From endless growth to a new form of democracy
Humanity faces a momentous period of transition. Modern civilization is not only in crisis. It confronts a multiplicity of overlapping global crises that are potentially terminal.
We're all aware of the devastating findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose worst case scenario, is that on a business-as-usual trajectory, global average temperatures will rise by 6 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, creating an uninhabitable planet. We now know that this was far too conservative.
The IPCC didn't sufficiently account for the interconnected complexity of different ecosystems.
Arctic sea ice coverage is now at the lowest level it's been for a million years. It will likely disappear in the summer by 2015. The loss of summer sea ice is linked to the accelerating melt of permafrost, releasing the vast underground stores of methane – about 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. The process is happening much faster than anticipated. Methane concentrations in the Arctic now average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years.
If this reaches a tipping point, we could trigger a process of unstoppable runaway warming, and we could see a rise of 8-10 degrees Celsius, by the end of this century.
Scientists also link the Arctic melt to our increasingly extreme weather. It will mean more colder, stormier winters in the UK and northern Europe. This, in turn, will damage British and European agriculture. With four-fifths of the United States in drought, prolonged droughts in Russia and Africa, and a lighter monsoon in India - all due to climate change - we're already seeing a global food supply crash that will precipitate dramatic food price spikes. This alone will lead to unprecedented food riots in poor countries around the world.
By mid-century, if we fail to act, world crop yields could fall as much as 20-40 per cent due to global warming. Imagine what this would look like when we factor in the role of energy depletion. In 2010 the International Energy Agency acknowledged that world conventional oil production had most likely peaked in 2006. Future production, relying increasingly on unconventional sources like tar sands, oil shale and shale gas, will be increasingly expensive. But industry hype has promised to reduce these costs dramatically with new drilling technologies, namely fracking. But this just isn't true. Despite the US having increased its total oil supply by up to 2.1 million barrels per day since 2005 – world crude oil production overall has remained largely flat since that very year.
Writing in the journal Science, Sir David King, the former UK government chief scientist, confirms that unconventional oil and gas won't be able to produce sufficiently cheap liquid fuels at the same rate as that of conventional oil. Production rates at shale wells drop off by 60 to 90 per cent within their first year of operation. Sir King also argues that oil companies have overestimated the size of world oil reserves by about a third. To make matters worse, a typical frack job uses about 4.5 million gallons of water - what New York City consumes in seven minutes. As climate change intensifies drought, it will make fracking more costly and unsustainable.
The problem is that every major point in industrial food production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels – on-site machinery; production of artificial fertilisers; processing, packaging, transport and storage. Ten per cent of energy consumed yearly in the United States is used by the food industry. So as oil becomes more expensive, this will place massive strain on industrial food production.
And it won't just be food. By 2030, on our current course, climate change alone will lead to deaths worldwide of over 100 million people, and a 3.2 per cent reduction in global GDP. What happens when we factor in the impact of peak oil? A study this year in the leading journal, Energy, concluded that “world oil supply has not increased” since 2005, that this was “a primary cause of the recession”, and that the “expected impact of reduced oil supply” will mean the “financial crisis may eventually worsen.” What happens when we factor in the interconnected feedback effects of water scarcity, food riots, civil breakdown, state failure, mass migrations? The costs will be amplified tremendously.
This is because the growth that we've pursued over the last decades has been tied, inextricably, to the systematic expansion of debt. Although total world GDP is around $70 trillion, global external debt is at $69 trillion, and global public debt is at 64 per cent of global GDP. Meanwhile, the total size of global derivatives trading - the debt-based speculation which got us into this mess - has risen from $1,000 trillion in 2008, to now $1,200 trillion; a number with no relation to the real-economy. It's no coincidence that debt and derivatives have both intensified, because the speculative investments designed to benefit the 1 per cent are being bailed out by the 99. So it's only a matter of time before accelerating costs catch up with unsustainable debt.
It's time to wake up to the fact that the conventional economic model has run out of steam. Having outlasted its welcome, it's now leading us along a path to self-destruction. The heart of the problem is the skewered structure of our current form of capitalism, which makes endless material growth at any cost a seemingly rational imperative.
What is this structure? It comes down to who owns the Earth. Today’s capitalism is based on a completely unnatural condition where approximately 1-5 per cent of the world’s population, owns the entirety of the planet’s productive resources, as well as the technologies of production and distribution. This is the outcome of centuries of colonisation, imperialism and globalisation, which has centralised control of the earth’s resources and raw materials into the hands of a few.
With the entire planet subjected to the unrestrained logic of endless growth, we're witnessing the accelerated degradation of our natural environment, our resource base, our economic and financial system, as well as our material and psychological well-being. These are not separate crises. They are interconnected symptoms of a global Crisis of Civilization.
So how can we respond? We must first awaken to the reality that this is not the end, but the beginning. We are witnessing the collapse of the old paradigm, which hell-bent on planetary suicide, isn't working. By the end of this century, whatever happens, civilization in its current form will not exist. The question we must therefore ask ourselves is this. What will we choose to take its place?
As a species, we are on the cusp of an evolutionary choice. Standing at the dawn of this perfect storm, we find ourselves at the beginning of a process of civilizational transition. As the old paradigm dies, a new paradigm is born. And many people around the world are already making the evolutionary choice to step away from the old, and embrace the new.
