The Dilemma of Transformation: From Petro-Economy to Eco-Society

What will it will take to reduce world carbon emissions enough in the short time necessary to fend off the worst of the effects of climate disruption? So much of the economy and energy technology is involved that it is hard to even imagine the magnitude of resulting social disruption.

Yet here we are, faced with such colossal dilemmas that any serious student of the climate crisis is easily overwhelmed. Where to start? Everywhere. How much to do? Everything. But priorities must be set and optimal sequences of action must be developed. Here are some of the key dilemmas.

Individual change
“If everyone would just stop driving so much and using all those plastic drink-bottles…,” etc. Well, yes, many everyday behaviors will have to change if we are to even stop the continuing growth in carbon emissions, no less reverse the trend. But a serious consideration of the colossal scale at which many things must happen, the means to accomplish them appear perplexing at best.

Human habits would be hard enough to change without the social pressure to consume in our current manner. Beyond that, little exists in the way of a model for “responsible” ecological behavior. Besides, most folks barely have time to get the dishes done before work the next morning to spend a lot of time thinking about such things. I have always been a strong advocate for education, even as I saw its quality slide over the past 40 years in the U.S. But something much faster and more intense is needed.

Leadership AWOL
“George W. Obama,” someone called the equivocating “environmental president” who, as Naomi Klein put it the other day, just can’t bring himself to just say no to the dangerously destructive Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, The Congress-of-No reeks of a vulgar racism that is willing to cost America whatever it takes to prevent “Obama” (the title “President” deliberately missing) from accomplishing anything at all. And as the rest of the world puzzles over how to respond to the growing climate crisis, U.S. Congress members wallow in sanctimonious denial. Their minds and their morals: Absent Without Leave.

Leadership in responding to climate disruption would take both recognition and bold public articulation of the catastrophic nature of the planetary climate emergency. Real leadership would entail mounting a major operation to mobilize all the major economic institutions to respond to the crisis. Each corporate and government sector should be required to develop plans for immediate ramping up of a maximal conversion of all energy systems. No special deals. If you are waiting for that you might as well plan for societal collapse; that is where the AWOL “leadership” is taking us.

So, leadership can only come from the “grass roots,” not just in individual ‘lifestyle’ changes – which must accompany economic, industrial, and technological conversions. Grass-roots leadership must force the restructuring of all the major institutions, public and private/corporate, that drive the fossil-fuel economy. Many local community actions, such as public banking, local non-chemical agriculture and small manufacture, etc., are needed, now. But the ultimate and proximate necessity is for large scale institutional transformations. These can only come from broad popularly supported collective demands upon the larger system. That will come when the crisis is sufficiently severe. But will it be soon enough?

Collective Action
Some sociologists specialize in studying “collective behavior and social movements.” Crowds, mobs, fashion, riots, rebellions, all have certain characteristics that distinguish them from everyday actions and normal social processes. Ordinary norms and beliefs are suspended as a collective recognition of special circumstances arises. That can be good or bad, depending on the situation and collective definitions of it. In context of natural disasters, sometimes whole communities have spontaneously risen up and responded to crises with highly organized mutual aid. Or, a riot can be a collective act of spontaneously organized destruction. Anti-colonial liberation movements resulted from a another form of collective consciousness. It all depends on the level and focus of awareness and collective definition of the situation.

But the climate crisis is somewhat different. It has emerged as an ecological consequence of the multiple converging crises of economics, politics, and expanded capital investment in extractive technologies of overproduction. Its scope is so broad, yet its impact is often very local and also episodic. A super storm here, a drought there, a super-hot wildfire or raging flood somewhere else, a lot of species extinctions everywhere. At the early stages the effects were diverse and diffuse. That does not lend itself to collective recognition or a focus for action. That must come from science, and science is something too many people are unfamiliar with and have been indoctrinated to mistrust. But the scientific evidence is now so clear that it constitutes a call for action.

Unprecedented Social Mobilization
The immediate dilemma is that deep and comprehensive structural change is needed on a very large scale and very quickly. But massive change will only happen when enormous numbers of people demand it. “National leadership” is unavailable; it serves the corporate state, the very source of these converging crises. Oddly, massive mobilization, which is driven by recognition and emotion, may be easier to launch than education.

This Changes Everything,” as Naomi Klein’s new book title accurately proclaims the essence of the climate crisis. But such immense transformation of all fundamental human systems requires complex coordination too – much akin to the rapid mobilization initiated on the U.S. entering WW II, but on an enormously larger scale. The social mobilization needed to effectively respond to the climate crisis must be national and international as well as local. But people in places are the only hope for launching such an unprecedented multifaceted human social mobilization to avoid extinction.

