The upside of down

I believe there is a spectrum of forms of collapse. At one end is the ideal, optimistic future where we solve all our problems and we live happily every after. At the other end is catastrophic collapse. We have tended not to fill in all the spaces in between, but that’s actually where things might be very interesting. There may be some forms of disruption and crisis that will actually stimulate us to be really creative. Most importantly, they may allow us to get the deep vested interests that are blocking change out of the way. […] My suggestion is that we’re not going to see fundamental shifts until we confront a major crisis. Whether we’re able to exploit such crises effectively will largely depend upon whether we’ve planned well in advance, whether we’ve thought through how we’re going to mobilize at those critical moments.

Thomas Homer-Dixon

I was about to just bookmark this excellent interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon on (thanks Kirsty!), when I stopped and wondered how the title would look in my “Quick links” in the sidebar of this site. “Is the Deadly Crash of Our Civilization Inevitable?” It’s a catchy kinda title, but not one that captures the important depth of Homer-Dixon’s main point.

At a glance, from that “just catch the headlines” kind of perspective that I’m as guilty of as anyone, it may very well trigger a response such as, “Ah, he’s still banging on about the end of the world.” Someone who’s not read my stuff before, someone highly informed and intelligent, may very well pigeon-hole me as a “doomer“.

There are, of course, a whole load of people out there with very skewed perspectives. (And they’re always “out there”, aren’t they?) Considerations of some form of collapse of civilization attract everyone on a spectrum from intelligent people with heart to nihilist fuck-ups. (And we often forget this spectrum is drawn through every human heart…) People wanting to keep their peckers up may understandably get riled at the nihilists; but in their zeal, they sometimes dismiss reasoned, compassionate, clear-headed insights, too.

Homer-Dixon’s voice seems incredibly valuable in this debate, and I urge every to read the above interview. He’s the clearest advocate I’ve come across so far of the idea that (1) collapse is inevitable, but (2) what form it takes and how bad it is depends on our admitting to this and dealing with it as soon as possible.

He rightly criticizes Jared Diamond for his view that collapse of as complex a system as Western civilization may be avoidable with enough creativity and effort. I found Diamond’s take to be analogous to Howard Bloom‘s implied argument in The Lucifer Principle. In this otherwise excellent book, Bloom seemed to me to be saying: “America should learn from history. Every empire in the past has become flaccid and complacent and fallen to barbarian hordes. If we recognise this, we may avoid such a fate.” The other obvious lesson to draw from history here is that America, too, will become flaccid, and fall.

This is felt by many to be “fatalistic”. It’s endlessly fascinating to me that not a small percentage of these people will be among those who place their faith (and I use that word provocatively as well as accurately) in science, and in most areas of life will defer to the scientific method of seeing how things have behaved in the past, and infer behaviour in the future from this. As Homer-Dixon points out,

When you look at research that’s come out over the last 15 to 20 years, the most complex adaptive systems in the world all go through patterns of growth and increasing complexity till eventually they become rigid and break down. Then they reorganize themselves, regenerate and regrow. All highly adaptive systems have breakdown in them at some point or other.

The parallel is also drawn to our individual experience, and the salient example of addiction and the “hitting bottom” phenomena. Most know from personal experience that when we slip into a destructive furrow, collapse of this condition can be postponed, but not avoided, if our compass is to be reset.

Our hope has always been that the greater unit that we’re part of will fulfill the longings for immortality that—religious fantasy and brainwashing notwithstanding—always seem so futile for our selves.

The fact is, it merely has a longer lifespan.

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