An Inconvenient Apocalypse

Yves here. As you’ll see, authors Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen justify their use of apocalypse to describe the environmental disaster we have brought upon ourselves by using the Bible to identify typologies of political and cultural power.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

Wes Jackson (b. 1936) has been on the right side of history for a long time.  A plant geneticist, he gave up a life in academia to found The Land Institute in 1976 on the Smoky Hill River in Salina, Kansas.  Since then, he and his colleagues at “The Land” have been working:

for a future in which humans flourish as members of a thriving ecosphere. Achieving this future requires reconciling the human economy with nature’s economy, and we believe focusing on food and how we produce it is a transformative first step. In this future, agriculture regenerates the soil, water, and air upon which all life depends. The agriculture we seek equitably provides for human needs within ecological limits over the long term and is stewarded by communities of people living in just relationship with each other and the ecosphere.

Jackson has written several books that have made an impact on my thinking about our place in the world (1), and his work dovetails neatly with that of the farmer, poet, creator of Port William (2), and moral philosopher (whether he admits this or not) Wendell Berry, who is his friend and colleague.  Along with Robert Jensen, professor emeritus in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Jackson has written a book that describes where we are and how we got here: An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity (2022).  I have been reading this literature for a long time, at least since The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry was published in 1977.  Much of this work is very good, but in my experience little of it comes from the perspective of a scientist and agricultural revolutionary who appreciates so fully the folly that is industrial agriculture.  Like American democracy, industrial agriculture is a category mistake.  If we are to have a human future, this is one mistake among many others that must be rectified.

An Inconvenient Apocalypse is a bold statement, but Jackson & Jensen (J&J) present “a reasonable general summary of the challenges we face in achieving social justice and ecological sustainability.”  And the problems we face are the results of “multiple cascading crises” instead of a series of discrete problems that can be solved in isolation, including:

  • The decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
  • The collapse of ecosystems that support (all) life on Earth and the mass extinction of species
  • Human population growth and demand beyond the carrying capacity the Earth
  • Anthropogenic global warming, sea level rise, climate instability
  • Universal pollution of the Earth, especially with “forever” chemicals
  • Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
  • Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
  • Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
  • The advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technologies
  • National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks

There is nothing surprising in this list, and the implications of each are clear.  If we are to deal with these problems, we must transcend the “growth economy” that seems essential but is just another fateful category mistake in a finite world with a finite ecosphere.  This is nothing new.  Herman Daly (1938-2022) wrote about this for more than 50 years but was ignored by the establishment for virtually all of that time (3).  His Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (1996) and For the Common Good written with John B. Cobb, Jr. are indispensable for an understanding of “sustainability,” what it is and more importantly what it is not (virtue signaling, for example).

But who is this “we” and what is the “apocalypse” and what is the nature of the thing to be saved.  “We” is all of us, the entire human population, every human being who has ever lived.  J&J quote Utah Phillips: “The Earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”

Yes, they do, and most of those addresses are in the so-called “West” or “Global North.”  The apocalypse is inconvenient (4) for them, – us, those who are reading this, primarily because we have a difficult time with answering the four hard questions raised by J&J: size, scale, scope, and speed.  In this section of the book, Jackson & Jensen “encourage people to climb out of the Overton Window and look around.”  A more useful strategy to understand the coming apocalypse is scarcely imaginable, and it could be (i.e., devoutly to be wished) that more people are doing just that because questions of size, scale, scope, and speed are requiring them to do so, if their goal is to understand why we find ourselves currently traveling in this handbasket.

Size:  What is the size of the human economy relative to the magnitude of the ecosphere?  Too large by any reasonable measure.  But the general view of our reigning political culture is that carrying capacity applies only to non-human animals in their various ecosystems.  No.  Although it is passing strange, the PMC (and here I am speaking of the PMC of the Classical Liberal Uniparty that comprises American politics) largely agrees with Julian Simon, who wrote The Ultimate Resource (1981, 1996).  In both editions he conflates the fact that any given resource is infinitely divisible with the notion that resources are therefore infinite, practically speaking.  Plus, Simon completely fails to recognize that the concept of carrying capacity applies to humans just as it does to any other animal in the ecosphere (5).  He is not alone.

The economy has become an outsized growth within the ecosphere in industrial production, agriculture, and public health, only because fossil fuels in the form of Fossil Capital have allowed us to mistake basic biological needs (food, water, shelter) and social needs (art, science, humanities, sports, and other enrichment activities that require sustained attention) for luxuries such as private air travel and the 2+ cars per family that we really do not need but are required because we have destroyed any and all alternatives.  For example, 100 years ago my smallish Southern hometown had streetcars that regularly traversed the primary east-west and north-south arteries in the well-designed grid with park squares from the 18th century that made up our streets.  The earliest “suburb” on the marsh was less than a half-mile from trolley lines in each direction.  This devolution has led to the required, thoroughgoing techno-optimism that could be the biggest impediment to change.  All sides are waiting for the breakthrough that will allow us to continue on our present course with marginal changes such as the false dawn of electric cars.  However, following J&J and Herman Daly, the only way forward to a human future comes with markedly decreased material throughput and energy consumption in our political economy.  Neither our sources of energy and material nor our sinks for waste are unbounded.

Scale: What is the appropriate scale of the human community?  While evolutionary psychology consists mostly of just-so stories, convincing research by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that the size of a truly human community has definite limits: Social group: 150; Close friends: 50; Very close friends: 15; Inner circle: 5.  This seems exactly right, despite the number of Facebook “friends” in the world.  Port William (2) and Yoknapatawpha of William Faulkner both fit into this schema, for example, though as exemplars of a different quality.

Although there can be many routes to reaching this social and community stability, “No matter how difficult the transition may be, in the not-too-distant future we will have to live in far smaller and more flexible social organization than today’s nation states and cities.”

