The neoliberal ideology of unrestrained markets has led to a global crisis. Humanity now faces an existential threat as the result of global dominance by corporations, whose ultimate goal is at odds with human flourishing.
Originally published March 14, 2022 in Inside Over as “The world on the brink of the abyss. Looking at the real danger.”
Back in 1947, as the world was rebuilding from the destruction of the Second World War, a few dozen free-market ideologues met in a luxury Swiss resort to form the Mont Pelerin Society—an organization devoted to spreading the ideology of neoliberalism throughout the world. Their ideas—that the free market should dominate virtually all aspects of society, that regulations should be dismantled, and that individual liberty should eclipse all other considerations of fairness, equity, or community welfare—were considered fanatical at the time. Over three decades, though, financed by wealthy donors, they assiduously established networks of academics, businessmen, economists, journalists, and politicians in global centers of power.
When the stagflation crisis of the 1970s threw classic Keynesian economics into disrepute, their moment of opportunity arrived. By 1985, with free market disciples Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher entrenched in power, they initiated a campaign to systematically transform virtually all aspects of life into an unrestrained marketplace, where everything could be bought and sold to the highest bidder, subject to no moral scruple. They crippled trade unions, tore up social safety nets, reduced tax rates for the wealthy, eliminated regulations, and instituted a massive transfer of wealth from society at large to the uber-elite.
Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have succeeded in transforming the world into a globalized market-based system. The triumph of neoliberalism has led to the greatest inequality in history, where the world’s twenty-six richest people own as much wealth as half the entire world’s population. It also created the conditions for large transnational corporations to become the dominant force directing our world, more powerful than any government or nation. Through their influence on legislation, they have virtually eliminated regulatory limitations on their growth, their permissible industries, or their competitive playing field. Massive corporations are gobbled up by even vaster ones, creating commanding monoliths that set the terms for their own activities. Of the hundred largest economies in the world, sixty-nine are now corporations.
In today’s corporate-dominated global stage, nations and municipalities compete against each other to attract corporate investment to their region, relinquishing taxation, regulations, and worker protections in the hope of jobs or infrastructure spending. In most countries, the boundaries between corporate executives and government have become so blurred as to be virtually nonexistent. Transnational corporations control most of the world’s finance, manufacturing, agriculture, and trade, and are routinely invited to intervene in international treaty negotiations, ensuring that their interests remain protected.
A new moniker arising from the corporate titans at the World Economic Forum is “stakeholder capitalism”: an inviting term that seems to imply that stakeholders other than investors will play a role in setting corporate priorities, but actually refers to a profoundly anti-democratic process whereby corporations are assuming even more dominant roles in global governance. This month, the UN Food Systems Summit was essentially taken over by the same giant corporations, including Nestlé and Bayer, that are largely responsible for the very problems the summit was intended to grapple with — which led to a widespread boycott by hundreds of civil society and Indigenous groups.
If this supreme global force had benevolent aims, then at least a case could be made for permitting it to retain such control over human activity. But the opposite is true. The common goal of corporations around the world is to monetize human activity and what’s left of nature’s abundance as rapidly and efficiently as possible. The overriding purpose of the world’s most powerful institutional force is thus directly at odds with a flourishing Earth or a viable future for humanity.
A fundamental reason for the rapacious behavior of transnational corporations is their drive to maximize shareholder value above anything else. While there is no explicit requirement for this in the standard corporate charter, a century of case law has entrenched this principle into the behavior of large corporations to the point that is has become the de facto standard of operation. As a result, if corporations were people, they would be considered psychopaths, utterly devoid of any caring for the harm they cause in the pursuit of their goals.
This relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most obvious danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° C increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.
But even if the climate crisis were somehow brought under control, a continuation of untrammeled economic growth in future decades will bring us face-to-face with a slew of further existential threats. Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, freshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed five of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences.
The corporate takeover of humanity is so all-encompassing that it’s become difficult to visualize any other possible global system. Alternatives do, however, exist. Around the world, worker-owned cooperatives have demonstrated that they can be as effective as corporations—or more so—without pursuing shareholder wealth as their primary consideration. The Mondragon cooperative in Spain, with revenues exceeding €12 billion, shows how this form of organization can efficiently scale.
There are also legal and structural changes that can be made to corporations to realign their value system with human welfare. The pathology of shareholder value maximization could be addressed by requiring their charters to be converted to a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits, and subject to rigorous enforcement powers. This alternative corporate value system is already available through chartering as a benefit corporation or certifying as a B-Corp. Since it is voluntary, however, it has had virtually no impact on a broader scale. If, instead the triple bottom line were a requirement for all corporations above a certain size, and strictly enforced, it would rapidly lead to a profound shift in corporate priorities.
The idea of restraining corporate domination of our society may seem daunting in the current global political environment. It must, however, begin with the clear and explicit recognition that the overarching goal of corporations is currently at odds with a healthy Earth and the future flourishing of humanity. The neoliberal model that has led our global civilization to the precipice of disaster must be supplanted by a different economic system based on life-affirming values before it’s too late.
Jeremy Lent is an author and speaker whose work investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis, and explores pathways toward a life-affirming future. His two recent books are The Patterning Instinct: A Cognitive History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning and The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe. More information: https://www.jeremylent.com/
The global conversation regarding climate change has, for the most part, ignored the elephant in the room. That’s strange, because this particular elephant is so large, obvious, and all-encompassing that politicians and executives must contort themselves to avoid naming it publicly. That elephant is called capitalism, and it is high time to face the fact that, as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system of our globalized world, the climate crisis won’t be resolved.
As the crucial UN climate talks known as COP26 approach in early November, the public is becoming increasingly aware that the stakes have never been higher. What were once ominous warnings of future climate shocks wrought by wildfires, floods, and droughts have now become a staple of the daily news. Yet governments are failing to meet their own emissions pledges from the Paris agreement six years ago, which were themselves acknowledged to be inadequate. Increasingly, respected Earth scientists are warning, not just about the devastating effects of climate breakdown on our daily lives, but about the potential collapse of civilization itself unless we drastically change direction.
The elephant in the room
And yet, even as humanity faces perhaps the greatest existential crisis in its species’ history, the public debate on climate barely mentions the underlying economic system that brought us to this point and which continues to drive us toward the precipice. Ever since its emergence in the seventeenth century, with the creation of the first limited liability shareholder-owned corporations, capitalism has been premised on viewing the planet as a resource to exploit — its overriding objective to maximize profits from that exploitation as rapidly and extensively as possible. Current mainstream strategies to resolve our twin crises of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot without changing the underlying system of growth-based global capitalism are structurally inadequate.
The idea of “green growth” is promulgated by many development consultants, and is even incorporated in the UN’s official plan for “sustainable development,” but has been shown to be an illusion. Ecomodernists, and others who stand to profit from growth in the short-term, frequently make the argument that, through technological innovation, aggregate global economic output can become “absolutely decoupled” from resource use and carbon emissions — permitting limitless growth on a finite planet. Careful rigorous analysis, though, shows that this hasn’t happened so far, and even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still lead to unsustainable consumption of global resources.
The primary reason for this derives ultimately from the nature of capitalism itself. Under capitalism — which has now become the default global economic context for virtually all human enterprise — efficiency improvements intended to reduce resource usage inevitably become launchpads for further exploitation, leading paradoxically to an increase, rather than decrease, in consumption.
This dynamic, known as the Jevons paradox, was first recognized back in the nineteenth century by economist William Stanley Jevons, who demonstrated how James Watts’ steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of coal-powered engines, paradoxically caused a dramatic increase in coal consumption even while it decreased the amount of coal required for any particular application. The Jevons paradox has since been shown to be true in an endless variety of domains, from the invention in the nineteenth century of the cotton gin which led to an increase rather than decrease in the practice of slavery in the American South, to improved automobile fuel efficiency which encourages people to drive longer distances.
When the Jevons paradox is generalized to the global marketplace, we begin to see that it’s not really a paradox at all, but rather an inbuilt defining characteristic of capitalism. Shareholder-owned corporations, as the primary agents of global capitalism, are legally structured by the overarching imperative to maximize shareholder returns above all else. Although they are given the legal rights of “personhood” in many jurisdictions, if they were actually humans they would be diagnosed as psychopaths, ruthlessly pursuing their goal without regard to any collateral damage they might cause. Of the hundred largest economies today, sixty-nine are transnational corporations, which collectively represent a relentless force with one overriding objective: to turn humanity and the rest of life into fodder for endlessly increasing profit at the fastest possible rate.
Under global capitalism, this dynamic holds true even without the involvement of transnational corporations. Take bitcoin as an example. Originally designed after the global financial meltdown of 2008 to wrest monetary power from the domination of central banks, it relies on building trust through “mining,” a process that allows anyone to verify a transaction by solving increasingly complex mathematical equations and earn new bitcoins as compensation. A great idea — in theory. In practice, the unfettered marketplace for bitcoin mining has led to frenzied competition to solve ever more complex equations, with vast warehouses holding “rigs” of advanced computers consuming massive amounts of electricity, with the result that the carbon emissions from bitcoin processing are now equivalent to that of a mid-size country such as Sweden or Argentina.
An economy based on perpetual growth
The relentless pursuit of profit growth above all other considerations is reflected in the world’s stock markets, where corporations are valued not by their benefit to society, but by investors’ expectations of their growth in future earnings. Similarly, when aggregated to national accounts, the main proxy used to measure the performance of politicians is growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Although it is commonly assumed that GDP correlates with social welfare, this is not the case once basic material requirements have been met. GDP merely measures the rate at which society transforms nature and human activity into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. When researchers developed a benchmark called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which incorporates qualitative components of well-being, they discovered a dramatic divergence between the two measures. GPI peaked in 1978 and has been steadily falling ever since, even while GDP continues to accelerate.
In spite of this, the possibility of shifting our economy away from perpetual growth is barely even considered in mainstream discourse. In preparation for COP26, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) modeled five scenarios exploring potential pathways that would lead to different global heating outcomes this century, ranging from an optimistic 1.5°C pathway to a likely catastrophic 4.5°C track. One of their most critical variables is the amount of carbon reduction accomplished through negative emissions, relying on massive implementation of unproven technologies. According to the IPCC, staying under 2°C of global heating — consistent with the minimum target set by the 2015 Paris agreement — involves a heroic assumption that we will suck 730 billion metric tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere this century. This stupendous amount is equivalent to roughly twenty times the total current annual emissions from all fossil fuel usage. Such an assumption is closer to science fiction than any rigorous analysis worthy of a model on which our civilization is basing its entire future. Yet, even as the IPCC appears willing to model humanity’s fate on a pipe dream, not one of their scenarios explores what is possible from a graduated annual reduction in global GDP. Such a scenario was considered by the IPCC community to be too implausible to consider.
