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Discussing a survival strategy and its realization
1. The idea of survival
The concept of 'survival' is beginning to play an increasingly important role in climate discussions. Not really surprising. If you suspect you're about to perish, survival is the key question. That threat of collapse also clarifies the two main ways in which this concept is currently guiding climate reasoning.
The first is, how am I going to survive when all sorts of conditions around me deteriorate to such an extent that the familiar ways won't work anymore. How do I deal with those conditions?
The second is, which economic activity is more essential to survive together and what we must prioritize when we have to strip our current lifestyle in such a way that we can prevent essential living conditions from falling into disrepair.
As I said, recently the use of both notions of 'survival' is emerging at the surface of climate discussions like a tsunami from the deep sea of all reports and books on climate issues since 1998. After all, most of those reports implied somewhere that if this or that emission target were not achieved on time, exceptional restrictive measures would become unavoidable. One threatened without mentioning specific issues and also without wanting to become specific, because that would put everybody, and many economic activities, in a very uncomfortable position.
After all, as soon as you start suggesting to reduce the grasp-ability of something, social hell breaks loose: because who gets or threatens to get a little less? Rights and claims fly about, and nobody sleeps peacefully anymore. Valerie says 'cut back'. Many call for simplicity. It embodies the sentiment that we will never succeed to stop the use of fossil fuels in time without limiting some sorts of consumption.
But in order to limit you have to steer, and in order to steer you have to determine direction (i.e. making choices between alternatives). Even worse: steering means planning, because the restrictions have to be divided. Who gets imposed what restrictions, in the light of the degrading environmental conditions to be estimated? And then the distribution of the scarcity must also be done carefully because everyone must be sure of his room to move. All that is a totally different story than letting everyone mess in the neoliberal way, by purposefully not interfering in the volumes traded mutually, and dumping the mess that goes with them in a few deep wells.
This contamination of the survival concept with social decision-making trouble is undoubtly the main reason why change and transition proposals did avoid the survival concept in recent years. Kate's donut is, just like the more general sustainability thinking, an example of this. Those proposals continue to suggest expansion space as long as you stay out of certain limits. Such a positive representation of a restrictive future consumption trajectory has been certainly justified because the aversion to the back-to-nature thinking of twig eaters and goat milkers is nestled so deeply ensconced in the minds of those whose main interests lie in a greater demand for flashier techniques and faster redesign of organisational structures − that any reflection on it would push them over the mental edge, and thus every message in that direction must be metamorphosed and wrapped up with the utmost care.
In that sphere of visionary ideas that revolve around each other, while they fearfully avoid throwing the meat on the table, the survival answer to the climate problem tries (1) to crystallize substantively, and (2) to gain a foothold in the minds of the highly heterogeneous (in terms of interests, knowledge, profession, and stage of life) group of climate activists all over the world.
In my discussions during the last seven months with several of these activists, I came across a lot of great uncertainties, core questions and also fears held by them. Mainly about:
- The shaping of the survival strategy i.e. how the resulting lifestyle could look like?
- The sales pitch around it i.e. how do you get it into the hearts of many, how do you get everyone's up to it?
The second question often preceded the first because climate activists want to communicate something, and after the great protests of 2019 they ended up a bit at the end of their latin in the sense that they wondered how you could go ahead, now the alarm about the threat of extinction of all life has been adequately communicated. Another factor was that many personally found the climate storm so threatening that they preferred to continue preparing (i.e. rearranging their own lives) for a deep adaptation to the misery to come, rather than still believing in ways to prevent global climate disruption.
Okay, let's deal with that last dilemma first based on my answer when an XR rebel asked me an opinion on Bendell's deep adaptation. It will also justify the kind of issues around the survival strategy we are going to evaluate in this paper.
"I took some time to study the proposals of Bendell. Despite my appreciation for his radical switch in defining the research field of sustainability, I don't quite understand his reasoning. Once we have landed in a collapse, should we suddenly be able to keep ourselves alive with little and also divide it neatly to each other, while we could not do that now to prevent that collapse? Sorry, I can't fully follow that. Are we so completely addicted to this way of life that we must first burn down the house totally before we can set priorities and choose a safe way out to prevent a fatal disaster?
So, his proposal and mine are not the same. While he proposes deep adaptation, I propose superfast mitigation. His approach is defensive and wants to respond to the" inevitable collapse" by boosting the capacities of resiliency, relinquishing bad behaviours, and restoration. My approach is to take the offensive and act proactive vis-à-vis the climate catastrophe by forcing people to prevent a collapse.
It makes no sense to prepare for unvivable conditions. First of all, climate is such an all-powerful force that once she becomes unstable, ...no salvation of life is possible anymore. Secondary, it's psychologically unwise right now to let the driving forces take their course, and in the meantime to fight with ghost images around climate chaos in order to find out how you could get stuck in there as late as possible. A very unwise way in my opinion, because you can only use the current period of still liveable conditions to prevent those conditions become unvivable. We still have the power and inputs (food, air, diversity) to deal with it. Increasing disruptions will undermine that strength. So we have to rise up now, and strike at the driving forces that are deliberately killing our future. We're at 417 ppm. There's not a moment to lose.
How? In the first place by figuring out the social-economic reorganization that can melt the emissions immediately, secondly by naming and publicly proposing that reorganization, thirdly disturbing the current economic course by using three forces, the adults with guts in their trousers, the teenagers with anger in their heart (FforF is a huge force), and the intellectuals (scientists, students) with a heavy load of doubt about the current use of their innovative capacity. That will do the job if the struggle can long enough endure."
Of course, this rather firm answer raises a lot of questions. It is far too straightforward to push climate activists out of their climate dilemma. By climate dilemma I mean: That everyone in their struggle to imagine a viable future is doing the splits, by swinging back and forth between elements from a high tech future picture and elements from a low tech survival picture.