While this is true, the problem is not necessarily nation states, if they are organized regionally and rationally, and definitely not cities.  Eugene Odum showed that cities can be the urban repository of civilization, but only when the exist within their countryside and not something apart.  Barbara Kingsolver made the similar point throughout Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Raymond Williams addressed this from his different perspective in The Country and the CityThe one essential character of the economy is that it must not be larger than it needs to be.  The second is that an economy must be grounded in space and time.  The global economy is only another floating signifier that leads to magical thinking.  A local economy is best, always.  People have more control over their livelihoods, and the “supply chain problem” with which we have become intimately familiar during the past three years becomes much less problematic.  Simple but impossible under the present neoliberal dispensation.  For now, but it is just over the horizon if a human future for our grandchildren is possible.

Scope: Our magical thinking about the relationship of the growth economy and the ecosphere in a finite world allows us to believe that an economics of endless growth will not end badly.  This bleak future is “not pleasant…to ponder and prepare for, so it’s not surprising that many people, especially those in societies where affluence is based on dense energy and advanced technology, clamor for solutions to be able to keep the energy flowing and the technology advancing.”  Thus, our civil religion tainted by technological fundamentalism becomes necessary [(5); the term is originally from David W. Orr].  Regarding fundamentalism of any kind – scientistic instead of scientific, religious, political, economic – I follow Janisse Ray who wrote that “fundamentalism thrives only where imagination has died” (paraphrase from Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home, 2004).  Along with fundamentalism comes the naked hubris leading us to believe that humans understand complex questions definitively.  No, we never do.

The technocrats who gave us the Green Revolution “believed that managing this industrial style of agriculture within an increasingly globalized economic system was withing the scope of their confidence.”  But the Green Revolution was possible only through the industrialization of agriculture, in India and beyond.  The immediate consequences were indeed remarkably green on the surface, and Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.  The consequences have been devastating, however, as commoditization of markets has taken over agriculture and eating ceased being an agricultural act (6).  Technological fundamentalists act as if codified human knowledge is adequate to run the world.  No, not necessarily.

Speed.  The pace of our economy is due to cheap oil that was never really cheap.  The costs were hidden and then delayed and later denied.  For a long time, the threats were invisible if not exactly unknown.  But this is where one might part ways with J&J, significantly if only briefly: “We should have thought about this 10,000 years ago we we tinkered with ecosystems in early agriculture and started the long process of exhausting soil carbon, but we didn’t.”  In my view this is an extension of the human “we” too far, in both time and meaning.  Although local ecosystem damage has been a constant during the long life of Homo sapiens and our ancestors going back a million years, “we” did not know of the carbon cycle and the water cycle 10,000 years ago.

Early in the book J&J refer to Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (The Dialectical Biologist: “Things are similar: this makes science possible.  Things are different; this makes science necessary”).  One of the most convincing arguments Friedrich Engels made in his unfinished Dialectics of Nature (pdf) is that an increase in quantity leads inexorably to a difference in quality.  The quantitative-to-qualitative jump in agriculture, with its subsequent deleterious scientific, cultural, social, and economic effects, was due primarily to the industrialization of what is fundamentally a biological process.  Industrial agriculture had antecedents, but it was consolidated in the US after World War II and reached its point of no return 50 years ago when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out” and “plant commodity crops from fencerow to fencerow” while they were at it.  All of this was “science-based,” of course, the marketed intellectual product of Land Grant universities across the US.  This is covered well in Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (2002), which compares the physical, social, and biological moonscapes that are industrial “farms” with sustainable farming, which is more productive by any number of valid metrics (7).

Regarding the four questions of size, scale, scope, and speed, “the modern economy created by the Industrial and Digital Revolutions is not running out of time but rather has run out of time to correct the course.”  This is not the message a techno-optimist-technological-fundamentalist member of the professional-managerial class wants to hear.

But “Hard questions lead to painful conclusions.  We are starting too late to prevent billions of people from enduring incalculable suffering.  We are starting too late to prevent the permanent loss of millions of species and huge tracts of habitat.  We are starting too late, but we have to start.  How should be understand the work?  Honestly…we start by telling ourselves and each other the truth.”  And the truth is, despite Lawrence Summers and his many acolytes and associates, the staggering costs of economic growth are with us, not because we placed sensible limits on growth, but because we failed to do so.

But how have we dealt with this truth?  Not particularly well, obviously.  And this can be explained at the secular level by following the religious traditions of the Bible in identifying three different relationships among systems of political and cultural power, the royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic.  The theologian Walter Brueggemann identifies the royal consciousness with the period when Solomon strayed from the wisdom of Moses, and this applies to us: “Affluence, oppressive social policy, and a static religion transformed a God of liberation into one of empire…with a corrosive consciousness (that) develops…in top leaders (and) throughout the privileged sectors (and) filtering down to a wider public that accepts a power system and its cruelty.”

Does this really apply to the so-called American democracy in the 21st century?  Well, we are a “nation that has been at war – either in shooting wars or cold war for domination – for our entire lives (since World War II; we are participating in both, one by proxy, in early 2023).  Economic inequality and the resulting suffering have deepened in our lifetimes, facilitated by a government so captured by concentrated wealth that attempts to renew the moderate New Deal-era social contract seem radical to many.”  And we are left with a culture “competent to implement almost anything (relating to government power) and to imagine almost nothing.”  Just another example of fundamentalism thriving in the absence of imagination, “where both the Right and the so-called Left either endorses or capitulates to royal power.”  Yes, “royal tradition” applies to us.

Prophets do not predict the future.  Instead, they remind the people of the best of tradition and point out how we have strayed.  Claiming the prophetic tradition requires only honesty and courage and a willingness to confront the abuses of power and to acknowledge our own complicity.  The key here is “our own complicity.”  In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.  If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, and individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.

