The Radical Turn

On the Necessity of the Inconceivable to Engage the New Great Transformation

Most of us who have lived through the decades since World War II understand the advancements of the industrial age to be the essence of human progress. First, we lived in an energy-driven mechanical world involving a series of innovations and new “labor-saving” processes and products. We experienced all sorts of new jobs and professions as the industrial project continued. It called for new forms of work needed to produce new kinds of goods and services. Progress seemed the inevitable product of scientific discovery, technical innovation, invention, and production.

Progress and Conflict

At the same time, we felt an evolving series of threats, from the broadly defined “Cold War,” first expressed in the very hot war in Korea – referred to at the time as a United Nations sanctioned “police action” because war was never officially declared. Then there the war in Vietnam, also never quite declared but an all-consuming national crisis of purpose and conscience. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came a brief euphoria associated with the belief that with just one “superpower” – a benevolent United States of America – would come peace. That turned out to be an illusion, based on the assumption that with the U.S. policing a world devoid of any other super power, a “peace dividend” would allow a shift to domestic priorities such as full employment, general economic growth, and pursuing the “good life.”

Well, that didn’t quite work out as imagined. Military spending continued to grow as concerns about managing “limited conflicts” and retaining global military dominance persisted. A variety of apparent “one-off” incursions, invasions, and interventions, in various parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, kept the U.S. military quite busy. So called “defense spending” did not slacken. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, we had over seven hundred fifty known bases in other nations, according to Chalmers Johnson, a renowned historian and former U.S. intelligence consultant. Johnson raised his concerns about the over-extension in his book, Blow Back.

The growing U.S. global interventionism certainly had its blow back in terms of rising resentments over both military and corporate incursions into many nations, focused mainly on gaining control over the resources needed to continue the economic growth that was the keystone in the U.S. economy. Particularly resented were the U.S. efforts to dominate and control the flow of oil in the world economy, and the continued propping up of kleptocratic regimes. The U.S., as the leading economic actor, required ever-growing quantities of oil. The vast oil fields in the U.S. had begun to decline and talk of “peak oil” grew.

Industrial Capital Transformed the World

There is, of course, much more to the story. That has to do with the continuing cultural illusions of global authority sustained by military-industrial elites, which resulted in both clandestine and overt efforts to control other nations. “Manifest Destiny” lived on by other names, even as the U.S. suffered the attacks of 9-11 and expanded its response to a global “war on terror,” with no boundaries and little success. Yet, one force drove the global struggles for power, the necessity for economic growth to perpetuate the accumulation of wealth.

Underlying it all, a great contradiction and looming crisis developed, at first hardly noticed, then widely denied, and continually misunderstood as the endless-growth economy and wars of choice persisted in the face of growing evidence of their absurdities and failure.

Polanyis Great Transformation_chart

Image credit: SlideShare

In 1944, Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation. The book received little notice despite its profound implications for the trajectory of the industrial era. Polanyi’s deep research on the industrial revolution and its aftermath led him to conclude that a fundamental unresolved conflict had resulted from the requirements of industrial capital as it overpowered all other elements of society. He noted that various political administrations attempted to protect society from the damaging transformation of human life caused by the expansions of industrial capital. Such efforts included the English “poor laws,” and later the New Deal that responded to the crash and Great Depression of the 1930s in the U.S.

Polanyi did not find an ultimate solution to the “creative destruction” of industrial capital. Neither did the economists and politicians who ignored his warnings. Instead, the consequences have gradually emerged as the global crises of economics, ecology, and climate we all must now face.

The New Great Transformation

The clash between the now global system of economic growth and the damage it does to populations around the world as it enriches the few, is coming to a head. But the damage now reaches far beyond the direct suffering of excluded humans. Both the endless extractive plunder of the resources and living Earth systems we call ecologies, and the ever-growing systems of manufacture, transportation, consumption, and waste, have seriously destabilized ecological systems and climate systems around the world.

Neither the ecosystems upon which humans depend, nor the climate that allows global food production, can retain stability under the assault of the global industrial system. We have already reached an extreme turning point. Humanity and the living Earth systems upon which we depended for so long, have entered a New Great Transformation. We caused it and we have done little to control it. But we must.

