I recently contributed my view on the moral underpinnings of a Universal Basic Income to a wide-ranging conversation on the topic facilitated by the Great Transition Initiative: “Universal Basic Income: Has the Time Come?” Here’s the question they posed:
“Should society provide every citizen with a basic income, no strings attached? Some proponents of a “universal basic income” view it as a tool for system correction, but the focus of this GTI Forum is on system change. Should a UBI be a central element of strategies for transformation?“
My answer is a strong affirmative. I see a Universal Basic Income as a cornerstone of a transformed economy within an Ecological Civilization: one that is life-affirming rather than wealth-affirming
I WOULD IMAGINE THAT most contributors to this discussion agree, to some degree at least, with the principle that we need deep, structural changes to our current socioeconomic system. It is not enough to tinker with a few parts of the system, no matter how beneficial that tinkering might appear. Our civilization, torn apart by gaping inequalities, is currently hell-bent on a course to disaster. Its suicidal addiction to economic growth paralyzes it from making the changes required to avert climate catastrophe, while it destroys life’s abundance on our beautiful but wounded Earth.
We need to change the fundamentals of our society. We must move from a wealth-based civilization to one that is life-affirming—an ecological civilization. Without this Great Transition, we are leaving future generations to face the horrors of a collapsing civilization on a devastated planet. Can we transition rapidly enough? And can the transition occur without the old civilization collapsing catastrophically around us?
Given this context, I have been surprised by how much the discussion of a universal basic income sounds like arguing how to stack the deck chairs on the Titanic. Can we afford it? Would it be inflationary? Would the right wing use it as an excuse to take away basic services? In my view, the fundamental issues need to be: Does UBI help with the process of transforming civilization from within? Can it help to move us seamlessly into the Great Transition?
My own answer is a strong affirmative. I acknowledge that, by itself, it is not enough to redirect our global society, but I view it as one of the most important trimtabs available that (a) meets an urgent and current need, while (b) helping unravel some of the economic and cultural structures that have set our civilization on its collective suicide pact.
A full-fledged UBI—one that unconditionally provides every person with enough income to meet their basic needs—would fundamentally alter the paradigm of capitalism that has locked workers into the dominant system ever since its inception. Capitalism has endured by commoditizing people’s lives, forcing them to sell the bulk of their available time and energy, or else face destitution and starvation. A true UBI would transform the relationship between labor and capital and weaken the power of the wealthy elite to control the population.
Even more fundamentally, UBI has the potential to shift underlying mainstream misconceptions about human nature. The dominant contract between capital and labor has reified the idea that humans are essentially selfish and lazy, and must be forced to work by a combination of fear and greed, which is effectuated by wages and other monetary “incentives.” However, it has been widely demonstrated (and summarized well in Rutger Bregman’s Humankind) that humans are nothing of the sort. In fact, people have a fundamental need to engage in a livelihood that is meaningful and to feel valued by their community. Work is not something people try to avoid; on the contrary, purposeful work is an integral part of human flourishing. If people were liberated by UBI from the daily necessity to sell their labor for survival, they would reinvest their time in crucial parts of the economy that, as Kate Raworth outlines in Doughnut Economics, have mostly been hidden from view—the household and the commons. They would care for loved ones, build community, and dare to do whatever it is that inspires them. The domination of the economy by the market would inevitably decline while those other, life-affirming sectors would be strengthened.
From a values perspective, UBI elevates the principles of trust and fairness as organizing structures of society, while eclipsing the ethic of cynicism that dominates our market-oriented system. Morally, UBI recognizes a precept of human history that has long been ignored—that the overwhelming proportion of wealth available to modern humans is the result of the cumulative ingenuity and industriousness of prior generations going back to earliest times, including such fundamentals as language, cultural traditions, and scientific knowledge. Once we realize the vastness of the cumulative common resources that our ancestors have bequeathed to us, it transforms our conception of wealth and value. Contrary to the widespread view that an entrepreneur who becomes a billionaire deserves his wealth, the reality is that whatever value he created is a pittance compared to the immense bank of prior knowledge and social practices—the commonwealth—that he took from.
It is the moral birthright of every human to share in the vast commonwealth that our predecessors have collectively built, and I see a global UBI as the most effective way to make that happen. There are many structural changes required to shift our society’s disastrous trajectory and replace our wealth-based, growth-addicted civilization with one that is truly ecological. A UBI, by itself, would not be nearly enough, but in my view, it is one of the most important cornerstones of a future that fosters sustainable human flourishing on a regenerated living Earth.
Keynote talk given by Jeremy Lent to The Whidbey Institute annual gala, October 2020.
“When we truly open our hearts to each other, there is no burden too heavy for us to carry together, there is no pain too deep for us to hold in each other’s arms. And it’s in that place—of feeling the Earth’s injuries, and feeling it with each other—that the alchemy emerges. It’s in the cauldron of sharing our grief with our community, of gazing at it together and not looking away, that the heartbreak turns to hope.”
It’s so wonderful to hear Tyson (Yunkaporta, author of Sand Talk) talk about how we need to listen to natural law. It’s what our modern civilization needs to hear. I’m sure most of us share with Tyson the sense that our society has trampled on natural law; that we live in a world where indigenous knowledge, and the things that are most valuable to life are ignored, while those that are most destructive are valued the highest.
Speaking here from Northern California, we’ve been sharing with Tyson and his fellow Australians the grim experience of what happens when natural law is violated. It was less than a year ago that we were all horrified by the pictures coming out of Australia of apocalyptic wildfires—fires that were estimated to have killed a billion animals in the Outback. And it was just a month ago that those of us living here in the Bay Area woke up to our own vision of doomsday—a day without daylight, as the smoke from millions of acres of wildfires raging across the northwest settled over our skies, allowing nothing but a blood red glow to penetrate.
But of course, those of you here today don’t need these harbingers of doom to know that something is terribly wrong with where our world is headed. We all know, in spite of everything our media does to deflect our attention, that our global society is careening at an increasingly rapid rate toward the precipice. We know that people are suffering out there as a result of callous economic policies, that the onset of coronavirus has made that suffering even greater—and that increasing climate breakdown will only lead to deepening misery, with massive droughts and famines, and hundreds of millions of climate refugees forced to abandon their homes in desperation with no-one willing to receive them.
We know that the natural world is reeling from a relentless rampage of human exploitation. That the Amazon rainforest—the lungs of the Earth—is disappearing at the rate of more than an acre a second. The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that since 1970, animal populations worldwide have declined by 68%—and in Latin America, by a mind-boggling 94%. The richness of nature is getting virtually wiped out in our lifetime.
It’s impossible to face these realities head on without feeling your heart break. Speaking for myself, when I’ve contemplated this humanmade enormity, I’ve sometimes felt swallowed up into an infinite abyss of darkness. Is it any wonder that people turn away from facing these facts, that they see one of those frightening headlines warning about climate breakdown and they click anywhere but there, read their Facebook feed, check out the latest tweet, watch the report on this week’s political scandal? We live in a world designed to keep us numb—a culture spiked with incessant doses of spiritual anesthesia conditioning us to deaden our feelings, and adapt to the daily grind.
