A Future Too Big to Fail: Ecological Ignorance and Economic Collapse

"Too big to fail." It's been the mantra of our economic meltdown.
Although meant to emphasize the overwhelming importance of this bank or
that corporation, the phrase also unwittingly expresses a shared
delusion that may be at the root of our current crises -- both economic
and ecological.

In nature, nothing is too big to fail. In fact, big is bound to fail.
To understand why that's so means stepping away from a prevailing set
of beliefs that holds us in its sway, especially the deep conviction
that we operate apart from nature's limits and rules.

Here's the heart of the matter: We are ecologically illiterate --
not just unfamiliar with the necessary scientific vocabulary and
concepts, but spectacularly, catastrophically, tragically dumb. Oh yes,
some of us now understand that draining those wetlands, clear-cutting
the rainforests, and pumping all that CO2 into the atmosphere are
self-destructively idiotic behaviors. But when it comes down to how
nature itself behaves, we remain remarkably clueless.

The Adaptive Cycle from Google to GM

Science tells us that complex adaptive systems, like economies or
ecosystems, tend to go through basic phases, however varied they may
be. In the adaptive cycle, first comes a growth phase characterized by
open opportunity. The system is weaving itself together and so there
are all sorts of niches to be filled, paths to take, partnerships to be
made, all involving seemingly endless possibilities and potential.
Think of Google.

As niches are filled and the system sorts out, establishing strong
interdependent relationships, the various players become less diverse
and are bound together in ways that are ever more constricting. This is
the consolidation phase that follows growth. As the system matures, it
may look ever bigger and more indestructible, but it is actually
growing ever more vulnerable. Think of General Motors.

The hidden weakness that underlies big systems is inherent in the
consolidation phase. When every player gets woven ever more tightly
into every other, a seemingly small change in a remote corner of the
system can cascade catastrophically through the whole of it. Think of a
lighted match at the edge of a dry forest. Think of Bear Stearns.

As global capitalism is melting down around us, we are experiencing
just how, in an overly mature system, disruptions that start small can
grow exponentially. So, for example, unemployment goes up another
percent or two, just enough to make those of us with jobs save our
cash, fearing we might be next. As we buy less, stocks pile up,
production lags, more people are fired, more fear spreads, and
consumption contracts further.

The above scenario, as familiar as can be, also provides an example
of how easy it is to cross thresholds -- even just that slim percent or
two can do the trick -- and fall into self-reinforcing feedback loops.
Big consolidated systems are particularly vulnerable to such runaway
scenarios. Think of the domino effect within the densely connected
global economy that led to Bear Stearns, then Lehman, Merrill Lynch,

The third phase in the typical adaptive cycle is collapse. If you want
to know what that's like, turn on the TV, look out your window, or
knock on your neighbor's door, assuming that you still have a window or
your neighbor still has a door. Since everything's connected, when an
overgrown system spirals out of control, collapse tends to feel like an
avalanche rather than erosion.

It may be hard to notice during the turmoil and confusion, but enormous
amounts of energy are released in the collapse phase of an adaptive
cycle and that leads to the final phase: regeneration. After seeds are
cracked open by a forest fire, seedlings bloom in the nutrient-rich
ashes of the former forest. They soak up newly available sunlight where
the forest canopy has been opened. Then, as those open spaces start to
fill, the growth phase begins anew. Hopefully, in our world, those
empty auto-making factories will soon house a blooming business in wind
turbines and mass transit.

It is important, however, to recognize that sometimes the collapse
phase leads to renewal and sometimes to an entirely different and
unwanted regime. Fire, for example, can renew a forest by clearing
debris, opening niche space, and resetting the successional clock, or,
if combined with a prolonged drought, it can set the stage for
desertification. In human systems, we can influence whether the outcome
is positive or negative by setting goals, providing incentives, and
creating policies designed to reach them.

Building an Economy in Thin Air

Once you tune in to the phases of an adaptive cycle, you see them
unfolding all around you. They may seem overwhelmingly complex,
especially when compared to the neater, more linear models that shape
our conventional ways of seeing the world, but ignoring that cycle as
you build an economy is akin to denying gravity as you build a

Bigness is a warning signal that tells us to take a second look and
consider whether the seemingly solid thing in front of us is far closer
to collapse than it looks and, if so, to ask what can be done about it.
If we were ecologically savvy, the conventional wisdom would be: If it
ain't broke but it sure is big, then fix it. We do that by breaking it
up and creating space for new niches and for the more dynamic diversity
that naturally flows into such a system.