Already, local communities and grassroots activists are co-creating this new paradigm as I speak, from the ground up. In Greece, locals in Athens gave up their salaries to form an eco-village, producing their own food, building sustainable houses, and decreasing reliance on money. As austerity wipes out jobs and businesses, the eco-village has become a citizen's hub, giving advice and running workshops on independent living. In the UK, there are 43 communities producing renewable energy through co-operative ownership structures. These projects are established and run by local residents, who collectively invest their own time and money to install local wind turbines, solar panels, and hydro-electric power. The Borough of Woking in Surrey, for instance, produces 135 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy sources, selling energy to the national grid, and earning revenue that feeds back into the local economy. In 2008, 200,000 US households were living off grid - sourcing their own water, generating their own electricity, and managing their own waste disposal. By 2010, this had jumped to 750,000, and is now rising by about 10 per cent a year. Across the Western world, there are now 380 Transition Towns, whose citizens are actively collaborating to make urban life resilient to fossil fuel depletion and climate change.
The new paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human - values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.
These grassroots endeavours are pointing us toward a vision in which people reverse their irrational investments in counterproductive conflict. Over the last decade, under the old paradigm, we've steadily increased world military spending by about 4.5 per cent annually. In 2011, world military spending totalled $1.74 trillion – rising 0.3 per cent from the preceding year – flattening only due to the financial crisis. Imagine what we could achieve if we transferred such absurdly huge expenditures on war-preparations for the nation, into development concerns for the species. Study after study proves that we could successfully transition to a 100% global renewable energy infrastructure, within the next 30 years. The costs of this transition would be no more than 1 per cent of the annual national budgets of all world governments.
This implies not just sending home armed forces, reducing unnecessary weapons production, and curtailing the influence of the military-industrial complex. We must convert that very industrial capacity by re-training our workers in the defence industries, and re-employing them in the new industries of sustainable peace that can underpin post-carbon civilization.
This will generate a new sustainable form of prosperity. Even by today's completely inadequate levels of investment, by 2020, some 2.8 million people in Europe will be employed in the renewable energy sector, boosting Europe’s GDP by some 0.24 per cent. Imagine what we could achieve if hundreds of millions of households across Europe came together in their communities to invest their collective resources into each becoming owners and producers of energy? The new energy paradigm is not about corporate-dominated mega-projects, but about empowering small businesses and communities. Up to 70 per cent of energy is lost in transmission over large distances. So there's potential for huge efficiency gains when power is produced and consumed closer to the source. This model, where households, communities and towns become producers and consumers of clean energy, is being successfully scaled-up in Germany, where 20 per cent of the country's electricity comes from renewables, and 51 per cent of distributed energy generation is owned by individuals, not utility companies.
This new paradigm also applies to food. On the one hand, we need to put an end to the wasteful practices of the industrial food system, by which one third of global food production is lost or wasted every year. On the other, we must shift away from resource-intensive forms of traditional corporate-dominated agriculture. In many cases, we will find that smaller-scale forms of organic farming which are more labour intensive, though less energy and water intensive, can be more sustainable than current industrial practices. Communal organic farming offers immense potential not only for employment, but also for households to become local owners and producers in the existing food supply chain. In poorer countries, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food finds that small-scale organic methods could double food production. And a recent University of Michigan study concludes that no-pesticide, local forms of organic agriculture without artificial fertilisers, could theoretically be scaled up to sustain high nutritional requirements for the entire global population.
This new paradigm of distributed clean energy production, decentralised farming, and participatory economic cooperation, offers a model of development free from the imperative of endless growth for its own sake; and it leads us directly to a new model of democracy, based not on large-scale, hierarchical-control, but on the wholesale decentralisation of power, towards smaller, local ownership and decision-making.
In the new paradigm, households and communities become owners of capital, in their increasing appropriation of the means to produce energy, food and water at a local level. Economic democratisation drives political empowerment, by ensuring that critical decisions about production and distribution of wealth take place in communities, by communities. But participatory enterprise requires commensurate mechanisms of monetary exchange which are equitable and transparent, free from the fantasies and injustices of the conventional model. In the new paradigm, neither money nor credit will be tied to the generation of debt. Banks will be community-owned institutions fully accountable to their depositors; and whirlwind speculation on financial fictions will be replaced by equitable investment schemes in which banks share risks with their customers, and divide returns fairly. The new currency will not be a form of debt-money, but, if anything, will be linked more closely to real-world assets.
But equally, the very notions of growth, progress, and happiness will be redefined. We now know, thanks to research by the likes of psychologist Oliver James and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, that material prosperity in the West has not only failed to make us happy, it has proliferated mental illnesses, and widened social inequalities, which are scientifically linked to a prevalence of crime, violence, drug abuse, teenage births, obesity, and other symptoms of social malaise. This doesn't mean that material progress is irrelevant - but that when it becomes the overriding force of society, it is dysfunctional. So we must accept that the old paradigm of unlimited material acquisition is in its death throes – and that the new paradigm of community cooperation is far more in tune with both human nature, and the natural order. This new paradigm may well still be nascent, like small seeds, planted in disparate places. But as the Crisis of Civilization accelerates over the next decades, communities everywhere will become increasingly angry and disillusioned with what went before. And in that disillusionment with the old paradigm, the seeds we're planting today will blossom and offer a vision of hope that will be irresistible tomorrow.
There's only one question that remains. Are you going to hold fast with the grip of death to the old paradigm, or will you embrace life to become an agent of the new paradigm of community cooperation?