The Dilemma of Transformation: From Petro-Economy to Eco-Society

What will it will take to reduce world carbon emissions enough in the short time necessary to fend off the worst of the effects of climate disruption? So much of the economy and energy technology is involved that it is hard to even imagine the magnitude of resulting social disruption.

Yet here we are, faced with such colossal dilemmas that any serious student of the climate crisis is easily overwhelmed. Where to start? Everywhere. How much to do? Everything. But priorities must be set and optimal sequences of action must be developed. Here are some of the key dilemmas.

Individual change
“If everyone would just stop driving so much and using all those plastic drink-bottles…,” etc. Well, yes, many everyday behaviors will have to change if we are to even stop the continuing growth in carbon emissions, no less reverse the trend. But a serious consideration of the colossal scale at which many things must happen, the means to accomplish them appear perplexing at best.

Human habits would be hard enough to change without the social pressure to consume in our current manner. Beyond that, little exists in the way of a model for “responsible” ecological behavior. Besides, most folks barely have time to get the dishes done before work the next morning to spend a lot of time thinking about such things. I have always been a strong advocate for education, even as I saw its quality slide over the past 40 years in the U.S. But something much faster and more intense is needed.

Leadership AWOL
“George W. Obama,” someone called the equivocating “environmental president” who, as Naomi Klein put it the other day, just can’t bring himself to just say no to the dangerously destructive Keystone XL pipeline. Meanwhile, The Congress-of-No reeks of a vulgar racism that is willing to cost America whatever it takes to prevent “Obama” (the title “President” deliberately missing) from accomplishing anything at all. And as the rest of the world puzzles over how to respond to the growing climate crisis, U.S. Congress members wallow in sanctimonious denial. Their minds and their morals: Absent Without Leave.

Leadership in responding to climate disruption would take both recognition and bold public articulation of the catastrophic nature of the planetary climate emergency. Real leadership would entail mounting a major operation to mobilize all the major economic institutions to respond to the crisis. Each corporate and government sector should be required to develop plans for immediate ramping up of a maximal conversion of all energy systems. No special deals. If you are waiting for that you might as well plan for societal collapse; that is where the AWOL “leadership” is taking us.

So, leadership can only come from the “grass roots,” not just in individual ‘lifestyle’ changes – which must accompany economic, industrial, and technological conversions. Grass-roots leadership must force the restructuring of all the major institutions, public and private/corporate, that drive the fossil-fuel economy. Many local community actions, such as public banking, local non-chemical agriculture and small manufacture, etc., are needed, now. But the ultimate and proximate necessity is for large scale institutional transformations. These can only come from broad popularly supported collective demands upon the larger system. That will come when the crisis is sufficiently severe. But will it be soon enough?

Collective Action
Some sociologists specialize in studying “collective behavior and social movements.” Crowds, mobs, fashion, riots, rebellions, all have certain characteristics that distinguish them from everyday actions and normal social processes. Ordinary norms and beliefs are suspended as a collective recognition of special circumstances arises. That can be good or bad, depending on the situation and collective definitions of it. In context of natural disasters, sometimes whole communities have spontaneously risen up and responded to crises with highly organized mutual aid. Or, a riot can be a collective act of spontaneously organized destruction. Anti-colonial liberation movements resulted from a another form of collective consciousness. It all depends on the level and focus of awareness and collective definition of the situation.

But the climate crisis is somewhat different. It has emerged as an ecological consequence of the multiple converging crises of economics, politics, and expanded capital investment in extractive technologies of overproduction. Its scope is so broad, yet its impact is often very local and also episodic. A super storm here, a drought there, a super-hot wildfire or raging flood somewhere else, a lot of species extinctions everywhere. At the early stages the effects were diverse and diffuse. That does not lend itself to collective recognition or a focus for action. That must come from science, and science is something too many people are unfamiliar with and have been indoctrinated to mistrust. But the scientific evidence is now so clear that it constitutes a call for action.

Unprecedented Social Mobilization
The immediate dilemma is that deep and comprehensive structural change is needed on a very large scale and very quickly. But massive change will only happen when enormous numbers of people demand it. “National leadership” is unavailable; it serves the corporate state, the very source of these converging crises. Oddly, massive mobilization, which is driven by recognition and emotion, may be easier to launch than education.

This Changes Everything,” as Naomi Klein’s new book title accurately proclaims the essence of the climate crisis. But such immense transformation of all fundamental human systems requires complex coordination too – much akin to the rapid mobilization initiated on the U.S. entering WW II, but on an enormously larger scale. The social mobilization needed to effectively respond to the climate crisis must be national and international as well as local. But people in places are the only hope for launching such an unprecedented multifaceted human social mobilization to avoid extinction.

