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.

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:


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.

The real economy

Food, shelter, clothing, fuels, minerals, forests, fisheries, land, buildings, art, music and information are real wealth. Money by itself is not. Money is circulated among people who use it to buy real wealth.

— Odum and Odum (2001, 91)

Unfortunately, almost everything we hear about “the economy” through the media reflects an obsession with “growth,” as defined by increasing circulation of money. Meanwhile the planet continues to grow more impoverished.

What does nature mean?

Peirce gave several accounts of the ‘triad of interpretants’ and did not always use the same terminology for them. One of the simplest appears in a 1909 letter to Lady Welby, where he compares the Immediate, Dynamical and Final interpretants with three corresponding concepts in her ‘Significs.’ The main difference arises from the fact that Welby is mainly concerned with the meanings expressed in language, while Peirce is more broadly concerned with signs in general, including ‘natural signs’ which are not intended to mean anything.

My Interpretant with its three kinds is supposed by me to be something essentially attaching to anything that acts as a Sign. Now natural Signs and symptoms have no utterer; and consequently have no Meaning, if Meaning be defined as the intention of the utterer. I do not allow myself to speak of the “purposes of the Almighty,” since whatever He might desire is done. Intention seems to me, though I may be mistaken, an interval of time between the desire and the laying of the train by which the desire is to be brought about. But it seems to me that Desire can only belong to a finite creature.
Your ideas of Sense, Meaning, and Signification seem to me to have been obtained through a prodigious sensitiveness of Perception that I cannot rival, while my three grades of Interpretant were worked out by reasoning from the definition of a Sign what sort of thing ought to be noticeable and then searching for its appearance. My Immediate Interpretant is implied in the fact that each Sign must have its own peculiar Interpretability before it gets any Interpreter. My Dynamical Interpretant is that which is experienced in each act of Interpretation and is different in each from that of any other; and the Final lnterpretant is the one Interpretative result to which every Interpreter is destined to come if the Sign is sufficiently considered. The Immediate Interpretant is an abstraction consisting in a Possibility. The Dynamical Interpretant is a single actual event. The Final Interpretant is that toward which the actual tends.

SS 111 (1909 March 14)

This clarifies the difference between the “purposes of the Almighty” and ‘that toward which the actual tends’: the tendencies of nature are real but not intentional. Creation is not meant to mean anything.


We are waves whose stillness is non-being.
We are alive because of this, that we have no rest.

— Abu-Talib Kalim (Shah 1968, 253)

Consciousness is a dis-ease of the mind. It rides upon the unconscious like foam upon the waves, like words upon meaning.

Spreading out

Evolution is an irreversible process, a process of increasing diversification and distribution. Only in this sense does evolution exhibit a consistent direction. Like entropy, it is a process of spreading out to whatever possibilities are unfilled and within reach of a little more variation.

— Deacon 1997, 29

The consciousness con

The conscious aspect of any thought is always embedded in a much larger and dominant unconscious aspect, upon which it depends for its existence and its meaning. Conscious aspects of thought are simple, relative to the complexity and intricacy of unconscious aspects.

Turner (1991, 39)

Most of us are in the habit of thinking that consciousness and psychic life are the same thing and otherwise greatly to overrate the functions of consciousness.