In “The Big Picture,” posted on resilience.org on 12-17-18, Richard Heinberg explains why we need to replace fossil fuels with other energy sources as soon as possible, then adds that “doing so fully would require massive investment, not just for building solar panels, wind turbines, or nuclear reactors (there are some serious problems with this latter option), but also for the retooling of manufacturing, transportation, buildings, and food systems to run on electricity instead of solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels. An energy transition is needed, but it’s not happening at even nearly the pace that would be required in order to forestall catastrophic climate change or to prevent economic decline resulting from the depletion of the world’s highest quality oil, coal, and gas resources. Industrial society’s failure to make this energy transition is no doubt due not just to well-funded opposition by the fossil fuel industry, but also to the enormous technical challenge posed, and to the failure of policy makers to champion and implement the carbon taxes and alternative energy subsidies that would be needed. And so we accelerate toward ecological and economic ruin.
This is fairly typical of what happens toward the end of the conservation phase of every civilization’s adaptive cycle. Each problem that arises, taken by itself, is usually solvable, at least in principle. But, as problems accumulate, leaders who are accustomed to (and benefit from) the status quo grow increasingly reluctant to undertake the changes to systems and procedures that would be required in order to address worrisome trends. And as those trends are ignored, the level of effort and discomfort needed to reverse them soars. Once solving problems requires too much perceived sacrifice, the only realistic ways to deal with them are to deny their existence or to blame others for them. Blame has the advantages of enabling leaders to look as though they’re actually doing something, and of winning loyalty from their followers. But it does nothing to actually stave off snowballing crises.
It’s easy enough to see how elites could lose touch with reality and miss signals of impending collapse. But why would everyone else follow suit? Recent discoveries in neuroscience help explain why it’s hard for most of us to grasp that we’re on an unsustainable path.
We humans have an understandable innate tendency, when making decisions, to give more weight to present threats and opportunities than to future ones. This is called discounting the future, and it makes it hard to sacrifice now to overcome an enormous future risk such as climate change. The immediate reward of vacationing in another country, for example, is likely to overwhelm our concern about the greenhouse gas footprint of our airline flight. Multiply that future-discounting tendency in one instance by the billions of individual decisions with climate repercussions and you can see why it’s difficult to actually reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions.
We humans are also wired to respond to novelty – to notice anything in our environment that’s out of place or unexpected and that might signal a potential threat or reward. Most types of reward increase the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine within the brain. Experiments have found that if an animal’s dopamine receptor genes are removed, it explores less and takes fewer risks, and without some exploration and risk taking, individuals have reduced chances of survival. But the human brain’s dopamine reward system, which evolved to serve this practical function, can be hijacked by addictive substances and behaviors. This is especially problematic in a culture full of novel stimuli specifically designed to attract our interest, such as the hundreds of advertising messages the average child sees each day. We’ve become addicted to stimuli that our culture has multiplied and refined specifically for the purpose of grabbing our attention (for fun and profit) to such a degree that we barely notice long-term trends that are as threatening as a charging rhino.
The power holders in society incentivize smart people below them in rank and wealth to normalize the unsustainable, deny impending consequences, and distract everyone from worsening contradictions. Economists who claim that economic growth can continue forever on a finite planet win Nobel Prizes. Politicians who argue that climate change is a hoax attract big campaign contributions. Pundits and entrepreneurs advance along their career paths by asserting that society can grow its way out of climate change and resource depletion traps through “decoupling” (service economies, it is claimed, can expand in perpetuity without requiring additional energy or physical resources). Technology mavens win fame and glory by informing us that artificial intelligence, 3D printing, or Blockchain will usher in the “singularity,” at which point no one will have to work and all human needs and desires can be satisfied by self-reproducing machines.
Denial comes in shades, some of them quite benign. Many thoughtful and informed people acknowledge the threats of climate change, species extinctions, soil depletion, and so on, and insist that we can overcome these threats if we just try harder. Elect different, more responsible politicians. Donate to environmental nonprofits. Drive an electric car. Install rooftop solar panels. Eat organic food. Shop at local farmers markets. These are all actions that move society in the right direction, but and there’s no point in discouraging them, but those who propose them are denying the reality that the overall trajectory of modern industrial society is beyond our control, and that it leads inexorably toward overshoot and collapse.
If all this is true, we now face more-or-less inevitable economic, social, political, and ecological calamity. Although no one can possibly predict at this point just how complete and awful collapse might actually be, even human extinction is conceivable (though no one can say with any confidence that it’s likely, much less inevitable). This is more than a fragile human psyche can bear. One’s own mortality is hard enough to contemplate. It’s no wonder therefore that so many of us opt for denial and distraction.
Our reasoning shuts down when we assume that collapse means a sudden and complete dissolution of everything meaningful. In reality, however, there are degrees of collapse, and history shows that the process has usually taken decades and sometimes centuries to unfold, often in stair-steps punctuated by periods of partial recovery. Further, it may be possible to intervene in collapse to improve outcomes – for ourselves, our communities, our species, and thousands of other species. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, medieval Irish monks may have “saved civilization” by memorizing and transcribing ancient texts. Could we, with planning and motivation, do as much and more?
Many of the things we could do toward this end are already being done in order to avert climate change and other converging crises. Again, people who voluntarily reduce energy usage, eat locally grown organic food, make the effort to get to know their neighbors, get off the consumer treadmill, reduce their debt, help protect local biodiversity by planting species that feed or shelter native pollinators, use biochar in their gardens, support political candidates who prioritize addressing the sustainability crisis, and contribute to environmental, population, and human rights organizations are all helping moderate the impending collapse and ensure that there will be more survivors. We could do more. Acting together, we could start to re-green the planet; begin to incorporate captured carbon not only in soils, but in nearly everything we make, including concrete, paper, and plastics; and design a new economic system based on mutual aid rather than competition, debt, and perpetual growth. All of these efforts make sense with or without the knowledge that civilization is nearing its sell-by date.
