In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production.
We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.
Meanwhile, 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. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?
Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.
But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.
That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.
Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.
A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.
In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.
An ecological civilization
The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.
A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.
An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.
In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecology practices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.
In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.
Cultivating a flourishing future
While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.
In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.
Examples of large-scale thriving 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. Think tanks such as The Next System Project, The Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. And the core principles of an ecological civilization have already been set out in the Earth Charter—an ethical framework launched in The Hague in 2000 and endorsed by over 6,000 organizations worldwide, including many governments. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.
As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.
One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.
Watch Jeremy Lent’s talk on the principles of an ecological civilization
Presented at Parliament of World Religions, Toronto, November 2018
We need to rein in the destructive power of corporations and billionaires before it’s too late. These five ideas would do that, while leaving global capitalism intact. Ultimately, only a complete transformation of our economic system will save our future, but these proposals could set changes in motion that might eventually take us there.
Transnational corporations have become the dominant force directing our world. Humanity is accelerating toward a precipice of overconsumption, and the large transnationals are the primary agents driving us there. We’re rapidly losing the earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. The earth is becoming denuded of its bounty as every living system is ransacked for resources—not to mention the looming emergency of climate breakdown. As a result, twenty thousand scientists have recently issued a public warning to humanity, while prominent academics consider the collapse of civilization this century to be a serious threat.
Changes in our personal consumption patterns are important, but are ultimately inconsequential compared with the impact of the transnationals that have come to dominate our global economic and political system. Of the world’s hundred largest economies, sixty-nine are now corporations. Political parties in many of our so-called democracies are funded in large part by billionaires, while government cabinet positions are staffed by corporate executives. International bodies setting global policy are infiltrated by corporate agents so successful at entrenching corporate power that even those governments that still prioritize their people’s needs can no longer make autonomous decisions without risking crippling lawsuits from the transnationals whose interests they threaten. Meanwhile, countries and cities compete with each other to beg their corporate overlords for investment dollars, even it means undermining public services and legal protections for their own populations.
Environmental groups, recognizing where ultimate power resides, try to pressure corporations to improve practices through the threat of public shaming, with some appreciable results. However, these attempts are necessarily constrained by the very structure of big corporations, which exist to enrich their shareholders regardless of the consequences. 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 powerful institutional force is thus directly at odds with a flourishing earth or a viable future for humanity.
Having spent the first part of my career in the heart of the capitalist system, consulting to major international banks and corporations, I developed a sense of the underlying forces that direct the centers of financial power. These ideas are my distillation of what I believe could be effective levers for humanity to take back some control from the increasing hegemony of corporations and billionaires.
If we are to avoid disaster, our global economic system with its gaping inequities and deranged consumption will eventually need to dismantled and replaced by one based on life-affirming principles rather than wealth maximization. These suggestions, even in aggregate, wouldn’t do that. They represent mere tweaks in a system that ultimately needs to be completely transformed. But like a modest trim tab that helps redirect an ocean liner, perhaps they could begin to curb the destructive force of transnationals and redirect their enormous power toward a more sustainable path.
1. Triple bottom line required for corporate charters
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.
It is easier, however, to change a corporation’s values than those of a human psychopath. All you need to do is change the legal basis of their charter. Instead of pursuing shareholder interests alone, they could be re-chartered with the explicit purpose of achieving a triple bottom line of social and environmental outcomes as well as financial—sometimes known as the “triple Ps” of people, planet, and profit.
This alternative corporate value system is already available through chartering as a benefit corporation or certifying as a B-Corp, and has been adopted by over 2,000 corporations in over fifty countries around the world—including several multibillion-dollar transnationals. My proposal is that, instead of being a voluntary step taken by a select few, this would be a requirement for all corporations above a certain size.
Overnight, the intrinsic character of the corporation would be transformed. Currently, CEOs and corporate boards are faced with continual pressure to grow their earnings at all cost. If they chose to make a humane decision, such as not to exploit a copper mine because of the consequent pollution, they could expect to be sued by shareholders, and possibly acquired by a more ruthless competitor. However, if they were legally required to achieve a triple bottom line, they would weigh up decisions in a more balanced way, as a rational person might. With the board responsible for all three bottom lines, they would have to consider the risk of being sued if they caused excessive pollution, or if they were callous to the needs of the communities where their plants were located.
Currently, large corporations boast of their corporate social responsibility departments that are supposed to care about issues such as employment practices of their suppliers, sustainability of their raw materials, environmental impact of their packaging, gender balance and ethnic diversity in the workplace, and investments in local communities. Suddenly, they would have to stop paying mere lip service to these issues and take them as seriously as marketing costs, revenue growth and distribution channels—the things that CEOs actually worry about when they go home at night.
2. Charter renewal required every five years
Changing the corporate charter requirement might not, however, be enough by itself to halt the relentless pursuit of profits by large transnationals. After all, executive pay packages consist of dollars rather than goodwill, and those dollars are linked directly to the share price, which is driven by shareholders’ expectation of financial returns. If they could get away with it, they might continue their rapacious practices, while trying harder to look like they’re meeting the other two bottom lines.
That’s the reason for my second proposal, which is to require that corporations, which currently enjoy what’s known legally as a “perpetual existence,” get their charters renewed every five years. If they failed to meet pre-established criteria on their two non-financial bottom lines, they would not be permitted to continue in business. Currently, if a company can’t meet its financial obligations, it’s forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and the value of its stock generally tanks to zero. Under my proposal, executives would also have to consider the risk of declaring “social bankruptcy” or “environmental bankruptcy” as they made their business decisions.
As in currently regulated industries such as banking, the final step of losing their charter would not have to be immediate. If a corporation failed to meet its basic parameters, it could be given a warning, with a time period set to fix things. However, the mere threat of this happening would lead corporate executives to make sure they were well above the criteria required to keep their charter.
Corporations are, of course, highly adept at using their financial resources to influence regulatory bodies through bribes and other mechanisms. To avoid this, panel members responsible to renew the charter would be representatives of the communities and ecosystems covered in the company’s scope of operations. Their task would be to weigh up the findings of experienced independent auditors on the company’s performance. To minimize corruption, the panel could be chosen by a process of random selection called sortition, just a like a trial jury is chosen in our legal system.
3. Tax stock trades based on the length of the holding period
Powerful as they are, even corporations have their masters: their shareholders. But don’t think of the typical shareholder as a Warren Buffet type, sitting back in his leather armchair perusing his holdings. Instead, corporate stocks are subject to the frenetic activity of financial markets, where split-second computer algorithms govern much of the trading. Investment firms spend hundreds of millions of dollars enhancing their computing networks to shave as little as three milliseconds off the timing of their trades. The hyper liquidity of global markets means that investors are obsessed with short-term market trends, which leads corporate CEOs, forever anxious about their stock price, to focus their time horizon on the next quarterly earnings report. Financial valuations apply discount rates to future earnings, which means that an investment paying off thirty years in the future can be worth as little as five percent of its future payoff in the present. Under these conditions, why would any CEO care about the state of the planet—or even their company—thirty years from now?
During the 2016 US election campaign, Bernie Sanders proposed a Financial Transaction Tax to pay for free college tuition, setting the rate at 0.1% of the transaction. In Europe, discussions are under way to apply a similar EU-wide tax. My proposal increases the tax rate by orders of magnitude, and differentiates based on the length of the stock holding. For example, the tax rate might look like this:
10% if the stock is held less than a day
5% if less than a year
3% if less than 10 years
1% if less than 20 years
Zero if more than 20 years
The effects of this single step would be enormous. The financial services industry would be transformed overnight. High frequency stock trading and same-day traders would disappear. The short-term orientation of the stock market would be replaced by carefully considered long-term investment decisions. A typical mutual fund, which in the US currently turns over its portfolio at the rate of 130% a year, could no longer afford to do so, and would have to change its investment decision-making based on sustainable returns. The tax could be waived for individuals experiencing a life-changing event or for simple hedging techniques where, for example, farmers need to lock in the price of their produce at a future time.
The result would be a massive shift away from destructive extractive industries and toward sustainable businesses. For example, the fossil fuel industry is recognized to be vastly overvalued as a result of its “unburnable carbon”: the amount of fossil fuels in the ground that can never be burned if the world is to keep climate change below the 2° rise agreed at COP21 in Paris. A recent study estimates the overvaluation as high as $4 trillion. Investors, however, play a game of musical chairs, hoping they won’t be the ones left holding the stranded assets. This proposed transaction fee would incent them to dump fossil fuel investments immediately for opportunities in renewable energy with longer-term payoffs.
4. Cap on billionaire’s assets over $5 billion
As corporations have taken increasing control of the global system, they have catapulted founding shareholders and their heirs to previously unimaginable pinnacles of wealth. The combined wealth of the world’s 2,754 billionaires is now $9.2 trillion, an amount that has doubled in the past six years, and increased tenfold since the beginning of this century. The magnitude of this wealth is difficult to conceive. The top six billionaires own as much as the lower half of the entire world’s population. Taken together, the world’s billionaires would represent the third largest economy in the world, behind only China and the United States, with wealth equivalent to the GDP of Germany and Japan combined.
There is no legitimate rationale for this outrageous concentration of such wealth in a few individuals. The argument that the founders of Microsoft, Amazon, or Facebook deserve such excessive wealth is no more valid than the belief of the ancient Egyptians in the divinity of their Pharaoh, or the Medieval notion of the divine right of kings. Mark Zuckerberg, aged 33, currently owns over $70 billion. If someone had singlehandedly miniaturized the transistor, developed the logic for computer code, invented the PC, and come up with the internet, then maybe they’d deserve having close to that amount as a reward for the value they created. But all Zuckerberg did was figure out a way to connect people up in a network that became a bit more popular than other networks, and because of the internet’s scale effects, he was the lucky one who hit the jackpot. Zuckerberg merely took advantage of all the other infrastructure work that led to the internet, painstakingly pieced together by millions of people over decades, which has been the real value creator for the world.
In response to this excess, my proposal is to cap billionaires’ wealth at, say, $5 billion. It’s an arbitrary amount, still obscenely high and presumably more than enough for those who argue that people should receive ample financial rewards for success. Beyond a certain level of wealth, however, what drives these people is power and prestige. This could be tapped by requiring them to donate their excess wealth to a trust over which they could retain some influence.
