Dr. Kate Booth and Tristan Sykes co-founded the platform Just Collapse. In this wide-ranging episode they talk to Eric about justice and collapse as place-based phenomenon, overshoot and the Seneca effect, collapse risks in Hobart, Tasmania and Vermont, USA, collapse awareness and collapse acceptance, structural violence as collapse avoidance, and seeing overshoot ecology and justice as issues of accountability, among other things.
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Eric Garza: Welcome to the Quillwood Podcast, a show dedicated to helping you learn to navigate today's changing world. I am your host, Eric Garza.
Last episode took us on a journey through deep time that ended in the present. This episode explores our future with two people who created a unique and very timely platform. Dr. Kate Booth and Tristan Sykes co-founded Just Collapse, a platform that addresses risks of social collapse through the lens of justice. I will let them introduce themselves at the start of our conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
If you do enjoy this episode and want to support this podcast, there are a few ways you can do this. The first way is to subscribe so you don't miss future episodes, and so you can catch up on old ones. Another way, and perhaps the most important way, is to leave a five star review for episodes that you've enjoyed. This helps Quillwood Podcast episodes rise in search rankings and makes it easier for folks to find this podcast. Finally, consider sharing episodes that you've enjoyed with friends, including this one.
Before I queue up the conversation for this episode, know that Quillwood Podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Through Quillwood Academy I offer an array of online educational events. I just opened a reading and discussion group on the broad issue of overshoot, which I will spend a little bit of time talking about with Dr. Kate Booth and Tristan Sykes. Visit quillwood.org to learn more about Quillwood Academy and to register for events. You can also sign up for Quillwood Academy's newsletter there, too.
With all that out of the way, I hope you enjoy the conversation that I recorded with Dr. Kate Booth and Tristan Sykes.
Eric: Thanks Kate Booth and Tristan Sykes for joining me. I wanted to give the two of you space to introduce yourselves and your Just Collapse platform, so have at it.
Kate Booth: Thanks for inviting us, Eric, to have a conversation with you. It's very exciting. I'm Dr. Kate Booth. I'm one of the cofounders of Just Collapse, with Tristan. I've been some form of environmental activist from quite a young age because my parents were both involved in environmental activism. And the changes that have taken place in the world since the 1970s have led me to be a collapse activist. I'm also an academic at the University of Tasmania, as well.
Tristan Sykes: And I'm Tristan Sykes. Like Kate, I started early, but more in the peace movement side of things. My expansion into ecological awareness came as a teenager when I read Professor Paul Ehrlich's work and started exploring that. That's led into a combination of eco-social activism, that continued until my most recent efforts with the free Assange campaign, previously with Occupy and then with Extinction Rebellion, and now Just Collapse.
Kate: And Just Collapse is an activist platform that is dedicated to justice in the face of inevitable and irreversible global collapse.
Eric: I have had guests on to talk about different facets of collapse, and we don't always use that word. Some people are comfortable using that word, some people not so much. They have strategic reasons why they might try to avoid that. And we can certainly talk about your expectations for what collapse might look like, but one of the things I would love to start with, because I would say it's pretty unique to the platform you've created and your approach to this, is I would love to learn a bit more about what a just collapse might look like.
Tristan: I would say that this notion of an absolute justice I think is fantastical, and so trying to provide an archetypal or a singular vision of what justice is, or what a just collapse would be, would be kind of disingenuous. Justice will by its nature always be partial and relative. There is no absolute justice that we can attain. So a just collapse, in this context, we suggest that rather than a colonized or imperialist approach of saying, this is the Just Collapse that we envision for the whole world, we would suggest that the individuals and the ecosystems that make up this world, their relationship, wherever they are, that culture, that specificity, that involves the justice that takes place, on a place-based level, relative to the ecosystems and the cultures that surround it. So yeah, we don't have that sort of Leviathan approach to the notion of justice.
Kate: We considered we approach justice and collapse as both place-based processes in that collapse is happening now. It's happened before through history on smaller scales. But what we're talking about now is a global collapse. And there are global drivers to that. And there are similarities of how collapse might play out across across the world. But it's the specifics of it, what matters in day-to-day life, is place-based. Every place will, or is experiencing collapse differently. And as with justice, our responses need to be tailored differently to different places. So we try and maintain this open view of what a Just Collapse is. People sometimes describe to us what their idea of a just collapse is, which is fantastic, when it's rooted in local ecology or culture or circumstance. So in some ways, what we're trying to do is empower that local, more place-based response.
Tristan: I know that it's not necessarily terribly marketable, that people want that kind of grand vision. What's your grand narrative? But we just think that's kind of disingenuous, given the nature of the beast, the wicked problem that we're in.
