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Global Wyrding & Deeply Adaptive Patchworking

Written in


by Michael James

originally published on

This is a transcription of a presentation given at Wyrd/Patchwork #2, an event which took place at Punctum in Prague on 26 October 2018.

I want to thank everyone involved for inviting me to be with you today. As might become abundantly clear during my presentation, I am quite passionate about this topic, and have been increasingly orienting both my professional and personal life towards thinking through, and designing from, the notion of patchwork.

I will also preface my comments today by stating clearly that I view the recent upsurge in interest in the notion of patchwork as an exciting opportunity to collaborate rather than compete (in any sense) with those who are already well on their way to making important contributions to this conversation.

I’ll start by very briefly picking up on some of the thoughts I had from the previous workshop: in particular Dustin’s thorough introduction of patchwork, and his survey of some of the inspirations that may have influenced recent trends in thinking about and designing alternative communities. As Dustin, and now Alice, have noted, from de Puydt’s panarchism, to Roderick T. Long, all the way to Curtin Yarvin (aka “Moldbug”) there runs a persistent interest in finding ways to organize and govern ourselves differently – ways that potentially resolve some of the long-standing challenges balancing individual needs and integrity with the collective needs and stability, with large and small scale social groupings.

But, of course, as many of the participants in the previous workshop argued, the interest in finding ways to best organize and maximize social life is nothing new. As long as humans have been gathering and cooperating in relatively stable sedentary complexes, issues of social composition and functional governance have been discussed, debated, and often violently contested. Interest in patchwork, then, can (and I argue should) be viewed as a reinvigoration of a long-standing focus on social organization and intentional forms of collective living. What makes patchwork such a vital discourse, however, is first, that it continues and complexifies traditions of secessionism, and secessionist desires; and second, that it does so from the vantage of complexity science, modern techniques of systems design, multi-scale modelling, and perhaps most importantly deep historical awareness. Modern, post-modern, and perhaps hypermodern, patchwork theorizing comes at a time when a dizzying array of technological advances, optimization techniques, and intellectual disciplinary sophistication is widely available.

Yet there is a third (and from my perspective the most important) factor in making patchwork theorizing so valuable: and that is the need to confront and adapt to the ongoing and intensifying fragmentation of social, psychological and ecological systems. If we are to accept the growing empirical and experiential data suggesting that breakdown, alienation, and fragmentation increasingly characterizes our personal and political lives, then I suggest that patchwork, and more to my point today patchworking (as process and action) is an empowering approach to navigating the various political, economic and ecosystemic breakdowns and related transitions occurring now, as well as those to come.

Now, permit me to be somewhat overly explicit in my message by putting all my cards on the table. I theorize patchwork as an open source platform to not only attempt to improve existing models and designs for alternative community, but also a means of psychologically coping-with the reality of fragmentation, in that our ability to accommodate and adapt to the existential and material threats of the present and near future are greatly enhanced by exposure and adoption the kinds of systems thinking and compositional approaches that patchwork seems, almost by necessity, to entail.

But lest I get too comfortable in these conclusions, I want to flesh out a few of these points in specific ways. First, in relation to the issue of fragmentation, I think it is important to note that no one region or particular population is affected or experiences the various fragmenting tendencies the same way. Borrowing a phrase from Evan Calder Williams, I would suggest that fragmentation now, as in the near future, will be “combined and uneven” – unequally distributed and uniquely unfolded according to local material, historical and social conditions. This is a point of note because patchworking (as action, process, and approach to navigating change) must remain sensitive and open to existing assemblages, and material and social relations, wherein and wherever we seek enact alternative communities. We must work with the resources, tools, and people  embedded in place and in situ if we hope to enact survivable and successful social arrangements. And in order to be effective and capable of enacting a viable living arrangement, or “patch”, our designs, strategies and practices must be, as Justin Murphy described in the previous workshop, “empirically well-calibrated with reality”.

So this begs the question: ‘what are the main features and dynamics of  existing realities that command our attention in the contemporary?’ This question rendered differently, in context of our focus today, might be: ‘what is it about contemporary tendencies and deterritorializations that must be acknowledged and diligently engaged, locally and otherwise, in order to adequately generate the tools and models necessary to cope, calibrate, and reterritorialize our personal and social worlds?’

