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Walking out on empire

So what do we do now? At what point does one realize that his or her paradigm isn’t working anymore, and give up and walk out on empire? How do we start walking, and where do we go? Here are some quotes from notable people who are choosing to turn at the crossroads and walk away from empire and then to talk about the transition. These quotes highlight some of their answers to the question of “what now?”

  • Wendell Berry says, “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope for survival.”
  • Chris Hedges suggestion to: “. . . nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.”
  • Tom Englehardt’s advice to the class of 2012 to “make themselves useful . . . and help someone or something on the planet.”
  • Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist about a pilgrimage to follow the song lines; “You see, it turns out that I have more time than I thought. I will follow the songlines and see what they sing to me and maybe, one day, I might even come back. And if I am very lucky I might bring with me a harvest of fresh tales, which I can scatter like apple seeds across this tired and angry land.
  • Guy McPherson on My Story of Dropping Out and Acting Up, who just let go; “Don’t just join me in walking away. Join me as a witness and a warrior, on behalf of life. Ultimately, in other words, on your own behalf.”

Sometimes the only difference between a budding genius and a blooming idiot is where they choose to take a stand.

  • Dave Pollard’s solution “All seven of these actions — (1) understanding what is really going on, (2) acquiring essential knowledge and abilities, (3) reconnecting with the Earth, (4) living responsibly, (5) showing and telling others why and how to prepare for collapse, (6) fighting back against the destruction, and (7) living joyfully, are aspects of what I am now calling my liberation from civilization. They are analogous to seven steps one might go through to liberate oneself from an abusive spouse or relative.”
  • James Gustave Speth on America the Possible “Important here is a “theory of change.” The theory adopts the view that people act out of both fear and love—to avoid disaster and to realize a dream or positive vision. The theory affirms the centrality of hope and hope’s victory over despair. It locates the plausibility of hope in knowledge—knowing that many people will eventually rise up and fight for the things that they love; knowing that history’s constant is change, including deep, systemic change; and knowing that we understand enough to begin the journey, to strike out in the right directions, even if the journey’s end is a place we have never been. The theory embraces the seminal role of crises in waking us from the slumber of routine and in shining the spotlight on the failings of the current order of things. It puts great stock in transformative leadership that can point beyond the crisis to something better. The theory adopts the view that systemic change must be both bottom-up and top-down—driven by communities, businesses, and citizens deciding on their own to build the future locally as well as to develop the political muscle to adopt system-changing policies at the national and international levels. And it sees a powerful citizens’ movement as a necessary spur to action at all levels.”

Cultural collision

American culture may diverge into two camps as fossil fuels wane, resulting in a collision of cultures. Many of us have resided in the dominant culture all of our lives. When faced with the deterioration of that dominant culture, we may become unglued and don’t know how to act. The old culture isn’t working anymore, but the new culture is only partway formed, and difficult to navigate. So we sit, apathetic and rudderless, or fall back on addictions to numb the pain. For those of us actively living in the new minority descent culture, we may experience oppression, shunning, and difficulty in living in either new or old. Even a simple thing like keeping chickens can become a battleground. Laws and mores are geared towards the old, and forging new pathways is a struggle. We have neighbors who view our chickens as a status step in the wrong direction for our neighborhood, and we suffer as a result from periodic bouts of persecution and harassment. Being a minority can be difficult unless one learns to dance between both cultures fluidly.


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I had a good role model for independent thinking outside the dominant paradigm. HT Odum’s world view was ahead of his time. But understanding that world view placed him at odds with the dominant world view. HT fretted that his students were having trouble getting tenure or getting published, and he struggled for research funding as national societies and funding bodies shunned his unacceptable ideas that opposed growth. Being ahead of the crowd is difficult, and if you get too far outside mainstream thought, the Maximum (em)Power principle suggests that your ideas will not be reinforced. Ironically, suggesting to the empire that it would eventually fail is not a winning strategy. “Because designs with greater performance prevail, self-organization selects network connections that feed back transformed energy to increase inflow of resources or to use them more efficiently” (Odum, 2000). Odum’s ideas were least appreciated in the US, but were better understood in countries that are not so beholden to fossil fuels for their economic function. “There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Odum selected for power over efficiency, since during a growth phase in a system, the system selects for power over efficiency. He judged his own actions and their relative value by “the energies spent, the energies stored, and the energy flow which is possible, turning not to the incomplete measure of money” (Odum, 1971, p. 244). Odum calculated his personal energetic budget of his actions. Those actions sometimes appeared contradictory, reflecting his awareness of the impact of scale and Maximum emPower. For example, he would leave the lights blazing around the house, as he considered them an unimportant detail, in preference for the big picture. He circumnavigated the globe at least 7 times in his travels, yet he biked to work. It was much more important to him to focus his energies on the pursuit of high quality information and dissemination at the larger scale. For example, he was a very early adopter of analog and digital computers. He spent extra savings on information development and processing, including books and education. Odum understood that it takes energy to create information, and that his widespread travel was important in the accumulation and dissemination of wisdom. He understood that the information system embodied the highest emergy and thus the most opportunity for transformation. His opinions about the best route in promoting descent was a long-term perspective that emphasized education.

