Disaster Transitionism

olddoorlockIf you haven’t read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, you really should. It’s an examination of how the Chicago School of Economics and their followers have taken advantage of or created crises to further their privatization agendas.

In country after country, free market and pro-corporate devotees have used the chaos, violence, and panic that result from periods of war or economic collapse to rapidly remove price controls, open borders to global trade, and sell off state-owned industry to multinational corporations for a fraction of their true value. In the civic vacuum that ensues when people are dropped down to the lowest levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, these proverbial foxes are able to raid the hen house.

Milton Friedman, the guru of free market economics and disaster capitalism, was unabashedly candid about the role of crisis in furthering their agenda:

“Only a crisis–actual or perceived–produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the action that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

After reading it I’m left with one question: How can those of us working to manage the transition to a post-carbon world prevent disaster capitalism and flip it on its head? Call it Disaster Transitionism, if you will.

The first thing I should do is to clarify what I mean by “manage the transition.” My position is that we’re going to be transitioning, no matter what. In fact, we already are. The peak of global oil production occurred almost exactly a year ago; we’re now on the down slope of Hubbert’s peak. And many believe that the peak of global economic activity occurred in late 2007/early 2008. So we could be on the down slope of the economic peak, too, if there is such a thing.


The thinking is that even if we do have a few quarters of growth, this growth will still not raise GDP to pre-recession levels. And if demand does again pick up, peak oil will quickly put the kabbash on any meaningful economic growth. The graph above shows what may be the first of a number of steps we’ll take down to a much lower level of global economic activity. In other words, a Depression from which we’ll never come out.

This may well be a slow-motion crash, but we should be concerned that Friedman’s rules of crisis opportunity management still apply. I fear that as governments are overwhelmed with insufficient resources (due to lower tax revenues) and growing crises, as unemployment balloons and crime increases, and as we experience price spikes and shortages of basic commodities like food and, well, shoes, people around the world will be struggling to get by and clamoring for answers. What those answers will be, and who will be in a position to provide them is of profound importance.

Are disaster capitalists and other special interest groups (xenophobes, military contractors, lobbyists, etc.) planning for these crises right now? Shouldn’t we?

I’m deeply concerned about the risk of us jumping at dangerous “solutions” (for example, “clean coal”) that not only fail to fix the problem but manage to exacerbate them. And, as Michael Klare, author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, details, global conflicts could easily cascade.

As resources and wealth shrink, and climate change is unleashed, we could well see a growing social justice crisis that makes our current, already deep gap between rich and poor look like a small scrape.

In The Shock Doctrine, Klein quotes John Robb, a former covert-action mission commander with Delta Force and now management consultant, painting a picture of a future that looks a lot like Apartheid South Africa:

“Wealthy individuals and multinational corporations will be the first to bail out of our collective system, opting instead to hire private military companies, such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy, to protect their homes and facilities and establish a protective perimeter around daily life… That elite world is already largely in place, but Robb predicts that the middle class will soon follow suit, “forming suburban collectives to share the costs of security.” These “‘armored suburbs'” will deploy and maintain backup generators and communications links” and be patrolled by private militias “that have received corporate training and boast their own state-of-the-art emergency-response systems.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in living in that kind of world.

So what do we do? Well, to be over-simplistic, two things:

First, let’s flip disaster capitalism on its head and use Friedman’s words below as our own mantra.

“Only a crisis–actual or perceived–produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the action that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

That means spreading the word and work as quickly as possible. We need to be developing model projects (food and energy production, thriving local economies, post carbon training/reskilling, new jobs, etc.) that can be quickly replicated. And we need to provide support and coaching for individuals to prepare their own families. The more experimentation, the better. And the more communication between individuals and communities, the better. The good news is that this is beginning to happen, on both fronts.

It also means that we need to emphasize the first “step” in the Transition Town process: Awareness building. We need to seed as many communities as possible. Personally, I think the most important work of national and regional Transition networks is to plant as many Transition Towns as possible.

And Transition Town initiators should be careful about skipping over step #1. It’s great if you find an excited, committed group of folks who are ready to start working groups and get projects going. By all means, do that! But it’s not just about having enough people to move the Energy Descent Action Plan process forward.

We need ambassadors to spur a meaningful level of awareness in the community–most especially among elected officials and key influencers–so that ours are “the ideas that are lying around.” Even if they try to ignore you at first or roll their eyes when you walk away, make sure they know you’re there. Make sure they remember you so that when events lead them somewhere, they lead them to you.

Second, we need to infuse our efforts with a deep commitment to equity and social justice. The only way we’re going to get through this transition is together. And I’m not talking about token gestures here: I mean, work extra hard to reach out to those in the community who have suffered most from social injustice and who will be most likely to suffer it in times of crisis. To do this, we must be prepared to ask questions, to learn, and to create room for diverse experiences and perspectives to “own” and influence our work for the future.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. All the cards are up in the air right now. So, together, let’s make sure the ones we want land right side up.


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