Apocalypse in the present context does not mean “lakes of fire, rivers of blood, or bodies raptured up to heaven.”  But it does require that we change our consciousness when hope for meaningful change within the existing political culture and economy is no longer productive and we must deal with our problems dramatically different ways: “Invoking the apocalyptic recognizes the end of something…not about rapture but a rupture severe enough to change the nature of the whole game.”  It is way past time to climb out of that Overton Window and look around with eyes that see.  In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  Thus, the summation from J&J:

To speak from the royal tradition is to tell only those truths that the system can bear.  To speak prophetically is to tell as much of the truth as one can bear and then a little more.  To speak apocalyptically is to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, then a little more, and then all the rest of the truth, whether one can bear it or not.

Finally, two conclusions and a minor quibble.  The Crisis of Consumption that is built into our inconvenient apocalypse – which is surely coming – is the primary obstacle preventing rational responses to the multiple overlapping, cascading crises we face.  No one wants to pay if that means less play.  There are two ways to meet our desires: increase consumption or be happy with less.  The first is not possible in a full world that has been pushed past its limits.  The second will require a complete reset.  But it is doable and if we are intentional, it will be all the better.

And this could be done if we attend to what J&J call Ecospheric Grace.  The Earth and its ecosphere have provided a home for all of Creation.  We have not taken good care of our home.  If we recognize this, from whatever perspective makes us comfortable – secular, religious, spiritual – the reset will be less onerous if no less difficult.  And the quibble, “justice” and “sustainable” as concepts are not in need of modifiers, “social” and “ecological” included.


(1) Previous books by Wes Jackson: Becoming Native to This Place (1996), Nature as Measure (2011), Consulting the Genius of the Place (2011), Altars of Unhewn Stone (1987).

(2) Port William, Kentucky, is the imagined but very real community (Mid-19th century – present) that is the subject and object of Wendell Berry’s fiction.  The Port William community is firmly rooted in place and its people form a membership that extends back through the remembered past and into the future.  In that it is an ideal human community, one that has become increasingly rare if not impossible in our modern neoliberal world.

(3) Herman Daly’s work was actually recognized and then promptly dismissed by one Lawrence Summers of the World Bank, who maintained that placing the “economy” within the ecosphere was “not the way to think about it.”  No surprise there from the John Bates Clark Medal awardee of 1993.  John Bates Clark was a teacher of Thorstein Veblenat Carleton College in the 1870s.  This little fact makes me smile.

(4) Inconvenient for the PMC of the Global North, or so they believe in their eternal but blinkered, optimism. Devastating at the same time for  much of the Global South.

(5) From the publisher: “In Simon’s view, the key factor in natural and world economic growth is our capacity for the creation of new ideas and contributions to knowledge. The more people alive who can be trained to help solve the problems that confront us, the faster we can remove obstacles, and the greater the economic inheritance we shall bequeath to our descendants. In conjunction with the size of the educated population, the key constraint on human progress is the nature of the economic-political system: talented people need economic freedom and security to bring their talents to fruition.”  This is utter neoliberal nonsense, an excrescence of the technological fundamentalism that will (not) save us.

(6) But see here (pdf) from an unsurprising source.

(7) Yes, this is an argument that continues due to the number of human beings inhabiting the Earth.  And we are a wasteful and incorrigible species.  But industrial “farms” of thousands of acres that require half-million dollar combines, Haber-Bosch produced nitrogen, and mined fossil water to grow food to feed animals while producing the ingredients (mostly sugars and vegetable oils) of the food-like substances marketed in the modern American supermarket cannot survive the coming apocalypse.  Except for essential exotics (e.g., spices, chocolate, coffee, and bananas) from farm to table should be a distance of no more than a few hundred miles, maximum.  It is remarkable that Olive growers in South Georgia produce olive oil that is very good, if expensive.  The “national” supply chain also looked fairly strained in the egg and dairy sections of my local supermarket this past weekend

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    A wonderfully argued essay that diagnoses many problems. I, too, find Wendell Berry’s ideas remarkable (the essay on how any moderately sized farm can be run using horses rather than gas-powered machinery is worth seeking out).

    I follow Janisse Ray who wrote that “fundamentalism thrives only where imagination has died”

    I think that appeals to “the apocalypse” are fundamentalist and that KLG’s essay should seek to short-circuit monotheistic thinking. The apocalyptic thinking in the U S of A — and one only has to recall the Burnt-Over District, the Millerites, and the origins of the Jehovah’s Witnesses — leads to a kind of passive illogic. Well, there’s one god, one way forward through the arrow of time, and, ooops, the angel is unsealing the seventh seal.

    I would argue for stewardship. I would argue for looking at the Flowers of Saint Francis instead of the Book of Revelations. And there’s always Buddhism and the prayers for *all* sentient beings.

    So at a certain ethical level, I’d advocate the Metta Sutta instead of angels with fiery swords. (If one is required to have religious metaphor to engage a problem so urgent.)

    There are many, many excellent points about how to deal with a self-caused problem here, yet wrapping it in fundamentalist metaphors defeats the writer(s). In a sense, one must emerge from the Cave of the Jealous God if one is to become humane, just as one must emerge from the Vampire Cave to broaden one’s politics.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Wonderful essay that ranges from Wes Jackson to Walter Brueggemann. Impressive.

      Now Walter Brueggemann is anything but a Fundamentalist. He’s a modern biblical critic employing all the tools of rhetorical criticism to his chosen object of the study: the Hebrew Bible. And he has employed that methodology to highlight how the “Christian nation” of America is anything but by biblical standards.

      Nevertheless, DLG’s suggestion that, “one must emerge from the Cave of the Jealous God if one is to become humane” resonates with me and here’s why. As Feuerbach and others have pointed out, the YHWH Elohim of the Hebrew Bible is not a revealed god but a psychological and mythic projection of a human personality into the position of the creator and controller of the Universe. That conception does indeed block us from perceiving the Universe on its own terms because we end up forcing all events, personal and universal, into a punishment/reward framework. If something bad happens, what did I or we do wrong? If things go well, God must love me. Completely lost is the idea that good and bad things happen to all living creatures merely as the result of being alive in a big Universe full of powerful forces interacting in incomprehensible complexity. It’s easy for fragile, little human beings to get crushed.

