Chaos, Havoc, and The American Abyss

“If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” – Thomas Hardy

In the final days before the 2016 American presidential election the pundits were out in force, engaged in collective hand-wringing.  Glancing through lists of commentaries and op-eds, here are some of the titles:

Don’t Trust the Future to President Havoc, America and the Abyss, An Order of Chaos, Please, Venomous 2016 Race Slithers to a Finish, Who Broke Politics?, Democracy’s Majesty and 2016’s Indignity, Final Days – Awful Choice, Europe on Pins and Needles, The First 100 Horrific Days of a Trump Presidency, America’s Descent into Banana Republican-ism, An Election is Not a Suicide Mission, Liberals Cried Wolf about Bush and Romney and We Were Wrong – Fascist Trump is Different, and The Post-Truth Presidency.

How did it come to this? And where are we headed after the election?

Many have speculated on the reasons for the current crisis in American politics, and surely there are many facets that have played a part, and there are many angles to cover.  Richard Heinberg’s recent analysis (An Order of Chaos, Please) covers much of the same ground  I was intending to cover here, and serves as a good introduction.  He begins by disabusing us of the notion that things will return to normal once the election cycle has concluded. He then shares the somewhat conventional wisdom that many Americans these days, formerly of the middle class, do not have things as well as their parents did. The “wage class” has declined in both income and political power, thanks in part to globalization and other forces. Backs are up against the wall, and people are ready for change. The same-old, same-old doesn’t cut it.

collapse

Heinberg then takes it a step further, telling us that “American civilization was destined to unravel anyway.” He mentions Joseph Tainter’s work, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,”  and offers the sobering analysis that “social pressures from unsustainable debt levels, increasing inequality, and rampant corruption” are the new normal, thanks to “deeper infrastructural issues having to do with resource depletion, pollution (in the form of climate change), and the essential unsustainability of economic growth.” The current election cycle is merely the prelude to an unfolding spectacle of America’s fabric coming apart.

Heinberg eloquently sums up the depressing scenario that seems all too likely:

“The government of the United States of America has developed increasing numbers of tics, limps, and embarrassing cognitive lapses during the past ten or 15 years, but it has managed to go on with the show. Yet as dysfunction snowballs, a maintenance crisis becomes inevitable at some point. When the crunch comes (most likely as a result of the next cyclical economic downturn, which is already overdue and could be much worse than that of 2008), we will reap the fruits of a system that is simply no longer capable of acting cooperatively to solve problems.”

“…The nightmare of the election itself will end soon.  But we may not like what we wake up to.”

Indeed. We are now being forced to wake up today to a Trump presidency and a divided country.

There is another writer who had a perspective that I have found to be unique, timely, and insightful. His name is Peter Pogany.  One of his last major papers, written in 2013 (Thermodynamic Isolation and the New World Order) before he passed in 2014, was about havoc, chaos, and the abyss, and it was turned into a book published in 2015: Havoc, Thy Name is 21st Century.

Havoc

As dismal as his short term outlook was, Pogany wasn’t all doom and gloom. Like Michael Dowd, Pogany was a short term pessimist, but a long term optimist (Dowd calls himself an “apocaloptimist,” listen to his interview discussing with Terry Patten The New Ten Commandments and the Coming Apocaloptimism here).

Pogany was an economist who saw that “a stagnating economy is civil discontent waiting to happen – especially at a time when government spending must be curbed.” Our current world economy is structured so that it requires continued growth at unsustainable rates just to maintain our standard of living.  We’ve hit the wall, and the wage class around the world is responding – Brexit and President-elect Donald Trump are two corresponding results. According to Pogany, the world is in the beginning phase of a “nonlinear macrohistoric episode” – a chaotic transition, which he saw as a necessity to precipitate a crisis of consciousness that would eventually lead to the wide-spread “integral a-rational” consciousness structure, as based on the thinking of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser

“What will it take to go from considering tightened modes of multilateral governance a monstrous dystopia to people around the world on their knees begging for a planetary Magna Carta that is more detailed, focused and enforceable than the United Nations Charter of 1945? It will take nothing less than a mutation in consciousness, as outlined by the Swiss thinker, Jean Gebser (1905-1973). But a mutation of the implied magnitude amounts to nothing less than a break with centuries of ingrained habits, values, and expectations. It is simply inconceivable without the hard fate of macrohistoric turmoil.”

Darkness must come before a new dawn. It is Pogany’s work that we’ll continue to discuss in more detail in posts to come. An overview of his work can be found on our Peter Pogany page. Many of his older essays are archived at Resilience.org here.

Read Part 2 of this series here: Consciousness and the New World Order

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Crash on Demand: David Holmgren updates his Future Scenarios

Future ScenariosDavid Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept, published Future Scenarios in 2007, originally as a website, and then published by Chelsea Green in 2008 as a small book (126 pages). He explores four possible human futures as the two great crises of Peak Oil and Climate Change converge into what he has coined our energy descent future.  In my view, this is essential reading. Adam Grubb, founder of Energy Bulletin, characterized it like this:

These aren’t two-dimensional nightmarish scenarios designed to scare people into environmental action. They are compellingly fleshed-out visions of quite plausible alternative futures, which delve into energy, politics, agriculture, social, and even spiritual trends. What they do help make clear are the best strategies for preparing for and adapting to these possible futures.

