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.

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.

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.

To build a sustainable world, academics need to tear down the Ivory Tower

Avoiding societal collapse means building bridges between science and the rest of the world.

[Please note: This article is republished with permission from the site, ensia.com. It was accessed at: http://ensia.com/voices/to-build-a-sustainable-world-academics-need-to-tear-down-the-ivory-tower.]

Anthony D. Barnosky
@tonybarnosky Professor of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley

Elizabeth A. Hadly
@LizHadly Stanford professor and global change scientist

Paul R. Ehrlich President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050,” a peer-reviewed article published March 15 as part of Elementa’s Avoiding Collapse special feature.

Until recently, Earth was so big compared with humanity’s impacts that its resources seemed limitless. But that is no longer the case. Thanks to rapid growth in both human population and per capita consumption, we are now on the edge of irrevocable damage to our planetary life support systems. If we want to avoid locking in long-lasting impacts, it is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.

The Challenges

Most pressing among these today is climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have produced most of the energy we need by burning fossil fuels. This has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a pace 200 times faster than what was normal for Earth’s pre-industrial carbon cycle. As a result, we are now changing climate faster than people have ever experienced since our ancestors became Homo sapiens. Already the changing climate is manifesting as more frequent floods, wildfires and heat waves that kill thousands of people annually; rising sea levels that displace communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars for coastal infrastructure building and repair; and increasingly acid oceans, which in some places are becoming so acidic that oyster and scallop fisheries are beginning to collapse.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world.

With no change in course, present emissions trajectories will likely, by mid-century, heat the planet to a level that humans and most other contemporary vertebrate species have never experienced, inhibiting food production and greatly multiplying other climate-change problems, including exacerbating global conflict and national security concerns. Indeed, if the present climate-change trajectory continues to 2100, Earth will be hotter than it has been in at least 14 million years, and large regions will be too hot to support human life outdoors.

Meanwhile, human consumption of natural resources is creating a plethora of other types of pollution as well. More than 6 million people die each year from the health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our solid waste — increasingly plastic and electronic — has created burgeoning landfills and massive trash gyres in the middle of the oceans. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world. Whales and polar bears harbor toxins in their tissues; Arctic lakes far from any human settlements exhibit elevated nitrogen levels.

The harm we’re doing to nature is coming back to haunt us in the form of infectious disease risk as well. Increasing encroachment of humans into previously little-touched ecosystems is leading to more frequent and severe “spillovers” of disease from nonhuman to human communities. Climate change is further increasing the odds that novel diseases will crop up in humans and the plants and animals on which we depend: Many of the world’s diseases are tropical in origin, and as we build roads and destroy habitats in the tropics, we increase the probability of exposure. Reverse spillover from humans to animals is an issue as well — an increasing number of animals are afflicted with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria.

Finally, meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. This ecosystem transformation, along with poaching, overfishing and generally exploiting nature for short-term profit, has accelerated the extinction rate of wild animals and plants to levels not seen since the dinosaurs died out. The result has been tremendous loss of ecosystem services such as water filtration, pollination of crops, control of pests and emotional fulfillment. Should present rates of extinction continue, in as little as three human lifetimes Earth would lose three out of every four familiar species (for example, vertebrates) forever.

Overarching Challenges

Contributing to all of these are two overarching challenges: the number of people in the world and our ecological footprints — especially the excessively large per capita ecological footprints in high-income countries.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea.

Human population has nearly tripled in just one lifetime, and almost a quarter of a million more people are being added every day. Best-case scenarios indicate that by 2050 the planet will have to support at least 2 billion to 3 billion people more than it does today.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea. There simply isn’t enough productive land left to accomplish that, or enough of the species we like to eat left in the ocean, especially in the face of climate stresses that agriculture and aquaculture have not yet witnessed.

Maintaining present rates of consumption — let alone raising standards of living for billions of poor people today — is similarly problematic. Continuing currently accepted norms of manufacturing goods and services into the future would dramatically increase what already are dangerous levels of environmental contamination worldwide and deplete water and other critical natural resources we depend upon today.

