Quillwood Podcast

QP12: Metamorphosis as a Metaphor for Collapse

May 30, 2022 Eric Garza Season 1 Episode 12
Quillwood Podcast
QP12: Metamorphosis as a Metaphor for Collapse
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode Eric reflects on different ways of framing and talking about collapse, using metamorphosis as a metaphor to help us make sense of collapse, choosing our metaphors for collapse wisely, and the various physical, ecological, and social forces that are driving today's changing world.


  • 00:00 - 02:25 — Episode introduction
  • 02:25 - 05:56 — Different ways of framing and talking about collapse
  • 05:56 - 09:44 — Metamorphosis as a metaphor to help us make sense of collapse
  • 09:44 - 16:17 — Adaptive cycle as a model to put collapse in a broader context
  • 16:17 - 21:41 — Reckoning with our blindness to the ubiquity of change
  • 21:41 - 24:23 — Choosing our metaphors for collapse wisely
  • 24:23 - 29:48 — The role of energy, materials, and money in forcing social change
  • 29:48 - 34:26 — The role of ecological and social turbulence in forcing social change
  • 34:26 - 37:58 — Episode wrap-up

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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'm your host, Eric Garza.

Topics of social disruption and collapse have come up in multiple episodes of this podcast. It's an important issue that we need to normalize talking about, and we need to get better at talking about. In this episode I want to spend some time reflecting on the metaphors that we use to make sense of this.

Before we do that, know that Quillwood Podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. Through Quillwood Academy I offer a wide array of online educational events and programs that serve the same purpose that this podcast does. The next one that is coming up is a reading group around the book Overshoot by William Catton Jr. This starts on June 19. People are already signing up and I think it's going to be a great group. Overshoot, for those who are unfamiliar, refers to the idea that the human population—or really any population—overshoots the carrying capacity of the landscape that it lives in. This, of course, creates all kinds of challenges. So this book Overshoot explores that in the human context, and we will read this book together starting with an orientation on June 19. Visit quillwood.org to learn more about this reading group and to register. You can find it on the Upcoming Events page. You can also sign up for Quillwood's newsletter when you visit the website, too.

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With all of that out of the way, I hope you enjoy today's episode.

I've mentioned before that issues of social disruption and collapse have come up in several episodes of this podcast. Nate Hagens and I talked about the Great Simplification in the episode he and I recorded, and this deals with this issue in a very particular way. Cliff Berrien and I talked about generative catastrophe, and several different guests—Kate Booth and Tristan Sykes amongst them—used the C word, collapse.

These are all important issues to talk about, and how we talk about them matters. Especially when we're engaging with someone who does not regularly get to talk about them and might not even be familiar with the prospects of social disruption, decline, collapse, however you want to frame it. That is because the prospect that the normal that people are accustomed to could end is oftentimes triggering, and it can even be traumatizing for people. So a lot of defense mechanisms will rise up to prevent them from engaging with that topic in a meaningful way.

The reality, though, is that we can't run away from this. We need to learn, and we need to help others learn, to stay with this trouble, to engage with this issue, to wrap our minds around what is going on, so that we can adapt to this changing world and also so that we can minimize the harm that will be caused.

I produce the Quillwood Podcast to help people learn to navigate the changing world. That is the tagline that I used at the start of this episode, that I've used at the start of other episodes too. It is probably no surprise that I use this phrase as a euphemism for what Nate Hagens called the Great Simplification, what John Michael Grier calls the Long Descent, James Howard Kunstler the Long Emergency, what a lot of different people refer to as collapse. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to talk about this issue. I talk about it with people. I gauge their response. I reflect on their response, and I ponder if there were better ways that I could have brought the issue up, or better words that I could have used that could have helped that conversation go better. And I keep refining my approach and try to learn how to tailor it to individual people. I especially ponder how to introduce this issue to folks who are completely unfamiliar with it, never really engaged with the prospects of a changing world in their lives. And admittedly, the changes that I envision are complex, nuanced, and they're going to play out over many different scales. Finding ways to honor that complexity, even when I am engaging with people who have never heard of this issue before, is a really important part of my inquiry.

