Positive Disintegration


Civilization is a mental/material world of culturally transmitted illusion.  - William Kötke

People must first be made to give up on the existing system before they will become receptive to fundamental change.  — Michael Byron

Tell the universe what you took
 While the heavens trembled and the mountains shook
 All those lives not worth a second look
 Tell the universe what you took 
Bruce Cockburn, Tell the Universe

The world-spanning culture of industrial civilization is now in a slow-motion free fall. That collapse cannot be averted. But perhaps it can be navigated. And it may be possible to help this dying beast to die a more dignified, and less destructive, death.  — Tim Bennett

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.— Joseph Campbell


The Positive Disintegration of our Collective Delusion

Rather than call this subsection of the Dharmagaians website “Collapse” or “Imperial Disintegration,” which I considered, I’m titling it “Positive Disintegration” for two reasons.  First, the best forecasts of “deindustrialization”—as Richard Heinberg, John Michael Greer, and others have called the breakdown of our current global civilization—have convinced me that it will occur in stages, not all at once as 'collapse' implies.  Rather, it will gradually disintegrate—or is already gradually disintegrating, depending on the viewpoint.

Secondly, “Positive Disintegration”—a term that Joanna Macy introduced into her Great Turning and Living Systems teachings— is the point of view that I wish to emphasize.  Positive disintegration denotes the disintegration of a system that has outlived its usefulness, or which has become an obstacle to further evolution, and whose death makes way for new life to emerge.  To contemplate the breakdown of our civilization as “positive” requires that we see it in the larger context of deep time, the wellbeing of the Earth, and the survival of humanity— which is the context of the Great Turning.  As Dr. Macy says in “Deep Time,”

The healing of our world entails a wider perspective on time. To take part in the Great Turning, we liberate ourselves from the short-term thinking that drives the industrial growth society. Moving beyond anthropocentrism, we learn to "act our age," and experience the vitality of our interdependence with past and future generations.

The “positive” aspect of disintegration is that it allows, indeed motivates, us to evolve and adapt to reality, rather than succumb.  Nobody with a realistic view of deindustrialization says it will occur without pain and suffering.  This is how Joanna Macy explains positive disintegration in living-systems and evolutionary terms:

Dangers to their survival move living systems to evolve. When feedback tells them—and continues to tell them—that their old forms and behaviors have become dysfunctional, they respond by changing. They adapt to such challenges by seeking and incorporating more appropriate norms. They search for values and goals which allow them to navigate in more varied conditions, with wider connections. Since its norms are the system's internal code or organizing principle, this process—which Ervin Laszlo calls "exploratory self-reorganization"—is a kind of temporary limbo. To the mind it can be very disorienting. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski names it "positive disintegration." It can feel like dying.

In periods of major cultural transition, the experience of positive disintegration is widespread. Such is the case now for us in this time of Great Turning. Everywhere anomalies appear: developments that don't fit our expectations, or in systems terms, that don't match previously programmed codes and constructs. Bereft of self-confidence and old coping strategies, we may feel that we and our world are falling apart. Sometimes we panic or shut down; sometimes in desperation we get mean and turn on each other.

It helps to recall that in the course of our planetary journey we have gone through positive disintegration countless times. The life living through us repeatedly died to ol

Eiffel © Jean-Paul Vroom

d forms and old ways. We know this dying in the splitting of the stars, the cracking open of seeds in the soil, the relinquishment of gills and fins as we crawled onto dry land. Our evolution attests to this, and so does our present lifetime, as we learned to move beyond the safeties and dependencies of childhood. It is never easy. Some of the uglier aspects of human behavior today arise from fear of the wholesale changes we must now undergo.

To let ourselves feel anguish and disorientation as we open our awareness to global suffering is a part of our spiritual ripening. Mystics speak of the "dark night of the soul." Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances and allow old mental comforts and conformities to fall away, they stand naked to the unknown. They let processes which their minds could not encompass work through them. Out of darkness, the new is born.

Here Macy is talking about the psychological experience of positive disintegration, which I have described as paradigm change. As I said there, we are in the midst of an epochal paradigm shift - that is, it is comparable to the Copernican revolution, if not the agricultural revolution. Paradigm change is not easy and it is not linear and rational.  Historically, periods of paradigm change have been marked by wars and social turbulence. Now, with the convergence of multiple crises on a global scale (described in this section of this website), the current paradigm change has entered the phase of likely breakdowns on multiple levels that could lead to the extinction of the human species, or at least a massive die-off of the human population. 

