In a 2012 keynote speech at the Smithsonian, I heard a renowned system scientist say:
"The challenge of our lifetimes will be to manage the decline of civilization."
It felt like every single person in that auditorium stopped breathing. Like time paused; if only for a moment. I've never been in such a quiet, huge, stunned silence.
Anyone can make big declarations. They're more powerful with context, and most of the people in that cavernous lecture space were there because they were up on the work this team had been doing for over 40 years. People were there because they wanted the latest conclusions, and this was the forum where they'd be announced.
The event marked 40 years to the day of when the model and its results were first released in 1972. It was updated and released in 1992, and now had been updated again for 2012. (A post with citations and references for all of this science is here, called "Why"
The team invented system science. The speaker was one of a team of three that essentially created the discipline.
Populations overshoot their limits, and collapse. This is a basic principle of ecology. This team did not invent that.
What this team did is model it for the first time for the planet.
They modeled potential human population overshoot and collapse.
Here we were 40 years later, and many were anxious to hear what they had to say. Because in 1972, the models showed that humans would likely overshoot the planet's limits and experience population collapse, but that we had some options we could take to avoid that. In '92, the science indicated that we now had less options, but that it was still possible to avoid a population collapse.
In '92, I was in college, and spent a year in an independent study exploring this exact science that had been provided for college students to dig into.
Now here it was 2012, and one of these original three scientists was standing there in the Native American Museum in a Smithsonian symposium on the National Mall in the capital city of the most powerful country on earth, saying that the challenge of our lifetimes would be to manage the decline of civilization.
He said we were out of options.
His lecture went through the science. The other surviving original team member went through more of the science. Other speakers went through more related detail. Yes they considered disease. Yes they considered technology. Yes they considered agriculture. Yes they considered likely increased capacities of things we hadn't invented yet, like technology + agriculture. In great detail. It was, after all, a forecasting model based on carrying capacity, human evolution and capability, and earth systems.
Populations can overshoot their carrying capacity. When they do, they collapse. Sometimes because of resource loss, and things like mass starvation. Sometimes because of competition for critical survival resources. Sometimes because of competition for habitat. In human populations, competition can turn into war.
Sometimes populations collapse because of disease. It is a common cause for population collapse in ecological systems. Humans are no more immune from it than any other species. As we are currently reviewing in real life. (Again, citations and references are on this post: "Why"
What Is This Thing Really?
So that talk was sobering. It was a big day. We have these pivot points in life, and that was one of them for me.
The fact that I'd studied the 20-year update of this planet system model in college and was able to be present in real person for the 40-year update at the Smithsonian was quite significant.
But obviously more significant was the news from the model update itself. News that we had overshot the earth's carrying capacity, and that there would be a "correction." That's what a population collapse is in an ecological system: a natural - if highly deadly - move toward balance.
Behind the scenes since that day... I have been getting ready for this moment. The moment we're in today: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the system change it will catalyze.
I don't think it's going to be the decline of civilization.
After I heard this lecture and spent the rest of that day hearing more on the science behind it, I got into weeks of discussions with friends about it. This is the kind of thing that I do with my free time.
One friend said that perhaps it would be more of a transformation... not a decline.
A population collapse does not mean the civilization collapses.
In all of the science at that symposium - which was a lot in its own right - nobody got into the correlation between a population collapse and a civilization collapse. A civilization collapse is a different question.
To be clear, in case this subject is new to you, a population collapse does not mean the population disappears. It's not an extinction. It means that there is a lot of death (and in our case, probably also destruction), but typically the species itself survives. Often in significantly smaller numbers. A reduction in population is not the same as a collapse. Something like a pandemic can cause a reduction. Cascading related effects such as wars over resources or treatements, infrastructure outages, famine, or other factors can cause a larger population collapse.
So if we were to run into such a population collapse, which according to this science was inevitable, perhaps civilization could survive?
Why couldn't we hold society together in some way - and perhaps evolve or transform it - even in the midst of a significant and huge amount of death?
It may sound like a morbid question right here when we are on the precipice. But just because it's uncomfortable and awkward -- and because it sucks to be in this position -- doesn't make it an invalid question.
In fact, it's more urgent and pressing now than in at least a century.
According to this system science, it's more urgent and pressing now than in our entire human history.
So if we could manage to NOT have a total decline of civilization, then what would it be?
One of my friends said it would be a "Great Transformation
." Me being averse to cheesy, hippie-granola-sounding stuff... I didn't think that would stick as a reference to this thing that was coming to get people to take it seriously. It was 2012, and I worked with a bunch of dead-serious ex-military people in the core of the operational element of the US Department of Homeland Security (a job I had taken to assess
whether the US government at its core deep behind the scenes was prepared for a giant catastrophe, such as a pandemic; partly because I already knew the stuff in this post;
and partly because There Is No National Coordination System - There Are 12
The Great Disruption, & The Big Pivot
Now this is where things get interesting. Or perhaps more hopeful.
I talked with friends in great depth about this subject back then. I was absolutely not convinced that civilization would collapse just because the population could.
