“Courage in Dark Times” was originally posted on March 12, 2018, on the “Angle of Vision: Reflections on nature, culture, inner life,” blog by Michael Lerner and was republished by the Health and Environmental Funders Network.
Michael is president and co-founder of Commonweal and the Jennifer Altman Foundation. He is co-founder of OMEGA, an initiative of the Jennifer Altman Foundation and other funder colleagues. He is also co-founder and chair emeritus of the Health and Environmental Funders Network.
What does the future look like? We cannot know.
To the best of our knowledge, humanity faces an unprecedented global crisis. The prospects for social, environmental and economic collapse, degradation, and transformation are unmistakable.
I do not preclude some miraculous way out of this dilemma—a non-polluting safe energy source, a transformation of human consciousness, a global commitment to sharing resources, an ethic of providing food and shelter for all, an end to tribalisms, a deep acceptance of diversity, a commitment to ending population growth, green chemistry, control of technologies, and more. But the probability of whatever combined miracles we would need is rather low.
There are, it is true, signs of hope. There are global improvements in public health and education, and reductions in extreme poverty. There is global awareness of climate change and global efforts to combat it. There are global movements toward environmental protection, democratic norms, human rights, women’s rights, the rights of other disenfranchised communities, and other important causes. New technologies also bring gains as well as dangers. There are also techno-optimists and those like Harvard’s Stephen Pinker who argue these are the best of times.
But climate change, extreme weather events, disparities of wealth, refugee populations, toxic contaminants, diminishing fresh water supplies, erosion of arable lands, depletion of fish stocks, and other troubling trends continue to accelerate. The overall direction of humanity and the resilience of the earth’s natural systems increases our concern with degradation, transformation, and collapse scenarios.
This working paper, in continuing evolution, is my effort to find the path to courage in the face of prospects for global and regional collapse and resilience in the near future.
Prospects for Global Collapse
The Fan Initiative: One of the best recent summaries of collapse scenarios is to be found on the website for the Fan Initiative, especially the page summarizing 12 key challenges. The Fan challenges include: climate, economy, energy, soils, oceans, toxification, governance, behavior, water, biodiversity, population and health.
Excerpts of the specifics:
- Climate: 45% atmospheric CO2 increase since 1950.
- Economy: Physically impossible growth continuation model. Debt=325% Of global GDP (at least).
- Energy: Cheap to extract fossil fuel decline. 65% of oil-producing countries peaked.
- Soils: Topsoil loss, depletion, salinization. Approx. 60 crop years left. Oceans: Acidification, oxygen loss, change of currents, warming,
- Overfishing: Dead zones, 40% decrease in plankton.
- Toxification: Synthetic chemicals, nanomaterials, heavy metals. 100% of biosphere contaminated.
- Governance: Diminishing returns on democracy, failed states. 90% of institutions from bygone era.
- Behavior: Human brain adapted for small societies, slow changes in environment. 99% of our history in small tribes.
- Biodiversity: Extinction rate 1000 times faster than normal. Pace exceeds any previous die-offs.
- Population: Carrying capacity overshoot. 90 million added annually.
- Health: Pandemic chronic diseases, potential for exotic epidemic.
Pete Myers, co-founder of The Fan, wrote me this note:
If we are not ready with ideas for rebuilding according to a new suite of operating principles for society, we will miss the great opportunity that collapse presents us. Only in times of crisis, real or perceived, do we have the chance to move away from the system’s design characteristics that landed us here in the first place (private correspondence 3-11-18).
What distinguishes the Fan list is its choice of “blades” and its capsule summaries of the core challenges of each blade. The Fan list is also distinguished by its focus on the interaction among blades. The Fan list does not presently include technology. Nor does it specifically address potentially self-replicating technologies, including biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics, whose dangers Bill Joy addressed in his classic 2000 WIRED article “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Today we would add Artificial Intelligence to Bill Joy’s list.
It would be useful to develop a historical line of lists of existential threats. E.O. Wilson provided a classic list early with the acronym HIPPO for the tragedy of biodiversity loss:
In order of magnitude of impact on biodiversity, the acronym HIPPO represents: Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, human over-Population, Overharvesting by hunting and fishing. Climate change is definitely a very big H.
Note how relatively brief E.O. Wilson’s list is compared to the Fan list or the Stockholm Resilience Center list, below.
The Stockholm Resilience Center has a beautiful map of global challenges. Note that these are all biological challenges and do not include the human challenges included in the Fan list. “The nine planetary boundaries are climate change, stratospheric ozone, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, biodiversity loss, land use change, and freshwater use. According to scientists, three of them—climate change, nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss—have already been transgressed. Several others are in the danger zone.”
