China’s leader, Xi Jinping, affirms an ecological vision that is in line with progressive environmental thought. Is it mere rhetoric or does it have a deeper resonance within Chinese culture? The answer may ultimately have a profound effect on humanity’s future.
Imagine a newly elected President of the United States calling in his inaugural speech for an “ecological civilization” that ensures “harmony between human and nature.” Now imagine he goes on to declare that “we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it” and that his administration will “encourage simple, moderate, green, and low-carbon ways of life, and oppose extravagance and excessive consumption.” Dream on, you might say. Even in the more progressive Western European nations, it’s hard to find a political leader who would make such a stand.
And yet, the leader of the world’s second largest economy, Xi Jinping of China, made these statements and more in his address to the National Congress of the Communist Party in Beijing last October. He went on to specify in more detail his plans to “step up efforts to establish a legal and policy framework… that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development,” to “promote afforestation,” “strengthen wetland conservation and restoration,” and “take tough steps to stop and punish all activities that damage the environment.” Closing his theme with a flourish, he proclaimed that “what we are doing today” is “to build an ecological civilization that will benefit generations to come.” Transcending parochial boundaries, he declared that his Party’s abiding mission was to “make new and greater contributions to mankind… for both the wellbeing of the Chinese people and human progress.”
It’s easy to dismiss it all as mere political rhetoric, but consider how the current President of the United States came to power on the basis of a different form of rhetoric, appealing to the destructive nationalism of “America First.” In both cases, it’s reasonable to assume that the rhetoric doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as Trump’s xenophobic vision spells potential danger for the world, so could it be that Xi’s ecological vision could offer a glimpse to a hopeful future?
A transformative vision
In fact, this is just the type of fresh, regenerative thinking about transforming the current global economic system that many in the environmental movement have been calling for. And this hasn’t been lost on some leading thinkers. David Korten, a world-renowned author and activist, has proposed expanding the vision of Ecological Civilization to a global context, which would involve—among other things—granting legal rights to nature, shifting ownership of productive assets from transnational corporations to nation-states and self-governing communities, and prioritizing life-affirming, rather than wealth-affirming, values.
Within a larger historical context, it’s not too surprising that this vision of “harmony between human and nature” should emerge from China. As I’ve traced in my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, traditional Chinese culture was founded on a worldview that perceived an intrinsic web of connection between humanity and nature, in contrast to the European worldview that saw humans as essentially separate from nature. Early Chinese philosophers believed the overriding purpose of life was to seek harmony in society and the universe, while Europeans pursued a path based on a different set of values—which have since become global in scope—driven by “conquering nature” and viewing nature as a machine to be engineered.
Furthermore, Xi’s rhetoric does seem to be grounded in at least some reality. Two months before Xi’s speech, China announced they were more than doubling their previous solar power target for 2020, after installing more than twice as much solar capacity as any other country in 2016. This new target—five times larger than current capacity in the U.S.—would entail covering an area of land equivalent to Greater London with solar panels. They are similarly exceeding their wind power targets, already boasting more capacity than all of Europe.
Some observers, however, are far from convinced that China is on its way to an ecological civilization. Economist Richard Smith has written a detailed critique of China’s quandary in the Real-World Economics Review, where he argues that China’s political-economic system is based on the need to maximize economic growth, employment, and consumerism to an even greater extent than in the West. These forces, he claims, run diametrically counter to the vision of an ecological civilization.
There are compelling arguments for why this makes sense. Beginning in the 19th century, China suffered more than a century of humiliation and brutal exploitation from Western nations as a result of its relative military and industrial weakness. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1978, Deng Xiaoping transformed China’s economy into a hybrid of consumer capitalism and central planning that catapulted China to its current prominence on the world stage. Astonishingly, China’s GDP is more than fifty times greater than at the time of Mao’s death, the result of a growth rate approaching 10% per year for four decades.
This achievement, perhaps the most dramatic economic and social transformation of all time, is bringing China back to the dominant role in global affairs that it held for most of history. Within a decade, China’s GDP is expected to surpass that of the US, making it the world’s largest economy. It is just in the early stages of a profusion of record-breaking industrial megaprojects of a scale that boggles the mind. It plans to extend its influence further through its Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure and trading project encompassing sixty countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, envisaged as a 21st century version of the famed Silk Road.
This industrial avalanche comes, however, at great cost to China’s—and the world’s—environmental wellbeing. China is by far the world’s largest consumer of energy, using over half the world’s coal, a third of the world’s oil, and 60% of the world’s cement. Astonishingly, China poured more cement in three years from 2011 to 2013 than the US used during the entire twentieth century! China is also the world’s largest consumer of lumber, as Smith describes, “levelling forests from Siberia to Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Congo, and Madagascar.” These are just some of the forces that draw Smith to the conclusion that Xi Jinping’s vision of an ecological civilization is untenable. “The hyper industrialization required,” he writes, “to realize this China Dream of great power status compels him… to let the polluters pollute, pump China’s CO2 emissions off the chart, and thereby bring on the ecological collapse not just of China but the whole planet… Xi Jinping can create an ecological civilization or he can build a rich superpower. He can’t do both.”