On the one hand, we dread the breakdown of the global economy and industrial civilization that has begun to disrupt and dislocate the lives of citizens in the industrialized world.  But, of course, this has already been happening to millions of people around the world, and not only in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur. On the other hand, we fear the chaos and collapse of the Earth's ecosphere if industrial civilization does not break down soon, and if the human population continues to grow. 

It is still a taboo to suggest that human population growth is a problem, much less to suggest that a human die-off might be a good thing in the long run.  However, from an ecological perspective regarding the survival of the human species, it is objectively true that the planet will be better able to support human life in the long term if there are fewer humans in the short term.  The reflexive anthropocentric habit of assuming that human lives are more important than the health of the Earth is largely responsible for the crises in which industrial civilization now finds itself. It is also objectively true that human numbers would not have overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth if we had not discovered the energy endowment of fossil fuels, and that Peak Oil is likely to play a leading role in the disintegration of civilization and the die-off of the human population in the 21st century.

As I said on the Great Turning page, at a time of major paradigm change and planetary crisis such as ours, human society tends to become fragmented and polarized.  Almost any perspective can become hotly controversial and embattled.  You may have noticed that our time, the early 21st century, is becoming even more embattled and confusing. This is evident in the hot debates occurring on television screens around the world, as well as in the blogosphere and within any subculture, progressive or otherwise, that you may be involved in.

Even those who have accepted the inevitability of deindustrialization due to Peak Oil are engaged in debates about how the convergence of energy depletion, economic disruption, climate change and political irrationality will play out. Each side in these debates puts forth scenarios of industrial decline in which hopes and fears are embedded. For example, there is still a fairly vigorous debate going on about whether industrial society will descend into anarchy, savagery, fascism, feudalism, or a total dark age, or whether deindustrialization will give birth to an ecozoic era.  John Michael Greer frequently addresses the hopes and fears that inevitably arise in efforts to foresee the ‘shape of the future ’—and the cultural myths and assumptions that underlie those hopes and fears—in his weekly blog, The Archdruid Report, which I recommend for its historical perspective and sanity.

In this Positive Disintegration subsection of the Dharmagaians website, we explore the "darkness" of which Macy speaks on the Peak Oil, Economic Meltdown, Dark Side, Cassandra Club, and Food Crisis pages. On the Psycho-Spiritual Evolution, Animistic Soul, and Sustainable Communities pages, we explore the new awakenings and positive movements that the darkness is giving birth to. But for those to make sense, first we need to understand what is disintegrating from a Dharmagaian perspective. The Dharmagaian perspective is that humans will not be able to make the Great Turning and learn to live within the jurisdiction of the Earth unless and until we face the hard truths of our time and prepare ourselves for an ecologically sustainable way of life.  The longer we take to prepare—and it does take preparation—the more difficulty we'll have finding the 'positive' within the disintegration.


Defining "Sustainable"

I take my working definition of "sustainable" from Richard Heinberg's excellent "Five Axioms of Sustainability." The simplest and most widely used definition comes from the 1987 Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: a sustainable society “meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” However, as Heinberg points out, this definition fails to explicitly note the unsustainability of the use of non-renewable resources such as fossil fues, and generally disregards the problem of population growth.

More relevant to the subject of positive disintegration is Heinberg's first axiom: Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse." Heinberg notes that "a society can avoid collapse by finding replacement resources, [but] in a finite world, the number of possible replacements is also finite." Critical resources are those essential to the maintenance of life and basic social functions—including water and the resources necessary to produce food and usable energy.

Heinberg names this axiom - which defines sustainability by the consequences of its absence (i.e., collapse) - after Joseph Tainter, whose book The Collapse of Complex Societies demonstrates that collapse is a frequent if not universal fate of complex societies. Tainter defines collapse as a reduction in social complexity—a contraction of society in terms of its population size, the sophistication of its technologies, the consumption rates of its people, and the diversity of its specialized social roles. He argues that collapse is directly related to diminishing returns on investments of resources in social complexity. Heinberg adds, "Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed similarly makes the argument that collapse is the common destiny of societies that ignore resource constraints."

Thus, the recognition of resource constraints—the hard truths of our time—is integral to a working definition of ecological sustainability. The ignorance or denial of these constraints and their consequences is precisely the blind spot of industrial civilization, and also the basis of its collective delusion. At the same time, recognition of this blind spot is the basis of predictions of its collapse.


Domination and Imperialism

To accept the inevitability of collapse, it helps, I think, to fully recognize that our civilization is imperialistic.  Wikipedia tells us:

Imperialism is the forceful extension of a nation's authority by territorial conquest establishing economic and political domination of other nations that are not its own colonies. Imperialism is often autocratic, e.g. in early 20th century Japan, and sometimes monolithic in character. . . . 'Imperialism' not only describes colonial, territorial policies, but also describes economic dominance and influence.

For at least 2,000 years, the history of Western civilization has been marked by a series of imperialistic adventures of territorial and economic conquest and colonization. The United States of America has engaged in imperialistic adventures since it was founded, and is now recognized to be an empire due to its military dominance through hundreds of military bases around the world, and its economic dominance in the global economy (which now is faltering).

Imperialism issues from a dominator mentality, which rationalizes the brutality and oppression it inflicts on others, such as indigenous people and traditional societies, with the assumption of superiority: “We know better than you, we’re bringing progress!” 


1.  to have control, power, or authority over somebody or something
2.  to be the most important aspect or element of something
3.  to have a prevailing influence on somebody or something
4.  to overlook an area from a prominent and usually elevated position


Sound familiar?  It’s the story of men dominating women, whites dominating other races, the wealthy and powerful dominating the poor and the weak, humans dominating animals and nature, etc.  I want to call attention to this authoritarian, willful dominator mentality—which has pervaded Western Civilization for thousands of years, and has led to abuses of power, abuses of nature, and the problems we are facing in the world today—because it is one of the primary obstacles to human survival as this civilization disintegrates. The dominator mentality always spawns violence of one kind or another, emotional or physical.

The dominator mentality is often justified as “the survival of the fittest.”  We often hear that domination is "just human nature," with the assumption that it will always be that way. However, emphasis on this aspect of Darwinian theory is actually a “Social Darwinist” position that became popular during the imperial expansion in Europe and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wikipedia tells us, “Competition for empire encouraged increasing militarization and the division of the world into colonial spheres of influence. The interpretation of social Darwinism then emphasized competition between species and races, rather than cooperation.”  This social theory became very popular in the United States during the “Gilded Age” (1870-1890) when industrialization and population were expanding rapidly, but it is not scientifically based.

In actuality, Social Darwinism is based on a misreading, or perversion, of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories.  The Darwin Project, a global alliance of scientists and educators, is dedicated to shifting the paradigm from “survival of the fittest” to the new theory and story of human evolution, which emphasizes cooperation and empathy as crucial factors in human survival. This is a shift for which there is an increasingly urgent need.

The dominator mindset is deeply challenged by the realities of peak oil, the failure of the growth economy, climate change, and ecosystemic and resource limits—circumstances that are now spiraling beyond human control.  The challenges to this mindset probably account for the denial with which warnings about these crises have been met for at least the last 30 or 40 years. That denial has exacerbated these crises by preventing responsible measures from being taken when it was possible to forestall them.  Now they are upon us and it is too late to forestall them. 


Imperialism and Corporatism

Global capitalism, also known as the global economy or corporate globalism, operates out of an imperialistic dominator mindset.  This started to become especially evident in the United States during the administration of George W. Bush, whose administration was packed with neoconservatives who had strong ties to major corporate interests. Although neocons deny that their Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was imperialistic or that they were building an American empire, their focus was on building up the military dominance of the “only superpower” to protect its economic and political interests worldwide. And a major consequece of neocon influence in the Bush II administration was that the military-industrial complex in the U.S. was greatly strengthened and enriched.

By now, it is well known that multinational corporations exercise dominance in governments, determining the policies of nations and international bodies while undermining democracy.  The largest multinational corporations are wealthier and more powerful than most nations of the world.  Richer, more powerful governments in the industrialized world routinely carry out military and political interventions in weaker countries in order to enable corporations to have access to their resources.  This has been going on for more than two centuries, and in the decades between presidents Ronald Reagan and G.W. Bush corporate influence in the US government became inarguable.  This is only slightly less obvious in Europe.

Our modern version of imperialism is corporatism, which Wikipedia defines in this way:  

Corporations are unelected bodies with an internal hierarchy; their purpose is to exert control over the social and economic life of their respective areas. . . .  When the political and economic power of a country rests in the hands of such groups, then a corporatist system is in place. . . .  At a popular level in recent years "corporatism" has been used to mean the promotion of the interests of private corporations in government over the interests of the public. . . .  Corporatism is also used to describe a condition of corporate-dominated globalization.

Jerry Mander's Eleven Inherent Rules Of Corporate Behavior elaborate on the following anti-democatic, anti-ecological behaviors of the corporation:

1.  The Profit Imperative
2.  The Growth Imperative
3. Competition and Aggression
4. Amorality
5. Hierarchy
6. Quantification, Linearity, Segmentation
7. Dehumanization
8. Exploitation
9. Ephemerality
10. Opposition to Nature
11. Homogenization

Mander quotes Holly Sklar, editor of Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management:

Corporations not only advertise products, they promote lifestyles rooted in consumption, patterned largely after the United States.... [They] look forward to a post-national age in which [Western] social, economic and political values are transformed into universal values... a world economy in which all national economies beat to the rhythm of transnational corporate capitalism.... The Western way is the good way; national culture is inferior.

Jerry Mander concludes:

Corporations do not care about nations; they live beyond boundaries. They are intrinsically committed to destroying nature. And they have an inexorable, unabatable, voracious need to grow and to expand. In dominating other cultures, in digging up the Earth, corporations blindly follow the codes that have been built into them as if they were genes.

We must abandon the idea that corporations can reform themselves. To ask corporate executives to behave in a morally defensible manner is absurd. Corporations, and the people within them, are following a system of logic that leads inexorably toward dominant behaviors.


Costs and Consequences

To compare what the Columbia Encyclopedia says about imperialism to corporatism and the global economy is revealing:

At its best, European imperialism brought economic expansion and new standards of official administration and public health to subject countries; at its worst, it meant brutal exploitation and dehumanization. In every instance, however, the pressure of an alien culture, with its different values and religious beliefs, and the imposition of new forms of social organization meant the breakdown of traditional forms of life and the disruption of native civilization.

Corporate-dominated globalization has promised the benefits of imperialism, but actually brought mostly the detriments:  it’s made a few people obscenely rich and massively increased poverty around the world, doing nothing to improve the living conditions of ordinary people in developing countries, while destroying native and traditional cultures and biodiversity.

As Paul Hawken wrote in The Ecology of Commerce in 1994!:

A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, it did not seem urgent that we understand the relationship between business and a healthy environment, because natural resources seemed unlimited. But on the verge of a new millennium we know that we have decimated ninety-seven percent of the ancient forests in North America; every day our farmers and ranchers draw out 20 billion more gallons of water from the ground than are replaced by rainfall; the Ogalala Aquifer, an underwater river beneath the Great Plains larger than any body of fresh water on earth, will dry up within thirty to forty years at present rates of extraction; globally we lose 25 billion tons of fertile topsoil every year, the equivalent of all the wheatfields in Australia. These critical losses are occurring while the world population is increasing at the rate of 90 million people per year. Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.


That the “few” (relatively speaking) in the United States and Europe, and the elites in other parts of the world, have benefited from globalization has blinded many beneficiaries to the destructivenss of this system. However, it must be recognized that in the process of creating the global consumer society, corporatism has also intentionally colonized the minds of citizens, turning them into passive, uncritical “consumers” through advertising and propaganda disseminated through corporate media.  One of the greatest obstacles to the Great Turning is the illusion created by the global economy/consumer society that growth and progress can continue forever.  A corollary of that illusion is that people are unable to imagine any other way of life.  This is not an accident.

Although the architects, theorists, engineers, promoters, and defenders of the global economy seem to believe, and would like everyone to believe, that this corporatist system is inevitable and eternal—and that there is no alternative— it is ecologically unsustainable.  This blind spot is becoming increasingly clear in the emerging realities of resource depletion amidst overpopulation.  It is also humanly unsustainable, for many of the problems within the human world – such as war, poverty, and previously unknown physical and mental health problems – are rooted in the severe disruptions caused by the global economy and the unraveling of the biosphere.

As the citizens of the world have been reduced to passive consumers of the news, entertainment, and products of the global economy over the last few decades, we have increasingly come to feel powerless to effect change in the system.  Many people feel (and are) victimized by it—particularly the 3.5 billion living on less than $2 a day, but now, ironically, also the American middle class—but they don’t know how to escape it.  It appears to be a juggernaut.

The Great Unraveling

However, this imperialistic corporatist system is not as solid and invulnerable as it seems, as Peak Oil and economic meltdown are revealing.  Our latest version of imperialism is in fact in the process of ‘positive disintegration’ that many people believe will lead eventually to complete collapse.  (See Positive Disintegration Links.)