But it’s that very heartbreak that can free us from the consensus trance that our society imposes on us. The realization of our true nature, and the agony of life’s destruction at the hands of this civilization, are two sides of the same coin. That’s because, when we awaken to our true nature as humans on this beautiful but fragile Earth, when we feel the life within ourselves that we share with all other beings, then we recognize our common identity with all of life. We live into what Thích Nhât Hanh calls our interbeing.
And as we open awareness to our interbeing, our ecological self, we experience ourselves, in the words of Albert Schweitzer, as “life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live.” And then, we realize the deep purpose of our existence on Earth is to tend its living system, to tend Gaia, and participate fully in its ancient, sacred unfolding of vibrant beauty. And when we see the relentless way that beauty is being eviscerated, Gaia’s pain becomes our pain. It’s not just happening in the forests and the deep oceans, it’s happening to us—to our own ecological interbeing. As Thích Nhât Hanh puts it, we “hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”
But that pain of the Earth crying . . . it’s too much for any one of us to hold by ourselves. And that’s where we need to turn to another equally important dimension of our interbeing: our shared community of caring. When we truly open our hearts to each other, there is no burden too heavy for us to carry together, there is no pain too deep for us to hold in each other’s arms.
And it’s in that place—of feeling the Earth’s injuries, and feeling it with each other—that the alchemy emerges. It’s in the cauldron of sharing our grief with our community, of gazing at it together and not looking away, that the heartbreak turns to hope.
But let’s be clear what I’m talking about when I use the word “hope.” I’m not talking about the odds we might give for the likelihood of a positive outcome. Hope is not optimism. It’s something completely different. Rather than a prognostication, it’s an attitude of active engagement in co-creating our future. In the words of Václav Havel it’s a “deep orientation of the human soul that can be held at the darkest times . . . an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
“To work for something, just because it is good.” This kind of hope is itself a transformation: from a noun to a verb. The alchemy takes place when we feel the heartbreak, with our community, so thoroughly within ourselves that there is nothing else to do but get engaged. Just like, when you feel physical pain in your body, you are moved reflexively to do something about it, so when we feel the Earth’s pain throughout our being, we are naturally moved to action. Because true knowledge isn’t just an intellectual idea, it’s something that infuses our entire body. One of the great sages of Chinese thought, Wang Yangming, made this crystal clear when he said: “There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who are supposed to know but do not act simply do not yet know.”
And something I’m sure about is that everyone here today is drawn to the Whidbey Institute because you do know, and you are impelled to action. And there is so much we can be doing to participate in the Great Transformation our global society needs to move from its current self-destructive path to one that offers a brighter future. It’s not just a matter of fixing a few things. Our civilization needs to be transformed at the deepest levels. We need to move from our current wealth-based society that’s been built on exploitation, on seeing people and the natural world as mere resources, to one that, like Tyson said, is based on natural law—an ecological civilization. What’s required is a metamorphosis of virtually every aspect of the human experience, including our values, our goals, and our daily norms.
Sounds like a tall order? I’m sure, when a dozen or so Quakers gathered in London in 1785 to create a movement to abolish slavery, people told them “Impossible! Our economy is based on it.” Within half a century, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. When Emmeline Pankhurst founded the National Union for Women’s Suffrage in 1897, it took ten years of struggle to muster a few thousand courageous women to join her on a march in London—but within a couple of decades, women were gaining the right to vote across the world. There is a crucial lesson to learn from these, and other, examples—like all self-organized, adaptive systems, society changes in nonlinear and unexpected ways. And oftentimes, the change is catalyzed by just a few, visionary souls working together against the odds—because they know what they’re doing is right.
We may not know what the future holds for humanity, but we do know that every day of our lives, we can choose to live into the future we wish for ourselves and for the rest of life. And just like the mycorrhizal underground network in the forest that trees use to support each other, when we connect with each other, we’re part of a powerful network that’s accomplishing something very different than what we may read about in the daily headlines.
Keep in mind that, as the current system begins to unravel on account of its internal failings, the strands that kept the old system tightly interconnected also get loosened. The old story is losing its hold on the collective consciousness of humanity. As waves of young people come of age, they are increasingly rejecting what their parents’ generation told them. They are looking about for a new way to make sense of the current unraveling, for a story that offers them a future they can believe in.
That is the great work that I believe the Whidbey Institute, and many of you present here today, are engaged in. Creating that new story, and living into it, is the alchemy of heartbreak and hope that we are generating together. And I, for one, am excited to be a part of this epic moment when we, together, can participate in co-creating the possibility of humanity’s flourishing future on a regenerated Earth.
Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Publishers: US/Canada | Profile Books: UK/Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.
I recently participated in a conversation with thought leaders at the Great Transition Initiative on a critical question poised by Paul Raskin:
“The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted our lives, equanimity, and assumptions. . . The pandemic is a rupture in historic time that shakes the continuity of institutions and consciousness. . . How can we seize the moment to steer toward the Great Transition we all hope for and know to be possible?“
Here’s my contribution, “The Coronavirus as a Crucible” which explores how progressive leaders might skillfully use the dramatic changes we’re already experiencing to steer society toward the greater transformation that’s needed.
THE IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS will be huge—but it is not yet the crisis that could push our global society into the phase change required for the Great Transition. These two simple facts offer a valuable framework for thinking about how to respond most effectively to the current situation.
To begin, let’s consider the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the effect of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.
If COVID-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together, economies would be disrupted temporarily, people would make do for a while with changed circumstances, and then, after the shock, things would return to normal. That is not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, the pandemic is revealing the structural faults of the system, which have been papered over for decades even as they’ve been growing worse. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.” The last time a disruption of such magnitude occurred was during the period of the Great Depression and World War II, which shaped the geopolitical structure of our current world.
Coronavirus as a Crucible
In just a few months, we have seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. This is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months, as the world begins to reel from the aftereffects of the shutdown.
A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating changes that were already underway: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably.
What might the new shape of society look like? There is a serious risk that the new stable state will be closer to a Fortress World, with increased state surveillance, empowered authoritarianism, further breakdowns in democratic norms, mega-corporations even more dominant, and heightened militarism in international relations. In contrast, as many have pointed out, there is also a resurgence in the values that would underlie a transformed world, such as mutual aid, compassionate community, grassroots empowerment, and global collaboration.
The Next (Tidal) Wave
However, no matter which way the crucible hardens, COVID-19 is not a big enough phenomenon to reshape the flawed foundation of our current worldview that has brought our civilization to its current predicament. Our dominant worldview is based on an underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other, humans are separate from nature, and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. The value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond to climate breakdown, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption. It provides the implicit basis for ruthless neoliberal policies, the domination of transnational corporations focused solely on shareholder returns, and the worldwide obsession with maintaining unsustainable GDP growth on a finite planet.
As our civilization hurtles toward the precipice through this century, we will encounter ever greater shocks that will make COVID-19 seem like a leisurely rehearsal by contrast. We can expect massive urban flooding, global famines, and overwhelming refugee crises that will shake the foundations of our civilization’s overbuilt edifice. As the interconnected links of our global system unravel, millions of people will reject the values that wrought this devastation, and look for a replacement. The value system they choose will determine whether this century ends in a Fortress World, a civilizational collapse, or a fundamental transition to a life-affirming world based on dignity and community: an ecological civilization.
