We Don’t Talk About Collapse To Revel In It, We Talk About Collapse To Prevent It
If one possible result of the current system is collapse, realizing the system itself must be changed isn’t doom-and-gloom, it’s problem-solving.
Those of us who discuss collapse are generally dismissed as doom-and-gloomers, the equivalent of people who watch dash-cam videos of vehicle crashes all day, reveling in disaster. Why would we spend so much effort discussing collapse if we didn’t long for it?
Those dismissing us all as doom-and-gloomers hoping for collapse have it backward: yes, some long for collapse as a real-life disaster movie, but those discussing collapse in systems terms are trying to avoid it, not revel in it.
If the system is vulnerable beneath a surface stability, then the only way to avoid negative consequences is to understand those vulnerabilities / fragilities and work out systemic changes that reduce those risks.
It’s not the analysis of vulnerabilities that causes collapse, it’s refusing to look at vulnerabilities because to do so is considered negative. Why not be optimistic and just go with the consensus that the status quo is impervious to serious disruption? Can-do optimism is all that’s needed to overcome any spot of bother.
The problem is humanity’s propensity to confuse optimism with magical thinking. This confusion is particularly visible in any discussion of energy. The status quo holds that every problem has a technological solution, and doubting this optimism is dismissed as naysaying: “why can’t you be positive?”
I consider myself an optimist in the sense that I see solutions that are within reach if we change our definition of the problem so we can enable new solutions. I consider myself a practical, pragmatic optimist because I understand from life experience that systemic solutions generally require arduous transformations that will demand great effort and sacrifice. In many cases, this process is mostly a series of failures and disappointments that are the essential parts of a steep learning curve.
But little of this basic awareness is visible in media descriptions of “solutions.”
Thus every advance in a lab somewhere is immediately touted as the globally scalable solution: algae-based fuel, modular nuclear reactors, new battery designs, etc., in an endless profusion of technologies which are 1) not even to the prototype stage 2) cannot be scaled 3) limited to specific uses 4) require the construction of new infrastructure 5) consume vast resources to be built, including hydrocarbons 6) are not renewable as they must be replaced every 10-15 years 7) are not cost-effective once externalities are included 8) are intrinsically impractical due to complexity, dependency on rare minerals, etc.
All this “optimism” is actually 95% magical thinking, as the practical, real-world realities are dismissed or glossed over: “oh, they’ll figure all that out.”
In other words, throw enough money and talent at a problem (“we went to the moon, so anything is possible!”) and it will always be solved in a way that’s bigger and better. This is not optimism, this is magical thinking being passed off as optimism. Real optimism is cautious and contingent, hyper-aware that solutions are a dependency chain that only reach cost-effective scalability if an entire chain of circumstances and advances line up just right.
There’s another source of confusing optimism and magical thinking: being too successful for too long. Former Intel CEO Andy Grove discussed this in his book Only the Paranoid Survive: once an organization reckons it has succeeded and has everything necessary to continue achieving success without making any systemic changes, then it’s doomed to decay and eventual collapse.
When success becomes the default then all the hard parts of success–sacrifices made, failures mopped up, gambles that didn’t pay off and gambles that did–melt away and all that’s left is a sunny confidence that somebody somewhere will work out a solution that scales up to solve the problem for all of us: “we have top people working on it–top people!”
Meanwhile, back in the real world, it takes 20 years to get a new bridge approved and built in the U.S., 20 years for a new subway line approved and built and 20 years to get a new landfill approved.
We’re supposed to make the leap to a renewable zero-net-carbon future in 20 years and we can’t even build one new-design nuclear reactor prototype in 20 years, even as we’d need hundreds of new reactors to replace a significant slice of hydrocarbon consumption.
But if you dare to point out this painfully visible discrepancy between the real-world difficulties in getting a single prototype built in less than 20 years and the claim that we’re going to transition away from hydrocarbons in 20 years, then you’re a doom-and-gloomer, a naysayer who derives some bitter pleasure from shooting down optimists working on painless, sacrifice-free techno-solutions.
The essence of magical thinking is the belief that the long dependency chain between the idea/lab experiment and a solution that’s cost-effective and scales up to serve everyone will always fall into place because it’s always fallen into place in the past, and so there’s no reason to doubt that all the pieces will fall into place going forward.
This is magical thinking because it has zero interest in the real-world constraints embedded in each link in the long chain. If you bring up any of these constraints, the magical thinking “optimist” is immediately annoyed and accuses you of being a bitter naysayer. The idea that there might be real-world constraints that “top people” can’t overcome is rejected as naysaying.
The possibility that there might be systemic constraints is rejected out of hand because “anything’s possible if we throw enough money and talent at it.” There will always be a solution / substitute which will be affordable and sacrifice-free.
That all the previous examples of this were enabled by our exploitation of the easiest-to-extract hydrocarbon wealth is overlooked as a footnote.
This leaves us all frustrated. Those of us grounded in the real world are frustrated that if we bring up any real-world constraints–for example, those wondrous untapped ore deposits that are going to make all these new techno-wonders cheap and quick and easy are far from paved highways, far from major river or bluewater ports, far from processing plants, and far from sources of the millions of liters of diesel fuel that will be needed onsite to extract the ores–then we’re bitter naysayers who can’t bear optimism and easy success, while the magical thinking “optimists” are frustrated that we’re not accepting the technocratic religion that “top people” and a tsunami of money will solve any problem.
One thing I’ve noticed is “top people” (actual experts with long experience) are never the ones hyping some new technology as the pain-free affordable solution unless they’re paid shills of special interests. Then they hype nuclear reactors as the solution without mentioning the problem of what to do with the waste, to name one constraint “optimists” inevitably ignore.
In the real world, the hard part is getting every link of the long dependency chain to work reliably and at a cost that’s sustainable/affordable. Success comes not from blithely dismissing constraints as naysaying but from accepting most potential solutions will fail due to issues for which there is no cost-effective, practical, scalable fix.
On a systemic level, this requires questioning whether the system itself has to change if we want a different result. If one possible result of the current system is collapse, realizing the system itself must be changed isn’t doom-and-gloom, it’s problem-solving.\
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A Hacker’s Teleology: Sharing the Wealth of Our Shrinking Planet (Kindle $8.95, print $20, audiobook $17.46) Read the first section for free (PDF).
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Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($5 (Kindle), $10 (print), ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).
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