Navigating collapse: profound insights from ‘Breaking Together’

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Stephen DeMeulenaere

If it seems like a slow, yet noticeable decline is occurring around the global economy, society at large, and certainly the environment, it’s because it is, and has been for quite a long time. If you have been tracking this decline, “Breaking Together: A freedom-loving response to collapse” by Dr. Jem Bendell will guide you to accept this reality, and embrace the uncertainty and discomfort that comes with it, in order to create new ways of living that prioritize community, resilience, and care for the natural world.

A challenging, touching — and ultimately optimistic — read, this book is the result of two years of careful research by Dr. Bendell, professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria, and his team. While making the point that our collective ability to sustain the economy, society and environment is well past the point of no return, and that incremental changes are no longer able to reverse the damage done, Dr. Bendell insists we must reject authoritarian approaches — even by those we may consider concerned allies — and instead, start anew to prepare for what is to come.

Published by Good Works, an imprint of the Schumacher Institute, “Breaking Together” explores the social, political and economic implications of the climate crisis and the need for a radical reimagining of our societal structures and values in order to “break together” instead of “break apart”.

The book points towards a new political paradigm, free of the left-right-green approaches of the last few decades, which have deftly avoided identifying the fractures in the foundational systems that maintain modern consumer societies, for fear it would upset and alienate their voters.

The first half of the book details what is collapsing and why, showing the staggering scale of the multiple crises in which humanity now finds itself irrevocably caught up: the world economy is fracturing and collapsing, through gross errors both planned and unplanned by the centralized banking system, with major side effects on our society, quality of life and certainly the environment.

As the academic whose ideas were an inspiration for Extinction Rebellion, it may come as some relief that Dr. Bendell does not simply identify humanity as a problem, nor does he consider that our current predicament was at all inevitable. 

Instead, he rightly reserves his ire for the banking elites —“the money-power” — corrupting us all with the values of Imperial Modernity, and the nature of money itself, which has had a profoundly destructive influence on us, causing us to “act like modern day conquistadors — trashing the natural world and exploiting people ultimately to service debts.” 

This assertion is backed up with extensive use of economics, sociology and psychology, to detail the ways we are all manipulated, coerced and rewarded for the ever-faster exploitation of each other and the natural world. He also draws on recent archaeology and anthropology to demonstrate that Homo sapiens living in communities did not need to be so destructive, as further support for his view that living in eco-freedom is both possible and natural.

As collapse encroaches on our lives, “Breaking Together” argues that we must resist the panic-driven and self-serving policies of those in power who are making a bad situation worse by diverting the public into trivial responses, and by using it as a springboard to authoritarianism. 

Witnessing firsthand the elite-derived thinking of large environmental organizations, Dr. Bendell is deeply critical of professional environmentalists who recognize that profound change is needed, yet insist they should be the imposers of this change while working for institutes and big corporations. This aligns them with the incumbent power structure as it seeks to take away our personal freedoms and establish unsuccessful schemes that will only help to shore up the dominance of the elites. Instead, he looks to the emergence of networks of aware citizens in the Majority World to initiate the “Great Reclamation.”

By linking key insights in various spheres, the book eventually arrives at an invigorating eco-libertarian perspective of, “it is too late to avoid calamity for humanity, but by focusing on a freedom-loving response that rejects the elite’s authoritarian, counterproductive, and self-enriching measures on various societal disruptions from COVID to climate change, we may at least conserve enough of the world for it to be worth living in.”

As someone who was so inspired by Murray Bookchin’s “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” that I dropped my participation in Democratic Socialist and Green Party politicking within the existing system — and dedicated most of my adult life to public monetary systems like community and complementary currencies, time banks, and cryptocurrencies — it was moving to see Dr. Bendell reiterate his support for reclaiming our monetary power as part of a freedom-loving environmentalism. 

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This call for reclamation of our public right to money comes in a chapter on what he calls the “new doomster” way of life. He provides examples of how people have been transformed either by their experience of societal disruption or by their anticipation of collapse, to live life with more courage, compassion and creativity.

We read about people around the world who quit their jobs to go full-time into environmental activism, or become spiritual teachers or organic farmers, or create local trading networks independent of the banking system. It appears that far from apathy or nihilism being the destination of people who anticipate or experience societal collapse, we humans are made of more powerful stuff than that. It is in this affirmation of human nature and potential that “Breaking Together” makes a major contribution at a time of spreading anxiety and polarization.

Overall, “Breaking Together” challenges readers to confront the reality of the climate crisis and embrace the discomfort and uncertainty that comes with it. At a time when the backlash against authoritarianism is rightly growing, this book offers a different path for people deeply concerned about the environment. It could even help to reclaim environmentalism from the “fake green globalists”.

Dr. Bendell’s writing is clear and accessible, and his arguments are well-supported by research and evidence. While some readers may find the book’s message bleak or disheartening, others will find hope and inspiration in its vision of a more just, resilient, and sustainable future.

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