Kate: So maybe we could talk a little bit about what a Just Collapse might look like in the place we know best, which is Hobart, at the southern end of Tasmania. We are a predominantly white, privileged society down here, community. Lots of people work in the public service, for example. University's a major employer. We've got shops, retail outlets stuffed with goods, some of which are essential, many of which aren't. We're a pretty classic Western Community down here.
Tristan: And networked.
Kate: We're completely dependent on global networks for a whole variety of things. We would see two possibilities of collapse kicking off in Hobart. We don't have a crystal ball, so who actually knows, but there are two things on on the horizon. One is that fire experts have modeled around the greater Hobart area and found that we're in the ideal position for a fire storm. That's not a normal wildfire, or a bushfire which can in some ways be managed and containable. This is basically a local scale, mass incendiary device going off that exceeds all capacity of emergency services to ameliorate or mitigate that. Some people have predicted 20,000 homes being lost in one fire event. That's a climate, ecologically driven collapse at our local scale.
The other side is because of the dependence on global supply chains, which often is quite hidden. You don't actually know about these complex relationships that's going on, in bringing basic goods and services into our lives, but as a small island, that's the other potential catalyst for a more tangible collapse locally.
Tristan: I just want to say something about the great you unifier, which is food production. Collapse, whether it's financial, economic, whether its socio-political, whether it's ecological, climate, biodiversity, whether it's a cascade of all of these all at once, the end result is pretty much the same. That's the issue around food, and how we sustain an enormous population with food under the circumstances. For Tasmania, it's important to to note that prior to colonization, there were only 10,000-20,000 people here. And at that time, before that collapse, we had intact ecological systems here, and we don't have those ecological systems...
Kate: And a stable environment...
Tristan: And we won't have a stable climate, and we don't have a stable climate, and it's becoming more unstable. So this notion that somehow this is a little lifeboat at the other end of the world from where all the action is, is just nonsense. It's just nonsense, and those notions need to be quashed, because it's not going to play out that way. Sorry.
Kate: Getting back to the idea of what a Just Collapse means in this local context, by way of example. Other people in other places might be able to think through different scenarios and circumstances where they are. But in terms of the fire storm, there are people we know who live in the most at risk parts of greater Hobart, and on higher fire danger days—so the government puts an alert out, there's a very high chance or extreme chance of bushfire—people we know who have the risk knowledge, the educational capacity, the lifestyle capacity, leave their homes deliberately for the day, and spend the day at the beach or spend the day at the office or somewhere out of the risk zone. Now in terms of a just collapse, for greater Hobart, we would be looking at, under an ideal circumstance, making that knowledge and capacity to remove yourself from the highest risk areas more generally available. So lots of people don't have this knowledge, or they don't have the physical capacity, or the employment capacity just to go somewhere else for a day. So small example, but yeah.
Tristan: Can I ask a question of you, Eric? I'm just wondering, what would that be like for Vermont, where you are?
Eric: I was actually just gonna go there, so that is a perfectly timed question. Just to back up a little bit, in Vermont, prior to the arrival of Europeans, I think they estimated there were probably 5,000-10,000 people living in what is today within the political boundaries of the state of Vermont. And today we have 625,000. So almost 100 times more people. Obviously, it's a big difference. That is kind of the challenge. And like you said with Tasmania, the ecosystems were very different here prior to the arrival of Europeans such that with the pre-colonial intact ecosystems in what we today call Vermont, that 5,000-10,000 people was probably a pretty realistic carrying capacity. Whereas today, having clear cut the state, certainly once and in many cases twice, and grazed the soil barren with sheep with a wool boom and bust cycle back in the 1800s, the entire state, as a landscape, is pretty downtrodden. And it looks pretty to people who don't know anything about ecology, and whose standards, whose baseline is a concrete jungle of a city, it looks pretty, but the state is, ecologically, very highly degraded. The whole state is.
If you cut off fossil fuels and all of the imported food... I think Vermont has the capacity right now, with fossil fuels and imported feed and imported fertilizers, to feed maybe 10 to 15% of its population. You cut off the imported food and you cut off all the inputs, and I'd be surprised if you could feed a couple thousand people in the state. So Vermont, as green and bucolic as it is, is operating way beyond its carrying capacity. And because of the degradation, the carrying capacity is probably far lower than what it had been prior to the arrival of Europeans. This is classic overshoot ecology, right? You have your carrying capacity and it gets exceeded. As you exceed it, because you're drawing down various key stocks, you're degrading the carrying capacity in lieu of that drawdown, and so the population decline when it happens, is it going to go beyond what it had been prior to the original overshoot because that old carrying capacity is not, if we can use the buzzword, sustainable anymore.