It's easy to attribute the creative fervor of the growth phase to an
absence of regulation, rather than seeing it as the natural process of
niche-filling in a system with lots of available space. As is now
plain, freeing an already big corporate system of almost all regulation
so that it can grow even bigger does not, in fact, encourage
creativity; it just hastens the consolidation phase. So, to offer but
one example, letting GM off the hook on fuel efficiency during the Bush
era didn't make the company more creative. It only added to its
long-term vulnerability.

It was surely no coincidence that, after the mammoth AT&T monopoly
was broken up in the 1980's, cell phone technology emerged explosively
starting in the 1990's. In a sense, cell phones were the technological
equivalent of a new species emerging after the collapse and
regeneration phases of an ecosystem. In the same way, it wasn't giant
IBM which generated the revolutionary development of personal computers
and the Internet. The next breakthrough in solar technology may be more
likely to start in your neighbor's garage than in Chevron's lab.

Driving Off Cliffs

Our ignorance of the adaptive cycle is just one example of our
ecological illiteracy. We are similarly inept at reading all sorts of
natural signs. Take, for example, thresholds, those critical points
where seemingly minor changes can tip an economy into recession or a
climate into a new regime of monster storms and epic droughts.

Thresholds are like the doors between the phases in the adaptive cycle,
except that they are often one-way -- once you stumble through them,
you can't get back to the other side -- so it is crucially important to
understand where they are. Although we recognize that there are such
things as "tipping points" and we recognize, belatedly, that we have
already crossed too many of them, we're lousy at seeing, let alone
avoiding, thresholds before we reach them.

Understanding exactly where a threshold is located may be difficult,
but we can at least look for such boundaries, and deliberately try not
to cross them when the unintended consequences of doing so can be dire.
There are, after all, usually warnings: the reservoir level is lower
every year; the colors in the coral reef are fading away; mercury
levels in the lake increase; you are more dependent than ever on
imported oil...

Once you have driven off a cliff, it does you little good to realize
that you are falling. The time to practice water conservation is before
your well runs dry. Our culture's ability to deal with thresholds has
proven only slightly better than my dog's ability to solve algebra

Regeneration, Not Recovery

Still, if we really were attentive to the natural cycles unfolding
around us, we wouldn't be attracted to growth like moths to a flame. We
wouldn't equate bigness with success, but with risk, with enervation
awaiting collapse. We certainly wouldn't be aiming today to rebuild
yesterday's busted economy so that, tomorrow, we can resume our
unlimited looting of nature's storehouse.

Believing that we are unbounded by nature's limits or rules, we built
an economy where faster, cheaper, bigger, and more added up to the
winning hand. Then -- until the recent global meltdown at least -- we
acted as if our eventual triumph over anything from resource scarcity
to those melting icebergs was a foregone conclusion. Facing problems
(or thresholds) where the red lights were visibly blinking, we simply
told ourselves that we'd figure out how to tweak the engineering a bit,
and make room for a few more passengers.

We got it wrong. A capitalist economy based on constant, unlimited
growth is a reckless fantasy because ecosystems are not limitless --
there are just so many pollinators, so many aquifers, so much fertile
soil. In nature, unchecked rapid growth is the ideology of the invasive
species and the cancer cell. Growth as an end in itself is ultimately
self-destructive. A (globally warming) rising sea may lift all boats,
as capitalists like to point out, but it may also inundate the
coastline and drown the people living there.

If "recovery" from economic meltdown is just another word for a return
to business as usual, we will be squandering a crucial chance to begin
to build an economy that could be viable over the long run, without
overloading the Earth's carrying capacity and courting catastrophe. We
don't have to go big.

Remember that regeneration phase of the adaptive cycle? Here's where
that comes in. Yes, collapse is a nightmare, but it also presents
opportunities. If we were more aware of the thresholds we've already
crossed, we might think differently about the next iteration of the
economy. We could always cross a threshold of our own making and decide
to live differently. Unrestrained growth, after all, was never a
prerequisite for health, happiness, and justice. It's not written into
the Constitution.

What would an end to separation from nature and from each other feel
like? How might it be expressed day to day? The regeneration phase that
is now upon us begs us to answer those questions.

This much is clear. If we want to avoid endless darkness and hardship,
we have to become ecologically literate -- deeply so. The future is,
you might say, too big to fail.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 TomDispatch.com