It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

The Guardian reported on 14 March that applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and others have had a research article accepted for publication in Ecological Economics based on their work with a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model. You can read it yourself, but here’s the short version.

Briefly, the HANDY model looks at the human-nature dynamics of past cases of complex civilisations collapsing to identify the interrelated factors which may help determine the risk of collapse today: Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

The HANDY model suggests that these factors can lead to collapse when they combine to create two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and the economic stratification of society into the rich and poor. The model is really clear: these social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”

Sound like a globalised society you know?

The study also says that technology won’t save us:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that… the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

For example, the study shows that productivity increases in agriculture and industry has come from “increased (rather than decreased) resource throughput,” despite dramatic efficiency gains.

Motesharri concludes that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today… we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.” The HANDY model gives two likely scenarios for collapse: first, the rich consume too much leading to an “inequality-induced famine that causes a loss of workers, rather than a collapse of Nature”; secondly, Nature collapses under resource exploitation. In both scenarios, the sheer resources of the rich mean they are buffered and “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”

In application to our society today, the study warns that:

“While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, [the rich] and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.”

The HANDY model fits comfortably with predictions in previous reports by KPMG which says that the gap between water demand and supply will be 40% by 2030 and the UK Government Office of Science which predicts a “perfect storm” of the HANDY model’s factors by 2030.

Sixteen years.

My eldest child will be 27 years old, my youngest 18 years old.

I have spent the week since I read the report asking what kind of asshole brings children into this world.

Most the articles covering the study have, of course, ended with the encouraging thought that we can do something. We can change policy, distribute resources more fairly, reduce our energy use. Bollocks.

Towards the end of the week, other articles have begun to cast doubts and aspersions on the study. Bollocks.

The evidence is piling up, from the Inter-government Panel on Climate Change to this latest report. We have buggered the planet and our society is run by people (I use the term loosely) who will not turn the ship. It is not a matter of if, but when and how hard. Collapse Is Coming. On a positive note, with a global temperature rise of between 2 and 4 degrees, it looks like Winter Is Not Coming. The only question left is what are you going to do?

There is a nightmare scenario which is like Mad Max or Robocop (not the new one, the original awesome one). But I don’t believe that is what will happen. I honestly believe that the people I live with and around in Merivale will respond differently.

Lives will be necessarily simpler, more local and communal. But that doesn’t mean they have to be worse. But to avoid the worst requires a little bit of set up now:

  • community organisers: as the reach of local government and central government reduces because they can’t pay public servants and can’t afford to provide services and maintain the infrastructure, you will need to organise in your local community. Community organisers initially will be people who know who can do what in your community, to organise meetings, suggest ways of organising collectively to get things done, to provide pastoral care and a vision to move forward with.
  • agreed community values and goals: things could go from a little hairy to war very quickly if people do not know how to get along when not being forced to by the Police. One way to avoid this is for your community to agree what your community’s shared values are, and what people want for their community. This is really just providing a space for people to talk about what is important to them, and then doing something about that so that people can see their ideas come to life.
  • community patrol: yes, I said it. You are going to need your own community security. It doesn’t have to be violent; but it has to be there. You need to decide who has the right to say to people, what you are doing is not right because it is hurting our community; and then who has the right to follow up with those who ignore that statement.
  • community justice panel: sometimes bad things happen to good communities. At the moment we get the people who do bad things arrested, send them to court and forget about them. That won’t be viable. You will need people who are given the authority to make judgements about disagreements and crimes in your community, and who will mete out a judgement. I think this is exciting, because it will put restorative justice back at the centre of communities.
  • community caretakers: things need to get fixed. Some people are better than others. In addition, nothing makes people feel more positive than a tidy community and there will be people without jobs. So allocate skilled people to go around and fix and build houses, fix public amenities, fix and build anything.
  • community teachers: the children still have to learn. Most communities have a school. But it will be your school now. No resources in it, except what you give it. And it in most communities, the teachers who come from outside of your community won’t be coming anymore. So figure out who your teachers are going to be.
  • community health worker: no hospital, no DHB, no PHO, no more acronyms; but heaps of diseases and illnesses. So who is going to help keep your community healthy? Who is going to deal with death, quarantine communicable diseases, fix broken limbs?
  • other work gangs: wood for heating and cooking, foraging, fire service, demolition, public events… the list will be long, and there will be a real contributing job for everyone.
  • FOOD: gardening is not a nice to have anymore. All those parks, those empty sections, those berms are gardens now. Meat is less important, because you get more energy per acreage out of veges and fruit. So learn to garden now, without petrochemicals. It will be different in climate change, but it will also be essential. Learn to garden from people who know; now!

This is not exhaustive. But this is what I think our future will and should look like. Rich, diverse communities full of contributing individuals thinking of their community’s well-being before their own. Bitterly regretting all the plastic bags, takeaways, cheap clothing, cars and computers they bought, but leaving their children and grandchildren something of immeasurable worth: a future of life-giving anarchism in a world fallen to chaos.


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