Resilience Redux: Revisiting Mitigation and Adaptation as Climate Chaos, Ecosystem Collapse, and Extinctions Accelerate

The term “resilience” has become a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it projects the idea of humanity being able to do what we must to survive long term by changing human behavior. On the other hand, too many perceive the term to mean only our ability to adapt to conditions of life as they change. If it prevails, the second definition may be the undoing of our species.

When in October 2018, the IPCC finally proclaimed the global necessity to change radically the way humans do business in order to reduce global warming to 1.5◦ C. above pre-industrial levels within the next dozen years, a bit of a media stir ensued. But nobody followed-up with any kind of plan as to how that might be accomplished. Most governments were still absorbed in an international death dance around relative responsibility and power distribution. The media: characteristically out to lunch.

The Official Crisis

The IPCC Special Report (2018) said little about how to reduce carbon emissions beyond asserting various technical “pathways” to limiting global warming to 1.5◦C “with no or limited overshoot.” The media noted report’s assertion that the goal, “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence).” [p.17] Then came the qualifier: “These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …” [p. 17]

2 deg.vs.1.5 deg. global temp. limit_1_FS0UrraLgvnTmbnHOs_ucg

A 2◦ target = societal collapse. A 1.5◦ target = struggle to adapt with continued mitigation. Graphic credit:  https://picswe.net/pics/gcp-2000-f6.html 

One must ask, how does any of this translate into climate action at any real level, from national down to neighborhood? Well, it does not, for one simple reason, and that is the elephant in the middle of the room.

“These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …Pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot … but there is no documented historic precedent for their scale…” [p.17]

Unprecedented Transformation Required

Of course there is no precedent for a global transformation of societies capable of reigning in global carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels. If accomplished “in all sectors” of the global industrial-consumer economy, such a transformation would be vastly greater than the industrial revolution. The report rather blandly qualifies the implication for societal transformation: “…but their scale depends on the pursued mitigation portfolio. [p.18].

Well, “the pursued mitigation portfolio” has to be the understatement of the century. In his definitive study of the industrial revolution, published in 1944, Karl Polanyi characterized the industrial revolution — which began the modern process of the human species overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet — as The Great Transformation. He could not have imagined how far that transformation would take us, although he hinted at potential environmental damage that unfettered industrial capitalism might produce.

All you have to do is think for a minute about what a “system transition” that entailed global deep restrictions on carbon emissions from transportation, buildings, land use (industrial agriculture and industrial deforestation), “resource-intensive diets” (meat-eating), and all the other elements of industrial-consumerism, would mean for the “lifestyles” we take for granted.

The New Great Transformation

Humanity cannot accomplish such “deep restrictions” on carbon emissions within the framework of the globalized fossil-fueled economic system in which our societies are currently so deeply embedded. That is why I call the path we are on The New Great Transformation. Depending on our actions we are headed to either total societal collapse or a somewhat softer landing characterized by massive mitigation and societal transformation under very harsh conditions.  Even if we achieve the carbon-emissions restrictions needed to allow us to adapt to the changes already “in the pipeline,” some form of New Great Transformation is inevitable. To become resilient, that is, able to adapt to the emerging chaotic conditions of a world at 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, society itself must undergo a great transformation the likes of which humanity has never experienced.

Despite the long overdue groundbreaking tenor of the IPCC Special Report, with all its technical jargon and unspoken catastrophic implications, the report still frames its assertions within the assumption that societies, as they exist, must take these drastic steps, restricting carbon emissions to mitigate global warming. However, societies as they exist now remain under the control of the globalized political economy that lies at the heart of the problem. That is the elephantine dilemma at the center of the room, to which analysts, politicians, economists, pundits, and the public remain blind. Their blindness is probably due to the fact that they cannot even contemplate the totally transformed society necessary to achieve the 1.5°C goal.

In this context, contemplating adaptation becomes a meaningless gesture unless it is adaptation by mitigation. That is, only by keeping global warming to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will we inhabit a world to which we are capable of adapting. We can achieve that kind of resilience only by a New Great Transformation of society itself. The resulting new societal formations must be locally and regionally sovereign to be capable of continued mitigation of ongoing degradation of ecosystems and climate in the hope of restoring some semblance of a stable world.

Water Wells and Appropriate Technology

When my well failed a while back, I had just begun re-reading E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It is a remarkable book, even more relevant today than in 1973, and available in many newer editions. Schumacher’s perspective of “Buddhist Economics” emerged from his experience as an economic development expert in Burma and his time spent in a Buddhist monastery there. The viewpoint he expressed was more profound than recent, though valuable, critiques of neo-classical economics and the endless-growth economic ideology.