The Radical Turn

Only by taking a Radical Turn in the ways humans live on the planet can we begin to control the extreme threats to our very existence we have caused. Yet we continue to see things like resource depletion and climate disruption within the framework of the failing utopian dreams of endless progress through technological innovation and economic growth. Instead, we need to apply what we know from the best science with the necessity of transforming human economies into ecological communities. That means massive reductions in energy consumption and waste.

We must both stop the earth plunder and achieve negative carbon emissions rapidly and restore the many ecological systems that we have damaged so severely. Those systems continue collapsing as nations debate who should take how much responsibility for achieving inadequate global warming targets. Yet, public discussions almost never involve how nations and communities can achieve the necessary radical reductions in ecological and climate destruction. Hardly ever are methods of ecosystem restoration discussed. The denial of the necessity of a Radical Turn in the organization of humanity on Earth continues.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part I: From Growth to Development

Economists are often confused by their own wallowing in esoteric but useless mathematical formulations of unquantifiable human complexities. But we just can’t afford their foolishness anymore. Investment in infrastructure is desperately needed, but not by merely restoring the infrastructure of the old growth economy. That needs to be replaced by a new viable infrastructure for an ecological society. This paradigm shift will require re-thinking core economic ideas to transform economic and social relations.

Great Recession Redux
Old notions die hard. Case in point: the recent/current “Great Recession” of 2008 was/is the inevitable outcome of endless-growth economic policy – which is also destroying the ecosphere upon which we depend. Yet political and financial elites cling to their failed economic ideas. Some politically ignored but eminent economists have cut through that veil of illusion. Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and especially Joseph Stiglitz – only two of whom are Nobel laureates – see right through it. No complex mysterious forces of economic nature beyond human understanding were at work. Just centralized financial power and greed were enough.

More important, the political-economic response protected the perpetrators and perpetuated the economics of ecological disaster. I love Joseph Stiglitz’s metaphor on how it went down. A deranged paramedic rushes the DWI culprit to the hospital, leaving his victim to bleed out on the street. Similarly, Wall Street’s gamblers were bailed out while the American people were left with a newly bloated national debt. Time for a paradigm shift.

Responding to Crisis
The same accelerating concentration of wealth, and faltering employment and wages that accompanied the housing bubble continue today. The “solution” proposed by most economists is either to “grow” our way out or cut government spending — more plutocratic ideology. The real solution is clear: Resuscitate the victim and charge the perpetrators for their crimes. Neither has happened or is about to. As the combined climate-disruption and economic-instability crisis intensifies, we may see a surge of interest in an ecological economic policy that can slow climate disruption while stimulating a viable economy.

Aside from prosecuting Wall Street criminals, let’s look at the economic-ecologic mess that we’re in and how it might be fixed. With a trillion dollar loss in housing wealth, the American unemployed and under-employed cannot engage in the spending that would stimulate the economy. And the financial geniuses of Wall Street can still borrow from the Fed at near zero interest with “quantitative easing.” They can “lend” that money to the government for a few percent more. It’s a totally secure investment for the plutocrats using none of their own “reserves.” Don’t look to Wall Street for a solution.

The biggest corporations have no incentive to invest their huge cash reserves in the faltering economy. Without evidence of demand, they will hold onto their cash. As a bonus, they get to keep hundreds of billions of their cash income overseas and avoid income tax. Bottom line: neither the corporate nor financial elite will solve the crisis they created. These scofflaws will act to increase their power and wealth until the government bails them out of the next crisis they cause.

Ecological Infrastructure
Both the Keynesian and ecological economists would invest in infrastructure to improve both employment and economic health. This would stimulate demand in the economy and give the corporations a reason to invest in production. But just stimulating “economic growth,” without an ecologically grounded industrial policy would be like a band-aid without adhesive, or worse. Instead, a public investment policy heavily weighted toward investment in the replacement of carbon-based with carbon-neutral energy production is necessary. Throw in a living wage as public policy and the result will be a vibrant economy with minimized climate disruption.

Part II of this essay will discuss how infrastructure investment can energize the economy, but not by inducing unfettered “growth” for its own sake. Instead, we need big investments in stable ecologically viable development that simply retires the old fossil-fuel energy production and builds new industry for an ecological economy. Significant displacements of existing economic institutions will accompany such change, but they are necessary. The societal rewards will be immense.

