Richard Heinberg advises “repurposing growth capital now to help unwind the doomsday machine sooner rather than later.” —
No 2717 Posted by fw, March 6, 2021 —
“[T]he growth mechanisms of society have become global in many important respects, and the impacts of its growth are also global. The networked economy has become a kind of a superorganism with a collective metabolism and an inherent imperative toward expansion at all cost. That means collapse will also be global—indeed a kind of doomsday, after which the continuation of the human experiment may be very difficult…. Nearly everyone wants more economic growth so as to patch our problems in the short run, even if it will make matters much worse in the long run. But nobody wants to be around when the timer reaches zero. … Not many people understand that they’re in a doomsday machine. But those who do naturally feel a responsibility to extricate themselves and others in a way that minimizes overall damage and destruction. Remember: the sooner the machine stops, the fewer the total casualties; however, stopping the machine suddenly now would result in casualties sooner rather than later. …When we eventually come out of the pandemic, there will be innumerable opportunities not just to ‘build back better,’ but to completely rethink systems so that they reduce our vulnerabilities, rather than adding to them.… Redesign, preserve, build alternatives, subvert, and brace for impact — for the remainder of this century, these should be our watchwords.” —Richard Heinberg — Resilience
Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He presently serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
Below is my abridged repost of another of Richard’s excellent contributions, delivered with concise clarity, and with my added subheadings, text highlighting, selected bulletted formatting, and images. Alternatively, to read his original piece on the Resilience website, click on the following linked title.
Global growth mechanism is capitalism’s doomsday machine ending in global collapse
If a society is geographically bounded, the systematic encouragement of the accumulation of growth capital just results in localized overshoot or collapse. Once it gets into gear, the eventual outcome is certain. But now the growth mechanisms of society have become global in many important respects, and the impacts of its growth are also global… The networked economy has become a kind of a superorganism with a collective metabolism and an inherent imperative toward expansion at all cost. That means collapse will also be global—indeed a kind of doomsday, after which the continuation of the human experiment may be very difficult.
Survivors may be few and miserable, unable to mount a meaningful recovery
There will likely be survivors—human and non-human—but they may be few and miserable, and unable to mount a meaningful ecological or social recovery, perhaps for many centuries if ever.
Our existential dilemma — Stopping this doomsday machine will also result in economic collapse
Industrial capitalism resembles a kind of doomsday machine. If left to continue its “countdown” to the bitter end, it will consume nearly all of Earth’s resources and natural habitat while filling waste sinks to overflowing. That is an outcome no one would wish for. But we have all become dependent on the machine for our livelihoods, and stopping it in its tracks will result in economic collapse, throwing billions of people into a state of misery and famine.
We are the cogs in this machine – consumer addiction drives endless economic growth
So, everybody wants the economy to grow—and thus for the machine to continue toward its inevitable destruction. But the longer growth continues, the bigger the eventual collapse. Our entire society is the machine, and we are cogs in its gears.
The machine has been constructed on the backs of the poor
It’s no accident that the doomsday machine of global industrial capitalism has been constructed largely at the expense not just of nature’s ability to continue functioning, but also the labor of the poorer segments of humanity, who will also be most immediately impacted by the machine’s destruction. As Jason Hickel points out in a brief and searing interview, “the Global South contributes about 80 percent of the labor and resources that go into the global economy, and yet the people who render that labor and those resources receive about five percent of the income that the global economy generates each year.”
Paradoxically, the chief cause of our current crises are past solutions
Ironically, the doomsday machine in which we live was constructed with what seemed at times to be the best of intentions. Consumerism, the system in which advertising and consumer credit stoke ever-increasing demand for manufactured products, was invented by business and government elites starting in the 1930s as a solution to the very real problems of overproduction and underemployment—which were side effects of earlier growth (as newsman Eric Sevareid once said, “The chief cause of problems is solutions”).
“Green” growth is a double-edged sword, propagandized as a solution to fossil fuel emissions
Now “green” growth is being sold as the solution to the problems resulting from our use of fossil fuels, which were themselves solutions for all sorts of problems, including stagnating agricultural production due to the need for more sources of nitrogen.
So, both time- and energy-blind, we party on with more consumerism, more economic growth
Nearly everyone wants more economic growth so as to patch our problems in the short run, even if it will make matters much worse in the long run. But nobody wants to be around when the timer reaches zero.
Is There Any Way Out of This Thing?
Not many people understand that they’re trapped in a doomsday machine dilemma
Not many people understand that they’re in a doomsday machine. But those who do naturally feel a responsibility to extricate themselves and others in a way that minimizes overall damage and destruction. Remember: the sooner the machine stops, the fewer the total casualties; however, stopping the machine suddenly now would result in casualties sooner rather than later.
What strategy makes the most sense?
