Collapse and renewal

We’re all wondering how many of us will survive the coronavirus pandemic, but in the longer term, many of us are wondering what remnants of our globalized civilization are likely to survive the collapse that is now under way.

In her 2015 book The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Tsing addresses the question in her subtitle: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Those “ruins,” by the way, should be pictured not as crumbling buildings like the “ruins” of ancient civilizations, but as the ecosystems that have been systematically ruined by extractive capitalism.

Jeremy Lent also raised the question last fall on his Patterns of Meaning blog, ‘As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs’. Here he applies the concept of “the adaptive cycle” to human society.

Scientists have studied the life cycles of all kinds of complex systems—ranging in size from single cells to vast ecosystems, and back in time all the way to earlier mass extinctions—and have derived a general theory of change called the Adaptive Cycle model. This model works equally well for human systems such as industries, markets, and societies. As a rule, complex systems pass through a life cycle consisting of four phases: a rapid growth phase when those employing innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities; a more stable conservation phase, dominated by long-established relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change; a release phase, which might be a collapse, characterized by chaos and uncertainty; and finally, a reorganization phase during which small, seemingly insignificant forces can drastically change the future of the new cycle.

As many other commentators are saying, the shaping of our “recovery” from the pandemic is an opportunity to change the future of the new cycle of civilization. It is clear that many of the people and subsystems of the now-collapsing global system are not going to survive, but chances are we can have some influence on how it all turns out. For more on this cyclical pattern, including diagrams of it and my own reflections on it, visit rePatch ·11 of Turning Signs.

Solar-powered car

Richard Heinberg shows in a new article that the global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources is still going much too slowly to save us from our own bad habits.

Locally, though, i’m happy to report that we at gnusystems have powered nearly all of our transportation this spring with solar energy. We’ve been charging the BatBolt, our electric car, with our solar panels, adding up to 30 km of range every sunny day. For more details, have a look at the video introduction to EV driving (mostly for rural drivers) I posted on Youtube. Considering your transport options in the near future? EVs can be an important part of the transition, and not as expensive as you might think.

Energy crisis

The “energy crisis” of the 1970s was all about the supply (and the price) of fossil fuels. Looking back on it half a century later, it’s clear that the real crisis was (and is) the human addiction to fossil fuels, which we in the “developed” world have been unable to shake off. Now the “climate emergency” is forcing us – those of us who are not mired in denial – to see that we have become dependent not only on the use and abuse of oil, but also on the infrastructure which it made possible.

The only cure for this chronic disease is to build a new infrastructure, and adopt a new “lifestyle”, that can be powered mostly by renewable energy sources. Nothing less can mitigate the fourfold crisis (of ecology, economy and equity as well as energy) which now threatens the viability of life on earth. This has to be part of the “Green New Deal”, but we aren’t always realistic about the challenge of actually doing it at this stage of the game.

A recent article on the Uneven Earth site explains it all quite succinctly. I recommend it, especially to proponents of a Green New Deal or equivalent policy.

On the matter of “lifestyles” (as we used to call them back in the 20th century), I will close with a reflection from Bill McKibben, in his book Falter. He says that of all the lives on Earth, the most curious

are the human ones, because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy. The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.

Groundhog Day

Halfway through the winter here in the northern hemisphere – a very mild one here, so far.

Our electric car, the BatBolt, has performed very well this winter, although a full charge only gives us about 280 km of range, as opposed to 400 or so in the summer. So we decided to risk a trip to Toronto, over 500 km away. We had to stop twice on the way down, and on the way back, to quick-charge the batteries, which took an hour or more each time. We have apps to find those DC charging stations along the route, but they are still few and far between in northern Ontario, so we were lucky that they were all working and available when we needed them – thanks mostly to Petro-Canada for installing them along the trans-Canada highway. Lucky also that we had good travelling weather, that all the fast charging was free, and that we could plug in the BatBolt for slow-charging at the Airbnb the whole time we were there.

What drew us to the big city was an appearance, and a virtual reality installation conceived, by Laurie Anderson at the Royal Ontario Museum. VR is a new experience for me, although the kind of movies we play in HD at home could be described as “virtual realities” to the extent that the viewer gets immersed in them. What’s different about “real” VR is that you can direct your attention anywhere in the full sphere that you are virtually inside of, and you have some control over your virtual movements within that sphere. Or as Laurie put it in her talk about it, you can fly. Your body and its movements are visually integrated with the work of art, instead of being forgotten as they are when you’re watching a movie on a screen and that’s where all the movement is.

Was that experience worth the risk of a 500-km trip in January? The dominant petro-culture takes the privilege of travelling like this for granted, but that’s part of the fossil foolery behind the current climate emergency, so it’s not something i take lightly. Being able to do it without burning any fossil fuels made a big difference, though. Since our three-day trip included a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario and lots of time with Pam’s brother Tom, along with some extra perks, we really appreciated the privilege. Cruising along the six-lane highway into the city, watching the commuter traffic crawl out of it while we listen and laugh to Crazy Town podcasts, felt right somehow. After all, there’s no telling how long this kind of show will go on. This reality is not virtual, but it sure is temporary. No matter what the groundhog says.

