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  Number 359 | Junio 2011
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International

2010-2030: The end of a World

On May 10, as we gave our printer Chapter 5 of the extensive, committed and enlightening book, The Anthropocene: The Ecological Crisis Goes Global, its author, Ramón Fernández Durán, died in Madrid at 64. In memory of his lucid mind and his sensitive heart, we’re publishing extracts from his last book —a warning about the end of “a world”— and excerpts from his farewell letter to his friends.

Ramón Fernández Durán

The “world of 2007” has ended. It no longer exists as such and shall never return. It’s a “world” that is slowly falling apart before our very eyes, without our realizing it. We’re at a turning point in history; not yet aware of an enormously significant bifurcation, or only minimally so. Profound economic, geopolitical and cultural changes are taking place, many of them still below the surface, which will forcibly burst out in the next two decades but for now are still hidden, especially from those in the vast majority of the world’s societies who don’t want to see them, conditioned by messages from their power structures and the global village.

In some societies the transformations are already emerging with unusual force—widespread revolutions and rebellions throughout the Arab World, a strategic area of global importance—and throwing into profound crisis an order petrified for over 50 years, thus generating unfore¬seeable trends and consequences.

The end won’t be like a Hollywood movie

The forces that will suddenly bring the mutations into the light and intensify them further are rapidly and powerfully taking shape behind the scenes and haven’t yet openly shown themselves, except to a tiny social minority that wants to see them. Initially, these forces are none other than the gradual depletion of fossil fuels or the incipient end of the cheap energy era. Later, the Earth’s ecological limits will materialize to decelerate the “endless” deployment of today’s Global Capitalism and Industrial Civilization.

It’s the Earth’s limits of both inputs (depletion of resources) and outputs (saturation and alteration of sinkholes) that are involved in an ecological catastrophe unprecedented in humanity’s history, everyday adding more forcibly to the internal imbalances and the escalating economic and socio-political imbalances generated by the deployment—and the crises—of the forces of capital on a global scale. These ecological limits—specifically the depletion of resources, most especially of fossil fuels—are what will undoubtedly put an end to this unbridled race.

During the extraordinary period between the collapse of real socialism’s Eastern Empire (1989-91) and the Wall Street crisis (2007-08), it seemed that the Western Empire was consolidating and expanding its global reach in a definitive manner, inaugurating a kind of vacation from history, a continuous present. The more streamlined high-tech industrial system—flexible, consumerist, “democratic” and glamorous—succeeded in imposing itself and swallowing up the other, clumsier, bureaucratized, extremely repressive and, above all, colorless system, with its shortages of goods and services.

The American political scientist and author Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama coined the phrase “the end of history” (1992) to describe the worldwide triumph of global capitalism’s Western-liberal model. But it was all a temporary illusion sponsored by over 20 years of cheap, very cheap energy, by the era of the cheapest energy in history resulting from the spectacular fall in oil prices in the 1980s, which also encouraged the key incorporation of “communist” China into the new global capitalism, reinforcing globalization.

The new global capitalism wouldn’t have been feasible without the incorporation of China, the new “world factory,” along with the factories in all the Global South’s peripheries, with their immense, cheap and overexploited work force and their various abundant resources. It also required the substantial new cheap immigrant work force that moved from the periphery to the central countries and to the Global South’s emerging centers. All this also allowed it to destroy workers’ power in the central areas and the consumer society and global village to conquer the human soul.

The onset of the world financial crisis, with its epicenter in Wall Street, showed us that it was all just a passing, evanescent facsimile even though its impacts were tremendously real. We could say that the Wall Street crisis is doing for global capitalism what the fall of the Berlin Wall did for real socialism. It’s been the spark that has triggered a multidimensional and growing global crisis and a disparate societal collapse, one that has been incubating at least since the beginning of the new millennium. The collapse of global capitalism and the consequent gradual collapse of industrial civilization won’t be a sudden process, like a Hollywood movie. It’ll be slow, with ups and downs, but also with significant and unstoppable ruptures, which have already started.

From me back to we
in order to survive

In the last 30 years the inexorable development of the consumer society, the society of image, communication and entertainment, has involved an appalling leap in the dynamics of social individualization, adding to but far outstripping others from the past. In the highly urbanized central areas new, highly destructured, intensely individualistic, multicultural mass societies have been formed and set in uncaring hedonism. The few truly communitarian structures that remain are principally centered in certain ethnic and immigrant groups.

These mass societies are very different from those existing in the early 20th century in the industrialized countries, which were highly combative and, generally largely homo- geneous in ethnic composition. In them, the individual I was largely diluted into a powerful and antagonist we, protagonist of the class struggle.

