Individual Climate Ethics and Global Change

Can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything and take shorter showers, install some solar panels, buy low-emissions products, etc., etc., can we avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem runs much deeper than that – it involves the entire Earth System. The climate crisis is endemic to industrial civilization itself. That means, in some sense, everything must change. But how can change adequate to this global crisis be accomplished? That is the big unacknowledged question. I have heard many emissions reduction targets (you know, 20% reduction by 2030, etc. – they mean nothing).

Words and Inaction

Such proclamations are abstract; they say nothing about how such minimal gestures toward necessity would be accomplished. Yet we are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity and every form of ecological and climate disturbance. Emissions reductions proclamations and agreements are nothing more than fantasy.

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Species extinctions are accelerating with increasing more intense Droughts and other forms of  Climate Chaos

Hundreds of species go extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway. New car sales are booming, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has never exceeded 1%. So many ecological fronts on which destabilization is accelerating make it nearly impossible to keep up, no less mount the planetary-scale changes required of us to make an actual difference.

Euphemisms avoid confronting difficult decisions. The good news is that new capacity in renewable energy production is growing faster than new fossil-fuel capacity, despite Trumpist coal hawking. But to have a chance at slowing weather weirding and global climate chaos, we need to stop all new fossil-fueled energy production — a mind-boggling prospect. Yet, we actually need to use less energy by taking serious, even drastic conservation measures.

Individual Action

One of the most important factors for those of us who already take climate-disruption danger seriously is that we not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. Individual action by those who are aware and care will never be enough. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable and necessary, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism It may oppose the collective anti-moralism of collective consumerism. However, it will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan, the technosphere that continues its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. Only mass mobilization for major energy-use reduction has a chance of being enough.

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Consumer Identity

The current momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some moderate level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will be enough to take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. The change we need is deeply systemic, and that will not happen until a social movement much broader than the Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” can mobilize people on a vast scale.

Collective Action

Only mass mobilization can overcome the force the economic as well as political momentum, and allow us to transform the extractive industrial economy into an ecological society. This is where transforming the consumer culture becomes paramount. The more we can demonstrate low-carbon consumer minimalism and vastly reduce energy consumption while restoring local ecosystems, the faster social change can help re-stabilize climate and avert total disaster.

We need to replace all carbon-based consumer products and services with consumer minimalism, now. That will involve some constraints we are not used to, but there is no time to waste. I discussed this in more detail at TheHopefulRealist.com, especially in my Feb 24, 2016 post. We must all do what we can do and join any effort we can in our local communities to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path to extinction.

Doing Nothing to Get a Grip on Reality

“Johnny, why can’t you just sit still?” Well, Johnny is not the only hyperactive one. You might even conclude, just from watching any group anywhere in the world today that humanity as a whole is hyperactive. Where did all the patience go?

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Kern Oilfield near Bakersfield, CA. Source: YouTube.

These thoughts were triggered by my reading an article by Brian Tycangco, “Black gold isn’t going away…this is why,” in Asia Wealth Investment Daily, an investment newsletter offering various subscription services as well as general perspectives on the Asian investment markets. Mr. Tycangco waxed enthusiastically on the fact that oil consumption is increasing in Asia because that is where economic growth is strong and demand for energy is high. Consumption of oil in the U.S. is mostly flat, but also growing in Europe, according to Tycangco. The explosive growth in the number of cars in China and India is a big factor. Asia is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. mobility is a key factor in that growth.

Hyperactive Global Investment in Energy Consumption

Clearly, the world of investment and economic growth is oblivious to the accelerating destabilization of ecosystems, climate, and the whole Earth system under two hundred years of carbon-duress. Earth-systems destabilization is imposed by the global endless-growth corporate economy and the political and cultural systems that support it.  Dmitri Orlov calls it the Technosphere and argues forcefully that we must shrink it.

The political elites of nation states debate proportional responsibility for achieving a 2-degree C cap on global warming – without taking concrete policy steps to achieve their inadequate goals. Meanwhile, the engine of economic growth responds to the accelerator of capital investment and speeds us all toward the abyss. It is the biggest disconnect I can imagine.