Everybody tries to figure out how and what may be feasible, for their selves, their community, their country, the world. Usually not out loud, of course. Being candid about what you actually do not want to think about, is almost impossible. It locks you up, and stops you from coming up with propositions in a public way. Afraid of pain elsewhere, afraid of losing face, afraid of the chill of choices. The strategy discussion is severely affected by this. Everyone continues to swim their own length, back and forth past each other.
However, the cause of doing the splits also lies in the constant weighing up of a climate activist what he puts his energy into.
- In personal climate actions i.e. restructuring one's own situation, on the one hand out of curiosity as to how living without emissions feels, on the other hand, as a means of disconnection and independence from emission driving forces and thus to be able to take a firm stand against them through a low-emission or zero-waste identity.
- Or in public climate actions i.e. fighting and convincing the emissions driving forces.
Why does that stimulate the dichotomy?
During the reflection on personal climate action you will notice which techniques you would like to continue using, and how useful certain novelties could be. Each moment there is doubt, searching, letting go and clinging. When you notices how dependent you (still) are on driving forces, you will stay eager to lean on them again. And so you do keep jumping back and forth between the plates full of temptation that techies are serving.
With this figuring out how to work, eat, transport, travel, communicate you are actually giving substance to your proactivity (mitigation) by adapting to a large extent to the fact that we're balancing on the edge of unvivable conditions. This fumbling also explains partly the attention to deep adaptation thinking within the climate movement. Why? Because you sell those restrictions or restrictive proposals to yourself and your environment (proposals that often bothers them highly) by referring to climate conditions that do not yet exist but which you already paint very black. So here we see how the adaptation thought paths and the mitigation thought paths drag each other (through the fire) and shape it. So no contradiction. No need of bludgeoning each other out of the loft. They're phases while thinking about interrelated personal and social solutions for the climate problem.
Yet it is precisely in these solutions that a (guiding) basic idea must emerge, just as capitalism, socialism, and communism once did. You can't make a fist against the driving forces if you don't come up with a strong alternative. Worse still, you don't dare to make that fist. Environmental organizations, sustainability think tanks, and climate groups now come up with long disjointed lists of often radical proposals that lack focus and coherence. I mean, time is getting too short to continue with this jumping back and forth between elements of promising but shaky high-tech futures and elements of safe but fairly primitive organisation of our economy. We have to choose. Single-minded. In order to arrive at a picture of the future that is consistent, not teeming with contradictions, but in which all the elements fit together so that the whole stands as a house.
Okay, let's start looking at the beginning of thinking about a survival strategy within the youngest climate movement, and then discuss the main issues that cause that little progress is made at present in crystallising a coherent survival picture.
2. Core and form
The first call for far-reaching structural economic measures is, of course, contained in the increasingly common slogan of system change. The recent XR uprising has spread this around constantly. It proves that most XR people understand that we need to take a very big step back in terms of lifestyle (standard of living, way of life) if we want to be able to stabilize the climate very quickly, because everyone now realizes that the planned transition to so-called emission-free energy will cause so many fossil fuels to use that meanwhile the CO2 absorption capacity will collapse under our ass..
I see this XR-awareness confirmed in their strategy statement:
This global action is only possible with global change towards a new social and economic paradigm based on sufficiency and respect for our interdependence with the natural world.
Hervé Kempf urged recently also in this clear direction:
“And it is even probable that, in rich countries more aware of the climatic danger, in Europe, to put it simply, the very large part of the population has not yet understood that the answer to the ecological crisis will go through simplicity, and by a reduction in the average standard of living (even if the reduction of inequalities is a prerequisite for everything). The climate movement will not really move opinions if this bitter prospect does not enter the common consciousness. You have to know how to say and explain that it is our way of life that is to be negotiated. Otherwise, the disastrous effects of uncontrolled climate change will resolve our hesitations”
Now in the XR strategy is already acknowledged (see “change towards a new social and economic paradigm”) that you can’t lower life styles without changing the current societal rules, norms, and laws that regulate the way people interact economically with each other when they exchange goods, services, labour, money, property, and information. Why not? Well, that is because the present societal laws define and regulate a game in which everyone is totally directed to upgrading his personal life style and personal domain, if only to not be pulled down on these points. Lifestyles are infinitely expandable and upgradable, and may also sink deeply. It’s an open game for more and better positions. Not for less. This configuration is unsuitable for enabling people to live sober and simple with dignity and stability
The survival strategy must be a kind of picture that XR should offer to people. A blueprint of a set of reorganisations of the current society model that everyone can understand. A set of measures that can safely and stable avert the threat, and also are perfectly feasible in terms of implementation. Yes alright. But can you make that blueprint? Do you have to work it out in detail? Given all the uncertainty, does that not lead to a shot in the dark, and to intellectual bickering about historically grown ideology controversies? And even worse, do you not jump over your primary task, namely that you want to roughly offer people a way out that they can embrace acutely. After all, there is no time for endless weighing. We have to make a move that offers a climate safe future, but which also allows a run, I mean a spontaneous massive embrace. After that embrace we can leave it to the spontaneous cooperation that follows that it works out well. Man is inventive to the bone.
No time I say?
Yes, I expect a much faster escalation of very bad news. Everything is going faster than we thought, we are constantly going to be hit very hard. Technicians, scientists, institutions, companies and journalists will also come up with increasingly absurd and dangerous proposals to save us, if only to encourage themselves or calm down feelings of guilt.
In this way I want to argue that we should not go into detail on alternative models, but look for a flashy representation of a way out that sounds like a clock. That is also the power of Kate’s doughnut economy. It is a slogan that appeals, and that converges a lot of proactive thinking activity.
Why a flash, and what should it consist of? To answer that, I would like to comment on what goes through people in a flash when they start to get stuck in a situation.
Such a moment is quite common:
- Think of a marriage in which suddenly one of the partners becomes crystal clear because of unfaithfulness of the other: "I cannot and will not continue with this: I have to get out of this".
