As civilization faces an existential crisis, our leaders demonstrate their inability to respond. Theory of change shows that now is the time for radically new ideas to transform society before it’s too late.
Of all the terrifying news bombarding us from the burning of the Amazon, perhaps the most disturbing was the offer of $22 million made by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and other G7 leaders to help Brazil put the fires out. Why is that? The answer can help to hone in on the true structural changes needed to avert civilizational collapse.
Scientists have publicly warned that, at the current rate of deforestation, the Amazon is getting dangerously close to a die-back scenario, after which it will be gone forever, turned into sparse savanna. Quite apart from the fact that this would be the greatest human-made ecological catastrophe in history, it would also further accelerate a climate cataclysm, as one of the world’s great carbon sinks would convert overnight to a major carbon emitter, with reinforcing feedback effects causing even more extreme global heating, ultimately threatening the continued existence of our current civilization.
Macron and the other leaders meeting in late August in Biarritz were well aware of these facts. And yet, in the face of this impending disaster, these supposed leaders of the free world, representing over half the economic wealth of all humanity, offered a paltry $22 million—less than Americans spend on popcorn in a single day. By way of context, global fossil fuel subsidies (much of it from G7 members) total roughly $5.2 trillion annually—over two hundred thousand times the amount offered to help Brazil fight the Amazon fires.
Brazil’s brutal president Bolsonaro is emerging as one of the worst perpetrators of ecocide in the modern world, but it’s difficult to criticize his immediate rejection of an amount that is, at best a pittance, at worst an insult. True to form, Donald Trump didn’t bother to turn up for the discussion on the Amazon fires, but it hardly made a difference. The ultimate message from the rest of the G7 nations was they were utterly unable, or unwilling, to lift a finger to help prevent the looming existential crisis facing our civilization.
Why Aren’t They Doing Anything?
This should not be news to anyone following the unfolding twin disasters of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. It’s easy enough to be horrified at Bolsonaro’s brazenness, encouraging lawless ranchers to burn down the Amazon rainforest to clear land for soybean plantations and cattle grazing, but the subtler, and far more powerful, forces driving us to the precipice come from the Global North. It’s the global appetite for beef consumption that lures Brazil’s farmers to devastate one of the world’s most precious treasure troves of biodiversity. It’s the global demand for fossil fuels that rewards oil companies for the wanton destruction of pristine forest.
There is no clearer evidence of the Global North’s hypocrisy in this regard than the sad story of Ecuador’s Yasuní initiative. In 2007, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa proposed an indefinite ban on oil exploration in the pristine Yasuní National Park—representing 20% of the nation’s oil deposits—as long as the developed world would contribute half the cost that Ecuador faced by foregoing oil revenues. Initially, wealthier countries announced their support for this visionary plan, and a UN-administered fund was established. However, after six years of strenuous effort, Ecuador had received just 0.37% of the fund’s target. With sorrow, the government announced it would allow oil drilling to begin.
The simple lesson is that our global leaders currently have no intention to make even the feeblest steps toward changing the underlying drivers of our society’s self-destruction. They are merely marching in lockstep to the true forces propelling our global civilization: the transnational corporations that control virtually every aspect of economic activity. These, in turn, are driven by the requirement to relentlessly increase shareholder value at all cost, which they do by turning the living Earth into a resource for reckless exploitation, and conditioning people everywhere to become zombie consumers.
This global system of unregulated neoliberal capitalism was unleashed in full fury by the free market credo of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and has since become the underlying substrate of our politics, culture, and economics. The system’s true cruelty, destructiveness, and suicidal negligence are now showing themselves in the unraveling of our world order, as manifested in the most extreme inequality in history, the polarized intolerance of political discourse, the rise in desperate climate refugees, and a natural world that is burning up, melting down, and has already lost most of its nonhuman inhabitants.
How Change Happens
Studies of past civilizations show that all the major criteria that predictably lead to civilizational collapse are currently confronting us: climate change, environmental degradation, rising inequality, and escalation in societal complexity. As societies begin to unravel, they have to keep running faster and faster to remain in the same place, until finally an unexpected shock arrives and the whole edifice disintegrates.
It’s a terrifying scenario, but understanding its dynamics enables us to have greater impact on what actually happens than we may realize. Scientists have studied the life cycles of all kinds of complex systems—ranging in size from single cells to vast ecosystems, and back in time all the way to earlier mass extinctions—and have derived a general theory of change called the Adaptive Cycle model. This model works equally well for human systems such as industries, markets, and societies. As a rule, complex systems pass through a life cycle consisting of four phases: a rapid growth phase when those employing innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities; a more stable conservation phase, dominated by long-established relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change; a release phase, which might be a collapse, characterized by chaos and uncertainty; and finally, a reorganization phase during which small, seemingly insignificant forces can drastically change the future of the new cycle.
Right now, many people might agree that our global civilization is at the late stage of its conservation phase, and in many segments, it feels like it’s already entering the chaotic release phase. This is a crucially important moment in the system’s life cycle for those who wish to change the predominant order. As long as the conservation phase remains stable, new ideas can barely make an impact on the established, tightly connected dominant ecosystem of power, relationships, and narrative. However, as things begin to unravel, we see increasing numbers of people begin to question foundational elements of neoliberal capitalism: an economy based on perpetual growth, seeing nature as a resource to plunder, and the pursuit of material wealth as paramount.
This is the time when new ideas can have an outsize impact. Innovative policy ideas previously considered unthinkable begin to enter the domain of mainstream political discourse (known as the Overton window). We see signs of this in the United States in the form of the Green New Deal, or Elizabeth Warren’s plan to hold corporations accountable. We also see it, disturbingly, in dark political forces such as the UK Brexit fiasco and the increasing acceptability of malevolent racist rhetoric around the world.
The stakes are always at their highest when both the economic and cultural norms of a society begin to fall apart in tandem. When Europe underwent a phase of collapse and renewal in the early twentieth-century, after the devastation of World War I, it became fertile terrain for the hate-filled ideologies of Fascism and Nazism that led to the dark abyss of genocide and concentration camps. The ensuing catastrophe of World War II led to another collapse and renewal cycle, this one providing the platform for the current globalized world order that is now entering the final stages of its own life cycle.
Shifting the Overton Window
What will emerge from the current slide into ecological and political chaos? Will the twin dark forces of billionaires’ wealth and xenophobic nationalism lead us into another abyss? Or can we somehow transform our global society peacefully into a fundamentally different system—one that affirms life rather than material wealth as paramount?
One thing is clear: the visionary ideas that will determine the shape of our future will not be based on incremental thinking within the confines of our current system. Achieving needed reforms within the current global power structure is a worthwhile goal, but is not sufficient to lead humanity to a thriving future. For that, we need bold, new ways of structuring our civilization, and of rethinking the human relationship with the natural world. We need to be ready to restructure the legal basis of corporations to serve humanity rather than faceless shareholders. We need global laws that force ecocidal thugs like Bolsonaro to face justice for their crimes against nature.
You won’t currently find these new ways of thinking in the mainstream media, nor in the speeches of politicians trying to get elected. But you will find them in the streets. You’ll find them in the courage of a Greta Thunberg: a solitary teenage girl sitting for days in front of her parliament, who has since inspired millions of schoolchildren to strike for their future. You’ll find them in the demands of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which calls for elected leaders to tell the truth about our ecological and climate crisis, and to empower citizen’s assemblies to develop truly meaningful solutions.
The changes needed for a hopeful future will not come about from our current leaders, which is why all of us who care for future generations and for the richness of life on Earth, must take the leadership role in their place. We need to shift the Overton window until it centers on the real issues that will determine our future. On September 20, three days before the UN Climate Summit in New York, millions of young people and adults will participate in a Global Climate Strike, taking to the streets to demand the transformative action that’s necessary to stave off ecological and civilizational collapse. Actions are being planned in over a thousand cities around the world, for what may turn out to be the single biggest coordinated grassroots global demonstration in history.
The stakes have never been higher: the threat of catastrophe never more dreadful; and the path to societal transformation never so apparent. Which future are you steering us to? There’s no opting out: anyone with an inkling of what’s happening around the world, but who does nothing about it, is implicitly adding their momentum toward the abyss of collapse. I hope you join us on September 20 in helping steer our civilization toward a path of future flourishing.
Facing oncoming climate disaster, some argue for “Deep Adaptation”—that we must prepare for inevitable collapse. However, this orientation is dangerously flawed. It threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy by diluting the efforts toward positive change. What we really need right now is Deep Transformation. There is still time to act: we must acknowledge this moral imperative.
Every now and then, history has a way of forcing ordinary people to face up to a moral encounter with destiny that they never expected. Back in the 1930s, as Adolf Hitler rose to power, those who turned away when they saw Jews getting beaten in the streets never expected that decades later, their grandchildren would turn toward them with repugnance and say “Why did you do nothing when there was still a chance to stop the horror?”
