Chapter 15

You Are The System


We’re nearly ready to do something monumental, but not quite.

I used to manage IT systems for a key component of the global economy (it makes me feel a bit gloomy that I knowingly helped prop up Industrial Civilization for a while, but more of that later) and whenever a major piece of work was due to be carried out I would first analyse all of the stages of the task, finding out where problems might occur; I would then assemble a team of people to help iron out any of these flaws and identify any other potential problems I might have missed. There were always one or two small things I missed, right up to the day of execution; and usually things that we had to deal with “on the fly”: no plan is perfect. That said, if a great deal of effort went into the planning process, the work was likely to be far more successful than just plunging into it, hoping everything would go fine.

So, here’s the plan: first, I want to go over a few key points, just so they are absolutely clear in your mind, no question; second, I want to go through the approach I have taken, in creating what I think is an effective solution. The reason for this transparent thinking is mainly because I don’t want you going into this as an unwilling partner. So many so-called environmental “solutions” assume that the reader / watcher / listener will blindly obey whatever tasks are set before them, leading to an outcome where the burnished sun sets over the shimmering sea, and we all march off into Utopia arm-in-arm.

It doesn’t happen that way.

I’m not saying the outcome won’t be far better than what we have today (it can hardly be worse) but I am in no mood for half-measures and want something that actually does the job of fixing the problems we face; not putting little green sticking plasters over the expanding cracks. What I am going to propose is radical, fundamental and frightening. It is also long-term, exhilarating and absolutely necessary. I would much rather scare people off who are not ready to make the commitment for a change of this scale than pretend they will be able to fix things by changing their electricity supplier, upgrading their cars and enlisting their friends in an orgy of “greensumption”.[i]

Transparency is the by-word, then. By reading this chapter you will understand why I have proposed what I have later on in the book. If you don’t like my train of thought then you could try reading Chapters Seven, Ten and Eleven again and see if they clarify things; if that fails then put this book down and come back to it in a few months time. Before you do anything, I want you to feel comfortable in your own mind with what lies ahead.


Your Part In All This

In Chapter Thirteen I went some way towards describing how Industrial Civilization operates; in particular the methods used to make sure people are no threat to the dominant culture, and an explanation of where the power really lies. If you were expecting a conspiracy theory, which placed the elite members of society in some unassailable position, guiding our every move, then you probably ended up disappointed. Yes, the rich and powerful do get a lot more material benefit from this unequal setup, but they are also teetering on the brink of psychosis whenever the power rush gets too much. There are an increasing number of people who subscribe to “New World Order” theories and the like; ideas that seem very appealing when you are stuck in a dark place, trying to get out. The Internet is awash with conspiracy sites[ii] describing in minute detail every cartel; every meeting; and every deal that takes place to ensure power is kept with the people who already have it. The complex structures that actually exist to ensure economic growth continues are benefiting greatly from this paranoid activity.

Here’s one example: suppose there is a large trawler that comes into port, day after day, its hold brimming with fish. Time passes and the size of the other crews’ hauls begin to diminish, as the fish stocks are gradually depleted. The local population starts to become concerned about their future. One of the locals proposes a theory that the successful skipper is getting information about fresh shoals of fish from some mysterious source who has knowledge far beyond their understanding: a supernatural force, perhaps. This idea becomes accepted fact. Whispered discussions about this “higher power” fill the inns for many nights, but nothing is ever done because there is nothing that can be done to defeat such powerful entities. Meanwhile, the successful skipper continues to bring home heavy catches, and the fishing stocks keep getting smaller.

It turns out that the successful boat is actually equipped with a better form of sonar than all the other boats, imported from another country where it is already widely used. This being a small isolated fishing port, nobody else is aware of this new technology. Had the other crews taken time to look closer to home and cleared their heads of “higher power” thoughts, then they would have realised that one boat simply had better equipment than all the others. In order to protect the fishing stocks, their simple task then would have been to sabotage the sonar on the successful boat. Every time that sonar was repaired, they would sabotage it once again.

Ignoring the fact that the law may have eventually caught up with the saboteurs – after all, the law exists to maintain economic success above anything else – their efforts in attacking the immediate cause of the heavy catches would have prevented the fish stocks falling for a while; but then other boats in other ports may have started to use this sonar, hitting the stocks even harder. If the saboteurs wanted to deal with this further problem they could have became even more ambitious, they might wish to block the supply lines for the import of sonar equipment; they might go to the country of origin, or enlist local help, to prevent the manufacture of the sonar. Eventually though, as this is the Culture of Maximum Harm, jealousy and greed would take over, and the other crews would realise it was in their immediate economic interests to install their own sonar systems, catch everything they could, and to hell with the terminal decline of the fishing stocks!

