What about how? What the sci-fi novels all miss

I have not read much science fiction. But the sci-fi books I have read usually fall into the “post-apocalypse” variety, such as The Road, Earth Abides, Parable of the Sower, World Made by Hand, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale. I read these stories out of my interest in what is likely to happen in the next few decades.

We are entering a New Great Transformation of the relationship of humanity to the complex of living adaptive systems (ecosystems) that some call Gaia – a sort of organism of organisms. The exponential growth of the global technosphere has forced that transformation and we must face its consequences.

Varieties of Dystopia

Some of the post-apocalypse stories are quite fascinating and imaginative. They all explore in one way or another what happens when individuals or small groups encounter an entirely new situation in which widespread devastation has become the “new normal.” They raise all sorts of human dilemmas, from simple survival and threats from others to the forging of new social relationships when the old institutions and infrastructure of the society they had known are gone.

dystopian image

Dystopia Maybe?

In every case, at least in the books I have read, the apocalyptic event(s) that caused the post-apocalyptic condition remains shrouded in mystery. Alluded to in various ways and extent, what actually happened is not very clear.

In The Road, for example, a father and son travel away from the center of devastation in search of some safe new place, scavenging as they go. We get the impression that some major act of destruction such as an intercontinental nuclear exchange wiped out most of civilization on the East Coast of the U.S.A. But we are given no specific information about the event.

In Parable of the Sower, we follow a young woman leading a small group north out of Los Angeles and the chaos of marauding gangs of bandits, violent neighborhoods, and unsafe gated communities, all of which are under siege in one way or another. Yet we never learn what caused that urban dystopia. It might have been a single catastrophic event or a gradual collapse of society; we are not told.

Earth Abides, highly acclaimed when first published in 1949, is a bit different. A young man comes back to the San Francisco Bay area from a personal retreat in a mountain cabin to find that nobody remains alive; a pandemic has hit the world and apparently killed everyone except him. He had accidentally become immunized to the disease by a snake bite from which he almost died. Eventually he finds a few other survivors and they confront a world as it was but without people. The story is a classic well-told adventure of coping. In this case, the cause was quite simple, if not fully explained.

In World Made by Hand, a New England village struggles in a dystopian condition in which many factors of human conflicts and political disorganization play a role. As competing groups vie for power where most modern technology was somehow lost or destroyed, we never find out what caused that condition or what could have prevented it as the characters struggle to shape a new local-regional political order. The conflicts in World Made by Hand has some of the flavor of an old western movie.

The most interesting question (for me at least) is, how would a transition to a post-apocalyptic world happen? The New Great Transformation of the world as we know it, which we have begun to experience today, involves the destabilization of ecosystems and climate our industrial economy has caused. The environmental chaos, now well on its way, has already begun to trigger economic, political, military, and social breakdowns of increasing intensity, all likely to interact and even reinforce each other.

The New Great Transformation and the Peril Ahead

The popular classics of the genre of dystopian novels all contain a combination of some of the following: a totalitarian or theocratic state, censorship, surveillance, erasure of history, anti-intellectualism, consumption and entertainment as escapism, extreme inequality, and destruction of individuality and aesthetics. Read 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, even Hunger Games or Lord of the Flies, and you will see. Wait a minute, that list of dystopian characteristics sounds a bit too familiar…

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos or the rise of a totalitarian state. Some say science fiction is really about the present, but with imaginary advances in technology and totalitarianism.

Each post-apocalyptic novel I have read describes a different world than the others, but with often overlapping issues of human survival under extreme collapse of civilization and ensuing chaos. However, it seems to me that the most important and interesting question of the human condition today has to do with two things: 1) whether and to what extent people will finally realize that the world we have created is becoming un-survivable, and 2) what we will do about it.

Can we abandon our illusions of progress through corporate economic growth immediately in favor of a new creatively realistic response to the converging crises we face? Governments and corporations are the problem; they do not have the solutions. So is the industrial-consumer culture we have embraced. It is now up to people to counter the apocalyptic trend where we live. Our problem is not how to cope with an existing dystopia, but how to prevent the New Great Transformation from becoming one. That will require a great deal of hopeful realism.

Beyond Resistance: Replacement and Restoration for Resilience

Resist we must. But what will that get us, really? Well, catharsis yes. However, that is clearly not enough.

Will resistance bring a slower unraveling of American Democracy? Maybe, maybe not. The deep entanglement of political institutions with the increasingly monopolistic “technosphere” is so extensive that only resistance that borders on revolution might make a dent by forcing contraction of the corporate state. Don’t hold your breath.

climate change heats the planetWill resistance bring one or two less weather weirdings next year? Probably not. That will take a lot more than resistance. Only major contraction of the techno-industrial-consumer economy coupled with accelerated deployment of low-carbon technology and economics in local communities will make much difference. That will require massive social change at every level.