Intimately placed between heaven and earth
Or can he? That is a crucial question with ramifications for all of humanity. While it is clear that future economic growth at anything close to China’s historic rate is untenable, there is a more nuanced question that poses the possibility of a sustainable way forward for both China and the world. Once China has regained its status as a leading world power, can it achieve yet another transformation and redirect its impressive vitality into growing a life of quality for its people, rather than continued consumerism? Is it possible that Xi Jinping is sowing the seeds of this future metamorphosis with his vision of an ecological civilization?
There is urgent awareness among thought leaders around the world that continued growth in global GDP is leading civilization to the point of collapse. Movements are emerging that call for “degrowth” and other approaches to a steady-state economy that could allow a sustainable future for humanity. But how can we break the death-grip of a global system built on continually feeding the growth frenzy of gigantic transnational corporations voraciously seeking a never-ending increase in profits to satisfy their shareholders? Along with the grassroots citizen movements emerging around the world, is it possible that China could pioneer a new path of sustainability, steering its citizens back to the traditional values that characterized its culture over millennia?
Even if China could achieve this redirection, the continuous human-rights abuses of its authoritarian government raise further questions. An ecological civilization—as envisaged by Korten and many others in the environmental movement—seems inconsistent with a centralized bureaucracy forcing its rules on citizens through coercion and repression. For China to genuinely move in this direction, Xi would need to be prepared to devolve decision-making authority and freedoms back to the Chinese people. It’s a tall order, but not necessarily inconceivable.
For those living in the West, it would take a tremendous dose of cultural humility to accept philosophical leadership from China on the path to a flourishing future for humanity. But, if we are to get to that future, we must recognize the structural underpinnings of Western thought that brought us to this imbalance in the first place. A thousand years ago, Chinese philosopher Zhang Zai expressed a realization of connectedness with the universe in an essay called the Western Inscription, which begins with these words:
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.
What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.
Is it possible that this deep recognition of human interconnectedness, rooted in traditional Chinese culture, could form the philosophical basis for a future ecological civilization? The answer to this question may ultimately affect the future wellbeing, not just of China, but of the entire human family.
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.
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.
Our egalitarian hunter-gatherer ancestors developed sophisticated social technologies for keeping upstarts in check. What can the popular resistance movement learn from them in confronting the worst excesses of Donald Trump?
The recent election results in Virginia and elsewhere suggest that the tide may be turning away from the egregious behavior exhibited by Donald Trump, and back toward a sense of decency in American politics. How can we keep that momentum going over the next three years?
In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I realized that a greater understanding of hunter-gatherer values and practices offers a valuable perspective on our own social and political interactions, including some hints on how our contemporary industrialized society can rein in the behavior of a rogue leader such as Donald Trump.
Nomadic hunter-gatherers do things very differently from modern societies, yet their way of life was the ubiquitous human experience until approximately the past ten thousand years when agriculture emerged. During that time, humans evolved some of the key characteristics that make us unique among primates: a sense of fair play, shared intentions, and community-based ethics.
Hunter-gatherer communities were invariably egalitarian. There was no “big chief” who lorded it over everyone else. Yet they had to work hard to maintain their egalitarian values in the face of upstarts who demonstrated bullying, arrogance, and narcissism. In doing so, they developed a set of sophisticated and powerful group dynamics. Is there anything we can learn from their playbook that can apply to the popular resistance movement confronting those same characteristics that Donald Trump exudes on a daily basis?
Consider the story of anthropologist Richard Lee, who gave the tribe of !Kung foragers, with whom he’d been living, the best Christmas gift he could procure: a fat, meaty ox for their feast. But instead of gratitude, he received nothing but insults: it was the skinniest “sack of guts and bones,” they told him, that they had ever seen. Even while they spent two days feasting on it, they kept complaining: “It gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing.”
Only later did Lee discover that this was the !Kung’s normal response to a hunter who returns with a big kill. Instead of praising him, the group ridicules his achievements and speaks of his meat as worthless, even while they’re enjoying it. This way, Lee discovered, they prevent a hunter from swelling up with pride and thinking of himself as a “big man” or a chief.
Around the world, hunter-gatherer bands viewed Trump-like attributes as a serious threat to the smooth functioning of their communities, and they worked hard to keep them in check before they got out of control. As a !Kung elder explained to Richard Lee, “When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
Another common practice was for hunters to exchange their uniquely identifiable arrows with each other before a hunt. After a kill, the person who portioned out the meat to the band—thus temporarily holding power in the group—was the one whose arrow killed the prey, not the one who shot it. Through this ingenious method, power remained dispersed and randomized instead of becoming concentrated with the most skillful hunter.
How different from today’s society with its mega-billionaires and celebrity worship! But even among hunter-gatherers, dominant upstarts (almost invariably men) would sometimes get out of hand. Here are five methods they used, in order of increasing severity, to keep them from taking over.
