Alex Steffen is an excellent thinker and writer on the existential crisis time we find ourselves in. He recently posted a commentary entitled: “We’re not ready for what’s already happened. Welcome to the discontinuity, population: everyone.”
His central thesis is this:
“The true measure of the seriousness of the planetary crisis is not destruction but discontinuity.
My most succinct working definition of a ‘discontinuity’ is a watershed moment, one where past experience loses its value as a guide to decision-making about the future. It’s a critical concept, so I’m going to do my best in this week’s email to quickly explain what it means to me, and why it may be useful to you.
The planetary crisis is what I call the interlocking, complex, accelerating changes our actions are bringing on in the natural world. Climate change is the largest problem within this crisis, but it is interconnected with ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, topsoil loss and water shortages, threats to food systems, changes in ocean chemistry, the release of rivers of toxic chemicals into the biosphere, invasive species and so on. We can talk about them as separate challenges, but in reality they are all one crisis. And it is getting worse, fast.
The planetary crisis is a discontinuity. This is the most important thing about it. Failing to understand the climate/ecological emergency as an all-encompassing discontinuity in human societies is failing to understand it, full stop.
Every time human systems and planetary realities clash, the human systems fail, and human beings lose. It sometimes takes a while for the defeat to become obvious, but on a wide variety of fronts, the defeats we’ve already dealt ourselves over decades of inaction are growing unignorable. Many more are coming into focus now—and we’re still losing our conflicts with nature on a grand scale.
Those defeats have altered all our human systems, already. Not only is the Earth’s entire biosphere being transformed at a speed greater than anything humans have lived through before, but the human world has become something no human has ever experienced before.
Discontinuity is a fact of our lives. It’s no longer a choice. Most of us are confused about when we are. I know I’m still figuring it out.
Here’s something we do know: The longer we delay acting at disruptive speeds, the more discontinuous the near future will be with present expectations… and the less value present systems will retain. Disruption now, or even more discontinuity (and then more disruption) that’s our choice—and the speed of our actions is how we choose between them.
Acknowledgment of that reality may be the most powerful idea on earth right now.
The planetary crisis is a crisis because it has unleashed discontinuity throughout human systems, and because only a few of us can see it yet.
We are in the teeth of a King Grizzly discontinuity, and it’s shaking our material certainties and our cultural assumptions apart like a salmon-wrapped ragdoll. Oily stuffing is already flying in all directions.”
I think this is absolutely correct and wonderfully stated.
AND THEN, such a smart, insightful person suggests in the very same piece that the solution to this discontinuity is as follows:
“Above all, this means building. It means hundreds of millions of new homes; wind farms and solar fields by the tens of thousands, factories churning out batteries and electric cars and induction stoves and geothermal systems; new shipping infrastructure; the rebuilding of coastal cities everywhere; massive investments in ecosystem services, fire protections, water and soil conservation; a reinvention of huge industries like chemicals and concrete and consumer plastics; a landscape in upheaval. A giant building boom is what successful action looks like.”
What the actual fuck!? How can he accurately diagnose our predicament but come up with this prescription? Electric cars for fuck’s sake!
In appears that Alex’s mind, the solution to the discontinuity is MORE OF THE SAME THAT GOT US TO THIS POINT. (“…factories churning out…)
Where will all the raw materials come from for this “giant building boom?” How will everything needed be extracted, transported, manufactured, constructed, and maintained without enormous carbon emissions? Renewables absolutely cannot power a “giant building boom.” This would be nothing but the last carbon soaked straw in destroying a livable planet.
If we are in the discontinuity he describes – and I believe we are – then the answer is not more building, but to stop everything. We don’t get a giant do-over to get things right this time.
Instead, we must repurpose what we already have, undo everything that isn’t absolutely essential to sustaining life, restore ecosystems and do this with justice to all life.
And from this stopping, we can begin to imagine how a civilization can be formed solely on the basis of the energy flows of sunlight. This was the past. This is the future.
I’m not a consultant trying to keep my business afloat. Thus I don’t need to peddle fairy tales of “giant building booms” to politicians and corporations desperately searching for a way to keep business as usual going.