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Collapse Forward
Alex Steffen, 27 Mar 09

It's reasonable to worry about collapse these days. From resource peaks to food scarcity, financial meltdowns to climate change, the news seems uniformly ominous.

We certainly could blow it badly enough to trigger irrecoverable collapse (for instance, by triggering climate tipping points), but I'm dubious that most of the collapses we fear will in fact occur, or, even if they occur, that they will last as long or be quite as catastrophic as we think.

That doesn't mean that big shake-ups aren't coming. They are. The question is, how do communities and regions prepare themselves to sail as gracefully through that turbulence as possible?

One possible answer: prepare to collapse forward (Jer prefers "collapsing upwards").

Collapsing forward means investing now in solutions that will aid the functioning of the current system of doing things, withstand its collapse and soften its impact, and provide constituent parts for a better replacement system. Our goal should always been to avoid collapses in general, but where we see them coming, our goal should be to collapse as intelligently as possible.

Industrial-age water supply and drainage systems, for instance, are already inclined to break, and climate change is going to quickly steepen that inclination. Water conservation, rainwater harvesting, graywater reuse, green infrastructure: all of these ease the burden on the present system, lessening the likelihood of catastrophic collapse, while also providing pieces of what might one day become a new, more sensible water system. Employing them could allow the water system to collapse forward when it goes, becoming a more sustainable version of itself.

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This thought reminds me significantly of Asimov's Foundation Series. A very similar concept, in my opinion.


Posted by: Daniel on 27 Mar 09

A way to think what is happening is that we are facing a systemic or synchronous failure, because many systems are collapsing at the same time.

The way to avoid a total collapse is to learn and build Resilience in all these failing systems, in our selves, in our communities. Resilience is not about staying the same, nor is about preventing change. Resilience is about our capacity to change and adapt. Resilience is about how can we respond to and even influence the course of social, economic and ecological change.

The Worldwatch Institute says: " “Rather than thinking about resilience as “bouncing back” from shocks and stresses, it is perhaps more useful to think of it as “bouncing forward” to a state where shocks and stresses can be dealt with more efficiently and successfully and with less damage to individual lives and livelihoods”

Other way to see Resilience is a capacity for continuous renewal.

In practical terms, building resilience will mean actions like localizing our food systems; having local farms, community gardens; promoting local jos and industries; sharing goods and services, co-ops, collective industries, trading and bartering; having off-the-grid, community-owned renewable energy systems; relearning old skills; having smaller families; staying home...

Overall, I think we need to move from the severely faulty "growth imperative" to a "resilience imperative"


Posted by: norberto rodriguez on 29 Mar 09

I didn't think much about "resilience" until I read the Upside of Down, by Thomas Homer-Dixon. Just wanted to give him credit for introducing the term to many people.

His next book, Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future, will be out April 14th.


Posted by: smc on 29 Mar 09

@ smc: Thanx for pointing out Homer-Dixon's newest release! I read all of his books, he strongly shaped my thinking about current crises and opportunities.

As I'm employed in the automobile industry I'm thinking about elements of collapsing forward the transportation system. Some progressive elements already exist: transport-oriented development, pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban environments, attractive public transport and of course regional production systems (which reduce the need for transport). Bringing these elements forward as a car manufacturer is a big challenge - but I don't know if it's possible!


Posted by: Maria on 30 Mar 09

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