Radical Change

Radical Change (Video 13 minutes)

Timed Out: The Environmental Fan is Loaded

In the past month, climate scientists emerged from scientific cocoons clanging alarms that climate change is a runaway. If we shut off man-made emissions immediately, natural forces will keep elevating atmospheric CO2 anyway.

In mainline media, this set off second tier headlines, below immediate disasters, reality show politics, and celebrities. The staid, serious BBC recapped an original studyfrom The National Academy of Sciences, complete with graph. New ¥ork Magazine direly warned that geoengineering might be our last chance. But the most revealing outline of the situation was from the muffled prose of a climate scientist, Jen Bendell.

Bendell’s message: Climate change will be drastic. Social chaos is inevitable. Human systems have to totally change. He proposes a three-pronged coping strategy. Bendell stepped outside academic protocol to write this paper. He might be fired for it. That’s how serious this situation is to him.

Climate change is going faster than predicted. Those following it, even at a distance, know that. The data going into climate models lag behind the latest known observations, but climate scientists have hesitated to alarm people, especially funders of their research. They have projected the climate consequences of actions taken or not taken, but have not prescribed human system changes, a message that we don’t want to hear.

Climate change deniers interpret climate change as a political attack on the economic and political status quo. That it is, inescapably. However, climate scientists foolishly believed that we are rational, that facts and models would persuade officials.

It gets worse. Climate change is only part of our predicament. Many other perils, like toxins everywhere and plastics in the oceans, threaten us if there was no climate change. The Compression alarm includes them. People nod knowingly, but move on.

Neither climate deniers nor anyone else can fully fathom such total upheaval. We can feature changes to the present economic system – and fight about them – but we can’t imagine a world in which our most fundamental rules for living go up in smoke. Assumptions about what we can or can’t do evaporate. So we delude ourselves that we can go back to 1960, replay a different version of the video, and we’ll be OK.

Deep Adaptation

Bendell wisely sees that this is a complex situation beyond our control. We have long assumed that we should control nature. Indeed we have prospered by subduing nature, so why stop? But now nature is in the driver’s seat. All we can do is hang on for the ride.

Bendell frames Deep Adaptation as three questions that can be asked at any level:

  1. Resilience, ability to bounce back: “How do we keep what we really want to keep?”
  2. Relinquishment: “What do we need to let go of in order not to make matters worse?”
  3. Restoration: “What can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?” (This includes nature, but emphasizes historical human skills and values.)

Like most of us, Bendell grasps the depth of Deep Adaptation – sort of. He advises future academic researchers just as if universities and research budgets will survive the chaos. But he does see that Deep Adaptation is radical human adaptation dependent on totally different thinking. (We label our preliminary stab at this as Compression Thinking.)

However, until old ways have closed to us, we cannot really formulate new ones, whether we call them a New Economy, Eudiamonia, Compression Thinking, or something else. What changes? Everything. Escaping the confines of past thinking, when we could expand seemingly without limit, is a shift so profound that even those of us that accept its coming have little relevant experience to draw on.

For example, the idea of compound interest presumes growth, that total investments yield a market return. Suppose that can’t happen, but we need to take action anyway, the present safeguarding the future rather than the future paying for the past. What does that flip do? The assumptions behind retirement plans, for example, evaporate; same for health care and much else. We need new criteria for decisions and new social “contracts.” (Contracts assume transactions. Perhaps they should be called social obligations – real ones, not corporate social responsibility as an aside.)

Economics has to shrink into more localized self-sufficiency. In most “new economy” projects, that begins with greater security of food, clothing, and shelter. In plain talk, we grow our own food, supply our own clothing, and build our own housing. We reuse as much stuff as we can. Social status accrues to frugality rather than to extravagance.

War? Perhaps it will become too destructive to fight the way it is fought now. Blowing resources into the air is a foolish way to waste them.

Well, these are airy general thoughts. Almost all our habits and instincts must change at the detail level. Where can we start? Shareable has as extensive a list of how-to DIY initiatives as I have seen. Such initiatives are a start on learning to do differently. We change codes of living – and personal habits – by doing differently, not talking.

We plain, flat have to learn how things work and how to preserve ourselves at the local level, where real people sweat. And we have to learn this while conditions are changing rapidly, no matter what name we call this upheaval.

Will global commerce shrivel into local kibbutz-like enclaves? It’s not likely to entirely do that, but we should stop shipping huge tonnages around the globe. Instead, ship only materials not found everywhere – rare earths, for instance. Even then local recovery programs should reduce the amounts of raw ores that are mined to a trickle. Preserve heavy shipping capacity for disaster relief.

Expansionary vs. Compression Thinking

Each four-box diagram in the figure below simplifies the change in thinking from economic expansion to dealing with Compression. Each box condenses tangled loops of complexity to keep it simple. Even nature will evolve rapidly. Our thinking must evolve with it. Any major geoengineering program to reverse the release of CO2 in the air would have unpredicted and probably undesirable consequences. But aside from nature, the other three boxes represent huge changes in how we think and how we live.

The boxes that trigger radical adaptation are labeled “Guide.” Statistically speaking, they are the critical intermediate variables. In Compression, all decisions must consider more than monetary return. However, a society developed for expansion does not know how to do much without transactions, so even if it does not aim for profit, every institution lives with a budget. If you live from paycheck to paycheck, or from temp job to temp job, you have to think money. Monetary implications are never far from mind.

In Compression, the needs and workings of nature have to come to mind first. Breaking the expansionary paradigm to think nature first challenges us. First, most of us must learn more about nature so it is not a distant abstraction. Second, we must learn to crowd out our money concerns with concerns about nature. Even imagining this new paradigm is a picture outside the human visible spectrum – beyond perception by those of us unconscious of the natural world around us. But unless we get into this mode of thinking, we are not going to relinquish enough consumption to make a significant difference fast enough. Right now we are stuck just making it look good, like companies that encourage recycling only because it pumps up their image – so they can sell more. We’re timing out on transitioning to Deep Adaptation.

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