Globalist economic culture exists in a cultural and scientific bubble, divorced from any sound knowledge of the planetary effects of human activity powered by fossil fuels. We might very well liken accelerating capital investment in fossil-fueled economic growth to a hyperactive child, oblivious to the admonitions of its parent (planet Earth) to calm down and stop banging around breaking everything in sight.

False Positives of Ecomodernism

The so-called “ecomodernists” want to solve the problems of climate destabilization and ecological destruction by advancing the techno-industrial systems that caused all the damage in the first place. You know, geo-engineering and all that. Over two-hundred plus years, the technosphere came to dominate Earth systems, causing their destabilization. Trying to accomplish something by repeating the method that has repeatedly not achieved the goal defines insanity. It’s nuts.

Here’s the thing. The investor class drives the global corporate economy and has no interest whatsoever in constraining the extraction and consumption of oil. Members of the global financial elite fully intend to squeeze all the profits out of fossil-fueled economic growth they can, while they still can. The catastrophic consequences for living Earth systems are simply not part of their culture, even when they are aware of them. At the same time, the global corporate elites have the upper hand in determining the policies of nations and they are doing everything in their power to continue down the path of hyperactive devastation of the planet.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the risks of human extinction appear to play out beyond the lifetimes of those making decisions today, or at least beyond the edge of their not so invisible shield of privilege. The hyperactive CEO simply does not care about a future beyond his own life. He assumes he can retreat into his mansion behind security gates as society collapses around him, or he simply continues to deny the rapidly growing evidence of immediate impacts of climate destabilization. After all, the first devastation occurs in places like Bangladesh or central African or island nations. Manhattan seems immune for now, but Miami, well, not so much.

Doing Nothing Now

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Mindfulness requires Doing Nothing. Image: Pinterest.

As Asian economies boom and hyperactive economic growth consumes more oil and devastates the planet, it strikes me as ironic that the great cultures of contemplation – Zen, yoga, Taoism, and related practices – all have Asian origins. Some Americans try to get a grip on reality in the hectic world of working and living in the industrial era by taking up some variants of these practices, all of which involve doing nothing. However, that does not stop them from rushing to Whole Foods after Yoga class for the latest international treats to sustain their total consumer “lifestyle.” The disconnect between everyday life and making peace with planet Earth remains strong.

A New Great Transformation of both the whole Earth system itself and the role of humans on the planet is well underway, as the geologic era of the Holocene succumbs to that of the Anthropocene. Humanity has already severely influenced the trajectory of Earth history. Most of what we do with the profligate energy consumption and waste is unnecessary. How much fossil fuel is required to build a violin? How much fossil fuel do we need to expend in reading a book, raising our garden, building a house, restoring a local ecosystem, or playing a game of volleyball?

Our future role in Earth’s evolution is, it seems, entirely up for grabs. Most of those fossil-fueled “labor saving” automated devices that destroy jobs are no longer viable from the perspective of human self-interest in survival. If humans are to carve out a meaningful and viable place in the planet’s future, we had better start doing nothing now.

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 Amazon.com, 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?

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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.

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 telegraph.co.uk_March-1965-helicop_1626547iwas 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.

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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.

What is Wrong with Economic Growth?

I read a report in Forbes Magazine on the sluggish character of the current recovery from the 2008 financial crash, which lamented its exceptionally weak economic growth. Apparently, we continue slogging along in the weakest recovery since 1949. Since the Great Recession technically ended in 2009, average GDP growth has averaged only 2.1%. In the September 13, 2016 issue, Forbes staff writer Rich Kalgaard reports that the current “expansion” is more constrained than any similar period since 1949. Why is this, and what is the meaning and importance of such a slow recovery?

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Kalgaard offers “three clues” as to why post-recession expansions have steadily gone downhill, if erratically, for over a half century. He blames the fact that “the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S.” He claims that the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, is part of the problem. Finally, he offers that routine corporate allegation that “the explosion in federal regulation” has stifled economic growth. He is wrong on all three counts.

Such claims by any writer attached to Forbes should not surprise us. Explanations for economic woes from corporate utopian dreamers will always blame the federal government for poor performance of the economy. They will also project causes of slow growth onto some outside force – certainly never to corporate malfeasance or distortions of the “free markets” they worship. Never will the internal flawed logic of extractive capital or the phantom financialization of the economy come into question.

