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.

Gut feelings

In the early stages of writing my book Turning Signs, i was very strongly moved by the realization that the world is inside out – that the whole of your experience of the world is something going on in your brain. This activity is taking place at the cellular and subcellular levels, and not until the 20th Century was it possible to investigate in detail how these microcosmic processes actually work to generate our thoughts and feelings. More recently we are learning that the brain is only part of this microcosm.

At the same time, we have been developing the technology to explore the macrocosm, the vast reaches of the physical universe. This development began 400 years ago with the first telescope, but it was only 100 years ago that we recognized the existence of other galaxies far beyond our own. Our knowledge, our cognitive universe, has been expanding both inwards and outwards toward the micro- and macroscopic limits of our augmented perception. Our comprehension of time has also expanded in scale, in both directions: we have begun to appreciate how much can happen in a millisecond, and how long it takes the light from a distant galaxy to reach us. Our moment in cosmic time is marked by a wonderful flowering of the imagination.

Returning to the microscopic scale, this excerpt from a recent Science magazine article is a good example of that flowering:

Over the past 20 years, the recognition that the microbes living inside us outnumber our body’s own cells has turned our view of ourselves inside out. The gut microbiome, as it’s known, weighs about 2 kilograms— more than the 1.4-kilogram human brain— and may have just as much influence over our bodies. Thousands of species of microbes (not only bacteria but also viruses, fungi, and archaea) reside in the gut. And with as many as 20 million genes among them, those microbes pack a genomic punch that our measly 20,000 genes can’t match. Gut bacteria can make and use nutrients and other molecules in ways the human body can’t— a tantalizing source of new therapies.

The brain is the newest frontier, but it’s one with an old connection to the gut. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed mental disorders arose when the digestive tract produced too much black bile. And long before microbes were discovered, some philosophers and physicians argued that the brain and gut were partners in shaping human behavior. “What probably happens is that our brain and our gut are in constant communication,” says [John] Cryan, who over the past decade has helped drive efforts to decode those communications.

—Elizabeth Pennisi, “Meet the Psychobiome” (Science, 8 May 2020, Vol. 368 Issue 6491, p. 571)

John Cryan is a neuropharmacologist at University College Cork. He and a psychiatrist colleague, Ted Dinan, coined the term “psychobiotics” for the new field of research into microbe-based treatments for mental illnesses. No doubt this research is being funded by an industry hoping for profits down the road, but it contributes nonetheless to the flowering of imagination that “has turned our view of ourselves inside out.” In 2020, the virus which has turned our daily lives upside down should only add to our respect for life at the micro-scale and its effect on our human-scale lives.

On the other hand, our growing ability to conceive of (and measure) vast differences of scale in space and time is still rooted in the human scale of experiencing. We know much more about past events than we do about the future, but the past is no more present to us than the future. What is present to us is the remains of the past, the traces of what’s happened, the signs we can read in order to imagine our planet’s history with some degree of accuracy. In the same way, by reading what is present to us and puzzling out some reasons why it is the way it is, we imagine the future with some degree of plausibility.

Our ability to imagine the deep-time context of the present moment enables us to feel its presence all the more deeply. That’s the gift of this brief moment in the history of the universe. But our acceptance of this gift, our experience of it, seems to depend on the myriads of microbes inhabiting the psychobiome. We begin to see with our high-power microscopes how much of our mental life we owe to gut feelings.

Emerging world

Living through this pandemic has given many of us a chance to slow down and reconsider what “normal” life is, or could be, for us. We’re facing systemic changes that affect us all as we try to sustain our physical, mental and spiritual resilience. We’re living a transition that could be a turning point for life on Earth, at every level from global to household. I think it helps to talk this over in small groups from time to time, even while we practice physical distancing. So i’m hosting a transition conversation, via Zoom, at 7 pm Eastern this Tuesday evening, April 28.

If anyone reading this wants to join in from your computer, tablet or phone, send me an email, and i’ll send you back a link which, when you click on it at meeting time, will take you into the conversation. You’re receiving this email because you’ve subscribed to my Turning Signs blog or the Resilient Manitoulin group. (Please don’t forward to others.)

One question i’ve been wondering about lately is what we on Manitoulin can (and can’t) do to “localize” by shortening our supply chains – for instance, to make our food supply more local and less dependent on factory farms and agribusiness giants. I hope that others will bring their own questions to the conversation – bearing in mind that none of us has all the answers.

If this kind of “live” conversation is not your cup of herbal tea, but you want to use other online resources to explore the larger systemic contexts of your choices, Pam and I at gnusystems recommend the Think Resilience course (https://education.resilience.org/product/self-directed-course/ ) which is still offered for free by the Post Carbon Insitute. Also their Crazy Town podcasts (https://www.postcarbon.org/crazytown/ ), which always get us laughing even as our minds boggle at what’s going on in the world.

thought for Earth Day

Every living thing on Earth plays a part in the biosphere.