This represents a serious lapse on the part of the IPCC. Climate scientists who have modeled planned reductions in GDP show that keeping global heating below 1.5°C this century is potentially within reach under this scenario, with greatly reduced reliance on speculative carbon reduction technologies. Prominent economists have shown that a carefully managed “post-growth” plan could lead to enhanced quality of life, reduced inequality, and a healthier environment. It would, however, undermine the foundational activity of capitalism — the pursuit of endless growth that has led to our current state of obscene inequality, impending ecological collapse, and climate breakdown.
The profit-based path to catastrophe
As long as this elephant in the room remains unspoken, our world will continue to careen toward catastrophe, even as politicians and technocrats shift from one savior narrative to another. Along with the myth of “green growth,” we are told that a solution lies in putting monetary valuations on “ecosystem services” and incorporating them into business decisions — even though this approach has been shown to be deeply flawed, frequently counterproductive, and ultimately self-defeating. A wetlands, for example, might have value in protecting a city from flooding. However, if it were drained and a swanky new resort built on the reclaimed land, this could be more lucrative. Case closed.
The new moniker arising from the corporate titans at the World Economic Forum is “stakeholder capitalism”: an inviting term that seems to imply that stakeholders other than investors will play a role in setting corporate priorities, but actually refers to a profoundly anti-democratic process whereby corporations assume increasingly large roles in global governance. This month, the UN Food Systems Summit was essentially taken over by the same giant corporations, including Nestlé and Bayer, that are largely responsible for the very problems the summit was intended to grapple with — which led to a widespread boycott by hundreds of civil society and Indigenous groups.
As net-zero targets decades away are formally announced at COP26, built implicitly on a combination of corporate procrastination and speculative technologies, we can only expect the climate crisis to continue to worsen. Ultimately, as negative emissions technologies fail to meet their grandiose expectations, the same voices that currently promote reliance on them will lend support to the techno-dystopian idea of geoengineering — vast, planet-altering engineering projects designed to temporarily manipulate the climate to defer a climate apocalypse. A leading geoengineering candidate, financed by Bill Gates, involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. The risks are enormous, including the likelihood of causing extreme shifts in precipitation around the world. Additionally, once begun, it could never be stopped without immediate catastrophic rebound heating; it would not prevent the oceans from further acidifying; and may turn the blue sky into a perpetual dull haze. In spite of these concerns, geoengineering is beginning to get discussed at UN meetings, with publications such as The Economistpredicting that, since it wouldn’t disrupt continued economic growth, it’s more likely to be implemented than the drastic, binding cuts in emissions that would head off climate disaster.
There is an alternative
Why is the elephant in the room so rarely mentioned in mainstream discourse? One reason is that, since the collapse of communism and the parallel rise of neoliberalism beginning in the 1980s, it is assumed that “there is no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher famously declared. Even committed green advocates, such as the Business Green group, are quick to dismiss criticism of our growth-based economic system as “knee-jerk anti-capitalist agitprop.” But the conventional dichotomy between capitalism and socialism, to which such conversations inevitably devolve, is no longer helpful. Old-fashioned socialism was just as poised to consume the Earth as capitalism, differing primarily in how the pie should be carved up.
There is, however, an alternative. A wide range of progressive thinkers are exploring the possibilities of replacing our destructive global economic system with one that offers potential for sustainability, greater fairness, and human flourishing. Proponents of degrowth show that it is possible to implement a planned reduction of energy and resource use while reducing inequality and improving human well-being. Economic models, such as Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” offer coherent substitutes for the classical outdated framework that ignores fundamental principles of human nature and humanity’s role within the Earth system. Meanwhile, large-scale cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model.
Another reason people give for ignoring the elephant in the room, even when they know it’s there, is that we don’t have time for structural change. The climate emergency is already upon us, and we need to focus on actions that can occur right now. This is true, and nothing in this article should be taken as a reason to avoid the drastic and immediate changes required in business and consumer practices. Indeed, they are necessary — but insufficient. Ultimately, our global civilization must begin a transformation to one that is based not on building wealth through extraction, but on foundational principles that could create the conditions for long-term flourishing on a regenerated Earth — an ecological civilization.
Even in the short term, there are innumerable steps that can be taken to steer our civilization toward a life-affirming trajectory. Around the world Indigenous people on the frontline of the climate emergency desperately need support in defending the biodiverse ecosystems in which they are embedded against assaults from extractive corporations. A growing campaign is under way to make the wholesale destruction of natural living systems a criminal act by establishing a law of ecocide—prosecutable like genocide under the International Criminal Court. The powers of transnational corporations themselves need to be addressed, ultimately by requiring their charters to be converted to a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits, and subject to rigorous enforcement powers.
The transformation we need may take decades, but the process must begin now with the clear and explicit recognition that capitalism itself needs to be supplanted by a system based on life-affirming values. Don’t expect to see any discussion of these issues in the formal proceedings of COP26. But, turn your attention outside the hallowed halls and you’ll hear the voices of those who are standing up for life’s continued flourishing on Earth. It’s only when their ideas are discussed seriously in the main chambers of a future COP that we can begin to hold authentic hope that our civilization may finally be turning away from the precipice toward which it is currently accelerating.
From genetic engineering to geoengineering, we treat nature as though it’s a machine. This view of nature is deeply embedded in Western thought, but it’s a fundamental misconception with potentially disastrous consequences.
Climate change, avers Rex Tillerson, ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and erstwhile US Secretary of State, “is an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” This brief statement encapsulates how the metaphor of the machine underlies the way our mainstream culture views the natural world. It also hints at the grievous dangers involved in perceiving nature in this way.
This mechanistic worldview has deep roots in Western thought. The great pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, believed they were decoding “God’s book,” which was written in the language of mathematics. God was conceived as a great clockmaker, the “artificer” who constructed the intricate machine of nature so flawlessly that, once it was set in motion, there was nothing more to do (bar the occasional miracle) than let it run its course. “What is the heart, but a spring,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, “and the nerves but so many strings?” Descartes flatly declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”
In recent decades, the mechanistic conception of nature has been updated for the computer age, with popularizers of science such as Richard Dawkins arguing that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” and as a result, an animal such as a bat “is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects, as an unconscious guided missile homes in on an aeroplane.” This digital metaphor of nature pervades our culture and is used unreflectively by those in a position to direct our society’s future. According to Larry Page, co-founder of Google, for example, human DNA is just “600 megabytes compressed, so it’s smaller than any modern operating system . . . So your program algorithms probably aren’t that complicated.”
But nature is not in fact a machine nor a computer—and it can’t be engineered or programmed like one. Thinking of it as such is a category error with ramifications that are both deluded and dangerous.
A four-billion-year reversal of entropy
Ultimately, this machine metaphor is based on a simplifying assumption, known as reductionism, which approaches nature as a collection of tiny parts to investigate. This methodology has been resoundingly effective in many fields of inquiry, leading to some of our greatest advances in science and technology. Without it, most of the benefits of our modern world would not exist—no electrical grids, no airplanes, no antibiotics, no internet. However, over the centuries, many scientists and engineers have been so swept up by the success of their enterprise that they have frequently mistaken this assumption for reality—even when advances in scientific research uncover its limitations.
When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the shape of the DNA molecule in 1953, they used metaphors from the burgeoning information revolution to describe their findings. The genotype was a “program” that determined the exact specifications of an organism, just like a computer program. DNA sequences formed the “master code” of a “blueprint” that contained a detailed set of “instructions” for building an individual. Prominent geneticist Walter Gilbert would begin his public lectures by pulling out a compact disk and proclaiming “This is you!”
Since then, however, further scientific research has revealed fundamental defects in this model. The “central dogma” of molecular biology, as coined by Crick and Watson, was that information could only flow one way: from the gene to the rest of the cell. Biologists now know that proteins act directly on the DNA of the cell, specifying which genes in the DNA should be activated. DNA can’t do anything by itself—it only functions when certain parts of it get switched on or off by the activities of different combinations of proteins, which were themselves formed by the instructions of DNA. This process is a vibrant, dynamic circular flow of interactivity.
This leads to a classic chicken-and-egg problem: if a cell is not determined solely by its genes, what ultimately causes it to “decide” what to do? Biologists who have researched this issue generally agree that the emergence of life on Earth was most likely a self-organized process known as autopoiesis—from the Greek words meaning self-generation—performed originally by non-living molecular structures.
These protocells essentially staged a temporary, local reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which describes how the universe is undergoing an irreversible process of entropy: order inevitably becomes disordered and heat always flows from hot regions to colder regions. We see entropy in our daily lives every time we stir cream into our coffee, or break an egg for an omelet. Once the egg is scrambled, no amount of work will ever get the yolk back together again. It’s a depressing law, especially when applied to the entire universe which, according to most physicists, will eventually dissipate into a bleak expanse of cold, dark nothingness. Those first protocells, however, learned to turn entropy into order by ingesting it in the form of energy and matter, breaking it apart, and reorganizing it into forms beneficial for their continued existence—the process we know as metabolism.
Ever since then, for roughly four billion years, the defining quality of life has been its purposive self-organization. There is no programmer writing a program; no architect drawing up a blueprint. The organism is the weaver of its own fabric, using DNA as an instrument of transmission. It sculpts itself according to its own inner sense of purpose, which it inherited ultimately—like all of us—from those first autocatalytic cells: the drive to resist entropy and generate a temporary vortex of self-created order in the universe. In the words of philosopher of biology Andreas Weber, “Everything that lives wants more of life. Organisms are beings whose own existence means something to them.”
This implies that, rather than being an aggregation of unconscious machines, life is intrinsically purposive. In recent decades, carefully designed scientific studies have revealed the deep intelligence throughout the natural world employed by organisms as they fulfil their purpose of self-generation. The inner life of a plant, biologists have discovered, is a rich plethora of complex experience. Plants have their own versions of our five senses, as well as up to fifteen other ways of sensing their environment for which we don’t have analogues. Plants act intentionally and purposefully: they have memories and learn, they communicate with each other, and can even allocate resources as a community through what biologist Suzanne Simard calls the “wood-wide web” of mycorrhizal fungi linking their roots together underground.
