"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Systemic Failures Of Foresight & Policy’

Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate “Farce”

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2014 at 6:27 pm

2014.9.16.NYC.MainOldspeak: “Reality versus farce. Fascinating distinction. This march is a farce, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing“. The time for action has passed. What needs to have happened by now has not and will not happen. Carbon emmisons need to have peaked in 4 months. All indications is they’re steadily increasing with no peak in sight. We’re done. Have all the fucking photo ops and fundraisers you like. As the writer so artfully articulates, the reality is this:

The climate justice movement has an expiration date. If the tipping points in the earth system are passed, and the feedback loops begin their vicious cycle, human attempts at mitigation will be futile, and climate justice will become an anachronism – or at worst a slogan for geo-engineering lobbies. Thousands of scientists have come to consensus on this point, and many years ago gave us a deadline: A carbon emissions peak in 2015 followed by rapid and permanent decline.     

In other words, we have roughly four months to work for climate justice. The world is literally at stake; all life on earth is at risk. Never has there been a more urgent or comprehensive mandate.

Even the guardians and gatekeepers of the ruling class, from politicians to scientists, are forthcoming on this point. Listen to Al Gore: “I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.” He said that in 2007. It is in this context that we must seek to better understand and analyze the People’s Climate March…

No target, no demands, no timing, no unity, no history and no integrity amounts to one thing: No politics. The whole will be far less than the sum of its parts. The biggest climate march in history will amount to something less than Al Gore.

In discussions over the past month with a wide range of people – UN diplomats, radical Vermonters, unionists, professors, liberal Democrats, etc. – the same thing has been repeated to me by everyone: “If we get a huge number of people, no one will be able to ignore us.” “The mainstream media will be forced to cover it.”

So what is being billed and organized as The People’s Climate March, and An Invitation to Change Everything, turns out to be a massive photo op. The spectacle of thousands of First World citizens marching for climate justice, while they continue to generate the vast majority of carbon emissions, brings to mind the spectacle of George W. Bush visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” –Quincy Saul

By Quincy Saul  @ Truthout:

In the lead-up to any large-scale protest, it is useful to bear in mind the potential dangers and drawbacks of such an endeavor. On the eve of what is being advertised as “the biggest climate march in history,” we might reflect on Malcolm X’s experience of the March on Washington, as recounted in the Autobiography of Malcolm X:

“Farce in Washington”, I call it. . . . It was like a movie. . . . For the status-seeker, it was a status symbol. “Were you there?”. . . . It had become an outing, a picnic. . . . What originally was planned to be an angry riptide, one English newspaper aptly described now as “the gentle flood”. . . . there wasn’t a single logistics aspect uncontrolled. . . . They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. . . . Yes, I was there. I observed that circus.

Of course, not everyone present concurred with Malcolm X about the March on Washington – and even in a top-down format, one hopes the upcoming march could draw much-needed attention to the climate movement. The question is: At what cost? In this vein, what follows are a few reflections on the buildup to the September 21 People’s Climate March in New York City, to provide some concrete analysis of concrete conditions, and propose some solutions.

Deadline

The climate justice movement has an expiration date. If the tipping points in the earth system are passed, and the feedback loops begin their vicious cycle, human attempts at mitigation will be futile, and climate justice will become an anachronism – or at worst a slogan for geo-engineering lobbies. Thousands of scientists have come to consensus on this point, and many years ago gave us a deadline: A carbon emissions peak in 2015 followed by rapid and permanent decline.

In other words, we have roughly four months to work for climate justice. The world is literally at stake; all life on earth is at risk. Never has there been a more urgent or comprehensive mandate.

Even the guardians and gatekeepers of the ruling class, from politicians to scientists, are forthcoming on this point. Listen to Al Gore: “I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.” He said that in 2007. It is in this context that we must seek to better understand and analyze the People’s Climate March.

“An Invitation to Change Everything”

The People’s Climate March has a powerful slogan. It has world-class publicity. But the desire to bring the biggest possible number of people to the march has trumped all other considerations. The results are devastating:

No Target: The march is a U-turn through Times Square, beginning at a monument to genocide (Columbus Circle) and ending . . . in the middle of nowhere. Here in New York City where the ruling class of the whole world has made their diverse headquarters, the march will target none of them. The march will not even go near the United Nations, its ostensible symbolic target.

No Timing: The United Nations will convene leading figures from all over the world – several days after the march. The march does not coincide with anything, contemporary or historic.

No Demands: Again, to attract the largest number of people, the march has rallied around the lowest common denominator – in this case, nothing. Not only are there no demands, but there is in fact no content at all to the politics of the march, other than vague concern and nebulous urgency about “the climate,” which is itself undefined.

No Unity: While a large number of people are sure to converge on Columbus Circle on September 21, the only thing they will have in common is the same street. The revolutionary communists will link arms with the Green Zionist Alliance and the Democratic Party, and compete with Times Square billboards for the attention of tourists and the corporate media.What is the binding agent for this sudden and unprecedented unity? Fifty-one years later, the words of Malcolm X still ring true: “the white man’s money.”

No History: Instead of building on the momentum of a decades-old climate justice movement, this march appears to be taking us backwards. Here’s what Ricken Patel of Avaaz, one of the main funders of the march, said to The Guardian: “We in the movement, activists, have failed up until this point to put up a banner and say if you care about this, now is the time, here is the place, let’s come together, to show politicians the political power that is out there on there.”

It is as if the massive mobilizations outside the United Nations meeting in Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011) never took place, let alone the literally thousands of smaller, more localized actions and gatherings for climate justice. At all of these gatherings, activists convoked the world to demonstrate the power of the people, under banners which were far more radical and transformative than anything we have seen so far for this march.

No Integrity: The invitation to change everything has been permitted and approved by the New York City Police Department. This permit betrays a lack of respect for the people who will be making sacrifices to come all the way to New York City to change the world, and a lack of integrity among those who want to change everything, but seek permission for this change from one of the more obviously brutal guardians of business as usual. This lack of integrity sets up thousands of earnest souls for an onset of depression and cynicism when this march doesn’t change the world. This will in turn be fertile soil for everyone and anyone hawking false solutions.

No target, no demands, no timing, no unity, no history and no integrity amounts to one thing: No politics. The whole will be far less than the sum of its parts. The biggest climate march in history will amount to something less than Al Gore.

In discussions over the past month with a wide range of people – UN diplomats, radical Vermonters, unionists, professors, liberal Democrats, etc. – the same thing has been repeated to me by everyone: “If we get a huge number of people, no one will be able to ignore us.” “The mainstream media will be forced to cover it.”