Beyond Breakthroughs 

How can science and society solve these intertwined problems and avoid environmental tipping points that would make human life infinitely more difficult?

Solutions will require scientific and technological breakthroughs — but breakthroughs will not be enough. On a global scale, obstacles include political, economic and social factors, including inequalities in economic opportunities and land tenure rights, or poor distributional infrastructure — problems science alone can’t solve. In addition to science, solutions will require effective collaboration of environmental and physical scientists with social scientists and those in the humanities.

In other words, we must recognize the interrelated facets of seemingly distinct issues. We must actively exchange information among practitioners in academics, politics, religion and business and other stakeholders to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from different specialties.

In addition, people outside the scientific community must recognize and accept that the problems are serious and that solutions are at hand.

That means we within academia must link our work with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action. This is especially important, since guiding the planet for the future will likely require some fundamental changes — not just in human economic and governance systems, but also in societal values. Engagement with religious leaders, local communities and businesses, subnational groups, and the military and security sectors of society is critically important to further these necessary conversations and impel action.

It is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable.

The good news is we are already making progress in both areas. Scientists and others are coming together to propose and pursue solutions. And three initiatives have been constructed specifically to bridge the science-society divide. The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere was founded specifically to connect scientists, humanists, activists and civil society in order to foster positive global change. The Consensus for Action provides a venue for policy-makers to quickly digest why it is essential to immediately address the issues described here; for scientists to communicate to policy-makers throughout the world the importance of dealing with these key environmental issues; and for members of the public to voice their support to policy-makers for taking action. And Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens provides rapid and locally relevant information to everyone, from the general public to political leaders, about how these threats to humanity’s life support systems play out.

In summary, it is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable for both human civilization and the biosphere. To implement knowledge that arises from basic research, we must establish dialogues and collaborations that transcend narrow academic specialties and bridge between academia, industry, the policy community and society in general.

Now is the time to rise to these scientific and communication challenges. The trajectories of population overgrowth, climate change, ecosystem loss, extinctions, disease and environmental contamination have been rapidly accelerating over the past half-century. If not arrested within the next decade, their momentum may prevent us from stopping them short of disaster. View Ensia homepage

Comment:

Robert M. Christie  Mar. 19th, 2016
This is the most precise and concise delineation of the elements of the contemporary human-planetary predicament I have yet heard. If allowed, I will republish it on my little blog, TheHopefulRealist.com. My only qualification is that the ultimate obstacle to the solution is the global political economy and its power over culture and consequently public and political awareness. We are confronted with the necessity of performing the next, and perhaps final, Great Transformation of humanity’s relationship to the earth systems upon which it depends and which it is destroying. All that is said here is true, but moot if a path to the transformation of the extractive system of industrial growth to a truly ecological economy is not found and rapidly pursued.

Renewables Transition: It’s Happening, But How, and is it Enough?

The report of the latest “Bloomberg New Energy Finance” (BNEF) annual summit in New York proclaimed on April 14, 2015 that fossil fuels had already lost the race against renewables. “The race for renewable energy has passed a turning point. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back.” The report by Tom Randall, published on the Bloomberg Web site, hedged no bets. It touted “the beginning of the end” for fossil fuel. The trends and forecasts clearly indicate a slow death for the buildout of new oil, gas, and coal fired energy capacity as “clean energy” capacity surges ahead over the next fifteen years. End of story? Well, not quite.

Not surprisingly, the Bloomberg forecast includes nuclear power in the clean energy category. Nuclear power advocates never do count the high environmental costs of uranium extraction, equipment manufacturing, or facility construction involved in nuclear installations. Not to mention the fact that the risks of nuclear power generation make such installations uninsurable unless the insurance is subsidized and guaranteed by the federal government. That is precisely because of the catastrophic proportions of a reactor meltdown and other risks. Nor do they consider maintenance and repair costs or the massive expenses associated with decommissioning worn out facilities.  Issues of storing the growing backlog of nuclear waste and its risks remain chronically unresolved. What’s clean about that?

