Dangerous Transitions in the New Great Transformation

Humanity is entering a New Great Transformation like no other. This transformation is not the first, but it may be the last. That will depend on human action and whether we act quickly, both globally and locally.

Perhaps the first great transformation was the discovery and control of fire, according to renowned biological anthropologist, Richard Wrangham (2009). Controlling fire allowed the habilines (Homo Habilis) to evolve into the small jawed, small toothed Homo Erectus, because eating cooked food released far more energy with much less work than hunting, gathering, and eating raw foods. Cooking provided the extra low-cost energy the brain needed to grow and produce Homo sapiens – us. Then, of course, the agricultural revolution was a transformation that produced surplus food, allowing the specialization of skills. That resulted in complex forms of social organization, such as kingdoms and empires.

The New Great Transition

The industrial revolution was described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation (1944), largely because it turned society on its head as a result of the new economic organization industrial capital forced upon it. In pre-industrial societies, culture had always embedded economic activity within societal norms and values. Now, society became an appendage and subservient to the new economic order. We are now at the end of the industrial era, entering a planetary New Great Transformation, caused by the global excesses of extractive capital and the “technosphere” it has created.


Five Mass Extinctions. Credit: Annenberg Learning

Unbridled economic growth and profligate waste have destabilized the climate and most of the Earth’s ecosystems, precipitating The New Great Transformation. The vast disturbances of ecosystems around the world due to global industrialization has triggered the sixth great extinction of species around the world. The converging global crises of humanity now force us to choose between rapid ecological harmonization and restoration or societal collapse, and possibly our own extinction.

We must now seek a just transition from the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate to survive the New Great Transformation. We must transform the global political economy of industrial-consumerism and its vast injustices into located ecological communities. We must restore living Earth systems if we are to survive as a species.  The most difficult obstacle to a just ecological society may be in our own minds. We must overcome the many vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain, especially in our everyday thinking.

We need to shape new visions about issues like adaptation versus mitigation of global warming. Only by transforming society itself can we create sufficient food security, green jobs, clean technology, and low-carbon transportation. At the same time, we must resist the Trumpist resistance to societal and ecological transformation. To achieve a viable just transition requires us to transform in unprecedented ways how we live in our environments and relate to each other.

Dangerous Transitions: Creativity or Collapse

To avoid the greatest dangers of the New Great Transformation of Earth’s ecosystems and climate (their collapse), we must transform our economy and society to achieve ecological communities where we live. Only a rapid massive societal transformation will avoid societal collapse. Our transformation must reach much deeper than simply transitioning to lower-carbon consumerism within the existing global political economy. Waiting for the next election cycle is entirely inadequate.

While resisting the political resistance to energy and ecological transition, we must transform our own residential enclaves, including “sacrifice zones,” into self-sustaining ecological communities. They still depend heavily on the fossil-fueled corporate state, but must become autonomous yet interdependent ecological communities, in part by replacing fossil fuel and radically reducing energy consumption and waste. Two key factors are involved.

First, we must get over our illusions of techno-industrial invincibility. Documented cases of societal collapse due to disrupting the ecosystems upon which they depended, consistently resulted from societal failure to respond to the destabilized ecosystems those societies caused. (See, for example, Jared Diamond, Collapse (2005), and Joseph Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).) We are not immune, but this time the danger we face is global and local.

Second, diverse sources of evidence of an emerging New Great Transformation, even more profound than the industrial revolution and its aftermath, reflect great danger yet offer great hope. The hope resides in new forms of community action such as those reported in Sarah van Gelden, The Revolution Where You Live (2017) and the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. Movements for economic justice described by Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? (2013) and the mutual-interest grounded left-right coalitions Ralph Nader describes and advocates in Unstoppable (2014) also give hope for change. We must act in our common interests by transforming the way we live, where we live.

