The following is an analysis of how the coronavirus pandemic lays bare the complex web of crises facing modern society, originally written in a shorter version for the Future Earth newsletter. While brutally short given the topic, it can seem rather long and dense for a blog post like this. I make no apologies for this. I am trying to illustrate a systemic way of thinking about our predicament, whether your attention span is up to it or not. Complex systems are emergent; they are irreducible to the sum or the operation of their individual parts. It’s therefore in their nature that looking at one part independently of its relationship to the whole will yield not just simplified, but directly false and delusional conclusions. The evidence of that is all around us.
I am a young person from a highly “developed”, industrialized country, born into extraordinary privilege. Along with my friends and peers, however, I am inheriting a world on the brink of ecological ruin. I consider some kind of civilizational collapse to be likely, and the widespread faith in technological salvation to be delusional and irresponsible. I now find myself in a “developing” country for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic, an event that raises fundamental questions about the direction of industrial society; where people live, how they produce food, how they conduct exchange, and how they relate to the natural world. From this vantage point, based on a systemic understanding of the unfolding crisis, I argue that my generation of activists and policymakers back home has a lot to learn from communities and grassroots organizations in the global South.
In the Ladakh region of northern India, where I’m currently volunteering, adaptation to the new reality has been relatively straightforward. With the onset of lockdown, much of the urban population has joined their families in the rural villages. Community bonds and local food production remain strong enough to sustain the population quite easily even when there is no work in the city (although local food is complemented by government-subsidized rations for things like fresh vegetables and eggs). The temporary de-urbanization may well linger beyond the physical presence of the virus, especially if the number of tourists visiting Ladakh falls as a result of reduced disposable income and economic uncertainty.
There are plenty of recent examples of economic crises being accompanied by a re-population of the countryside, and in some cases even de-industrialization. In Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union, an interesting and remarkably successful transformation took place. The country was financially dependent on sugar exports to the Soviet bloc and relied on Russian oil to power its industrial agriculture. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost this critical trading partnership, draft animals had to take the place of tractors and other farm machines, synthetic fertilizer was replaced with organic methods and large farms were broken up into small ones often working together in cooperatives.
The example shows a reversal of a near-universal trend in modern society, which can be described as a replacement of local ecological (and human) complexity with global industrial complexity and local homogeneity. When agriculture expands towards large-scale monoculture production, the diversity of functions performed by soils, plants, animals and humans is supplanted by synthetic inputs, machines and (mostly fossil) energy. This causes the agricultural system to grow in complexity, becoming increasingly interlocked with other sectors and dependent on large-scale flows of throughput. Flows of energy and materials for equipment, transport and inputs (e.g. natural gas and phosphorus as fertilizer feedstock); flows of credit necessary to sustain increasing capital investments, and access to big markets to justify and repay them (agricultural products are often traded on global commodity markets). And with a growing distance between producers and consumers comes a greater need for transport, processing and storage. The feedback between the farm and the state of the natural world is broken, and agriculture becomes the embodiment of an industrial metabolism in which finance makes up the arteries and fossil fuels the bloodstream. The energy required to power all of these components and link them together makes industrial agriculture a vast energy sink, expending many times more energy upstream than it places on the dinner table. In many cases it runs an energy deficit at the farm level alone, not even considering the supply chain.
While it is cost-efficient in a context where people’s time is expensive relative to energy (one barrel of oil is equivalent to several years of human labor), the replacement of local ecological complexity with energy-guzzling global industrial complexity is a risky proposition in a much more disruptive, energy-constrained, and local future. Agriculture becomes entwined in long supply chains made up of large, interdependent systems through which a shock that takes out one part can easily ripple through the rest. Village-scale farmers in Ladakh can more or less carry on as normal while their larger colleagues in the rest of India must now worry not only about the lack of mobile migrant labor, but also about the domino effects the current recession will have on the cost of capital on the financial market and investment in future oil supply.