Creation Evolving and other stories

I’ve been busy exploring some of the information about the transition accessible on the Net now, especially from the Post Carbon Institute – more on that below – and looking into ways to enhance the resilience of my local community here on Manitoulin Island. But i’ve also been busy revising the last chapter (19) of my book Turning Signs.

I’ve been growing more dissatisfied with that chapter since i first published it in 2015, but not until now have i come up with a version that seems to work as a culmination of my whole 19-chapter argument. It’s called ‘Creation Evolving’, it’s online now, and i’d appreciate any comments on it from critical readers. (Since it frequently refers back to previous parts of the book, i’ve included lots of links back to the key concepts, but i don’t claim that it’s an easy read!)

This reflects my habit of going back and forth from a local focus on current practice to a more global contemplation of “deep time” and the deeper practices of nature and cultures. It’s like my other habit of alternating between silent walks in the woods and spells of wrestling with words. (The photo below was taken by Pam during one of our November strolls. Note the rare patch of blue sky reflected in the puddle.) I feel that the two practices enhance one another by alternating, somewhat like sleeping and waking. (After all, how can you wake up if you haven’t been sleeping?)

Anyway, this sort of back-and-forth seems to help me keep my balance in this Era of Upheaval. I’ve lifted that phrase from the title of a Post Carbon Institute book, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval. You can buy this book from the usual sources, or you can get access to it online for free by registering with the PCI.

Another relevant book you can get for free, thanks to the generosity of the authors, is Your Post has been Removed: Tech Giants and Freedom of Speech, by Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen. This new book delves into the roles of the ‘tech giants’ (especially Google and Facebook) in the current cultural/political upheaval. I’m halfway through it now, and although its main focus is ‘freedom of speech,’ it also throws light on the role of social media in the ecological/economic crisis.

As Stjernfelt and Lauritzen point out, ‘freedom of speech’ includes freedom of access to information, so it’s appropriate as well as fortunate that they’ve allowed open access to it. Like Turning Signs, it comes with a Creative Commons license. At this traditionally hyperconsumptive time of year, it’s good to see the Commons growing!

Finally i’m really happy to see the website of Local Food Manitoulin. This is the kind of community initiative that can address all four sides of the current crisis: ecology, energy, economy and equity. It doesn’t ask you to indulge in either optimism or pessimism about the climate emergency, because it can work (locally, of course) toward both prevention and mitigation of the worst effects of global heating.

At our latitude, we’re sinking into the darkest part of the year (for those of us who are solar powered, at least). But we have the winter solstice coming up in less than two weeks, and things are bound to get brighter after that. In the meantime let us carry on with the upheaval, or transition, or whatever we call it. And keep in touch with the Earth.

Novemberpuddle
photo by Pam Jackson

Breaking news on breaking habits

I see that the Green Party of Canada has taken over the title of my previous blog post (minus the question mark) for the Green Cimate Action Plan (www.greenparty.ca/en/mission-possible). Of course I signed on right away, and if you’re wondering what practical measures can be taken in response to the climate emergency, I recommend considering the 20 specific steps outlined in it as viable components of humanity’s collective mission, or at least of a “Green New Deal.”

I hope this blog can contribute to that mission by carrying forward the inquiry into Turning Signs. Since I started posting about the Anthropocene crisis over a year ago, I’ve been trying to look at the situation in its longer-term context. This netbook has always been about ‘ecologies of meaning’, and now Jeremy Lent’s book on The Patterning Instinct has inspired me to dig into the archaeologies of meaning, to coin another phrase. This involves studying how cultures co-evolve with their languages and lexicons.

I’m doing this because I’m reasonably sure that the current ecological crisis is rooted in the bad habits of humanity. Therefore we need to know, at both personal and cultural levels, why we have taken on these habits and how we can drop them or transform them into habits more harmonious with Nature’s habits. This includes cognitive habits: some of the worst are core concepts of the globally dominant culture which is mainly responsible for the ongoing mass extinction and climate-change catastrophes. Jeremy Lent identifies two of these toxic concepts as pervasive metaphors: Conquering Nature and Nature as Machine. George Monbiot, in a recent blog post, says that the problem is captitalism, because in its current form it requires constant growth, meaning ever-increasing consumption of the Earth’s resources coupled with an ever-growing gap between the rich and poor.

My next blog post will begin to probe the concept of growth itself, not only in the economic sense but also in biological, psychological and semiotic senses. What do they have in common, and how does the core concept shape our habits? That question might take awhile to answer …

Mission Possible?

Sometimes you have to rest in silence for awhile before you can start again with something to say.

When I describe Turning Signs as a ‘philosophical essay,’ this is what I have in mind:

Philosophy is systematic reflection on our existence, seeking to answer questions like “What is our place in the cosmos?” or “How should we best live our lives?” For many philosophers – very much including the Greeks who stood at the beginnings of western philosophy – the asking and answering of such questions was part of a philosophical way of life: that is, philosophy is not confined to abstract, intellectual pursuits but is implemented in one’s daily life.

— Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (2017, Kindle location 407)

This is also what I had in mind when I started Chapter 1 of Turning Signs:

Suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission.

Supposing means imagining a certain situation in order to see what follows from it. It doesn’t commit us to believing that you really are in that situation. You are free to imagine other possible situations. Maybe you have no ‘mission’ in life, no specific “role” to play in the world drama, no “destiny” or destination pulling you in any particular direction. Maybe ‘missions’ are nothing but figments of the human imagination. Or maybe you do have a ‘mission’ but it’s no secret: you know exactly what it is and you could spell it out in 25 words or less. Maybe you were born to do exactly what you are doing to “make a living,” as we say. But I didn’t invite the reader to suppose either of those situations, because they don’t seem to generate the kind of philosophical questions that Angle and Tiwald refer to above, the questions that seem most real to me (and, I suppose, to any reader likely to get very far in Turning Signs).

When I ask you to suppose you’ve been selected for a secret mission, I am not asking you to believe that any person or agency (divine or human or corporate) selected you for your ‘mission’ or your ‘mission’ for you. You might have selected it yourself, consciously or not, or your situation might result from a process of natural selection. Of course, being a user of language (and probably other symbolic media), your mission is also rooted in cultural selection. But a culture is itself an outgrowth of nature. Cultural systems evolve just as biological and ecological systems do, following the same natural principles – with the addition of an emergent level of consciousness that enables deliberate choices to be made. A crucial part of that cultural selection process is supposing that imagined possibilities can be “realized” and anticipating the consequences that would follow.

Another crucial part of the cultural selection process, especially for those of us living the time of the 21st Century, is reflection on how our cultures have developed the forms and core concepts which are now dominant on this planet, and how those core concepts might need to change in order to avoid the collapse of the natural systems that sustain us all. This kind of reflection is implicit in Turning Signs, but I’ve just been reading another book which addresses the question more explicitly: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent. It’s inspired me to reflect on some of the core concepts of Turning Signs in future blog posts. Maybe it won’t make a difference to the future of humanity, but maybe that’s not my mission anyway.

Invitation to Immanence

Last week, blogger and cultural critic Adrian Ivakhiv responded to my post on ‘Holocenoscopy’ with a post on his own Immanence blog which takes my own thoughts on the “Anthropocene” a few steps further. Since then most of my prime reading time has gone into his new book Shadowing the Anthropocene, which i bought and downloaded (PDF) from punctum books. It offers some fascinating insights, both theoretical and practical, on how we can live through these trying times. Also, being a lover of cinema, I’m delving into his earlier book Ecologies of the Moving Image.

Besides thought-provoking movies and the “AnthropoScene,”Adrian and I have several interests in common, including Peircean and process-oriented philosophy and an ecological perspective on things. His work strikes me as complementary to mine in that he is much more broadly acquainted with recent theorizing in the “social sciences” and “humanities” than I am, while my sources in Turning Signs incline more toward the “natural sciences” of biology, psychology, neuroscience etc. I don’t know how he will feel about my characterization of him above as a “cultural critic,” but it seems clear that we are both boundary-crossers in terms of the traditional disciplines, although (unlike me) he’s employed as an academic (University of Vermont). Anyway i find his work very refreshing and i’ll be exploring it for some time to come. I would recommend that readers of Turning Signs take a close look at his blog, at least.

Mary Catherine Bateson

One of the key concepts in Turning Signs is that of the guidance system. It’s rooted in systems theory and cybernetics, which are introduced in Chapter 3. I’ve just discovered that anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, from whose works I’ve gleaned some deep insights into complex interactive systems, has a very recent talk on the Edge website called “How to Be a Systems Thinker”.

It’s a profound reflection on the current state of the world and how systems thinking could help humanity correct its course. It’s also a lament for the lost legacy of the early cybernetics movement, as its deeper wisdom has been mostly drowned out by the industry’s flood of “devices.” On the website you can read it or screen the live interview (about 42 minutes). I highly recommend it – especially for those who might have found Chapter 3 of Turning Signs something of a struggle.

Real economy


Here’s one iconic symbol we ought to be turning to. You can read all about it in Kate Raworth’s blog and book on Doughnut Economics. The doughnut is an icon well suited to “accounting for what really counts” (the slogan of gnusystems).

Economists and politicians, including our Prime Minister, are still chanting the old mantra of economic “growth” as if it were the panacea which would solve all our problems and improve all our lives. But as soon as you ask what the purpose of an economic system is, as Kate Raworth did, you see that growth does not always serve that purpose, and sometimes works against it. And what’s more, the politicians who have relied on this mantra to manufacture consent for their programs have used it mainly to increase the gap between rich and poor.

Kate’s latest blog post presents the choice between economic “paradigms” in its simplest terms. The old one is based on the belief that people are greedy, insatiable and competitive. The new one is based on the belief that “people are greedy and generous, competitive and collaborative – and it’s possible to nurture human nature.” You’re invited to decide which belief you want to live by.