Assertions of community and municipal sovereignty such as those described by Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell in We the People (2016), provide a viable model for action. These local movements involve some form of what John Brown Childs calls Transcommunality (2003). Such working together in respectful yet autonomous interdependence embodies the principles of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) Longhouse, the L.A. gang-peace movement, and other indigenous examples of cooperation in diversity such as the gathering of Earth protectors at Standing Rock. Mutual aid in establishing ecological communities must replace dominance by the technosphere (Orlov, 2017), thereby increasing human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and freedom from societal and ecological chaos.

As we face the power of growing Trumpist political resistance to climate and justice action, we must find ways to make the urgently needed human ecological realignments now. We must transform society where we live to avoid societal collapse. The creation of ecological communities where we live has become the most viable form of resistance to the dark money and the out-of-control plutocracy if feeds. It is the most difficult for state violence to control. Resist tyranny by replacing the corporate state with ecological communities that restore living Earth systems and humanity itself.


Alperovitz, Gar. 2013. What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Childs, John Brown. Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. 2003. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books.

Gelden, Sarah van. 2017. The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Linzey, Thomas, and Anneke Campbell. 2016. We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States. 2016. Oakland, PM Press

Nader, Ralph. 2014. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books.

Orlov, Dmitry. 2017. Shrinking the Technophere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and freedom. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Tainter, Joseph. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archeology). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard. (2009) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Trapped by Finance Capital: Business as Usual While Planet Burns Part III: Creative Destruction

Humanity must minimize the chaos of a catastrophic convergence of accelerating climate destabilization, growing poverty and food shortages, armed conflict, and massive migrations around the world. Otherwise, while the old plutocratic order will be destroyed, nothing viable will emerge to replace it. A new form of “creative destruction” must occur for human survival. A new Great Transformation of humanity’s relationship with our earth systems has to happen. It will be very complex and difficult, and “success” is unpredictable.

While it is hard to imagine, a massive social transformation in all industrially developed nations is necessary very soon. Social transformation is no simple matter. How do you turn around the most powerful institutions in the history of humanity? How do you redirect the fundamental thrust of distorted economies? Well, maybe you don’t. It just might be that the only way to stem the tide of anthropogenic economic and climate destabilization is to resist its continued domination. But that resistance must be indirect, since the corporate state has a monopoly on physical power. Resistance must take the form of replacing the very institutions that individuals and groups do not have the power to directly transform. As R. Buckminster Fuller is often quoted:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

While that may not always be true, it certainly is when confronted by the overwhelming power of the corporate state and all the physical force that entails. The New American Revolution will be one of replacement, not of fighting the existing reality in order to overthrow or destroy it. In the intellectual history of economics itself we find a concept that recognized the destructive power of replacement through creativity. Joseph Schumpeter [1] popularized the notion of “creative destruction” in economics as a theory of economic innovation. It refers to a process within economies “that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

The concept has since been used by orthodox neo-liberal “free-market” economists and politicians to justify the destructive effects of any innovation produced by technology or the investment of capital. Innovation may destroy environments or peoples’ livelihood or health, but that is deemed okay because it results in “economic growth,” the end-all of finance capital. Ideologically, it has been a defense of the unregulated right of finance capital to plunder the planet.

However, we may take the liberty of re-framing the concept of creative destruction in an entirely new light, given the circumstance we find ourselves in. We must turn away from the destructive economics of finance capital. We must resist its inherently destructive force by withdrawing from participation. We must replace it by creating new ecological forms of economics in local and regional contexts.[2] Economic systems exist only by people participate in them. We must form new human scale economic relationships, thus creating a new economy. If we do that on a sufficient scale, much of the perpetual-growth economy that finance capital sustains will inevitably be destroyed. Its markets will simply contract into oblivion. In Fuller’s terms, we must build “a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The perpetual-growth economy driven by finance capital certainly is obsolete. By executing the innovations needed to create a new ecological economy, we will automatically destroy the old, mostly by ignoring it. It will wither away by disinterest and disuse. Now that would be a far more positive form of creative destruction than imagined by either Marxist or neo-liberal economists. Unlike them, we must realize that there is no inevitable course of history; there is no invisible hand or inevitable stages of development. We must choose.