The Post Carbon Institute (postcarbon.org and resilience.org) offers deep insights from Richard Heinberg and others. PCI was one of the lead “peak oil” theory centers. On March 6, 2018, Heinberg published an elegant revision of his earlier appraisals:
Well, I’m amazed and impressed. Tight oil production has pushed total United States petroleum output to more than 10 million barrels a day, a rate last seen almost a half-century ago. It’s a new U.S. record. Fifteen years ago I was traveling the world with a Powerpoint presentation featuring a graph of U.S. oil production history. That graph showed a clear peak in 1970 and a long bumpy decline thereafter. My message: as went the U.S., so would go the world at some point in the fairly near future. Peak oil—the inevitable moment when global oil supplies started drying up—would be a watershed for industrial societies, leading to economic contraction, geopolitical crisis, and social upheaval. So is it time for a retraction? The optics are certainly unfavorable for peak oil theorists like me. Our forecasts obviously failed, in that none of us expected the current surge in U.S. output. But permit me to offer some context.
PCI has a new website, with a broader focus on resilience. Heinberg offers an incisive set of 22 short lectures on energy, ecology, economy, and equity for citizens and community leaders with a focus on systems thinking. PCI is a superb resource, led by Ash Miller.
I will argue in this paper that resilience may be the meme that offers some kind of hope in the face of the high probability of global systems collapse. I believe hope is an essential psychological ingredient as we face this dark future.
But Rick Ingrasci usefully disputes my preference for resilience as the best available meme, and we should hold his questions for future consideration:
I’m not sure that resilience is the correct framing of the collapse questions. E.g., Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, has also written Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. It’s about how to thrive in an uncertain world. “Antifragile” is that category of things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shock and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better (private correspondence 3-12-18—see further discussion of resilience below).
My response to Ingrasci is that we need evocative and powerful memes. Resilience is more powerful as a word than sustainability ever was. It is more powerful than “antifragile.” My own instinct would be to recognize different meanings of the word resilient, including the important category of antifragile under the broader use of the term resilient. By contrast, I would keep a careful scientific and philosophical use of resilience as Ingrasci and Ted Schettler (below) propose.
Another approach to finding meaning in the face of dark times is The Dark Mountain Project. Originating in the United Kingdom, The Dark Mountain Project is a fascinating group of artists and writers who have “stopped believing in the stories our civilization tells about itself.” Their special virtue is that they accept what is happening and face it directly. Their manifesto begins:
Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives? So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow as if all the things we rely on and don’t think about too carefully will still be there. When the pattern is broken, by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric, many of those activities become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives.
What war correspondents and relief workers report is not only the fragility of the fabric, but the speed with which it can unravel. As we write this, no one can say with certainty where the unravelling of the financial and commercial fabric of our economies will end. Meanwhile, beyond the cities, unchecked industrial exploitation frays the material basis of life in many parts of the world, and pulls at the ecological systems which sustain it.
Precarious as this moment may be, however, an awareness of the fragility of what we call civilisation is nothing new.
Limits to Growth and the Global Problematique
The global problematique is a term of art with useful connotations. It is more neutral than global crisis, global collapse, or limits to growth. It does recognize that that some important global trends are positive. At the same time, it contains all the dire scenarios.
A problematique is a graphical portrayal—a structural model—of relationships among members of a set of problems. It is a product of a group process whose design benefits from the writings of Aristotle, Abelard, Leibniz, DeMorgan, C.S. Peirce, and Harary. Contemporary scholars first conceived the idea of the problematique simply as a name for the array of problems confronting the world.
In 1970, a group of researchers affiliated with the Club of Rome introduced the concept of the global problematique.
The Club of Rome is one intellectual resource for studying the global problematique.
A group of researchers, in the context of the Club of Rome (CoR) prospectus on The Predicament of Mankind, proposed in the early 70s a very forward looking and innovative systems approach. The CoR prospectus introduced the concept of the Problematique as the “enormous problem” of the 20th Century. In 1993, twenty-three years after the conceptualization of the Problematique, a small team composed of three of the original architects of the CoR proposal employed the SDP paradigm to conduct a retrospective inquiry of the global Problematique. The findings from this inquiry demonstrate that no significant progress had been made in terms of resolving the root causes of the Problematique in the ensuing twenty-three years (1970-1993).