There are two lessons here. First, the answer to a problem usually lies in a far more mundane place than people realise; it is only the way that we have been manipulated that causes us to look in the wrong places for solutions: to the law, to business, to politics, to hope. We rarely look closer to home for answers. We rarely look in the mirror and question our own motives. Richard Heinberg, author of Peak Everything has this to say about our addled state:

As civilization has provided more and more for us, it's made us more and more infantile, so that we are less and less able to think for ourselves, less and less able to provide for ourselves, and this makes us more like a herd – we develop more of a herd mentality – where we take our cues from the people around us, the authority figures around us.[iii]

Second, good intentions rarely last long in this culture. In a way, there was some higher power in play here: the power that makes people give up good intentions and follow the path chosen for them by Industrial Civilization. The fishermen stopped trying to prevent the problem getting worse and instead decided to put their own snouts into the trough. That’s just the way it is: it’s what we have been brought up to do.

When you think about it, humans in this culture seem to want conspiracy theories about strange things we don’t understand; we seem to want unassailable forces running our lives from ivory towers; we seem to want this because we cannot accept that perhaps we are all in this together and the truth will hurt a bit too much. Driving a giant SUV, flying half way across the world for pleasure or buying the results of rainforest devastation because our culture makes these acts acceptable does not absolve the user – we must take some responsibility, for without accepting our role in this system then we have no chance of being freed from it.

You are part of the system. Get used to it.

*   *   *

The act of giving someone bad news is often easier than the thought of doing so: the period leading up to giving this news can get inside your head, invade your dreams and start to gnaw away at you; the act of passing on the news might be uncomfortable, but the moment is quickly gone, however difficult that moment is. The longer you leave things, the worse it feels. Receiving bad news works in much the same way; except that usually people don’t realise they are going to get it. The thought that something bad might happen to you in the future; now, that really can play tricks with your mind – you try and avoid the situation, put it off for as long as you can but, as long as the outcome isn’t truly terrible, the execution is rarely as bad as you imagine it might be.

In the movie “The Matrix”, the thought that something was wrong gnawed at Neo, the perpetrator of eventual change, for years; but when he found the truth, it was as much a liberation for him as it was a shock. Neo found that he could do something about his situation because he had knowledge, and because he fully understood his position. Once you accept things as they are – that you are part of the problem and, thus, you have a part to play in the solution – you actually start to feel better, as though the weight of ages has been lifted from your shoulders.

You are part of the system; you have to take responsibility for your part of the problem: how does that feel?

Your place in the system is as a component in a massive food web. Like all food webs, it is driven by energy; physical energy sources like oil, gas, coal and radioactive materials drive the machines that ensure money keeps floating to the top of the vat where the Elites skim it off to add to their wealth. If you are resourceful or in a role that holds some status, you can have some of this wealth too, and the material trappings that come with it. Without the energy that drives the web, though, there is no money, and there is no web. It is not just the oil, gas, coal and the various sources of radiation that keep the web operating though – people are equally vital, more so in fact. Unless people run the machines, staff the shops, build the products, drive the lorries, create the advertisements, read the news and enforce the law, the web will collapse upon itself, bringing the entire hierarchy down with it.

Think back to the chapter about cod. The cod are positioned high up in the food web in terms of the amount of food energy they require to remain alive: they operate at a high trophic level, but without the organisms at the lower levels – the sand eels, the tiny copepods and the minute plankton – they cannot exist. Without the cod, the scavenging hagfish might start to suffer (although the windfall of bodies would provide rich pickings for a long time) but the sand eels one level down would be delighted: they would flourish. Think of your place in civilization; think of your job, or your role in society, and how it relates to the people sitting right at the top, or even those somewhere in the middle, aspiring to move upwards. What do you want to be, a wheel or a cog?[iv]

Yes, you are part of the system; but you are far more important than the people higher up in the web: you are the engine, the energy source, the reason for its continuation. You are the system. Without your cooperation, without your faith, the system would have no energy and then it would cease to exist.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel good.


Building Solutions

Industrial Civilization has to end; I made that clear in Part Three. There is no doubt that, sooner or later, it will collapse, taking much of its subjected population with it: oil crisis, credit crunch, environmental disaster, pandemic – whatever the reason, it will eventually fail in a catastrophic manner. This may not happen for fifty or a hundred years; by which time global environmental collapse will be inevitable. That is one option; the other is for it to die, starting now, in such a way that those who have the nerve and the nous to leave it behind can save themselves and the natural environment that we are totally dependent upon.

