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.

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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.

The Three R’s of Resilience and the New Great Transformation

We struggle to achieve meaningful responses to the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate, while fighting for social and climate justice. Remarkably, what appear to be the only remaining viable responses to the economic, ecological and climate crises also constitute the only viable means to achieve social and climate justice. We achieve both goals partly by overcoming the vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain in our thinking. We need a new paradigm for fighting the Trumpist resistance to community and human rights, adaptation to global warming, realization of food sovereignty, creation of green jobs, and the establishment of clean technology and transportation.

The New Great Transformation

We face another Great Transformation even more profound than that Karl Polanyi described in 1944. Polanyi explained the essence of the revolution of industrial capitalism as a systemic inversion of the former embeddedness of economic activity within the bounds of society’s culture. That inversion enabled the new economy to subordinate society and its culture to the requirements of industrial capital by enclosing land, exploiting labor, and commodifying money. The industrial era has run its course and now faces multiple environmental and internal limits, which are ushering in a new, poorly understood great transformation, not merely of society but of the entire global ecosystem as well. The human response must be as unprecedented as the transformation we face.

We are entering an unavoidable New Great Transformation in which human survival dictates not only a societal shift to renewable energy, clean technology, low-carbon transportation, and “green” products and jobs. We must make deep changes in how we live, where we live, to mitigate climate chaos while adapting to its growing destruction. We will find little success in resisting the resistance from the Trumping of American democracy by merely mounting a persuasive counter argument to rising fascist policies of plunder and injustice. Similarly, protests are necessary, especially of the scope and scale of the Women’s March and the demonstrations against the Muslim ban, but they are far from sufficient to achieve the social transformation we need.

The Three R’s of Resilience: Resist, Replace, Restore

The strongest and most viable Resistance will come from creating community Resilience built upon the Replacement of the fossil-fueled global industrial economy by forming ecological communities as we Restore local ecosystems. We must transform our communities, grounding them in both indigenous cultural roots and advanced appropriate technology.

Important networked social mobilizations such as “indivisible,” have already begun to resist directly the unconstitutional actions of the Trump administration, expanding traditional forms of protest. Yet, the best result of resistance alone is likely to be delay of outrageous political actions. Such resistance alone will not stop the escalation of Trump’s contemplated fossil-fueled resurgence of the corporate state. We must look to where we live to take direct climate action to replace the global fossil-fuel economy with located ecological communities. What are now in most cases mere residential enclaves highly

UrbanHarvest

Urban Harvest

dependent upon the global corporate economy must transform themselves into ecological communities by restoring at-risk local ecologies and building ecologically sustainable local economic productivity within the parameters of healthy local ecosystems. Such Replacement and Restoration are in themselves integral forms of Resistance, because they implicitly abandon corporate markets in favor of indigenous productivity. Together, they lead to the Resilience of located human groups.

We must abandon our (not always conscious) residual notions of establishing national and international “green” markets based on the utopian dreams of neoclassical economics. By what they do not do and how they misdirect us to high-tech grand illusions, “market solutions” of business-as-usual greenwashing become a societal death warrant. Sometimes markets get it right, as is the case of solar and wind gradually replacing coal and gas because they are more efficient and cheaper, and we must support such trends. However, time is of the extreme essence – we have so little left.

High technology and energy replacement within the existing neoclassical global corporate economy, such as “entrepreneurial Philanthropists” like Bill Gates propose, offer a monumentally inadequate response to the New Great Transformation of society and economy that is already underway. That path extends our spiraling down to climate chaos and societal crisis. Society must transform itself in unprecedented ways to avoid the extreme climate destabilization that would surely force societal collapse. People must take control where we live and make the New Great Transformation our own.

Transformation or Collapse

In the past, numerous instances of social mobilization and non-violent revolution have overthrown dictatorial regimes and changed societies, as documented so well by Peter Akerman and Jack DuVall in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict. Until the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, that did not seem to be the issue. Nevertheless, at a national level widespread protest actions will probably yield ruthless state violence, even more aggressive than so far seen at Standing Rock, Ferguson and elsewhere.

The most viable response to the national political chaos will be driven by widespread local self-transformation. Local communities must assert community rights and municipal sovereignty based in taking local control and, for example, passing ordinances recognizing and enforcing the rights of Nature. Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell describe such efforts in We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States.

