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Living Through an Age of Unraveling

“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller
By Martin Winiecki /
Jan 1, 2017
Living Through an Age of Unraveling
A world of extremes: billboard in Mumbai, India promotes the "Trump Way to Live" in front of homeless people.

For the past millennia, our civilization has been built on the idea of harsh power. Power of men over women, of rulers over people, of man over nature. It's been the power to kill and destroy and not the power of life, which is to create and regenerate life. Man saw himself as subject to the overpowering authority of a punitive god and in turn, authorized himself to rule this Earth as its master and dominator. This notion of life has essentially characterized our world from the construction of the Egyptian pyramids to today's globalized neoliberal capitalism, and now it is rapidly coming down.

The idea of power has left us with a world-spanning system of society, politics and economics recklessly exploiting nature, powering its progress through cheap energy exploited from the Earth. This system currently runs like a severe drug addict: flashed by the effects of a quickly growing oil-based economy, it has bound its existence to infinite growth, continuous oil supply and endless global expansion. It has now entered a process of self-destruction not only because it has impoverished and waged war against large parts of humanity, and crossed planetary boundaries crucial for the health and sustainability of the biosphere, but also because its inner contradictions make it harder and harder for it to sustain itself.

Throughout this year we've seen the disintegration of this system – underway for a while already – reaching whole new dimensions. Two weeks ago one of America's senior conservative leaders, John McCain, openly warned in unusually blatant words that our current world order is, in fact, “unraveling.”

While the unraveling McCain fears implies the loss of America's global hegemony, there are billions of beings on this planet who experience this unraveling as something very real and existential. The times of unraveling are times of unprecedented global pain. When we face what people stuck in the war in Syria or Yemen, constantly surrendered to bombings while freezing and starving to death, need to suffer, just to give one out of thousands examples from around this planet, we are confronted with a pain that is simply too hard to bear or make sense of. Every day, the news agencies bombard us with these and similar images of a dying world – refugees washed ashore, species going extinct at record levels, explosions of hatred and revenge everywhere – and the question is, how do we respond? At an elementary level, it comes down to two options—either we suppress what we face and decide to simply continue living our lives as if nothing is going on, or we take a stand for those suffering, for an end of the atrocities, for a different world.

What kind of future we will have depends on which of the two we chose. The first response is one of fear; it seals off the pain, but it leads to a reality of apathy and totalitarianism. The second response is one of empathy and confronts us with the pain, but is the only way for a humane world to arise. This past year we've seen both sides – fear and compassion – emerge and struggle with each other. With scores of refugees pouring into Europe last winter, we've seen the beautiful, empathic potential of humanity revealing itself in thousands upon thousands of volunteers selflessly giving their all to support those fleeing. In addition to immediate aid relief, this kind of humane awakening requires a political strategy for system change to be effective in the long run.

In 2016, for the first time in history, the richest one percent of the global population owns more than the other 99% combined. For decades, people in the Western world have played along in the capitalist game, satisfied by the rewards the consumption industries offered them for taking up the roles assigned to them. Yet, latest since the recession in 2008, popular anger against the workings of banks and corporations has grown so massive, people no longer believe they will benefit from globalization.

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in the United States showed just how strong the longing for another culture has become in the heartland of global capitalism, especially among young people. Addressing economic injustices of the neoliberal order, Sanders mobilized millions across the nation and became a serious threat to the candidate of the political establishment. To save Clinton's campaign, the Democratic Party systematically sabotaged his campaign and thereby helped a proto-fascist billionaire to assume presidency. In 2016, we painfully saw what happens when outrage and indignation isn't allowed to find a constructive channel—it turns destructive and ugly. As Frankfurt School philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, “Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.”

Both the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US were articulations of people's rage against the machine, votes fueled by popular outrage against the globalized “establishment.” Both events would have seemed unthinkable for most people even a year ago. A country with one of the world's largest economies stepping out of such a union would have seemed ridiculous in this globalized world. Brexit marks a stop for capital's expansiveness, for its compulsory drive towards ever-larger economic unions and trade zones. This is a real problem for the system. Brexit is likely to speed up the collapse of the European Union altogether, something that might happen as early as 2017.

As there's growing uncertainty over the future, far-right movements are triumphing around the world by turning people's fears into political capital. Trump, to cite the most startling example, was elected because he understood how to channel people's fears and anger—just to make them vote for the most extreme version of the very system that has generated much of their fear and anger in the first place. At times of crisis and public rebellion, Trump comes in as a savior of capitalist interests, of Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and above all, the oil and gas industry. One of Trump's ardent supporters, the Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel, has long argued that capitalism needs to be “saved” from democracy. The system has become so shaken that it can no longer afford its marriage with democracy. It needs the state to function as a guard, making sure its economic conditions are maintained. According to Thiel's vision, the state shouldn't interfere in business, and restrict people's abilities to interfere in business; it should increase authoritarian rule and boost surveillance to crush resistance and wage conflict between different ethnic, cultural and religious groups to distract people from the actual injustices. Trump seems committed to turn this dystopian vision into reality.

Let's not be deceived: Trump is neither an anomaly nor an outsider to the system. His rise to power came from within the American society, not Russia. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump represent the exact same system and work for the same banks and corporations. The 2016 Presidential Election wasn't about fundamental systemic questions; it was a test as to whether “business as usual” could continue in the United States (and therefore the Western world at large) in the framework of a liberal democracy or whether a totalitarian type of regime would become necessary to maintain that system. It proved to be the latter. (Yet, the shift from democracy to authoritarian rule is only possible because there wasn't a genuine democracy in the first place. The current fuss about the alleged “fake news” spread by Russia just shows that people in the West apparently hadn’t any clue as to what extent public opinion in so called “free democratic societies” has been engineered and manipulated all along to make sure “the people” behave according to the elite's interests.)

