By Kenny Ausubel
Oct 17, 2010
The Bottleneck. The Great Disruption. Peak Everything. The Great Turning.
Whatever you call it, it's the big enchilada.
In the words of filmmaker Tom Shadyac, "The shift is hitting the fan." We're experiencing the dawn of a revolutionary transformation. This awkward 'tween state marks the end of pre-history - the sunset of an ecologically illiterate civilization. Like a baby being born, a new world is crowning.
The revolution has begun. But in fits and starts. The challenge is it's one minute to midnight - too late to avoid large-scale destruction. We have to fan the shift to ecoliterate societies at sufficient scale and speed to dodge irretrievable cataclysm.
From breakdown to breakthrough, it's a revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart. It leads with a basic shift in our relationship with nature from resource and object to mentor, model and partner. Game-changing breakthroughs in science, technology and design such as biomimicry are revolutionizing our very ways of knowing. The Rights of Nature movement is recognizing the inalienable rights of the non-human world of ecosystems and critters, widening our circle of compassion and kinship. Greater decentralization and localization are building resilience from the ground up - shaped by ancient indigenous wisdom of becoming native to our place.
The digital communications revolution is primed to spread solutions without borders at texting speed. Historic demographic shifts are fertilizing the landscape - from the ascendancy of women's leadership to the worldbeat of cultural and racial pluralism. Empires and dynasties are waning and waxing with sudden shifts in the balance of global power.
When a chrysalis turns into a butterfly, the caterpillar's immune system attacks the very first of the butterfly's cells as invaders. The pushback will be equally fierce, casting shadows of widespread destruction and violence, mass migrations, virulent ideologies, and ethnic strife. Yet in the end, the big, hairy caterpillar audaciously becomes a beautiful butterfly.
What does the revolution look like on the ground?
As climate shocks rock the planet, renewable energy is reaching a tipping point and going mainstream. For the past two years, the U.S. and Europe have both added more power capacity from renewables than from coal, gas and nuclear combined. Worldwide, renewables accounted for a third of new generating capacity, and now provide a quarter of global power capacity and 18 percent of electricity supply. Germany is aiming for a carbon-neutral grid while maintaining its highly industrialized status - without significant changes in consumption patterns and lifestyles.
Renewable energy investment topped $150 billion worldwide in 2009, attracting many of the world's largest companies. Government policies are largely responsible. Over 70 national and state governments have put incentives in place.
Europe has the leading position globally in great part because of government policy. EU business leadership sees green products as its future Silicon Valley. The EU is aiming for 25% of global green market share by 2020.
China has leapfrogged the world in pursuit of a low-carbon economy. It's now the largest manufacturer of wind turbines, solar panels, and the most efficient grids and coal plants. It has created a national energy "superministry," and the President has stated China must "seize preemptive opportunities in the new round of the global energy revolution."
The expansion of wind power is moving to industrial scale. Electric cars are heading for the mass market worldwide. Massachusetts and California lead the U.S. with efficiency standards expected to generate billions in savings to customers and tens of thousands of new jobs. An estimated 23 percent of U.S. emissions can be cut by 2020 just through energy efficiency.
Job creation and new businesses are key drivers of renewables. Germany now employs more almost as many people in clean energy as in its largest manufacturing sector of automobiles.
The spread of renewables is starting to reduce CO2 emissions. Germany has reduced its emissions by nearly 30 percent since 1990. Sweden has vowed to eliminate fossil fuels for electricity by 2020 and gasoline-powered cars by 2030. Sweden also commissioned research that shows the country could cut its emissions by 25-50 percent by changing the national diet. A new national food policy puts emissions labeling on foods and restaurant menus. The principal Scandinavian organic certification program will require low-carbon farming methods. Sweden's dietary recommendations are now circulating throughout the EU. An estimated 25% of emissions produced by people in industrialized nations are linked with the foods they eat.
Greatly heightened investment from banks is advancing these trends, especially in Europe, China and Latin America. Germany's Deutsche Bank is redirecting much of its $700 billion in assets to address global warming, including a $7 billion climate investment fund. National green infrastructure banks are on the horizon.
A sea change in thinking has propelled the banking industry and economists to team up with mathematical biologists to study natural ecosystems for lessons about resilience. The Bank of England says the banking industry will be fundamentally reshaped to treat global finance as a "complex adaptive system" like a living ecosystem.
A parallel epiphany is bubbling up in engineering, led by giant firms such as CH2M Hill that have embraced climate adaptation. Instead of steel-and-concrete, they're recommending "soft infrastructure" - flexible ecological systems like wetlands, oyster beds and barrier islands, as well as water retention, wastewater recycling and water efficiency. The bywords are reliability, local self-sufficiency and decentralization. FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers are close behind.
In the absence of a national clean energy policy in the U.S., the action is coming mainly from cities and states. Mayors and governors are developing ambitious climate strategies and policies, while creating jobs, businesses and living laboratories for low-carbon development. L.A.'s Mayor Villaraigosa vowed to "permanently break our addiction to coal" by 2020. The Pacific Coast states are working to jettison coal within a decade.