Extensive studies now point to the profound realization that every animal with a nervous system is likely to have some sort of subjective experience driven by feelings that, at the deepest level, are shared by all of us. Bees have been shown to feel anxious when their hives are shaken. Fish will make trade-offs between hunger and pain, avoiding part of an aquarium where they’re likely to get an electric shock, even if that’s where the food is—until they get so hungry that they’re willing to take a risk. Octopuses, one of the earliest groups to evolve separately from other animals about 600 million years ago, live predominantly solitary lives, but just like humans, get cozy with others when given a dose of the “love-drug” MDMA.
The ideology of human supremacy
As we confront the existential crises of the twenty-first century, the mechanistic thinking that brought us to this place may be driving us headlong toward catastrophe. As each new global problem appears, attention gets focused on short-term, mechanistic solutions, rather than probing deeper systemic causation. In response to the worldwide collapse of butterfly and bee populations, for example, some researchers have designed tiny airborne drones to pollinate trees as artificial substitutes for their disappearing natural pollinators.
As the stakes get higher through this century, the dangers arising from this mechanistic metaphor of nature will only become more harrowing. Already, in response to the acceleration of climate breakdown, the techno-dystopian idea of geoengineering is becoming increasingly acceptable. Following Tillerson’s misconceived logic, rather than disrupt the fossil fuel-based growth economy, policymakers are beginning to seriously countenance treating the Earth as a gigantic machine that needs fixing, and developing massive engineering projects to tinker with the global climate.
Given the innumerable nonlinear feedback loops that generate our planet’s complex living systems, the law of unintended consequences looms menacingly large. The eerily named field of “solar radiation management”, for example, which has received significant financing from Bill Gates, envisages spraying particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. The risks are enormous, such as causing extreme shifts in precipitation around the world and exacerbating damage we’ve already done to the ozone layer. Additionally, once begun, it could never be stopped without immediate catastrophic rebound heating; it would further increase ocean acidification; and would likely turn the blue sky into a perpetual white haze. These types of feedback effects, arising from the innumerable nonlinear dynamic interdependencies of Earth’s complex systems, get marginalized by a worldview that ultimately sees our planet as a machine requiring a quick fix.
Further, there are deep moral issues that arise from confronting the inherent subjectivity of the natural world. Ever since the Scientific Revolution, the root metaphor of nature as a machine has infiltrated Western culture, inducing people to view the living Earth as a resource for humans to exploit without regard for its intrinsic value. Ecological philosopher Eileen Crist describes this as human supremacy, pointing out that seeing nature as a “resource” permits anything to be done to the Earth with no moral misgivings. Fish get reclassified as “fisheries,” and farm animals as “livestock”—living creatures become mere assets to be exploited for profit. Ultimately, it is the ideology of human supremacy that allows us to blow up mountaintops for coal, turn vibrant rainforest into monocropped wastelands, and trawl millions of miles of ocean floor with nets that scoop up everything that moves.
Once we recognize that other animals with a nervous system are not machines, as Descartes proposed, but likely experience subjective feelings similar to humans, we must also reckon with the unsettling moral implications of factory farming. The stark reality is that around the world, cows, chicken, and pigs are enslaved, tortured, and mercilessly slaughtered merely for human convenience. This systematic torment administered in the name of humanity to over 70 billion animals a year—each one a sentient creature with a nervous system as capable of registering excruciating pain as you or I—quite possibly represents the greatest cataclysm of suffering that life on Earth has ever experienced.
The “quantum jazz” of life
What, then, are metaphors of life that more accurately reflect the findings of biology—and might have the adaptive consequence of influencing our civilization to behave with more reverence toward our nonliving relatives on this beleaguered planet which is our only home?
Frequently, when cell biologists describe the mind-boggling complexity of their subject, they turn to music as a core metaphor. Denis Noble entitled his book on cellular biology The Music of Life, depicting it as “a symphony.” Ursula Goodenough describes patterns of gene expression as “melodies and harmonies.” While this metaphor rings truer than nature as a machine, it has its own limitations: a symphony is, after all, a piece of music written by a composer, with a conductor directing how each note should be played. The awesome quality of nature’s music arises from the fact that it is self-organized. There is no outside agent telling each cell what to do.
Perhaps a more illustrative metaphor would be a dance. Cell biologists increasingly refer to their findings in terms of “choreography,” and philosopher of biology Evan Thompson writes vividly how an organism and its environment relate to each other “like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements.”
Another compelling metaphor is an improvisational jazz ensemble, where a self-organized group of musicians spontaneously creates fresh melodies from a core harmonic theme, riffing off each other’s creativity in a similar way to how evolution generates complex ecosystems. Geneticist Mae-Wan Ho captures this idea with her portrayal of life as “quantum jazz,” describing it as “an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification in the organism . . . locally appearing as though completely chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole.”
What might our world look if we saw ourselves as participating in a coherent ensemble with all sentient beings interweaving together to collectively reverse entropy on Earth? Perhaps we might begin to see humanity’s role, not to re-engineer a broken planet for further exploitation, but to attune with the rest of life’s abundance, and ensure that our own actions harmonize with the Earth’s ecological rhythms. In the profound words of 20th century humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, “I am life that wills to live, in the midst of life that wills to live.” How, we may ask, might our future trajectory change if we were to reconstruct our civilization on this basis?
The somber truth is that the vast bulk of nature’s staggering abundance has already disappeared. We live in a world characterized primarily by the relative silence and emptiness of its natural spaces. Underlying this devastation is the ideology of human supremacy—claiming intrinsic superiority over nonhuman forms of life. But is human supremacy innate to humanity, or rather something specific pertaining to our dominant culture?
The nonhuman creatures with whom we share the Earth are being systematically annihilated by the Great Acceleration, as they lose their habitat, get hunted down, or poisoned by our pollution. There has been a 68 percent decline in vertebrate populations worldwide since 1970, with freshwater species such as amphibians registering a jaw-dropping 84 percent loss. Insects have been faring just as badly, with reports of “insectageddon” from some areas that have seen populations crashing toward extinction levels—such as the Monarch butterflies that migrate annually from Mexico to the United States, and have declined by 98 percent over the past thirty years.
There have been five mass extinctions of life in Earth’s history, caused by cataclysms such as volcanic eruptions or meteorite impact. Scientists warn that human activity is now causing species to go extinct at a thousand times the normal background rate, and that if we continue at this rate for a few more decades, we will have triggered the Sixth Extinction. Leading experts in the field, such as biologist E. O. Wilson, predict that half of the world’s estimated eight million species will be extinct or at the brink of extinction by the end of this century unless humanity changes its ways.
Why don’t we react in unbridled outrage to the devastation of the natural world taking place before our eyes? A major reason is that we don’t realize what we’ve lost. Back in 1968, in a song that became an icon of the environmental movement, Joni Mitchell sang about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, making the point that you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. She stirred millions of hearts—but she was wrong. The disturbing reality is that, once it’s gone, people forget they ever had it. Whatever conditions people grow up with are the ones they generally consider normal. This is a tribute to the amazing plasticity of the human mind, but it means that we tend to take for granted things that should never be accepted.
This phenomenon, known as “shifting baseline syndrome,” was first discovered by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, who was researching the drastic reduction in the size of catch off the eastern seaboard of North America, which had declined by 97 percent since written records began, although the fishermen remained strangely unconcerned. He realized that each generation viewed the baseline as whatever they caught at the beginning of their career, regardless of how much smaller it was than the previous generation, leading to what he called “the gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance” of fish populations. Shifting baseline syndrome has since been shown to be pervasive everywhere in the world.
The somber truth is that the vast bulk of nature’s staggering abundance has already disappeared. We live in a world characterized primarily by the relative silence and emptiness of its natural spaces. It’s only when we read accounts of wildlife from centuries ago that we realize how much is gone. One eighteenth-century writer, standing on the shores of Wales, described schools of herrings five or six miles long, so dense that “the whole water seems alive; and it is seen so black with them to a great distance, that the number seems inexhaustible.” In the seventeenth-century Caribbean, sailors could navigate at night by the noise of massive shoals of sea turtles heading to nesting beaches on the Cayman Islands. In the Chesapeake Bay, plagued today by polluted dead zones, hunters harvested a hundred thousand terrapins a year for turtle soup. In the nineteenth century, passenger pigeons would blot out the sun when they appeared in massive flocks throughout the eastern United States. The last one died in a zoo in 1914.
The Great Dying
In normal times, extinction is a natural part of evolution: new species evolve from prior existing species, meaning that, rather than dying out, “extinct” species are really the progenitors of new ones. When extinctions occur, however, as part of a mass extinction, they represent a grave and permanent loss to the richness of life. Species exterminated by human development are wiped out from nature’s palette, terminating any possibility of further evolutionary branching. The average lifespan of a species is roughly a million years—the unfolding story of each one is, in E. O. Wilson’s words, a unique epic. We’ve seen how life’s prodigious diversity on Earth can be understood as nature’s own evolved intelligence, earned over billions of years. Through extinction, we are dumbing down nature, eliminating the plenitude it has so painstakingly accumulated.
Terminal as extinctions are, the virtual disappearance of most populations of existing species, known as extirpations, are perhaps even more devastating. It’s been calculated that, since the rise of human civilization, Earth has lost 83 percent of its wild mammals, 80 percent of marine mammals, and about half the biomass of trees and plants—a worldwide elimination of life’s abundance that has been aptly named by biologist Norman Myers “the Great Dying.” The species we view as iconic of nature’s magnificence, such as lions, tigers, elephants, and whales—now barely eking out an existence—were once prolific around the world. It’s estimated that, as late as 1800, twenty-six million elephants roved Africa. There are now barely four hundred thousand. The spectacular vista of wildebeest migrating in their millions across the plains of Africa is itself facing extinction, with the few remaining wildebeest finding migration routes blocked by fences, settlements, and roads. And the Great Dying continues at an ever-increasing pace: 2,000-year-old baobab trees that were around when Jesus lived suddenly dying off; three billion animals lost in Australia’s wildfires of 2019–20. In the words of environmental writer J. B. Mackinnon, “extirpation is the great, sucking retreat of the tide of life.”