Coronavirus as a Trimtab
This is the broader context that sheds light on the importance of COVID-19. By itself, this pandemic won’t force the required change in our civilization’s direction, but it can begin to set a course away from the current trajectory of rampant self-destruction. Buckminster Fuller offered the brilliant metaphor of a trimtab, the miniature rudder in front of an ocean liner that helps the main rudder to shift direction almost effortlessly by changing the pressure in front of it. Similarly, we can view the potential for significant policy changes in the wake of coronavirus as a trimtab for the redirection of our global civilization that is the only way to avert catastrophe in the longer term.
This suggests that the most skillful approach to the current situation is to identify those policy initiatives that are already garnering popular support—and can also serve as trimtabs to move our entire civilization toward a new trajectory. In my view, some of the highest potential trimtabs are the idea of a universal basic income, which is now being discussed favorably even in conservative mouthpieces such as the Financial Times; Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics,” which is being used as a model for Amsterdam’s coronavirus recovery plan; and full-scale implementation of a Green New Deal in the United States.
Others may identify other trimtabs that are just as, or even more, effective. I simply offer this framework as a lens to view how we might skillfully prioritize the progressive forces unleashed by the current pandemic as preparation for the far greater disruptions yet to come.
Coronavirus is a political crucible, melting down and reshaping current norms. Will the new era be a “Fortress Earth” or a harbinger of a transformed society based on a new set of values?
Whatever you might be thinking about the long-term impacts of the coronavirus epidemic, you’re probably not thinking big enough.
Our lives have already been reshaped so dramatically in the past few weeks that it’s difficult to see beyond the next news cycle. We’re bracing for the recession we all know is here, wondering how long the lockdown will last, and praying that our loved ones will all make it through alive.
But, in the same way that Covid-19 is spreading at an exponential rate, we also need to think exponentially about its long-term impact on our culture and society. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the impact of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.
If Covid-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together; economies disrupted temporarily; people would make do for a while with changed circumstances—and then, after the shock, look forward to getting back to normal. That’s not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, this coronavirus is revealing the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades as they’ve been steadily worsening. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.”
The first signs of this structural destabilization are just beginning to show. Our globalized economy relies on just-in-time inventory for hyper-efficient production. As supply chains are disrupted through factory closures and border closings, shortages in household items, medications, and food will begin surfacing, leading to rounds of panic buying that will only exacerbate the situation. The world economy is entering a downturn so steep it could exceed the severity of the Great Depression. The international political system—already on the ropes with Trump’s “America First” xenophobia and the Brexit fiasco—is likely to unravel further, as the global influence of the United States tanks while Chinese power strengthens. Meanwhile, the Global South, where Covid-19 is just beginning to make itself felt, may face disruption on a scale far greater than the more affluent Global North.
The Overton Window
During normal times, out of all the possible ways to organize society, there is only a limited range of ideas considered acceptable for mainstream political discussion—known as the Overton window. Covid-19 has blown the Overton window wide open. In just a few weeks, we’ve seen political and economic ideas seriously discussed that had previously been dismissed as fanciful or utterly unacceptable: universal basic income, government intervention to house the homeless, and state surveillance on individual activity, to name just a few. But remember—this is just the beginning of a process that will expand exponentially in the ensuing months.
A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic has a way of massively amplifying and accelerating changes that were already underway: shifts that might have taken decades can occur in weeks. Like a crucible, it has the potential to melt down the structures that currently exist, and reshape them, perhaps unrecognizably. What might the new shape of society look like? What will be center stage in the Overton window by the time it begins narrowing again?
The Example of World War II
We’re entering uncharted territory, but to get a feeling for the scale of transformation we need to consider, it helps to look back to the last time the world underwent an equivalent spasm of change: the Second World War.
The pre-war world was dominated by European colonial powers struggling to maintain their empires. Liberal democracy was on the wane, while fascism and communism were ascendant, battling each other for supremacy. The demise of the League of Nations seemed to have proven the impossibility of multinational global cooperation. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States maintained an isolationist policy, and in the early years of the war, many people believed it was just a matter of time before Hitler and the Axis powers invaded Britain and took complete control of Europe.
Within a few years, the world was barely recognizable. As the British Empire crumbled, geopolitics was dominated by the Cold War which divided the world into two political blocs under the constant threat of nuclear Armageddon. A social democratic Europe formed an economic union that no-one could previously have imagined possible. Meanwhile, the US and its allies established a system of globalized trade, with institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank setting terms for how the “developing world” could participate. The stage was set for the “Great Acceleration”: far and away the greatest and most rapid increase of human activity in history across a vast number of dimensions, including global population, trade, travel, production, and consumption.
If the changes we’re about to undergo are on a similar scale to these, how might a future historian summarize the “pre-coronavirus” world that is about to disappear?
The Neoliberal Era
There’s a good chance they will call this the Neoliberal Era. Until the 1970s, the post-war world was characterized in the West by an uneasy balance between government and private enterprise. However, following the “oil shock” and stagflation of that period—which at the time represented the world’s biggest post-war disruption—a new ideology of free-market neoliberalism took center stage in the Overton window (the phrase itself was named by a neoliberal proponent).
The value system of neoliberalism, which has since become entrenched in global mainstream discourse, holds that humans are individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and because of this, unrestrained free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have succeeded in transforming the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labor.
The triumph of neoliberalism has led to the greatest inequality in history, where (based on the most recent statistics) the world’s twenty-six richest people own as much wealth as half the entire world’s population. It has allowed the largest transnational corporations to establish a stranglehold over other forms of organization, with the result that, of the world’s hundred largest economies, sixty-nine are corporations. The relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most obvious danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.
But even if the climate crisis were somehow brought under control, a continuation of untrammeled economic growth in future decades will bring us face-to-face with a slew of further existential threats. Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, freshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences.
In 2017 over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” They are echoed by the government-approved declaration of the UN-sponsored IPCC, that we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disaster.
In the clamor for economic growth, however, these warnings have so far gone unheeded. Will the impact of coronavirus change anything?
There’s a serious risk that, rather than shifting course from our failing trajectory, the post-Covid-19 world will be one where the same forces currently driving our race to the precipice further entrench their power and floor the accelerator directly toward global catastrophe. China has relaxed its environmental laws to boost production as it tries to recover from its initial coronavirus outbreak, and the US (anachronistically named) Environmental Protection Agency took immediate advantage of the crisis to suspend enforcement of its laws, allowing companies to pollute as much as they want as long as they can show some relation to the pandemic.
On a greater scale, power-hungry leaders around the world are taking immediate advantage of the crisis to clamp down on individual liberties and move their countries swiftly toward authoritarianism. Hungary’s strongman leader, Viktor Orban, officially killed off democracy in his country on Monday, passing a bill that allows him to rule by decree, with five-year prison sentences for those he determines are spreading “false” information. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu shut down his country’s courts in time to avoid his own trial for corruption. In the United States, the Department of Justice has already filed a request to allow the suspension of courtroom proceedings in emergencies, and there are many who fear that Trump will take advantage of the turmoil to install martial law and try to compromise November’s election.
Even in those countries that avoid an authoritarian takeover, the increase in high-tech surveillance taking place around the world is rapidly undermining previously sacrosanct privacy rights. Israel has passed an emergency decree to follow the lead of China, Taiwan, and South Korea in using smartphone location readings to trace contacts of individuals who tested positive for coronavirus. European mobile operators are sharing user data (so far anonymized) with government agencies. As Yuval Harari has pointed out, in the post-Covid world, these short-term emergency measures may “become a fixture of life.”
