As a species, we fuel our achievements with natural resources created in the distant past, while leaving the repercussions of their use to the implied ingenuity of future generations. Looking at these issues through the lens of population ecology, economics, conservation biology, and evolutionary theory, we are headed for decisive and interesting times. From the inevitability and desirability of more locally organized economies, to the urgent need to preserve our recent cultural achievements, and the futility of pursuing economic growth above all, Afterburn by Richard Heinberg (New Society Publishers, 2015), offers cutting-edge perspectives and insights that challenge conventional thinking about our present, our future, and the choices in our hands.
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Evolution can be ruthless at eliminating the unfit. “Red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson memorably described it, Nature routinely sacrifices billions of individual organisms and sometimes entire species in the course of its adaptive progression.
We humans have been able to blunt Nature’s fangs. We take care of individuals who would not be able to survive on their own — the elderly, the sick, the wounded — and we’ve been doing so for a long time, perhaps tens of thousands of years. In recent decades more and more of us have leapt aboard the raft of socially ensured survival — though in ways that often have little to do with compassion: today even most hale and hearty individuals would be hard pressed to stay alive for more than a few days or weeks if cut adrift from supermarkets, ATMs, and the rest of the infrastructure of modern hyper-industrialism.
This strategy of expanding our collective fitness has (at least temporarily) paid off: the consequent reduction in our death rate has resulted in a 700-percent expansion of human population in just the past two centuries and a current population growth rate of about 80 million per year (births in excess of deaths). Humans are everywhere taking carrying capacity away from most other organisms, except ones that directly serve us such as maize and cattle. We have become expert at cooperatively avoiding nature’s culling, and thus at partially (and, again, temporarily) defeating natural selection — at least, in the way it applies to other species.
Some argue that “natural selection” is at work within human society whenever clever and hardworking folks get ahead while lazy dullards lag behind. The philosophy of Social Darwinism holds that this kind of competitive selection improves the species. But critics point out that individual success within society can be maladaptive for society as a whole because if wealth becomes too unequally distributed, social stability is threatened. Such concerns have led most nations to artificially limit competitive selection at the societal level: in the United States, these limits take the forms of progressive income tax, Social Security, food stamps, disability payments, Medicaid, and Aid for Dependent Children, among others. Even most self-described “conservatives” who think that government shouldn’t prevent society’s winners from taking all still think it’s good for churches to give to the needy.
While the last few decades of rapid economic growth and material abundance — enabled by cheap fossil energy — led to a dramatic expansion of social safety nets in industrialized countries, they also featured the emergence of an ostensibly benign global imperial system led by the United States, whose fearsome military machine kept a lid on international conflict and whose universally accepted currency helped maintain relative international economic stability (in ways that served US interests, of course). Globally, deaths from war have declined, as has mortality linked to dire poverty.
So far, so good (more or less).
Unfortunately, however, many key components of our successful collective efforts to beat the Reaper are essentially unsustainable. We have reduced mortality not just with antibiotics (to which microbes eventually develop immunity) but also with an economic strategy of drawing down renewable resources at rates exceeding those of natural replenishment, and of liquidating nonrenewable resources as quickly as possible. By borrowing simultaneously from the past (when fossil fuels were formed) and the future (when our grandchildren will have to clean up our mess, pay our debt, and do without the resources we squander), we are effectively engaging in population overshoot. Every population ecologist knows that when a species temporarily overshoots its environment’s long-term carrying capacity, a die-off will follow.
And so, as the world economy stops growing and starts contracting in the coming years, the results will likely include a global increase in human mortality.
Resilience theorists would say we’re entering the “release” phase of the adaptive cycle that characterizes all systemic development, a phase they describe as “a rapid, chaotic period during which capitals (natural, human, social, built, and financial) tend to be lost and novelty can succeed.” This is a notion to which we’ll return repeatedly throughout this essay, and it’s a useful way of conceptualizing an experience that, for those undergoing it, will probably feel a lot less like “release” and more like “pure hell.” Among the possible outcomes: Government-funded safety nets become unaffordable and are abandoned. Public infrastructure decays. Economic systems, transport systems, political systems, health care systems, and food systems become inoperable to varying degrees and in a variety of ways. Global military hegemony becomes more difficult to maintain for a range of reasons (including political dysfunction and economic decline at the imperial core, scarcity of transport fuel, and the proliferation of cheap but highly destabilizing new weapons) and international conflict becomes more likely. Any of those outcomes increases our individual vulnerability. Everyone on the raft is imperiled, especially those who are poor, old, sick, or disabled.
We could redesign our economic, political, transport, health care, and food systems to be less brittle. But suggestions along those lines have been on the table for years and have been largely rejected because they don’t serve the interests of powerful groups that benefit from the status quo. Meanwhile the American populace seems incapable of raising an alarm or responding to one, consisting as it does of a large underclass that is overfed but undernourished, overentertained but misinformed, overindebted and underskilled; and a much smaller overclass that lives primarily by financial predation and is happy to tune out any evidence of the dire impacts of its activities.
