Citizen Action Monitor

What To Do? about our existential crisis – Richard Heinberg proposes a four-fold strategy —

Encourage resilience building at community level; Leave good ideas lying around; Target innovators and early adopters; and Help people grasp The Big Picture

No 2530 Posted by fw, October 13, 2019

Richard Heinberg

“All of the above [as presented in Repost 1] may help us better understand why the world seems to be running off the rails. But the implications are horrific. If all this is true, then we now face more-or-less inevitable economic, social, political, and ecological calamity. And since industrial civilization is now global, and human population levels are multiples higher than in any previous century, this calamity could occur on a scale never seen before. 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 is likely, much less inevitable). … We at 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 strived 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 a four-fold strategy.”Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute

Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, a prolific author and speaker, is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost educators on the need to transition society off fossil fuels.

Because of the length of Heinberg’s December 2018 article titled The Big Picture, I am presenting it in two reposts. Yesterday, in my Repost 1, Heinberg set out to help us better understand why the world seems to be running off the rails.

Today, in Repost 2, I picked up where Richard left off in Repost 1, with a question, What to Do? – referencing what to do about a world that seems to be running off the rails.

[Personal observation – To be candid, at times I found Heinberg’s writing style and formatting to be confusing. For example, in today’s Repost 2, he introduces Post Carbon Institute’s “four-fold strategy” as an action plan, but then he fails to number the four components, which leaves the reader to figure out what they are. Writers should never make work for readers.]

Below is my Repost 2 of Richard Heinberg’s article, including my subheadings and highlighted text. Alternatively, read Heinberg’s complete article as published on the Post Carbon Institute’s website by clicking on the following linked title.

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The Big Picture by Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute, December 19, 2018

[NOTE — The three components of Heinberg’s conceptual “Big Picture” are — The Adaptive Cycle, Role of Energy, and Overshoot Predicament]

What to Do?

Human extinction is conceivable but not inevitable

All of the above [in Repost 1] may help us better understand why the world seems to be running off the rails. But the implications are horrific. If all this is true, then we now face more-or-less inevitable economic, social, political, and ecological calamity. And since industrial civilization is now global, and human population levels are multiples higher than in any previous century, this calamity could occur on a scale never seen before. 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 is likely, much less inevitable).

Given the threat of human extinction, opting for denial and distraction may be our way of coping

This is more than a fragile human psyche can bear. One’s own mortality is hard enough to contemplate. A school of psychology (“terror management theory”) proposes that many of our cultural institutions and practices (religion, values of national identity) exist at least in part to help us deal with the intolerable knowledge of our inevitable personal demise. How much harder must it be to acknowledge signs of the imminent passing of one’s entire way of life, and the extreme disruption of familiar ecosystems? It is therefore no wonder that so many of us opt for denial and distraction.

For many, our capacity for reasoning shuts down just when we need it most

There’s no question that collapse is a scary word. When we hear it, we tend to think immediately of images from movies like Mad Max and The Road. We assume collapse means a sudden and complete dissolution of everything meaningful. Our reasoning shuts down. But this is just when we need it most.

Could we, with planning and motivation, intervene in a relatively slow collapse process to improve outcomes?

In reality, 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?

Things that are already being done to avert climate change and converging crises

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

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. How we describe the goals of these efforts—whether as ways of improving people’s lives, as ways to save the planet, as fulfilling the evolutionary potential of our species, as contributing to a general spiritual awakening, or as ways of moderating an inevitable civilizational crash—is relatively unimportant.

Understanding the Big Picture – The Adaptive Cycle, Role of Energy, Overshoot Predicament — provides a conceptual framework for action

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 will 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?).

If we lose electricity grids, think of the loss of civilization’s culturally significant knowledge

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 would miss more than comfort and convenience; we could lose science, higher mathematics, and history.

Globalization is eroding region-specific culture and knowledge

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.

Who is responsible for safeguarding all this knowledge?

Upon whom does the responsibility fall to curate, safeguard, and reproduce all this knowledge, if not those who understand its peril?

Act Where You Are: Community Resilience

Heinberg proposes Post Carbon Institute’s four-fold strategy as a plan for action 

We at 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 strived 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 a four-fold strategy.

[1] Encourage resilience building at the community level

Definition of resilience

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 throughout the entire adaptive cycle. If it is 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.

Five reasons why resilience building is best undertaken in communities

Why undertake resilience building in communities, rather than attempting to do so at the national or international level?

      • It’s because 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 do not 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.

[2] 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.”

Be wary of those who use the “shock doctrine” to undermine transition efforts of progressives

Friedman and other neoliberal economists have used this “shock doctrine” for decades to undermine regional economies, national governments, and indigenous cultures in order to further the project of corporate-led economic globalization. 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. And that’s a strategy that makes sense as society as a whole teeters on the brink of an immensely disruptive shift.

Research into, and document, proven planning tools and skill sets already available

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.

[3] Target innovators and early adopters.

Investigate the contributions of communication professor Everett Rogers (1931-2004)

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.

[4] Help people grasp the Big Picture.

Discussions about the vulnerability of civilization to collapse are not 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 inevitably evokes. But for those able to take in the information and still function, the Big Picture offers a helpful perspective. It confirms what many of us already intuitively know. And it provides a context for strategic action.

Pro-Social, Nonpartisan

From passive hope to active hope

I’m frequently asked if I have hope for the future. My usual reply is along these lines: hope is not just an expectation of better times ahead; it is an active attitude, a determination to achieve the best possible outcome regardless of the challenges one is facing. PCI Fellow David Orr summed this up best when he wrote, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

This above all – Equip people with reliable and valid grounds for believing resilient outcomes are possible

However, if that’s as far as the discussion goes, merely redefining “hope” may seem facile and unsatisfying. The questioner wants and needs reasonable grounds for believing that an outcome is possible that is something other than horrific. There is indeed evidence along these lines, and it should not be ignored. Nevertheless, evolution is real, and for humans it occurs more rapidly via culture than through genes. It is entirely possible, therefore, that we humans are rapidly evolving to live more peacefully in larger groups.

Be ever-mindful of the good news about human nature

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 terrible threats to civilization’s survival. Neuroscience also offers good news: it 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 (I witnessed this in the immediate aftermath of wildfires in my community of Santa Rosa, California). But if privation persists, they may turn toward blame and competition for scarce resources.

The quality of relationships among community members will influence outcomes in crisis situations

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, and appeal to shared values. Everyone must understand that we’re all in this together.

The Big Picture can help here, if it aids people in grasping that the collapse of civilization is not any one group’s fault. It is only by pulling together that we can hope to salvage and protect what is most intrinsically valuable about our world, and perhaps even improve lives over the long term.

Every day of relative normalcy is an occasion for thankfulness and an opportunity for action

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.

END OF REPOST 2 OF 2

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