I think it is natural for us to turn to metaphor to help us make sense of all this, and to help us communicate our understandings of this. Of course, all language is a metaphor at some level. But we will often use metaphors of various sorts to help us make sense of and to communicate issues, even beyond the fact that we're choosing to use language. And I want to spend this episode specifically to give some attention to the metaphors that we use and to introduce one metaphor that I've come to appreciate, which is the metaphor of metamorphosis.

I do yard work to earn money, among many other ways of generating income. I'm recording this in very late May of 2022. Spring is far enough along now that I'm starting to see butterflies. Most people are familiar with the general life cycle of a butterfly. An adult butterfly lays an egg. The egg hatches into a caterpillar. The caterpillar eats and eats and eats. Eventually it becomes a mature caterpillar. It forms a chrysalis, and in that chrysalis it undergoes a metamorphosis. And from that chrysalis, in weeks or months, emerges the adult butterfly that pumps fluid into its wings and then flies off to continue that whole cycle.

What attracts me to metamorphosis, as a metaphor, is what happens inside the chrysalis. Once the caterpillar turns into its chrysalis, it secretes enzymes that digest most of its tissues. Organs break down, individual cells break down, and the inside of a chrysalis literally becomes a living soup of undifferentiated tissue. But certain groups of cells, which are called imaginal discs—I don't know why biologists decided to call them that—but these groups of cells, these imaginal discs, were present in the caterpillar before it turned into a chrysalis, and they survive digestion. All of the different body parts of the adult butterfly have their own imaginal disc that they develop from. So the makings of the adult butterfly are already present in the caterpillar when it is growing, and before it enters the chrysalis. These imaginal discs survive this digestion that happens in the chrysalis, and once the chrysalis forms they use all the digested tissues around them as building blocks to grow and become the adult tissues of the butterfly. And also they use some of those tissues as energy to fuel all of that cell division, to fuel all of that growth.

One of the fascinating details about this is that while parts of the caterpillars' nervous system survive in this whole process, not all of it does. And studies have shown that moths—these studies were not done in butterflies, they were done in moths—but studies show that moths remember some of what they learn while they are caterpillars, but not all. So this chrysalis actually digests some of the developing moth or butterflies' nervous system, and so the animal forgets some of what it learned during this maturation process.

The metamorphosis that a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly reminds me of a process I learned about when I was studying ecology years and years ago, called an adaptive cycle. The adaptive cycle is a model that emerged from systems ecology to describe how ecosystems change. A lot of people have expanded this to help folks understand not just how ecological systems change, but also systems more generally. It's become a more general model of systems change, so not specific to ecological systems.

This model breaks the process of change into four segments, four phases. One of them is growth, where a system is using relatively abundant resources to build relationships, build connections, built infrastructure of various sorts, and basically expand, grow, in terms of the biomass that is present, in terms of the infrastructure that is present with respect to human societies. The conservation phase is the next phase. This is when resources are still abundant enough that the system is able to maintain itself in a particular form but not so abundant that the growth phase continues. This conservation phase is when we start to see the specter of resource scarcity raise its head, even if the system is more or less able to maintain itself. Throughout the growth phase cooperation is probably the dominant form of interaction, because resources are abundant enough that competition is generally not necessary. Certainly there is some competition, but cooperation is dominant in the growth phase. In the conservation phase competition becomes more important. Again, cooperation is still there. But the emerging resource scarcities are such that competition starts to become more important. Then we enter the release phase where resource scarcity is such that the system cannot be maintained in its current form. The individual actors within the system have to make tough choices about where they invest very limited resources. Some relationships and infrastructure is allowed to degrade or fall apart in order to shore up resources to keep other things going. This release phase is really about releasing many of the relationships, possibly supply chains that are present in a particular system. When folks use the metaphor of collapse—and we'll return to this and expand on this a little bit—when people talk about collapse, mostly what they're talking about is this release phase. When they're talking about collapse in the context of human societies, I should say, they're referring to what's happening in these release phases. This release phase progresses until the resource demands of society fall in line with available supplies. Once you get to that point, society is able to start reorganizing itself around this new resource reality. Or maybe it learns to take advantage of new resources and so reorganizes itself to exploit those new resources. And that then sets the stage for another growth phase.