I was really fired up. After all, it could be coming soon. At that 2012 symposium on this, questions had been asked of the scientists about when this overshoot and collapse could all be coming. The answer was that it could be coming in a year or two; or perhaps in 20. They suspected it would be sooner rather than later. The thing is, system science is complex and tied to feedback loops and many variables. You don't know what the thing is going to be that sets off the collapse. You don't know when all of the forces are going to align in just such a way that collapse hits.
It often happens that when I am thinking through a wicked problem for months, answers jump out from unexpected places. They bring insight and clarity that helps you move to the next aspect.
So one day weeks after the March 1 Smithsonian event back in 2012, I was in a bookstore - and I swear this book jumped out at me. Okay not literally. Its cover was facing outward on the shelf like bookstores do when they're featuring a book, or when it's a new release.
It was called "The Great Disruption."
Now THAT is a take that I like a whole lot better than the decline of civilization. But is it about the same thing?
Yep. Turns out it is. It is another author's interpretation of the exact same science, done in coordination with the same system science team that did the symposium at the Smithsonian.
This author has a little bit of a different take. He says, obviously from the title, that there will be a great disruption.
Whatever the thing is that starts off the population collapse... it will not just be caused by one thing. One thing will set off other things. There will be wars. Fights for limited resources. Anger. Fear. The worst of humanity, and the best of humanity. Lots of death and destruction, at scale. Failed nation-states. Competition for power. Shifts in the world order. He gets into more about all of that and why, but why isn't the point. It ties to the same system science. Complexities. Feedback loops. Interdependencies. Cascading effects.
The point is that there will be a great disruption. It's coming. It's inevitable.
Now we get to the hopeful bit.
He says that one thing about humanity is that we are capable of making massive, significant change... often at the very, very last minute. However, because of human nature, we do tend to wait until the very, very last minute. Because of that, he says that we will likely be unable to stop the disruption itself... and once it starts, it will continue.
However, and this is one key point of this entire very long post, buried in the middle here....
** Society itself may not have been ready yet to make the gigantic, transformative changes needed to keep it from having a great disruption, and from mitigating further damage from climate change and from using resources unsustainably....
** But there were people who recognized that a great disruption was coming, and who also recognized that societies could make massive change when finally motivated to, and that society would probably will feel more motivated to at the beginning of an obvious great disruption...
** People who understood that such a disruption was likely inevitable could be ready with big ideas and ways to help us catalyze the kind of transformation we would need in the middle of such a disruption. When the moment finally hit. When people were finally motivated. When the threat was much more clear, and at scale. And highly urgent. Like possibly almost too late -- but maybe with just enough time to make some huge changes in time.
** While humanity would not be able to stop the disruption itself, people acting strategically could make transformative changes to help make the disruption less bad if they acted fast enough and strategically enough at the beginning.
With all of this in mind, it seemed that what we needed then was to be ready to make a "big pivot" when it was clear that the great disruption was here.
I'm not even kidding you: months after that idea struck, I came across a book in another bookstore called "The Big Pivot."
The ideas in "The Big Pivot" book are a good start; and it may be the metaphor itself that is the most powerful. The ideas in The Big Pivot book are not broad enough for the kinds of transformative change we'll need at scale to get through this and have a more sustainable society on the other side, but the fact that others have recognized and published these kinds of big ideas will be helpful for the moment we face now. The principles are good starting points, too.
A Transformation, If We Can Make It
So here we are. We're on the doorstep. The precipice. The cusp.
Well, actually, it's more than that. It's started.
I've already heard people using the term "The Great Adaptation" for this worldwide pandemic catastrophe. I think that fits. But I think it's going to be something more than that. I don't think we're just going to adapt.
I think we are going to transform.
My inner self that was so freaked out about calling this coming thing "The Great Transformation" is now convinced that that reference is probably the most accurate description of what we are about to go through.
If we do it right.
It Helps To See The Risk For What It Is
Now I know people are going to argue with this.
"Hey it's only a pandemic! Stop panicking everyone! You're fear-mongering!"
First, we have a better shot of dealing with the risk landscape and making better decisions in the middle of a crisis if we understand what that crisis could bring. That's not fear-mongering - it's prudent risk management. And we're in a sort of crisis of crises. It's huge, and it's not going away anytime soon.
Also, denial is a demobilizer. We know that. It's also a perfectly natural response in a worldwide catastrophe. Unavoidable. Yet denial is going to end up killing a lot of people, and already has. So we know that, and we know there's a lot more to come. But denial doesn't change science and risk.
When we look at the science, epidemiology, virology, and ecology are a lot more specific in terms of science than models of world systems. Virus behavior and population dynamics are fairly well-established. Understanding complex world systems is a little trickier. But system science is now well over 40 years old, with ever-improving modeling and computing capacity.
Part of what it predicts overshoot and collapse is that once things start ramping up with interrelated systems, lots of things will happen that are completely unexpected and that have massive consequences and cascading effects. Systems and institutions collapse. More cascading effects. Everything at scale. Worldwide change. This is the kind of thing that's documented in the book "The Great Disruption," and in some of the system science on this same subject.