- Or you have a job somewhere, and the business goes bankrupt, so you'll end up on the street tomorrow.
- Or you travel by train, and the locomotive catches fire, causing you to get stuck halfway through your destination.
Two things happen there:
- First one is facing the situation, i.e. to feel the irrevocable and urgent, and also to realize immediately: "This is finished, I have to get out of this, I have to change!!"
- Then one evaluates possible ways out in a flash on two points:
- Are the costs and benefits of the way out feasible?
- Is the context certain, that is to say that I am not an open target there for disruptions that are even worse than what I am now in, i.e. that surrounding people can accept me to be there and that the situation can stabilize; does it not become a fighting pit there?
In the "feasible" you evaluate the inputs (energy you have to put in, money, persuasiveness) for each way out and the outputs (where can you end up, how certain is that, and what will it yield). For example, in the case of the unfaithful spouse, she is evaluating the possibility of living with an aunt for the time being: "Do I have enough money for that, does he leave me alone there, don't my parents force me to go back? "
That evaluation is all done in a flash. It is those flashes that go through you when you travel grumpy in the evening from work to your apartment, in the dark by bus passing beautiful lighted houses with beautiful interiors, and you secretly wonder if living in such a place with your loved one could be something for you, and you immediately realize that you will never have the means/resources for it. Look, the first thing you do when evaluating a possible change of life situation (work, partner, house, child, sinking ship, crashing car) is figuring out which fixed costs are involved, and how sure the benefits are (in context of a dynamic environment). When those signals goes red you don't evaluate further at all.
I mean to say that in that flash everything revolves entirely around the resources/means that are available to you at that moment, and how you can jump out of your jammed or unpleasant situation through an opening. In the unfaithfull spouse example, the woman may have evaluated in that flash: “I have my aunt, I have my bike, I know the way, and my aunt makes sure my parents stay out of this; so I'm gonna do that!!". And then look, she has determined her way out.
In such a flash you look for viable possibilities. Let me use the metaphor of the sinking Titanic to explain more clearly what is ultimately essential in that flash.
Passengers were seated comfortably, with all services, in a gigantic self-consciously well-organized progressive whole. The Titanic is similar to how urban culture nowadays envelops people; every citizen functions in a web of global dependency relationships (inputs and outputs). When that boat tilted, there was really only one major management problem that had to be strategically figured out: How do we get everyone well-distributed and orderly as quickly as possible in the lifeboats?
That was a bit prepared of course. There were teams for that. But every situation is different, and the main problem was also that a large part of the leading crew thought that the ship could not sink (double hull), so that the need for a survival concept did not arise with great urgency in their minds. In the meantime, there were a couple of them who felt goddamn well what was coming, and they started off with an emergency response. Their two biggest problems?
- Make sure that people enter a state of alarm, that they are looking for a way out and that they therefore need a survival image. I think you should strategically wait here for the ship to tilt. I mean, the power of climate change is our biggest jack at the moment. It must pound as hard as possible, so that they get diarrhoea from the shock, and head in the right direction.
- Do guide and keep calm the growing stream of survival seekers so that you get them well distributed in the lifeboats, and then those boats on the water. This can be done by screaming: “All to the life-boats immediately”
Is that all? Yes, I think so. That one scream can do the whole job, if it is put together properly. Look, if those boats are well stocked and end up well, then they themselves are able to withstand the circumstances (waves, wind, hazards) and find out how and what. Resiliency is super fast, it really doesn't require a manual.
That is also how I see our task ahead. The cities must be unfolded. Low-carbon life can only be achieved by decoupling people from centralized productions and services, and from all global flows and mining that go along with them. Everyone has to live a rural life, perform their essential care (food, clothes, shelter, health, safety) much more manually, so that little complex tools are needed, and also little control above that, so that the primary productions are not burdened with high fixed costs. The local lifeboat consists of land, seed, plants, trees, cattle, rain, sun, and house plus some communal facilities. I don't think any manual is necessary for the organization of that local life, people are perfectly capable of, and want to be, able to set it up and figure it out for themselves.
No, the main problem is: how do we get everyone in that direction in time (see stage 1 of the titanic flash), and how do we arrange the property transmission (see below) in such a way that we can assign people their place in time (= assigning accessibility = stage 2 of the titanic flash).
Also with this problem, just like with the Titanic, we run into leaders who estimate that the situation is cool, and farmers who use the lifeboats (= land, space, resources, homes, farms, and sheds) for other purposes. But the more skew their structures hang in the air because of the tilting climate, their earning models collapse, the more cooperative they will become in preventing a civil war.
If not, war is on, and they know that.
Remember the shout "All to the life-boats immediately". This scream contained exactly so much information on the sinking ship that everyone could evaluate and approve that way out (= go to sea with a lifeboat away from the sinking ship). That is all that had to happen at that time. We (= XR) want to show the way, so we have to look for that scream. We must figure out its content. It must be something that everyone can immediately feel: "Yes, that could work for everyone, and offers a safe way out of this dangerous situation". At that moment spontaneous cooperation arises, the noses are moving in the same direction, so that they can implement the way out quickly via self-organization (instead of difficult top-down organization and a lot of guidance).
Let me now further explain why I think the property assignment should form the core of the scream with which you point everyone to the survival picture (= life-boat).
A survival picture must fulfill minimally: (a) people have to survive and therefore need at least enough food and water and shelter all year round, (b) it must be low-carbon (in order to stabilize the climate).
But if you recommend this rudimentary form to someone, they will immediately think of the means/resources that they lack to obtain such a place. I have seen many individuals and groups come and go, searching a low carbon life style. Their absolute key problem: acquisition of property, and the fixed costs and social-economic access requirements involved. After all, what is the pivot of every economic activity? That is the place where the process can take place, and the way in which that place is positioned in its environment. Being properly positioned is essential to embrace a place. But all space is occupied, so nowadays you have to buy a place expensive, and therefore you have to make production and also keep a job elsewhere, and with that you limit the possibility of running your processes with little or no fossil energy.
