Bottom Up, Top Down
June 20, 2014
Those of us who have some grasp of the urgent dilemmas posed by climate change and peak oil face a terrible conundrum. The whole system of industrial civilization is moving toward collapse. How can we reverse course to avert an unprecedented series of crises that might entail massive human mortality and the more or less permanent crippling of planetary ecosystems? I can think of two broad strategies:
Top down. Convince the folks in charge that it’s in their interest to change direction—that is, to reorganize financial, food, transport, and manufacturing systems on a no-growth, low-carbon model. Advantage: this audience at least theoretically has the power to organize a comprehensive and rapid energy descent. Recall the rapidity with which the US re-organized its economy at the start of World War II. Disadvantages: the elites’ incentives are all in the current direction of growth-at-any-cost, many of the key players remain in denial about the nature and severity of the fundamental problems facing society, and social systems are structured to eject leaders who rock the boat.
Bottom up. Convince the general public to organize a change in direction from the grassroots. Communities could self-organize to lower energy consumption, create green jobs, and localize their economies. Advantage: this avoids the authoritarianism implicit in the first strategy. Disadvantages: it’s almost impossible to reach all or most of the general public unless you have a huge megaphone (which leads us back to the Top-Down strategy), the general public does not have the capability to quickly restructure large complex systems (finance, manufacturing, transport, etc.), and most people identify their personal interests with those of the collapsing system.
Transition Initiatives are making a valiant effort at a bottom-up strategy. Various prominent environmentalists have pursued a top-down strategy (most recently, PCI Fellow Bill Rees has published an important paper titled “Avoiding Collapse,” a last-ditch effort to awaken global policy makers).
It’s not at all clear that either strategy will succeed. If anyone can think of a third broad strategic approach, there are lots of us who would be keen to know of it.
Meanwhile, the least helpful thing I can think of to do right now is to identify with either the Top Down or the Bottom Up approach and then attack people pursuing the complementary strategy. Of course, tactics within these broad categories are always up for discussion and it’s fair to point out instances of incompetence in the application of tactics. But if we do have a chance at averting the worst forms of societal and ecosystem collapse, that chance probably lies in cooperation among actors pursuing different but complementary strategies.