One of the things that's important for me to mention here is that, although there are these four segments, and they do seem to flow into one another seamlessly, the reality is that you're not going to see the same system emerge over and over and over again. You will see a system emerge, it will go into its release phase and fall apart, and when a reorganization happens, that creates something different by necessity, because the conditions that created the earlier system are gone. They are gone.

To progression through these four phases also is not always nice and neat. It's not always necessarily a clear progression. A system might enter a growth phase, for example, then conservation, and it might slip into a release phase because of resource scarcity, but then technological innovation could make a resource more available and it backs out of that release phase back into conservation—trying to buy a few more years of the good old days, or whatever—and then it enters back into a release phase, and it's reorganization. There's room for that in this model. And I just want to be very clear about that.

In the academic sphere different groups of people use different words to represent the four segments of this model. They also represent adaptive cycles graphically in different ways. Some people use a conveyor belt, some people use an infinity symbol—the infinity symbol is what CS Holling originally used to represent this cycle. As someone who tries to educate the general public rather than just teaching in the university—although I do that, too—I find the terminology that is used in this particular model, and the graphical representations of it, leave a lot to be desired. I'm always trying to think about how to explain this in words that are easier for people to relate to. Nonetheless, I find the model itself, as someone who has been trained in an academic setting, especially trained in ecology, to be a very useful way of thinking about things. I value it a lot.

One of the important lessons, probably the most important lesson that emerges from the adaptive cycle model, is that systems really don't reach a steady state, and then stop, and then become static. They just don't do that. They constantly change. Sometimes the changes are subtle, and slow, and progress over long spans of time so that, from the eyes of an organism that has a short lifespan, it might seem like certain things are constant and have reached a steady state. But the reality is that change is the norm here. And that process of change naturally involves relationships forming, and falling apart, and then reforming, maybe in a different way.

In human society it can be hard for us to see this, because in many respects we're not socialized to pay attention to it. We're trained instead to think of certain things—like our high standard of living—as a given, as something that's stable, something that we're even entitled to. The reality is that high standards of living is only stable—relatively stable—for certain people, and that it is stable for those people because of sacrifices that other people around the world are forced to make, or because of sacrifices that people in the future are forced to make in the context of resource depletion, resource exploitation. If circumstances prevent those people from living at others' expenses, then their standards of living are going to change too.

This change is equivalent to a cultural metamorphosis in which the relationships that form our society—relationships that form, in a practical sense, things like supply chains, for example—are digested. They fall apart, they're digested, and it is from the remnants of that process that new systems emerge.

In the metamorphosis of a butterfly, we can think of a caterpillar as a growth phase and then the chrysalis is the release and the reorganization phase that leads to a butterfly, which itself really doesn't grow all that much as an adult, but it serves as a vehicle to mate, lay eggs, and give rise to the next generation of butterflies. As release progresses in society, we can think of all the different people and the roles that they play potentially becoming something of a social soup, as the relationships that used to hold them together are digested and become more plastic. Then certain people serve as imaginal discs to guide the reorganization into something new. And looking at this release and reorganization phase and society in this way—thinking about it in the context of metamorphosis—is reminiscent of John Michael Greer's idea of catabolic collapse. He wrote a pretty good paper on that. It's a little bit technical, but it is publicly available and I'll put a link to that PDF in the show notes for folks who want to read that in more detail. Maybe you haven't been exposed to that before. I think it's a useful idea.

I will also add that while a butterfly goes through its metamorphosis once, societies can go through it over and over again. We don't need to hypothesize about this, we can see it when we read human history. Scholars write about the Mayan collapse, for example. The reality is that in that region of Central America, Southern Mexico really, a lot of different civilizations existed in that area before the Mayans. They had their own collapse and reorganization phases. And then, of course, Mexican society existed after it, so it didn't end with the Mayans. It's also worth noting that it took hundreds of years for the Mayan society to go through its adaptive cycle, for that cycle to play itself out. The same is true with the Roman Empire. Other social organizations existed in that place that would become Rome before the Roman Empire. Others have existed afterwards as well. The rise and decline of the Roman Empire, the political entity of the Roman Empire, played out over hundreds of years.