We can look around NOW and see some of that happening. When you shut down much of an entire society because of a pandemic, the ramifications are enormous. Interdependencies, feedback loops, and cascading effects are being highlighted everywhere. And we're just at the beginning. (Again, more on the science is in this post: "Why"
We'll Need To Find Ways Through
I'm not going to write a bunch of stuff here to refute or convince people who don't believe all of this. If you don't, that's your business. Our paths are unique.
One of the things that happens in a crisis is that lots of things fall away. Not all of the people move forward through it. We are all in different states of dealing with this crisis. I happen to have had a massive heads-up since at least 2012, or perhaps since studying this systems science in 1992. I've had some time to get my head around it. Not everyone is going to get their head around it.
The point in the book "The Great Disruption" is not that everyone has to be 100% on board right now.
The point in this post is that at least some need to be. At least some people need to not freak out, and to be able to think critically in the middle of the catastrophe so that we can make some good decisions, and make big changes at the beginning of the emergency.
That may not be you. That may not be what you're going to be doing in this catastrophe.
I do think it's what I'm going to be doing in this catastrophe.
Thinking critically. Not panicking (mostly). Helping others not panic, where possible. Working with others to help find ways to keep society as stable as possible as we find our way through... and helping find ways to make transformative, huge changes (big pivots) so that we get through to the other side - and find ways to thrive and not just survive.
It drives me absolutely insane that that rhymes. But it is a key.
The decline of civilization would be about raw survival. Transforming it can get us to a better place where we we can thrive; when we get there. And not just when we get to the other side: with any luck, we can find ways to thrive for many as we go through this entire process. That's not going to totally work everywhere. We know that. We all come into this from different positions of funding, health, stability, privilege, geography, and so on. Circumstances will vary. Capabilities will vary. Exposure will vary. And so on.
But there ARE going to be ways through it. There IS going to be an other side.
We don't have to have a decline of civilization.
We can have a transformation of it.
We Have To Make It A Transformation
This post may strike you as untimely. Uncomfortable. Unrealistic. Inappropriate. Unfeeling. Not reading the room. Not recognizing the already-increasing death. Not recognizing the terror. Not recognizing the day-to-day risk so many are facing. Well, almost all of us... unless we've already survived COVID-19. But we all face the risks inherent in the moment; described above. The disruption itself. The complexities, and the cascading effects. We don't know what else is going to come out of this.
Plus, all of the death and destruction on the horizon is not going to be from this highly infectious virus. Lots of other things are going to cause death and destruction too. It's dark and it's hard to know that it's coming, but that doesn't mean it's not.
You may think it's too soon to have this talk. That this isn't the thing we should be focused on right now. And that's fine. This isn't the path for everyone. This may not resonate
In a massive, unprecedented crisis, we all have to figure out what the things are that resonate
for us. Maybe not even the things that resonate, but what the things are that we have to do to survive. Or to help the people we are closest to to survive. Knowing, discerning, updating, acting on, and sticking to your priorities is critical to navigating any emergency.
We all have to find our own path.
I've spent an increasing amount of time of time over the last few years trying to help with politics.
I've spent time on politics because when it comes to making enormous pivots for civilization as a whole -- for most of the last century, the United States has been a country well-placed to help lead such change. It won't happen with the current Administration, or the current Senate. So I've been focused on trying to shift those things, so that we are better positioned as a country to make huge pivots, and also to help hold society together during this time of great disruption.
I will continue to try and do some good with the politics, as part of my own path.
But now things have ramped up a notch. That's an understatement. I'm from the Midwest. We do understatements like that.
Now we're in The Thing. The Great Disruption.
What can be The Great Transformation.
Yet it's only going to BE a transformation if we MAKE IT a transformation.
It can't just be a person or two here or there trying to get us there.
It isn't going to be one big idea.
It's going to be a hundred million.
It is seriously going to take everybody's best ideas, resilience, wherewithal, and ability to work together to get us through this thing... and to become something different and hopefully better in the process.
It is seriously a lot like The LEGO Movie, only not a cartoon. And with a lot more death and destruction. But the point in that movie is that everyone has to bring their own unique thing
that only they can bring.
No hero is going to show up and save the day. EVERYONE has to do it. Home by home, business by business, community by community, state-by-state, and country-by-country.
We Can Start Anywhere
This post is a baseline. A starting point. A reference.
I'm not going to be writing a book about all of this. We don't have time. I may not even have a set of blog posts about it. I write on Facebook because it's fast, and we're in a fast-evolving situation.
In the very last scenes of the movie The Matrix, Neo dives headlong into one version of reality, and essentially blows it apart. Just before he flies up off into the universe, he makes a phone call from a phone booth into that same system of reality. He says he's not here to tell us how it ends. He's here to tell us how it begins.
And then he flies up into the universe because you can do that in a movie when you've just decided to change the nature
Sounds about right. Especially as a metaphor.
And here we are, at the beginning.
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