A thoroughly unsentimental reader of the portents might regard an increase in the human death rate as an inevitable and potentially beneficial culling of the species. The unfit will be pruned away, the fit will survive, and humanity will be the better for it. Eventually. In theory.
Or maybe the rich and ruthless will survive and everyone else will either perish or submit to slavery.
The greatest danger is that, if social support systems utterly fail, “overshoot” could turn to “undershoot”: that is, population levels could overcorrect to the point that there are fewer survivors than there could have been if adaptation had been undertaken proactively — perhaps far fewer than the population just prior to the Industrial Revolution. And for those who do manage to struggle on, levels of culture and technology might plummet to a depth far below what could have been preserved had action been taken.
We have a population bottleneck, as William Catton calls it, ahead of us no matter what we do at this point. Even if a spectacular new energy source were to appear tomorrow, it would do little more than buy us a bit of time before we bumped up against another natural limit. However, we still get to choose how to pass through that bottleneck. We can exert some influence on factors that will determine how many of us get through, and in what condition.
A worst-case scenario is likely to be averted only by an effective, cooperative effort to adapt to scarcity and to recover from crises.
Fortunately there are perfectly good reasons for assuming that collaborative action along these lines will in fact emerge. We are a supremely cooperative species, and even our earliest ancestors were dedicated communitarians. Other species, though they often squabble over food and potential mates, likewise engage in sharing and cooperative behavior. Members of one species sometimes even cooperate with or offer help to members of different species. Indeed, as evolutionary theorist Peter Kropotkin pointed out in his landmark 1902 book Mutual Aid, evolution is driven by cooperation as much as by competition.
More to the point, hard times can bring out the worst in people, but also the best. Rebecca Solnit argues in A Paradise Built in Hell that people tend to cooperate, share, and help out at least as much during periods of crisis as during times of plenty. A critic might suggest that Solnit stretches this argument too far, and that collapsing societies often feature soaring rates of crime and violence (see, for
example, Argentina circa 2000); nevertheless, she supports her thesis with compelling examples.
Assuming we fail to prevent crisis and merely respond to it, we might nevertheless anticipate a range of possible futures, depending on whether we set ourselves up to compete or cooperate. At one end of the competitive-cooperative scenarios spectrum, the rich few become feudal lords while everybody else languishes in direst poverty. At the other end of that spectrum, communities of free individuals cohere to produce necessities and maximize their chances for collective prosperity. Back at the “competitive” end of the scale, there is hoarding of food and widespread famine, while at the “cooperative” extreme community permaculture gardens spring up everywhere. With more competition, people perish for lack of basic survival skills; with more collaboration, people share skills and care for those with disabilities of one kind or another. Competitive efforts by investors to maintain their advantages could lead to a general collapse of trust in financial institutions, culminating in the cessation of trade at almost every level; but with enough cooperation, people could create a nongrowth-based monetary system that acts as a public utility, leading to a new communitarian economics.
In the real world, humans are both competitive and cooperative — always have been, always will be. But circumstances, conditioning, and brain chemistry can tend to make us more competitive or more collaborative. As we pass through the population-resource-economy bottleneck in the decades ahead, competitive and cooperative behaviors will in turn come to the fore in various times and places. My initial point in all of this is that, even in the absence of effective action to avert
economic and environmental crises, we still have the capacity to set ourselves up to be either more competitive or more cooperative in times of scarcity and crisis. With the right social structures and the right conditioning, whole societies can become either more cutthroat or more amiable. By building community organizations now, we are improving our survival prospects later.
But I’d go further. Here’s a preliminary hypothesis for which I’m starting to collect both confirming and disconfirming evidence: We’re likely to see the worst of ruthless competition in the early stage of the release phase, when power holders try to keep together what wants to fall apart and reorganize. The effort to hang on to what we have in the face of uncertainty and fear may bring out the competitive nature in many of us, but once we’re in the midst of actual crisis we may be more likely to band together.
Among elites — who have enormous amounts of wealth, power, and privilege at stake — the former tendency has carried the day. And since elites largely shape the rules, regulations, and information flows within society, this means we’re all caught up in a hyper-competitive and fearful moment as we wait for the penny to drop. Elites can deliberately nurture an “us-versus-them” mentality (via jingoistic patriotism, wedge issues, and racial resentments) to keep ordinary people from cooperating more to further their common interests. Revolution, after all, is in many respects a cooperative undertaking, and in order to forestall it rulers sometimes harness the cooperative spirit of the masses in going to war against a common foreign enemy.
The over-competitiveness of this prerelease phase is playing out most prominently and fatefully in debates over “austerity,” as nations bail out investment banks while leaving most citizens to languish under layoffs, pension cuts, and wage cuts. It seems that no measure aimed to prevent defaults and losses to investors is too draconian. But in many historic instances (Russia, Iceland, Argentina) it was only after a massive financial default — that is, once release had run its course — that nations could fundamentally revamp their monetary and banking systems, making recovery possible. That makes “release” sound a bit like a long-overdue vacation. It’s important to emphasize, however, that what we face now is not just a collapse and reorganization of a national financial sector, but a crucial turning from the overall expansionary trajectory of civilization itself.