Ridicule. The first response would be for community members to ridicule his behavior among themselves. This was a valuable indirect way of signaling to others that his arrogance wouldn’t be tolerated, without resorting to direct confrontation. It was also a powerful way to build group consensus against him, in case further resistance were needed. We see an updated version of this response to Trump every day, in the late-night comic offerings of shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Direct criticism. If the upstart didn’t respond to the subtler message of ridicule, the next step would be to confront him directly. This might take courage, and would best be done as a group. It would be most effective if the criticism came from those who were friends rather than those already known to disagree with him. This is why a critique of Trump from prominent Republicans such as John McCain, Bob Corker, or Jeff Flake has far more impact than the daily barrage of criticism from Democrats.
Group disobedience. If the upstart continued his wayward behavior, the group might then resort to disobedience. The arrogant hunter might, for example, set out in one direction, but the other hunters would refuse to follow him. In modern society, with strict rules guiding permissible behavior, group disobedience looks different. The Women’s March, the spontaneous demonstrations at airports in response to Trump’s initial racist rulings, and court injunctions against his directives, are all examples of people stepping up in moral outrage to violations of norms in an attempt to prevent some of the worst excesses.
Ostracism. If all these responses failed to have their desired effect, in rare cases a band might ostracize the miscreant. A milder form of this would be to withhold the norms of social etiquette, with more severe forms such as expulsion from the group applied in extreme cases. In some hunter-gatherer societies, such as Eskimos in the Arctic, this could effectively be a death sentence. We have seen important examples of ostracism occurring in the Beltway, such as when the Golden State Warriors refused to visit the White House, or when the White House Arts Committee resigned en masse to protest Trump’s defense of white nationalists following Charlottesville.
Extreme sanction. As a last resort, when every other attempt to check an upstart has failed, the group may come to a consensus decision to execute him. This would be done very rarely and with heavy hearts, because in spite of common misperceptions, hunter-gatherers generally had great fear and distaste for physical violence. In our modern society, with its strict ethical and legal restrictions, the extreme sanction applicable to Donald Trump would be impeachment—a process that has recently been energized by a multi-million-dollar campaign initiated by billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
Is there anything we can learn from the hunter-gatherer playbook? One takeaway is to reflect on how our 21st-century society is not so different from hunter-gatherer society after all. Each of the tactics employed by our nomadic ancestors is being implemented by those who share the common outrage at someone who so clearly thinks of himself as a “big man” and “the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.” Another lesson may be to recognize that each tactic of resistance is a crucial one: rather than arguing about taking one approach instead of another, it’s important to realize that all flavors of resistance are needed to counter a threat as grave as what Trump represents.
The most important lesson of all, however, may be to recognize what undergirded the hunter-gatherers’ resistance to an upstart in the first place: a shared set of values based in a deep sense of fairness and human dignity. Throughout the world and throughout history, hunter-gatherers showed a strong commitment to what has been called “altruistic punishment”: the willingness to punish those who flagrantly break social norms even at potentially significant cost to themselves.
If we are to be successful in the national resistance to the takeover of our society by authoritarianism, we need to emphasize the core values that the vast majority of us share, such as common decency, respect for human dignity, and caring for our community. When we act on the basis of our shared humanity, and when we’re willing to venture outside our comfort zone—even taking personal risks—to fight for what we know is right, we can rest assured that our struggle is in the great tradition of our hunter-gatherer past, and that our evolved human nature itself is on our side.
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.
Reprint of my article first published in Berkeleyside, on Thursday, September 21, 2017
Next week, right wing extremists plan another invasion of Berkeley, with some of their most notorious mouthpieces—Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, among others—scheduled to speak in what they speciously call a “Free Speech” week. Their obvious desire is to provoke, in the historic nexus of the real free speech movement, a public display of violence to further polarize this country’s political arena. Based on what occurred at the past two Berkeley protests this year, they’re likely to get just what they want.
On August 27, I was one of several thousand peaceful demonstrators in Berkeley rallying against the hate-filled incitement to violence by the far right. Thousands of posters announcing “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” adorned the city’s streets and shop fronts. The primary feeling was one of community empowerment arising from shared humane values. However, those of us who ventured a few blocks down to the Civic Center Park, where the aborted hate rally had been planned, came face-to-face with a phalanx of black-uniformed antifa followers whose sporadic spurts of violence against a few right-wing stragglers were then emblazoned in national media headlines the next day. The violence of a few had swamped a peaceful demonstration of thousands.
The Berkeley events occurred in the wake of the neo-fascist mayhem and murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville two weeks earlier, which generated many thought-provoking arguments by progressives in defense of antifa’s tactics. Most of them focused on the inadequate response by authorities to the hate-filled threats and acts of violence perpetrated by the far-right. “I never felt safer than when I was near antifa,” wrote parish administrator Logan Rimel of his Charlottesville experience. He goes on to claim that only those willing to enter the fray and risk physical injury should have the right to an opinion: “White Christians, if you aren’t willing to personally take a bat to the head, shut up about antifa.”
Beyond the ruckus of any particular demonstration, others have justified antifa by pointing to the institutional brutality that is endemic to the United States and its shameful history. Police killings of African American men in custody continue unchecked, underscored most recently by the outrageous acquittal of Jason Stockley, the white police officer on trial in St. Louis for the murder of 24-year-old African American Anthony Lamar Smith. We live in a nation founded on a structure of institutional violence that continues to violate the rights of millions. The earlier indigenous genocides and barbarism of slavery have morphed into structural inequities that devastate people everywhere in vulnerable communities. Those who join antifa in outrage are right to feel their fury, and are to be commended for their courage to stand up and risk their own safety in defense of more vulnerable fellow citizens.