Sounds great, right? But of course, there's more to the story. The current gains are tenuous, vulnerable to the vagaries of politics and economic oscillations. And we're still losing ground anyway. Global emissions will rise by 40% by 2030, more than half of which will come from China and the balance from developing countries.
As Groucho Marx put it, "Why should we bother about the next generation? They have never done anything for us!"
In truth, the world is reaching "peak everything," in Richard Heinberg's words. A global economy built on unlimited growth and massive resource use is heading for inevitable contraction.
A major barrier in the U.S. is the annual military budget of over a trillion dollars. Although the Defense Department has embraced climate change as a top national security issue, national sustainability must move front and center. As David Orr observes, "The concept of sustainability should be the new organizing principle for both domestic and foreign policy. Sustainability is the core of a national development strategy designed to enhance our security, build prosperity from the ground up, and reduce ecological damage, risks of climate destabilization and the necessity of fighting endless wars over dwindling resources."
What's needed is the national and global equivalent of a wartime mobilization with sustainability as magnetic north. Many say only catastrophe will precipitate such a shift and are readying plans for that turning point. Paul Gilding's One Degree War Plan forecasts a "Coalition of the Cooling" anchored by the U.S., China and the EU, who produce 50 percent of emissions - and who could then engage Russia, India, Japan and Brazil to hit 67 percent.
But for now, the U.S. is being left behind. As a leader at Germany's Deutsche Bank stated, "They're asleep at the wheel on climate change, asleep at the wheel on job growth, asleep at the wheel on this industrial revolution taking place in the energy industry." Rather than catastrophe, business competitiveness may ultimately prove the more compelling driver.
Yet as Einstein said, we cannot solve the problem with the same mentality that created it. Brother, can you spare a paradigm? The supreme challenge of global interdependence is to foster meta-cooperation in a full world.
Our collective fate likely hangs from the cliff by three intertwining ropes: systems, power, and story.
Shifting the mindscape starts with systems thinking. Complex systems by nature are unpredictable, nonlinear and cannot be controlled. The key to building resilience is to foster the system's capacity to adapt to dramatic change. As Dana Meadows observed, "A diverse system with multiple pathways and redundancies is more stable and less vulnerable to external shock than a uniform system with little diversity."
A paradigm is the hardest thing to change in a system, but it can happen fast. As Meadows advised, "Keep pointing at anomalies and failures in the old paradigm. Keep speaking loudly and with assurance, from the new one. Insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. Don't waste time with reactionaries; work with active change agents, and the vast middle ground of open people."
At the core is the transformation to a restoration economy.
Europe's model of "social capitalism" may be the most important innovation in the world economy since the rise of the corporation. Among its structural innovations are two policies: Works Councils and co-determination.
Works councils give employees significant input and decision-making or veto power on substantive issues. They contribute to efficiency by improving the quality of decisions and worker buy-in.
Co-determination, where workers are elected to company supervisory boards, has fostered a culture of consultation and cooperation, benefited business, and distributed wealth more broadly. Most EU nations use the practice. The 27-nation European Union, the world's largest economy, has a higher per capita growth rate and slightly lower unemployment than the U.S. The vibrant small business sector produces two thirds of EU jobs. Ironically, the EU social capitalism model arose following World War II to punish postwar Germany with economic democracy and curtail corporate power.
What's afoot globally today are the re-envisioning of the economy and the redesign of the corporation into diverse structures of business ownership and governance - such as large-scale cooperatives, mission-controlled social businesses and foundation-owned social profit companies. Bill Gates calls it "creative capitalism." It works. Employee-owned firms modestly outperform their peers. Foundation-owned, values-driven companies perform at least as well or better. In Europe, coops comprise 12 percent of GDP and engage 60 percent of the population. Marjorie Kelly terms them "emergent new organizational species" designed like living systems to deliver human and ecological benefits as well as profits.
Another seismic meta-trend transforming the economy and society at large is the ascendancy of women's leadership. As writer Hanna Rosin points out in "The End of Men," "Those societies that take advantage of the talents of all of their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest." One study measuring the economic and political power of women in 162 countries found with few exceptions that the greater the power of women, the greater the nation's economic success. As David Gergen wrote, "Women are knocking on the door of leadership at the very moment when their talents are especially well matched with the requirements of the day."
Natural systems have their own operating instructions, as biomimicry master Janine Benyus describes. Nature runs on current sunlight. Nature banks on diversity. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature builds from the bottom up. Nature recycles everything. And Earth's mission statement: Life creates conditions conducive to life..
Given that the most important element in systems is purpose and goals, the big question is: What's the economy for? If the goal is building resilience, the priority flips from growth and expansion to sufficiency and a sustainable prosperity. Resilience also favors economic re-localization, which in turn produces greater energy and food security.
How then do we set about redesigning human systems? And who has decision-making power?