Be assured, no one is going to go into the heart of the “machine” and rip it limb from limb, because the machine has no heart, it has no brain. This civilization is what we have ended up with after a series of deliberate (and sometimes accidental) events intended primarily to give power and wealth to a privileged few. What we have now got is an entire culture that values economic growth above everything else, a toolkit of malicious methods for keeping that cultural belief in place, and an elite, ever-changing group of people who have become pathological megalomaniacs, unable to cope with the sheer amount of wealth and power this culture allows them to have.

Given that we all appear to be in this together (although some of us are beginning to realise that it doesn’t have to be that way) how on Earth is it possible to bring down something so monumental? The answer lies in the nature of Industrial Civilization itself – its key features are also its greatest weaknesses.

Take the simple article of faith that is Economic Growth. We have, I guess, agreed that there is nothing sustainable about it – however you cut the pie, the natural environment is bound to lose out all the time the economy is growing. In order to sustain a “healthy” level of economic growth, the consuming public has to know that when they spend some money they will still have some left. The definition of “having money to spare” has been stretched out of all proportion in recent years as creditors have extended peoples ability to spend beyond their means, while still thinking they are solvent. Whether that spare money is in the form of savings, cash, investments or credit, though, the important factor is that the potential consumer will stop being a potential consumer as soon as they realise there is no more money left to spend. Having a paid job is one way of ensuring (at least for a while) that you can pay for things; in fact, this is the major factor affecting Consumer Confidence.

Across the world, governments and the corporations that control them are in a constant cycle of measuring consumer confidence. The USA Conference Board[v] provides the model for most of the indices used by the analysts. The importance of confidence to economies is critical:

In the most simplistic terms, when…confidence is trending up, consumers spend money, indicating a healthy economy. When confidence is trending down, consumers are saving more than they are spending, indicating the economy is in trouble. The idea is that the more confident people feel about the stability of their incomes, the more likely they are to make purchases.[vi]

This creates an interesting situation: it is possible, indeed probable, that to create catastrophic collapse within an economy, and thus bring down a major pillar of Industrial Civilization, the public merely have to lose confidence in the system. This is reflected in other, related parts of civilization: following the attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001, the global air transport industry underwent a mini-collapse; the BSE outbreak in the UK in the early 1990s caused not only a temporary halt in the sale of UK beef, but also a significant drop in global beef sales. Anything that can severely undermine confidence in a major part of the global economy can thus undermine civilization. 

The need for confidence is a psychological feature of Industrial Civilization; there are also two physical features that work together to create critical weaknesses. The first of these is the complexity that so many systems now exhibit. I mentioned the “farm to fork” concept in Chapter Eleven, indicating that the distance travelled by food items is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Overall, the methods used to produce food on a large scale, in particular the high energy cost involved in cultivating land, feeding livestock, transforming raw materials into processed foods, chilling and freezing food, retailing it and finally bringing it home to cook, not only demonstrates huge inefficiencies but also exposes the number of different stages, involved in such a complex system. The same applies to electricity; in most cases electricity is generated by the burning or decay of a non-renewable material, which has to be removed from the ground in the form of an ore, processed and then transported in bulk to the generation facility. Once the electricity is generated, in a facility with a capacity of anything up to five gigawatts[vii], it has to be distributed, initially over a series of very high voltage lines, and then through a number of different power transformation stages (all the time losing energy) until it reaches the place where the power is needed. Both of these examples – and there are many more, including global money markets and television broadcast systems – consist of a great many stages; most of which, if they individually fail, can cause the entire system to collapse.

The second of this potentially debilitating pair of features is the overdependence on hubs. Systems are usually described as containing links and nodes, a node being the thing that joins one or more links together; a road is a link, and the junctions that connect the different roads together are the nodes. Systems that have many links and nodes are called “networks”; food webs are networks, with the energy users being the nodes, and the energy flows being the links. Networks made up of links that develop over time, based on need, are referred to as “random” networks: the US interstate highway system is one such random network, as is the set of tunnels created by a family of rabbits. Networks created intentionally to fulfil a planned purpose, usually with the potential to expand, are called “scale-free” networks, good examples being the routes of major airlines.


Figure 2: Route map for a major US airline, showing the almost total dependence on three large hubs (Source: Continental Airlines Route Maps)

A node within a network that joins together a great many links is known as a hub: Industrial Civilization uses hubs a lot. Thomas Homer-Dixon describes the situation like this:

Although researchers long assumed that most networks were like the interstate highway system, recent study shows that a surprising number of the world’s networks – both natural and human made – are more like the air traffic system. These scale-free networks include most ecosystems, the World Wide Web, large electrical grids, petroleum distribution systems, and modern food processing and supply networks. If a scale-free network loses a hub, it can be disastrous, because many other nodes depend on that hub.