The next time you go for a hike in nature, and marvel at its beauty, take a moment to realize that you are looking at a pale, shrunken wraith of what it once was. An accumulation of studies around the world measuring the declines of species and ecosystems indicates that overall we’ve lost around ninety percent of nature’s profusion. We live, Mackinnon observes, in a “ten percent world.” Those of us who gain sustenance from the sacred beauty of nature sometimes like to think of it as a temple. But, as Mackinnon notes, “a greater truth should be foremost in mind: Nature is not a temple, but a ruin. A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.”
The ideology of human supremacy
It’s rather stunning to consider that all this destruction has been carried out by a species that has been around for less than 0.01 per cent of life’s history; a species that makes up just 0.01 percent of all life on Earth as measured by biomass. While some, such as Ecomodernist Stewart Brand, may glorify humanity’s ascendance declaring “We are as gods,” there are other ways to see it. Humanity has undoubtedly developed unprecedented power, but much of it has been used for destruction. What would other animals say about humans, if they had the opportunity? The animals that still remain on Earth are suffering an apocalypse unlike anything that has occurred in the history of this planet. Other mass extinctions happened through geophysical events that no-one was responsible for, such as volcano eruptions or meteorites. This one is a deliberate and systematic annihilation of life executed by one species with full knowledge of what it’s doing. It may be the Sixth Extinction, but as some have pointed out, a more apt name would be the First Extermination Event.
With the exception of a few hardy survivors such as cockroaches, rats, and pigeons, the animals that have been spared extirpation or extinction are mostly those which have been domesticated, such as cows, chickens, and pigs. But the word domestication doesn’t hint at the reality of their existence. For the most part, these animals are enslaved, brutally tortured, and mercilessly slaughtered merely for human convenience. The ongoing atrocity of the systematic torment administered in the name of humanity to 74 billion animals a year—each one a sentient creature with a nervous system as capable of registering excruciating pain as you or I—must represent the single greatest cataclysm of suffering that life on Earth has ever experienced. It’s most likely, as ecophilosopher Derrick Jensen points out, that if animals could speak, they would tell us that when they see the face of a human, they don’t see a god—they see the devil.
But, of course, they can’t speak, and that is why this ongoing holocaust continues with barely a mention in public discourse. Ever since the rise of agrarian civilizations, cultures have justified their domination over those they conquered by claiming innate superiority. In recent centuries, as Europeans subjugated other regions, a discourse of white supremacy—one that retains its pernicious power even today—asserted superiority over other races. Among those who recognize its toxic qualities, white supremacy is understood as a form of violence that inflicts suffering on others while simultaneously damaging the perpetrator by binding them to a system of brutality. What is less recognized is that the ideology of human supremacy—claiming innate superiority over nonhuman animals—has a similarly malignant effect.
Human supremacy is so embedded within our cultural norms that it is barely even discussed. As ecological philosopher Eileen Crist describes, “it is indoctrinated into humans from a tender age, without time-out, hammered into the human mind by innumerable conditioning feats of the dominant anthropocentric culture.” It is, however, a specific ideology with origins in the Western worldview that desacralized nature, turning it into a resource to exploit. Ultimately, it is the ideology of human supremacy that allows us to maltreat animals in factory farms, blow up mountaintops for coal, turn vibrant rainforest into monocropped wastelands, trawl millions of miles of ocean floor with nets that scoop up everything that moves—while glorying in the Anthropocene, claiming that nature only exists to serve human needs. Because it’s all around us and almost never mentioned, human supremacy is easy to ignore—but once you recognize it, you see it everywhere you look.
Anthropocene . . . or Capitalocene?
Once one becomes aware of the enormity perpetrated by the human race, it can sometimes lead to a revulsion against our own species. “We are serial killers beyond reason,” writes one author. Others occasionally liken the human race to a cancer, which spreads uncontrollably until it kills its host. Is it, however, human nature that has caused this unfolding catastrophe, or something specific pertaining to the dominant culture?
When malignant cancer cells spread, they generally do so on account of abnormalities in their DNA that cause them to ignore regulatory feedback from neighboring cells, leading to uncontrolled proliferation. Some see this kind of dynamic in global capitalism, which requires perpetual growth in production and consumption of resources just to remain stable. Rather than viewing humanity as a species overwhelming nature, they see the system of norms, laws, and power relations instituted by global capitalism as the source of this massive disruption. As such, they suggest that the “Anthropocene” is a misnomer: it unfairly lays the blame for climate breakdown and ecological collapse on all humans throughout history, whereas it’s really only a small minority of humans in the past few centuries. The numbers back them up: the advanced OECD countries, representing only 18 percent of the global population, account for 74 percent of global GDP, and are responsible for 73 percent of the carbon emitted since 1850. On average, a single U.S. citizen emits five hundred times as much carbon as a citizen of Ethiopia or Cambodia. The true name of our era, they argue, should be the Capitalocene.
Many people claim that evolution has a direction toward increased complexity—and that humans represent its apex. Our destiny, they declare, is to break out of our earthly limitations and explore the galaxy. Although an intoxicating vision for some, the rise of human civilization has been a double-edged story. Until humans learn to enhance life on Earth rather than destroy it, we’re not ready ethically to reach for the stars.
Life’s glorious triumph on Earth has been achieved, not just through increased complexity, but also increased cooperation. In fact, the two go hand in hand. When individuals cooperate, it allows them to specialize in what they do best, thus promoting diversity and greater complexity. Whether it was single cells combining to create multicellular organisms, or insects collaborating to form colonies, the great phase transitions of life have all required massive upsurges in cooperation.
Many researchers have pointed out that building cooperation doesn’t come easily. A perennial problem for cooperating groups throughout the history of life—whether bacteria, organisms, or communities—is the risk of freeloaders: those that take advantage of the benefits of the group without making their fair contribution. If there are too many of them, they undermine the effectiveness of the group and may cause it to disintegrate. Genetic relatedness is one way evolution solved this problem: cells and organisms evolved to cooperate more closely with others that share their genes. But cooperation extends far beyond genetic affiliation.
Ultimately, the crucial success factor for cooperation at increasing levels of scale is integration—a state of unity with differentiation. In a fully integrated system, each part maintains its unique identity while operating in coordination with other parts of the system. To do so, the parts must remain in intimate feedback loops of communication with a large number of related parts. Each of the systems we’ve been looking at—cells, organisms, ecosystems, and Gaia—is a paragon of this type of integration. In fact, integration is a defining characteristic of any purposive, self-organized entity.
As life succeeded in integrating ever larger systems, it kept improving its negative entropy (or negentropy): the process of turning entropy into islands of self-organization that is a defining feature of all living systems. Larger animals utilize energy more efficiently than smaller ones, and larger colonies of insects are more effective at staving off entropy than smaller ones. The rise of human civilization itself may be portrayed as a series of enhancements in energy utilization. Agriculture, as anthropologist Leslie White has laid out, harnessed the negentropy of horses, cows, and sheep, who spent their days consuming the sun’s energy stored in plants, and then made it available to humans in the form of work, milk, wool, and meat. Further technological advances allowed humans to exploit the energy of the natural world ever more efficiently.
As with the other great phase transitions of life, underlying humanity’s achievements in agriculture and technology was an increase in cooperation. Humans are by far the most cooperative of primate species, and this—more than any other factor—is the key to our species’ success. As pre-humans evolved in bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, they developed a sophisticated social intelligence, enabling them to collaborate closely with each other. Early hominids also faced the freeloader problem, and the characteristics they evolved to solve it became an intrinsic part of human nature: a powerful instinct for fairness, combined with a drive to punish those who flagrantly break the rules, even at one’s own expense. Many of the qualities we prize in a person, such as compassion, generosity, honesty, and altruism, are the results of our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolving the aptitude to collaborate successfully as a group.
Like earlier evolutionary transitions, enhanced cooperation in humans enabled greater specialization. Soon after the emergence of agriculture, cities appeared, replete with all kinds of specialists—artisans, healers, warriors, and priests—who, by plying their unique trades, together formed the backbone of civilizations around the world. Like insect colonies, cities become more efficient at negentropy the bigger they get. With each doubling of population size, a city only needs about 85% more infrastructure, such as roads, water pipes, gas stations, and grocery stores. In fact, a city can be understood as a form of superorganism, showing many of the self-organized characteristics that we’ve come to see in all living entities ranging from cells to ecosystems.
The scale of human connectivity, of course, extends far beyond individual cities. In the modern era, with instant global connectivity through the internet, humans have woven a worldwide web like nothing Earth has seen in its entire existence. Does humanity’s ascendancy represent the next step in life’s continued evolution toward ever greater complexity? Thoughtful observers of different stripes—scientists, philosophers, and visionaries—answer with a strong affirmative. Evolution, they claim, has a direction. From bacteria to eukaryotes to multi-celled organisms, from plants to reptiles and then to mammals, life, they argue, has a destiny that culminates inevitably in the emergence of creatures like us—possessing complex brains with the ability to become self-aware and perhaps ultimately direct our own future evolution toward even greater complexity.
It’s an intoxicating vision for some. However, if we look more closely into this narrative, we find it contains elements that are not quite as triumphant as we might wish. It’s a doubled-edged story—and those edges form the parameters of much that we’ll explore later in this book.
Eligible for the Federation?
The idea of inevitable progress as a cosmic law traces its pedigree back to seventeenth-century Europe, but it was a twentieth-century visionary, theologian-cum-paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who gave it a scientific tincture, tying it in to modern evolutionary theory. Pointing to the increasing complexity of life, Teilhard triumphantly placed humanity at its apex. “Life physically culminates in Man,” he wrote, “just as energy physically culminates in life.” Teilhard saw this inevitable progression continuing toward what he called the Omega Point—the ultimate stage of evolution in which all distinctions between artificial and natural are dissolved, when humanity’s consciousness will fuse with the entire natural world to form one unified organism of embodied intelligence.
