Who Then Will Lead Us?
The Land of Make Believe
Our leaders have failed us.
Our leaders are failing us.
Our leaders will continue to fail us.
As the farce of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit recedes, the failure of our leadership stands naked before us -- again. But only ever-so-briefly, before ducking back behind the glossy ad-campaign facade of empty promises and false hope.
Other failures will follow. This is certain.
“That’s OK!” we scream. “Just keep telling us what we want to hear! Tell us everything’s gonna be OK!” For we still live in The Land of Make Believe.
…But ever more tenuously now, as the cracks in the veneer of normalcy widen ominously.
We have a make-believe economy using fairy-dust money to manufacture an imaginary recovery. We’re fighting two wars with an imaginary national credit card. We have a national energy policy based entirely on imaginary technology and imaginary resources. We have a climate policy which will likely require wholesale migration to an imaginary planet.
It is time – past time – to ask ourselves the necessary questions: Who will step forward to restore sanity to our lives? Who will provide us the real leadership necessary to extricate ourselves from the delusional madhouse our culture has become? If our leaders will not lead us to a livable future, then who will?
What is Leadership?
But before trying to answer these questions, let me expand on just what I mean by leadership.
Leadership can mean many things, but REAL leadership – the kind we need -- is primarily this: the ability to align the human sphere with biophysical reality.
Anything less than this is merely opportunism, and will be exposed as such in short order – probably very short order at this point. Historically, the Earth has had little reservation in punishing civilizations for violations of biophysical reality; for their foolish opportunism. I see no reason why we should be spared the same fate.
And contrary to popular sentiment among our civilization’s intellectuals, biophysical reality is not defined by humans; it is defined by the Earth and the Laws of Nature. Humans can only hope to incompletely illuminate some essential parts of it. And then we must obey it as best we can. It is not optional. And there are consequences.
We have learned more about biophysical reality than any other civilization in the history of the planet, and yet our discounting of its reality has never been more blatant and flamboyant! The irony is both staggering and deadly.
…So then, what sort of biophysical-reality-based leadership do we need?
In short, we need leadership on an energy policy that takes into account the actual availability of fossil and renewable energy resources for the decades ahead, as well as the very real risks of short-term supply disruptions.
We need leadership on a climate policy that takes into account the well-documented and already-evident risks associated with destabilizing the Earth’s climate.
And we need leadership on an economic policy that links our patterns of production and consumption with the Earth’s finite (and severely stressed) resource base and waste absorption capacity.
We need leadership, period. Not opportunism. And opportunism is all we’re getting.
A Failure of Leadership
Thus, we are led into the sky-darkening future by a changing cast of opportunists disguised as leaders. Our elected opportunists continue to act as if biophysical reality can be ignored with impunity.
We will surely pay for this.
But this failure of leadership can be dissected even further. Allow me briefly to do so:
Our ‘leaders’ have failed us politically. They have failed to effectively convey the limitations of biophysical reality to the general population. And they have failed to engage other countries in what are surely all of our best long-term interests.
Our ‘leaders’ have failed us economically. They have failed to establish a pattern of production and consumption than can last more than a few generations. And in enthusiastically instituting the antithesis of a sustainable economy, they have saddled the future with onerous burdens. Impossible burdens.
Our ‘leaders’ have failed us morally. They have failed to either demonstrate or effectively promote the better side of human nature: thrift, generosity, love, kindness, pacifism, and forgiveness. And instead, they have demonstrated and celebrated the worst tendencies of our species: gluttony, greed, hatred, selfishness, pugilism, and vengeance.
And our ‘leaders’ have failed us spiritually. By instituting this soul-less industrial system, they have cut us off from the Earth and from our gods. They have cut us off from each other. They have severed our spiritual bonds so that we can be bonded only to the industrial machine; so that we must depend on the machine for our very survival. And now we do.
The Dark Competence of our Masters
So there is much to fault our ‘leaders’ in their leadership.
But it is tempting here to attribute these leadership failures to incompetence: “Those politicians are screwin’ up again! – Can’t get nothin’ done!” However this is just a popular myth that disguises a much darker reality.
Our ‘leaders’ have not failed us due to their incompetence. For they are, indeed, very competent in what they do. But what they do is not lead -- at least not in the sense that we have defined here. And not in the sense that they repeatedly tell us they do.
It is an important intellectual leap – made most commonly by “non-intellectuals,” by the way -- to realize that our ‘leaders’ do not labor in OUR service. This is merely a popular delusion that the ‘leaders’ nurture with the aid of their partners-in-crime, The Press. But it is a lie. No, these ‘leaders’ have a higher, but usually-unmentionable master -- the transnational corporation (*collective gasp*).