      Eastern religions–DLG points to Buddhism and I’d point to the Tao te Ching, do not attribute some sort of personal relationship between any living individual and the Cosmos. The Tao te Ching puts it this way:

      Heaven and earth aren’t humane.
      To them, the ten thousand things
      are straw dogs.

      Tao te Ching #5 (Le Guin rendition)

      See how quickly the nasty problem of theodicy disappears when we quit projecting human emotions and morality onto the Universe? Even better, when we’re not racked with guilt or worry over whether we’ve been good boys or girls with the threat of divine punishment looming over us, we can finally “keep the deep water still and clear so that it reflects without blurring (TtC #10). That is the first step toward living in harmony with the Universe that is our home.

      1. Kouros

        It is the supersized egos of those thinking “God” is concerned by their existence… The #MeToo has a long history…

      2. agent ranger smith

        The God of Selection is a Callous God, and Its first true prophet was Darwin.

        If Mama Corn ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

    2. thousand points of green

      Since ” America” is still “Conquered and Occupied Indian Country” . . . maybe the people to seek spiritual and perceptual guidance from would be the Indigenous Tribes and Nations here.

      Obviously the dominant non-indigenous civilizations and cultures have precisely zero to offer.

  2. ArkansasAngie

    Utopia just around the corner? All we have to do is —
    Size … “Too large by any reasonable measure” … too many people
    Scale … go local not global
    Scope … science is not the answer …ooooohhhmmmmm
    Speed … slow down

    Implement this today and you will kill people.

    Don’t get me wrong I’m for addressing problems. However … I think the people who will starve to death because of this radical conservation approach should have an informed say. You know … something very clear. Maybe pointing out what these changes will mean to individual unlucky people.

    By supporting getting rid of technology which creates food production,.you and your children will starve
    By supporting stopping global food supply chains, you and your children will starve
    By stopping scientific progress, you and your children will not see a cure for cancer (example only)

    You too can be a Luddite

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      The technology has already brought us to overshoot. We are going to crash. Continuing with business as usual, especially in agriculture, only means that we will damage the Earth even further, making things harder from this point on. Relying on technology to come up with a magical solution merely delays preparing for the crash. That’s really the issue.

      Yes, we’ll need technology and more importantly, a vastly different economic and political system which is more likely now to arise from the partial ashes of our current society. But the overriding goal of our society–economic growth with the benefits flowing almost entirely to the billionaires–must end be dropped now.

      It might also be a good idea for us humans to drop the hubris that has been another unfortunate collateral effect of technology.

    2. The Rev Kev

      ‘By supporting getting rid of technology which creates food production,you and your children will starve’

      Only if done by neoliberals. It would be more a matter of stuff that is sustainable and by that I do not mean the huggy-feely sort of sustainable. Look at the present failings of industrial farming. Are eggs still expensive in America? Is it wise to have to have so much farmland devoted to growing car fuels instead of food? Under industrial farming, is there a problem with soil health? Is it wise to have a few corporations setting the price for farmers in how much they will pay them for the food that they grow? Is it good practice for farmers not to be allowed to repair and fix their tractors – leaving crops to rot while they wait of a repairman to come from a coupla hundred miles away when he gets to it? Are pesticides wiping out insects to the point that the birds are disappearing – with the consequences that will follow? What I am saying is that not all technologies are the same. Those that improve the health of farmlands and what they grow are to stay. Those that lead to the eventual destruction of farmlands or open up massive vulnerabilities in food production must go. Remember, Big Ag executives are not your friend in how they grow food these days. If they turned huge tracks of American farmlands into a second dust bowl, so long as they could cash out they could not care less.

    3. thoughtful person

      The point is that the carrying capacity of planet earth has been way overshot by us humans. Many deaths are coming.

      The question is how can we deal with this most humanly (and that should include the rest of life’s creation)?

      Take the most complex technology and move to Mars? If any survive there, many more will still perish here on Earth.

      Maybe move to a bunker somewhere like NZ and ride out the storm? Don’t think thats the ticket.

      Figure out how to reduce our impact on earth and survive the coming storms (of various types, icluding the list of “multiple cascading crises” in the article – more in Roubini’s Megathreats, even The Limits to Growth way back in the 70s)?

      It’s not gonna be easy, that’s why some call it the Jackpot (a sarcastic term, comparing hitting a Jackpot in gambling to us humans “hitting the jackpot” of many multiple cascading collapsing systems that support our lives).

      The sooner we start the better. The first step is admission of information into one’s brain for contemplating “the truth”, which is why blogs such as this one are so worth reading and supporting.

      1. Bsn

        The cue ball has been hit, with Covid. Also, I just wonder where all those people that live between the third and 50th floor of an apartment complex in a city are going to get their food? Where we are in the SW USA, there are options for small scale (but large enough to feed selves and friends) gardens and farms. Gonna be tough, real tough.

    4. Merf56

      Big Ag is what will and already is killing both us and the land.
      How would stopping abusing the land and growing local sustainable food crops instead of animal feed and corn et al for processed food ‘kill people’?
      How would encouraging people to have fewer children kill people?
      How would slowing down and spending more time with family, friends and taking care of our planet and our own health ‘kill people?
      As to science – ag science can assist us in going local, learning how to preserve and strengthen our soils using local or near local things. How will that ‘kill people’?
      Processed foods have been proven over and over again to CAUSE poor health outcomes. Those are truly killing people.
      Is your hamburger helper and chips and soda so important to you mentally that you would destroy the planet to have them?
      And btw, none of these people are Luddites – you misuse the word.

    5. thousand points of green

      We could try some reformist conservation first and see how far that gets us. Perhaps some deeply reformist conservation might get us far enough.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        I think what’s required is a balanced approach. We balance the absolute need of the billionaires for non-stop and eternal return on their capital versus the very flexible needs for basic health and sustenance of the rest of the citizenry. We won’t bother to consider the needs of non-humans.

