Remembrance Day, as we call it in Canada, is intended mainly for honoring the veterans of what we call the “World Wars.” To observe it properly, we ought to see those wars in their context – which is also the context of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) now winding up (or down) in Glasgow. To give us a glimpse of it, George Monbiot “crudely summarized” the story of the past 500 years in his blog post yesterday. That history has brought us to the ecological, economic, energy and equity crises we face today, and living through them will be a far greater challenge than living through those wars, devastating as they were. We have less than a decade to turn that story around.
There’s another kind of remembrance that we ought to engage in every day. In Turning Signs i call it mindfulness.
We who live in the “wealthy nations” don’t have all the time in the world to mend our unjust and ruinous ways. But we have all the world in the time, if we live it mindfully.
In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.
Richard Heinberg has been researching the central role of energy in civilization for years, and shown how the human addiction to oil has brought us to an unprecedented crisis. His new book gives us a longer and broader perspective on the deeper addiction to power in its physical and social forms. He draws upon insights from biology and anthropology to tell the story of the evolution of power, from the beginnings of life on earth through the development of social hierarchies up to the present, in a very accessible way.
The book’s subtitle is “Limits and prospects for human survival”, and he does explain the radical changes in human habits and systems which must be made in this decade if we are to salvage our planetary life support system along with the better qualities of our collapsing civilization. But given the history of how this situation has evolved, it’s difficult to be honestly optimistic about our prospects. Heinberg’s view is more realistic, for instance in this excerpt from the final chapter:
“There can be no perfect, stable society. Imbalance and impermanence are baked into biological existence. But we are in a particularly explosive moment now. History shows that overconcentrations of physical, economic, military, and political power create instability, and, in the past few decades, humanity has found ways to build and concentrate these kinds of power as never before. The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a ‘correction,’ though not just in stock market values but also in population and consumption levels. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change, aiming to limit our own collective power at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.” [p. 356-7]
This is not a feel-good book, but it is a live-well book that everyone can learn something from.
It’s pretty clear by now that a transformation of agricultural practices will be a necessary part of any just transition to a healthy Earth community. Several people and organizations engaged in this transformation have recently posted articles on resilience.org. One of them, the Land Institute, has published an open-access book called The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field. (You can download the free e-book from that site.)
The first article (by Wes Jackson, Aubrey Streit Krug, Bill Vitek, and Robert Jensen) takes a look at the global situation in which this ‘Perennial Turn’ is taking place. One paragraph strikes me as especially cogent:
Revolutionary change in theory and practice, not minor course corrections, are needed; we cannot assume that modifying the existing trajectory of the human species is adequate. If there is to be an ongoing large-scale human presence on Earth, the energy/resource consumption that most affluent humans take for granted—and which many non-affluent humans aspire to—cannot continue.
The time we are living makes it increasingly risky to take things for granted – even things like a steady supply of energy, food, water, clean air, health care, mobility, employment and so on. If philosophers are those who don’t take things for granted that people commonly think they know, as Merleau-Ponty says, maybe this is a good time for open-access philosophical essays like Turning Signs. —That’s about as close to self-advertising as this blog ever gets … but we can all use a bit of ‘beginner’s mind,’ whatever the time.
We are living in transformative times. The title of this blog post is the title of an essay by Richard Heinberg which is exactly what the title says. I can’t think of anything else i’ve read that says so much that is so important right now in so few words. This is truly essential reading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …