Act: Inspiration

Strategic Thinking in a Time of Change

May 16, 2017

We are living the first stages of a major change in civilization. Two of its basic characteristics are a reduction of energy and available materials. This will mean greater social simplification (fewer people, interconnections and social specialization). In this process, we will experience the collapse of global capitalism, a rise in conflicts over control of resources, a strong reconfiguration of the state with a decline in its capacity for action, a substantial loss of information, a demographic decline or a social ruralization (an exodus to the countryside and a strong commitment to food production within cities). This collapse is inevitable, but I will not justify it[1]. I start from it to address some strategic reflections.

That the collapse of industrial civilization is inevitable does not mean that the future is written. Within the range of physical possibilities we have (determined by matter and energy available), the speed, depth and how ecosystems and human societies will reconfigure themselves will depend to a large extent on what we do here and now. Moreover, the collapse will provide unprecedented opportunities for the articulation of more just, equal and, inevitably, sustainable societies. These opportunities will be more as less social and environmental degradation occurs. That is, “how much worse, worse”.

In a world in strong reconfiguration, our ability as social movements to influence that change will probably be greater than we have had in many decades. This does not mean that we have time for an orderly transition, as this is an opportunity that happened back in the seventies. The scenario can be like a descent as in whitewater rafting, in which you can not control the direction of the descent (the collapse of industrial civilization) and where the option is to build boats and prevent them from crashing. These boats will be alternatives such as new institutions. In this tremendously fluid and uncontrollable scenario, the policies to be implemented will fit more in the logic of putting in new rules of social and economic relationships, than in an attempt of real planning that will not be possible.

State of emergency

We need to realise that we need to put into action emergency measures, of an “exceptional state” or “special period” as they say in Cuba. This is not just for institutions, but also for all social groups and, of course, for the movements which come out of these groups.

This “state of emergency” needs to clearly turn upside down those social priorities, which have been in place since the Industrial Revolution. It’s not the right moment to put our own human comforts, our quality of life, in conflict with the conservation of balanced ecosystems. It is time to place in the center environmental issues, because they are the basic elements for the survival of most of the population.

So then, there are four challenges which should be key: i) A change in energy exploitation towards a model based on renewables. This model could be in the first and brief phase based on highly technological methods (such as the current ones) but in the medium term it will have to evolve towards simpler technologies. This will involve societies in which the consumption of energy is much less and more dependent on natural sources. ii) Pass from an economy which relies on extraction to one which relies on production. By this we mean on an economy based on non-renewables extracted from underground, to an economy in which, thanks to its integration with other ecosystems, cycles can be completed. This means, among other things, that the metabolism will have to evolve from industrial to agrarian[2]. iii) Prevent positive feedback loops of climate change being activated[3]. This is to say, achieve the cessation of those processes for which the climate may approach to a new equilibrium of 4-6ºC above the current temperature, irrespective of what human societies do. iv) Stop the loss of biodiversity, the imbalance of the ecosystems, and with that the loss of functions of the ecosystems on which we rely.

But to prioritise environmental issues doesn’t mean to forget about social ones. If this was to occur, what would happen is there would be eco-fascist and authoritarian societies. At the same time as we are facing these challenges, it’s important to redistribute wealth and power. In fact, without fair and democratic societies there will be no sustainable societies. The relationships between human beings and their relationship with other beings, are all necessarily interrelated.

So to illustrate, it’s not the moment to fight for jobs in mines, or to invest heavily in renewable energies, it’s not the moment to fight for more subsidies for the farm worker who is part of the agro-industrial system, but instead to go for ecological agriculture. It’s not the time to invest in large-scale transport and communication, but rather to encourage it on a more local level; not to zone more land off for development, but rather to start the ordered dismantling of the big cities.