So a massive social mobilization is unequivocally necessary. It has happened before on a much smaller scale – the civil rights struggle, anti-apartheid movement, Poland, India, even Argentina in a sense, and with varying ‘success’ – but it is highly unpredictable and difficult. We are in for quite a ride….

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part II: Infrastructure of an Ecological Economy

Almost everyone agrees that much of America’s infrastructure (highways, bridges, electrical grid, power plants, etc.) is in desperate need of repair or replacement. Economic ideologists of corporate “free enterprise” oppose public investment as they attempt to drive corporate taxes to near zero. Nevertheless, we must find a way to move beyond these old powerful forces and ask the more important question. What infrastructure? Here is where we must part with the economic ideology of general “growth” as the answer to every economic problem. Climate disruption forces economic policy to be driven by the immediate need for carbon-neutral infrastructure.

Ecological Energy Production
First and foremost, we must radically reduce carbon emissions to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases. If we don’t, climate chaos will soon turn into economic and social chaos. Simply repairing existing infrastructure would add a lot of carbon and stimulate more carbon-producing activity. Under current conditions, almost any construction or reconstruction process would worsen climate disruption because it relies on fossil-fuel energy. To develop “carbon neutral” industry or products will inevitably involve some carbon emissions too. The only way to minimize that is to go to the root of the problem: energy production. Some predict that within two or three years, half of automobile production will be electric cars. Great. But if the energy to produce them continues to be from coal-fired power plants, well, not so great.

So, in considering the upgrading of U.S. economic infrastructure, the first priority must be to convert energy production from burning fossil-fuels to the proven renewable energy sources: solar, wind, and to a lesser extent, geo-thermal technologies. Hydro-electric generation is great, but there is little opportunity for it. To be clear, nuclear power is a non-renewable, highly expensive and dangerous, and an economically futile path. That is why neither big investors nor big insurance companies will touch it without government guarantees and subsidies. For an ecological economy, nuclear power is simply off the table.

Strong Systems: Distributed and Human Scale
So called “economies of scale” are over-rated. At a certain stage in the industrializing era, bigger factories that took advantage of labor-saving technologies were more cost-effective. But beyond a certain point, returns diminish and size becomes a burden. The power grid is a good example. The big investor-owned utilities have profited from their monopolies — by law, not by efficiency. The giant electric grid with long transmission lines is very inefficient and vulnerable. Now, “smart-grid” technology is available and can better manage a grid, reducing waste. But size is still a problem.

Systems analysts have long known that the larger and more complex a system, the more vulnerable to disruption it is. Smaller self-sufficient power grids, interconnected for backup, are much more reliable, efficient, and defensible. With today’s advanced science and technology, small local systems have advantages that were not available to small tribes and communities of the pre-industrial world. Today, large complex systems are vulnerable to climate chaos, terrorist attacks, and internal system failures, not to mention internal corruption.

Whether it’s power grids, industrial production, food production, or other economic activity, small local systems are the most effective. But they are strongly resisted by powerful existing institutions. The problem, of course, is that the entire trajectory of the industrial and industrializing worlds has led to centralization and gigantism. Concentration of wealth, income, and political power in the hands of an integrated power elite has been the result. This has prevented the establishment of a rational economic policy to serve the public interest. Distributed power, whether electrical, economic, or political, conflicts with the interests of the power elites. Yet, this is exactly what is needed to not only respond effectively to climate chaos, but to establish viable economies for human societies.

The Hard Part: Achieving an Ecological Society
The power elites have a firm grip on the existing national economic and political institutions. That is clear. That renders electoral politics nearly moot for effecting sufficient change quickly enough. In the little time left before climate disruption engulfs the world in economic, political, and social chaos, radical changes are necessary. Any time extreme changes must be accomplished in a short time, a lot of unknowns arise. Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Anxiety causes resistance. Add in all the corporate propaganda and political stagnation is a likely result. That is the state of the national political scene today; not so, local communities.

Despite all the denial propaganda, many people are directly experiencing the immediate impact of the initial stages of climate disruption. Drought, floods, extreme storms, and other extreme weather events are confronting people’s lives directly. Awareness is rapidly growing. The U.S. may be lagging behind most countries in responding to the threat, but public awareness is catching up quickly.

An uncountable number of small groups all across the country are taking action in their local communities to spur adoption of solar energy, resist fracking, and establish community action networks to accelerate societal response to climate disruption, from the grass-roots up. That is exactly the last best hope for human mitigation of global warming and for adaptation to the effects that are already upon us. Part III of this essay will discuss the particulars of the localized political and economic actions that may bring about an ecological society.