However, antifa’s willingness to incorporate in their tactics what they see as legitimate violence undermines the good work they set out to do. Since Charlottesville, there has been an outpouring of articles from many progressive thinkers emphatically condemning their tactics as counter-productive. Noam Chomsky has pointed out that “when confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win—and we know who that is.” Chris Hedges starkly accused the antifa protesters of strengthening the very people they’re fighting against through their tactics:
As long as acts of resistance are forms of personal catharsis, the corporate state is secure. Indeed, the corporate state welcomes this violence because violence is a language it can speak with a proficiency and ruthlessness that none of these groups can match…
There is no moral equivalency between antifa and the alt-right. But by brawling in the streets antifa allows the corporate state, which is terrified of a popular anti-capitalist uprising, to use the false argument of moral equivalency to criminalize the work of all anti-capitalists.
German Lopez, writing in Vox, has convincingly demonstrated the far greater effectiveness of peaceful protests over violence in the American struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as in campaigns for justice worldwide throughout the twentieth century.
While I wholeheartedly support these critiques, I think they understate the most important point of all: the case against violent tactics is not simply one of political strategy. It’s a moral choice—and one that should be enunciated clearly and unequivocally by anyone in the progressive movement who cares about the future flourishing of their fellow human beings.
Why does this distinction matter? Imagine, for a moment, that for some reason the strategic arguments were no longer valid. Suppose—hard as it is to conceive—that a sufficient level of violence enacted by left-wing activists could be successful in intimidating right-wing extremists to stop their campaign of hate. Would this then justify the use of violence? Of course not. The fundamental reason for this—demonstrated only too clearly by the horrors of the twentieth century—is that the end does not justify the means. On the contrary, any successful means inevitably becomes the end—and the beginning of a new system built on that means, whatever it might be. Once a group succeeds in taking power through violence, it will continue to use that violence to maintain power.
We must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
Dr. King’s lesson that “means and ends must cohere” offers a clear lens through which to evaluate the actions we need to take to create a society based on human dignity and compassion: we must act unequivocally with dignity and compassion. In the Berkeley demonstrations on August 27, I heard antifa followers chanting slogans such as “Nazi scum off our streets.” This is the kind of dehumanization of opponents that lies at the root of every genocide ever perpetrated. Fighting hate with hate only creates more hate. The far more powerful weapon against hatred is a recognition of the intrinsic humanity of all those around us—even our most vitriolic opponents.
Embracing non-violence as a strategy doesn’t, however, give a free pass to any of us to simply remain on the sidelines while brutality erupts around us. To be aware of the institutional violence perpetrated daily in our society and to do nothing about it is to be complicit in that violence. When police in St. Louis mace compliant demonstrators and taunt them with the chant “Whose street? Our street,” it’s not surprising that vulnerable members of our community turn away from the authorities and toward antifa for their protection. The egregious situation we’re facing in our divided country right now is a siren call for each of us to participate actively in the movement towards a more harmonious society.
But, to be successful, that participation must embody the very principles we’re advocating. The Women’s March in January 2017, followed by the airport protests against Trump’s proposed travel ban, brought together millions of citizens across the country in peaceful resistance against a hateful regime. As many have pointed out, simply participating in a demonstration is not sufficient, but it does act as a gateway to further active engagement, for which there are countless opportunities. Initiatives are building throughout this country based on our connectedness with each other. The Standing Rock protest showed the power of nonviolent protest based on a noble vision of the sacredness of all life. Van Jones has established a Love Army dedicated to freedom and opportunity for all. ACLU has instituted a People Power grassroots organization for those who want to help defend our communities against the administration’s malevolence. And ideas are being floated for a trained nonviolent, publicly accountable citizen force of “protectors” to defend vulnerable groups when the need arises.
The options for engagement against hate are many. But in all cases, we must recognize that, through our action or inaction, we are making a moral choice. The acts we take now may represent the building blocks for the future we create. Let’s choose that future carefully.
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.
It’s becoming widely accepted that, for the Democrats to regain political leadership, they have to do more than resist the Trump regime. Recognizing this, many are drawn to particular initiatives that draw popular support, such as universal health care or a $15 minimum wage. This, however, misses the fact that in recent decades the right wing has not won on the issues, but by repeatedly telling a grand story of America. It’s a story that is false on many counts and based on a set of values that are driving our civilization to a precipice. But it’s been successful because there has been no coherent counter-narrative to override it.
We need a new story of our civilization based on humane values. This story would incorporate initiatives like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, but it must look beyond those towards a grander scope: a future of sustainable flourishing for all.
Ever since the 17th century, the values of Western civilization—which have since become the predominant global civilization—have been the driving force of history. Many of these values, such as democracy, freedom, and individual rights, have become the bedrock for a more humane global society.
