Dangerous Transitions in the New Great Transformation

Humanity is entering a New Great Transformation like no other. This transformation is not the first, but it may be the last. That will depend on human action and whether we act quickly, both globally and locally.

Perhaps the first great transformation was the discovery and control of fire, according to renowned biological anthropologist, Richard Wrangham (2009). Controlling fire allowed the habilines (Homo Habilis) to evolve into the small jawed, small toothed Homo Erectus, because eating cooked food released far more energy with much less work than hunting, gathering, and eating raw foods. Cooking provided the extra low-cost energy the brain needed to grow and produce Homo sapiens – us. Then, of course, the agricultural revolution was a transformation that produced surplus food, allowing the specialization of skills. That resulted in complex forms of social organization, such as kingdoms and empires.

The New Great Transition

The industrial revolution was described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation (1944), largely because it turned society on its head as a result of the new economic organization industrial capital forced upon it. In pre-industrial societies, culture had always embedded economic activity within societal norms and values. Now, society became an appendage and subservient to the new economic order. We are now at the end of the industrial era, entering a planetary New Great Transformation, caused by the global excesses of extractive capital and the “technosphere” it has created.

mass_extinctions_Annenberg.Learner

Five Mass Extinctions. Credit: Annenberg Learning

Unbridled economic growth and profligate waste have destabilized the climate and most of the Earth’s ecosystems, precipitating The New Great Transformation. The vast disturbances of ecosystems around the world due to global industrialization has triggered the sixth great extinction of species around the world. The converging global crises of humanity now force us to choose between rapid ecological harmonization and restoration or societal collapse, and possibly our own extinction.

We must now seek a just transition from the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate to survive the New Great Transformation. We must transform the global political economy of industrial-consumerism and its vast injustices into located ecological communities. We must restore living Earth systems if we are to survive as a species.  The most difficult obstacle to a just ecological society may be in our own minds. We must overcome the many vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain, especially in our everyday thinking.

We need to shape new visions about issues like adaptation versus mitigation of global warming. Only by transforming society itself can we create sufficient food security, green jobs, clean technology, and low-carbon transportation. At the same time, we must resist the Trumpist resistance to societal and ecological transformation. To achieve a viable just transition requires us to transform in unprecedented ways how we live in our environments and relate to each other.

Dangerous Transitions: Creativity or Collapse

To avoid the greatest dangers of the New Great Transformation of Earth’s ecosystems and climate (their collapse), we must transform our economy and society to achieve ecological communities where we live. Only a rapid massive societal transformation will avoid societal collapse. Our transformation must reach much deeper than simply transitioning to lower-carbon consumerism within the existing global political economy. Waiting for the next election cycle is entirely inadequate.

While resisting the political resistance to energy and ecological transition, we must transform our own residential enclaves, including “sacrifice zones,” into self-sustaining ecological communities. They still depend heavily on the fossil-fueled corporate state, but must become autonomous yet interdependent ecological communities, in part by replacing fossil fuel and radically reducing energy consumption and waste. Two key factors are involved.

First, we must get over our illusions of techno-industrial invincibility. Documented cases of societal collapse due to disrupting the ecosystems upon which they depended, consistently resulted from societal failure to respond to the destabilized ecosystems those societies caused. (See, for example, Jared Diamond, Collapse (2005), and Joseph Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).) We are not immune, but this time the danger we face is global and local.

Second, diverse sources of evidence of an emerging New Great Transformation, even more profound than the industrial revolution and its aftermath, reflect great danger yet offer great hope. The hope resides in new forms of community action such as those reported in Sarah van Gelden, The Revolution Where You Live (2017) and the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. Movements for economic justice described by Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? (2013) and the mutual-interest grounded left-right coalitions Ralph Nader describes and advocates in Unstoppable (2014) also give hope for change. We must act in our common interests by transforming the way we live, where we live.

Assertions of community and municipal sovereignty such as those described by Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell in We the People (2016), provide a viable model for action. These local movements involve some form of what John Brown Childs calls Transcommunality (2003). Such working together in respectful yet autonomous interdependence embodies the principles of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) Longhouse, the L.A. gang-peace movement, and other indigenous examples of cooperation in diversity such as the gathering of Earth protectors at Standing Rock. Mutual aid in establishing ecological communities must replace dominance by the technosphere (Orlov, 2017), thereby increasing human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and freedom from societal and ecological chaos.

As we face the power of growing Trumpist political resistance to climate and justice action, we must find ways to make the urgently needed human ecological realignments now. We must transform society where we live to avoid societal collapse. The creation of ecological communities where we live has become the most viable form of resistance to the dark money and the out-of-control plutocracy if feeds. It is the most difficult for state violence to control. Resist tyranny by replacing the corporate state with ecological communities that restore living Earth systems and humanity itself.

REFERENCES

Alperovitz, Gar. 2013. What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Childs, John Brown. Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. 2003. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books.