So a massive social mobilization is unequivocally necessary. It has happened before on a much smaller scale – the civil rights struggle, anti-apartheid movement, Poland, India, even Argentina in a sense, and with varying ‘success’ – but it is highly unpredictable and difficult. We are in for quite a ride….

Climate Science or Social Science?

The mass media continue to present the issue of climate change as if it were an unsettled scientific topic for political debate. Of course, the mass media are owned by the very corporations that have externalized the real costs of their pollution of the environment. If the real costs to people and the planet were fully grasped by the public, many of the largest corporations would be recognized for their criminal destruction of the very basis for life on the planet. Any reading of the research makes it clear that is no real scientific debate over whether global warming is real or whether the climate disruption we now experience is mostly anthropogenic. The data simply overwhelm any honest doubt; the rest is the politics of greed.

Many of the details of the deadly trajectory down which we are plummeting are still being clarified. That is always the case in scientific research. But it is entirely feasible to calculate the extent that emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, etc., must be reduced in order to stave off an environmental death spiral. Aside from how to carry out the reductions, the biggest question is whether or not it is too late to stop the accelerating increase of the earth’s temperature. Each new report indicates that prior modeling of climate change underestimated change and effects. But the science is improving as the prospects continue to look more bleak. Yet recognizing the urgency is strongly resisted.

Total Social Mobilization
Seeking certainty is irrelevant to an effective response to climate disruption, and at this point it is self-destructive. Calculations of the probabilities of the catastrophic consequences of continuing on the present path can and are being made. But it is already clear that drastic changes in energy consumption must be made immediately. It is nothing more than prudent to make the best calculations possible now and take every action necessary to stave off catastrophic climate disruption and societal collapse. Most climate scientists know that, but they are in no position to initiate drastic societal actions more massive than the greatest mobilizations of humanity ever attempted. Climate science describes our condition, but it cannot give us answers about how to mobilize humanity to save itself and the planet.

The present situation is an interesting contrast with the U.S. mobilization as the nation entered World War II. Automotive factories were converted to production of military tanks in a matter of weeks. New fighter aircraft were designed and put into production in a couple of months. Most importantly, the society and virtually the entire population put itself on a “war footing” almost immediately. Today, the difference is that this time the scale of mobilization necessary is just as comprehensive but many orders of magnitude greater in scale than that impressive social transformation. The same level of mobilization must occur in different ways in most other nations too, based on their differing patterns of fossil fuel consumption.

The Political Impasse
The impasse is rather obvious. Because of the central control of information and culture by the corporate state, the urgency of the situation is not recognized by most of the population. That is fine for the plutocrats attempting to squeeze those final profits from the dying growth economy, but it cannot last for long. If, as at the beginning of World War II, the entire population were able to recognize that total social mobilization is required for the survival of the nation, and if we had political leadership dedicated to facing the new reality, it could happen.

But we are in a very different place. Extreme economic individualism promoted by the corporate culture has weakened the social bonds that would support concerted action. Mass media “dysinfotainment” distracts the majority from facing the accelerating crisis. Self-indulgent politicians continue to collect their corporate largesse and look the other way while pandering to “climate deniers.” Presidents do what the corporate state requires – corporate aggrandizement is the priority, not societal survival. Total social mobilization is needed to make the massive economic and technical changes that are required to curtail the destruction that will otherwise befall humanity. Yet, the most important factors run counter to these changes. Even most environmental activists don’t talk about the huge scale of mobilization needed.

The Great Transformation
So, the most serious scientific questions remaining as to the future of humanity and the biosphere that must be addressed are really questions for the social sciences, not climate science. That is not a comfortable prospect for several reasons.

First, I have always called the social sciences the “hard sciences,” because the subject matter is so difficult. Most people call the physical sciences the hard sciences, but they have a different meaning. “Hard” data are the realm of physics and chemistry. Measurement and prediction of human behavior, let alone changing it, are much more difficult to do because of the fluidity of human behavior and social processes. Fluid dynamics is quite explicit because fluids behave in highly predictable ways. Not so humans. Mobilizing human behavior is far more complex.

Second, society today is tightly organized around the demands of an elitist growth economy that is in direct conflict with the needs for human survival. Politics and policy are driven by the economic elites. The only serious climate leadership is at the grass-roots level where the uphill battle is for the attention of a population. Most people must struggle daily to put food on the table. Not a pretty sight. The only hope lies in the fact that the public is not so stupid as the elites think. Growing numbers are recognizing the seriousness of the climate crisis, which is now the greatest human emergency ever. Perhaps a tipping point can be reached in time.