and air provide; how to govern ourselves so that these resources are divided equitably; how to work, play, and celebrate together to reduce needless suffering and increase happiness as much as mortal life will allow. To pitch things at such a high level is to make consensus seem deceptively simple; after all, who would not agree that these goals are important ones? The problem comes in moving from extremely vague motherhood statements to the bricks-and-mortar implementation. And here we hit some snags. In the next post I want to talk about one of these roadblocks; namely, what happens when we conceive of consensus as a state rather than a process. I’ll argue that there is a kind of fetishization of consensus that is actually blocking progress and will suggest a way we can unblock our efforts to generate more creative action.


On the margins of the margins

By David Parkinson

Water vapour in the air condenses into fine threads of ice along the surface of a log. How do the crystals know to align themselves to the log's diameter?

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
(Walt Whitman, 1855, from the preface to Leaves of Grass)

Yesterday evening I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Cranberry Community Hall Society, the non-profit organization which owns and manages the Cranberry Community Hall, formerly known as the Unitarian Hall.

I went as an interested observer, not being a resident of that odd little pocket of unconventionality hidden away from the straight line between Saltery Bay, Westview, Townsite, Wildwood, and points north. But as someone who has organized and attended many events at this community hall, I was curious to see what the Society’s plans were.

After disposing of the routine business of an Annual General Meeting, we had a discussion about what the membership would like to see done with the hall. And this was a conversation that was very interesting: almost everyone acknowledged the importance of having an asset like this community hall remain under the control of the people who benefit from it, with barriers to access kept as low as possible. Several people mentioned that we have lost too many of these resources over the past years and we need to work now to bring them back.

It’s still not a mainstream belief that we ought to be preserving these old community buildings and the institutions which own and care for them. I don’t think it’s on most people’s radar that we might be moving into a time when it will be important to live near a neighbourhood hall which could host daycare, art classes, a community kitchen, a library of tools and equipment, not to mention dances, live music, and celebrations of important occasions like births, weddings, and funerals. So many of these activities have been privatized over the last half-century and more that it looks like willful nostalgia to think that we could be doing all of it for ourselves, on a small scale, with limited financial resources — beyond ownership of a hall, of course — but unlimited volunteer labour and support from those who gain the most from the presence of a vibrant common space within walking distance.

Also, there is a pervasive mindset out there, which the coming years will do the hard work of dispelling, that the first solution to every problem is something along the lines of: go find a big pot of funding; hire consultants to put together a study to tell us what we already knew; pay top dollar for the biggest slickest state-of-the-art-est multi-use community complex; and fill it full of well-paid professional service providers. It’s just not sexy enough to slog through the grime and try to retrofit something old and worn-down. I just think we’re coming close to the end of the easy money and were going to have to make do or do without.

I have read enough in the world of peak-oil preparedness, Transition, and food security to know that the creation of collectively-owned and -managed resources like this is one of the main prescriptions for any community which aims to create a soft — or less hard — landing for people who are already starting to feel the pinch from the rising cost of everything paired with stagnant or falling pay (not to mention the deliberate systematic gutting of the social safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility). In his weekly post, James Howard Kunstler, the trickster fool of the collapse scene, writes:

If you want something like gainful employment in the years ahead, don’t rely on the corporations, the government, or anyone with a work station equipped cubicle. Start reading up on gardening and harness repair. Learn how to fix a pair of shoes. Volunteer for EMT duty if you’re already out of a paycheck, and learn how to comfort people in medical distress. Jobs of the future will be hands-on and direct.

And the paths in and through this new rickety economy are going to be good old-fashioned involvement: immersing oneself in the real active life of the community, as close to home and as close to free as can be managed.

(This involvement take place in a double obscurity: most people in the mainstream don’t see any need for special measures to create more resilient communities; and even those who are savvy to this sort of thing don’t see that this work is not always about shiny new projects with an explicit commitment to carbon reduction or local food or what-have-you. These are the margins of the margins for the time being, but probably not for too much longer, as more people realize that we can build amazing things out of the débris of the past.)