More recently, leading techno-visionaries have taken up Teilhard’s vision but jettisoned nonhuman nature from the grand narrative. In his bestseller, The Singularity Is Near, Google executive Raymond Kurzweil prophecies a future where humanity’s conceptual intelligence fuses with machines, leaving animate existence in the dust. “There will be no distinction, post-Singularity,” he declares, “between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.” Similarly, prominent physicist Max Tegmark views the inevitable appearance of super-intelligent AI as Life 3.0—overcoming the physical constraints of human beings (“Life 2.0”) and the rest of nature (“Life 1.0”). Frequently, these visions foresee a future intelligence leaving Earth behind, expanding through the Milky Way and then into other galaxies, spreading the higher consciousness and advanced intelligence required for converting the entire universe into a font of negative entropy, perhaps even one day, in the far distant future, repealing the Second Law of Thermodynamics itself.
There is something wildly inspirational in this kind of vision, yet it contains a foundational flaw that must be identified and fixed before it could ever take off. Since these visions extend into the realm of imagined futures, it seems fitting to approach them from the perspective of one of science fiction’s best-loved sagas—the Star Trek series. As Star Trek fans (I’m one of them) can attest, the future it envisages, with all its challenges and existential threats, is largely benevolent on account of the values of the United Federation of Planets. The Federation only allows other planetary civilizations to join if, after a thorough evaluation, they meet its ethical criteria, which include an affirmation of “the fundamental rights of sentient beings,” and faith “in the dignity and worth of all lifeforms.”
Would our current civilization be eligible to join the Federation if they evaluated us today? The only realistic answer is an emphatic “No.” Quite apart from the extreme inequities among our own species, forcing billions to live without basic rights such as a home, education, or food security, humanity has been systematically destroying the welfare of other sentient beings on Earth without any regard to their dignity or worth. The rollcall of humanity’s depredations against nature is vast. Some of our most egregious transgressions would have to include the willful torture of billions of domesticated animals in factory farms; the vast demolition of wildlife habitat; the pollution of Earth’s waterways and oceans; the indiscriminate use of deep sea trawlers that decimate fish populations; and the massive conversion of vibrant ecosystems into huge monocrop plantations. The list goes on and on. As a result of the boundless havoc caused by our global civilization, Earth is now experiencing the sixth mass extinction of species since life began on our planet. The sorrowful reality is that, if humanity did succeed in developing the technologies to explore the universe, without first changing its ethical moorings, then a dismal fate would await other less powerful sentient beings out there. If Federation officials were to consider us for entry at this stage in human history, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
Far from being the next step in life’s evolution, humanity’s ascendancy in its current form represents a major step in the wrong direction. We can comprehend this better when we consider the importance of integration as the key to life’s success in continually improving negentropy. In a truly integrated system—consistent with Federation ethics—each entity possesses intrinsic dignity and worth, pursuing its own purpose as part of the larger whole. Our civilization, however, has built its relationship with the rest of nature, not on integration, but on dis-integration. It is based on dominating the natural world with no consideration for its wellbeing. Through our irresponsible use of fossil fuels, we have created imbalances in Gaia’s own health that are causing pernicious damage to countless species as well as our own. Through our conversion of ecosystems into monocrops, poisoning of waterways, annihilation of coral reefs, and emptying the oceans of fish, we are quite possibly the greatest force for entropy that Gaia has experienced in billions of years. Rather than integrating with the rest of life, as Teilhard may have envisaged, we are ruthlessly destroying life, eradicating its precious complexity—and are doing so at an ever-accelerating pace.
There are some who, appalled by our species’ impact on the living Earth, consider humanity to be like a malignant cancer consuming Gaia. While this may be a fair depiction of our current civilization, it certainly need not hold true for humanity as a species. The rise of conceptual intelligence in humans has given us exceptional powers that can be used both beneficially and destructively. However, just as we’ve seen how each of us can develop an integrative intelligence that combines our embodied experiences, humans collectively have the potential to develop a far more integrated relationship with the rest of nature. Technology doesn’t have to be used to destroy the complexity of living systems—if established on a different ethical basis, it could be developed to work in harmony with natural processes, promoting Gaia’s overall negentropy.
Through the rest of this book, we’ll explore what it means to live in a way that enhances life’s deep purpose rather than working against it. We’ll discover how, as a civilization, we have the potential to follow a path of integration that could lead to symbiotic flourishing for humanity and Gaia together—a path that just might lead, one day in the distant future, to being welcomed into the United Federation of Planets with open arms.
Every Fall, the Credit Suisse Research Institute invites selected experts to present to the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Urs Rohner, & other senior executives on current events.
Last November, they asked me to participate. I gave them this presentation on the climate and ecological emergency, urging Urs Rohner to immediately divest from all fossil fuel financing, and introduced the concept of an Ecological Civilization as a sustainable path for humanity, suggesting Credit Suisse explores becoming a Benefit Corporation, optimizing for multiple constituencies, rather than solely for shareholders.
My primary message was that Credit Suisse has the opportunity to choose to become part of the solution to our civilizational crisis, not the problem.
Will Urs Rohner take up the challenge and respond in 2021?
Keynote talk given by Jeremy Lent to The Whidbey Institute annual gala, October 2020.
“When we truly open our hearts to each other, there is no burden too heavy for us to carry together, there is no pain too deep for us to hold in each other’s arms. And it’s in that place—of feeling the Earth’s injuries, and feeling it with each other—that the alchemy emerges. It’s in the cauldron of sharing our grief with our community, of gazing at it together and not looking away, that the heartbreak turns to hope.”
It’s so wonderful to hear Tyson (Yunkaporta, author of Sand Talk) talk about how we need to listen to natural law. It’s what our modern civilization needs to hear. I’m sure most of us share with Tyson the sense that our society has trampled on natural law; that we live in a world where indigenous knowledge, and the things that are most valuable to life are ignored, while those that are most destructive are valued the highest.
Speaking here from Northern California, we’ve been sharing with Tyson and his fellow Australians the grim experience of what happens when natural law is violated. It was less than a year ago that we were all horrified by the pictures coming out of Australia of apocalyptic wildfires—fires that were estimated to have killed a billion animals in the Outback. And it was just a month ago that those of us living here in the Bay Area woke up to our own vision of doomsday—a day without daylight, as the smoke from millions of acres of wildfires raging across the northwest settled over our skies, allowing nothing but a blood red glow to penetrate.
But of course, those of you here today don’t need these harbingers of doom to know that something is terribly wrong with where our world is headed. We all know, in spite of everything our media does to deflect our attention, that our global society is careening at an increasingly rapid rate toward the precipice. We know that people are suffering out there as a result of callous economic policies, that the onset of coronavirus has made that suffering even greater—and that increasing climate breakdown will only lead to deepening misery, with massive droughts and famines, and hundreds of millions of climate refugees forced to abandon their homes in desperation with no-one willing to receive them.
We know that the natural world is reeling from a relentless rampage of human exploitation. That the Amazon rainforest—the lungs of the Earth—is disappearing at the rate of more than an acre a second. The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that since 1970, animal populations worldwide have declined by 68%—and in Latin America, by a mind-boggling 94%. The richness of nature is getting virtually wiped out in our lifetime.
It’s impossible to face these realities head on without feeling your heart break. Speaking for myself, when I’ve contemplated this humanmade enormity, I’ve sometimes felt swallowed up into an infinite abyss of darkness. Is it any wonder that people turn away from facing these facts, that they see one of those frightening headlines warning about climate breakdown and they click anywhere but there, read their Facebook feed, check out the latest tweet, watch the report on this week’s political scandal? We live in a world designed to keep us numb—a culture spiked with incessant doses of spiritual anesthesia conditioning us to deaden our feelings, and adapt to the daily grind.
But it’s that very heartbreak that can free us from the consensus trance that our society imposes on us. The realization of our true nature, and the agony of life’s destruction at the hands of this civilization, are two sides of the same coin. That’s because, when we awaken to our true nature as humans on this beautiful but fragile Earth, when we feel the life within ourselves that we share with all other beings, then we recognize our common identity with all of life. We live into what Thích Nhât Hanh calls our interbeing.
And as we open awareness to our interbeing, our ecological self, we experience ourselves, in the words of Albert Schweitzer, as “life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live.” And then, we realize the deep purpose of our existence on Earth is to tend its living system, to tend Gaia, and participate fully in its ancient, sacred unfolding of vibrant beauty. And when we see the relentless way that beauty is being eviscerated, Gaia’s pain becomes our pain. It’s not just happening in the forests and the deep oceans, it’s happening to us—to our own ecological interbeing. As Thích Nhât Hanh puts it, we “hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”
But that pain of the Earth crying . . . it’s too much for any one of us to hold by ourselves. And that’s where we need to turn to another equally important dimension of our interbeing: our shared community of caring. When we truly open our hearts to each other, there is no burden too heavy for us to carry together, there is no pain too deep for us to hold in each other’s arms.
And it’s in that place—of feeling the Earth’s injuries, and feeling it with each other—that the alchemy emerges. It’s in the cauldron of sharing our grief with our community, of gazing at it together and not looking away, that the heartbreak turns to hope.
But let’s be clear what I’m talking about when I use the word “hope.” I’m not talking about the odds we might give for the likelihood of a positive outcome. Hope is not optimism. It’s something completely different. Rather than a prognostication, it’s an attitude of active engagement in co-creating our future. In the words of Václav Havel it’s a “deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times . . . an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
“To work for something, just because it is good.” This kind of hope is itself a transformation: from a noun to a verb. The alchemy takes place when we feel the heartbreak, with our community, so thoroughly within ourselves that there is nothing else to do but get engaged. Just like, when you feel physical pain in your body, you are moved reflexively to do something about it, so when we feel the Earth’s pain throughout our being, we are naturally moved to action. Because true knowledge isn’t just an intellectual idea, it’s something that infuses our entire body. One of the great sages of Chinese thought, Wang Yangming, made this crystal clear when he said: “There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who are supposed to know but do not act simply do not yet know.”
And something I’m sure about is that everyone here today is drawn to the Whidbey Institute because you do know, and you are impelled to action. And there is so much we can be doing to participate in the Great Transformation our global society needs to move from its current self-destructive path to one that offers a brighter future. It’s not just a matter of fixing a few things. Our civilization needs to be transformed at the deepest levels. We need to move from our current wealth-based society that’s been built on exploitation, on seeing people and the natural world as mere resources, to one that, like Tyson said, is based on natural law—an ecological civilization. What’s required is a metamorphosis of virtually every aspect of the human experience, including our values, our goals, and our daily norms.