Such a trust, however, would need to have some strict criteria. While the billionaire could influence the trust’s priorities, he would not have control over its activities. The current Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, while a step in the right direction, is under the total control of the Gateses and Warren Buffet. The foundation set up with much fanfare by Mark Zuckerberg is viewed by experts as little more than a fancy tax dodge.
Each trust would need to avoid interference in a country’s political system and be dedicated to life-affirming activities, the scope of which could be based, for example, on the principles of the Earth Charter, a framework for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society endorsed by over 6,000 organizations.
The billionaires of the world, meanwhile, would continue to enjoy enormous wealth, and when they jet to Davos to hobnob with other luminaries for the annual World Economic Forum, they could finally have something worthwhile to boast about.
5. Declare a crime of ecocide at the International Criminal Court
Even with all these constraints, the powers of transnational corporations would remain enormous, and there would still be times when, through willful negligence or intentional bad faith, corporate action causes massive environmental damage. A UN study, which remained unpublished, found that the world’s largest companies had caused over $2 trillion of environmental damage, which would cost a third of their overall profits if they were forced to pay for it. Because of their extensive political influence, even their most damaging activities go unpunished. This leads to my final proposal: to declare a crime of ecocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The ICC is an independent judicial body set up by international treaty, the Rome Statute, in 2002 to prosecute war crimes, genocides, and crimes against humanity. While it continues to face serious challenges to its enforcement powers, it has had the effect of putting tyrants everywhere on notice that they can no longer act with impunity. If ecocide—the loss, destruction, or severe damage of an ecosystem—were declared a crime by the ICC, this could have a similarly daunting effect on those corporate tyrants who currently know they can get away with devastating the world’s “sacrifice zones” where they are pillaging the earth’s resources for profit.
There is a campaign, Eradicating Ecocide, already under way to make this happen. A model law has been drafted, and an Earth Protectors Trust Fund has been set up to permit common people everywhere to become legal Earth protectors. If a two-thirds majority of the Rome Statute signatories were to approve this as an amendment, it would become enforceable globally. Suddenly, corporate boards and CEOs everywhere would realize they are no longer above the law.
* * * * *
There is a strange paradox to consider about these proposals. One the one hand, notice how limited they are in scope. Even if they were all implemented overnight, the global system would not be overturned. People would still go to work and get paid, food would still be on the shelves of the grocery store, the same governments would still be in power, and the internet would still work. The gaping structural inequities of our current world order would continue unabated, and we’d still be consuming far more than our planet can sustain. Ultimately, we need a complete transformation of our global system if our civilization is to survive intact through this century.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take a political genius to realize that these ideas are so far from mainstream thinking that they have virtually no chance to be adopted any time soon. They would be considered too radical for even the most progressive mainstream politician to endorse. What does this tell us about our current political dialogue? To me, it suggests that our conversations are too severely constrained by what we’re “allowed” to think in terms of how our system works. We need to cast our gaze outside the norms that our billionaire-controlled mainstream media permits us to consider.
Imagine a world where these ideas (or others like them) began to be seriously entertained. How would they even be enforced? The only way corporations could be brought to heel, or billionaires compelled to give up their excess billions, would be a concerted effort led by the United States in conjunction with the European Union, and joined by the preponderance of other countries.
This, of course, could only happen if grassroots demand for these ideas spread so powerfully that politicians had to take notice. This is not such an unrealistic scenario, given the worldwide disavowal of the dominant capitalist model: most Europeans have a higher opinion of socialism than capitalism, and even in the US, the overwhelming majority see big business as unethical and unfair.
Then, there is the potential “trim tab” effect of adopting these ideas. Even though these proposals alone wouldn’t fundamentally transform our system in the way that’s needed, they might set changes in motion that could eventually take us there. There may be other ideas more effective than these, and of course each proposal contains within it complications that would need to be worked out carefully. However, my hope is that these ideas invite a new mode of political dialogue, along with a recognition that even in the darkest times, realistic pathways exist toward a thriving future for humanity and the natural world.
The next Occupy movement will need clear demands that lead to specific deliverables
When the Occupy movement failed to achieve its initial promise, many people pointed to its lack of specific demands as a reason for its demise. If and when the next radical grassroots movement emerges, which may be sooner than you expect, let’s make sure they have an array of ideas such as these in their quiver to focus public opinion on actual political deliverables.
There are very few people who really want to see our civilization collapse. If these proposals eventually did get implemented, perhaps even the executives of the transnational corporations might sleep better at night, knowing that they can become part of the solution rather than a force of destruction.
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By falsely tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim.
In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, published earlier this year, Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.
His book has incited strong reactions, both positive and negative. On one hand, Bill Gates has, for example, effervesced that “It’s my new favorite book of all time.” On the other hand, Pinker has been fiercely excoriated by a wide range of leading thinkers for writing a simplistic, incoherent paean to the dominant world order. John Gray, in the New Statesman, calls it “embarrassing” and “feeble”; David Bell, writing in The Nation, sees it as “a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history”; and George Monbiot, in The Guardian, laments the “poor scholarship” and “motivated reasoning” that “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.” (Full disclosure: Monbiot recommends my book, The Patterning Instinct, instead.)
In light of all this, you might ask, what is left to add? Having read his book carefully, I believe it’s crucially important to take Pinker to task for some dangerously erroneous arguments he makes. Pinker is, after all, an intellectual darling of the most powerful echelons of global society. He spoke to the world’s elite this year at the World’s Economic Forum in Davos on the perils of what he calls “political correctness,” and has been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” Since his work offers an intellectual rationale for many in the elite to continue practices that imperil humanity, it needs to be met with a detailed and rigorous response.
Besides, I agree with much of what Pinker has to say. His book is stocked with seventy-five charts and graphs that provide incontrovertible evidence for centuries of progress on many fronts that should matter to all of us: an inexorable decline in violence of all sorts along with equally impressive increases in health, longevity, education, and human rights. It’s precisely because of the validity of much of Pinker’s narrative that the flaws in his argument are so dangerous. They’re concealed under such a smooth layer of data and eloquence that they need to be carefully unraveled. That’s why my response to Pinker is to meet him on his own turf: in each section, like him, I rest my case on hard data exemplified in a graph.
This discussion is particularly needed because progress is, in my view, one of the most important concepts of our time. I see myself, in common parlance, as a progressive. Progress is what I, and others I’m close to, care about passionately. Rather than ceding this idea to the coterie of neoliberal technocrats who constitute Pinker’s primary audience, I believe we should hold it in our steady gaze, celebrate it where it exists, understand its true causes, and most importantly, ensure that it continues in a form that future generations on this earth can enjoy. I hope this piece helps to do just that.
Graph 1: Overshoot
In November 2017, around the time when Pinker was likely putting the final touches on his manuscript, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
They included nine sobering charts and a carefully worded, extensively researched analysis showing that, on a multitude of fronts, the human impact on the earth’s biological systems is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Three of those alarming graphs are shown here: the rise in CO2 emissions; the decline in available freshwater; and the increase in the number of ocean dead zones from artificial fertilizer runoff.
This was not the first such notice. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1992, 1,700 scientists (including the majority of living Nobel laureates) sent a similarly worded warning to governmental leaders around the world, calling for a recognition of the earth’s fragility and a new ethic arising from the realization that “we all have but one lifeboat.” The current graphs starkly demonstrate how little the world has paid attention to this warning since 1992.
Taken together, these graphs illustrate ecological overshoot: the fact that, in the pursuit of material progress, our civilization is consuming the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished. Overshoot is particularly dangerous because of its relatively slow feedback loops: if your checking account balance approaches zero, you know that if you keep writing checks they will bounce. In overshoot, however, it’s as though our civilization keeps taking out bigger and bigger overdrafts to replenish the account, and then we pretend these funds are income and celebrate our continuing “progress.” In the end, of course, the money runs dry and it’s game over.
Pinker claims to respect science, yet he blithely ignores fifteen thousand scientists’ desperate warning to humanity. Instead, he uses the blatant rhetorical technique of ridicule to paint those concerned about overshoot as part of a “quasi-religious ideology… laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer.” He then uses a couple of the most extreme examples he can find to create a straw-man to buttress his caricature. There are issues worthy of debate on the topic of civilization and sustainability, but to approach a subject of such seriousness with emotion-laden rhetoric is morally inexcusable and striking evidence of Monbiot’s claim that Pinker “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.”
When Pinker does get serious on the topic, he promotes Ecomodernism as the solution: a neoliberal, technocratic belief that a combination of market-based solutions and technological fixes will magically resolve all ecological problems. This approach fails, however, to take into account the structural drivers of overshoot: a growth-based global economy reliant on ever-increasing monetization of natural resources and human activity. Without changing this structure, overshoot is inevitable. Transnational corporations, which currently constitute sixty-nine of the world’s hundred largest economies, are driven only by increasing short-term financial value for their shareholders, regardless of the long-term impact on humanity. As freshwater resources decline, for example, their incentive is to buy up what remains and sell it in plastic throwaway bottles or process it into sugary drinks, propelling billions in developing countries toward obesity through sophisticated marketing. In fact, until an imminent collapse of civilization itself, increasing ecological catastrophes are likely to enhance the GDP of developed countries even while those in less developed regions suffer dire consequences.
Graphs 2 and 3: Progress for Whom?
Which brings us to another fundamental issue in Pinker’s narrative of progress: who actually gets to enjoy it? Much of his book is devoted to graphs showing worldwide progress in quality in life for humanity as a whole. However, some of his omissions and misstatements on this topic are very telling.
At one point, Pinker explains that, “Despite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals, but this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.” That’s convenient, because any non-human animal might not agree that the past sixty years has been a period of flourishing. In fact, while the world’s GDP has increased 22-fold since 1970, there has been a vast die-off of the creatures with whom we share the earth. As shown in Figure 2, human progress in material consumption has come at the cost of a 58% decline in vertebrates, including a shocking 81% reduction of animal populations in freshwater systems. For every five birds or fish that inhabited a river or lake in 1970, there is now just one.