The institutional and social idea that we are proposing, the “state of emergency” aims to make the unthinkable, plausible. It is the only thing which is capable of focusing collective forces in the important issues and not in those issues which are secondary or counterproductive. There are historical precedents which show the force of this perception. For example, during the Second World War this happened in the UK and the USA, which allowed people to voluntarily reduce their consumption, urban nurseries came about and  there was a move towards using alternative energy sources. In general, societies and institutions worked together (such a shame it was wartime).

But we are miles away from such an idea, so much so in society as in the institutions. How, then, could it come about?


Sensitising out of necessity

Trying to popularise the idea of a state of emergency (albeit a gentle version) has been one of the main aims of the work of the ecologist movement. I think it is the moment to confront our failure. We have not managed to avert the collapse of cilivilisation nor of the ecosystem. In this way this sensibility will probably arrive out of necessity. That is to say, as the bankruptcy of the environment and social economics becomes more evident. Perhaps this  work which has cost us so much effort is now not worth carrying on with. Not because it’s not important, but because it’s not very effective and, above all, because there are other more urgent tasks that we need to dedicate our attention to.

Of course this is not good news. “Sensitising out of necessity” will create social desperation and desperation is a very bad companion of emancipatory social change. In the face of despair, a fundamental element is to help give security to the population. There are three elements which can help towards this end.

In the first place, we feel more secure if, although we can’t help what happens, at least we could understand it. In this way, it’s fundamentally important to help people build a framework of understanding which includes a holistic view of the systemic crisis. The analysis and explanation of what happens is much more than an intellectual act. It is a mechanism of security.

The second idea is that we need emotions which can rise above desperation, which give flight to hope, which is fundamentally important. This is the reasoning behind the success of slogans such as “Yes we can” (used by the Spanish anti eviction movement) and “Another world is possible”, which were able to knock the neoliberal lode stone of “there’s no alternative” off its spot.

Hope is not built on nothing, it needs reasons to thrive. And there are reasons: i) History is full of examples in which the unexpected has happened. The unexpected goes against the statistical odds of occurring, but it has a solid base[4]. ii) Human beings are powerful generators and creators, who are capable of many important actions. In addition, humans are incredibly adaptable. They are like a mother cell which can either become a tumour or a heart. iii) In spite of recent human history, which is full of brutal acts and the promotion of dubious values, such as those of war or domination, the human being, even during the worst times for cooperation or altruism, has shown these types of behaviour. In fact, the basis of social reproduction is in these works, which have much more to do with love than hate. At the very least, a deep part of the human psyche looks for and yearns for goodness and a harmonious relationship with the rest of the species and its environment. iv) Crises, as well as pain, can also bring hope. It means a rapid personal and social catharsis. Alien and complicated processes are understood and shut out. The change makes sense. Similarly, crises provoke changes to the old ways of doing things. They stop working and stop having credibility. They give way to new ideas. v) In this crash that we are starting to experience, a basic element of survival will be that we work as a collective. The collective isn’t necessarily a liberator (it could be at the cost of other groups), but it could be because, among other reasons, it requires the development of empathy. vi) Humanity is heading in a direction which is of a lower, reduced order, and smaller groups can change more rapidly and are potentially more democratic. We could say the same about societies with less energy available which are reliant upon renewables. And of those in which technology is simpler and of easier access to everyone. Besides this, there will be a more diverse set of social organizations, which will give the opportunity for at least some of them to overcome the domination and become more easily reproducible references.

But the greatest source of security for most people is being able to live in dignity. In this way it’s most important that social services are sustainable wherever possible in the face of a state with fewer resources thanks to the deep crisis. But on top of that, in the measure that the state and the market are being more and more incapable to provide basic services, it’s essential to create new institutions, in alternative ways, so that people can live a dignified life.


Construction of economies and viable societies in collapsed world

A first question is what can we expect from state institutions and from the new non-state institutions created by social movements in future scenarios? The proposal would be that the role of state institutions would be to facilitate, while the new institutions would be to do. Let’s see why.