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 III

The economics profession provides the ideology, the corporations fund the politicians and their lobbyists write the legislation, the congress formalizes the legal cover and the stacked courts confirm it, the Federal Reserve provides the “fractional reserve” lending authority, and the Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” direct capital to drive the endless-growth economy that is killing the planet.  The military, of course, assures that the dwindling planetary resources flow to the growth machine and the increasingly militarized police act as an occupying force to “manage” the population.

Where can we find the hope in all this harsh institutionalized reality that is already exceeding the limits of the biosphere?  Hope lies where it always has: in the people.  When we examine the examples of revolutionary change in history, one fact becomes clear.  All successful revolutions (aside from those overthrowing in invading or occupying armies) have been non-violent movements of the people against oppressive regimes of one sort or another.  Popular resistance is a powerful force.  Real power results from the consent of the governed; that is what frightened the financial and political elites so much about the Occupy Movement.  When that consent is withdrawn, elites tremble.

Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall surveyed a wide range of movements of popular resistance to oppressive regimes in the last 100 years in their book, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, and found that a variety of non-violent sanctions – from strikes and boycotts to civil disobedience, street demonstrations, and non-cooperation – exercised by ordinary people, can separate ruling elites from their sources of power to end oppression.  Each case was different – from Gandhi’s movement of non-cooperation in India in the 1920’s to Poland’s Solidarity movement in the 1980’s, from Russia in 1905 (before the Bolsheviks) to Argentina in the 1970’s and Chile in the 1980’s to Burma today – but wherever popular resistance bloomed, it could not be stopped.

Today, our problem is the same but also different.  What Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism” in his book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, has quietly and incrementally overturned democratic institutions in the U.S., resulting in a elite-managed façade of corrupted democratic formalities that gloss over a pervasive corporate plutocracy.

What does all this mean for a citizen movement to transform the economy to achieve ecological justice, a stable biosphere, and the triumph of human values over economic growth serving corporate power?  Because all national institutions are now under unified totalistic control of the economic/political elite, serious change can only come from the bottom up – from the people ourselves.  Both collective acts of resistance and re-organization of economic activity in communities are necessary.

Close all your accounts with the Big Banks; open accounts only with local banks and member-owned credit unions.  Start employee-owned businesses.  Dump Comcast and join or start a cooperative member-owned Internet association at half the cost.  Divest your investments from fossil fuel corporations and military contractors.  Organize local opposition to water-table destroying oil/gas fracking.  Organize your community to establish publicly owned municipal community solar/wind driven electricity and local-regional smart grids.  Start community gardens and food coops.  Buy local, especially food, and avoid any “food”-product with more than five ingredients.  Pay a little more for locally grown organics and buy less plastic junk – the costs and benefits will balance out.  Organize to pressure city, county, and state governments to embark on seriously carbon-neutral energy programs.  The list can be extended by dozens of actions people can  take where we live.

We must change the way we live by taking individual and collective action in conflict with and in resistance to the very consumer culture we have internalized since World War II, but must now purge from our sense of ourselves.  We must again communicate with family and neighbors about steps we can take together to stem the tide of ecological catastrophe.  The new culture for a carbon-neutral world will look very different as we shape it, but will be fulfilling in ways the alienated consumerism we have been deceived into thinking is the mark of “success,” can never be.  And when you consider all those people who are just not paying attention, remember Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted words:  “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  The inattentive will eventually recognize hope in a new reality forming.  The possible is not necessarily the probable.  That is up to us.  Only our individual commitments and collective actions will make it so.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  ~  Mahatma Gandhi

Last Hours, Last Hope, Last Reality Check.

Last Hours is a scary video that presents the raw scientific facts of the impact of global warming reaching the tipping point where warming is accelerated by massive release of  methane from the arctic tundra and below the sea beds, because it is melted from its frozen solid state.  The result is an unstoppable positive feedback loop that will raise planetary temperatures 6-10 degrees, resulting in a massive extinction as devastating to life on the planet as the Permian mass extinction of 250 million years ago, which left only 5% of life on earth.  We are rapidly reaching that tipping point, as our politicians, media and financial elites babble about protecting the economy that only they benefit from anyway, but not for long.  They are lemmings; will we joint them or find another path?  Watch it.

