Can a multitude of small projects save the world?

John Michael Greer argues that the age for societal reform that can avoid a catastrophe has long past, so small, seemingly doomed projects come into their own:

This is where dissensus and the deliberate encouragement of the eccentric, the improbable and the rejected come into their own. We are far past the point at which an organized, society-wide program to deal with the crisis of industrial civilization is possible – as the Hirsch report pointed out five years ago, that had to start twenty years before the peak of petroleum production, which puts that hope a good quarter century into the realm of might-have-beens – and even if the option still existed, the political will to make it happen simply isn’t there. That means that aiming for flexible ad hoc responses cobbled together out of whatever resources come to hand is probably the best option we’ve got. Focusing on those possibilities that can be done on a shoestring, and maximizing the total number of these that get tested in the immediate future, is therefore a crucially important strategy right now. Even if most of those efforts fail, this approach will likely yield the largest number of useful options to mitigate the crisis in the short run and manage some degree of recovery later on.

This logic has at least one implication that probably won’t sit well with many of my readers: that people should be encouraged to pursue projects that, according to the best current evidence, have little apparent chance of succeeding. That’s a necessary consequence of a dissensus-based approach, though; as Charles Fort used to say, “It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made.” The one caveat that has to be added, though, is that anyone advocating any such project actually needs to be doing something about it.

If it’s viable as a basement-workshop project, then anybody who intends to promote it online or elsewhere had better be building one. If it’s too large, complex, and expensive for a basement workshop, it’s probably going to be too large, complex, and expensive for a civilization caught in the jaws of fossil fuel depletion, climate instability, and economic unraveling. There are some exceptions – again, the rebuilding of America’s rail system comes to mind – but in that case there are still ways to contribute, at least to the extent of the cost of a round trip ticket now and then.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve limited my focus in these posts on green wizardry to things that I do myself, or have done in the past and am gearing up to do in the future as soon as funds and time permit. The kind of SUV environmentalism that waxes rhapsodic about all the things everybody else ought to do for the environment, while doing few or none of them, is not a viable response to the crisis of our time. I’m willing to open my mouth about energy conservation and organic gardening, appropriate tech and antique tech, doing without and doing with less, because these are things that I do myself; I’d hardly offer myself as any kind of paragon of virtue – there’s much more that I could be doing – but I’m not going to advocate what I’m not willing to do.

On the other hand, if somebody’s actually out there putting some proposed response to the test, they ought to be given the benefit of the doubt, not to mention the respect due to anybody who’s trying to live up to their aspirations. I would extend that rule very far. The biodynamic agriculture devised most of a century ago by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, for example, combines quite a few very sensible steps – Steiner’s the place where modern organic gardening got the idea of raised beds, for example – with some things, such as planting by astrological influences, that most people reject out of hand these days. I know people who use Steiner’s methods, and they seem to get good results; if planting by the stars and mixing weird herbal concoctions into their compost helps them grow organic food crops and keep people fed during the times to come, more power to ‘em.

In the weeks to come these posts will be transitioning from food, the first of three themes in the Green Wizard project, to heat, which is the second. While that’s happening, though, I’d like to offer a friendly challenge to my readers, and especially to those of them who are working with green wizardry: choose something improbable that you think might just offer a possible response to any of the aspects of the crisis of industrial society, and get to work on it. If that involves piecing together a Farnsworth fusor in the basement, good; if it involves learning planting by the Moon, good; if it involves – well, whatever it involves, if it appeals to you, get on with it. Don’t leave it to someone else; do it yourself, because that’s the only way it’s going to happen.”

6 Comments Can a multitude of small projects save the world?

  1. AvatarNeal Gorenflo

    I disagree. It’s exactly the right course in a time of uncertainty and transition of a complex adaptive system for innumerable small disconnected to be launched.

    Because today change is dramatic and almost completely unpredictable, you want a very large repitiore of responses. No one can tell what strategy will work. And central planning is totally ineffective.

    And because change is also nonlinear and small actors are superempowered, something started by two students that today looks insignificant can scale to dominance in a decade (ex. Google). This is reason for fear and optimism.

    A strategy from here is to strengthen the ecosystem for such experimentation and to develop projects that have the most positive impact on the emerging ecosystem. This is why protecting Internet freedoms is so important. The net is arguably the premier lab and distributor of innovation.

