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Pontoon Archipelago or: How I learned to stop worrying and love collapse

James Allen
May 24, 2019 · 23 min read

The viability of our civilisation is uncertain. While opening our eyes means we’ll confront darkness, keeping them shut means it’ll stay dark. Let’s dare to look and start building new worlds alongside the old.

Dear reader

I offer you this essay in the hope that you may find something within it that will keep you buoyed in the years ahead. It reflects my own attempt to understand the converging crises in our near future, and to grapple with the question of what I might be able to offer that will be useful in that future.

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Photo: NASA.

Despair

Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.

Kurt Vonnegut

If we were a more sensitive civilisation, despair could become the defining emotion of this era. We have plenty of reasons to feel it. Then again, if we were a more sensitive civilisation, the things that give us reason to despair would not be things at all. But that is not our world.

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Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Imagination

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we shall find the hope beyond hope, the paths that lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

Paul Kingsnorth & Dougald Hine

Most of us lack the stories that help imagine a future where we thrive in the midst of unstoppable ecological catastrophe. To borrow a phrase from storyteller Martin Shaw, this is because our imaginations have been colonised by things that don’t always mean us well.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Community

We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibres, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.

Herman Melville

As I’ve hopefully made clear, the jumping-off point for this essay is a regrettable acceptance that a forthcoming energy descent combined with multiple ecological crises will force massive societal transformation this century. It’s hardly a leap to suggest that, with less abundant cheap energy and the collapse of the complex political and economic infrastructure that supports our present way of life, this transformation is likely to include the contraction and relocalisation of some (if not most) aspects our daily lives.

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Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

The work

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
R. Buckminster Fuller

As I see it, my job is not to fix the system or prevent its collapse. This is a fool’s errand. In ecological terms, collapse merely signals a phase shift from an inherently unsustainable ecology to a sustainable one. Of course, in human terms this involves the unraveling of the structures of civilisation upon which we depend — which could last anywhere from decades to centuries — thereby disrupting our way of life. For many species, this is almost certainly a recipe for enormous suffering. But unlike many species, the behaviour of humans is not wholly dictated by their genetic code. Culture also plays a role, meaning that humans have a unique capacity for rapid adaptation as the ecological system shifts. Although some suffering is likely, it may not all be inevitable.

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Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

Muddling along at sea

There will be time for music.

David Fleming

The grand cruise liner of modern industrial civilisation has been taking on water for some time now. The engineers deep in the hull have reported that it’s gushing in faster every day through multiple breaches. They say it’s beyond patching now. They say there’s a very good chance the ship won’t make it unless it’s immediately dry-docked for repairs. But that is unlikely to occur. Those on the bridge have heard the engineers’ assessments, but they are at loggerheads over what to do. Some are ready to act urgently, while others doubt the engineers’ assessment and want to stay the course. Even if the engineers are right, they say, they’ll surely find a way to fix it just in time.


Let this darkness be a bell tower

Quiet friend who has come so far,


Acknowledgements

I’d like to acknowledge the thinkers that have influenced this essay, including Jordan Hall, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Nora Bateson, Joanna Macy, Wendell Berry, John Michael Greer, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, John N. Gray, T.S. Eliot, Jem Bendell, Richard Heinberg, Rob Hopkins, Buzz Holling, Daniel Aldrich, Paul Kingsnorth, John Vervaeke, Dougald Hine, Euan Semple, David Tacey, Charles Eisenstein, Bonnitta Roy, Joe Brewer, Bret Weinstein, David Fleming, and David Holmgren.

James Allen

Written by

Lowly scaffolder of the Pontoon Archipelago. Co-host of The Gloaming podcast 🎙. Idea alchemy, systems thinking and neo-parochialism. Game~b.

James Allen

Written by

Lowly scaffolder of the Pontoon Archipelago. Co-host of The Gloaming podcast 🎙. Idea alchemy, systems thinking and neo-parochialism. Game~b.

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