The Great Transformation

In 1944, Karl Polanyi exquisitely explained the origins and the utopian illusion of free market capitalism in his book The Great Transformation. That great transformation of human societies was what we call the industrial revolution. He also forecast the inevitable damage to society caused by the inherent flaws in the unregulated market system no longer embedded in society. The logic of its economic theory, which emerged as the intellectual justification for today’s global political economy, was deeply flawed.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, diverse societies have attempted to protect themselves from the damage done by market liberalism (the theory that if left to their own devices, markets will “self-regulate” and somehow produce the best result for society). The classical economists of the eighteenth century, such as Adam Smith, believed in two ideas that just never panned out in real economies.

First, they assumed that all human behavior is “rational.” That is, people will always act in economically rational ways, seeking their own best economic advantage in all their behavior. In fact, many exigencies and values in everyday life influence behavior. Economic advantage is just not the only important thing in life.

Second, the classical economists believed that markets would “regulate” themselves if allowed to do so, resulting in the best outcome for all. Adam Smith’s metaphor, the “invisible hand,” captured the essence of that belief.  Economic elites have both exploited and distorted it ever since. Due to the economic and political power of corporate and financial elites, the academic field of economics has retained those theories under the guise of pseudo-scientific analytics. All the while, “free-market” economies have failed to live up the theories of economists. Yet those theories continue to dominate economic thinking.

Utopian Dreams and Corporate Control

The theories that have controlled economics throughout the industrial era have held to these failed assumptions for centuries now, despite the overwhelming evidence against them. We now call such theories “neo-classical” economics, “neo-liberal” economics, or just plain “mainstream” economics. Despite their failings, the propaganda of the corporate media continues to glorify them as the scientific answer to all our economic problems. Corporations today routinely fight for regulations that favor their growing power, all the while claiming to seek less regulation of the markets they try to control. They never consider the social control of markets, for the benefit of society rather than for that of economic elites, as an option.

The consequences of the great transformation that subordinated society to its economic elites, as Polanyi predicted, continue to plague us today. Only this time the economic crisis converges with the climate crisis leading to global destabilization of access to resources, disrupted production and distribution of food, and escalating conflicts worldwide, all amplified by climate destabilization.

The utopian dream of endless economic growth may be the world’s greatest social illusion. However, it is also an imaginary vision that sustained itself in the centuries since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, despite repeatedly failing the test of time. Never have “free markets” operated without causing serious social damage. In each case, society has tried to protect itself from the excesses and destruction of speculative capital, with varying success.

Overcoming Illusion

In cases such as the poor laws in industrializing England or the New Deal responding to the economic and social collapse of the Great Depression, political responses protected the people from the damage caused by unregulated markets. In cases such as the communist revolutions in Russia and China, the abolishment of free markets led to their replacement by cumbersome command economies that ultimately resulted in a state capitalism unable to respond to the damage caused by its bureaucratic control of markets.

Corporatist attempts to explain the flaws of the market system, like Kalgaard’s, implicitly assume the success of a failure. Their blaming of government and outside forces disrupts any attempt to protect society from the failures of a market system in desperate need of overhaul. Promoters of the corporate economic status quo like Kalgaard demonize as “wasteful spending” or simply “socialism,” any political attempt to require the economy to serve human society rather than only itself. They are mere corollaries to the failed neo-liberal economic utopianism promoted by global power elites for their own shortsighted gain. Some serious re-thinking is in order.

Calculating Human Survival:

The Role of the Social Sciences in Developing Effective Climate Action

NOTE: I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the National Social Science Association Meetings in Denver, Colorado, August 3, 2016

We need not turn to the elections of 2016 to observe the madness of the public discourse and the corporate-governmental response to the climate crisis. In electoral politics, at least, we expect duplicity, dissembling, and demagoguery as common ways to stimulate and manipulate fear in voters. It is much easier to run up fearful images of Muslim terrorists, rapist immigrants, and even evil politicians than to explain difficult issues to voters.  Try to explain to your neighbor the complexities of climate disruption or the failing neoclassical economic model of perpetual economic growth that drives it. The ranking of climate collapse in the hierarchy of public concerns is not nearly as high as the gravity of the situation would reasonably dictate.

