Beyond the Yellow Brick Road*: Saving the Planet from Eco Modernism

For some time now, I have been unable to escape the conclusion that the way to find a path to stop the heating of the planet is not by developing new technologies to compensate for the ever-increasing carbon emissions produced by economic growth. All you have to do is think about how entangled everyone is with various industrial processes to realize that economic institutions must be radically transformed to significantly reduce carbon emissions. That means changing society in major ways not heretofore imagined. The “Green New Deal” at least points in that direction, although it fails to consider any major societal change.

I recently stumbled upon two very interesting books; each demonstrates the necessity for societal transformation in its own way. One is a textbook written be a physicist, Tom Murphy, and is meant for use by students in courses on energy and the environment. Murphy skillfully demonstrates the physical necessity of societal transformation today.

The other book is produced by a group of European natural scientists, engineers, and social scientists supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Brussels and Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie in Leipzig. These scholars explored a “Societal Transformation Scenario” (STS) to see the effects of major societal changes designed to move toward net-zero carbon emissions in the near future. Industrialized societies must make such deep changes to even approach the IPCC goal of limiting the heating of the Earth to 1.5º C. above pre-industrial temperatures. Interestingly, you can download both books online for free.

Physics Rules, Enforced by Facts

Tom Murphy is a physicist at the University of California, San Diego. He must be a great teacher because his textbook on energy and environment is designed in ways that allow students maximum access to facts and understanding while avoiding mere rote learning for taking exams. The book is available here as a downloadable .pdf file. You can also buy a printed copy for the cost of printing.

The book, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, is chock full of evidence for the ways in which energy interacts with all other elements in the complex Earth System. Murphy demonstrates how and why the growth of human productions and populations are reaching their physical and ecological limits now. Download it or read sections on line; it is compelling.

The Societal Transformation Scenario

The authors of A Societal Transformation Scenario for Staying Below 1.5C. argue, “that current global mitigation scenarios fail to explore the possibilities of reduced economic activity in the Global North.” As a way to fill that intellectual and political gap, they propose a “Societal Transformation Scenario (STS) within a fundamental socio-ecological transformation: A transformation that is primarily about producing and consuming less but also about fulfilling concrete human needs and serving common welfare –fostering cooperation, care, solidarity and sustainability to achieve a good life for all.”

That would be a deep transformation of both the culture and social organization of the existing dominator model of the societal-economic systems of the industrialized nations of the Global North. The US, more than the rest, both historically and currently consumes and wastes energy and causes ecological and climate disruption far out of proportion to the size of its population.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a lesson in the societal impact of the slowing down of economic production and consumption without the benefit of any form of socio-economic transformation to replace the wasteful industrial-consumer economy. Mainstream climate policy in the Global North, where economies are energy intense and resource intense, relies on naïve assumptions that new technologies will be able to extract carbon from the atmosphere, thereby “decoupling” economic growth from damage to the environment. Wrong! We have neither the time nor the means to develop such technologies, which would ultimately fail because they do not address the root cause of our predicament.

Instead, the Societal Transformation Scenario (STS) eliminates the fossil-fueled economy and focuses on building a labor-intense carbon-neutral economy that serves human wellbeing rather than economic-system growth.

Facing the Unknown: Can We Meet the Challenge?

The STS approach constitutes a huge challenge, of course. It takes us into the unknown. But the known consequences of pursuing the inadequate polices that attempt to hold onto the very cause of the climate-ecological emergency by only treating symptoms, not the disease, assures utter disaster.

Can we meet the greatest challenge ever to confront humanity? I don’t know. But to do so will require that we abandon most of the assumptions underlying the industrial-consumer culture and seek new ways to secure “a living” without continuing to destroy our only home, the Earth System that sustains us.


* The term, “The Yellow Brick Road,” best known for its role in the film, “The Wizard of Oz,” and for Elton John’s song, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” suggests an often-illusory destination of fame, fortune, and happiness. Like Elton John’s frustration with the glitter and glory of stardom, and Dorothy’s faint hope to find answers from the Wizard in the Emerald City, we moderns face a failed future by seeking happiness in the hyper-materialism of industrial- consumerism, in violation of our very nature as member species in the larger Earth Eco System. We must move beyond the industrial-consumer culture to live well in the future.

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