Tristan: I suppose in the context of overshoot we can say that, to some degree, there's the archetypal vision is to soften that Seneca cliff that arrives on the other side of overshoot. The longer we stay in overshoot, obviously the more degraded the biocapacity becomes. And returning to limits is a long, long way away, as you articulated around the situation in Vermont. The question is whether or not we can implement some planning to try to soften the effects of collapse as it continues to unfold, or whether or not we're going to continue in overshoot for as long as possible and then just drop off the Seneca cliff. So I suppose that's a sort of an overarching narrative, if people are looking for that kind of vision as it were.
Eric: You brought up Seneca cliff, and for the benefit of my listeners who might not be familiar with what that is, I first learned about it from Ugo Bardi's book, The Seneca Effect. He references I believe it was a Roman scholar named Seneca, maybe a Greek scholar, I don't exactly remember. It's basically the idea that a cycle of growth and collapse is not necessarily symmetric from one side to the other. You can have a growth cycle that has a particular slope, but there's a lot of evidence that in many natural collapse scenarios the downhill slope is not necessarily a mirror image of the uphill slope. It can be a lot steeper, and things can happen a lot faster. So for the benefit of folks who are unfamiliar with the Seneca effect, that's what this is referring to, the growth cycle might be more gentle in terms of its rate of change than the downhill slope that happens after.
Tristan: Thanks, Eric, that's perfect.
Kate: I described some of the potential triggers or pathways for collapse here. What about in Vermont? What are the risks or the threats, apart from destabilizing climate and ecological collapse?
Eric: Those are the big ones, right? The big overarching things? After that, what are the things that are unique to individual places? I think it's the relative lack of a lot of those other more local-scaled risks that causes people to see Vermont as a relatively safe place. Maybe there's been a wildfire here in the last 30 years. If there was, it was small and probably easily contained. I have no memory since I've lived here of anyone anywhere in the state losing a home to a wildfire. And there are fire towers in this state from when the forest was newly regrowing over 100 years ago, but to my knowledge they're just there for decoration now. Our precipitation levels in the state of Vermont are high enough—the mountain regions of Vermont are practically a temperate rainforest—so the likelihood of us seeing a wildfire is very, very small. And we don't really get tornadoes because we have so much topography—I don't know a lot about like the particulars of of that particular weather pattern, but it doesn't seem to be able to really materialize and hold the wind velocities here. So no wildfires, no fierce tornadoes. We're not a coastal state, so we don't get hurricanes. We might get a tropical storm, and we did have one that was somewhat significant a number of years ago, maybe there were one or two people who died, but it wasn't particularly dangerous.
When I think of risks in Vermont, the big thing that I think of is the trucks stop moving. Or they prioritize delivery of food and other important necessities to other places where they can get better prices for them, like New York City, or Chicago. Maybe the trucks are running, but they just choose to stop running to our brave little state. Brave Little State is a reference to a podcast that was produced about Vermont, by Vermonters that's associated with NPR. So I might say that over and over again, if you keep asking me Vermont questions.
Kate: Yeah, I think that's a really interesting observation, Eric, that we're not geographically a level playing field. I've got a social science background, so used to thinking about disparities in terms of social indicators like class or gender or income or disadvantage, but there's a geographical side of it as well. Some places, for better or worse or right or wrong, matter more than other places. And it's a conversation we were having yesterday, because Australia is a massive country. Most of the population is down the eastern seaboard. But there are people and communities scattered. How do you keep the trucks running and the supplies going across the entire continent? If you're not going to do that, then what are the alternatives?
Tristan: And I was just saying that I'd heard back in the day, back in the peacenik days, that plans to triage existed. I'm not sure what they are now, but what existed then for dealing with the crisis of a war, would be that we would sacrifice the top half of the country very, very quickly, and triage all the way back down to to Brisbane, which is midway up the eastern seaboard. So, yeah, that's just an example of how the sort of situation you describe in Vermont: Oh, Vermont, that's important. We'll send the trucks to New York. Yeah, I can see how that's potentially a reality. Interesting.
Eric: And in many respects, in Vermont we see that playing out sometimes already, where a number of farmers in the state of Vermont are producing various foodstuffs and, ag being what it is in Vermont, and in the United States, they need a very high per pound price in order for them to break even on like fancy cheeses or whatever. And people in Vermont can't afford to pay that. But people in Boston and New York City can. So we, in theory, produce enough food in the state to feed 10 to 15% of our population, or whatever that figure is, but a lot of that food that is produced is exported because the people in Vermont already are priced out of the market for the food that they grow.
