As it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the many issues that we face today it can be difficult to understand what’s happening and to know how to react to yet another problem coming down the line. This applies to outbreaks like the Coronavirus just as much as it does to climate change, economic turmoil, ecological disruption, species extinction, and so on.
Our culture is clearly in decline but that insight alone does not give us a useful guide to what the future will look like for us and our children. Here I will bring together ideas from two different frameworks relating to cultural decline to show they are two sides of the same coin. The connection was prompted by a recent podcast I listened to by Eric Gaza.
The first idea is the Adaptive Cycle, a concept proposed by C.S. Holling in 1986. It considers the dynamics of complex ecosystems in response to disturbance and change. It proposes that ecosystems pass through 4 key stages:
Growth/Exploitation: Resources and nutrients are accumulated and the system grows in complexity. Competitive processes lead to sub-groups becoming dominant. Connectedness and stability increase.
Conservation of Resources: Over time resources become used or locked up and are no longer available; the system becomes less flexible and eventually brittle. It is poised for release.
Release or Collapse: The system, under increasing pressure, eventually changes state. This phase if often fast moving and relatively short. Crucially an event outside the system can be the trigger to make the system collapse.
Reorganisation: The locked up resources (biomass, nutrients, capital) become available for redistribution. New actors and innovations may enter the system but only a few will survive to the next phase.
After the Reorganisation phase a new Growth phase may start, or a completely new alternative system may develop.
Human civilisations are complex ecosystems and looking back at previous civilisations we can see that they all typically passed through these 4 stages.
Our current civilisation is no different. In the 19th and 20th Centuries we were clearly in the Growth stage; with colonialism, rising GDP, rising global population, reducing animal diversity, resource wars, mass migrations to cities, and so on.
We are now in the Conservation of Resources stage; we have to work increasingly hard to extract oil and other resources, wealth is concentrated in a few individuals (e.g. the top 5 men owning the same wealth as the bottom 3 billion), life expectancy is starting to fall, our waterways, environment and oceans are filling with plastic, and for most people wages are stagnating. Meanwhile the pressure on the system is building fast as climate change accelerates and the population is due to increase another 50% in just the next 30 years.
The next stage is Release (or in human terms, Collapse). We don’t know when it will happen or what will cause it but we know it will happen fast…