Collapse: Converging Crises and the American Oligarchs

Two new studies now being reported converge in frightening ways with the most recent data on climate disruption. Their results reflect the growing likelihood that the converging crises of economy, social justice, and ecology will lead to the collapse of civilization and even the sixth mass extinction. (Kolbert, 2014)

First, Gillens and Page (2014) studied empirical records in the period from 1981 through 2010, and showed that the outcomes of national policy debates have had almost no relationship to the preferences of the general population, but are highly correlated with the interests of economic elites; the obvious inference is that we live in an oligarchy with the trappings of formal democracy – not exactly news. But previous research results were mixed and did not settle which model of political process is valid. The researchers found that the opinions of citizens of median income and lower have had no bearing on social policy outcomes. But the interests of economic elites (who happen to fund most of politics) are clearly reflected in law and policy. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, oligarchs rule, and like the Russian oligarchs, many are ruthless.

Second, a new study of the dynamics between human activity and nature, using mathematical models based on historical examples, predicts the collapse of civilizations when economic stratification or ecological strain surpass carrying capacity. Either economic stratification or ecological strain can independently lead to collapse. Together, well… But collapse can be avoided if a sustainable rate of resource use is achieved and if resources are distributed equitably, so that carrying capacity is not exceeded. (Motesharrei, et al, 2014) Industrial societies today, especially the U.S., have fundamentally failed to even work seriously to find a path to either economic equity or ecological sustainability as climate chaos fast approaches. (Politically motivated public gestures of little substance don’t really count.)

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports gently urge an accelerated response to climate disruption because the indicators continue to accelerate. But with lags before effects of emissions are observed and felt, and positive feedback loops accelerate – dark arctic seas absorb much more solar radiation than reflective ice sheets – we are surely approaching a tipping point where mitigation efforts will not be enough and adaptation sufficient for survival will be nearly impossible. Like all previous reports, current assessments underestimate the urgency of accelerating climate disruption.

We are in a multi-faceted trap. The oligarchs continue to grab all they can, ignoring the signs of the end of the wealth they so desperately want to control. The corporate media continue to ignore the obvious, slowing public awareness of the immediacy of the human existential crises. And as the politicians are locked into their self-aggrandizing roles as the agents of the oligarchs, the people have no say over political decisions that affect human survival.

The economic-growth machine and its ideology grind on with full political support from the agents of oligarchy (congress and president) as if the old normal still applies. Interestingly, when we look at historical examples of the collapse of civilizations, such as the Maya and the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond, it is clear that collapse was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from the failure of elites to adapt social behavior to changing conditions of climate and/or ecology as they continued down their paths of self-glorification. The difference today is that it is no longer some small ecological niche that is disrupted; it is the entire planet.

Only massive public mobilization and rapid reorganization leading to ecologically viable and equitable economics has a chance of staving off the collapse of civilization. It is hard to imagine how such massive change could be accomplished. The American social and economic mobilization at the outset of World War II, comes to mind, but the elites and the people were united and the transformation required was much smaller, as were the stakes. We live in perilous times. We must act, together, now.
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Diamond, Jared, (2005) Collapse: How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Gillens, Martin and Bejamin I. Page, (April 9, 2014, unpublished paper) “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Forthcoming, Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.

Kolbert, Elizabeth, (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt.

Motesharrei, Safa, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.” Ecological Economics 101 (2014) 90-102.

The Next Great Transformation

Most of us tend to see the world in fairly stable terms.  Our own daily routines, as well as those of the world around us have a consistency that is predictable and thus comfortable.  Yet over extended periods of time, human history has been punctuated by many major upheavals, revolutions, and transformations of the way we live.  In a book by that name, Karl Polanyi characterized the massive changes of the late Nineteenth Century expansion of the industrial revolution and its impacts on the early twentieth century as The Great Transformation.  Today, we sit at the cusp of the Next Great Transformation, and in some ways perhaps the last, as the accelerating climate disruption, resource depletion, financial, water and food crises, and the end of the era of the limitless-growth economy, all converge as the single greatest crisis to ever confront humanity.

