Having lived through the Holocaust and World War II, I carry a bit of phobia with me about social collapse as a kind of souvenir from mid-20th century middle Europe. It is not surprising that when Collapse by Jared Diamond appeared in the bookstores I snapped up a copy and also visited the 'Collapse?' Exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The book explores how and why some great civilizations have collapsed in the past. The exhibit, inspired by the book, poses an important question. Could present day societies that have overstretched their life support suffer the same fate?
Recently (in May ‘05) I took my thoughts of collapse on a whole-day hike to an eight-thousand-foot peak above Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California, where the air is pure and my thoughts were undisturbed by city noise.*
I thought about decades of warnings by scientists concerning the degradation of the environment and about how their warnings go largely unheeded. I remembered the UN’s Earth Summit in 1992 sounding the alarm that the rates of global production, consumption, and pollution were unsustainable. From then on, the word sustainability has become a household word and has been repeated so many times that it is fast becoming a benign, almost meaningless buzzword. In reality, unsustainability is the road to environmental, economic, and social collapse. Both of these words alarm me.
New questions came up. For example, the United Nations suggested a remedy at the conclusion of the Earth Summit. Its Agenda 21 prescribes how many millions of dollars nations must spend to fix their social, economic, and environmental problems. My understanding is that all monies, including the sums to solve problems, come from economic growth – which in simple terms, in a capitalist economy, means increased production-consumption. What I don’t understand is how more production-consumption is going to solve the problem of too much production-consumption, which the UN has asserted is unsustainable in the first place.
I thought about all the good people and institutions that work day and night for environmental causes. In spite of hard-won and great achievements, our big ship Earth continues at full speed on a collision course with the big ‘berg’ of natural reality. Even if recycling, simple living, and good environmental policy would secure a reasonable standard of living for the current affluent occupants of Earth, what about the other three billion disenfranchised living on less than two dollars a day in desperate poverty and hopelessness? And what about future generations waiting to be born to take their share of this cosmic wonder- – life on Earth?* Just as I know that I cannot drink endlessly from a cup that will not be refilled, I also know that multiple generations of humans cannot consume endlessly on a planet with limited resources and a finite carrying capacity. It is now clear to me that an extraordinary human transformation is urgently needed in the ways we live, work, produce and consume.
There are always counterarguments. What if recycling, simple living, and environmental policy win and global production-consumption is radically reduced? We know that the capitalistic economy of the world is driven by economic growth occurring in increasing cycles of production-consumption. Reducing worldwide production-consumption will result in the stalling of the global economy. Could the (unlikely) triumph of the environmental movement bring an end to the economy?
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalistic consumerism has become the winning formula of the global economy. While many would rejoice at the end of capitalism, the collapse of the economy that would accompany such an event cannot be isolated to prevent social disintegration. While we can dream of a soft landing, the facts of history written by our ‘selfish genes’ tell us that collapse is a more likely scenario with dark and painful social consequences.
But what if technology comes up with solutions? Technology has come up with streams of answers and it continues to come up with new solutions. But technology is and has been in the service of capitalism since the beginning of the industrial revolution. One can consider technology as the vehicle and engine of industrialization and corporate capitalism.
Capitalism is like an extreme marathon run. Corporations in the capitalist game must run and compete at full speed. Any voluntary slowdown is crushed by competition. The rules mandate that this economic system run at full steam in a race with no finish line.* Global capitalism cannot voluntarily slow down or finish, but it will most probably stall and collapse at some point in the future at the end-run of its resource and life-support depletion.*
Some economists argue that wealth can be created by human ingenuity. However, with a basic understanding of the laws of thermodynamics, one can assert that wealth is not created but generated. And just as electricity generation comes to an end when the nonrenewable raw energy source runs out, so does wealth generation when the convertible and the life-sustaining raw materials are depleted.* *
Today we can understand that the unlimited demand of the capitalist global economy is incompatible with the limited carrying capacity of Earth. Capitalistic consumerism has become a highly vulnerable global monoculture that cannot be sustained beyond the carrying capacity of our planet. While the future cannot be predicted with accuracy, scientists, demographers, and energy and other experts now have sufficient data and observations to project that the carrying capacity of Earth will probably peak (if it hasn’t already) and suffer serious decline in less than fifty years. The economy, however, will not wait for the peak but will react much sooner and respond in a severe and perhaps irreversible depression of the global economy. Such an event will trigger social unrest and disorder around the world and will endanger civil societies and democracy everywhere.
Most Americans have no memory of the Great Depression and no experience of socioeconomic collapse. For this lucky generation, understanding such a scenario is perhaps as difficult as it might have been for many passengers of the Titanic to accept that their magnificent and ‘unsinkable’ ship was sinking.
In the following I offer a brief outline of a proposal for creating a sustainable socioeconomic system in which we can survive and thrive.* I admit that the proposed concept did not pop into my head during my hike in the San Bernardino Mountains. My anxieties came with me from mid-20th century Europe-gone-mad, and then prompted me to get an early start on this issue. Following the defeat of our revolution by the Red Army, I escaped communist Hungary in 1956. After living for a few years in Montreal, Canada, I found my more permanent footing in Los Angeles, where in 1972 I began a project to answer my many questions about survival, personal health, and security.*
Over the years many more questions surfaced and my project enlarged to include social, economic, and environmental issues. From the mid-1970s to the mid-‘80s I focused on understanding personal and social stress. But my questions about self, life, and the world were mounting much faster than available answers. This prompted me to move on to the study of systemic solutions and synergism. Synergy, however, did not fully explain the evolutionary upward mobility of complex emergent systems. Also, during the ‘90s the good Greek word synergy became associated with commercial concerns and corporate mergers and became a buzzword with negative connotations for the average worker. I moved on to a new understanding of holistic-emergent, or holigent systems. The word ‘holigent’ enjoys trademark protection to represent the new socioeconomic organizing concept and to keep it from commercial abuse.
Capitalistic consumerism is marked for probable collapse, not because it is evil or wrong, but because it is disconnected from its own life-support system. In practical terms, to reconnect capitalism to its support system and make it environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, a complex transformation has to take place – transformation away from our current fragmented and top-down socioeconomic system. We see no example in the natural world of any sustainable system or organism built according to a top-down model.
Sustainable systems and organisms in nature are built from their nucleus out and roots up and in a continuous balanced reciprocal relationship with their external support system. The holigent socioeconomic organizing concept uses the natural model of ‘holistic emergent evolutionary self-organization’. It is the model by which sustainable natural systems evolve. It is nature’s building code. The holigent social and economic organizing principle follows as closely as humanly possible this natural model. Transforming capitalistic consumerism into a more sustainable practice is proposed in the Holigent Work/Life Transformation Program. The essence of this program is to create a three-way partnership among individual, business, and community and build a new way of living, working, commuting and consuming.
Want to know more about the concept of Holigent Work/Life Transformation and how you can participate in the designing, building and ultimately living and working in a holigent village? At www.holigent.org
you can find programs and resources for individuals, groups and teams to facilitate the transformation and build communities in which we can survive and thrive.