Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.


Beijing Smog. Source:

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.

How to Create a Corporate State and Destroy the Planet

Ever wonder why President Obama insists that the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) be “fast-tracked” through Congress? Why does its content have to be kept secret from the Congress and the American people? Yes, members of Congress may view its drafts in a secure room but are not allowed to even take notes away with them. Under “Fast Track,” a bill cannot be debated or amended; it must simply be voted “up or down.” That in itself certainly lacks transparency and severely constrains the democratic process. If something is kept secret from me, I have to assume that it contains something I would object to if I knew what it was – probably something that would hurt me too. Secrecy has been a primary tool of tyranny across cultures and time. In the hands of powerful elites, secrecy is almost always a means to increase or maintain unjustified power. For a further motivational clue in this case, you could look at the composition of the group negotiating the treaty. This TPP thing is being written by corporate lobbyists and lawyers, with token representatives of labor or environmental groups. What gives? Okay, so it is pretty obvious that this so-called “free trade” agreement is being written in the interests of trans-national corporations that dominate international trade. Not surprising, of course. But this one reaches far beyond the administration merely pandering to the political interests of corporations. It is a question of national sovereignty – whether nations or corporations will have sovereignty over fundamental elements of political authority. NAFTA was only the beginning. We have no direct knowledge other than those initial drafts of chapters obtained and published by WikiLeaks. They alone are scary enough. Apparently, provisions in its 29 chapters allow mega-corporations to override national, state, and local laws on environment, worker safety, and even carbon emissions policies. It is easy for the uninformed to read paranoia into a claim that the corporations are taking control of the federal (and state) governments. But that is what has happened with other “trade agreements” that allow corporations to sue governments in corporate controlled tribunals for non-compliance, NAFTA being a prime example. Under such provisions, corporations can override national sovereignty; as a result, we are increasingly living in a “corporate state.” Corporate Profit Trumps Mitigating Climate Chaos In the case of the TPP, someone is chasing us whether we are paranoid or not. “TPP elevates corporations and corporate profits to and above the level of governments. TPP lets corporations sue governments for laws and regulations that cause them to be less profitable.”[1] Once governments and their laws are subordinated to international corporate tribunals, well, it is “game over” for national sovereignty over the things that matter to real people. Any national or local effort to uphold standards of environmental protection, labor safety, or efforts to constrain carbon emissions to avoid climate catastrophe will be denied by international corporate tribunals. Naomi Kline describes an obvious case of corporate interests subordinating local economic and planetary climate mitigation needs. An attempted project to bring an advanced Italian solar panel manufacturing operation to Ontario, Canada, would have boosted local employment. It also would have contributed to the necessary conversion of regional energy production to renewable energy. But under the threat of World Trade Organization rules that treat any preference for local manufacturing as a violation of “free trade,” the company withdrew its plans.[2] Ironically, the net gain in carbon emissions reduction by adopting renewable energy production can be wiped out by the carbon emissions of international shipping. For effective carbon emissions reduction, manufacturing of renewable energy technologies must occur near their location where they are to be installed. Indeed, for effective emissions control international trade must itself be curtailed. Consider, for example, almost half of China’s carbon emissions come from manufacture for export. In addition, all those giant container ships emit large quantities of carbon. Local and regional production of a wide variety of products must replace mega-corporate driven remote manufacture for international trade, if carbon emissions reduction is to reach meaningful levels to constrain global warming to livable limits. In this and many other ways, corporate “free trade” ideology expressed in international trade laws is trumping attempts to mitigate climate disruption. It is thereby threatening to wreak havoc on human populations around the world. The ideologies of unrestricted growth and profligate wasteful consumerism support this destructive economic model. The legal elevation of corporate profits over public policy directly increases the power of corporations have been building over governments and their people. It thereby establishes legal corporate sovereignty over all other authority in the world and prevents necessary social action to address the approaching climate catastrophe. Who benefits? Only the international mega-corporations do, at the expense of everyone. A Partially Exposed Coup d’état No wonder they want to keep it all a big secret until the TPP is passed by Congress. No wonder they want to restrict Congress from debating the pros and cons of the content of the bill and prohibit amendments. A coup d’état to overthrow a government is usually exercised in secret, without negotiation. And no wonder. The TPP usurps the public interest in key areas that affect the lives of everyone: environmental protections, labor practices and safety standards, intellectual property, and more broadly, the economic ‘rules of the game.’ We tend to think of revolutions in terms of rebellious generals and their troops storming the presidential palace in a “banana republic.” But today, an unprecedented corporate revolution is occurring in the form of international laws that give the mega-corporations sovereignty over everything. The secrecy of these negotiations includes the propaganda smokescreen that implies that it is just about “leveling the playing field” of trade rules. But only a few of the twenty nine chapters are about trade. What has been leaked so far, thanks to Wikileaks, indicates something far more odious. Much of the document deals with ways to assure corporate sovereignty over national interests by sanctifying profits above the interests of people – the public interest. In fact, it is about how the mega-corporations will rule both governments and the people around the world. The irony is that the secretly negotiated TPP deal by and for the corporations is intended to pass congress without discussion or public knowledge, masquerading as an economic benefit for the nation. And it is to be voted on to circumvent the already seriously damaged democratic process. It is an international treaty passed by congress and the governments of other major trading nations. Any attempt to change it would have to be approved by all the nations that signed it. Get ready to live under a corporate-police state, or join the effort to stop it now. Otherwise, game over for saving even a shred of democracy. __________ 1 Dave Johnson, “Stop Calling the TPP a Trade Agreement – It isn’t.” Reader Supported News. 2 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Chapter 2.