And I’m sick of hearing even progressive people tip-toe around this, so I’ll be blunt here.
These corporations, after gaining the legal statuses and rights of citizens – immortal citizens, even! – have hijacked of the entire human sphere. Despite Thomas Jefferson’s prescient warnings, these corporations have triumphed over the humans who gave them ‘life.’ These one-time servants of humans – mere organizational structures at first -- have now become our supreme masters.
They are regimented, violent, supremely efficient in carrying out their directives, and utterly heartless.
They are, as Wendell Berry eloquently puts it, merely big piles of money with the sole intention of becoming bigger piles of money. There is nothing else to them.
They are manned BY humans, but they are not OF humans. They are supra-human – enveloping the human sphere and the rest of the planet with a suffocating efficiency. There is no square centimeter of the planet untouched by their cold tentacles. There is no ‘leader’ not in their full pay – directly or indirectly.
And no leadership should ever be expected from these corporations. Nor is real leadership even possible from them. Such tokens of ‘leadership’ we see are cynically meted out when advantageous to them. They are the consummate opportunists. Short-term gain is paramount. Biophysical reality is to be ignored until catastrophic change is unavoidable. Then new opportunities are sought. Period.
This is the dark logic of the machine. This is the dark logic of our masters.
…So can’t we at least admit this? If we’re going to sit passively by and watch these monstrous creations rape our brothers and sisters, rape the entire Earth, can’t we at least identify our attacker by name? Can’t we at least be honest with each other about it? Can’t we at least maintain a shred of dignity about the whole mess?
So let’s all please stop pretending that the next ‘leader’ – elected or not – will somehow throw off the death-grip of these corporate tentacles and restore leadership to our lives. As The Who intoned so long ago, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
The Coming Convulsions
It is an apt analogy to view these transnational corporations as parasites that have now completely colonized their host – the human species, spread now entirely across the globe.
But unlike a parasite that has co-evolved with the host and can maintain some adversarial balance without inducing death, this novel parasite – as novel parasites often do -- is over-stepping its bounds. We have been able to muster no effective defense against it, and it is having its way with us.
But the catastrophic change utilized by the corporate-parasite to create new wealth-concentrating opportunities no longer involves merely the crash of a market, an ecosystem, a corporation, a species, or an industry – it now involves the catastrophic crash of an entire inter-linked global economy -- and possibly a crash of the biosphere itself.
The coming convulsions will shake the Earth itself -- threatening not only our civilization, but possibly our very existence as a species.
The havoc to be wrought by the collapse of the global economy will be profound. At the behest of the transnational corporations, and under the competent execution of highly-educated people, the life-sustaining functions (food production, resource procurement, manufacturing) of most countries have been partitioned-off and scattered throughout the world. (The US being perhaps foremost among these partitioned countries.) These essential functions have been restructured to require enormous quantities of fossil-fuel energy, and have been linked together globally by a tenuous fossil-fuel-based transportation system.
This is simply the most efficient current system for concentrating wealth. And that is what our corporate-parasites do. That is, in fact, the only thing they do. Everything else is superfluous.
But whether loss of access to fossil fuels comes from a massive credit default, a catastrophic disruption in supply due to political reasons, or from a rapid geologic decline of available net energy, the energy valve will be turned off – and probably much more rapidly than even most ‘peak-oilers’ think. And when the flow of energy stops, the global economy collapses. And the parasite dies.
While we should theoretically cheer the coming death of said parasite, our country (and most others) will be left without intact infrastructures to handle even the basics of everyday life. Where will we get our food and water? How will we transport it? How will we transport ourselves? Who will make our tools? How will we fix all the cheaply-made gadgets that must – indeed, that are designed to – break? Who will tell us what to do with ourselves? …Who will save us?
We have come to rely so much on our corporate-parasite’s cynical life-sustaining functions; on the fossil energy it procured for us – even as the parasite drained us of our dignity, our humanity, and our souls – that we have become essentially helpless as a species to adequately confront biophysical reality. The necessary skills have been mostly lost; our ‘appropriate’ technology mostly discarded; our bodies now sick and fat; our muscles atrophied; our spirits dimmed; our communities splintered; our resources depleted; and our land degraded.
We will be cast out as babies into the snow. We will weep for the return of our evil parasite-protectors. But they will be dead. And we will be on our own.
And the Earth’s long-spurned biophysical reality will no doubt prove to be a much harsher master than even our lost parasite.
On the verge of tears here, I won’t even delve into the climatic implications of our generations of flaunting biophysical reality. Read James Hansen’s new book or others like it. The implications are potentially grim indeed. So I’ll address the above-problems first – which, as Rob Hopkins has explained, will also be effective in addressing much of the milder climatic helter-skelter that may arise.
