Gleanings of Post-polycrisis Survival

posted in: The Quickening | 0

In May I spent a lot of time wandering around the beautiful garden city of Potsdam, Germany. But behind every view of green lingered a reminder of the difficulties one can face during times of conflict and societal transition. Though as the stories and reminders revealed, when well managed, these changes can be survived. So this week, I want to share three brief stories, under the theme of “Surviving Societal Upheavals.”

What Are Toilets Really For?

Let’s be honest, this does make a good spot for washing potatoes and feet. (Image of a 1925 pull toilet from Elliott Brown via Flickr)

First, there’s the story of a German boy who, as World War II comes to an end, finds himself housemate to three Soviet soldiers (who were now barracked in his family’s home). Some of his recollections, captured in a video interview at Belvedere Pfingstberg (a palace and surrounding gardens), are humorous, and are excellent reminders how life doesn’t have to be as fancy and filled with amenities as we think it does. For example, none of the three soldiers turned housemates had ever seen a flush toilet before. The male soldier thought it was for washing one’s feet. The two female soldiers, for washing potatoes. Truth be told, those are both better uses of flush toilets, than mixing future soil into clean, drinkable water. It also reminds us that the end of amenities we’ve lived our entire lives with might not be so difficult to get used to, and, if done properly, may actually be net positive. For example, if we switch to composting toilets, or even compost toilet removal services in cities (aka buckets), which can be centrally composted, this could help rebuild soils while shifting from fossil energy to human labor. A good example of this is SOIL in Haiti, which is doing this for 18,000 folks and generating 225 tons of compost each year (and demonstrating this model is possible in the most disrupted of societies).

That same man told how he lingered, watching the Soviet soldiers building a fence (closing off the Eastern part of his neighborhood for what became a Soviet base, intelligence hub, and prison). He’d help out and the soldiers would reward him with the occasional nail and board. As he noted, this was critical as it allowed his family to make a rabbit hutch, providing food in this time when even gardens were being pilfered by occupying soldiers and starving Germans. Of course, he noted, the hutch had to be placed in the kitchen, which made the whole house stink like rabbit piss. Not a nice image, but it helped his family survive.

Are There Fair Ways to Distribute Limited Resources?

At the Cecilienhof Palace, where the Potsdam conference was held at the end of World War II (deciding the fate of Germany, and Europe), there was discussion of the famine in Berlin, and how 1,000 calories were rationed to each resident daily by Allied occupying forces. Unfortunately, there were no details on how that was successfully done (e.g. where the food came from, how it was distributed, etc.) but it is a good reminder that even in extreme circumstances, if a government provides an ordered response, distributing food equitably, it can mitigate suffering (at least to a degree). That said, reading more online, responses can always be improved (perhaps significantly).

The story also reminds us that in those scenarios, most people will be very hungry, enough to do things to survive they wouldn’t otherwise. Planning ahead (not “predatory prepping,” but wise, deliberate and sustainable stockpiling of enough for your family to weather the immediate chaos) and building mutual aid networks now (before disruptions manifest) are valuable organizing and community capital building activities.1

Societal Disruptions Go Way Back

Going much further back than World War II or the occupation of Eastern Germany by Soviet soldiers, at the House of Brandenburg-Prussian History, I saw one of the tiniest exhibits I’ve seen. A flea. Not just any flea, but a carrier of Bubonic Plague from the 1600s. Another gentle reminder of a time when societal disruptions were rhythmic and regular—something folks simply had to live with. And, as we experienced with COVID, a reminder that we can go in a very short time from normalcy to unstable, stressful, and even deadly conditions.

Disruptors come in all sizes. (Image of flea from Guided Tour of the House of Brandenburg-Prussian History)

All this was on my mind because I was about to join a workshop of experts discussing the global polycrisis (presenting the paper I shared a short version of as a Gaian Reflection last month). There were folks from all different fields, and while much of the discussion was at the 30,000 feet overview perspective (e.g. what is the global polycrisis, how do we measure it, etc.), there were some direct discussions of what living through it might be like/might mean. And what ways can we manage it (if at all) so that the disruptions lead to revitalization, rather than complete destruction.2

There was little disagreement in this group that the global polycrisis is already upon us. And yes, I say that after having flown to Germany, enjoying life in a decadently green city where beer is cheaper than water. So there’s a surrealness in that statement (like that moment after Wile E. Coyote steps off the cliff but has yet to start falling).3 But the global polycrisis box has been opened, and there’s no putting it back inside—some will experience it as hail the size of cantaloupes, flooding, fires, heat waves, political volatility, armed conflict, forced migration, or being overwhelmed by refugees who surely would rather not be in this situation either.

While the polycrisis will emerge differently and at different times in different parts of the world, we will all experience it, so it’s worth reminding ourselves of this and mentally, personally, and communally preparing for it. As well as fighting to help navigate through it with our humanity intact, and our understanding of our dependence on Gaia heightened.

Should I be worried that AI created such a frightening picture of the global polycrisis? (Generated with Microsoft’s AI Image Generator, with some added text.)

Polycrisis Postscript

If you’re interested in learning more about the global polycrisis here are two opportunities. First, check out, a good hub to familiarize yourself with the polycrisis landscape. And if you’re really interested in exploring, and are a student or a post-doc researcher, you may want to apply for this Summer School for Climate Change and Systemic Risk in Zhuhai, China (which I learned about at the workshop). July 15-26, registration fees and part of accommodations are covered by Beijing Normal University. If you want to apply, send me a note soon and I’m happy to share the contact for the program lead.

Not Quite the End Notes

1) I discuss prepping in detail in that essay. But here’s the summary: collect shelf-stable foods you regularly eat and cycle through those so you’re not wasting any food just in case there’s a crisis. And build social connections with community members (even just talking about this topic so it’s salient). And if possible, grow a Gaian Guild, who can talk honestly about the polycrisis we’re venturing into and support each other in times of disruption.

2) The example of forest fires was shared: These can lead to the birth of new trees and the rejuvenation of forests. But if they burn too hot they can sterilize the soil, leading to a long-lasting scar on the landscape. This metaphor sparked lots of discussion (yuk, yuk): are there ways to create firebreaks, do controlled burns to reduce harm and open up new possibilities, etc.

3) That one’s for you, Tom!

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