Now, nearly a century on, here we are again. The fate of future generations is at stake, and each of us needs to be prepared, one day, to face posterity—in whatever form that might take—and answer the question: “What did you do when you knew our future was on the line?”
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past few months, or get your daily updates exclusively from Fox News, you’ll know that our world is facing a dire climate emergency that’s rapidly reeling out of control. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a warning to humanity that we have just twelve years to turn things around before we pass the point of no return. Governments continue to waffle and ignore the blaring sirens. The pledges they’ve made under the 2015 Paris agreement will lead to 3 degrees of warming, which would threaten the foundations of our civilization. And they’re not even on track to meet those commitments. Even the IPCC’s dire warning of calamity is, by many accounts, too conservative, failing to take into account tipping points in the earth system with reinforcing feedback effects that could drive temperatures far beyond the IPCC’s worst case scenarios.
People are beginning to feel panicky in the face of oncoming disaster. Books such as David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth paint a picture so frightening that it’s already feeling to some like game over. A strange new phenomenon is emerging: while mainstream media ignores impending catastrophe, increasing numbers of people are resonating with those who say it’s now “too late” to save civilization. The concept of “Deep Adaptation” is beginning to gain currency, with its proponent Jem Bendell arguing that “we face inevitable near-term societal collapse,” and therefore need to prepare for “civil unrest, lawlessness and a breakdown in normal life.”
There’s much that is true in the Deep Adaptation diagnosis of our situation, but its orientation is dangerously flawed. By turning people’s attention toward preparing for doom, rather than focusing on structural political and economic change, Deep Adaptation threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasing the risk of collapse by diluting efforts toward societal transformation.
Our headlong fling toward disaster
I have no disagreement with the dire assessment of our circumstances. In fact, things look even worse if you expand the scope beyond the climate emergency. Climate breakdown itself is merely a symptom of a far larger crisis: the ecological catastrophe unfolding in every domain of the living earth. Tropical forests are being decimated, making way for vast monocrops of wheat, soy, and palm oil plantations. The oceans are being turned into a garbage dump, with projections that by 2050 they will contain more plastic than fish. Animal populations are being wiped out. The insects that form the foundation of our global ecosystem are disappearing: bees, butterflies, and countless other species in free fall. Our living planet is being ravaged mercilessly by humanity’s insatiable consumption, and there’s not much left.
Deep Adaptation proponents are equally on target arguing that incremental fixes are utterly insufficient. Even if a global price on carbon was established, and if our governments invested in renewables rather than subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, we would still come up woefully short. The harsh reality is that, rather than heading toward net zero, global emissions just hit record numbers last year; Exxon, the largest shareholder-owned oil company, proudly announced recently that it’s doubling down on fossil fuel extraction; and wherever you look, whether it’s air travel, globalized shipping, or beef consumption, the juggernaut driving us to climate catastrophe only continues to accelerate. To cap it off, with ecological destruction and global emissions already unsustainable, the world economy is expected to triple by 2060.
The primary reason for this headlong fling toward disaster is that our economic system is based on perpetual growth—on the need to consume the earth at an ever-increasing rate. Our world is dominated by transnational corporations, which now account for sixty-nine of the world’s largest hundred economies. The value of these corporations is based on investors’ expectations for their continued growth, which they are driven to achieve at any cost, including the future welfare of humanity and the living earth. It’s a gigantic Ponzi scheme that barely gets a mention because the corporations also own the mainstream media, along with most governments. The real discussions we need about humanity’s future don’t make it to the table. Even a policy goal as ambitious as the Green New Deal—rejected by most mainstream pundits as utterly unrealistic—would still be insufficient to turn things around, because it doesn’t acknowledge the need to transition our economy away from reliance on endless growth.
Deep Adaptation . . . or Deep Transformation?
Faced with these realities, I understand why Deep Adaptation followers throw their hands up in despair and prepare for collapse. But I believe it’s wrong and irresponsible to declare definitively that it’s too late—that collapse is “inevitable.” It’s too late, perhaps, for the monarch butterflies, whose numbers are down 97% and headed for extinction. Too late, probably for the coral reefs that are projected not to survive beyond mid-century. Too late, clearly, for the climate refugees already fleeing their homes in desperation, only to find themselves rejected, exploited, and driven back by those whose comfort they threaten. There is plenty to grieve about in this unfolding catastrophe—it’s a valid and essential part of our response to mourn the losses we’re already experiencing. But while grieving, we must take action, not surrender to a false belief in the inevitable.
Defeatism in the face of overwhelming odds is something that I, perhaps, am especially averse to, having grown up in postwar Britain. In the dark days of 1940, defeat seemed inevitable for the British, as the Nazis swept through Europe, threatening an impending invasion. For many, the only prudent course was to negotiate with Hitler and turn Britain into a vassal state, a strategy that nearly prevailed at a fateful War Cabinet meeting in May 1940. When details about this Cabinet meeting became public, in my teens, I remember a chill going through my veins. Born into a Jewish family, I realized that I probably owed my very existence to those who bravely chose to overcome despair and fight on in a seemingly hopeless struggle.
A lesson to learn from this—and countless other historical episodes—is that history rarely progresses for long in a straight line. It takes unanticipated swerves that only make sense when analyzed retroactively. For ten years, Tarana Burke used the phrase “me too” to raise awareness of sexual assault, without knowing that it would one day help topple Harvey Weinstein, and potentiate a movement toward transformation of abusive cultural norms. The curve balls of history are all around us. No-one can accurately predict when the next stock market crash will occur, never mind when civilization itself will come undone.
There’s a second, equally important, lesson to learn from the nonlinear transformations that we see throughout history, such as universal women’s suffrage or the legalization of same-sex marriage. They don’t just happen by themselves—they result from the dogged actions of a critical mass of engaged citizens who see something that’s wrong and, regardless of seemingly insurmountable odds, keep pushing forward driven by their sense of moral urgency. As part of a system, we all collectively participate in how that system evolves, whether we know it or not, whether we want to or not.
Paradoxically, the very precariousness of our current system, teetering on the extremes of brutal inequality and ecological devastation, increases the potential for deep structural change. Research in complex systems reveals that, when a system is stable and secure, it’s very resistant to change. But when the linkages within the system begin to unravel, it’s far more likely to undergo the kind of deep restructuring that our world requires.
It’s not Deep Adaptation that we need right now—it’s Deep Transformation. The current dire predicament we’re in screams something loudly and clearly to anyone who’s listening: If we’re to retain any semblance of a healthy planet by the latter part of this century, we have to change the foundations of our civilization. We need to move from one that is wealth-based to one that is life-based—a new type of society built on life-affirming principles, often described as an Ecological Civilization. We need a global system that devolves power back to the people; that reins in the excesses of global corporations and government corruption; that replaces the insanity of infinite economic growth with a just transition toward a stable, equitable, steady-state economy optimizing human and natural flourishing.
Our moral encounter with destiny
Does that seem unlikely to you? Sure, it seems unlikely to me, too, but “likelihood” and “inevitability” stand a long way from each other. As Rebecca Solnit points out in Hope in the Dark, hope is not a prognostication. Taking either an optimistic or pessimistic stance on the future can justify a cop-out. An optimist says, “It will turn out fine so I don’t need to do anything.” A pessimist retorts, “Nothing I do will make a difference so let me not waste my time.” Hope, by contrast, is not a matter of estimating the odds. Hope is an active state of mind, a recognition that change is nonlinear, unpredictable, and arises from intentional engagement.
Bendell responds to this version of hope with a comparison to a terminal cancer patient. It would be cruel, he suggests, to tell them to keep hoping, pushing them to “spend their last days in struggle and denial, rather than discovering what might matter after acceptance.” This is a false equivalency. A terminal cancer condition has a statistical history, derived from the outcomes of many thousands of similar occurrences. Our current situation is unique. There is no history available of thousands of global civilizations bringing their planetary ecosystems to breaking point. This is the only one we know of, and it would be negligent to give up on it based on a set of projections. If a doctor told your mother, “This cancer is unique and we have no experience of its prognosis. There are things we can try but they might not work,” would you advise her to give up and prepare for death? I’m not giving up on Mother Earth that easily.
In truth, collapse is already happening in different parts of the world. It’s not a binary on-off switch. It’s a cruel reality bearing down on the most vulnerable among us. The desperation they’re experiencing right now makes it even more imperative to engage rather than declare game over. The millions left destitute in Africa by Cyclone Idai, the communities still ravaged in Puerto Rico, the two-thousand-year old baobab trees suddenly dying en masse, and the countless people and species yet to be devastated by global ecocide, all need those of us in positions of relative power and privilege to step up to the plate, not throw up our hands in despair. There’s currently much discussion about the devastating difference between 1.5° and 2.0° in global warming. Believe it, there will also be a huge difference between 2.5° and 3.0°. As long as there are people at risk, as long as there are species struggling to survive, it’s not too late to avert further disaster.