Polarization and hierarchy


Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818 Kunsthalle Hamburg

One of the problems with a situation where there is no visible solution is that people tend to feel hopeless and lack direction for what to do. When walking away from something, it is difficult to stride confidently unless we are also walking towards something else. And in a complex world, polarization and black and white thinking lead to action, while shades of gray may lead to inaction. Yet polarization is problematic during times of great change because it encourages us to act without thinking. Thinking for yourself is the opposite. So we need to marry critical thinking with action, and not let the novel choices for the future or fear of stepping away from the herd paralyze us.

At the same time, while we need to keep one eye on the big picture to choose a direction to walk in, we need to also stay open and adaptable to the unforeseen forks, obstacles, and delays in our path. Choosing an inflexible route, traveling partners, or equipment locks us into one path. In contrast, while all who wander are not necessarily lost, it is good to have a general direction in mind. We can discern that general direction by always keeping the larger scale in view.

What does this mean for us as people? I’ve spent decades living with my head in descent and my body in empire. I lived a divided life, an introverted life, and in some ways, a two-faced life. I worked within the dominant culture, in a job that provided a salary and healthcare, doing something socially useful, while passively waiting for the world to change, while withholding much of my mental and emotional self. As we start to descend, my heart and head are now rejoined to the motions I make and the things that I say within the dominant culture and the new. I have increasingly become a multicultural citizen, with one foot in the dominant camp and one foot in descent, mildly oppressed by disapproving neighbors and frightened friends. I have a feeling of wholeness as people begin to join me in small ways in learning how to dance between two cultures to support access to privileges in the old paradigm while preparing for different ways of being in the new.

What is resilience then? It is moving forward with your head and heart aligned, casting off old ways and engaging with the changes to come. Physical resilience involves having enough resources to pay the utilities and move around in the old system while forging more efficient and lower energy features in the new system. One word of caution; jumping with both feet into the new too fast may separate you from the mainstream. Once you are separate you no longer benefit from Maximum Power. Like the hippies who dropped out in the 1960s, going completely off the grid removes you from the advantage of the high emergy basis of society, such as the river of information flowing down the internet. When and where fossil fuels are available, use them. Maximum Power dictates that we need to use the energy or someone else will. But in descent, we need to use resources differently, selecting for greater efficiency and highest best use (information, for example) and not wasteful or luxury uses of power.

Much of our passivity and reliance on the old system may revolve around the issue of money, which is a powerful symbol and information mechanism of exchange in the old system of hyper-consumption. I have boomer friends who feel trapped in a broken bureaucracy, who think that they don’t have enough money-related security to retire, even though they have more wealth than 99% of the rest of the world. I ask them how they would feel if they woke up tomorrow and the currency and all paper securities were worthless. That question universally elicits a long silence. The question resets our value system. Elders could be leaders in relocalization efforts, as they have stored wealth and the motivation to live much more frugally outside the corporate system. Wealth in this country is a relative indicator of status and want–the good news is that we can all get by on much less income if the waste is wrung from the system. But we have to take the very large step from the comfort of the status quo into something uncomfortably different that is not dependent on money. How do we begin to value well-being instead of wealth? In my course on this subject, that is the final exam question. When will people begin to shift their world views towards descent? Perhaps when the current regime becomes futile, useless, or workable economically, politically, and socially, people will start walking out on empire, one by one.

For me, I view walking out on empire as both metaphor and action. Barron and Barron (2012) suggest that walking “bolsters creativity and contentment, and gives rise to an observant, creative, receiving mind. . . . Movement, especially out of doors, can lift your mood, bolster your creativity and even change your path. It might make you think differently. It could motivate you to take small steps to change your habits or big steps to change your life. Walking is good medicine” (Barron, 2012). Paul Kingsnorth alludes to walkabouts when he mentions following the song lines in his quote above. Walkabouts are symbolic rites of passage that enlighten and heal the walker, connecting us spiritually with the land, and representing changes in people and in culture. The song lines are sung as we navigate to “keep the land alive.” Maybe we all need to go walkabout as we move into descent?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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