Sounds like a tall order? I’m sure, when a dozen or so Quakers gathered in London in 1785 to create a movement to abolish slavery, people told them “Impossible! Our economy is based on it.” Within half a century, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. When Emmeline Pankhurst founded the National Union for Women’s Suffrage in 1897, it took ten years of struggle to muster a few thousand courageous women to join her on a march in London—but within a couple of decades, women were gaining the right to vote across the world. There is a crucial lesson to learn from these, and other, examples—like all self-organized, adaptive systems, society changes in nonlinear and unexpected ways. And oftentimes, the change is catalyzed by just a few, visionary souls working together against the odds—because they know what they’re doing is right.
We may not know what the future holds for humanity, but we do know that every day of our lives, we can choose to live into the future we wish for ourselves and for the rest of life. And just like the mycorrhizal underground network in the forest that trees use to support each other, when we connect with each other, we’re part of a powerful network that’s accomplishing something very different than what we may read about in the daily headlines.
Keep in mind that, as the current system begins to unravel on account of its internal failings, the strands that kept the old system tightly interconnected also get loosened. The old story is losing its hold on the collective consciousness of humanity. As waves of young people come of age, they are increasingly rejecting what their parents’ generation told them. They are looking about for a new way to make sense of the current unraveling, for a story that offers them a future they can believe in.
That is the great work that I believe the Whidbey Institute, and many of you present here today, are engaged in. Creating that new story, and living into it, is the alchemy of heartbreak and hope that we are generating together. And I, for one, am excited to be a part of this epic moment when we, together, can participate in co-creating the possibility of humanity’s flourishing future on a regenerated Earth.
Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Publishers: US/Canada | Profile Books: UK/Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.
While millions of people are spellbound by false conspiracy theories, the real conspiracies that are wrecking our world go about their business unheeded. Here are five genuine threats that everyone should know about—and take action on.
The world is awash in a deluge of dangerous conspiracy theories. Most notoriously, the bizarre QAnon fantasy postulates that a global child sex-trafficking ring is being run by liberal, Satan-worshiping pedophiles whose plot will be uncovered by President Donald Trump on a “day of reckoning” involving mass arrests. This surreal mass delusion is not the only one infecting millions of people around the world. Earlier this year, the Plandemic conspiracy video went viral on social media, instilling disinformation into millions of minds about Covid-19, falsely alleging that it was a hoax perpetrated by big business for the sake of profiteering by selling mass vaccinations.
One of the most harmful results of these bogus conspiracy theories is that they help deflect people’s attention from the real conspiracies that are systematically damaging billions of people around the world, destroying the living Earth, and—if left unchecked—may drive our entire civilization to collapse. These are the conspiracies everyone needs to know about. Unlike the QAnon and Plandemic nonsense, they are real. The facts about them are in the open, yet these lethal conspiracies hide in plain sight, flagrantly going about their destructive activities while millions of people have their attention diverted toward pernicious fictions.
Let’s take a look at five of the most damaging conspiracies out there. As you consider them, I invite you to ponder how it is that, while our mass media focuses attention on imaginary conspiracies, the real ones that threaten every one of us are barely even discussed.
1. Conspiracy to turn the world into a giant marketplace for the benefit of the wealthy elite
Back in 1947, as the world was rebuilding from the destruction of the Second World War, a few dozen free-market ideologues met in a luxury Swiss resort to form the Mont Pelerin Society—an organization devoted to spreading the ideology of neoliberalism throughout the world. Their ideas—that the free market should dominate virtually all aspects of society, that regulations should be dismantled, and that individual liberty should eclipse all other considerations of fairness, equity, or community welfare—were considered fanatical at the time. Over three decades, though, financed by wealthy donors, they assiduously expanded their plot for global domination, establishing networks of academics, businessmen, economists, journalists, and politicians, in global centers of power.
When the stagflation crisis of the 1970s threw classic Keynesian economics into disrepute, their moment of opportunity arrived. By 1985, with free market disciples Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher entrenched in power, they initiated a campaign to systematically transform virtually all aspects of life into an unrestrained marketplace, where everything could be bought and sold to the highest bidder, subject to no moral scruple. They crippled trade unions, tore up social safety nets, reduced tax rates for the wealthy, eliminated regulations, and instituted a massive transfer of wealth from society at large to the uber-elite. Every time a new crisis occurred of their own making, such as the Great Recession of 2008, they took advantage of the mayhem they caused to double down on their power, and extend their reach even further, bringing the ideology of the marketplace into domains, such as education, law enforcement, or wilderness preserves, that had previously been considered sacrosanct.
With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, this conspiracy has found yet another opportunity to squeeze wealth from the bulk of society into the hands of the few. In the United States, since the pandemic began, while 200,000 Americans have died from coronavirus and more than 50 million have lost their jobs, the collective wealth of this country’s billionaires has soared 29% to $3.8 trillion. Jeff Bezos alone could give every Amazon employee $105,000 and still be as wealthy as he was before coronavirus hit.
2. Conspiracy by transnational corporations to turn billions of people into addicts
In the 1920s, two ruthless men laid out a sinister scheme to gain control of the minds of Americans. Their plan? To identify people’s deeply buried needs and use subtle messaging to manipulate them into doing whatever they wanted without realizing it—even at the cost of their health and well-being. One of them, Edward Bernays, was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and used his uncle’s insights into the subconscious to develop his new methods. Their goal was to turn normal working Americans into manic consumers, training them to desire an ever-increasing amount of goods, and thereby converting their life’s energy into profit for American corporations. “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” declared Bernays’ partner, Paul Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
In 1928, Bernays proudly described how his techniques for mental manipulation had already permitted a small elite to control the minds of the American population:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. . . . In almost every act of our daily lives. . . we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who pull the wires which control the public mind.
Since then, this conspiracy has succeeded beyond its instigators’ wildest dreams. Corporations have perfected the technique of mind control by tweaking core human instincts that originally evolved to support our ancestors’ flourishing in hunter-gatherer bands—such as the desire for status or fear of exclusion—for their nefarious purposes.
Corporate predators have learned that the most valuable population to ensnare are children. In the sinister words of chief executive Wayne Chilicki, “When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at General Mills . . . believe in getting them early and having them for life.” Children in the Global South are turned into junk food addicts with the same callous contempt that factory farms turn their animals into chicken nuggets. Half of the children in south Asia are now either undernourished or overweight, conditioned by pervasive advertising to spend what little money they have on the empty calories of junk food.
A new generation of mind controllers are now using sophisticated data mining technologies to inject their power even deeper into our minds. At the ominously named Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, a modern-day Bernays named B. J. Fogg has taught budding entrepreneurs how to use “hot triggers” such as thumbs-up signs and “Like” statistics to activate short hits of dopamine in our brains that literally get us addicted to our screens. With social media now infiltrating every aspect of many teenagers’ lives, the power of predatory corporate advertising to control their minds for profit has become even more formidable. In 2017, a leaked document revealed Facebook boasting to advertisers how they can identify in real time when teenagers feel “insecure” and “worthless,” and would be most susceptible to a “confidence boost.”
3. Conspiracy to plunder the Global South for the benefit of the Global North
Ever since Portuguese and Spanish explorers set sail in the fifteenth century on a quest for wealth and power, a small population of white Europeans have conspired to use their technological advantage to despoil, plunder, and exploit the rest of the world’s wealth for their own benefit. With the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529, Spain and Portugal carved up the non-European continents between them for conquest and booty. After the Industrial Revolution, the countries of northern Europe took over the plot for global supremacy, devastating the lives of tens of millions of Africans mercilessly chained and shipped as slaves to the colonies.
After the abolition of the slave trade, the brutal exploitation continued through an international system of indentured labor. Having destroyed their livelihood in their native countries, European potentates transported more than 60 million desperate workers from India, China, and the Pacific islands to territories where they were needed, in what was frequently referred to as the “new form of slavery.” This vast global scheme of human trafficking was promoted by colonial magnates such as Cecil Rhodes who declared: “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.”
In more recent times, the plot continues in different guises. During the decades after the Second World War, Global South leaders who demanded a fair role in the economic system were systematically deposed in coups arranged by U.S., British, and French militaries. In a vast loan sharking scheme, countries impoverished by colonialism then racked up unsustainable debts forced on them by Global North banks. When they couldn’t pay them back without bankrupting their nations, they were coerced into so-called “structural adjustment programs” which opened their labor markets and natural resources to further plunder by the North’s transnational corporations. The World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization are all controlled by a few wealthy nations that set the terms for international trade, with the result that through a combination of illicit financial flows, debt interest payments, and profit repatriation, wealth continues to flow from the South to the North at the rate of about $3 trillion per year.
4. Conspiracy to hide the effects of climate breakdown for corporate profit
For over fifty years, fossil fuel executives have known about the reality of human-induced climate change, yet they spent most of that time deliberately concealing their knowledge and obfuscating public discussion on the topic so they could rake in trillions of dollars in profit. In 1968, the Stanford Research Institute alerted the American Petroleum Institute—the national trade association that represents America’s oil and natural gas industry—to the fact that CO2 emissions were accumulating in the atmosphere, and could reach 400 parts per million by 2000. Their report warned that rising CO2 levels would result in melting ice caps, rising seas, and serious environmental damage worldwide. Exxon scientists studied the issue further, reporting to management in 1977 that there was “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for CO2 increases. In an internal Exxon memo in 1981, scientists raised the alarm that the company’s 50-year plan “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population).”
Exxon—and the other fossil fuel companies—knew their actions would lead to climate breakdown, and instead of trying to solve the problem, they lied to the public to hide their misdeeds. Following the example of the tobacco industry, which had already condemned millions to early deaths through cynical deception, they embarked on a concerted strategy to dupe the public by paying fake experts to publish papers; cherry picking selective data to support false conclusions; and sow their own wild conspiracy theories to deflect attention from their crimes.
As a result of their immoral plot, the world is now facing a dire climate emergency. If the fossil fuel companies had confronted the issue honestly from the outset, there could have been a managed transition to renewable energy over decades, causing little disruption and saving millions of lives through reduced pollution. Instead, it will now take an immediate global mobilization to avoid a 2° C rise in temperature over preindustrial levels. The world is currently on track for more than a 3° C rise this century, with the high likelihood of stumbling into a tipping point cascade that quickly leads to a three- and four-degree world—one that becomes rapidly unrecognizable, with the Amazon rainforest turning into searing desert; coastal cities inundated by flooding; super-hurricanes tearing the windows out of skyscrapers; persistent massive droughts and famine across the world; and hundreds of millions of desperate climate refugees.