Progress” may very likely come crashing down upon us – or not. It is our choice. We must create our new ecological economy amidst the ruins of financial capital. The path to human survival will be extremely difficult, if taken. The ‘business as usual’ alternative would be beyond difficult; it would be suicidal. We are at a crossroads between following the old path of ecological destruction by repeating the mistakes of our economic history, and forging a new path of creating a viable ecological economy that we can live with.
[1] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942). New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.
[2] David C. Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015) conceptualizes a new way to envision human economies and to create them in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival.

The Greatest Challenge Ever to Human Ingenuity

We usually think of innovation as creating new technologies to solve problems or improve some industrial process, or invent new products. Throughout the Industrial Age, economic growth and productivity have resulted from innovations in the production of goods and services. The integration of new technologies with labor and new energy sources, first coal, then oil, and later nuclear power, resulted in rapid development. Cheap energy has been so plentiful in the industrial nations for most of that time that we have been comfortably complacent, assuming its permanence.

But now, the fossil-fuel driven growth economy has just about run its course. Resource depletion, overpopulation, over-consumption, financial crises, and peak everything leave little room for the continued economic expansionism on which social stability has been based for over 200 years. On top of that, the ultimate planetary limits imposed by accelerating climate disruption call upon humanity to innovate in heretofore unimagined ways.

One of the standard rationales used by business elites to argue for special tax breaks and subsidies is that they are needed to stimulate innovation. Even the Banksters throw up the idea that “financial innovation” will stimulate investment and job growth, to justify avoiding public regulation. They manipulate markets and sell fraudulent derivatives to pension funds and municipalities. Their overextended speculations caused the world banking crisis of 2008-9, from which we still suffer. It will happen again without real controls in place. That kind of innovation we can do without. Yet Attorney General Erik Holder cowers before the power of Jamie Diamond, CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, one of the biggest offenders and one of Wall Street’s most powerful firms. Crime without punishment.  These are artifacts of a corrupt and dying system.

Of course, looking at the actual cases of innovation and ingenuity in the real world of business, technology, or social sectors, which lead to actual benefits to society, we see a very different picture. Innovations come from the creativity of persons in situations. In contrast, financial manipulators operate in an abstract electronic environment. Some people are quite ingenious in creating new ways to acquire money. But money does not cause real-world innovation. Today, the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced calls for ingenuity and innovation of a completely different kind at a much grander scale than even the financial elite can imagine.

The Challenge
This time, a huge dose of human ingenuity is required by the rapid emergence of extreme circumstances. Yet, the elements of this crisis of humanity are barely recognized and are mostly seen as a vague future threat. Major innovations at scale are needed because of the severity and urgency of the need for massive collective action to abandon fossil-fuel and create an unprecedented societal transformation to reset our relation to the earth systems on which we depend for life.

Awareness is a very big challenge. We do, after all, live in a bubble, experientially quite isolated from the natural environment. Consider the overwhelming inundation of our senses by the images and symbols of consumer culture – from inside the bubble. Being “connected” has become both an essential resource and a source of endless thought-numbing consumerist propaganda. The total effect of nearly universal engagement with mass media is to shape much of the consciousness and beliefs of most people most of the time. That consciousness is closely tied to the fossil-fueled growth economy and its needs.

The one critical benefit of social media is what may remain of “net neutrality.” The Internet has been a major resource for the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring movement, and the Peoples Climate Marches. These all indicate a broad awareness that something is very wrong. Naturally, social media venues are targets for corporate control, even though the Internet was created by government and universities funded by the taxpayers for public purposes. But social communication will be critical resource in shaping the new transformations required for human survival as environmental and economic disturbances accelerate in response to the climate disruptions that are already inevitable. Only if we are able to develop rapid methods for changing the relationship of human economies to energy systems will the great new challenge be met.