What really struck me about the meeting last night was how organic and basic it was. (Also the high amount of crossover between this group and the new crop of active volunteers at CJMP FM.) This was no project with funds casting around for a purpose; no effort led by ‘experts’ looking to ‘create opportunities for key stakeholders to envision a common future’ or some such bureaucratese; and it was not a meeting of the usual enviro-savvy types out to save the planet. Just a gathering of folks out of the neighbourhood and a few from other far-flung parts of the region, doing the boring unglamorous work of preserving a community asset that many may have forgotten even exists. We’re supposed to think of this work as ‘charming’ or ‘quixotic’, in opposition to the hard-nosed reality emanating from the think-tanks and consultancies or the various recipes out there for saving the world. I just can’t see anything of true and lasting value coming from these high-priced sources; as we move into a time of extreme relocalization we’re just going to have to do what we can to stay abreast of the changes coming at us, and there will never be enough experts and one-size-fits-all solutions to make sense on the local scale.

I am pretty sure that the real meaningful changes that happen as the result of people working together will come from the out-of-the-way easily-overlooked places. We live in a time thronging with well-funded and well-intentioned projects to prepare the way for a shiny new future of low-carbon emissions, ecovillages, local currencies, and so on. And usually what these visionary programs omit is what we saw and engaged in last night: getting together in small groups, working to preserve what we already have, taking tiny steps, making simple achievable goals to build from where we are, with no real overarching goal except to hold open a space for community to flow into. A very humble process.

These are the margins. Out on the edge where the population is dispersed and odd notions proliferate. A zone of experimentation where things self-organize or die. The place no one looks for the answers, because the questions lead to where the money, power, and prestige are held. The last stronghold of romantics, fools, and the connoisseurs of hope, who can tell the real thing from the barbarized version dished out by charlatans. The realm of dissensus and the breeding-ground of our failures which teach us more than their successes. Sometimes disguised as a meeting to preserve a community hall.


Regular readers — if such even exist — may have noticed that my posting schedule seems erratic lately. In fact, I am on an eight-day rotation because I feel I should visit the days of the week with impartiality. This way I can always post a day late and still be on time.

Lower your sights, yeah, but raise your aim

By David Parkinson

A late rose, blossoming despite the cold weather.

Last night I attended Murray Dobbin‘s lecture at Vancouver Island University here in Powell River. The title of Murray’s talk was “Globalization, Local Food, and Powell River”, and most of it was about globalization: where it came from, what its intended effects were, and what it has accomplished (if that’s the right term) since the mid-70s when the whole idea began to take shape among western elites.

Since Murray has spent a good part of his career as a journalist and activist examining globalization, there was a lot of information packed into his presentation, and I won’t try to do it justice here. But one thing he said struck me very strongly: referring to the neoliberal project of stripping away social programs and redirecting government revenues away from the general population and towards corporations and their wealthy owner class, Murray pointed to polling research that shows how resilient Canadians’ values have remained throughout this retrograde thirty-five-year project. Our support for social democratic programs like unemployment insurance, Medicare, and government-guaranteed old-age pensions has remained high during the years in which these programs have been under attack by a series of governments both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’; at the same time, what has changed is our sense of whether or not the government can achieve these things.

The takeaway is that it is far easier to diminish or destroy people’s sense of the possible than their sense of the desirable. We cling fiercely to our vision of the world we want to live in, not surrendering our hopes even when everything everywhere tells us that it is unreasonable and impossible.

No wonder, then, that people put into such situations have typically fled to religion, since it offers a way of reconciling our vision of the world as it could be with the shortcomings of the world as it is — or as it is made to be by malevolent social forces. With the disenchanting of the world and increasing social isolation, the refuge of choice for the western world has been the consumerist lifestyle, which only ends up strengthening the forces deforming the world and making it intolerable: a classic positive feedback loop which is now tighter than ever.