If these, and other emerging trends, continue unchecked, we could head rapidly to a grim scenario of what might be called “Fortress Earth,” with entrenched power blocs eliminating many of the freedoms and rights that have formed the bedrock of the post-war world. We could be seeing all-powerful states overseeing economies dominated even more thoroughly by the few corporate giants (think Amazon, Facebook) that can monetize the crisis for further shareholder gain.
The chasm between the haves and have-nots may become even more egregious, especially if treatments for the virus become available but are priced out of reach for some people. Countries in the Global South, already facing the prospect of disaster from climate breakdown, may face collapse if coronavirus rampages through their populations while a global depression starves them of funds to maintain even minimal infrastructures. Borders may become militarized zones, shutting off the free flow of passage. Mistrust and fear, which has already shown its ugly face in panicked evictions of doctors in India and record gun-buying in the US, could become endemic.
But it doesn’t have to turn out that way. Back in the early days of World War II, things looked even darker, but underlying dynamics emerged that fundamentally altered the trajectory of history. Frequently, it was the very bleakness of the disasters that catalyzed positive forces to emerge in reaction and predominate. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the day “which will live in infamy”—was the moment when the power balance of World War II shifted. The collective anguish in response to the global war’s devastation led to the founding of the United Nations. The grotesque atrocity of Hitler’s holocaust led to the international recognition of the crime of genocide, and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Could it be that the crucible of coronavirus will lead to a meltdown of neoliberal norms that ultimately reshapes the dominant structures of our global civilization? Could a mass collective reaction to the excesses of authoritarian overreach lead to a renaissance of humanitarian values? We’re already seeing signs of this. While the Overton window is allowing surveillance and authoritarian practices to enter from one side, it’s also opening up to new political realities and possibilities on the other side. Let’s take a look at some of these.
A fairer society. The specter of massive layoffs and unemployment has already led to levels of state intervention to protect citizens and businesses that were previously unthinkable. Denmark plans to pay 75% of the salaries of employees in private companies hit by the effects of the epidemic, to keep them and their businesses solvent. The UK has announced a similar plan to cover 80% of salaries. California is leasing hotels to shelter homeless people who would otherwise remain on the streets, and has authorized local governments to halt evictions for renters and homeowners. New York state is releasing low-risk prisoners from its jails. Spain is nationalizing its private hospitals. The Green New Deal, which was already endorsed by the leading Democratic presidential candidates, is now being discussed as the mainstay of a program of economic recovery. The idea of universal basic income for every American, boldly raised by long-shot Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, has now become a talking point even for Republican politicians.
Ecological stabilization. Coronavirus has already been more effective in slowing down climate breakdown and ecological collapse than all the world’s policy initiatives combined. In February, Chinese CO2 emissions were down by over 25%. One scientist calculated that twenty times as many Chinese lives have been saved by reduced air pollution than lost directly to coronavirus. Over the next year, we’re likely to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions greater than even the most optimistic modelers’ forecasts, as a result of the decline in economic activity. As French philosopher Bruno Latour tweeted: “Next time, when ecologists are ridiculed because ‘the economy cannot be slowed down’, they should remember that it can grind to a halt in a matter of weeks worldwide when it is urgent enough.”
Of course, nobody would propose that economic activity should be disrupted in this catastrophic way in response to the climate crisis. However, the emergency response initiated so rapidly by governments across the world has shown what is truly possible when people face what they recognize as a crisis. As a result of climate activism, 1,500 municipalities worldwide, representing over 10% of the global population, have officially declared a climate emergency. The Covid-19 response can now be held out as an icon of what is really possible when people’s lives are at stake. In the case of the climate, the stakes are even greater—the future survival of our civilization. We now know the world can respond as needed, once political will is engaged and societies enter emergency mode
The rise of “glocalization.” One of the defining characteristics of the Neoliberal Era has been a corrosive globalization based on free market norms. Transnational corporations have dictated terms to countries in choosing where to locate their operations, leading nations to compete against each other to reduce worker protections in a “race to the bottom.” The use of cheap fossil fuels has caused wasteful misuse of resources as products are flown around the world to meet consumer demand stoked by manipulative advertising. This globalization of markets has been a major cause of the Neoliberal Era’s massive increase in consumption that threatens civilization’s future. Meanwhile, masses of people disaffected by rising inequity have been persuaded by right-wing populists to turn their frustration toward outgroups such as immigrants or ethnic minorities.
The effects of Covid-19 could lead to an inversion of these neoliberal norms. As supply lines break down, communities will look to local and regional producers for their daily needs. When a consumer appliance breaks, people will try to get it repaired rather than buy a new one. Workers, newly unemployed, may turn increasingly to local jobs in smaller companies that serve their community directly.
At the same time, people will increasingly get used to connecting with others through video meetings over the internet, where someone on the other side of the world feels as close as someone across town. This could be a defining characteristic of the new era. Even while production goes local, we may see a dramatic increase in the globalization of new ideas and ways of thinking—a phenomenon known as “glocalization.” Already, scientists are collaborating around the world in an unprecedented collective effort to find a vaccine; and a globally crowdsourced library is offering a “Coronavirus Tech Handbook” to collect and distribute the best ideas for responding to the pandemic.
Compassionate community. Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, documents how, contrary to popular belief, disasters frequently bring out the best in people, as they reach out and help those in need around them. In the wake of Covid-19, the whole world is reeling from a disaster that affects us all. The compassionate response Solnit observed in disaster zones has now spread across the planet with a speed matching the virus itself. Mutual aid groups are forming in communities everywhere to help those in need. The website Karunavirus (Karuna is a Sanskrit word for compassion) documents a myriad of everyday acts of heroism, such as the thirty thousand Canadians who have started “caremongering,” and the mom-and-pop restaurants in Detroit forced to close and now cooking meals for the homeless.
In the face of disaster, many people are rediscovering that they are far stronger as a community than as isolated individuals. The phrase “social distancing” is helpfully being recast as “physical distancing” since Covid-19 is bringing people closer together in solidarity than ever before.
Revolution in Values
This rediscovery of the value of community has the potential to be the most important factor of all in shaping the trajectory of the next era. New ideas and political possibilities are critically important, but ultimately an era is defined by its underlying values, on which everything else is built.
The Neoliberal Era was constructed on a myth of the selfish individual as the foundational for values. As Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” This belief in the selfish individual has not just been destructive of community—it’s plain wrong. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, a defining characteristic of humanity is our set of prosocial impulses—fairness, altruism, and compassion—that cause us to identify with something larger than our own individual needs. The compassionate responses that have arisen in the wake of the pandemic are heartwarming but not surprising—they are the expected, natural human response to others in need.
Once the crucible of coronavirus begins to cool, and a new sociopolitical order emerges, the larger emergency of climate breakdown and ecological collapse will still be looming over us. The Neoliberal Era has set civilization’s course directly toward a precipice. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices being made, but by a revolution in values. It must be an era where the core human values of fairness, mutual aid, and compassion are paramount—extending beyond the local neighborhood to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life. If we can change the basis of our global civilization from one that is wealth-affirming to one that is life-affirming, then we have a chance to create a flourishing future for humanity and the living Earth.