In Vermont there are a lot of organic farms, and I've met several organic farmers who can't make enough from farming to afford their own food. They have to sell their food for money, and they're on food stamps. Food stamps are like a social safety net program that the United States—and they're not actually food stamps anymore, that's the old program, I think nowadays they are called SNAP benefits—but they're basically on social safety net programs to get food as organic farmers who then sell their crops for money to pay rent and bills. Stuff like that, I don't want to make light of it, but it almost sounds like a really bad comedy routine to talk about stuff like that. And it's real.
And the other thing I was thinking of too, about risks, and this is primarily an economic one, and we're already seeing this play out because of the COVID pandemic, but Vermont's economy evolved to be overwhelmingly dependent on tourism. And when the pandemic started—we get tourists from Canada, in Quebec especially, and we get tourists from all the big states around us, New York, Connecticut, farther south—when the pandemic happened, they closed the US-Canadian border—Vermont has border with Canada—and a big chunk of our economy just poofed out of existence because the people from Canada weren't coming down anymore to buy stuff. And then when they closed state borders to travel, another big chunk of the Vermont economy vanished. It wasn't a full-on collapse scenario because the federal government was funneling money to people through payments, and to the state to make up for lost revenues and fund all kinds of extra programs. But in a more challenging scenario where the federal government does not make up such a shortfall and tourists don't feel like they want to keep traveling for recreation, that, it seems to me, is another big risk in a state like Vermont that is so tourist dependent for its economy.
Kate: Lots of similarities between Vermont and Tasmania. We're heavily tourist dependent as well. And the pandemic took a major toll, and the government, two layers of government, stepped in with a range of support packages, financial support, and otherwise it really illustrates that, we say, we're in collapse now. And when you live in a comfortable part of the world, that feels a bit abstract and distant, really, but if you think about what happens when we stop having the ability to buy our way out of problems, which is what we're doing in countries like Australia, with the pandemic, and with the rolling floods that have just hit the east coast, we have the ability to buy our way out. So there are parts of the world, emphasizing that geographical variability, that have no capacity to buy their way out of issues. And they're experiencing some of the same dynamics that we've been describing but on a much more extreme level. I think there was data out of South Africa, basically they're importing all their food, residents spend 60% of their income buying food. That means a whole load of foods being exported out of Africa, not eaten by the locals. And the safety nets, depending on which part of the continent of Africa you're in, are various. It's not as strong as what we can currently take for granted.
Tristan: Yeah, to add on to that, I would say the Fragile States Index heavily represented African states within the Fragile States Index in terms of the most fragile nations on the planet, recognizing that many nations have already been decimated and collapsed. There are contemporary nations that are also right now in the throes of collapse. Sri Lanka's a recent addition to this, but the military industrial complex has left places like Afghanistan and Libya in a dreadful mess, and Lebanon is suffering an economic collapse. And, of course, we can't forget Palestine. So there is collapse, really writ large, happening to millions and millions and millions of people on the planet. And as Kate articulated, this first world privilege, sort of belies that so people aren't aware of the fact that collapse is happening right now. And at some point we won't be under that illusion anymore. That will be revealed. Collapse comes for all.
Kate: Something that we're very much focused on in Just Collapse at the moment, and other people in the collapse space as well, is working to shift collapse awareness to collapse acceptance. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Tristan: Yeah. So many people as you'd be aware, Eric, are collapse aware in that they're aware that there's this threat of collapse. It's abstract in that to them, and it's not happening, hasn't happened, hopefully will not happen. And we argue that, in fact, collapse has happened, collapse is happening, and there's more collapse to come. We define collapse acceptance as, within the context of collapse, rather than trying to stave off collapse, which we view as being quite maladaptive, really, so that there's a lot of busyness and action going on to try to prevent the inevitable results of overshoot from actually happening, but in fact, that's maladaptive, because that just continues business as usual and then leading to, potentially, to a more severe Seneca cliff at the other end. So in fact, many activists are working against the interests that they purport to represent. That's why we're saying that if you move out of collapse awareness, and recognize the reality, and become collapse accepting of that reality, that doesn't mean accepting that you like it, but accepting of the reality, then you can operate within that context of collapse in a non-maladaptive way that doesn't serve the interests of continuing business as usual by alternative means and maintaining infinite growth on a finite planet. Kate, you might want to add to that.