Another lack of this rudimentary form is context stability. Nobody sees him or herself survive in an environment where competition is admitted, and even a must to defend and continue situations. Competition is caused and reinforced by our current rules and laws around the transmission of property. Look, the way in which we now transfer property (through inheritance, income surpluses, banking decisions) has the disadvantage that everyone remains insecure about their proper place and reserves throughout their lives. Everyone keeps on pushing and grabbing to more; to blankets and buffers around his situation. No one has never enough because there is always a mightier party around that may attack and grab your portion of the means you have acquired. This insecurity and uncertainty ignites growth, expansion, competition, and therefore innovation, because innovations can make you stronger and leaner than competitors.
Well, in the survival picture (= a social-economic setting whereof you expect that as many people as possible can withstand the coming climate dynamics) you have to neutralize that growth ignition, and the uncertainty caused by that. Then people get calm, and don’t feel threatened anymore. They stop pushing and expanding , because they are constantly certain about the availability of their primary means of subsistence. Otherwise, when everyone has to go backwards, they keep pushing each other away from the resources that remain, meanwhile boosting emissions and causing fatal degradation. So, by eliminating the competitive element of our mutual economic actions, we also get to grips with the interaction element (source of most emissions). Those two main elements of our economies (i.e. the competitive element and the interaction element) now make the use of fossil fuels by definition insatiable.
All this has led to the fact that reorganizing the transfer of property is playing a major role in my survival picture. I argue that free and equal accessibility to the local means is a key condition for installing people in such a way that they can stably construct an emission-free lifestyle through local circular processes. See also my plan X (= pdf).
In short: such a survival idea boils down to:
"Enable everyone to produce locally in a low-tech circular way the essential goods and food for a simple life-style, through equal access for all to the local means of subsistence”.
I can draw up a whole list in which specific battles for access to local space and means took place:
- Each eko village goes through a fight with local authorities in order to obtain the right to construct and operate in its own way;
- Think of squatting complexes, usually monasteries, which were then regularized into experimental living communes;
- Think of occupied areas around airports that have been regularized into experimental agricultural areas after persistent resistance;
- Think of the recent struggle of people that want to settle in tiny houses;
- Think of city farms fighting for space and adaptation of hygienic and social requirements, so that they can apply multi-level vegetable cultivating and recycling techniques.
So the deepening that I recommend on the XR strategy (as cited here) message :
"This global action is only possible with global change towards a new social and economic paradigm based on sufficiency and respect for our interdependence with the natural world. The basic action point of this new paradigm consists of fast upscaling of individual accessibility to all local resources."
This will make everyone interact much more vertically with their own resources and immediate environment. That extinguishes a lot of long-distance interactions. Within an intensive local setup they have no use, and there's almost no time for it. Plus, because everyone's sure of their own resources, which can not be obtained by others, you also wipe out the growth ignition in the social-economic system.
3. First main criticism
From the interpretation of a social survival strategy described above, it was not so much the direction as certain details that aroused great curiosity, annoyance and criticism. The criticism was mainly for the following paragraph (see original here):
The cities must be unfolded. Low-carbon life can only be achieved by decoupling people from centralized productions and services, and from all global flows and mining that go along with them. Everyone has to live a rural life, perform their essential care (food, clothes, shelter, health, safety) much more manually, so that little complex tools are needed, and also little control above that, so that the primary productions are not burdened with high fixed costs. The local lifeboat consists of land, seed, plants, trees, cattle, rain, sun, and house plus some communal facilities.
From those reactions I understood that I was asked kindly but urgently: What does this look like in the detail? And so I answered what follows.
I did not mean mass deportation and city demolition. What matters to me is the direction that will be chosen to downsize emissions. Main orientation: City people will have to move more towards life on the land in order to reduce emissions quickly. It can occur gradually. People can also initially continue to live in cities if good and frequent transport is set up, allowing them, for example, to properly exploit a parcel of land ten kilometers from their home. Just like old times as the allotments were just outside the city, and everyone cycled down there.
A similar initiative of such a transition is a project in Amsterdam, called Kaskantine. It is a mobile modern farm that is being used by the municipality for abandoned building plots to fulfill a bridging function between interested local residents on common essential subjects like food and body. So it's about the direction. Something TT (= Transition Towns) did not want to be clear about, but I will come to that later.
In summary, I see two main reasons for urban implosion or meltdown.
- The first is very practical, and involves the realization of the "decoupling" (see Please explain). You can not shrink the global flows (including their ongoing energy and resource-consuming technological refurbishments) if you do not ensure that city dwellers have something else to do. If people do not have to commit themselves physically and mentally to live from the local natural growth processes, they keep doing other things which consume energy. If they are working full-time on basic processes in an integrated way (= thinking, acting, moving, observing, feeling), they don't drive their cars, they don't go shopping, they don't fly, they don't surf the internet, they don't eat out of home, etc. And this is the only way to shut down imports and to domesticate energy consumption.
- The second is psychological and social. A person cannot appraise or value an object or a process if he does not deal with it. Only by intensive use of muscles and limbs and senses a person develops his feelings. That stuff cannot be injected by words or taught by teachers. Feelings are the main ingredient in shaping values, and also to get those values play a strong role in the process of thinking. Only something that comes out of your heart when you think about it (= feeling in what way it is important to you) can straighten your thoughts, can prepare intentional behavior, and then tackle it firmly. I wrote recently a book about the role that exposure has for feeling development, and for keeping our weighing of feelings in good shape (values are credit balances of feelings). By linking everyone fairly parallel to the same kind of environment/domain, not only development of feelings is ensured, but it is also much easier to achieve a great convergence in values between society members (and therefore social cohesion) than in the case that everyone is connected in series with his speciality and deals with a disjunct part of reality where a great deal of responsibility is also relieved from it by much organizational control from above.