The biosphere is not merely the stage on which we all perform; it is the whole performance.

A fascinating kind of anteater called the pangolin is the only mammal on Earth that has scales. Its scales are its only defense against predators. Unfortunately this defense is useless against the dominant predator on Earth, humankind. (Or as e.e. cummings called it, ‘this busy monster, manunkind.’)

In a human-dominated world, the pangolin’s scales are even worse than useless for its survival, because they have a high “market value,” meaning that too many humans “make a living” supplying that market.

Humans have scales too, but only artificial ones, often used for weighing things that have “market value” – such as pangolin scales. In the gigantically top-heavy artificial monster called “the economy” by its human constructors, pangolin scales far outweigh the lives of pangolins, just as “market value” outweighs the value of life itself, including human life.

Pam Jackson has caught the whole strange scenario in a small painting:

Scales

This has a special meaning on Earth Day 2020, as it’s been suggested that the pangolin might have been a carrier of the virus that jumped to humans to cause the COVID-19 pandemic. The pangolin – poached, trafficked and endangered – is as innocent as the virus itself. If anyone is to blame for the pandemic, it is the humans who “make a living” from an extractive “economy” which is destructive, on an overwhelming scale, to other players in the biosphere. The pandemic is just one symptom of the busy monster in self-destruct mode.

Earth Day should redirect our attention to the natural economy, the economy of the biosphere. As if our lives depended on it – for in truth they do, just like the lives of pangolins, ants and viruses.

Transmission

Transition link for the day: George Monbiot gathers examples of how people all over the world are stepping up to help their local communities cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

I’ve been revisiting my own book lately, and realizing how much there is in it that could be useful to people coping with the current situation and the broader transition. For instance, most of the transition sources i’ve been reading and citing here emphasize the importance of “systems thinking.” That kind of thinking pervades Turning Signs, with a particular emphasis on what i call guidance systems. It also has an apocalyptic side, though maybe not in the way you think: For instance look at the latter part of the first chapter, Beginning: Apocalypse.

If you’d like to comment on any of this, you can type it in below, or join the conversation live.

Life the pandemic

It seems that everyone has something to say about the COVID-19 pandemic. Still i can hope to say something you haven’t heard before.

The coronavirus is a life form which exploits the internal resources of its host for its own purposes. All it wants to do is proliferate; destroying the health of its individual host is a side effect. If it mutated into a form that killed all of its hosts, it would destroy itself as well. If it mutates into a form we can live with, like the common cold or something more benign, it will live as long as we live to host it. But it has no control over how it mutates; it is not aware of the effects it has or even of what it ‘wants to do.’

Humanity too is a life form which exploits the resources of its host (the Earth) for its own purposes, and is busily destroying the health of its own support system. The present pandemic has slowed down our busyness, which we are pleased to call “the economy,” and this slowdown has given some of us a rare opportunity to step back and reflect on the whole situation. We might even mutate into a more benign and less destructive presence on the Earth. Unlike that of a virus, though, our self-mutation could be consciously chosen – if humanity as a species can achieve something like a collective consciousness.

No matter what conscious choices we make, either as individuals or as a species, they are motivated by values that we are hardly able to question while we live. Living makes us partial to life. All life forms are held in the ruthless grip of life itself, compelled to seek out forms of energy that they can transform into their own activities, embodiments and infrastructures. Every living body is driven to survive and reproduce, to crowd out a place for itself and its kin. Every life form is dedicated to continuing its existence; even a life form that realizes its kinship with all living beings is partial to life itself. Life not only determines our needs but tells us what to want.

There is no force in the universe more creative, or more destructive, than the life force. If it has any purpose other than persisting, it must be to diversify its embodiments. Over the course of evolution on earth, both biological and cultural, it produces ever more baroque and bizarre complexities of body type and behavior, often at the expense of other types, other species. Since every one of them wants to go on living, Life imbues us all with a horror of death, making us forget that death is an essential feature of it, and extinction an essential feature of evolution. Life does its best to hide that side of its nature by distracting us with all sorts of motivations, pleasures and predilections, interests and intentions, celebrations and cerebrations. Even now it inspires this writer with the illusion that life is coming to know itself through me.

Yet there are moments when life seems to loosen its death grip on us, when we let go of conscious intentions and allow time, which is even deeper than life, to carry us along. After working on Turning Signs for 20 years, or perhaps all my life, it now occurs to me that living the time is what it was all about. All i have to do now is let go of it, and be ready for what’s coming next. Can humanity do that?

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.