The Next Great Transformation

Most of us tend to see the world in fairly stable terms.  Our own daily routines, as well as those of the world around us have a consistency that is predictable and thus comfortable.  Yet over extended periods of time, human history has been punctuated by many major upheavals, revolutions, and transformations of the way we live.  In a book by that name, Karl Polanyi characterized the massive changes of the late Nineteenth Century expansion of the industrial revolution and its impacts on the early twentieth century as The Great Transformation.  Today, we sit at the cusp of the Next Great Transformation, and in some ways perhaps the last, as the accelerating climate disruption, resource depletion, financial, water and food crises, and the end of the era of the limitless-growth economy, all converge as the single greatest crisis to ever confront humanity.

The Next Great Transformation is undoubtedly in its initial stages now.  It is likely accelerating beyond expectations, just like climate chaos has.  But its character and direction are not easy to predict, since they will rely on the human response as well as on biophysical trends already in play.  Some of the key factors in determining its shape and trajectory include:  1) whether sufficient massive social mobilization will occur to reduce carbon emissions to a degree that will slow the headlong rush into ever more devastating climate disruptions; 2) the degree of resiliency of human populations in responding to radically changed environments, and in creating massive changes in the way we live; and 3) the extent to which the fossil-industrial and financial world political economy can be dismantled and transformed into a ‘planet-friendly’ localized ecological economy.  These factors will determine whether the Next Great Transformation will be of a kind that will sustain human life on the planet through the end of this century and beyond, or will extend beyond human intervention toward mass extinction.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi analyzed the “free-market” economic ideology of nineteenth century unfettered capitalist development as the cause of the economic crises of the Great Depression and two world wars.   Revolutionary changes in technology and geographic expansion had been initiated in an era of great economic growth, but the ensuing crises resulted from distortions brought on by what Polanyi saw as a utopian image of a self-correcting market.  The nineteenth century civilization based on classical economic doctrine had collapsed, as evidenced by the Great Depression and the world wars, but the society was subsequently rescued by the expansive growth of World War II and the booming consumer economy that followed.

After FDR failed to follow through with his New Deal reforms, the massive economic and social mobilization of World War II ended the economic crisis of the 1930s.  A similar but much larger crisis complex is playing itself out today with much the same utopian economic “free-market” images being used to justify unsustainable growth to feed an ever-greater concentration of wealth and unprecedented corporate power over both economy and politics.  The emergent corporate state still pays little heed to the resultant burgeoning planetary crisis that knows no political boundaries.  The headlong clash of this political economy with the physics and chemistry of the biosphere will either be averted by rapid social mobilization to transform society, or it will result in a massive extinction of many species due to inability to adapt to changing ecologies, including the human species.  Elizabeth Kolbert describes these processes vividly in her new book, The Sexth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  Five great extinctions have occurred in earth’s history, including the greatest, the Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago, likely caused by an asteroid-impact and killing seventy percent of terrestrial vertebrates.

The Next Great Transformation will likely involve a catastrophic plunge into the sixth mass extinction, if total mobilization to curtail climate chaos is not achieved rapidly.  Or, if we create new modes of collective survival – most likely based on building local resilience and international cooperation – they must involve a huge reduction in fossil-fuel driven economic activities, which have for over two centuries focused on growth but which now must massively reduce activities that emit carbon into the atmosphere.  Here’s where human creativity and innovation come in.  To achieve a workable, livable Great Transformation will require us to come up with a full range of new economic forms, locally, regionally, and nationally.  But this time, we will have the advantage of drawing upon all the [appropriate] knowledge and technology from both our history and our latest innovations.  For this, we will have to start making decisions on the basis of science, not magical thinking.

To achieve all this will require total mobilization toward converting carbon-based activities to carbon neutral activities.  That will require the populations of the “advanced” fossil-fuel economies of the world to drastically change the way we live.  Remember, the per capita emission of carbon is vastly greater in the first-world nations than in third-world nations.  And, of course, most of the emissions so far have come from the fully industrialized nations.

Either path of the New Great Transformation will entail huge human displacements and comprehensive reorganization of human life – it cannot be otherwise.  Nor can I imagine how this will be easy, either way.  But one path will lead to species extinction [or near extinction] for humans as well as many other species; the other path will lead to some new level of survival as a result of humans re-organizing their relations to the biosphere and each other in ways that will dampen the plunge into further climate chaos.  The right path, if chosen, will be the one previously less traveled.

