What can be done? — Part 1
Following the discussion of our civilization’s unrevealing (part 1 & part 2) and evaluating the probabilities of future scenarios one might ask: OK, now what? Before an absolute nihilism sets in, let’s review the adaptive responses our society as whole can give to the predicament at hand and see what might work and what not. As usual, I propose a structured approach, so no scenario is left sobbing in the corner feeling unfairly treated.
Before we delve deep into what can reasonably be done, let’s review the chain of underlying assumptions behind this analysis:
- Humans live in a self-organizing adaptive system called Earth. Nested within this, one can identify the world economy, which is also a self-organizing adaptive system, driven primarily by the energy available to it.
- There is no central planning though: as in all adaptive systems change is driven by evolution, running its ‘diversify, select, multiply’ algorithm in endless loops.
- In order for change to happen, first the circumstances (i.e. the environment) has to swap into a new state. This is exactly what we are witnessing at the moment with climate change and economic difficulties as a result of the former as well as the increasing cost of getting energy and resource depletion.
- As a result, the coming changes affecting the course of our civilization will be a sum of adaptive responses. All of these responses will be tested against the changed environment and selected based on their fitness to keep energy use to its maximum available level — not based on how hard we wish them to become true.
- Maladaptive social behaviors (requiring or tying up too much energy) will be discarded on a large scale, while solutions forcing an energy use too low compared to what is available will be outcompeted by other methods using net energy to its maximum available level — thus preventing the society as a whole to run ahead of the curve in anticipation of what’s coming.
The aim of this two-part essay is to discover what might potentially happen and where one might put his or her effort to be successful in a highly uncertain future. It follows that this is not a prophecy, rather a sort of eye-opener to our reality (or a probable outcome to it at least) with an ultimate goal of dispelling the many myths around our future. The sooner we realize what is really going on, the better positioned we will be to quit this madness and move on laying the foundations for a better civilization.
The scale revisited
In my last essay about realistic expectations I’ve laid out a theoretical model, trying to evaluate the possibilities of future scenarios coming about. I’ve started with pessimistic ones on the left and reviewed each till I hit the far end of ultimate optimism on the right. (Please read my previous post for a detailed explanation on the chart.)
Now, let’s imagine what could be done if any of the above were to come true and see if these solutions could be successful adaptive responses in a rapidly changing environment. I propose to start our exploration from left to right, moving gradually into more and more positive scenarios.
Homo sapiens: went extinct
In case of a total nuclear annihilation or near term human extinction due abrupt climate change there is not much left to do. Should you be 100% sure that this is our future within a decade or so, then make sure you repair your relationships and live life as harmlessly as possible. Live up to your values, care for who you love and plant trees, so at least non-human life has a chance of restarting after the calamity. Michael, I’m looking at you! Since none of us survives this event I see no reason to think about other adaptive human behaviors.
If at least a few scattered groups of people were to be found alive still, a few hundred years after the above mentioned apocalypse, humanity has earned a fair chance for a very slow recovery. In these scenarios, whether they’re due to wars possibly involving a small scale nuclear exchange, or to runaway climate change causing a multi-breadbasket failure, but tapering off right before it kills all vertebrate life on Earth, our civilization ends abruptly (in a course of a couple of years).
This would leave us with only a handful of people scavenging among the ruins for canned food and other useful supplies. In case of a sudden civilization collapse contrary to popular belief — propagated by movies and series — I see no adaptive advantage on the long run in wandering the wasteland and shooting everyone on sight to take their supplies. If we have such a bad event that kills off more than three quarters of humanity in a matter of months or years, remaining survivors have a much better chance forming communities around sources of water and arable lands and establishing trade lines between each other. Adaptive behaviors like building shelters together, storing food for winter, organizing patrols to ward off marauders, will prove to be the only viable option in the long run (and will naturally put an end to a lifestyle of shooting and killing).
What can we do today anticipating such an event? Should we build underground shelters and hide stocks of canned food and ammo while we still can? This approach would be maladaptive due to a number of reasons. First, when mass starvation kicks in and people are hungry, they will do whatever it takes to get food — especially if they have four hungry mouths to feed at home. At first your neighbor will ask gently if you have anything to share. Then your aunt calls if you have a spare can of beans. At this point you can decide to: a) share your stock one can at a time, which would make you a revered person in your community, or (and this is more likely knowing the ‘prepper’ mentality) choose b) saying no to further requests, telling a lie that you have nothing left. Sooner or later though people will figure out that you do have hidden food… This will then serve as a ‘casus belli’ (justification) for coming after you and trying to kill you: you have denied sharing food with them thus sentencing them to death — so you deserve nothing better. They will be coming at you day and night and as soon as you (and your friends) will run out of ammo, or fall asleep in your watchtower, you are history. If you had plans to hide your stash in a bunker in the woods — forget about it too. Locals, especially curious kids, will figure out when you leave for purchasing more supplies and steal your stuff in the meantime.
