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.
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.
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.
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?
The winter solstice is here at last. It’s comforting to know (as well as we can know anything about the future) that tomorrow the northern hemisphere will begin tilting back towards the sun and the daylight hours will begin to increase. Our solar-powered life here on Manitoulin Island will become more secure; by February we will hardly need our generator at all to keep our batteries charged up. In the meantime we can enjoy tramping about the woods with our snowshoes, or watching the chickadees and goldfinches at the feeder.
The global news is not so good. The climate summit in Madrid, COP25, was an abject failure, with the big polluters blocking any attempt at a concerted international effort to significantly reduce greenouse gas emissions. We can expect no genuine leadership to come from the top levels of our governments. That leaves it up to us at the local level to build up our relilience as we deal with the ongoing emergencies. As for instance the Dutch agroecology movement is doing.
The more we humans carry on consuming our context as we have been, the less likely we are to manage the consequences. For instance, where will the hundreds of millions of climate refugees go in the coming decades – now that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet and driven so many other species to extinction? One journalist in Madrid was musing about all this, and about the Greta phenomenon, as he watched the negotiations fall apart.
My own musing is this: whether we manage to “manage” or not, i hope we can at least wake up from the dream of “progress” and live our time wholeheartedly. I find more resonance than ever in Thoreau’s words from Walden:
God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.…
Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature … Be it life or death, we crave only reality.
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.
Living in these rapidly changing times is a challenge on many levels. There are many internet resources that can help us all meet the challenges in one way or another. Today i will just redirect you to one that i consult almost every day: resilience.org, a program of the Post Carbon Institute. Click around there and see if you don’t find something interesting. Then bookmark it, or even better, sign up to get a daily email showing the latest additions to the site.