What is most particularly threatened is America's oil-based “petrodollar” economy. Oil isn't just an important part of the Western economy, “it is the economy,” says the environmentalist Bill McKibben. In fact, the strength of the US Dollar directly relies on oil ever since President Nixon suspended the convertibility of the Dollar into gold in the 1970s. We all know about the brutal “oil wars” of George W. Bush and the kind of devastation and terrorism they unleashed over entire countries, but they started far longer than a decade ago. Today the situation around petroleum is much more severe. We're past “peak oil,” meaning oil exploitation is declining worldwide. Simultaneously solar has surpassed oil and gas in terms of efficiency in 2016. Trump's cabinet picks show his administration's number one priority will be trying to keep up the petrodollar system, making sure that black gold will continue to flow abundantly and be traded in US Dollars.

At this stage, the price for maintaining this system has become incredibly high, demanding nature be destroyed at whole new dimensions and global currency wars waged that might as well escalate into military confrontation, i.e. between America and China.

In the end, however, all these efforts will be as effective as those of Don Quixote to defeat the windmills. The more and the longer the dominant system will try to resist the necessary system change from happening, the more crushing will be its eventual collapse. Its response to the crisis is nothing but pathological because, even though the ruling elites want us to think otherwise, there no longer is any vision for the future within the system. Its only prospect now is one of short-term profit and survival. Large parts of humanity are denying what is happening. And instead of changing, the systems intensifies its (self-)destructive behavior – and will probably try to continue all the way to the end.

What's the way forward?

2017 will likely see the unraveling speed up even more. We must not think this is the end of the world, but a transition from a system that is no longer coherent to a new one that is yet to be born. Alongside all the pain, we face a historic possibility for an evolutionary leap forward, for building a global culture in alignment with all fellow beings and the Earth. To see this potential, we must learn to shift the focus from what breaks down to what wants to break through.

A powerful, recent example of this transformative impulse has been the struggle at Standing Rock in North Dakota, where Indigenous water protectors have resisted an oil pipeline since April. At the resistance camp, Indigenous people came together with veterans, hard-core political activists, environmentalists, Burning Man folks, rainbow people and spiritual seekers. People from across all camps banded together beyond their usual ideological divisions, because they were united by a common spiritual calling – life's inherent sacredness and the imperative to defend and preserve it. Standing Rock drew thousands of veterans – men and women who fought for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and Iraq – to join them in defending water, land and Native people's rights. Engaging in nonviolent action, many of them said that this was the first time they really served the American people. The struggle at Standing Rock fused political activism with spiritual consciousness – and thereby revealed the power of nonviolent resistance we will need in the coming months and years. It is no longer the old power to destroy and kill, but a gentle power to create and safeguard life, anchored into the awareness of our interconnectedness with all beings. This consciousness is key to the emergence a humane future. In its essence, the upcoming global transformation will consist of a system change from separation and fear to reconnection and service to the sacred. The power we need to heal the world from the wounds of history is the power of unreserved trust. “Trust,” the psychoanalyst Dieter Duhm says, “is not just a psychological, but a revolutionary term – the most revolutionary of all – because we need to turn our entire society upside down to develop structural sustainable trust.”

As the present order crumbles, a new culture could now start to emerge – given there's a coherent vision available for it. Evolution doesn't move gradually, but in leaps. Once a new evolutionary pattern starts to become visible and manifests in the first places, our overall situation can radically transform – and quickly so. How the future will look depends on the visions we see and activate. Our way forward as humanity will begin by radically reimagining our civilization. If we are able to see the basic pattern for a nonviolent civilization, a culture of solidarity and trust in all areas, we can midwife the global transition and make the apparently impossible possible – building a world without wars and cruelties.

Even though lots of attention is absorbed by the catastrophes, there has never been as much knowledge for creating a regenerative, collaborative and nonviolent world as today. People across the globe – inventors, ecologists, futuristic communities, artists, living experiments – have long been working for another possible direction of global development in different areas. A planetary community is slowly emerging beyond the old limitations of religions, cultures and ideologies; people in all different pockets of this world working in service for the greater good of all – on restoring nature, on building decentralized autonomous settlements, regenerative economies, and energy technologies for a post-carbon era, but also on establishing a new relation to animals based on respect and conscious communication, forming communities of trust, healing our consciousness and freeing love from fear. These are signals for the birth of a new era.

Still, these impulses are single patches spread across the world. To transform this beautiful and inspiring, but still rather amorphous and disorganized fringe movement into a serious alternative for this world, it needs a global vision and realistic strategy for change. To transcend and replace the current system, it is crucial for these single puzzle pieces to be combined into a coherent system. Only a new system can overcome the old; no invention alone – however genius or revolutionary it might be – is able to do that. For this to happen we need pilot projects – we may call them “World Future Sites” or “Healing Biotopes” – in which all the essential components for a nonviolent and regenerative future are researched and combined into replicable societal blueprints. The more such centers progress, the more they can radiate and broaden the horizon of collective imagination. Additionally, we need media channels and educational pathways for people to get to know and participate in the emerging new culture and an international platform for this movement to encounter and establish itself. The Bernie Sanders campaign, Occupy Wall Street and other recent progressive movements have shown that potentially millions of people would be ready to take part in the creation of a different society were they offered credible orientation. This is the task at hand.

2016 saw an accelerating unraveling of the old system. In 2017, the basic features of a new system could start to crystalize globally. The architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller believed that finding out how to manage spaceship Earth would be humanity's final exam. This is the process we're finding ourselves in right now.

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