Scale-free networks are particularly vulnerable to intentional attack: if someone wants to wreck the whole network, he simply needs to identify and destroy some of its hubs.[viii]

In July 2001, a railway tunnel fire in Baltimore, USA caused the shutdown of a large part of the downtown area due to the heat generated within the tunnel, and the health risk posed by an acid spill. Over the next few days the surrounding rail networks were affected by the extra freight traffic diverted onto other lines, causing a number of bottlenecks in the greater Baltimore area.[ix] There was also one unexpected impact: Internet access across much of the USA slowed down dramatically. “The Howard Street Tunnel houses an Internet pipe serving seven of the biggest US Internet Information Service Providers (ISPs), which were identified as those ISPs experiencing backbone slowdowns.  The fire burned through the pipe and severed fiber optic cable used for voice and data transmission, causing backbone slowdowns for ISPs such as Metromedia Fiber Network, Inc., WorldCom, Inc., and PSINet, Inc.”[x] The Howard Street tunnel was a major artery for Internet traffic; its severance caused the same impact that the destruction of a major network hub would cause.

When you combine a set of key complex systems consisting of a large number of interdependent components, with networks that are increasingly becoming dependent on a small number of hubs, you create a structure that is extremely sensitive; irrespective of any safeguards that may have been built into it. Civilization is built upon these complex, interdependent systems, and these systems rely on networks to keep the flows of energy, data, money and materials moving. Civilization also depends upon its human constituents (you and I) having complete confidence in the way it operates: it needs faith. In both physical and psychological terms, Industrial Civilization is extremely fragile: one big push and it will go.

*   *   *

These are just thoughts, ideas, imperfect sketches for something that could work if it’s done properly. I can’t predict how things are going to turn out, even if what I am going to propose does succeed; nobody can predict something that hasn’t started yet. My train of thought won’t stop with the end of this book, but here’s where I am at the moment:

1.      The world is changing rapidly and dangerously, and humans are the main reason for this change. If we fail to allow the Earth’s physical systems to return to their natural state then these systems will break down, taking humanity with them.

2.      Humans are part of nature; we have developed in such a way that we think we are more than just another organism; but in ecological terms we are irrelevant.

3.      Regardless of our place in the tree of life, humans always have been, and always will be the most important things to humanity. We are survival machines.

4.      Our failure to connect the state of the planet with our own inarguable need to survive will ensure our fate is sealed. This must not happen.

5.      In order to bring us to a state of awareness, we must learn how to connect with the real world; the world we depend upon for our survival. We are all capable of connecting.

6.      Our lack of connection with the real world is a condition that has been created by the culture we live in. The various tools used to keep us disconnected from the real world are what make Industrial Civilization the destructive thing that it is.

7.      To gain the necessary motivation to free ourselves and act against civilization we need to get angry; and use that anger in a constructive way.

8.      To understand how to remove Industrial Civilization we must realise that we, along with everyone else in Industrial Civilization, are the system.

9.      Industrial Civilization is complex, faith-driven and extremely sensitive to change and disruption. It will collapse on its own, but not in time to save humanity.

I have read a lot of books, and a lot more articles and essays related to the problems that we face. I have heard people talking on the radio and on television proposing how everything can be sorted out. I have seen some wonderful movies that describe where we are going, how we got here and where we might be going. Some of these works reach an ecstatic crescendo before petering out in a gentle rain of hope. Some of them tell me what we should be doing; when it is obvious that the things suggested will not help, and could even make things worse. Some of them tell me I should not be looking for “solutions” to the problem at all – that there are no solutions, no cures, probably no chance at all. I haven’t read, heard or watched anything that could actually make things better.

Have I missed something?

I don’t think so. For one thing, I don’t subscribe to the idea that there are no solutions: agreed, there is no way of knowing if I have left something out – I probably have – and no way of completely tidying up the fallout that will inevitably result from the massive shift in society that is required. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have solutions, providing you know what the problem is. I know what the problem is, and so do you: at its heart, it is not environmental change and it is not humanity itself – it is that we are disconnected from what it means to be human. The solution is the answer to this simple question:

How can we reconnect with the real world?

I’m not asking people to help build a new set of systems, construct a new world order, design a new future – that kind of ambition is the stuff of civilization; the stuff of control, hierarchy and power. Connection is the most liberating, and powerful step you can take. If you know what is happening; if you know why it matters; if you know how to connect; and if you have the strength to reject the way this culture disconnects us, then you can change your own world, at the very least. That is the start of everything.