But there is a darker underside to the Western value system that has fueled the modern right-wing narrative. My research revealed certain unique characteristics in the underlying pattern of Western cognition that have been responsible for both its Scientific and Industrial revolutions, as well as its destruction of indigenous cultures around the world and our current global rush toward possible catastrophe in the form of climate change and overexploitation of natural resources.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks, and continuing through the rise of Christianity and the Scientific Revolution, the core characteristic of this uniquely Western mindset, which has since become a global phenomenon, is one of separation.
Seeing themselves as separate from nature, philosophers such as Francis Bacon led the clarion call for humankind to “conquer nature,” while Descartes and Hobbes introduced the view of “nature as a machine” that has dominated Western thought ever since. Europeans, driven by the credo that “knowledge is power,” applied their newfound power to conquering, not just nature, but the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world.
At the core of the European value system was a thirst for power that justified disrupting any equilibrium. As Europeans colonized other lands, they imposed their worldview on those who survived their onslaught, inculcating core values of power and exploitation that have formed the basis of today’s global capitalist ethos.
These values have led to a grand story shaping modern political and moral discourse that is based on flawed assumptions, such as the ideas that humans are fundamentally selfish and that the earth can support limitless growth. These, and other elements of the modern story, reflect the underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and we understand things by viewing them as separate parts like a machine. The value system built on this foundation is the cause of much that threatens to tear our society apart: the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond appropriately to climate change, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By recognizing that our underlying values are inherited from previous generations, we can become more conscious of them. This, in turn, allows us to choose other values with the potential to lead to a flourishing future for humankind.
Rather than separation, these values tend to be based on the underlying theme of connectedness: seeing people as part of community, humans as an integral part of the natural world, and solutions to global problems as embedded within larger systems rather than independent techno-fixes. In this alternative narrative, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. It invites a worldview where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior.
Three core values emerge from this interconnected worldview. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. Instead of measuring progress by economic output, we could care about progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we could base political, social, and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we could build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.
Values shape history, and the values we choose to live by will shape our future. If we are to truly counter the forces that wrenching our society apart, we must formulate a new story for civilization—one based on values that could create a sustainable future of shared human dignity and natural flourishing.
It seems like a body blow to the very possibility of saving humanity’s future. A “brutal act,” as described by Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel. The Paris Agreement is itself limited in scope, and insufficient in its goals, but at least it amounts to the single best step the world has taken to try to limit the effects of climate change. A glimmer of sanity in our disturbed civilization.
So how could President Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the agreement be anything but disastrous? I would argue that perhaps it’s the first step in a major pivoting of world relations and power dynamics that could put us on a more hopeful course.
Think of a battered spouse who is continually physically abused, but keeps trying to pretend to herself and others around her that somehow it’s manageable. As a friend, you might counsel her to do something drastic, but get frustrated when nothing happens. Then, one day, the battering goes too far. Your friend ends up in hospital—and finally recognizes she has to leave the brute before it’s too late.
The civilized world has recently been receiving a battering from the brute that has taken power in the United States. If the US had remained in the Paris Agreement, it would have enabled the other countries to act like that battered spouse, keeping the cover on America’s violations of its prior commitments, even while the world careened towards disaster. It was already clear that the US was going to fall far short of its emission targets under the Paris Agreement, and had reneged on its pledge of financial assistance to poorer countries fighting the effects of climate disruption. The US backsliding would have given cover to other countries to avoid meeting their own targets.
Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement would have continued, like the proverbial fig leaf, to cover over the naked facts that we need far more drastic change to avoid a climate catastrophe this century. As many of us who were at COP21 noted at the time, there was a chasm built in to the agreement between the global emission targets and what would be necessary to avoid a 3+ºC rise in temperature by 2100. As Ken Ward, former deputy director of Greenpeace, has recently written:
Pulling out of Paris takes false hopes off the table, and opens the way for building an effective climate movement. So as committed climate activist who knows we’re running out of time, I say, let’s get on with it.
Many observers fret that the US pullout will now cause the rest of the agreement to unravel. But is it possible that the opposite is true? Could it catalyze more responsible government leaders—such as those in France, Germany, China, and India—to realize there is no-one else to rely on but themselves to stave off disaster?
In hunter-gatherer bands, when a troublemaker gets too big for his breeches and threatens the group’s survival, the rest of the band strengthens their bonds against him in the interest of group security. Our troubled globe, with nation states jostling with each other, is in a similar situation. What could they do together to save our future?
An interesting option would be to establish a global tax on carbon and apply it to all goods traded internationally. It’s a topic being seriously discussed in power centers far from the Beltway. This could, in the Trump era, lead to tariff wars, but it might also be a game-changer that the world’s responsible nations have the power to enable.
One unequivocal achievement that Trump has blundered upon is ending US leadership in the world. The US has already lost any semblance of moral leadership, but now its technological, economic, and political status may be irreparably damaged. China, India, and the EU have the opportunity to build a 21st century economy based on renewables that will leave the US in the dirt. They will be the centers that the rest of the world will look to for any chance of a hopeful future.
America’s global hegemony is over. We can only hope that the world’s new power blocs will do a better job with what they inherit.