5e47df09c0fca445cf795801139960aa--water-well-drilling-rigsI watched Daniel and his helper set up the big well-repair rig with its crane and other equipment required for such jobs. The engine was running, supplying the power for the hoist and crane. Several other mechanical devises allowed them to raise then secure the pipe, wiring, and connectors, holding them in place. That allowed them to disassemble the wellhead components to make their repairs. Fortunately, the problem turned out to be an intermittent short in a wire not adequately secured, allowing friction to produce a sporadic failure of the pump to maintain water pressure. The fix was relatively cheap, far better than having to deal with an exhausted well.

Work and Energy

It was interesting to watch the merging of manual labor with fossil-fueled powered equipment. I started thinking of how they might accomplish such work without burning so much fossil fuel. Clearly, the men needed a lot of power to leverage their work with the manual tools. Electrical motors powered by lead-acid batteries recharged by the truck’s engine drove the equipment.

If an electric motor drove the truck itself, powered by its own batteries, the whole operation would have been relatively free of carbon emissions. However, if the battery charging system back at the shop got its electricity from the grid, powered mostly by coal-fired and nuclear power plants, such a system would still contribute carbon to global warming.

If an array of photovoltaic solar panels charged all the batteries, however, the whole system would be mostly free of carbon emissions. All of the necessary technology for such a setup exists today. Like any system, it would require new investment. As far as I know, nobody has set up such configuration yet although the technology is available.

In order to achieve a low carbon footprint, we do not need to give up the necessities of modern life, though we will have to curtail significantly our profligate “consumer lifestyle”. After decades of delay in taking significant climate action, recent research findings demonstrate that we have reached the tipping point where only radical societal transformation can constrain the most severe climate chaos, ecosystem collapse, and species extinction.

Transforming Energy and Society

No minor “ecomodernist” tweaks of green consumer products will be enough. Nor can risky illusions of geoengineering the atmosphere address the deeper problem of the “technosphere” overshooting the Earth System’s capacity to carry its destruction. We must redirect current massive investments of capital into the doomed financialized globalized economy of growth toward replacing it with appropriate technology locally applied.

We need to convert our power generation to emissions-free technologies that are available today, and not waste energy on the pursuit of high-tech trivia. We have the knowledge; we need the action, now. We will have to give up the excessive consumerism and the reckless waste of the growth-at-any-cost global economy. Fewer ephemeral consumer products, replaced by carbon neutral, higher quality necessities, and a refocusing on human values as their measure, are all necessary. That will mean that society will have to run the economy, not the other way around. For more on carbon emissions, ecological overshoot, and the costs of affluence, see other posts at www.thehopefulrealist.com.

The Three R’s of Resilience and the New Great Transformation

We struggle to achieve meaningful responses to the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate, while fighting for social and climate justice. Remarkably, what appear to be the only remaining viable responses to the economic, ecological and climate crises also constitute the only viable means to achieve social and climate justice. We achieve both goals partly by overcoming the vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain in our thinking. We need a new paradigm for fighting the Trumpist resistance to community and human rights, adaptation to global warming, realization of food sovereignty, creation of green jobs, and the establishment of clean technology and transportation.

The New Great Transformation

We face another Great Transformation even more profound than that Karl Polanyi described in 1944. Polanyi explained the essence of the revolution of industrial capitalism as a systemic inversion of the former embeddedness of economic activity within the bounds of society’s culture. That inversion enabled the new economy to subordinate society and its culture to the requirements of industrial capital by enclosing land, exploiting labor, and commodifying money. The industrial era has run its course and now faces multiple environmental and internal limits, which are ushering in a new, poorly understood great transformation, not merely of society but of the entire global ecosystem as well. The human response must be as unprecedented as the transformation we face.

We are entering an unavoidable New Great Transformation in which human survival dictates not only a societal shift to renewable energy, clean technology, low-carbon transportation, and “green” products and jobs. We must make deep changes in how we live, where we live, to mitigate climate chaos while adapting to its growing destruction. We will find little success in resisting the resistance from the Trumping of American democracy by merely mounting a persuasive counter argument to rising fascist policies of plunder and injustice. Similarly, protests are necessary, especially of the scope and scale of the Women’s March and the demonstrations against the Muslim ban, but they are far from sufficient to achieve the social transformation we need.

The Three R’s of Resilience: Resist, Replace, Restore

The strongest and most viable Resistance will come from creating community Resilience built upon the Replacement of the fossil-fueled global industrial economy by forming ecological communities as we Restore local ecosystems. We must transform our communities, grounding them in both indigenous cultural roots and advanced appropriate technology.