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CO2 Concentration already over 400 ppm!

Yet, there it is. The evidence of global warming and its accelerating impacts is both definitive and available to those who are willing to look. Plenty of public analyses, whether by James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, or by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), point to the urgent necessity to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But, how can we accomplish that, and what does that mean for how we live our lives?

The “Greening” of Business-as-Usual

U.S. industrial culture assumes that technological innovation can solve any problem. If we divest all financial assets from coal, oil, and gas, how would we heat our homes and get to work or vacation? The economic culture assumes that new technologies and new materials substitutions will always result from industrial innovation to solve any problem. However, it is far from that simple.

Popular New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman finds comfortable answers to all sorts of disturbing problems from Israeli-Palestinian relations to maintaining the U.S. status as the only post-cold-war “super-power.” His simple solution to global warming is the “greening” of business-as-usual. Simply replace dirty energy with renewable “clean” energy sources, including nuclear power, to sustain U.S. economic growth and international domination.[1]

Sound a bit fuzzy? Well, it is. Not to worry, “help is on the way.” Bill Gates has organized what I prefer to call “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club,” to rescue the planet by investing in the creation of a new “energy miracle” to provide clean energy to a world demanding more and more energy. The “more and more” part is beyond question; it is a key assumption of the prevalent neoclassical economic illusion. That illusion is a given in the economic culture.

Gates’ group of billionaire entrepreneurial philanthropists, which he calls the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,”[2] would invest their billions in new high tech energy production systems, to be subsidized by the ancillary “Mission Innovation”[3] group of the 20 richest nations, formed to support his program. Gates’ strategy represents the epitome of business-as-usual. As the planet burns, the corporate state lives on…for now.

The influence of Gates’ billionaires and industry as a whole at the COP 21 United Nations climate change conference of the winter of 2015-2016, was profound. For the first time, the gathered leaders of most nations of the world made non-binding commitments to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. With accelerating observed impacts of climate destabilization, scientists already agree that major devastation would accompany a 2-degree increase in average global temperature. They also agree that 1.5 degrees should be the limit if we are to manage the impacts of global warming without widespread devastating effects.

However, the actual plans of the nations as submitted so far would result in an increase in global temperature closer to 3.5 degrees – catastrophic for human populations. Neither corporate nor government elites offer any viable solution or recourse. Their half-baked futuristic “solutions” constitute a deeper denial of the scientific facts of climate destabilization.

The Failures of Political Economy to Face Global Reality

It is now quite clear that yet to be developed high tech-energy production “solutions” in the context of business-as-usual and continued economic growth cannot constrain global temperatures and the devastating effects of consequent climate chaos. Like the hubris of geo-engineering (and the industrial era itself), their unintended consequences are unpredictable and their pursuit will likely lead to disaster. New technological innovations are already too little, too costly, and most importantly, too late. Instead, we must apply existing appropriately scaled technologies to incorporate into communities reorganized to be locally self-sustaining and ecologically neutral or restorative. (That, of course, would be too boring and too unprofitable for the likes of Bill Gates.)

It is also clear that neither the national or state governments, nor the corporations that drive carbon emissions are capable of curtailing those emissions on their own. Nor will the paltry carbon-emissions reductions they contemplate be adequate or implemented fast enough to avoid the collapse of societies that will inevitably accompany climate collapse. They still fail to provide their insufficient goals with viable means to accomplish them.

Local social transformations are the most energy efficient way to achieve ecological communities to constrain global carbon emissions most quickly. Only social movements arising from civil society can overcome the intransigence of the corporate state. Time is clearly of the essence. The global system of economic growth and financialization will collapse under its own weight within two or three decades. However, if it does so because of the dislocations and disruptions caused by climate destabilization, the effects on humans as well as other living earth systems will be catastrophic.

Peoples all over the world have relied for centuries on stable weather patterns to produce the food and basic subsistence products they need to survive. The industrialized nations must take rapid and massive actions now to curtail emissions of carbon, and the non-industrial nations must prevent themselves from going down the carbon-intensive path to development.