This is something many of our youngest generation seem to know intuitively, putting their elders to shame. As fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg declared in her statement to the UN in Poland last November, “you are never too small to make a difference… Imagine what we can all do together, if we really wanted to.” Thunberg envisioned herself in 2078, with her own grandchildren. “They will ask,” she said, “why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.”
That’s the moral encounter with destiny that we each face today. Yes, there is still time to act. Last month, inspired by Thunberg’s example, more than a million school students in over a hundred countries walked out to demand climate action. To his great credit, even Jem Bendell disavows some of his own Deep Adaptation narrative to put his support behind protest. The Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched a mass civil disobedience campaign last year in England, blocking bridges in London and demanding an adequate response to our climate emergency. It has since spread to 27 other countries.
Studies have shown that, once 3.5% of a population becomes sustainably committed to nonviolent mass movements for political change, they are invariably successful. That would translate into 11.5 million Americans on the street, or 26 million Europeans. We’re a long way from that, but is it really impossible? I’m not ready, yet, to bet against humanity’s ability to transform itself or nature’s powers of regeneration. XR is planning a global week of direct action beginning on Monday, April 15, as a first step toward a coordinated worldwide grassroots rebellion against the system that’s destroying hope of future flourishing. It might just be the beginning of another of history’s U-turns. Do you want to look your grandchildren in the eyes? Yes, me too. I’ll see you there.
In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production.
We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.
Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?
Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.
But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.
That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.
Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.
A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.
In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.
An ecological civilization
The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.
A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.
An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.
In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecology practices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.
In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.
Cultivating a flourishing future
While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.
In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.
Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System Project, The Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. And the core principles of an ecological civilization have already been set out in the Earth Charter—an ethical framework launched in The Hague in 2000 and endorsed by over 6,000 organizations worldwide, including many governments. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.
As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.
One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.
Watch Jeremy Lent’s talk on “Living into an Ecological Civilization”
Presented at Civana House, San Francisco, October 3, 2019
We need to rein in the destructive power of corporations and billionaires before it’s too late. These five ideas would do that, while leaving global capitalism intact. Ultimately, only a complete transformation of our economic system will save our future, but these proposals could set changes in motion that might eventually take us there.
Transnational corporations have become the dominant force directing our world. Humanity is accelerating toward a precipice of overconsumption, and the large transnationals are the primary agents driving us there. We’re rapidly losing the earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. The earth is becoming denuded of its bounty as every living system is ransacked for resources—not to mention the looming emergency of climate breakdown. As a result, twenty thousand scientists have recently issued a public warning to humanity, while prominent academics consider the collapse of civilization this century to be a serious threat.
Changes in our personal consumption patterns are important, but are ultimately inconsequential compared with the impact of the transnationals that have come to dominate our global economic and political system. Of the world’s hundred largest economies, sixty-nine are now corporations. Political parties in many of our so-called democracies are funded in large part by billionaires, while government cabinet positions are staffed by corporate executives. International bodies setting global policy are infiltrated by corporate agents so successful at entrenching corporate power that even those governments that still prioritize their people’s needs can no longer make autonomous decisions without risking crippling lawsuits from the transnationals whose interests they threaten. Meanwhile, countries and cities compete with each other to beg their corporate overlords for investment dollars, even it means undermining public services and legal protections for their own populations.
Environmental groups, recognizing where ultimate power resides, try to pressure corporations to improve practices through the threat of public shaming, with some appreciable results. However, these attempts are necessarily constrained by the very structure of big corporations, which exist to enrich their shareholders regardless of the consequences. The common goal of corporations around the world is to monetize human activity and what’s left of nature’s abundance as rapidly and efficiently as possible. The overriding purpose of the world’s powerful institutional force is thus directly at odds with a flourishing earth or a viable future for humanity.
Having spent the first part of my career in the heart of the capitalist system, consulting to major international banks and corporations, I developed a sense of the underlying forces that direct the centers of financial power. These ideas are my distillation of what I believe could be effective levers for humanity to take back some control from the increasing hegemony of corporations and billionaires.
If we are to avoid disaster, our global economic system with its gaping inequities and deranged consumption will eventually need to dismantled and replaced by one based on life-affirming principles rather than wealth maximization. These suggestions, even in aggregate, wouldn’t do that. They represent mere tweaks in a system that ultimately needs to be completely transformed. But like a modest trim tab that helps redirect an ocean liner, perhaps they could begin to curb the destructive force of transnationals and redirect their enormous power toward a more sustainable path.
1. Triple bottom line required for corporate charters
A fundamental reason for the rapacious behavior of transnational corporations is their drive to maximize shareholder value above anything else. While there is no explicit requirement for this in the standard corporate charter, a century of case law has entrenched this principle into the behavior of large corporations to the point that is has become the de facto standard of operation. As a result, if corporations were people, they would be considered psychopaths, utterly devoid of any caring for the harm they cause in the pursuit of their goals.
It is easier, however, to change a corporation’s values than those of a human psychopath. All you need to do is change the legal basis of their charter. Instead of pursuing shareholder interests alone, they could be re-chartered with the explicit purpose of achieving a triple bottom line of social and environmental outcomes as well as financial—sometimes known as the “triple Ps” of people, planet, and profit.
This alternative corporate value system is already available through chartering as a benefit corporation or certifying as a B-Corp, and has been adopted by over 2,000 corporations in over fifty countries around the world—including several multibillion-dollar transnationals. My proposal is that, instead of being a voluntary step taken by a select few, this would be a requirement for all corporations above a certain size.
Overnight, the intrinsic character of the corporation would be transformed. Currently, CEOs and corporate boards are faced with continual pressure to grow their earnings at all cost. If they chose to make a humane decision, such as not to exploit a copper mine because of the consequent pollution, they could expect to be sued by shareholders, and possibly acquired by a more ruthless competitor. However, if they were legally required to achieve a triple bottom line, they would weigh up decisions in a more balanced way, as a rational person might. With the board responsible for all three bottom lines, they would have to consider the risk of being sued if they caused excessive pollution, or if they were callous to the needs of the communities where their plants were located.
Currently, large corporations boast of their corporate social responsibility departments that are supposed to care about issues such as employment practices of their suppliers, sustainability of their raw materials, environmental impact of their packaging, gender balance and ethnic diversity in the workplace, and investments in local communities. Suddenly, they would have to stop paying mere lip service to these issues and take them as seriously as marketing costs, revenue growth and distribution channels—the things that CEOs actually worry about when they go home at night.
2. Charter renewal required every five years
Changing the corporate charter requirement might not, however, be enough by itself to halt the relentless pursuit of profits by large transnationals. After all, executive pay packages consist of dollars rather than goodwill, and those dollars are linked directly to the share price, which is driven by shareholders’ expectation of financial returns. If they could get away with it, they might continue their rapacious practices, while trying harder to look like they’re meeting the other two bottom lines.
That’s the reason for my second proposal, which is to require that corporations, which currently enjoy what’s known legally as a “perpetual existence,” get their charters renewed every five years. If they failed to meet pre-established criteria on their two non-financial bottom lines, they would not be permitted to continue in business. Currently, if a company can’t meet its financial obligations, it’s forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and the value of its stock generally tanks to zero. Under my proposal, executives would also have to consider the risk of declaring “social bankruptcy” or “environmental bankruptcy” as they made their business decisions.
As in currently regulated industries such as banking, the final step of losing their charter would not have to be immediate. If a corporation failed to meet its basic parameters, it could be given a warning, with a time period set to fix things. However, the mere threat of this happening would lead corporate executives to make sure they were well above the criteria required to keep their charter.
Corporations are, of course, highly adept at using their financial resources to influence regulatory bodies through bribes and other mechanisms. To avoid this, panel members responsible to renew the charter would be representatives of the communities and ecosystems covered in the company’s scope of operations. Their task would be to weigh up the findings of experienced independent auditors on the company’s performance. To minimize corruption, the panel could be chosen by a process of random selection called sortition, just a like a trial jury is chosen in our legal system.
3. Tax stock trades based on the length of the holding period
Powerful as they are, even corporations have their masters: their shareholders. But don’t think of the typical shareholder as a Warren Buffet type, sitting back in his leather armchair perusing his holdings. Instead, corporate stocks are subject to the frenetic activity of financial markets, where split-second computer algorithms govern much of the trading. Investment firms spend hundreds of millions of dollars enhancing their computing networks to shave as little as three milliseconds off the timing of their trades. The hyper liquidity of global markets means that investors are obsessed with short-term market trends, which leads corporate CEOs, forever anxious about their stock price, to focus their time horizon on the next quarterly earnings report. Financial valuations apply discount rates to future earnings, which means that an investment paying off thirty years in the future can be worth as little as five percent of its future payoff in the present. Under these conditions, why would any CEO care about the state of the planet—or even their company—thirty years from now?