The same basic pattern outlined above can also describe the evolution of industrial society at a larger scale, modern cities being the most extreme expression of this. The complex global, energy-guzzling metabolism of the emerging human “superorganism” has enabled the concentration in densely populated urban areas of ever more layers of complexity on top of each other; more goods, services and occupations, more demand for food, energy and materials, more infrastructure to circulate it all. The accumulation of financial surplus lets cities grow longer tentacles to expand their ecological footprint, laying claim on (and laying waste to) larger and larger chunks of biocapacity around the world. When a crisis ripples through the economy, there is a shedding of excess layers of complexity. Choking supply chains render some occupations physically unsustainable. A lack of credit, the unravelling of financial wealth, and a loss of disposable income pulls the economic rug out from underneath others. (Tourism is a prime example of a clearly vulnerable industry). As the global supply chains of industrial capitalism choke and splutter, those financial tentacles suddenly grasp thin air for many urban residents(starting with the most vulnerable), stranded in an ecological desert. The radical separation between people and the means of subsistence is exposed as a source of fundamental vulnerability, and the relentless push towards cities is revealed to be contingent on the relentlessly circulating metabolism of the global human “superorganism”. As such, it will be reversed – in much the same way as the agricultural system of Cuba had to be – when the ecological Ponzi scheme of industrial capitalism breaks down for good and nature once again dictates the economics and settlement patterns of human societies.
A formidable convergence of crises already places the global economy in an extremely vulnerable state. Most obviously, it is driving hard into a web of ecological limits; climate breakdown, mass extinction, costly energy extraction, topsoil loss, collapse of marine ecosystems and water scarcity are testament to that, and are increasingly being felt economically. These physical sources of risk are multiplied by a bloated financial system kept afloat by an unsustainable belief today in unsustainable growth tomorrow. Economic growth has been sustained globally by a vast expansion of private and public debt in relation to GDP; this has occurred over several decades but gone into overdrive since the 2008 financial crisis. We see it when central banks buy enormous amounts of debt issued by governments to keep the economy and the financial sector afloat. That keeps interest rates artificially low and asset values artificially high while further inflating the public and private debt bubble. This strategy is highly depletable and will not be as effective in the future. Claims on future growth, resources and wealth cannot be expanded indefinitely; certainly not in a crisis-ridden economy running into ecological limits. And the risk of financial collapse is in turn compounded by uncertainty about the future. If there is a lasting loss of faith in the global economy and financial system, the outcome would be a lasting reduction in spending, investment and credit issuance by individuals, companies, banks and governments. Continuous growth is the impossible self-fulfilling prophecy of capitalism. And by its nature, if capitalism doesn’t grow, it crashes.
Some of these underlying vulnerabilities are evident in the recent convulsions of the oil industry. As lockdowns caused Chinese oil demand to collapse, Saudi Arabia tried to get Russia on board to cut production to keep prices from falling. Russia, however, saw an opportunity to undercut the US oil industry and kept the taps open. This had the intended effect, pushing prices towards rock bottom and sending struggling American oil producers sliding towards bankruptcy. Russia’s strategy worked because oil production in the US is dominated by fracking, a complicated and costly process relying on high oil prices to be profitable. American oil producers have relied on cheap post-recession credit to go into massive debt since the start of the fracking boom about a decade ago. The enormous current over-supply is even turning oil prices below zero in places but risks translating to under-supply as investment in future supply is cut, sending prices spiking once again. Such violent fluctuations are to be expected from a system smashing its head against the wall of its own unsustainability.
The factors outlined above act as multipliers on each other and are fundamental enough to bring down civilization, several of them single-handedly. But the example underlines the fact that they become sources of political instability and economic volatility way before they have the chance to do so. Impending collapse can consequently be hard to discern in the midst of a crisis since the ramp-up of underlying vulnerabilities (e.g. oil extraction costs) are triggered by external shocks (e.g. epidemic-induced economic shutdowns) as well as obscured by short-term fluctuations (e.g. geopolitics and market dynamics) and temporary fixes (e.g. bailouts and debt expansion). The need for resilience thinking, which deals with the fundamental vulnerabilities and not just the one-off trigger, has never been clearer.