But underneath it all — even among a population that seems disaffected, alienated, tuned-out — the desire for community, solidarity, and shared purpose persists, submerged but not eradicated. The French Situationists had an evocative phrase to express this powerful urge for liberty and beauty in everyday life: Sous les pavés la plage (“Beneath the paving stones, the beach”). We have been given a paved world — worse, we have been made complicit in paving the world — but nothing can destroy our sense of a world lurking just below the harsh man-made surface. For the moment, we don’t know how to dig for it, but we know it’s there, waiting…

How can we narrow the gap between our aspirations and what we are told is possible? Many of us feel trapped in a world of such complexity that we can never see a way to make our mark, to connect and create something with others, and to change the things that threaten the integrity of our lives as individuals and as members of a community. Everything is all so huge, interconnected, and obscured with jargon and specialized knowledge that we’re lucky if we can carve out any small section and make sense of it. Another good reason for retreating from engagement into an unsatisfying but controllable mini-world of superficial pleasures.

Those of us lucky to be living in a country like Canada have been raised on the belief, drummed into us from an early age, that we all have what it takes to make a mark on the world. Our job was to find our special gift, apply it, work hard, and persist; then with some luck our efforts would be rewarded. It feels now as though this sense of future possibility is draining away, and quickly: we worry that the generation of young people now coming up will fall short of their parents in health, wealth, longevity, satisfaction, and security. Unless we pull off some kind of societal reboot, we are at or past the cusp of the curve of social progress and starting the downward slide. Imagine how it must feel to be a young person who realizes this: our secular culture has rarely had to contend with the idea of the end of progress, but decline may become the backdrop of all our planning and action from this point forward — unless we manage to tackle the multiple serious challenges ahead of us. The steps our governments and large social institutions are taking in this direction so far are way too little, way too late, and it’s hard not to feel that we’re on our own for now.

Stoneleigh, one of the commentators at the rambling collage of symptoms known as The Automatic Earth, has this to say in a recent post about the decline of trust in our culture:

Over time institutions become sclerotic, unresponsive, self-serving and hostage to vested interests, at which point they cannot be reformed, as the reform would have to come from those entrenched individuals who have benefited most from the status quo. Institutions become demonstrably less effective, while consuming more and more of society’s resources. Corruption, abuses of power, lack of accountability and the loss of the rule of law become increasingly evident, exactly as we have seen with unauthorized wire-tapping, extra-ordinary rendition and many other actions undermining the open society. Once this happens, trust is living on borrowed time. That is very clearly the case in many developed societies today.

I can’t put it better than that. A more conservative mindset will look at the same set of facts that Stoneleigh is looking at and see some bugs in the code, minor hiccups, a periodic readjustment, but nothing on the scale of a social realignment. Nothing we can’t get out of by doing more of the same, only slightly different. Only time will show which outlook is the wiser: the one which says that many of our systems are reaching the breaking point; or the one which says to hang on, hunker down, and weather the storm, because we’ll soon be back to normal.

One thing is certain, as far as I’m concerned: the combination of a generalized decline in trust with a repressed but uneradicated desire for genuine social connection and a meaningful and decent culture is going to produce some real turbulence. (And this might be as much productive and positive as it will be negative.)

Since the beginning of the neoliberal era, we have been under orders to sit tight and wait for the dividends trickling down from the project of cutting social spending and rewarding the class of owners. These dividends never did show up for the majority; and as time goes on, more and more people see that they were swindled (if they don’t always see by whom). Worse, they fear that the next generations coming up are going to have it worse than they will. Trust is dying, and we don’t know what will take its place.

Stoneleigh continues:

Working within the trust horizon is important, as it means individual small-scale initiatives can benefit from the same kind of social support at a local level that larger-scale ones once did at a societal level, when trust was more broadly inclusive. Local currencies work for exactly this reason. While the task will still be difficult, it has a chance of being achievable, especially where the necessary relationships of trust have been established before hard times set in. It is very much more difficult to build such relationships after the fact, but relationships built beforehand may actually strengthen when put to the test.