During the 2016 US election campaign, Bernie Sanders proposed a Financial Transaction Tax to pay for free college tuition, setting the rate at 0.1% of the transaction. In Europe, discussions are under way to apply a similar EU-wide tax. My proposal increases the tax rate by orders of magnitude, and differentiates based on the length of the stock holding. For example, the tax rate might look like this:
10% if the stock is held less than a day
5% if less than a year
3% if less than 10 years
1% if less than 20 years
Zero if more than 20 years
The effects of this single step would be enormous. The financial services industry would be transformed overnight. High frequency stock trading and same-day traders would disappear. The short-term orientation of the stock market would be replaced by carefully considered long-term investment decisions. A typical mutual fund, which in the US currently turns over its portfolio at the rate of 130% a year, could no longer afford to do so, and would have to change its investment decision-making based on sustainable returns. The tax could be waived for individuals experiencing a life-changing event or for simple hedging techniques where, for example, farmers need to lock in the price of their produce at a future time.
The result would be a massive shift away from destructive extractive industries and toward sustainable businesses. For example, the fossil fuel industry is recognized to be vastly overvalued as a result of its “unburnable carbon”: the amount of fossil fuels in the ground that can never be burned if the world is to keep climate change below the 2° rise agreed at COP21 in Paris. A recent study estimates the overvaluation as high as $4 trillion. Investors, however, play a game of musical chairs, hoping they won’t be the ones left holding the stranded assets. This proposed transaction fee would incent them to dump fossil fuel investments immediately for opportunities in renewable energy with longer-term payoffs.
4. Cap on billionaire’s assets over $5 billion
As corporations have taken increasing control of the global system, they have catapulted founding shareholders and their heirs to previously unimaginable pinnacles of wealth. The combined wealth of the world’s 2,754 billionaires is now $9.2 trillion, an amount that has doubled in the past six years, and increased tenfold since the beginning of this century. The magnitude of this wealth is difficult to conceive. The top six billionaires own as much as the lower half of the entire world’s population. Taken together, the world’s billionaires would represent the third largest economy in the world, behind only China and the United States, with wealth equivalent to the GDP of Germany and Japan combined.
There is no legitimate rationale for this outrageous concentration of such wealth in a few individuals. The argument that the founders of Microsoft, Amazon, or Facebook deserve such excessive wealth is no more valid than the belief of the ancient Egyptians in the divinity of their Pharaoh, or the Medieval notion of the divine right of kings. Mark Zuckerberg, aged 33, currently owns over $70 billion. If someone had singlehandedly miniaturized the transistor, developed the logic for computer code, invented the PC, and come up with the internet, then maybe they’d deserve having close to that amount as a reward for the value they created. But all Zuckerberg did was figure out a way to connect people up in a network that became a bit more popular than other networks, and because of the internet’s scale effects, he was the lucky one who hit the jackpot. Zuckerberg merely took advantage of all the other infrastructure work that led to the internet, painstakingly pieced together by millions of people over decades, which has been the real value creator for the world.
In response to this excess, my proposal is to cap billionaires’ wealth at, say, $5 billion. It’s an arbitrary amount, still obscenely high and presumably more than enough for those who argue that people should receive ample financial rewards for success. Beyond a certain level of wealth, however, what drives these people is power and prestige. This could be tapped by requiring them to donate their excess wealth to a trust over which they could retain some influence.
Such a trust, however, would need to have some strict criteria. While the billionaire could influence the trust’s priorities, he would not have control over its activities. The current Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, while a step in the right direction, is under the total control of the Gateses and Warren Buffet. The foundation set up with much fanfare by Mark Zuckerberg is viewed by experts as little more than a fancy tax dodge.
Each trust would need to avoid interference in a country’s political system and be dedicated to life-affirming activities, the scope of which could be based, for example, on the principles of the Earth Charter, a framework for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society endorsed by over 6,000 organizations.
The billionaires of the world, meanwhile, would continue to enjoy enormous wealth, and when they jet to Davos to hobnob with other luminaries for the annual World Economic Forum, they could finally have something worthwhile to boast about.
5. Declare a crime of ecocide at the International Criminal Court
Even with all these constraints, the powers of transnational corporations would remain enormous, and there would still be times when, through willful negligence or intentional bad faith, corporate action causes massive environmental damage. A UN study, which remained unpublished, found that the world’s largest companies had caused over $2 trillion of environmental damage, which would cost a third of their overall profits if they were forced to pay for it. Because of their extensive political influence, even their most damaging activities go unpunished. This leads to my final proposal: to declare a crime of ecocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The ICC is an independent judicial body set up by international treaty, the Rome Statute, in 2002 to prosecute war crimes, genocides, and crimes against humanity. While it continues to face serious challenges to its enforcement powers, it has had the effect of putting tyrants everywhere on notice that they can no longer act with impunity. If ecocide—the loss, destruction, or severe damage of an ecosystem—were declared a crime by the ICC, this could have a similarly daunting effect on those corporate tyrants who currently know they can get away with devastating the world’s “sacrifice zones” where they are pillaging the earth’s resources for profit.
There is a campaign, Eradicating Ecocide, already under way to make this happen. A model law has been drafted, and an Earth Protectors Trust Fund has been set up to permit common people everywhere to become legal Earth protectors. If a two-thirds majority of the Rome Statute signatories were to approve this as an amendment, it would become enforceable globally. Suddenly, corporate boards and CEOs everywhere would realize they are no longer above the law.
* * * * *
There is a strange paradox to consider about these proposals. One the one hand, notice how limited they are in scope. Even if they were all implemented overnight, the global system would not be overturned. People would still go to work and get paid, food would still be on the shelves of the grocery store, the same governments would still be in power, and the internet would still work. The gaping structural inequities of our current world order would continue unabated, and we’d still be consuming far more than our planet can sustain. Ultimately, we need a complete transformation of our global system if our civilization is to survive intact through this century.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take a political genius to realize that these ideas are so far from mainstream thinking that they have virtually no chance to be adopted any time soon. They would be considered too radical for even the most progressive mainstream politician to endorse. What does this tell us about our current political dialogue? To me, it suggests that our conversations are too severely constrained by what we’re “allowed” to think in terms of how our system works. We need to cast our gaze outside the norms that our billionaire-controlled mainstream media permits us to consider.
Imagine a world where these ideas (or others like them) began to be seriously entertained. How would they even be enforced? The only way corporations could be brought to heel, or billionaires compelled to give up their excess billions, would be a concerted effort led by the United States in conjunction with the European Union, and joined by the preponderance of other countries.
This, of course, could only happen if grassroots demand for these ideas spread so powerfully that politicians had to take notice. This is not such an unrealistic scenario, given the worldwide disavowal of the dominant capitalist model: most Europeans have a higher opinion of socialism than capitalism, and even in the US, the overwhelming majority see big business as unethical and unfair.
Then, there is the potential “trim tab” effect of adopting these ideas. Even though these proposals alone wouldn’t fundamentally transform our system in the way that’s needed, they might set changes in motion that could eventually take us there. There may be other ideas more effective than these, and of course each proposal contains within it complications that would need to be worked out carefully. However, my hope is that these ideas invite a new mode of political dialogue, along with a recognition that even in the darkest times, realistic pathways exist toward a thriving future for humanity and the natural world.
The next Occupy movement will need clear demands that lead to specific deliverables
When the Occupy movement failed to achieve its initial promise, many people pointed to its lack of specific demands as a reason for its demise. If and when the next radical grassroots movement emerges, which may be sooner than you expect, let’s make sure they have an array of ideas such as these in their quiver to focus public opinion on actual political deliverables.
There are very few people who really want to see our civilization collapse. If these proposals eventually did get implemented, perhaps even the executives of the transnational corporations might sleep better at night, knowing that they can become part of the solution rather than a force of destruction.
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By falsely tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim.
In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, published earlier this year, Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.
His book has incited strong reactions, both positive and negative. On one hand, Bill Gates has, for example, effervesced that “It’s my new favorite book of all time.” On the other hand, Pinker has been fiercely excoriated by a wide range of leading thinkers for writing a simplistic, incoherent paean to the dominant world order. John Gray, in the New Statesman, calls it “embarrassing” and “feeble”; David Bell, writing in The Nation, sees it as “a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history”; and George Monbiot, in The Guardian, laments the “poor scholarship” and “motivated reasoning” that “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.” (Full disclosure: Monbiot recommends my book, The Patterning Instinct, instead.)