Save.Garden.NYC

Unity via Mutual Aid

Networked social mobilizations across the nation and globe are growing, though not easy to track. To be effective, they must embody forms of “Transcommunality.” John Brown Childs’ book by that name found deeply rooted structures of unity through respectful autonomous interdependence in the Iroquois Confederacy and other indigenous societies as well as built into urban gang-peace movements in Los Angeles, Kansas City, and elsewhere. The needed grounds for such unity in autonomous interdependency may lie dormant in some but more fully expressed in other diverse community actions for change.

Diverse examples of the potential for an emergent Transcommunality include community actions Sarah van Gelden observed across the nation and reported in The Revolution Where You Live. Other examples include the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. From a progressive labor-movement perspective, Gar Alperovitz advocates a parallel vision of autonomous interdependency in cooperative ownership and worker control to realize community interests in economic production, in What Then Must We Do? Employee owned business, municipal power grids, public banks, etc., all seek community control of essential societal functions in the public interest. Ralph Nader describes in Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, how liberals and conservatives, when they set aside their ideological animosities, can protect their mutual community interests and resources against damage to their communities and ecosystems by the corporate state.

Many such trends are emerging from the ground up. We must be celebrate them, but they must also be recognized as elements of the incipient but necessary pattern of located human groups taking control back from oppressive global institutions (and their local surrogates). The globalized institutions of the corporate state have driven us to the brink of climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, and societal collapse, and we must replace them with located ecological communities.

Despite some differences, both Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) and Joseph A. Tainter (The Collapse of Complex Societies) have shown that historical instances of societal collapse demonstrate the necessity of deep societal transformation for survival under conditions otherwise leading to collapse. If society fails to adjust its political economy and cultural practices to curtail destabilization of its ecosystem, collapse is inevitable. The difference this time is that the threat to society’s survival is global.

It is important in all this to recognize the enduring value of E. F. Schumacher’s inadequately appreciated concept of appropriate technology. Only by adapting forms of technology appropriate to local ecosystem parameters, can communities survive and thrive. In a post-industrial post-consumerist ecological society, we will have the advantage of a wealth of existing technological knowledge. But it must be revised, adapted, and used judicially in the context of local ecosystem conditions. To move to appropriate technology in support of community resilience, we must transform society where we live; in doing so, we may yet avoid societal collapse.

Interaction Effects: Human and Digital

How do humans communicate, emote, interact, and bond (or not) in the “Age of Digital Devises,” and what’s next? What, if anything, will be required of us in our “digital freedom”?

Often, it seems, the dog trains the master as much as the master trains the dog. Who is in control? Whenever we become involved with another, be it a person, a pet or a tool, certain obligations ensue, even if unconsciously. We have purposes and seek their achievement, but the means often become the end. When does a tool become an addiction? And, who is the dealer? Is this drug not such a thrill anymore? Well, here, I have another more potent.

Remember the PDA? (That’s the Personal Digital Assistant, for you really young ones.) It came along after the cell phone. But back then, a cell phone was still pretty clunky and didn’t do much else but communicate with other phone users. Gradually, the cell phone got smarter and eventually it was able to do just about anything a laptop computer could do, except serve up a large image display. So, why not a tablet, a clumsy marriage of the two? But, oh, it’s new!

So, where are we going with all this? What has anyone actually thought through, except on the sales side? Does anyone actually want to control and integrate her/his entire “digital life”? And what of substance do you want so carefully articulated? Do you really want all things known to your personal “devices” fully synchronized on the corporate “cloud”? Do you know how much electricity those server farms use? To whom does that matter?

Why not throw in the HVAC system with the garage door, your soon to be delivered self-driving car, Netflix account, and washing machine, along with your wearables, smartphones, laptops, and remaining desktops? It’s all out there on Facebook anyway, right? So, flesh out your full submersion into the “internet of things,” and help complete the circle of surveillance and control. But just remember, it won’t be just you who is doing the surveilling.

Texting while driving, eating, studying, working, just about anything ….texting-while-eating

Attaching identity to one’s device(s)…

Smarting the phone…

Computing the World…

Sharing every imaginary importance and all the unbounded unimportances of daily life… and to what end?  “No sé lo que significa,” as we say south of that imaginary WALL of expanded exclusion. Will your devices build bridges to beggars with mobile apps?