To this extent, the Covid-19 disaster represents an opportunity for the human race—one in which each one of us has a meaningful part to play. We are all inside the crucible right now, and the choices we make over the weeks and months to come will, collectively, determine the shape and defining characteristics of the next era. However big we’re thinking about the future effects of this pandemic, we can think bigger. As has been said in other settings, but never more to the point: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. His upcoming book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, will be published in Spring 2021 (New Society Press: North America | Profile Books: UK & Commonwealth). For more information visit jeremylent.com.
Do you want to think even bigger?
Watch Jeremy Lent’s talk on “Living into an Ecological Civilization”
Presented at Civana House, San Francisco, October 3, 2019
I had a dream. I fell asleep to a nightmare, and woke up with a dream.
The nightmare is one we all share. It’s called the Presidential inauguration of a man fueled by hatred and anger, an unbalanced narcissist invested with the power to destroy all life on earth on a whim.
But it’s the dream I want to tell you about. It was Inauguration Day, January 2021. The new President of the United States was taking the oath of office, declaring her commitment to the dignity and flourishing of all people, regardless of race, gender, or creed. She had come to power on a tidal wave of opposition to the destruction wrought by four years of billionaires plotting to steal from the rest of us what they hadn’t already plundered. Her new Humane Party had risen from nowhere, emerging from the surge of untold millions, sickened by the assault on their humanity, voting for a platform based on basic human values of justice and compassion.
As she spoke, she extended a hand of peace and friendship to other nations around the world, and noted the swell of support that had lifted sister Humane parties in dozens of other countries, in reaction to the global xenophobic fear that had threatened humanity’s future.
The glow of hope filled the streets and reverberated around the world. Strangers stopped to greet each other in the street with a twinkle of the eye and a look of wonder. “The unthinkable has happened – again!” they said to each other. “We had come so close to despair, so close the brink. Who knew this was possible?”
I woke up with this dream this morning, and then joined the millions of others – people driven by humane values – who marched today for dignity, peace, and a future of hope. We are the majority around the world. Policies of fear-mongering and oppression will only swell our ranks even more, as regular, decent people realize they don’t need to live in a world of hate.
Share this dream with others. Let us act together, and we will make it a reality.
Every day, the news seems only to get worse. Trump’s Cabinet appointments are brazenly turning the U.S. into a kleptocracy – a land where those who have gained unprecedented wealth and power by cynically manipulating the rules now get to rewrite the rules for their own exclusive benefit. With all branches of government – executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court – in the hands of a morally bankrupt Republican leadership, the most powerful military and surveillance state in history is becoming a vehicle for corporations to ransack what’s left of the natural world for their short-term gain. With free speech under attack, along with threats of a Muslim registry and mass deportations of undocumented workers, we appear to be plunging rapidly into a bottomless abyss.
It’s natural for anyone who cares about dignity, justice, and the welfare of future generations to feel some despair. But in the very darkness of the times ahead, there is reason for hope that this bleak period will be the harbinger of a transformed society: a new economic and social order based on principles of equity, compassion, and natural flourishing. How can that be?
How change happens in complex systems
The source of this hope emerges from research in complex systems – and more specifically, how phase transitions occur in these systems. Complex systems exist everywhere in the natural world: in weather patterns, lakes, and forest ecologies. They exist within humans – think immune, cardiovascular, and neurological systems – and they exist in the systems we humans create: in markets, and in social and political systems.
These systems are nonlinear, which means the relationship between an input and output can vary wildly, and this characteristic makes them very difficult to predict. However, leading complexity scientists have studied how change happens in these systems, and have discovered principles that seem to occur universally. They are as true for a lake ecology as they are for a stock market. And they are equally applicable to our political system.
A crucial principle is that, while a complex system can remain resilient within a set of parameters for a long time, occasionally it becomes so unstable that it experiences a tipping point: a dramatic shift that transforms the system into something very different. A forest, for example, can get thinned out until it can no longer sustain itself, and it turns into scrubland. A real estate market gets overheated until it suddenly collapses. A person’s neurological firing can destabilize and suddenly puts them into an epileptic seizure.
These shifts – known as phase transitions – can also herald beneficial changes. A chrysalis transforms into a butterfly. A fetus develops until it undergoes the phase transition known as birth. Same sex marriage can remain unthinkable for generations, until it becomes the widely accepted law of the land within a few years.
Scientists have studied intensively how to predict when these phase transitions might occur, and have identified a few flags that indicate when we might expect one. An important indicator is an increase in the variance of fluctuations within the system. A stock market, for example, might start gyrating giddily before it finally crashes. Rainfall patterns may fluctuate wildly before a long-term drought sets in.
Tipping points in history
When we apply these findings to history, it’s easy to see these turbulent fluctuations preceding phase transitions – in retrospect. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the rise of fascism. The global devastation of the Second World War cleared the way for new norms such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted three years later in 1948.
As we look at the current political situation, many signs suggest that we’re arriving at a new, historic tipping point. The globally dominant neoliberal political-economic system has caused unprecedented wealth and income inequalities, which have destabilized the foundations on which the past seventy years of relative peace and prosperity have been built. The Brexit shock, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, and the impending cataclysm of Trump’s lawless brutality seem to signal an approaching tipping point. Our global society is most likely about to enter a phase transition, after which it will emerge into a new, stable state.
What will that new state look like? There is a real threat that we’ll see the end of democracy in this country. An even grimmer possibility is the total collapse of civilization. Trump’s narcissistic capriciousness could drive the world to global war which might easily go nuclear. Even without war, we can expect an acceleration of climate change following an orgy of fossil fuel extraction from the new Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin axis, which could drive the climate to its own tipping points that may be incompatible with continued civilization.
Towards a Great Transformation of values?
But there’s another possibility for the long-term outcome of this dark period. The American people will only take so much trampling over accepted norms. Trump, with his cabinet of billionaires and corporate titans, is likely to pursue a strategy of continued reckless violations of traditional American values such as decency and civil rights. There’s a real possibility that their frenzy of greed, bigotry, and hatred will catalyze a powerful counter-reaction. A significant majority of voters already chose the Democratic candidate over Trump at the election. After years of having their rights trampled upon by a Trump presidency, and most likely witnessing brutality once unthinkable in their own country, Americans may be ready for a radically different type of society: one based on values such as dignity, compassion, and fairness.
This leads to another important lesson from complexity science: During a phase transition, a system goes through a chaotic period of shifting power dynamics. In this period, seemingly insignificant actions can have an outsize effect, sometimes dramatically impacting the character of the long-term outcome. When we apply this lesson to the current situation, this becomes a clarion call for citizen action. What each of us does over the next few years could have extraordinary effects on the future society we bequeath to posterity.
At the same time, we need to shine a light on a flourishing future that could still be available after this period of darkness. There is an enormous power arising from millions of interconnected people striving together towards a shared vision. We already know, within ourselves, what that vision looks like. In contrast to Trump’s intolerance based on a rhetoric of separation, the foundation of a flourishing future is our intrinsic connectedness: within ourselves, with others, and with the natural world.
Even before Trump’s regime begins, people are picking up on the urgent need for a transformation of values in American society. Political commentator Van Jones has initiated a “Love Army” to conquer Trump’s message of hate. Author Neal Gabler has called for a “kindness offensive.”
