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Collapsing Into Gaia: What to expect when you’re expecting collapse

“Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners.  From the dance emerges the entity Gaia.” – James Lovelock

“Oh, the hills are groaning with excess / Like a table ceaselessly being set” – Joanna Newsom

“A physiology of Earth is intimately concerned with, above all, how the awesome cycles of elements are maintained between life and the gaian matrixes of soil, air, and ocean.  Right now the cycles are not in balance.” – Tyler Volk, Gaia’s Body (2003)

“Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black / And the dark street winds and bends. / Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow / We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow, / And watch where the chalk-white arrows go / To the place where the sidewalk ends.” – Shel Silverstein

Summary:  We are in the early stages of a great unraveling, an epic collapse of the largest human civilization this planet will ever know.  How are we to make sense of it?  Maybe this little diagram can help.

Preaching Revolution to the Nobility

“I used to be an expert on education…until I started teaching.” – fellow teacher

I suppose my first inkling that something was horribly wrong with this civilization came with the bulldozers that carved up a sizable chunk of my township for suburban ‘lots’ in the 1980’s.  Growth.  Progress.  American as apple pie…but it all felt so, well, wrong. 

It wasn’t until David & Joan Ehrenfeld’s ecology classes in the early 2000’s that the horrible reality of it all came pouring in like a burst dam.  I was ripe for the acceptance of the message at that point; Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Aldo Leopold, James Kunstler, Gene Logsdon, Richard Heinberg, Barry Lopez, David Orr, and Derrick Jensen were speaking what I could feel in my bones was truth.  I’ve tried since then, with spotty success, to live those ideals.

Which brings us to this essay.  I teach high school chemistry now in a wealthy, suburban, central New Jersey district – super-bright 17 & 18 year-olds; bound for top universities; steeped heavily in industrial culture and values; the would-be future ruling elite of industrial civilization.  …And I tell them that they should probably learn to grow subsistence food and recycle their own poop.  And that there’s a pretty fair chance there won’t be anything like what we now call ‘good jobs’ by the time they’re adults.

So that’s me, preaching revolution to the nobility.  …A tough sell, even as the palace walls crumble noticeably and flaming arrows begin to land amid the croquet greens.

And predictably, for the most part, they don’t really hear a word I say.  For any number of perfectly understandable reasons, none of these kids forgoes college to learn a trade, or jumps off the grid, or turns their parent’s backyard into a market garden.  Now and then they tell me that my ‘doomsday’ stuff is thought-provoking – but with 10,000 voices screaming ‘progress, ho!’ into their ears, mine is easily muffled and forgotten. 

For now, at least.

But I persist.  And in trying to fashion some easily-digestible, lasting kernel of this ‘civilization is doomed, BUT…’ message for the kids, I’ve lately been trying a sort of steady-state-economics/Gaian-theory hybrid diagram (see below) that I’ll elaborate later on in the essay.  In addition to containing a message that collapse-neophytes can probably absorb pretty easily, the diagram also speaks to what will be required of our communities as we are pulled, inexorably by thermodynamics, into the post-carbon era – an era where we are forcibly extricated from our shiny, metallic, fossil-energy-drenched, absurdly-growth-dependant industrial bubble; where we once again enter into the green, messy, beautiful, terrifying, exhilarating, limit-riddled bosom of our ancient mother, Gaia.

Here’s my diagram.  Feel free to spray-paint it on your local bank.


Figure 1:  Schematic comparison of the industrial era vs. the post-carbon era.  Note that while both are contained within Gaia, their key elements are very different.  See later sections in essay for more discussion of this diagram.

The Gaian Framework

“The dark around us, come, / Let us meet here together, / Members one of another, / Here in our holy room” – Wendell Berry

I suppose if I’m invoking Gaia here, I should give a brief definition.  And since I just finished Tyler Volk’s wonderful 2003 book, Gaia’s Body: Toward a Physiology of the Earth, I’ll show one of his nice diagrams that should help do the trick.

But first, we do what any self-respecting pseudo-scholar does in trying to define something – consult Wikipedia!  The following paragraph (and that paragraph only!) is paraphrased from the pearls of digital wisdom temporarily and tenuously housed there.

Pioneered by atmospheric chemist James Lovelock in the 1970’s, Gaia refers, very generally, to the Earth as an organism-like entity, capable of maintaining some degree of far-from-equilibrium chemical and thermal stability over long time scales, and thus remaining hospitable to life.  Most controversially, Gaia can be described as a super-organism where life maintains these stabilities for the directed purpose of fostering life.  Least controversially, Gaia can be described (after the late, great microbiologist Lynn Margulis) as “the series of interacting ecosystems that compose a single huge ecosystem at Earth’s surface.  Period.”  Margulis was careful to avoid labeling Gaia as an organism, but rather, “an emergent property of interaction among organisms.”  (Volk also suggests a thermodynamic grounding for Gaian stability via “evolution towards a far-from-equilibrium homeostatic states that maximize entropy production.”)

Volk helpfully distinguishes between Gaia -- composed of the four primary pools of life, atmosphere, soil, and ocean – and her partners Helios (the Sun), Vulcan (rocks & inner Earth), and the Black Void (deep space).  There are one-way energy inputs from Helios (sunlight) and Vulcan (heat) to Gaia, a one-way energy output from Gaia to the Black Void of space, as well as two-way matter exchanges between Vulcan and Gaia (via volcanism and the plate tectonics). 

Significantly, all the conversations between Gaia, Vulcan, and Helios are heavily mediated (and often significantly magnified) by living organisms, which exert an influence far greater than their physical presence within Gaia.  Similarly, the three non-life pools within Gaia – atmosphere, soil, and ocean – are also heavily influenced and maintained by the life pool.  (See Volk’s book for cool details on this stuff.)

The diagram below (from Volk’s Gaia’s Body), illustrates some of the conversations between Gaia, Helios, Vulcan, and the Black Void. 

Figure 2:  Diagram from p.91 of Tyler Volk’s Gaia’s Body: Toward a Physiology of the Earth.  The diagram shows matter and energy relationships between Gaia (life, oceans, soil, air), Helios (the Sun), Vulcan (rocks, mantle & inner earth), and the Black Void (space).  Volk writes, “Solid arrows show actual flows of matter and energy.  Dotted arrows represent causal influences.”

Volk also suggests that the ‘parts’ of Gaia should include multiple viewpoints in addition to the four Gaian pools of life, air, soil, and ocean.  Namely, depending on how one is looking at Gaia, it may be appropriate to consider her from the angles of biomes (tundra, boreal forest, etc.), trophic guilds (producer, detrivore, etc.), biochemical guilds (photosynthesizers, respirers, etc.), element cycles, (C-cycle, N-cycle, etc.), genetic domains (eukarya, bacteria, archaea), or eukaryotic kingdoms (plants, fungi, etc.).

So be it.  It’s interesting and vital stuff on many levels, and a crime that every child does not know this like the back of his/her i-phone.

Industrial Civilization & Gaia

“Lord, it’s something to see! / -- laid down by the Good Intentions Paving Company” – Joanna Newsom

So now I’d like to elaborate a bit on my diagram from above (Figure 1), fleshing out some of the key features.  Let’s start with the top left oval, depicting today’s global industrial civilization embedded within Gaia.  (See Figure 3, below – a detail from Figure 1)

Figure 3:  Schematic of industrial civilization within Gaia. (Detail of Figure 1)

The outer Gaian boundary is, of course, still subject to all the matter and energy flows with Helios, Vulcan, and the Black Void (as well as causal influences) shown in Volk’s diagram (Figure 2) – however these arrows are omitted here for simplicity.

Global industrial civilization, depicted as a perversely large bubble growing large within Gaia, possesses several interesting/tragic features: 

(1) A SINGLE ENTITY: It’s perhaps reasonable to consider our current civilization as a single entity due to the tight cultural and economic inter-connectedness of all parts.  ‘Tis a great and hungry beast!  (2) HUGE SIZE: While the global industrial economy has subsumed various parts and processes of Gaia to different degrees, it’s fair to say that we’re hogging up a fair percentage of the whole.  See Catton’s ‘Overshoot’, & extrapolate 30 years.  (3) EXPONENTIAL GROWTH: ‘Perpetual’ exponential growth is a necessary (and patently absurd) requirement for the debt-based economies of industrial civilization.  And as anyone but an industrial economist could predict, such tumor-like growth within a finite Gaia cannot end well.  (4) MASSIVE INPUTS OF MATTER AND ENERGY: Staggeringly huge annual inputs are required from Gaia (topsoil, forests & grasslands, fish, etc.) and Vulcan (fossil fuels, minerals) for both maintenance and growth of this huge entropic beast.  (5) RELATIVELY IMPERMEABLE SHELL: Despite being embedded within Gaia, industrial civilization has been able to effectively shield itself from a fair amount of inconvenient direct interaction through the application of copious quantities of fossil energy.  Think cars, fertilizer, & air conditioning.  (6) RELATIVELY LOW INTERNAL CYCLING: As most inputs into industrial civilization are used/burnt once and discarded as waste, element cycles are wide open and input & waste streams are huge relative to the internal recycling of matter and energy. 

While all this could certainly be fleshed out in more detail (e.g. steady-state economics, systems theory, ecology, biogeochemistry, etc.), as a cartoon I think it works; capturing the essence of our modern industrial civilization – in all it’s eating-the-seed-corn, killing-the-goose-that-lays-the-golden-egg, pedal-to-the-metal-over-the-cliff, suicidal glory!  Hoo rah!

