Humanity Starts to Grow Up

Let me start with humanity’s dilemma, for it will take widespread practical wisdom to come to terms with it, and then to solve it: We face a planetary climate crisis that can kill off most human beings within a century, and can impoverish all the remaining survivors, for they would be living in a mostly dustbowl world, one turned pretty hostile to life as we know it. Yet all around the world surveys show a common perception that humanity still acts like an adolescent.

We can collectively act to stop global warming, but many rich and powerful actors in our present situation don’t want to pay the cost, even though failing to do it will probably destroy their own children’s future. Many people are so committed to their present life projects (success and financial interests) or to their ideologies (mostly forms of conservatism) that they are in denial about the climate crisis. They actively don’t want to learn about it, and are resisting its obvious signs with all their might. To forestall a catastrophe we need to take immediate action, but our real problem is not so much the ideologues, but that taking that action may financially harm all sorts of powerful actors within numerous countries. Not only will they object, but they are trying to remove from power those politicians who try to deal seriously with it.

It’s bad folly: The rich and powerful are refusing to acknowledge life-threatening information staring them in the face like a grinning skull. Ghosts of Easter Island! The most logical explanation is that the implications of destroying Easter Island’s ecology was outside the bounds of what they were willing to face up to. Well, Planet Earth is as isolated in space as Easter Island was in the Pacific. Humans could all go extinct the same way. But it’s unnecessary.

Clio, that old goddess of history says to us, “Grow up children. Become wise or die!” And yet these conservative elites stand there like Jack Benny in his old comic routine, wondering in front of a mugger, “Well let’s see, would I rather give up my money, or my life?!” Undoubtedly they’ll deny that the climate could be a killer, and that growing up requires something of them like becoming wise elders. For wise elders would protect their own grandchildren…

There are many positive opportunities, and responses, to our crises

Yes, the fossil fuel industries will have to be wound down over several decades and replacements be put in service, giving greater energy efficiency, and using sun, wind, waves, geothermal, and algae-derived biofuels. No, contrary to propaganda that sunset industries in oil, coal and nuclear have been putting out there, a clean-green energy transition really is economical even with present technologies, not to mention more efficient new ones coming online. Quite a few industries will have to go through a changeover to less carbon-intensive technologies. But it can work well, as we get better at clean, green economies, for a host of technologies now in the pipeline are coming to lower the cost of ending the crisis, and to assure our general prosperity.

Many nationalistic rivalries, ethnic hatreds and economic competitions will also have to be set aside as collective life projects, in favor of doing what’s necessary. Powerful analyses by expert analysts say that this amounts to declaring both national and planetary emergencies and simply doing whatever it takes to make the changeover, as we did during World War II. It was called ‘total mobilization’ and required some individual sacrifice for the common good.*

*See Paul Gilding and Jørgen Randers, “The One-Degree War” and Paul Gilding The Great Disruption, and also Lester Brown, Plan B, v.4.0

Anti-government conservatives assume that ‘total mobilization’ means the equivalent of socialism, or of an all-powerful global dictatorship, so they’re against it. Unless of course, if it’s done by the military in the name of patriotism. Some big businesses see a future of regulation before them, and less profitable operations, so they’re against it too, or at least postponing it as long as possible. But big defense contractors know that total mobilization on a war-footing could be big bucks for them. So it matters a lot whether Gilding’s and Brown’s ideas are old war-time versions of total mobilization, or just a handy slogan—or something else, really big and new.

Our World War II experience of total mobilization says that it depends on whose experience you use. On a US model, its opponents are almost certainly wrong, because there are all sorts of countervailing forces. On a Russian model they’d be right, for there, nothing can stand up to the state. Both democracy and profitability can certainly be preserved, if the system has a history of doing just that. But it does mean that we’d consciously choose to shift the current power-games and relationships among elites, and not evolve in as unconscious a way as before. That possible loss of control, not being among the winners, is what the opposed elites are really against.

So the question is: would you rather die, or take your best shot at surviving a climate crisis by using total mobilization to deal with it? The oil and coal industries want you to choose dying, unless of course they can buy the politicians who run total mobilization… Aye, there’s the rub!

It’s also about loss of trust. The likelihood of elite folly and evil looms very large in most people’s minds, both within and among nations, and even more when global corporations are involved whose annual revenues are bigger than most countries. The poorer nations don’t believe that would all be done in fairness, for they have a (mostly) realistic lack of trust in both the rich nations, and the growing power of corporate and financial interests in those countries. Unfortunately, we’ve all got a boatload of reasons not to trust global corporate executives, and lately we trust even less our bankers, politicians, generals and dictators…

Who can you trust? In the nature of this climate crisis our elite groups face what game theorists call a social dilemma. In this kind of dilemma, what serves their short run individual rational interests (quite apart from their non-rational ones!) runs exactly against what serves their longer run collective rational interests. What makes a climate crisis even more difficult is that the world has already wasted 25 years on failing to deal with this danger, and Bush really worsened things in his 8 years, so we now have a very short time limit on taking positive action.

So what do you do when it’s life or death, and you’re running out of time? Declare an emergency! In a rational and far-seeing world, a wise humanity would treat this as a no-brainer, like preventing any natural catastrophe, such as floods, from being devastating. In such a world, you get the wisest people of the world to form a Wisdom Council. Exploiters are stopped from preying on people, and a fair game for all is declared. Then, after taking care of the emergency, we could all go on with our lives, relatively better off and more secure.