A society based on love and kindness is not just an abstraction. Kindness in action means resisting Trump’s brutalism. Love in action means working towards a transformation of society. Pioneers of a flourishing future have already been busily constructing a coherent platform of alternative ideas that can form the framework for a system founded on compassionate values. I’ve attempted to summarize some of them in a recent online conference where I took the role of a historian in 2050 looking back at how the world just survived climate catastrophe to enter a period known as The Great Transformation.
The traditional Chinese understood profoundly the dynamics of change that modern complexity scientists are discovering. Their famous yin-yang symbol captures a deep truth about how polarities can engender their opposites. In the middle of the black, there is a spot of white. When a wave reaches its peak, that’s when it begins to crash. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
We haven’t yet hit the darkest hour of the Trump era. We’re just entering the abyss, and no-one can predict how bad it’s going to get. But as we move together into the darkness, along with our anguish and outrage, let us never lose sight of the light that lurks beyond. There will be casualties from his brutality. Few of us are likely to make it through unscathed. But by recognizing the power of our interconnected action, while keeping our gaze focused on the light beyond the horizon, we may well succeed in ultimately directing this tipping point away from collapse, and towards a society of flourishing, compassion, and justice.
Even our common words have turned upside down. As Bill McKibben points out, words like “radical” and “conservative” need to be redefined. The real radicals are the fossil fuel companies changing the very composition of our planet’s atmosphere, careening our world towards a climate that hasn’t been experienced for over a million years. By the same token, the real conservatives are those struggling to keep the earth’s climate within the parameters of the last ten thousand – the stable, temperate period known as the Holocene that permitted humans to develop agriculture and civilization. Imagine a news headline: “Conservatives struggle to prevent radicals from global disruption” – in this context, it takes on a whole new meaning.
Language matters. The words we hear connect spontaneously to preset neural patterns in our brains that can either strengthen or weaken prior associations, frequently causing subtle emotional responses that ultimately affect our actions. If you live in a cooler climate zone, the term “global warming” can sound quite comforting by itself. Even “climate change” has a certain deadening quality to it: something just happening on its own. Better to call it the way it is: climate disruption, perhaps, but even that doesn’t get at what’s really going on. After all, we’re heating up the planet at the rate of 4 Hiroshima bomb detonations every second. Yes, every second. There go another four. At this rate, we’re on our way to heating the earth by more than 3º Celsius this century. How about climate emergency? One that threatens, if we don’t respond accordingly, to become climate catastrophe.
The turmoil our civilization is causing goes, of course, way beyond climate alone. In every part of the earth, natural systems that have sustained themselves from time immemorial are groaning under the human strain. The basic elements of life on Earth that we take for granted – forests, fish in the oceans, water to drink – are rapidly being consumed by humanity’s voracious demands.
We regulate the flow of about two-thirds of the earth’s rivers, and many of the greatest rivers – the Colorado, Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges, Nile – no longer reach the sea during parts of the year. Half of the world’s tropical and temperate forests have disappeared. In the same second we heat the planet by 4 atomic bombs, we’re also losing the Amazon rainforest by another acre. The nitrogen we use for fertilizer drains into the oceans, causing uncontrolled algae blooms that consume the water’s oxygen, leaving dead zones bereft of any other life. As a result of industrialized fishing, the oceans have lost over 90% of large fish such as tuna and swordfish.
There have been five times in the history of life on Earth when a global catastrophe caused a mass extinction of species. Scientists now recognize that the onslaught of humanity is causing the sixth mass extinction, driving species into oblivion at a rate a thousand times faster than would be natural. Up to fifty percent of all vertebrate species are threatened with extinction this century. Prominent scientists have concluded that humanity has now emerged as its own force of nature. The scope of human impact is so enormous, and will affect the distant future of the earth to such a degree, that they are describing our modern period as a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.
Yes, we need a new language for this Anthropocene we’ve created. A couple of creatives, realizing this need, have formed the whimsically named Bureau of Linguistical Reality to solicit words for our experience of this new reality. Some of the words they’ve already come up with are disquieting: gwilt [the regret caused by letting plants wilt because of a drought], shadowtime [the parallel timescale of climate change shadowing our daily activities] and epoquetude [the reassuring awareness that while humanity may destroy itself, the Earth will certainly survive]. They invite you to add to the lexicon yourself if you want to play your part in setting the cultural frames of our future. (Here’s an interview I did with them on YouTube.)
Meanwhile, some words already exist in other languages that profoundly express our current experience. Japanese offers a treasure trove of these. Monoaware, for example, means “the pathos of things. The awareness of the impermanence of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing.” Yuugen is “an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses that are too mysterious and deep for words.”
But if language helps shape our reality, then why can’t we introduce words to express the reality we desire? Along with a new language for the Anthropocene, we need a new language for the Great Transformation in ideas, practices and worldview that could create a flourishing future for humanity. My own contribution is Liology (pronounced lee-ology): a word made up from the Chinese word “li,” which means “the organizing principles” and “ology” which is the Greek-derived word for “study.” So liology means “the study of the organizing principles.” You might ask: the organizing principles of what? The answer: everything. Waves, human relationships, bodies, stock markets and consciousness. The complete set of dynamic patterns that make up our entire universe – what the traditional Chinese called the Tao.
The study of these patterns through liology is not just an intellectual exercise, but one that we engage in with our entire embodied existence. Approaching our investigation in this way, with a true reverence for the miracle of this universe and our existence within it, naturally leads us to realize and cherish the connections within us and with all the other complex systems within which we’re embedded.
The recognition that we humans are intimately connected with each other, and with every part of the world around us, is ultimately what can lead us to a sustainable civilization, one that nourishes the earth rather than viewing it as a resource for exploitation. With the climate emergency we’re currently experiencing, thinking about language may seem an oddly arcane sort of response, but at the deepest level, new neural patterning is what we need to steer our culture towards a hopeful future, one where future generations can experience the yuugen that our universe still offers.
There was a resounding tone of history being made over the weekend in Paris. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was close to tears as he declared: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity.” President Françoise Holland told the representatives of 186 nations: “You’ve done it, reached an ambitious agreement, a binding agreement, a universal agreement… You can be proud to stand before your children and grandchildren.”
And it wasn’t just our political leaders who declared victory. The Guardian boldly proclaimed “the end of the fossil fuel era.” Prominent environmental organizations such as Climate Reality Project joyously announced: “This is the turning point… We won!” Even progressive grassroots organizations are delighted. “Today is a historic day,” writes 350.org. “We did it!” cheers Avaaz, “A turning point in human history.” How justified is this sense of triumph?
Much of the jubilation stems from the contrast to the mess of the Copenhagen summit six years ago. At that time, all attempts at an agreement collapsed in disarray, leaving the environmental movement in a state of deep depression. Since then, much of the planning around COP21 has been to avoid a rerun of that fiasco. Instead of calling for commitments from countries, the UN merely asked for intentions. Instead of targeting a realistic trajectory to save our civilization, the parties merely noted that much more needs to be done. If you set the bar low enough, even the smallest step feels like success.
In fact, not everyone has joined the ovation. Prominent climate scientist James Hansen – the first to bring awareness of the climate crisis to Washington – called it “a fraud really, a fake.” Other groups, particularly those focused on the needs of the global south, agree with his take. In this alternative account of the Paris Agreement, 186 countries arrived at an emissions plan that puts the world on a trajectory for more than a 3° C rise in temperature by 2100. They’ve all agreed this plan is woefully inadequate, but decided to do nothing about it for another five years, when they will re-examine their targets. Their agreement made no mention that the vast majority of fossil fuels are unburnable if we are to prevent climate catastrophe, contained no discussion of the huge contribution to global warming made by industrial agriculture, and ignored crucial issues such as deforestation and indigenous rights. In spite of the consensus among prominent economists around the world on the need for a worldwide price on carbon, the deal avoided any mention of that idea.
