At the Edge of Illusion

At the Edge of Illusion: Facing the New Great Transformation

I have written a book that on the surface may appear to be about “climate change.” However, it is more about you and me. Information abounds on the many intricate details and the overall pattern of the destabilized climate and its diverse and intensifying disruptive effects. We know that growing climate chaos results from the relentless human discharge of carbon into the atmosphere, despite the discomfort that fact causes us. We know that relentless extraction of Earth’s resources pollutes the land and water, leading to resource depletion and ecosystem destruction. The physical and biological sciences that explain our path toward climate chaos, ecological collapse, and mass species extinction make that abundantly clear.

At the Edge of Illusion emphasizes a much deeper and seemingly intractable problem. Humans and our institutions have cleverly exploited the Earth System during the fossil-fueled industrial era. How it is that we now fail so completely to respond in any effective way to the unfolding drama of rapidly growing climate chaos, ecological destruction, and impending societal collapse? The book explores what humanity must do to overcome that failure.

Catastrophic Converging Crises of the New Great Transformation

We face an accelerating complex of converging crises, in which climate destabilization is a lead character and human inaction becomes increasingly deadly. In that context, I look at potential ways to break out of this dilemma and take positive steps to mitigate the causes of the converging crises of climate, economy, political instability, extreme inequalities, and other threats to human survival into the Anthropocene.

The accelerating direct damage due to global warming constitutes the most important physical trend that threatens to cause societal breakdown as political authorities mostly ignore the telltale signs of accelerating damage leading to ecological, climate, and finally societal collapse. The primary response to all this by most political decision makers, especially in the industrial nations, consists mainly of cheap talk, debates about how much temperature rise above pre-industrial levels we must achieve, who is responsible to achieve how much of that reduction, and who should pay for what. Such discussions have so far achieved no more than the proverbial rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

Meanwhile, the converging catastrophic crises of the end of the fossil-fueled industrial interlude intensify and become ever more and more difficult to resolve.

I do discuss elements of climate chaos, ecological damage, and mass species extinction at various points in this book. That is because of their importance as the intellectual keys to examining the trajectory of past and present failures and the possibilities for salvaging what we can now. Institutional failures to act on the complex pattern of immediate and imminent existential threats to ecosystems, financial-systems, political systems, and climate stability all result from the same utopian dreams of endless economic growth that shape our ideas of human progress while driving us to the brink of societal collapse.

The glories of abundance that seemed so possible before the limits of a finite planet came into view on the horizon produced the social illusion that endless economic growth was the engine of human progress. Now, the final gasps of the empire of economic globalization reflect its approaching end, along with the affluent interlude it spawned. Yet, the psychological defense mechanisms of denial and projection still dominate the culture and politics of the globalized extractive-industrial-consumer economy. Such responses are distinctly dysfunctional and ultimately deadly.

Into the Anthropocene

We have already entered a systemic phase change I call the New Great Transformation, placing us in a new geologic era, the Anthropocene. We must not misinterpret either the transformation or the new conditions it forces. The Anthropocene arrived because the industrial interlude of the past 200 years has already radically destabilized key components within the entire Earth System. Geologists define the Anthropocene as the geological era of increasing unstable conditions of the Earth System caused by human disruption of the constancy of calm conditions we experienced during the 11,000 years of the Holocene. However, that does not mean humanity controls those conditions; we have initiated changes over which we have little ability to control. The extent to which we can minimize the damage remains an open question.

The phase change that is ending the industrial era has many components. The new geologic era many scientists now believe we have already entered – the Anthropocene – consists of new, difficult to discern but dangerous changing conditions of the Earth System that the human actions and institutions of the industrial era have caused. The destabilization of the Earth System caused by the industrial age is leading to conditions that neither humans nor most other species will be able to tolerate. The remaining big question is whether and to what degree humans can transform our institutions and ourselves to minimize the damage and avoid extinction.

Mitigation, Adaptation, and Resilience

Humanity must try to constrain the most dangerous changes we have imposed on our habitat – planet Earth because they threaten our existence. Our ability to do that diminishes every day. Nevertheless, we must find a place of our own in a world we made but neither control nor adequately understand.

Some optimists argue for a “good Anthropocene,” which they define as the era of human control over Nature. That illusion is really just a utopian dream, an extension of the central hubris of the industrial era itself. Such dreamers live in the industrial-consumer cultural bubble, oblivious to the Earth System changes around them. Quite contrary to their illusions, all the data – that is, the confirmed scientific facts and documented trends – indicate that we are entering a period where the Earth System itself has become an agent of change. The Earth System action in the Anthropocene will not resemble the calm system stability we are so familiar with, but which the globalizing extractive-industrial-consumer economy has so deeply disturbed.

Planet Earth is no longer the apparently passive vessel into which humans, without a thought, expected they could pour their detritus forever. That worked for a while, when the empire of economic growth still had room to expand; but now we have overshot the Earth’s capacity to carry the load of our debris. We are not accustomed to the Earth System having agency beyond the occasional hurricane or volcanic eruption. The question now is whether we can muster the resilience to survive and maybe mitigate and adapt to the extreme changes emerging in the New Great Transformation of the Earth System and our relation to it.

The Earth System has already begun to act in ways outside the “normal” variations humans experienced during the 11,000-year Holocene era the comforts of which we have long taken for granted. The benign conditions of the Holocene enabled our species to grow to the point where we seemed to dominate the entire planet. However, we have reached not only the limits to that growth, but we have also triggered changes that have severely disrupted the stability of the system that allowed that growth. Now we must somehow deal with those changes or die.

Modernization Dies Hard

By applying organization and technology to stable conditions of life during a very benign period on planet Earth, we humans rapidly expanded extraction, production, consumption, and our own population. Now, having overshot the Earth’s capacity to carry the load of an ever-expanding industrial-consumer economy, we must contend with radical changes in the Earth System conditions that we can no longer predict based on our experience before this New Great Transformation began. Yet the power elites who control the direction of “modernization” persist as if none of this destruction was happening.

Therein lies the fundamental dilemma of the project of modernity in its most existential sense. Humanity cannot continue on the illusory path to a globalized industrial-consumer economy. That is precisely because of the Earth System destruction caused by the very political economy it devised to achieve that goal. The pursuit of techno-industrial modernity has reached the tipping point leading to its own destruction. As the industrial-consumer civilization collapses, human populations must radically transform their relationships to the ecosystems they inhabit. The very system our “leaders” devised to achieve “progress” has begun to destroy the foundations of human survival in the only habitat we will ever know. Significant depopulation seems inevitable. How human groups will respond is not clear.

The New Great Transformation we unwittingly caused has caught us culturally and politically unprepared. Yet we might develop a level of resilience that can meet the challenge of surviving in the Anthropocene. However, that is certainly the primary “known unknown.”

Humanity Living within Nature

The only way out of our dilemma is to reorganize human populations radically to comply with the Laws of Nature we were able to both exploit and ignore for a while. That presents the most difficult challenge that humans have ever faced. To succeed, we must understand the Laws of Nature that determine our survival. So far, the politics and psychology of the extractive-industrial-consumer economy largely exclude applying that understanding to our situation.

In this book, I explore the sources and forces driving the New Great Transformation we have inadvertently created but must now try to bring under some semblance of control in order to survive. We might be able to contribute to the unfolding of the Anthropocene in ways that will enable humans to endure under the evolving circumstances we have forced, but only if we respond quickly and effectively to the new conditions we discover along the way. That would be true resilience. The forces driving the unfolding relationship of humans to our habitat and the necessary radical changes from our current consciousness and ways of living are the subject of this book.