So what is being billed and organized as The People’s Climate March, and An Invitation to Change Everything, turns out to be a massive photo op. The spectacle of thousands of First World citizens marching for climate justice, while they continue to generate the vast majority of carbon emissions, brings to mind the spectacle of George W. Bush visiting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So what are we left with? James Brown knew, when he said: “You’re like a dull knife; Just ain’t cutting. You’re just talking loud; And saying nothing. Just saying nothing. Good luck to you; Just allow you’re wrong. Then keep on singing that; Same old money song . . .”

So What Are We Going to Do About It?

This is not the place to complain, but to propose solutions. If we are unsatisfied with this march and its leadership, we have to provide an alternative. As James Brown knew, we “have to pay the cost to be the boss.” Here are some suggestions for starters:

  1. We are going to stop lying to the people. This is the primary and cardinal rule of revolutionary politics. To invite people to change the world and corral them into cattle pens on a police-escorted parade through the heart of consumer society is astoundingly dishonest. From now on, we will stop lying to people. Climate justice requires nothing less than a global revolution in politics and production; it requires a historic transition to a new model of civilization, which will demand great sacrifice and creativity from everyone.
  2. We are going to stop making demands of anyone or anything but ourselves and each other. The powers that be are deaf, dumb and deadly, and we will waste no further time trying to pressure or persuade them. We are going to stop speaking truth to power and start speaking truth to powerlessness. Either we are going to become the leaders we have been waiting for, starting now, or we are going to resign ourselves to the inevitability of catastrophic climate change and the sixth mass extinction.
  3. We are going to return to the source. This means three things: (A) Return to the common people from the delirious heights of symbolic protest politics, with dedication to concrete local work, to divorce food, water, shelter and energy systems from capital. (B) Return to the livelihood and wisdom of our ancestors, the indigenous peoples of every continent, who have lived for thousands of years in harmony with nature, and who still possess the knowledge and skills to restore balance. (C) Return to the sun – a second Copernican revolution and a heliocentric energy policy. Either we return to a subsistence perspective that has prevailed for the majority of human history, or all future development of productive forces must be based exclusively on solar energy.
  4. We are going to get arrested! The only thing that we can do to meet the deadline for climate justice is to engage in a massive and permanent campaign to shut down the fossil fuel economy. But we have to do this strategically, not in the symbolic cuff-and-stuffs that are a perversion and prostitution of the noble ideals of civil disobedience and revolutionary nonviolence. So we are going to shut down coal plants; we are going to block ports, distribution centers and railway hubs where fossil fuels are transported; whatever it takes to keep the oil in the soil. We’re going to put our bodies between the soil and the sky.So let’s make sure that the call to “Flood Wall Street” on September 22 is the “angry riptide” it should be, and not “the gentle flood.”
  5. We are going to join the rest of the human race. For 200 years too long, citizens of the United States have been parasites and predators on the rest of the world. To prevent climate catastrophe, we are going to leave our imperial hubris behind, and join with the revolutionary ecosocialist uprisings that are sweeping the global South.

 

 

Violence Against Our Environment

In Uncategorized on December 9, 2013 at 7:05 pm

https://i1.wp.com/cooper.edu/sites/default/files/2302-081_r.jpg

Oldspeak: “An increasing number of environmental activists, myself included, regard the word “environment” with some suspicion, generally preferring the term “ecological.” The reasoning behind the change in emphasis is because using the word “environment” posits the idea that nature is something that surrounds humans, but at the same time, something that we are fundamentally outside of, and separate from. The separation of nature from humans is the ideological position underlying capitalist orthodoxy; namely that the biosphere is a subset of the economy, rather than the other way around. Capitalists can freely take “natural resources” from outside of the economy as inputs, and dump waste from the production process back into the environment as outputs. Mainstream economic theory then pronounces that the ramifications of such an outlook will have only limited impact on the planet as a whole, and, thereby, economic accumulation and growth can continue indefinitely.

“Ecological,” on the other hand, embeds humans back within the external world as a natural component of it, the same as any other organism. The use of tools such as microscopes, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices, can then be seen not simply as humans investigating nature in order to understand it, but that we are concurrently investigating ourselves, because tools are merely mechanical extensions of our bodily senses. No doubt, Marx would very much approve of such an attention to the hidden social meaning of words, particularly with regard, in this example, to his very important concept of “metabolic rift”: the devastating and unnatural split or break between humans and nature, forced on us by capitalist social relations…

….Capitalist environmental violence rests on the dual exploitation of humans and nature, which were regarded by Marx as the twin sources of all wealth. Exploitation of the natural world, driven forward by the never-ending hunt for profits, is merely the flip side of the exploitation of humans, put to work to turn the source of sustenance into money. Viewed this way, socialists fighting for social justice and a different world cannot avoid integrating a fight for ecological justice, as the two are inseparable components of the same fight.” -Chris Williams

“Brilliant insight. in much the same way as we otherize & dehumanize each other in order to perpetrate violence, we consider ourselves separate from ecology we’re fundamentally a part of to rationalize violence against it. The faux distinction allows for the length, breadth and depravity of capitalist ecological violence. Blown up mountains. Poisoned waterways. Habitat Destruction. The list of offenses is very long. The economic system around which we organize our societies is at its foundation, ecocidal, homicidal, exploitative, repressive, racist, patriarchal, and interminably bureaucratic. it is animated by violence destruction & death. As long as we regard the biosphere a subset of the economy, the prospect of a livable future environment and planet is nil.  There is no economy on dead planet.” -OSJ

By Chris Williams @ Dissident Voice:

Both the words “environment” and “violence” have so many meanings, that they require some definition of how they can be of use in the context of a struggle for social justice. Regarding the word violence, according to Merriam Webster, one definition is “the use of brute strength to cause harm to a person or property”; a definition that doesn’t seem to have an immediately obvious connection to ecological issues associated with climate change, loss of biodiversity and various forms of pollution.

An increasing number of environmental activists, myself included, regard the word “environment” with some suspicion, generally preferring the term “ecological.” The reasoning behind the change in emphasis is because using the word “environment” posits the idea that nature is something that surrounds humans, but at the same time, something that we are fundamentally outside of, and separate from. The separation of nature from humans is the ideological position underlying capitalist orthodoxy; namely that the biosphere is a subset of the economy, rather than the other way around. Capitalists can freely take “natural resources” from outside of the economy as inputs, and dump waste from the production process back into the environment as outputs. Mainstream economic theory then pronounces that the ramifications of such an outlook will have only limited impact on the planet as a whole, and, thereby, economic accumulation and growth can continue indefinitely.

