To be or not to be the change

Coming up on Small Farm Future – some posts on the hows and whys of social transformation towards more sustainable societies, which have been prefigured in recent posts like this one on ‘self-systemic’ agriculture and my previous one on utopias – perhaps particularly in relation to the ensuing discussion about individualism and collectivism. Here, I’ll look at the question of transformation via personal consumption choices in societies of mass consumption, which I touched on a while back. That discussion prompted Peter Kalmas, climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution to get in touch and kindly send me his book.

Maybe first I should set out a brief position statement. As I see it, the world is beset with enormous inequities, creating a lot of human misery, and looming environmental crises, creating yet more human (and non-human) misery. The dominant paradigm for tackling these problems involves lifting people out of poverty through growing the capitalist global economy, and mitigating the environmental problems caused by this economic growth through technical innovation. I don’t think this will work on either count – it won’t lift many people out of poverty and it won’t succeed in mitigating environmental problems. If we continue down this path, it seems to me likely that there will be major breakdowns in human social systems and in the Earth’s biophysical systems. In fact, there already are. These may proliferate in all sorts of surprising and dystopian ways, but I don’t see much point in speculating about how such ‘collapse’ scenarios may unfold. I do see a point in speculating about alternative scenarios that may create better outcomes, and in particular about how such scenarios may emerge from present social processes, because that may give some kind of a handle on how to increase the probability of those better outcomes occurring. So that, generally speaking, is what I want to focus my writing around.

One possible way of achieving these better outcomes is if the wealthy consumers of the world change their consumption behaviour: stop flying, stop driving, stop buying products that use conflict minerals, stop eating resource-intensive meat, stop shopping in value-scouring supermarkets, stop using polluting plastic and so on. Peter’s book (I can’t claim to have read it word-by-word and cover-to-cover…I’m afraid the in-box is too full…but I’ve spent some time looking over it) first sets out the evidence for climate change, the seriousness of its consequences and the pressing need to do something about it. Then it looks at the numerous things us carbon-spewing rich western consumers can do to lessen our impact on the climate system. And it emphasises that many of these things don’t involve loss and self-sacrifice, but can be part of a more fulfilling and interesting way of life.

I don’t have any quarrel with that. The science, as far as I can tell, is compelling – it’s a really good idea if we reduce global carbon emissions, fast. And somehow that’s going to have to involve people in high-emission regions like Western Europe and North America cutting their emissions drastically. Well then…Peter’s book shows us how to get started.

I guess the problem I have is that I don’t think it’ll work – for three reasons, of increasing gravity.

The first is a twist on the familiar criticism of environmentalists – they talk about the dangers of climate change while flying off to environmental conferences in exotic locations etc etc. They’re hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach…what we might call the John Michael Greer critique. The risk that I think Peter’s proposals run is the opposite: the dread prospect of environmentalists who don’t fly off to exotic conferences, who instead preach what they practice.

People don’t like hypocrites for sure, but nor do they like preachy environmentalists telling them that they shouldn’t do stuff. Now, I’m sure Peter isn’t at all preachy, but I think it’s hard to avoid people reading those bad, virtue-signalling motives into any public avowal of carbon restraint. If you consider yourself a role model helping other people lessen their planetary impact by following your example, I’d be willing to bet that a fair proportion of those other people will dismiss you as insufferably smug unless you have social skills that greatly exceed my own (which to be fair wouldn’t be difficult – that’s why they only let me communicate with the world through this computer). I’ve been down this road myself – I’ve been the Puritan at the party, shocked at the wanton ways of lesser folk. I ended up not liking that guy much and now try to cultivate a different persona. Let he who is free of sin and all that…

Some of the commenters under my last post emphasised the need for greater collaboration and less private individualism in a sustainable post-capitalist society of the future. So how about this? Suppose you’ve given up eating meat because of its environmental impact – good for you — and an acquaintance invites you over to a special meal, which in their worldview is a beef-fest. I suggest you keep your meat abstinence private and tuck in. One or two meaty meals are neither here nor there in terms of global environmental protection. More important that you build community by publicly accepting your acquaintance’s generosity. But if it’s important to you to be seen not to be eating meat, I’d want to ask why. Is publicly-dramatised individual abstinence the best route to sustainability? Maybe…but maybe not?

The second problem is essentially the free rider problem – if everybody refrained from behaviour X it would have a significant impact on global emissions, whereas if it’s just me and a handful of other freaks while everyone else carries on regardless it has no significant impact on global emissions. Might as well carry on Xing, then? Well, Peter makes the point that lower impact choices can often be the fun choice – who wants to sit in a traffic jam when you can be biking through the woods? It’s a good point, but I don’t think you can sustain it across the board – particularly in the context of a society that’s systemically organised on the basis that many or most (rich) people will have to drive to work, fly for business or pleasure, be instantly reachable via mobile phone, shop at the supermarket etc. It’s not that these possibilities are intrinsically great in themselves, but in a society that’s organised around them you have to go out of your way to avoid them, which may sometimes be possible and indeed attractive at the individual level, but not really possible for the population en masse.

Actually, that’s the thing that draws me most to people making ethical lifestyle choices – that little spark of individuality driving them to swim against the current, resist the machine etc. But then here we are, back to individualism…

Perhaps a wrinkle within this second problem is the complexity of the issues concerning the shape of a future sustainable society. There’s no end of ‘expert’ opinion telling us, for example, that feedlot beef involves lower emissions than pasture-fed beef, which is probably true depending on how you choose to draw the parameters around your analysis. But it’s also probably true that in a sustainable, low-energy society there’d be some pasture-fed cattle, but no feedlot cattle. So should you eat only feedlot beef to lower your emissions, eat only pasture-fed beef to help stimulate sustainable farming, or eat no beef at all in the hope that somehow by so doing you can wash your hands of these agrarian dilemmas? Beats me.

But suppose you take a different view to my first two points. If you model environmentally responsible behaviour, you’ll inspire others to do likewise. And if everyone did likewise, then the problem is solved.

Except that – point three – it’s not going to happen without profound systemic change. The present political economy is deeply invested in a massively energy-intense model of modernist-urbanist creation, destruction and re-creation involving vast flows of people and goods. Individually it’s possible to lower your footprint via numerous consumption decisions such as cycling rather than driving to work. Collectively, if it does prove possible to aggregate those decisions then it’ll tank the system and there’ll be no work to cycle to. OK, so maybe that’s precisely the aim – but then you need a different systemic vision, which is not implicit in the consumption decisions and can’t be assumed just to happen as a dependent outcome of them. In other words, the system has emergent properties – it needs ‘systemic’ restructuring at the level of the system.

I’m doubtful of the possibilities for aggregating those consumption decisions by example or exhortation in a society organised fiscally to incentivise the exact opposite. I see a parallel here with the ‘make the healthy choice the easy one’ paradigm in health promotion. Historical examples: don’t subsidise sugar production and then exhort people not to eat sugar; don’t manufacture dangerous cars and then tell people to drive carefully; don’t make flying the easiest and cheapest choice and then expect people not to do it.

I also see a parallel with 18th century anti-slavery activism in Britain. Middle-class people (middle-class women in particular) started talking about the link between the sugar they were drinking in their tea and the blood-soaked horrors of the colonial economy that was delivering it to them. But for all that in Britain today we like to think that it was William Wilberforce and his cohorts who personally put a stop to the slave trade, the ending of the trade and of slavery itself was a long drawn-out affair that responded mostly to changes in the global political economy and the superpower politics of the day – system emergence again.

Nevertheless, I’d concede that the behaviour of the parts is important. Anti-slavery activism more-or-less created the modern public sphere of respectable opinion and concern for unknown others that I think could be critical for a tolerable post-capitalist future. So whether you incline more towards Peter’s stance or mine, maybe the important thing is hanging onto the possibility that we can politely put out our alternative views in public.

None of the arguments I’ve proffered make a case for not trying to lower one’s personal environmental impact as such. I agree with Wendell Berry when he writes,

“to be fearful of the disease and yet unwilling to pay for the cure is not just to be hypocritical; it is to be doomed. If you talk a good line without being changed by what you say, then you are not just hypocritical and doomed; you have become an agent of the disease”1

I’d only add that even if you are changed by what you say and try to take some practical steps towards a cure within the current iteration of the global political economy, you’re almost certainly still an agent of the disease. That’s not an argument against taking the practical steps. It is an argument against their efficacy in the absence of finding routes towards structural transformation.

So I’m sympathetic to the ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ message. I don’t think it’s morally innocent to take a plane flight just because personal choice in that respect makes little difference to global outcomes. But what makes a bigger difference is collective, organised, political action geared to systemic change. The ‘be the change’ message is attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, but this is what Gandhi actually said (which Peter accurately quotes in his book):

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

I find Brian Morton’s interpretation of this passage quite persuasive: “Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”

Looking back from the present at the key causes for which Gandhi stood– Indian independence from colonial rule, non-violence and rural self-reliance – it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his activism was only conspicuously successful in relation to the first of these. And ultimately this was the easiest one, because it fitted a pre-existing collective narrative of national self-assertion which is all too evident today under the aggressive Hindu nationalism of Modi (there’s a larger story here about the intersections and dissonances between Gandhism and Hindu nationalism, but let’s not go there now).

