C8 of The Great Disruption - Are We Finished?

In this chapter Gilding turns a corner, moving from despair to hope. But it is not an easy move to make.

Our attitudes have to change. According to Gilding, we must...
  • Accept that things are going to get really bad. People are going to suffer. (The "new normal" unemployment rate of 9% is just a start. So is $3.50 gas and $10 dinners.) People will die. We have to prepare ourselves - physically, economically, psychologically. It will be like a world war.
  • Drop our old ideas about how change occurs - understand that change generally does not happen slowly, in a planned manner, but fast - in this case, as a series of really bad black swans.
  • Evolve a new set of values, politics, personal expectations. We have to shed our ethic of consumerism. (See asides below for Homer-Dixon's views on values.)
  • Accept the idea that we are not saving the planet, only ourselves - our species. Although we might wipe out 50% of present day biodiversity, in a 100 million years (a moment in the life of a planet) Earth will have long moved past us. It will get along just fine.
Gilding says that despair is a legitimate reaction to what is going on. He notes that some experts in this field - including James Lovelock author of The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning and Clive Hamilton who wrote Requiem for a Species - believe we are not smart enough to come back from the Fall, that it is too late.

Gilding does not agree. He believes that the despair and hopelessness evidenced by the writers above (and until 2008 by himself) is step two in a three step process...
  1. The first step is denial which itself has two substeps. Initially we don't believe what is happening. Then, we enter what Gilding calls "denial breakdown". We more or less believe the science, acknowledge that it makes sense but do not believe the full implications. Or, we accept the implications but do not yet feel the impact - do not move from intellectual understanding to emotional understanding. (Gilding says climate deniers and antiscience skeptics can be ignored; they will be overcome by events.)
  2. The second step is despair. We begin to sense what is really going on. We see the species lost - the animals starving, dying - children starving, dying. We see a generation of underemployed, drifting young people (our children, grandchildren?) every one a potential Mad Max - and us the wandering guy in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
  3. The final step is acceptance,what Gilding calls the Great Awakening (a term coined by Professor Jorgen Randers). This happens when we move past grief - when we start to do something - when we understand that many of the drifting young people mentioned above can be productively engaged in saving our species. Stuck as we are between denial and despair there is nothing practically we can do to prevent The Great Disruption. But we can change what happens on the other side - whether we collapse, as described in Jared Diamond's Collapse, or whether we transcend.
Gilding says that the trick to moving past grief into acceptance and action is the belief that we can actually solve our problem (again, not prevent the Disruption but manage what follows). Although it might seem that we are doomed, Gilding points to our history of waiting until last moment to act in the face of imminent disaster.

He uses WWII as an example. Although there were clear indications in 1933 that Hilter was a threat to world survival, people in the US and Britain remained in denial and despair until the last minute. The crisis was well underway before leaders like depressed Winston Churchill, grandiose Franklin Roosevelt, and monstrous Joesph Stalin finally rallied their people into action unimaginable before the war. We did not prevent the war but we did save civilization from Hitler. Gilding sees that same level of action in response to The Great Disruption. We can't stop the war but we can win it. (The recent last minute resolution of the debt crisis could be viewed as another example of a last-minute save.)

Gilding says that a single event might be viewed (at least in retrospect) as the ecological/economic Pearl Harbor that calls us to action (an ad hoc black swan).


Military people already warn about the risks of collapse...
  • Retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni said, "The 2007 report concluded that climate change would act as a threat multiplier by exacerbating conflict over resources, especially because of declining food production, border and mass migration tensions, and so on - increasing political instability and creating failed states - if no action was taken to reduce impacts."
  • Thirty three retired generals and admirals wrote in April 2010 report to the Senate, "climate change is threatening American security... it exacerbates existing problems by decreasing stability, increasing conflict, and incubating the socioeconomic conditions that foster terrorist recruitment. The State Department, the National Intelligence Council, and the CIA all agree, and are planning for future climate-based threats."
  • A secret 2004 Pentagon report noted, "Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life... once again, warfare would define human life."
Paraphrasing Hunter-Thompson on values in The Upside of Down...
  • We need to move beyond strictly utilitarian values which only express our likes, dislikes. This gives rise to our consumer oriented culture. Consumed by consumerism, we become less resilient, more vulnerable to unexpected non-linear events.
  • We also need to move beyond the unthinking, politically oriented notions of fairness, right and wrong which often passes for spiritual belief. This too leaves us rigid, vulnerable to non-linear events.
  • We need to move into the realm of spiritual and existential values that are “compatible with the exigencies of the natural world”.
  • According to Homer-Dixon, such values recognize that

  1. Energy and the laws of thermodynamics play a key role in our survival.
  2. Certain kinds of connectivity are dangerous.
  3. Many natural systems (including all adaptive systems) behave in a non-linear manner. In the words of Nassim Taleb we live in Extremistan.

  • We need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative.
Signs and portents seen late at night on CNN
  • Drought is killing people in the Horn of Africa. Thousands of people are on the move. Last night I had to turn away from a picture of starving child held by its mother. The mother was dressed in a dirty robe that had once been colorful. The child was a skeleton covered in skin, a delicate little drum, its ribs a marimba. Although it certainly doesn't matter to the mother and child if the drought is the result of climate change, maybe it is. Maybe an obscene black swan waddles among the corpses.
  • Big Oil is digging oil sand in the Canadian wilderness. Tremendous amounts of energy are needed to extract the oil from the sand. Tremendous quantities of greenhouse polluting gases are being released. The landscape looks like the surface of the moon. Maybe Hunter-Dixon is right. Maybe Peak Oil has happened and we are now forced to the bizarre and extreme in our search for energy.
  • Jabbering crowds throw bodies off a bridge in Syria - the bloody corpses whirling gaily through the air to flop in the water beside their dead companions. The Arab Spring moves into late Summer. I once read or heard somebody say that rising food prices had something to do with this.

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