How to Collapse in One Piece

A biology lesson in Degrowth

The truth is beginning to sink in. Epidemiologists are warning us that COVID-19 may be here to stay. It may become endemic, mutate, or just like the ordinary flu, become impossible to vaccinate against. Mounting evidence suggests that the virus is airborne which, if confirmed, will mean that many occupations will be condemned to permanent extinction. Either way, after months of lockdown it appears that there is no end in sight. We need to buckle up for the “short long term”, the “medium short term”, or simply the long term. Who knows really. The world economy has been battered too long, too much, so much that any talk of recovery at this stage is not only premature but also extremely hypothetical, given that we have barely began the downhill trajectory. When the IMF’s Christine Lagarde begins speaking in hippie language, you know that something is terribly wrong. So far most predict the economic recession to wind up twice as big as the World Financial Crisis, and worse than the Great Depression. Whatever the size, it will be a recession that will mark an entire generation and change the course of humanity on a global scale in ways so significant, so existential that we cannot yet speculate exactly as to who, what and when. We are in completely uncharted territory.

What this means is that at this stage we should be concentrating on collapsing, rather than on recovering. Because a cushioned fall can make the difference between injury and death. We are standing between the only two choices currently available: collapse and survive, or collapse and die. “Growing” ourselves out of the collapse is the approach that many governments are trying to sell: trillions of support packages for the big companies, massive infrastructure projects and money printing, even free cheques to citizens to stimulate consumption, all of which are approaches which have been proven to fail again and again. They only create temporary fixes but permanent debt bubbles, which will eventually burst at the expense of the poor and the environment. 

A better way of approaching collapse is by observing, emulating and replicating what happens in nature. Billions of years of evolution have equipped organisms with ingenious ways in which they can survive a mass extinction event, lack of food, even lack of water. These mechanisms are proven to work, unlike the growth paradigm of capitalism, which has only been around for a couple hundred years and has ended up destroying the planet. Just like a young plant that is actively growing green shoots, an economy that is actively growing is at its most vulnerable. Even more so a battered economy that is being forced to grow by artificial monetary injection. A patient being put on a high-fructose corn syrup drip and a treadmill at the same time never really recovers. In order to recover, this economy should be licking its wounds first. It should be resting. It should be minimizing exertion, conserving energy and channeling it where it matters: the sectors that ensure a healthy society, as opposed to those that give a quick boost in GDP.

This is exactly what plants do when they begin to run out of water. Dehydration, if severe and prolonged, triggers the activation of an elaborate and aggressive emergency plan that is encoded in a set of genes that are so centrally important that they actually take up a fair chunk of the plant’s DNA. This emergency plan is a metabolic cascade called Apoptosis: a Greek word derived from “Ptosis”, literally meaning Collapse. To make things even more clear for you, the alternative term for Apoptosis is PCD: Programmed Cell Death. Yup, plants, in fact animals too, have a self-destruct button. And it is absolute genius. 

The very first thing that stops is growth. Any new shoots are stopped dead in their tracks. Growing shoots when water is running out would be equal to suicide. Next are flowers and fruit. They are extremely expensive for the plant to produce, so they are literally dropped. If moisture conditions worsen further, the leaves begin to curl. Now that the plant has stopped growth, and dropped fruit and flowers, it actually has lower energy needs, which means that it can lose some of its solar panels, its leaves. This will also minimise transpiration, which is perspiration but for plants. It happens through the leaves and results in huge water losses. By dropping leaves as a measure of the last resort, plants manage to essentially lower their monthly bills down to almost zero, avoid complete dehydration and manage to survive the long wait until the rains arrive. Beneath that yellow, parched summer lawn, there are healthy, living roots. Grass is a plant that can go through multiple apoptotic cycles in just a few weeks, constantly alternating between PCD and active growth depending on the weather.  It does this so automatically and efficiently, completely at peace with constantly hanging at the edge of death on a permanent basis.

Programmed Cell Death is drastic, sure. But it saves the life of the plant. It does not only put an end to the plant’s most wasteful activities. It ensures vital nutrients from leaves are sequestered into the sap of the stem before those leaves are finally let go. If needed, the entire plant may retreat into its root or corm. Apoptosis is part of the natural life cycle of every plant on Earth: from tulips that crawl back into their bulbs each year, to deciduous trees whose leaves commit mass suicide in autumn having donated all of their juices back to the tree. From tumbleweeds who die just at the right time to be picked up by the wind and disperse their seeds throughout the desert, to a banana that turns brown. It is all regulated, down to the finest detail, by a tightly controlled cascade of hormones, decomposition enzymes, transport molecules and chemical messages orchestrated by each cell’s central government: its nuclear DNA.

Collapse is coming. Why not make it PCD: Programmed Capitalism Death. Let’s start thinking about what needs to be cut first from this economy: The wasteful consumption practices of the elites. The food waste of the supermarkets. The energy waste of the fashion industry. The fat cat central banks that print money that they don’t have. The fascist stimulus packages that fund disaster capitalists and rob the taxpayers. The things that we want to keep are the people. The healthcare. The smiling faces of the children. We, the people, are the trunk of the tree, where all the juice gathers after the leaves drop. So that one bright spring day the tree can start growing again.

To be continued…(or not)

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , join his mailing list, or read his books:

7 thoughts on “How to Collapse in One Piece

  1. George, your astute grip on the reality of the world never ceases to amaze me. Bravo for this piece of share-able intelligence.

  2. The War on Waste is a good start to addressing both economic and environmental problems. The decline might be hardest in the vanguard of consumer capitalism.

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