So in summary, while there’s much to be said for changing personal consumption habits in response to the climate crisis, I doubt that the necessary social transformation can be generated purely from aggregating such changes. In which case, I guess it behoves me to offer some alternative suggestions as to where the impetus for social transformation might come from. Ay, there’s the rub – I wish I had the answers. Conventional political positions just keep rollin’ on as if they do, but to me they seem exhausted. The right thinks history is on its side: human nature, markets, cultural identities will generate the correct solutions (never mind that these things are numerously and numinously contradictory). The left thinks history is on its side: social conflict powering historical change will propel righteous collective solutions. Both left and right are invested deeply in technological solutionism – which is why the books written by their avant-garde futurists all seem uncannily similar. Stewart Brand, Leigh Phillips, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Nick Srnicek, Mark Lynas: they sound like the modulated voice of a single character from some nightmarish modernist novel. Lord deliver me from fully automated luxury communism. Or capitalism.

Partly I think solutionism itself is the problem. There are no ‘solutions’ and no right answers. But I’d like to think there may be better answers to the numerous crises we currently face – not just the climate crisis but other biophysical crises, as well as social ones (economic justice, cultural meaning). One possibility is to bring more marginalised political traditions onto the stage – anarchism, environmentalism, libertarianism (any contradictions there? …you betcha). Or else to seek some radical rupture with the politics of the past that seems better fitted to our contemporary predicaments.

So…what path to take? The old familiar mainstream, the marginal, or the radically new? Hell, I’m opting for all of the above. I think we need to revitalise the best of the old traditions of right and left, while bringing in the contributions of more marginal political positions from the past – and articulating them all afresh in the completely novel historical circumstances we face.

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it, and I already started out last time in my post on libertarianism and utopia (and in other previous posts too, like this one). So watch this space…though please forgive my lessened current output, resulting from various other pressing projects.

Meanwhile, I’d thoroughly recommend a read of Peter’s book, and I’d urge you (non-smugly) to try lowering your carbon footprint. Just don’t tell me that you’re doing it.


  1. Berry, W. 2017. The World-Ending Fire. Penguin. P.55.

63 thoughts on “To be or not to be the change

  1. Just a few thoughts.
    *I bought Kalmus’ book when it was first published. I applaud him and his family for their bold actions. But it occurred to me that Pasadena, CA may be an easy place to do what they have done, compared to some other places. Kalmus has a good job at
    Cal Tech, so riding his bike to the college is relatively easy in the California sunshine. Contrast with someone doing gig work over a large geographic area, with the area being spread out and not much public transportation. I won’t go deeply into all the connections I see that permit Kalmus to do what most people would have a much harder time doing. Read the book for yourself, and see what you think.
    *I could be wrong, but I think that Peak Oil is our immediate problem. Oil enables us to do work which other people are willing to pay us to do. A new paper from the University of Maryland makes dire predictions. If and when oil declines, we are probably looking at massive bankruptcies as debts cannot be paid. Exactly how the chaos would resolve itself is unknowable, but it won’t likely be pretty.

    The ‘solution’ which comes to mind is usually some kind of homesteading….becoming more self-sufficient or part of a close-knit group such as the Amish. But, at least in the US, we have been through numerous ‘back to the land’ cycles since 1970, and there are few survivors. I was at a farm dinner with some relatives last Sunday, and our host mentioned a woman who has been the manager of a communal farm for nearly 50 years. She is still going strong. I had taken the relatives to that part of the country to see some colonial and early US historical sites, and could have stopped to visit this lady who has accomplished at least as much as those guys did…partly because she hasn’t caused so much misery with slavery. But I didn’t think of it in time. Why doesn’t homesteading work? My favorite whipping boy is all the doctors and dentists and lawyers who buy acreage at inflated prices to use as a hunting preserve. So long as the central banks keep the bubble going, a productive homestead will remain out of reach for poor people.
    *A lot of our distress comes from simple over-population. I grew up in farm country where a kid could swim and fish in just about any river. 50 years ago my wife and I bicycled around England, and discovered that access to land and rivers was tightly rationed. You couldn’t just drop a line into a creek and fish. Somebody was jealously guarding everything. The same sort of ‘scarcity thinking’ has overtaken the US in a big way. I read that California thinks it needs to pass a law legalizing the behavior of a parent who lets their children walk to school.
    *I watch my grandchildren growing up in the strange place that is the US in 2018. My grandson, who lives in a big city, just got a car. With mobility comes the opportunity to court girls. I’m happy for him, of course, but if the fossil fuels go away, a whole generation will have to rediscover how to get together. I like to read the obituaries from my old home town. A centenarian recently died who had been an incidental participant in a gruesome murder. Two young men arrived in town, and began to try to impress the ladies. Each of the men persuaded a young miss to take a buggy ride in the cool of the evening. So each man rented a surrey ant took the target of his affections a few miles out of town to a scenic sandbar in the river. One of the couples came back to town without incident. But the other young woman was murdered on the sand bar. Her escort came up with a story of attack by ruffians, and did display some signs of struggle. He was charged with murder, but there was insufficient evidence to convict. I tell this tory because any Hollywood screenwriter would immediately understand the elements of the story….but the mechanics of how it all worked are now completely foreign to us. Now we would be more likely to think of ‘a digital matchmaking gone bad’, just as a previous generation thought of the problems of ‘looking for Mr. Goodbar’ in the Manhattan singles bars. Having lived almost 4 score years, it is easy for me to think that the rented surrey and the singles bars and the digital matchmaking are all equivalent….that there really hasn’t been any ‘progress’. But I doubt I could convince my grandchildren to rent a surrey to court.
    *What is clear is that the ‘de-carbonized’ world actually costs carbon:

    Don Stewart

    • A lot of our distress comes from simple over-population.


      I too have fond memories of the relatively unpopulated world of my youth (I was born in 1948), where even in suburban Portland, Oregon, only a couple of miles from downtown, the city had blocks of vacant pastures with pheasants and rabbits, patches of remnant fir forests and even an old man raising two acres of tomatoes with mule drawn equipment only four blocks from my house, all in addition to a formal park next to my elementary school. Except for the park, it’s all houses and apartments now.

      World population has more than tripled since I was born. Even though population in the US has only doubled since then, energy use has tripled. No wonder everything is under stress.

  2. So it is complex. Agreed.

    Iconic thinkers of our past have been misquoted and misunderstood. Agreed.

    Alternative political approaches might help. Agreed.

    What is a quibbler to do when there is so much to agree about? Slap some Dr. Smaje misquotes onto a coffee cup (or T-shirt) and start an online campaign. Then at some future point a Brian Morton wannabe could take me to task for the misquotes. Infamy!

    Trite summarizations aside, I do have a whiff of quibble I’d like to offer. Systemic change – so difficult as it appears – may need to be such in the sense that large scale upheaval hasn’t always come peacefully and with universally acclaimed result. Slavery still exits, though not to the same extent or social acceptance it once enjoyed. So there is some progress… but progress with a serious black eye.

    Poverty still exits. Hunger and malnutrition exist though it is relatively simple to demonstrate that they needn’t exist at this moment in time. So in a very real sense we are abject failures. Stupid little mammals fascinated by fire and our simple abilities to modify our surroundings.

    But you know me to be no doomer in the larger sense. We may have a hard road to navigate, and we certainly have several billion variations on what needs to be done. And therein, alongside one aspect of the difficulty (billions of mouths) is attached one aspect of hope – billions of brains.

    Are there any examples from history where systemic changes were executed by our forebears without strife? Would that we might get to a place where we could effect major improvements without Armageddon first staring us squarely in the face. This hasn’t been our way. Hunger motivates. Pestilence inspires. Without a problem to solve, we get fat and lazy. And to your point about solutionism… I don’t imagine it is THE problem (and you did qualify as ‘Partly’) – so I’m guessing I give solutionism a bit more color than you. Multiple “solutions” or choices do seem better to me as well. A one size fits all approach makes me uncomfortable.

    Finding my own utopia is a journey worth the struggle. The utopia I could enjoy today may certainly look different than the one my grandchildren will have to hand. But so long as they have an opportunity to struggle, they should then also have some opportunity to enjoy (and appreciate) the fruits of their effort.