Limits to Growth, whose lead authors included Dana Meadows and Dennis Meadows, was also commissioned by the Club of Rome. This 1972 report took a systems theory approach. It proved deeply influential. Some 30 million copies sold in 30 languages. A 30-year follow-up was published in 2004. Ugo Bardi wrote Limits to Growth Revisited in 2011. Graham Turner’s “Is global collapse imminent” reached the same conclusion in 2014.
The special virtue of limits to growth as a meme is that it focuses our attention on the physical impossibility of sustaining the global growth economy. Paul Ehrlich was one of the originators of the formula I=PxCxT, or Impact = Population x Consumption x Technology. John Holdren recast the formula as I=PxAxT the 1970s, where A=Affluence. The formula generated an ongoing debate. Conservatives cast blame on population growth while progressives prefer to focus on consumption. The dramatic global growth in population and consumption remain at the heart of the growth economy and the global dilemma.
The Brundtland Commission was formed in 1983. The World Commission on the Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland Commission, issued its report, Our Common Future, in 1987, bringing the term “sustainable development” into common use. The Brundtland Commission essentially proposed a global bargain—the North would provide resources so the South could take a sustainable path toward development. This was a critical and deeply thought-out response to the global problematique. Had the world succeeded in striking and implementing this agreement, we would be in a better place. But the Earth Summit, as we will see, largely failed.
The Earth Summit. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development was convened in Rio de Janeiro. The Earth Summit was, broadly speaking, an effort to create a North-South partnership to achieve sustainability that the Brundtland Commission recommended. The Earth Summit had many valuable consequences but, in its principle objective, it failed. The Earth Summit has been followed by United Nations conferences examining sectoral issues including human rights (1993), population and development (1994), women (1995), social development (1995), human settlement (1996), food (1996) and more. Commonweal, our organization, participated actively in the Earth Summit and the follow-up conferences. The outcome must largely be judged a failure.
The Paris Climate Agreement was negotiated by 196 parties in 2015 and 172 have become party to it, a notable if very imperfect instrument. The agreement has survived U.S. efforts to torpedo it and has gained traction internationally. While it is far narrower than the other global problematique efforts outlined above, it deserves mention because of its significance.
Collapse, Degradation and/or Transformation
Collapse, degradation and/or transformation are not and will not be uniformly distributed around the world. Many organizations focus on silo issues—climate, financial systems, and the like. The Fan Initiative is, as we have said, “trigger agnostic” as to which of the interacting twelve “blades”of the Fan—and in what combination—might trigger collapse.
Numerous scientists have affirmed that we appear to be facing a collapse, including EO Wilson, Paul Ehrlich, and many others. There is a whole emergent scientific literature on the prospects for global multi-system collapse. The New York Times Book Review for December 31, 2017, was entitled End Times. The popular imagination is filled with such intuitions in dystopian films and television series. Yet the collective institutional response in virtually all major sectors is startlingly slight.
Several reasons to overlook the elephant in the room are apparent:
- It seems impossible to effect change in the global problematique. So most change-makers narrowly define what they seek to achieve.
- Facing the global problematique is not unlike facing death. Most people prefer to avoid thinking about it. Yet others do want to explore it.
- The human brain is not well designed to look at these problems and respond effectively.
- The potential collapse may swamp most sectoral strategies to achieve change. Acknowledging the potential collapse feels at odds with sectoral strategies.
- Partial solutions for addressing collapse are often unsavory on both sides of the political spectrum. No one wants to look at them.
Despite our aversion to looking at it, the potential coming collapse won’t go away. As these forces gather strength, the cost of avoiding looking at them gets higher. As they reach emergency proportions, the lack of preparation will seem, in retrospect, quite incredible.
Preparation: How Different Sectors Prepare for Collapse
In many parts of the world, people prepare for collapse (we will use this as shorthand for collapse, degradation and/or transformation) —either because it is already upon them or because it is so imminent.
Refugees: An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html
Refugees are forced to cope with collapse—forced to choose what they can carry, where they can go, what they can eat and drink, where they can find safety and shelter. Refugees are the canary in the mineshaft of global collapse. As they press against the borders of developed countries or even less developed countries, they show us the future for a growing proportion of humanity. Refugees are a major force in the rise of right-wing nationalisms around the world.
Working People vs. Elites: Throughout the industrialized world, a gap has opened up between elites and working people who feel economically and culturally left behind. Along with refugee pressures and the multicultural values of elites, much of the increase in primarily right-wing authoritarian regimes can be attributed to those who have ceased to believe that liberal democracy will rescue them.
Ultra-Wealthy: In the United States, the ultra-wealthy are preparing for collapse. As Bob Dylan sang in Thunder on the Mountain:
All the ladies in Washington are scrambling’ to get out of town/
Looks like something bad gonna happen better roll your airplane round.
