In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I was briefly introduced to both Joseph Tainter’s book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies” and to the concept of systems thinking. I was fascinated by the concepts raised in both though I was unaware that they were connected. Unbeknownst to me then, they are inextricably connected. It has taken me until now (through multiple articles, books, and a white-board full of ideas) to begin to wrap my head around the entwined philosophical, scientific, political and ecological components involved in complexity sciences and resilience thinking.
Joseph Tainter stated in “The Collapse of Complex Societies” that if societies failed to evolve – or become adaptive – they would inevitably collapse. The global neoliberal capitalist system governed by the Global North, is headed for such a collapse. Financially, this growth-oriented system is fixated on short-term profit, endless consumerism and the accumulation of wealth. Additionally, neoliberalism’s wide-reaching social and political implications also delineate problematic class, race, and gender norms and most prominently, an egregious overemphasis on the individual and entitled self-interest within civic society. Collectively, these facets dampen greatly the much-needed foresight required by our society and critically, those in the Global North, to address the emerging threats facing our world, namely peak oil.
Complexity scientists, climate scientists, and anyone who’s read the news in the past decade would argue – and I would add my voice to theirs – that this system is fundamentally not sustainable or equitable. The current system is brittle in its apprehensive response to risks, which are only swiftly mitigated in order to sustain growth and continue producing increased profits and outcomes. This is often characterized by changing a brand’s shopping bag font colour to green to show sustained dedication to eco-consciousness.
Not only is the current neoliberal system not resilient due to its shortsighted emphasis on “growth at all cost”, but the hegemonic political and social forces of capitalism have denied countries in the Global South the opportunity to foster innovation for creating new system equilibriums, and ultimately become resilient. Massive paradigm shifts in collective consciousness in favour of pursuing alternative economic models such as the degrowth model must occur such that we can become an adaptive society as we approach peak oil and other emerging environmental threats. Degrowth re-conceptualises the economic system invoking a renaissance of ideas which propose a stable shrinking economy, prominently devaluing capitalist and consumerist practices and emphasizing meaningful recognition of human and natural wellbeing.
“Not only is the current neoliberal system not resilient due to its shortsighted emphasis on “growth at all cost”, but the hegemonic political and social forces of capitalism have denied countries in the Global South the opportunity to foster innovation for creating new system equilibriums, and ultimately become resilient.”
This capitalist system, born from the industrial revolution, is so rigid that it is actually more insecure in the face of volatility, and shocks (is that you in the not-so-distant past, 2008 financial crisis?). When innovation or disruption occurs globally, such as the Arab Spring or the present race-driven civil unrest in the US, we are witnessing societies reach tipping points, and try in earnest to create new system equilibriums. However, given our current entrenched dedication to neoliberalism and its obsession with the extraction of oil, significant changes paralleled to those examples, but on a far greater scale, must ripple throughout societies in order to create the different types of social and economic changes that are so desperately needed.
Since industrialization, the global capitalist financial system, based on a “growth at all cost” framework that values efficiency, predictability, and control over the natural environment, has brought about tremendous wealth. To the layperson, possibly politically unengaged; likely a complacent consumer of the market, this trajectory may appear to be reasonable, fine, sustainable even; suspending any concern for the future. In the event of any negative ramifications from constant growth and oil extraction, said individual can simply turn to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments ubiquitous in the private sector, who develop short-term solutions that do not threaten the values of the status quo.
CSR departments applaud themselves for developing business models that evoke that warm, fuzzy feeling one feels on Christmas morning surrounded by brightly wrapped stuff; unabashed cheer abound, willfully and blissfully removed from harsher realities. Indeed, purchasing disposable plastic water bottles (made from polyethylene, read: fossil fuels) may actually save the children in developing country X! Fairly obvious, but this scenario is glaringly not an adaptive model. From the individual’s personal belief systems, to the private sector short-term CSR solution, to the greater economic system within which the private sector is situated: each systems-level ignores the feedback implications that are evident.
Inevitably, we are going to use more oil than we can afford to and this will bring us to a global tipping point. In the socio-ecological resilience framework, and specifically visible in Holling’s “panarchy” model this tipping point of energy scarcity as we approach peak oil would catalyze a release or collapse ending our reliance on oil, after which point mass reorganization of resources, knowledge, and wealth would follow. However, in our current system our reliance on oil perpetuated by our collective hubris has not left us with reserves or resources needed for reorganization or rebuilding society. Those of you with urban gardens, Godspeed: you’re leading the pack towards degrowth. We need to learn to detach from our dependence from scarce resources and become self-sustaining in other ways.
While the Global North distributes aid to the Global South based on principles embedded in the Washington Consensus, these less-developed countries are simultaneously exploited for their lower-cost resources (read: oil) and labor, which sustain offshore transnational corporations and are owned by the wealthy elite and funded by the global oil market. Globalization has meant that these institutions in the infinite-growth scheme can maintain a “competitive advantage” and can simultaneously control and suppress any innovation, self-reliance or diversity of assets that may arise from nations in the Global South. Sound familiar? These practices aren’t so distant from colonization.
The prominent poverty in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and inequitable distribution of determinants of health including, “access to safe and affordable housing, nutritious food, clean water and adequate, income enabling social and political participation” characterize this scenario, commonly known as the resource curse. As we approach peak oil, the economies and welfare of these countries will be destroyed because they have been denied the chance to develop into complex adaptive systems that are resilient and endowed with their own self-sustaining resource reserves that can evolve after a collapse.
“Our collective hubris has also led us to believe that humans are entitled to the earth…”
A second example of global consequences of peak oil for developing countries is the infamous “tortilla riots” in Mexico. Enormous US investment in domestic ethanol (produced from corn) grossly increased competition in the market for Mexican corn farmers, who were ultimately unable to profit from their own crops. Again, the linear growth model owned by the Global North will not only deplete available natural resources, but it will starve the Global South of opportunities to emerge, evolve or develop feedback loops that allow for building adaptive capacity to deal with uncertainty
While the state of peak oil and our economy is dire, tantamount and inseparable are the issues of two other emerging threats, climate change and environmental degradation. Our collective hubris has also led us to believe that humans are entitled to the earth, must control the environment and exploit all available land regardless of increasing temperatures and escalated atmospheric toxins. Indeed, it has been reported that, “the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted”.
The three emerging threats have obvious repercussions on all populations but this trajectory will cause severe environmental degradation that will inexorably affect the Global South faster and harsher than the North. Moving forward, a radical and fundamental collective shift in consciousness must occur in favor of alternative economic systems or a degrowth model as well as a rejection of the current social-cultural and political ethos of neoliberalism. Presently, tipping points of social change are culminating; collaborative economies are rising in the Global South (such as peer-to-peer platforms powered by mobile phones in South America and Africa) and the largest climate change march in history happened mere months ago. We must collectively adapt to emerging threats that are upon us.
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Dara Gordon is currently completing the second year of her Masters of Public Health at the University of Toronto with a focus on Global Health. She is also a Research Assistant at Dignitas International. Dara is interested in complexity sciences, developmental evaluation, knowledge translation and the social determinants of health. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations and a minor in English from Carleton University.
Featured Photo From Wikimedia Commons.