“Ecological,” on the other hand, embeds humans back within the external world as a natural component of it, the same as any other organism. The use of tools such as microscopes, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging devices, can then be seen not simply as humans investigating nature in order to understand it, but that we are concurrently investigating ourselves, because tools are merely mechanical extensions of our bodily senses. No doubt, Marx would very much approve of such an attention to the hidden social meaning of words, particularly with regard, in this example, to his very important concept of “metabolic rift”: the devastating and unnatural split or break between humans and nature, forced on us by capitalist social relations.

Given these issues, and the importance of words to explain and communicate thought, how should those of us engaged in a struggle against capitalist environmental violence, conceive of that fight?  If we are to argue that the social, economic and political system known as capitalism is the root cause of environmental violence, what are we arguing it is responsible for?

Interestingly enough, but, perhaps unsurprisingly given the prevalence of overt violence in our world, the dictionary gives almost 50 related words for “violence”. These begin with words such as “coercion”, “compulsion”, “constraint”, go on to “barbarity”, “brutality”, “damage” and continue with “onslaught”, “tumult” and “upheaval.”

Putting these words into a human context and joining them up with the word “environment” now starts to make significant sense. It is no longer possible to restrict violence to an act that is immediate and causes direct and obvious harm, whether that is in the most commonly thought of cases of warfare, police brutality, or state-sponsored torture such as waterboarding, or racist, sexist or homophobic language and bigotry.

Capitalist environmental violence rests on the dual exploitation of humans and nature, which were regarded by Marx as the twin sources of all wealth. Exploitation of the natural world, driven forward by the never-ending hunt for profits, is merely the flip side of the exploitation of humans, put to work to turn the source of sustenance into money. Viewed this way, socialists fighting for social justice and a different world cannot avoid integrating a fight for ecological justice, as the two are inseparable components of the same fight.

In this broadened understanding of violence, capitalism is an intensely violent system, as it depends on the systematic coercion of workers who are daily faced with the choice of working for “a living” or starvation and homelessness; their life choices for education, health and human fulfillment are hugely constrained by the unyielding ferocity of class exploitation and racism. Billions of people’s lives are stunted and foreshortened by the daily violence meted out to them via the dictates of a system that prioritizes profit above all else. In Volume I of Capital, Marx’s words resonate as much in our day as his:

In its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is supplied to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential.

But for Marx, the violent treatment of humans by capitalist social relations, in shortening and hamstringing their lives through overwork, poor housing, inadequate food and pollution, was directly analogous to capitalist farming practices:

Capital cares nothing for the length of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the [worker’s] life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

One can only have nutritious food, health care, or decent housing located in an unpolluted neighborhood, if one has the money to pay for those things. Lack of access to these necessities by some, where others have access, makes the violence explicit. Furthermore, there is the violence of institutionalized racism, and a culture saturated with sexism that turns women’s bodies into objects, doubly exploits them through unpaid domestic labor, and in the United States, refuses to allow women control over their own reproductive organs.

There is the associated psychological violence done to humans against our own sociality, whereby we are forced to live, in Marx’s emotive phrase, in “dot-like isolation,” as the primacy of the individual over the collective is sanctified. Few have written of the social alienation and environmental degradation suffered by working people with greater effect than Frederick Engels, in his classic study, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Engels highlights the contradiction engendered by capitalism, between bringing millions of people together in giant urban conglomerations, which, rather than fostering collective solidarity and companionship, instead produce its opposite — an unfeeling and solitary individuality that corrupts the human spirit:

After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others.

For  Engels, this produces feelings and a mode of living that is profoundly alienating of all that is good about humans:

The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking, is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

Of course, there is the more overt and immediate violence of the state against people trying to protect their land from environmental degradation and ensuing displacement and poverty associated with fossil fuel extraction. From the Ogoni people in Nigeria fighting Shell, to indigenous people poisoned by Chevron in the forests of Ecuador, the paramilitary arm of the state serves corporate priorities the world over.

In North America, this was brutally demonstrated in September, as members of the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq First Nation, alongside local residents, blockaded a road in New Brunswick, Canada. They were trying to prevent fracking exploration and were assaulted and tear gassed for their protest by paramilitary police.

The group, which had never been asked about whether they wanted their land used in this way, had blocked the road to stop shale gas exploration by SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of the Houston-based Southwestern Energy Co. As Susan Levi-Peters, the former chief of the nearby Elsipogtog indigenous group, told reporters, “The RCMP is coming in here with their tear gas – they even had dogs on us… They were acting like we’re standing there with weapons, while we are standing there, as women, with drums and eagle feathers.

There are myriad ways in which environmental violence plays out, especially when it is compounded by climate change. So, for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack of tree-cover from ongoing deforestation, means even when rain comes, it runs off the land and carries fertile topsoil with it. As a result, women and girls, who are responsible for over 70 percent of water collection, have to travel further and further to obtain it. The UN estimates that women in Sub-Saharan Africa spend 200 million hours per day collecting water for food and farming purposes, or 40 billion hours annually.

In 1992, Lawrence Summers, who was at the time chief economist of the World Bank, later to become Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, president of Harvard, and most recently one of Obama’s key economic advisors in his first cabinet, wrote in an internal World Bank memorandum published by The Economist:

“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs?” By way of answering his own question, he gives three reasons. Here’s the first:

(1) The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

The fact that a major establishment actor is able to advocate and rationalize the dumping of toxic waste on poor communities is a perfect illustration of the inhumanity of the thought process behind capitalist decision-making.

As I have argued, we need a much broader definition of violence than is allowed for by limiting its meaning to a physical and immediate brutal act of aggression, and one that includes an environmental dimension. Violence can happen over extended periods of time. Exploited workers in unhealthy conditions and poor communities exposed to toxins gradually succumb to a worsening quality of life, through a compendium of often intersecting long-term ailments. Due to financial restrictions on health care (itself a violent act), they often can’t treat these illnesses by going to the doctor, seeking another job, or relocating to a different neighborhood.

A broadened definition of violence is exactly what Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Madison, argues is required in his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor:

By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting in sensational visibility.