  3. Chuck Harris

    Thanks KLG for this review. Our town library has a copy of the book and I’ll be going over shortly to check it out.

  4. Steve H.

    A fine meal! Some garnishes:

    > We are starting too late, but we have to start. How should be understand the work?

    Our current translation of the Serenity Prayer is: Do the next right thing, It is what it is, Pick your fights.

    > Eugene Odum showed that cities can be the urban repository of civilization, but only when the exist within their countryside and not something apart.

    Odum’s brother Howard co-wrote a guidebook, ‘A Prosperous Way Down.

    > In that it is an ideal human community, one that has become increasingly rare if not impossible in our modern neoliberal world.
    Seem non-independent that MKULTRA money funded a study of Levittown.

    > Apocalypse… does require that we change our consciousness when hope for meaningful change

    John Robb’s latest conversation is on a podcast named ‘No Way Out‘. That refers to Boyd’s original name for the Conceptual Spiral of the OODA loop. It refers to “the requirement to re-orient and break models” in an uncertain world.

    > This seems exactly right, despite the number of Facebook “friends” in the world.

    Since ‘Brave New War’, Robb has been a go-to for those trying to apply Boyd to business, by nimble maneuver in a complex environment. They could’t quite grasp Robb saying it’s different now, that network trends toward centralization now requires alignment for reputation purposes.
    > This is not the message a techno-optimist-technological-fundamentalist member of the professional-managerial class wants to hear.

    > Except for essential exotics (e.g., spices, chocolate, coffee, and bananas)
    In the hope that we make it to a Type-III civilization, I’m just saying – go long Chocolate.

    1. agent ranger smith

      I used to read John Robb’s Global Guerillas quite a bit. He used to have a comment section.

      One fine day he said that he “knew someone” that offered the opportunity of a Libertarian Paradise somewhere in Chile . . . a real life ” Galt’s Gulch” if you will. I can’t remember his exact words for it. He asked people to say what they thought about that in comments.

      I think he expected a lot of cheerleading praise for his Libertarian Vision. Instead he got a lot of condemnation of the Libertarian Vision and praise for various Communitarian Visions and Approaches instead. ( I don’t think the commenters realized quite how Libertarian Robb really was/is.)

      Heshut down the comment function shortly after that.

  5. Robert Hahl

    Speaking of the apocalypse, who will provide the electricity needed to cool hundreds of decommissioned nuclear power plants and their waste piles?

    1. jefemt

      The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

      The chapter on Houston, TX was a Revelation of sorts! Great read, cannot recommend it highly enough!

    2. CNu

      Rosatom closed the nuclear fuel cycle last year.

      Those waste piles can be processed into useable fuel once pesky political hurdles are cleared. The great irony of the present moment is France’s near total dependence on nuclear energy coupled with the fact that it has no capacity to deal with spent fuel, and has allowed over a 1/3rd of its power plants to be shutdown due to deferred maintenance.

      Even with millions protesting on the street, I’m not holding my breath for France to overcome its political obstinacy and reinstate needed contracts with Rosatom. As for the U.S., well…, the Jackpot is everywhere, it’s just not evenly distributed.

  6. Eric Anderson

    Excellent work KLG. I’m currently writing an essay myself which may wind up being titled along the lines of “Capitalism as Mental Illness.” This essay sparks many thoughts along those lines w/r/t the ethical atrocities being raised in a capitalist society normalize us to.

    Do you mind if I crib some your thoughts?

  7. Tom Pfotzer

    My definition of an “economy” is “how and from where do you get what you need to operate your household”.

    Note how focused that definition is, and what it implies. It is based strictly upon household needs, and it purposefully de-emphasizes everything that isn’t required to run the household, including military, power-projection, bling, status-seeking consumption, financialization / rent-seeking dissipation, etc.

    Then it talks about “from where” you get it.

    What’s implied in the “from where”? A lot. Like:

    a. transport
    b. the ability, or not, to return materials to the place they originated. Does nature do “transport”? Geology does transport, the water cycle and rivers do transport, and that’s about it. Everything else is returned to almost the same place it was sourced. Nature recycles, re-uses, wrings every last bit of energy and nutrition from what it sources, and all of the materials are replenished via energy harvested from the sun, via plants, to feed the cycle anew. Local can recycle, but once and done linear global/national supply chains cannot do this.

    Right now we don’t seem to have the inclination or the ability to structure our basic econ sub-systems (ag, energy, materials, mfg’g) such that they repair and replenish .vs. degrade and disperse.

    We’re spending a lot of effort to re-state and amplify the symptoms (environmental degradation), and I think most NC readers already understand that part of the problem-space.

    The definition of the problem get us, to use US football terminology, to the 5 yard line.

    We have 95 more yards to go to score a touchdown (an ecologically viable economy).

    The next 95 yards consist of:

    a. An architecture, or “design”. What are the sources, flows, transformations, and relationships between sub-systems (ag, energy, transport, mfg’g, use, mat’l reclamation, and re-use). Those source and flow characteristics should look a lot like how the natural world behaves

    b. A set of products, used by the household, that are supplied by the processes developed in step A above.

    c. A set of migration pathways to gradually, inexorably move each household away from products produced by Economy 1.0 (degrade the planet as we make our living) to Economy 2.0 (fix the planet as we make our living).

    That E1.0 ==> E2.0 transition marks one of the most fundamental human adaptations ever. It’s a continental divide in human evolution.

    The migration isn’t going to happen because “it’s cheaper”. It won’t be cheaper to run E2.0 until it has enough time to optimize itself. E1.0 has had all of human history to become “efficient” (price efficient, so long as costs are externalized). Expecting E2.0 to be price competitive with E1.0 is unrealistic for a few decades to come.

    If that migration is to occur, it’ll happen because enough people decide it’s worth it to suffer the cost, inconvenience, and dislocation of the initial phases of E2.0.

    The next 95 yards are the most difficult, hard-fought, grueling part of the game, and we’re not really organized for, nor aware of, what it’s going to take.