There are two dimensions to the solution, both of which I want to briefly explain before I show you the solution. The reason I am using dimensions is because the solution is not simple; it is much easier to understand something complex if you can break it down a bit.


The First Dimension: Cutting Across

In this dimension are the different actions that can be carried out to deal with the problem itself: our lack of connection. There are a few different aspects to this, some of which are more useful than others; but the nature of them makes it difficult to just make lists – they do tend to cut across each other depending on how you approach the problem. For instance, if we assume (correctly) that to bring civilization to its knees, economic growth has to stop, then it would seem logical to directly attack the instruments of the global economy: the investment banks, clearing houses, treasuries and the various things that link these nodes together. The problem is that, however exciting an idea this is, it doesn’t deal with the deeper problem – that civilization actually wants economic growth to take place: unless this mindset is removed then the systems will just be rebuilt in order to re-establish a growing economy.

Even more fundamentally, unless the reasons people feel that economic growth is necessary, i.e. the Tools of Disconnection are removed, then very few people are likely to spontaneously reconnect with the real world and reject economic growth. You can see, straight away, why a number of different dimensions are necessary. To put it simply, though, the “cutting across” dimension consists of those actions that (a) remove the forces that stop us connecting, (b) help people to reconnect and (c) ensure that the Tools of Disconnection cannot be re-established. If you are keen, try and think of at least one way to address each of these; then see if ours match up later.


The Second Dimension: Drilling Down

Almost every “solution” I have come across only deals with the problem at one or, at most, two levels. I feel like a razor blade company now, by saying I have a three level solution (“Not one, not two, but three levels of problem solving!”) but it’s no accident there are three levels. I started thinking about the nature of the problem at a fairly superficial level – the kind of level most of the “one million ways to green your world” lists pitch at – and immediately realised that, while suggesting what can be done to make things better is necessary, it assumes that there is a huge mass of people who actually want to do these things. You know already that very few people are connected enough to go ahead and do the, quite frankly, very radical things that need to be done: two more levels are necessary.

The second level, therefore, looks at the way individuals and groups of people change over time, and how the necessary changes in attitude can be transmitted throughout the population in a structured way, then accelerated beyond what conventional theory tells us is possible. I am only going to touch on the theory of this as it is pretty dry stuff, but the practical side of it makes for very interesting reading. The beautiful thing about using this multi-level approach – which you may already have realised – is that activities can be taking place at the first level, amongst the people who are already connected and ready to act, which then makes the process of motivating the more stubborn sectors of the population progressively easier.

The final level is the most fundamental of all, without which none of this can happen. It’s all very well me saying what people should do and how different sectors of the population can be progressively mobilised, but unless the individuals involved are ready to be engaged, nothing will happen. This level has to deal with the process of engagement and preparing people so that when asked, they actually want to act. The reason this is almost never addressed is a combination of, (a) writers who make the assumption that things will turn out ok (the “hope” trap) and (b) that this is a very difficult thing to do. I am going to attempt to resolve this.

[Continue to Chapter 16]


[i] That’s “green” consumption. A marvellous misnomer that I would use far more if anyone understood what it meant.

[ii] For examples you can visit,, and There are lots more you can try. The sad thing is that there are a lot of clever people writing a lot of good stuff, but conspiracy theories keep sidetracking them. Remember, a conspiracy is simply groups or individuals working together out of the public eye: you only have to read Chapter Thirteen to realise that the really sinister operations of Industrial Civilization are widely known; but we ignore them because “that’s the way it has to be”.

[iii] Quoted in “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire”, 2007, Directed by Tim Bennett,

[iv] Dmitry Orlov, “Civilization Sabotages Itself”, (accessed 7 May, 2008)

[v] As of April 2008, the US Consumer Confidence Index was down, reflecting the dicey position of the global economy: a combination of the “sub-prime” market collapse, and the huge rise in oil prices. (accessed 7 May, 2008).

[vi] Jim McWhinney, “Understanding the Consumer Confidence Index”, Investopedia, (accessed 7 May, 2008).

[vii] Derived from MWh figure for global generating stations at (accessed 8 May, 2008).

[viii] Thomas Homer-Dixon, “The Upside Of Down”, Souvenir Press, 2007.

[ix] Mark R. Carter et al, “Effects of Catastrophic events on Transportation System Management and Operations: Howard Street Tunnel Fire.” US Department of Transportation, 2001.

[x] Ibid.


A Matter Of Scale by Keith Farnish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 3.0 Unported License.


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