This is obviously a complex and loaded question; and I don’t want to simply gloss over the intricacies, nuances and assumptions embedded in framing the issue this way. There are layers and dimensions to the question of ‘needs’ and ‘requirements’ – many of which I won’t cover today. But one I such assumption that I want to highlight is an understanding of humans as coping-beings– animal systems with heritable traits evolved to seek our own survival, comfort and procreation in the world. I think it’s fair to assume that those present would agree, at least in basic outline, that we are such creatures. Even if someone finds sympathy or meaning in desiring that our species become otherwise, perhaps some posthuman advancement of abstract intelligence – in which case human patchworking would be of little interest to them – they could agree that our current dispositions include a deep interest in achieving some semblance of organizational stability, if not personal integrity in response to chaotic and fragmentaing forces. As an attachment-assumption, we might also agree that humans are social-beings, endowed with instincts and proclivities for intimacy, affection and group relations.

Such anthropological truisms might seem trivial at first, but I would caution such a reflex by suggesting that any patch, patchwork, or patchworking project must be fundamentally anchored in such invariant realities, and that all discussions about “exit”, “voice”, political praxis, and alternative community building be grounded in an appreciation for the current capacities and necessities of the human, living in a mostly nonhuman world.

With this, the question of ‘reality calibration’ as it relates to fragmentation remains to be addressed. To detail, in any meaningful way, the myriad of crises, threats and breakdowns facing our species at present is beyond the scope of this presentation, but no doubt many of us know the most prevalent among them. From the delegitimization of traditional political aggregates (i.e, the nation-state), via brutalizing austerity measures and rise of corporate control, to the internal crises of capitalism, brought forth by predatory finance practices, labor precarity and the stagnation of wages, to the cognitive and social effects of mass media technology in a so-called “post-truth” era – everywhere in this unevenly distributed globalized civilization dissolution and alienation seem to be the prevailing tendency.

The presenters today, and in the previous workshop, I think, did a good job of highlighting some of the areas and tendencies where fragmentation affects us psychologically and sociologically – and I look forward to learning more about their continued efforts. So instead, I’ll attempt to build on and supplement that work by focusing on how patchwork as conceptual operator, approach and model relates to what many believe is the defining crises and overarching challenge of our era: climate change, or, more accurately, climate breakdown.

I’m not qualified to present the complexities involved in the science of climate in detail, so I will make no attempt to do so here. Rather, I will rely the thousands of leading scientists, among whom are several nobel prize-winners, that contribute the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. In the IPCC’s latest special report, released October 8, 2018, the world was once again treated to a summary of existing data and research indicating the relentless trend toward carbonization of the atmosphere and subsequent runaway warming of the Earth. Climate change, we were told, once again, remains a growing planetary crisis the scale of which humans may have never experienced before: threatening to overturn millenia of stable weather patterns, and with it cause massive disruptions in agriculture, water supplies, flora and fauna cycles, increasing occurrences of devastating wildfires and storms, and the rising of sea levels covering nearly 40% of existing human habitats.

The IPCC special report concludes that in order to avoid the worst and most devastating effects of climate change, including possible extinction of our species, we will have to limit the amount of warming to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial times. This, while current projections based on ‘business as usual’, or even moderate measures to curb emissions, estimate an increase in average yearly temperature of 2.5 – 3 degrees celsius. The report ends with a statement that unless there is, “unprecedented and radical societal change within 12 years” the likelihood of preventing increases well over 1.5 degrees, and the massive disruptions and fragmentations that this will cause, is very, very high. Thus, to state that the relative consensus outlook on climate change, given current levels of emissions, institutional orders, and existing attempts to transition to post-carbon economics, is dire, would be to drastically underappreciate the IPCC’s conclusions. Which is to say, “exit” is no longer a choice or strategy, but, rather, an inevitable near-term reality driven by complex processes and intensive forces well beyond our control. And “voice”, as a feature and expression of particular political institutions, will soon be rendered wholly irrelevant in such contexts.

Let’s just dwell on that for a moment: “unprecedented and radical societal change, within 12 years”… Unfortunately, given that we have been repeatedly warned for the past 30 years that radical changes must be made to our economic and governance systems, and considering existing controlling institutions and elite powers, I feel confident (and disgusted) in saying it seems incredibly unlikely that we will achieve the necessary timeline suggested by the IPCC.