The American ultra-wealthy are buying converted missile silos or land in New Zealand or making other similar plans. Many simply wealthy people are buying second homes with a view to their viability if and when things get tough or retrofitting their existing homes for resilience.
The Continuum in the U.S.: Survivalists to Preppers to Emergency Preparedness
One popular term in U.S. survivalist and prepper circles is TEOTWAWKI, the acronym for “the end of the world as we know it.” This acronym has three interesting features—it is a popular meme, it is crowd sourced, and it is “trigger agnostic” as to what will cause potential collapse.
Survivalism elicits very different emotional responses at different places on the political continuum. Survivalism is far more natural in conservative rural communities where families depend on deer season for meat and feel forgotten, disrespected, or actively betrayed by coastal elites. Survivalism is abhorred by progressive coastal elites. If we step back from emotional responses, we can see that survivalism, the prepper movement, and emergency preparedness are on a continuum of responses to the increasing tempo of disasters and the prospect of more to come.
Survivalism is a primarily American movement of individuals or groups (called survivalists or preppers) who are actively preparing for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international. Survivalists often acquire emergency medical and self-defense training, stockpile food and water, prepare to become self-sufficient, and build structures (e.g., survival retreats or underground shelters) that may help them survive a catastrophe (Wikipedia).
Survivalists are primarily right wing. But as concern for the global challenge has gone mainstream, the national and international media have begun to cover the “Prepper” movement. Preppers are generally far more mainstream than survivalists. Numerous prepper websites teach survival skills. Some incline to the right wing but others don’t.
The real connection to mainstream credibility is emergency preparedness. From California wildfires to Texas hurricanes to New England extreme weather, the whole country is experiencing the need for emergency preparedness at a very practical level. During the California fires, many people kept their cars packed with what they would need if their homes burned down.
There is widespread sense that what we have experienced is just a foretaste of coming attractions. FEMA—the Federal Emergency Management Agency—has a $13 billion budget. Since 2003 it is administered through the Department of Homeland Security, more than a passing nod to the intersection of emergency management and homeland security. Emergency management teams in local communities usually involve fire departments, law enforcement, emergency medical teams, and other first responders. These teams are often politically conservative and very much in the mainstream. So as the spectrum of plausible causes of disaster expands, these teams provide an excellent way to bring prospects for collapse into mainstream credibility.
The Department of Defense (DoD) provides another path to credibility for expanding definitions of emergency preparedness. We know from both public and private sources that DoD is giving considerable thought to climate emergencies and their potential impact on refugee populations seeking to enter the United States. One can well imagine that their emergency preparation contingency plans go well beyond climate change.
The beauty of emergency preparedness as a meme is that it is “trigger agnostic.” In reality, preparing for garden variety emergencies is on a continuum with preparing for far greater disasters. As extreme weather events become more common, emergency preparedness becomes more of an everyday reality for large swaths of the population. Personal and community preparation varies depending on the specifics of the most likely emergencies, available resources, and cultural preferences. In the United States, REI is one chain of stores that markets to the growing concern with emergency preparedness. Mormon emergency supply companies market to all those concerned with preparedness.
The Transition Movement: From Individual to Community Preparedness
Moving further into the mainstream, in the United States and around the world, the Transition Town movement started in the United Kingdom out of a concern for “peak oil.” As Heinberg has indicated above, the anticipated increased costs of gas and oil did not materialize in the time frame that was widely anticipated. The Transition Movement wisely shifted its focus to resilience, which, as we have said, is “trigger agnostic.”
The Transition Movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. Transition Initiatives differentiate themselves from other sustainability and “environmental” groups by seeking to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self-reliance and resilience. They succeed by regeneratively using their local assets, innovating, networking, collaborating, replicating proven strategies, and respecting the deep patterns of nature and diverse cultures in their place. Transition Initiatives work with deliberation and good cheer to create a fulfilling and inspiring local way of life that can withstand the shocks of rapidly shifting global systems.
The Transition Movement includes the carefully thought-out set of twelve principles, including a 10-step energy descent adaption plan that holds onto its original focus on peak oil. But the real beauty of the Transition Movement is that it moves away from the primarily individually focused vision of most survivalists and many preppers to a community-focused vision of collective adaptation. That has enabled it to go global and to forge a collective approach that is actually more realistic than survivalism and the prepper movement, since in most disasters communal preparation and response is the key to survival.