  3. Chris, I admire your struggle to find your path through all the contradictions of life and your attempt to articulate that struggle. I want to make one small criticism and share my own way of looking at life’s struggle. First a minor criticism. You wrote “the world is beset with enormous inequities, creating a lot of human misery, and looming environmental crises, creating yet more human (and non-human) misery.” The definition of inequity: lack of fairness or justice is where I disagree. The idea that that life is unfair or unjust is really the belief that life is wrong, it should not be happening this way! We don’t deserve this! I believe holding this idea is what brings us pain and suffering.
    I have studied many of the world’s religions and philosophies and I find Buddha’s teachings compelling. I would summarize my understanding of Buddha’s teachings in this way. Suffering exists and is caused by our attachments and aversions. Life is a continuous process of change. When we won’t accept change because of our attachment to what we think we want, need, or deserve…we suffer. When we won’t accept change because we feel a strong aversion or fear of what is happening, we suffer. Life changes and we either cling to the past or fear the future.
    Buddha saw this as a fact of human existence. His recommendation was to follow the Eightfold Path. The path consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (absorption). The task is to uncover what these “right” practices are and follow them. We work to see and accept life as it changes; paying attention and being present with what is happening right now. In finding acceptance it is possible to let go of suffering. Denying the reality of change because it doesn’t fit with our expectations, attachments, or aversions will always bring us pain and suffering.
    This does not mean we don’t experience pain, loss, or sadness. It means we accept pain, loss, and sadness as real, natural, and necessary human response to events that are normal to life. For example, the fourth stage of grief is acceptance. You may be dying and it may be painful, but the suffering stops when you find acceptance.
    What does this mean for our actions in life? We are not passive spectators of life. We can choose what to eat, how to live, act, work, and speak. Mindfulness and meditation are the practice of paying attention, watching to see what our actions bring us, and then choosing to act with intention; or choosing not to react with anger. Each of us is capable of changing our behavior and bringing about right conduct. Each of us can accept what life brings with equanimity, and avoid suffering.
    I agree with you that preaching about change isn’t the solution, nor is posturing (trying to show others by example what a virtuous person we are). Both are signs of pride and ego, the thinking that our way is right and other’s is wrong. Pride goes before the fall! Ego is the desire to control the direction of life’s changes. I greatly admire Gandhi and his teachings. He taught people to resist violence and embrace austerity as right living. His path is not for anyone without resolve. Life is a continuous process of surrender, eventually to death. The best we can do is to live fully present with what comes. Or as the ancient Chinese saying goes “Pray to God and row away from the rocks!”


  4. “…was a long drawn-out affair that responded mostly to changes in the global political economy and the superpower politics of the day…”
    Which is the place to intervene in today’s system of commerce:
    We actually have the technological ability to explain geopolitics to everyone. We’ve had investment in education like never before.
    We should be able to explain that it’s not the suffering of the planet but the suffering of fellow humans as a result of political deviance and its twin brother, apathy, that’s important.

    We’ve had decades of ‘suffering’ being represented by animals and people so far away they almost counted as animals, too.
    ‘Nature’, as a term and as a topic, has failed to deliver anything of substance.
    I’m sick of seeing suffering getting the “all-natural-makeup-job”.

    Yet, if discussions about trade barriers are our point of re-entry into collective discussions about geopolitics, let’s have ’em.

  5. To be or not to be the change?
    Let’s admit it:  Why *not* be the change?

    Takes too much away from our leisure time (not just hobbies and vacations, time spent online is largely leisure time, perhaps a luxury)…
    Too limiting on what we want to do or where we want to go…
    It “costs too much”, compared to cheaper options that are available, and we can use the saved money for something else…
    We focus on funding our retirements and preparing for potential personal disasters…
    And so on.

    This type of cultural influence and conditioning can be overcome. Buddhism was mentioned (make mine “engaged”, please) as one of the avenues to getting over oneself. It seems that “doomers”, for example, haven’t fully accepted their own mortality. In the long run, we are all dead, so how are we going to choose to live in the meantime? How much are we going to do towards saving ecosystems, ending injustices, reducing suffering? If it’s heartfelt, like the care of one’s child, it’s simple (but typically not easy): “Do all you can”.

    Changing the culture may take longer than our individual lifetimes, but we can still plant the seeds and nurture the seedlings for the future forest.

    • Steve,
      “Why not be the change?” indeed! I agree, cultural influence and conditioning can be overcome. I find that much of the effort to do so must be applied to recognizing our own conditioning.

      “It seems that “doomers”, for example, haven’t fully accepted their own mortality. In the long run, we are all dead, so how are we going to choose to live in the meantime?”
      Indeed! When I think about climate change, collapse of our current civilization, species extinction, and many other issues of the day, I often think of the five stages of grief and compare them with humanity’s response. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “Do all you can” seems to me to an apt description of what acceptance looks like.

      Buddhism, “make mine engaged”, thank you for that reference! I have enjoyed many of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s books. What a blessing he has been for the world. It’s strange to think that if not for the Vietnam War he may never have become the teacher that he has and reached so many people in the West. Could that be seen as a proverbial silver lining? I wonder what silver linings our present situation offers?

      Walking through the woods the other day I saw many young ash trees. Even as the Emerald ash borer spreads killing most of the adult ash trees in our county, the trees continue to seed new saplings. I’m cheering for the ash trees! Maybe they will develop resistance. Maybe some scientist will take on the mission of helping them to adapt. But then maybe the outcome will be some Kudzu-like ash forest spreading across the land. Good intentions….
      The complexity of life never ceases to amaze me!

  6. I don’t see much point in speculating about how such ‘collapse’ scenarios may unfold.

    Based on the credible calculations I have seen from a variety of climate scientists, to avoid catastrophic climate change the rate at which we in the rich world now have to reduce carbon emissions is up to about 10% per year or so. This kind of reduction will cause enormous damage to an industrial civilization that is entirely organized around the use of energy, 80% of which is from carbon laden fossil fuels. That’s why we aren’t doing any reducing except through some outsourcing of manufacturing to other emitters. And any non-carbon energy substitutes will need to be created with additional use of fossil fuels, at a time when fossil use should be plummeting.

    I think we have reached the point where any process that sufficiently reduces carbon emissions, be it from government mandate or from aggregate individual action, will result in the destruction of rich-world economies. This is why people call our situation a predicament. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

    Those who maintain that voluntary damnation will somehow be more palatable than letting nature take its course are putting a great deal of faith in the ability of most people to gracefully endure a great deal of suffering, even to the point of starving to death. Somehow I doubt that any amount of faith is justified, especially when we look at how little carbon-reducing sacrifice people have been willing to endure over the last few decades. After watching our predicament continue to build, unimpeded by environmental virtue, for many decades, I can only shake my head in shame and anger at our collective folly. But fools we have been, so at this point, every realistic discussion of humanity’s future is a discussion of collapse scenarios.

    However, it may well be that some scenarios allow a slightly higher percentage of people to survive the coming bottleneck than others. I suspect that greatly increasing the number of small farms in advance of collapse is one of them, but it may also be true that just depending ad hoc responses to rapid increases in unemployment, food shortages and military dangers at all levels of ‘government’ will do just as well.

    We can only take our best guess as to how collapse will play out in its effect on our lives and try to prepare as best we can in advance. I think it would be better to do the scenario analysis and preparing collectively, but if that’s not happening at least we can do some preparing at level of the family unit. That’s what I’ll do until someone comes up with a better plan, one that’s truly ‘actionable’. Maybe we’ll see one at SFF. I certainly hope so.

  7. Chris, I get so tired of hearing that individual action isn’t going to cut the biscuit. We are only responsible for our own actions. The fact that other people are free riders is beside the point.

    Sure we need systemic change. But it’s not happening. And it’s not happening because the free riders don’t want systemic change.

    Can we please stop splitting our camp into the hypocritical system changers and the preachy individual acters, and all do as much of both as we feel up to?

  8. Thanks for the comments. Briefly:

    Joe mentions “how little carbon-reducing sacrifice people have been willing to endure over the last few decades” and Erik says systemic change isn’t happening “because the free riders don’t want systemic change”. Here I think you’re construing ‘the system’ as the aggregate of its components – so if the system hasn’t changed it must be because its individual constituents don’t want it to. I don’t think that’s what’s going on, and it’s potentially an important point because we get stuck in this exhortatory behavioural world when in fact the systemic drivers are elsewhere. Erik – sorry if you’re tired of hearing that individual action isn’t going to cut it…I guess in the world I inhabit I don’t feel I hear it enough, and I hear very little convincing discussion of systemic change at all. As some wag once put it, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

    However, what I wrote above wasn’t a negation of individual choice – so I’ll happily endorse Erik’s ‘do as much as we feel up to’ and to Steve’s ‘Do all you can’. I wasn’t trying to suggest otherwise.

    Jody’s point on fairness: “suffering exists and is caused by our attachments and aversions”. While I can endorse that as a way to steer through the general vicissitudes of life, I can’t endorse it as a response to political unfairness deliberately organised by people against other people. Suppose I’m a serf toiling on your estate, and you tell me that my suffering is caused by my attachments and aversions. Then I raise an armed rebellion, and now you’re the serf toiling on my estate. I tell you that your suffering is caused by your attachments and aversions. No doubt there’s a sense in which it’s true in both cases, but in a way that’s superfluous to the politics of the encounter. When the richest eight people in the world have a combined income equal to the poorest 3.5 billion I don’t see any possible way of establishing local livelihoods that have a chance of being non-predatory on the biosphere, or the future, or other people. For me, political fairness is key to sustainability. And it’s systemic, not related to how fairly or otherwise we treat the individual people we encounter.

    Clem: agreed on the perils of a one size fits all approach. The problem as I see it is that that’s exactly what we have at the moment in the form of a global capitalist economy that endlessly replicates and ramifies itself, despite its manifest lack of ‘fit’ for most people. So to overcome it requires a paradoxically universalist onslaught in favour of particularism. Which I haven’t quite worked out yet…

    Michael: agreed…er, I think. Some posts on trade barriers coming right up, I hope.

    Don/Joe: population…well, I’ll hold that argument over for now. Another post on that in the pipeline.