The writer and activist Shaun Chamberlain captures the essence of the concept in an intuitive way. Resilience is not, he says, about “predicting the future the best we can and then adapting to that”. Instead, it’s about choosing “the course of action which makes sense across the widest possible range of possible futures”. Much of mainstream sustainability discourse implicitly assumes that the fundamental trajectories of industrial civilization (mechanization, globalization, urbanization, monetization) will continue, and as a result gets stuck in detailed technological scenarios. In contrast, Chamberlain’s understanding of resilience calls us to broaden and simplify our thinking instead of trying so hard to envision “sustainable” ways to keep doing what we want, paying heed to the underlying vulnerabilities of global industrial capitalism and the disastrous consequences should those scenarios fail to keep its wheels turning. With this in mind, how can we embed our thinking in a world where collapse is not even the worst-case scenario?
Modern agroecological approaches like permaculture seek to learn from and mimic natural systems, acknowledging that with far lower access to cheap energy and external inputs, farming systems will have to depend on their immediate surroundings and use existing relationships between soil, plants and animals to perform the diverse functions necessary to sustain agriculture (like pest control, nitrogen fixation, soil nutrient cycling) instead of replacing them by artificial means (through synthetic pesticides and fertilizer). In other words, global industrial complexity must be replaced again by local ecological complexity.
In the same way, a society with fewer external sources of food, energy, materials and finance – a society with a leaner metabolism – will have to exchange much more of its energy and material throughput with its immediate surroundings. It will have to produce a diversity of food and provide for a range of other energy, material and social needs locally. Human labor will have to replace machines and energy again. Personal relationships between people will have to underpin the exchange of goods, services and labor and provide economic safety nets. In place of specialization and reliance on global industrial complexity, social and economic complexity will have to be maintained at a local level.
We may then look to societies and cultures that are still shaped by such conditions and have retained characteristics that evolved when coexisting with the local environment was a matter of survival. Ladakhi society, for example, has a rich heritage of practices formalizing cooperation and sharing in harvesting, livestock keeping, water distribution, use of water mills, maintenance of infrastructure, support networks among groups of families, to name a few. Differences in climate, ecology, culture and other factors will yield different means of adaptation, but (just like in permaculture) underlying patterns and structures can be applied in different contexts. What are the means of exchange, and the rates of exchange between different goods and services? How is surplus controlled? What is traded outside the community? How are obligations repaid, and how are they viewed culturally? How is labor divided between activities? How are common resources governed? How are ecological limits respected? How are behaviors enforced? What are the sources of status and respect? In a future where global markets implode, national governments fail, and local communities must shoulder the burden of their failed states, these questions can offer insights for the design of institutions that rebuild cooperation, reciprocity, trust and diversity in the global North where social capital has been hollowed out.
This may sit uncomfortably with modern fetishes of progress and “green” technology. But our specialized, sophisticated manipulation of nature and our quest for control, productivity, efficiency and growth have an emergent effect; they are adding up to an assault of life on earth, the result of millions of actions taken (by ignorance or necessity) in defiance of a basic fact that is coming back to haunt us: we are embedded in and inseparable from nature and ultimately have to play by its rules. In the name of progress, our actions have created a “human superorganism” that we don’t really understand, let alone control.
It would be arrogant and irresponsible for the global North not to look to cultures in the global South that have sustained themselves for vastly longer than it has taken industrial capitalism to annihilate much of the living world. Technological, financial, and institutional innovation can still be applied, but within much the much tighter material and social constraints of a smaller, simpler, more local society. For example, modern initiatives such as local currencies, time banks, food cooperatives, interest-free community banks, and income-sharing communities can be said to mimic (intentionally or not) economic structures and relationships existing that are embedded in the informal economy of such cultures.
The underlying question to explore can be framed as how societies sustain and retain complexity at a local level, with limited resources and within ecological limits. When localities and communities are homogenized as complexity is globalized – as the current crisis shows – they lose the capacity to meet most of their needs independently of the global system, the power to control their lives, and their relationship to the place they inhabit. It turns human society into a superorganism that rips through the fabric of the natural world in pursuit of its own growth. Rather than awaiting technological salvation and worshipping hope, we should draw inspiration for a resilient way of organizing society and relating to the natural world from flesh and blood communities that already provide food, energy, materials, safety, culture and community within the means of the planet.