Trying to maintain a positive and constructive focus at the local level, where trust has a chance to survive, and perhaps even thrive in hard times, and to avoid being drawn into a blame-game, will be an uphill battle. It is nevertheless something we need to do as a society, if we are to have a chance to preserve as much as possible of who we are through what is coming.

I think that Stoneleigh is dead-on here. We need to set our sights on simpler things, to draw in the radius of our world and build trust within arm’s reach as it evaporates at higher levels. People who lose faith in the social contract (because our supposed leaders have torn it up), but whose belief in a decent society remains undiminished, will be casting about for reasons to re-engage and find meaning and connection. We see the early shoots of this new meaning in the many small amateur efforts around us, many of which revolve around our food sources.

The outline of the next few years is vague. There is a dim sense that things are breaking down; maybe not completely, but to an extent that makes it hard to know how to plan, what to expect. Uncertainty can lead to fear, but it can also be liberating. When the social systems we thought were unavoidable turn out to be flimsy and short-lived after all, we are freed to experiment with new ways of configuring our own lives and of organizing our social relations. Someday we may look back on the present moment and trace the lineages of the new structures that emerged — small, hesitant, and hidden at first — from the old ones deliberately and maliciously pulled apart by those we thought were looking out for us.

The Situationists had another slogan which is relevant here: Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible! (“Be realistic, demand the impossible!”). This is good advice as we begin to learn that the so-called impossible might be possible after all — possible and desirable to us even though undesirable to those who no longer deserve our trust.


I’ve decided to change my regular weekly posting day to Tuesday. Mondays belong to James Howard Kunstler; and Mondays are often holidays when it’s harder to get a post together. As always, I welcome a co-conspirator here, so if you relish the opportunity to blog about matters of interest to our little corner of the world, please get in touch with me.

Monks and missionaries

By David Parkinson

Yarrow flowers in a summertime rain shower.

Yarrow flowers in a summertime rain shower.

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and and utterly vast spaces between us.
(Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p. 197)

A number of things I’ve read recently have made me focus more than is usual on how public discourse works — and more frequently doesn’t work — to open a space for honest conversation about where we are, how we got here, and what choices lie ahead of us. The latest epicentre of this is a fascinating conversation between Sharon Astyk and Rob Hopkins, with — the internet being what it is, a big sprawling free-for-all where everyone’s contribution is welcome and recorded for posterity — plenty of contributions and comments from kibitzers. The whole thing got started when Astyk posted a two-part post about permaculture, the Transition movement, and some of her concerns about the aspects of these two social movements which make them unlikely to connect with the mainstream population (part one here; part two here). Hopkins replied with a very civil post, and as of this writing there have been 72 comments to Hopkins’ reply. My guess is this conversation will reverberate around one tiny corner of the blogosphere for a little while, since it touches on some pretty important themes.

I won’t got through the whole she-said and he-said of it all. Anyone interested in Transition or permaculture, and particularly in the task of bringing these promising but (let’s face it) fringe movements more into the public sphere, should read the three posts. Many of the comments are also worth looking at, if only to give a lively sense of what some of the people are thinking who concern themselves with resource depletion, climate change, generalized economic uncertainty, and the real possibility of social decline or collapse (slow or not-so-slow).

The conversation between Astyk and Hopkins and the wider one among the members of the peak oil community has many threads, but the one I want to pull out here is: how can we be most effective at communicating the need to change, and how can we start making the change happen? (Or do we even bother?)

Viewed from one angle, the conversation boils down to a debate between two camps:

  • one which feels that collapse is so imminent, will be so drastic, and the general public will be so slow to adapt to changing circumstances, that the most effective response is to retreat and work on solutions for rescuing one’s own self or family;
  • one which believes either that the prognosis is not so dire, or that it is dire but that the most effective response is to engage the whole community.

Members of the first camp are sometimes referred to as ‘doomers’ or ‘survivalists’. (Some refer to themselves this way, so it is not a completely pejorative label.) There seems to be no agreed-on name for members of the second camp, but this is where Sharon Astyk, Rob Hopkins, and most if not all people in the Transition movement are to be found. Transition is very explicitly devoted to the idea that the resource scarcities and the economic upheaval which are expected to come with the end of cheap oil call for a coordinated response involving all parts of the community, from individuals up through families, neighbourhoods, organizations, businesses, on up to local governments (and maybe further). And it is devoted to the idea that this can work, even in the face of public ignorance, denial, or indecision.