At least the Bloomberg report implicitly acknowledges the complexities and time involved in building out nuclear energy capacity. It shows future nuclear buildout as rather small compared to that of new solar and wind capacity. However, we should also be concerned about the Bloomberg forecast for new gas-fired energy capacity. From 2015 to 2030 it is forecast to slow only slightly. Most new gas production results from fracking, with the result that total carbon emission is at least as bad as that for coal. The methane leaks alone should make it an unacceptable technology. So should the demonstrated damage to critical aquafers.  What’s clean about that? But wait, there is so much more.

New Economics of Energy Production

As we all know by now, the prices of wind and solar power continue to plummet, making them economically competitive with fossil-fuel sources. But the political economy is never that simple. Unfortunately, our future is not just about making rational decisions based on the evidence at hand. The myth of renewable energy sources being uncompetitive continues to be promoted, even by Bill Gates, who should know better. Entrenched corporate interests of investor owned utilities as well as the fossil fuel industry constitute a major drag on progress in converting energy production to low-emissions technologies.

Big investor-owned utilities continue to resist conversion to solar and wind sources of energy; their policy and planning criteria do not include the public interest.  Distributed solar photo-voltaic generation by residential and business customers is a threat to their monopoly power. They resist any loss of financial control of the energy markets over which, unfortunately for the public, they have been given legal monopoly power. The euphemism, “public utility” becomes absurd. They operate to maximize the guaranteed monopoly profits from expanded investments. The larger the investment, regardless of public need, the larger the profit. Nevada and New Mexico present particularly nefarious cases of obstructionism by investor-owned utility companies. Public utility “regulation,” agencies have failed to serve the public interest. They are embarrassingly compliant with the demands of the utilities they are supposed to oversee in the public interest. Energy is in its nature part of the nation’s commonwealth, but it is treated by “regulatory” agencies primarily as a legitimate source of private corporate profit.

In Nevada, NV Energy Inc., controlled by Warren Buffet’s giant holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, was successful in its heavily funded political campaign to dismantle the state’s net metering policy. Forty-two states have offered some form of net metering for residents who install solar panels to produce most of the electricity they use and “reverse meter” any surplus back into the grid. Many are now under attack.  Nevada’s elimination of its renewable energy credits resulted in 17,000 residents losing the economic benefits of having invested in renewable energy. The move has also cost the state some 8,000 solar jobs.

In New Mexico, Public Services of New Mexico (PNM) has been engaged in a public foot dragging exercise with regard to transitioning to renewables. It has received implicit and sometimes explicit support of most of commissioners on the state’s Public Regulatory Commission (PRC). PNM operates coal fired energy generating plants in the four corners area, where lung diseases and cancer – along with poverty – run rampant among Navajo residents. The Four Corners methane plume has been observed by orbiting satellites. Federal emissions requirements have led PNM to propose closing one of the obsolete coal-fired generators. But for their own financial reasons, PNM would keep the other operating, then “review” its continuation a few years down the line. Even if it were decommissioned after that review, the process would probably take a few more years before its environmental damage could be stopped.

The PNM plan also includes new long-term coal and nuclear commitments. Thus, the state of New Mexico and its people would be bound to continued high levels of carbon emissions and potentially huge legal liabilities resulting from PNM’s nuclear deal. A trivial gesture of adding little solar and wind capacity is also included in the plan. All but one of the commissioners either have engaged in behavior that any ethicist would call, at minimum, an “appearance of impropriety,” or have publicly indicated their political support for PNM prior to reviewing the case. The commission voted to approve the plan. Only one environmental group, New Energy Economy, has made serious attempts to stop the regressive proposal from being realized. The rest were coopted in secret negotiations with PNM and some state officials.