Which brings me, after much preamble and contextualizing, to the main focus of my presentation today: patchwork, and patchworking as adaptive response to the ecological, personal, and social fragmentations resulting from (but not limited to) climatic breakdown. I think it is important to start by emphasizing how radically destabilizing climate change is projected to become ecologically, personally and socially. In fact, such complex, multifaceted, networked, and nonlinear changes and disruptions have been collectively and broadly described in many journalist circles as “global weirding” since the mid-2000s. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times is often credited with coining the term, although he is quick to point out Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, as the its originator.

I find the connotative meanings circulating around the term global weirding both instructive and productive in the precision with which it captures the uncanny nature of climate chaos and its resulting effects. Global weirding also describes how many of us experience such disarray as it unfolds in a myriad of ways. Climatic breakdown is weird in the sense that it warps and resists all attempts to be normalized, or managed by existing narratives and institutions. Accelerated global warming, and its wild, uncontrollable effects force us into confronting weirdings that obliterate standard means and modes of coping, rendering our lives even more vulnerable and accessible than what’s been on offer during the last 300 years of capitalism, and its now crumbling human security systems.

The list of weirdings and non-normal events includes, broadly, economic weirding, as whole industries collapse, and massive unemployment and financial crises lead to intensified precariousness for the middle and lower classes; geopolitical weirding, as populations and their governments find themselves in successive states of emergency, unable to provide basic services or deal with influxes of infectious diseases and social unrest; but also psychological weirding, as available cognitive maps fail and dissonance increases, overwhelming people’s ability to cope, leading to reactionary tendencies and flare-ups of religious zealotry and racialized xenophobic fervor, among other anti-social disorders. As Arran Crawford notes, in his recent contribution to Synthetic Zero,  “this weird is simply the real as it intrudes on our neurotic world-simulations.”

The thickest description of global weirding would, of course, require us to catalogue the various complex systems, feedbacks and multi-scale relations affected by a warming climate – and I believe such projects have been running for quite some time, and will no doubt be amplified in light of recent reports. Instead, I will begin to cycle back to the connections between coping and psychosocial adaptation, reality calibration and patchwork. In a globally weirding world, with proliferating threats to personal and population security, the need for discernable, cogent, and workable maps, models, strategies and solutions becomes not just about operational efficiency, but an urgent and necessary endeavor for the continuance of anything resembling stable individual, family and communal life. Yet, where do we find the intellectual and technical resources to understand and cope-with the challenges ahead if they are not already available to us?

To be sure, there are entire industries and disciplines dedicated to preventing and managing the effects of climate change and resulting social and ecological problems. These efforts are often guided by approaches predicated on the notion of sustainability, and responsible policy-making. But I, along with many others, argue that these approaches have, and do, fail to enact the types of urgent reorientations called for in the recent IPCC special report. The probability of radical and unprecedented societal transformation within the next 12 years is near zero. The habits, mechanisms and technomic processes of contemporary modes of social and economic production have locked us into a ruinous trajectory of ecological, social and psychological disintegration that are mostly, if not completely, beyond causal intervention by moderate, piecemeal, and compromised lifestyle and policy approaches. Put plainly, we’re fucked… and current efforts and strategies to address ecological and subsequent societal weirding are ill-equipped to deal with the multitude of associated problems. Instead, we are left scrambling to devise coping and exit strategies using inadequate models, hooked ever so naively to ad hoc ideologies and obsolete values, which, in turn, only exasperates our existential discomfort, driving people further into caves of insularity or agitating us towards violence and conflict. To borrow a phrase from science-fiction author William Gibson, “there are no maps for these territories”.

Fortunately, we are not without options. I recently encountered a possible way forward in the work of University of Cumbria professor, and United Nations consultant, Dr. Jem Bendell. Bendell’s July 2018 paper titled, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” was a revelation of sorts. In the paper, Bendell cuts through all the major conventions of his field (that of sustainability and climate change adaptation) to provide an astonishingly concise and disturbingly frank overview of the current state of climate science research. Not content with how the IPCC was reporting to date, Bendell analyzed and then synthesized much of the most important research on anthropogenic climate change coming from leading academic journals and international research institutes. His findings were unequivocal: that current warming trends and projections indicate, in his own words, “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction”. Bendell writes: “The evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war”.