They thought radio and TV would ‘corrupt our youth.’ Then came the credit card, the computer, the cell phone, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and all the new wearable devices. Oh, we must not forget the pager and Blackberry! All that digital freedom, and nowhere to go… What is left to do in the actual world? Certainly not find a good job.

The whole sequence of digital-devise development, all the innovations in communication technology – if not content – have massively expanded the quantity of communications. We pay the NSA to store and search that swelling trivialized human database. Searching for tidbits legitimizes surveilling us all. We routinely contribute to increasing the indeterminacy of meaning, while also expanding central control, which, of course, optimizes opportunity for tyranny.

A whole new universe of meaning is emerging out there as we enter the New Great Transformation of how humans must relate to the world and each other if our species is to survive. It is not so surprising that most of us have not yet noticed the urgency of the lives we have digitally forgone.

Is that a fork in the road just ahead, or is it a dead end? Look up from your screen; it’s going to be a wild ride.

PS: I wrote this on my iPhone.

The “Jobs” Illusion(s) and the Work We Must Do

Politicians love to talk about “job creation.” They wallow in social illusion in order to appear to care about the economic future of the people and the nation. At the same time, they pander to the interests of job destruction, whether through automation, international outsourcing, or simply unlivable wages. At the same time, they facilitate the financialization of an empty uber-economy, producing vast sums of phantom wealth for their benefactors on Wall Street.

Political Economy of Job Loss

Many of the jobs lost in recent decades in the U.S. are due to mobile corporate capital seeking to exploit immobile pools of desperate labor in any country where wages are cheapest. The international trade agreements the pandering politicians promote, enable the mobility of corporate capital seeking to exploit cheap labor abroad. They override worker protections as well as restrictions on environmental pollution. Above all, they nullify national sovereignty over such matters of domestic policy by ceding authority to international corporate tribunals. As with other job losses due to automated production, we often hear that “those jobs are never coming back.”

One of the core values held by corporations has always been to reduce the costs of labor and materials in order to increase profits. Nobody should be surprised at that. It is an almost natural part of doing business. However, achieving business success does not require a corporation to refuse its employees a livable wage. Consider Walmart and Costco. Walmart grew to be one of the largest most profitable corporations in the world by squeezing the wages of its employees to the point where many are on food stamps. (Its purchasing power allows it to squeeze its suppliers with similar ruthlessness.) In effect, the American taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s profits. Costco, on the other hand, pays its employees a living wage with benefits. The difference in energy and cheerfulness between Walmart and Costco employees is obvious to anyone who visits both stores.

What Infrastructure?

Politicians also like to trumpet our need to “rebuild the nation’s infrastructure,” primarily its decaying roads and bridges. Trump emphasizes the need to modernize U.S. airports. I suppose he wants executive lounges at our international airports to emulate the decadent opulence of Trump Towers.

old-bridge

Old Infrastructure,  Paradigm Lost.

The hard-to-imagine “president elect” offers programs that would subsidize the construction industry work already ongoing, rather than directly fund new public infrastructure and infrastructure repair.

Rarely mentioned are dilapidated schools or poor teacher pay. Politicians love to characterize teachers as overpaid, lazy, and arrogant. Nevertheless, the education of America’s youth is one of the most important forms of infrastructure I can imagine. In other industrialized nations, especially in northern Europe, teachers are highly respected and well paid. Their focus is on the well being of students. Student learning consequently rises far above that common in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Education, if the heavy administrative overburden were eliminated, could be a relatively carbon neutral investment in the future.

Enter climate change. The heating of the earth’s atmosphere due to ever-growing emissions from two hundred years of burning fossil fuels continues producing now obvious catastrophic consequences. Yet political resistance and denial prevail. We ignore much of our own participation in the production of carbon emissions due to a number of complex social psychological forces.[1] The politics of short-term economic interests encourage denial and ignorance in attempting to continue on the path of fossil-fueled affluence. It follows from facing the hard facts of climate disruption that a new great transformation of the entire global economy is necessary. That is the most massive transformation of infrastructure imaginable. It is a leap into the relatively unknown. By comparison, the current talk of “rebuilding America’s infrastructure” seems as trivial as it is misguided. It seriously misses the mark when it comes to the infrastructure work that we must do.