Now the social landscape is very different: more or less internally conflictive but not antagonist in class terms. There is an unprecedented, widespread moral collapse, in which things won’t get worse because, despite everything, mutual care support structures still survive, especially for the nuclear family in crisis and for women, community structures and some other social links and intercommunity bridges, some of which are promoted by the State, often through NGOs. All these structures ensure that the situation won’t degenerate even further into a possible war of all-against-all.

But global capitalism’s collapse, which has already begun although still below the surface, will bring far-reaching changes to the social dynamics of the last 30 years. When this breakdown intensifies in the next two decades we will witness a depletion in the so far inexorable expansion of the I, as increasingly the community, the we, and not the individual, will be the basic unit of survival.

This dynamic could be promoted—as is already happening in certain cases—by governments and power structures themselves, as a way of segmenting society, although not exactly along class lines, fomenting a war of all-against-all among those below to avoid them questioning the hierarchies and power politics. That segmentation is being done through nationalism, sports spectaculars, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and feminicide. It’ll also be a dynamic generated and promoted from below, as a way of redefining social relationships in order to better endure harsh living conditions and even to survive.

There will be different ways to build a we, which will become increasingly necessary. Some will be promoted and manipulated from above, while others will be driven from below and could be more emancipating in character. However, in defense of their lands, ethnic communities and ways of life, people could also develop into strong and exclusive identity-centered dynamics: into “killer identities,” as the Lebanese author, Amim Maalouf, calls them.

The construction of different forms of we will be based on existing raw materials from the different social forms of I: income, age and ethnic and cultural identity. It will probably be difficult, even very difficult, to weld together the different rifts among the groups, which could result in the construction of various largely exclusive or conflictive forms of we, easily manipulated by power. In this context, age differences could acquire a renewed meaning of rupture and conflict.

The two most affected generations

In the central areas, the generations that will fully experience the scenarios of profound crisis of the coming twenty years cover a range of ages: ranging roughly from the 1968 generation, which is gradually coming to the end of its active work life, to the one called the “most prepared generation in history,” which is just starting out. The generation prior to that of 1968 is now retired and will increasingly be a passive spectator to the momentous changes that will occur, observing them from the other side of the generation gap and knowing that they’ll be affected more tangentially—especially in pensions and health coverage—as they are now ending their life cycle.

The 1968 generation is the one that has most enjoyed fossil fuels, specifically oil, because during their lifetime—my lifetime—we’ll have used almost half of all the Earth’s non-renewable energy resources. In the next two decades we’ll be in the third and fourth age, still enjoying the last remnants of the Welfare State, by then in firm and fast decline. Although we have lived in oil opulence, we could end our lives in penury, generally having started from a good base as many of us are home owners or have a fixed or even occasionally government-paid rent and still receive state assistance.

The next two generations, those now in their forties and fifties and those now in their twenties and thirties, will have to bear the brunt of the impact from global capitalism’s collapse. In 2030, the generation being born now will be just 20 years old and thus just beginning adult life, and will do so in a context of profound crisis as today’s global capitalism will have crashed and the industrial civilization will be starting its long decline. Furthermore, they’ll have spent their youth in a context of massive crises. It’ll be a generation born into the Ecocide Era.

The “most prepared generation in history”

The generation that’s now just opening its eyes on the world will be very different from its two predecessors, those whom global capitalism’s collapse will affect to the full. Both generations are very poorly prepared to deal with what lies ahead. Those now in their forties or older, who, until now, have enjoyed consumption and opulence to a greater or lesser degree, will suffer the most from the destruction of fixed wage employment, which they still have, and reduced social spending. Certainly, they won’t be able to enjoy the welfare state any more at the end of their working life because by then it will have passed on to a better life.

The next generation, the one now entering adult life and considered “the best prepared generation in history,” will probably be the one to take the heaviest blow. Global capitalism’s collapse will come as a totally unexpected surprise because they—together with those over 30—are already enduring extremely precarious situations when they were promised quite the opposite. Furthermore, many of them are now drowning in debt from housing or higher education loans and/or are living in precarious and expensive rented accommodations, which is why many are deciding to stay in the family home.

This is the Peter Pan generation, the one that doesn’t want to grow up, because they feel good just as they are. Taking refuge in the family nest allows them to continue accessing consumption, motorized mobility and the information and entertainment society to which they dedicate hours. But this situation will fester and worsen and the arduous and costly education they have received will almost certainly not help them at all, as the current education system can’t adapt to the new needs and requirements of a profound crisis and is quite dysfunctional in dealing with them.

Times of great conflict

The future will surely be even worse for today’s adolescents, who have grown up immersed in the information society, frantically participating in social networks and devoting disproportionate attention to cyberspace, which makes them confuse reality with fiction. They live immersed in the amazing, unreal world of virtual reality.