That is to say, the unplanned, shorter and shorter time frames upon which capitalism operates, clash with the longer and longer term effects of the actions taken on those shorter time scales. Human induced climate change is arguably the primary and perfect example of just such a contradiction between the short-term priorities of capitalism to make profit from continuing to burn fossil fuels, and the longer term implications for future generations of humans, and planetary life in general, due to the now well-known side-effect of increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. One could reasonably debate whether climate change, or the irradiation of the atmosphere from atomic tests and the need to deal with nuclear waste from nuclear power plants — waste that remains toxic and deadly for hundreds of thousands of years — is a more disruptive and long-term negative impact of capitalist social relations.

In the more immediate sense, while we currently produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, over one billion people suffer starvation and hunger. In discussing why people starve in England, when food was in fact abundant, Engels posed the question of who should be blamed for the extreme violence of death by starvation: “The English working-men call this ‘social murder’, and accuse our whole society of perpetrating this crime perpetually. Are they wrong?”

In answering Engels’ question, one must blame the system for the long-term “social murder” of our planet, and the daily degradation and violence of life under capitalism. Given the critical state of the biosphere and an exploitative and constantly-growing economic model based on profit and fossil fuels for energy, which is bringing about global climate change, Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion, that we face the choice of barbarism or socialism, rings true now more than ever.

If we accept that premise, to return to where I began, one cannot be a social justice activist without equally being an ecological justice activist; and link arms with all those fighting racist environmental violence the world over.

Ultimately, all of this can only be solved by the self-emancipation of humanity and putting in place a system that prioritizes long-term human and planetary health; real, bottom-up democracy based on cooperation; and production for human needs at its center. We need a system of cooperative and meaningful production, whereby the goal of society is social equity and ecological sustainability, and where environmental violence, in all its manifestations, is a thing of the past. To bring this about will require a social and ecological revolution. While we organize and fight for that future, we must simultaneously work to bring about the small victories, necessary to make people’s immediate lives better and less polluted under capitalism, organize, and gain confidence for the larger, longer-term, and more profound and revolutionary battles to come.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011). He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science. Read other articles by Chris.

 

Is Our System of Government Incapable Of Meeting The Challenges We Face?

In Uncategorized on October 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Oldspeak:We have entered a “long emergency” in which a myriad of worsening eco-logical, social, and economic problems and dilemmas at different geographic and temporal scales are converging as a crisis of crises. It is a collision of two non-linear systems—the biosphere and biogeochemical cycles on one side and human institutions, organizations, and governments on the other. But the response at the national and international levels has so far been indifferent to inconsistent, and nowhere more flagrantly so than in the United States, which is responsible for about 28 percent of the fossil-fuel carbon that humanity added to the atmosphere between 1850 and 2002.

The “perfect storm” that lies ahead is caused by the collision of changing climate; spreading ecological disorder (including deforestation, soil loss, water shortages, species loss, ocean acidification); population growth; unfair distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of economic growth; national, ethnic, and religious tensions; and the proliferation of nuclear weapons—all compounded by systemic failures of foresight and policy…

Part of the reason for paralysis is the sheer difficulty of the issue. Climate change is scientifically complex, politically divisive, economically costly, morally contentious, and ever so easy to deny or defer to others at some later time. But the continuing failure to anticipate and forestall the worst effects of climate destabilization in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is the largest political and moral failure in history. Indeed, it is a crime across generations for which we have, as yet, no name.

Barring a technological miracle, we have condemned ourselves and posterity to live with growing climate instability for hundreds or even thousands of years. No government has yet shown the foresight, will, creativity, or capacity to deal with problems at this scale, complexity, or duration. No government is prepared to make the “tragic choices” ahead humanely and rationally. And no government has yet demonstrated the willingness to rethink its own mission at the intersection of climate instability and conventional economic wisdom. The same is true in the realm of international governance. In the words of historian Mark Mazower: “The real world challenges mount around us in the shape of climate change, financial instability . . . [but there is] no single agency able to coordinate the response to global warming….

These issues require us to ask what kind of societies and what kind of global community do we intend to build? It is certainly possible to imagine a corporate-dominated, hyper-efficient, solar-powered, sustainable world that is also grossly unfair, violent, and fascist. To organize society mostly by market transactions would be to create a kind of Ayn Randian hell that would demolish society, as economist Karl Polanyi once said. Some things should never be sold—because the selling undermines human rights; because it would violate the law and procedural requirements for openness and fairness; because it would have a coarsening effect on society; because the sale would steal from the poor and vulnerable, including future generations; because the thing to be sold is part of the common heritage of humankind and so can have no rightful owner; and because the thing to be sold—including government itself—should simply not be for sale.

So what is to be done?…. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein proposes that we strengthen and deepen the practice of democracy even as we enlarge the power of the state. “Responding to climate change, requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless sit is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law.” –David W. Orr

“So we know what needs to be done, the know the problem requires a globally coordinated response, we know it needs to start happening LAST WEEK. “But the continuing failure to anticipate and forestall the worst effects of climate destabilization in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is the largest political and moral failure in history.” Why? Greed and insatiable thirst for more have so thoroughly infected the totalitarian psyches of our most powerful and influential “citizens”. They have co-opted the political systems of the world, buying major influence over its workings. Drastically restricting and obstructing any meaningful environment based reforms. The information dissemination systems say very little about the perilous future that is all but guaranteed by the unrelenting, increasingly dangerous and toxic extraction and burning of fossil fuels  There is no indication these systems will change anytime soon. The people will have to drive the change if there is to be any.” -OSJ

By David W. Orr @ Alter Net:

The following is excerpted from The State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Possible [2] by the Worldwatch Institute. Copyright 2013 by the Worldwatch Institute. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

The first evidence linking climate change and human emissions of carbon dioxide was painstakingly assembled in 1897 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. What began as an interesting but seemingly unimportant conjecture about the effect of rising carbon dioxide on temperature has turned into a flood of increasingly urgent and rigorous warnings about the rapid warming of Earth and the dire consequences of inaction. Nonetheless, the global dialogue on climate is floundering while the scientific and anecdotal evidence of rapid climate destabilization grows by the day.

We have entered a “long emergency” in which a myriad of worsening eco-logical, social, and economic problems and dilemmas at different geographic and temporal scales are converging as a crisis of crises. It is a collision of two non-linear systems—the biosphere and biogeochemical cycles on one side and human institutions, organizations, and governments on the other. But the response at the national and international levels has so far been indifferent to inconsistent, and nowhere more flagrantly so than in the United States, which is responsible for about 28 percent of the fossil-fuel carbon that humanity added to the atmosphere between 1850 and 2002.

