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.

Climate Imperative, Freedom, and Democracy

We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.

Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.

Freedom to Consume

Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.

Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.

Shopping_024mallkiosk

Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.

Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.

Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity

The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii]  The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.

Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.

Ironies of Democracy and Science

The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.

Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.

The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.

The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.

Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.

The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.

Freedom is Survival

How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.

Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.

______________

[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.

[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.

Necessary but Unlikely Total Mobilization to Curtail Climate Chaos

The inevitability of climate chaos leading to species extinction of humans, along with many other species, now seems assured without massive mobilization and collective action on a scale never before achieved by humans.  Necessary but seemingly impossible – that is not a comforting thought.  Yet, here we are, contemplating whether or not the president will even slow the juggernaut of fossil-fuel burning by rejecting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport the most polluted crude oil from the environmental disaster called the Canadian Tar Sands Fields to Texas refineries for distribution on the world markets — not for “energy independence.”  Approval would be a purely financial act of enriching the industry at the expense of the planet.  To refuse approval would be a small step toward slowing the rapid slide into climate chaos.

Yet, many major actions, some much more complex, will have to be taken to make the difference between survival and extinction.  Here are just a few:

  • Massive retro-fitting of insulation of existing buildings.
  • Rapidly accelerate the installation of local photovoltaic solar electricity generation and local-regional wind farms and smart grids.
  • Execute broad water conservation strategy.
  • Tax all CO2  and externalized costs of fossil-based energy production and use revenue to fund conversion to carbon-neutral economy [lots of jobs in that].
  • Convert transportation from fossil-fuel to carbon-neutral energy and build required infrastructure.
  • Curtail intercontinental trade and shipping of goods easily made in the destination nation were it not for corporate “free trade” agreements favoring capital over labor.
  • Transform the corporate-driven international exploitation of local labor by mobile capital and shift production to the geographic region of consumption.
  • And even reconfigure the Internet to reduce wasteful giant server farms (including those of the NSA) that store massive quantities of data “in the cloud.”

These are just some of the major undertakings that are essential to slow global warming and minimize resulting climate disruptions.  The only example I know of a total mobilization of the kind required, but which occurred at a much smaller scale, was the rapid transformation of the stagnant American consumer economy into a booming war-production economy at the beginning of WWII.  (And Depression era unemployment was eliminated.)  Automobile production was stopped and factories were converted to production of tanks in a matter of weeks.  The iconic P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft was designed and put into production also in a few weeks.  In a variety of ways, the entire society was mobilized en mass, and with the full participation of the citizenry.  Why?  Because the focus and the stakes were clear to everyone – concerted action was the result.  We have not yet achieved that focus or clarity.

Could that level of collective commitment to, and implementation of, a conversion from a fossil-fuel based economy of perpetual growth and waste to a fully carbon-neutral economy of stability be accomplished in less than the maximum twenty-year window for action?  Theoretically, yes.  Practically, very unlikely, given the huge institutional and cultural obstacles we face.  Some scientists calculate that it would require changing about eighty percent of our production and consumption practices to achieve the carbon emissions goals that are necessary to not stop but just minimize climate disruptions over the next half century – that’s all the time we have, if that, and only if those changes are achieved in the very short term.  That would entail a Herculean collective effort – while the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Fixed News scoff.

Yet, necessity can overcome seeming impossibility, once necessity is fully recognized.  No political issues like who is to blame, who should go first in cutting emissions, etc., can even be contemplated in any scenario leading to success.  In our present situation, a massive collective effort must start now and accelerate rapidly.  I’m assuming that if such an effort were initiated in the U.S., most nations would quickly follow, for several reasons.  But how can it be done?

It would seem that only an FDR level of singular focused executive action by the currently farcical “all of the above” energy-policy president could turn the tide.  But how is that possible?  When we look at the record of presidential pandering to the financial and petro-industrial elites so far, hopes dim.  But history has also shown that public mobilization can direct the actions of “leaders” if the will of the people is expressed at a sufficient scale and intensity.

Naïve liberals wonder why their obviously smart-enough president kowtows to the power elites (who gave him all those big campaign contributions) and Republican obstructionists, instead of fighting for social programs in the “yes we can” vein on which they believe he was elected.  At the same time, the evolving totalitarian plutocracy is extremely unlikely to accept necessary drastic actions without a fight – indeed, such actions reach far beyond the mere social programs that are also in direct opposition to its short-term interests.

Racist congressional obstructionism aside, the fact is that the power structure cannot be moved without massive public pressure, no matter who the president is.  Keystone XL may be the key bellwether. Besides, most of the political “liberals” – the Democratic Party incumbents who are also well oiled by the corporatocracy – don’t really get how seriously threatening this crisis is, or, they are simply holding to their own short-term political/economic interests.  They will not be the agents of change; the people will be…if they will.

All sorts of questions about the future of democracy are raised by the massive-mobilization prerequisite to fending off the worst effects of the accelerating climate chaos we are already experiencing.  But in a system where a plutocratic alliance of corporations and government already manages a hollow shell of a defunct democratic process, such questions are mostly moot.  Survival is a precondition anyway if we are to ever return to a real democratic polity.  If massive mobilization is driven by grass-roots demands of the citizenry for concerted action, as it must be, that very same citizenry can establish new democratic forms during the Great Transformation, but only if it happens within the rapidly closing window of opportunity remaining.