LDS Church: Emergency Preparedness as a Core Spiritual Ethic
The Mormons are by far the most organized religious group in the United States and internationally that have made emergency planning part of their faith credo. It is striking that the head of the American Red Cross cites the Mormons as exemplary for all Americans in their disaster preparedness. Ted Koppel, in his visionary book Lights Out, devotes three chapters to the LDS Church. From a Desert News article:
Koppel, the longtime anchor for “Nightline,” begins Lights Out by posing a hypothetical situation where such a cyber-attack has occurred, leaving parts of America in a state of complete darkness with rapidly depleting resources. Koppel later asserts in his book that Mormons are one of the most prepared groups to face such a grim scenario. He devotes three chapters to the LDS Church and its level of organization, which he calls “extraordinary.” He flew to Utah to view firsthand the bishop’s storehouses and to talk with members of the church as part of the research for his book. Koppel was initially only seeking “a little church history” and “a quick visit to a local warehouse,” according to his book. A call from President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, changed this mindset. “I didn’t really understand the full scope of the church’s preparations,” Koppel said in an interview with the Desert News. “(President Eyring) knew, and I did not, the scope of the level of preparation. He wanted to be sure that I got a full flavor of just how multidimensional the preparation is.”
The special virtue of the LDS church is that it has thought through emergency preparedness as a spiritual ethic. Its perspective is that preparation counters fear. The preparation is both individual—at the family level—and collective. The fact that the head of the American Red Cross cites Mormons as an example for the rest of the country—and that the LDS Church donated $1 million plus $500,000 in in-kind services to the Red Cross in 2017—shows how this bridge is developing. Given that LDS is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, this mainstreaming of LDS preparedness is a promising development.
When Corporations Rule the World: Corporations, Disaster Capitalism, Crime Syndicates and Tribes as Survival Mechanisms in Disaster Conditions
Corporations: David Korten’s classic 1995 book, When Corporations Rule the World, was re-issued in 2015 in a 20th anniversary edition. Korten was prescient. Corporations do increasingly rule the world today. They are more efficient, agile, well capitalized, technologically adept, and single minded than governments. They have captured the information economy and are capturing Artificial Intelligence. They have reshaped global finance, trade regulations, media coverage, technology, and even governments—the laws and executive agencies and courts that are supposed to regulation them.
The grandfather of corporate future scenario planning was the Royal Dutch Shell Futures Group. Shell has been developing scenarios to aid business decisions for almost 50 years.
We can be certain that foresighted and agile corporations are in advanced states of disaster planning and preparedness. Most companies will focus on their survival and taking care of some of their employees. But given that the world is increasingly governed by multilateral corporations, their potential contribution to a resilient future should not be ignored. Far-sighted corporate leaders know their business models depend on ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors. They also know their customers and ethical stockholders prefer ESG oriented brands. Finally, there is some evidence that ESG oriented companies often outperform others in the marketplace. If far-sighted corporate leaders are not part of future planning, the prospects for any success are greatly diminished.
The Global Business Network deserves mention because it grew out of corporate futures work and made the bridge to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and broader societal concerns:
Global Business Network (GBN) was a leading consulting firm that specialized in helping organizations to adapt and grow in an increasingly uncertain and volatile world. Using tools and expertise in scenario planning, experiential learning, together with networks of experts and visionaries (so called “Remarkable People” (RPs)), GBN advised businesses, NGOs, and governments in addressing their most critical challenges, helping them to gain the insight, confidence and capabilities they needed to shape their future.
Disaster Capitalism: Naomi Klein coined the phrase “disaster capitalism” in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. As global collapse accelerates, the opportunities to profit from disaster—as from war—also grows. Disaster capitalism includes the deployment of private security forces and everything else the affluent need to buffer themselves. It also includes industries that provide bottled water, flashlights, home repair supplies, and everything ordinary people need to survive survivable disasters. It will be a growth sector.
Crime Syndicates: Crime syndicates proliferate in failed states where centralized state power loses traction. They also prosper wherever the law creates imbalances of supply and demand. Crime syndicates are not materially different from legal corporations in many respects. They often have the same efficiency, agility, capitalization, technological skills, and single-minded focus on profit for their shareholders. Smuggling people, armaments, food, and fuel, and providing security for a price, will remain growth sectors for crime syndicates in chaotic times and wherever legal supply/demand imbalances occur. Crime syndicates will be a growth sector in chaotic times.
Religious, Regional, and Diaspora Tribal Communities
The loss of meaning and social cohesion is characteristic of modern technological-industrial society. Robert Putnam addressed this in Bowling Alone. Sebastian Junger’s recent book Tribes addresses this as well. One reader wrote: [Junger] puts his finger on one of the most important cultural realities of the twenty-first century, the loss of tight-knit communities…He arrives at this conclusion from a unique perspective, that of his observation of the military experience. One of his central themes is the idea that soldiers in combat situations have such an intense experience of interdependency, solidarity, and community that they often struggle upon returning to civilian life in the United States, in which there rarely is any similar sort of community to which they can belong. Rebecca Solnit likewise chronicled this phenomenon in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.