The above mentioned justification of making 'an equal rural positioning of everyone' a main structural element of a survival picture, can be better understood by the second doubt that some people mailed me, namely what level of life will be possible there and desirable to be. They interrogated what it could look like.
Look, here you can look at all sorts of alternative living groups about how they first form a collective and then try to shape a shared dream based on the environmental conditions. Basic elements are usually: autonomy, self-provision, and off-grid in terms of energy.
But I think it is much more important to look for the conditions that make collective decision-making about controversial issues lean and easy. This is essential. If everyone wants to go in a different direction all the time, and long deliberations won't end, very difficult unworkable compromises have to be implemented with high chance that they will be evaded and even reversed. There will be more control than process. A great control device is needed to regulate dissidence.
My proposition is that once you (through the accessibility principle of "an equal rural autonomous positioning of everyone') have come firmly in the track of great social cohesion (i.e. once you created the basics for great social cohesion), the figuring out and take stock of how much infrastructure you still have locally, regional, and national to afford to function within the limits of national emission limits, will become a piece of cake. Where everyone has the same interests to the same extent, social decisiveness and practicability are rock-solid.
I have elaborated this accessibility principle in more detail in the AUTTOE approach in the dutch book De dode hoek van klimaatmodellen (= The blind spot of climate models). The most important feature of this economic approach is that everyone acts autonomously in ownership of an equal part of the national available space and assets (houses, buildings, sources, resources) but the ownership only applies for the time of someone's working life (30-60th year of life). These portions can be exchanged between owners, but can't be traded, and not inherited. Ownership is therefore temporary and not stackable or expandable.
What do I want to communicate with this?
That the concern about how simplicity (i.e "what humans on a practical level need to live well") can take shape, can be left with confidence to the concrete situation of equal and parallel lined up participants. This is difficult to imagine in advance. And why should we? It is not a concern at all. Producing special qualities in lifestyle once essential conditions are secured is a personal outing. Besides, every country has different locations, different climate, different population structure, different history and customs.
But let's take a look together at the movement that has so far been the most prominent advocate of downsizing long distance economic activity, namely TT (transition towns). Have they clearly defined a feasible limited lifestyle?
The TT movement started the discussion on energy-reducing strategies regarding transportation, food production ('food feet, not food miles), waste and recycling and repair, and economic traffic (local currencies), and did spend most of its efforts on the emotional impact of changing to a low energy world (building resilience).
However, they have underestimated the rate of climate change, and overestimated the speed at which peak oil would turn up. They thought that increasing scarcity of oil and gas would immediately reduce energy consumption. That the depletion of fossil energy sources would force humanity to run its economy on less energy. But that dream did not come true. Peak oil was wishful thinking. The TT movement (including Postcarbon) did not identify the deep causes behind the global energy addiction, namely the key role of energy in winning or losing any economic market situation. In fact that role makes it impossible to drag an energy-addicted society out of the track of unbridled oil extraction and oil consumption. Fracking came, deep-sea sources and polar-sea sources became exploitable, tar fields too, and many new sources were traced. There is sufficient fossil energy in stock to boost the CO2 level of the atmosphere in no time up to 1000 ppm.
Look, TT has always thought: the growth economy will run into its own limits, and will then adjust the social rules that make it impossible to stop this destructive growth. In the meantime, we go steadily preparing life under restrictive circumstances, they thought, and so they have focused on giving courses/conferences. But TT can wait a very long time for that moment to come, because why would the elite (i.e. the winners) change their own rules? And if, then how? TT, hoping for peak oil, continued to avoid that question. They have hardly demanded free access to local means, have hardly proposed feasible economic reorganizations, and have not wanted to face up to the fact that you will probably have to reduce/cut all global mainstreams in order to maintain local growth power of crops and trees. They did not identify nor attacked the catalytic role of crucial society rules. Thus, their vision of what level of life we will have or will be able to maintain, and how to get there, has not further been developed.
It's not surprising, incidentally, that movements that reasoned less from the urban side and more from the rural side − like Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, Local Futures, Via Campesina, and Soil Not Oil − have for a long time been expressing themselves much more clearly on the subject of an alternative socio-economic approach than most recent sustainability and climate mouvements. Less rooted in trade, finance, and services they were less reluctant to mentally dismantle some rock-solid economic rules of the free trade game.
- The package that Shiva (Soil Not Oil) lists contains all the main points for a strong and consistent survival plan. Her proposition: Root the economy in a fertile soil; power down energy & resource consumption, power up collective democratic energy, break free from “global supermarkets”, live lightly, defend small farmers and indigenous communities, and give everyone equal rights to ecological space.
- The sketch by Norberg-Hodge, the founder of Local Futures, is rather complete but less seaworthy, because it does steer towards a rural solution but does not make clear how to change the transfer of property (pieces of rural) in order to realize and stabilize that solution. Her proposition: This is not about ending global trade or industrial production, but for most of our needs, we will need to shift towards smaller scale and more localized structures: decentralized, community-controlled renewables for energy, revitalized local food systems to feed us, and robust local business environments to employ more people and keep wealth from draining out of our communities.
4. Second main criticism
Last winter Greta gave a speech to the world elite in Davos. I wrote an admiring article, suggesting that she would not only have asked that elite, "How are you going to explain to your children that you did not give the zero-emission option a try", but also very pithy had proposed a survival strategy.
She could have said the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are facing the choice between losing the earth and losing a part of our prosperity. I am sure that most earthlings are willing to choose the second option when offered a set of cohabitation rules (= alternative social model = survival concept) that allows them to relinquish part of their prosperity in a decent way.”
She could have elaborated the forgoing as follows:
"We will achieve that zero-emission goal in the short term only if we strongly reduce the global series-connected production processes as well as all communication and traffic flows. This is only possible if we relinquish a considerable part of our prosperity. However, such a collective trajectory cannot be realized under the current economic game rules because that game is designed to win, not to take a collective step back and give up prosperity. After all, the current game rules do not guarantee that someone who sacrifices prosperity can trust others to do the same, nor do they prevent such a sacrifice causing a free fall in the social hierarchy. We are currently in a race for resources. No one ever has enough because there will always be someone in the vicinity waiting to undermine or obtain already acquired resources. This insecurity leads to growth, expansion, competition, and – consequently – innovation in order to beat others. This never stops.
