Waking up to System Collapse

As the dawn crept through the curtains this morning, my dreamy thoughts recalled the gathering of people who had listened to Jem Bendell talking about his new book Breaking Together yesterday evening. It occurred that we could have had it all but, as I had known for some years now, that opportunity had passed. And everyone in the room had known it. They had used the term “collapse” easily. Most people in the room had seemed to have been in their later years which suggested that they had some resources to enable them to step back from their original lives and choose to live more softly. At the end of the talk Professor Bendell shared the news that he was doing the same thing. His resignation from professorship had been accepted that day and he would also be stepping back to spend time closer to nature and friends.

It is little consolation to know that the predictions we made over two decades ago, and since reinforced by ongoing research and data gathering, much in the real life context of a small-holding, are being realised because nothing has been done to change the course of the disintegration of nature and human “civilisation”. The urgency for change we felt back in the late 1990s has grown as system breakdown in nature and human affairs is now accelerating quickly.

While almost everyone in that room had probably stepped back to live more lightly, people like us are a tiny fraction of the general population. Very few people have made the radical changes that we made at the turn of the millennium, the kind that Bendell is now embarking upon. It is true that many people, especially those in “environmental” jobs, have recognised that systems are collapsing and are wondering what to do, but the vast majority are more afraid of losing their jobs, income, and lifestyle than speaking out and changing their lives. They are walking the halls of power as “Environmental Consultants” advising big companies, governments, banks and all the pillars of civilisation, but they are using soft words to “encourage change”. The result is no change. Big companies are praised for taking initiatives, rich people are praised for donating to green causes or other charities, but too few people are facing the reality they know, namely that change must happen in a few years to avert the most violent and destructive consequences of our feasting upon this earth while supporting a pyramid of power.

The biosphere is imploding.

Human systems are breaking down, but continue to hold back the opportunities to nurture equity, peace and happy lives.

Two hundred years ago there was no democracy. France and America were beginning to invest in public well being by taxing the land owners, the capital owners to support basic services like policing. Today public services have improved and most rich countries have education and health systems to enable people to choose their lives more easily. But today the feudal system persists. The “kings” own everything. Today the kings are billionaires, with fortunes protected by secrecy. But make no mistake they control the world. Over 90% of wealth is owned privately (examine the text and data offered by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21st Century). That means that nations do not own themselves, they are owned by a few plutocrats. And those “kings”, the billionaires, demand that we all pay them to use their assets, including the land of the nation of which we are citizens, while they squander nature from their yachts, palaces, and jets. That is the law which we accept. Perhaps we are ignorant of this arrangement, which we support with our labour and complicity, perhaps thinking that if we play the game we too can become kings. But we can’t all be kings. Think about it. It’s not a system that serves most people; the few at the top live off the lives of their “wage-slaves”. (By the way, there are a few queens, but the system is patriarchal and dominated by males and masculinity.) We ignore what we know because most of us are still yearning for freedom. Freedom from fear, poverty, and hunger. The change towards liberty has been faster than we realise, but the chains of power remain in the hands of few. And we do not know who they are because there is little transparency and the rich write laws to protect themselves.

But the system is collapsing. That word collapse was used freely by people at yesterday’s gathering to discuss Breaking Together with Jem Bendell, but is rarely mentioned by friends, colleagues or media. The breakdown has been occurring for decades, but has been covered up by manufacturing our consent to the ongoing pollution of planet and virtual enslavement of “work-forces”. For nearly a decade the signs of breakdown have become openly visible to the conscious observer. Whether you consider it or not, media has discussed the data telling us all about extinction of species, of weather volatility, about the rising inequality (in the context of believing inequality should be eliminated), the silencing of honest voices (whistle-blowers), the corruption of corporate power and political power demonstrating a plutocracy and virtually no power vested in popular decisions. Meanwhile popular awareness of the growing problems and nurturing community strength has been eroded by promoting individualistic culture and ignorance of the situation. The opportunities for adaptation have been obscured.