Ingenious Innovation
The 1% of the “1%” has a lock on the economic and political institutions. That is clear, and it is not about to change on its own. But as has been demonstrated in various historical examples, major social change can occur when large numbers of people recognize the problem and stand together in opposition to dictatorial regimes holding all the military power. We are not used to calling our government “dictatorial,” although various conspiracy theories seem to be on the rise. It is more accurate to view the new situation as “inverted totalitarianism,” as Sheldon Wolin describes it. A shell or façade of democracy is operated by the “deep state” (as former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls it) a plutocratic corporate-government institutional complex that works in its own interests, not the public interest.

In any case, the comprehensive transformation of society necessary to respond adequately to the crisis of rapidly destabilizing earth systems will not come from that entrenched corporate-state. Therefore it must arise from below. Many small local efforts are underway, from efforts to establish municipal solar utilities to public banking initiatives, but so much more is needed. We do have some examples of social transformation, but, as the title of Naomi Kline’s new book puts it so well, This Changes Everything.

Every situation is different – especially this one. Today contrasts with the familiar examples of the Collapse of small societies detailed by Jared Diamond. The problem of likely societal collapse due to environmental destruction at present is planetary. System failures caused by human actions can only be fixed by human action. Looming earth-system failures can only be fixed by community actions all over the globe involving innovative ways to quickly withdraw from the fossil-fuel energy systems and create ingenious non-destructive ways of life. That may be the greatest challenge to human ingenuity ever.

Creative Destruction Transformed

The concept goes way back in the intellectual history of the West, also the East.  Simply put, “creative destruction” suggests that in the creation of the new, something of the old is destroyed.  Innovation often makes “the old ways” of doing things obsolete.  Not surprising.  Examples abound in the history of the growth economies of the industrial era.  An obvious case: The American family farm virtually disappeared with the mechanization of agriculture driven by fossil fuel energy mostly in the twentieth century.

What is Creative Destruction?

Like so many fundamental concepts, creative destruction has a history of ideological dispute, at least in the West.  The Hindu god, Shiva, on the other hand, has offered a consistent vision of change.  Shiva, “the transformer,” is the god of creation and destruction in the world of the Hindu — he creates and he destroys.  Thus, he is seen as both the fearsome and beneficent agent of all change in the world.

In the West, however, the idea of creative destruction has been shaped by a history of philosophical debates about the politics of the economy.  The Hindu idea was brought into German philosophy by Herder, then used by Hegel in his dialectic of history.  Then Marx turned it on its head as his own dialectical principle of material (economic) change.  Later, for Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter the idea was used  to explain how innovation transforms an economy from within.

Today, the Austrians, especially Friedrich Hayek, are the philosophical darlings of the quasi-libertarian anti-government neo-liberal economists.  These are the economic ideologists whose ideas about innovation are used to justify corporate actions that may have destructive consequences for society.  For Example, they use “free markets” to argue that the destructive consequences of unlimited financial “innovation” — manipulation of financial markets — are necessary and good for promoting economic progress.

That creative destruction is so easily adopted by both left and right economists should raise some questions.  Does it explain everything and thus nothing?  No.  But it is important to understand why its application is so broad, and with such different political implications.

For the capitalist, the importance of creative destruction is found in the effect of innovation on markets.  When capital is invested in new technologies, the result is said to be “disruptive,” and often is.  That is defined as good and healthy for economic progress.  In fact, it may wipe out existing industries and jobs.  But new and better ones are expected to result.  While people can be put out of work and factories shut down, the ultimate outcome is said to be good because of the growth and new products and profits that often result from such disruption.  “That’s progress.”  And, of course, it is all based on the idea that growth is always necessary for a healthy economy with full employment.  The argument is all internal to economics, as if it were a closed system.  But it is not.