The “perfect storm” that lies ahead is caused by the collision of changing climate; spreading ecological disorder (including deforestation, soil loss, water shortages, species loss, ocean acidification); population growth; unfair distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of economic growth; national, ethnic, and religious tensions; and the proliferation of nuclear weapons—all compounded by systemic failures of foresight and policy. As a consequence, in political theorist Brian Barry’s words, “it is quite possible that by the year 2100 human life will have become extinct or will be confined to a few residential areas that have escaped the devastating effects of nuclear holocaust or global warming.”

Part of the reason for paralysis is the sheer difficulty of the issue. Climate change is scientifically complex, politically divisive, economically costly, morally contentious, and ever so easy to deny or defer to others at some later time. But the continuing failure to anticipate and forestall the worst effects of climate destabilization in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is the largest political and moral failure in history. Indeed, it is a crime across generations for which we have, as yet, no name.

Barring a technological miracle, we have condemned ourselves and posterity to live with growing climate instability for hundreds or even thousands of years. No government has yet shown the foresight, will, creativity, or capacity to deal with problems at this scale, complexity, or duration. No government is prepared to make the “tragic choices” ahead humanely and rationally. And no government has yet demonstrated the willingness to rethink its own mission at the intersection of climate instability and conventional economic wisdom. The same is true in the realm of international governance. In the words of historian Mark Mazower: “The real world challenges mount around us in the shape of climate change, financial instability . . . [but there is] no single agency able to coordinate the response to global warming.”

The Problem of Governance

In An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, in 1974, economist Robert Heilbroner wrote: “I not only predict but I prescribe a centralization of power as the only means by which our threatened and dangerous civilization will make way for its successor.” Heilbroner’s description of the human prospect included global warming but also other threats to industrial civilization, including the possibility that finally we would not care enough to do the things necessary to protect posterity. The extent to which power must be centralized, he said, depends on the capacity of populations, accustomed to affluence, for self-discipline. But he did not find “much evidence in history—especially in the history of nations organized under the materialistic and individualistic promptings of an industrial civilization— to encourage expectations of an easy subordination of the private interest to the public weal.”

Heilbroner’s conclusions are broadly similar to those of others, including British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who somewhat less apocalyptically proposes “a return to greater state interventionism”—but as a catalyst, facilitator, and enforcer of guarantees. Giddens believes the climate crisis will motivate governments to create new partnerships with corporations and civil society, which is to say more of the same, only bigger and better. David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace likewise argues that the role of the state must evolve toward larger, more innovative governments and “stronger international institutions [as] the only possible way to preserve national interests.”

The performance of highly centralized governments, however, is not encouraging—especially relative to the conditions of the long emergency. Governments have been effective at waging war and sometimes in solving— or appearing to solve—economic problems. But even then they are cumbersome, slow, and excessively bureaucratic. They tend to fragment agencies by problem, rather like mailbox pigeonholes, but the long emergency will require managing complex systems over long time periods. Might there be more agile, dependable, and less awkward ways to conduct the public business in the long emergency that do not require authoritarian governments, the compromises and irrational messiness of politics, or even reliance on personal sacrifice? Can these be made to work over the long time spans necessary to stabilize the climate? If not, how else might we conduct the public business? Broadly, there are three other possibilities.

First, champions of markets and advanced technology propose to solve the climate crisis by harnessing the power of markets and technological innovation to avoid what they regard as the quagmire of government. Rational corporate behavior responding to markets and prices, they believe, can stabilize climate faster at lower costs and without hair-shirt sacrifice, moral posturing, and slow, clumsy, overbearing bureaucracies. The reason is said to be the power of informed self-interest plus the ongoing revolution in energy technology that has made efficiency and renewable energy cheaper, faster, less risky, and more profitable than fossil fuels. In their 2011 book, Reinventing Fire, Amory Lovins and his coauthors, for example, ask whether “the United States could realistically stop using oil and coal by 2050? And could such a vast transition toward efficient use and renewable energy be led by business for durable advantage?” The answer, they say, is yes, and the reasoning and data they marshal are formidable.

But why would corporations, particularly those in highly subsidized extractive industries, agree to change as long as they can pass on the costs of climate change to someone else? Who would pay for the “stranded” oil and coal reserves (with an estimated value in excess of $20 trillion) that cannot be burned if we are to stay below a 2 degree Celsius warming—often thought to be the threshold of catastrophe? Would corporations continue to use their financial power to manipulate public opinion, undermine regulations, and oppose an equitable sharing of costs, risks, and benefits? How does corporate responsibility fit with the capitalist drive to expand market share? Economist Robert Reich concludes that given the existing rules of the market, corporations “cannotbe socially responsible, at least not to any significant extent. . . . Supercapitalism does not permit acts of corporate virtue that erode the bottom line. No corporation can ‘voluntarily’ take on an extra cost that its competitors don’t also take on.” He further argues that the alleged convergence of social responsibility and profitability is unsupported by any factual evidence.

There are still larger questions about how large corporations fit in democratic societies. One of the most insightful students of politics and economics, Yale political scientist Charles Lindblom, concluded his magisterial Politics and Marketsin 1977 with the observation that “the large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit” (emphasis added). Until democratized internally, stripped of legal “personhood,” and rendered publicly accountable, large corporations will remain autocratic fiefdoms, for the most part beyond public control.

These issues require us to ask what kind of societies and what kind of global community do we intend to build? It is certainly possible to imagine a corporate-dominated, hyper-efficient, solar-powered, sustainable world that is also grossly unfair, violent, and fascist. To organize society mostly by market transactions would be to create a kind of Ayn Randian hell that would demolish society, as economist Karl Polanyi once said. Some things should never be sold—because the selling undermines human rights; because it would violate the law and procedural requirements for openness and fairness; because it would have a coarsening effect on society; because the sale would steal from the poor and vulnerable, including future generations; because the thing to be sold is part of the common heritage of humankind and so can have no rightful owner; and because the thing to be sold—including government itself—should simply not be for sale.

A second alternative to authoritarian governments may lie in the emergence of national and global networks abetted by the Internet and advancing communications technology. They are decentralized, self-replicating, and sometimes self-correcting. In time, they might grow into a global system doing what traditional governments and international agencies once did—but better, faster, and cheaper. Some analysts believe that the old model of the nation-state is inadequate to meet many of the challenges of the long emergency and is losing power to a variety of novel organizations. Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, for one, envisions networks of “disaggregated states in which national government officials interact intensively with one another and adopt codes of best practices and agree on coordinated solutions to common problems,” thereby sidestepping conventional inter-governmental practices and international politics.

