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.

Can Community Transcend Tyranny and Chaos?

Donald Trump

Flagging

When American democracy was Trumped and the new president was inaugurated, I was deep in Mexico, steeped in cognitive dissonance and disorientation as I apprehensively looked toward that imaginary wall. No, Mexico has never disoriented me, rather, the essential features of this small town of 20,000 ordinary people helps me put world events in a human context. Yet, each time I thought of the fact that a narcissistic reality-show host with delusions of self-obsessed grandeur was “running the country,” I sank into momentary despair. I always remember, though, action is a far better anti-depressant than any pharmaceutical.

Electoral Shock Therapy

hillary-testifying

Texting while Testifying

I never thought that Hillary Clinton, the widely hated pillar of the Washington establishment, was quite presidential the shoe-in that the pollsters, pundits and Party boosters proclaimed. Their intimate entanglement with the Washington elite diminishes any claim to objectivity – they hated Trump as much as they hated Bernie. However, Bernie had demonstrated the depth of resentment toward the system that has so miserably failed us, by mounting a major campaign from nothing but small donations and telling truth to power. If the DNC had not stolen the nomination from him, the race would have been between two ostensible outsiders – the demagogue and the ‘democratic socialist.’

I knew that the word “socialist” no longer carried the stigma that it had for the 1950s generation, who feared both communism and Joe McCarthy. And Bernie’s authentic lifelong progressive grandpa persona clearly inspired the underrated

Bernie_Slate.photo

Just Bernie

millennials. Sure, I have some policy differences with Bernie, but they are trivial by comparison with the stakes that were at play in 2016. The ambivalence among democrats and independents toward Hillary’s Wall-Street backed neo-conservative interventionist pseudo-liberalism was palpable. Yet, the idea of electing the first woman to be president, as a ‘follow-up’ to electing the first Black president in history, had strong appeal among regular democrats.

Things would have been pretty bad if had we elected Hillary – oh, I guess we actually did elect her, by over 3 million popular votes, but the electoral college, just like the heavy Republican gerrymandering, is out of range. Of course, things could not have been this bad. We face now the iron fist of accelerated blatant tyranny rather than the velvet glove of the pseudo-democracy of the “deep state.”

I need not go through the litany of cruel executive orders and destructive presidential appointments that has everyone in federal agencies running for cover. It is not an oversimplification to say that each Trump nominee is dedicated to demolish the agency over which she or he will preside. And the Senate confirms the sociopathy. Science be damned – full speed ahead on a militarized fossil-fueled oligarchic economy! Plunder is the renewed preference. It cannot end well, but it will not hold for long either.

Okay, we know all that. The only question now is what are we to do for the next four years? We cannot wait for the final train wreck. Forget all the talk of impeachment; the Republicans are irrational cowards. Besides, do you really want Pence as president? Sure, it is possible that a reaction vote in the mid-term elections could change the majorities in the House and Senate. Look at what Trump has already done to unravel the modest work of the past 8 years. Really, do you still think we can find the answers to our urgent national and global dilemmas in the irrational optimism and piecemeal compromised performance of U.S. national electoral politics?

Something’s Happening

But something else is happening and they don’t know what it is, do they Mister Jones? The grand scale of the global surge of the Women’s March on Washington a few weeks ago surprised me. The sudden ground swell of protests at airports against the religious persecution of Muslims, banning them by presidential decree, startled my sense of futility. I had heard of the local incarnation of the Women’s March, which had already gone international, just in time to join in at the village of San Pancho on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Relatively out of touch in rural Mexico, I only heard of the airport protests via Internet news sources. It was clear, however, that something new was emerging from the grief of a profound political betrayal of the American Dream.

The book I’m writing, The Social Illusion: Preparing for the New Great Transformation, suggests the need and new possibility of forming globally extensive networks of local social movements to stop the insanity and form viable ecological communities. There is already some evidence of this emergent trend and the “transcommunality” it implies (John Brown Childs’ important concept I will explain in an upcoming post), in diverse movements to stop the destruction of indigenous lands and water, along with general oppression, from Standing Rock to rural India.

I had heard of “Indivisible,” an ad hoc loose network of groups forming strategies to oppose the barbaric policies of the new administration. At the San Miguel Writers Conference a couple of weeks ago, I ran into Terrance NcNally, long-time progressive radio personality. I told him of my book and my effort to characterize accurately what seemed to me a nascent new form of global social mobilization for change. Terrence shared with me a long list of groups and sources related to that very kind of global uprising, happening right now. “Indivisible,” for example, involves diverse groups that are working on different particular issues, but who have become loosely affiliated in order to respond quickly to situations such as the Muslim ban. Terrence confirmed my belief that such networked groups around the world can quickly mobilize to respond to a particular threat of the new tyranny, with the support of Internet connections, of course.

Resistance, Replacement, Restoration, and Resilience

Now, here’s the big issue for me. While it remains vitally important to resist both the destructive actions of predatory capital and especially the new predatory political administration more urgently than ever, that is not enough. We have reached a point of such severe global ecological breakdown, as the global warming effects of former and current carbon emissions accelerate, that we must take action now to replace the neoliberal global economy with local ecological communities. Such action could both restrain the global economy and its destruction and build parallel social structures within local ecosystems, as viable replacements for entanglement in the carbon economy of the corporate state.

We are already deeply into the destabilization of climate and we will soon feel more devastating effects of the carbon already in the atmosphere. Virtually nothing is being done (except talk) at the national or international levels to slow or stop the carbon

temperature-for-100-thousand-years

Hottest in 100,000 years.

economy. It appears that only local groups and communities can, and must, initiate grassroots action now. If we wait for the “authorities,” we will have passed the tipping point of catastrophic climate collapse. That will make the collapse of societies around the world inevitable. Locally initiated replacement of the corporate economy must begin immediately. That means forming new social relations and connections to local ecosystems. No easy task, but that does not make it any less necessary.

Extractive capital and consumer waste have seriously compromised many local ecosystems. Their restoration is necessary for the survival of local communities. The bonus is that they also constitute forms of mitigation of climate disruption, often by sequestering carbon, building water tables, rebuilding soils, and enriching local agriculture for local food production. We must restore living Earth systems to achieve a level of human resilience that can stave off the species extinction that the business-a-usual path threatens.

Transcommunality within the chaos of the New Great Transformation will be necessary, both among local groups and across globally networked social mobilizations, to resist, replace, and restore, to achieve a livable world.