However, the Big Picture (an understanding of the adaptive cycle, the role of energy, and our overshoot predicament) adds both a sense of urgency, and also a new set of priorities that are currently being neglected. For example, when civilizations collapse, culturally significant knowledge is typically lost. It’s probably inevitable that we’ll lose a great deal of our shared knowledge during the coming centuries. Much of this information is trivial anyway (will our distant descendants really suffer from not having the ability to watch archived episodes of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ or ‘Storage Wars’?). Yet people across the globe now use fragile storage media – computer and server hard drives – to store everything from music to books to instruction manuals. In the event that the world’s electricity grids could no longer be maintained, we’d miss more than comfort and convenience; we could lose science, higher mathematics, and history.
It’s not only the dominant industrial culture that is vulnerable to information loss. Indigenous cultures that have survived for millennia are being rapidly eroded by the forces of globalization, resulting in the extinction of region-specific knowledge that could help future humans live sustainably.
Upon whom does the responsibility fall to curate, safeguard, and reproduce all this knowledge, if not those who understand its peril?
We at the Post Carbon Institute (PCI) have been aware of the Big Picture since the founding of the organization 15 years ago. We’ve been privileged to meet, and draw upon the insights of, some of the pioneering ecologists of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s who laid the basis of our current understanding of resilience science, systems thinking, climate change, resource depletion, and much more. And we’ve tried to convey that understanding to a younger generation of thinkers and activists. Throughout this time, we have continually grappled with the question, “What plan for action makes the most sense in the context of the Big Picture, given our meager organizational resources?”
After protracted discussion, we’ve hit upon the four-fold strategy described below.
Encourage resilience building at the community level.
Resilience is the capacity of a system to encounter disruption and still maintain its basic structure and functions. When it is in its conservation phase, a system’s resilience is typically at its lowest level. If it’s possible at this point to build resilience into the human social system, and ecological systems, then the approaching release phase of the cycle may be more moderate and less intense.
The community is the most available and effective level of scale at which to intervene in human systems. National action is difficult these days, and not only in the United States: discussions about nearly everything quickly become politicized, polarized, and contested. It’s at the community level where we most directly interact with the people and institutions that make up our society. It’s where we’re most affected by the decisions society makes: what jobs are available to us, what infrastructure is available for our use, and what policies exist that limit or empower us. And critically, it’s where the majority of us who don’t wield major political or economic power can most directly affect society, as voters, neighbors, entrepreneurs, volunteers, shoppers, activists, and elected officials.
PCI has supported Transition Initiatives since its inception as one useful, locally replicable, and adaptable model for community resilience building.
Leave good ideas lying around.
Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, quotes economist Milton Friedman, who wrote: ‘Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.’ Klein’s point is that the key to taking advantage of crises is having effective system-changing plans waiting in the wings for the ripe moment. That’s a strategy that makes sense as society as a whole teeters on the brink of an immensely disruptive shift.
What ideas and skills need to be lying around as industrial civilization crumbles? One collection of ideas and skills that’s already handily packaged and awaiting adoption is permaculture – a set of design tools for living created by ecologists back in the 1970s who understood that industrial civilization would eventually reach its limits. Another set consists of consensus group decision-making skills. The list could go on at some length.
Target innovators and early adopters.
Back in the 1960s, Everett Rogers, a professor of communications, contributed the theory of the Diffusion of Innovations, which describes how, why, and at what rate new ideas, social innovations, and technology spread throughout culture. The key to the theory is his identification of different types of individuals in the population, in terms of how they relate to the development and adoption of something new: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
Innovators are important, but the success of their efforts depends on diffusion of the innovation among early adopters, who tend to be few in number but exceptionally influential in the general population. At PCI, we have decided to focus our communications on early adopters.
Help people grasp the Big Picture.
Discussions about the vulnerability of civilization to collapse aren’t for everyone. Some of us are too psychologically fragile. All of us need a break occasionally, and time to feel and process the emotions that contemplating the Big Picture evokes. But for those able to take in the information, the Big Picture offers helpful perspective and provides a context for strategic action.
Earlier I explained how the findings of neuroscience help us understand why so many of us turn to denial and distraction in the face of threats to civilization’s survival. Neuroscience also teaches us that cooperative impulses are rooted deep in our evolutionary past, just like competitive ones. Self-restraint and empathy for others are partly learned behaviors, acquired and developed in the same way as our capacity for language. We inherit both selfishness and the capacity for altruism, but culture generally nudges us more in the direction of the latter, as parents are traditionally encouraged to teach their children to share and not to be wasteful or arrogant.
Disaster research informs us that, in the early phases of crisis, people typically respond with extraordinary degrees of cooperation and self-sacrifice. But if privation persists, they may turn toward blame and competition for scarce resources.
All of this suggests that the one thing that is most likely to influence how our communities get through the coming meta-crisis is the quality of relationships among members. A great deal depends on whether we exhibit pro-social attitudes and responses, while discouraging blame and panic. Those of us working to build community resilience need to avoid partisan frames and loaded words, appeal to shared values, and pull together in hopes of salvaging and protecting what’s most intrinsically valuable about our world, and perhaps even improving lives over the long term.
Hard times are in store. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. Each day of relative normalcy that remains is an occasion for thankfulness and an opportunity for action.”
Richard Heinberg is the author of thirteen books including: Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy, co-authored with David Fridley (2016), Afterburn(2015), Snake Oil(2013), and The End of Growth(2011). He’s been my go-to guru on energy and sustainability for years.