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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIV

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIV

Athens, Greece (1984) Photo by author

Supply chain disruptions and the product shortages that result have become a growing concern over the past couple of years and the reasons for these are as varied as the people providing the ‘analysis’. Production delays. Covid-19 pandemic. Pent-up consumer demand. Central bank monetary policy. Government economic stimulus. Consumer hoarding. Supply versus demand basics. Labour woes. Vaccination mandates. Union strikes. The number and variety of competing narratives is almost endless.

I have been once again reminded of the vagaries of our supply chains, the disruptions that can result, and our increasing dependence upon them with the unprecedented torrential rain and flood damage across many parts of British Columbia, Canada; and, of course, similar disruptions have occurred across the planet.

Instead of a recognition that perhaps a rethinking is needed of the complexities of our current systems and the dependencies that result from them, particularly in light of this increasingly problematic supply situation, we have politicians (and many in the media) doubling-down on the very systems that have helped to put us in the various predicaments we are encountering.

Our growing reliance on intensive-energy and other resource systems is not viewed as any type of dependency that places us in the crosshairs of ecological overshoot and unforeseen circumstances, but as a supply and demand conundrum that can be best addressed via our ingenuity and technology. Once again the primacy of a political and/or economic worldview, as opposed to an ecological one, shines through in our interpretation of world events; and of course the subsequent ‘solutions’ proposed.

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Information overload, sustainability, and the emerging organization

Information overload, sustainability, and the emerging organization

Nafeez Ahmed, an exceptional journalist who writes at the intersection of resources and society, understands the complexity of the ecological predicament we humans face. In a piece he wrote last year, Ahmed asserted that our current arrangements are approaching a convulsive crisis point. One reason for this is as follows:

[T]he system faces a crisis of information overload, and an inability to meaningfully process the information available into actionable knowledge that can advance an adaptive response.

If he’s right, is there anything we can do? The short answer is maybe. The great human ecologist William Catton pointed out in his 2009 book Bottleneck that the mass media has become a conduit for propagating bad or at least inconclusive information. In short, the feedback we humans need in order to run our society in a sustainable way is dangerously lacking.

But what if we could reorganize society to better handle the information available and act on that information quickly, decisively and appropriately? Management consultant and author John Hagel may be able to shed some light on this. (Regular readers will recall that I was channeling Hagel in last week’s piece.)

Part of the reason we as a society have been having difficulty making sense of the vast amount of information we are getting is that most organizations are not very good at doing this.

Yet, technology now more than ever affords us the opportunity for what Hagel calls scalable collaboration and learning involving very large groups of people. Those companies and organizations that are mastering this opportunity can react with lightning speed and precision—all the while keeping an eye on the moving target that is our rapidly changing world.

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Communications breakdown: Can we even talk about our environmental and energy problems?

Communications breakdown: Can we even talk about our environmental and energy problems?

Conversations that seek genuine understanding by all sides ultimately require a common frame of reference. If we aren’t talking about the same things, how can we understand one another?

We usually refer to this as talking past one another. Sometimes this happens because we haven’t taken the time to understand what our conversation partner is trying to say. We are distracted and focused on something else. Increasingly, our public discourse–that which we all see on the airwaves, on the internet and in print–is mere polemic in service of some political or economic interest. There is no genuine attempt to explore the issues, only to advance a particular view of them–often for pay as is the case with public relations agencies and also fake think tank academics who merely parrot the positions of their funders.

We like to regard ourselves as living in an age of enlightenment. But enlightenment only occurs when we are intellectually honest. What intellectual honesty requires is the ability to entertain ideas and accept evidence that contradict our current views and to evaluate those ideas and evidence on some basis other than a financial or political interest.

The late William Catton, the sociologist and ecologist who stands as the 20th century prophet of our predicament, laid out this problem in his last book, Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse. By bottleneck Catton means a dramatic reduction in human population over the coming century due to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, soil erosion and other problems and the attendant chaos these will bring to our current governance and economic arrangements.

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William Catton’s warning

William Catton’s warning

William Catton Jr., author of the seminal volume about our human destiny, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, died last month at age 88.

Catton believed that industrial civilization had sown the seeds of its own demise and that humanity’s seeming dominance of the biosphere is only a prelude to decline. His work foreshadowed later works such as Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.

In Overshoot Catton wrote: “We must learn to relate personally to what may be called ‘the ecological facts of life.’ We must see that those facts are affecting our lives far more importantly and permanently than the events that make the headlines.”

He published those words in 1980, and now, it seems, at least some of those facts have made their way into the headlines in the form of climate change, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, species extinction, constrained supplies of energy and other critical resources, and myriad other problems that are now all too obvious.

But, even today, few people see the world as Catton did. Few realize how serious these problems are and how their consequences are unfolding right before us. Few understand what he called “the tragic story of human success,” tragic because that success as it is currently defined cannot be maintained and must necessarily unwind into decline owing to the laws of physics and the realities of biology. We can adjust to these realities or they will adjust us to them.

 

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