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.
I had a dream. I fell asleep to a nightmare, and woke up with a dream.
The nightmare is one we all share. It’s called the Presidential inauguration of a man fueled by hatred and anger, an unbalanced narcissist invested with the power to destroy all life on earth on a whim.
But it’s the dream I want to tell you about. It was Inauguration Day, January 2021. The new President of the United States was taking the oath of office, declaring her commitment to the dignity and flourishing of all people, regardless of race, gender, or creed. She had come to power on a tidal wave of opposition to the destruction wrought by four years of billionaires plotting to steal from the rest of us what they hadn’t already plundered. Her new Humane Party had risen from nowhere, emerging from the surge of untold millions, sickened by the assault on their humanity, voting for a platform based on basic human values of justice and compassion.
As she spoke, she extended a hand of peace and friendship to other nations around the world, and noted the swell of support that had lifted sister Humane parties in dozens of other countries, in reaction to the global xenophobic fear that had threatened humanity’s future.
The glow of hope filled the streets and reverberated around the world. Strangers stopped to greet each other in the street with a twinkle of the eye and a look of wonder. “The unthinkable has happened – again!” they said to each other. “We had come so close to despair, so close the brink. Who knew this was possible?”
I woke up with this dream this morning, and then joined the millions of others – people driven by humane values – who marched today for dignity, peace, and a future of hope. We are the majority around the world. Policies of fear-mongering and oppression will only swell our ranks even more, as regular, decent people realize they don’t need to live in a world of hate.
Share this dream with others. Let us act together, and we will make it a reality.
Every day, the news seems only to get worse. Trump’s Cabinet appointments are brazenly turning the U.S. into a kleptocracy – a land where those who have gained unprecedented wealth and power by cynically manipulating the rules now get to rewrite the rules for their own exclusive benefit. With all branches of government – executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court – in the hands of a morally bankrupt Republican leadership, the most powerful military and surveillance state in history is becoming a vehicle for corporations to ransack what’s left of the natural world for their short-term gain. With free speech under attack, along with threats of a Muslim registry and mass deportations of undocumented workers, we appear to be plunging rapidly into a bottomless abyss.
It’s natural for anyone who cares about dignity, justice, and the welfare of future generations to feel some despair. But in the very darkness of the times ahead, there is reason for hope that this bleak period will be the harbinger of a transformed society: a new economic and social order based on principles of equity, compassion, and natural flourishing. How can that be?
How change happens in complex systems
The source of this hope emerges from research in complex systems – and more specifically, how phase transitions occur in these systems. Complex systems exist everywhere in the natural world: in weather patterns, lakes, and forest ecologies. They exist within humans – think immune, cardiovascular, and neurological systems – and they exist in the systems we humans create: in markets, and in social and political systems.
These systems are nonlinear, which means the relationship between an input and output can vary wildly, and this characteristic makes them very difficult to predict. However, leading complexity scientists have studied how change happens in these systems, and have discovered principles that seem to occur universally. They are as true for a lake ecology as they are for a stock market. And they are equally applicable to our political system.
A crucial principle is that, while a complex system can remain resilient within a set of parameters for a long time, occasionally it becomes so unstable that it experiences a tipping point: a dramatic shift that transforms the system into something very different. A forest, for example, can get thinned out until it can no longer sustain itself, and it turns into scrubland. A real estate market gets overheated until it suddenly collapses. A person’s neurological firing can destabilize and suddenly puts them into an epileptic seizure.
These shifts – known as phase transitions – can also herald beneficial changes. A chrysalis transforms into a butterfly. A fetus develops until it undergoes the phase transition known as birth. Same sex marriage can remain unthinkable for generations, until it becomes the widely accepted law of the land within a few years.
Scientists have studied intensively how to predict when these phase transitions might occur, and have identified a few flags that indicate when we might expect one. An important indicator is an increase in the variance of fluctuations within the system. A stock market, for example, might start gyrating giddily before it finally crashes. Rainfall patterns may fluctuate wildly before a long-term drought sets in.