Karl Marx admired the creative destruction he saw in capitalism resulting from the innovations it stimulates, but he saw within the capitalist system inherent “seeds of its own destruction.”  Without external constraints, it was never clear when Marx’s internal contradictions might actually produce the revolutionary end of capitalism as he had predicted.  Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions were largely agrarian in origin and did not really fit Marx’s model, although they adopted his terminology as their ideology.

The historical realization of Marx’s image of industrial revolution never quite materialized.  But the vision of Werner Sombart — that capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead to periodic crises — has been repeatedly confirmed by historical events.  The biggest and most obvious U.S. example was the Great Depression.  The New Deal was capitalism’s relatively effective response to that crisis — it worked for several decades.  The Great Recession of 2008 is another — it was caused in part by elimination of the New Deal financial reforms.  But in this case the responses were denial and bailouts, which are pushing the crisis down the road without real economic adjustments.  Be that as it may, Marx made the same mistake that today’s corporate economists make — they all treat the economy as if it were a closed system.  Internal contradictions aside, they all assume that the economy is unaffected by any environmental constraints such as resource limits or ecological destruction.

The Destruction of Creation

Neo-liberal economists attempt to justify the concept of creative destruction as inherent in innovation, the driving force in developing the economy.  It is required for capital growth and investment in new technologies, which have new resource-extraction and waste production requirements.  But their vision of economic growth has no direction or meaning, except that of an irrational faith that whatever innovation occurs and whatever the destruction, the result will be good.  After all, the illusion of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is still at play in their minds.

Economic theory is often not very empirical.  Of course, money is the easy measure of all undifferentiated economic activity.  But it says nothing of the value of an investment, an innovation, or a business decision or practice for humanity.  It’s about that darn externalization of costs, which is always ignored in the investment of capital.  What are all the consequences of an economic decision?  Well, consequences external to the unit in which capital is invested are routinely ignored.  The creation of phantom wealth by destroying the environment it attempts to dominate can be clearly seen as destroying creation.

Ending Destructive Capital, Creating a New Economy

One of the most important — and destructive — innovations in the use of capital today is the corporate application of micro-electronic computing power to the processes of capital investment, or, I should say, “programmed trading,” in the stock markets.  “High-speed institutional traders” — computer programs — can “capture” minute differences in price from one nano-second to another and issue buy/sell orders that intercede into an ordinary trade and in effect steal pennies that the ordinary trader would have received in a trade while the price information is being transmitted to the trader.  At super high rates of programmed trading, this results in millions of dollars skimmed off the market in any given week.  Yet the SEC does nothing.  This is only one of the many corrupt practices that are tolerated in a culture that deems whatever you can get away with as the highest value.

Only by setting human and ecological values as the primary criteria for allowing or banning economic system “features” can a new ecological economy be shaped in the public interest.  The highest public interest in the economy is to foster practices that support the health and well-being of people and the planet.  Any economic practice or institution that conflicts with that value must be destroyed.  New practices and institutions that serve the interests of life on the planet must be created.  Creative destruction is an economic process with limited justification.  Only if an innovation supports life and the practices and institutions it destroys are damaging to human life and the biosphere that supports us, can it be justified.

How to Change the Economic Culture…and Save the Planet

It’s pretty clear that the corporate state is in control of the economic culture of the U.S. and that of most other nations as well. As environmentalists try to get enough attention to explain what is obvious about climate change, the scientific information is minimized, suppressed, or distorted.  We’re told that the best solutions to “potential” climate disruption is to apply established “free market” solutions of the “growth economy.” Never mind that imaginary “free” markets are tightly controlled by giant trans-national corporations whose congressional lackeys ignore the radical disruption of the complex climate systems upon which we depend for survival.