What you actually do by hiding food is an attempt going against assumption #5: “Maladaptive social behaviors (requiring or tying up too much energy) will be discarded…” In energetic terms preppers store valuable energy in large quantities (more than they can use up in a year), thus preventing the adaptive system (society) to distribute and use it up by burning all available energy and keeping alive the largest population possible. Surplus energy sends a signal that it is there for the taking, luring the system to get it and use it up.
It follows — for me at least — that the most well adapted response to a sudden collapse is not prepping, but forming strong, mutual relationships and sharing with your neighbors starting today; rugged individualists will be cast out and killed.
Social norms of sharing are there for a reason: long time ago in our evolutionary past cooperative people who shared what they had could expect the same act of kindness in return. This has balanced out inequalities of luck in getting food and made the entire group using this tactic more successful and thriving for multiple generations to come. Evolution was at work here — this time on a cultural level — it has experimented with multiple options to deal with scarcity and finally came up with cooperation, which has proved to be a well working model over the millenniums.
Strangely, fierce competition is only viable in an energy abundant environment, where the system has the luxury of letting its members die in conflict. As soon as real scarcity hits, or an equilibrium sets in, competition slowly gives way to cooperation (which is more energy efficient and aimed at maximizing total energy use instead of individual success). The transition phase between the two can be rough though, when scarcity has already arrived, but evolution did not have the time to sort out competitive behavior yet.
If you believe that sudden collapse is unlikely, how about a slow simplification? In these scenarios — ranging from catabolic collapse to voluntary simplification — society slowly looses all of its current complexity in a 50–150 years time-frame. According to Joseph Tainter’s definition this translates to the loss of numerous differentiated and specialized social and economic roles, as well as shedding the many mechanisms through which they are coordinated. Specialization involves reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not taking their part in primary resource production. Since this level of complexity requires a substantial energy subsidy, when energy is in shorter and shorter supply, this “luxury” has to be got rid of in a step by step manner.
This leaves us with a much larger playground for experimenting with various adaptive behaviors than any other set of scenarios mentioned before. Energy is still widely available, there is plenty of social and technological complexity to give up (as buffer) and there is plenty of time compared to the previous cases (because decline is going to take decades vs years).
Let’s take ‘permaculture’ or ‘back to the land movement’ for example. Can society collectively run ahead and move to eco-villages? It might make sense for an individual, but leaving a lot of resources untapped is not what complex systems do on a daily basis. Translated to everyday human language: vast majority of the people will continue enjoying the easy life provided by still available fossil fuels and give it up only when energy becomes absolutely unaffordable for them. Why? Because individuals themselves are energy maximizing organisms. Who would like to toil on the fields while one can drive into a supermarket and buy everything one needs? Sure, this later lifestyle requires energy an order of magnitude higher than simple farm life — but hey, it’s not your body’s energy… That’s the difference, hence the case for “laziness” and the reluctance of many to make the shift today. Plus one earns a lot of social status by displaying a wholly disproportionate energy use (like driving ever bigger and heavier SUV-s)
For this reason individuals who are already aware of what is coming can do little (put more honestly: nothing), to stop the world slipping into a slow involuntary collapse. They are the outliers, not the norm: mere anomalies in a vast adaptive system. Sure, planning de-growth centrally could help soften the blow even to the point that the losses would be minimal, but there is no central planning in an adaptive system, only constantly struggling wanna be power centers.
After coming to peace with the fact that permaculture or back to the land movement can engage only a relatively small minority (which is nevertheless increasing as economic hardships makes this a viable option for more and more people) one might still decide to leave civilization behind and move to an eco-village as a preemptive step. A warning has to be raised though: what if, there comes a larger than usual economic avalanche, or a climate disaster pushing towns around your village into deep poverty and leaving their citizens hungry? Soon enough some of them will realize that there is a nice village nearby which is independent enough to grow and store its own food… “maybe, they have something to share — come on, let’s pay them a visit…” Hopefully this will turn out to be a friendly visit, offering labor for food and thus providing a great opportunity for this lifestyle to proliferate. It would be wise though to build up conflict handling skills and hostage negotiation techniques within the village and elect an emotionally competent leader to facilitate a peaceful resolution to such potential sources of future conflicts.
There is a small, yet intellectually well informed movement within economics and politics called de-growth — advocating for the abandonment of the GDP metric and placing higher emphasis on gross national happiness instead (as it was done in Bhutan). Done properly, a coordinated retreat from industrialism has the potential to avert the worst effects of an involuntary rapid simplification.
The thing is, besides the individual/systemic concerns raised above, that by now this coordinated retreat has to be an emergency evacuation operation instead, with a war-like effort and support from the entire society. Sure, it would be a nice adaptive response to a failing energy supply — but done purely vocationally? Hardly.
There are two major political obstacles to perform this voluntarily. One: not even great leaders, like Jimmy Carter former president of the USA could convince people of the true necessity of this to happen, despite the oil shock of 1979 causing a serious decline in net energy. Climate change was already known to him as a potential threat, not to mention the dire consequences of growth pointed out by the Limits to Growth study. He was well informed, but people were energy blind (a term coined by Nate Hagens) and become even more so with time. The topic — that we have a huge energy crunch in front of us — is wholly invisible to the public still to this date and politicians still think that tinkering with regulations and money can solve everything.