Some Serious Social Illusions

It’s hard to accept the idea that most human activities are based on illusions.  But look at the nature and kinds of illusions out there.  Some illusions are necessary and good, while others are quite destructive.  We tend to see the illusions of tribal cultures as “myths,” illusory fictions about the world, whereas we see our beliefs as real.  But what’s the difference between the Native American’s image of the origins of “Turtle Island” and the biblical creation story?  Both are creation myths (stories around which a people organize their understanding of life) and they serve mostly the same purpose in their respective cultures.  Some myths conflict directly with scientific evidence, such as the idea that the earth was created four thousand years ago and that man walked with dinosaurs, or that recent and forecasted unprecedented climate disruption is unrelated to 200 years of accelerated emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. Well, in these cases, the evidence just conflicts with the myth.

Some illusions conflict with reality because they are more detached from our everyday lives; others are consistent with everyday observations.  Yet, the idea that society operates on illusions points to some other kinds of phenomena.  Social illusions are mental constructions that are used as a means of interacting with the lived world.  They appear to be real because they are consistent with our experience and help guide our actions.  But our experience may also be constrained by those illusions – that’s where we get into trouble.  For tribal peoples who have lived in a particular stable ecological context for many generations, the social illusions they use work for them, or else the group would have died out.  Today, in our far more complex societies – really, our complex world financial and industrial system – social illusions that are so abstracted from our experience and observations, and are controlled by powerful institutions, can get us into very serious trouble.

If our ideas conflict with the environmental conditions under which we live, then the result can be detrimental to our survival.  Think of the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Norse in Greenland, or the collapse of other societies that Jared Diamond so presciently described in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.   The Mayan “chronic emphasis on war and erecting monuments rather than on solving underlying problems,” is more prophetic than recent speculations about the meaning of their calendar.  While the ecology could sustain it, Mayan illusions worked well as the abstractions around which the society was organized.  The economic illusions of our waning industrial age worked rather well until growth got out of hand; now they confront contrary conditions of planetary ecology.

Certain groups in the deep jungles of the Amazon hold complex views of the nature and uses of certain plants.  These ideas have been worked out over many generations and result in an indigenous pharmacology that works because it is precisely integrated with the conditions of jungle life and the properties of those plants.  But for the university trained pharmacology researcher, the native conceptualization of such plants may be considered misguided (unscientific) illusions.  Through laboratory research the western professional can isolate certain molecular compounds key to the medicinal benefit of the plants.  Oh, boy!  It’s patentable-profitable!  The abstractions each believes best represent reality may or may not work depending on the environmental context – the jungle or the economics of Big Pharma.

So, who is right?  Both illusions work for their respective adherents within the right context.  What?  Yes, the pharmacologist’s ideas are illusions too.  In this sense, I am using the word to indicate that illusions can be defined as particular conceptual packages that represent our experiences in the world and that what’s an illusion within one framework is a fact within another.  So, let’s just call them all illusions for simplicity and examine their usefulness and veracity separately.  We can thus state that all human imaginations regarding reality are illusions, because none are reality, they merely represent reality in the abstract.  Seriously.  If we can make that leap and recognize that all images and concepts we have about reality are not reality but illusions that represent reality well or poorly, it will be easier to evaluate each one on, dare I say it, a realistic basis.

Now, that is where ideology comes in.  All illusions reflect in some way the interests people have in their reality, or more accurately, in those aspects of reality that interest them.  So, we are not so surprised to find that the executives of the giant multinational oil and gas companies are not so interested in the fact that peak oil production has already occurred (2005) and that world production has flat-lined ever since – except to the extent that they can temporarily use “fracking” to forestall the inevitable decline in supplies – which raises society’s obvious need to contemplate energy-source substitution.  Their financial interests lie in keeping the focus of energy policy on more exploration and production – not on the catastrophic effects of climate disruption on the rest of us – even as the fruits of exploration rapidly diminish.  The seriousness of their illusion is to be found in its effects on survival of our species on the planet.

Nor do we really expect the Big Banksters to give up their control of the real economy they so handily manipulate by using the money system, or to give up the continued promotion of their illusion that the vastly expanded abstract debt-driven system of financial expansion is somehow the core driver of the real economy.  The seriously damaging illusions promoted by financial, petro-chemical, and industrial-military elites all merge into the political-economic illusions of permanent prosperity through imperial expansion and endless economic growth in a finite world of rapidly diminishing environmental resources.  Sometimes it’s too easy to believe in magic, especially when the prestidigitators so totally control the illusions.