  9. Chris, thanks for engaging with my book!

    You may be surprised that I don’t think voluntary individual change will be enough to forestall climate catastrophe, either. Fortunately, that’s not what I’m saying in “Being the Change.”

    I recognize the need for change at the systems level. One reason I wrote the book was that I wondered how a single mammal such as myself could most skillfully push for such change. It occurred to me that although burning fossil fuel is quite obviously a deadly problem, few people around me (suburban Americans) were experimenting with burning less of it. Or even thinking about such an experiment. I thought that this might be part of the problem: there’s a narrative that (a) it’s impossible to cut down on fossil fuel; and (b) if you were to try living with less of the stuff, it would be a huge sacrifice and life would be no fun, etc. (And maybe: (c) anyone who tries must be “smug” or “preachy.”)

    So I started to experiment. I found that (a) it wasn’t hard to cut my own usage down to a tenth of the average American’s (some changes may be easier for me than someone else, true, but other things may be easier for someone else than for me) and (b) I actually liked a lot about life with less fossil fuel better. Which was surprising.

    Because my experience went so strongly against the dominant narrative, I decided it was worth investing a large amount of my time into writing the book, to help tell a new story.

    Perhaps part of why the system is so hard to change is because we’re not very good at imagining it changing. (Another reason is that, as Donella Meadows would point out, there’s an information flow problem in that the price of fossil fuel does not include the rising cost of the damage it’s doing.) Certainly one way we can tell a new story is by “being the change.” In other words, I don’t burn less fossil fuel in order to burn less fossil fuel – I burn less fossil fuel because I like it better; and because it probably helps more than if I’d done nothing.

    Speaking of Meadows, here are her places to intervene in a system in order of increasing effectiveness. By “being the change” I’d argue we intervene at pretty fundamental levels. And as one commenter pointed out, we all have the choice, so why not “be the change”? To me it’s more fun.

    9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
    8. Regulating negative feedback loops.
    7. Driving positive feedback loops.
    6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection.
    5. Information flows.
    4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).
    3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system.
    2. The goals of the system.
    1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.

    • I don’t burn less fossil fuel in order to burn less fossil fuel – I burn less fossil fuel because I like it better

      This must be a very rare attitude; if it were common, our society would be using far less fossil fuel energy than it is, simply out of personal preference.

      That said, I am sympathetic to the concept of happiness not being dependent on level of fossil fuel usage. I have certainly used far less than I use now and was no less happy then. It’s a common expression that “money can’t buy happiness”, so a fair number of people must believe that happiness doesn’t continually increase with increases in material throughput.

      Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that money can buy happiness after all. They show that the optimum level of income/expenditure for maximum happiness is about $75,000 per year per person, well above the level that be supported without environmental destruction (at current population levels). We must have a problem with the most important of the intervention places on your list, our mindset.

      It seems to me that the mindset/paradigm of the United States was expressed pretty succinctly by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

      Apparently we Americans have too much Life (too many people) and too much Liberty to pursue Happiness (too much economic latitude). That mindset got us into the pickle we find ourselves in now and it’s going to be a pretty big project to change it, since it seems to be pretty prevalent all over the world.

      • Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that money can buy happiness after all. They show that the optimum level of income/expenditure for maximum happiness is about $75,000 per year per person, well above the level that be supported without environmental destruction (at current population levels). We must have a problem with the most important of the intervention places on your list, our mindset.

        I seem to recall seeing something along this line as well. And I think it significant to make the point that this is the US we’re talking about. So my next thought goes to context… with the notion that someone in the US with a $50,000 a year income (nearly happy) is likely not as happy as someone in say Sri Lanka who has a $5,000 a year income.

        This still doesn’t solve the problem of course, but does perhaps help shine some light. Gross National Happiness as a metric could stand to get some more respect.

        Not being a social scientist I’d have to suppose it more difficult to accurately assess happiness vs. income. Further, on top of income stats lies the cost of living metric… and obviously a much lower level of income is necessary to be happy where living cost are much lower. Still not zeroing in on resource allocation, but hopefully moving that way.

        All this said, I like a simple little meme like Peter’s: I actually liked a lot about life with less fossil fuel.

        Not everyone will buy into it, but some will, others may be curious enough to turn it over in their mind. I went so far as to check out Peter’s website – so who knows, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (a step… not a drive).

    • Hi Peter,
      Now I will need to get your book.

      Perhaps you have a different answer to Joe below, but I will offer mine. I can’t say whether I burn less fossil fuel than the average American, but I am pretty sure that I am on the low side of the mean. I have a feeling that this has mostly to do with my escape from Southern California.

      What I can say for certain though, is that just because I have more fun riding my bike to my job than driving a car, and I am not shy about telling people about it, that does not mean that other people become willing to experiment with riding a bike to their jobs.
      I often get the feeling that people resist that experiment because they are afraid that they might like riding their bike too, and then they would become ‘weird’.

      It is shocking to me how seldom personal happiness is the actual motivation for people’s behavior.

      On another point, $75K is not quite double my (2 person) household income, and I feel wealthy in flyover land USA.

  10. “I think we need to revitalise the best of the old traditions of right and left, while bringing in the contributions of more marginal political positions from the past – and articulating them all afresh in the completely novel historical circumstances we face.”
    Amen, comrade!
    On a practical political level, the paradox that I struggle with is that it is really hard to attempt to influence system change without 1) burning fossil fuel to get to the meetings where system change can be advocated for, and 2) getting co-opted or rendered ineffective by the system once you’re there. If you come on too strong, you get ostracized; if you are too subtle and conciliatory, you get co-opted or ignored. I guess, like you, Chris, I’m not gifted with the social skills for it. But that’s no excuse not to keep trying, right? Contemplating the political skills of Gandhi might be helpful…

  11. A note on population density.
    Population of US in 1940 132 M
    in 2017 326 M

    World in 1940 2.3 B
    in 2017 7.6 B
    The ‘commons’ has shrunk globally by a little more than two thirds during my lifetime. In the US, it has shrunk by a little less than two thirds. And that is just measuring extent. If we look at quality, the quality of our lessened piece of the commons pie has deteriorated in most respects. And the commons may well be the most valuable asset we have. (At very low population densities, other humans may become more valuable than the commons, but we are a long way from being isolated bands of hunters and gatherers.)

    Maybe there is some way to thrive in a hyper-urban world, but I don’t think I will figure it out in the time I have left. And so I think the default is increasing scarcity thinking….but maybe the new generations can lose themselves in digital?

    Don Stewart

  12. Chris, I don’t really see a difference in “the general vicissitudes of life” and deliberate political “unfairness”. They are both about choices and acceptance. I think politics are pretty much included in the vicissitudes of life. How people act in irrational, unpleasant ways towards other people is a vicissitude of life. I can call them on it, but I can’t prevent pain they inflict on both themselves and others from their actions.
    The point I was trying to make was that pain is normal but suffering is optional. If you disagree with this perhaps the next time you find yourself suffering ask yourself if you have a choice in the matter. It’s been my experience that my worst moments of suffering are largely a result of unmet expectations. For example the frustration I call “road rage” is caused by my unmet expectation that other drivers will go at the speed I want to when I’m in a hurry!
    I believe based on current events that humanity is going to increasingly experience the ramifications of climate change induced social and economic chaos. I think fear of future chaos leads to a lot of imagined suffering. Yet I don’t see any way of avoiding this reality. Telling people there isn’t anything they can do to prevent this reality isn’t a message well received. But I don’t believe there is anything any politician, scientist, technologist, or environmentalist, or anyone else can do that will prevent this reality from happening. However, I do believe there are things that people can do to make life better or worse for themselves. So that is the message I tend to give. We need to accept that we’re living in the age of consequences and do what we can to prepare.
    Peter Kalmus accepted the need to change and writes about what he changed in his life that helped him find a good way of living. He writes that it has made him happy. I think perhaps down through history, finding happiness in life is about all anyone can really do. We can’t fix the world. We can’t save others from “injustice”. We can’t stop what it likely to be catastrophic climate change. But we can work to improve our life today.
    In that spirit, I spent the morning toiling away in the soil, weeding, transplanting peppers, and mulching; no sense of injustice that this job always falls on me! I sent a bag of winter leeks, lettuce, and kale with my husband to give a coworker who shares wild mushrooms with us. Giving freely is one of the ways I build friendships. Then the sky clouded over and I sat back under the porch and enjoyed watching the rain move in, providing welcome water for my newly planted peppers. Tomorrow I’ll do it again with tomatoes.
    Life is about choices. Suffering is optional.

    • In that case, I guess I’d want to take ‘suffering’ out of the equation altogether.

      You write: “How people act in irrational, unpleasant ways towards other people is a vicissitude of life. I can call them on it, but I can’t prevent pain they inflict on both themselves and others from their actions.”

      But you can prevent it – or at least you can try to, and you might succeed – by organising against it politically. I don’t see a good argument against combating injustice on the grounds that injustice causes suffering and suffering is an optional choice. I see a good argument in favour of combating injustice on the grounds that it’s wrong. And also on the grounds that the way the existing economy iterates it causes a lot of needless destruction.