Our collective passage through and reorganization after the release phase of this pivotal adaptive cycle can be thought of as an evolutionary event. And, as noted above, evolution is driven by cooperation as much as by competition. Indeed, cooperation is the source of most of our species’ extraordinary accomplishments so far. Language — which gives us the ability to coordinate our behavior across space and time — has made us by far the most successful large animal species on the planet. Our societal evolution from hunting-and-gathering bands to agrarian civilizations to industrial globalism required ever-higher levels of cooperative behavior: as one small example, think for a moment about the stunningly rich collaborative action required to build and inhabit a skyscraper. As we adapt and evolve further in the decades and centuries ahead, we will do so by finding even more effective ways to cooperate.
Ironically, however, during the past few millennia, and especially during the most recent century, social complexity has permitted greater concentrations of wealth, thus more economic inequality, and hence (at least potentially) more competition for control over heaps of agglomerated wealth. As Ivan Illich pointed out in his 1974 classic Energy and Equity, there has been a general correlation between the amount of energy flowing through a society and the degree of inequality within that society. And so, as we have tapped fossil fuels to permit by far the highest energy flow rates ever sustained by any human civilization, a few individuals have accumulated the biggest pots of wealth the world has ever seen. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that it is precisely during this recent, aberrant, high-energy historic interval that Social Darwinism and neoliberal economics have arisen, with the latter coming to dominate economic and social policy worldwide.
With release will come the opportunity for a collaborative evolutionary surge. Recall that in the release phase of the adaptive cycle there is expanded opportunity for novelty to succeed. Most people these days tend to think of novelty in purely technological terms, and it’s true that email and Twitter can speed social change — for example, by helping organize an instant political rally. But spending hours each day alone in front of a screen does not necessarily lead to collaborative behavior, and it’s just possible that we may not be able to count on our handheld devices continuing to function in the context of global economic crisis, trade disruptions, and resource shortages. Therefore perhaps it will be in our interactions within flesh-and-blood communities that our most decisive further innovations will arise.
The details are impossible to predict, but the general outline of our needed cooperative evolutionary leap is clear: we must develop a heightened collective ability to conserve natural resources while minimizing our human impacts on environmental systems. In some respects this might turn out to be little more than an updating of traditional societies’ methods of managing common grazing or hunting lands. But today the stakes are far higher: the renewed commons must extend to include all renewable and nonrenewable resources, and “management” must bring extraction and harvest levels within the long-term ability of natural systems to recover and regenerate.
At the same time, with energy flows declining due to the depletion of fossil fuels, current levels of economic inequality will become unsupportable. Adaptation will require us to find ways of leveling the playing field peaceably.
Laying the groundwork for reorganization (following the release phase) will require building resilience into all our social structures and infrastructures. In the decades ahead, we must develop low-resource, low-energy ways of meeting human needs while nurturing an internalized imperative to keep population levels within ecosystems’ longterm carrying capacity.
There are those who say that we humans are too selfish and individualistic to make this kind of evolutionary leap, and that even if it were possible there’s simply too little time. If they’re right, then this may be the end of the line: we might soon wind up in the “unfit” bin of evolutionary history. But given our spectacular history of cooperative achievement and our ability to transform our collective behavior rapidly via language (aided, for the time being, with instantaneous communications technology), it stands to reason that our species has at least a fair chance of making the cut.
To be sure, evolution will be driven by crisis. We will adapt by necessity. In this release phase there will be enormous potential for violence. Remember, release is the phase of the cycle in which capital is destroyed — and currently there are towering piles of human, built, and financial capital waiting to topple. We have been set up to compete for shards and scraps. It’s no wonder that so many who sense the precariousness of our current situation have opted to become “preppers” and survivalists. But things will go a lot better for us if, rather than stocking up on guns and canned goods, we spend our time getting to know our neighbors, learning how to facilitate effective meetings, or helping design resilient local food systems. Survival will depend on finding cooperative paths in which sacrifice is shared, the best of our collective achievements are preserved, and compassion is nurtured.
Darwin tells us we must evolve or die, and current circumstances bring that choice into stark relief. A lot of people evidently think that fitness and selfishness are the same. But we’ve gotten ourselves into our current fix not because we’re too good at cooperating to achieve collective fitness, but rather because, in our success, we failed to take account of the finite and fragile nature of the natural systems that support us. It’s true that individual initiative is important and that
group-think can be stultifying. Yet it is our ability to innovate socially and cooperate to increase our collective fitness that has gotten us this far, and that will determine whether we survive, and under what conditions, as we adapt to scarcity and reintegrate ourselves within ecosystems in the decades ahead.
Reprinted with permission from Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels by Richard Heinberg and published by New Society Publishers, 2015.