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar, and Sometimes a Spy is Just a Citizen

The media response to the revelations of NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden has been, well, interesting.  At first, he was either vilified as a ‘traitor’ or as a fake or incompetent fool.  Then, as more embarrassing information on the unconstitutional surveillance of Americans was made public, and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, was revealed to have directly lied to Congress about the extent of NSA spying on citizens – and was not fired – some called Snowden a hero while others still insisted that he had caused (always-unspecified) “major damage” to national security.

Having viewed or listened to every interview with Snowden I have been able to locate, I was somewhat surprised at what was, for a ‘techie,’ such articulate elucidation of the political and constitutional issues involved in the mass surveillance practices he has revealed.  Yet, his employment history reported in the media reveals a pattern similar to many whistle blowers – a conversion from initial idealism to informed outrage.  His attempt to complete Special Forces training to fight in Iraq, cut short by broken legs, had ended his idealistic military aspirations.

Then, applying his deep computing skills working for the CIA and the NSA, and subsequently for Booze-Allen, a major NSA contractor, he had access to the highest levels of secret NSA operations, because as a network system administrator, he had to in order to maintain information system operations.  Now it appears that he may have also obtained some passwords that expanded his access.

With access comes knowledge.  That is where his patriotism apparently clashed with his growing awareness of the unconstitutionality of operations NSA was conducting without serious congressional oversight.  His idealism about his government was shattered by his knowledge of what it was doing in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘democracy.’  Now, some conspiracy theorists claim that he was somehow duped into revealing information that was planted for him to find.  Why?  I have no idea.  The claim that some lowly ‘insignificant’ employee could have access to such super-secret information is seen by some folks as impossible, unless some conspiracy was afoot to manipulate him… Well…

Why Edward Snowden is real – it’s easy.  Some clues had emerged from my past experience as a low-level member of the military with a Top Secret clearance and also from having worked with highly technically skilled people who contracted with the NSA, as well as with a semi-retired CIA operator/assassin. I was at first shocked, then bemused at the level of INsecurity of information involved in a number of “national security” operations from detailed data on missile sites to extremely sensitive software development for the NSA.  In the late 1980s I also learned of boots-on-the-ground absurdities in Reagan’s War on Central America, from my friend the semi-retired CIA assassin.

I eventually understood that it is quite common for “lower participants” in large organizations, who have special skills, to be given far more access to “sensitive” information than most people would expect.  The reason for this is simple: those in authority need those with technical skills to carry out the operations needed in a complex system — be they super technical or super dangerous.  Who is more capable of drilling down into the bowels of a giant complex network and “administer” its many information processing and communications functions, including security, than the proverbial young geek who learned as a child the deepest computational processes and the many ways to “hack” a system [in the sense of working one’s way around in it and seeing whatever is there] and who by young adulthood has skills that his “superiors” will never understand?

People like Edward Snowden are hired for their performance in areas and at high technical levels where very few can in fact perform effectively.  This exemplifies what sociologists call “the power of lower participants.”  There are other related powers too, such as that of the lowly administrative assistant or secretary who, by virtue of her/his position knows all the boss’s dirty secrets as well as the politics of outwardly routine actions.  It is pretty clear that Edward Snowden is one of those ‘geeks’ who can get those deep technical tasks done — or he would not have been hired by CIA, NSA, or their contractors more than once.

Then at 29, he recognized some of the political consequence of the systems he maintained, especially for the Constitution he believed he was obligated to faithfully defend.  So, having reflected on the role of secrecy and surveillance in transforming a democracy into a totalitarian state with a democratic façade, he rebelled against participating in that corrupt process and risked his life – just as he might have as a Special Forces operator – in defense of the constitution he believes in.  Edward Snowden, it would appear, is still an idealistic citizen.

Citizenship knows no rank.  And rank does not necessarily correlate with intelligence or even military or business skills.  How do you think all those generals and admirals got to the top of the security/surveillance establishment?  Conformity, group-think, bureaucratic maneuvering, etc., are entirely different skills than creative analysis, whether of information systems software and hardware or of organizational situations or technical or tactical operations.  They are very different from critical thinking – the former are the skills it takes to rise to the rank of general.