Three years later, in 2010, Holmgren contributed an additional important essay, Money Vs. Fossil Energy: The Battle for Control of the World. Holmgren describes this essay as “a framework for understanding the ideological roots of the current global crisis that I believe is more useful than the now tired Left Right political spectrum.”  Like all of his work, it is based on a profound energetic literacy, and is quite startling and original, and “challenges much of the strategic logic behind current mainstream climate change activism.”

A year ago, in a December 2012 interview, Holmgren was asked:

What do you see as the biggest challenges in our struggle to control our resources today?

His Answer:

After a lifetime of focusing on the biological basis for existence, and then the energetic basis, I’ve now become more and more interested in money, ironically, after ignoring it for most of my life. On the downside of the energy peak, it’s actually the bubble economies that can unravel so fast, that become almost the most important thing in shaping the immediate future. That bubble economy is, of course, actually falling apart right now. So a lot of the mainstream sustainability strategies assume we have a growing and steady economy. Permaculture works from the basis that we can adapt and do these adaptions in an ad-hoc way from the bottom up, and we’ve been doing that essentially for 30 years without the support of government and corporations. I’m not saying that we’ve got all the answers, but there’s a lot of people out there who are modeling and have been modeling how creative responses are going to happen.

David Holmgren

David Holmgren

The 2013 Update

And now a year later, as 2013 draws to a close, David Holmgren has published a new essay (a 24 page pdf download), which is an update of Future Scenarios, builds on Money Vs. Fossil Fuels, and expands his new focus on money and economy.  The essay is titled Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future.

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Six years on, of the four scenarios outlined in Future Scenarios, Holmgren is seeing the Brown Tech scenario as the one currently in play, where the decline of fossil fuels unfolds slowly, “but the severity of global warming symptoms is at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions.” The political system is Corporatist, and emphasis is placed on replacing declining conventional fossil fuels with lower grade fossil fuels, which are both more expensive and also release more GGE (Greenhouse Gas Emissions), which exacerbates Climate Change even further. The introduction to this essay states:

David’s argument is essentially that radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff.  It maybe a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers; whether by sweet promises of green tech profits or alternatively threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption.

browntech_logosmlw_bt

In the extensive discussions about money and economy, the influence of systems analyst Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh -The Automatic Earth) and economist Steve Keen (Debt Deflation) are strong and freely acknowledged. Holmgren believes that deflationary economics is the most powerful factor shaping our immediate future.

The basic recommendation (as noted in the quote above) is not much different from what David Holmgren has been recommending for 30 years: to engage in a shift away from being a dependent c0nsumer, and toward being a responsible self-reliant producer for your household and community, and to shift a significant portion of assets out of the mainstream economy and move them into building household and community resilience. These actions not only put us in a more secure position, they also, if engaged by perhaps 10% of the population of affluent countries, might be just enough to shift our economies out of the perpetual growth paradigm we’ve been inhabiting since at least the industrial revolution, and is now only hanging on via  a rising debt bubble. The collapse of the current bubble economy will be painful. However, given that current growth is only being made possible by rising debt, we are not doing ourselves any favors by perpetuating it. As he had previously pointed out in Future Scenarios:

…without radical behavioral and organizational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.

Holmgren makes the case that while it may be too late for the Green Tech scenario to materialize, it may still be possible to avoid the worst effects of the Brown Tech scenario (a 4 to 6 degree “Climate Cooker” Lifeboats scenario). A severe global economic collapse could switch off enough GGE to begin reversing climate change, so that the Earth Steward scenario of bioregional economies based on frugal rural agrarian living, assisted by resources salvaged from the collapsed global economy and the defunct national governments, might emerge in the long term future.

It’s not a picture of a bright and shiny future, granted. The last 10 pages or so, however, I found to be quite stimulating, and opened up more possibilities for positive engagement. Topics discussed are Nested Scenarios (different scenarios co-existing at different scales); Investment and Divestment; Formal and Informal Economies; Alternative and Non-monetary Economies; Labor and Skill Vs Fossil Fuel and Technology; Brown Tech Possibilities; Actors at the Fringe; and Not Financial Terrorists (but Terra-ists with hands in the soil). There are also many great footnotes/links worth following up on.

This is a highly recommended essay – essential reading for those trying to make sense of our long term future and how we can best make a positive difference.

[*Update 8/06/14*: After you’ve read Crash On Demand, you might want to also consult the single page Crash On Demand: Concise Version which clarifies and attempts to answer questions, such as “Is David saying that the system will crash anyway and by scaling up permaculture activities will fasten the inevitable, or is he really calling for non-violent efforts to crash the economic system,  to save the planet, or is he not calling for that?” Hopefully this post, as well as my blog posts “Crash on Demand and “What is David Holmgren Really Telling Us?” will also answer these questions.]

Related, on Integral Permaculture:

David Holmgren 2011 Interview: Strategies for the Transition
Nicole Foss on Deliberate Attempts to Cause System Failure

 

Lessons from the Ages, Part 1
Lessons from the Ages, Part 2

Other Related Articles
Conversation with David Holmgren (a 15 minute radio interview, where Holmgren is forced to give concise answers to key questions)
Retrofitting the Suburbs for a Resilient Future (Excellent David Holmgren video presentation of his famously practical vision for the future of suburbia)
Powerdown: Let’s Talk About It (popular recent post by Joanne Poyourow of Transition US)
Downloading Responsibility
(Extraenvironmentalist interview with Nicole Foss and Laurence Boomert)
Climate After Growth: Why Environmentalists Must Embrace Post-Growth Economics and Community Resilience (Rob Hopkins and Asher Miller appeal to environmental activists, urging to let go of the growth paradigm)