There was no mention, either, of reducing the $5.3 trillion spent every year on worldwide subsidies to fossil fuels. Even though the wealthy nations have emitted 60% of the carbon in the atmosphere, they agreed only to “mobilize” $100 billion per year of the $1 trillion per year it will take to develop a fossil-free economy, mostly to be spent by developing nations – an amount they won’t review for another ten years. Meanwhile, the developing countries most vulnerable to climate disruption, desperate to get the wealthier nations to agree on a global temperature rise goal of less than 2°, were forced to give up their right to seek compensation for the present and future devastation caused by the developed countries’ pollution.
But, in spite of its gaping shortcomings, I do believe something important and historic emerged from COP21. It’s not so much the size of the step the world has taken, as the change in direction. Until now, the world has failed to agree even on the target we need to achieve. At Copenhagen, the parties merely noted the scientific consensus that a 2° C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels would likely lead to runaway feedback effects, and since then that number became the de facto objective. Yet, out of the blue, in the early days of COP21, a so-called High Ambition coalition of countries began talking about a 1.5° target, which, given that we’re already at 0.9° increase, is a truly aggressive goal. And although the 1.5° number didn’t quite make it to the final agreement, the countries did agree to aim for a temperature rise far below the 2° level, along with a goal of net zero carbon emissions by the second half of this century.
These new targets create a stark contrast between where the world agrees we need to go and where we’re currently headed. In fact, I would call it a chasm. Currently, fossil fuels account for 86% of the world’s energy, and that has barely changed over the last ten years. At the current rate of emissions, even according to Shell’s own climate advisor, we’ll be passing the threshold for a 1.5°C temperature rise by as early as 2028. Drastic changes will need to be made to every aspect of our economy – and fast – if we are to have any hope of reaching the Paris Agreement’s goal.
It is that very chasm, though, between target and current reality that gives cause for hope. As a result of it, we can expect far more talk about unburnable carbon. Divestment from fossil fuel corporations’ stock will become widespread as their market valuations are seen to be based on fantasy. The growing grassroots movement to “Leave It In The Ground” will become ever more unstoppable. A worldwide price on carbon, placed on it as it comes out of the ground, will soon become part of the public discourse. The renewable energy transformation, already under way, will burst into mainstream awareness.
The point is, as 350.org observes, that “Paris isn’t the end of the story, but a conclusion of a particular chapter.” It’s a chapter that has demonstrated clearly the power of the citizens’ movement. When Christiana Figueres, head of the climate talks, gave her closing speech to the summit, she emphasized the importance of the popular movement in forcing politicians to accept a new reality. “When in 2014,” she said, “hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side.”
Citizen power was in evidence throughout COP21, in spite of the ban on public demonstrations. From the thousands of shoes placed in Place de la Republique before the conference began, to the golden sun painted ingeniously by Greenpeace around the Arc de Triomphe, the politicians in the Blue Zone knew their discussions were being closely watched by millions of citizens around the globe. Avaaz tells how, after the Indian Finance Minister came out against 100% clean energy, activists projected films of Chennai under water on a screen inside the talks along with messages from across India. The next day, India’s official position had changed.
Environmental organizations combined forces to focus the calls of millions of people worldwide for real action at COP21. On the last day of the conference, we the people had the last word, with over 15,000 of us ignoring the earlier ban on public gatherings to congregate on the road leading to the Arc de Triomphe, holding long red strips of cloth to symbolize redlines that we won’t allow the global corporate power structures to cross.
One of the key principles of the Paris Agreement is that the nations will continue to meet every five years to strengthen their emission cuts until they reach adequate levels. It is as though the politicians, recognizing their own inability to solve the problem themselves, are inviting the people of the world to put further pressure on them in the coming years, to make sure those emission cuts finally get to what we need. And the climate movement is ready to take them up on it. In the words of 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben:
For the next few years our job is to yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch, to put down the chips, to run faster faster faster. We’ll fan out around the world in May to the sites of all the world’s carbon bombs; we’ll go to jail if we have to. We’ll push… Think of us as a pack of wolves. Exxon, we’re on your heels. America, China, India – that’s us, getting closer all the time. You need speed. It’s our only chance.
There has never been a more important time to be part of the movement. A leading environmental analyst, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, surmised that this moment “is a turning point in the human enterprise, where the great transformation towards sustainability begins.” Whether his hopeful words become a true prophecy depends more than ever on each of us, and our own commitment to drag our politicians to a world they seemingly cannot get to by themselves.
This week, here in Paris, we saw what may turn out to be a major milestone in the history of humankind. I’m not talking about COP21, but about a 2-day tribunal which, although having no legal standing or powers of enforcement, may turn out to have an even greater impact on the future direction of our world. It was a Rights of Nature tribunal, and it represents the most recent step in an important and hopeful journey for humanity – the recognition and expansion of intrinsic legal rights.
Some historical context helps. Back in 1792, Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. Paine’s troubles arose from the fact that he was blazing a new trail that has since become the bedrock of modern political thought: the inherent rights of human beings.
Paine’s writing deeply influenced the composers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, one of the most influential documents of modern history. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it declared, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These truths, while self-evident to the founding fathers, were radical ideas for that time, so much so that even those who signed the Declaration applied them sketchily, not even considering that they might apply equally to the Africans forced to work as slaves in their plantations.
By the middle of the twentieth century, in response to the totalitarian horrors of genocide, the world came together to create a new stirring vision that would apply equally to all human beings: the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in history, fundamental human rights were universally recognized and given legal protection.
Of course, these rights continue to be abused in all kinds of ways. But new norms had been established, and nowadays, following the formation of the International Criminal Court, when a tyrant wreaks havoc on his population, he knows that he might have to face legal consequences from the rest of the world.
As we enter into the heart of the twenty-first century, a new set of crises face humanity: the ravages of climate change, deforestation, industrial agriculture, the destruction of natural habitats, and the impending Sixth Extinction of species. Like Paine and his associates, a new group of visionaries are expounding a revolutionary concept that responds to our troubled era: the Rights of Nature.
This week in Paris, this group held a 2-day Rights of Nature Tribunal, part of which I had the honor to attend and film. The Tribunal was based on the idea that nature also has rights, just like humans. Its foundational document is a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, calling for the “universal adoption and implementation of legal systems that recognize, respect and enforce the rights of nature.”
The Tribunal was a formal proceeding, with a panel of thirteen judges consisting of internationally renowned lawyers, academics and prominent activists. There were Prosecutors for the Earth, along with witnesses – comprising human victims of crimes against nature along with expert witnesses. They heard a wide variety of cases, ranging from the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the devastation of boreal forests by tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada, and oil exploitation plundering sacred native lands in Yasuní, Ecuador. In each case, after hearing from prosecutors and witnesses, the Tribunal considered the evidence and passed judgement.