The Next Great Transformation is undoubtedly in its initial stages now.  It is likely accelerating beyond expectations, just like climate chaos has.  But its character and direction are not easy to predict, since they will rely on the human response as well as on biophysical trends already in play.  Some of the key factors in determining its shape and trajectory include:  1) whether sufficient massive social mobilization will occur to reduce carbon emissions to a degree that will slow the headlong rush into ever more devastating climate disruptions; 2) the degree of resiliency of human populations in responding to radically changed environments, and in creating massive changes in the way we live; and 3) the extent to which the fossil-industrial and financial world political economy can be dismantled and transformed into a ‘planet-friendly’ localized ecological economy.  These factors will determine whether the Next Great Transformation will be of a kind that will sustain human life on the planet through the end of this century and beyond, or will extend beyond human intervention toward mass extinction.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi analyzed the “free-market” economic ideology of nineteenth century unfettered capitalist development as the cause of the economic crises of the Great Depression and two world wars.   Revolutionary changes in technology and geographic expansion had been initiated in an era of great economic growth, but the ensuing crises resulted from distortions brought on by what Polanyi saw as a utopian image of a self-correcting market.  The nineteenth century civilization based on classical economic doctrine had collapsed, as evidenced by the Great Depression and the world wars, but the society was subsequently rescued by the expansive growth of World War II and the booming consumer economy that followed.

After FDR failed to follow through with his New Deal reforms, the massive economic and social mobilization of World War II ended the economic crisis of the 1930s.  A similar but much larger crisis complex is playing itself out today with much the same utopian economic “free-market” images being used to justify unsustainable growth to feed an ever-greater concentration of wealth and unprecedented corporate power over both economy and politics.  The emergent corporate state still pays little heed to the resultant burgeoning planetary crisis that knows no political boundaries.  The headlong clash of this political economy with the physics and chemistry of the biosphere will either be averted by rapid social mobilization to transform society, or it will result in a massive extinction of many species due to inability to adapt to changing ecologies, including the human species.  Elizabeth Kolbert describes these processes vividly in her new book, The Sexth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  Five great extinctions have occurred in earth’s history, including the greatest, the Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago, likely caused by an asteroid-impact and killing seventy percent of terrestrial vertebrates.

The Next Great Transformation will likely involve a catastrophic plunge into the sixth mass extinction, if total mobilization to curtail climate chaos is not achieved rapidly.  Or, if we create new modes of collective survival – most likely based on building local resilience and international cooperation – they must involve a huge reduction in fossil-fuel driven economic activities, which have for over two centuries focused on growth but which now must massively reduce activities that emit carbon into the atmosphere.  Here’s where human creativity and innovation come in.  To achieve a workable, livable Great Transformation will require us to come up with a full range of new economic forms, locally, regionally, and nationally.  But this time, we will have the advantage of drawing upon all the [appropriate] knowledge and technology from both our history and our latest innovations.  For this, we will have to start making decisions on the basis of science, not magical thinking.

To achieve all this will require total mobilization toward converting carbon-based activities to carbon neutral activities.  That will require the populations of the “advanced” fossil-fuel economies of the world to drastically change the way we live.  Remember, the per capita emission of carbon is vastly greater in the first-world nations than in third-world nations.  And, of course, most of the emissions so far have come from the fully industrialized nations.

Either path of the New Great Transformation will entail huge human displacements and comprehensive reorganization of human life – it cannot be otherwise.  Nor can I imagine how this will be easy, either way.  But one path will lead to species extinction [or near extinction] for humans as well as many other species; the other path will lead to some new level of survival as a result of humans re-organizing their relations to the biosphere and each other in ways that will dampen the plunge into further climate chaos.  The right path, if chosen, will be the one previously less traveled.