Ethnic and religious communities—either regional or in diaspora—often have strong networks of mutual trust akin to the temporary disaster communities Solnit describes and the more stable communities in some military units that Junger describes. These networks have helped tribes survive during terrible adversities in the past. Some of them are likely to help in future emergencies.
Scenario Work, Strategic Planning, Crisis Management, and Emergency Planning
Future scenario work, strategic planning, crisis management, and emergency planning are four of the headings under which various corporate, nonprofit, governmental, and other entities address SWOTS (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). The phrase “threat matrix” is also widely used.
Thinkers and media creatives have addressed the global problematique in many forms, from sober analyses to fiction to science fiction, and in numerous television series, films, computer games, and other media. The prospect for global collapse is well understood in many sectors of the culture.
But the global problematique is rarely addressed in government, nonprofit, corporate, defense, academic, and philanthropic circles. The failure in philanthropy is striking. Progressive philanthropy is organized with dozens of affinity groups addressing most major silo issues—climate, forests, oceans, biodiversity, health, equity and much more—but there is no affinity group or informal funding group to date that addresses the global problematique as a whole.
James MacNeil, the director of the Brundtland Commission, attended a Commonweal Sustainable Futures Group conference shortly before the Earth Summit. In conversation, he proposed one heuristic futures model that may be illustrative of what we face. He said he found it usual to consider four futures:
- Business as usual
- Achieving sustainability
- Descent into chaos
- Becoming artificial people on an artificial planet
Using MacNeil’s heuristic model, one finds the real future moving in all four directions. Business as usual continues. Sustainability advances. Descent into chaos accelerates. And we are becoming artificial people on an artificial planet. The real question is what the mix of these scenarios futures the future will be.
More detailed scenarios would explore: electrical grid failure, nuclear event, communications failure, financial system failure, health care system failure, social cohesion failure, natural or engineered pandemics, and much more. The probability of any single event may not be high. The collective probability that something along these lines will happen is considerable.
The Variety of Responses to Collapse Scenarios
Neurophysiology is an essential mediator of all human thinking.
Vernon Mountcastle, one of the preeminent neurophysiologists of the twentieth century, summed up the situation nicely: “Each of us believes himself to live directly within the world that surrounds him, to sense its objects and events precisely, and to live in real and current time. I assert that these are perceptual illusions. Sensation is an abstraction, not a replication, of the real world” Mountcastle VB. 1975 The view from within: pathways to the study of perception. Johns Hopkins Med. J. 136, 109–131 (Helmut Milz, private correspondence 3-12-18).
Nate Hagens has argued that we have a “perfect storm” of conditions the human brain was not designed to respond to effectively. The Fan Initiative likewise lists the evolution of the human brain as one of its twelve drivers of collapse.
Yet many people speak as if the only characteristic response to the prospect of collapse is grief. Grief, it is true, is a common response to the prospect of collapse. Yet in reality, there are many responses. They include grief, anger, cynicism, optimism, denial, distraction, and much more.
Why should we assume that forcing people everywhere to face the prospect for collapse is in their interest? If most people can’t make a meaningful difference in the outcome, why assume we should burden everyone with these prospects—especially if we might be wrong? Many people are already so burdened with daily concerns that they instinctively protect themselves from daily news—to say nothing of prospects for global collapse. Others simply choose to focus their attention elsewhere for creative reasons.
Many artists, scholars, and other creative types simply don’t find the diet of bad news in the media good for their physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual well-being. Let’s not forget that Maimonides forbade counting the number of days till the Messiah would arrive. Early Christians lived in expectation of the end of days–and some still do today. Many Hindus believe we are in the Kali Yuga, the last of four ages, this one characterized by strife and contention. The assumption that we serve best by convincing everyone that global collapse is near at hand is one that deserves consideration. Differences in culture, class, character, community, conditions, and creativity are all involved in our responses to the collapse hypothesis. Any attempt to generalize about human responses to the prospect of collapse is doomed.
Resilience in Complex Adaptive Systems
Resilience is the term of art that replaced sustainability when it became clear that we will not achieve sustainability. Resilience has more power as a word than sustainability. It is a far better term than sustainability for what we need. I have suggested above that we may need to differentiate among different uses of the term.