Below the level of governments there is, in fact, an explosion of nongovernmental organizations, citizens’ groups, and professional networks that are already assuming many of the functions and responsibilities once left to governments. Writer and entrepreneur Paul Hawken believes that the world is already being reshaped by a global upwelling of grassroots organizations promoting sustainable economies, renewable energy, justice, transparency, and community mobilization. Many of the thousands of groups Hawken describes are linked in “global action networks,” organized around specific issues to provide “communication platforms for sub-groups to organize in ever-more-specialized geographic and sub-issue networks.” Early examples include the International Red Cross and the International Labour Organization.

Recently clusters of nongovernmental groups have organized around issues such as common property resources, global financing for local projects, water, climate, political campaigns, and access to information. They are fast, agile, and participatory. Relative to other citizens’ efforts, they require little funding. But like other grassroots organizations, they have no power to legislate, tax, or enforce rules. In Mark Mazower’s words, “Many are too opaque and unrepresentative to any collective body.” Much of the same, he believes, can be said of foundations and philanthropists. By applying business methods to social problems, Mazower writes, “Philanthrocapitalists exaggerate what technology can do, ignore the complexities of social and institutional constraints, often waste sums that would have been better spent more carefully and wreak havoc with the existing fabric of society in places they know very little about.” Moreover, they are not immune to fashion, delusion, corruption, and arrogance. Nor are they often held account-able to the public.

So what is to be done? Robert Heilbroner proposed enlarging the powers of the state. Green economy advocates believe that corporations can lead the transition through the long emergency. Others argue that an effective planetary immune system is already emerging in the form of networks. Each offers a piece in a larger puzzle. But there is a fourth possibility. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein proposes that we strengthen and deepen the practice of democracy even as we enlarge the power of the state. “Responding to climate change,” she writes:

“requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless sit is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law.

Democracy, Winston Churchill once famously said, is the worst form of government except for all the others ever tried. But has it ever been tried? In columnist Harold Myerson’s words, “the problem isn’t that we’re too democratic. It’s that we’re not democratic enough.” The authors of the U.S. Constitution, for example, grounded ultimate power in “we the people” while denying them any such power or even much access to it.

Political theorist Benjamin Barber proposes that we take some of the power back by revitalizing society as a “strong democracy,” by which he means a “self-governing community of citizens who are united less by homogeneous interests than by civic education and who are made capable of common purpose and mutual action by virtue of their civic attitudes and participatory institutions rather than their altruism or their good nature.” Strong democracy requires engaged, thoughtful citizens, as once proposed by Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey. The primary obstacle, Barber con-cedes, is the lack of a “nationwide system of local civic participation.” To fill that void he proposes, among other things, a national system of neighborhood assemblies rebuilding democracy from the bottom up.

Political theorists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson similarly propose the creation of deliberative institutions in which “free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present to all citizens but open to challenge in the future.” Reminiscent of classical Greek democracy, they intend to get people talking about large issues in public settings in order to raise the legitimacy of policy choices, improve public knowledge, and increase civil discourse. (See Box 26–1.) A great deal depends, they concede, on the durability and vitality of practices and institutions that enable deliberation to work well.

Political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin propose a new national holiday, Deliberation Day, on which citizens would meet in structured dialogues about issues and candidates. They believe that “ordinary citizens are willing and able to take on the challenge of civic deliberation during ordinary times” in a properly structured setting that “facilitates genuine learning about the choices confronting the political community.”

Legal scholar Sanford Levinson believes, however, that reforms will be ineffective without first repairing the structural flaws in the U.S. Constitution, which is less democratic than any of the 50 state constitutions in the United States. He proposes a Constitutional Convention of citizens selected by lottery proportional to state populations to remodel the basic structure of governance. Whether this is feasible or not, the U.S. Constitution has other flaws that will limit effective responses to problems of governance in the long emergency.

Philosophers have argued through the ages that democracy is the best form of government, and some have claimed that the deeper it is, the better. By “deeper” they mean a structure that spreads power widely, engages more people, and invites them to take a more direct role in the shaping of policy.

Most liberal (current) democracies do not meet that definition, being republican in form and thus giving most power and decision making responsibility to elected representatives. In some of these republics, democracy is even further degraded. In the United States, for instance, Supreme Court decisions over the years have established that there is essentially no difference in civic standing between individual citizens and corporations or other private interests that can and do spend billions of dollars on political advertising, lobbying, and propaganda (over $8 billion in the 2010 election cycle).

But it is not simply such distortions of democracy that compel a closer look at the benefits of deepening it. The democracies that most of the industrial world lives in have been derided by political theorist Benjamin Barber as “politics as zookeeping”—systems designed “to keep men safely apart rather than bring them fruitfully together.” In fact there are major potential advantages in bringing people fruitfully together in the political arena, not least with respect to the environmental crises that beset humanity now. Paradoxically, one of the weaknesses of liberal democracy may be not that it asks too much of its citizens but that it asks too little. Having mostly handed off all responsibility for assessing issues and setting policy to elected politicians, voters are free to indulge themselves in narrow and virulently asserted positions rather than having to come together, work to perceive the common good, and plot a course toward it.

One antidote to this is deliberation. Deliberative democracy can take many forms, but its essence, according to social scientist Adolf Gundersen, is “the process by which individuals actively confront challenges to their beliefs.” It can happen when someone reads a book and thinks about what it says, but in the public sphere more generally it means engaging in pairs or larger groups to discuss issues, com-pare notes, probe (not attack) one another’s assertions, and take the opportunity to evolve a personal position in the interests of forging a collective one. Deliberative democracy, in Gundersen’s words, “challenges citizens to move beyond their present beliefs, develop their ideas, and examine their values. It calls upon them to make connections, to connect more firmly and fully with the people and the world around them.” When arranged to address environmental aims, deliberative democracy “connects the people, first with each other and then with the environment they wish not simply to visit, but also to inhabit.”

Given the uneven record of democracies in educating their people into citizenship, true deliberation might be difficult to learn, especially in countries where the politics are strongly adversarial. Deliberative democracy is a “conversation,” Gundersen says, “not a series of speeches.” Conversations involve respectful listening—not just waiting to talk—as well as speaking. Yet there is an untapped hunger for it that can be released when the circumstances are conducive. And Gundersen has established through 240 hours of interviews with 46 Americans that deliberation about environmental matters “leads citizens to think of our collective pursuit of environmental ends in a more collective, long-term, holistic, and self-reflectiveway.” Such thinking might be the indispensable foundation for achieving anything like sustainability.

