facing the reality of collapse

A friend of mine recently asked me to read Carolyn Baker’s article When facing reality is not ‘negative thinking’. This article has finally helped me nail down some thoughts I’ve been having about the way I’ve been often asked to look at the “collapse” of civilization and the idea that we need to “face reality.”

To begin with, I’d like to affirm my agreement with Dr. Baker and others that the ways our world is currently structured, from how we use people and energy, to how we feed our selves, to our political and financial forms, are completely unsustainable and are destined to be radically changed. That much is certain to me.

But I’d like to suggest that the very act of framing this process of change in terms of “collapse” and “facing reality” is in itself part of remaining within those same sets of unsustainable structures.

Some people have described the current era as on par with what happens in a caterpillar before it turns into a butterfly. This process is not a simple transformation in which the caterpillar’s body shrinks and then sprouts wings and legs. Instead the body of the caterpillar completely “collapses” into a a blob of ooze, and then re-grows itself into its new form starting from what are called imaginal cells, which are a kind of new butterfly stem cells that are even attacked by the body of the caterpillar before it has completely dissolved because they are at first not even recognized as “self.” This process has been written about elsewhere, so I won’t belabor it, but if you haven’t read about it before, it’s worth Googling.

However, I actually don’t think that this caterpillar-butterfly process really is on par with what’s happening now, for one main reason: the outcome of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar is pretty darn certain, but the outcome of our future is not at all certain. But this makes it more clear to me that to describe the change we are facing now as “collapse” is even more of a mistake than it is for me to use the word “collapse” in describing what happens to the body of the caterpillar.

The word collapse comes from the roots “fall” and “together” and evokes the idea of the falling down of a building, and its breaking apart, shattering to pieces. The reason why that’s not an appropriate description in the case of the caterpillar is that its body’s dissolution is part of an active living process that’s going somewhere, that though it is a destruction or death of sorts, is fully energized, with nodes of self-organization that are part of the living process that will take it to the next step. Collapse is a word for the falling apart of a mechanical system, not for the transformation of a living one. And there’s the rub: at the heart of our world’s current structures (the very ones that led to our current forms of government, finance, and politics that are unsustainable) is the underlying assumption that the universe is a mechanical system that we are separate from rather than a living system of which we are intimately a part. So to call what’s happening now a “collapse” I think keeps us from stepping into the very “myriad opportunities it presents,” because it keeps us thinking in the old way. If instead we conceive ourselves as part of a living system, then how we conceive of what’s happening right now might be vastly different.

Here is what I see: for the last 5,000 years (since the advent of the three big inventions: agriculture, writing, and money) we have been on a massive journey of increasing consciousness and liberating potential that those three inventions are the foundation of. I’m making no claim as to the universality, value, goodness, or evil of this journey–I just know that it has happened. At the end of this 5,000-year journey our consciousness of how the natural world (including ourselves) works, and the pure liberation of potential (both social, physical, and technological) is simply awesome. But we are at a nexus. On one hand there are millions if not billions of fully empowered humans on the planet; there is a vast quantity of energy that is available to be put to use; there is an even greater quantity of information and knowledge to organize that use; and there is an astounding set of information-processing tools coordinate that use. On the other, there are millions, if not billions of disempowered and enslaved humans on the planet; there is vast energy need as well as waste; and there is great disinformation and lies spread and all kinds of machinations in place to prevent the free spread and coordination of information. I see these two “hands” (the one hand and the other hand) as fully living and dynamic tensions in a vast living earth of which humanity, with its budding consciousness, is now a significant part.

This gets us to the next phrase: “facing reality.” Both of these “hands” are real. The power and awesomeness of where we are now, the pure raw potential, is massive and unprecedented, and is proven by the enormous amount of waste, of all kinds, that we are generating. This power and potential is real. The limits of peak oil, and the limited capacity of our biosphere to accept fossil carbon dioxide without massive climate change, are real. Which hand should I face? And I’m sure there is also a third, and fourth hand that are also just as real. The problem with this phrasing of “facing reality” is that it is also built on the same dualistic, mechanical world-view that underlies the phrasing of collapse. The idea of a single reality out there, that I as an individual have to “face,” works because of how separated we have allowed ourselves to become from that very reality that we are supposed to face. It works because we have swallowed the idea of ourselves as isolated point subjects in some way outside of, and viewing, a mechanically objective and “real” world.

But we are not passive observers of a single reality. The very place we have gotten to is because of a particular constructed view of what reality is. If we had constructed a different understanding of reality, one based not on the idea that we are separate from nature and have dominion over it, then we would not be in the same place we are now. We have built the reality of our political and social structures for ourselves. For sure we are embedded in a deeper reality, one not only of our construction, but the lion’s share of the reality we experience is the one we are willing to experience, the one we have constructed for ourselves.