These are definitive statements by an expert intimately acquainted with the data. And, to be sure, this level of knowledgeable conviction requires changes in our understanding of governance and political participation. In interviews previous to this paper Bendell has explained that he had been working on climate change issues, and attempts to ameliorate the damages already happening as a result of global warming, for the better part of a decade and was no longer professionally or ethically content to downplay the current state of things, or keep working within policy and governance frameworks that failed to acknowledge the urgency of addressing the immediacy of climate breakdown, and the related civilizational fragmentation that follows.

As an alternative, Bendell proposes letting go of our incremental, non-ambitious, conformist approaches, and adopting a new framework to guide us into, and perhap through, climatic breakdown and near-term civilizational collapse. He calls this framework The Deep Adaptation Agenda. And by outlining this framework in his scientific summary Bendell wanted to “provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change”. Bendell is quick to point out that the Deep Adaptation Agenda differs from existing “climate adaptation studies” in that its core feature is the view that societal collapse is now “inevitable” – which, he argues, has been absent from the research and debates until now.

So what does the Deep Adaptation Agenda entail, and how does patchwork come into play? Bendell details three key aspects of his approach: resilience, relinquishment and restoration. It’s worth briefly exploring each one in turn, as I will circle back on all three when discussing patchwork more directly, enfolding these principles into a series of suggestions about what a deeply adaptive patchwork might include.

First, resilience. I suspect this group is no stranger to the concept of resilience, as it has been a widely discussed concept for well over a decade now, in numerous fields, and participants in the previous workshop made several gestures towards how it might relate ideas and designs of patchwork. Resilience is best described as set of capacities wherein a system (be it an agent, group, or ecosystem) has the ability to persevere, or ‘bounce back’, and maintain its function while encountering significant disruption. The capacity to be resilient directly impacts our survival and success as individuals and collectives.

Next, Bendell argues that adaptation to climatic breakdown and its deep crises requires relinquishment – which is not just about how we maintain what we want to preserve, but what we need to let go of when coping-with, and adapting to, massive changes in our way of life and habitual modes of sustaining. Bendell argues that if we don’t let go of many of our current habits, practices, expectations, values, and means of creating a meaningful life, we’ll fail miserably at surviving and adapting to the fragmenting weirdings ahead. Bendell even suggests that not letting go of many of our habitual modes and desires can, in many cases, make matters much worse. We might simplify this by saying less, in the context of collapse adaptation, is more.

Which brings us to the third and, perhaps, most empowering principle of Bendell’s deep adaptation approach: restoration. Again, the notion of restoration pre-exists Bendell’s framework, being widely applied in circles of specialists interested in the restorative dimension of environmentalism with its interest in the stewardship and regenerating of existing habitats and ecosystems. But here Bendell ups the stakes to include a focus on restoring those capacities, practices and systems that assist us in living through and after the various collapses. For my own part, I want to emphasize this restorative aspect as a way to enhance our understanding of the necessity of salvaging, rebuilding, creating, and thus patchworking from the fragmented ruins of the contemporary. This emphasis has decidedly pragmatic, logistical, and design-oriented aspects, but also a suggestive cognitive dimension in that is provides us with semantic resources that might also help us avoid total despair and despondency.

To summarize and reiterate Bendell’s approach: resilience is how we keep what we need; relinquishment is letting go of what we don’t need; and restoration is what will be required of us after the near-term sorting process of widespread fragmentation and collapse. It is these three core principles that define the deep adaptation strategy, and, I argue, can help guide any and all reality-calibrated attempts at patchworking futures that include the human species.

What seems certain is that the reality and acceptance of near-term collapse and forced exit augments the field of possibilities for patchwork, while limiting the range of opportunities for future attempts at mitigating the damages associated and building community in the aftermath. Without a deep adaptation strategy we run the risk of what Arran Crawford has called, “patchwork psychosis”, ie. patchworking with delusion – detached from the necessities and imperatives encountered when coping-with disruption and fragmentation. Such uncalibrated efforts at mitigating climate chaos and its effects ensures that any all our attempts to design and implement patchwork will be inherently flawed. Successful patches will be those that have already done the work of building-in capacities for resilience – be it viable food and water sources, maintainable energy and fuel supplies, interpersonal trust and bonding, or patch security systems. Successful patches will be open to relinquishing reliance on pre-collapse technology, social practices and norms; and engage in ongoing efforts to restore much needed equipment, infrastructure and abilities that afford the procurement and protection of required resources. In the words of Arran Crawford, again, “successful patches will be those able to ride the collapse using anticipatory responsiveness and through constructing the means of survival most adaptive for their ecological niche.” As global weirding escalates, the adoption of deep adaptation strategies thus seems imperative.