Critical thinking, in contrast, leads to understanding.  That is why William Boyd, known as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and the man who changed air combat and Marine maneuvering strategy forever, despite his huge accomplishments never made the rank of general – he frequently bucked a corrupt military-contractor system to achieve valued goals.  Boyd’s work was anything but superficial, nor do I suspect was Snowden’s, both of whom had special skills and seriously took creative risks for what they believed was right.  In an era of extreme cynicism, it is hard for many to imagine that a lowly systems analyst would risk his life to take an action based on an idealistic belief in his responsibility as a citizen, yet there you have it.

Necessary but Unlikely Total Mobilization to Curtail Climate Chaos

The inevitability of climate chaos leading to species extinction of humans, along with many other species, now seems assured without massive mobilization and collective action on a scale never before achieved by humans.  Necessary but seemingly impossible – that is not a comforting thought.  Yet, here we are, contemplating whether or not the president will even slow the juggernaut of fossil-fuel burning by rejecting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport the most polluted crude oil from the environmental disaster called the Canadian Tar Sands Fields to Texas refineries for distribution on the world markets — not for “energy independence.”  Approval would be a purely financial act of enriching the industry at the expense of the planet.  To refuse approval would be a small step toward slowing the rapid slide into climate chaos.

Yet, many major actions, some much more complex, will have to be taken to make the difference between survival and extinction.  Here are just a few:

  • Massive retro-fitting of insulation of existing buildings.
  • Rapidly accelerate the installation of local photovoltaic solar electricity generation and local-regional wind farms and smart grids.
  • Execute broad water conservation strategy.
  • Tax all CO2  and externalized costs of fossil-based energy production and use revenue to fund conversion to carbon-neutral economy [lots of jobs in that].
  • Convert transportation from fossil-fuel to carbon-neutral energy and build required infrastructure.
  • Curtail intercontinental trade and shipping of goods easily made in the destination nation were it not for corporate “free trade” agreements favoring capital over labor.
  • Transform the corporate-driven international exploitation of local labor by mobile capital and shift production to the geographic region of consumption.
  • And even reconfigure the Internet to reduce wasteful giant server farms (including those of the NSA) that store massive quantities of data “in the cloud.”

These are just some of the major undertakings that are essential to slow global warming and minimize resulting climate disruptions.  The only example I know of a total mobilization of the kind required, but which occurred at a much smaller scale, was the rapid transformation of the stagnant American consumer economy into a booming war-production economy at the beginning of WWII.  (And Depression era unemployment was eliminated.)  Automobile production was stopped and factories were converted to production of tanks in a matter of weeks.  The iconic P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft was designed and put into production also in a few weeks.  In a variety of ways, the entire society was mobilized en mass, and with the full participation of the citizenry.  Why?  Because the focus and the stakes were clear to everyone – concerted action was the result.  We have not yet achieved that focus or clarity.

Could that level of collective commitment to, and implementation of, a conversion from a fossil-fuel based economy of perpetual growth and waste to a fully carbon-neutral economy of stability be accomplished in less than the maximum twenty-year window for action?  Theoretically, yes.  Practically, very unlikely, given the huge institutional and cultural obstacles we face.  Some scientists calculate that it would require changing about eighty percent of our production and consumption practices to achieve the carbon emissions goals that are necessary to not stop but just minimize climate disruptions over the next half century – that’s all the time we have, if that, and only if those changes are achieved in the very short term.  That would entail a Herculean collective effort – while the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Fixed News scoff.

Yet, necessity can overcome seeming impossibility, once necessity is fully recognized.  No political issues like who is to blame, who should go first in cutting emissions, etc., can even be contemplated in any scenario leading to success.  In our present situation, a massive collective effort must start now and accelerate rapidly.  I’m assuming that if such an effort were initiated in the U.S., most nations would quickly follow, for several reasons.  But how can it be done?

It would seem that only an FDR level of singular focused executive action by the currently farcical “all of the above” energy-policy president could turn the tide.  But how is that possible?  When we look at the record of presidential pandering to the financial and petro-industrial elites so far, hopes dim.  But history has also shown that public mobilization can direct the actions of “leaders” if the will of the people is expressed at a sufficient scale and intensity.

Naïve liberals wonder why their obviously smart-enough president kowtows to the power elites (who gave him all those big campaign contributions) and Republican obstructionists, instead of fighting for social programs in the “yes we can” vein on which they believe he was elected.  At the same time, the evolving totalitarian plutocracy is extremely unlikely to accept necessary drastic actions without a fight – indeed, such actions reach far beyond the mere social programs that are also in direct opposition to its short-term interests.