The Inevitability of Collapse

“My heart is heavy as an oil drum” – Joanna Newsom

Now, obviously that’s not something that can continue.  And it won’t.  We’re running headlong into both source and sink limitations as the industrial bubble grows like a tumor within Gaia.  The end is near.

On the input or ‘source’ front, matter and energy inputs are getting increasingly expensive to obtain now that all the ‘easy-half’ of fossil fuels and minerals have been used up.  There’s simply no way we can maintain even the current rate of inputs from the remaining ‘high-graded’ Gaian and Vulcan sources, much less increase them exponentially as required by the narrow dictates of the growth-dependent, industrial economy.  And as industrial energy inputs are the cornerstone for all else industrial, a quick look at the best projections for fossil energy production says it all: the end is near. (See Figure 4, below.)

Figure 4: World fossil fuels annual production & forecast 1850-2200 (Source: Jean Laherrere,

Because while we’ve been able to kick the can down the road for eight years at essentially a peak-oil plateau, such ‘can kicking’ is enabled only by combination of transparent economic chicanery and a desperate faith in the substance of fantasy, neither of which are long for the world.  As James Kunstler warns, Reality has other plans.  (See also Heinberg’s The End of Growth, as well as David Korowicz’s work.)

On the waste or ‘sink’ end, our massive waste streams of CO2, industrial toxins, radioactivity, degraded and eroded soil, leached-out agricultural fertilizers, plastics, and eviscerated natural ecosystems are exacting an ever more expensive toll on our runaway civilization.  We are choking on our own wastes just as Gaia is beginning to protest climatically in a voice much too loud to ignore.  …And so far as retaining as much of the biosphere as possible for the foreseeable geologic future, the industrial experiment pretty much needs to collapse yesterday.  (See

So there it is.  Affordable resource inputs are running out.  Available waste sinks are filling up and overflowing.  And whether it happens yesterday, tomorrow, or in five years, near-term collapse of industrial civilization is a thermodynamic certainty from both a source and sink perspective.     

Collapsing into Gaia

“Hey, hey, hey, the end is near! / On a good day you can see the end from here” – Joanna Newsom

OK, so we’re going to collapse.  But collapse into what?  …Anyone?  Well, we’re going to collapse into Gaia!   It’s where we’ve been all along, as much as we try to pretend otherwise.   We’ll no longer be insulated by our fossil-energy shells from the messy realities of Gaia.

To flesh out some of the likely changes we’ll see, let’s return to Figure 1 – a detail from which is duplicated below as Figure 5.

Figure 5:  Schematic of post-carbon communities within Gaia.  (Detail of Figure 1)

Post-carbon communities, while varying widely in time and space, will almost certainly share a number of key features.  These are illustrated in Figure 5 and include the following:

(1) MUCH DIVERSITY: Lack of easy long-distance communication and more dependence on local resources will regenerate the diversity of place-based communities found before the industrial revolution.  (2) SMALL INPUTS OF MATTER AND ENERGY: A few centuries of rapacious consumption and environmental degradation have left the resource cupboards nearly bare.  As Gaia and Vulcan fill many of them up only very slowly, post-carbon communities will need to get by with a mere trickle of matter and energy inputs. (3) RELATIVELY SMALL COMMUNITIES: Massive size requires massive inputs, and in the resource-scarce, disruption-heavy, post-carbon future, no community will be thermodynamically capable of achieving or maintaining a large size.  (4) STEADY-STATE SIZE: Again, the combination of unavoidably-meager matter/energy inputs and the escalating thermodynamic costs of ‘bigness’ will make multi-century growth orgies of the industrial era an impossibility.  Communities will grow and shrink around a modest ‘ideal’ size that matches what the trickle of sustainable resources can provide in that place.  (5) SEMI-PERMEABLE MEMBRANE: No longer insulated by our fossil-energy buffer, we will once again be immersed in the messiness, beauty, and ‘inconvenience’ of nature.  By cleverness and careful household/farm management, we will still have some say as to what matter/energy enters and leaves our communities -- but not nearly as much as during industrial times.  (6) RELATIVELY LARGE INTERNAL CYCLING: Relatively meager inputs of matter and energy will necessitate careful and vigorous recycling within each community.  The long-forgotten virtue of thrift will become a strongly selected trait across post-carbon communities.  

…So back into Gaia we go.  (gulp) 

We should probably start getting ready, huh?

Where the Sidewalk Ends

“Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black / And the dark street winds and bends. / Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow / We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow, / And watch where the chalk-white arrows go / To the place where the sidewalk ends.” – Shel Silverstein

The sidewalk ends at a place we never should have left.

We are going back there.

It is a good place.

We will eventually like it far better than ‘this place where the smoke blows black.’

But there are rules there to be followed.

And great, swift consequences if those rules are broken.

…And what are these rules?

Ask Gaia.

She wants to tell you.

Ask her.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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