Such actions must also compensate for the positive feedback mechanisms that now accelerate global temperature rise because of ice melt, methane release from tundra, and several others. Scientists are just now beginning to incorporate these self-amplifying features of global warming into their modeling of climate change. Humanity as a whole is way behind the dynamics of accelerating climate destabilization. Whether we can stop it from spinning completely out of control is highly speculative. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that humanity is in for a new Great Transformation,[4] unlike any heretofore experienced.

Where do we turn to find answers to the question of how to re-organize global and local economies to align them with the ecological requirements of re-establishing climate stability? This, of course, is a social science question, a very big one.

 Where are the Social Sciences?

What does economics offer? The neo-classical economics that constitutes the ideological cover for extractive capital is, of course, no help at all. The entire global economy rests on the assumption of necessary, inevitable and endless economic growth – the core cause of climate chaos. Some “outlier” economists have made valuable contributions to understanding the need to move from an economy of earth-plunder to an ecological economy.[5] They argue for an “end to growth,” which we certainly need. That argument is not new, but it has gained little traction in the extractive economies of endless growth.

Nevertheless, we must ask, how do we get there from here? And, how will we live in a no-growth economy? What would it actually look like? Based on decades of experience in the field of global economic development, David C. Korten argues for a “new economy,” constructed in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival. To achieve it we have to “change the story to change the future.”[6] But, how can we change the story that dominates the culture when the corporate mass media controls the public discourse, such as it is?

What does political science offer? Sheldon S. Wolin provides what may be the most important assessment of the political economy of the corporate state in his book, Democracy, Incorporated.[7] He reveals the operations of elite-managed pseudo-democracy and its limits, and argues that a popular democracy must recognize the common interests that lead to viable public policy. Wolin argues for the rise of a democratic “counter-elite” that exists to some extent in NGOs and would seek local solutions and encourage local population to “take responsibility for their own well-being,” (p. 291) to counter the contemporary version of the “enclosure” of the commons. It is precisely the struggle between exploitation and commonality that is at stake. (p. 292) But how are the global forces of exploitation and extraction to be overcome when the political discourse is dominated by the dumbed-down mentality of Trump’s Tropes?

We might describe Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein as journalists with sociological tendencies. But, they are much more than that. Hedges’ deep theological training steeped in western intellectual history, combined with his extensive experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent covering wars from Serbia to Guatemala, gave him a rich sociological perspective with a profound moral edge, reflected in his several books, including Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. His insights on the American Empire and the failure of democracy and the liberal project reflect not just a deep respect for Wolin’s understanding of inverted totalitarianism but his own direct experience of the devastation wrought by that empire.

In his recent book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges argues that resistance is not carried out for its success, but because it is a moral imperative. He reviews diverse rebellions such as the movement to abolish South African apartheid and the fracking protests in Alberta, Canada, in his call for a new American revolution.

Hedges often says, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.” That is a moral imperative. Again, we must distinguish calls for change from how to achieve social transformation. Hedges’ call is deeply political and fundamentally moral, but has not grasped the even deeper elements required for social transformation. Political revolution, however righteously conceived, is not the same as social transformation.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine[8] had a similar impact on the self-righteousness of American Empire, as did John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Klein’s work as a journalist is distinctly sociological and draws heavily on the social sciences in explaining the role of the corporate state in our current dilemma. She detailed the complex machinations of corporations and government in assuring the subservience of various nations to the American Empire.  Perkins gave a complementary insider’s view of the dirty little secrets and clandestine operations of twentieth century American Empire in economically colonizing subject nations. Despite their sociological insights, neither is a social scientist.

However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate[9] may be the definitive work on the scope of the climate crisis and political urgency of taking climate action. Even so, Klein relies heavily on traditional means for political action at the national level – the same kinds of resistance movements Hedges discusses – while acknowledging the importance of growing global social movements of directly affected indigenous groups for climate justice. Despite my admiration of her work, the scope and the scale of social transformation necessary to achieve an ecological society remains underdeveloped in her discussion of political change. The need for change is ubiquitous and comprehensive. Traditional forms of political resistance will not give the Next Great Social Transformation the qualities now essential for human survival.