In light of all this, you might ask, what is left to add? Having read his book carefully, I believe it’s crucially important to take Pinker to task for some dangerously erroneous arguments he makes. Pinker is, after all, an intellectual darling of the most powerful echelons of global society. He spoke to the world’s elite this year at the World’s Economic Forum in Davos on the perils of what he calls “political correctness,” and has been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” Since his work offers an intellectual rationale for many in the elite to continue practices that imperil humanity, it needs to be met with a detailed and rigorous response.
Besides, I agree with much of what Pinker has to say. His book is stocked with seventy-five charts and graphs that provide incontrovertible evidence for centuries of progress on many fronts that should matter to all of us: an inexorable decline in violence of all sorts along with equally impressive increases in health, longevity, education, and human rights. It’s precisely because of the validity of much of Pinker’s narrative that the flaws in his argument are so dangerous. They’re concealed under such a smooth layer of data and eloquence that they need to be carefully unraveled. That’s why my response to Pinker is to meet him on his own turf: in each section, like him, I rest my case on hard data exemplified in a graph.
This discussion is particularly needed because progress is, in my view, one of the most important concepts of our time. I see myself, in common parlance, as a progressive. Progress is what I, and others I’m close to, care about passionately. Rather than ceding this idea to the coterie of neoliberal technocrats who constitute Pinker’s primary audience, I believe we should hold it in our steady gaze, celebrate it where it exists, understand its true causes, and most importantly, ensure that it continues in a form that future generations on this earth can enjoy. I hope this piece helps to do just that.
Graph 1: Overshoot
In November 2017, around the time when Pinker was likely putting the final touches on his manuscript, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
They included nine sobering charts and a carefully worded, extensively researched analysis showing that, on a multitude of fronts, the human impact on the earth’s biological systems is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Three of those alarming graphs are shown here: the rise in CO2 emissions; the decline in available freshwater; and the increase in the number of ocean dead zones from artificial fertilizer runoff.
This was not the first such notice. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1992, 1,700 scientists (including the majority of living Nobel laureates) sent a similarly worded warning to governmental leaders around the world, calling for a recognition of the earth’s fragility and a new ethic arising from the realization that “we all have but one lifeboat.” The current graphs starkly demonstrate how little the world has paid attention to this warning since 1992.
Taken together, these graphs illustrate ecological overshoot: the fact that, in the pursuit of material progress, our civilization is consuming the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished. Overshoot is particularly dangerous because of its relatively slow feedback loops: if your checking account balance approaches zero, you know that if you keep writing checks they will bounce. In overshoot, however, it’s as though our civilization keeps taking out bigger and bigger overdrafts to replenish the account, and then we pretend these funds are income and celebrate our continuing “progress.” In the end, of course, the money runs dry and it’s game over.
Pinker claims to respect science, yet he blithely ignores fifteen thousand scientists’ desperate warning to humanity. Instead, he uses the blatant rhetorical technique of ridicule to paint those concerned about overshoot as part of a “quasi-religious ideology… laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer.” He then uses a couple of the most extreme examples he can find to create a straw-man to buttress his caricature. There are issues worthy of debate on the topic of civilization and sustainability, but to approach a subject of such seriousness with emotion-laden rhetoric is morally inexcusable and striking evidence of Monbiot’s claim that Pinker “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.”
When Pinker does get serious on the topic, he promotes Ecomodernism as the solution: a neoliberal, technocratic belief that a combination of market-based solutions and technological fixes will magically resolve all ecological problems. This approach fails, however, to take into account the structural drivers of overshoot: a growth-based global economy reliant on ever-increasing monetization of natural resources and human activity. Without changing this structure, overshoot is inevitable. Transnational corporations, which currently constitute sixty-nine of the world’s hundred largest economies, are driven only by increasing short-term financial value for their shareholders, regardless of the long-term impact on humanity. As freshwater resources decline, for example, their incentive is to buy up what remains and sell it in plastic throwaway bottles or process it into sugary drinks, propelling billions in developing countries toward obesity through sophisticated marketing. In fact, until an imminent collapse of civilization itself, increasing ecological catastrophes are likely to enhance the GDP of developed countries even while those in less developed regions suffer dire consequences.
Graphs 2 and 3: Progress for Whom?
Which brings us to another fundamental issue in Pinker’s narrative of progress: who actually gets to enjoy it? Much of his book is devoted to graphs showing worldwide progress in quality in life for humanity as a whole. However, some of his omissions and misstatements on this topic are very telling.
At one point, Pinker explains that, “Despite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals, but this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.” That’s convenient, because any non-human animal might not agree that the past sixty years has been a period of flourishing. In fact, while the world’s GDP has increased 22-fold since 1970, there has been a vast die-off of the creatures with whom we share the earth. As shown in Figure 2, human progress in material consumption has come at the cost of a 58% decline in vertebrates, including a shocking 81% reduction of animal populations in freshwater systems. For every five birds or fish that inhabited a river or lake in 1970, there is now just one.
But we don’t need to look outside the human race for Pinker’s selective view of progress. He is pleased to tell us that “racist violence against African Americans… plummeted in the 20th century, and has fallen further since.” What he declines to report is the drastic increase in incarceration rates for African Americans during that same period (Figure 3). An African American man is now six times more likely to be arrested than a white man, resulting in the dismal statistic that one in every three African American men can currently expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime. The grim takeaway from this is that racist violence against African Americans has not declined at all, as Pinker suggests. Instead, it has become institutionalized into U.S. national policy in what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Graph 4: A rising tide lifts all boats?
This brings us to one of the crucial errors in Pinker’s overall analysis. By failing to analyze his top-level numbers with discernment, he unquestioningly propagates one of the great neoliberal myths of the past several decades: that “a rising tide lifts all the boats”—a phrase he unashamedly appropriates for himself as he extols the benefits of inequality. This was the argument used by the original instigators of neoliberal laissez-faire economics, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to cut taxes, privatize industries, and slash public services with the goal of increasing economic growth.
Pinker makes two key points here. First, he argues that “income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being,” pointing to recent research that people are comfortable with differential rewards for others depending on their effort and skill. However, as Pinker himself acknowledges, humans do have a powerful predisposition toward fairness. They want to feel that, if they work diligently, they can be as successful as someone else based on what they do, not on what family they’re born into or what their skin color happens to be. More equal societies are also healthier, which is a condition conspicuously missing from the current economic model, where the divide between rich and poor has become so gaping that the six wealthiest men in the world (including Pinker’s good friend, Bill Gates) now own as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s population.
Pinker’s fallback might, then, be his second point: the rising tide argument, which he extends to the global economy. Here, he cheerfully recounts the story of how Branko Milanović, a leading ex-World Bank economist, analyzed income gains by percentile across the world over the twenty-year period 1988–2008, and discovered something that became widely known as the “Elephant Graph,” because its shape resembled the profile of an elephant with a raised trunk. Contrary to popular belief about rising global inequality, it seemed to show that, while the top 1% did in fact gain more than their fair share of income, lower percentiles of the global population had done just as well. It seemed to be only the middle classes in wealthy countries that had missed out.
This graph, however, is virtually meaningless because it calculates growth rates as a percent of widely divergent income levels. Compare a Silicon Valley executive earning $200,000/year with one of the three billion people currently living on $2.50 per day or less. If the executive gets a 10% pay hike, she can use the $20,000 to buy a new compact car for her teenage daughter. Meanwhile, that same 10% increase would add, at most, a measly 25 cents per day to each of those three billion. In Graph 4, Oxfam economist Mujeed Jamaldeen shows the original “Elephant Graph” (blue line) contrasted with changes in absolute income levels (green line). The difference is stark.
The “Elephant Graph” elegantly conceals the fact that the wealthiest 1% experienced nearly 65 times the absolute income growth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Inequality isn’t, in fact, decreasing at all, but going extremely rapidly the other way. Jamaldeen has calculated that, at the current rate, it would take over 250 years for the income of the poorest 10% to merely reach the global average income of $11/day. By that time, at the current rate of consumption by wealthy nations, it’s safe to say there would be nothing left for them to spend their lucrative earnings on. In fact, the “rising tide” for some barely equates to a drop in the bucket for billions of others.
Graph 5: Measuring Genuine Progress
One of the cornerstones of Pinker’s book is the explosive rise in income and wealth that the world has experienced in the past couple of centuries. Referring to the work of economist Angus Deaton, he calls it the “Great Escape” from the historic burdens of human suffering, and shows a chart (Figure 5, left) depicting the rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, which seems to say it all. How could anyone in their right mind refute that evidence of progress?
There is no doubt that the world has experienced a transformation in material wellbeing in the past two hundred years, and Pinker documents this in detail, from the increased availability of clothing, food, and transportation, to the seemingly mundane yet enormously important decrease in the cost of artificial light. However, there is a point where the rise in economic activity begins to decouple from wellbeing. In fact, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because of the cost of cleaning it up: the bigger the spill, the better it is for GDP.