In this regard the U.S. Constitution is typical of others in giving no “clear, unambiguous textual foundation for federal environmental protection law,” notes legal scholar Richard Lazarus. It privileges “decentralized, fragmented, and incremental lawmaking . . . which makes it difficult to address issues in a comprehensive, holistic fashion.” Congressional committee jurisdiction based on the Constitution further fragments responsibility and legislative results. The Constitution gives too much power to private rights as opposed to public goods. It does not mention the environment or the need to protect soils, air, water, wildlife, and climate and so it offers no unambiguous basis for environmental protection. The commerce clause, the source for major environmental statutes, is a cumbersome and awkward legal basis for environmental protection. The result, Lazarus notes, is that “our lawmaking institutions are particularly inapt for the task of considering problems and crafting legal solutions of the spatial and temporal dimensions necessary for environmental law.”

The U.S. Constitution is deficient in other ways as well. Posterity is mentioned only in the Preamble, but not thereafter. The omission, understandable when the Constitution was written, now poses an egregious wrong. In 1787, the framers could have had no premonition that far into the future one generation could deprive all others of life, liberty, and property without due process of law or even good cause. And so, in theologian Thomas Berry’s words: “It is already determined that our children and grandchildren will live amid the ruined infrastructures of the industrial world and amid the ruins of the natural world itself.” The U.S. Constitution gives them no protection whatsoever.

Further, with a few notable exceptions—such as in Ecuador—most constitutions pertain only to humans and their affairs and property. We privilege humans, while excluding other members of the biotic community. A more expansive system of governance would extend rights of sorts and in some fashion to species, rivers, landscapes, ecologies, and trees, as legal scholar Christopher Stone once proposed. In Thomas Berry’s words: “We have established our human governance with little regard for the need to integrate it with the functional order of the planet itself.” In fact, from our bodies to our global civilization we are part of a worldwide parliament of beings, systems, and forces far beyond our understanding. We are kin to all that ever was and all that ever will be and must learn what that fact means for governance.

Building the Foundations of Robust Democracies

The history of democracy is complex and often troubled. In classical Athens it lasted only 200 years. Political philosopher John Plamenatz once wrote that “democracy is the best form of government only when certain conditions hold.” But those conditions may not hold in established democracies in the long emergency ahead and may be impossible in less stable societies and failed states with no history of it. The reasons are many.

For one, citizens in most democratic societies have become accustomed to comfort and affluence, but democracy “requires citizens who are willing to sacrifice for the common good and [restrain] their passions,” notes political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams. How people shaped by consumption will respond politically in what will certainly be more straitened times is un-known. Political analyst Peter Burnell cautions that “democratization does not necessarily make it easier and can make it more difficult for countries to engage with climate mitigation.”

Even in the best of times, however, representative democracies are vulnerable to neglect, changing circumstances, corruption, the frailties of human judgment, and the political uses of fear—whether of terrorism or sub-version. They tend to become ineffective, sclerotic, and easily co-opted by the powerful and wealthy. They are vulnerable to militarization, as James Madison noted long ago. They are susceptible to ideologically driven factions that refuse to play by the rules of compromise, tolerance, and fair play. They work differently at different scales. And they cannot long endure the many economic and social forces that corrode political intelligence and democratic competence.

Democracies are also vulnerable to what conservative philosopher Richard Weaver once described as the spoiled-child psychology, “a kind of irresponsibility of the mental process . . . because [people] do not have to think to survive . . . typical thinking of such people [exhibits] a sort of contempt for realities.” Psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell believe that the behavior Weaver noted in the 1940s has now exploded into a full-blown “epidemic of narcissism.” Such failures of personality, judgment, and character could multiply under the stresses likely in the long emergency.27

We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. There is no good case to be made for smaller governments in the long emergency unless we wish to sharply reduce our security and lower our standards for the public downward to a libertarian, gun-toting, free-for-all—Thomas Hobbes’s nightmare on steroids. On the contrary, it will be necessary to enlarge governments domestically and internationally to deal with the nastier aspects of the long emergency, including relocating people from rising oceans and spreading deserts, restoring order in the wake of large storms, managing conflicts over diminishing water, food, and resources, dealing with the spread of diseases, and managing the difficult transition to a post-growth economy. On the other hand, we have good reason to fear an enlargement of government powers as both ineffective and potentially oppressive.

Given those choices, there is no good outcome that does not require something like a second democratic revolution in which we must master the art and science of governance for a new era—creating and maintaining governments that are ecologically competent, effective at managing complex systems, agile, capable of foresight, and sturdy over an extraordinary time span. If we intend for such governments to also be democratic, we will have to summon an extraordinary level of political creativity and courage. To meet the challenges of the late eighteenth century, James Madison argued that democracy required a free press that served a well-informed and engaged citizenry, fair and open elections, and reliable ways to counterbalance competing interests. But he feared that even the best government with indifferent and incompetent citizens and leaders would sooner or later come to ruin.

In our time, strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency, but it will not develop, persist, and flourish without significant changes. The most difficult of these will require that we confront the age-old nemesis of democracy: economic oligarchy. Today the majority of concentrated wealth is tied, directly or indirectly, to the extraction, processing, and sale of fossil fuels, which is also the major driver of the long emergency. Decades of rising global inequality have entrenched control in a small group of super-wealthy individuals, financiers, corporations, media tycoons, drug lords, and celebrities in positions of unaccountable authority.

In the United States, for example, the wealthiest 400 individuals have more net wealth than the bottom 185,000,000 people. Six Walmart heirs alone control as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the U.S. population. Rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere reflects neither efficiency nor merit. And beyond some threshold it divides society by class, erodes empathy, hardens hearts, undermines public trust, incites violence, saps our collective imagination, and destroys the public spirit that upholds democracy and community alike. Nonetheless, the rich do not give up easily. According to political economist Jeffrey Winters, the redistribution of wealth has always occurred as a result of war, conquest, or revolution, not as a democratic decision or from the benevolence of plutocrats.

Toward the end of his life, historian Lewis Mumford concluded that the only way out of this conundrum is “a steady withdrawal” from the “megamachine” of technocratic and corporate control. He did not mean community-scale isolation and autarky, but rather more equitable, decentralized, and self-reliant communities that met a significant portion of their needs for food, energy, shelter, waste cycling, and economic support. He did not propose secession from the national and global community but rather withdrawal from dependence on the forces of oligarchy, technological domination, and zombie-like consumption. Half a century later, that remains the most likely strategy for building the foundations of democracies robust enough to see us through the tribulations ahead.