The Climate Crisis and the Work We Must Do

Right off the bat, we might ask why such a benign sounding term as “climate change” has dominated any discussion. First, it was global warming. Then Senator Inhofe held up a snowball in Washington, D.C., as if that proved that global warming was a hoax. Gradually climate change became the dominant term. When I had used the term “climate disruption” a couple of years ago, a Sierra Club activist told that they too preferred “disruption” because “change” did not convey well the reality of climate impacts. I now prefer “climate destabilization,” which seems an even more accurate way to describe the effects of industrial civilization on climate systems. The new world of unstable climate systems requires a new paradigm. “Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure” merely affirms the old paradigm.

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Wind Turbines in Holland, 2016

The science is undeniable, yet politicians routinely deny it in favor of providing political cover for the economic interests of their biggest donors. Those donors, of course, are the very corporations that extract and emit the carbon that warms the atmosphere and destabilizes global climate systems. The same politicians favor reducing corporate taxes and the taxes on the highest incomes, as if the income tax system were somehow abusing those powerful special interests.

The share of taxes paid by the largest corporations and the super-rich has steadily declined ever since the 1950s. Back then, taxes on corporations and the very rich were much higher, the economy was robust, and the national debt was small. In fact, the power elites get away with not paying anything near their “fair share,” as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and the national debt grows.

Meanwhile, as politicians cling to their old paradigm and its corruption, the nation’s most urgent infrastructure need goes almost entirely unnoticed, rarely mentioned, and routinely denied. Yet, the facts require us to take action now to re-stabilize the climate systems upon which human life depends. We cannot afford not to take drastic action now. We must redirect the nation’s wealth to transform the economy from carbon excess to carbon neutral and to recapture carbon. We must be rapidly reduce net carbon emissions to less than zero by re-establishing ecological systems of carbon storage – tropical forests, for example – not by industrial illusions of “geo-engineering” symptom suppression while denying the root problem.

Deniers distort the uncertainty about the exact location of particular individual effects of global warming. They falsely claim that scientists do not really know whether climate change is real and/or “man-made.” The science of CO2 is long standing, never challenged until it became politically expedient to do so. The global climate system is extremely complex, making it far more difficult to predict an individual weather event than to document the overall trend of increasingly extreme weather, rising seas, and melting glaciers. They use variations in weather to deny the overall trend of increasingly severe droughts, floods, and storms that already disrupt climate cycles and agricultural production.

The short-term economic interests of the most powerful institutions and individuals in the nation prevail. In fact, we need institutional support to build out carbon neutral infrastructure rapidly. It has become extremely urgent, yet political decision makers largely ignore the issue. If ever a massive “jobs program” were possible, we could easily create it by executing a national economic policy of replacing all fossil-fuel based energy systems with new carbon-neutral systems of energy production and use.

Think of it. Stop production of all fossil-fuel burning cars. Build out a national network of electric vehicle charging stations while ramping up electric car production. Require all consumer products to be carbon-neutral, with temporary exceptions where life and health require them. Replace all coal and natural gas burning plants with solar and wind electricity generating systems, which are already more cost effective. Stop all natural gas and oil fracking operations; their total carbon pollution rivals that of coal.

Job losses? Well, they would be trivial in the oil industry compared to the job creation involved in the transformation to carbon neutral energy production and use. Yes, many people would have to change occupations, move to another location, and re-tool some skills. But that has always accompanied economic change. Are we not that resilient?

Continuing on our current path of carbon emissions will lead to a 4-degree Centigrade increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels in the next several decades. That will be extremely catastrophic, resulting in societal collapse and may well also lead to human extinction. The UN agreements set a 2-degree limit, while acknowledging that 1.5 degrees is probably necessary. The actual “commitments” of the signing nations did not even reach the 2-degree Celsius target. The only conclusion I can reach from all this is that the people, where we live, must mobilize ourselves and begin the work that we must do. We must also pressure the institutions that are now obstacles to redirect their destructive policies toward the well being of people and planet. This is beginning to happen at places like Standing Rock, where the destructive forces of extractive capital directly threaten people. We must all find our own Standing Rock. Social movements create their own jobs. So little time, so much to do.