Meanwhile, by putting billions of human lives in jeopardy, the four biggest fossil fuel companies—ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, and BP—have made $2 trillion in profits since they began their campaign of lies in 1990.
5. Conspiracy to grow the global economy indefinitely, while killing most of life on Earth and risking the collapse of civilization.
In a barely noticed footnote to the daily news, the World Wildlife Fund recently released a shocking report revealing a devastating 68% worldwide decline in animal populations in the past fifty years. Even this dismal news hides more gut-wrenching statistics, such as the 84% decline in amphibians, reptiles, and fishes, or the 94% decline in animal populations in South America.
This is just the latest bulletin marking the demise of nature as it succumbs to the relentless growth of human economic activity across the world. Three-quarters of all land has been appropriated for human purposes, either turned into farmland, covered by concrete, or flooded by reservoirs. Three-quarters of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation, with many of the world’s greatest rivers, such as the Ganges, Yangtze, or Nile, no longer reaching the sea. Half of the world’s forests and wetlands have disappeared—the Amazon rainforest alone is vanishing at the rate of an acre every second.
Meanwhile, the world’s Gross Domestic Product is forecast to nearly triple by the middle of this century, by which time it’s estimated that 5 billion people will be facing water shortages, 95% of the Earth’s arable land will be degraded—and there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. It’s been estimated by leading experts that, by the end of this century, half of the world’s estimated 8 million species will be extinct or at the brink of extinction unless humanity changes its ways. These depredations, combined with climate breakdown, are believed by an increasing number of analysts to spell the likely collapse of modern civilization.
The underlying cause of this headlong rush to catastrophe is our society’s obsession with economic growth as the sole criterion for measuring success. A dangerous myth of “green growth” propagated by techno-optimists argues that through technological innovation, GDP can become “decoupled” from resource use and carbon emissions, permitting limitless growth on a finite planet. This has been shown to be nothing but a fantasy: it hasn’t happened so far, and even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency lead to unsustainable consumption of global resources.
So who, in this case, are the conspirators? If you’re living a normal life in an affluent country, you don’t need to look further than the mirror. The wealthy OECD nations, with only 18% of the global population, account for 74% of global GDP, and the richest 10% of people are responsible for more than half the world’s carbon emissions.
Those of us who continue to benefit from the inequities dealt us by the global system, and aren’t actively engaged in curbing it, are like a few shipwrecked survivors on a gilded lifeboat kicking others desperately scrambling for life into the ocean to protect their own safety and comfort. We may not be actively kicking their knuckles, but by allowing this reckless system of unsustainable growth to continue, we’re implicitly making the same choice.
So, the next time someone tells you to “do your research” on their new conspiracy theory, please point them to the real conspiracies that are threatening life on this beautiful but troubled planet. The good news is that, since they’re real conspiracies, there is something we can do about them. We can vote in politicians that promise to peel back the neoliberal nightmare; advocate for curbs on predatory corporate activities; support the Global South in changing the terms of international trade; declare a Climate Emergency in our community to turn around carbon emissions; and become active in the movement to transform our global society to an Ecological Civilization—one that is based on life-affirming principles rather than accumulating wealth.
Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Publishers: US/Canada | Profile Books: UK/Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.
I recently participated in a conversation with thought leaders at the Great Transition Initiative on a critical question poised by Paul Raskin:
“The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted our lives, equanimity, and assumptions. . . The pandemic is a rupture in historic time that shakes the continuity of institutions and consciousness. . . How can we seize the moment to steer toward the Great Transition we all hope for and know to be possible?“
Here’s my contribution, “The Coronavirus as a Crucible” which explores how progressive leaders might skillfully use the dramatic changes we’re already experiencing to steer society toward the greater transformation that’s needed.
THE IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS will be huge—but it is not yet the crisis that could push our global society into the phase change required for the Great Transition. These two simple facts offer a valuable framework for thinking about how to respond most effectively to the current situation.
To begin, let’s consider the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the effect of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.
If COVID-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together, economies would be disrupted temporarily, people would make do for a while with changed circumstances, and then, after the shock, things would return to normal. That is not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, the pandemic is revealing the structural faults of the system, which have been papered over for decades even as they’ve been growing worse. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.” The last time a disruption of such magnitude occurred was during the period of the Great Depression and World War II, which shaped the geopolitical structure of our current world.
Coronavirus as a Crucible
In just a few months, we have seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. This is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months, as the world begins to reel from the aftereffects of the shutdown.
A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating changes that were already underway: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably.
What might the new shape of society look like? There is a serious risk that the new stable state will be closer to a Fortress World, with increased state surveillance, empowered authoritarianism, further breakdowns in democratic norms, mega-corporations even more dominant, and heightened militarism in international relations. In contrast, as many have pointed out, there is also a resurgence in the values that would underlie a transformed world, such as mutual aid, compassionate community, grassroots empowerment, and global collaboration.
The Next (Tidal) Wave
However, no matter which way the crucible hardens, COVID-19 is not a big enough phenomenon to reshape the flawed foundation of our current worldview that has brought our civilization to its current predicament. Our dominant worldview is based on an underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other, humans are separate from nature, and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. The value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond to climate breakdown, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption. It provides the implicit basis for ruthless neoliberal policies, the domination of transnational corporations focused solely on shareholder returns, and the worldwide obsession with maintaining unsustainable GDP growth on a finite planet.
As our civilization hurtles toward the precipice through this century, we will encounter ever greater shocks that will make COVID-19 seem like a leisurely rehearsal by contrast. We can expect massive urban flooding, global famines, and overwhelming refugee crises that will shake the foundations of our civilization’s overbuilt edifice. As the interconnected links of our global system unravel, millions of people will reject the values that wrought this devastation, and look for a replacement. The value system they choose will determine whether this century ends in a Fortress World, a civilizational collapse, or a fundamental transition to a life-affirming world based on dignity and community: an ecological civilization.
Coronavirus as a Trimtab
This is the broader context that sheds light on the importance of COVID-19. By itself, this pandemic won’t force the required change in our civilization’s direction, but it can begin to set a course away from the current trajectory of rampant self-destruction. Buckminster Fuller offered the brilliant metaphor of a trimtab, the miniature rudder in front of an ocean liner that helps the main rudder to shift direction almost effortlessly by changing the pressure in front of it. Similarly, we can view the potential for significant policy changes in the wake of coronavirus as a trimtab for the redirection of our global civilization that is the only way to avert catastrophe in the longer term.
This suggests that the most skillful approach to the current situation is to identify those policy initiatives that are already garnering popular support—and can also serve as trimtabs to move our entire civilization toward a new trajectory. In my view, some of the highest potential trimtabs are the idea of a universal basic income, which is now being discussed favorably even in conservative mouthpieces such as the Financial Times; Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics,” which is being used as a model for Amsterdam’s coronavirus recovery plan; and full-scale implementation of a Green New Deal in the United States.
Others may identify other trimtabs that are just as, or even more, effective. I simply offer this framework as a lens to view how we might skillfully prioritize the progressive forces unleashed by the current pandemic as preparation for the far greater disruptions yet to come.
Coronavirus is a political crucible, melting down and reshaping current norms. Will the new era be a “Fortress Earth” or a harbinger of a transformed society based on a new set of values?
Whatever you might be thinking about the long-term impacts of the coronavirus epidemic, you’re probably not thinking big enough.
Our lives have already been reshaped so dramatically in the past few weeks that it’s difficult to see beyond the next news cycle. We’re bracing for the recession we all know is here, wondering how long the lockdown will last, and praying that our loved ones will all make it through alive.
But, in the same way that Covid-19 is spreading at an exponential rate, we also need to think exponentially about its long-term impact on our culture and society. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the impact of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.
If Covid-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together; economies disrupted temporarily; people would make do for a while with changed circumstances—and then, after the shock, look forward to getting back to normal. That’s not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, this coronavirus is revealing the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades as they’ve been steadily worsening. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.”
The first signs of this structural destabilization are just beginning to show. Our globalized economy relies on just-in-time inventory for hyper-efficient production. As supply chains are disrupted through factory closures and border closings, shortages in household items, medications, and food will begin surfacing, leading to rounds of panic buying that will only exacerbate the situation. The world economy is entering a downturn so steep it could exceed the severity of the Great Depression. The international political system—already on the ropes with Trump’s “America First” xenophobia and the Brexit fiasco—is likely to unravel further, as the global influence of the United States tanks while Chinese power strengthens. Meanwhile, the Global South, where Covid-19 is just beginning to make itself felt, may face disruption on a scale far greater than the more affluent Global North.
The Overton Window
During normal times, out of all the possible ways to organize society, there is only a limited range of ideas considered acceptable for mainstream political discussion—known as the Overton window. Covid-19 has blown the Overton window wide open. In just a few weeks, we’ve seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. But remember—this is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months.
A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating changes that were already underway: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist, and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably. What might the new shape of society look like? What will be center stage in the Overton window by the time it begins narrowing again?
The Example of World War II
We’re entering uncharted territory, but to get a feeling for the scale of transformation we need to consider, it helps to look back to the last time the world underwent an equivalent spasm of change: the Second World War.
The pre-war world was dominated by European colonial powers struggling to maintain their empires. Liberal democracy was on the wane, while fascism and communism were ascendant, battling each other for supremacy. The demise of the League of Nations seemed to have proven the impossibility of multinational global cooperation. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States maintained an isolationist policy, and in the early years of the war, many people believed it was just a matter of time before Hitler and the Axis powers invaded Britain and took complete control of Europe.
Within a few years, the world was barely recognizable. As the British Empire crumbled, geopolitics was dominated by the Cold War which divided the world into two political blocs under the constant threat of nuclear Armageddon. A social democratic Europe formed an economic union that no-one could previously have imagined possible. Meanwhile, the US and its allies established a system of globalized trade, with institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank setting terms for how the “developing world” could participate. The stage was set for the “Great Acceleration”: far and away the greatest and most rapid increase of human activity in history across a vast number of dimensions, including global population, trade, travel, production, and consumption.
If the changes we’re about to undergo are on a similar scale to these, how might a future historian summarize the “pre-coronavirus” world that is about to disappear?