Kate: Yeah, I guess that's why we're running a campaign of Talk Collapse. So any opportunity we get, we encourage others, and ourselves, we talk about collapse. We are aiming to make it more normalized and not something that, as you mentioned at the start, some people don't like using the word collapse. And when we first kicked off, people were saying, Oh, no, don't use that word, you'll scare the horses, and no one will support you, or no one will be interested. And we were like, Yeah, but we want to talk. We want to keep it real. It is scary. That's a fact. So yeah, that's we're doing a lot of Talk Collapse as a way of trying to shift what, the word we use is Zeitgeist, away from this idea that it's just stop fossil fuels, and everything will be okay, collapse will be averted, into a more realistic space that's better informed by what the science is actually telling us is going on, and create a collapse acceptance that then underpins action in the context of collapse, that can deliver some more tangible outcomes than this hope that there's a bright green or a dark green future waiting for us.
Tristan: Fostering a collapse conscious citizenry is really important. Otherwise, planning for the collapse isn't really feasible. There's a fair amount of collapse consciousness raising or awareness raising that is necessary. And there is a lot of work that can be done, moving people from collapse awareness to to a genuine collapse accepting, collapse consciousness. From there, hopefully, lots of action for justice can take place, because there is a lot to do. People are under a misapprehension, that, in fact, collapse means that there is less to do, or even nothing to do, when in fact, we would say it's very much the opposite. There is everything to do.
Eric: There's a couple of threads that I want to spend some time on. One on accountability, and we'll come back to that. Before we go there, I want to build on what you just said, with how collapse is happening. And you named a bunch of countries and a bunch of places and earlier on you alluded to a colonized or an imperial approach to understanding collapse. And it seems to me that there's a really potent connection there that at least I want to explicitly say, and just acknowledge that wealthy countries—of which the United States where I live is certainly at the top of this heap in terms of doing what I'm about to accuse it of doing—but wealthy countries, especially our militaries, are actively engaged in making it easier to pilfer increasingly large other countries for resources that allow us to stave off collapse in the future, and kind of perpetuate this illusion that collapse is something that will happen in the future. I wonder if—I'm saying I wonder if, but I feel like I know the answer to this—but I suspect that making that ongoing imperialist and effectively colonialist enterprise visible is an integral part of collapse—you were using the word acceptance. Acknowledging the ongoing—I'm taking this directly from one of the four denials that the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective writes about—but acknowledging ongoing violence, and our complicity in it, I feel like for me, that's been a really big part of collapse thinking in general, whether we call it awareness or consciousness, or acceptance, or...
Kate: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head, Eric, because so much of our privilege and lives are based on death and destruction elsewhere, of people and cultures and other species and ecosystems as well. And trying to make that tangible to people is a really important part of collapse acceptance. Because there's not really a high moral ground left when you fully accept why we are sitting in a comfortable house, for example, in the woods, with a fridge full of food and comfortable clothes, and so on. There's not much high moral ground left. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to do. And a tangible way for me grappling with this is to think through supply chains. You pick up a single pen in the house, and the materials that have gone into that, the labor that has gone into a simple pen, there's at least five different components to it all made from resources that have come from other places, far flung places, and pollution that results from that.
Tristan: I would say structural violence has been in the nature of civilization since the dawn of civilization, really. Structural violence is part and parcel of the whole enterprise, whether that's slavery and colonization, or various genocides, or the ecological destruction wreaked upon landscapes, or it's the extinction of species. There's been so much violence, and continues to be so much violence, and a lot of that is hidden away from us, particularly those in the first world and who are, unfortunately, behind a lot of the violence as passive consumers. And I don't think that the answer is, as once was suggested—and I suppose I took up when I became vegan back in the 90s—is the notion that somehow we can consume our way out of the problem, that it's just by making correct choices, personal choices, that somehow we can remove ourselves from the structural violence that is inherent to the system. I don't think that's the case at all, that you can do that. It's just a deceit. The system itself is destructive. But it will end, relatively soon.
Kate: Not in a good way. So someone else asked recently, Well what to do doomers hope for? Because we prefer the words clear eyed realist to doomers, but doomers is a popular popular term. And one of the things doomers don't do is advocate for hope, just keep your fingers crossed and hope. But someone challenged us and said, Well, what do you guys hope for? And I responded with, Well, we hope we're completely wrong. We've got it all completely wrong. And despite the physics and other hard science, that we've misunderstood the situation. But then, if we have got it wrong, that means infinite growth on a finite planet continues and all the death and destruction and structural violence that goes with that continues. So where's the hope in that?
Tristan: It's just clearly nonsense that infinite growth on a finite planet can continue infinitely. It's also thermodynamics, etc. It's not possible.
Kate: So how hope wanes faster than it waxes in Just Collapse, however that doesn't mean we're not motivated, we don't have a sense of meaning and purpose.
Tristan: Yeah, can I say something about that?
Kate: Go for it.