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[1] George, Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) provides a wealth of information on the scientific basis for understanding the tendency to ignore or deny the overwhelming facts of climate disruption and its catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

Malthus, Mistakes, and Missing the Obvious

I’ve been reading a very interesting book lately. It is all about scientific ideas or theories that the authors of its many small chapters believe are impeding scientific progress in a wide variety of specialties. The book is called, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015). Edited by John Brockman, the theme is based on the famous quote by theoretical physicist Max Plank (1858-1947) to the effect that a new scientific truth triumphs not by convincing its opponents, but because opponents eventually die off. Opponents of new ideas are usually older than those who come up with them and are usually “believers” in the dominant paradigm of the time. They resist changing their beliefs.

Yes, scientists can hold on to their notions of truth in the face of new evidence or ideas just as vehemently as the rest of us. The idea of inevitable progress is one such idea. We must make our progress, despite the claims of “rational optimists.” We must make progress by facing reality and dealing with it; progress won’t happen just by believing it so. That is what hopeful realism is about.

Most of the several dozen chapters that I have read out of the 285 or so in Brockman’s book are quite thought provoking if not downright enlightening. The chapters range from one to three pages long, ideal for a quick perusal in anyone’s reading room. I began reading way over my head when I was a child; I was fascinated by the graphic illustrations in The Scientific American. I tried to get the general idea, just reading right past complex formulae about which I didn’t have a clue. Well, I was only twelve. Some of the chapters in Brockman’s book gave me a similar feeling: way over my head in any technical sense. But even reading the chapters on topics related to the ephemeral unified “theory of everything” or the “singularity” in theoretical physics, or the idea of infinity and the extent of our universe, I could get the general idea. Anyway, it is all good intellectual exercise.

Of course, I am much more familiar with some of the topics discussed, such as economic growth, about which I have written a number of posts here. IQ is a topic that has always been controversial for me as a social psychologist. Issues around the confusion of correlation with causation have always intrigued me as a problem in research methodology, as has the question of anecdotal versus experimental evidence, and the issue of timing in causal analysis. So, I have enjoyed reading these diverse discussions of controversial ideas in various sciences.

Misreading Malthus

But when I read Matt Ridley’s chapter on Malthusianism, I was flatly annoyed. I had been annoyed similarly many years ago on reading Julian Simon’s claims that extensive economic growth should not raise concerns over resource depletion because it involves improved productivity and that population growth contributes to prosperity, not resource depletion. Ridley, a self-proclaimed “rational optimist,” dismisses the Club of Rome’s “Malthusian tract,” The Limits to Growth, despite the fact that its forecasts have been right on target over the decades since its publication. It has always been amazing to me how some writers can preach their “theories” in the face of mounting and even incontrovertible evidence – e.g., the climate deniers whose outlook on the petro-industrial system is quite similar to that of Mr. Ridley.

But the essence of my irritation is really quite simple. Timing is everything. Ridley obtusely exploits the short-term burst of industrial growth in the West to claim validity to the absurd idea that endless economic growth is somehow sustainable on a finite planet. He conveniently ignores the fact that western prosperity has been achieved on the backs of indigenous peoples across the globe, ever since the first European “explorers” began pillaging their lands and enslaving them. That is more than annoying. The “ingenuity” that turned material resources into capital was and remains grounded in violence perpetrated against diverse peoples and environments almost everywhere.

In predicting a quasi-Malthusian population crisis, Paul Ehrlich had been premature in his book, The Population Bomb, back in 1970, but he was not wrong. Technology did delay the clash of population growth with resource depletion, in large part because economic growth has been mainly confined to the Western industrial nations that have plundered resources from every continent. Population growth has had much less impact on the environment in the “developing” world, despite having been faster than in the West. That is because poor people living under oppressive regimes backed by the western industrial nations, consume very little energy or other resources. Poverty in the third world has been more extreme in part because of the imperial resource extraction from the “underdeveloped” nations that allowed techno-industrial growth in the West. But if the rest of the world had the same rates of consumption as the U.S. and Europe, global resources would have been depleted already. So, technology did facilitate growth in productivity, allowing the West to sustain a short-term prosperity through the latter half of the 20th century. That pattern cannot be sustained and is already showing major signs of impending collapse.