The Neoliberal Era
There’s a good chance they will call this the Neoliberal Era. Until the 1970s, the post-war world was characterized in the West by an uneasy balance between government and private enterprise. However, following the “oil shock” and stagflation of that period—which at the time represented the world’s biggest post-war disruption—a new ideology of free-market neoliberalism took center stage in the Overton window (the phrase itself was named by a neoliberal proponent).
The value system of neoliberalism, which has since become entrenched in global mainstream discourse, holds that humans are individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and because of this, unrestrained free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have succeeded in transforming the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labor.
The triumph of neoliberalism has led to the greatest inequality in history, where (based on the most recent statistics) the world’s twenty-six richest people own as much wealth as half the entire world’s population. It has allowed the largest transnational corporations to establish a stranglehold over other forms of organization, with the result that, of the world’s hundred largest economies, sixty-nine are corporations. The relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most obvious danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.
But even if the climate crisis were somehow brought under control, a continuation of untrammeled economic growth in future decades will bring us face-to-face with a slew of further existential threats. Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, freshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences.
In 2017 over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” They are echoed by the government-approved declaration of the UN-sponsored IPCC, that we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disaster.
In the clamor for economic growth, however, these warnings have so far gone unheeded. Will the impact of coronavirus change anything?
There’s a serious risk that, rather than shifting course from our failing trajectory, the post-Covid-19 world will be one where the same forces currently driving our race to the precipice further entrench their power and floor the accelerator directly toward global catastrophe. China has relaxed its environmental laws to boost production as it tries to recover from its initial coronavirus outbreak, and the US (anachronistically named) Environmental Protection Agency took immediate advantage of the crisis to suspend enforcement of its laws, allowing companies to pollute as much as they want as long as they can show some relation to the pandemic.
On a greater scale, power-hungry leaders around the world are taking immediate advantage of the crisis to clamp down on individual liberties and move their countries swiftly toward authoritarianism. Hungary’s strongman leader, Viktor Orban, officially killed off democracy in his country on Monday, passing a bill that allows him to rule by decree, with five-year prison sentences for those he determines are spreading “false” information. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu shut down his country’s courts in time to avoid his own trial for corruption. In the United States, the Department of Justice has already filed a request to allow the suspension of courtroom proceedings in emergencies, and there are many who fear that Trump will take advantage of the turmoil to install martial law and try to compromise November’s election.
Even in those countries that avoid an authoritarian takeover, the increase in high-tech surveillance taking place around the world is rapidly undermining previously sacrosanct privacy rights. Israel has passed an emergency decree to follow the lead of China, Taiwan, and South Korea in using smartphone location readings to trace contacts of individuals who tested positive for coronavirus. European mobile operators are sharing user data (so far anonymized) with government agencies. As Yuval Harari has pointed out, in the post-Covid world, these short-term emergency measures may “become a fixture of life.”
If these, and other emerging trends, continue unchecked, we could head rapidly to a grim scenario of what might be called “Fortress Earth,” with entrenched power blocs eliminating many of the freedoms and rights that have formed the bedrock of the post-war world. We could be seeing all-powerful states overseeing economies dominated even more thoroughly by the few corporate giants (think Amazon, Facebook) that can monetize the crisis for further shareholder gain.
The chasm between the haves and have-nots may become even more egregious, especially if treatments for the virus become available but are priced out of reach for some people. Countries in the Global South, already facing the prospect of disaster from climate breakdown, may face collapse if coronavirus rampages through their populations while a global depression starves them of funds to maintain even minimal infrastructures. Borders may become militarized zones, shutting off the free flow of passage. Mistrust and fear, which has already shown its ugly face in panicked evictions of doctors in India and record gun-buying in the US, could become endemic.
But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. Back in the early days of World War II, things looked even darker, but underlying dynamics emerged that fundamentally altered the trajectory of history. Frequently, it was the very bleakness of the disasters that catalyzed positive forces to emerge in reaction and predominate. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the day “which will live in infamy”—was the moment when the power balance of World War II shifted. The collective anguish in response to the global war’s devastation led to the founding of the United Nations. The grotesque atrocity of Hitler’s holocaust led to the international recognition of the crime of genocide, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Could it be that the crucible of coronavirus will lead to a meltdown of neoliberal norms that ultimately reshapes the dominant structures of our global civilization? Could a mass collective reaction to the excesses of authoritarian overreach lead to a renaissance of humanitarian values? We’re already seeing signs of this. While the Overton window is allowing surveillance and authoritarian practices to enter from one side, it’s also opening up to new political realities and possibilities on the other side. Let’s take a look at some of these.
A fairer society. The specter of massive layoffs and unemployment has already led to levels of state intervention to protect citizens and businesses that were previously unthinkable. Denmark plans to pay 75% of the salaries of employees in private companies hit by the effects of the epidemic, to keep them and their businesses solvent. The UK has announced a similar plan to cover 80% of salaries. California is leasing hotels to shelter homeless people who would otherwise remain on the streets, and has authorized local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners. New York state is releasing low-risk prisoners from its jails. Spain is nationalizing its private hospitals. The Green New Deal, which was already endorsed by the leading Democratic presidential candidates, is now being discussed as the mainstay of a program of economic recovery. The idea of universal basic income for every American, boldly raised by long-shot Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, has now become a talking point even for Republican politicians.
Ecological stabilization. Coronavirus has already been more effective in slowing down climate breakdown and ecological collapse than all the world’s policy initiatives combined. In February, Chinese CO2 emissions were down by over 25%. One scientist calculated that twenty times as many Chinese lives have been saved by reduced air pollution than lost directly to coronavirus. Over the next year, we’re likely to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions greater than even the most optimistic modelers’ forecasts, as a result of the decline in economic activity. As French philosopher Bruno Latour tweeted: “Next time, when ecologists are ridiculed because ‘the economy cannot be slowed down’, they should remember that it can grind to a halt in a matter of weeks worldwide when it is urgent enough.”
Of course, nobody would propose that economic activity should be disrupted in this catastrophic way in response to the climate crisis. However, the emergency response initiated so rapidly by governments across the world has shown what is truly possible when people face what they recognize as a crisis. As a result of climate activism, 1,500 municipalities worldwide, representing over 10% of the global population, have officially declared a climate emergency. The Covid-19 response can now be held out as an icon of what is really possible when people’s lives are at stake. In the case of the climate, the stakes are even greater—the future survival of our civilization. We now know the world can respond as needed, once political will is engaged and societies enter emergency mode
The rise of “glocalization.” One of the defining characteristics of the Neoliberal Era has been a corrosive globalization based on free market norms. Transnational corporations have dictated terms to countries in choosing where to locate their operations, leading nations to compete against each other to reduce worker protections in a “race to the bottom.” The use of cheap fossil fuels has caused wasteful misuse of resources as products are flown around the world to meet consumer demand stoked by manipulative advertising. This globalization of markets has been a major cause of the Neoliberal Era’s massive increase in consumption that threatens civilization’s future. Meanwhile, masses of people disaffected by rising inequity have been persuaded by right-wing populists to turn their frustration toward outgroups such as immigrants or ethnic minorities.
The effects of Covid-19 could lead to an inversion of these neoliberal norms. As supply lines break down, communities will look to local and regional producers for their daily needs. When a consumer appliance breaks, people will try to get it repaired rather than buy a new one. Workers, newly unemployed, may turn increasingly to local jobs in smaller companies that serve their community directly.
At the same time, people will increasingly get used to connecting with others through video meetings over the internet, where someone on the other side of the world feels as close as someone across town. This could be a defining characteristic of the new era. Even while production goes local, we may see a dramatic increase in the globalization of new ideas and ways of thinking—a phenomenon known as “glocalization.” Already, scientists are collaborating around the world in an unprecedented collective effort to find a vaccine; and a globally crowdsourced library is offering a “Coronavirus Tech Handbook” to collect and distribute the best ideas for responding to the pandemic.
Compassionate community. Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, documents how, contrary to popular belief, disasters frequently bring out the best in people, as they reach out and help those in need around them. In the wake of Covid-19, the whole world is reeling from a disaster that affects us all. The compassionate response Solnit observed in disaster zones has now spread across the planet with a speed matching the virus itself. Mutual aid groups are forming in communities everywhere to help those in need. The website Karunavirus (Karuna is a Sanskrit word for compassion) documents a myriad of everyday acts of heroism, such as the thirty thousand Canadians who have started “caremongering,” and the mom-and-pop restaurants in Detroit forced to close and now cooking meals for the homeless.
In the face of disaster, many people are rediscovering that they are far stronger as a community than as isolated individuals. The phrase “social distancing” is helpfully being recast as “physical distancing” since Covid-19 is bringing people closer together in solidarity than ever before.
Revolution in Values
This rediscovery of the value of community has the potential to be the most important factor of all in shaping the trajectory of the next era. New ideas and political possibilities are critically important, but ultimately an era is defined by its underlying values, on which everything else is built.
The Neoliberal Era was constructed on a myth of the selfish individual as the foundational for values. As Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” This belief in the selfish individual has not just been destructive of community—it’s plain wrong. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, a defining characteristic of humanity is our set of prosocial impulses—fairness, altruism, and compassion—that cause us to identify with something larger than our own individual needs. The compassionate responses that have arisen in the wake of the pandemic are heartwarming but not surprising—they are the expected, natural human response to others in need.
Once the crucible of coronavirus begins to cool, and a new sociopolitical order emerges, the larger emergency of climate breakdown and ecological collapse will still be looming over us. The Neoliberal Era has set civilization’s course directly toward a precipice. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices being made, but by a revolution in values. It must be an era where the core human values of fairness, mutual aid, and compassion are paramount—extending beyond the local neighborhood to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life. If we can change the basis of our global civilization from one that is wealth-affirming to one that is life-affirming, then we have a chance to create a flourishing future for humanity and the living Earth.
To this extent, the Covid-19 disaster represents an opportunity for the human race—one in which each one of us has a meaningful part to play. We are all inside the crucible right now, and the choices we make over the weeks and months to come will, collectively, determine the shape and defining characteristics of the next era. However big we’re thinking about the future effects of this pandemic, we can think bigger. As has been said in other settings, but never more to the point: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Press: North America | Profile Books: UK & Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.
Do you want to think even bigger?
Watch Jeremy Lent’s talk on “Living into an Ecological Civilization”
Presented at Civana House, San Francisco, October 3, 2019