The same year that the UN promulgated its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it also defined the crime of genocide for the first time, adopting a convention to outlaw it across the world. Similarly, the Rights of Nature Tribunal focused much attention on the crime of ecocide, defined in legal terms as “any act or failure to act which causes significant and durable damage to any part or system of the global commons, or threaten the safety of humankind.” Through the lens of the ecocide concept, the Tribunal assessed the “financialization” of Nature through market mechanisms as a crime rather than a solution, crimes committed by the Agro-Food Industry, and crimes being committed against those defending Mother Earth.
Meanwhile, crimes committed against nature have been happening not only in remote places – what journalist Chris Hedges has termed our civilization’s “sacrifice zones” – but only a few miles from the Tribunal in the Le Bourget district just outside Paris, where world leaders are negotiating plans to respond to climate change. Summing up the proceedings on the last day, environmental lawyer Linda Sheehan took the stand to indict the working draft of the COP21 agreement for failing to comply with the United Nations’ own laws, and for ignoring the rights of nature and the world’s indigenous peoples.
Formal as the proceedings were, they lack legal standing, and the world’s governments and multinational corporations continue on with their crimes against nature. However, even that is beginning to change. In 2008, Ecuador was the first nation in the world to adopt a new constitution formally recognizing the rights of nature. Since then, other nations and municipalities around the world are beginning to follow suit. Last year, for example, California’s Mendocino County passed a community bill of rights to make fracking illegal, based on the community’s right to a clean ecosystem without manipulation from corporations.
The significance of the Tribunal, as described by the founder of the Rights of Nature movement, Cormac Cullinan, in his summing up, is that it establishes a prototype for what is possible, a new legal discourse that could become mainstream before too long. The Tribunal, as he put it, is “setting the standard for new norms in the relationship between human civilization and the natural world.”
It took over a hundred and fifty years before the grand vision of Thomas Paine would be endorsed by the entire world through the UN’s declaration. We don’t have that long nowadays. But with the speed in which ideas travel in today’s world, we can be hopeful that these new norms will become a commonplace in our own lifetime. Each of us has a part to play in this, by opening our minds to these new possibilities, and turning them into realities on the ground, just like the citizens of Ecuador and Mendocino County.
By the end of this century, if our civilization continues to exist, it may be in no small part due to the ideas propounded today about the Rights of Nature. Perhaps, at that time, someone will look back and see this week’s Tribunal as a milestone in the global embrace of the “truths” that may, by then, seem “self-evident” to people everywhere.
Pope Francis has brought a moral dimension to the crisis of climate change, raising global public awareness of the gaping inequalities of our times and the environmental catastrophe our civilization is causing. This week, in addressing the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, he used the public stage to emphasize his hallmark issues of global poverty, environmental destruction and the urgent need to address climate change.
Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the Pope’s stance is that he is speaking as head of one of the most conservative institutions in world history. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, published in June 2015, he wove together a masterful synthesis of traditional Catholic theology and a sophisticated, systems-oriented understanding of the effects of human activity on the natural world. As one crucial aspect of this synthesis, he has reformulated the traditional Christian account – shared with the other Abrahamic religions – of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.
Dominion Over Nature
The formation of the modern world has been undergirded by a series of root metaphors, embedded deep in the foundations of our culture, that have defined how humans relate to the rest of the world. Many of these metaphors came from the Bible, which served for a millennium and a half as the cornerstone of Western values. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a Divine Lawgiver, nature’s commander-in-chief, boasting: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”
As Divine Lawgiver, one of God’s first laws was to bestow on mankind Dominion Over Nature. After creating Adam and Eve, God commands them:
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. [Genesis 1:26-8]
As many historians have noted, this root metaphor provided a theological and moral justification for humanity to exploit the natural world ceaselessly without concern for any intrinsic value it might otherwise have. It also provided Christian Europe with a deep-seated assurance that God had created the world for no other reason than humanity’s benefit.
The Pope’s ecological insight
Pope Francis attacks this idea of mankind’s absolute Dominion over Nature with all theological guns blazing. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” he avers. “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” [Laudato Si, 67]
The Pope doesn’t reject the notion that God has given humanity Dominion over Nature; instead, he emphasizes that this dominion comes with responsibilities. “Each community,” he proclaims, “can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”
Showing a profound ecological understanding of the world as a network of interconnected systems, the Pope talks about “how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. These ecosystems, he declares, “have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.” [Laudato Si, 140]
Reverent guests of nature
What is fascinating to me about the Pope’s take on the Old Testament is that, as much as he parts company with traditional Christian interpretations, his understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature feels right at home in other non-Christian worldviews.
Traditional Chinese cosmology saw humanity as interconnected with heaven and earth in a resonant web. Rather than claim dominion over nature, the Tao Te Ching proffers an alternative approach for those who wish to harmonize with the Tao: being “reverent, like guests.” [Tao Te Ching 15]
Traditional Chinese philosophers understood the natural world as a series of interlocking systems, recognizing that the same principles organized the human organism as well as the natural universe. In the memorable words of Zhang Zai:
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.
What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.
The Chinese weren’t alone in this view. In fact, the vast majority of indigenous views of nature saw humanity as part of nature, and respecting the natural world as intrinsic to their very existence. Rolling Thunder, the native American leader, summarized this as follows:
It begins with respect for the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit is the life that is in all things – all creatures and plants and even the rocks and the minerals. All things – and I mean all things – have their own will and their own way and their own purpose; this is what is to be respected. Such respect is not a feeling or an attitude only. It’s a way of life. Such respect means that we never stop realizing, and never neglect to carry out our obligations to ourselves and our environment.
In more recent times, this approach to nature is expressed powerfully by ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who developed a platform known as Deep Ecology, which states:
The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves… These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs…
Structural issues of monotheism
My interpretation of the Pope’s approach in Laudato Si is that he is heroically trying to transform the Catholic view of nature to one that is more consistent with these other worldviews, one that would permit humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing earth. He was the first Pope to take the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. This symbolism is clearly of far-reaching importance for him.
However, in his attempt, the Pope necessarily avoids dealing with some structural problems in the Christian interpretation of the cosmos. To begin with, God is still the Divine Lawmaker. In contrast, a true systems understanding of life points to the fact that nature self-organizes. There is no blueprint for nature handed down by an external God; rather life arises as an emergent property from the top-down, bottom-up reciprocal processes taking place within each cell.
Similarly, the dominion humans possess over nature was not assigned by a benevolent lawgiver. Rather, it arose from the unique cognitive capabilities that evolved in our human ancestors – our patterning instinct – which has also driven our global civilization to the imbalances we’re feeling so deeply with today’s environmental crisis.
Of course, the Pope can’t point to these structural issues within monotheistic religion. Given the cosmology inherent to his faith, he is performing a herculean task in attempting to redirect Catholic thought towards a sustainable worldview. Ultimately, however, I fear that contradictions may inevitably arise. If we desire humanity to hold a sustainable relationship with nature, not just through this century, but for millennia to come, we need a to forge a new approach, one that begins by understanding that humanity’s place in the universe is not a God-given birthright of dominion, but one that emerged from our evolved cognitive capabilities.
These evolved powers have given us civilization replete with its technological marvels – and have also brought us to the precarious precipice of climate change and environmental collapse we are all facing. We would do best to recognize our intrinsic responsibility to harmonize with nature, to rebalance what we have damaged. To do so, we must seek our source of meaning from that interconnected web of life in which we are all embedded.