We must therefore adopt – perhaps only temporarily – a safer arrangement for everyone. Ensuring equal access for all to local livelihoods (land, water, homes) could be the solution because such an arrangement not only neutralizes the game, it also guarantees that everyone can fulfill their life’s basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter, health, distraction) in an almost emission-free way via local circular processes. ‘Equal rules for everyone, and equal resources within reach’ is the basic prerequisite for realizing very quickly the zero-emission option."
Of course, the reaction of climate campaigners to my Greta-proposal was snappy. They immediately asked themselves: Can you deliver such a message? Communicating giving up prosperity is going to be extremely tricky as this is the opposite of what most people aim for!
This criticism has as improvement that not the goal is denounced but the way to it is. So let us focus now on that implementation trouble around a survival strategy.
So we have to say more about how climate groups can shape their actions if they would develop more content in their work of socio-economic change, then just pointing out the great urgency. How do you incite people to very different forms of society, how do you get people ripe for major economic structural changes? What happens when you just barg in with a compact proposal that immediately puts their current jobs at risk?
That kind of campaigning is much more far-reaching than pointing out a danger, because with every bit of content you come up very close to where they are nestled in a web of stable organized relationships, and put a strange setup with completely different rules of play instead. You show them a great twist. And then happens what always happens, namely that every change is scary. Very, very scary. Why do people miss the bend? Why do a lot of people get too fat? Why do many people smoke and drink themselves to death? Because changing an existing situation into a desirable one triggers three emotions, that shake up and steer mental processes like a swing mill at a fairground. The existing situation is therefore stuck tremendously. They can see the bend, but doing nothing is easier.
Let's use the above mentioned sigh (' Communicating giving up prosperity is going to be extremely tricky') and see which principal troubles are teasing the implementation of a survival strategy, and how we can then organize climate campaigning accordingly.
Let's first deduce that the assumption that a survival proposal merely throws 'giving up prosperity' on the board of mankind is cuddlesome thinking. I mean: you crawl up on their lap, and confirm them in the value of their hug. XR herself says that the situation is hopeless, that all our affluence is hanging on a silk thread above a ravine. When your essential living conditions are about to implode, don't call it prosperity any more.
So, given the current threat to that prosperity from climate escalations, there is no question of giving up. You don't have to give up anything if it's already unrealizable. It's just not a viable option anymore. Our prosperity is based on energy-guzzling global dependencies. This structure (= a global high-tech interaction economy) is turning itself into a morass of endless pain and cruelty.
Secondly, I do not immediately see that a survival trajectory implies reducing affluence. Without a car, without luxury, without being able to travel, is that less prosperity? Of course it does not have to be. It may be that what you do next − for example, a more direct and daring and constant and closer contact with natural and social processes in a local low-tech circular economy − produces much more peace and well-being than can be scored within the global infrastructure of shops, websites, care centres and tourist paradises.
Is it not the case that these kinds of questions, anticipations of what you will evoke when you take to the streets with such proposals, arise entirely from both your own fear of proposing changes and the wall of unrest that you feel when you estimate how much fear is going to wave through people when you preach that we must radically change our mutual economic relations in order to survive?
In fact, I don't think most people are at all opposed to a loss of affluence. Yes, of course at the point where nobody wants to be the first to surrender anything, but not against the general idea. The mental knot is much more a result of the horror in the background. The horror to have to question the current status quo. So reluctance to change. Very healthy and normal. The chair is warm, and it's all so nicely arranged. The houses, the facilities, the harbours, the ports, stations, institutes, regulations, etc. etc.
So the aversion comes from having to think and talk about changing an ingrained and stabilized way of doing things − in terms of mutual manners, in terms of mutual relationships, in terms of laws and correction procedures, in terms of mutual care. Every change is scary. What do you get in return? The unstable, uncertain nature of it, grabs you by the throat.
I think this scary nature of the change inhibits much more than the possible reduction in personal prosperity. How to overcome? Intellectual (i.e. dissolve by logic), or natural (i.e. guided by fear).
This brings me to a point of criticism. I have an abhorrence of isolated thinking. It paralyzes, and often serves that purpose. Let me explain.
The separation of thinking, feeling, and handiwork (or acting in general) is the stupidest thing mankind has ever done. Why?
Actually, mainly because thinking disconnected from broad and continuous streams of inputs is very dangerous. You can think anything. That can sometimes be useful to come up with something new, okay, but can also lead to fairy tales, illusions, mazes, deadly embraces, and complete paralysis. Mind should be used, but should then be turned off to give room to acting, and to feeling. I mean, mind should not dominate and stand in the way of acting and feeling. Our senses can bring in great streams of information. These information flows are essential to check and adjust our values and knowledge. Those input flows are generated and broadened by acting and then feeling what is happening. You can better understand my resistance to isolated thinking if you know a little more about my past. As is described in the foreword (= pdf) to Tackling Human Complexity.
In my opinion, the scientific underestimation of the climate problem is also a consequence of such overspecialized mono-disciplinary thinking. Scientists are all so defensively entrenched in their fields of study, so impoverished in terms of the bandwidth of variables outside their own field, that they no longer have an overview of the dynamics of the whole of which their field is a part, but often pretend to have.
I see it as part of the current imperialist power thinking that their specialists in solving problematic situations immerse themselves in that specialty in such a way that they get stuck in it, i.e. want to design completely rational solution trajectories and see through all the consequences, but within the preconditions of all those things that the seated elite wants to keep untouched, such as international and social relations, and of course our current lifestyle..