But we don’t need to look outside the human race for Pinker’s selective view of progress. He is pleased to tell us that “racist violence against African Americans… plummeted in the 20th century, and has fallen further since.” What he declines to report is the drastic increase in incarceration rates for African Americans during that same period (Figure 3). An African American man is now six times more likely to be arrested than a white man, resulting in the dismal statistic that one in every three African American men can currently expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime. The grim takeaway from this is that racist violence against African Americans has not declined at all, as Pinker suggests. Instead, it has become institutionalized into U.S. national policy in what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Graph 4: A rising tide lifts all boats?
This brings us to one of the crucial errors in Pinker’s overall analysis. By failing to analyze his top-level numbers with discernment, he unquestioningly propagates one of the great neoliberal myths of the past several decades: that “a rising tide lifts all the boats”—a phrase he unashamedly appropriates for himself as he extols the benefits of inequality. This was the argument used by the original instigators of neoliberal laissez-faire economics, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to cut taxes, privatize industries, and slash public services with the goal of increasing economic growth.
Pinker makes two key points here. First, he argues that “income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being,” pointing to recent research that people are comfortable with differential rewards for others depending on their effort and skill. However, as Pinker himself acknowledges, humans do have a powerful predisposition toward fairness. They want to feel that, if they work diligently, they can be as successful as someone else based on what they do, not on what family they’re born into or what their skin color happens to be. More equal societies are also healthier, which is a condition conspicuously missing from the current economic model, where the divide between rich and poor has become so gaping that the six wealthiest men in the world (including Pinker’s good friend, Bill Gates) now own as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s population.
Pinker’s fallback might, then, be his second point: the rising tide argument, which he extends to the global economy. Here, he cheerfully recounts the story of how Branko Milanović, a leading ex-World Bank economist, analyzed income gains by percentile across the world over the twenty-year period 1988–2008, and discovered something that became widely known as the “Elephant Graph,” because its shape resembled the profile of an elephant with a raised trunk. Contrary to popular belief about rising global inequality, it seemed to show that, while the top 1% did in fact gain more than their fair share of income, lower percentiles of the global population had done just as well. It seemed to be only the middle classes in wealthy countries that had missed out.
This graph, however, is virtually meaningless because it calculates growth rates as a percent of widely divergent income levels. Compare a Silicon Valley executive earning $200,000/year with one of the three billion people currently living on $2.50 per day or less. If the executive gets a 10% pay hike, she can use the $20,000 to buy a new compact car for her teenage daughter. Meanwhile, that same 10% increase would add, at most, a measly 25 cents per day to each of those three billion. In Graph 4, Oxfam economist Mujeed Jamaldeen shows the original “Elephant Graph” (blue line) contrasted with changes in absolute income levels (green line). The difference is stark.
The “Elephant Graph” elegantly conceals the fact that the wealthiest 1% experienced nearly 65 times the absolute income growth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Inequality isn’t, in fact, decreasing at all, but going extremely rapidly the other way. Jamaldeen has calculated that, at the current rate, it would take over 250 years for the income of the poorest 10% to merely reach the global average income of $11/day. By that time, at the current rate of consumption by wealthy nations, it’s safe to say there would be nothing left for them to spend their lucrative earnings on. In fact, the “rising tide” for some barely equates to a drop in the bucket for billions of others.
Graph 5: Measuring Genuine Progress
One of the cornerstones of Pinker’s book is the explosive rise in income and wealth that the world has experienced in the past couple of centuries. Referring to the work of economist Angus Deaton, he calls it the “Great Escape” from the historic burdens of human suffering, and shows a chart (Figure 5, left) depicting the rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, which seems to say it all. How could anyone in their right mind refute that evidence of progress?
There is no doubt that the world has experienced a transformation in material wellbeing in the past two hundred years, and Pinker documents this in detail, from the increased availability of clothing, food, and transportation, to the seemingly mundane yet enormously important decrease in the cost of artificial light. However, there is a point where the rise in economic activity begins to decouple from wellbeing. In fact, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities 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. An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because of the cost of cleaning it up: the bigger the spill, the better it is for GDP.
This divergence is played out, tragically, across the world every day, and is cruelly hidden in global statistics of rising GDP when powerful corporate and political interests destroy the lives of the vulnerable in the name of economic “progress.” In just one of countless examples, a recent report in The Guardian describes how indigenous people living on the Xingu River in the Amazon rainforest were forced off their land to make way for the Belo Monte hydroelectric complex in Altamira, Brazil. One of them, Raimundo Brago Gomes, tells how “I didn’t need money to live happy. My whole house was nature… I had my patch of land where I planted a bit of everything, all sorts of fruit trees. I’d catch my fish, make manioc flour… I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich.” Now, he and his family live among drug dealers behind barred windows in Brazil’s most violent city, receiving a state pension which, after covering rent and electricity, leaves him about 50 cents a day to feed himself, his wife, daughter, and grandson. Meanwhile, as a result of his family’s forced entry into the monetary economy, Brazil’s GDP has risen.
Pinker is aware of the crudeness of GDP as a measure, but uses it repeatedly throughout his book because, he claims, “it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing.” This is not, however, what has been discovered when economists have adjusted GDP to incorporate other major factors that affect human flourishing. One prominent alternative measure, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), reduces GDP for negative environmental factors such as the cost of pollution, loss of primary forest and soil quality, and social factors such as the cost of crime and commuting. It increases the measure for positive factors missing from GDP such as housework, volunteer work, and higher education. Sixty years of historical GPI for many countries around the world have been measured, and the results resoundingly refute Pinker’s claim of GDP’s correlation with wellbeing. In fact, as shown by the purple line in Figure 5 (right), it turns out that the world’s Genuine Progress peaked in 1978 and has been steadily falling ever since.
Graph 6: What Has Improved Global Health?
One of Pinker’s most important themes is the undisputed improvement in overall health and longevity that the world has enjoyed in the past century. It’s a powerful and heart-warming story. Life expectancy around the world has more than doubled in the past century. Infant mortality everywhere is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Improvements in medical knowledge and hygiene have saved literally billions of lives. Pinker appropriately quotes economist Steven Radelet that these improvements “rank among the greatest achievements in human history.”
So, what has been the underlying cause of this great achievement? Pinker melds together what he sees as the twin engines of progress: GDP growth and increase in knowledge. Economic growth, for him, is a direct result of global capitalism. “Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism,” he declares with his usual exaggerated rhetoric, “its economic benefits are so obvious that they don’t need to be shown with numbers.” He refers to a figure called the Preston curve, from a paper by Samuel Preston published in 1975 showing a correlation between GDP and life expectancy that become foundational to the field of developmental economics. “Most obviously,” Pinker declares, “GDP per capita correlates with longevity, health, and nutrition.” While he pays lip service to the scientific principle that “correlation is not causation,” he then clearly asserts causation, claiming that “economic development does seem to be a major mover of human welfare.” He closes his chapter with a joke about a university dean offered by a genie the choice between money, fame, or wisdom. The dean chooses wisdom but then regrets it, muttering “I should have taken the money.”
Pinker would have done better to have pondered more deeply on the relation between correlation and causation in this profoundly important topic. In fact, a recent paper by Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede entitled “Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve” does just that. The original Preston curve came with an anomaly: the relationship between GDP and life expectancy doesn’t stay constant. Instead, each period it’s measured, it shifts higher, showing greater life expectancy for any given GDP (Figure 6, left). Preston—and his followers, including Pinker—explained this away by suggesting that advances in medicine and healthcare must have improved things across the board.
Lutz and Kebede, however, used sophisticated multi-level regression models to analyze how closely education correlated with life expectancy compared with GDP. They found that a country’s average level of educational attainment explained rising life expectancy much better than GDP, and eliminated the anomaly in Preston’s Curve (Figure 6, right). The correlation with GDP was spurious. In fact, their model suggests that both GDP and health are ultimately driven by the amount of schooling children receive. This finding has enormous implications for development priorities in national and global policy. For decades, the neoliberal mantra, based on Preston’s Curve, has dominated mainstream thinking—raise a country’s GDP and health benefits will follow. Lutz and Kebede show that a more effective policy would be to invest in schooling for children, with all the ensuing benefits in quality of life that will bring.
Pinker’s joke has come full circle. In reality, for the past few decades, the dean chose the money. Now, he can look at the data and mutter: “I should have taken the wisdom.”
Graph 7: False Equivalencies, False Dichotomies
As we can increasingly see, many of Pinker’s missteps arise from the fact that he conflates two different dynamics of the past few centuries: improvements in many aspects of the human experience, and the rise of neoliberal, laissez-faire capitalism. Whether this is because of faulty reasoning on his part, or a conscious strategy to obfuscate, the result is the same. Most readers will walk away from his book with the indelible impression that free market capitalism is an underlying driver of human progress.
Pinker himself states the importance of avoiding this kind of conflation. “Progress,” he declares, “consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package… Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social process as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms.” If only he took his own admonition more seriously!
Instead, he laces his book with an unending stream of false equivalencies and false dichotomies that lead a reader inexorably to the conclusion that progress and capitalism are part of the same package. One of his favorite tropes is to create a false equivalency between right-wing extremism and the progressive movement on the left. He tells us that the regressive factions that undergirded Donald Trump’s presidency were “abetted by a narrative shared by many of their fiercest opponents, in which the institutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in deepening crisis—the two sides in macabre agreement that wrecking those institutions will make the world a better place.” He even goes so far as to implicate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election debacle: “The left and right ends of the political spectrum,” he opines, “incensed by economic inequality for their different reasons, curled around to meet each other, and their shared cynicism about the modern economy helped elect the most radical American president in recent times.”
Implicit in Pinker’s political model is the belief that progress can only arise from the brand of centrist politics espoused by many in the mainstream Democratic Party. He perpetuates a false dichotomy of “right versus left” based on a twentieth-century version of politics that has been irrelevant for more than a generation. “The left,” he writes, “has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism.” He contrasts “industrial capitalism,” on the one hand, which has rescued humanity from universal poverty, with communism, which has “brought the world terror-famines, purges, gulags, genocides, Chernobyl, megadeath revolutionary wars, and North Korea–style poverty before collapsing everywhere else of its own internal contradictions.”
By painting this black and white, Manichean landscape of capitalist good versus communist evil, Pinker obliterates from view the complex, sophisticated models of a hopeful future that have been diligently constructed over decades by a wide range of progressive thinkers. These fresh perspectives eschew the Pinker-style false dichotomy of traditional left versus right. Instead, they explore the possibilities of replacing a destructive global economic system with one that offers potential for greater fairness, sustainability, and human flourishing. In short, a model for continued progress for the twenty-first century.