This divergence is played out, tragically, across the world every day, and is cruelly hidden in global statistics of rising GDP when powerful corporate and political interests destroy the lives of the vulnerable in the name of economic “progress.” In just one of countless examples, a recent report in The Guardian describes how indigenous people living on the Xingu River in the Amazon rainforest were forced off their land to make way for the Belo Monte hydroelectric complex in Altamira, Brazil. One of them, Raimundo Brago Gomes, tells how “I didn’t need money to live happy. My whole house was nature… I had my patch of land where I planted a bit of everything, all sorts of fruit trees. I’d catch my fish, make manioc flour… I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich.” Now, he and his family live among drug dealers behind barred windows in Brazil’s most violent city, receiving a state pension which, after covering rent and electricity, leaves him about 50 cents a day to feed himself, his wife, daughter, and grandson. Meanwhile, as a result of his family’s forced entry into the monetary economy, Brazil’s GDP has risen.
Pinker is aware of the crudeness of GDP as a measure, but uses it repeatedly throughout his book because, he claims, “it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing.” This is not, however, what has been discovered when economists have adjusted GDP to incorporate other major factors that affect human flourishing. One prominent alternative measure, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), reduces GDP for negative environmental factors such as the cost of pollution, loss of primary forest and soil quality, and social factors such as the cost of crime and commuting. It increases the measure for positive factors missing from GDP such as housework, volunteer work, and higher education. Sixty years of historical GPI for many countries around the world have been measured, and the results resoundingly refute Pinker’s claim of GDP’s correlation with wellbeing. In fact, as shown by the purple line in Figure 5 (right), it turns out that the world’s Genuine Progress peaked in 1978 and has been steadily falling ever since.
Graph 6: What Has Improved Global Health?
One of Pinker’s most important themes is the undisputed improvement in overall health and longevity that the world has enjoyed in the past century. It’s a powerful and heart-warming story. Life expectancy around the world has more than doubled in the past century. Infant mortality everywhere is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Improvements in medical knowledge and hygiene have saved literally billions of lives. Pinker appropriately quotes economist Steven Radelet that these improvements “rank among the greatest achievements in human history.”
So, what has been the underlying cause of this great achievement? Pinker melds together what he sees as the twin engines of progress: GDP growth and increase in knowledge. Economic growth, for him, is a direct result of global capitalism. “Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism,” he declares with his usual exaggerated rhetoric, “its economic benefits are so obvious that they don’t need to be shown with numbers.” He refers to a figure called the Preston curve, from a paper by Samuel Preston published in 1975 showing a correlation between GDP and life expectancy that become foundational to the field of developmental economics. “Most obviously,” Pinker declares, “GDP per capita correlates with longevity, health, and nutrition.” While he pays lip service to the scientific principle that “correlation is not causation,” he then clearly asserts causation, claiming that “economic development does seem to be a major mover of human welfare.” He closes his chapter with a joke about a university dean offered by a genie the choice between money, fame, or wisdom. The dean chooses wisdom but then regrets it, muttering “I should have taken the money.”
Pinker would have done better to have pondered more deeply on the relation between correlation and causation in this profoundly important topic. In fact, a recent paper by Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede entitled “Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve” does just that. The original Preston curve came with an anomaly: the relationship between GDP and life expectancy doesn’t stay constant. Instead, each period it’s measured, it shifts higher, showing greater life expectancy for any given GDP (Figure 6, left). Preston—and his followers, including Pinker—explained this away by suggesting that advances in medicine and healthcare must have improved things across the board.
Lutz and Kebede, however, used sophisticated multi-level regression models to analyze how closely education correlated with life expectancy compared with GDP. They found that a country’s average level of educational attainment explained rising life expectancy much better than GDP, and eliminated the anomaly in Preston’s Curve (Figure 6, right). The correlation with GDP was spurious. In fact, their model suggests that both GDP and health are ultimately driven by the amount of schooling children receive. This finding has enormous implications for development priorities in national and global policy. For decades, the neoliberal mantra, based on Preston’s Curve, has dominated mainstream thinking—raise a country’s GDP and health benefits will follow. Lutz and Kebede show that a more effective policy would be to invest in schooling for children, with all the ensuing benefits in quality of life that will bring.
Pinker’s joke has come full circle. In reality, for the past few decades, the dean chose the money. Now, he can look at the data and mutter: “I should have taken the wisdom.”
Graph 7: False Equivalencies, False Dichotomies
As we can increasingly see, many of Pinker’s missteps arise from the fact that he conflates two different dynamics of the past few centuries: improvements in many aspects of the human experience, and the rise of neoliberal, laissez-faire capitalism. Whether this is because of faulty reasoning on his part, or a conscious strategy to obfuscate, the result is the same. Most readers will walk away from his book with the indelible impression that free market capitalism is an underlying driver of human progress.
Pinker himself states the importance of avoiding this kind of conflation. “Progress,” he declares, “consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package… Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social process as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms.” If only he took his own admonition more seriously!
Instead, he laces his book with an unending stream of false equivalencies and false dichotomies that lead a reader inexorably to the conclusion that progress and capitalism are part of the same package. One of his favorite tropes is to create a false equivalency between right-wing extremism and the progressive movement on the left. He tells us that the regressive factions that undergirded Donald Trump’s presidency were “abetted by a narrative shared by many of their fiercest opponents, in which the institutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in deepening crisis—the two sides in macabre agreement that wrecking those institutions will make the world a better place.” He even goes so far as to implicate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election debacle: “The left and right ends of the political spectrum,” he opines, “incensed by economic inequality for their different reasons, curled around to meet each other, and their shared cynicism about the modern economy helped elect the most radical American president in recent times.”
Implicit in Pinker’s political model is the belief that progress can only arise from the brand of centrist politics espoused by many in the mainstream Democratic Party. He perpetuates a false dichotomy of “right versus left” based on a twentieth-century version of politics that has been irrelevant for more than a generation. “The left,” he writes, “has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism.” He contrasts “industrial capitalism,” on the one hand, which has rescued humanity from universal poverty, with communism, which has “brought the world terror-famines, purges, gulags, genocides, Chernobyl, megadeath revolutionary wars, and North Korea–style poverty before collapsing everywhere else of its own internal contradictions.”
By painting this black and white, Manichean landscape of capitalist good versus communist evil, Pinker obliterates from view the complex, sophisticated models of a hopeful future that have been diligently constructed over decades by a wide range of progressive thinkers. These fresh perspectives eschew the Pinker-style false dichotomy of traditional left versus right. Instead, they explore the possibilities of replacing a destructive global economic system with one that offers potential for greater fairness, sustainability, and human flourishing. In short, a model for continued progress for the twenty-first century.
While the thought leaders of the progressive movement are too numerous to mention here, an illustration of this kind of thinking is seen in Graph 7. It shows an integrated model of the economy, aptly called “Doughnut Economics,” that has been developed by pioneering economist Kate Raworth. The inner ring, called Social Foundation, represents the minimum level of life’s essentials, such as food, water, and housing, required for the possibility of a healthy and wholesome life. The outer ring, called Ecological Ceiling, represents the boundaries of Earth’s life-giving systems, such as a stable climate and healthy oceans, within which we must remain to achieve sustained wellbeing for this and future generations. The red areas within the ring show the current shortfall in the availability of bare necessities to the world’s population; the red zones outside the ring illustrate the extent to which we have already overshot the safe boundaries in several essential earth systems. Humanity’s goal, within this model, is to develop policies that bring us within the safe and just space of the “doughnut” between the two rings.
Raworth, along with many others who care passionately about humanity’s future progress, focus their efforts, not on the kind of zero-sum, false dichotomies propagated by Pinker, but on developing fresh approaches to building a future that works for all on a sustainable and flourishing earth.
Graph 8: Progress Is Caused By… Progressives!
This brings us to the final graph, which is actually one of Pinker’s own. It shows the decline in recent years of web searches for sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes. Along with other statistics, he uses this as evidence in his argument that, contrary to what we read in the daily headlines, retrograde prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation are actually on the decline. He attributes this in large part to “the benign taboos on racism, sexism, and homophobia that have become second nature to the mainstream.”
How, we might ask, did this happen? As Pinker himself expresses, we can’t assume that this kind of moral progress just happened on its own. “If you see that a pile of laundry has gone down,” he avers, “it does not mean the clothes washed themselves; it means someone washed the clothes. If a type of violence has gone down, then some change in the social, cultural, or material milieu has caused it to go down… That makes it important to find out what the causes are, so we can try to intensify them and apply them more widely.”