Tristan: Because this is a real obstacle that we run across from time to time that you might be familiar with too, Eric. But there's this idea that because death is inevitable, we should just stop doing anything and just curl up and die. But in fact, nobody's ever done that. You'd never see a newborn baby and go, Oh, we might as well not feed that. What would be the point? It's going to die anyway. There's people who get diagnosed with a terminal illness, the great majority of them, to my knowledge, don't just suddenly go, Oh, well, I guess that's it then, I'll just go up to the big old tree with a rope and... In fact, there's no evidence at all the people just give up because collapse is inevitable. There's no evidence to support that at all, not to my knowledge anyway. But I'm happy for somebody to supply me with that information if they can, if they can demonstrate it.
Kate: Yeah, I think one of the challenging things about collapse acceptance for people is that it pops a lot of bubbles that underpin our culture, our cultural assumptions, that progress is inevitable, that things will move forward and upward. Even if there's a few hiccups along the way, progress is inevitable, things are getting better, will get better. I'm not across the literature on death denial, but I know that our culture has this idea of ignoring death and hoping it will go away despite all the evidence, the daily evidence, that's not the case. This means we're ill equipped to make that switch, or that move culturally into thinking Okay, we do all die eventually, and not necessarily in good or pleasant ways. So what can we do between now and then? What do we do?
Eric: It's feels to me like what you're bringing up is, How do we, in challenging topics like collapse, how do we engage with some of the very basic responses that are hardwired into people's nervous systems, like the freeze response, for example, which it can be more activated "deer in the headlights" kind of a freeze, or it can be this very sullen apathy that emerges when the person talks about collapse, again, and all the different ways that denial can emerge and be used as a way to escape from those triggering topics. I feel like I face that very same thing—and not even know how to talk about collapse in order to rouse some of those denial mechanisms—I teach a course on climate adaptation, and even just talking about the fact that bigger and more fierce wildfires and droughts is a real thing that you will experience in your lifetime, I can say that to a roomful of 20 year olds and if they don't vocalize their denial, you can see it in their eyes that they're checking out. It's real issue, and I feel like we can develop all the terminology we want but at the other end of the spectrum, the people who are receiving this information, or could potentially receive this information, part of the responsibility lies on them to build in themselves the capacity to stay with the trouble, if I can steal Donna Haraway's book title, and not go into those instinctive responses of self protection where we go into some form of denial, or dissociate, or check out.
Kate: I think it's really important, but we can't underestimate how difficult emotionally that can be. We're immersed. We talk about collapse all the time, communicating with other people about it all the time. Being honest, I need to check from that out sometimes, binge watch something, go for a bushwalk. Work on the vegetables. You have to check out. This is an intense space. And one of the reasons why it's intense, and it goes back to that use of the term doomers in a derogatory way, is that people are quite isolated in this knowledge. And it's stigmatized to a significant extent, within climate and ecological discourse. But the more people that talk more openly about it, this brings not just individual acceptance, but a social acceptance that builds capacity for identity building, meaningful identity building, meaningful actions, purposeful, collective actions. So yeah, checking out is completely understandable. It's like the functions of a wake, or a funeral. You come together.
Tristan: Yeah. If I can add to that, I would say I understand that people will respond in their own human ways. However, I don't think that there is any one response that anybody should have. I think everyone's entitled to their own reaction, there is no correct response to that kind of news, whether that's collapse, or death, or what have you. But in terms of what you said, the checking out, or the other people just moving to denial or sticking their head in the sand, or whatever it is that they they do, I think, to some degree, as Kate was saying, this as the importance of talking collapse and the Talk Collapse campaign... You've probably heard of 100th Monkey Theory. There's an osmosis that takes place with Zeitgeist shifting. So it's a little, it's first, it's little bubbles of something coming up in conversations here and there. And then, all of a sudden, there's more of that just frothing about in the ether. And then all of a sudden it reaches a critical tipping point and everyone's on the same page. And everyone's like, for example, well, yeah, I was always for the women having the vote. Oh, absolutely. I was there right from the start.
Kate: When they weren't.
Tristan: We're trying to work at cultivating, facilitating that osmosis, and that feeding into a broader Zeitgeist shift that enables people to be able to approach these difficult subjects and find a way to take action within that context.
Kate: We think we're seeing the beginnings of that shift. There are people using the word collapse on social media platforms. Recognizing that social media is not quite the real world, but there are more and more people using the word collapse, acknowledging either that it's probable or inevitable or imminent. There are some of the big climate names on social media who definitely did not use the word collapse six months ago and are now using the word collapse. So we think we're seeing significant change happening. Now, that doesn't mean that, as we said earlier today, it doesn't mean that's going to build a brighter, better future. However, it does mean we have more opportunity to ease the descent that we're currently on and achieve whatever justice, partial relative justice, we can on the way down.