Two: the elites — theoretically capable to make this decision — have became completely entrapped by now: were they to decide that we all shed complexity starting today and revert our societies into a low-tech permaculture, masses of dissatisfied people would blame them for loosing their privileges instantly. On the other hand, if they continue to pretend that everything is fine, thus maximizing energy and resource use today, they could win quite a few more elections, or otherwise stay in power — before got finally overthrown by the hungry masses. Knowingly or unknowingly they are trading lives for time.
Changing nothing or pretending to do so in a comfortably far away future continues to remain a viable survival strategy — at least in the short term. It thus serves as proof for assumption #2 (lack of central planning)… It is as if the entire system had a vital instinct fighting tooth and nail to stay alive just a day longer. A behavior widely observable in nature: like swarms of locusts, eating every plant until there is nothing left to eat. Of course there is no European Commission of Locusts, but they have no political pretense neither. They’re just doing what they are urged to do: eating up the planet. Any similarities?
Times They Are a-Changin’
Changes come when it’s time for a change to happen. Not sooner — not later. Although many (myself included) wish for a coordinated de-growth, the preservation of what’s left of nature and a life lived more slowly… the time hasn’t come yet (see assumption #3). Simply put, there is still too much energy available in the system luring people to use it all up.
One of my favorite example for the importance of timing is the story of Mahatma Gandhi. He acted at the right time at the right place: the British Empire was falling apart already due to a world war it barely survived and — surprise — it’s lack of energy to keep itself together. Coal as an energy resource was already waning in the Empire, and the North Sea oil was still decades away from extraction. Were this not the case and Gandhi would not stand a chance.
In our world where the majority still believes that there is a solution to climate change, while not having the faintest clue about resource depletion or ecological collapse ending this civilization sooner that we heat up the planet to uninhabitable levels, maybe the wisest option is to play pretend, that things can be repaired — in order to avoid being ostracized. To quote Thomas Stephen Szasz:
“Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society.”
It’s not an excuse and it’s not a nice place to be neither. If one would like to see a true social change, one have to be patient and wait for the right moment, like an “unexpected” economic shock to convey the message and get people onboard. If they see that you are one of them, their trusted colleague, friend, or spouse you will have a much higher chance of convincing them, than an outcast shouting on the street. All we can do at the moment is to keep telling our interpretation of the world — in increasing doses — hoping that finally we can catch an ear.
What is your response to the situation, living in the last years (decade?) of pretense? Do the people surrounding you hear the same music as you do? Are they willing to dance?
Note, that this is a an extremely privileged problem however: agonizing over the end of this civilization is a proof of a life lived in luxury. Billions of people are living paycheck to paycheck or even worse: hand to mouth (spending what they earn on food the same day). They don’t have neither the time nor the means to think about these issues — only suffer the consequences.
Having the time and resources to read my rumblings means that you are privileged too. Nevertheless, we are — I am — here for a reason, musing about the future: hoping to show a way forward and helping as many as possible, as this civilization slowly disintegrates, re-calibrating the hopes of similarly privileged individuals on the way, and helping them to move over doom and getting into meaningful action.
Finding a way forward
While waiting for the time to come to finally drive the message home for the masses of deniers, there is actually quite a lot that can be done. I can only echo John Michael Greer in advising to start by learning a new skill. Wilderness survival, mushroom identification, basic farming, water filtration, repairing electric and mechanic machinery comes to my mind here. As I pointed it out above, it is not for your sole benefit though! In times of hardship this knowledge can mean life or death for a small community (finding something to eat and having drinkable water is essential). Use your last years of privilege provided by cheap fossil fuels and massive inequality to acquire useful skills for the future of less energy, services and products — so that you can give something back to those who unknowingly supported you for so long.
This remaining time can also be used to adopt a long forgotten technology as also advised by JMG, which requires little to no electricity or gas to operate, but a lot of skill and manpower. Using a scythe is a case in point, just like learning to grow vegetables or preserving food by smoking, curing and salting. Ask elderly people how they lived 70 years ago and use your time with them to learn whatever you can. I’m sure they will be grateful for your audience.
Learning takes relatively little resources — provided you have the time and a good teacher. People with advanced organizing skills could use their network to create ‘folklore schools’ getting the teachers and their audience together. Should I be wrong about the future, and you had a good time while being in good company. Should I be right, and you will be far better adapted to a future of less energy. If there is a word like pre-adoption this could be its meaning. Its like rediscovering long forgotten genes in gene-pool making them ready to proliferate when the time comes.
See? By accepting the unthinkable, that this civilization is finished a whole range of possibilities open up. When you no longer want to save it, or wake people up to it, but simply accept the fact that the world proceeds on its tracks as it always did, there is quite a lot that can be done.
Anticipate change rather than fighting the inevitable.
Until the next time,