The environment and values form a framework that social movements and elites are able to change through concrete actions that respond to human needs generating emotions that promote such change. If all the factors are joined, the acts make sense. And only when this sense arises is the system of values matched with the feelings, acts with the thoughts, and people are moved to act because they want to act rather than being obliged to. What makes sense to people is likely to launch more thought and action. The creation of new contexts in life is not just needed to keep a normal life while all around is collapsing, but also it’s needed to change people. Without direct participation, without experiencing new ways of social relationships, there can be no social changes. Changes don’t come from above, from politicians or from institutions. But they have to come from below, from people organising. Societies are the engines of change, whereas the institutions are the catalytic converters.

The second reason is that the creation of new institutions, of alternatives, has a different logic and tries to build on other bases from those existing ones, which are more or less based on power relationships. The management of a state needs majorities of people to run, and therefore relies on bodies of society which are more or less homogenous. However, the creation of institutions doesn’t have to be state-centric. There’s no need to convince wider society that everybody does the same as them, there’s no need to organise a ruling body; it’s enough that it works, if it has sufficient strength, from being independent, co-existing in an easier manner with other ways of society’s organization. Of course, it needs clear limits within this globalised world, in which there are such wide differences in wealth, an inequality never known before and marked by such events as the climate change, which has an effect planet-wide. From there, it seems a good idea to learn from the actions of the Zapatistas, who built their economic, educative, political and health-sytem autonomy by coexisting with other communities that weren’t Zapatistas. Transition towns will be an initiative on this side of the Atlantic which have similar logic.

Finally, the bet on taking and redistributing power (to create new institutions) instead of merely taking power, has as its ontological base, confidence in human behaviour. It considers that we are capable of voluntary, rather than imposed, coexistence, an idea that doesn’t reduce the ability of the institutions to continue behaving like catalysts of these changes. This faith in human nature to be able to live in harmony with others and with the environment (of course, conflicts cannot be avoided) is essential for liberating social change. On top of that, there will be no democratic society if there are no democratic methods.

In this way the creation of new institutions, of alternatives, is imperative. For this to happen there is a series of requirements. We see these in the economic plan.

A first requisite is that these alternatives have to be autonomous: it’s the only way they can survive. The working world, of course, is fundamental as in the capitalist scheme, salaries have kept people tied down. If the main argument that ecologists have had to suffer has been the loss (or creation, depending on the case) of jobs, it’s because it’s a very real argument. In contrast, social movements in rural environments have been able to resist to a greater extent, among other things because they have been more independent of the salaried world when they have their own land and tools. From this point of view, the new cooperativity plays a central role.

A company needs a group of factors to function: work to do, natural resources (energy or raw materials), and finance, technology, organization and a minimum of corporate-cooperation (of feelings of belonging to a corporation for those who work there). In addition, we should add the work of care for people and the physical environment. The neoclassic economy had it that these factors were all interdependent and in concrete, the capital (financial resources) was the key element which could always substitute for all the rest. This isn’t true. You can’t produce anything without material or energy, or make money without the help of workers (including those in care tasks). However, it is possible to substitute them partially. This is one of the key points which allows the growth of solidarity companies. A large amount of cooperation within its ranks, and with other companies like it (starting with domestic economy) will allows them to survive financial, materials, energy and technologies shortages which will be characteristic of this stage. For example, an organized group of workers can create mechanisms of credit of their own (cooperatives, mutual bodies, social financial bodies), can replace fossil fuel with human energy, save and recycle resources understood as a common, and generate technologies based on biological materials and low energy consumption. Cooperation of this type has a fundamental role as it allows for more efficient, meaningful work for the workers.

Another reflection on this alternative is that in times of major change, times in which we don’t know where we are going, an intelligent strategy (the same as nature uses for survival) is to maximise diversity. Make the most alternatives that we can have means that one will be successful.

