How to Evolve

Someone quoted Jeff Bezos as saying that the biggest mistake is not to evolve. But what exactly does it mean to evolve? In the case of, it has always meant to grow Amazon by growing sales above all else, including profit. Well, the entire history of the industrial era has focused on growth as well. What distinguishes Bezos is that he was able to grow Amazon more powerfully than just about any other company on earth.

But really, is that all that evolving means? Of course, amazon developed many techniques of marketing more and more product lines, which enabled unprecedented corporate growth. One might argue that independent bookstores failed Bezos’ test of evolution by not following his business model as it evolved. But could they? Besides, we can hardly call copying someone else’s business model, evolving. Even more important, why should they?


Evolution Gone Awry

The assumption that economic expansion is the only viable model for human progress has played a central role in the industrial-consumer economy. A growth-as-necessary-and-inevitable model of business success and of societal progress still drives the U.S.-led final stages of the industrial era. It also produced the converging crises of economic injustice, ecological destruction, and climate chaos that we now experience with increasing frequency and intensity.

The idea of evolving has always carried with it an underlying assumption that improvement is the ultimate goal of evolutionary change. Well, there’s the rub. Improvement implies change measured against some particular value. In human affairs, that has meant the cultural value of achieving a better life for more and more people. But we must be careful in how we define better. Is life really better if we can buy more junk cheaper at Wal-Mart than fewer products of higher quality with greater and longer use-value at a small locally owned store? Moreover, widespread access to affluence more closely appears as a fiction every day.

Quality and quantity have often conflicted in our ideas of progress. Quantity, often disguised as quality, has increasingly dominated the industrial-consumer culture as pressure for endless economic growth continues. Are more and more people living better lives today than they might otherwise? That remains a focus of political debate.

Then we have the other entrepreneurial standout, Elon Musk. Now, there we find another mixed bag of ingenious innovation of significant social value and pie-in-the-sky inventions of little use to anyone other than to entertain the super-rich. Low carbon-emissions transportation, home, and business energy storage now have immense societal evolutionary value. The potential for transportation to evolve toward carbon neutrality demonstrated by innovative Tesla vehicles, with their advanced designs, is remarkable. But the sci-fi fantasy of commercial space travel, given our current human evolutionary crisis, is nothing but counter-productive.

To evolve in the most positive sense is to make changes that take into account the context that those changes will affect. At this stage of human evolution, we have reached a crossroads. More than 200 years of our economic “progress” has caused increasingly widespread destruction to the living Earth systems that our species (and all others) depend upon to survive. Humanity has lost its resilience by destroying the conditions that make our lives viable.

We have run out of wiggle room. Now, we can only afford to (and must) evolve in ways that: 1) counteract the damage we have already done, and 2) radically innovate our economic activity in ways that help regenerate the severely damaged ecosystems upon which we all depend to survive.

Putin, Obama, and Carbon: Denial and Decline

As I watched the Ukraine/Crimea crisis unfold, the corporate media rendition of the scenario emerged as if pulled from an old cold-war script. Of course, Putin, the Soviet KGB-style dictator, is an obvious “bad guy.” And Obama is following the neo-conservative script of his “advisers,” or is it handlers? But the struggle over Ukraine is really about which “great power” will control Eurasian energy corridors as fossil fuels become scarcer, as well as about the rivalry of empires. Fear arises from the fact that war is money. Russia supplies over half of Ukraine’s and about 30% of Europe’s natural gas. Much of Europe’s demand for natural gas depends on Ukraine and Russia. Unfortunately, reducing carbon emissions has no place in these continuing strategic maneuvers.

Even in the ‘alternative press,’ few have mentioned U.S. interference in Ukraine politics (including influencing the Ukraine’s previous ‘regime change’) to get it to ally itself with NATO, ignoring the entire history of the region and Ukraine’s delicate relationship with Russia. East and West leaning factions within Ukraine had been struggling over how to align that nation. Make a deal to enter the European Union or a deal for closer relations with Moscow? Heaven forbid Ukraine should have independently taken the best from both worlds – both have their consequences. The energy-stakes are too high for both East and West – powers, not people. If people were valued by either side, negotiations leading toward carbon neutrality would begin.

The American media remain in broad denial of the intense efforts by U.S. funded proxies like the “National Endowment for Democracy” to pressure Kiev to turn toward a European alliance and military association with NATO. Imagining that was not a direct threat to Russian borders, the U.S. corporate media, even its ‘liberal’ branches such as MSNBC, parrot the narrative of Russian (Soviet) aggression in a strategic vacuum, after the elected Ukraine government indicated its preference for closer relations with its historical roots in Russia.

It is important to understand that the drama we watch is between two imperial powers vying for control of both energy resources and a ‘border state’ of one. Neither is the least bit interested in anyone’s “self-determination” or democracy. Both claims are, as nearly always, imperial cover stories. Let’s see now, did we put up with Khrushchev’s  attempted military move into Cuba, our ‘border state’ right off the Florida Keys? Is Putin really “protecting” Russian speakers in Crimea with his occupying troops and forced referendum? Ukraine’s gas fields are mostly in its eastern half, closest to the Russian border. Hypocrisy reigns in all quarters. It’s an old fashion power struggle, exactly the kind the world cannot afford.

A large proportion of industrial production goes to military might worldwide, but the U.S. spends nearly as much as the next 10 nations combined. I don’t even know where Russia falls in that ranking – the data are available. But far more important is the abject failure of so-called ‘world leaders’ to break out of their archaic petro-paradigms of power and address the real threat to the security of all nations today: massively climate-destabilizing carbon emissions. And one of the biggest emitters, collectively, is the world military industrial complex, with the U.S. the leading arms producer and dealer on the planet.

