The Dilemma of Transformation: From Petro-Economy to Eco-Society

What will it will take to reduce world carbon emissions enough in the short time necessary to fend off the worst of the effects of climate disruption? So much of the economy and energy technology is involved that it is hard to even imagine the magnitude of resulting social disruption.

Yet here we are, faced with such colossal dilemmas that any serious student of the climate crisis is easily overwhelmed. Where to start? Everywhere. How much to do? Everything. But priorities must be set and optimal sequences of action must be developed. Here are some of the key dilemmas.

Individual change
“If everyone would just stop driving so much and using all those plastic drink-bottles…,” etc. Well, yes, many everyday behaviors will have to change if we are to even stop the continuing growth in carbon emissions, no less reverse the trend. But a serious consideration of the colossal scale at which many things must happen, the means to accomplish them appear perplexing at best.

Human habits would be hard enough to change without the social pressure to consume in our current manner. Beyond that, little exists in the way of a model for “responsible” ecological behavior. Besides, most folks barely have time to get the dishes done before work the next morning to spend a lot of time thinking about such things. I have always been a strong advocate for education, even as I saw its quality slide over the past 40 years in the U.S. But something much faster and more intense is needed.

Leadership AWOL
“George W. Obama,” someone called the equivocating “environmental president” who, as Naomi Klein put it the other day, just can’t bring himself to just say no to the dangerously destructive Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, The Congress-of-No reeks of a vulgar racism that is willing to cost America whatever it takes to prevent “Obama” (the title “President” deliberately missing) from accomplishing anything at all. And as the rest of the world puzzles over how to respond to the growing climate crisis, U.S. Congress members wallow in sanctimonious denial. Their minds and their morals: Absent Without Leave.

Leadership in responding to climate disruption would take both recognition and bold public articulation of the catastrophic nature of the planetary climate emergency. Real leadership would entail mounting a major operation to mobilize all the major economic institutions to respond to the crisis. Each corporate and government sector should be required to develop plans for immediate ramping up of a maximal conversion of all energy systems. No special deals. If you are waiting for that you might as well plan for societal collapse; that is where the AWOL “leadership” is taking us.

So, leadership can only come from the “grass roots,” not just in individual ‘lifestyle’ changes – which must accompany economic, industrial, and technological conversions. Grass-roots leadership must force the restructuring of all the major institutions, public and private/corporate, that drive the fossil-fuel economy. Many local community actions, such as public banking, local non-chemical agriculture and small manufacture, etc., are needed, now. But the ultimate and proximate necessity is for large scale institutional transformations. These can only come from broad popularly supported collective demands upon the larger system. That will come when the crisis is sufficiently severe. But will it be soon enough?

Collective Action
Some sociologists specialize in studying “collective behavior and social movements.” Crowds, mobs, fashion, riots, rebellions, all have certain characteristics that distinguish them from everyday actions and normal social processes. Ordinary norms and beliefs are suspended as a collective recognition of special circumstances arises. That can be good or bad, depending on the situation and collective definitions of it. In context of natural disasters, sometimes whole communities have spontaneously risen up and responded to crises with highly organized mutual aid. Or, a riot can be a collective act of spontaneously organized destruction. Anti-colonial liberation movements resulted from a another form of collective consciousness. It all depends on the level and focus of awareness and collective definition of the situation.

But the climate crisis is somewhat different. It has emerged as an ecological consequence of the multiple converging crises of economics, politics, and expanded capital investment in extractive technologies of overproduction. Its scope is so broad, yet its impact is often very local and also episodic. A super storm here, a drought there, a super-hot wildfire or raging flood somewhere else, a lot of species extinctions everywhere. At the early stages the effects were diverse and diffuse. That does not lend itself to collective recognition or a focus for action. That must come from science, and science is something too many people are unfamiliar with and have been indoctrinated to mistrust. But the scientific evidence is now so clear that it constitutes a call for action.

Unprecedented Social Mobilization
The immediate dilemma is that deep and comprehensive structural change is needed on a very large scale and very quickly. But massive change will only happen when enormous numbers of people demand it. “National leadership” is unavailable; it serves the corporate state, the very source of these converging crises. Oddly, massive mobilization, which is driven by recognition and emotion, may be easier to launch than education.

This Changes Everything,” as Naomi Klein’s new book title accurately proclaims the essence of the climate crisis. But such immense transformation of all fundamental human systems requires complex coordination too – much akin to the rapid mobilization initiated on the U.S. entering WW II, but on an enormously larger scale. The social mobilization needed to effectively respond to the climate crisis must be national and international as well as local. But people in places are the only hope for launching such an unprecedented multifaceted human social mobilization to avoid extinction.

So a massive social mobilization is unequivocally necessary. It has happened before on a much smaller scale – the civil rights struggle, anti-apartheid movement, Poland, India, even Argentina in a sense, and with varying ‘success’ – but it is highly unpredictable and difficult. We are in for quite a ride….

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