This is an issue that really highlights for me how important it is what metaphors we choose when we try to talk about these longer timeframe understandings of how societies change, how societies evolve. When we use the word collapse to refer to societies, we're using a metaphor. And when we use that word in that context, the metaphor that we're conjuring is of a building collapsing. When a building collapses, it generally happens very suddenly, it happens very fast. And it is irreversible, unless people invest a lot of resources to rebuild that building. And no one's going to be able to rebuild a building exactly. Even if you try to rebuild it there's going to be certain things that are going to be different. So you're not going to see the same building twice.

With respect to sudden, fast, and irreversible, that is not what happens when societies collapse. The process is fundamentally different. Adaptive cycles, as a model, leave room for release and reorganization and for many iterations of that whole process to play out in a particular place with respect to human societies, or ecological systems too for that matter. And that model of adaptive cycles is very accurate in that respect, and it jibes very well with what we see in history. Again, we cannot expect the same system, the exact same system, to appear again because the resource mix that it emerged from doesn't exist anymore in exactly the same form. But nonetheless, we can expect waves of societies or civilizations to emerge. And this idea of society collapsing suddenly, quickly, and irreversibly in the same way that a building does, really doesn't fit. And I think that when we broach the subject of social change and the prospect for release cycles and reorganization, using a metaphor that leaves room for something new to emerge oftentimes will take the edge off and make it easier for that conversation to take place. And again, I think talking about these changes is incredibly important.

There are a lot of factors at play that are pushing social change, right now, as we speak. Many of these different factors work together to create the effects that we see. Fossil fuel depletion is a big deal. It's, in my mind, top on this list. And it's an issue that still flies under most people's radar. The reality is that we live in a society that depends on energy throughput to maintain its economic and governance processes. As the energy supplies that we depend on gradually diminish, then we're going to have to make do with less energy throughput, less material throughput, probably shrinking economies, and maybe reduced capacity to govern. So those are things that we're going to have to account for that are connected to energy.

Most of the energy that we use in industrial societies comes from fossil fuels. I allude to this as if global energy supplies are already in decline, and I say that because in many respects they are. When you look at figures, statistics, it looks like we passed a peak of global oil supply back in 2019. I'll put some links in the show notes for folks who want to follow up on that. The peak of global coal supply also happened in the past, maybe it will rebound, maybe it will not. Natural gas seems like it still has some growth capacity, but there's also a lot of geopolitical tension around natural gas supplies too, especially in Europe and Asia with with Russian gas. It's not clear to me that we can count on a growing energy supply into the future, and the fact that we can't count on this is big. It's big. That is a big force in driving social change, moving forwards.

It's not the only one though. I mentioned Nate Hagens already in this episode, and he's got a great podcast called The Great Simplification. It's the same title as the episode he and I recorded a while back. He recently had an episode where he had a guest talk about the shortage of minerals, and materials. It was a fascinating and very provocative episode, I'll put a link to it in the show notes. I highly recommend folks go listen to that. The guest that he interviewed was Simon Michaux. Mineral shortages are also an important thing for us to think about, and trying to understand how we're going to maintain the same level of economic throughput with declining mineral and material resources. Obviously, we're not. That throughput is also going to have to shrink, along with the energy throughput that I already mentioned.

Now, it goes without saying that we need growing supplies of energy and materials in order to grow our economy. This is true for national economies and local economies. It's also true for the global economy. So if we face the prospects of declining supplies of energy or declining supplies of minerals and other materials, then economic growth is at risk. And there are definitely people out there who are concerned about growth for its own sake. I'm concerned about growth because the debt based money system that we have has a growth imperative. If we can't grow the economy, then that lack of growth is going to lead to a lot of debt defaults. Cascading debt defaults that might emerge from prolonged periods where our economy contracts can undermine the confidence that people have in money as a social institution, and it can also introduce a lot of social upheaval that will make societies—possibly even at a global level—very, very hard to govern.

This energy, minerals and money triumvirate is one big risk factor that I am watching that is going to drive a lot of social change over the coming decades. And we're seeing it drive social change already. It's not like this is something that's going to happen in the future. It's happening now. Whether or not you as an individual feel it, whether or not I as an individual feel it, is an emergent property of the places where we happen to live. It is definitely affecting people all around the world.