Looking back into history, Pinker recognizes that changes in moral norms came about because progressive minds broke out of their society’s normative frames and applied new ethics based on a higher level of morality, dragging the mainstream reluctantly in their wake, until the next generation grew up adopting a new moral baseline. “Global shaming campaigns,” he explains, “even when they start out as purely aspirational, have in the past led to dramatic reductions in slavery, dueling, whaling, foot-binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.”
It is hard to comprehend how the same person who wrote these words can then turn around and hurl invectives against what he decries as “political correctness police, and social justice warriors” caught up in “identity politics,” not to mention his loathing for an environmental movement that “subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem.” Pinker seems to view all ethical development from prehistory to the present day as “progress,” but any pressure to shift society further along its moral arc as anathema.
This is the great irony of Pinker’s book. In writing a paean to historical progress, he then takes a staunchly conservative stance to those who want to continue it. It’s as though he sees himself at the mountain’s peak, holding up a placard saying “All progress stops here, unless it’s on my terms.”
In reality, many of the great steps made in securing the moral progress Pinker applauds came from brave individuals who had to resist the opprobrium of the Steven Pinkers of their time while they devoted their lives to reducing the suffering of others. When Thomas Paine affirmed the “Rights of Man” back in 1792, he was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. It would be another 150 years before his visionary idea was universally recognized in the United Nations. Emily Pankhurst was arrested seven times in her struggle to obtain women’s suffrage and was constantly berated by “moderates” of the time for her radical approach in striving for something that has now become the unquestioned norm. When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, with the first public exposé of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her solitary stance was denounced as hysterical and unscientific. Just eight years later, twenty million Americans marched to protect the environment in the first Earth Day.
These great strides in moral progress continue to this day. It’s hard to see them in the swirl of daily events, but they’re all around us: in the legalization of same sex marriage, in the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently in the way the #MeToo movement is beginning to shift norms in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the current steps in social progress are vehemently opposed by Steven Pinker, who has approvingly retweeted articles attacking both Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and who rails at the World Economic Forum against what he terms “political correctness.”
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By slyly tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim. Progress in the quality of life, for humans and nonhumans alike, is something that anyone with a heart should celebrate. It did not come about through capitalism, and in many cases, it has been achieved despite the “free market” that Pinker espouses. Personally, I’m proud to be a progressive, and along with many others, to devote my energy to achieve progress for this and future generations. And if and when we do so, it won’t be thanks to Steven Pinker and his specious arguments.
First, as George Monbiot points out in a follow-up article, the article fails to distinguish between Western and global civilization, conflating two very different issues: 1.) the recent historical dominance of the West over the rest of the world, and 2.) the unsustainable dynamics of our global civilization.
Worse, in their editorial, they argue that on the issues of climate breakdown and environmental collapse, those raising the alarm have “prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.” To me, that reads like saying that those who argue that the Earth orbits the Sun have prematurely provoked pushback from the Flat Earth Society by emphasizing the role of gravity. It’s the kind of thinking that grants false equivalency to climate deniers and leads to pseudo-scientists funded by the Koch brothers getting equal television time to real scientists representing 98% of scientific opinion.
As I describe in my recent article, “What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?“, the underlying drivers impelling our global civilization to the precipice are the economic structures of a global capitalist growth-based system driven by massive transnational corporations that are more powerful than individual nations. Since politics is, by definition, about the dynamics of power and governance, how is it possible either to diagnose the problem or suggest solutions without it being political?
Even when environmental scientists assiduously try to avoid politics and offer science-based solutions to problems, such as Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has done with The Solutions Project, the political pushback from embedded political interests is enormous. The fact is that there are solutions to our climate breakdown, and there are even ways to restructure our society to prevent collapse, but the political will is lacking.
If anyone is interested in looking deeper into this critical issue, here are some books I recommend (other than the final two chapters of my own book, The Patterning Instinct):
Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008.
A deeply insightful book that uses a sophisticated understanding of systems thinking to analyze some of the structural problems of our civilization.
Paul Raskin et al., Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, 2003)
Ashort but deeply thought through assessment of the possible future scenarios facing humanity.
Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (New York: Random House, 2013).
Athorough and discerning evaluation of the major drivers for change in our global society, and their implications for the future.
Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Ascholarly analysis of societal collapse that has deservedly framed much serious discussion on the topic since its publication.
Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012).
Athoughtful projection into the future by one of the original team members of Limits to Growth.
Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).
Apenetrating and visionary account of the enormity of the challenge and opportunity facing humanity in the future.
Fifteen thousand scientists have issued a dire warning to humanity about impending collapse but virtually no-one takes notice. Ultimately, our global systems, which are designed for perpetual growth, need to be fundamentally restructured to avoid the worst-case outcome.
For a moment, the most important news in the entire world flashed across the media like a shooting star in the night sky. Then it was gone. Last month, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
This is not the first such notice. Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, 1,700 scientists (including the majority of living Nobel laureates) sent a similarly worded warning to governmental leaders around the world. In ringing tones, they called for a recognition of the earth’s fragility and a new ethic arising from the realization that “we all have but one lifeboat.”
This second warning contains a series of charts showing how utterly the world’s leaders ignored what they were told twenty-five years earlier. Whether it’s CO2 emissions, temperature change, ocean dead zones, freshwater resources, vertebrate species, or total forest cover, the grim charts virtually all point in the same dismal direction, indicating continued momentum toward doomsday. The chart for marine catch shows something even scarier: in 1996, the catch peaked at 130 million tonnes and in spite of massively increased industrial fishing, it’s been declining ever since—a harbinger of the kind of overshoot that unsustainable exploitation threatens across the board.
Along with their warning, the scientists list a dozen or so examples of the kind of actions that could turn humanity’s trajectory around. These include indisputably necessary strategies such as halting the conversion of native habitats into farmland; restoring and rewilding ecologies; phasing out fossil fuel subsidies; and promoting dietary shifts toward plant-based foods. With the future of humanity at stake, why aren’t we already doing these things? What will it really take for our civilization to change course and save itself from destruction?
Ignoring climate breakdown
We can begin to answer that simply by looking at the media’s reception to this warning. With fifteen thousand scientists—including Jane Goodall, E. O. Wilson, and James Hansen—declaring a potential catastrophe at hand, you might think this would make headlines everywhere. Think again. While it led to a few short articles in select publications around the world, with the one commendable exception of CNN, it was virtually ignored by American mainstream media.
This should hardly come as a surprise. In fact, global climate breakdown—perhaps the greatest existential threat faced by our civilization—is barely considered newsworthy on American television. In 2016, the hottest year on record, when the Paris agreement was signed and presidential candidates held widely differing opinions on climate change, the entire year’s climate coverage by all network news services in the U.S. amounted to less than an hour: a paltry 50 minutes, representing a 66% drop from the previous year.
How could that be? One reason is that, as a result of decades of massive industry consolidation, the U.S. media is controlled by a few large corporations. Like all shareholder-owned companies, their overriding concern is making profits, in this case from advertising dollars. The news services, once considered a hallowed responsibility administered for the public good, have been reduced to just another profit center—and it was decided that climate change news isn’t good for advertising revenue, especially since a big chunk of that comes from the fossil fuel and agribusiness companies responsible for much of the problem.
The largest Ponzi scheme in history
Which leads us to some of the underlying structural changes that need to occur if human civilization is to avoid collapse. The fundamental problem is brutally simple: our world system is based on the premise of perpetual growth in consumption, which puts it on a collision course with the natural world. Either the global system has to be restructured, or we are headed for a catastrophe of immense proportions that has never been experienced in human history. However, the transnational corporations largely responsible for driving this trajectory are structurally designed to prevent the global changes that need to take place.
Something that is only dimly understood outside financial circles is that the vast bulk of the wealth enjoyed by the global elite is based on a fabrication: a belief in the future growth in earnings that corporations will deliver. For example, the current P/E ratio of the S&P 500 is about 23, which means that investors are valuing companies at twenty-three times their earnings for this year. Another way of looking at it is that less than 5% of the wealth enjoyed by investors relates to current activity; the rest is based on the dream of future growth.
Historically, investors have been richly rewarded for this dream. The world’s economic output is roughly twenty times greater than it was in 1950, and market valuations have increased accordingly. But this is the same growth that is driving our civilization to collapse. Today’s market values are based on a belief that the world’s economic output will triple from its current level by 2060. That implies three times as much pillaging of the world’s resources than the rate that has led to the scientists’ dire warning to humanity. Something has to give.
Like any Ponzi scheme, this global growth frenzy is based on maintaining the illusion for as long as possible. Once it becomes clear that this rate of growth is truly unsustainable, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. We saw in the 2008 financial meltdown a relatively limited dress rehearsal for what a full-scale financial collapse would look like.
