When Things Fall Apart: Global Weirding, Postnormal Times, and Complexity Limits

When Things Fall Apart: Global Weirding, Postnormal Times, and Complexity Limits

Christopher Burr Jones (Walden University, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7727-0.ch007


The chapter addresses the challenges facing first responders and public administrators due to accelerated warming, global weirding, and the limits to complexity. Similarly, these same challenges are also likely to have an impact on the ability of governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations to implement and realize the sustainable development goals and their 169 targets. The chapter focuses on the state of critical infrastructure, primarily in the USA, and the maintenance and sustainability of the physical systems of energy distribution, transportation, communication, and other basic services that support economic development and social systems. The chapter posits the need to explore these themes through the lens of futures studies and the need to envision and create preferred futures.
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Broadly, this chapter explores the tension between the forces of positive evolution of our species and planet and the entropic forces of chaos and uncertainty. It draws on the work of futures studies and assessments of the state of play in the building, maintenance, and stability of physical infrastructure. Infrastructure is a key indicator of social commitment to economic and social development in the medium-term future, so it has emerged as a concern in the research literature (American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE], 2017; Kemp 2017; Marcuson, 2008; Zimmerman, 2009) and it’s resilience in the face of climate change (Katz, 2017; Rapaport et al., 2015; Repetto & Easton, 2010). With some few exceptions, futurists have been reluctant to consider the consequences of broader societal collapse (Gidley, 2017; Slaughter, 2004, 2010). While there may be resistance to take a doom and gloom view, it may be time to consider some of the broader consequences of Decline and Collapse futures, if as some have argued, we have passed a tipping point in the Earth’s carrying capacity (Caton, 1982; Kolbert, 2014). But I argue that threats to civilization need to be considered in a broader context, not as an acceptance of doom and gloom, but as part of a transition to a desirable, sustainable future. The challenge may be to envision and realize wise, ethical, and good futures particularly in the face of pessimism about growing environmental degradation (Lombardo, 2017).

One central driving force in global weirding is the accelerating warming of the Earth's atmosphere, which may continue to rise until it reaches a new state of dynamic thermal equilibrium, as suggested in Lovelock's (1995, 2009a, 2009b) Gaia theory. The approach of this paper is informed by the futures studies tradition, particularly the alternative futures typologies, i.e., the Four Futures, of Dator (2009a), and shares many of the other assumptions of academic future studies (Bell, 1997; Dator, 1995; Gidley, 2017).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Gaia Theory: The idea that Earth’s biosphere is a cybernetic, homeostatic system that tends to create and sustain conditions favorable for life. Gaia theory describes a process of balance that has been in place for millennia and that maintains a thermodynamic equilibrium and long-term geochemical cycles (i.e., oxygen, CO 2 ).

Post-Normal Times/Theory: A theory that there is a transition period between “normal” societal states, characterized by complexity, chaos, and contradiction.

Futures Studies: A cross-disciplinary field that evolved from state planning, technological forecasting, normative futures, and post-colonialism that addresses possible, probable, and preferred futures. Futures studies posits that there is no single future, but that many possible alternative futures exist, that the future cannot be predicted, and that visioning preferred futures play a role in creating alternative futures.

Accelerated Warming: The idea that global heating is a “runaway train,” based on the idea that atmospheric levels of CO 2 and other greenhouse gases will continue rise, even with aggressive climate change mitigation. It also posits that other feedback mechanisms, such as ocean thermal expansion, methane releases, and albedo changes will exacerbate positive feedback processes, further warming the planet.

Sustainable Futures: The idea that there are preferred, alternative futures, that are based on different normative values and assumptions that are not based on the assumptions of growth, economic development, and materialism. These futures are based on other values, such as spirituality, personal and emotional development, and other non-material measures of “growth” and “progress.”

Peak Complexity: The idea that all societies and civilizations have natural limits to complexity and diversity. The idea is based on the observations of past societal collapse based on the inability of those societies to adapt to environmental, economic, and demographic growth. At some point, marginal improvements decline and energy costs grow resulting in decline and collapse of social and/or economic systems.

Global Weirding: The idea that global warming is not simply about rising global temperatures, but about the concomitant emergence of variable and freakish weather, including extreme weather events, drought, dust storms, ice storms, hurricanes, and other atypical weather and geophysical events.

Four Futures: The futures studies methodology that uses futures typologies (Business As Usual, Collapse, Disciplined, and Transformational societies) as tools to explore possible alternative futures, developed by Jim Dator, the Institute for Alternative Futures, the RAND Corporation, and SRI International to capture the dominant images of the future in literature and popular culture.

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