While the thought leaders of the progressive movement are too numerous to mention here, an illustration of this kind of thinking is seen in Graph 7. It shows an integrated model of the economy, aptly called “Doughnut Economics,” that has been developed by pioneering economist Kate Raworth. The inner ring, called Social Foundation, represents the minimum level of life’s essentials, such as food, water, and housing, required for the possibility of a healthy and wholesome life. The outer ring, called Ecological Ceiling, represents the boundaries of Earth’s life-giving systems, such as a stable climate and healthy oceans, within which we must remain to achieve sustained wellbeing for this and future generations. The red areas within the ring show the current shortfall in the availability of bare necessities to the world’s population; the red zones outside the ring illustrate the extent to which we have already overshot the safe boundaries in several essential earth systems. Humanity’s goal, within this model, is to develop policies that bring us within the safe and just space of the “doughnut” between the two rings.
Raworth, along with many others who care passionately about humanity’s future progress, focus their efforts, not on the kind of zero-sum, false dichotomies propagated by Pinker, but on developing fresh approaches to building a future that works for all on a sustainable and flourishing earth.
Graph 8: Progress Is Caused By… Progressives!
This brings us to the final graph, which is actually one of Pinker’s own. It shows the decline in recent years of web searches for sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes. Along with other statistics, he uses this as evidence in his argument that, contrary to what we read in the daily headlines, retrograde prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation are actually on the decline. He attributes this in large part to “the benign taboos on racism, sexism, and homophobia that have become second nature to the mainstream.”
How, we might ask, did this happen? As Pinker himself expresses, we can’t assume that this kind of moral progress just happened on its own. “If you see that a pile of laundry has gone down,” he avers, “it does not mean the clothes washed themselves; it means someone washed the clothes. If a type of violence has gone down, then some change in the social, cultural, or material milieu has caused it to go down… That makes it important to find out what the causes are, so we can try to intensify them and apply them more widely.”
Looking back into history, Pinker recognizes that changes in moral norms came about because progressive minds broke out of their society’s normative frames and applied new ethics based on a higher level of morality, dragging the mainstream reluctantly in their wake, until the next generation grew up adopting a new moral baseline. “Global shaming campaigns,” he explains, “even when they start out as purely aspirational, have in the past led to dramatic reductions in slavery, dueling, whaling, foot-binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.”
It is hard to comprehend how the same person who wrote these words can then turn around and hurl invectives against what he decries as “political correctness police, and social justice warriors” caught up in “identity politics,” not to mention his loathing for an environmental movement that “subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem.” Pinker seems to view all ethical development from prehistory to the present day as “progress,” but any pressure to shift society further along its moral arc as anathema.
This is the great irony of Pinker’s book. In writing a paean to historical progress, he then takes a staunchly conservative stance to those who want to continue it. It’s as though he sees himself at the mountain’s peak, holding up a placard saying “All progress stops here, unless it’s on my terms.”
In reality, many of the great steps made in securing the moral progress Pinker applauds came from brave individuals who had to resist the opprobrium of the Steven Pinkers of their time while they devoted their lives to reducing the suffering of others. When Thomas Paine affirmed the “Rights of Man” back in 1792, he was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. It would be another 150 years before his visionary idea was universally recognized in the United Nations. Emily Pankhurst was arrested seven times in her struggle to obtain women’s suffrage and was constantly berated by “moderates” of the time for her radical approach in striving for something that has now become the unquestioned norm. When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, with the first public exposé of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her solitary stance was denounced as hysterical and unscientific. Just eight years later, twenty million Americans marched to protect the environment in the first Earth Day.
These great strides in moral progress continue to this day. It’s hard to see them in the swirl of daily events, but they’re all around us: in the legalization of same sex marriage, in the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently in the way the #MeToo movement is beginning to shift norms in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the current steps in social progress are vehemently opposed by Steven Pinker, who has approvingly retweeted articles attacking both Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and who rails at the World Economic Forum against what he terms “political correctness.”
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By slyly tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim. Progress in the quality of life, for humans and nonhumans alike, is something that anyone with a heart should celebrate. It did not come about through capitalism, and in many cases, it has been achieved despite the “free market” that Pinker espouses. Personally, I’m proud to be a progressive, and along with many others, to devote my energy to achieve progress for this and future generations. And if and when we do so, it won’t be thanks to Steven Pinker and his specious arguments.
First, as George Monbiot points out in a follow-up article, the article fails to distinguish between Western and global civilization, conflating two very different issues: 1.) the recent historical dominance of the West over the rest of the world, and 2.) the unsustainable dynamics of our global civilization.
Worse, in their editorial, they argue that on the issues of climate breakdown and environmental collapse, those raising the alarm have “prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.” To me, that reads like saying that those who argue that the Earth orbits the Sun have prematurely provoked pushback from the Flat Earth Society by emphasizing the role of gravity. It’s the kind of thinking that grants false equivalency to climate deniers and leads to pseudo-scientists funded by the Koch brothers getting equal television time to real scientists representing 98% of scientific opinion.
As I describe in my recent article, “What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?“, the underlying drivers impelling our global civilization to the precipice are the economic structures of a global capitalist growth-based system driven by massive transnational corporations that are more powerful than individual nations. Since politics is, by definition, about the dynamics of power and governance, how is it possible either to diagnose the problem or suggest solutions without it being political?
Even when environmental scientists assiduously try to avoid politics and offer science-based solutions to problems, such as Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has done with The Solutions Project, the political pushback from embedded political interests is enormous. The fact is that there are solutions to our climate breakdown, and there are even ways to restructure our society to prevent collapse, but the political will is lacking.
If anyone is interested in looking deeper into this critical issue, here are some books I recommend (other than the final two chapters of my own book, The Patterning Instinct):
Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008.
A deeply insightful book that uses a sophisticated understanding of systems thinking to analyze some of the structural problems of our civilization.
Paul Raskin et al., Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, 2003)
Ashort but deeply thought through assessment of the possible future scenarios facing humanity.
Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (New York: Random House, 2013).
Athorough and discerning evaluation of the major drivers for change in our global society, and their implications for the future.
Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Ascholarly analysis of societal collapse that has deservedly framed much serious discussion on the topic since its publication.
Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012).
Athoughtful projection into the future by one of the original team members of Limits to Growth.
Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).
Apenetrating and visionary account of the enormity of the challenge and opportunity facing humanity in the future.
Fifteen thousand scientists have issued a dire warning to humanity about impending collapse but virtually no-one takes notice. Ultimately, our global systems, which are designed for perpetual growth, need to be fundamentally restructured to avoid the worst-case outcome.
For a moment, the most important news in the entire world flashed across the media like a shooting star in the night sky. Then it was gone. Last month, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
This is not the first such notice. Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, 1,700 scientists (including the majority of living Nobel laureates) sent a similarly worded warning to governmental leaders around the world. In ringing tones, they called for a recognition of the earth’s fragility and a new ethic arising from the realization that “we all have but one lifeboat.”
This second warning contains a series of charts showing how utterly the world’s leaders ignored what they were told twenty-five years earlier. Whether it’s CO2 emissions, temperature change, ocean dead zones, freshwater resources, vertebrate species, or total forest cover, the grim charts virtually all point in the same dismal direction, indicating continued momentum toward doomsday. The chart for marine catch shows something even scarier: in 1996, the catch peaked at 130 million tonnes and in spite of massively increased industrial fishing, it’s been declining ever since—a harbinger of the kind of overshoot that unsustainable exploitation threatens across the board.
Along with their warning, the scientists list a dozen or so examples of the kind of actions that could turn humanity’s trajectory around. These include indisputably necessary strategies such as halting the conversion of native habitats into farmland; restoring and rewilding ecologies; phasing out fossil fuel subsidies; and promoting dietary shifts toward plant-based foods. With the future of humanity at stake, why aren’t we already doing these things? What will it really take for our civilization to change course and save itself from destruction?
Ignoring climate breakdown
We can begin to answer that simply by looking at the media’s reception to this warning. With fifteen thousand scientists—including Jane Goodall, E. O. Wilson, and James Hansen—declaring a potential catastrophe at hand, you might think this would make headlines everywhere. Think again. While it led to a few short articles in select publications around the world, with the one commendable exception of CNN, it was virtually ignored by American mainstream media.
This should hardly come as a surprise. In fact, global climate breakdown—perhaps the greatest existential threat faced by our civilization—is barely considered newsworthy on American television. In 2016, the hottest year on record, when the Paris agreement was signed and presidential candidates held widely differing opinions on climate change, the entire year’s climate coverage by all network news services in the U.S. amounted to less than an hour: a paltry 50 minutes, representing a 66% drop from the previous year.
How could that be? One reason is that, as a result of decades of massive industry consolidation, the U.S. media is controlled by a few large corporations. Like all shareholder-owned companies, their overriding concern is making profits, in this case from advertising dollars. The news services, once considered a hallowed responsibility administered for the public good, have been reduced to just another profit center—and it was decided that climate change news isn’t good for advertising revenue, especially since a big chunk of that comes from the fossil fuel and agribusiness companies responsible for much of the problem.
The largest Ponzi scheme in history
Which leads us to some of the underlying structural changes that need to occur if human civilization is to avoid collapse. The fundamental problem is brutally simple: our world system is based on the premise of perpetual growth in consumption, which puts it on a collision course with the natural world. Either the global system has to be restructured, or we are headed for a catastrophe of immense proportions that has never been experienced in human history. However, the transnational corporations largely responsible for driving this trajectory are structurally designed to prevent the global changes that need to take place.
Something that is only dimly understood outside financial circles is that the vast bulk of the wealth enjoyed by the global elite is based on a fabrication: a belief in the future growth in earnings that corporations will deliver. For example, the current P/E ratio of the S&P 500 is about 23, which means that investors are valuing companies at twenty-three times their earnings for this year. Another way of looking at it is that less than 5% of the wealth enjoyed by investors relates to current activity; the rest is based on the dream of future growth.