Racist congressional obstructionism aside, the fact is that the power structure cannot be moved without massive public pressure, no matter who the president is.  Keystone XL may be the key bellwether. Besides, most of the political “liberals” – the Democratic Party incumbents who are also well oiled by the corporatocracy – don’t really get how seriously threatening this crisis is, or, they are simply holding to their own short-term political/economic interests.  They will not be the agents of change; the people will be…if they will.

All sorts of questions about the future of democracy are raised by the massive-mobilization prerequisite to fending off the worst effects of the accelerating climate chaos we are already experiencing.  But in a system where a plutocratic alliance of corporations and government already manages a hollow shell of a defunct democratic process, such questions are mostly moot.  Survival is a precondition anyway if we are to ever return to a real democratic polity.  If massive mobilization is driven by grass-roots demands of the citizenry for concerted action, as it must be, that very same citizenry can establish new democratic forms during the Great Transformation, but only if it happens within the rapidly closing window of opportunity remaining.

Errors, Mistakes, and Stupidity: Why Magical Thinking Can Be Deadly

We humans are both rational and emotional beings.  The mix between the two can produce some strange and amusing results.  Conventional economics assumes that all human behavior is rational in the sense that everyone chooses only actions that serve their best economic interests and the result is the best overall outcome for everyone.  Yet all sorts of factors are known to influence behavior.  So, we have to conclude that the “scientific” theory that has become the greatest intellectual source of public policy is built on an empirically falsified myth.  Human decisions are demonstrably based on many psychological and social factors as well as economic ones.  No wonder we have so much concentration of wealth at the top and so much unemployment and poverty among the general population.  But that’s another (related) story.

It is well known among social scientists that human decisions result from a complex of emotional, experiential, and rational elements.  We resist changing our minds about things that we have been comfortable with for a long time.  People change their behavior more often in response to the perception that their neighbors and friends have done so than because of any rational argument.  In fact, social psychologists have long known that people often act on impulse or under some other influence they may not even be aware of and then produce a “rationale” for what they have done after the fact.  On top of that, mistakes can be made because of misconceiving the situation, and the results can be catastrophic.  That is why ballistic missile systems with nuclear warheads involve so many “fail-safe” features.  Even so, there have been numerous incidents where nuclear missiles were almost launched in error.  No human system or related technology is completely fail-safe.

Looking at the big picture is not the forte of most of us.  We are busy trying to “make ends meet” or make a million bucks.  Citizen participation has been largely taken out of the political process.  Decisions of public policy are usually made in response to the economic interests of powerful institutions and supported by their propaganda.  Some fairly simple logic and clear evidence may easily refute such propaganda when it is counter-factual, but is rarely heard in the mass media, which is controlled by those same powerful institutions.  Yet the truth sometimes leaks out.  So it is with global warming and climate disruption.

I recently ran across a YouTube video that reminded me of those good old “type I” and “type II” errors that form the basis for statistical decision making for risk analysis in science.   In a very humorous way, “One Guy” demonstrated the failed logic of “climate deniers” who place their magical thinking above scientific evidence.  The problem is not just that they don’t understand the facts – although they often don’t – it is that, whatever their psychological or other sources of their conclusions, their logic for deciding what to do about the future is fatally flawed.  And, if accepted as the basis for public policy, that logic could be fatal for the planet.

Here is the real-world situation we face as a species:  If we assume for argument’s sake that we don’t know if global warming and climate disruption are “real” or can produce complex catastrophic results for the planet, there are two choices.

  • Do nothing, because climate scientists may be wrong and the actions taken to counter global warming will be expensive and wasted if scientists are wrong.
  • Take action (drastically cut carbon emissions and invest in carbon neutral technology) because if the climate scientists are right, failing to take action will result in mass extinctions and possibly extinction of the human race.

The possible consequences of the first choice are: 1) It’s the right decision (because climate disruption is not real) and we save a lot of money; and 2) It’s the wrong decision (because climate disruption is real) and the results for humanity are catastrophic (massive death and destruction if not extinction).

The possible consequences of the second choice are:  1) It’s the right decision (because climate disruption is real) and we spend a great deal of money and employ many people to reduce carbon emissions, with the result that we save humanity through major changes in the way we all live; and 2) It’s the wrong decision (because climate disruption is not real) and we spend a lot of money and employ many people in reducing carbon emissions when it was not necessary.  When faced with maybe saving some money but maybe destroying the planet in the process, or spending a lot of money to save the planet, what would you do?  I’d spend the money.  Full employment is a valuable side benefit.