This is what the global power brokers don’t want anyone to think about. It’s ultimately why the media obsesses with Donald Trump’s latest tweets rather than the devastation caused by climate breakdown-induced hurricanes. Like passengers moving deckchairs on the Titanic, much of the world’s population has been hypnotized by a daily onslaught of celebrity spats and political feuds—anything to avoid the realization that we are all heading for collapse in order to keep the affluent in luxury. It is a testament to their success so far that, in the words of Slavoj Žižek, it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Imagining the end of capitalism
However, the only thing that will truly avert collapse will be a radical restructuring of the economic system that is driving us ever more rapidly to that precipice. This will only come about when enough of us are ready to jettison the consumer values that pervasive mainstream culture foists on us. In their place, we need to find other sources for meaning in our lives: growing the quality of our experiences rather than our consumption, building our communities together, and reconnecting with the natural world.
On that basis, we’ll be better equipped to join in the struggle to save humanity—and the rest of the earth—from the plundering envisaged by the perpetual growth frenzy of global corporate capitalism. There are plenty of alternative paths available to us—we just don’t hear about them because they never get the media’s attention. Most Americans, for example, are completely unaware that the little country of Costa Rica, with a GDP per capita less than one-fifth of the U.S., boasts a higher average life expectancy and enjoys far higher levels of wellbeing—while producing 99% of its electricity from renewable sources.
There are radically different ways for a society to function effectively that could apply to nations around the world if given half a chance. A flourishing future might involve more cooperative ventures, protection and expansion of the commons, and enhanced global governance with strict penalties for those who destroy ecological wellbeing. Collapse isn’t the only future in store for humanity—it’s merely the one we’re headed for unless and until we change course. Since the mainstream media isn’t going to get the word out, it has to be up to each of us who cares about the future of the human race. So, let’s get to it.
Futurists warning about the threats of AI are looking in the wrong place. Humanity is already facing an existential threat from an artificial intelligence we created hundreds of years ago. It’s called the Corporation.
Some of the leading thinkers of our time are unleashing a stream of warnings about the threat of artificial intelligence taking over from humans. Earlier this month, Stephen Hawking predicted it could be “the worst event in the history of our civilization” unless we find a way to control its development. Billionaire Elon Musk has formed a company to try to keep humans one step ahead of what he sees as an existential AI threat.
The scenario that terrifies them is that, in spite of the best intentions, we might create a force more powerful than all of humanity with a value system that doesn’t necessarily incorporate human welfare. Once it reaches a critical mass, this force could take over the world, control human activity, and essentially suck all life out of the earth while it optimizes for its own ends. Prominent futurist Nick Bostrom gives an example of a superintelligence designed with the goal of manufacturing paperclips that transforms the entire earth into one gigantic paperclip manufacturing facility.
These futurists are right to voice their concerns, but they’re missing the fact that humans have already created a force that is well on its way to devouring both humanity and the earth in just the way they fear. It’s called the Corporation.
“Government by corporations”
When corporations were first formed back in the seventeenth century, their inventors—just like modern software engineers—acted with what they believed were good intentions. The first corporate charters were simply designed to limit an investor’s liability to the amount of their investment, thus encouraging them to finance risky expeditions to India and Southeast Asia. However, an unintended consequence soon emerged, known as moral hazard: with the potential upside greater than the downside, reckless behavior ensued, leading to a series of spectacular frauds and a market crash that resulted in corporations being temporarily banned in England in 1720.
Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the United States, aware of the English experience, were deeply suspicious of corporations, giving them limited charters with tightly constrained powers. However, during the turmoil of the Civil War, industrialists took advantage of the disarray, leveraging widespread political corruption to expand their influence. “This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations,” lamented Rutherford Hayes who became President in 1877.
Corporations took full advantage of their new-found dominance, influencing state legislatures to issue charters in perpetuity giving them the right to do anything not explicitly prohibited by law. The tipping point in their path to domination came in 1886 when the Supreme Court designated corporations as “persons” entitled to the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been passed to give equal rights to former slaves enfranchised after the Civil War. Since then, corporate dominance has only been further enhanced by law, culminating in the notorious Citizen United case of 2010, which lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations in elections.
Sociopaths with global reach
Corporations, just like a potential runaway AI, have no intrinsic interest in human welfare. They are legal constructions: abstract entities designed with the ultimate goal of maximizing financial returns for their investors above all else. If corporations were in fact real persons, they would be sociopaths, completely lacking the ability for empathy that is a crucial element of normal human behavior. Unlike humans, however, corporations are theoretically immortal, cannot be put in prison, and the larger multinationals are not constrained by the laws of any individual country.
With the incalculable advantage of their superhuman powers, corporations have literally taken over the world. They have grown so massive that an astonishing sixty-nine of the largest hundred economies in the world are not nation states but corporate entities.
Corporations have been able to use their transnational powers to dictate their own terms to virtually any country in the world. As a result of decades of globalization, corporations can exploit the free movement of capital to build factories in nations with the weakest labor unions, or locate polluting plants in countries with lax environmental laws, basing their decisions solely on maximizing returns for their shareholders. Governments compete with each other to make their nations the most attractive for corporate investment.
Corporations wield their vast powers to control the minds of consumers, enthralling them into a state of perpetual consumption. In the early twentieth century, Edward Bernays, a mastermind of corporate empowerment, boldly stated his game plan as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” He declared ominously that “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country.” The sinister words of Wayne Chilicki, chief executive of General Mills, show how Bernays’ vision has been perpetuated: “When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at General Mills… believe in getting them early and having them for life.”
The result of this corporate takeover of humanity is a world careening out of control, where nature is mercilessly ransacked to extract the raw materials required to increase shareholder value in a vortex of perpetual economic growth, without regard to the quality of human life and with no concern for the welfare of future generations.
Corporate takeover of global governance
Instead of being pilloried for their vast destruction, those who dedicate themselves to their corporate overlords are richly rewarded and elevated to positions of even greater power and prestige. ExxonMobil, for example, has been exposed as having lied shamelessly about climate change, knowing for decades about its consequences and yet deliberately concealing the facts, thus condemning present and future generations to havoc. Instead of facing jail time, the CEO during much of this period, Rex Tillerson, is now the U.S. Secretary of State, overseeing the global relationships of the most powerful country in the world.
In fact, the current U.S. cabinet represents the most complete takeover yet of the U.S. government by corporations, with nearly 70% of top administration jobs filled by corporate executives. In the words of Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, “In the Trump administration, auto industry lobbyists are setting transportation policy, Boeing has a top perch at the Department of Defense, Wall Street is in control of financial policy and regulatory agencies, and corporate defense lawyers staff the key positions in the Justice Department.”
Corporations are inserting themselves into international agreements, so they can further their interests even more effectively. At the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, a new Global Redesign Initiative set out an agenda for multinational corporations to engage directly in global governance. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, proudly announced in 2015 as a vision to reduce poverty, adopted their approach by inviting corporations to a seat at its table to impact UN policy, while calling for further globalization. Fossil fuel companies have infiltrated the annual global COP meetings on climate change, ensuring they can compromise any actions that might hurt them, even as the world faces the threat of climate catastrophe.
The takeover of global governance by multinational corporations has permitted them to undermine human welfare everywhere in the pursuit of profit. Nestlé remorselessly buys control of rural communities’ groundwater reservoirs to sell as bottled water, leaving them to foot the bill for environmental cleanup, with the result that in countries such as Columbia sugary bottled drinks are frequently cheaper than plain water. As a result of the chemicals sold by global agribusiness companies such as Cargill and Monsanto, it’s been estimated by UN officials that the world’s topsoil can only support about sixty more years of harvests. In these cases, and countless others like them, humans and the earth alike are mere fodder for the insatiable appetite of an amoral, inhuman intelligence run amok.
There is an alternative
The corporate takeover of humanity is so all-encompassing that it’s difficult to visualize any other possible global system. Alternatives do, however, exist. Around the world, worker-owned cooperatives have demonstrated that they can be as effective as corporations—or more so—without pursuing shareholder wealth as their primary consideration. The Mondragon cooperative in Spain, with revenues exceeding €12 billion, shows how this form of organization can efficiently scale.
There are also structural changes that can be made to corporations to realign their values system with human welfare. Corporate charters can be amended to optimize for a triple bottom line of social, environmental, and financial outcomes (the so-called “triple Ps” of people, planet, and profit.) A “beneficial” or B-Corp certification, which holds companies to social and environmental performance standards, is becoming more widely adopted and is now held by over 2,000 corporations in over fifty countries around the world.
Ultimately, if we are stop this force from completely taking over humanity, these alternative approaches need to be codified into our national and international governance. Imagine a world where corporate charters were only granted if they adopted a triple bottom line, and where shareholder lawsuits threatened every time a company broke one of its own social and environmental standards. Until that happens, it may be that the “worst event in the history of our civilization” is not the future development of modern AI, but the decision by a group of 17th century politicians to unleash the power of the Corporation on an unsuspecting humanity.