From local building ordinances to national economic policies and ruthless trade agreements, decisions are supported by an economic ideology that always makes “economic growth” the top political priority. It is an assumption so deeply ingrained in our culture that it remains unchallenged, even as we try to find ways to mitigate the economic causes of the climate chaos that is already upon us. The ideology of economic growth and the illusion of U.S. “energy independence” allow more CO2 and methane emissions from fracking for short term production increases. We might as well be lemmings.

The scientifically aware continue to argue with the Koch brothers’ agents provocateurs as if it was merely a matter truth prevailing in rational debate. We have to face the fact that culture does not change by rational discourse when the power structure dominates the flow of “information.” All you have to do is listen to the Sunday talk shows to see who defines the culture through the media. However, sociologists and behavioral psychologists have known for decades that the most powerful way to change behavior and influence opinion is to strategically exert peer pressure. Education can help a little, but will be too late. It is no match for pervasive mass media propaganda so prevalent today. Strategic behavior of “influentials” in a community is.

While mass media control the economic culture instilled in the general population, significant numbers of young people around the world, including the U.S., are aware of the nascent climate disaster and have begun to campaign for divestiture of fossil-fuel investments by university endowments. The response from Harvard’s president Drew Foust illuminates the “generation gap,” claiming that Harvard should not be a “political actor.”  See:  http://www.harvard.edu/president/fossil-fuels  Well, investing in fossil-fuel is a political act. This is a classic case of the old established economic culture opposing the new ecological culture of sustainability.

Neither the civil rights movement nor the anti-apartheid movement succeeded by the relatively minor economic damage they inflicted – they won by exerting major political pressure. But as that battle continues – and it does have promise as one avenue to put political pressure on the fossil-fuel economy – we must find  ways to immediately divest our economic behavior from dependence on oil, gas, and coal. We face an urgent – time sensitive – crisis.

As a general principle of urgency, every effort possible is necessary. But we need a strategy that applies the facts of social science to maximize the broad adoption of innovations to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Behavioral change does not come fast by rational argument. Most people adjust their behavior when the judgment of others matters. That is what “politically correct” language is all about. When racist speech was no longer accepted in public, many Americans changed their public speech even though they did not purge their personal racism. They knew that they would be judged badly if, for example, they used “the N word” in public, even in their own segregated suburban neighborhoods. We all know folks who still harbor racist feelings but avoid expressing them in public settings.

The recent racist outbursts of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy are the exceptions that prove the rule.* Initially oblivious to the offensiveness of their words, even they back-pedaled with media exposure. For the most part, overt racism is banished from public discourse. When we are able to elevate “sustainable living” behaviors, such as installing solar systems, to the level of politically correct actions, it will mean that peer pressure can be brought to bear on economic behavior that affects individuals’ self-perception in relation to those peers who are “influentials.” Open opposition will fade and support will blossom.

The “bulk Solar” strategy is an example of how this can be done. If a relatively small group of “early adopters” organizes to make bulk solar purchases, say 5 houses in a neighborhood, the installer can do the work cheaper and give a discount. The innovative “first adopters” are likely to be “influentials” who can have an impact on their neighbors. A tipping point can be reached where it becomes no longer an odd thing to ‘go solar,’ but the popular thing to do. It then becomes a new norm: to take that [personally and socially] rational step of reducing one’s carbon footprint.
* See “What Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy can Teach Us about Racism in America” https://thehopefulrealist.com/2014/04/30/what-donald-sterling-and-cliven-bundy-can-teach-us-about-racism-in-america/

Techno-Fix: Triumph or Tragedy?

So called “modern man” has basked in the illusion that something like “American Ingenuity” can find a solution to any problem by inventing a new technology that will do what needs to be done, whether to replace a no-longer viable technology – such as developing a new fuel that is somehow carbon-neutral – or to solve a new problem resulting from existing technology – such as finding a new material to replace one nearing depletion.

