Time to Deliver: No Turning Back, Part I

Sara Robinson

Terrance’s last post heroically set out and engaged the two dominant scenarios about the American future that progressives seem to be wrestling with right now. These two scenarios might be described as:

1) Permanent Decline — Due to Americans’ native hyperindividualism, political apathy, and overweening willingness to accept personal blame for their country’s failures, the corporatists finally succeed in turning the US into Indonesia. This time, we will not find the will to fight back (or, if we do, it will be too late). As a result, in a few years there will be no more middle class, no upward mobility, few remaining public institutions devoted to the common good, no health care, no education, and no hope of ever restoring American ideals or getting back to some semblance of the America we knew.

2) Reinvented Greatness — Americans get over their deeply individualistic nature, come together, challenge and restrain the global corporatist order, and finally establish the social democracy that the Powers That Be — corporate, military, media, conservative — have denied to us since the 1950s. This happens in synergy with a move to energy and food self-sufficiency, the growth of a sustainable economy, a revival of participatory democracy, and a general renewal of American values that pulses new life into our institutions and assures us a much more stable future.

Conservatives and the mainstream media, of course, are also offering a third scenario:

3) Happy Face — Prop up the banks, keep people in their houses, and by and by everything will get back to “normal” (defined as “how it all was a few years ago.”)

In my last article, I argued that Scenario #3 is a chimera — and Terrance’s sobering list of everything that’s wrong “here” and now brought it home with grave finality. There is no going back. That future was foreclosed on right along with the houses and the banks. You can only believe in the Happy Face story if you willfully ignore the deep structural changes afoot in the way the world works — the changes that have closed and locked the door back to “normal” behind us for good.

There’s a small number of overwhelmingly strong global trends that explain why all this stuff is breaking, and why just fixing it isn’t even on the table. I originally wanted to summarize all of them in one post; but after struggling with it last week, I finally realized that it wasn’t going to be that easy. So, starting today, I’m kicking off a short series of posts outlining the big, deep trends that are driving us toward change. Some of these will be familiar to regular readers (they’re horses I flog often); others will be new. But when we take full stock of the size and quantity of major moving parts in the machinery that’s propelling us on toward the next future, it becomes very, very clear that going back to the 20th Century isn’t anywhere among our current options.

Today, I’ll start with the first three, with the rest following later in the week.

1. Energy regime change
The first reason there’s no going back to the way it was is that there’s simply not enough oil left in the ground — or carbon sinks left in the world — to sustain America as we’ve known it. We may well be able to sustain some semblance of that way of life (or perhaps, find our way to one even more satisfying); but we won’t be running it on oil or coal.

And when the oil goes, so goes the empire. Empires rise and fall on their ability to dominate and capitalize on the world’s dominant energy supply (whatever that might be at the time). Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Toronto has argued persuasively that the Romans rose on their unsurpassed ability to organize and deploy the Mediterranean sunlight and turn it into wealth. The Dutch rose on their ability to develop technology to harness wind and turn it into wealth. The British invented a repertoire of machines that ran on coal, which they had an abundance of, and turned it into wealth. The American empire, of course, has been built on oil and the things that ran on it. (It’s probably true that all the wealth you personally own is somehow traceable back to that resource.) America’s power is rooted in the geopolitical fact that we’ve been able to control the most potent form of energy ever found, and turn it into more wealth than anyone’s ever seen.

In all cases, empires finally failed when the systems that enabled them to dominate that energy resource collapsed (Rome, and probably us); or the energy source itself was made obsolete when some newer, more concentrated form of energy came along (the Netherlands, England). And in no case did an empire built on one energy regime successfully position itself to dominate the next one as well: they were are almost always too deeply invested in the old ways to recognize or capitalize on the next thing when it came. Based on these precedents, America’s future imperial ambitions in an age of peak oil and global climate change look questionable at best.

America’s industrial powers spent the 20th century amassing vast stores of political and economic power based in an oil economy. They’re gearing up to fight the change away from that for all they’re worth, for as long as they can hold out. But the alternatives are actively emerging all around them now — and if history holds true, the odds are that their very resistance will cost them any chance they might have had to become the dominant players in that new regime.

The good news is that losing the basis of our empire will greatly increase the odds that we’ll be able to restore our democracy. Another lesson of history is that these are two incompatible ideals, and when a country truly chooses to be one, it necessarily gives up on on being the other.

2. Environmental collapse
It’s not just climate change. We’re losing topsoil, fresh water, fisheries, forests, and useful plant and animal species faster than our scientists can count the losses. The first three, in particular, are so urgent that it’s entirely possible that one of them may emerge as a serious threat to continued human life long before climate change does. (And climate change, of course, is happening faster than even last year’s pessimists dare to imagine.)

