I’ve only just started to read Jared Diamonds book Upheaval (Little & Brown/Allen Lane 2019), so what I say may prove incorrect and need to be modified later.
Diamond posits a similarity between the way individuals and nations face crisis – and he uses a template developed in the 1950s to help people adapt to crisis, to help show how nations can change and triumph over such crises.
A crisis occurs when the ways people have developed to live a life are obviously no longer working, and things are breaking down. In personal life this may be because you cannot solve problems at work, you are no longer invested in work, someone important to you dies, your partner leaves you or vice versa, you loose your money, you loose you job, your town is hit by a natural disaster, there is war, or you become very sick and so on. Clearly not everything is under our control. That is life. The same kind of events can happen to a nation. More difficultly, as I have said before, the techniques of life that the society promotes can often lead to destruction if circumstances change, then those techniques of life may need to change to deal with those changing circumstances and the changing problems they present.
Diamond makes a long series of points that a person and a nation will find helpful, to work through the problems.
Today I will look at the first three points, because they seem to be foundational. I’ll phrase them slightly differently to Diamond, because I think he looses a clarity in concision.
The points are:
- Recognise the problems and be prepared to face them
- Take responsibility for the problems. It is you reactions to those problems that determine what will happen. It is not other people’s fault, even if they are harming you.
- Find what in your life is working and ‘fence’ it off from change, to give you a base to work from
Diamond point 1) Recognising and facing problems
This is part of the what I’ve called the Toynbee cycle. Civilisations or societies, if they are to succeed and survive, have to adapt to, or solve, problems, or challenges, in their environment and inadequacies in their actions. Many problems can be generated by social action, ideological unconsciousness, established hierarchies and power relations.
The major problem, sometimes at this stage, is the difficulty of facing, or admitting the problems.
At the moment, I don’t think there is much evidence the nations of the world as a whole are facing up to the problems before them, or recognising the seriousness of those problems. This is partly because they are difficult problems, and partly because they derive from patterns of action which have, in the past, brought success, wealth and power – especially for those currently dominating life, economics and politics. This latter point, brings about social resistance from powerful people, and from lack of apparent alternatives (as alternatives may have been crushed or removed by regulations that favour the previous system).
One obvious problem is that the currently dominant economic system is producing pollution which produces climate change (among other things), while the same economic system is destroying both ecologies and the remaining planetary resilience that would help us humans deal with these problems (or at least give us more time to act). It also seems to be a way to build prosperity and security, and there is no obvious replacement, if it needs replacing.
A second problem is that our political system, as a whole, is devoted to protecting the economic system and the systems of power and wealth it produces – and this helps the dominant groups to ignore, play down or dismiss the problems, and keep the system that apparently benefits them (but will ultimately disrupt them severely).
The latest version (September 2021) of the UN NDC Synthesis Report states:
[The IPCC estimates] that limiting global average temperature increases to 1.5C requires a reduction of CO2 emissions of 45% in 2030, or a 25% reduction by 2030 to limit warming to 2C…
The available NDCs of all 191 Parties taken together imply a sizable increase in global GHG emissions in 2030 [when] compared to 2010, of about 16%.
The 16% increase is a huge cause of concern. It is in sharp contrast with the calls by science for rapid, sustained and large-scale emission reductions to prevent the most severe climate consequences and suffering, especially of the most vulnerable, throughout the worldUN Full NDC Synthesis Report: Some Progress, but Still a Big Concern 17 September 2021 Italics added.
On the other hand, Climate Action Tracker estimates that emissions levels will remain constant until 2030, rather than decline by the roughly half which is necessary to stay under a 1.5 degrees increase:
Australia, Brazil, Indonesia Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland and Viet Nam… have failed to lift ambition at all – they have submitted the same or even less ambitious 2030 targets than they had put forward in 2015.CAT Global Update: Climate target updates slow as science demands action 15 September 2021
It seems nations are not facing the problems. Australia, which has no excuse as it is a prosperous country, is busy having a gas led recovery, and even those Australian states which have emissions targets are promoting new coal and gas fields. For example, the NSW Energy minister, Matt Kean, is reported as saying:
Our emissions reduction target assumes continued expansion of coal mining in NSWDaily Telegraph NSW will halve its carbon emissions by 2030
the coal industry here in NSW won’t be affected by domestic policy makers, it is going to be affected by the decisions of borders overseas and governments overseasRaper NSW government sets more ambitious 50pc emissions reduction target for 2030. 29 September 2021 and On why some of us know we need to get our green skates on and some of us are still coal gazing Fifth Estate
- [For some bizarre reason the press conference transcript does not seem to have been issued.]
Even here where emissions targets are being set, the problem of coal export emissions is being left to others at best. The problem is being turned away from. Probably because coal mining companies are powerful, and because coal is supposedly good.
There are obvious other problems which are not being faced up to, such as Covid openings based solely on vaccination numbers, information distribution and corruption, distrust and so on…. but let’s leave it there.
There is no really evidenced ability to face up to problems fully.
Diamond point 2) Taking Responsibility
It is hard to take responsibility for problems you don’t recognise. Australia’s PM seems to refuse to take responsibility for much. Almost everything is someone else’s problem.