The Dharmagaian perspective concerns itself with ecological and human sustainability, and the future of life on Earth.  From this perspective, the imperialistic corporatist system has doomed itself with arrogant delusions of superiority to and independence from nature’s jurisdiction, which I believe is at the very core of the dominator mentality’s pathology. 

Course of Empire © Mark Bryan

Nature thrives on diversity and abhors monoculture.  Endless growth at the expense of a whole ecosystem, much less the whole biosphere, is not allowed on this planet.  The web of life is a decentralized network of interdependent relationships that are primarily symbiotic and cooperative, and only secondarily competitive.  The dream of centralized dominance by one group of one species over the whole globe is madness, pure and simple. 

I can’t help wondering whether the corporatist system is a pathological manifestation of the immature collective ego of Western civilization.  The dominator mindset of our culture seems obsessed with adolescent fantasies of death-defying technological omnipotence.  But the corporatist system may turn out to be, after all, the apotheosis of the imperialist fantasy that has driven much of Western history.  It can never be repeated because our civilization has used up nearly all the nonrenewable resources.  And now we—those of us alive and awake at this time—get to see and live through the karmic consequences of a collective delusion with a long history. 

The Conversation © Mark Bryan

When people first hear of the likely collapse of the global economy, or the industrialized system and the civilization it supports, this is not welcome news.  As the truth of it dawns upon us, we go through the stages of grief: disbelief or denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.  Most people are still in the first four stages, although a growing number have come to acceptance. 

When we come to acceptance, we begin to see the evidence of disintegration in the news or on the streets—every day.  We can see it in the incompetence (or subterfuge) of government and public institutions—as in the debacle in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, in decaying infrastructures and dysfunctional bureaucracies, in the corporate corruption scandals, in the economic meltdown caused by greedy brokers' financial shenanigans, in the rates of mental illness and the numbers of people taking prescription drugs for depression, in stories of police corruption and brutality, in the growing “prison industrial complex” in the US and UK, in the killing sprees of guys with guns in the US, on and on.  Industrial society seems to have passed its peak and the unraveling or disintegration—the loss of its formerly apparent integrity and confidence—can only continue with the depletion of oil, gas, and other essential energy resources during this century.

Although we dread experiencing the full-blown consequences of the dominator mindset in the failure of the system it has created, there is something to celebrate about collapse from a dharmic point of view: deindustrialization will bring—is already bringing—the positive disintegration of our collective delusion.  Members of our culture will have to come down to Earth and accept the truth, the dharma, the realities of living on Earth, which is the direction in which the future survival of humanity lies. 

Mayan Gathering at Stonehenge

Earth-based cultures have already accepted these realities, of course, and it’s important to acknowledge that Western civilization is exceptional in its departure from this norm, this dharma, of living harmoniously and gratefully in reciprocity with Mother Earth.  We thought we could do better.  We thought we would “show them” what “the greatest country/civilization the world has ever seen” could do with our mechanistic science and our fossil-fueled technologies. 

But actually, our civilization with its dominator fantasies is considered by the ancient indigenous peoples to be the foolish “younger brothers” who are tearing the world to shreds.  If our descendants survive, it may only be because they get this lesson of history and know better than to try to repeat it.  Fortunately, they won’t have oil to play with because we used it up, though it may take them some time —generations?—to appreciate the favor.  Meanwhile, in the coming years and decades, we will have to find our opportunities for survival through the fissures that open up as the system comes apart.

For more in-depth information and analysis of the disintegration part of Positive Disintegration, see Positive Disintegration Links, Peak Oil and its links, Economic Meltdown and FoodCrisis links, the Dark Side and its links, and the Cassandra Club.  For the “positive” side of Positive Disintegration, see Psycho-Spiritual Evolution, The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges, and Sustainable Communities, and their links.  On these pages you will find evidence of the ‘positive disintegration’ that is occurring, and why that is actually good news, although admittedly very challenging for everyone to come to terms with.  This Great Turning section of the Dharmagaians website can serve as a ‘crash course’ on Collapse for those unfamiliar with this perspective; but, at the same time, it also reveals the crevices through which the life-affirming values and perspectives of more sustainable future cultures are emerging—like dandelions growing through the cracks in the sidewalk.


You know things are moving quickly when you get to be a prophet and an historian all in one lifetime…  — Tim Bennett, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire


Last Days of Empire © Mark Bryan



Luddites © Michelle Waters 











© 2009 Suzanne Duarte