‘Take care! Hot noontide sleeps upon the fields. Do not sing! Soft! The world is perfect’.
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
It may be the gloomiest TED talk ever. In 2012, the Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding stood before a packed house at Long Beach, California, and explained how a catastrophic economic crisis is inevitable. Gilding calls it The Great Disruption. Gilding’s choice of title reflects his optimistic view that our societies can navigate this crisis and emerge renewed on the other side. If this optimism is misplaced, we’re facing The Great Collapse. The crisis, Gilding explains, is being ‘triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water’. Gilding cites the research of the Global Footprint Network, which calculates that we need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain the global economy at its current levels. With a business as usual mindset in Washington DC, and astounding economic growth in China, India, and other parts of the developing world, a full-scale ecosystemic meltdown is unavoidable. Gilding is frank about the consequences: ‘[W]hat happens when you operate a [finite] system past its limits … is that the system stops working and breaks down. This is what will happen to us’.
Gilding’s argument, while persuasive, is neither original nor new. The argument was first articulated by the Club of Rome in its paper on the limits to growth in the 1970s. Recently, Annie Leonard reiterated the thesis in The Story of Stuff: ‘[W]e live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely’. In 2013, with record heatwaves about the world and weather-related disasters shocking climate deniers out of their complacency, the implications of this idea seem to be sinking in. The GFC reminded us what happens when we live beyond our means. The Great Disruption will remind us that our economies and societies have been drawing down on planetary ecosystems for one hundred and fifty years and giving nothing back. We’ve been stacking up an ecosystemic overdraft. Sooner or later, we’ll have to pay the debt.
There is no running from the Great Disruption. To get future-ready, we must face it, acknowledge it, and make time for grieving. Then we must set to action. There is a storm coming. No one knows how bad it will be. Gilding is optimistic. ‘Yes, things will get ugly’, he admits. ‘But we are more than capable of getting through everything that’s coming’. Certainly, if you are in the business of transformation, there are amazing opportunities ahead. If you are a designer, engineer, or architect, the Great Disruption is the defining challenge of your career. We need to apply every ounce of courage, strength, intelligence, and creativity that we possess as a species to hauling our societies out of the era of fossil fuels, mass industrialised production, and hyperconsumption and propelling them into a sustainable future. We literally need to rethink everything.
Philosophers have a role to play too. The first thing we need to rethink is our concept of the natural world. To tackle the Great Disruption in a positive, affirmative, way, we need to identify a more positive, affirmative, vision of nature than the one that got us into this mess. This means acknowledging, first of all, that the way that ‘smart money’ thinks about the natural world is horribly wrong. Since the dawn of the modern age, we’ve tended to see nature as a resource. The open land is space for industrialised agriculture and urban sprawl. The sea is a cavernous repository of fish-stock. Our mighty rivers are a source of hydro-electric power. Our mountains are made for mining – just lop off the top and extract. The more that we’ve exhausted the natural world, the more we’ve come to see it as a scarce resource. We’ve become used to applying a scarcity mindset to thinking about nature, perceiving land, sea, sky and their denizens as dwindling stock that we must carefully manage in order to continue our unsustainable activities.
Scarcity thinking gets in everywhere. If you are working in economics, it’s impossible to avoid. Ironically, Gilding’s argument is a case in point. In order to articulate the crisis that we find ourselves in, Gilding applies the language of scarcity, presenting the natural world and its carrying capacities as radically limited and threatened with exhaustion. We have filled the Earth with our bodies, our products, our pollutants and cities to the extent that we have become the abundant force on the planet, overwhelming nature itself. The Earth is full, Gilding claims:
It is full of us, it’s full of our stuff, full of our waste, full of our demands. Yes, we are a brilliant and creative species, but we’ve created too much stuff — so much that our economy is now bigger than its host, our planet.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Gilding’s argument is incorrect. There are limits to the carrying capacity of any system. Moreover, to be fair, Gilding is speaking truth to power, and power today speaks and thinks in the language of scarcity. There is something deeply problematic, however, about framing an argument that is fundamentally a defence of the environment in scarcity terms. Inadvertantly, it confirms and supports the very mindset that landed us in this mess. As Einstein said, we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used to create them. Somehow, we must learn to think differently. Scarcity thinking can be dangerous. The history of modern society shows how it can lead us to treat nature with callous disregard. A scarcity mindset can also bounce back on us psychologically and spiritually. The way we perceive the so-called external world gets under our skin. Seeing the Earth as an exhausted system impoverishes nature and leaves us feeling impoverished too. We become passionless, dispirited, poisoned by an idea. ‘The Earth is full’, we say. ‘We have overloaded it. Everything is broken’.