After all, just look at the steady growth of technology throughout the industrial era of the past two hundred years. Invention has continued, sometimes at a seemingly breathtaking pace. Manufacturing, transportation, and communication have all benefited from the combination of new inventions and new forms of energy, from the first coal and steam driven factories to the latest nanotechnologies in micro devices with diverse applications from medicine to surveillance. Why can’t this triumph of technological progress just continue indefinitely?

Endless progress of technology has not been an entirely unreasonable assumption given the modern history of science and technology and the seemingly endless development of products to do all sorts of things, from washing our dishes to space travel to the moon and maybe soon to Mars. Yet the pantheon of technical progress has been intimately connected to and dependant upon the unlimited availability of cheap readily available fossil-fuel energy, both for development of technologies and for their deployment. The fossil fuel energy era has allowed continued development of advanced highly complex technologies.

But wait! What if we look closely at the context of all this and what conditions allowed such bounty? Well, we then find that most of the products we idolize arose in the context of an expansive materials science and the ready availability of more and more exotic minerals extracted from locations around the world and cheap energy to process them. Many of these materials are far from plentiful, yet are required for the new technologies to work.

Lithium, a key material in the manufacture the new lithium-ion batteries, which are gaining such widespread use in everything from hand tools to electric cars, is only found in a few places in the world. Various rare earth metals used in electronics are increasingly difficult and costly to extract as demand accelerates. Extraction, processing, and manufacture with these new materials all require fossil fuel energy – they cannot be made available without very large energy inputs. Furthermore, extracting and processing fossil fuels needed for these processes takes more energy and cash. As sources of fossil fuel are depleted, new more remote ones yield lower quality material. Net Energy Gain (NEG) declines and costs accelerate with deep water wells and “fracking” for onshore low-quality deposits. No new technology can change that.

A strong cultural belief in our inevitable salvation by technological innovation is evident in claims for particular technological imaginaries. One such claim is that all we have to do is send privately funded rockets (more efficient than NASA) to the moon to mine abundant minerals, and we will have plenty to fuel continuous economic growth through advanced technologies. Another imaginary ‘techno-fix’ is the strange resurgence of “cold fusion” a hypothetical type of nuclear reaction proposed by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann in 1989. Under a new name, “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR)” – or other assumed names used to disassociate it from the scandal that resulted from early misrepresentations of results and failures to present data to support the first claims of evidence for this unlikely process – some still believe in the concept, but without scientific evidence to support it.

In the case of moon-mining, the fantasy simply does not address the underlying problem of continuing on the path to full climate chaos; rather its claim is to enhance extravagant extraction and consumption. In the case of ‘LENR,’ there have been no verified experiments demonstrating a process for which there is also no viable theoretical construct consistent with nuclear science and no experimental evidence that would confirm the claims that it even exists no less produces vast quantities of usable energy from low-energy inputs. It is a long story of “pathological science,” where claims were taken to the press but never substantiated by the scientific processes of replication and verification. This led to funding for more research but not to viable scientific results, yet the idea still garners some support from ‘true believers’ who just don’t want to give up on the fantasy and do not understand the scientific method. A brief summary of that history can be found at Wikipedia under “cold fusion.”

Because of the short history of technological successes in the fossil-fueled industrial age, the culture of consumerism includes a solid belief in the wondrous human ability to create solutions to any problem with new technology, thus allowing us to imagine that we can ignore the (inevitable) prospect of having to dramatically curtail the consumerism that increasingly defines our personal and social identities as it destroys the planet. We have projected our belief into a limitless future of technologically enabled endless consumption, just when the material and ecological limits to economic and technological growth are upon us. The convergence of the ecological, financial, industrial, energy, and climate crises we are now experiencing is not amenable to any technological fix, including “geo-engineering,” the final hubris. These crises are endemic to the relationship we have cultivated between our debt-driven growth-dependent economy and the biosphere upon which our lives depend. It is we who must change, and our technology must be reinvented to adapt to that change.