A very important conversation lies in the tension between these two poles and in the subtle shadings of belief that lie in between them. Once we accept that peak oil is real, once we take climate change seriously, once we start to connect the dots and see how our actions contribute to the problems and can instead contribute to solutions, then we start to think about what action we can best take. And the two poles can be seen as corresponding to two strains in religious engagement with the larger community; hence the title of this post. Simplifying considerably, monks seek the salvation of the world through retreat and strict observance of religious dictates, and missionaries seek to save the world by direct and forceful recruitment of the whole community.

I see this dichotomy over and over in discussions of permaculture, Transition, and in many other little pockets of countercultural discussion on the internet and in the real world: one side wants to save themselves, pull the ladder up after them, and let the world go to hell. The other side wants to save everything, be fully inclusive, and let none be saved if all be not saved. And like all arguments which are based on very personal and primal views of human nature, there is really no resolution. Much heat, little light.

And it might sound academic, but much depends on having a clear understanding of what is at stake. Some prominent thinkers in the peak oil community believe that a social and economic collapse could happen quickly. If that turns out to be the case, what is the best course of action?

  • Do we retreat to small-scale action at the individual or neighbourhood level and take resources away from public education and recruitment? This might result in tangible solutions in a short period of time, but at the cost of a rip in the social fabric, with some people in the vanguard and others left behind. The risk is that this will worsen existing social unrest and create conflict within the community, endangering any progress made and (in the worst case) leading to survivalist enclaves and so on.
  • Or do we put our resources towards engagement in the community, the laborious process of dialogue, discussion, and consensus, before we feel we can head in any one direction? This might unite the community (accent on might), but at the cost of losing precious time when those who are ready to act are able to act. The worst case is that we spend our days and nights in conversation while the world falls apart around us.

Right about now, if you’re thinking that I shouldn’t even be talking in this way, then you’re experiencing another one of the roadblocks in our way. These are difficult and painful subjects to contemplate. We have made it difficult — socially unacceptable — to talk openly about the crises we face. To do so is to be a downer, to be the ghost at the wedding, the first grey hair that whispers of mortality.

If Transition is going to work, then we need to break through this conspiracy of silence. It’s daunting to think about making headway against such entrenched social norms. As far as I can see, most people out there are blissfully unaware of the seriousness of our situation. Who wants to be the bearer of bad news? When I consider what we’re up against with the local Transition effort — when I consider that a post of mine in praise of bicycles is interpreted as an attempt to make car-owners feel guilty — when I contemplate the degree and all-pervasiveness of denial and willed ignorance that we have made the hallmark of advanced industrial civilization — I can see the appeal of the monk’s position.

And yet that doesn’t sit right. I welcome the opportunity for us to change the equation, to see if we can’t creatively and compassionately open up a space in the region for a genuine and honest discussion of what is really happening. Too often we defer to those among us who are the least able to handle difficult or unhappy thoughts, but I suspect that we are coming into a strange new time when this deference will no longer be in our interest, and that we will acknowledge this to be the case. We may find ourselves having to deal with some tough realities, and no one’s interests are well served by pussyfooting around the truth and pulling punches.

It won’t be easy to change the public discourse. Next to that, the prospect of ensuring an adequate local supply of food, water, affordable housing, meaningful jobs, etc. in an age of declining fossil fuels looks like a walk in the park.

Thomas Homer-Dixon on panarchy

By David Parkinson

Podcasts are wonderful!! In our house, there are a bunch we subscribe to and listen to whenever they come out: one for news (Democracy Now); one for media criticism (Counterspin); a few for general shits-n-giggles; and a couple that cover collapse, spirituality, and consciousness. Of those last ones, the two we like best are The Psychedelic Salon and The C-Realm Podcast.