Irrational Optimism

Enter climate disruption, about which Ridley has nothing to say in this short chapter. However, his dismissal in his book, The Rational Optimist, of the not so optimistic forecasts resulting from massive and diverse data sets processed by hundreds of climate scientists worldwide disqualifies him as a “science writer.” Rather, he acts as a propagandist for the naïve optimism that dominates the extractive industrial culture that he so vehemently defends against any evidence that it has problems. His blind faith, not science or evidence, drive his foolish arguments that we have nothing to worry about. If the dominance of favorable ratings by other optimists on Goodreads and Amazon is any indicator, one thing we do have to worry about is the persistence of this a priori optimism in the face of an observed reality we must face if we are to retain any hope of achieving human survival in the next half century.

The mistakes about population growth are not Malthusian as Ridley claims. They are found instead in his myopic “Simonist” ideology of endless economic growth that simply denies the environmental and human impact of profligate extractive capital. The complexities of global demographics today have been given far too little attention. Ridley’s quasi-religious faith in human ingenuity is part of the technophilia that continues to culturally prop up the global capital-growth project. If the destructive trajectory of industrial “civilization” is allowed to continue just a little longer, the forecasts of Thomas Robert Malthus will soon seem understated. They will be mistaken only in the details of the collapse of a global techno-industrial system of plunder that he could not have predicted.

COP21, Bill Gates, and Climate Catastrophe

COP21, like the United Nations climate conferences before it, appears to be floundering over international non-binding showcase “commitments” to reduce carbon emissions — and is emitting effusive illusions of progress. Pleas of island nations fall on deaf ears. The negotiators are ignoring the scientific evidence that the reductions they are talking about fall far short of what is necessary to keep the planet habitable in the coming decades.

Coal Fired Generating Plant_Think.Progress

Meanwhile, a new set of players or “stakeholders” has appeared on the scene. Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world, retired from his position as CEO and creator of Microsoft, is now overseeing one of the biggest philanthropic foundations in the world, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is forming a group of 28 leading world investors called the “Breakthrough Energy Initiative.” This group of investors is aligning with governments in a new public-private venture called “Mission Innovation.”

Gates has pulled together billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), George Soros (consummate currency trader), Jack Ma (Alibaba), and Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal, in a massive effort at venture philanthropy. With their government allies, these guys are taking the powers that be directly down the wrong road. Their goal is to invest in Research and Development (R&D) of new low or no-carbon energy production technologies over the next five years. Their billions of private and public dollars could be much better spent on direct climate mitigation efforts urgently needed now.

First, we don’t have time to bet on the optimism of wealthy technophiles. No, not all problems in the world can be solved by some new (likely energy-intensive) technology. The Climate Crisis is NOW. We must apply all possible existing scientific and material resources to reduce  carbon emissions in the present, rather than betting on yet to be proven technologies that may be invented and developed in a few years.

Second, all new technology, especially the high tech stuff almost universally favored by venture capitalists, is energy intensive in both its development and its deployment. We need just the opposite: low-tech or existing technologies. Neither existing solar nor wind technologies need new R&D investments to be deployed now.

Third, we must transform the profligate endless-growth high consumption and waste economy that produces most of the carbon emissions currently destroying climate stability. Otherwise, emissions cannot be curtailed enough to avert disaster. That involves things we already know how to do, such as insulation, various other energy saving actions, and reductions in the explosive international trade that consumes so much fossil-fuel generated energy.

Neither the Gates Group of Billionaires nor the faux negotiators of COP21 seem willing to face the hard problem of immediate massive reductions in carbon emissions. What humanity and the planet need is a complete transformation of the global growth-at-any-cost economy into an ecological economy grounded in the earth systems that have sustained us all — so far.

What we need most is “Local Community Resilience to Avoid Climate Catastrophe,” which is the title of my article just published in the Green Fire Times, the largest distribution newspaper in Northern New Mexico. GFT focuses on all things related to sustainable life in the Southwest. In that article, I discuss resistance, replacement, and resilience, as the “three R’s” of survival under the conditions we face. These ideas are also discussed in some previous posts on this site. Civil society movements demonstrating outside the Paris conference — and around the world — are growing, as they did in response to previous establishment climate conferences that accomplished next to nothing. But they must grow much faster. The building of a global movement to achieve the Next Great Transformation offers the best hope, if it can happen fast enough.

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.