The Essentials of Resilience in a World of Growing Chaos

By now, it ought to go without saying that the evidence is in – after all, global warming has been recognized by scientists for decades. The accelerated release of “greenhouse gases” since the dawn of the Industrial Age is now causing accelerated warming of the planet with multiple interacting deleterious effects. We just don’t have time to argue the scientific consensus vs. the propaganda of the growth economists and industrial apologists. It is what it obviously is. Far more important challenges than “climate deniers” lay ahead. Resilience will be the key to meeting those challenges.

The most urgent question today is what must be done now and in the near future to achieve major mitigation of carbon emissions. The second most urgent question is: What can we do to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate disruption already “in the pipeline”? Mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand, although adaptation without mitigation is akin to seeking a more comfortable collective suicide. Without rapidly reducing the release of greenhouse gases, conditions will become so extreme that humans and many other species will be unable to adapt and survive. The species-extinction rate is already extreme by evolutionary measure.

Mitigation and Adaptation

So, resilience must be understood as the ability to both mitigate the sources of climate change and adapt to climate disruption in just the right balance. This must be done in the context of improving knowledge of the climate changes that are already occurring. We know that some of the processes are also accelerating because of interactive positive feedback loops. But the methane and CO2 releases from nascent arctic permafrost melting are not yet accounted for in the current IPCC climate change models. We need to know and immediately act upon the most strategically important climate disrupting factors. We must choose those factors with both the greatest impact on climate and the most potential for rapid and radical mitigation.

Fortunately, some mitigation efforts may also have adaptive benefits. For example, a massive program to improve the energy efficiency of buildings will not only reduce energy use and waste. It will also provide better shelter from extreme temperatures. Unfortunately, some attempts at mitigation will both reduce carbon emissions from energy production and stimulate more energy use and waste. It is almost universally assumed that the installation of renewable energy production technologies to replace high-emissions production, such as coal-fired power plants, will simply reduce emissions. However, the extraction, manufacturing, and installation processes release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also can encourage expanded energy waste because of greater availability of energy at lower cost.

The Politics of Necessity

We live in a minefield of cost-benefit dilemmas and potential unintended consequences of strategic alternatives. Then there is the problem of the political economy. Little if any meaningful and timely climate action at an adequate scale can be expected from the corporate state. Profligate U.S. energy consumption has caused more of the extant climate disruption than any other nation. Yet our “leaders” – both corporate and governmental – treat any commitments to carbon reduction as if it were just another trade-deal negotiation. The fact that China recently surpassed our current level of emissions does not relieve the U.S. of its responsibility for the highest levels of over-consumption and waste. We led the world into this mess and we ought to take the lead in unwinding the fossil-fuel driven growth economy. We can and must lead in the development of an ecological economy with appropriate infrastructure and social structure as well. That will not be easy, nor can it be accomplished by conventional means.

The current social structure is uniquely adapted to the perpetuation of the failing industrial leviathan. What David Korten calls the “Sacred Money and Markets story” sustains a social structure comprised of alienated individuals, fragmented families and communities. That social structure is dominated by a corporate state, which is driven primarily by the interests of the financial-military-corporate-political elite. Comprehensive whole-society-level mobilization and centrally coordinated action could theoretically make the most difference most quickly. One of the greatest contradictions of our current dilemma is that, the power structure steadfastly resists such action. Its capabilities include a significant potential for “command and control” over climate action. However, its interests are in continuing with “business as usual.”
Interestingly, China has a lot of command and control capability because of its one-party dictatorship. Oddly, so does the U.S. – since the two-party state operates as one corporate state. Yet, it will not take significant climate action since its interests lay in exploiting the present situation more than in human well being. Such action is in direct opposition to the short-term financial interests of the power elites to retain the system they control and from which they profit so handily.

The Ultimate Resilience

Throughout history, people have risen up in response to oppressive conditions and attempted to overthrow kings, dictators, and other regimes. But climate change, as Naomi Klein puts it, “changes everything.” Not only are conditions such that any kind of violent rebellion is impossible if not suicidal. But structural change through normal political processes is almost entirely blocked by the two-parties-as-one oligarchy.

Change must come from people organizing themselves at the local level in a number of ways, where access to political decision-making is at least possible. Many groups in communities all over the nation, and across the planet as well, are organizing to take local actions to either resist or replace the control of their lives by the corporatocracy. If they create enough momentum, these actions will evolve into the new economy. The resulting eco-community based life in harmony with our living earth systems will become the ultimate resilience.