In search of research findings relevant to social movements and climate change, global warming, and related topics, I turned to the American Sociological Association (ASA) website and its journals. First, searching the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the ASA, I found a variety of articles in the last several years related to social movements and their internal workings and contexts that affect direction and strategy.

The ASA Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change has produced a collection of essays challenging the standard climate change discourse. Its essays argue for the need to incorporate sociological understandings of the social changes inherent in a massive transformation of the role of energy in society.[10]

The book is a valuable resource for anyone looking into the sociological implications of climate change. Yet, it is barely a beginning. An inherent limitation of social research is that it typically studies various interactions and organizations that exist rather than emerging or future forms. Modern sociology is neither prophetic nor particularly predictive. Most of the work remains to be done and done quickly, which is not typical of academic work.

Prospects for the Next Great Transformation

I have based this paper on the heavily evidenced assumptions that 1) an unprecedented Next Great Transformation of humanity is inevitable in the near future, forced by climate destabilization and by the imminent collapse of the global economy of extractive capital, and 2) that Great Transformation will inevitably entail one of two outcomes.

The first possible outcome of the imminent Next Great Transformation is total societal collapse involving political, economic, and social chaos, massive migration and widespread violence in the struggle for insufficient remaining resources, and likely extinction of the human species. Global supply chains for industrial consumer products, no less basic materials for subsistence, will collapse. In this case, we will have passed the tipping point where re-stabilization of the climate and ecological systems is no longer possible. If we reach that point, the world will be a very different place, highly incompatible with human survival. Species extinction is the most probable outcome of this scenario. Human ingenuity might allow small groups to survive here and there, unless climate destabilization is so severe that it causes complete extinction.

The second possible outcome of the coming Great Transformation has less certainty but some hope. If that social transformation entails comprehensive adaptation of social organization to align surviving human groups with their local ecologies, then it could lead to scaled down but relatively harmonious relations of humanity with our environment. The only viable strategy for stabilizing climate and ecological resources would have to reduce carbon emissions to near zero in the near term to limit global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That would be a huge undertaking with transformative implications for social organization both global and local.

We can only accomplish that reorganization by radically changing the ways humans interact with each other and with the environment. Such changes will offer the only path to human survival, and, if comprehensive and effective, to a greater human prospect than ever before achieved. Such an achievement will be possible only by abandoning the global industrial growth economy and replacing it with local ecological economies that produce primarily for local consumption.

It is fairly certain that no matter how well we mitigate global warming and adapt to climate destabilization, significant social dislocations and suffering will occur. The great test of humanity will call for a level of human cooperation never seen since the days of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This does not mean that we must limit our technology to spears and arrows.

It does mean that we must finally admit to the necessity of “appropriate technology,” originally advocated by E.F. Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful, way back in 1973.[11] That also means we must organize our lives around the necessities and ethical implications of living in the real world. We must honor the nature of our own place in Nature and shape ethical lives around the requirements of harmonizing freedom with necessity. That means we must not merely do whatever is possible to turn a profit, but that we must only use the means (technology) that lead to ethical and ecologically viable ends. Only then will we fully realize human creativity and innovation.

Schumacher argued that modern industrial economies are unsustainable; he offered appropriate technologies as the means for developing nations to attain economic sufficiency by empowering people rather than submitting them to the dominant economic illusion that “bigger is better.” He proposed that we replace technological cleverness with wisdom. This lesson has been lost upon the giant extractive economies of the global north. Applying its implications to the new great transformation of human economies to achieve viable societies within ecological systems will be essential to human survival in the coming decades. Contemporary social science has contributed little to this essential task of humanity. Schumacher provides a model for how social science needs to conduct its work today. Most of that work remains to be done in the narrowing window of opportunity we have left.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America (New York: Picador, 2008).

[2] The pitch of Gates’ group of billionaires for a finance-capital driven, government-funded program to develop and deploy new high-tech energy production technologies may be found at http://www.breakthroughenergycoalition.com/en/index.html. The group includes most of the luminaries of the super-rich, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Meg Whitman (HP), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), along with various hedge fund billionaires, Saudi princes, and international Businessmen.

