44 Years of Slow Collapse

"You can go to the countryside, get yourself a farm, learn how to milk cows, sew your own clothes, put up canned goods at harvest, and midwife your own babies, but it won’t save you from the spread of the deserts, bubbling clathrates, or zombie hordes fleeing starving cities."

Watching the Tea Party make hostages of the other crime families is better than anything this season from Showtime, HBO or AMC.

With the collapse of the Murdoch Crime Family, other crime families are scrambling for position. The Bush Crime Family was feeling pretty good about skating away from its crime scene Scott-free, counting on the incoming Obama gang as a covert asset. The feel-good feelings that came in with Obama, primarily hope that the Bush-Cheney bungling and transparent evil would be gone, were entirely manufactured, something akin to the “Neo” program The Architect built into The Matrix. But there is a random element built into the program that can make it very interesting, or at least rife for sequels.

Hostage-taking as a political strategy caught the Bush-Obama family by surprise. Within a few months of getting their freshmen to Washington, the Tea family went straight for the jewels, like young Vito Corleone knocking off the biggest crime boss in Brooklyn. It used to be enough just to shut down the federal government for a few days. But with the debt ceiling drama, the global economy was kidnapped and held in a dark chamber for 4 months, and the ransom paid in the end reached straight into the breadbasket of the old order. The dons are not happy about that. Michelle Bachmann and Eric Cantor should avoid small private planes and room service.

Lets face it, it had to be paid, and the US had to come to the same kind of reckoning as Iceland, Spain or Greece. How a country gets there is less important, but in a fantasyland of mythical populism, created whole cloth from Murdoch’s media, a populist scam seems more plausible than, say, a report from Bush-Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors. We are in new territory now, and as the warring gangs fight blood feuds in the ruins of the crashing empire, the smart money is getting out while the airlines are still flying. Given the latest hostages – the FAA controllers – that window may not be open long.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model called the five stages of grieving, based on her interviews with more than 500 terminally ill patients. Kübler-Ross was dealing with people who were experiencing profound, catastrophic loss — their own lives — and were trying to cope, somehow. She emphasized that while these 5 stages are not complete, exclusive or chronological, they seemed typical.

The five stages, sometimes known by the acronym DABDA, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In some consistent but amorphous way, shape or form, we have been writing of the looming collapse of planetary ecosystems and the human civilization they support since about 1967. Over the span of the last 44 years our emotional state has risen and fallen, sometimes resuscitated by good news, other times deflated by confirmation that, indeed, collapse and mass extinction is inevitable. We described one of these deflating moments a few years ago as our Houston Moment. Houston, because that is where we were when we realized just how close Earth is now to profound, catastrophic, irredeemable collapse.

In 44 years you get to see a lot of people arriving to this point of understanding and, like Kübler-Ross, we observe some patterns. Much has already been written comparing peak oil and climate change to the five stages of grief. The similarity may only be in the flexibility, because not everyone shows all the signs, and there is inconsistent order. Lately we’ve noticed we’re getting more buy-in to the notion of collapse from people in the financial sector. Many of these, Chris Martenson and Paul Gilding for example, have made major contributions to encapsulating the big picture.

Over the years we’ve also lost some beacons who saw the way we are headed and made herculean efforts to shine their beams towards realistic, alternative routes of escape. Here we are thinking of Bob Swann, Scott and Helen Nearing, R. Buckminster Fuller, Barry Commoner, and most recently, Peter Berg, who passed away this past week.

Peter Berg was a San Francisco beatnik who was fond of turtleneck sweaters and free public art. He became one of the architects of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and later coined the word, “bioregionalism” to describe the only possible non-catastrophic way forward.