One of the things that struck me about this latest international confrontation is its distinctive Kabuki Theater character – the overly stylized drama of its overly ‘made up’ actors dressed up in their cold war personas, seems out of another era. The datedness of the whole affair is partly a reflection of the fact that we have far bigger problems to address than these old rivalries – both within Ukraine and between East and West – namely, the imminent failure of nations to face the fact that their whole industrial structure, including their militaries, will have to be dismantled or otherwise made carbon neutral, in order to stave off climate catastrophes around the world in the next decade and beyond. They arrange chairs in a theater of the absurd.

The most important question today is not whether to immediately embark on a venture in national and world industrial transformation to slow down the heating of the biosphere before it reaches the point of no return. No, the real question is whether we have already reached that tipping point, and if so whether we can find a way to survive. Meanwhile, American-international oil/gas companies are eying Ukraine as another target for their extractive destruction, oblivious to the crisis of civilization.

For purposes of real-world decision making however, such a question is easy to answer: If the risk is human extinction, and you can’t be sure whether steps to avoid it are already too late, you take those steps anyway on the chance that it may not be too late. If in fact it is too late, then nothing matters except whether we can go out in style. If, on the other hand, it will not be too late if all necessary steps are taken, well, obviously, all necessary steps must be taken. We will only know for sure if we take those steps, and take them now.

Putin and Obama, and far too many others, seem entirely oblivious to any such considerations, as they play out their Kabuki recital and archaic mid-twentieth-century rituals of imperial rivalry over petroleum now past its peak. If the consequences were not so dire, the irony might even be funny. Of course, the consequences for the people of Ukraine/Crimea continue to look more dismal every day. But that will pale in comparison to the consequences for the planet if these “leaders” do not get real, and very soon.

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.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part I

For most of us the world we see around us is “normal.”  We see little difference between the natural, social, and economic worlds – they are mostly one experience.  We are born into cities, suburbs, small towns, and (rarely anymore) farms.  We see history through the limited scope of textbooks once read as required and through the pop-history of the mass media.  Large historical changes are not easily seen in our everyday lives.  We view the past as quaint times when people didn’t know much or have much.  Yet, increasing numbers of things don’t seem to be quite so normal anymore.

Today we are inundated with technological change and the material “progress” that is made possible by the ever-expanding application of debt and capital to technical innovation and industrial production.  The smart-phone, the iPad, and mobile connectivity, along with all the previous technical innovations that have changed the world of employment as well as social life, are all quickly absorbed into our view of the natural order of things, which is, however, heavily dependent on the pervasive culture of corporate consumerism and an endless supply of materials for their production.  “Server farms” and “the cloud” are vague images of the information age no clearer in our minds than the National Security Agency’s “data mining” of everyone’s phone calls, email messages, and credit card records.  The dominant culture of debt-driven economic growth and the rise of the “security-surveillance state” have become culturally detached from, yet remain completely physically dependent on Nature.

We have lived most of our lives surrounded by rapid change (at least as compared with previous eras in human history).  We are accustomed to the changing conditions that have resulted from the economic-growth imperative that has driven our world since the dawn of the industrial revolution – though we are largely aware of only the present and very recent past as represented by our personal experience and the mass-media shaped “reality” constantly presented to us at various stages of our lives.

We are not paid to engage in critical thinking or to reflect on the course of human history beyond the roles we play – or roles we have lost to “outsourcing” – in the growth economy.  Yet we know that something is terribly wrong.  The contradictions between what we are told and what we experience keep growing.  We know that the “financial crisis” continues as a giant pyramid scheme; we know that natural resources are being used up rapidly; we know that the progress we expected in the form of “The American Dream,” is just not happening for “the 99%.”  We know that while profits grow exponentially, stagnant wages and longer work hours buy less and less of the endless array of the products of economic growth.  Most now realize that it’s time to set aside the propaganda of the industry-funded “climate denial” propaganda and face the known scientific facts of how the biosphere works and is being disrupted by the emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.  And, we have now begun to experience directly the climate disruptions that scientists have been forecasting for a couple of decades and we recognize that something has to be done.

But what is most difficult to imagine is what it will take to avoid the catastrophic results of even a 2º Celsius increase in average temperature on the planet.  Look around.  Where do you see infrastructure that is not dependent on fossil-fuel based technology?  Survival requires that most of that infrastructure be eliminated or somehow converted.  But what will replace it?  The ‘political’ answer is to do more research on “alternate fuels,” which simply dodges the question.  But many alternative technologies for producing and conserving energy already exist and new ones are emerging.  These need to be implemented now.  To describe them all and how they might be implemented rapidly would take a book-length discussion.  But the coming “great transformation” will require that we reorganize the ways we use energy from the local to the national level.  That means reorganizing the way we live.

Even climate advocates rarely talk of the massive societal reorganization needed to achieve their goal of returning to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere needed to re-stabilize the climate.  Speculations are desperately needed on the actual changes in people’s lives and on how to transform social relations and institutions required to meet the challenge of climate disruption so that the biosphere can be stabilized and we can survive on the planet.  It is hard to forecast the future; many have tried and failed.  But it is even more difficult to imagine what everyday life will be like when climate disruptions force humans to drastically reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  A viable response must be comprehensive ecologically, which means we will have to change the way we want to continue living and others (in the third world) want to live.

The societal implications of radical reductions in fossil-fuel consumption and conversion to carbon-neutral and carbon-negative ways of living will take very different kinds of innovations than we are used to – including major cultural change for a new ecological economy.  Those innovations must come in the form of both appropriate technology and appropriate social organization.  Part II of this essay will consider what seem to be some of the key logical necessities and possible strategies for the coming greatest transformation of all time.