Ehrenfeld's Shadow Structures
So the picture I have painted above is not rosy. It may play out as I have described, or it may not. I like to think I can see our approaching troubles more clearly than most people, but I understand that I may be wrong in varying degrees on both the details and the timing.
…But I don’t think I’m too far off in terms of our general future trajectory.
One future trend I see as most likely in the times ahead (and James H. Kunstler has described this more eloquently than I can), is the breakdown of every large-scale organizational structure we have come to pattern our lives around – big stores, big farms, big government, big water, big manufacturing, big schools, big transit, big energy, …Big Everything.
An in place of ‘Big Everything,’ we will have…what? I don’t know. I suppose we could cobble together some crude, half-baked replacement structures on the fly. But good luck with that. I shudder to think what distortions and horrors might grow out of such chaos.
…But this replacement of an imploding ‘Big Everything’ was the focus of Rutgers biologist and author David Ehrenfeld’s 1999 essay in Tikkun entitled, “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology.” And in it he gives a prescient way to address the troubles he predicted – the same troubles that are coming to a head now, a decade later.
In his essay, Ehrenfeld advocates for the creation of a “shadow economic, social, and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails.” He goes on to describe the shadow political systems set up by Churchill before coming to power in the wake of the German invasion – shadow political systems that allowed an effective power transition as the British government collapsed. Collapse of the governmental structures was skillfully foreseen, and the replacement structures were prepared and ready to function when required. And they were effective.
These shadow structures, applied to our predicament, would be locally-organized entities capable of replacing the essential functions that would be lost upon the death of our ‘Big Everything.’ They would address the procurement of food and clean water; of forest products; the manufacturing of tools and other ‘appropriate technology’; the exchange of goods and services; the production and transport of energy; political organization; and everything else fully-functioning communities require.
Prior to the collapse of ‘Big Everything,’ these shadow structures would in no way be dependent on the doomed corporate-government nexus. They would be run and owned solely by the participants in the community they served. They would be small and stay small. And they would make up for their extreme smallness by being extremely numerous – dotted throughout the country in each viable community.
And as Ehrenfeld points out, such shadow structures already exist in the form of CSA’s – or Community Supported Agriculture. They also exist in the form of family farms, guilds of skilled craftspeople, and the various resiliency and re-skilling initiatives of the current Transition Town movement – a movement now gaining rapid popularity, as well it should.
But these shadow structures don’t exist in anywhere near the quantity and quality that they will be required. And they will be required soon.
And the Leaders of Tomorrow Are…You & Me
So we have a task before us. …A huge task. …An impossible task? Maybe. Maybe not.
The task is this: Each of us needs to, RIGHT NOW, become a leader in our own communities. Each of us, RIGHT NOW, needs to (1) assess the biophysical reality of his or her community; of his or her own capabilities – what is needed and what is possible, and (2) respond with the creation and nurturing of the appropriate shadow structure to replace a given ‘Big Everything’ function.
This starts with learning. It could mean learning to grow food, or store food, or save seeds, or save rainwater, or make tools, or manufacture necessary everyday items, or build structures from natural materials, or heal bodies, or deliver children, or any of the multitudinous skills that will be required of us. Much has been forgotten and much needs to be re-learned.
And after learning comes organizing. We need to organize at the family and community levels. Get your property on a sustainable trajectory, and then try to get your community moving in the same direction. Start a community garden. Start a skills workshop for something you enjoy. Do a project with youth groups or schools.
And after organizing comes keeping your project running over the long-term. Because it’s largely pointless to organize a stream clean-up if it doesn’t translate into sustained behavioral change or management practices in your town. It’s largely pointless to start a community garden if it does not blossom into a teaching tool and countless spin-off gardens throughout the community. Keep going even when you want to quit. Even when it’s too hard.
Because wherever this can be accomplished, our communities stand a fighting chance in the face of the coming convulsions. Where they cannot be accomplished, we are doomed. It’s that simple.
There will be no white knight coming to save us. We must save ourselves.
Free...Free at last!
In short, the leaders of tomorrow are us – you, and me, and the people we can convince to follow us, and the people already readying themselves and (crucially) their communities for the coming convulsions.
We will lead ourselves.
WE are the leaders of tomorrow, starting RIGHT NOW, and we will hopefully be TRUE leaders – not the pathetic opportunists who claim to serve us now.
We will be done with them as soon as this new vision takes hold in our minds, in our bodies, in the lives of our families, and in our communities.
These ‘leaders’ and the corporate-parasites they serve will be of no more use to us.
For, we will be free.
Free at last.
…And then the hard work of the New Reconstruction shall begin in earnest.