There are errors by incompetence and errors by corruption – some are by corrupt incompetence .  Both can be confounded with elements of magical thinking, which results from combining ignorance, rigid belief, and ill-logic with an inability to perform critical thinking.  When you combine an aversion to complexity with magical thinking and unwavering belief in the face of facts [confirmed evidence from observation], the result is insistence that absurd counter-factual assertions must certainly be true.  Unwavering believe in the face of evidence really is stupid, especially when it can in some situations – such as climate disruption – be catastrophic in its consequences.

The Great Jobs Myth and the Transformation of the Growth Economy, Part II

The pervasive acceptance of conventional economic theory as a “natural science” that gives us guidance for dealing with our economic lives is one of the biggest obstacles to understanding and making rational choices about the converging crises of our time.  Simply put, the fundamental flaw in conventional economics is that the economic system it promotes as a natural system operates in an ecological vacuum.  In the real world, however, economic policy confronts actual obstacles to its illusion of endless economic growth that it cannot overcome.  That is why the choices ahead are so difficult and will require massive social change.

The economics profession initially struggled to be recognized as a science, just like physics.  That recognition eventually came, but was not entirely justified.  Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef[1] have powerfully demonstrated how the scientific limits of economics were overcome by clever conceptual illusions and political alignment with the forces of wealth and power in society.  That has gone so far that, for example, the Koch brothers now control the hiring of economics faculty at Florida State University, having cut a deal that allows them veto power over faculty hiring in exchange for monetary support for the department.  So much for independent intellectual exploration in that academic setting.  The economics departments of high ranking universities around the nation are more subtly influenced by expectations tied to financial support from major corporations.  No wonder fields like ecological economics, which examines economic systems in relation to the ecological systems in which they operate, are so commonly excluded from such programs.

A few forward looking economists such as Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill,[2] and Richard Heinberg,[3] have begun to unmask the myths of the orthodoxy of the Economics of Endless Growth and the false assumptions at its base.  As we reach the planetary limits to economic growth, the new ecological economics is an emerging attempt to build a basis for a steady state economy consistent with the carrying capacity of the biosphere.  Much remains to be done on figuring out how to respond to and manage the Great Transformation to the new economic reality.  The economists mentioned here have outlined some of the changes needed, but little has been said of how to accomplish them.  Gar Alperovitz[4] has extended that discussion, focusing on nascent democratizing economic organizations forming at the grass roots level.  That will be increasingly important, but strategy and tactics for getting there from here are the key factor which is both most important and least elucidated.

It is quite clear that electoral politics are so dominated by the corporate forces that sustain conventional growth-at-any-cost economics in their own short-term interests [quarterly profits and stock prices as well as obscene executive pay and bonuses] that getting reasonable independent people elected in the near term is highly unlikely.  The only other option is the building of a social movement from the bottom up.  The American people are not nearly as stupid as the plutocracy imagines.  People know something is very wrong, even when they don’t connect it to their own economic behavior.  Extant climate disruption has already overcome the corporate propaganda of climate-denial, but what’s a concerned citizen to do?

The news that a coalition of seventeen of the world’s biggest private foundations has announced that they are divesting their holdings of nearly $1.8 billion from fossil fuels corporations[5] indicates one thing.  Consciousness can change and change can become exponential; that is how emerging non-violent social movements are realized.  350.org was initially ridiculed for its plan to pressure educational institutions to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry.  But it is happening.  A much broader movement is needed, however.

Integral to modernity is the decline of the solidarity of natural social groupings (family, village, clan, etc.).   The discontent resulting from economic individualism could be countered by engagement in the very kinds of social movement that are needed to confront the otherwise overpowering force of corporatocracy.  Out of participation will come change in self-awareness.  If [when] Obama’s absurd “all of the above” [ultimately anti-ecological] energy policy results in approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a new surge of activism will facilitate the larger social movement – and solidarity – necessary for change when conventional politics are locked out by corporate financial control.  What most middle-class “progressives” don’t quite understand, yet, is that the necessary massive reductions in CO2 and methane emissions will radically alter their consumer “lifestyle.”  That shock, sobering as it will be, must lead to massive collective action by new social groupings grounded in the human interest – not individual selfish short-term interests –  so that the broken fossil-fuel economy can be transformed into a new ecological economy never before seen.


[1] Philip B. Smith & Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011.

[2] Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill, Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.  San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2013.

[3] Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2011.

[4] Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.  White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2013