One memorable Berg installation was a wooden yellow square he called the “Frame of Reference” that he, the Diggers, and the Mime Troupe erected at the corner of Haight and Masonic on October 31, 1966. After warming up the crowd with two 8-foot-tall puppets in “Any Fool on The Street,” an improv play about what is inside or outside reality, Berg invited the crowd to dance with the puppets inside and outside of the yellow Frame and to disregard their normal frames of reference, such as the sidewalk. As individuals and groups, led by Berg, formed geometrical shapes in the street, traffic came to a halt until 5 squad cars and a paddy wagon threaded their way to the corner to make arrests. Seeing the Frame and the puppets, an officer approached and told a puppet he was creating a disturbance. The conversation was recorded by the Berkeley Barb:

Cop: “We warn you that if you don't remove yourselves from the area you'll be arrested for blocking a public thoroughfare.”

Puppet: “Who is the public?”

Cop: “I couldn't care less; I'll take you in. Now get a move on.”

Puppet: “I declare myself public—I am a public. The streets are public. The streets are free.”
The police swarmed the Frame, grabbed the puppets and the operators within, and shoved them all into the paddy wagon. The crowd surrounded the wagon, chanting “Frame-up! Frame-up!” The prisoners responded with “Pub-lic! Pub-lic!

What strikes us as a newcomers’ pattern is that, arriving on this corner scene in 2011, and noticing the yellow Frame of Reference and people in the street, the newcomers aren’t quite ready to fully associate themselves. Having shattered their way through denial, anger, and depression, they are still bargaining.  We shouldn’t cast aspersions, really, because after 45 years we do it too. In climatespeak its called mitigation and adaptation. We do not go gentle into that good night. We quest for solutions. Without the quest there is no hope, and without the hope, life is a drag. Dark humor is no substitute for even the smallest glimmer of hope.

Recent converts include billionaire fund manager Jeremy Grantham, oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, and HSBC chief economist Stephen King. What seems to fuel their realizations is not the financial meltdown but the recognition of game-changing resource constraints, something they should have absorbed by reading Limits to Growth in 1972. Is it possible to have been old enough to read in 1972 and missed that? Grantham calls the “new era” of resource constraint the Great Paradigm Shift, without reference to Korten’s Great Turning, Gilding's Great Disruption or our own Great Change. He says: “If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash.”

No kidding? As Richard Heinberg says in The End of Growth, with the global economy and ecosystem both burdened by unmanageable debt, effective global default is only a matter of time. It isn’t if, but when.

When we see bankers and stockbrokers moving out of the Hamptons or South Beach and buying farms up some remote country hollow, we know that’s why. Of course, they could do better than to try to go it alone or with paid servants (a risky proposition). They could discover the benefits of ecovillage. Who knows? In pursuit of happiness, they might even accidentally turn the trend around.

And that’s the summary of 44 years watching this slow-moving juggernaut. It isn’t if, but when. You can go to the countryside, get yourself a farm, learn how to milk cows, sew your own clothes, put up canned goods at harvest, and midwife your own babies, but it won’t save you from the spread of the deserts, bubbling clathrates, or zombie hordes fleeing starving cities. The realization, acceptance, in Kübler-Ross’s terms, is not that you can buy time or bargain, but that a change in your Frame of Reference is available.

You can have a reasonably good life for little longer, maybe long enough to play with your grandchildren, if you are lucky. Chances are pretty darn slim, however, that they will have the same luxury. The future is not what it once was. Whether the end comes slowly or quickly matters only slightly. The Tea family seems to favor making it quick and painful. Tony Soprano couldn’t have planned it any better.



Anonymous said…
I'm afraid the bargaining stage will be short lived because it has taken so long to become aware and get angry about the situation. It seems every major collapse and it's causes are viewed through the rear-view mirror.
Anonymous said…
I am about to buy two of your books (as soon as I get clearance from the wife).

A well-written piece. I often find it strangely encouraging when I encounter similar themes and frames of reference others use to make sense of these changes and impending calamities. The five stages was one of these for me too- I arrived at the observation unprompted and thought it at the time a very apt way to understand what it was that I was undergoing.

Well, just thought I'd share that with you. A google search on Biochar led me to your book and curiosity about your blog. As far as blogs go, I'm partial to The Automatic Earth (and as I scroll down the list of links, I find your name, I guess I shouldn't be surprised). Well thanks, and I'll be back.

By the way, I am about to buy two of your books (as soon as I get clearance from the wife).

Popular Posts