What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

dystopian image

Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

The Three R’s of Resilience and the New Great Transformation

We struggle to achieve meaningful responses to the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate, while fighting for social and climate justice. Remarkably, what appear to be the only remaining viable responses to the economic, ecological and climate crises also constitute the only viable means to achieve social and climate justice. We achieve both goals partly by overcoming the vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain in our thinking. We need a new paradigm for fighting the Trumpist resistance to community and human rights, adaptation to global warming, realization of food sovereignty, creation of green jobs, and the establishment of clean technology and transportation.

The New Great Transformation

We face another Great Transformation even more profound than that Karl Polanyi described in 1944. Polanyi explained the essence of the revolution of industrial capitalism as a systemic inversion of the former embeddedness of economic activity within the bounds of society’s culture. That inversion enabled the new economy to subordinate society and its culture to the requirements of industrial capital by enclosing land, exploiting labor, and commodifying money. The industrial era has run its course and now faces multiple environmental and internal limits, which are ushering in a new, poorly understood great transformation, not merely of society but of the entire global ecosystem as well. The human response must be as unprecedented as the transformation we face.

We are entering an unavoidable New Great Transformation in which human survival dictates not only a societal shift to renewable energy, clean technology, low-carbon transportation, and “green” products and jobs. We must make deep changes in how we live, where we live, to mitigate climate chaos while adapting to its growing destruction. We will find little success in resisting the resistance from the Trumping of American democracy by merely mounting a persuasive counter argument to rising fascist policies of plunder and injustice. Similarly, protests are necessary, especially of the scope and scale of the Women’s March and the demonstrations against the Muslim ban, but they are far from sufficient to achieve the social transformation we need.

The Three R’s of Resilience: Resist, Replace, Restore

The strongest and most viable Resistance will come from creating community Resilience built upon the Replacement of the fossil-fueled global industrial economy by forming ecological communities as we Restore local ecosystems. We must transform our communities, grounding them in both indigenous cultural roots and advanced appropriate technology.

Important networked social mobilizations such as “indivisible,” have already begun to resist directly the unconstitutional actions of the Trump administration, expanding traditional forms of protest. Yet, the best result of resistance alone is likely to be delay of outrageous political actions. Such resistance alone will not stop the escalation of Trump’s contemplated fossil-fueled resurgence of the corporate state. We must look to where we live to take direct climate action to replace the global fossil-fuel economy with located ecological communities. What are now in most cases mere residential enclaves highly


Urban Harvest

dependent upon the global corporate economy must transform themselves into ecological communities by restoring at-risk local ecologies and building ecologically sustainable local economic productivity within the parameters of healthy local ecosystems. Such Replacement and Restoration are in themselves integral forms of Resistance, because they implicitly abandon corporate markets in favor of indigenous productivity. Together, they lead to the Resilience of located human groups.

We must abandon our (not always conscious) residual notions of establishing national and international “green” markets based on the utopian dreams of neoclassical economics. By what they do not do and how they misdirect us to high-tech grand illusions, “market solutions” of business-as-usual greenwashing become a societal death warrant. Sometimes markets get it right, as is the case of solar and wind gradually replacing coal and gas because they are more efficient and cheaper, and we must support such trends. However, time is of the extreme essence – we have so little left.

High technology and energy replacement within the existing neoclassical global corporate economy, such as “entrepreneurial Philanthropists” like Bill Gates propose, offer a monumentally inadequate response to the New Great Transformation of society and economy that is already underway. That path extends our spiraling down to climate chaos and societal crisis. Society must transform itself in unprecedented ways to avoid the extreme climate destabilization that would surely force societal collapse. People must take control where we live and make the New Great Transformation our own.

Transformation or Collapse

In the past, numerous instances of social mobilization and non-violent revolution have overthrown dictatorial regimes and changed societies, as documented so well by Peter Akerman and Jack DuVall in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict. Until the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, that did not seem to be the issue. Nevertheless, at a national level widespread protest actions will probably yield ruthless state violence, even more aggressive than so far seen at Standing Rock, Ferguson and elsewhere.

The most viable response to the national political chaos will be driven by widespread local self-transformation. Local communities must assert community rights and municipal sovereignty based in taking local control and, for example, passing ordinances recognizing and enforcing the rights of Nature. Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell describe such efforts in We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States.


Unity via Mutual Aid

Networked social mobilizations across the nation and globe are growing, though not easy to track. To be effective, they must embody forms of “Transcommunality.” John Brown Childs’ book by that name found deeply rooted structures of unity through respectful autonomous interdependence in the Iroquois Confederacy and other indigenous societies as well as built into urban gang-peace movements in Los Angeles, Kansas City, and elsewhere. The needed grounds for such unity in autonomous interdependency may lie dormant in some but more fully expressed in other diverse community actions for change.

Diverse examples of the potential for an emergent Transcommunality include community actions Sarah van Gelden observed across the nation and reported in The Revolution Where You Live. Other examples include the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. From a progressive labor-movement perspective, Gar Alperovitz advocates a parallel vision of autonomous interdependency in cooperative ownership and worker control to realize community interests in economic production, in What Then Must We Do? Employee owned business, municipal power grids, public banks, etc., all seek community control of essential societal functions in the public interest. Ralph Nader describes in Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, how liberals and conservatives, when they set aside their ideological animosities, can protect their mutual community interests and resources against damage to their communities and ecosystems by the corporate state.

Many such trends are emerging from the ground up. We must be celebrate them, but they must also be recognized as elements of the incipient but necessary pattern of located human groups taking control back from oppressive global institutions (and their local surrogates). The globalized institutions of the corporate state have driven us to the brink of climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, and societal collapse, and we must replace them with located ecological communities.

Despite some differences, both Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) and Joseph A. Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies) have shown that historical instances of societal collapse demonstrate the necessity of deep societal transformation for survival under conditions otherwise leading to collapse. If society fails to adjust its political economy and cultural practices to curtail destabilization of its ecosystem, collapse is inevitable. The difference this time is that the threat to society’s survival is global.

It is important in all this to recognize the enduring value of E. F. Schumacher’s inadequately appreciated concept of appropriate technology. Only by adapting forms of technology appropriate to local ecosystem parameters, can communities survive and thrive. In a post-industrial post-consumerist ecological society, we will have the advantage of a wealth of existing technological knowledge. But it must be revised, adapted, and used judicially in the context of local ecosystem conditions. To move to appropriate technology in support of community resilience, we must transform society where we live; in doing so, we may yet avoid societal collapse.