It is also easy to blame climate and other problems on other States you may not like, like China. But, so what if China is not delivering on emissions reduction? That does not absolve us from doing our best, even if it makes us feel good to scapegoat others and engage in shadow politics.
Rather than wondering what they can do themselves, many people seem keen to blame population for the problems. The problem is more to do with the amount of consumption and destruction per head than population itself. If you think consumption and destruction per head is a problem, then work to reduce the population of places like Australia, or the wealth elites. But people’s enthusiasm seems tied in with blaming foreigners and less powerful people.
‘We’ have responsibility for ‘our’ part of the problem, and for trying to intensify that problem by selling more coal and gas. We cannot stop China or other people from doing what they are doing, we can only stop ourselves.
Diamond point 3) Keeping what works
The problem here is severe. Especially if we consider the US. What in the US works?
I’m not going to document much here because I’m not really going beyond cliché.
The Economic system
is working if you think its purpose is to continue to transfer wealth upwards, otherwise it is not doing much except destroy the planet. Trump supporters, and others, know that things are not working for them economically as well as they used to – and few people seem to be listening to them.
The Political system
does not appear to be working after Trump. One party has gone along with the idea of destroying trust in the system (references to this would clog the page completely), in order to ‘fairly’ take actions to ensure they will win in future, no matter what. Again Trump supporters and others distrust the political system, as it does not deliver for them. It seems largely bought by a politically active corporate sector. It is doubtful the political sector could ever act against that corporate sector in the public interest, without extreme difficulty and with much cost to the actors. This is not just a US problem.
The Information system
is widely distrusted, and the most distorting parts of the system endeavor to destroy trust in other parts of the system, and many people seem to just accept what they want to hear. Education also seems to be failing, or being wound down in favour of home schooling or private schools. This does not help people to distinguish what is real from what is fantasy. Raising anger rather than discussion seems to be the main aim of participants, and they do that well. Polarisation is frequently remarked, this is exemplified in a situation where anything the outgroup proposes must be wrong, and all virtue resides in one’s own group (even if you don’t think they are particularly virtuous). The internet does not help. One of the problems about facing problems, is that people can always find some group telling them that a problem is not really a problem, and the real problem involves something easy, or some scapegoat.
The Health system
is not working. Life expectancy is declining in the US, and not just because of COVID-19, or the failure of the economy to have the resilience to provide for ordinary people. One journalistic account states:
the US houses among the most advanced medical and research centers in the world, but performs poorly in basic health metrics such as maternal mortality and infant mortality; accidental injury, death and disability; and chronic and infectious disease….
“So much of the whole issue of social determinants of health and the US ‘health disadvantage’ is rooted in a lack of trust and a lack of trustworthiness in many parts of our society,” said Laudan Y Aron, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s health policy center….
[A report] US Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health… describes how Americans spend more than double per person on healthcare compared with 17 peer nations, but rank near the bottom in health outcomes….Glenza How the US vaccine effort derailed and why we shouldn’t be surprised. The Guardian 27 September 2021
It is frequently said the US has an extremely expensive health system, which delivers bad results for the people. But if all you count is profit, then it’s doing remarkably well.
The Food system
may not be working well, either. The health of soil is seriously compromised:
Iowa has lost about half the topsoil it had in 1850. Since they were first plowed, America’s farmland soils have lost about half of their organic matter – the dark, spongy decomposed plant and animal tissue that helps make them fertile.
The soil that produces [the] nation’s food supply is a weakened link slowly failing under ongoing strain.Otten & Collier It’s time to rethink the disrupted US food system from the ground up The Conversation 5 June 2020
On top of this there is the mass marketing of cheap, sugary and ’empty’ food which possibly affects people’s health, energy and capacity, the death of small farms and the growth of oligopolies which tend to be narrowly focused, water pollution etc etc.
Disaster Relief Systems
may or may not be working. I’m not having much luck working out whether Hurricane Ida was better survived than Hurricane Katrina, but the point is that the more the weather gets wild, the more disaster relief systems will be stretched, and less likely to work. Covid also means that the health systems needed to protect people after a disaster are already stretched, and it is likely that the disease will spread unless care is taken.
This depressive interactivity is true for all other systems. The closer some systems get to breakdown, the more stress on other systems.
As mentioned before, some times processes which used to work, and may still work for you, have become obstacles or even sites of destruction. This is something we may have to be aware of, especially if we have benefitted from those processes.
One of the problems the US might face, might precisely be that very little works, and that gives them little space to move from to recover from crisis. All the non-working systems compound the problems in each other.
So far Diamond’s analysis is not providing much hope, especially at the ‘fencing off what works’ stage.
However, we can still push governments, corporations and people to recognise the problems, and their responsibility for producing the problems and acting on the problems….. Hopefully people can build new systems as they go about facing those problems.
Indeed I expect that change will come from below as people realise they have to make the change from below.
Given that not much is working we either have to let experimental groups explore future modes of organisation, or take a ‘leap into the dark’ with experimental policies which can allow us to learn more about the situation and explore what works and discard what does not work. This would require a great deal of popular support to work as it will lead to mistakes, which render it open to sabotage by those protecting the establishment, and those who already ‘know’ what works. This is unlikely to happen in a polarised and distrustful society.
We must also be ready to defend ourselves from what seems to be fossil fuel fascism – as that is one solution we can expect will be pushed by the establishment to avoid any real change.