Gelden, Sarah van. 2017. The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Linzey, Thomas, and Anneke Campbell. 2016. We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States. 2016. Oakland, PM Press

Nader, Ralph. 2014. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books.

Orlov, Dmitry. 2017. Shrinking the Technophere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and freedom. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Tainter, Joseph. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archeology). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard. (2009) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Romancing the End Game: Do We Want to Gamble Our Lives?

Opinions vary. We don’t really know exactly how little time is left before humanity must mount a massive campaign to reconfigure our relationship to the planet before it’s too late. But I would be willing to bet that we have next to none.

Examples of such human folly abound. The historical/archeological record shows that a number of human groups have collapsed by failing to recognize their peril. They defiled their local ecology to the point where they could no longer survive as a group within their environment. It is interesting to note that in many cases, the elites engaged in excessive programs of self-aggrandizement, monument building, and lavish privileged religious rituals and festivals. They finally crossed the point of no return and were essentially doomed by their failure to act in a way that would lead to their survival.*  Take away the cultural garb and our own elites look the same.

Yet, as an industrialized people, we don’t seem to believe it can happen to us, no less to all of humanity. Wall Street, Pentagon, and media corporate elites seem to be mimicking in their actions those historical failed elites. They have far more power, but can hardly be excused for ignorance. The world’s political “leaders” have diddled and dodged for decades since the first clear indicators of impending climate disruption became widely known. World “leaders,” after all, follow the dictates of their corporate benefactors.

Failure to Respond

We don’t know exactly even if enough time remains to avoid collapse. What we do know is that the little time left is rapidly shortening and the task ahead is increasingly monumental. Yet, we face several very serious psycho-social and political-economic barriers to major movement down the right path.

We need neither romanticize nor demonize any former or currant culture to realize that each has its strengths and weaknesses — in various proportions. Jared Diamond and others have demonstrated the folly of very different groups that have ignored the requirements of the relationship they had with their micro-environment. In some cases they could have continued to sustain themselves if they had not ignored the problem. In some cases, such as the Vikings in Greenland, invaders failed to take lessons from the indigenous people and simply died off. The self-absorbed character of today’s industrial-consumerist culture is a study in not taking lessons from the real world in which our economy operates. Our economy is, as they say, unsustainable.

With today’s industrial-consumer culture, we are so estranged from the natural world that we have become extremely vulnerable to large scale system failure. The cult of “science will save us” as we continue down the same consumerist path, will only distract from the hard facts of the massive changes already clearly necessary. Today, it is no mere micro-environment that we are contaminating; we have already seriously disrupted the homeostasis of most major earth systems.

Inconvenient Science

Much of Western science has been corrupted by its subordination to the corporate growth machine. That machine perpetuates the myth that all we need to do is come up with some new [profitable] “technological breakthrough” and all will be fine. Only independent scientific research and analysis will have a chance of pointing to the specific material changes that are necessary to stop the lemming-rush to societal collapse.

Climate science has been relatively untainted by corporate corruption, since its subject matter was of little political importance until recently. Its findings were either generally practical or merely academic. Farmers, airline pilots, and many others benefit from weather information and understanding of climate processes. Academics pondered the nature of earth systems. But now, the facts of climate change have major political implications for many economic policies and practices. The most powerful institutions and people will be profoundly affected. Climate science has been supported by governments around the world for decades because the knowledge gained is of general economic benefit. But now, that knowledge is poised to change the course of history.

Whatever his shortcomings may be, Al Gore certainly picked an appropriate title for his film on climate change: “An Inconvenient Truth.” The realities of climate disruption could not be any more inconvenient for the political-economic elites that operate the corporate state. The continuation of the growth economy is of prime importance to them – it is the source of their ability to continue extracting wealth from the rest of us. The elites who run the largest institutions are not unaware of the impending crisis of climate and economy. Yet the financial/corporate elites remain addicted to their various money-power trips no matter how much they understand. Their expansionist extractivist industrialist ideology maintains them on their fiscal drug habit until the next quarterly report and their next obscene ‘bonus’. Death is inconvenient, but it happens anyway. The extinction of a species is far more tragic.

Ending Illusions

In this light, the unabated accelerating consumerism and productivism we see today are much like a gambling addiction. Facts, timing, and probabilities are easily distorted just to get that next fix. But the marker will be called in. It has been said that the greatest satisfaction in buying a new [fill in the blank] is at the point of purchase, not in its ultimate use. It’s the addict’s brief rush. That is because so much of what is produced and consumed is not useful. It is only an image of some form of satisfaction, but is fundamentally waste. Many things can be both useful and beautiful. But most of them do not emerge from the marketing of industrially produced “consumer products.”

Only by re-establishing a collective awareness of the roots of human existence will we be able to find a balance in our relationship to the earth systems that have sustained us, until now.


*  The best known documentation of ecologically failed societies is Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.