Interacting with the threat of climate crisis is pollution of air, water and land, which adds to the impoverishment of our planetary ecology, by poisoning humans, plants and animals, and contributing mightily to the extinction of species at a rate 1,000 times the historical rate of extinctions. The chemical industries’ toxins in our food and water alone could kill us all.

Added to that great difficulty in making the transition is that Peak Oil is clearly under way despite further denial by the oil industry. We’ve climbed to the peak and now we’re on the down side. The ‘peak’ referred to is that total future oil production will never again be as large, and cheap, as it once was. This doesn’t mean the end of oil, but the end of cheap and easy oil, which our industries and militaries are addicted to. Explorations of extreme areas for oil, such as very deep seas, and the Arctic ocean are needed to get at that dangerous and expensive oil, creating an almost certain damage from massive oil spills. And the strip mining for oil shale, oil sands, and gas fracking are the dirtiest extraction and processing processes known to humanity. To keep up our oil addiction rather than replace it with clean, green technologies, is to commit us to a lean and mean, impoverished and war-filled, future. And that’s on top of the way oil adds killer-amounts of carbon dioxide and methane to a burning climate crisis!

We need a new collective wisdom to solve these problems. And more than that, we need to form Citizens’ Wisdom Councils to review policies and recommend solutions. We’ll discuss Citizens’ Wisdom Councils in the next section. What’s more, it is now becoming clear that practical wisdom could solve the problem, if we invest in clean and green technologies, restoring Nature rather than looting and destroying it, and take care of all the people of the planet so that they have a self-interest in preserving it. All of that climate-saving can be done with presently existing technologies, even though new ones will make it even more attractive as we go into our next, clean, green industrial revolution. But here’s the rub: the clean, green industrial revolution may never come about if our present-day elites and institutions have their way.

Cultural creativity from below

Quite apart from total mobilization with all its top-down controls, we also need to have a bubbling up of creativity and entrepreneurship from below. Fortunately, it can come both from an energized youth generation, and entrepreneurs, and social movement organizations. There are over a million civil society organizations worldwide who are taking on planetary-scale problems. We’ve had a build-up of willingness to take citizen action for over fifty years now, led by the new social movements and social entrepreneurs. What’s new is that it has been matched and accelerated by the invention of the Internet. The cultural creativity has been bubbling up, but our elite-dominated media have decided it is all protest, and bad for their business interests. But in fact, both the information explosion of the past fifty years and experience with new social movements and social entrepreneurship, have led to new awareness and values in the most informed parts of every population around the planet. 

It is crucial that at this point in human history both a desire for wiser ways has appeared in about one-third of adults in each advanced country surveyed for values, and that they lead the way to identifying with the whole planet, as well as with their own country. In my past research, I called these people the Cultural Creatives because they are literally in process of creating a new culture, even as they solve their own problems. What’s different are their values and worldviews.

Values are about our most important life priorities, and reflect our cultures much more than our personalities. Across the developed world there are three competing subcultures of values-and-worldviews. The Traditionals and the Moderns reflect well-known conflicts of social and religious conservative vs. secular materialist cultures and politics. By contrast, Cultural Creatives reflect new, emerging values of caring for the planet and the environment, and personal development over our entire lifetimes. These values are critical to the Emerging Planetary Culture. They got those values from all the new social movements over the past 50 years, and from what they saw as an information-saturated world emerged at the same time. For the Cultural Creatives are the best-informed subculture on the planet.

Furthermore, in the teeth of the climate crisis, my research shows there are strong trends countering the crisis—both for planetary integration and for an enlarged sense of identity: 70% of American adults say, “I see myself as a citizen of the planet as well as the United States.” Don’t be surprised if a new slogan emerges among youth: ‘One planet, one humanity!’

It is entirely possible that a strong, positive response to global warming will also lead to a next level of planetary civilization emerging, just as profound a change in its own way as the industrial revolution was 300-500 years ago. So one new aspect of consciouness we need, a concern for practical wisdom, seems to be emerging out of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time.

We need a wise and strategically informed response to our cascade of crises

Our present cascade of crises can be met by a spectrum of responses ranging from largely foolish and unconscious, to strategically wiser, more conscious, ways. What’s foolish and unconscious is denial of clear and present dangers, clinging to comfortable nostrums in crises, such as balancing budgets in a depression, and clinging to familiar ways rather than innovating in the face of disasters. By wiser I mean seeing things in a wider, deeper, higher awareness context that admits the reality of danger, and is open to innovative ways of responding.

To make a strategically wise, conscious change appropriate to our particular era, we need to carry a picture in our minds of what it means to be in an historic cascade of crises, for it need not only be destructive. It can also be transformative in the most positive sense of going on to the next level of our own human evolution. When we go into crises, what normally comes up is death fears, and those can paralyze action and shrink our creativity to nothing. But in fact, the old saw that ‘the Chinese ideogram of Crisis contains both danger and opportunity’ is true. What it shows us is that our big, serious crisis has a fork in the road: Our strategies can take us either down into disaster, or up into new developments that definitely look like opportunities.

What follows summarizes one way to see this clearly. And it has graphics to help.