They’re like very demanding little emperors because of their education: both from the pre-opulence generations and from the image, communication and entertainment society, which conceals from them the real, social and environmental world’s savage deterioration and imbues them with egocentric hedonism and a lack of empathy with others. They’re the perverse result of today’s society. They’re not directly to blame and, together with those who are now 20 to 50 years old, are the ones who going to suffer all the consequences of global capitalism’s collapse.

This atrocious drift will undoubtedly produce great tensions and conflicts between the younger generations most affected by this collapse and the older ones that have enjoyed a more comfortable existence and state pensions, albeit declining ones, and will continue to enjoy them to a greater or lesser extent while the others won’t have them. In addition, years of lower birth rates, delayed maternity and the increasing aging of the central countries’ populations are exacerbating this situation as the younger generations will have to take care of their elders in far worse conditions than before, with the nuclear family in crisis and with an increasingly aging society.

Such inter-generational conflicts will be common within the central countries’ native-born populations but they will still have far more resources and rights available to them than the younger, more impoverished immigrant populations who have no rights, or than the underprivileged, native-born young people living in the slums.

For all that, however, the women within each generation are unquestionably the ones who will suffer the most from this situation given the (neo) patriarchal nature of these societies and the profound crisis in the Welfare State, which will especially affect them.

Only some of these aspects can be extrapolated worldwide as situations vary enormously in different parts of the world, especially in the new emerging centers and in the Global South, based on how the international division of labor affects them, differences in the peripheral center(s) and the urban-rural divide. Furthermore, the Global South is still generally experiencing considerable demographic growth, although with significant differences in birth rates, in which one of the areas of greatest population growth has been the Arab World. From there large contingents of young people leave for the privileged worlds of the central countries and new emerging centers.

Population and migration dynamics will be phenomenally complex in the next two decades, most probably peppered by the massive new problem presented by the foreseeable abrupt halt in global demographic expansion and the compulsory start of population decline by 2030, as well as by the environmental refugees’ new migratory trends instigated by climate change. All these dynamics could occur in conjunction and will condition and further complicate possible socio-political responses to new situations generated by global capitalism’s collapse.

A past that will never return

Future projections of the late 19th and early 20th century, at the height of the industrial revolution, were that progress, modernity, urbanization, industrialization, motorization and even revolution would bring about all the hoped-for changes. In recent years we’ve shifted from that optimistic future vision to living bound into a continuously discouraging present, in no mood to look to the future. Without acknowledging it explicitly, the future seems dire.

And now that the future has exploded in the present, we’re forced to look back, to the past—to where something, or a lot, was achieved, although in only a few places in the world—in order to be able to tentatively advance towards a more complex and also disheartening future, conserving the most positive features of what was achieved. Looking back, however, is largely futile as the more or less recent past, or even something like it, will never return again.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t struggle for some of the social and cultural achievements gained. But almost no one knows what’s coming and, through fear or because it could shake our deepest held convictions, no one really wants to look into the future.

That’s why we take refuge today in this short-sighted vision of the past. Perhaps we need to look even further back, to the world before the Industrial Revolution, to the world prior to the formation of the global urban-agro-industrial system, to see where we came from and where we could possibly return as we run out of fossil fuels. But we need to do it knowing that nothing returns to how it was, that the future can never be recreated the same way it was before and that the future will also depend on what we do, as nothing is written.

We must imagine the future

As William Catton tells us in his book Bottleneck: Humanity’s impending Impasse: “Our species is simply not sufficiently wise to deal with the world we have created.” Perhaps more to the point is that part of our species, or more precisely its system—global capitalism and the industrial civilization accompanying it—seems incapable of dealing with the monster they’ve created. That’s why it’s crucial to face reality and dare to imagine the future, at whatever cost. It’ll also be the way to understand where we can go, or are being taken, and how and when we could affect a drift that’s largely overwhelming us. It’s important for us to imagine the future because that’s exactly what the major business and state structures do to try to anticipate and condition it.

It’s time for those of us who are advocating a profound change in the urban-agro-industrial system to also do this, breaking with capital’s perverse logic without perhaps really knowing what it involves. We must imagine the future, mindful that the logic of capital can’t really be broken, at least over the next twenty years. Very probably the limits of energy, the resource and ecological limits more than social struggles are what will break the back of capital’s logic, which affects everyone and in which we’re all immersed to a greater or lesser extent, as we can’t escape it. We must be vigilant and also understand that what follows could be far worse than what we’re “enjoying” today, although that will always depend on what we do.

Where to look?

