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.

mass_extinctions_Annenberg.Learner

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.

REFERENCES

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.

Is Development Anything Other Than Growth?

We often speak of development and growth as the same thing. But what do they really mean? Development seems to imply some form of improvement over prior conditions. Growth plainly refers to something getting bigger. Then there is “progress,” or, improvement over prior conditions. In the U.S. corporate-dominated culture, “development” is almost universally measured by economic growth, which is assumed to be the essence of progress. More and bigger are better; therefore, growth is development and development is progress.

It is interesting to look at the process and result of the revision of city and county “development plans” or “growth plans” and building codes. They attempt to respond to the current language of ecological survival of human settlements. This is not easy to accomplish while retaining their focus on traditional notions of “land use” and building standards, framing urban or suburban “development.” Public officials are under tremendous pressure to accede to the demands of “developers.” The main goal of developers is to subdivide land, build structures, hook up to public utilities and infrastructure, and sell it all for a handsome profit. They toss around the word “sustainable,” but it is no more than decoration in the world of economic expansion.

Growth or Progress
Yet here we are in a state of the world where the best scientific work leads to questions that contradict all those assumptions. Can any of this continue for more than a decade without total collapse of economies, societies, ecological systems, and massive disruption of human life? As the evidence piles up – as climate disruption accelerates – the answer looks more and more like an emphatic “no.” The historical record is far from reassuring. Jared Diamond’s careful analysis of past societies that have collapsed is instructive. Most collapsed societies had kept on doing what they were doing despite the self-destructive impending consequences. Without doubt, some were simply not fully aware of the ecological damage they were doing to the sources of their survival. In any case, they were unable to change their behavior to mitigate or adapt.

However, today there are two differences. First, we have plenty of knowledge of how we are destroying the biosphere in which we live. (Climate denial is a fringe political act, not scientific knowledge.) Many questions in climate science are yet to be answered, but the basics of how earth systems are made unstable are clear. Nevertheless, our behavior writ large suggests ignorance of the foundations of our survival as a species.

Second, we now face the imminent consequences of our collective failure to transform the nature of the relationship of humanity to the planet. It is not merely a matter of a small society failing to survive in a confined ecosystem it has destroyed. Now it is a matter of the entire planetary system having been so severely disrupted that it can no longer support vast numbers of species. Hundreds of species go extinct daily. Shortly, our own may be included among those destroyed.

Progress or Extinction
I know, it is hard to get a serious grip around such a monumentally catastrophic near future. Many just refuse to look at the evidence. Many others, who do recognize the growing damage wrought by the carbon economy, hold onto the belief that we can simply fix it with “technological innovation.” Technical knowledge can play an important part, but the only viable solution is to radically change the material basis of the economy itself. That will not happen without completely changing our idea of what constitutes progress.

If we start viewing development as movement toward a fully non-fossil-fueled economy, then decisions can focus on unprecedented but urgent necessary changes. That will entail a multitude of actions meant to 1) severely reduce energy consumption, mainly through conservation; 2) convert energy use to renewable sources; 3) shift economic activity toward local non-fossil-fuel dependant production of both food and manufactured products for local consumption; 4) limit new land development while retrofitting old structures for energy efficiency of both commerce and residence; 5) limit international and inter-regional trade to products not locally producible; 6) replace financially extractive private investment mega-banking with localized public banking that provides credit to projects that build ecological economies supporting local communities. All these and many more redirections and transformations of economic activity are necessary to even have a slim chance of overcoming the surging sixth great extinction.

Scary? Of course, very scary. But if you think these radical transformations of society are daunting, then sit back and contemplate the alternative plunge into extinction.

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.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part I

For most of us the world we see around us is “normal.”  We see little difference between the natural, social, and economic worlds – they are mostly one experience.  We are born into cities, suburbs, small towns, and (rarely anymore) farms.  We see history through the limited scope of textbooks once read as required and through the pop-history of the mass media.  Large historical changes are not easily seen in our everyday lives.  We view the past as quaint times when people didn’t know much or have much.  Yet, increasing numbers of things don’t seem to be quite so normal anymore.

Today we are inundated with technological change and the material “progress” that is made possible by the ever-expanding application of debt and capital to technical innovation and industrial production.  The smart-phone, the iPad, and mobile connectivity, along with all the previous technical innovations that have changed the world of employment as well as social life, are all quickly absorbed into our view of the natural order of things, which is, however, heavily dependent on the pervasive culture of corporate consumerism and an endless supply of materials for their production.  “Server farms” and “the cloud” are vague images of the information age no clearer in our minds than the National Security Agency’s “data mining” of everyone’s phone calls, email messages, and credit card records.  The dominant culture of debt-driven economic growth and the rise of the “security-surveillance state” have become culturally detached from, yet remain completely physically dependent on Nature.

We have lived most of our lives surrounded by rapid change (at least as compared with previous eras in human history).  We are accustomed to the changing conditions that have resulted from the economic-growth imperative that has driven our world since the dawn of the industrial revolution – though we are largely aware of only the present and very recent past as represented by our personal experience and the mass-media shaped “reality” constantly presented to us at various stages of our lives.

We are not paid to engage in critical thinking or to reflect on the course of human history beyond the roles we play – or roles we have lost to “outsourcing” – in the growth economy.  Yet we know that something is terribly wrong.  The contradictions between what we are told and what we experience keep growing.  We know that the “financial crisis” continues as a giant pyramid scheme; we know that natural resources are being used up rapidly; we know that the progress we expected in the form of “The American Dream,” is just not happening for “the 99%.”  We know that while profits grow exponentially, stagnant wages and longer work hours buy less and less of the endless array of the products of economic growth.  Most now realize that it’s time to set aside the propaganda of the industry-funded “climate denial” propaganda and face the known scientific facts of how the biosphere works and is being disrupted by the emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.  And, we have now begun to experience directly the climate disruptions that scientists have been forecasting for a couple of decades and we recognize that something has to be done.

But what is most difficult to imagine is what it will take to avoid the catastrophic results of even a 2º Celsius increase in average temperature on the planet.  Look around.  Where do you see infrastructure that is not dependent on fossil-fuel based technology?  Survival requires that most of that infrastructure be eliminated or somehow converted.  But what will replace it?  The ‘political’ answer is to do more research on “alternate fuels,” which simply dodges the question.  But many alternative technologies for producing and conserving energy already exist and new ones are emerging.  These need to be implemented now.  To describe them all and how they might be implemented rapidly would take a book-length discussion.  But the coming “great transformation” will require that we reorganize the ways we use energy from the local to the national level.  That means reorganizing the way we live.

Even climate advocates rarely talk of the massive societal reorganization needed to achieve their goal of returning to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere needed to re-stabilize the climate.  Speculations are desperately needed on the actual changes in people’s lives and on how to transform social relations and institutions required to meet the challenge of climate disruption so that the biosphere can be stabilized and we can survive on the planet.  It is hard to forecast the future; many have tried and failed.  But it is even more difficult to imagine what everyday life will be like when climate disruptions force humans to drastically reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  A viable response must be comprehensive ecologically, which means we will have to change the way we want to continue living and others (in the third world) want to live.

The societal implications of radical reductions in fossil-fuel consumption and conversion to carbon-neutral and carbon-negative ways of living will take very different kinds of innovations than we are used to – including major cultural change for a new ecological economy.  Those innovations must come in the form of both appropriate technology and appropriate social organization.  Part II of this essay will consider what seem to be some of the key logical necessities and possible strategies for the coming greatest transformation of all time.