We don’t have only to create many, we also have to up the scale. Consumer groups (in which organic farmers and consumers are put in direct contact) are very interesting initiatives, but they don’t cater for large groups. These jumps of scale, which are already taking place in various fields, will emerge from the aggregation of small experiences that get together the critical mass to these qualitative changes. They will have to create mechanism which generate confidence, such as social- or eco- labelling, to prove quality. They will also have to be capable of saving the collective money or resources and create economies of scale, although they might be small, or work with social currencies. In addition they will have to make collective decisions in direction, at least, at a medium level, something which the authoritative traditional model does much more easily. In addition, the decommodification of social relations is necessary, following the example of the labor movement, which attained victories thanks to public services (in part).

But this collapse we’re talking about isn’t a sudden occurrence, but rather a process, for which the construction of alternatives requires us to facilitate the context in which it may function.

Stop the social and environmental collapse

In the transition, we will need to take action over issues which date back to the 20th century, but which will not exist in the 21st century. For example, in a few decades’ time it won’t be a case of fighting against free trade agreements between states, because transport will be so expensive that it will short-circuit, quite literally, global trade. But in today’s world, this fight is essential. We have to carry on with some of the campaigns that we started back in the past century.

But our mode of action needs to be more apt for the 21st century. We need to learn from the successes of groups such as that of the Spanish Platform for those Affected by Mortgages, which, apart from some problems, has known how to combine an open identity with the creation of a strong social legitimacy in its actions. It has also changed somewhat accepted social and personal paradigms, calling seriously into question formerly accepted issues such as the payment of debts.

In addition we need to deal with the 21st century reality of the economic crash which increases every day. One implication of this is that the campaigns for the creation of the new and already named socio-economic systems need to connect up urgently. One second implication is probably that time is on our side. In the 20th century, battles which carried on for a long time produced a great waste which on many occasions was a central element in their own defeat. But in the 21st century, there are more opportunities to win these battles quickly, as business as usual will make much less sense in a context of bankruptcy of global capitalism.


Going back to the beginning, “how much worse, worse”?

The initial thesis with which the text began may be questioned, because it is not so clear that the option of rapid and early collapse is not the most desirable from a macro view. This would look pretty much like “how much worse, better.” Rapid and early collapse would allow ecosystems to degrade less. This is especially evident in climate change. It is now when there is still a possibility that positive feedback loops will not be triggered and a very strong and accelerated reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is essential for this to happen. This rapid and early collapse would allow ecosystems to resemble the present ones. At the ecosystem level, the results would be more or less equivalent to what could be achieved if the “state of emergency” named above were implemented[5].

But this equivalence would be only at the ecosystem level, much less at the social level. A rapid and early collapse would increase the degrees of social suffering and the possibility that the orders that emerged were based on new authoritarianism or fascism.

Viewed in this way, neither of these two options are desirable from the human point of view (not so for most other living beings, who would clearly “prefer” rapid and early collapse). Therefore, it is even more important that we are able to make the “state of emergency” a reality and we can implement a whole series of consequential policies.


[1]  We have done it in Fernández Durán, R .; González Reyes, L. (2014): En la espiral de la energía. Libros en Acción and Baladre. Madrid.

[2]  Actually, the first two challenges are inevitable transitions that will happen in any case in the collapse we are experiencing. There is no energy to sustain industrial metabolism over time. But it will not be the same as societies are able to minimally sort these transitions or that they are chaotic and out of desperation.

[3]  Some of these loops would be the release of methane contained in frozen ground (permafrost) and the ocean floor, and the melting of large white regions.

[4}   The 15 of May movement came about due to sociological conditions although people didn’t see it coming.

[5]  Only more or less, for example, agrosystems would destabilize without human intervention. For them, a more orderly collapse would be preferable.


Teaser photo credit: By Ramón Fornell –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Luis González Reyes

Luis González Reyes is the author of In the Spiral of Energy with R. Fernández Durán and a member of  ecologistas en acción.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization, social movements