Many think the coming collapse will wipe out humanity. But we are a “weedy” species, able to grow under many conditions. We are quite likely to survive. But the cost is, and will be, exceedingly high, both for humans and for all life on earth.
Under such drastic conditions, the pace of adaptive and ultimately genetic change accelerates. The selection pressures are and will be high. The Stockholm Resilience Center has emerged as a significant international institute focused on applied resilience research.
Over the past decades, few concepts have gained such prominence as resilience. There has been an explosion of research and policies into ways to promote resilient systems, but the content has often lacked a clear definition of what resilience actually means, let alone how to apply resilience thinking. Let us try and explain. Resilience is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about how humans and nature can use shocks and disturbances like a financial crisis or climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking.
Resilience in Ecosystem Science
Ted Schettler remarks that ecosystem science has generated a more precise understanding of resilience. He cites this paper:
The concept of resilience has evolved considerably since Holling’s (1973) seminal paper. Different interpretations of what is meant by resilience, however, cause confusion. Resilience of a system needs to be considered in terms of the attributes that govern the system’s dynamics. Three related attributes of social–ecological systems (SESs) determine their future trajectories: resilience, adaptability, and transformability. Resilience (the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks) has four components—latitude, resistance, precariousness, and panarchy—most readily portrayed using the metaphor of a stability landscape. Adaptability is the capacity of actors in the system to influence resilience (in a SES, essentially to manage it). There are four general ways in which this can be done, corresponding to the four aspects of resilience. Transformability is the capacity to create a fundamentally new system when ecological, economic, or social structures make the existing system untenable.
With this in view, Schettler provides a penetrating description of complex adaptive systems (CAS) in ecosystem sciences. He once remarked to me that “you can’t manage complex adaptive systems, but rather you can try to interact with them in ways that make them more likely to behave in ways that we want.” When I asked him to elaborate, he wrote:
In large socio-ecological systems, such as described by the global problematique, and at most scales within them, except for the most granular where linear, predictive behavior prevails, there’s a lot of complexity that creates conditions for system behavior—at the community, regional, and global levels.
When the system is relatively resilient and perturbations can be absorbed, system behavior fluctuates around a familiar “attractor.” The pendulum swings around it but not too wildly—tending to move back toward the center of the “basin of attraction” but never really coming to rest.
But the problem now, as you and others have described it, is that we are crossing thresholds and tipping points—into new “basins of attraction” that have their own, new equilibrium around which the pendulum swings. This is unfamiliar territory and is unlikely to be as hospitable to us as the more familiar historic “basin” that has been our home. And, once there, it’s hard to reverse. The new system operating conditions become entrained. Now, what that looks like in the real world will vary with circumstances. But you’ve outlined some of the likely scenarios in your paper—and they aren’t pretty for many people and places.
David Snowden (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7oz366X0-8) and many others make the point that people often try to engineer responses which are fine for simple linear systems but not for complex adaptive systems. In a CAS you try to amplify forces toward a favorable attractor and decrease forces toward an adverse attractor. This is what I meant by the challenges of managing CASs. But how and where to interact with them?
Ecological sciences suggest looking for causal cascades that you can influence, and the more upstream, the larger the impact. Interrupt those that are further destabilizing a favorable system and work to support those that build resilience into a favorable system. Look for places where forces intersect, magnifying their influence throughout the system as strategic opportunities to have an outsized impact. (emphasis added)
The concept of “regenerative agriculture” is gaining traction. Only time will tell what it’s staying power, value, and meaning will be. But here’s how I see it playing in the global problematique: People need to eat; today’s agricultural practices are major drivers of various blades of the fan (climate change, water, soil loss and quality, toxic chemicals, economic disparities and flawed models, energy, oceans, and so on); new models, many of which are being used or in trials, that are context specific can address many of these through improved design; AND, new models will build resilience in communities to help prepare for what is coming. Regenerative agriculture, properly designed, can provide strategic interventions within the complex adaptive systems that are crossing tipping points—both to help resist the forces pushing us into new operating conditions (mitigation) and helping us to deal with conditions that we encounter (adaptation). It’s not managing the complex system—rather it’s choosing a “sector” where there are strategic opportunities to influence entire system behavior. I’ve also long thought that gender disparities in education, power, and influence lie at the root of many of the drivers of change being addressed by the FAN initiative and others. I see this as another focus with the prospect of outsized impacts (Private correspondence 3-10-18).