Imagine living in a home with structural flaws in the foundations. At first, you might not notice too much. Every now and then, some cracks might appear in the walls. If they got too bad, you might apply a new coat of paint, and things would seem fine again—for a while.
But suppose your house were in an earthquake zone? Some of us who live in California know what it’s like to call in a structural engineer and be told the foundations need to be retrofitted if the house is to survive the Big One. Sometimes foundation work is necessary if there are hidden flaws that our home is built on.
We can think of our civilization’s worldview as a cognitive home that we all live in—an edifice of ideas that’s arisen layer by layer over older constructions put together by generations past. Our global civilization is facing the threat of its own Big One in the form of climate change, resource depletion, and species extinction. If our worldview is built on shaky foundations, we need to know about it: we need to find the cracks and repair them before it’s too late.
Our worldview is the set of assumptions we hold about how things work: how society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable and what’s possible. It often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.
We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from family, friends, and culture, and once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible. That’s fine when it’s working for us. But suppose our worldview is causing us to act collectively in ways that could undermine humanity’s future? Then it would be valuable to become more conscious of it.
In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I excavated the hidden layers of our modern worldview and found that many of the ideas we hold sacrosanct are based on flawed foundations. They are myths that emerged from erroneous assumptions made at different times and places in history. They’ve been repeated so frequently that, for many people, it may never occur to question them. But we need to do so, because the foundations of our civilization’s worldview are structurally unsound.
The good news is that, for each structural flaw, there is an alternative principle that offers a solid basis for long-term, sustainable flourishing. Our best hope for civilization to survive the Big One is to recognize these underlying defects, and work together to reconstruct a worldview with more secure underpinnings. Here are eight deep flaws I found, along with alternative principles that, together, could create a foundation for a flourishing civilization for future generations.
Structural flaw #1: Humans are fundamentally selfish
Modern economics is based on an assumption—backed by outmoded biological theories—that human beings are motivated predominantly by their own self-interest, and their collective self-serving actions result in the best outcome for society. In the words of old-school biologist Richard Alexander, “ethics, morality, human conduct, and the human psyche are to be understood only if societies are seen as collections of individuals seeking their own self-interest.” The geopolitical history of the 20th century is demonstrated as proof of this philosophy: Communism failed, we are told, because it was founded on an unrealistic view of human nature, whereas capitalism succeeded because it’s based on harnessing the selfish nature of each individual for the ultimate good of society.
New foundation: Humans are fundamentally cooperative
In fact, modern anthropology and neuroscience show that cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play are defining features of humanity. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, humans evolved to become the most cooperative of primates through our ability to share intentions with each other, while recognizing that others see the world from different perspectives. This enabled early humans to work collaboratively on complex tasks, creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization.
An essential element in the ability of humans to work together is an evolved sense of fairness. We feel this so strongly that we would rather walk away with nothing than permit someone else to take unfair advantage of us. This intrinsic sense of fairness is, in the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, the extra ingredient that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of our modern world such as freedom, equality, and representative government.
For 99 per cent of human history, we lived together in bands of hunter-gatherers, where an egalitarian ethos predominated. If a successful hunter began getting too socially dominant, the rest of the band would join together to keep his ego under control. A sharing ethic pervaded all aspects of life. When a hunter-gatherer in the remote Amazon was asked by an anthropologist why his band didn’t smoke or dry their meat for storage, even though they knew how, he responded: “I store my meat in the belly of my brother.”
Structural flaw #2: Genes are fundamentally selfish
At a deeper level, the idea that genes themselves are selfish has permeated the collective consciousness. Since Richard Dawkins’s 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene, people have come to believe that evolution is the result of genes competing against other in a remorseless drive to replicate themselves. Ruthless competition is seen as the force that separates evolution’s winners from losers.
Even altruism is interpreted as a sophisticated form of selfish behavior used by an organism to propagate its own genes more effectively. Biologist Robert Trivers established a notion of what he called “reciprocal altruism” as an ancient evolutionary strategy that could be seen in the behavior of fish and birds, and interpreted human altruism in the same way. “Under certain circumstances,” he wrote, “natural selection favors these altruistic behaviors because in the long run they benefit the organism performing them.”
New foundation: Nature is a network
This has been extensively discredited as a simplistic interpretation of evolution. In its place, biologists are developing a more sophisticated view of evolution as a series of complex, interlocking systems, where the gene, organism, community, species, and environment all interact with each other, both competitively and cooperatively, in a network extending over both time and space. Ecosystems rely for their health on the tightly synchronized interaction of many different species. Trees in a forest have been discovered to communicate with each other in a complex network that maintains their collective health—sometimes referred to as the “wood wide web.”
Rather than a battleground of “selfish genes” competing to outperform one another, modern biologists offer a new view of nature as a web of networked systems, dynamically optimizing at different levels of evolutionary selection. This recognition that cooperative networking is an essential part of sustainable ecosystems can inspire new ways to structure human technology and social organization for future flourishing.
