Lucy Kemp-Welch, art
"The world needs less 'or' and more 'and'... "
- Jim Dinning, former Alberta Provincial Treasurer
Mr. Dinning, above quote, was speaking on the CBC Calgary morning show. He was talking about our approach to the future in a time of global climate crisis. Speaking of affecting the proper headspace for forging solutions.
I couldn't agree with him more, although I doubt Mr. Dinning has in mind what I do as being included in that "and." I also wonder if he understands the full nature of our context, our circumstance today, being that our current mode of existence, our current model of civilization is incompatible with life on earth, including our own. He may, I don't know. I do believe many who didn't understand this even five years ago are understanding it now. Perhaps not verbalizing it quite yet, but feeling it, feeling it in their core. From the elders who have been around long enough to have developed a knack for synthesis of events into a larger whole to young adults and even youngsters only on the verge of adulthood become deeply skeptical of the narrow notion of "progress" that has been mainstream, it's a truth that is seeping into the collective subconscious. That our current civilization - global now - is in textbook decline and fall. I'm sure there'll be more on that to come, but in the meantime you may find this an interesting primer including as it does include the baseline reasons for the fall of civilizations:
Diversity is a key to resilience. A culture with a broad range of economic options is a resilient culture. We make much of diversity being a strength here in my country, Canada, in fact, but is my country truly diverse? I'd argue that it is not. We have one economy, for instance - a cash economy. And the bar is very high. To live in any comfort requires a LOT of cash, relative to the times of our ancestors. There is no more cheap land. There is a crisis of affordable housing. There is no real space left where the climate nurtures settlement in those proportionally insignificant fringes of this vast and mostly very nasty, barren second-coldest country on earth. Where anyone would want to live. (What proportion of Canadians for instance experience a definitive "Canadian winter" on an annual basis? Or have ever experienced one in full for that matter? Most of us living in extensions of moderate American climates?) There is an industrial economy dependent on the burning of endless oceans of hydrocarbons meeting our needs. There is a system of "just in time" delivery which like the rest of our system today, provides for next to no wiggle-room, as was painfully obvious for instance during the recent rail blockades. A system devoid of and with no room for patience with anything that stands in the way, regardless how legitimate. Most of us are urbanites now. Not much diversity here at the foundational level, anymore. We've winnowed away at diversity and at our options for diversity as we've grown and gelled into what we are today.
How about being multicultural then, another thing Canada makes much of? We certainly give the outward appearance of being so in places like Toronto and Vancouver and increasingly elsewhere. But functionally? I don't believe it. I believe we have one culture here, a techno-industrial culture of material affluence focused primarily on growth in order to maximize profit, personal, household, national. Not satisfaction, not wellbeing, not right-livelihood, not mental health, not ecological health, not diversity - human or in the rest of nature - not human scale, not aesthetic living spaces, certainly not sustainability, not humane conditions for our livestock, not a future worth contemplating for our children, perhaps not even for ourselves depending how old - but rather maximum material profit. That is our culture. The people who come here agreeing to this. There are no nomads. No goat herders. No pastoralists, most places. No healthily functioning hunter-gatherers. With the exception proving the rule...
Indeed I would argue that nothing could underscore the painful fact of our functional monoculturalism here in Canada better than our nascent foray into Reconciliation with our indigenous peoples. For the first time in the country's history we have gotten serious about extending some of the balance of power, some leverage to a culture within our borders who are significantly NOT on board with the way we do things, with the status quo of techno-industrial, developed-nation life. A very different culture. Our first serious stab at multiculturalism.
And how has this been working for us?
Not much wiggle-room there either it seems, even at what is really just the bi-cultural level if we're honest. This is just with two competing cultures flexing their powers. What if we were to throw a few more opposing cultures into the fray? Yikes! In reality, it seems to me while through the homogenizing forces of monoculturalism as brought on by techno-industrialism and globalization we are as a country, and a globe no less, rapidly laying waste to what little is left of the former diversity of human and other lifeways, we are at the same time a civilization of profoundly byzantine complexity affording us little flexibility to rectify our problems. The mechanisms governing our global economy being so complex that the parameters surrounding their healthy functioning are no longer adequately comprehended by anyone, making for a very tenuous grip on things. Another fundamental cause implicated in the collapse of civilizations, in fact. Each new layer of complexity leading to an ever heightened vulnerability in the system such that the whole thing eventually comes down for the impossibility of even fathoming all the balls in play, their trajectories, let alone keeping them in the air. One tiny screwball - say for instance a stab at true multiculturalism in a system with room alone for total consensus to function - and the cascade of disruptions this engenders, each one of which we must attempt to separately address, may prove fatal to the system or compound a series of events fatal to the system. And yet what are we calling for to address our deepest woes today? Colossal windfarms. Electric cars. Vast arrays of solar panels. Artificial intelligence. Trips to Mars, even! All the attendant layers. More and more and more complexity. Ever heightened vulnerability. And this is just pertaining to our economies. Nevermind trying to come to grips with our effects on the parameters governing the functioning of ecosystems, which can never be fully known.
"The ability to exert control on economies depends on having sufficient control of the system parameters..."
- Michael Harre et al, University of Sydney, Australia
I personally doubt we can avoid the collapse of our current mode of existence, our global civilization. For one thing, all classic signs suggest we are very firmly in its throes already. Are we surprised? Having long acknowledged our model being unsustainable? We shouldn't be.
Where we are now, as the inevitable outcome given the basic flaws of the model we have been subscribing to since probably the beginning of the industrial revolution, being the difference between having a problem - something that can be solved - and being in a predicament, which can only be negotiated. Successfully or not. You are in a canoe. You hear the rapids ahead - a problem. The solution being to paddle to shore. Fail to do this and you find yourself in the rapids - a predicament. There is no solution to being in the rapids once you are in them. Your only hope is to have in place the systems skills beforehand to come out the other end. Or barring that, to be able to make necessary adjustments on-the-fly in time to avoid being swamped.
So lets get the skills in place, I say! We cannot know where the ultimate tipping points lie, the thresholds beyond which negotiating our predicament will become much more difficult. Let's acknowledge where the present model is headed without focusing on the inevitability of where this is all going, but rather focusing on the possibilities for engineering what awaits us on the other side. On the freedom we will have to do better with a clearing of the slate. Starting in the present. Let's aim to increase our functional diversity for a change. Towards more "and" in the system.
"An emphasis on a point of no return is not particularly helpful for bringing about the conservation action we need. We must continue to seek to reduce our impacts on the global ecology without undue attention on trying to avoid arbitrary thresholds."
- Professor Barry Brook, Director of Climate Science, University of Adelaide
*Part Two next week...
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