One Possible Sci-Fi Dystopian Future
Daniel Ellsberg recently wrote that while we may not yet live in a totalitarian state, the levers of totalitarianism are now in place. Powerful interlocking global corporations control most assets on the planet. The media are increasingly controlled by vast conglomerates. I imagine an increasingly sci-fi dystopian future with strong elements of resilience. Democracy may prove a luxury. Authoritarian leaders aligned with multinational corporate interests may move to the fore. Resistance movements of every variety—democratic, theological, tribal and criminal—will possess lethal and information technologies. Asymmetrical conflicts will be the new normal. Brave women and men devoted to democracy, justice and the environment will create pockets of resistance and resilience, especially around the boundaries of the megalithic power structures where state/corporate control is not so complete. I hope I am wrong. If I am wrong, it will be because we think globally and act locally.
Think Globally, Act Locally
“Think globally, act locally.” David Brower and Rene Dubos are both credited with originating the phrase. I have spent forty years in the world of health, environmental, and justice activism. I’ve worked on mind-body health, integrative cancer therapies, chemical policy reform, environmental justice, improving the juvenile justice system, international trade policies, improving the governance of oceans, and other similar projects. We win tactical and occasionally strategic victories. The forces arrayed against us often prevail over time. It is useful to distinguish movements that have moved the needle in lasting ways from those that have been much more difficult.
Over the past 500 years, the movements we have moved, imperfectly but increasingly. from kingships to democracy, from serfs to labor unions, from women as property to women as equals, and from polities based on persons to law-based regimes. The movements for human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and even animal rights have gained increasing traction. What all these movements have in common is the extension of agency and standing to wider circles of people (and even non-human species).
Likewise, conservation movements and movements to achieve specific environmental objectives—getting the lead out of gasoline or protecting the ozone layer— have sometimes been successful. But despite enormous efforts, after decades of work, we often find that we are winning battles but losing the wars.
Conservative activism in the United States has been far more successful from a policy perspective. Bringing together a triadic coalition of social conservatives, corporate conservatives, and libertarians, conservative activism created the Reagan Revolution and has sustained it right up into the Trump era despite the many vicissitudes the movement now faces.
Some advocates for a focus on the global problematique dismiss work in issue areas as beside the point. I am not sure that is wise. Ted Schettler observes that informed silo work can help move the needle on the global problematique, citing regenerative agriculture and the education of girls as leverage points. Pete Myers wrote to me:
“Informed” is crucial here. Too often the silo work proceeds without regard to negative systems consequences. Today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. Either directly (geoengineering) or indirectly (giving false optimism because of the success of what fundamentally are cosmetic changes, resulting in the redirection of human energy and financial capital toward stuff that is not fundamentally meaningful) (private correspondence 3-11-18).
I have framed this as a question for activists. It is also the right question for those in the private sector, government, academics, and other sectors? Silo work can help move the needle on specific issues. But if it doesn’t take into account probable disaster scenarios, will it achieve lasting results?
This is a working paper in rapid evolution. It is at a naïve point in its development. I am aware of its deficiencies.
The bottom line for me is:
- We face a probable future of collapse, degradation or transformation of critical environmental and human systems.
- The most promising response is enhancing resilience, starting with our families, networks and communities.
- Resilience work will vary depending on culture, conditions, class, character, community, creativity and much more.
- We cannot know what combination of factors will trigger collapse or continuing degradation in different places or globally.
- We can prepare in ways that move our families, communities and perhaps our countries and the world toward resilience.
- As we co-create resilient families, networks and communities, we shift markets. As we shift markets, we shift the vectors affecting public life (as consumers, voters, and engaged citizens).
- As we create resilient communities, we create force multipliers that can help build resilience in other places around the world.
The Czech statesman and playwright Vaclav Havel spoke of the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism, he said, was the belief that things would go well. Hope, he said, by contrast, is a deep orientation of the human soul—that can be held in the darkest of times. His words have guided my work for many years. Knowing what I know, I cannot be optimistic. Knowing what I know, I have no choice but to be hopeful. There is no such thing as false hope. It is, as Havel says, an orientation of the human soul. It can–some would say it must–be held to live well in dark times.
In the face of the proverbial biblical floods that many are already experiencing, and those that lie ahead, our best hope may be to help people prepare to launch millions of arks. Why arks? Because no one is coming to help—not in the ways we will need help. Preparing our own arks gives us courage—to face whatever we must face. Helping others deepens our sense of who we truly are. Hillel puts is well:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14
If we dedicate our hearts, our minds, and our hands to this work, we fulfill the basic requirements of being compassionate, conscious, and just servants of the vision of a better world. Resilient people in resilient communities will make a difference.
I pray that the arc of history bends toward justice. It is radical hope. It is also the most interesting way to live in dark times.