Structural flaw #3: Humans are separate from nature
Underlying these structural flaws is an even deeper one—the implicit belief that humans are separate from nature. The source of this idea can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Plato saw a human being as a split entity, comprised of an eternal soul locked in a mortal body. The ultimate goal of philosophy was to leave the body behind and identify only with the soul that linked us to divinity. Plato’s speculations became the foundation of Western thought. Two and half millennia later, Descartes updated Plato’s myth with his idea that a person’s true essence is their thoughts, while their bodies were mere matter with no intrinsic value.
The implication of this Cartesian split is that the rest of nature—animals, plants, and everything else—has no value because it doesn’t think like a human. With nothing sacred about nature, it became available for humans to use remorselessly for their own purposes. The Old Testament provided further theological justification to this myth, with God’s command to Adam and Eve that they should “subdue” the earth and “have dominion” over every living thing on it.
The scientific project, just getting off the ground in the 17th century, would henceforth view every aspect of the material world as free game for inquiry, investigation, and exploitation. Francis Bacon inspired generations of scientists with his call to “conquer nature.” He galvanized them to “unite forces against the nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds and extend the bounds of human empire.”
New foundation: Humans are an integral part of nature
These ideas are so ingrained in the modern psyche that it is easy to forget they are unique to the European worldview. Other cultures throughout history saw humans as sharing the world equally with all other creatures. The earth was their mother; the heavens their father. Those who wished to harmonize with nature, in the words of the Tao Te Ching, should be “reverent, like guests.”
The findings of modern biology and neuroscience validate the implicit wisdom of earlier traditions. Humans are in fact integrated mind-body organisms, containing ecosystems within them as well as participating in the broader ecosystems of nature. When we destroy the complexity of the natural world, we undermine the well-being of all organisms including ourselves. In the profound words of a slogan at COP21 in Paris, “We are not defending nature. We are nature defending itself.”
Structural flaw #4: Nature is a machine
Along with the separation of humans from nature, another uniquely European cultural myth proclaims that nature is a machine. Since the 17th century Scientific Revolution, the view of nature as a complicated machine has spread worldwide, leading even some of today’s most brilliant minds to lose sight of it as a metaphor and wrongly believe that nature actually is a machine.
Back in 1605, Kepler framed his life’s work on this idea, writing: “My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but to a clockwork.” Likewise, Descartes declared: “I do not recognize any difference between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.”
In recent decades, Richard Dawkins has spread an updated version of that Cartesian myth, writing famously that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” adding: “That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs.” Open any science magazine, and you’ll see genes described like programmers that “code” for certain traits, while the mind is discussed as “software” for the “hardware” of the body that is “wired” in certain ways. This machine delusion is ubiquitous, beguiling techno-visionaries seeking immortality by downloading their minds, as well as technocrats hoping to solve climate change through geoengineering.
New foundation: Nature is a self-regenerating fractal
Biologists point out principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its computations: the information doesn’t exist separately from its material construction.
In recent decades, systems thinkers have transformed our understanding of life, showing it to be a self-organized, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth. Everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.
This new conception of life leads us to recognize the intrinsic interdependency of all living systems, including humans. It offers us the underpinnings for a sustainable future where technology is used, not to conquer nature or re-engineer it, but to harmonize with it and thus make life more meaningful and flourishing.
Structural flaw #5: GDP is a good measure of prosperity
We continually hear Gross Domestic Product discussed as if it is a scorecard of a country’s success. Yet all GDP measures is the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful. The basic fault with GDP as a measure of a country’s performance is that it fails to distinguish between activities that promote welfare and those that reduce it. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP.
When someone picks vegetables from their garden and cooks them for a friend, this has no impact on GDP; however, buying a similar meal from the frozen food section of a supermarket involves an exchange of money, and therefore adds to GDP. In this bizarre accounting system, toxic pollution can be triply beneficial for GDP: once when a chemical company produces hazardous byproducts; twice when the pollutants need to be cleaned up; and a third time if they cause harm to people requiring medical treatment.
The measure of GDP is not merely bizarre but dangerous for humanity’s future because metrics have a profound impact on what society tries to achieve. National leaders get voted in and out of office based on their country’s GDP growth. Recognizing this, various groups, including the UN and the European Union, are exploring alternative ways to measure society’s true performance. The state of Bhutan broke new ground by creating a “Gross National Happiness” index, incorporating values such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity.
New foundation: Measure a country’s genuine progress
These alternative measures offer a very different story of the human experience over the last fifty years than the one presented by GDP. Researchers have developed a measure known as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that factors negative aspects such as income inequality, environmental pollution, and crime, as well as positive aspects such as volunteer activities and household work, into national accounts. When they applied this to seventeen countries around the world, they discovered that, although GDP has continually increased since 1950, worldwide GPI reached its peak in 1978 and has been declining ever since.
Once we begin measuring our politicians’ success on GPI, rather than GDP, it becomes more feasible that the world can move toward a more sustainable way of life before it gets too late.
Structural flaw #6: The earth can support limitless growth
The world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely, yet that is impossible. When modern economic theory was developed in the 18th century, it seemed reasonable to view natural resources as unlimited because, for all intents and purposes, they were. However, both the number of humans and the rate of our consumption has exploded so dramatically in the past fifty years that this assumption is now woefully wrong.