    And the basic dynamic going on globally is that while existing power structures are consolidating power and accelerating the destruction of the biosphere (and themselves by exhausting their resources and undermining their legitimacy), at the same time, a dramatic empowering of the the periphery is underway. Ordinary people are gaining control of knowledge production and production of the material basis of life. So a centralization and decentralization are happening simultaneously.

    Transition is inevitable. The only question is how painful transition will be. So if we want, say, a “soft landing”, a good strategy is to develop projects which help in the process of decentralizing political and economic power. The questions are: What infrastructure is needed that can give ordinary people the ability to manage and produce resources at the local level? And what infrastructure and processes can connect and strengthen disparate local projects?

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Neal, thanks for that comment, but I don’t see how that is disagreement with Greer, who pretty much says the same, though perhaps from a more ‘pessimistic’ mindset?

  3. AvatarNeal Gorenflo

    Wow, that’s strange. When I first read it, I really tuned in to the pessimism and apparently it colored the whole article for me. I see that you’re totally right, we agree. Thanks for pointing it out.

  4. AvatarRichard Adler

    Very well said, Michel.

    Paul Hartzog and I have discussed before how “change yourself, change the world” too often comes to an effective halt at the comma, proving to be less a process of self-transformation preceding an active engagement with social ills than an indulgence in narcissism and a faux-spiritual justification for political and social inaction.

    What you’ve done here is neatly turn that position on its head. Rather than allowing an initial focus on oneself to become an excuse for prolonged self-absorption (and a ground for the creation of unrealistic, resource-intensive ‘grand plans’), your argument makes the self a locus for immediate and practical action.

  5. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Hi Richard, if you’re referring to the blogpost, just remember, “I” didn’t say it, I’m just curating someone else, who should get the credit, and the blame . My own point is that it is a dialectic process, that changing oneself, carrying out small projects, but integrating it in a broader process of collective change, is part of the same process. However, many souls in our western world are in such trouble, and live in such a context of exacerbated individualism, that the only way out may appear to them a focus on self … I’ve been there myself, so I can understand the impulse, but with the planet’s very survival at stake, such more narcissic practices are less and less fruitful and defendable.

  6. AvatarPaul B. Hartzog

    Some important things to consider:

    Positive Feedback

    Positive Feedback in complex systems can cause the entire system to cross a threshold and suffer nearly-instant disastrous collapse.

    This was illustrated perfectly by the resonance incident London’s Millennium Bridge ( )
    “The bridge’s movements were caused by a ‘positive feedback’ phenomenon, known as Synchronous Lateral Excitation. The natural sway motion of people walking caused small sideways oscillations in the bridge, which in turn caused people on the bridge to sway in step, increasing the amplitude of the bridge oscillations and continually reinforcing the effect.”

    Consequently, multitudes of individual actions can result in outcomes worse for the group as a whole and thus worse for the individuals themselves in the long run. This known and well-researched social dilemma is also responsible for the depletion of commons, pollution, and many of the situations that Greer suggests will be solved by repeating the process.

    In other words, when the environment provides an incentive structure that serves to coordinate individual actions according to a systemic bias then the result is no different than if those actions had been coordinated in the first place by a central planner with specific outcomes in mind.

    Duplicate Effort

    Individual actions made in a non-communicative environment result in wasteful duplication of effort. This is one of the reasons that and are crucial to future efforts. Individuals who use those sites do not need to, and typically don’t, coordinate their efforts, but the consequence of the intersection of shared information and individual action is rapid innovation. In addition, it is essential that those innovations are shared back into the commons to spur the next innovation.


    The tagline on is “many.2.many peer.2.peer d.i.y” precisely because it takes all three of these conditions for an effective panarchy, i.e. complex adaptive socio-economic-political system to remain stable. No one of them is sufficient.

    “D.I.Y.” is necessary but not sufficient. “Many to many” is necessary because communication has to be happening so that individual parts are connecting, disconnecting, and reconnecting in a myriad of new ways all of the time, and “peer to peer” is necessary because that communication has to be happening in a non-hierarchical way in order to actively work against the systemic bias that is the natural consequence of power-based social systems. Communication is only possible between equals.

    Admittedly, it has taken me a long time to realize these conditions, and there is much more to be said on the subject, but while I totally agree with Greer’s point, i.e. “d.i.y”, much more is needed if we are to navigate the current collapse and emerge into a sustainable and robust future civilization.

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