Eric: You bring up the word justice again, and that is a delightful segue into the other thread that I wanted to bring up before we close. And it occurred to me as you were speaking earlier on that, we talked about overshoot, and we also are talking about human social collapse. And it seems to me that accountability plays an integral role in both of those. In the context of overshoot, it's an issue of human accountability to place and to the broader biological world that we are entangled in, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. And then, of course, our ideas of justice oftentimes revolve around accountability to other people that we share place with, or that we rely on in some way, even if it's a very colonized, violent way, when we force labor or take land or all those things. And so it seems like so much of this conversation more broadly around collapse, and around Just Collapse, is ultimately about people being willing to embrace accountability on many different levels. I guess maybe there's a question woven in there. Does that sound reasonable to you? And do you have anything you wanted to add to that, if it does?
Tristan: Yeah, I think that's lovely. I think Michael Dowd, who's really prolific in the collapse space, has a really useful term for that, which is recognizing yourself within the community of life. And that you are in relationship to it. We humans are not separate from nature, we are nature, in nature, being nature.
Kate: I think it's a tricky one. So yes, being accountable within the complex systems that we call home, is really important. But that does rely on on a certain knowledge. So I can look out the window here where we're sitting at the moment, and I know because I've got some ecological knowledge that all those trees aren't supposed to be dead. There's always a few dead trees in the landscape, but not what we're currently looking at. The wombat that appeared near the house a few months ago, more than likely isn't supposed to have that disease, mange disease. It's one of the diseases running through the populations where we are at the moment. Very, very unpleasant for the wombats. So without that kind of ecological or relational knowledge, it's often really tricky for people to see what's going on around them. So I don't know, it takes me back to some old ideas in deep ecology—which is highly problematic in a number of ways, so I'm not putting a flag in deep ecology—but it's the idea of getting to know where you live, getting to know it ecologically. Getting to know it hydrologically, socially. Being aware of who's marginalized, who's disadvantaged, who's advantaged and included and why. Getting to know your place really well is a key part to collapse acceptance and accountability to what's going on around us.
Tristan: Yeah, I think that's what you were alluding to Eric, was that ecological systems are inter-woven relationship, and having that correct relationship allows the community of life to use Dowd's term, is a useful way to exist because if you are in community, if you are in a political dialogue and interaction with the ecology that sustains you, then we're able to have a potentially sustaining community, as opposed to the brief meteoric rise that we see in global modern techno-industrial civilization.
Kate: And this idea of a community of life can appear abstract, because we're so used to being these individual, autonomous entities striving through life on career paths, or whatever our circumstances are. But we will be pushed back into our more local community of life as part of the Great Gescent. We will be pushed back there. For the moment, those of us with privilege and comfort have the opportunity to get in there first, to get in there a bit earlier, and try to understand it and try to start acting within that, what we advocate for, which is justice, front of mind.
Tristan: I hope that answers that. It's a useful discussion to have, definitely, this notion of accounting to ourselves and to them, and to our ecology.
Eric: You mentioned before Kate, thinking about all the little bits and pieces of a pen, and I was watching a video with Vanessa Andreotti in it, and I'll see if I can find this and put a link in the show notes if I can find this one again, where the collective that she's part of, the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective, chose an iPad. We pay, I don't remember exactly when this video was produced, but at the time, an iPad costed like 1000 US dollars. And what they did is they estimated, using lifecycle assessment data, how many hours of labor go into producing this iPad, and all the different places that contribute to this in some way with mining and manufacturing and all that stuff. And they figured that if you paid all of those laborers a living wage, according to the place where the iPad was purchased in North America, and if you paid some amount for ecosystem damage, they estimated that that iPad actually costs around $30,000. That was the monetary estimate that they came up with, just with those two things, not including a whole bunch of other things they chose to ignore. And so the idea that they put forwards is that, and this kind of goes back both to accountability, but also affluence and making a lot of this stuff invisible, is that when we buy these goods and services, we pay a tiny fraction of their costs. And every time we buy them, we incur an ecological debt. And part of that ecological debt is incurred to places and other species, part of that ecological debt is incurred to other people who are not getting the living wages and who are forced to deal with the pollution without being somehow compensated or protected.
That was a very sobering example that she talked about. And another thing that I found recently, and I just asked my students to go through this calculator online, you're probably familiar with ecological footprint calculators and estimating your ecological footprint. I found a web app, a website, where you can go and estimate your slavery footprint. It asks you all kinds of questions about the stuff that you buy and use, and how much of it, much like filling out one of those long web oriented questionnaires for figuring out your ecological footprint. But instead of that they use data from a lot of the places where these things are manufactured, to estimate how many slaves you effectively own. And then you can compare yourself, like in the United States, where slavery was a thing, chattel slavery was a thing, you can look at the founding fathers of the United States like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, etc, and you can look up how many slaves they owned at different parts of their lives, you can compare yourself with the founding fathers of the United States as to how many slaves you effectively own based on your consumptive patterns. I'll put a link to that slavery calculator for folks to play with. One of my students did that early and posted her response in the discussion forum and she was distraught. Forty seven slaves...