At the current growth rate of 77 million people per year—equivalent to a new city of a million inhabitants every five days—demographers forecast a world with nearly 10 billion human occupants by 2050. People around the globe, bombarded with images of living standards from affluent countries, understandably aspire to the same level of comfort for themselves. Bolstered by this unremitting appetite for growth, the world economy is projected to quadruple by 2050.
Scientists have calculated that humans now appropriate about 40% of the total energy available to sustain life on Earth—called net primary productivity—for our own consumption. Humans use more than half the world’s freshwater and have transformed 43% of the earth into agricultural or urban landscapes. To sustain our current rate of expansion, human appropriation of net primary productivity might need to double or triple by mid-century. Do the math—it can’t be done on one earth. In the words of systems theorist Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
New foundation: Grow quality, not consumption
The solution is to transform our underlying culture—to stop seeking growth in consumption and instead seek growth in the quality of our lives. We can choose to participate in a circular economy, where we borrow, share, reuse, and recycle—and when we do have to purchase something new, make sure it’s sourced from a sustainable process.
But just like changing lightbulbs won’t stop climate change, so going circular alone won’t prevent civilization from collapsing under its own weight. We need to engage actively at the source of this frenzied rush for perpetual growth: the domination of our economy by global corporations impelled by the mandate of maximizing shareholder returns above all other considerations. Raising public awareness of how these nonhuman forces are driving humanity to catastrophe is one of the most important tasks for anyone who cares about the flourishing of future generations.
Structural flaw #7: Technology has the solution
Techno-optimists frequently ridicule Thomas Malthus, an 18th century English cleric who was the first to warn of the dangers of exponential growth. For every problem that emerges, they claim, technology offers a solution. However, solutions based purely on technology tend to miss deeper structural issues, often creating even bigger problems down the road.
An example is the “Green Revolution” of the late 1960s, which is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation by exporting high-tech industrial agriculture to the developing world. Its unintended consequences now threaten humanity’s future. Ubiquitous use of artificial fertilizer has led to massive ocean “dead zones” from nitrogen runoff and severe reduction in topsoil across the world; indiscriminate application of chemical pesticides has disrupted ecosystems; and industrial agriculture now contributes one-third of the greenhouse gases causing climate change.
One reason we’re facing a worldwide crisis of sustainability is that our culture encourages destructive attitudes to the earth. While technology has brought a plethora of improvements to the human experience, it has also bolstered the underlying Western belief that “conquering nature” is the primary vehicle for progress. Nature, however, is not an enemy to conquer, and each step we take in that direction further destabilizes the intricate relationship between humans and our sole source of life and future flourishing—the earth.
New foundation: Systemic change, not techno-fix
Rather than relying purely on technology, truly effective solutions tackle the systemic underpinnings of our crises, transforming practices that caused the problem in the first place. Agroecology, for example, an approach to agriculture based on principles of ecology, views the earth as a deeply interconnected system, recognizing that the health of humans and nature are interdependent. Agroecology designs and manages food systems to be sustainable, enhancing soil fertility, recycling nutrients, and increasing energy and water efficiency.
Already widely practiced in Latin America, it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the US and Europe, and has the capacity to replace the agro-industrial complex. Agroecology could even help sequester excess carbon in the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute has calculated that regenerative organic practices of agroecology—such as composting, no-tillage, and use of cover crops—could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions if practiced worldwide.
Structural flaw #8: The universe is essentially meaningless
Most science works through a reductionist approach: viewing the world as an assemblage of parts that can each be analyzed separately. This method has led to enormous progress in many fields, but its very success has caused many scientists to see nature as nothing more than a collection of parts, a viewpoint that leads inevitably to spiritual nihilism. In the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, “the more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.” Ultimately, the modern mainstream worldview is based on disconnection: separation of mind from body, individual from community, and human from nature.
New foundation: The universe as a web of meaning
However, in recent decades, insights from complexity theory and systems biology point the way to a new conception of a connected universe that is both scientifically rigorous and spiritually meaningful. In this understanding, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. By emphasizing the underlying principles that apply to all living things, this understanding helps us realize our intrinsic interdependence with all of nature.
In place of the structural cognitive flaws that have led humanity to the precipice, the systems worldview invites a new understanding of nature as a “web of meaning,” where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior. When we apply this framework to our lives, meaning arises from the way in which we’re related to everything around us. Meaning thus becomes a function of connectedness—and the meaning of life an emergent property of the network of connectivity that is the universe. Living with this deep realization, we are truly “at home in the universe.”
Setting the foundations for flourishing
It’s not necessarily easy work: restructuring foundations to prepare for the Big One, while so many others are blithely choosing new colors to paint over the cracks appearing in the walls. However, once we become aware of the structural flaws in the dominant culture, they can’t be ignored. We begin to see their manifestations all around us.
Not easy work, perhaps, but it can be deeply transformative. It’s an ongoing inquiry, a reconstruction of our value system, that can lead to the possibility of finding meaning ultimately through connectedness within ourselves, with each other, and with the natural world. These new foundations, based on seeing the cosmos ultimately as a web of meaning, have the potential to offer a sustainable future of shared human dignity and flourishing of the natural world.