      It’s surely true that bad consequences await, no matter what we do, and there are ways of dealing with them that compound or mitigate them. That’s always the case. But your inferences from Buddhism seem much stronger – along the lines of ‘accept that whatever is, must be’. As I wrote before, the lord can say that to the serf, but equally the serf-turned lord can say it to the usurped lord turned serf…so it becomes irrelevant to their political encounter. And if you push the argument that far, should you even be doing what you can to prepare for the age of consequences? Isn’t that a hedge against future pain, rather like organising against injustice?

      • Chris,
        Acceptance is not the equivalent of passivity, or “‘accept that whatever is, must be.” I also wrote “What does this mean for our actions in life? We are not passive spectators of life. We can choose what to eat, how to live, act, work, and speak. Mindfulness and meditation are the practice of paying attention, watching to see what our actions bring us, and then choosing to act with intention; or choosing not to react with anger. Each of us is capable of changing our behavior and bringing about right conduct.”
        I enjoyed the quote you provided by Gandhi. “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

  13. Thanks for the further comments, and perhaps in particular to Peter for responding.

    Out of the weariness to which Erik refers I feel the need to avoid any kind of finger-pointing about what choices people are/aren’t should/shouldn’t be making, so I don’t want to prolong this theme overly. But reflecting on some of the previous comments I guess I want to come in a little harder and say I don’t think critiquing people for funding their retirements or for free-riding on the systemic status quo is a great way to go. We can be pretty sure that most people will fit their behaviour to the systemic status quo, so if it delivers bad outcomes then we need to find leverage points for systemic change, which are unlikely to be the heterodox choices within an extant system. For me, the key systemic problem is that – as Wolfgang Streeck puts it – we live in a society that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximisation in pursuit of capital accumulation. That’s where I want to focus my ‘change agency energies’ so I’ll try to follow through with that as best I can in some future posts.

    In terms of Meadows’ system intervention points, I’m struggling to fit ‘be the change’ behavioural choices much higher than the range 6-8, maybe 5-8. But if anyone wants to weigh in differently on that, I’d be interested to hear the arguments.

    Let me be clear, however, that I’m not arguing against people choosing to ‘be the change’, that it’s not a good thing to do or that I think Peter is fundamentally wrong.

    On population, I’m not going to argue that it isn’t a problem, but I’d certainly argue that it isn’t a ‘simple’ problem. Here are some additional figures as possible ingredients for a more complex story:

    World population increase 1940-2016: 325%
    US population increase 1940-2016: 244%
    US population increase 1940-2016, excluding the foreign-born: 235%
    World fertility rate decrease 1960-2015: 51%
    US fertility rate decrease 1960-2015: 50%
    Portland population increase 1940-2016: 209%
    Residential property value increase in Portland 2000-2015: 220%
    Area of US agricultural land decrease 1961-2015: 9.3%
    US net wheat export increase 1961-2013: 175%
    US GDP increase 1960-2016: 550%
    World GDP increase 1960-2016: 693%

    A final observation: this comment was written on the train on the way back from an Ecological Land Co-op meeting in Reading – attendance at which, a propos Michelle, has certainly increased my day’s carbon emissions above average. Back on the farm, I’d say the majority of our direct emissions come from the commercial activities that we’re obliged to undertake. The site could easily have four or five low emission self-supporting households on it. Even trying to increase the availability of a handful of commercial smallholdings is a glacially slow process of systemic change. I think Clem and Joe are right that fast systemic change will only come exogenously, in unwelcome ways. But I’m still planning to attend the next meeting…

  14. For me this post is about the dangers of articulating environmentalism in a religious mode. Models and hypotheses about the possible effects of anthropogenic climate change are treated as eschatology, the anatomy of the end times, and suddenly environmentalists become preachers, storms become portents, and humanity is cursed by its sinful ways. We must all examine the state of our souls, confess our faults, and correct our behaviour, in the hopes that we or our descendants will reach paradise.

    We can’t even go in for a bit of vicarious piety and pay the monks to say prayers on our behalf. We’re all Protestants now, all individually responsible for the fate of the world.

    I realise this is a little facetious, and I have no problem with those trying to live the best life they can, but I thoroughly support your points here Chris. There is a real danger of being either charmed or revolted by the charisma of the holy man and forgetting that the ideal of the saviour, the person who makes a difference, is actually more about personal salvation than saving the world.

    I have felt the guilt that comes with environmental awareness, I’m sure we all have, and I have felt the despair of my fallen condition. But it’s all a distraction, and I think we all need to forgive ourselves and get on with something productive.

    ‘If we continue down this path, it seems to me likely that there will be major breakdowns in human social systems and in the Earth’s biophysical systems. In fact, there already are. These may proliferate in all sorts of surprising and dystopian ways, but I don’t see much point in speculating about how such ‘collapse’ scenarios may unfold. I do see a point in speculating about alternative scenarios that may create better outcomes, and in particular about how such scenarios may emerge from present social processes, because that may give some kind of a handle on how to increase the probability of those better outcomes occurring.’

    For me, that says it all.

  15. ‘population isn’t a simple story’
    I agree, and I am not suggesting that just counting people is enough. Let me give a couple of examples to try to show the direction of my thinking:

    *People used to have sentimental paintings of farmhouses (e.g., English cottages) hanging on the wall. The painting called to mind a whole galaxy of relationships: work, neighbors, family, food, etc. I don’t know anyone who has a picture of a corporate farm. Farmhouses were part of a commons one could observe, without owning it. Thoreau remarked on this.
    *Once upon a time, farmers planted hedgerows, which were full of life. Kids from town could ride their bicycles out in the country, or walk, and get a nature education just from the hedgerows. The farmer didn’t plant the hedgerow to amuse the kids, but they, in fact, became part of the commons which assisted in building strong kids.
    *In the US during the dust bowl, the government was instrumental in planting tens of thousands of miles of windbreak trees around fields to stop wind erosion. Fast forward to my generation and there existed fields of alfalfa (lucerne) everywhere which were almost entirely enclosed by trees and shrubs. There was typically one entrance into the field wide enough for farm equipment, but there was no gate. Now any enterprising boy might entice a corn-fed girl into sharing a six-pack of beer on a blanket laid out in that field on a starry summer night. And no, the farmer didn’t shoot them first and ask questions later. Those fields were part of the commons of coming of age in the Midwestern United States.
    *In the towns, there were still craftspeople who practiced their trade in sheds or buildings which were more or less open. A kid could spend hours watching their elders go about productive work. Not at all like a cubicle warehouse. Again, part of the commons.

    I could go on, but you get the idea. The fact that we weren’t crowded, that we mostly knew each other, that people didn’t automatically assume that kids were a threat, etc. led to a civility and a participatory education which has largely disappeared. I noticed the disappearance first in England and in Maine. In England, 50 years ago, it seemed to me that many more things were behind the, then, equivalent of a pay wall. In Maine, I was riding my bicycle on a public road while my wife was doing something. I stopped beside the road to look at a pretty tidal pool, and stood under two towering trees to be in the shade. A man came out of the house across the street and demanded that I get out from under his trees. I see this kind of behavior as motivated by the sense of scarcity….there isn’t enough to go around and I can’t afford to share.

    The larger the population gets, the more it seems to me that the sense of scarcity rules our behavior.

    So it’s not ONLY about calculating what my share of Yellowstone Park was in 1940 and my share of Yellowstone Park in 2018.

    Don Stewart

  16. Addressing some objections and breaking some new ground:

    I didn’t intend any criticism of people funding their retirements, etc.; it’s more about recognizing influences.

    “Caring,” the heartfelt kind, does not require nor connote “religion”, it’s basic humanity.

    About “better outcomes” and “how such scenarios may emerge from present social processes” (hat tip to Andrew), changed mindsets could be a key component, and having explorers and pioneers such as Peter can help to change mindsets.

    In other circles, the “save my skin, save my kin” mentality could conceivably be tweaked to result in more security overall, perhaps with less hoarding and less roaming hordes as a result. In the meantime, a heckuva lotta global resources are monetized and essentially hoarded, cycling through inheritances to already-wealthy people.

    In previous posts and comments, I’ve read of agricultural pioneers who were, in a sense,”being the change”. Having many more local pioneers of various types, dealing with local realities, could be quite influential.

    • Just to note that Andrew was quoting Chris in his “better outcomes” paragraph.

      And please let me reiterate my point that knowing what “alternative scenarios” there may be that can mitigate future breakdowns (that “may proliferate in all sorts of surprising and dystopian ways”) requires that we have a clear understanding of those breakdowns and their causes.

      The reason to study collapse scenarios is not so that we can wring our hands in delightfully dramatic despair, or that we can gleefully point an accusatory finger at those despicable people who are leading us to breakdown, but simply to have an idea of where the biggest dangers to our health and safety will come from.

      Every dystopian breakdown, from climate change to nuclear war and everything in between, must be studied as to probability and impact. Only then can we evaluate strategies for mitigation and sort out the ‘solutions’ that might have some mitigative value from the ones that will be totally irrelevant.

      As a hypothetical example, if we are very close to the point-of-no-return for climate change, it does no good to execute a plan to fairly distribute the fruits of our industrial resource extraction/production processes and lift the poor out of poverty. If our carbon budget is near zero, rather than sharing our current industrial wealth with the poor, industry must be abandoned altogether, meaning no industrial wealth for anyone. All politics of wealth redistribution become moot.