Look at the headlines today. Even if they appear in some biased, corrupt media channel they highlight extreme problems of natural and social breakdown, which are ignored, refuted, and denied by corporations and regulators.

No one has an answer. Everyone does. Together we can solve the challenge of saving nature and rebuilding a thriving society. Make no mistake, it is possible. It is too late to avoid system breakdown because we have waited too long to act. Population is still rising and growth is encouraged, but we need to shrink population. Consumption is still increasing and is encouraged, but we need to change our priorities and consume more fairly. Perhaps a quarter of the world can have more enriching lives by reducing consumption of resources but making it more healthy, less toxic and more effective, meanwhile the other three quarters of humanity has not enough to satisfy basic needs of food, water, shelter and safety.

Emerging to a thriving future requires us to engage with the challenge. We must face ourselves, let go of the habits that hinder our thinking (get self-critical, challenge your assumptions) and embrace the higher capacities of altruism built in to the naked ape – the hominid that can “see” the universe, imagine the impossible and communicate ideas about things that you can not touch, like fear and love. We can step back from our busy lives to open our minds to the emergence of consciousness and choose to do things differently. To take responsibility for ourselves, to nurture our families and communities, to speak out against injustice, to foster compassion. We can choose to let go of the primitive urges of avarice and control, which are encouraged by hierarchical systems which still fail to liberate our human potential and keep us bound by the urges of the primate.

If you want to change, let go. Let go of the desire to control other people. Let go of the desire to accumulate. Accept yourself.

My journey has been a lucky accident in some ways because despite extensive training to compete in the capitalist world, I somehow retained the instinct to ask questions and eventually felt able to let go. The change began as a child recognising the horror of bullying and developing a sense of fairness. Similarly while growing up the notions of saving paper and turning off lights seemed sensible as that would save money and reduce the burden on nature. Consciously changing behaviour really started when I stopped wearing a watch in my early 20s because I realised I was tied to the clock (and any way there’s always a way to tell time in this capitalist world). Soon after that, I chose to stop eating animals, which I had loved to do: steak for breakfast! But one day I realised I do not like killing, it was clearly painful for sentient beings and it is quite unnecessary in a world of supermarkets stocking everything. (Later it became apparent that animal farming is also highly resource intensive, polluting and destructive of natural systems. Moreover a plant based diet surprisingly improved health!) Promoting an ethical approach in my job of investing other people’s money in to private businesses was natural and even enhanced performance because decisions were not corrupted by deception. But one day, reflecting on the gulf of lifestyles between the resident of the penthouse suite and the neighbouring tin shack made me recognise that the financial services industry as a significant influence on the shape of our world, was simply unethical. Could we balance ethics and environment with the economic objectives? Changing the dynamic of the industry became a more important goal, so I changed course and went to look for answers and test them in real life situations. That was 25 years ago. Now, as the systems of humanity and of nature are visibly cracking, my family, who were forced to face the privations that ensued from my decision, is beginning to appreciate the benefits of growing up at home, in a community of people who help each other and being close to nature. Maybe they will one day appreciate that they enjoyed a bit of wild life before it was boiled off the planet in the Anthropocene era.

A relevant question was posed in yesterday’s Breaking Together gathering: “If you only had a year to live, what would you do?” For people under 30 years old that question is equally relevant if the time-frame is ten years to live. System collapse within 10 years is increasingly a possibility, after all it has begun.

If you recognise the emergency on planet earth please stop, pull back, breathe, think and choose a softer way forward, one which prioritises altruism. Only you can save our world. Together we will rebuild a thriving world.

Buy Breaking Toether: A Freedom-loving Response to Collapse by Jem Bendell here.

Contact Pam or Tom at astraea for advice on system change and personal adaptation.

Read Common Sense, our story of change and looking for better ways forward.


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