    It’s well past time to start work on E2.0.

    That E2.0 work happens one product, one household, one purchase decision at a time. It’s _not_ going to happen top-down, for all the reasons we know so well.

    We’re going to need a massive super-nova of new product development. New products whose role is to supply the household while embodying the principles of E2.0, namely “fix the planet as we make our living”.

    1. eg

      E1.0 is only “price efficient” because it denies the costs that it dismisses as “externalities” — put those back on the balance sheet where they belong and suddenly E2.0 looks rather more competitive, eh?

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        Exactly. If those externalities were costed in, E2.0 would be the run-away price leader.

        But of course we’re lumbered down with – and here’s another one of those “architectures” we’re burdened with the architecture of the human mind.

        Like what burdens? Well, here’s three big ones: short-term focus, poor abstract thinking skills (model to future impact of today’s actions) and of course all that social-standing baggage we have to carry. Those are the really big obstacles to change.

  8. Carolinian

    three different relationships among systems of political and cultural power, the royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic

    Here’s suggesting that “royal” psychology is just a fancy way of saying power corrupts. And that by saying “corrupt” we mean that the rational, practical basis of behavior has been replaced by one that is irrational and instinctive–i.e.the competitive drive for dominance. Surely the above is correct in saying that we need to face reality but by putting that facing up into moral terms it is itself not facing the reality that humans, like all our ecosystem companions, commit behaviors that are only “sins” when they violate the prime directive of social and therefore species survival.

    Meanwhile the national conversation is incessantly about moral judgments, good guys versus bad guys etc. It’s the opposite of Christian teaching since it’s all hate the sinner (Putin?, Trump?) but the sin is ok if we do it. This is indeed the “royal” psychology and it is held by our capitalist overlords and their PMC minions to boot.

    We are living in the great distraction and that’s by design. As for the future it’s “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

  9. LY

    William Gibson’s “Jackpot” doesn’t push as many buttons as “apocalypse” does, nor does it have have the same baggage.

    I don’t think humanity gets out of this ideological and systematic crisis until economics becomes a subset of ecology.

    1. agent ranger smith

      Jay Hanson offered the word ” dieoff”. That might be more brain-grabbing than Jackpot.

      ” the Long DieOff”.

  10. Chas

    Thank you so much for this post, Yves, because it has really got me thinking. I must have this new book and it’s going to the top of my book pile. I don’t know how to comment now without further thought so I’ll just say that a few days ago I completed Wendell Berry’s new book “The Need To Be Whole,” which I think might be his best non-fiction ever. It’s a history off prejudice, especially racial prejudice, and a history of work. He analyses the subject in relation to the ten commandments. In the background throughout his book is a history of what has happened to the land and it meshes with what J&J discuss.
    Berry tells how after the civil war the former slaves had a plan for reparations. They wanted every family coming up from slavery to be provided with 40 acres and a mule. He implies that an approach something like that today is what is needed to deal with the problems described in the J&J book.

    1. Chas

      In The Need to be Whole Wendell Berry says the USDA’s guiding philosophy of “Get Big Or Get Out” has been disastrous for both the land and the people of the United States. He thinks the solution requires more people working the land. If we have more farmers, if we work towards a reverse migration where people move from the cities back to the land, therein lies the solution. And, by the way, Wendell Berry’s family has set up a school to teach people who want to learn how to farm. and http://www.sterlingcollege/wendellberry.

      1. Eclair

        Chas, I agree strongly. We need more small farms, tied to their communities. Problem right now is …. land. Thousands, if not millions, of the best farmland ‘owned’ by corporations and billionaires (looking at you, Bill Gates!). A great big enclosing of the commons has occurred in the USA.

        Graeber and Wengrow write about how our ‘Western’ concept of land ownership derives from Roman law: ‘ownership’ of the land implies certain rights over it, including the right to extract and profit from its use, as well as the right to destroy it, which mining and fossil fuel companies, as well as corporate agriculture with its destruction of top soil, engage in with unholy joy.

        Many (most?) indigenous nations operated under an entirely different concept: land cannot be ‘owned.’ It may be territory lived on, hunted on, cultivated, by a group of people, but the concept of ‘owning’ land, with inherent rights of complete domination, destruction, extraction and sale to someone else, (similar to the rights exerted by the slave owner over the bodies of his slaves) is beyond understanding.

        Maybe we start by banning land ‘ownership’ by corporations? Nationalize agricultural land (National Farms?) and institute a program of long-term leases (100 years?) to small farmers? Ban the practice of separating the top layers of land and the ‘rights’ to the minerals beneath it?

        Branding your slaves and beating your wife and children were once accepted practices, but were made unacceptable by social movements. Killing the land can be made anathema as well.

  11. Rod

    Wow, for me this is pretty thick to think through—and I believe that unless radical change is embraced a Human Apocalypse will be much more than the metaphor the Author mentions.
    I don’t know if a discourse like this is going to move much of the common man— maybe not even the intellectuals amongst us—into the change we need as much as straight talk about many of the nuts and bolts the Author pulls in.
    Like this as one example:
    There are two ways to meet our desires: increase consumption or be happy with less. The first is not possible in a full world that has been pushed past its limits. The second will require a complete reset.
    But, imo, this is a clear first base:
    Honestly…we start by telling ourselves and each other the truth.” And the truth is, despite Lawrence Summers and his many acolytes and associates, the staggering costs of economic growth are with us, not because we placed sensible limits on growth, but because we failed to do so

    1. Rod

      When I started to comment there were three before me. Posting reveled 15 more insights helpful to me. Reinforces my belief that solution is only in collectivity.