Important networked social mobilizations such as “indivisible,” have already begun to resist directly the unconstitutional actions of the Trump administration, expanding traditional forms of protest. Yet, the best result of resistance alone is likely to be delay of outrageous political actions. Such resistance alone will not stop the escalation of Trump’s contemplated fossil-fueled resurgence of the corporate state. We must look to where we live to take direct climate action to replace the global fossil-fuel economy with located ecological communities. What are now in most cases mere residential enclaves highly

UrbanHarvest

Urban Harvest

dependent upon the global corporate economy must transform themselves into ecological communities by restoring at-risk local ecologies and building ecologically sustainable local economic productivity within the parameters of healthy local ecosystems. Such Replacement and Restoration are in themselves integral forms of Resistance, because they implicitly abandon corporate markets in favor of indigenous productivity. Together, they lead to the Resilience of located human groups.

We must abandon our (not always conscious) residual notions of establishing national and international “green” markets based on the utopian dreams of neoclassical economics. By what they do not do and how they misdirect us to high-tech grand illusions, “market solutions” of business-as-usual greenwashing become a societal death warrant. Sometimes markets get it right, as is the case of solar and wind gradually replacing coal and gas because they are more efficient and cheaper, and we must support such trends. However, time is of the extreme essence – we have so little left.

High technology and energy replacement within the existing neoclassical global corporate economy, such as “entrepreneurial Philanthropists” like Bill Gates propose, offer a monumentally inadequate response to the New Great Transformation of society and economy that is already underway. That path extends our spiraling down to climate chaos and societal crisis. Society must transform itself in unprecedented ways to avoid the extreme climate destabilization that would surely force societal collapse. People must take control where we live and make the New Great Transformation our own.

Transformation or Collapse

In the past, numerous instances of social mobilization and non-violent revolution have overthrown dictatorial regimes and changed societies, as documented so well by Peter Akerman and Jack DuVall in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict. Until the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, that did not seem to be the issue. Nevertheless, at a national level widespread protest actions will probably yield ruthless state violence, even more aggressive than so far seen at Standing Rock, Ferguson and elsewhere.

The most viable response to the national political chaos will be driven by widespread local self-transformation. Local communities must assert community rights and municipal sovereignty based in taking local control and, for example, passing ordinances recognizing and enforcing the rights of Nature. Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell describe such efforts in We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States.

Save.Garden.NYC

Unity via Mutual Aid

Networked social mobilizations across the nation and globe are growing, though not easy to track. To be effective, they must embody forms of “Transcommunality.” John Brown Childs’ book by that name found deeply rooted structures of unity through respectful autonomous interdependence in the Iroquois Confederacy and other indigenous societies as well as built into urban gang-peace movements in Los Angeles, Kansas City, and elsewhere. The needed grounds for such unity in autonomous interdependency may lie dormant in some but more fully expressed in other diverse community actions for change.

Diverse examples of the potential for an emergent Transcommunality include community actions Sarah van Gelden observed across the nation and reported in The Revolution Where You Live. Other examples include the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. From a progressive labor-movement perspective, Gar Alperovitz advocates a parallel vision of autonomous interdependency in cooperative ownership and worker control to realize community interests in economic production, in What Then Must We Do? Employee owned business, municipal power grids, public banks, etc., all seek community control of essential societal functions in the public interest. Ralph Nader describes in Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, how liberals and conservatives, when they set aside their ideological animosities, can protect their mutual community interests and resources against damage to their communities and ecosystems by the corporate state.

Many such trends are emerging from the ground up. We must be celebrate them, but they must also be recognized as elements of the incipient but necessary pattern of located human groups taking control back from oppressive global institutions (and their local surrogates). The globalized institutions of the corporate state have driven us to the brink of climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, and societal collapse, and we must replace them with located ecological communities.

Despite some differences, both Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) and Joseph A. Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies) have shown that historical instances of societal collapse demonstrate the necessity of deep societal transformation for survival under conditions otherwise leading to collapse. If society fails to adjust its political economy and cultural practices to curtail destabilization of its ecosystem, collapse is inevitable. The difference this time is that the threat to society’s survival is global.

It is important in all this to recognize the enduring value of E. F. Schumacher’s inadequately appreciated concept of appropriate technology. Only by adapting forms of technology appropriate to local ecosystem parameters, can communities survive and thrive. In a post-industrial post-consumerist ecological society, we will have the advantage of a wealth of existing technological knowledge. But it must be revised, adapted, and used judicially in the context of local ecosystem conditions. To move to appropriate technology in support of community resilience, we must transform society where we live; in doing so, we may yet avoid societal collapse.