Limits of Resistance

Will resistance bring a respite from the splitting of our society between the extremely rich and the rest of us? Perhaps a tiny easing, if a new Congress were to legislate big penalties for abuse of the economy by the financial sector and if a new president were to appoint a ‘hard-ass’ to enforce existing anti-trust law. Only then might the parasitic financial sector shrink some. But its penetration into political institutions is deep and pervasive. But how much of the liberal insurgency that is the #resistance just a visceral repulsion to a narcissist sociopath and how much seeks deep social change?

Would resistance bring a slight improvement in the deteriorating health of our people due to abridged access to healthcare? Not likely in the short run, since it will take a lot more than Corporate Democrats controlling Congress to overthrow the Medical Insurance Monopoly and Big Pharma dominance over the forced “markets” mediating medical care. On the other hand, maybe enough resistance could generate the momentum needed to bring on universal health care, so common in the rest of the developed world.

Well, with a lot of resistance, we might at least get a concerted effort to accelerate climate action, right? Again, Mr. Big Corp is likely to continue forcing more capital-intensive hi-tech R&D programs, not accelerated deployment of ready-to-go distributed power generation and energy conservation strategies. Serious carbon emissions reduction, which requires major contraction of the technosphere, would involve seriously greater community control of economic activity, replacing the endless intermediation within the technosphere assuring sustained central control and uninterrupted human suffering.

Something Different: Replacement, Restoration, Resilience

No, we need something very different, and we need it now. “But you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?” Of course, that is a major part of the problem. We are blindly sailing into unchartered waters in a sinking ship with the captain acting the mutineer  overloading a private lifeboat with bullion. “Follow the money.”

Sorry.Lifestyle.out.of.stockWe will not survive by appealing to existing authority structures or charismatic demagogues. Nor will we survive by separating out ‘recyclables’ while buying plastic-packaged everything and investing in a hybrid car to maintain accustomed fossil-fuel levels of mobility.

Well, I can tell you one thing. What we do need even more than resistance is replacement of the global industrial-consumer economy with local ecological communities. Also we urgently need restoration of ecosystems everywhere to stop the planetary bleeding of the complex of living Earth systems we timidly call “the environment.” Only then can we achieve the resilience we desperately need. We will never get close to resilience by appealing to national politics. We must act now where we live. Of course, that is the hard part.

Resist we must, but it will be far from enough, even if Indivisible, movements like it, and street protests grow much larger. Politicians will continue dickering and taking bribes right up to the point where full-on climate collapse accelerates weird weather events, droughts, floods, large-scale crop failures, forced migrations, escalated violence and imminence of societal collapse.

No, Resistance is not enough.

Rotten Apples: Nature Overcomes Machine

Timing rules. Change waits for no machine. When I bought that apple coring machine, I expected to prepare and process our apple crop in record time. We had a somewhat smaller crop this year, but  preparing the apples for storage in freezer or “canning” them in Ball jars is both very labor-intensive and slow. The new hand-crank machine would speed up the process immensely. And, it was only about twenty-four bucks.

Apple.Mate.3

Old American Technology, manufactured in China.

The apple and pear corer/peeler/slicer I bought to make this season’s processing easier worked great on the apples that had not yet begun to rot. It was clearly an old design, but, of course, the new product was made in China. It does seem of generally good quality.

So much good information on the internet can draw us into the lazy acceptance of claims that might not be entirely true. Reality sets in when we try to put such claims into practice. When it comes to coring apples, the operational characteristics of the machine must be met by the right condition of the apples to which we apply the clever design of the machine.

We had stored most of the apples in our root cellar for a couple of months as we busied ourselves with other projects. According to the “experts,” they should last in a root cellar all winter. Then we realized that some of the apples exhibited signs of decay. Time to core, peel, and slice those apples before it is too late.

Well, for many of the apples, even some that looked quite good on the outside, it was in fact too late to enjoy the benefits of that old design in a new machine that is otherwise capable of saving us lots of time. I quickly discovered how to rapidly operate the machine to produce cored and peeled apple slices. But I also quickly discovered the limits of the “apple-machine interface.”

Some of our apples looked great, but had begun to rot at the core. Much of the apple was still good, but the core was not. That resulted in a failure of the machine to core, peel, and slice the apple as it was designed to do.

The three coordinated functions of the machine all depended upon its ability to hold the apple steady as the operator cranked the handle that drives all three functions simultaneously. The machine grips the apple by means of three prongs that are inserted into the apple core.

However, if the core has rotted in any significant degree, it becomes rather mushy. Under that condition, the prongs cannot hold the apple against the forces of the peeling and slicing blades. The prongs slip within the core and nothing much else happens.

Now, of course one could manually cut out the core with a knife and save maybe a quarter or even half the apple to be peeled and sliced by hand. But then the machine has no longer any value in the process.

