Reinventing the foundations of civilisation for life in the Anthropocene

Modern global civilisation has triggered the Anthropocene, a new geological era characterised by the traces of human generated patterns of activities within the biosphere.

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In 2017, as part of the CIIC unconference series, we have explored the essential ingredients of what humans refer to as civilisation, and how these ingredients have repeatedly and consistently led to the rise and collapse of complex societies. A growing number of researchers now conclude that global civilisation has put the planet on a rapid trajectory towards a “Hothouse Earth”:

Even if a Stabilized Earth pathway is achieved, humanity will face a turbulent road of rapid and profound changes and uncertainties on route to it—politically, socially, and environmentally—that challenge the resilience of human societies. Stabilized Earth will likely be warmer than any other time over the last 800,000 years at least (that is, warmer than at any other time in which fully modern humans have existed).

…the contemporary way of guiding development founded on theories, tools, and beliefs of gradual or incremental change, with a focus on economy efficiency, will likely not be adequate to cope with this trajectory. Thus, in addition to adaptation, increasing resilience will become a key strategy for navigating the future.

… Generic resilience-building strategies include developing insurance, buffers, redundancy, diversity, and other features of resilience that are critical for transforming human systems in the face of warming and possible surprise associated with tipping points. Features of such a strategy include

  1. maintenance of diversity, modularity, and redundancy;
  2. management of connectivity, openness, slow variables, and feedbacks;
  3. understanding social–ecological systems as complex adaptive systems, especially at the level of the Earth System as a whole;
  4. encouraging learning and experimentation; and
  5. broadening of participation and building of trust to promote polycentric governance systems.

… The Stabilized Earth trajectory requires deliberate management of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the Earth System if the world is to avoid crossing a planetary threshold. We suggest that a deep transformation based on a fundamental reorientation of human values, equity, behaviour, institutions, economies, and technologies is required. Even so, the pathway toward Stabilized Earth will involve considerable changes to the structure and functioning of the Earth System, suggesting that resilience-building strategies be given much higher priority than at present in decision making. Some signs are emerging that societies are initiating some of the necessary transformations. However, these transformations are still in initial stages, and the social/political tipping points that definitively move the current trajectory away from Hothouse Earth have not yet been crossed, while the door to the Stabilized Earth pathway may be rapidly closing.

Collapse, transformation and reframing

The deep transformations of human societies that are required to shift the trajectory of the Anthropocene towards a Stabilized Earth state will only be possible by widespread adoption of a non-linear language system like the MODA + MODE human lens and the MODA + MODE backbone principles to reason about resilience-building strategies from multiple perspectives, and by using the human lens to address the foundational flaw shared by all human civilisations to date: the proliferation of incomprehensible (super-human scale) systems, i.e. systems that are far too complex to be understandable by any human individual or even by any group of humans.

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Specifically, all human civilisations so far have featured super-human scale institutions (cities, empires, corporations, etc.), super-human scale use of metrics (money in the form of national and global currencies), and super-human scale use of linear language (languages used by millions and billions of people, including super-human scale software systems encoded in linear languages).

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Ignorance of the importance of human-scale and understandability is the common thread within the patterns of growth and collapse of all civilisations. This observation holds the key for constraining the search space for transformations that may allow us to shift the trajectory from a fatal addiction to economic “growth” towards a Stabilized Earth state.

If we can design human-scale institutions (being mindful of Dunbar’s number), human-scale metrics (local and domain specific currencies), and human-scale languages (including human-scale supporting technologies), we may be able to transform our civilisation into a distributed network of locally understandable and adaptable and globally resilient subsystems.

In a recent article on deep adaptation Jem Bendell talks about “the inevitability of societal collapse”, which leaves open a whole range of outcomes. Near term extinction is at one end of the spectrum, and the other end is described as follows:

… a collapse of this economic and social system, which does not necessarily mean a complete collapse of law, order, identity and values. Some regard that kind of collapse as offering a potential upside in bringing humanity to a post-consumerist way of life that would be more conscious of relationships between people and nature. Some even argue that this reconnection with nature will generate hitherto unimaginable solutions to our predicament.

Jem Bendell closes with a very pragmatic conclusion:

… societies will experience disruptions to their basic functioning within less than ten years due to climate stress. Such disruptions include increased levels of malnutrition, starvation, disease, civil conflict and war – and will not avoid affluent nations. This situation makes redundant the reformist approach to sustainable development and related fields of corporate sustainability that has underpinned the approach of many professionals. Instead, a new approach which explores how to reduce harm and not make matters worse is important to develop. In support of that challenging, and ultimately personal process, understanding a deep adaptation agenda may be useful.

In some parts of the world what is described above is already the day to day reality. Based on all we know today, we can expect more of these effects in more and more places over the coming years, and perhaps that should inform our thinking and our actions.

In my cautious optimism I am all for reframing “collapse” into “transformation”, but at a fundamental level, to enable human scale collaboration at eye level.

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For the next CIIC workshop in September we are encouraging submissions related to the Anthropocene and to the challenge of reinventing the foundations of civilisation.


Venues
Dates and times

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