Natalie Dian

The road “must” traveled, from collapse via awareness to action

A review of “The Biggest Wakeup Call in History”

How many times and how many ways do we need to hear that we are part of a group that behaves as if our planet has no limits? Given the multifarious choir of voices trying to get us to wake up, and the plethora of books sited In The Biggest Wake Up Call in History, one would think that results would be more visible. It is clear from all the evidence around us that we are still not getting the message, at least not in large enough numbers to bring us, in time, to a critical mass. Author Richard Slaughter PhD writes in the great cross-disciplinary tradition of the field of futures and critical futures studies. This time he writes for a general audience with the goal of raising individuals’ consciousness about the effects of climate change, peak oil and the concept of unabated growth.

A prominent academic futurist and author, Slaughter begins with an extrapolated warning based upon current trends. He is not alone in painting a dystopian view at the beginning of his book, as it is the structural and pedagogical method of most books of this genre. We might call the genre paradigm change literature which includes books that reveal the patterns behind our increasingly negative experiences with the economy, environment, social cohesion, weather and more. These patterns are continuations from a period before anyone now living was born.

Slaughter’s dystopian view is by far the most frightening because he has the courage to describe not what might occur (which can be dismissed as a future situation) but that “we are in fact already right in the middle of a planetary emergency with no simple solutions, no easy exits”. It would be expected that Slaughter, the futurist, would be talking about future visions; instead he presents evidence that the fall of the current paradigm has already begun. Even though many realize that it is the rich who contribute to the excesses causing our planetary crisis, it will not be the rich who first experience the devastating effects of planetary collapse, it is the poor and they are experiencing it now. We need to understand what we are facing and work together on a social and global plan. The urgency with which he sees the problems forces him to say, “Anything less will consign our children to a `war footing´…”.

Richard Slaughter’s book not only warns us, but goes to great length to help us understand the interior work we need to do. As a beginning, he points out the “conventional responses” or rationalizations we make in response to planetary crash in order to encourage us begin to evaluate our own inner discourse. Two of the five conventional responses are to opt to hope for the best or see technology as the answer. One of the author’s responses is “…there’s simply no prospect of resolving the situation by any technical fix whatsoever.”p.17

The scope of any book is the responsibility of the author and Slaughter has chosen to focus one chapter upon what he calls the collective shadow (destructive or illegal characteristics) which originates from the shadowy parts of each one of us. He shows how this unproductive behavior, of which we all are guilty, hinders us in the slowing of climate change and the increase of climate awareness. In addition to the collective shadow, one could have given time to any one of a number of human orientations that inhibit or facilitate change such as: subjugation to nature/master over nature, past to future, collective/individual and male/female orientations all of which have been researched by Florence Kluckhohn and Geert Hofstede.

As this is a book review, something might be said about the book’s organization. Slaughter is a competent pedagogue, and that is reflected in the structure of the book. He tells us what he is going to tell us, tells us what he wishes to impart and then summarizes what has been said. This occurs at the beginning of the book and at the beginning and end of each chapter. While tiresome, probably since I have read many similar books, it was helpful and a first time reader of paradigm change literature might find it necessary given the complexity of the subject.
Slaughter mentions, in several places, that the population rise that has been going on for thousands of years will be abruptly affected by climate change. He does not go into detail and he is not alone in treading lightly upon this subject. A truly open discussion could unlock doors to polarizing debates that could derail the small advances made in environmental awareness. At some point in time we are going to have to come to grips with the simultaneous deaths of multi-millions of people, the result of catastrophes to which we have all contributed.

The first part of the book was given to helping the reader understand the problem. One part of that understanding was expressed through two chapters titled “Is Overshoot and Collapse credible?”and “Contexts and extremes of overshoot”. Overshoot and collapse are terms from systems theory. With the exception of books written expressly on systems thinking, most authors in the global change literature genre do not go into or only allude to systems theory or systems thinking. It is, however, necessary to understanding complex problems and these two chapters present many general readers with a framework for seeing how the problems of today relate within a system. It is this reviewer’s opinion that knowledge of systems thinking will be the way many people will be able to identify and move on from the linear, mechanistic paradigm. It is the paradigm that has supported the systems that many culture groups and countries have been using for thousands of years. Hopefully, it will also move them to a complex, relativistic paradigm that takes us from growth based values to balance based values. The books presentation of systems work gave just enough information without being confusing.

The most important difference in this book from others in the genre is the presentation of a model or framework for understanding how individual human beings internalize and react to the concept of climate change and environmental degradation. Much thoughtfulness has been given to describing a rather complex process which includes four windows to reality and four levels of complexity (approaches to the world) shown in their hierarchy of internal development. Twenty cognitive lines are mentioned and one is described in detail, the values line. The stage and value level most relevant to mitigating a climate crisis is called integral. This framework is intended as a way forward “to deal with the interlocking series of problems facing us.”

However, there was one inconsistency that deserves mention. The above framework for understanding how individuals internalize and react to climate change and collapse is made up of hierarchical elements. Scattered freely throughout the book are various forms of the word “to develop”. Webster dictionary definitions of the word “develop” are applied to many situations. There are at least eighteen explanatory examples as to its usage, some of which are: to cause to unfold or expand/grow gradually, to bring into being, to make available or effective, to progress from earlier to later stages of individual maturation, or from simpler to more complex. The use of forms of the word “develop”, like the use of the word hierarchical, implies starting from somewhere and moving up a path to an improved or higher destination. This linear thinking dangerously underlies all the concepts of the linear paradigm. The Biggest Wake Up Call in History is faced with the dilemma of using linear concepts to explain a non-linear way of thinking.
Sprinkled throughout the book are the author’s references to futures studies and futures analysis, his primary fields of study. It is good to relate the work of futurists to the work that needs to be done in understanding the global crisis and possible scenarios that may arise. Many futurists, particularly consulting futurists, face the dilemma of delivering futures work within the existing paradigm or not being heard at all, effectively excluding all but cursory references to system collapse. Even given a variety of scenarios, far too often all of the scenarios are based in the same paradigm. A much smaller number of futurists have linked their understandings gained from environmental scanning, paradigm shifts, systems thinking and ecological actualities to their own values resulting in a need to save the planet. Richard Slaughter is one of these futurists and in the near-future I hope he will be joined by others of us who also see the dire necessity to push human change and awareness not only to save humanity, but to save the whole intricate system that has built up over billions of years. That system has an integrity that deserves to be respected for its own sake. Futurists can be instrumental in helping individuals to move from dishonoring that integrity to honoring and respecting it.