    2. LilD

      Not just a metaphor… there will be tears and pain. We are only choosing whose and how many and how soon, though the systems themselves put constraints on our power…

  12. fresno dan

    Our magical thinking about the relationship of the growth economy and the ecosphere in a finite world allows us to believe that an economics of endless growth will not end badly.
    I am always amazed at all the articles I see in the MSM decrying any slackening of human population growth because it will cause a decrease in economic growth. What is really astounding is that so many people who have a platform actually put forth the proposition that we can ship excess human population off to Mars sometime in the future….
    blind optimism

  13. Yeti

    E.F. Shumacker’s Small is Beautiful written in 1973 basically says the same thing. He seemed to be way ahead of the curve.

    1. thousand points of green

      Sometime after reading E.F. Shumacker’s book, George McRobie wrote a book called Small Is Possible.

      E.F. Shumaker himself also wrote a follow-on book called A Guide For The Perplexed.

      He also set up a center to keep some of his stuff findable in one place.

  14. David B Harrison

    I live on a farm and have been a part or full time farmer most of my life. I quit in late 2018 because I saw the writing on the wall. It is an unsustainable vocation. To convert to a more sustainable way of farming cost money (the kind of money I do not have). I am now partially disabled from a combination of hard work and genetics. It takes a lot of physical labor to farm. I agree with most of the article above but the way out is not back to the land(which I have been studying for over 30 years) on an individualistic and/or family scale. The way out is communal back to the land. Economies of scale prove this out. I have read about community power and community geothermal heat pumps. The problem with individualistic and/or family scaled solutions is that they cost too much and use too much land. Also they can create problems with social isolation and lack of access to positive modern necessities (health care for one). We are a social animal and need each other. Every since civilization was created social darwinism has ruled. Those at the top take more than they need and they build a society based on exploitation. It will take a personal revolution(self discipline) to create a social revolution. It will be hard because of the the sociopathic forces aligned against us. Those forces have existed since civilization began. Their current iteration is neoliberalism.

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      David: That was a great comment; scale is vital to efficiency, and unless you want to work 24×7 to meet basic needs, you’re going to need some efficiency.

      One thing I note about the communal approach, however, is that we American seem to be especially terrible at teamwork. I hope other posters will chime in and tell me I’m way wrong, but my read is that we’re very individualistic, and we’re loathe to relinquish our prerogatives … which is a necessary element of team work.

      Does anyone have any stories to tell about “how I came to love team-work, in spite of my individualism”?

      1. Chas

        Wendell Berry discusses this very topic of team-work and individualism in The Need To Be Whole as well as in The Art of Loading Brush. PS — That’s an excellent comment you posted above.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Chas: tks for the tip – I’m getting those books. I’ve been gradually winding into the whole “hateful as it is, I’m just going to have to get good at teamwork” realization.

      2. David B Harrison

        That’s what I meant when I said self discipline is needed. And one form of self discipline is learning to work with others. Empathy(tempered by commonsense because empathy can be weaponized) is needed. So is controlling our own egos. Our ego can get in the way when trying to understand and cooperate with others(we all suffer from this and that definitely includes me).You need to find people with the talent to communicate with others and have them make a reasonable living at it. This is in response to Tom Pfotzer.

      3. Aaron

        No specific story to share, but I will comment that for me personally, my enjoyment of teamwork and my ability to not butt heads increased drastically after I realized I didn’t have to be right all of the time. As a collective society, at could use a big dose of ego death.

        1. Tom Pfotzer

          Aaron – thanks for making this point.

          I’ve sorta learned this lesson, but it took a lot of decades to choke down the pill. And it makes a huge positive difference every time I remember to do it.

          While ego plays a big role in this, it’s also a cultural thing. Have you noticed that in politics, you cannot say “I was wrong”. It seems like it’s certain (political) death if you do, so we don’t.

          And we’re wrong a lot, certainly at the political level.

          1. Randall Flagg

            >While ego plays a big role in this, it’s also a cultural thing. Have you noticed that in politics, you cannot say “I was wrong”. It seems like it’s certain (political) death if you do, so we don’t.

            That’s just it and it doesn’t end at politics for me. I have so much respect for anyone these days who will just stand up and say “I was wrong” , take the inevitable hit for it and try to make it right rather than spend truckloads of time and energy trying to weasel out of it, and make an ass of themselves along the way.

    2. Chas

      I’m interested in your idea of “communal back to the land.” How might it work? Do you have any more thoughts about it? I think the Amish have at least some what of a communal approach to agriculture.

  15. farmboy

    Too much blame on Borlaug and globalization, the problems stem from too much success in the last few 100 years. Local sourced is not always the best use of energy or the cheapest. And if plant breeders are maximizing the gene base, then adapting to limitations can happen. How did humans manage to spike the chart? Energy density for sure. We’ve been pushed by necessity to innovate for thousands of years, to think we can redirect our epigenetics to a Herman Daly steady state without transformation in the most biological sense is naïve. Great update to Limits to Growth by Gaya Herrington called 5 Insights for Avoiding Collapse, What a 50 Year Old Model of the World Taught Me About a Way Forward for Us Today. She argues Doughnut Economics is necessary among other observations and the most emphasized is systems thinking, placing human activity into the larger context and subsuming economics into ecology.
    On the ground, the notion that the boundaries of a farm or project or group, matter and can be used to enliven and enlighten, focusing production from already inputs. This idea in ag is tried and true and interestingly moved forward by Dr. Bruce Tainio when he showed focusing energy by defining a farms boundaries works. Fringe ideas become mainstream by utility. Biodynamic practices resurrected when Rudolf Steiner researched all Goethe’s work commissioned directly by the German gov’t pre Haber-Bosch. Our world will be unrecognizable if we are a lucky.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      And since you mentioned it, here’s a link to Doughnut Economics. Raworth not only gives you a new way of thinking about economics–roughly, meeting needs within limits–but does a nice job of demolishing neoclassical economics.

  16. lyman alpha blob

    Thank you for touching on the idea of carrying capacity – I don’t know why it is so often overlooked either. And the issue is that everything seems fine until suddenly and devastatingly, it isn’t.

    I remember the idea being used as an example in a college stats class. Imagine two deer living on an island that can support a total population of 130 deer, where the population doubles every two years. So after two years there are four deer, after four there are eight deer, after six there are 16 deer, etc. No problems at all for the first 12 years, at which point there will be 128 deer.