Historically, investors have been richly rewarded for this dream. The world’s economic output is roughly twenty times greater than it was in 1950, and market valuations have increased accordingly. But this is the same growth that is driving our civilization to collapse. Today’s market values are based on a belief that the world’s economic output will triple from its current level by 2060. That implies three times as much pillaging of the world’s resources than the rate that has led to the scientists’ dire warning to humanity. Something has to give.
Like any Ponzi scheme, this global growth frenzy is based on maintaining the illusion for as long as possible. Once it becomes clear that this rate of growth is truly unsustainable, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. We saw in the 2008 financial meltdown a relatively limited dress rehearsal for what a full-scale financial collapse would look like.
This is what the global power brokers don’t want anyone to think about. It’s ultimately why the media obsesses with Donald Trump’s latest tweets rather than the devastation caused by climate breakdown-induced hurricanes. Like passengers moving deckchairs on the Titanic, much of the world’s population has been hypnotized by a daily onslaught of celebrity spats and political feuds—anything to avoid the realization that we are all heading for collapse in order to keep the affluent in luxury. It is a testament to their success so far that, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Imagining the end of capitalism
However, the only thing that will truly avert collapse will be a radical restructuring of the economic system that is driving us ever more rapidly to that precipice. This will only come about when enough of us are ready to jettison the consumer values that pervasive mainstream culture foists on us. In their place, we need to find other sources for meaning in our lives: growing the quality of our experiences rather than our consumption, building our communities together, and reconnecting with the natural world.
On that basis, we’ll be better equipped to join in the struggle to save humanity—and the rest of the earth—from the plundering envisaged by the perpetual growth frenzy of global corporate capitalism. There are plenty of alternative paths available to us—we just don’t hear about them because they never get the media’s attention. Most Americans, for example, are completely unaware that the little country of Costa Rica, with a GDP per capita less than one-fifth of the U.S., boasts a higher average life expectancy and enjoys far higher levels of wellbeing—while producing 99% of its electricity from renewable sources.
There are radically different ways for a society to function effectively that could apply to nations around the world if given half a chance. A flourishing future might involve more cooperative ventures, protection and expansion of the commons, and enhanced global governance with strict penalties for those who destroy ecological wellbeing. Collapse isn’t the only future in store for humanity—it’s merely the one we’re headed for unless and until we change course. Since the mainstream media isn’t going to get the word out, it has to be up to each of us who cares about the future of the human race. So, let’s get to it.
Futurists warning about the threats of AI are looking in the wrong place. Humanity is already facing an existential threat from an artificial intelligence we created hundreds of years ago. It’s called the Corporation.
Some of the leading thinkers of our time are unleashing a stream of warnings about the threat of artificial intelligence taking over from humans. Earlier this month, Stephen Hawking predicted it could be “the worst event in the history of our civilization” unless we find a way to control its development. Billionaire Elon Musk has formed a company to try to keep humans one step ahead of what he sees as an existential AI threat.
The scenario that terrifies them is that, in spite of the best intentions, we might create a force more powerful than all of humanity with a value system that doesn’t necessarily incorporate human welfare. Once it reaches a critical mass, this force could take over the world, control human activity, and essentially suck all life out of the earth while it optimizes for its own ends. Prominent futurist Nick Bostrom gives an example of a superintelligence designed with the goal of manufacturing paperclips that transforms the entire earth into one gigantic paperclip manufacturing facility.
These futurists are right to voice their concerns, but they’re missing the fact that humans have already created a force that is well on its way to devouring both humanity and the earth in just the way they fear. It’s called the Corporation.
“Government by corporations”
When corporations were first formed back in the seventeenth century, their inventors—just like modern software engineers—acted with what they believed were good intentions. The first corporate charters were simply designed to limit an investor’s liability to the amount of their investment, thus encouraging them to finance risky expeditions to India and Southeast Asia. However, an unintended consequence soon emerged, known as moral hazard: with the potential upside greater than the downside, reckless behavior ensued, leading to a series of spectacular frauds and a market crash that resulted in corporations being temporarily banned in England in 1720.
Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the United States, aware of the English experience, were deeply suspicious of corporations, giving them limited charters with tightly constrained powers. However, during the turmoil of the Civil War, industrialists took advantage of the disarray, leveraging widespread political corruption to expand their influence. “This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations,” lamented Rutherford Hayes who became President in 1877.
Corporations took full advantage of their new-found dominance, influencing state legislatures to issue charters in perpetuity giving them the right to do anything not explicitly prohibited by law. The tipping point in their path to domination came in 1886 when the Supreme Court designated corporations as “persons” entitled to the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been passed to give equal rights to former slaves enfranchised after the Civil War. Since then, corporate dominance has only been further enhanced by law, culminating in the notorious Citizen United case of 2010, which lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations in elections.
Sociopaths with global reach
Corporations, just like a potential runaway AI, have no intrinsic interest in human welfare. They are legal constructions: abstract entities designed with the ultimate goal of maximizing financial returns for their investors above all else. If corporations were in fact real persons, they would be sociopaths, completely lacking the ability for empathy that is a crucial element of normal human behavior. Unlike humans, however, corporations are theoretically immortal, cannot be put in prison, and the larger multinationals are not constrained by the laws of any individual country.
With the incalculable advantage of their superhuman powers, corporations have literally taken over the world. They have grown so massive that an astonishing sixty-nine of the largest hundred economies in the world are not nation states but corporate entities.
Corporations have been able to use their transnational powers to dictate their own terms to virtually any country in the world. As a result of decades of globalization, corporations can exploit the free movement of capital to build factories in nations with the weakest labor unions, or locate polluting plants in countries with lax environmental laws, basing their decisions solely on maximizing returns for their shareholders. Governments compete with each other to make their nations the most attractive for corporate investment.
Corporations wield their vast powers to control the minds of consumers, enthralling them into a state of perpetual consumption. In the early twentieth century, Edward Bernays, a mastermind of corporate empowerment, boldly stated his game plan as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” He declared ominously that “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country.” The sinister words of Wayne Chilicki, chief executive of General Mills, show how Bernays’ vision has been perpetuated: “When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at General Mills… believe in getting them early and having them for life.”
The result of this corporate takeover of humanity is a world careening out of control, where nature is mercilessly ransacked to extract the raw materials required to increase shareholder value in a vortex of perpetual economic growth, without regard to the quality of human life and with no concern for the welfare of future generations.
Corporate takeover of global governance
Instead of being pilloried for their vast destruction, those who dedicate themselves to their corporate overlords are richly rewarded and elevated to positions of even greater power and prestige. ExxonMobil, for example, has been exposed as having lied shamelessly about climate change, knowing for decades about its consequences and yet deliberately concealing the facts, thus condemning present and future generations to havoc. Instead of facing jail time, the CEO during much of this period, Rex Tillerson, is now the U.S. Secretary of State, overseeing the global relationships of the most powerful country in the world.
In fact, the current U.S. cabinet represents the most complete takeover yet of the U.S. government by corporations, with nearly 70% of top administration jobs filled by corporate executives. In the words of Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, “In the Trump administration, auto industry lobbyists are setting transportation policy, Boeing has a top perch at the Department of Defense, Wall Street is in control of financial policy and regulatory agencies, and corporate defense lawyers staff the key positions in the Justice Department.”
Corporations are inserting themselves into international agreements, so they can further their interests even more effectively. At the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, a new Global Redesign Initiative set out an agenda for multinational corporations to engage directly in global governance. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, proudly announced in 2015 as a vision to reduce poverty, adopted their approach by inviting corporations to a seat at its table to impact UN policy, while calling for further globalization. Fossil fuel companies have infiltrated the annual global COP meetings on climate change, ensuring they can compromise any actions that might hurt them, even as the world faces the threat of climate catastrophe.
The takeover of global governance by multinational corporations has permitted them to undermine human welfare everywhere in the pursuit of profit. Nestlé remorselessly buys control of rural communities’ groundwater reservoirs to sell as bottled water, leaving them to foot the bill for environmental cleanup, with the result that in countries such as Columbia sugary bottled drinks are frequently cheaper than plain water. As a result of the chemicals sold by global agribusiness companies such as Cargill and Monsanto, it’s been estimated by UN officials that the world’s topsoil can only support about sixty more years of harvests. In these cases, and countless others like them, humans and the earth alike are mere fodder for the insatiable appetite of an amoral, inhuman intelligence run amok.
There is an alternative
The corporate takeover of humanity is so all-encompassing that it’s 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 structural changes that can be made to corporations to realign their values system with human welfare. Corporate charters can be amended to optimize for a triple bottom line of social, environmental, and financial outcomes (the so-called “triple Ps” of people, planet, and profit.) A “beneficial” or B-Corp certification, which holds companies to social and environmental performance standards, is becoming more widely adopted and is now held by over 2,000 corporations in over fifty countries around the world.
Ultimately, if we are stop this force from completely taking over humanity, these alternative approaches need to be codified into our national and international governance. Imagine a world where corporate charters were only granted if they adopted a triple bottom line, and where shareholder lawsuits threatened every time a company broke one of its own social and environmental standards. Until that happens, it may be that the “worst event in the history of our civilization” is not the future development of modern AI, but the decision by a group of 17th century politicians to unleash the power of the Corporation on an unsuspecting humanity.
Contrary to common sense, we could experience booming GDP and stock market valuations all the way to society’s imminent collapse.
As we reel from one natural disaster after another—hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, wildfires in California—climate scientists explain how they’re not really “natural” at all. They’re the anticipated consequence of a breakdown in the world’s climate, one that will become far more extreme as global temperatures rise from the current 1° Celsius above historic norms to 1.5° (perhaps within ten years) and then 2° potentially as early as twenty years from now.
With headlines proclaiming the dire effects of these disasters on local economies, it might seem reasonable to believe that the power-brokers of our economic system—investors, CEOs, Federal Reserve policymakers—will eventually recognize the danger and wield their financial might to shift our civilization’s trajectory away from climate catastrophe.
That may turn out, however, to be wishful thinking. In the short term, these disasters do indeed cause harm to the economy, but after the initial shock they’re more likely to have a net positive impact on the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the words of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, “There clearly is going to be an impact on GDP in the short run. We will make it up as we rebuild. That will help GDP.”
