People are naturally reticent to change their society’s whole system of economic activity. However much care is taken in attempting an orderly transition, the potential for disruption is real. Additionally, nearly all who have influence and privilege will resist a change of system. The case for a change of system must be real and compelling. People must realize (as many already do) that there is no choice other than to act, that it is a matter of survival — and, in the end, the new system will bring a far better quality of life to all.
Here is the circumstance that now compels action: Humanity faces several major crises, each of which has capacity to bring dead-endings to our civilizational trajectory. Each alone may bring collapse; together their danger to humanity is magnified.
Resource Depletion. Although world population continues to grow, resource use grows even faster. Crucial resources are now being depleted at an unsustainable rate. The production of some vital, non-renewable resources has already reached peak and is in decline — most important among them is oil. Even the production of some vital renewable resources has peaked, such as timber, fish, and grain. Estimates of the overshoot of the carrying capacity of the earth are now at about 60 percent — that is, 1.6 earths now required to sustain humanity at our present level of resource use.
Climate Change. The correlation between CO2 levels and global temperatures is well established. Earth’s average annual temperature has steadily risen, as has the frequency of extreme weather events. There is growing awareness of the potential for positive-feedback mechanisms setting in — such as methane release in the tundra — that have potential to fuel acceleration of temperature rises. There is a real possibility the global climate system is already reaching tipping-points, which could bring a sudden shift in the stable climate that earth has enjoyed for the past twelve millennia. One variation of such a tipping-point scenario involves increased Arctic ice melt blocking and shutting down of the North Atlantic Current, responsible for maintaining Northern Europe’s mild climate.
Environmental Destruction. The earth’s biosphere is being killed at a rate so rapid as to be characterized as life’s “sixth extinction” event. Humanity’s impact on the planet has been of such a scale as to leave marked impact on earth’s geological record, compelling scientists to recognize the emergence of a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. As the destruction proceeds — consuming soils, aquifers, surface waters, coral reefs, forests, flood plain buffers, ecosystem biodiversity — the economic potentials of humanity are diminishing accordingly, and the health and vitality of humans and other living beings are increasingly compromised. It is not unreasonable to project ecosystem collapse in fragile environments. Indeed, this appears to be occurring already in growing numbers of dead zones at river mouths and in dying coral reef communities across the tropics.
Economic Collapse. There are two fundamental causes of economic depressions: (1) over-concentration of wealth among the rich, which reduces the purchasing capacity of the common people, and (2) stagnancy in the movement of money in the productive economy, as investors withhold credit, or investments get concentrated into non-productive speculation. Both of these conditions exist, to an extreme, in the current global economy. Concentration of wealth has soared to reckless levels. While the number of billionaires continues to climb, the real wages of the middle and lower classes have remained stagnant in most countries, if not declined. Despite state interventions to stimulate credit markets, there is little investment flowing into industry and commerce. Meanwhile investment in speculative financial markets has resumed in force, despite the partial bursting of the speculative bubble in 2008. This is occurring amidst a debt bubble of a size almost beyond imagining.
These crises — and others could be identified — are not independent from each other, but should be regarded as acute symptoms of a larger global metacrisis that is rooted in fundamental defects at the heart of the present social order. As such, they are interrelated, with capacity to interact in complex and mutually reinforcing ways.
So, let us take for example, the situation in the mid 2000s when there was a global tightness of oil supply (due in part to peaking oil production). This brought on a surge in gas prices, which created a cost of living surge, that exacerbated the home mortgage crisis, which accelerated the credit meltdown, which, then, slammed the breaks on the economy. Slowed economic activity, in turn, caused a plunge in oil demand and a drop in gas prices, which weakened political pressure for developing alternative fuel sources, and thereby undermining aggressive efforts to reduce carbon emissions — the greenhouse gas most responsible for climate change that is putting stress on agricultural production.
As a result of the global metacrisis, it is no longer advisable for local economies to continue linking their fate to an unstable, crisis prone global economy. As the interactive and mutually exacerbating effects of the symptoms of the global metacrisis intensify, and as their effects come together in unanticipated perfect storm situations, tragedy and hardship will become more commonplace. Even where there is not severe hardship, societies will yet face ongoing dwindling of developmental potentials.
Acknowledgement of the global metacrisis compels us to accept that the sinking ship must be abandoned and fundamental change embraced.
Change at such a fundamental level will not be easy. Many are invested in economic globalism and will resist letting it go. But the necessity of change is upon us. We either resist it, at great cost to humanity’s wellbeing, or accept the challenges and embrace the new possibilities that are arising.
Adopting a new development modality — one that is decentralized and sustainable — will require an extraordinary degree of vision, engagement, unity and leadership. But most of all, it will require a viable new economic paradigm to guide development.