Now I want to highlight the importance of engaging in deeply adaptive patchworking by briefly comparing two very different, generalized (or idealized) visions of patchwork: the ‘up-scale’ advanced techno-patch, and the ‘down-scale’ primitive retro-patch.

The up-scale techno-patch is a model that in its actualization would depend on the continued extraction of particular materials, and the supporting technologic, institutional, legal, and labor regimes that make such extractions possible. Justin Murphy’s neo-feudal techno-communism, or the kinds of artificially intelligent urban patchworks Amy Ireland has alluded to, might be a particularly clear examples of the large-scale technopatchmodels. Such technofuturist visions seem to make special use of ‘patchwork psychosis’ when building their models on assumptions that particular civilizational processes will continue as they have, without disruption of required supply-chains and social arrangements, and unencumbered by the finitude of earth processes and resource potentials. Patchworking in accordance with a technopatch vision can only lead to spectacular failure in the context of climate breakdown. The promotion of such models, while optimistic, will prove to be maladaptive in the context of deepening ecological breakdown and widening social strife, rendering living conditions increasingly precarious.

In contrast, the smaller-scale retropatch would instead be oriented towards local food production, traditional forms of collective organization, the use of primitive materials, developing strong peer-to-peer interpersonal bonds, and working to stabilize and protect valuable resources and lands within their extended domain. Retropatches would be low-tech, and comprised of relatively small populations. The advantages of such a model actualized should be relatively obvious, given what I have already outlined, but the this model and way of life would certainly not be without problems – with issues of security, energy acquisition, reliance of unpredictable and volatile weather condition, and an inability to ameliorate droughts, wildfires, etc.

Lest we begin to idealize either of these generalized visions and approaches to patchworking, I must admit that each of these models is presented here as a deliberately underspecified caricature, obviously requiring nuancing in ways that might seemingly increase or decrease their viability. However, expanding and detailing either of these generalizations is not my concern today. I simply compare these rudimentary models in order to set the stage for your consideration of a third generalization – one that charts a “middle-way” between technomic acceleration and decelerated simplicity: namely, that of the mixed-scale, deeply adaptive salvagepatch.

I believe the salvagepatch model can afford us approaches and strategies that explicitly adopt and operationalize deep adaptation strategies inherently oriented towards helping people develop ways to adjust to changing circumstances and available resources, without maintaining pre-collapse dependencies and social forms. By building local and trans-local capacities for individual and collective resilience salvage patchworking can adaptive responses and tactics that also facilitate novel sense-making and personal development practices. With a focus on scavenging, salvaging and repurposing viable technologies and valuable materials, restoring (where possible) existing infrastructure and community-enriching processes, generating local subsistence while trading surplus with other regions, and working with the materials and systems at-hand the salvagepatch approach activates interests and skills rooted in survival, compromise, pragmatism, agility, and utility – while promoting the ‘letting go’ of obsolete social and psychological attachments, and previous dependencies on large-scale and mid-range economic processes that no longer exist.

It is important for me to be very clear in my acknowledgment that a proposal for intentionally adaptive middle-way salvagepatches requires extensive elaboration and detailing in order to approach anything like a working model or strategy. The process of researching, theorizing and platforming such a model is ongoing, and we at Synthetic Zero have already begun developing several rudimentary sub-models and design priorities that would allow us to move forward with such a vision.

Much work is still to be done in this regard, and I will conclude by reiterating that in order for patchwork to be relevant and useful asa conceptual tool and design framework it has remain committed to an engagement with the very real and imminent forces and threats we all are entangled with today: those of climate change and societal collapse. The work that we do towards theorizing, modelling and potentially enacting wierd patchworks for a weirdingworld can further reinvigorate interest in, and passion for, creating alternative communities capable of anticipating and adapting to the turbulent times ahead, and I extend an invitation to any individual or group who would like to explore that project with us.

Thank you.

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