Welcome to the cruel, topsy-turvy economic logic of a civilization facing the risk of collapse. As millions of people increasingly suffer the devastation of climate breakdown, we can expect the economy—as measured by conventional benchmarks—to maintain and even strengthen itself right up to its breaking point.
The reason for this apparent disconnect between economics and society’s well-being arises from the use of GDP as the benchmark of economic success. GDP merely measures the rate at which our society is transforming nature and human activities 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.
That’s why hurricanes and firestorms, catastrophic as they may be to the people experiencing them, can be positive for the conventional economy. Devastated communities mean big profits for the companies supplying materials, technology, services, and finished goods for the rebuilding. The thousands of people in California at risk of long-term bronchial problems from smoke inhalation represent a boon for GDP, as their increased healthcare requirements only serve to boost economic activity.
This disconnect between GDP and the health of our society means that, even when things become more desperate for people as climate breakdown worsens, investors may keep enjoying high returns on their investments while neoliberal economists point to stock market valuations as proof that things are not as bad as they might otherwise seem.
This scenario has been predicted by Jorgen Randers, a member of the team that wrote the seminal Limits to Growth report back in 1972, and author of the more recent 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Randers, who has spent a lifetime working through the nonlinear feedback effects of our global system, expects that we’ll be spending as much as 36% of global GDP in replacing infrastructure by mid-century. “These are huge hikes,” he writes, “and difficult to grasp, until one starts considering the cost of moving megacities and transporting infrastructure to safer grounds.”
However, this increase in GDP will only occur in countries that still have the infrastructure to rebuild what gets destroyed. For more vulnerable societies, one huge swath of destruction—from a hurricane, flood, or drought—could leave them so devastated that they find themselves permanently removed from the 21st century global technological economic matrix. That may be a real risk right now for Puerto Rico: with its electrical grid, water supply, and finances in ruins, its only hope for a return to normalcy will be through massive investment from the US mainland—something the Trump regime seems unlikely to support.
Is this what civilizational collapse may look like in the 21st century? Not one dramatic event that brings down the whole house of cards in a moment, but a gradual disintegration of regions that lack the wherewithal to recover from climatic disasters, while the more developed and affluent nations enjoy economic booms and soaring stock market valuations?
It’s not too late to turn around this terrifying trajectory, but as long as we measure a country’s success by its GDP, that’s going to mask the true destruction taking place in the quality of people’s lives. Recognizing this, forward-thinking economists have come up with more accurate measures of a country’s welfare. One of these, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), incorporates negative factors such as income inequality, environmental pollution, and crime, as well as positives such as volunteer work and household work. It shows that, in contrast to GDP, which has been soaring for the past 70 years, GPI peaked worldwide in 1978 and has been falling ever since.
At this point, our society can still choose to invest in a future that builds genuine welfare rather than shoring up collapsing infrastructure. In an urgent but still hopeful report, 2020: The Climate Turning Point, members of the highly-respected Potsdam Institute show there is still time to turn things around. Just. And the profound irony is that we can do this by investing in the very things that create welfare for society. “This moment of history,” they declare, “is not a burden; it is a tremendous opportunity.” They estimate that worldwide investment in a sustainable future—one with cleaner air and water, fulfilling livelihoods, more livable cities, and regenerating ecosystems—could make the world $19 trillion wealthier by 2050.
An important step to move toward this more hopeful trajectory would be to substitute a true measure of society’s health such as GPI for the currently ubiquitously GDP. As long as our political and financial leaders are evaluated by the distorted measure of GDP, our civilization may well disintegrate from climate breakdown even while they get credit for a cruel, topsy-turvy economic boom.
There’s probably no more contentious Federal holiday than Columbus Day.
Increasingly, municipalities across the country are renaming it to Indigenous Peoples Day, to honor those who were decimated by the European conquest. Meanwhile, every year, apologists for the dominant neoliberal worldview publish op-ed pieces to defend the status quo. Their arguments, unfortunately, only demonstrate the moral vacuity of their position.
I’ve attempted to raise the level of conversation with this piece published today in Salon, which goes beyond the question of Columbus’s own character flaws, to investigate the mindset of the Europeans who followed him. Most importantly, the same mindset that—half a millennium later—now celebrates Columbus Day as a Federal holiday, is the one that is driving our civilization toward environmental catastrophe. This mindset is what we need to understand, and transform, is we’re to shift humanity’s trajectory toward one of sustainable flourishing.
What do you think? Please share in the Comments below.
What celebrating Columbus Day portends for our civilization
The mindset Columbus and his followers brought with them is the same one that is driving our global civilization toward environmental catastrophe.
What does it tell us about our civilization that Columbus Day is celebrated as a federal holiday, with parades, barbecues, and football games, instead of a somber recognition of genocide, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates the atrocities of the Nazis? The answer might offer a key to a sustainable future for our civilization.
When Christopher Columbus first made landfall with his crew on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he was taken aback by the generosity and benevolence of the Taino people he encountered. He wrote in his journal how, if the Europeans asked them for something, they would freely share anything they owned “and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.”
It didn’t take long, though, for his mind to wander off in a different direction. Columbus quickly realized how easily he could take advantage of them, writing to the King and Queen of Spain how the Taino were so naïve that they cut themselves out of ignorance when they held a sword. “Should your Majesties command it,” he wrote, “all the inhabitants could be taken away to Spain or made slaves on the island. With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Columbus was obsessed with recklessly exploiting whatever he discovered in the New World, regardless of the consequences. He wasn’t alone in this. In fact, the entire European conquest was based on the premise of ruthless exploitation in order to enrich the explorers and those who had financed them.
The result was the greatest genocidal catastrophe that has occurred yet in human history. In every region European explorers discovered, a decimation of the local population ensued of almost unimaginable proportions. The population of central Mexico was twenty million in 1500, four times greater than Britain. Within a century, there were fewer than one million people alive there. Similarly, the population of the Inca empire collapsed from eleven million in 1500 to less than a million in 1600. It’s been estimated that in the 16th century alone, close to one hundred million indigenous people died in the Americas through slaughter, starvation, or disease.
Many historians have pointed the finger to the new diseases the Europeans brought with them that ravaged the local populations, some even going so far as to suggest that this catastrophe was inadvertent: a sad but inevitable consequence of human progress. However, as historians such as David Stannard and Eduardo Galleano have excruciatingly documented, the Europeans approached the new territories with a systematic compulsion to exploit remorselessly every last resource—human and mineral—they could ransack from the land. The havoc caused by European diseases just made their job that much easier.
In fact, as I discovered in researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, this obsession with exploiting resources without regard to consequences was unique to the European mindset—which has now become the predominant global mindset as a result of the European conquest of the rest of the world. Even though the facts of history make its direction seem inevitable, it didn’t have to be that way. Our modern world, and the values on which it’s founded, are the consequence of a particular way of thinking that arose only in Europe.
To understand this better, consider the example of Admiral Zheng, the Chinese commander who set sail in 1405—nearly a century before Columbus—with the greatest armada in history: twenty-seven thousand men in over three hundred ships, each about ten times the size of one of Columbus’s boats. Over nearly three decades, they dominated the Indian Ocean, from Sumatra to Sri Lanka, from Arabia to East Africa. But instead of using their power to enslave the indigenous people and plunder their raw materials, they used it to enhance the prestige of the Chinese emperor, setting up embassies in Nanjing with emissaries from Japan, Malaya, Vietnam, and Egypt.
The reason for this astonishing contrast with Columbus was the value system Admiral Zheng brought with him. It would have been as unthinkable for Zheng to have conquered and enslaved the societies he visited with his armada, as it would have been for Columbus to have set up embassies with the indigenous people he encountered in the New World. In China, the predominant aim of political power was to sustain society’s equilibrium. Military might was seen as a force to use only when necessary to maintain stability.
The same held true for the Chinese view of their natural resources, much to the bemusement of early European missionaries. One of them, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, mystified why the Chinese failed to mine all the gold and silver in nearby mountains, wrote how their exploitation was hindered by “political views” that “the publick Tranquillity might not be disturbed by the too great abundance of these Metals, which would make the People haughty and negligent of Agriculture.”
Is it any coincidence that Chinese civilization, with its focus on maintaining stability, is the oldest in world history, surviving intact for millennia while every other early civilization collapsed into ruins? Modern China, of course, has taken to extractive global capitalism as avidly as any other nation on the planet, but that was only after a century of humiliation by Western powers caused traditional values to seem impotent by contrast.
At this point in the early twenty-first century, we are beginning to encounter the disastrous consequences of the mindset that Columbus, and those who followed him, brought with their voyages of conquest. The rapacious approach to mineral wealth that caused the Spaniards to extract every last grain from the world’s richest silver mine at Potosí, Bolivia, is the same mindset that drives today’s fossil fuel companies to rape the earth through fracking and tar sands extraction even while carbon emissions threaten the future of civilization. The moral ease with which Europeans drove millions of enslaved Native Americans and Africans to their deaths is the same grotesque mentality that today permits the wealthiest six men in the world to own as much as half the world’s population.
And that’s why how we choose to celebrate Columbus Day is a portent of our civilization’s future. As long as our predominant way of thinking rewards those who exploit others recklessly, and who view the earth as no more than a resource to plunder, we’re headed for environmental catastrophe. Even if we somehow manage to survive the climate breakdown, there are a slew of other existential crises waiting in the wings: topsoil degeneration, freshwater depletion, the Sixth Extinction of species, disappearance of fisheries, deforestation… the list goes on.
There’s a lot we can learn from Admiral Zheng and the traditional Chinese values that launched his expedition. But we don’t have to look that far. The indigenous people who stewarded the Americas for thousands of years before the Columbus cataclysm are themselves manifesting the vision our entire world needs to survive. At Standing Rock, water protectors fought the poisoning of their homeland with prayer and ceremony, declaring their love and respect for the natural world and the overriding importance of its responsible stewardship for future generations.
In South America, indigenous tribes are organizing to prevent the wanton destruction of their habitat by oil and mining corporations. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the buen vivir movement fosters a value system based on community and deep connection with the earth as a counterpoint to the Western drive for exploitation and extraction.
Many municipalities throughout the United States, recognizing the outrage of commemorating Columbus Day, have officially changed its name to Indigenous Peoples Day, using it as an opportunity to honor those who have been decimated and yet continue to offer a vision of hope for humanity’s future. Maybe on some future date, that change will be made at the national level, and we will have a federal Indigenous Peoples Day. Might that day, perhaps, be the very day on which our civilization begins to shift course away from annihilation and toward a flourishing future?