      A more relevant question might then become, “How can we most effectively destroy industry while simultaneously reducing human casualties”? Not an easy question to answer, but at least it addresses a real danger without getting sidetracked on strategies that don’t (or might even make things worse).

      If, to paraphrase Santayana, “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”, then I suggest, “those who ignore the future are doomed by it”.

      • Hat tip to Chris, and to Joe.

        “Every dystopian breakdown, from climate change to nuclear war and everything in between, must be studied as to probability and impact. Only then can we evaluate strategies…”

        The subset of people who can competently produce such analyses seems relatively tiny, and when faced with “unknown unknowns” along with the “known unknowns”, even the professionals can get it wrong. And would they be believed, anyway?

        Meanwhile, perhaps the best that the rest of us can do is to explore strategies that may apply to “dystopian breakdowns” in general, and learn from the successes (and failures) of the pioneers who are trying to “be the change”.

        • I agree that it is difficult to exactly predict some types of breakdown, particularly with regard to timing, but some are pretty easy.

          A good non-hypothetical example is the depletion of aquifers. In an area where farming is dependent on irrigation, irrigation is dependent on withdrawals from an aquifer and the aquifer is nearing depletion, then it makes no sense to move large numbers of people onto small farms in that area, even though small farms might be a perfectly suitable response in other places.

          Even easier are more general predictions, like those found in Limits to Growth. It’s perfectly obvious that exponential economic growth will be limited if that growth is occurring on the surface of a sphere with fixed area. Predicting when the growth will stop is harder, but Meadows et al seem to have done a fairly good job in that regard. The fact that global economic growth can’t continue for another century or two can be taken as a certainty.

          What is really tough is to apply general probabilities to local populations, however I think that it should be clear that some populations are are at greater risk from civilizational breakdown than others. Those who live in cities are at much higher risk from war, pandemic, and food and water supply disruptions than those who live on small farms that are well away from a city.

          It seems to me that even a cursory look at the future by someone who lives in a city that is dependent on food and water from a depleting aquifer and whose livelihood is dependent on continuing economic growth will reveal that changing one’s circumstances would be very prudent.

          I don’t expect SFF to zero in on every local population to analyze their vulnerabilities, but Chris’ speculations on the functional details of Wessex are a great example of the kind of detail-work that needs to be expanded to many more places and consider many more headwinds than just food production. I think that kind of work must at least take into consideration the most obvious kinds of breakdowns dead ahead (as Boz Scaggs would put it).

          • I like the way you lay out your logic. The social and economic dynamics of the move to rural ‘safety’ are interesting. High rural property prices, low urban property prices. Poor townsfolk, rich neo-peasants – but with wealth dwindling along with economic connectivity. Possibly leading to a different kind of landlordism to that typical in past agrarian societies…or possibly not. And then what kind of urban movements and responses? It makes for quite a stimulating speculative sociology – kind of a counter-ecomodernist manifesto…

          • ” …but with wealth dwindling…”

            The dwindling of wealth. A frequent collapse assertion. And while I’m not going to debate the intent of the assertion, I do want to quibble with the sentiment. Because wealth as a word perhaps covers too much ground. Is not a happy person, secure in her means even though it might be smallish, wealthier than a rich person who is constantly worried about her future?

            So what is this wealth we lose with collapse? A smartphone? A luxury yacht? A pool table? Six dozen pairs of shoes? These items may all be accounted by price. But don’t try to eat them, or run to them in a storm.

            Laying out possible futures is to my mind a worthy effort. And we seem to argue from various vantage points as I imagine is appropriate. But I think we too often limit our future selves to what we know of the past and the present. And it may be unwise to assume future developments and solutions not already to hand. But just the same I think it folly to assume there will only be paths that we can currently see, that are in focus at this moment.

            Large rivers created a natural boundary to our ancestors until someone invented the bridge. I can imagine the handwringing among those standing at the bank the Danube looking at the opposite side and wishing. Now even a peasant with an Oxcart can cross at her leisure.

            Wealth – it may be redefined, it may change hands, it too has an uncertain future. But in some ways I don’t expect it will ultimately dwindle.

          • Yes I agree with most of that. But I had in mind a view of wealth more time restricted and defined around current abilities to call forth far-flung resources via the medium of money. What interests me about one possible direction of Joe’s scenario is the idea of the urban rich seeing the writing on the wall and having the ability to buy themselves out of it by purchasing rural plots – but then as his scenario unfolds, their purchasing power would decline and they might find that they did actually have to farm seriously to get by. For sure, other forms of wealth (including the value of a small farm life) might then emerge, but what especially interested me in my comment was the first stage of that process. More generally though I think the accumulation of wealth as fiscal capital is a big part of the modern problem – as the likes of David Fleming have argued, perhaps we could learn a thing or two from other cultures who made a point of burning up their capital and thereby postponed crises of overaccumulation.

          • “…the accumulation of wealth as fiscal capital is a big part of the modern problem… perhaps we could learn a thing or two from other cultures who made a point of burning up their capital and thereby postponed crises of overaccumulation.”

            This reminds me of billionaires Gates and Buffett starting “The Giving Pledge”, which can be put in the context of “being the change.”

            “The Giving Pledge is a campaign to encourage wealthy people to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. As of 2018, the pledge has 175 signatories, either individuals or couples; from 22 different countries. Most of the signatories of the pledge are billionaires, and their pledges total over $365 billion…” [Wikipedia]

          • Interesting – though $365 billion is less than 0.5% of global GDP, so if any billionaires are reading this, please dig deep…

  17. Interesting comment, Andrew. It is kinda random that we are all obsessing about carbon when that is just one (conveniently invisible) measurement of our sin and excess. It could as well be some more down to earth indicator of the general mayhem, like the loss of Don Stewart’s alfalfa patches. Maybe we have to feel guilty about something, ‘cause what is life without psycho-drama? Not that psycho-drama is very helpful.

    • Right; it’s the mechanism I alluded to above, with “nature” (and “natural-looking” folks in faraway countries) taking centre stage, obfuscating the suffering that provides no convenient place to observe from a distance, but is present/presence. The choice of drama is not random, but a choice guided by perversity in effect – ‘beautiful suffering’ is appreciated, like the noble savage forced to endure it.

      • That’s not how I see it. It’s useful to know that around half the people in the world live on less than US$5 a day PPP, for example, because that gives a handle on the (dys)functioning of the global political economy, not because it’s good to appreciate ‘beautiful suffering’. However, I’d agree – if this is the implication – that attending to local problems may be a better way of addressing global ones like that rather than another iteration of heroic universalist interventionism…the problem being, as in the exchange with Clem above, that particularism is difficult to bring off in a universalist world, and also has its own problems.

        • We’re getting into things here that I may be unable to convey – it is neither a question of ignoring people elsewhere nor pitting locals against a foreign foe. What it is is the equivalent of the professional torturer crying because he’s run over a deer with his car.
          We know about the geopolitics of food production while the majority of people in the West seems to assume that a re-beautification of landscapes is what’s really and only needed.
          And this, as I alluded to, is what’s being taught. “Nature” is nature as Idea. We’ve spent so long teaching it as non-contradictory – during a time when major societal contradictions in our countries were largely being pacified by fossilised fuel means – that I fear even to attempt change from this end may be an approach doomed to fail for the forseeable future.

  18. Thanks for the further comments. I don’t have much to add but I appreciate the collective input, which I’ve found informative.

    Just a couple of points. Don’s reminiscences on the Midwest commons are nicely framed and I’d agree that what’s at stake isn’t only counting shares. However, the kind of counts I posted above suggest to me that the changes to which Don refers aren’t only or even mainly driven by population increase. I aim to write some more on this dynamic here soon.

    Andrew’s religious framing of the issues is also nicely done and prefigures what I’d intended to post next by way of an attempt to get further into the notion of system change. However, I’ve just discovered that the Breakthrough Institute has honoured me with a critique:

    So I think next up will be a response to that…which in any case offers the chance to air some related issues.

    • Dan Blaustein-Rejto and Kenton de Kirby may believe “that reversing robust global trends simply isn’t feasible”, but even if trend-reversal isn’t feasible, it is inevitable. Their ‘vision’ should accommodate that reality.

  19. Spring was short here, a week perhaps, and now it is summer and I still haven’t sown my carrots and planted the 70-odd cider apple trees! But apparently I had time, over lunch, to check if Chris has blessed us with a new post lately. And he had, Thanks.

    Not much to add perhaps.
    Individual choice is often reduced to “consumer choice” which makes it clearer how well this fits into the prevailing market-capitalist narrative (or paradigm). The idea that it is through changing consumption that we will change the world is a grand delusion.
    (I have expanded on this in several articles, such as this one

    I see more value in the more radicial invidivual choices to try to leave the system as much as is possible. But admittedly that is also very hard (tried it over again). The short-term might and attraction of a system that is built on exploitation and liquidation of “natural capital” and “social capital” is very hard to resist. And there is the temptation of the monastery to consider. The more you turn your back on society, the less you are a player in this world. It is a bit the same as the logic of the daily politics. If you want to “be relevant” you can’t be too radical, so you slowly adjust yourself and you vision to the daily politics (which is on the “top” of Meadow’s list).