But this energy-minerals-money triumvirate is only one part of the puzzle. Climate change is putting pressure on governments and economies too with severe weather events, fires, flooding, and all kinds of things like that. And that puts governments in a really tough spot. Effectively dealing with climate change is probably going to cause economic harm, it's going to cause economic contraction. Not dealing with climate change probably will also cause economic contraction, but for different reasons. And beyond that, the ecological pressure of our population, consumption, and waste streams is pushing on planetary boundaries in ways that is causing a lot of ecological instability all around the world. There are tipping points out there that can cause global system shifts, and really create different worlds that we would have to adapt to and live in. 

There are definitely people out there who are studying these tipping points, studying these thresholds. I think that our understanding of them is in its infancy, and that we are largely flying blind. We're ignorant of a lot of those tipping points. And we're working hard, at least a few people around the world are working hard, to become less ignorant. But generally speaking, I really don't think we understand the global ecological system well enough to know where these thresholds and tipping points are. And I think this whole ecological side of the deal is a pretty important piece of this puzzle. It's a piece that is underappreciated by most folks, because not everyone has a background in ecology and knows to pay attention to this kind of stuff. But nonetheless, it's there. I am definitely paying attention to it, trying to keep abreast of some of the emerging developments.

Another piece, too, is artificial intelligence, this aspect of human technology, not because I'm afraid of a terminator-type scenario where our AI comes alive, becomes sentient, and then decides it wants to eliminate us, which is a fun movie trope, I guess. But really, because what AI promises to do is to automate a lot of jobs out of existence, and render lots and lots of people around the world unemployed. And that growing unemployment promises to lead to a lot of social and political instability. I remember, this was years ago at this point, Andrew Yang was running for the Democratic nomination for president and he was on the Joe Rogan podcast—I'll put a link to this episode because it was a good one—but Andrew talked at length about the risks we face from automation in general, and from AI in particular, on this front. And I think that his way of understanding and talking about this was really useful.

As a final issue that I'll mention—and I'm not by any stretch trying to be exhaustive here, there's plenty of important issues that I'm not addressing—but the last one that I will address individually is political polarization that is caused specifically by social media. Tristan Harris produced a documentary called The Social Dilemma. It was originally on Netflix, you might be able to watch it in avenues outside of Netflix, or you might not. But if you have not seen the documentary The Social Dilemma, I strongly recommend that you do. It is a documentary that looks at the ways that social media, because of the way the algorithms work, are creating a lot of polarization in societies that allow those social media platforms, and how that is increasingly making societies ungovernable. And that is another factor among this soup of risk factors that is going to prompt a lot of different social changes over the coming decades and centuries.

The reality that we face is that it is hard to imagine social systems, both nationally and globally, continuing in the way that they have over the past decades, continuing in a way where economies generally grow, standards of living generally grow. Any one of the factors that I mentioned could, by itself, undermine social systems and push that system into a release phase, or accelerate the release phase if it already begun. Governance systems that we have today lack the tools, and in many cases lack the will, to deal with any one of these, hence their persistence. And it's inconceivable to me that we will deal with all of them. And we would have to deal with all of them if we expect the social organization that we have seen over the last 20 or so years to continue into the future.

And it is this realization—that it's really inconceivable for the business as usual that we've experienced over the last couple decades to continue, uninterrupted—that inspired me to create this podcast, and also inspired me to found Quillwood Academy, to help people learn more about all of this, and learn how they will navigate all of this.

Thanks for listening to this episode of the Quillwood Podcast. I thought I would try something different to finish this episode. What I wanted to do is pose some questions for you to think about, as we part ways. The first one is, do you think about how society will change over the coming decades? If you do, what do you foresee in terms of changes? Do you talk about that with other people? And if you do, who? What benefits do you get from talking through these changes with other people? And thinking about the quality of those conversations, what can you do differently to make it easier to engage with people about them? Finally, do you see metamorphosis, in the way that I talked about it, as a useful metaphor? And whether you do or not, what other metaphors do you find useful when you talk about this with other people or when you think about it for yourself?

Again, this podcast is brought to you by Quillwood Academy. You can find Quillwood Academy on the web at quillwood.org Check out the Overshoot Reading Group, you can find a link to its information page in Upcoming Events. Also, if you visit quillwood.org, sign up for Quillwood Academy's email list so you can get updates on new events as they come out.

Until next time, this is Eric Garza signing off. Walk softly, and take good care.