Imagine you’re driving your shiny new car too fast along a wet, curvy road. You turn a corner and realize you’re heading straight for a crowd of pedestrians. If you slam on your brakes, you’d probably skid and damage your car. So you keep your foot on the accelerator, heading straight for the crowd, knowing they’ll be killed and maimed, but if you keep driving fast enough no-one will be able to catch you and you might just get away scot-free.
Of course, that’s monstrous behavior and I expect you’d never make that decision. But it’s a decision the developed world is collectively taking in the face of the global catastrophe that will arise from climate change.
With daily headlines pivoting from the unparalleled flooding from Harvey in Houston to the devastation caused by Irma in Florida, it might seem like the United States has its hands full just dealing with our own climate emergencies. In the short term, that’s true. Harvey is estimated to have caused $180 billion of destruction, damaging some 200,000 homes, while Irma’s havoc is still being assessed.
But meanwhile, multiply the damage from Harvey and Irma a hundredfold and you’ll get a feeling for the climate-related suffering taking place right now in the rest of the world. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, an estimated 40 million people have been affected by massive flooding, with over 1,200 deaths. More than one third of Bangladesh’s land mass has been submerged. As if that’s not enough, Africa has been suffering its own under-reported climate disasters, with hundreds of thousands affected by flooding in Nigeria, Niger, Congo, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.
Although the regime in the White House is doing its best to ignore it, these global weather extremes are clearly exacerbated by climate change, and have been predicted by climate scientists for decades. What is so disturbing is that we’re experiencing this wave of disasters at a global temperature roughly 1°C above historic norms. It’s a virtual certainty that we’re going to hit 1.5° before long—perhaps in the next ten years—and unless we do something drastic to transform our fossil fuel-based society, we could be hitting 2°C as early as 2036. By the end of the century—when half the babies born this year should still be alive—conservative estimates have global temperatures hitting 3.3°C above baseline, based on the commitments that formed the 2015 Paris Agreement at COP21. And that’s not including potentially devastating feedback effects such as methane leaking from permafrost, which could lead to temperatures way higher, causing an earth that would literally be uninhabitable for humans in many regions.
The likely effects on our civilization are dreadful to contemplate. Because most cities have grown up around oceans, half the world’s population currently lives within fifteen miles of the coast. The devastation we’ve been seeing from flooding and storm surges offers only a hint of the impending catastrophe. In the Global South, beleaguered by massive poverty and inadequate infrastructure, cities will be overwhelmed. Reduction in river flows and falling groundwater tables will lead to widespread shortages of potable water. Flooding and landslides will disrupt electricity, sanitation, and transportation systems, all of which will lead to rampant infectious disease. Meanwhile, even as these cities strain beyond breaking point, devastating droughts will cause agricultural systems to collapse, forcing millions of starving refugees into the cities from rural areas.
Eventually, even the most strident climate denialists will have to adjust to the facts raining down from the sky. Even Rush Limbaugh was forced to evacuate his Palm Beach home after claiming Irma was a conspiracy. But when they do, you can guarantee their response will be parochial. Wealthier cities will begin massive investments in building barricades, improving infrastructure, even moving to higher land, to defend themselves against the climate cataclysm. That’s known in climate change circles as “adaptation.” In more rational parts of the rich world, cities such as London and Rotterdam are already doing it.
However, effective adaptation isn’t an option for the megacities of the Global South, which are already floundering from inadequate resources, and where hundreds of millions are forced to subsist, undernourished and vulnerable, in shanty towns. A central part of the Paris Agreement, which Trump recently rejected, was a Green Climate Fund that is supposed to receive $100 billion annually by 2020 from developed countries to aid the rest of the world in mitigating and adapting to climate change. So far, only $10 billion has been pledged, $3 billion of which is the US portion that Trump has vowed not to increase. It’s hard to see even a small fraction of that $100 billion annual payment actually coming through.
Yet it’s the developed world that created this climate mess in the first place. With just 15% of the world’s population, developed countries have been responsible for 58% of human-caused greenhouse gases. All that fossil fuel energy is what permitted them to industrialize and thus become “developed,” to the point that they’re now consuming 80% of the world’s resources, leaving the poorest three billion in the Global South to survive on less than $2 per day. That doesn’t leave much change for climate adaptation.
That’s why the inadequate response of the rich world to climate disruption is like that driver choosing to plunge straight into the crowd rather than swerving and risk damaging their shiny new car. What would it take to put the brakes on in time to avoid climate catastrophe?
There is hopeful news about the spectacular rise of renewables, surprising experts with the speed with which they are replacing fossil fuels around the world. But while that’s an essential part of a solution, modern renewables still account for just 10% of global energy production, which in turn contributes no more than 25% of total greenhouse emissions. Halting the slide to disaster requires something far more extensive: a complete transformation of our current economic system.
After Pearl Harbor, when the United States faced an existential threat, President Roosevelt announced a military production plan to Congress and the American people that seemed unachievable. Yet, not only did the country meet those plans, it overshot them as a result of the wholesale transformation of society towards a single goal. This kind of mobilization is what would be required today to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change: a Climate Mobilization.
In this case, though, it’s a different kind of mobilization that’s required. The threat we’re facing comes, not from enemies at war with us, but from the results of an economic system designed to exploit the earth and the most vulnerable humans living on it at an ever-increasing pace. As long as we measure ourselves and others by how much we consume, we’re complicit in fueling the global system that’s rapaciously devouring the earth.
The good news is that there’s a short window of time when a fundamental shift in our economic, social, and political priorities could still prevent global catastrophe. Alternative economic models exist that offer ways to conduct commerce sustainably. Ultimately, a flourishing future requires moving away from the growth-based, consumption-obsessed values of global capitalism, and toward a quality-oriented approach that could allow all of us to live on the earth in dignity. It’s even possible to draw down much of the carbon that’s already been emitted—the potential is there but it requires a choice to be made: a shift in our society’s values toward caring for others alive right now, and for future generations.
Will there be enough collective willpower to act and transform our society before it’s too late? That depends on the lessons learned from Harvey, Irma, and the climate disasters still to come. Suppose, as you’re racing toward that crowd in the road, that you managed to brake in time, get out of the car and join them. And then imagine your surprise when you discover the road you were speeding on came to an abrupt end around the next curve and was leading you directly off the precipice. Ultimately, the climate catastrophe we’re ignoring will become all humanity’s catastrophe unless we start acting on it now.
On Friday, August 4, I published an article in AlterNet entitled “The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins.” The response was flabbergasting. The article, which was quickly picked up by both Raw Story and Salon, has been shared on Facebook over ten thousand times in less than a week. It has also elicited a storm of over a thousand comments—mostly angry and vitriolic.
I respect Coyne’s writings, and I admire his tenacious efforts to disseminate the scientific truths of evolution in the face of fundamentalist Christian opposition. Because of this, I was saddened to see the tone of his response to my article. I decided to try to turn this into an opportunity for a more dignified dialogue on the bigger issues that my article—and his response—bring up.
The following is an open letter to Jerry. I hope he responds in a similarly respectful manner, and that we can establish some shared ground for generative dialogue.
I admire your writings and your decades long struggle to raise awareness about evolution among the American public. I was particularly impressed by your 2012 article in Evolution, “Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America,” in which you argue against the intellectual compromises of “accommodationism”: the practice of suggesting that religion and science exist in separate domains, and therefore neither should represent a threat to the other.
Perhaps because of my respect for you, I felt disappointed to read some of the vitriol in your recent blog post dismissing my critique of Dawkins’s conceptions of the “selfish gene” and “nature as machine” as “another dumb article holding Richard Dawkins responsible for all the world’s wrongs.” My respect for your own intellectual rigor was, quite frankly, called into question when you misstated my arguments in order to ridicule them, such as when you depict me as suggesting that “Dawkins is Satan or the anti-Christ” and dismiss my argument as “simply bullshit.”
Some of the more substantive arguments you made against my article are summed up and discussed in my own follow-up “Reflections on ‘The Dangerous Delusions of Richard Dawkins,” which I hope you’ve read. For example, in response to your claim that “[the selfish gene] is just a metaphor,” I’ve pointed out how core metaphors structure the ways in which a society thinks and acts. When you claim that my link to the extensive discrediting of Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory “doesn’t go to any scientific discrediting,” I point to the bottom of the page which references works by Gould, Depew & Weber, Wilson & Wilson, Goodwin, Jablonka & Lamb, Winther, and Pigliucci. I’d be happy to share more references if you’re interested.
There are also specific statements and challenges you made in your article that require a direct response, which is what I will attempt here. A deeper question is why you—and others who hold a similar viewpoint—have responded so belligerently to my article, and what can be done to encourage a more dignified and generative dialogue. I’ll come to this topic further down, and invite a thoughtful and respectful response back from you.
In the meantime, I’ve tried to distil your criticisms into higher level questions. In each case, I’ll try to identify and respond to your assertions or challenges.
Is Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory a valid basis for evolutionary biology?
I notice that you made a careful statement in defense of your friend’s theory: “In fact, the usefulness of the selfish-gene metaphor is alive and well, and has provided useful insights into how natural selection works.” If you rest your case on the idea that the metaphor has provided useful insights into how natural selection works, then we have no disagreement. The problem is, that’s not how Dawkins describes his theory in his own book. He makes a much bolder statement: “The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.” The rest of his book goes on to demonstrate why the gene should be seen as the sole unit of selection, and its “selfish” drive to replicate as the fundamental explanatory driver of evolution.
As you are well aware, this approach to evolutionary theory has been challenged by findings in epigenetics, as well as by theories of niche construction, evolvability, and multilevel selection, and there have been repeated calls by increasing numbers of evolutionary biologists for an “extended evolutionary synthesis” integrating these and other approaches into the gene-centric modern synthesis that Dawkins used as a basis for his arguments.
In the lucid words of distinguished biologist Robert Sapolsky in his recently published Behave, “Different circumstances bring different levels of selection to the forefront. Sometimes the most informative level is the single gene, sometimes the genome, sometimes a single phenotypic trait, sometimes the collection of all the organism’s phenotypic traits. We’ve just arrived at the reasonable idea of multilevel selection.”