So if you are going to use this model yourself in a counter-movement, you put yourself, as it were, in the chair of such exaggerated solution thinking, and present yourself as such to your audience (supporters, peers). But excessively continuing to think about the possibilities of mutual movement is typically a sport of those who do not yet feel the water on their lips, and can afford to continue to evaluate situations; often only out of resistance to facing fundamental changes in their current comfortable position within it, and also to delay the communication with opponents.
On the other hand, there is the way of practically merciless striking the moment a situation becomes dangerous, the moment you begin to feel really uncomfortable. In the women's lib movement there was a saying: don't make a mountain out of it, take a step, make a small start, then you change something, you detach something loose, that's what makes it look different, others start reacting as well, new openings come up that you couldn't come up with beforehand. In short: the attitude of well-considered jumping in troubled water, suggesting possibilities, and bombarding your opponents with it. This is the way I propose. It can start with a small collection of deliberate slogans that concisely express what social and economic development you crave and long for.
This approach was often followed in the seventies and eighties and with success. Large-scale actions were prepared in grassroots groups, and then argued to the whole of civil society, so that a broad consensus was eventually created in society. A wall that governments could no longer ignore, and so initiated legislation.
How did this resistance grow during those years? Remarkably, in each of those movements, that there was a clear basic idea put forward as to what was at stake and what the social conflict was about. So there was content. Otherwise, of course, you can never be successful in the natural way. I mean there must be wool to start knitting collectively. So at this point I see a flaw at the current climate movement. If you don't get clear on content, and don't come up with holistic criticism of the existing economic structure and processes, and doesn't give any indication as to which way it should go in order to get rid of fossil emissions in a flash, then you continue to stalk the mob without harvesting any contact. If there's not a single provisional choice in it on which you can hold on to, and which could become fine-tuned and deepened through reactions from opponents, the result is weak on both sides of the Mississippi. It won't knit because there's no wool.
Sorry that I continue to insist on this point, namely that we have to make a begin of a choice in order to set the social wriggling in motion. As I remarked (at The whole must be right): "Time is getting too short to continue with jumping back and forth between elements of promising but shaky high-tech futures and elements of safe but fairly primitive organisation of our economy. We have to choose."
It is certainly true that for some years now a suspicion is growing within the current climate protest that a techno-fix within the dynamics of the current economic system cannot prevent the fatal unleashing of our climate conditions, otherwise the call for system change and paradigm shift would not be heard more strongly all the time, but up till now the call for system change is lacking sufficient substance to decisively and sharply reject the techno-fix.
Reducing this lack of substance is the aim of this discussion of course. But I don't think we're gonna get anywhere with that discussion as long as everyone keeps mentally bouncing back to the techno-fix every time that a system change proposal carries within it uneasy consequences for the status quo.
This bouncing back is just a chewy reflex. Technology has become the solid brother we call to help in every situation we want to solve. It's my feeling that our basic trust in that aspect of our old economy is so deeply ingrained in our soul that we will not allow ourselves to become unfaithful or to set it aside. I mean, a door has to be slammed first to move along. That we have to jump of that seesaw before we can as lost souls give substance to system change because we must then.
This phase in the climate battle seems to me to take place right now. The increasing misery and disturbances that the old economy is sending to our homes and bodies (see this two-page explanation: Why proposing a high-tech solution is no longer gambling but suicide) is going to smother the jump back to the high tech show, and make people jump from the seesaw. The knot will be cut, no matter how tough its nature. Recently Thunberg, Neubauer, De Wever, and Charlier did put their fingers on it with this core sentence: "And since we don’t have all the technical solutions we need to achieve that, we have to work with what we have at hand today. And this has to include stopping doing certain things. That’s also a fact. However, it’s a fact that most people refuse to accept. Just the thought of being in a crisis that we cannot buy, build or invest our way out of seems to create some kind of collective mental short circuit".
Anyway, suppose you face it and take a flashy survival strategy unanimously as a starting point, what about implementation? What kind of tissue do you have to create between people to get things going, that it is accelerated and that there is more clarity?
5. How to get it going?
Suppose a mother thinks her child is getting too old for that dirty cuddly toy she drags with her everywhere... What to do? Taking it away doesn't work, but making her forget about the hug usually is successful. Creating context around it.
Another example. Cows don't want to enter a stable when winter arrives because they remember that their calf was taken away from them exactly there. Hunting them doesn't work, cows are strong as hell, but by giving them better and tastier hay every day a little closer to the stable they won't forget that calf misery but finally just take the bad with the good, and walk in when the weather's really bad.
So implementation pivots on this: Identify and concentrate on the repugnance, and how context can be created around it so that carrying capacity arises from which the repugnance can be surmounted.
What context should we consider in this case?
With every proposal about quite a drastic economic U-turn people feel that their earning model (and thus their existing home-feelings) will crash, because in today's interaction economy all those earning models depend on each other with hundreds of wires. So in the current situation you can not seduce people with a few aspect-based policy proposals to imagine for themselves if as a consequence of those proposals our entire interaction economy could end up on a stable but totally different track - such as a regionalized circular economy. Their disgust makes them dive. You only get everyone come along if you offer them overview, and above all: if you offer them the chance to develop their own overview.
I mean: If you want to work towards a more vertical survival orientation of people, and want them to decrease or slim down their horizontal interactions significantly, you have to let them develop a mental gangway in their mind about how that could happen, and where the whole economy could end up. Look, and then it's about the point that everyone has to start probing whether others also engage in it, how they turn their thoughts to it, especially with those who will have to share or largely relinquish their power over the regional means of production. Building up a vision among themselves, and from there gain confidence in a way out. And then daring to do so.
Take a good look at the Goed-veur-mekare-group from Wijhe-Olst (NL). From a limited target (i.e. to build and manage together a windmill) they have accomplished to get Olst taking a slightly larger than marginal step: a 25 ha area originally reserved for companies will change in terms of destination to energy, food and biodiversity production. This group has undoubtedly gone a long way together, cause they now dare to take a gigantic debt on their necks, and take responsibility for a lot of organization.