Well, we used the machine on the apples that did not have rotten cores and salvaged about half the harvest. But we could not always tell if a clean looking apple had a rotten core. And we were not willing at that point to do all the manual labor required by our failure to core, peel, and slice with the aid of that clever devise. A large amount of waste went into the compost.

All machines are designed to perform a certain function under certain conditions. If we human operators cannot sustain those conditions, then the machine becomes quite useless. This applies to ALL technology. Our so-called “high tech” devises often fail on the basis of a similar disconnect between form, function, and conditions. But, unlike the apple-coring machine, we are often deceived about high-tech disconnects from reality.

What are we really trying to accomplish? Where do we really think we are going with technologies that in their abstract sophistication are increasingly detached from the real-world conditions of our lives? If we had been fully attuned to the apple-conditions required by our apple corer-peeler-slicer, the machine would have worked quite well.

No farmer in the nineteenth century would have made our modern mistake. S/he would have been far more attuned to the conditions of the crop and the requirements of the technology. Living in the real world required it no matter how sophisticated the technology. No technology has value unless effectively applied to a human purpose. Much high-tech stuff generates its own abstract purpose in the technosphere, not necessarily connected to the conditions of life in the biosphere.

Overcoming the Trumping of Democracy to Restore the Commonwealth

Trump is not merely rolling back countless federal programs that attempt to protect society from the ravages of unrestrained extractive corporate capital and industrial consumerism. He is going one worse. Think of the premise of his actions and the way he frames those actions in claiming to “make America great again.” That premise is that The Great Leader knows best. Ignore and deny facts; abandon democratic process; submit to his will alone. Just have faith in The Great Leader.

EPA programs and operations Suppressed; Military energy-star efficiency trashed; national parks plundered for mining and drilling; safety, pollution, and worker protections in industry rolled back; plunder the nation’s public lands. These are some of the president’s ‘practical’ goals. We must ask, “Who benefits?” Certainly not the public.

In all of these actions and more, especially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, the premise is that the maximal leader is the only legitimate source of power and correct action.

As Thomas Snyder, Yale historian has so powerfully explained in his recent small eloquent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the twentieth Century, “the president” has embarked on actions that parallel those used by various demagogues to destroy democracies in Europe. Every American should read this brief but powerful essay on how fascism overcomes democracy. We tend to think our democratic institutions are inviable, but they are not. They are now at high and growing risk.

Every executive order by this president is an attack on some public value, from due process to environmental protection, from plunder of the nation’s natural resources to escalating military adventurism. Corruption of public values in service to private plunder is elevated to the status of an unassailable new normal. The greatest danger now is that it is easier to acquiesce than to resist.

Underlying it all is the triumph of the ego over the human instinct for civility, altruism, reason, confirmed fact, and the public good. Lies are elevated to the status of faith in the decisions of a real estate swindler indebted to Russian oligarchs, whose misogynistic narcissism and corrupt business practices we must not question.

In all this, the stock market provides an interesting indicator of the ‘state of mind’ of the investor class, including institutional investors and wealthy individuals. Shiller’s indexes of stock market confidence are now at remarkably high levels. One interpretation is that investors believe the Trumping of democracy will offer expanded opportunity for plunder capital to ravage the social and natural environments for fun and profit, even though market valuations appear much higher than underlying fundamental business value. The U.S. One-Year Stock Market Confidence Index numbers have shot up since Trump’s inauguration, reaching well beyond those seen just before historical “corrections” in market valuation preceding recessions.

Schiller one-year investor confidence index

Source: http://som.yale.edu/faculty-research/centers-initiatives/international-center-for-finance/data/stock-market-confidence-indices/stock-market-confidence-indices

As one ‘contrarian,’ Eric Parnell, a registered investment advisor, put it, “All of this implies a toxic combination. Nearly everyone is bullish, thus leaving nobody new to join the game to take on the hot potato of already expensive stock prices.” But in today’s environment, greed knows no bounds, from the offices of predatory purchasers of bad debt to the oval office, plunder is the new normal – well, not so new, but radically more normal than ever.

During the Katrina catastrophe, minor looting got all the media attention; cooperative behavior, was not sensational enough to garner media attention. However, many made personal efforts to help others. Around the world, communities are rising to protect the land, water, air, and ecosystems upon which they depend for survival. The enemy of living Earth systems, including humanity, is the endless economic growth machine that Dmitri Orlov calls the “technosphere.” The new president is the most ‘visible hand’ in perpetuating the plunder of the biosphere by the technosphere.

Resist the oppression. Replace the destruction. Restore the Earth. These choices we the people must make by learning the lessons of failed democracies of the twentieth century. These difficult actions are the only choices left to achieve the societal resilience necessary for survival. Overcoming Trumpery is a necessity in that process.

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 Transformation

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.