You have gone on record opposing these new developments, claiming that “the idea of natural selection and mathematical population genetics” are sufficient theoretical tools for explaining everything about evolution, and have expressed your irritation at what you call “Big Idea Syndrome.” As a non-biologist, I can only watch from the sidelines and I certainly don’t expect to change your mind, but it seems you are doing a disservice to your field as well as to all who care about what biology tells us, by turning a blind eye to the new, more complex model of evolution that is emerging.
Is there any linkage between Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory and justifications of modern capitalism?
You correctly point out that “people are always looking for ways for science to justify their own bad acts” and that “ideas of self-interest as underlying economics go back to Adam Smith.” I agree with you that “it’s clearly and self-evidently wrong to blame ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism on Dawkins.”
However, this is not what I’m doing. I am accusing him of a playing a leading role in propagating a faulty worldview that is frequently used to justify the exploitation of laissez-faire capitalism. This worldview can be traced at least as far back as Hobbes, who is referred to approvingly by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he writes: “self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals.” Similarly, in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, leading robber barons frequently used flawed interpretations of Darwinism to justify their ruthless exploitation.
Dawkins merely brought this unfortunate nexus of laissez-faire rationalization and pseudo-scientific views of nature up to date. Dawkins himself has made an explicit connection between biology and economics, writing: “Within any one species of animals or plants, the individuals that survive best are the ones that can exploit the other animals and plants, bacteria and fungi that are already flourishing in the environment. As Adam Smith understood long ago, an illusion of harmony and real efficiency will emerge in an economy dominated by self-interest at a lower level. A well balanced ecosystem is an economy, not an adaptation.” Here, Dawkins describes exploitation as the driver of survival, leading to a “well-balanced ecosystem” and linking this explicitly to an economy “dominated by self-interest.”
You say that you’d “like to see Lent’s evidence that corporations have relied on Dawkins’s ideas to justify plundering the Earth.” Besides Dawkins’s own connection, the fact that Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling’s favorite book was The Selfish Gene (which I mentioned in “Reflections”) is only the most egregious example. Ruy Teixera describes how the timing of the publication of The Selfish Gene in 1976 along with the rise of modern neo-liberal economics led to a deep conceptual linkage between the two. Milton Friedman’s polemic, Free to Choose, published in 1980, argued for self-interested individuals making “rational” decisions to create the most efficient economy. It is no coincidence that the widely-quoted speech by fictional character Gordon Gekko, in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie The Wall Street, uses pseudo-evolutionary theory to justify his excesses:
The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. …
The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed—for lack of a better word—is good.
Greed is right.
Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.
And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
This linkage continues unabated into the current era. Here, for example, is an excerpt from an interview conducted in 2016 with the bestselling author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
So, when I was in college, I first read Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene. And like many people, it just blew my mind. And Darwin’s ideas are so simple. From a few principles, you can explain all the diversity of life on earth, and that was a really transformative experience for me. And then when I started reading about the history of capitalism… I had the same experience that I had reading Richard Dawkins… And so capitalism is as powerful and important as Darwinian evolution. And in fact, it’s very much the same thing… The point is everybody should learn about capitalism and evolution by the time they’re 18. And at present we don’t. And that means we have stupid discussions about policy.
As I mentioned in “Reflections,” I appreciate that Dawkins himself has a more humane political outlook, and I expect he may be horrified to find his ideas used by countless neo-liberal zealots. Nevertheless, the underlying linkage seems irrefutable.
How do ethics relate to the “selfish gene” hypothesis?
You, along with many others, have pointed out that Dawkins clearly disavows a simple equivalency between “selfish genes” and selfish humans, stating that “Dawkins’s genetic reductionism does not come with any ethical implications.” Quite right. However, as I discussed in “Reflections,” Dawkins’s logic leads to an antediluvian model of a divided human where morality arises from our reason overcoming the selfish drives of our genes. “Our brains,” he writes, “have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes.” This split conception of humanity can be traced back to Plato and, ironically, is inherent to Christian soul/body dualism.
In fact, many evolutionary biologists have shown that a sense of fairness and compassion is an evolved human trait—something that is readily explained by multi-level selection theory. We don’t need to overcome our inherent drives in order to develop these faculties. This is important because it leads to different modalities for enhancing compassionate behavior within society. Sapolsky does an outstanding job of summarizing decades of findings across sub-disciplines, focusing on the crucial distinction between in-group and out-group evolved moral predispositions, leading to different ways to develop skillful responses depending on the context. This is the kind of valuable interplay between biology and morality that Dawkins’s simplistic “selfish gene” model misses.
What are the ontological implications of Dawkins’s reductionism?
You attempt to ridicule my critique of the implications of Dawkins’s reductionism by paraphrasing me as saying that “Dawkins’s reductionism and naturalism have taken the joy out of life” and that “people have actually become… depressive nihilists who have no meaning in their lives, because of what Richard Dawkins has written.” You continue: “I challenge Lent, or anyone, to find where in Dawkins’s work he’s said anything even remotely like this.” In fact, as you put it, “Dawkins has repeatedly argued that embracing reality and science rather than numinous illusions makes the world more enjoyable and meaningful.”
Ironically, Dawkins has himself given examples of precisely this kind of reaction to his ideas in his introduction to the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene. Among other readers disturbed by what they saw as his “cold, bleak message,” he quotes an Australian reader:
Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it… On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes… But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade… Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper—trying to believe, but not quite being able to—I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.
Dawkins’s response to this is: “If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it.”
This is the classic reductionist refrain, as stated succinctly by Stephen Weinberg’s aphorism: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” The follow-on, as you, Dawkins, Weinberg, and others contend, is that we must create our own sense of meaning, and that the sheer wonder of observing the complexity of the universe should offer enough joy for anyone.
Your proposed path to joy, however, is one that doesn’t suffice for many. This is what I call the “cruel myth” that reductionists foist on thinking people everywhere: that reductionism is the only explanatory alternative to theism in making sense of the universe. While reductionism has proven to be a superbly powerful methodology for scientific investigation, it is a leap of faith to use it to make ontological claims about the universe.
Your own statement about reductionism in your rebuttal of my article shows some confusion that perhaps I can use as a starting point for clarification:
Scientific naturalism happens to be true, and everything comes down to the laws of physics, although we also see higher-order phenomena that are “emergent” in the sense that while we don’t know enough to predict them from the laws of physics, they must be consistent with the laws of physics. That is what reductionism means, and there is no “holism” completely independent of reductionism.
Here, you conflate scientific naturalism with reductionism, but I believe that is mistaken. Scientific naturalism holds that everything in the universe is part of nature and is in principle subject to scientific inquiry. This is a viewpoint I share with you, and is in contrast to transcendental claims of another “spiritual” dimension to the universe. I also agree with your statement that emergent phenomena must be “consistent with the laws of physics.” However, that is not what “reductionism means” in its common usage. Reductionism is the belief that everything in nature can ultimately be understood only by reducing it to its simplest components.
Biological reductionism is exemplified by Dawkins’s “selfish gene” hypothesis. The general statement of this view is summed up well by Francis Crick:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
The findings of systems theory show this view to be misguided. In self-organized systems, which includes all living systems, the complex interaction of many connected elements causes emergent behavior that could never be predicted by a study of each part alone, no matter how detailed. The reductionist view of “nothing but” is analogous to someone observing that Shakespeare’s entire opus is nothing but an assembly of twenty-six letters repeated in different configurations. Whether we are evaluating Shakespeare or life itself, the patterns that connect the parts frequently contain far more valuable information than the parts themselves.
That is the starting point for my investigation of meaning through my Liology framework, which you peremptorily dismiss as “wooish,” saying you have “little idea of what this means except that it extols interconnectedness and holism.” I invite you to explore my description of key principles that Liology shares with dynamical systems theory, if you are interested in understanding it further.
You may be surprised by how much we agree with each other. In your article, “Science, Religion, and Society,” you contrast the scientific method with religious dogma:
Science’ s method of finding truth, which relies on reason, empirical investigation, criticism, doubt, predictive power, and repeatability of observations by different investigators, is incompatible with religion’s methods for understanding the universe—methods based on dogma, authority, and revelation. Scientific truth changes in response to new findings about the world, while religious “truth” … changes rarely, and most often in response to scientific advances… In science faith is a vice, in religion it is a virtue.
While not a scientist by profession, I am in full agreement with every aspect of your description of the scientific method, and I try to adhere to it in all my research and writings. As you say well, “scientific truth changes in response to new findings about the world.” I ask you to consider whether new findings in recent decades in the areas of systems biology and complexity theory could possibly have expanded our scientific conception of the universe from a dogmatic reductionism.
I believe we share a commitment to a world where policy decisions are based on ethical and scientifically valid findings. In my view, a recognition of our intrinsic connectedness with others and with the natural world is both scientifically valid and a solid foundation for an ethical and political framework that could promote sustainable flourishing into the future.
Jerry, I greatly admire your decades of work battling against faith-based dogmatism and the obfuscations of proponents of “intelligent design” and other manipulations designed to undermine true scientific investigation. I wonder, however, if your continuous battle against superstition has made it more difficult for you to discern when there are scientifically valid reasons for questioning previously held positions?
I invite you to share your reflections back in a respectful and dignified manner. Perhaps we could better identify areas of agreement and difference, and use this as an opportunity to initiate a more generative discourse on the possibilities of making sense of the universe through scientific naturalism?
 Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Publishing Group, p. 362.
 Cited by Turchin, Peter. “Selfish Genes Made Me Do It! (Part I).”Social Evolution Forum website. December 4, 2013. Note: Turchin adds “I in no way blame Richard Dawkins for the fall of Enron or for the broader cultural shift that resulted in the proliferation of corporate malfeasance.” I don’t blame him either, but am merely pointing out the part his ideas played in this process.
 Crick, F. (1994). The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Touchstone, 3.
 Capra, Fritjof and Luisi, P.L.. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) 19–59; Kauffman, S. (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books, 15; Noble, D. (2006). The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 77; Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206; Woese, C. R. (2004, June). “A New Biology for a New Century.” Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, 173-186; Lewontin, R. C. (1992). “The Dream of the Human Genome.” The New York Review of Books, 39(10).