Such laborious group development work around a major social economic change (U-turn) seems to be a waste of time - after all, we have the internet and a great box of specialists who can figure and budget all this out - but it's absolutely necessary. Everyone has personally to give in . If people don't all want it, then it doesn't work, and besides why would we do it? People is the principal pivot on which local circular acting (i.e. the regional household) should float, and that force will thrive when it may swim in own waters.
Okay, so build mutual overview and trust. The best way to do this is by discussing and examining the situation for a long time together. People investigate their situation. I see such meetings as a logical successor to the VOS courses from the 1980s in the Netherlands. The POLS - people orientate on local simple life - could be organized in the same way, by forming a kind of (physical) talk groups in each city quarter, village, and street, that aim at building mental context, and mutual trust. That's the general idea.
Such intensive interactions are a long neglected matter in our culture of one-liners. Through today's beautiful screen and web culture, an air of confusion, sweat, and fatigue hovers around serious physical conversations where you're going to have to come clean about what you really want, what you consider possible and feasible, what is hard to accept, what you don't know, and what holds you back or doesn't dare. Reality − even-though life-sized − is fled en masse via the products of a massive compensation industry, which sells itself as culture but only warms you up by sublimation. However, in our history we have had to run away from such a feast more often to find each other's voices and hands, and to reorganize our daily interactions together to save ourselves out of very tricky situations.
In common exploring and imagining regionalisation I see three main steps:
- Is there enough volition? First of all, assessing whether people are willing to become more self-sufficient and more austere lifestyle if they were given the means to do so on a stable basis (e.g. a house with some land around it, and local crafts in the immediate vicinity).
- What can be traded, and what should be traded on the interface of the region? In other words: what volumes may go outwards and what volumes inwards? You will have to reduce many export branches in an area, and thus need to assess which exports are best maintained (in terms of climate impact in production, transport and necessary imports) and then given the achievable level of export earnings determine (or match) what level of really necessary imports (such as machine parts, information flows, raw materials) could and should be attained.
- Then you have to converge the results of (a) and (b) towards each other. The import sheet about what volumes you can still enter the region (= result of (b)) strongly determines the attainable lifestyle level of prosperity. And people's self-sufficiency (= result of (a)) determines both the space available for export production, as well as the need for imports. If you make a lot yourself, you don't need much from elsewhere.
How can you orient people's willpower more strongly on short chains and local processes?? There is a lot of work to be done on this point, because many yearn for it, but few believe in it and really want it. POLS can only work out well if most parties want to participate. Participation will not be a problem for those who have a strong desire for it. But oil dealers, garage owners, and almost everyone whose profit model or income depends heavily on fossil fuels production or use, do not see any reason to go local, and don't want to go anywhere near that. We have been seeing that for thirty years.
How do we change their volition? They simply deny climate science, so along that path there is no cure attainable. But on each aspect of their revenue model they are very sensitive. Very sensitive. They milk customers. Customers are their foundation. Along that path, namely via their delicate relationship with customers, I see three paths that climate activists can take at the same time to redirect the volition of everyone involved in long-chain and long-distance production and distribution.
- Via the demand for their products and services.
Any climate activist can minimize material interactions with the long-chain and long-distance business or permanently quit them. Such a boycott will do wonders with the values (= volition) of the providers. It will also immediately boost the demand for local stuff. That will set things in motion there − gaps in the market, I mean − where doubters within the long-chain business can mentally (in terms of appreciation) jump to.
- Via the supply side: the reputation of the provider.
Now that we have to get rid of the use of fossil fuels immediately, the existing intensive interaction structure of worldwide scattered large scale production processes can be described as criminal as well pathogenic and inhuman. So sue them and blame them so that a certain smell pops up around this unfettered long chain processes that fling around and exploit people and resources wherever they want, and dump their waste, residuals and emissions wherever they are.
- Via the supply-side: the price of products and services.
The main objection to any long-distance product or service is the volume of emissions accumulated. If that objection were to be included in the price in such a way that the effects of those emissions could be compensated or mirrored, at the same time (a) a level playing field would be created between all productions wherever they took place, and (b) the customer would be encountered in a honest way. In other words, include a carbon tax in the price, but how do you burden all those involved in proportion to the emissions they add to the total process? For example you could tax each input ω of each link X (= sub-process) in a chain with a carbon tax of one euro per kg CO2-eq calculated according to LCA (life-cycle-analysis) of all equipment processes involved from the point of the inputs of the link X-1 (= foregoing sub-process in the chain) that supplied that input ω. A policy of this kind can blow out a whole bunch of long-chain and long-distance activity completely. For example the use of fertilizer and imported cattle feed by farmers becomes totally unprofitable. All imported products, including ready-made food from abroad, will take a blow. Transport and relocation become expensive, and so short chain products and services become relatively cheap at the same time. The local economy will therefore provoke investments. The volition of everyone involved in long-chain productions and long-distance traffic may then rapidly start to change orientation. Exactly what you want.
In the Middle Ages, in sharp contrast to an increasing number of abuses throughout Europe, monastic communities arose, where men and women voluntarily distanced themselves from affluence, and from the taking part in competition and trampling on each other's economic positions. Not only their social activities (education, science, care of the sick and poor) and economic activities (agriculture, animal husbandry, bookreproduction, food processing) were stabilizing the society, also their form of cohabitation. Those communities were constantly showing old and young in the distant surroundings how to confer to each other sufficient space for simple living and how that could flourish. Without these waves of courageous cooperative resistance against the suffocating game that the nobility - which were constantly at war with each other - played with the locals, our current constitutions would never have come to being. Their ideas, trials, interventions, and influences formed clouds full of context around the everyday worries of every lost soul.
And ain't we all just that.
This article is also available as a PDF with the popups build in footnotes.
- The idea of survival
- Core and form
- First main criticism
- Second main criticism
- How to get it going?