Kate: This is part of the predicament we're in. I've lived a lot simpler life in the past, I didn't work full time because I couldn't see the point, I hand-washed clothes, I bought organic vegetables. And I still have this instinctive response: I shouldn't buy the pen, I should disconnect, I should buy secondhand, ideally. I should have this instinctive repulsion, at understanding these networks that we're dependent upon, this desire to get away from them. But part of the predicament we're in is that we can't. We can do so much, we can do something. But there's no pathway to redemption by trying to drop out and get out of fossil fuels or slavery or ecological destruction. Or we are fossil fueled as individuals, as society, as a global civilization. And because of that, we are collapsing. And trying to think through a different form of politics and action within that context. For me personally, that pull to divest from this life doesn't lead anywhere. You hit a point where it's like, Oh, God, I can't get rid of anything else. Because then I'm...
Tristan: Yeah, can I just say that there are some efforts being made to address that sort of international structural violence of our civilization, and that, as you describe it, the slavery. There's some efforts being directed towards a campaign for reparations for colonialism and for ecological destruction. We recognize that this is a very useful thing to talk about in terms of raising that awareness of that slavery, of that violence that occurs and is largely hidden from us. But we don't have a Leviathan approach to geopolitics. Just Collapse's approach is very much decentralized. We're not appealing to power to suddenly change its spots and do something that it's never done before. We can see that other people are trying to do that. So while it might be useful for raising this awareness around how unjust and how violent this civilization is, we think that the more decolonized and more decentralized approach to justice is more useful. So I suppose that's a distinguishing point for us. It's not for us to say what, globally, justice is, and we think that that's inherently imperialist to do so.
Kate: We collapse if we stop using fossil fuels. This doesn't mean we shouldn't stop using fossil fuels. But the reality is, if we take fossil fuels out of the global civilization, we collapse. We collapse if we stop slavery, doesn't mean we shouldn't stop slavery. Common misconception. Poor communities collapse as well. Collapse is inevitable. We need to be taking action in that context.
Eric: This was a beautiful conversation. It almost makes me feel like we had three hours... But have you ever—you can answer this quickly, but it's not really a question—have you ever read Howard Odum's book A Prosperous Way Down?
Tristan: I have not.
Eric: It was originally published in I believe the early 1970s. It was out of print for a good long while. Howard Odum was a very prominent systems ecologist, and I would say that he was an impetus for the creation of the whole energy return on energy invested idea because one of his doctoral students, Charlie Hall, did a lot of the formative work for the whole EROI framework as it's used today. I think he died in the early 2000s, and before he died one of the last books that he finished was a revised edition of A Prosperous Way Down. He reminisces, and has all kinds of ideas about what kind of policies could be put in place in governments that can help make that downward slope a bit more gentle. I don't know how much control he had over the title of the book, but a lot of the stuff he talked about did not in any way to me sound prosperous, but at least it was not abjectly violent. The conversation we've had made me think of that book. And I haven't read it in a while, but I'm inspired to see if I can find a copy of it.
I'm curious if either of you have any final thoughts you'd like to share before we wrap everything up?
Tristan: Thank you, Eric, so much for having us. For the people who are listening, there are people out there that don't think you're crazy. And if you go out and talk collapse you can find friends, and you can meet people and not feel alone. If that's reason enough to talk collapse, it's worth doing it just for that reason, if for no other reason. In terms of seeking justice within the context of inevitable and irreversible collapse, this is the first concrete thing that you can do. It's the least you can do is to talk collapse.
Kate: And we feel like Just Collapse is an ongoing, evolving work in progress that will eventually collapse. But at the moment, we're continuing to put work into producing new resources and refine our ideas. Anyone that would like to follow us on online, please do so. And yes, thank you, Eric, that was a wonderful conversation.
Eric: I'll put a link to your website and probably your social media accounts too, in the show notes so folks can find their way there quickly and easily.
Tristan: Fantastic. Thanks, Eric.
Eric: Yeah, thanks for coming on.
Eric: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. Again, this podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. You can find it on the web at quillwood.org. Check out the Overshoot Reading Group that is coming up. You can find it in Upcoming Events.
Until next time, this is Eric Garza signing off. Walk softly, and take good care.