This change slams the door on any hope of ever going back to the world we knew. Capitalism as we’ve known it was based on the assumption of a world with infinitely exploitable resources. We’re bumping up hard against the limits now, and our economic system is either going to adapt to this new reality (and there are plenty of ways that it could do that, given a proper shove from suppliers, consumers and regulators), or give way to some other form of economic organization that incentivizes us to preserve and invest in the earth’s resources and processes rather than gain profit by permanently destroying them.

(This is what cap-and-trade is about, at its core: creating a market in something that has very real value to us — a low-carbon atmosphere — but currently doesn’t show up on the balance sheets. That’s not a “tax,” as the Republicans would have it; it’s simply finally putting a price to a real cost that’s currently visible to everybody but the market.)

Progressives have been saying since the early 1970s that that the limitless-growth model isn’t sustainable over the long run. Forty years later, the long run is today: we ignore the accumulating list of undeniable environmental breakdowns at our own peril. As long as the powers that be keep placing their bets on the old assumptions and try to go back to business as usual, it’s a safe bet for us that they won’t survive as dominant players in the future. Unfortunately, humankind as a whole may not, either.

3. The dawning of the Information Age
The people currently running the show in America understand that the global spread of computer technology is changing the way the world does business and culture. What they don’t understand — and we must — is that they’ve grossly underestimated the depth, breadth, and deep nature of that change; or what it means over the longer haul for them…and for the rest of us.

We’re already seeing signs that getting the world on one big network (assuming we can find the energy to sustain that — see #1) may be triggering the biggest ontological shift since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment deposed the Earth (and God) at the center of the universe. What followed was the biggest revolution in human culture in 2,000 years. Philosophy and religion (the Reformation, humanism), art and education, science and mathematics, technology and architecture, banking and commerce, and social mores and politics were completely transformed by these new ways of understanding reality. (Our own constitutional democracy is one of that era’s brightest artifacts.) The birth pangs of this modern era convulsed the West for centuries. It was damned bloody — but sweeping revolutions in human consciousness always are.

And we may be there again. The image of the local node intimately connected to a worldwide network — and our deepening collective understanding of the ways complex systems behave — are combining to fundamentally change the way we view ourselves and our relationship to the global whole. Those ontological shifts, coupled with the new sea of information we’re all floating in, have already transformed science and math. The coming century will likely see the biggest revolution in medicine since Hippocrates as we explore the genome. Information technology has been the platform on which the globalization of banking and commerce began to rise, which is in turn demanding new kinds of trade and new regulatory structures.

These new models of reality are revolutionizing art, media, and education; and providing new metaphors for human experience that are re-awakening religion and philosophy. Wealth is dematerializing: we are owning less stuff and more bits, which will come in handy in a world where resources are running short. Basic concepts like “humanity,” “privacy,” “property,” and “community” will be challenged and re-defined as the transformation proceeds; and those new definitions will in turn force us to re-think the meaning of our existence and our aspirations for this world.

This shift could be one of the dominant forces shaping the history of the coming century. There’s enough to be said about it for a whole post (and more); but right now, what’s important is that transformations of this magnitude always demand the creation of new political and economic forms. I’ve already outined the ways in which Enlightenment-era economic ideas are failing us. But it’s also quite possible that American-style democracy, which dominated the modern era and proceeded from its assumptions about the world, won’t be adequate to this age (at least, not in its current form). Political power flows differently now; and it may turn out that we’ll need to find different ways to organize it.

A couple of examples may help. First, the movement toward localized food, water, and power may mean that local politics become far more important — though they’ll exist within a global matrix of small governments sharing solutions, sponsoring research, and forming coalitions where needed. Second, large ecological, urban, and cultural regions are becoming more important than counties or states, especially when it comes to solving environmental and infrastructure issues. Both these forces may eventually lead to a structural re-ordering of government power.

In the next few decades, as these changes accelerate, computer-based democracy spreads, the breakdowns become more acute, and the need for a new approach becomes more evident to everyone, we or our children may be having serious discussions about what the post-Enlightenment Constitution America 2.0 should look like. In the short run, the challenges to politics-as-we’ve-always-done it are already reverberating through the system, creating accountability loops that Washington and the statehouses have only begun to understand, let alone reckon with.

They understand that they can use the Web to raise money. What they don’t yet understand is just how often they’re going to have to dance now with the folks that brought them to the party.

That’s the first three. They’re huge. And we’re just getting started.