A Generative Meditation on Collapse
Something in Medium’s algorithm has figured out that I am worried about societal collapse. I keep getting articles pop up in my feed about imminent collapse, that leads me to google searches of “how likely is collapse?”, which leads me to results that indicate that we are right on track for collapse e.g. this update on the classic “Limits to Growth”. And this is kind of a bummer, as I have a six year old son, whose nature and growth as a person delight and blow me away on a daily basis, and I’d prefer him to grow up in a non-Mad Max like world.
But what strikes me about Medium articles about collapse is the cognitive or spiritual quality of fatalism, and perhaps underlying western guilt (or maybe that’s my projection) in the writing. This reminds me of Flagellants depicted in “The Seventh Seal” by Ingmar Bergman. My understanding is that this was a group of highly religious people who believed that the Black Plague was a punishment from God smote on the people for their sins, so if they travelled around the country flagellating themselves then they would atone on behalf of the people.
It does seem like we as a global mass of humans (how long have we been thinking of ourselves as a global species? How many of us really aren’t thinking that way yet? How many don’t have time or space for such ruminations?) are struggling to form a consensus about the nature and urgency of the overlapping problems (I would say crises from my perspective) and move together in such a way as might steer us away from some form of collapse. But its really hard to reach consensus across billions of people. And even if we do, people are organic things too; we don’t change like machines, we grow and evolve about the same speed as vines (I just discovered Gregory Bateson’s concept of “Ecology of Mind” the other day thanks to this rather beautiful documentary portrait of her father by Nora Bateson). The situation reminds me of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”; in this book the author talks about how what makes an organisation successful in its initial growth phase, e.g. being a department store, entrenches it in the practices, infrastructures, etc. of being a department store (its “organisational capabilities”: it knows how to do good department stores) that it creates new “organisational disabilities” (inability to get out of the rut and change the business model) when the environment changes and department stores are no longer what’s required, and so innovation and change are necessary. If we think of our whole society as an organisation, then it has gotten really good at optimising the environment for convenience, safety, and wealth generation for a certain privileged subset of humans. However, the problems with this “organisational model” are starting to bear themselves. And it seems like humans will need environmental crises to be made urgent for them in an “enviromental reckoning(s)”, to activate our innovative capacities to the extent required.
The collapse being discussed seems to imply widespread human suffering and a drop in the quality of human life, and that’s what is most saddening about it for me, especially considering my son’s life, and his children’s lives. But on the other hand, there does seem to be an implied reconciliation between human life and nature. I’m sure that life, in some form, even if it needs to go back to protozoic form, will survive, and I think that humans will survive too. And perhaps we’ll learn lessons about how to live technologically in “civilization”, recognising ourselves as a part of the natural world rather than trying to subsume it. What new “organisational capabilities” might emerge that could allow us to exist in a way that is more aligned with the natural world?
Bonus plot twist: what possibilities in this incredibly VUCA (volatile uncertain complex ambiguous) environment has none of us even seen yet that could lead to a completely different outcome that has in no way been envisaged by any body? Imagine ten or a hundred black and white swans (why are the unexpected events always black? How many unexpected white swans have floated right by us as we fixated on black ones with our genetic predisposition towards risk and danger?) all coming to stay on one day. What then will be our purpose?