    I totally agree with you Chris that there is no easy “solution”, and that one serious fallacy is that we try find “solutions”. I will incorporate the word “solutionism” in my (limited) English vocabulary. It was in JMG’s writing I first encountered the idea that pak oil and climate change are not “problems to be solved” but predicaments. That was an enlightening perspective.

    • Thanks for that Gunnar. Much as I feel sorry for your cider trees, I’m glad that someone’s wasting their time reading what I write, since it lessens my sorrows over all the jobs that don’t get done as a result of me wasting my time writing it! …and a worthy distinction between individual choice and consumer choice to throw into the mix.

    • From Gunnar’s linked article, which clarifies (to me) his views:

      ‘In my view, it is a good thing to make educated and ethical consumer choices. It is not only a good thing – it is our responsibility. But in many cases it makes more sense to have those choices made politically.’

      While I agree with this, the topic ‘being the change’ goes beyond consumer choices. Politically imposed systemic ‘solutions’ (or strategies) ideally involve the will of the people, which can be influenced by those in their midst who are ‘being the change’, showing examples of what is possible. There’s an interplay between systemic changes and personal changes, it’s not either/or.

      And it’s not all-or-nothing. If we are making consumer choices while we are agitating for systemic change, we can be making choices that do less harm.

      • Regulations work when government works. Current Republican efforts in the US are rolling back regulations at State and Federal levels. Republican led governors, senators, congress, and administration are dismantling efforts to combat climate change, protect consumers from fraud, or provide healthcare. I’m not hopeful the US will find much political leadership anytime soon. Unfortunately the anti-intellectual, ultraconservative religious nanny state is more likely! Perhaps this is why tend to avoid getting involved in political action.

    • In advance of that possible systemic change are a number of Swiss farmers who are ‘being the change’. From that article:

      ‘…in Switzerland already around 13% of farmers are organic. I talk to a lot of them and I have not met one who has regretted giving up pesticides.’

  20. ‘wasting my time’
    And so we circle back to the Kalmus family in Pasadena. Are they wasting their time?

    I have been invited to participate in an Elders group. I suppose we would try to save the world. Is it a waste of time, should I tend to my garden? Or do I actually have something to communicate through demonstration?

    What I really think is valuable from an Elder or a Scientist or an aspiring Peasant is setting an example. But the example has to become visible and visceral to the young…which doesn’t happen automatically and, in my opinion, can’t happen over social media. The example also has to be part of ‘a better way’. David Johnson used a quote from Bucky Fuller to that effect.

    Everywhere I go I see people with their noses in their phones. Is it a waste of time to try to set an example if no one is going to be paying any attention?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions.

    Don Stewart

    • Perhaps one means to finding an answer Don involves deciding first what you feel your time is worth. Next you’ll need some sort of metric to measure response to your investment. The latter much more difficult than the former I believe.

      But if I might get all “meta” for a moment – do be sure to figure in your personal feelings when you look at the first part of the equation – your time value proposition. If, as Peter suggests, you feel better for having reduced your carbon footprint then you may have all the “value” needed. If you feel your single effort has to somehow save the world, they I haven’t got good news to share.

      The ‘noses in their phones’ phenomenon is for me just an evolution of the latter day ‘earbuds hooked to a Walkman’. That seemed to follow on from ‘noses in their newspaper’ (if like me you are old enough to remember what a newspaper is). These technological means to avoid human interaction come at price of course – (but I’m not convinced the “cost” is totally wasted). One aspect of the small farm future that I find interesting though does have to do with my sense that it will force a return to more face to face human interaction(s). That should be a positive shouldn’t it?

      • Clem
        The time with young people that I believed was well spent was working a row on the small farm where I worked until a couple of years ago. They were 50 years younger than I was, the Global Financial Crisis had dealt most of them hard blows, and working on a farm with their hands and hand tools was not what they had thought much about prior to 2008. They seemed to genuinely care what I thought. Perhaps it was because I was working right beside them. Perhaps it was because I was sympathetic to their generation….in contrast to the usual media bullXXXX. Perhaps it was because I remembered how we lived, once upon a time. Which seemed to be coming around again.

        The current triangulation of events and attitudes is not like it was in 2008-2012. You can see the disconnect if you follow Tim Morgan’s blog and the comments. The wise analysis of the problems that Britain is hiding under the rug. The clueless response of the media. The trivializing of anything a leader says which carries a real, but hard, message. I’m too close to the US to have a long perspective, but my feeling is that the US is no different.

        Don Stewart

    • Don,
      Perhaps the phrase “time well spent” is a good way to look at things. What are we doing and is it time well spent? I think we have to each answer that question for ourselves. And the answer probably changes over time.
      Lately I find that almost every day I have an opportunity to do a good deed. Once you start these things just pop up everywhere. A few days ago I saw one of the city workers filling his pickup truck with the free city mulch using a pitch fork. I drove my loader over and asked if he would like me to load his truck for him and he graciously accepted my offer. It took me only a few minutes and I didn’t think of it as a big deal, just a good deed for the day. The next day he was back again and I so I offered again. He told me how much my help had meant to him. He and his wife foster four children, have adopted two, and raised three of their own. His free time after work is very short as is their money, so he needed the free mulch. His thankfulness for my help almost brought him to tears.
      Sometimes what seems like nothing to us, may mean a great deal to others. You never know when something small turns out to be something really large for someones else. I think being open to the possibility that we can help others, that we can do a good deed for the day, opens up avenues for connecting with others and finding that help is there when we need it too. What goes around, comes around!

  21. Chris, I have not had time to read through all the comments, so forgive me if I repeat what someone else has already said. Perhaps this was not the aim of your post, but something that you briefly touched on and could use a little more attention is the idea of being the “disease” from the Berry quote.

    The main thrust of the post seems to be that individual behavioral changes are not going to accomplish anything on the global scale, or maybe even the local scale. I do not dispute this. It is fairly obvious that using less water for washing, buying local produce, etc, is not going to have the kind of impact necessary to solve the current environmental and social problems plaguing our society. In short, one might say, “What good will it do?” And this brings me to my point. The thing “missing” from the discussion is the “moral” aspect of these issues for the “person.” I think most people reading the posts on this blog would agree that the pollution of rivers and over-consumption of natural resources is not only bad practically, but also morally. So, the acts of sustainability are not just aimed at the former, but also the latter.

    Back to the question “What good will it do?” Well, if by good you mean on the purely practical side, probably not much without the systemic changes you talked about. But what about if we mean good in the moral sense ? Then I think it can do great good. The act of using less becomes a virtue (or rather is a virtue), the virtue of thrift. In other words, it does me good, as a human being. Of course this needs to be balanced by the consciousness that no matter what changes you make in your life, you are still part of the disease, as you said. However, realizing this and changing your lifestyle and continually striving to do better is called repentance, another good thing.

    All this is to say what Wendell Berry said better and clearer than I ever could: “Some of my critics were happy to say that my refusal to use a computer would not do any good. I have argued, and am convinced, that it will at least do me some good, and that it may involve me in the preservation of some cultural goods. But what they meant was real, practical, public good. They meant that the materials and energy I save by not buying a computer will not be “significant.” They meant that no individual’s restraint in the use of technology or energy will be “significant.” That is true.”

    So without negating the good points you made about systemic change, with which I agree, I think it is also important to talk about “individualism” if only because we are individuals. And living a good life involves not only making the world a better place, but making yourself a better (virtuous) person. I think Gandhi would agree.

  22. Chris, some excellent points to ponder there. My first blush thoughts are that I’m sympathetic to virtue ethics, and your idea of choices as moral choices makes sense to me. But I’m wary of getting caught up in a discourse of sin and repentance as ecological strategy. Maybe I would say that there will always be fewer saints than sinners in this world (or saintly acts than sinful ones in ourselves), so my preference for mitigating environmental degradation is to make saintlier choices easier for sinners rather than a matter of personal moral struggle to become more saintly. I’m also wary about the public practice of virtue. Choosing not to use a computer might be virtuous, but publishing an essay on why you’ve chosen not to use a computer to my mind makes the virtue more complicated, and perhaps questionable.

    Which links perhaps to the ‘wasting my time’ discussion thread. There are many different ways to spend one’s time, and for the most part I’m not inclined to cavil at what other people choose to do. However, I think a bit of self-questioning about whether we’re getting our priorities right is never a bad thing, so long as it doesn’t become too obsessional. I spend a fair amount of my time writing. Well, I like to do it. But it’s uplifting to know that there are other people reading what I write…which brings us back to the question of public demonstration. I guess we’re social creatures. As Jody says, sharing generally feels good. Which maybe points in a different direction to cultivating personal virtue?

  23. I’d like to distinguish between giving a man a fish and teaching him to fish. I heartily applaud giving a starving man a fish, or even inviting a stranger to share the fish you just caught, even if he looks fully fed. However, it seems that the world calls out for discovering (or rediscovering) and teaching people regenerative ways to fish. And if we take on the latter task, we face some formidable obstacles, which may not be, primarily, scientific or engineering in their origins. Consider these two articles, currently published in the Acres USA newsletter:

    The German article states flatly that ONLY forests can add humus to the soil (in any sustainable way), and specifically debunks the notion of manure. The second article talks about the miracle of the Great Plains of the USA (which haven’t been forested since at least the last Ice Age) and their deep reservoirs of humus. The second article also gives a concrete example of how the soil food web and plants can change the pH (especially in the root zone) to grow crops which ‘shouldn’t’ grow in the given soil…Albrecht and company rest in peace. (Las Lunas New Mexico is in the desert, not far from where David Johnson does his work.)