So, I refuse to “face” the “reality” of “collapse.” Instead I promise to explore the reality I have built for myself so far, and try to see how it is inaccurate and does not match my actual experience, so that I can change it. I can build new realities that are more accurate to my experience, in which I and my fellow journeyers are more empowered, more alive, and that creates greater possibility. For you see, we usually think about language as a tool that we use to describe reality, but language also creates the reality we experience. What makes makes our situation different from caterpillar–>butterfly is that for us a butterfly is not a certain outcome. Our outcome is completely unknown. To me this means that our deepest responsibility is to envision a reality we want and then do our best to build it. We can’t do this based on projections of how the current order is destined to fall apart. Instead, I want to take what life has miraculously made available to us now (our caterpillar body’s goo, if you will) and figure out what even more miraculous and precious reality we can build out of it.

Jane Jacobs: The Nature of Economies

I have just 10 minutes ago finished Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, and I just have to write about it.

I am totally stunned, and deeply sad that I never was able to meet her. In this book she speaks directly to me from beyond the grave completely confirming the approach I have been following in rethinking what currency is and what it means to humanity.

She ends the book with two answers to one question “what are economies for?” :

“… To enable us to partake, in our own fashion, in a great universal flow.”

“economies have a lot in common with language… like language, economic life permits us to develop cultures and multitudes for purposes… that’s its function which is most meaningful for us.”

For a while now I have take Art Brock’s lead in defining currencies as:

Information systems that allow communities to interact with flows

I’ve also written about how money is just the first word or sentence in a much bigger “language” or as I’ve been calling it, “expressive capacity,” that allows the social being to shape the flows that constitute it. But more importantly how such a new expressive capacity will allow us to integrate the flows at all levels of wealth. So to hear both of these ideas as the final punch in a whole book which is all about the shifting our understanding of economics is towards seeing it in the broader integrated context of the flow processes of the natural world, has me completely floored and overjoyed.

Part way through the book it also occurred to me that what we currently call economics is to some unnamed future science is as alchemy is to chemistry. So I thought I would try to name that science:

Since economy is oikos/nomy = home/management

I thought this might work:rheonomy from rheo/nomy = flow/management

I also like how rheo sounds like the Spanish: rio or river, and it’s also a good pun because its: realnomics… :-)

econophysics and community currency

I’ve recently been introduced to the field of econophysics and I’ve read an interesting the review paper on the field. My thoughts on this paper is that it’s very good news for the community currency movement, if understood properly. For a long time when talking about cc, I’ve been using the little thought experiment of asking people to imaging the Buddha, Jesus and Mother Theresa sitting down to play monopoly and to see if the game will have a different outcome. The answer is obviously no, not if they play by the rules. It doesn’t matter how good or evil you are, the rules of monopoly simply require that all the cash end up in one player’s hands, i.e 100% inequity. The econophysics work on the Statistical Mechanics modeling of money takes this intuitive analogy and “proves” quite definitively the fundamental inequity of our current system if you assume that the rules of the game are that money behaves like energy. The good news for community currency arises out of the basic flaw of the paper which is it seems to imply that money is natural system, rather than a created one. If money were an inevitable natural system, then the paper could be seen as an justification of that structural inequity. But since it is a created one, rather it’s an explanation of the the inequity, and thus can point us very clearly in directions of how the monetary system should instead be re-designed. What are those directions? Well, we see in the paper the very careful arguments to show how money is conserved. This is crucial to the model because in the model money is energy, and statistical mechanics is built on the law of the conservation of energy. But more importantly their model is about statistical equilibrium of energy states in closed systems. So this gives us a clear indication of where to go: change the monetary paradigm to one where the fundamental model is based on non-equilibrium state energy systemics. Well, we know what non-equilibrium state energy systems are, they are living systems. In living systems what matters fundamentally is not how much energy is accumulated but rather, whether energy can be made to flow in particular complex patterns that themselves are self-sustaining. Even more crucially, life is not about what happens if energy is allowed to dissipate to equilibrium. The name for that process is death! So I think we could even argue that that the modeling they have done is of the death of an economy! Life is not about accumulation of the energy itself, but instead it is about the accumulation of the complex patterns of energy flows. The word for a such patterns is “ecosystem”. In their model money is seen as energy, or the capacity to do work. This actually makes sense for an early stage in the evolution of money. When the main issue is the scarcity of the capacity to get work done, then finding ways to accumulate it is key, and building an economic structure to generate that accumulation makes sense. We now live in a world where our capacity to do work is not at all scarce, it’s over abundant. The big problem is the waste human capacity (think of the structural unemployment) and also the squandering of all that massive capacity in ways that are blatantly destructive (military expenditures) or systemically destructive (climate change). So our task is now to re-gear the fundamental system to not simply accumulate of the capacity to do work, but mostly to accumulate particular patterns of that capacity that are what we call “healthy”. So, how do we do that!? I use a completely different model for money that I think fits the bill, namely that money is a form of language, or more precisely a writing system that encodes information about wealth events. This model transcends and includes the model of money as energy, because in its simplest form, the rules of the writing system can be made to follow the rules of conservation of energy. What I have been calling for and working on with open money (as well as collaborting with Art Brock on his OS-Earth platform) is a meta-currency system that is precisely about making it easy to create these many different writing system (currencies) and their rule-sets, or another way to put that, that precisely enables a the creation of pattern sets for economic flows.


I’m in mexico, and it’s the start of the third day of the open money intensive.  This is an incredible experience of the expansion of the open money vision that’s been in gestation for so long and is now being  birthed.  More soon!