Saturday, June 2, 2012

Nicole Foss - reflections on lifeboat ethics

Nicole Foss, co-editor of "The Automatic Earth" gave a well attended talk in Canberra in February (2012), as part of her Australian tour. But while her conclusion that civilisation faces enormous problems is important and accurate, I was unsettled by her recommended responses. Essentially, Foss diagnosed that the ship of civilisation is doomed to founder. To survive, we should first pay off our debt; if necessary by downsizing. That’s sensible advice. But having done that, we should then leave the sinking ship; withdraw our support from the financial system, for example by converting term deposits to cash and precious metals, hidden under the mattress. We should nurture and rejuvenate survival skills (how to wring a chicken’s neck?) and cultivate community; especially people with survival skills, akin to those common in English villages in 1580.
But who is our community? Clearly not most Australians. Even more clearly our community is not villagers on Lake Victoria. Globalisation has failed; it’s (more or less) every woman for herself, though perhaps for the next few years sufficient civilisation will linger to allow these first generation survivalists to hone their skills, while there is still electricity, and while coloured plastic can still be exchanged for food from all over the planet. Then what will happen? Foss did not quite say, but presumably, survivalists will also need to become skilled in self-defence, as one can surely expect marauders and violence to flourish in the world we are moving into, in which police have vanished or work for the highest bidder.
If everyone acts like this, there would be a run not only on the banks but also on the gunshops. The chaos that Foss foresees (and about which I also worry) would instantly materialise. Clearly, no collective solution lies in that direction. But might it work for a hardy band of Fossian acolytes? It will take years to be self-sufficient, but perhaps we can practice by growing a few spuds and learning to darn our clothes. If we are still employed; we can use our salary to reduce debt and accumulate tradeables. We can stock up with sacks of rice and tins of soup; but how many do we need? What happens after a year, when weevils are in the flour? No bother, if civilisation is still with us, we can just replace it.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on Nicole. Perhaps my own experience of survivalists when I lived off the grid in the 1970s has soured my attitude. I have no doubt that civilisation faces a tremendous crisis. Humans, the herd animal par excellence, have been led by charlatan economists and timid politicians. For too long we have mistaken cheap energy for genuine progress. We must act collectively, but our effort should be directed to reform rather than to desert the system.
If global collapse does occur, it may be more like staged retreat than complete fiasco. Banked money, share certificates and superannuation may become worthless, but money under the bed may also lose its value. Gold bars (slivers?) will be hard to trade and vulnerable to theft. Such strategies are neither practical nor appealing. A staged retreat of civilisation is likely to see extension of “no go” areas like Somalia and a simplification of lifestyles, with spartan rationing. But while I have long been critical of our political leadership, I have not lost such faith in wider society to think that I and (say) 200 companions can somehow survive if Canberra turns into a scene from Mad Max. I would rather trust in the whole of society.
I trained in medicine. I remember enough of to be of some help in such a world, in which barter may dominate. Even if the cost of a barrel of oil equivalent is $400, Australia (and some other countries) will probably still feed itself. Infrastructure will deteriorate. It is a very unsettling prospect. I think, though, if we try hard enough, then we can reduce or even avoid this calamity. Yes, we should pay down debt and nurture our health. But primarily we should use our collective energy to work for reform, not hasten collapse. If the boat sinks, at least we will drown with honour.
A version of this essay was published in the Nature and Society Forum newsletter.
Lifeboat ethics is a term popularised by Garret Hardin, who, I think, did the population movement more harm than good, even though his 1968 essay in Science on the Tragedy of the Commons remains very famous. As Susan Buck, Elinor Ostrom and others have pointed out the Tragedy can be avoided by regulation, that is by a combination of social norms, laws and enforcement. However, of course the Tragedy often does occur, due to those with more power stealing the goods of the poor, and then re-writing the rules.
I am giving a public talk  for the Nature and Society Forum on June 20, 2012
Conjuring a parachute

Where: Frank Fenner Building, Australian National University, Acton Canberra 

Prophets of the impending collapse of civilisation are increasing in number and credibility, bolstered by accumulating evidence. Glib reassurances of hope, technological  rescue and reminders of previous false prophets of doom no longer bring relief; new strategies are needed. These include eroding the social contract that permits actions that poison our collective future, analysis of denial, and exposure of oppression. We need to create “social vaccines”; new fables that can help thwart collapse. Principally, we need a vast social movement; with scores of overlapping approaches. These are just a few.