    What to make of all this? The German claims that only undisturbed forests can add humus, but the New Mexico article refers to the evident exception of the Great Plains, and cites mycorrhizal fungi as the key. David Johnson is successful, after an initial inoculation, in growing a succession of crops without adding any commercial humic substances or even any commercial compost or fertilizers. Johnson is steadily adding to soil organic matter, and measures how the plant exudes more carbon as the soil gets richer. Christine Jones in Australia has been talking for decades about the role of the liquid carbons which are formed by the plants and exuded through the roots. Those liquid carbons, according to Christine, form the backbone of the humic environment in soil aggregates. Since there is no shortage of sunshine, and thus a whole lot of photosynthesis available, is there some ‘finite supply’ of humus?

    Teaching a man to fish would, ideally, involve teaching some hard headed farmer how to grow humus. David Johnson is doing his best. So is Christine Jones. Although the two differ in some engineering details. I think both would agree that teaching farmers about fishing is hard going. Even worse if you are trying to teach a government or university bureaucrat.

    Somebody in Australia (Colin Seis?) formulated the 50 Mile Rule….no farmer will listen to any other farmer within a 50 mile radius. Gabe Brown’s neighbor in North Dakota won’t come over and look at the differential in water infiltration rates as compared to his own, compacted, land. So if farmers will listen to anybody, it has to be an Expert….which we used to define as someone at least a hundred miles from home with a briefcase. That definition now needs to be amended to say ‘with a snazzy Powerpoint Slide Show’. (Which ignores the fact that Powerpoint was part of the problem in the space station disasters. Feynman called them ‘goddamn little bullet point charts’. )

    Cynics suggest that humans only change when their back is against the wall. David Johnson has said both that humans may change if you can show them a better way, and also that change will come from the bottom up as individual farmers and ranchers see that they have no alternative.

    On those cheery notes, I confess to not knowing exactly what to do.

    Don Stewart

    • Start using living mulch systems. Which is what I’ll be doing once the next clover seeding windowbpresents itself.

  24. I thought about writing a post of my own to respond to this, but then I planted tomatoes. Now I return and see I have missed quite a conversation.

    And I ran across this graphic, which I think gives a visceral sense of scale. I thought it would be good for past conversations about population, but now I see it fits this one as well.

    Impact Population Affluence Technology

    • I think the graphic overstates the importance of Technology by using total patents as a measure. The “T” term is usually related to efficiency in the production of affluence.

      The two big drivers in the I=PAT formula are Population and Affluence. Technology can raise or lower the impact of affluence, but since the general trend is more efficiency for each unit GDP per capita (as a proxy for affluence), the technology multiplier is likely to be slightly less than one.

      Even so, if the graphic was formed by only the two dimensions of population and affluence, it would still be an astounding expansion since 1950.

      I remember being amazed at the amazing sight of thousands of automobiles flowing down newly created freeways in the 1960s. Each auto had an engine that could have powered a factory in the 19th century, but was now just moving a single person to work. The impact of industrial civilization has only gotten more dramatic since then.

      Unless the Technology term starts heading toward zero, for which there is little evidence (the ‘decoupling’ myth), the Impact product will just keep getting bigger and bigger until something breaks.

      • OMG, “amazed at the amazing”. Sometimes I amaze myself with amazingly dumb prose. Please figure out how to proudly allow editing, Mr WordPress (or figure out how to proofread Mr Clarkson)

        • See:

          Tim Morgan takes a comprehensive look at the economy from the standpoint of energy, not money. The results are different. Much of the First World countries have been experiencing contraction since about the turn of the century. What has expanded enormously since then is debt. Morgan calculates ‘prosperity’ as, more or less, what we think we own minus what we owe. Prosperity has been declining pretty sharply in Britain, France, and Italy. More slowly declining in the US.

          The value of debt is directly related to the prospects for its repayment. Tim’s belief is that faith in repayment is about due for a serious test….a replay of the Global Financial Crisis.

          Tim’s work would give a smaller cube (or maybe 2 dimensional rectangle), but the comparison with my birth year would still be enormous.

          Don Stewart

    • Small Farm Future’s loss is your larder’s gain. But I have another post on population in the offing, so a second bite of the tomato is an option.

      A problem I have with I = PAT is that as far as I can see it’s a speculative assertion of a causal linear association between population and impact, rather than a best-choice model fitted to the data that shows empirically an equivalent independent association with population. I don’t doubt there’s some association with population, but I do doubt that it can be represented by I = PAT.

      I’m not quite sure how the figure fits with this post, but no doubt we’ll come to this issue again.

      • I think the figure fits with the post as evidence of the necessity for change. We are collectively putting the ecosystem and ourselves in danger by our present methods of provisioning what we think we need.

        As you point out, the formula is simplistic in that all economic activity is treated equally at to its impact on the earth. Take a simple example of affluence, a breakfast bowl of strawberries and cream.

        A bowl served from strawberries picked from the understory of a food forest near the back door, served with cream from a hand-milked cow that had just been grazing in a natural mountain meadow nearby has far less impact than one served in a Manhattan penthouse with strawberries flown in from California to the local Whole Foods and cream trucked in from upstate and packaged in a factory in Queens.

        So if proper adjustment is made for variation in the impact of affluence (including the technologies involved) and variation in affluence between people, one gets a formula more like I= Ia+Ib+Ic…. , which sums out to the identity, I=I, Impact =Impact.

        Nevertheless, the formula is a simple way of pointing out that human activity and the resource extraction and manufacturing that activity requires has an impact on natural systems that is roughly proportional to the number of people, the stuff they acquire or consume and the means they use to do all of it.

  25. Thanks for the further comments. Probably a final one from me:

    – agreed with Steve that it’s not a case of either/or. I didn’t intend to imply that it was. But I think I remain uncomfortable with the idea of ‘being the change’ to influence other people. Chris’s view of it as a personal moral imperative works better for me…but I’m also uncomfortable about the way it then too easily turns into a kind of personal moral tussle, along the lines suggested by Andrew.

    – systemic change isn’t necessarily the same as top-down or government-led change.

    – on population, without wanting to open up a whole new topic (more on it in another post soon), I’m pretty much in agreement with Joe’s comment, but doesn’t that undermine the I = PAT formula? What matters is impact, for which population number will only ever be an imperfect proxy. For example, it seems to me that India’s decisions about the balance of its energy policy between coal and renewables is much more globally impactful than the fact that there are another 30 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa than there were last year. That’s not to say that those extra 30 million people have no impact, but isn’t it better to address the specific impacts that they actually have rather than to fixate on the number?

    • ‘…uncomfortable with the idea of ‘being the change’ to influence other people.’

      Well, that’s not quite what I have suggested. The influence on other people seems to be mainly a side-effect, instead of the reason for choosing to ‘be the change’. (Subsequently writing a book is another matter.) For example, it seems unlikely that farmers or gardeners who adopt organic methods are primarily motivated by the chance to influence other people, yet the influence can happen nonetheless.

      ‘- systemic change isn’t necessarily the same as top-down or government-led change.’

      My mention of ‘politically imposed’ was in response to a quote about ‘choices made politically’. If the systemic change is instead a grassroots or bottom-up initiative, then the people who are “being the change” could of course have more direct influence on the process.

      “What matters is impact, for which population number will only ever be an imperfect proxy…”

      Thanks, Chris, for giving more depth to the discussion of that topic.

      • “The influence on other people seems to be mainly a side-effect, instead of the reason for choosing to ‘be the change’”

        Fair correction. Though I’m still a bit dubious about, so to speak, the width and depth of the side-effect.

  26. population….and scarcity
    The real driver for a whole lot of human (and other living creatures) behavior is Scarcity.
    A surprising and intriguing examination of how scarcity—and our flawed responses to it—shapes our lives, our society, and our culture

    Scarcity can come from any one of numerous events:
    *An increase in the number of mouths to be fed coupled with the same old technology and the same arable land
    *The same number of mouths to be fed coupled with eroding land
    *The same number of mouths to be fed coupled with drought
    *The same number of mouths to be fed coupled with declining yields from hunting
    *Fewer mouths to be fed (e.g., plague) coupled with societal collapse and the consequent collapse of production
    *The feeling that one is getting older, with no one to rely on

    And so forth. You get the idea. When I blame ‘population increase’ for the decline in the yield from the commons since my childhood (and given my somewhat idiosyncratic notion of ‘commons’), it is a sloppy way of saying that scarcity has replaced abundance. Some of the dynamics are literally about the sheer numbers of people, but more is about all the other sources of scarcity. Where Steven Pinker sees only abundance, I tend to see scarcity. But my prognosis for our collective future is probably a lot darker than Pinker’s, and expectations for the future are also a colorant of the feeling of abundance or scarcity.

    Don Stewart

  27. Pingback: May readings – Uneven Earth

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