The C-Realm Podcast is hosted by a guy who calls himself ‘KMO’, and he covers a pretty broad range of topics, focusing on petrocollapse, relocalization, psychedelics and unconventional states of consciousness, and the technological singularity.

It’s really worth digging through the C-Realm archives to check out the conversations KMO has had with such important thinkers as Ran Prieur, Sharon Astyk, John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, James Howard Kunstler, Albert Bates, Catherine Austin Fitts, and many others. It’s one of the most amazing archives of real news and real thinking in the world today.

On a recent podcast, KMO’s guest was Thomas Homer-Dixon, who spent much of the time talking about his adaptation of the theories of Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling, who has developed a theory of how complex systems evolve over time. I don’t want to give all the details here; you should go find the podcast, settle down with a nice cup of tea or something stronger, and spend some time listening to KMO’s conversation with Thomas Homer-Dixon — which really turns out to be KMO asking four or five questions and Homer-Dixon giving extremely long and detailed answers, something you will never find in the commercial media, no matter how well-intentioned they are (and they rarely are).

If you’re more of a print person, you might find this short piece from WorldWatch online to be more your style. It’s an adaptation of some material from Homer-Dixon’s 2006 book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Here is an excerpt from the article, in which Homer-Dixon is talking with Buzz Holling:

“Why do you feel the world is verging on some kind of systemic crisis?”

“There are three reasons,” he answered. “First, over the years my understanding of the adaptive cycle has improved, and I’ve also come to better understand how multiple adaptive cycles can be nested together-from small to large-to create a panarchy. I now believe that this theory tells us something quite general about the way complex systems, not just ecological systems, change over time. And collapse is usually part of the story.

“Second, I think rapidly rising connectivity within global systems-both economic and technological-increases the risk of deep collapse. That’s a collapse that cascades across adaptive cycles-a kind of pancaking implosion of the entire system as higher-level adaptive cycles collapse, which causes progressive collapse at lower levels.”

“A bit like the implosion of the World Trade Center towers,” I offered, “where the weight of the upper floors smashed through the lower floors like a pile driver.”

“Yes, but in a highly connected panarchy, the collapse doesn’t have to start at the top. It can be triggered at the microlevel or the macrolevel or somewhere in between. It’s the tight interlinking of the adaptive cycles across the whole system-from the individual right up to the level of the global economy and even Earth’s biosphere-that’s particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood that many of the cycles will become synchronized and peak together. And if this happens, they’ll reinforce each other’s collapse.”

“The third reason,” he continued, “is the rise of mega-terrorism-the increasing risk of attacks that will kill huge numbers of people and produce major disruptions in world systems. I’m not sure why megaterrorism has become more likely now. I suppose it’s partly a result of technological changes and the rise of particularly virulent kinds of fundamentalism. But I do know that in a tightly connected world where vulnerabilities are aligned, such attacks could trigger deep collapse-and that’s particularly worrisome.

“This is a moment of great volatility and instability in the world system. We need urgently to do what we can to avoid deep collapse. We also need to figure out how to exploit the opportunity provided by crisis and collapse when they occur, because some kind of systemic breakdown is now almost certain.”

And then Homer-Dixon askes:

Can we get through this transition wisely and safely? Not if we refuse to understand its implications and simply continue what we’re doing now. In Buzz Holling’s terms, we’re busily extending the growth phase of the adaptive cycle of our planetary economic, ecological, and social system. In the process, this planetary system is becoming steadily more complex, connected, efficient, and regulated. Eventually it will become less resilient; it may, in fact, have already started to lose resilience.

Obviously, there is very little that we can do as individuals to restore resilience to the tightly-intertwined global systems which are now beginning to fall apart. We can restore resilience on the local level, though, and some of this is starting to happen very naturally and on a small scale, distributed throughout the community; unfunded, underfunded, shoestring, half-assed efforts to get little projects underway.

And meanwhile, the reigning mindset of big glossy top-down expensive ‘community development’ trundles along, unaware that its moment in history is trickling away.

Post facto

May 2018
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