The Earth is full. Look around you. Everything that you see is part of the Earth – the grass, trees, birds, clouds, and people. Breathe. Taste the air on your tongue. There is a dense bed of chemicals all about you – we move through it, drink and exhale it like fish in the sea. The air and atmosphere is part of the Earth too. We are so used to this ‘fullness’, so immersed in it, that we scarcely notice it or think about it. We need to try. We need to stop thinking like economic agents for just one moment and listen to the murmur of flows. Do you hear them? It is the sound of the future.
This is the perspective of abundance thinking. If we are to engage the Great Disruption with a sense of hope and purpose, we need to cultivate this style of thinking. We need to learn to integrate ourselves and our societies into the full body of the Earth.
The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (1930-1992) were abundance thinkers, though they never used the term itself. Deleuze and Guattari’s take on the Earth, in their second book together, A Thousand Plateaus (1980), epitomises the abundance perspective. The Earth, Deleuze and Guattari claim, is a ‘body without organs’ (BwO). Behind the esoteric terminology lies a brilliant concept. The Earth is a physical body – a vast physical body with diverse layers and many interacting parts – yet unlike most bodies, it is not organised in any particular way. Think of the sea or the weather system: they have no inherent pattern or structure, but are shaped and reshaped by a host of forces and flows. It is true that the Earth, like the sky and sea, settles into stable states. The Holocene – the geological period of warm average temperatures and relative climactic stability that followed the end of the last ice age 12000 years ago – is an example of the Earth achieving a state of equilibrium. But these stable states are contingent on a vast play of unstable forces, and things can change rapidly if these forces are disrupted. This is precisely what we are seeing today. Far from representing the natural state of the Earth, the climactic regularities that we have taken for granted for 12000 years are the product of an unstable play of forces that surge together, interact, combine, and dissipate. This play of forces is the organless body of the Earth.
One thousand years from now, a future race of beings will look back on the 21st century and wonder how we could have been so technologically adept and yet so blind to the body of the Earth. This race will have a different metaphysics and view of reality to our own. We are the children of Platonic metaphysics. We look at the world and see fixed-state objects and things. But this is an illusion. Nature doesn’t stand still – it flows. To adopt an abundance mindset, we must see the world as a vast torrent of material flows, intersecting, combining, and creating an abundance of things in a time-frame that exceeds human time. Take a coral reef, for example. The reef is an aggregation of billions of tiny animals. If we could glance across centuries, we would see the reef as a fluid structure, expanding and contracting as it integrates the flows of the sea. Societies are accretions of multiple flows: flows of genetic material, carried hither and thither on migratory flows; flows of animals, seeds, plants, and chemicals that flow through our diets; cultural and semiotic flows, flows of images and memes… Everything flows and becomes, evolving, cross-pollinating, mutating, infecting and transforming adjacent flows, from the mating cycle of the hummingbird to the tidal patterns of the Pacific Ocean; from the furious wheel of the hurricane to the distintegration of mountains in glacial time. Everything is fed by the flow of radiation from the sun. Hold out your hands to the sun, right now. Feel it vitalise the mollecular flows of your body.
Abundance thinking is hard. Yet this is only because we’re tapped into the wrong semiotic flows. In future posts, I will interrogate the metaphysical assumptions that make it difficult for us to reflect on abundance. Nietzsche, I will argue, saw clearly how Platonic metaphysics set us on a misguided path to scarcity thinking, a path that we now see leads nowhere. Our path to the future leads back to the Earth, reconceived as a BwO. We need to integrate our societies into the terrestrial body of flows. Environmentalists, of course, have been saying this for decades. The powers of nature are by no means scarce – they are abundant. All we are lacking are the technologies that enable us to tap into the flows of the Earth: flows of radiation from the sun; flows of wind; flows of the sea; and the thriving flow of the myriad interconnected ecosystems about us.
The Earth is full. The most scarce resources on the planet today are wisdom and courage.