[3] The “Mission Innovation” group of 20 of the richest nations describes its intentions to collaborate with the Gates group – the “Breakthrough energy Coalition – at http://mission-innovation.net/.

[4] With considerable prescience, economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation in 1944, which delineated diverse consequences of the industrial revolution and explored the likely impacts of unfettered extractive capital. Subsequent history has validated his warnings. Yet what I have been calling The Next Great Transformation will be far more consequential for the survival of the human species as well as for the stability of all living earth systems.

[5] The fundamental flaws of the endless growth based economic system are explained, for example, by Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011) and Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011). The first, and perhaps the most important warning was E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper Collins, 1973 (Re-issued by Hartley & Marks, 1999, with an introduction by Paul Hawken and comments by several authors)

[6] David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, 2015).

[7] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[8] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Hold, 2007).

[9] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[10] Riley E. Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle (Editors). Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. 1st Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[11] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Blond & Briggs originally published the book in 1973.

The Irony of Crisis and Opportunity

Sometimes irony offers a vision of opportunity. If we are aware of the tragic outcome of a contradiction between the intention and the effects of an action, we may escape tragedy. That awareness may provide a chance for something far better than the original intent. Ignoring such contradictions, we risk disaster and may never notice the opportunity they bring.

Dramatic irony can be traced back to the Greek classics. That is because the ancient Greeks had such a good grasp of the human condition. Human folly often results from continuing down a path our mistaken ideas dictate despite overwhelming evidence that it will lead to tragic consequences.

Today, we rush headlong into multiple converging crises. Power elites have institutionalized and marketed as “normal” the ironies of modern and post-modern life. Individual tragic outcomes of poor choices continue to unfold. However, the very culture of industrial society has embedded a deeper irony in the dominant institutions that shape our thought and control our lives.

We take the imaginary elements of mass consumerism as elemental, natural, and real. The propaganda that drives consumer “lifestyles” has succeeded. The irony of chasing an image of “individualism” by falling victim to mass advertising escapes most consumers. The opportunities to escape the treadmill of lower wages, consumerism, and debt, usually pass by unnoticed. They are not part of the culture, so we do not recognize them.

The Crises of Illusion

A key premise of the industrial economy that drives mass culture is that the answer to every economic problem is more economic growth. To get a sense of the general understanding of its role, I set up a “Google Alert” on “economic growth.” As a result, I get several “alerts” every day, each reporting dozens of media stories whose topic is economic growth. It is a popular topic in the mass media everywhere. I received far fewer alerts on the topic of “climate crisis.”

The almost universally central issue in such stories involves how economic growth can be stimulated, maintained, or increased. Stories about economic growth from all around the world, each assume that economic growth is the engine of human progress. I have yet to find a story via Google Alerts that poses economic growth as a problem for the future of humanity. Of course, I can find such stories by going to climate change websites or a growing number of books on the end of economic growth on a finite planet. Does anyone read books?

Therein lies the irony. The financial structure industrial economies of the world require continued growth in order to service growing debt and return profit on capital. Where there has been “room to grow,” that has worked out pretty well. However, some serious contradictions in that system and their irony are visible to those willing to look. Growth on a finite planet must have a finite limit.

The earth has limits and we are reaching them. Yet, economists such as Julian Simon claimed for decades that technical innovations, resource substitution, and free markets could overcome any such limits.They were believed, and many still hold to such magical thinking.

Growth did not happen so much from internal innovations in technology and economy as it did from exploitation of others. Technology did assist Western exploration and domination of the rest of the world through colonialism, then imperialism. Both provided the material and human resources to foster Western growth. Gunpowder, sailing ships, and the sextant helped get things started. The oppression of native peoples around the world continued for centuries under the guise of assisting in their development. In fact, the Western colonial and imperial nations were extracting their natural resources and exploiting their labor. That continues today, to the exhaustion of both.

Finally, present day regimes of neo-liberal international finance foist “structural adjustment” nations it has forced into debt, to assure their continued financial subordination and exploitation. The whole history of the economically “advanced” nations involves extraction of resources and domination of populations for expansion of economic control of the world. The economic growth of the West, touted for its cultural superiority, succeeded only by oppressing people in other parts of the world. Smug neoclassical economic ideologues bury such facts behind their pseudo-scientific theories that do not stand up to empirical observation.