Renewable Energy Is Not Enough

The Bloomberg report rightly concludes that it “is no longer a matter of if the world will transition to cleaner energy, but how long will it take.” Therein lies the rub. Finance is a very big problem, and it is acknowledged by the BNEF report. Hundreds of billions of dollars are needed each year to finance just the amount of new renewable energy capacity sufficient to theoretically hold global warming to the demonstrably inadequate benchmark of 2 degrees Celsius.  Each year from 2008 to 2014, a decreasing proportion of the increasing billions in needed capital has been applied to new renewable energy buildout. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts a decline in new capacity from 2014 to 2020, or a paltry increase under an optimistic “accelerated case” scenario. Meanwhile, we find out that methane emissions, 90 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2, have been undercounted for a long time. The Environmental Protection Agency has drastically increased its estimates of methane emissions in its draft 2016 Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

In all this, we find almost no public discussion of conserving energy and reducing waste. New scientific reports of accelerating climate-disruptive effects of global warming keep surfacing. For example, a new report from the University of Cambridge concludes that 78% of remaining wetlands will be wiped out by sea level rise this century. Many of the world’s great cities are on coastlines. Like island nations and delta populations such as those in Bangladesh, they too are at direct risk from rising seas. The result will be mass migrations forced by flooding. Yet, climate action rhetoric continues to be not only inadequate but is also in direct conflict with government economic policies of most nations. The continued promotion by all governments of economic growth of the only kind we have known is a sure path to defeat of any climate action. Only by curtailing growth, combined with energy conservation and suppressed consumerism, will we have a chance to restrain global warming enough to avoid catastrophic climate collapse. Then renewable energy can be part of a real solution. Yet the denial implicit in the omission of conservation and growth reduction from national and international policy discussions continues.

The Great Transformation or Collapse

The public policy priority of almost every nation remains on finding ways to stimulate economic growth, without any reference to the climate consequences. Some important non-conventional economists and others have pointed to the ultimate futility of a never-ending-growth economy: it will end. The accelerated warming of the earth is repeatedly documented in data released by NASA and other scientific sources. Despite the increasingly urgent situation, establishment politicians and economists are not listening. Even so, public awareness that the growth economy must be replaced by an ecological economy – on a planetary scale – is expanding. But nobody knows how to make the transition to zero-carbon/zero-growth ecological economics. Economies must now be developed ecologically, not grown further in the mode of conventional economics. That may be the most complex difficult challenge ever faced by humanity; nothing like it has ever been tried before – its scope is planetary and its urgency is absolute.

Such a complete transformation of national economies and indeed the global economy is an entirely unprecedented prospect. Most unfortunately, this transition must be made very quickly to avoid the gravest consequences of continued industrial civilization as we have it. The focus of every nation’s politicians, economists, and sociologists must be shifted one hundred and eighty degrees to developing strategies to radically transform the global economy. The prospects for widespread chaos are very high, even under conditions of maximum international cooperation and planning. Failing to achieve such a great transformation, we will join the sixth great mass extinction.

It is necessary to face the fact that the transition to an ecological economy will only be achieved by a radical transformation of society itself. The transition to renewable energy production technologies, important as it is, will be only a small part of the necessary New Great Transformation of the global political economy. Far less energy production than the industrial leviathan requires must support a far more constrained consumer economy than we have known.

We face a very hard choice: Best case is a massive social and economic transformation of society that may reduce emissions enough to avoid cataclysmic climate collapse. The ‘alternative’ case is the more likely modest conversion to renewable energy production with the industrial growth machine essentially in place – that would produce full-on climate chaos and societal collapse. Many who recognize the dangers of global warming still cannot wrap their minds around this reality. An ecological society cannot be a mass consumer society; it must hone in on the most essential and meaningful relationship to the natural world and shape social relations and economic behavior to fit that relationship. That will be far more comprehensive than Bernie’s political revolution. It will be a social revolution.

Climate Imperative, Freedom, and Democracy

We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.

Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.

Freedom to Consume

Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.

Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.

Shopping_024mallkiosk

Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.

Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.

Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity

The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii]  The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.

Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.

Ironies of Democracy and Science

The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.

Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.

The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.

The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.

Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.

The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.

Freedom is Survival

How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.

Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.

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[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.

[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.