In other words, the alternative to a futile and probably bloody attempt to forcibly redistribute wealth is to spread the ownership of economic assets throughout society. From the pioneering work of progressive economists, scholars, and activists such as Scott Bernstein, Michael Shuman, Gar Alperovitz, Ted Howard, and Jeff Gates we know that revitalization of local economies through worker-owned businesses, local investment, and greater local self-reliance is smart economics, wise social policy, smart environmental management, and a solid foundation for both democracy and national resilience.

Simultaneously, and without much public notice, there have been dramatic advances in ecological design, biomimicry, distributed renewable energy, efficiency, ecological engineering, transportation infrastructure, permaculture, and natural systems agriculture. Applied systematically at community, city, and regional scales, ecological design opens genuine possibilities for greater local control over energy, food, shelter, money, water, transportation, and waste cycling. It is the most likely basis for revitalizing local economies powered by home-grown efficiency and locally accessible renewable energy while eliminating pollution, improving resilience, and spreading wealth. The upshot at a national level is to reduce the need for government regulation, which pleases conservatives, while improving quality of life, which appeals to liberals. Fifty years ago, Mumford’s suggestion seemed unlikely. But in the years since, local self-reliance, Transition Towns, and regional policy initiatives are leading progressive changes throughout Europe and the United States while central governments have been rendered ineffective.

A second change is in order. Democracies from classical Athens to the present are only as vibrant as the quality and moral power of the ideas they can muster, mull over, and act upon. Debate, argument, and civil conversation are the lifeblood of the democratic process. In our time, said to be an age of information, one of the most striking characteristics is the triviality, narrowness, and often factual inaccuracy of our political conversations. Much of what passes for public dialogue has to do with jobs and economic growth, but it is based on economic theories that fit neither biophysical reality nor the highest aspirations of humankind. The rules of market economies are said to date from Adam Smith 237 years ago, but those of natural systems are 3.8 billion years old. Allowed to run on much longer, the mismatch will destroy us.

At the dawn of the modern environmental era, in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act required all federal agencies to “utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision-making.” Nonetheless, the government and corporations, foundations, and nonprofit organizations still work mostly by breaking issues and problems into their parts and dealing with each in isolation. Separate agencies, departments, and organizations specialize in energy, land, food, air, water, wildlife, economy, finance, building regulations, urban policy, technology, health, and transportation as if each were unrelated to the others.

Reducing wholes to parts is the core of the modern worldview we inherited from Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes. And for a time it worked economic, scientific, and technological miracles. But the price we pay is considerable and growing fast. For one, we seldom anticipate or account for collateral costs of fragmentation or count the benefits of systems integration. We mostly focus on short-term benefits while ignoring long-term risks and vulnerabilities. Imponderables and non-priced benefits are excluded altogether. The results corrupt our politics, economics, and values, and they undermine our prospects.

Nonetheless, we administer, organize, and analyze in parts, not wholes. But in the real world there are tipping points, surprises, step-level changes, time delays, and unpredictable, high-impact events. To fathom such things requires a mind-set capable of seeing connections, systems, and patterns as well as a perspective far longer than next year’s election or an annual balance sheet. Awareness that we live in systems we can never fully comprehend and control and humility in the face of the unknown gives rise to precaution and resilient design.

One example of this approach comes from Oberlin, a small city of about 10,000 people with a poverty level of 25 percent in the center of the U.S. “Rust Belt.” It is situated in a once-prosperous industrial region sacrificed to political expediency and bad economic policy, not too far from Cleveland and Detroit. But things here are beginning to change. In 2009, Oberlin College and the city launched the Oberlin Project. It has five goals: build a sustainable economy, become climate-positive, restore a robust local farm economy supplying up to 70 percent of the city’s food, educate at all levels for sustainability, and help catalyze similar efforts across the United States at larger scales. The community is organized into seven teams, focused on economic development, education, law and policy, energy, community engagement, food and agriculture, and data analysis. The project aims for “full-spectrum sustainability,” in which each of the parts supports the resilience and prosperity of the whole community in a way that is catalytic—shifting the default setting of the city, the community, and the college to a collaborative post-cheap-fossil-fuel model of resilient sustainability.

The Oberlin Project is one of a growing number of examples of integrated or full-spectrum sustain-ability worldwide, including the Mondragón Cooperative in Spain, the Transition Towns movement, and the Evergreen Project in Cleveland. In different ways, each is aiming to transform complex systems called cities and city-regions into sustainable, locally generated centers of prosperity, powered by efficiency and renewable energy. Each is aiming to create opportunities for good work and higher levels of worker ownership of renewably powered enterprises organized around necessities. The upshot is a global movement toward communities with the capacity to withstand outside disturbances while preserving core values and functions. In practical terms, resilience means redundancy of major functions, appropriate scale, firebreaks between critical systems, fairness, and societies that are “robust to error,” technological accidents, malice, and climate destabilization. In short, it is human systems designed in much the way that nature designs ecologies: from the bottom up.

It is time to talk about important things. Why have we come so close to the brink of extinction so carelessly and casually? Why do we still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? How can humankind reclaim the commons of atmosphere, seas, biological diversity, mineral re-sources, and lands as the heritage of all, not the private possessions of a few? How much can we fairly and sustainably take from Earth, and for what purposes? Why is wealth so concentrated and poverty so pervasive? Are there better ways to earn our livelihoods than by maximizing consumption, a word that once signified a fatal disease? Can we organize governance at all levels around the doctrine of public trust rather than through fear and com-petition? And, finally, how might Homo sapiens, with a violent and bloody past, be redeemed in the long arc of time?

Outside of Hollywood movies, stories do not always have happy endings. Human history, to the contrary, is “one damn thing after another” as an undergraduate history major once famously noted. And one of those damn things is the collapse of entire civilizations when leaders do not summon the wit and commitment to solve problems while they can. Whatever the particulars, the downward spiral has a large dose of elite incompetence and irresponsibility, often with the strong aroma of wishful thinking, denial, and groupthink abetted by rules that reward selfishness, not group success.

In the long emergency ahead, the challenges to be overcome are first and foremost political, not technological or economic. They are in the domain of governance where the operative words are “we” and “us,” not those of markets where the pronouns are “I,” “me,” and “mine.” At issue is whether we have the wherewithal, wisdom, and foresight to preserve and improve the human enterprise in the midst of a profound human crisis. Any chance for us to come through the trials of climate destabilization in a nuclear-armed world with 10 billion people by 2100 will require that we soon reckon with the thorny issues of politics, political theory, and governance with wisdom, boldness, and creativity.