Current global capitalism’s collapse, and the subsequent collapse of the planet’s regional capitalisms, will bring genuine relief to the un-modernized and un-industrialized worlds of peasants and indigenous peoples, currently subject to capital’s active harassment. These people will best survive this collapse and long decline of industrial civilization.

This is why we need to look further back in order to see what these worlds have that has allowed them to survive for so long and co-exist so much better with Gaia; to appreciate their bio-cultural memory, recognizing that it is generally patriarchic because patriarchy has been projected into practically all the world’s cultures since their origins about 6,000 years ago and has tainted them all to a greater or lesser extent.

With that long backward look and analyzing the present and its possible projection into the near future without idealizing any aspect, we can see that exponential growth is nothing more than a transitory phenomenon of human history, a reality that has come to its end, as we are the only species so far to overcome—artificially—the ecological limits and, in our case, even the Earth’s limits. Some 500 years ago, before world capitalism’s expansion, no one could have thought of or imagined the world of today.

Nor can we predict that far ahead, because the current situation and its possible consequences are and will continue to be extremely fluid and changing. We already have some certainties and many uncertainties about how things will be in the coming decades and it’s imperative for us to dare to imagine them to be able to affect them. As the Zapatistas say: Only by imagining and asking do we go forward.

The above were extracts from Fernández Durán’s book La quiebra del capitalismo global: 2000 – 2030 – Preparándonos para el comienzo del colapso de la civilización industrial (The Collapse of Global Capitalism: 2000 – 2030 Preparing ourselves for the Start of the Collapse of Industrial Civilization), published in Spain two months before his death.

Excerpts from his farewell letter
I’m somewhat sorry to depart at this point, when history appears to be accelerating. After we were warned of the “end of history” in the late 1990s, it’s once again unrestrainedly moving forward within the framework of “happy globalization.” This new activation of history is increasingly determined by the energy, ecology and climate crisis that is threatening the Earth and its human societies. The energy crisis in the near term and, in particular, the beginning of the end of fossil fuels presumes a total historical rupture.

I also know that I have lived in an exceptional historical period, the quintessential decades of the Oil Era, and, furthermore, in the best possible conditions. In the last 60 to 70 years—those of my generation—the global urban-agro-industrial system has consumed virtually half the fossil fuels available on Earth. This can’t continue for much longer and we’re at the point of beginning the fossil energy decline.

In this letter, I wouldn’t like to leave unmentioned a meditation about my capacity to survive these last years and especially these last months, largely thanks to the existence of the hyper-technological society. Without it, I would most probably not still be here. As a critic of this hyper-technological society, and especially of its medium- and long-term unsustainability, I want to stress the contradiction I’m living. I want to emphasize how my daily survival depends on generating a very large amount of waste because, if the “average Joe” in our “throw away” society produces increasingly more and more waste, that amount is further multiplied in the case of a terminally-ill cancer patient like myself.

When I was in the hospital, I was amazed to see the amount of waste produced there: a real excess. And I thought about the possibility of treating the illnesses that afflict us less wastefully, using less energy and, especially, a simpler technology. But today’s mainstream medicine is a very important pivot of the same hyper-technological society that has made it possible to reduce mortality, especially in older people with serious or chronic illnesses, at the price of using large quantities of resources, elevated energy consumption and very sophisticated technology. All this won’t be possible in the future.

These thoughts, and all their implied contradictions, went through my mind in the hospital when I made the decision to stop chemotherapy. By my decision I tried to stop not only being a consumer in need of increasing care provided by others, but also a consumer of resources, energy and technology only possible in the increasingly unequal central areas of global capitalism, which is nearing its end.

I was privileged

The truth is that I feel privileged. First, for having been born and living in a well-to-do family in a Northern country, although this caused me many contradictions when I became an adult. Second, for being a child of 1968: that virtually universal, unprecedented time of historical breakdown that changed the lives of many of us who lived through it. And, third, because from that time on I became involved in very diverse political, social and ideological transformation processes, where I learned, along with their actors, new ways of living and being in the world, at the same time as we tried to change the existing power structures. They were exceptional times…

I still have some unfulfilled desires and aspirations that will now be impossible to realize, but I can accept that. And perhaps there’ll be some other time. I would have liked to make a long trip to Latin America with Ana, my wife, to better understand the reality of that enormous and magnificent land and its very diverse, militant and vibrant peoples. For us to be able to get close to the very rich experiments in social change that are taking place there and to share in their practices and hardships in order to enrich our minds. I would also have liked to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela. I would have loved to spend my last years in Córdoba, the city I love most and where I have very good friends. I longed for a lot in this last, dreaming stage of my life. But it will not be possible…

Ramón Fernández Durán was a member of Ecologists in Action, an engineer and an urbanist.

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