    That does not mean the population will eventually level off at 130 deer. What it means is that by year 14, when your 128 deer reproduce again and you might expect that there would be 256 deer, there will be closer to 0 deer. Once you breach the carry capacity with too many individuals, then pretty much everybody dies.

  17. Jeremy Grimm

    My imagination is stuck at: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
    “…we must transcend the “growth economy” …” but who is this “we”?
    I believe “we” all will suffer in the coming Apocalypse — but who is this “we” that has the agency to “transcend”? I have no say in dealing with any of the “multiple cascading crises” or transcending the “growth economy”.

    Those who are the “we” with agency are aware of the coming Apocalypse but remain busy bringing Apocalypse to a location near you. In the immortal words of Citigroup’s Chuck Prince: “… as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” I suspect their escape plan is that bunker in New Zealand or their death before the music stops. The rest of us are along for the ride unless there is some “complete reset” soon. And I cannot imagine an event of that sort in the u.s. where the “we” with agency seems bent on multiplying crises, starting and feeding fires at home and in the far reaches of the Empire. This “we” with agency seems strangely intent on accelerating the Apocalypse almost like the christians working to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The “we” who will suffer are either frozen with terror seeing what is coming or grasping at every straw that lets them ignore or forget a future too terrible to look upon let alone face.

    “The Crisis of Consumption that is built into our inconvenient apocalypse – which is surely coming – is the primary obstacle preventing rational responses to the multiple overlapping, cascading crises we face.” Who is this “we” that might work “rational responses” to the Apocalypse? How effective can any rational response be in holding back the waters of the Great Deluge, at this late moment? Build an Ark? Where will the dove find an olive tree standing?

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Well, Jeremy, that’s the key philosophical, maybe even practical question: how do I keep the feet moving when my head and my heart tell me it’s hopeless?

      Early in life I read some sort of sci-fi story that posed this sort of dilemma. The story posited that some humans have the will to prevail, even in the face of hopelessness, and somehow that was our singular gift to the universe.

      Sadly, some of that notion permeated my consciousness, and now I’m burdened with this ridiculous notion that I can beat the odds, and somehow play a role in fixing the impossible.

      The other part of it is that I’ve always found hopelessness to be one short step down from swallowing bile.

      Damned near intolerable.

    2. Starry Gordon

      As I was reading this, that was the question that kept occurring to me. Who is this “we”? Most of us, including the people who are likely to ever read any of the books mentioned, or indeed any books whatever, have no power. Collectively we consent to having no power. Those who do have power say “In the long run you’re dead, so get on with it.” I suppose some will survive, although God knows where they will hide.

      _Apocalypse_ means “revelation (of that which was hidden).” It’s not hidden any more. So, what’s the plan, “We”?

  18. thoughtful person

    I think there is something to the idea of communities. The “dark ages” had their monastic orders. The article discusses Scale:

    “Scale: What is the appropriate scale of the human community? While evolutionary psychology consists mostly of just-so stories, convincing research by the anthropologist Robin Dunbar has demonstrated that the size of a truly human community has definite limits: Social group: 150…”

    I lived insuch a place for about ten years (age 24 to 34). Experimental and quite imperfect, but at least we were (and others still are) trying to figure it out. Dealing with thw many various issues.

    For more info check out:

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I recently finished listening to an audiobook reading of “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” by David Graeber and David Wengrow. It reviews the latest findings from the study of early human cities and societies. I am still digesting this material and will have to listen to the book a few more times. The organization of several of the societies the Dawn reviews suggest a marked contrast with many of the inferences derived from Robin Dunbar’s reputed maximum size of a human community. Many early societies appear to have been organized at different scales during different seasons and there is evidence that even the so-called hunter-gatherer societies gathered in large groups to build monuments. That is all vague I know, but should be enough to question many of the supposed evolutionary notions of human society.

      1. Rod

        That is all vague I know,
        for something more specific you could reference Table 14.1 Types of Societies(page 268 -1999 Edition of WW Norton and Co) contained in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.
        I have always been struck that Band and Tribe units with a limited amount of members eschew Slavery and Luxury Goods for Elite as opposed to Chiefdoms and State.
        —thanks again thoughtful person

    2. Rod

      Thanks for that Link–cool water on a hot day.
      Some of the most vibrant times in my life have involved living communally and working co-operatively.
      It’s good and rewarding work.

  19. Eclair

    I am late to this great discussion (thank you, KLG!) as usual, but one observation before I move on. I few weeks ago, I was terrified when I discovered the existence of the Schelling Point. I believe it was in a link here on NC, and was in the context of an explanation of why, in so many revolutions, the military take control.

    Anyway, in game theory, the Schelling Point, made famous by Thomas Schelling in The Strategy of Conflict, is a solution that people arrive at in the absence of communication. Kind of, in the chaos of a revolt, everyone ends up pointing at the top General and saying, ‘put him in charge!’

    So, great that we’re having a discussion, not only about ‘let’s ditch capitalism before it kills us all’ but, also imagining alternatives. And steps to achieve alternatives. So we don’t have a chaotic and messy revolution and end up with some Schelling Point dictator running the show.

    Not that I am advocating revolution.

    1. thousand points of green

      Different groups with different possible alternatives in mind should all advocate for their own most favored alternatives.

      One simple stop-gap stepping stone to further alternatives might be New Deal Restoration of Ordered Capitalism under Law, which is what the New Deal was. We could also call it the MIxed Economy. We could also call it Selective Socialism of Selfish Convenience. People who object to Ideological Socialism might accept some Selective Socialism of Selfish Convenience.

      In the longer run, the pre-Columbian-Contact Indian Nations had a lot of these problems solved with studyable models ready to go if applyable against opposition in our own day. Those might bear some study. Just how did 6 million Indigenous People order their society and culture so beneficially as to be able to terraform a whole Amazon?

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