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When Nature’s Feedback Loops Fail

Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature and the Future
by Darrin Qualman
(Fernwood Publishing. Halifax, Winnipeg 2019)

The title of Darrin Qualman’s book, Civilization Critical, can easily be mistaken for an apocalyptic climate change tract. Given the weekly deluge of this grim genre in our bookstores, it is understandable. Regrettably, I believe, publishers in an effort to inform the public induce psychic numbness with their screaming titles. And while Qualman doesn’t ignore the greater horrors awaiting us if we don’t stop the hell-bound escalator we are on, his intention is not to frighten, but to inform.

Behind all the warnings of climate catastrophe, there are earth science systems that have gone awry. The mass media flits through the politics of climate change in sound-bite seconds, ignoring in-depth analyses of the natural systems that are disrupted. Not that political and economic decisions are irrelevant, it’s just that they are secondary to knowledge of Nature’s Operating Manual.

Qualman’s credentials as an author of a book on the destruction of natural systems are unique. In his youth he farmed; later he spent much of his life as a researcher for Canada’s National Farmers Union. It is a rare author who brings both a deep passion and practical experience to an astute sense of the larger forces at work creating societies worldwide. His intimate knowledge, as a farmer, of cycles and patterns in nature, from the specific—plants, to the general—crops, is evident in the very first pages.

The obvious pattern in nature is circular. Nature knows no garbage. Given this fundamental understanding, Qualman introduces the aberrant system we suffer under as linearity. Linearity co-existed with the dominant trait of circularity in human societies, as archeologists who pick through sites well know. Linearity slowly emerged over many centuries to supersede the circular system. The rise of powerful, war-like kingdoms, non-local trade, and large urban populations all saw the old system displaced. The decisive break came when industrialism, birthed by colonialism, spawned the consumer society.

Natural systems are webs of sustainability and resilience. Human systems fray these webs in pursuit of efficiency to save time and make a profit; often this drive creates elaborate new ones. The monoculture of industrial agriculture that plows over traditional farms destroys a complex web of circularity, to introduce its own complexity exemplified by globalization accelerated by computerization.

On a less spectacular level, consider the web of relationships, with suppliers, trades-people and clients, not to mention the years of apprenticeship, of the craftsperson compared to the factory worker stuck lodged within a hierarchy and taught a simple operation in days, if not hours to be performed endlessly. Yet, that factory might be a minor player in a complex web of subcontracting that spans continents.

Qualman maintains that these webs of modern society are alien to Nature, which mainly seeks equilibrium. And integral to equilibrium is feedback, both negative and positive. We are all familiar with negative feedback since our thermostats work on that principle: low temperature switches on the heat and when the desired warming occurs, the thermostat turns it off. Nature usually works on that basis to establish equilibrium.

Positive feedback, to use Qualman’s trenchant example, is like a run on the stock market that boosts stock value. And when it collapses, positive feedback kicks in again as all scurry to cut their losses. In other words, it’s the herd instinct. Positive feedback seems more familiar to us than negative feedback since we see it all around us: consumer fads, online viral videos, and compounded interest. Our economy is one big positive feedback loop. It’s called growth.

Qualman asks if we can’t sustain positive feedback forever, then how do we implement negative feedback loops? Do we self-impose them on ourselves by purchasing solar roof panels and an electric vehicle? To me that seems the route most conducive to a conspicuous consumerist mentality. I could call this the Veblenist approach, or the class-based one. No matter how much wealth is spread around, personal life-style choices ultimately have little effect on reversing the course of positive feedback

Or alternatively, Qualman suggests, do we opt for the state to impose negative feedback? The French oligarchy, following this course, received a decisive response by the yellow vests. That popular uprising reversed a “green” fuel tax that mainly affected those with the least amount of disposal income. State-imposed change will cost billions, and if it can’t be squeezed from the poor, the wealthy that benefit most from the status quo will not meekly accept their financial responsibilities.

I think we can argue, though Qualman doesn’t suggest this, that there is a third alternative—austerity. In this case, the impersonal forces of the market manipulated by politicians to hide their imbecilic policies to grow the wealth of the rich, impoverishes the populace and, as an unintended consequence stunts economic growth. This isn’t the most cogent approach to instituting negative feedback, unfortunately however it affects the most people. Hopefully, not for much longer!

Qualman comes down on the side of a humanistic top down approach, however I’m not certain he would endorse a Green New Deal (GND). To counter opposition to the GND program by climate skeptics and fiscal conservatives, its advocates fall over themselves proclaiming how it would encourage economic growth. I can’t see how this squares with Qualman’s proposal to decelerate and depower.

While Qualman has written a superb overview of ecological systems with an appropriate amount of detail to create a coherent presentation of the catastrophe upon us, he avoids any discussion of labor. The foundations of an ecologically aware civilization as he sees it encompasses a circular economy, solar power and localization. Of the three only solar power has been incorporated into capitalism at a minimal level, but one that might expand employment.

The circular economy that Qualman advocates must mean more than recycling straws. To achieve it in manufacturing requires a major redirection of capital and the transformation of the global workforce. A workforce that now consists of the poorest of the poor living on garbage heaps to search and reclaim valuable items to resell. This isn’t the future sustainable society Qualman envisions.

And localization, let’s say in agriculture, where it is essential for a circular economy, will require millions of farmers, maybe more than at the end of the nineteenth century. Will capitalism evolve to accomplish these tasks? Or will it fail and face extinction? Qualman avoids these questions, but he manages to provide a substantial earth systems foundation for the reader to ponder them.

More articles by:

Bernard Marszalek, editor of The Right to be Lazy (AK PRESS) can be reached at info@ztangi.org He was a member of a worker cooperative for seventeen years. Essays at http://ztangi.org.

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