The global consequences of the system and illusions of economic growth are emerging as a “catastrophic convergence” of multiple global crises.  Growing problems of poverty, resource depletion, financial collapse, resource wars, refugee migration, and of course, climate destabilization all result from the juggernaut of extractive capital and the industrial growth it feeds. The contradictions of the global system of extractive capital are far more complex than Karl Marx could have imagined, but they do contain the seeds of its destruction. We must find ways to make that destruction creative.

Irony and Opportunity

Of course, everlasting economic growth is as much an illusion as a “perpetual motion machine.” Most people recognize the absurdity of a frictionless machine that can run forever without external inputs of energy. However, the ideology of endless economic growth as the source of human progress is a deeply entrenched imaginary in our economic culture. The corporate controlled mass media reinforce the image of “growth is good” daily and hourly.

Nevertheless, the earth is a relatively closed system with one external energy input – the sun. It is also a highly complex array of living earth systems we call ecologies and their living subsystems. Each is interdependent with the others. We humans are a once-small but dangerously overgrown part of that complex. We increasingly disrupt the stability of all the relations between complex ecological systems we barely understand yet need for our own survival.

The deepest irony of human experience resides in the effects of economic growth on the very systems it relies on for its energy and material resources – inputs that keep it going. We live on a small planet and we are not going anywhere, despite fantasies of escaping earth’s problems by space travel. Our problems and their solutions must be faced right here.

The profound irony of our hugely successful trajectory of economic growth is that its failure results from its temporary success. We have achieved, by application of fossil-fuel based energy to technological innovation in production, massive global economic growth. However, that growth in energy/materials extraction consumption, and waste, is disrupting the very earth systems that have sustained it.

Yet, the very same crises forced upon us by our perpetual extractive growth economy, now offer several windows of opportunity. We can solve those crises and save humanity by transforming our relationship to the living earth systems upon which our survival depends. However, that will require abandoning the very perpetual-growth system we convinced ourselves is necessary and inevitable – the endless-growth machine of extractive capital.

Another level of irony is involved. The global crises we created by trying to control our environment can only be averted by “creative destruction” of the system we accept as inevitable. A New Great Transformation of the human systems of economy and technology will happen. However, for human survival, both economy and technology must align with the natural requirements of our environment.

The irony of that opportunity presents a path to a new viable and sustainable relationship to the world we inhabit. To avoid our own species extinction as global climate and ecologies destabilize we must rapidly integrate human activity with the requirements for sustaining our living environment. Only then, living earth systems may re-stabilize. Otherwise, the New Great Transformation will be one of our extinction.

Ironically, the ever-increasing efficiency of industrial production has excluded many from participating in the rewards of the growth economy. Yet the sustainable system we need would do just the opposite. Our understanding of “rewards” must change as we face our condition. Only a vastly more equitable distribution of wealth can be made compatible with the stability of living earth systems.

In The New Great Transformation, we must rely on energy inputs other than fossil fuel, nuclear power, and so-called “bio-fuels.” Conversion to a new ecological economy will inevitably involve much more human energy inputs (work) than are found in the dying growth economy powered by energy stored in the earth. It will also draw upon capturing the boundless ongoing energy inputs of the sun. That new configuration will provide the valuable jobs that the stagnating automated production processes of the economic growth machine have taken away.

The opportunities we face lay in uncharted waters. Yet, take them we must. If not taken, these opportunities will surely disappear, leading humanity to join so many other species in the sixth great extinction now underway. Our crisis is our opportunity. Our greatest challenge offers the greatest opportunity ever for humanity. We must take it or die.

The New Great Transformation of humanity will be one of either complete disaster or a development unprecedented in all of human history. If we act correctly and quickly, we may be able to achieve a new ecological society, even among the ruins of the dying industrial leviathan. We have the knowledge, but can we organize it in effective collective action? We must take this opportunity even though, as is now inevitable, we must go through a period of immense chaos and pain. If we do not, we simply will not survive. Out of chaos can come great creativity. That is what we need now.