1/ Redesign and reform the machine. Theoretically, it might be possible gradually to take the machine apart from the inside, and redesign and replace each of its components with one that at least simulates the way a healthy culture functions—all while the machine is still operating. After a time, everything would have changed without anyone being seriously inconvenienced. How might this work? In industry after industry, the current linear economic model (mining to manufacture to waste disposal) could be made more circular (reuse and recycle; repeat endlessly). We could replace fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources. We could undo the global economic arrangements that systematically and intentionally funnel wealth to some countries while intensifying poverty in others. Meanwhile, we could replace economic indicators (notably GDP) that promote growth in resource consumption with alternative indicators (such as Gross National Happiness) that promote quality of life. This strategy has been advocated most explicitly by ecological economists, but also by women’s reproductive rights advocates and campaigners for a wide range of environmental regulations.
2/ Build alternatives. Some people have pursued the strategy of building communities that abide more by the principles of a healthy culture. Their hope is that, as the machine increasingly shows signs of imminent failure, people will abandon it in favor of the alternatives. The machine will still self-destruct, but there will be more survivors, who will already have developed some of the skills needed in a post-collapse situation. The folks who have advocated for this course of action include leaders of the ecovillage, permaculture, Transition, and economic localization movements.
3/ Preserve cultural and natural foundational capital. Indigenous societies could survive and adapt, as long as they somehow keep from being swallowed up by global capitalism or the breakdown of the ecological systems on which they depend. Therefore, it makes sense to defend such peoples from capitalist onslaught, not just in order to safeguard their human rights but to promote human survival. At the same time, some ecosystems are still wild; they need to be protected from capitalist exploitation if they are to continue providing habitat for non-human species and indigenous humans. Conservationists and indigenous rights groups have been pursuing these strategies for decades.
4/ Sabotage. The logic is simple: if total casualties will be worse the longer collapse is postponed, then bring it on—the sooner the better! The idea of deliberately initiating societal collapse has been circulating quietly for some time, but for obvious reasons almost no one has talked about it openly (the Unabomber manifesto was a notable exception). Now that’s changing. “Accelerationists” on the political left and right (mostly the latter) acknowledge that industrial capitalism is unsustainable and are looking for ways to bring it to an untimely end. One serious drawback to these schemes—from the standpoint of those who aren’t in on them—is that accelerationists of various stripes bring their own social agendas to the table; so, depending on who is engineering the collapse, survival might be achieved on terms that are terrible for most people (think warlords and serfs; think genocide). Further, if collapse is already in its initial stages, then speeding it up might bring little benefit to anyone, now or in the future. Whoever triggered collapse would likely have blood on their hands. Most ways of doing it would be highly illegal, and it runs the risk of leaving a huge number of unintended casualties.
Preparing for What’s Next
So far the four strategies have made limited headway
Altogether, these four strategies have made limited headway so far. I say that not to denigrate the folks doing the good work of redesign, protection, and conservation; just to acknowledge that there haven’t been enough of them, and the forces they are pushing against are formidable.
We may need a fifth strategy
The fact that the machine is still on its path to world annihilation suggests that we may need a fifth strategy. A phrase comes to mind: “brace for impact.”
It’s time to adopt “resilience thinking”
For the past few years, my organization, Post Carbon Institute, has advocated building community resilience as a pathway toward survival and the widening of opportunities for recovery. Other organizations—including the Rand Corporation, the world’s biggest think tank—have also adopted resilience thinking, though often with only a partial understanding of the global threats that make resilience such a priority.
Resilience defined and promoted
Resilience—the ability to withstand a shock and recover or adapt—can be cultivated as an individual psychological trait, a household goal, or a community project. As wildfires, droughts, and extreme weather events become more common and severe, towns and cities around the world are beginning to prepare.
Post Carbon Institute advises a goal of “deep resilience”
We at PCI advise a goal of “deep resilience,” in which —
It’s past time to redirect growth capitalism for the few towards ecosystem restoration for all
We should also envision ways to maximize our opportunities as the doomsday machine careens toward its inevitable ruin. Recall:
Repurpose growth capital to completely rethink systems as ways to reduce our vulnerabilities
Why wait for collapse? Repurposing growth capital now could help unwind the doomsday machine sooner rather than later. It’s a subversive act (see strategy 4 above) as well as a regenerative one. Look around and start to catalog the forms and locations of growth capital begging to be used either for laying the foundation for sustainable culture—or for throwing one hell of a party. When we eventually come out of the pandemic, there will be innumerable opportunities not just to “build back better,” but to completely rethink systems so that they reduce our vulnerabilities, rather than adding to them.
Watchwords for 2100 – redesign, preserve, build alternatives, subvert, and brace for impact
As the doomsday machine’s detonation looms closer and closer, it becomes easier to see how all five strategies can be pursued together in synergistic ways. Redesign, preserve, build alternatives, subvert, and brace for impact: for the remainder of this century, these should be our watchwords.
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