Tipping points in history
When we apply these findings to history, it’s easy to see these turbulent fluctuations preceding phase transitions – in retrospect. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the rise of fascism. The global devastation of the Second World War cleared the way for new norms such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted three years later in 1948.
As we look at the current political situation, many signs suggest that we’re arriving at a new, historic tipping point. The globally dominant neoliberal political-economic system has caused unprecedented wealth and income inequalities, which have destabilized the foundations on which the past seventy years of relative peace and prosperity have been built. The Brexit shock, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, and the impending cataclysm of Trump’s lawless brutality seem to signal an approaching tipping point. Our global society is most likely about to enter a phase transition, after which it will emerge into a new, stable state.
What will that new state look like? There is a real threat that we’ll see the end of democracy in this country. An even grimmer possibility is the total collapse of civilization. Trump’s narcissistic capriciousness could drive the world to global war which might easily go nuclear. Even without war, we can expect an acceleration of climate change following an orgy of fossil fuel extraction from the new Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin axis, which could drive the climate to its own tipping points that may be incompatible with continued civilization.
Towards a Great Transformation of values?
But there’s another possibility for the long-term outcome of this dark period. The American people will only take so much trampling over accepted norms. Trump, with his cabinet of billionaires and corporate titans, is likely to pursue a strategy of continued reckless violations of traditional American values such as decency and civil rights. There’s a real possibility that their frenzy of greed, bigotry, and hatred will catalyze a powerful counter-reaction. A significant majority of voters already chose the Democratic candidate over Trump at the election. After years of having their rights trampled upon by a Trump presidency, and most likely witnessing brutality once unthinkable in their own country, Americans may be ready for a radically different type of society: one based on values such as dignity, compassion, and fairness.
This leads to another important lesson from complexity science: During a phase transition, a system goes through a chaotic period of shifting power dynamics. In this period, seemingly insignificant actions can have an outsize effect, sometimes dramatically impacting the character of the long-term outcome. When we apply this lesson to the current situation, this becomes a clarion call for citizen action. What each of us does over the next few years could have extraordinary effects on the future society we bequeath to posterity.
At the same time, we need to shine a light on a flourishing future that could still be available after this period of darkness. There is an enormous power arising from millions of interconnected people striving together towards a shared vision. We already know, within ourselves, what that vision looks like. In contrast to Trump’s intolerance based on a rhetoric of separation, the foundation of a flourishing future is our intrinsic connectedness: within ourselves, with others, and with the natural world.
Even before Trump’s regime begins, people are picking up on the urgent need for a transformation of values in American society. Political commentator Van Jones has initiated a “Love Army” to conquer Trump’s message of hate. Author Neal Gabler has called for a “kindness offensive.”
A society based on love and kindness is not just an abstraction. Kindness in action means resisting Trump’s brutalism. Love in action means working towards a transformation of society. Pioneers of a flourishing future have already been busily constructing a coherent platform of alternative ideas that can form the framework for a system founded on compassionate values. I’ve attempted to summarize some of them in a recent online conference where I took the role of a historian in 2050 looking back at how the world just survived climate catastrophe to enter a period known as The Great Transformation.
The traditional Chinese understood profoundly the dynamics of change that modern complexity scientists are discovering. Their famous yin-yang symbol captures a deep truth about how polarities can engender their opposites. In the middle of the black, there is a spot of white. When a wave reaches its peak, that’s when it begins to crash. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
We haven’t yet hit the darkest hour of the Trump era. We’re just entering the abyss, and no-one can predict how bad it’s going to get. But as we move together into the darkness, along with our anguish and outrage, let us never lose sight of the light that lurks beyond. There will be casualties from his brutality. Few of us are likely to make it through unscathed. But by recognizing the power of our interconnected action, while keeping our gaze focused on the light beyond the horizon, we may well succeed in ultimately directing this tipping point away from collapse, and towards a society of flourishing, compassion, and justice.