2015: a tipping point for a more sustainable future?

tipping point

Tipping points and leverage points exist in complex systems – 2015 may be a tipping point and the leverage point may be your decision to shift to a mindset of nurturing people, planet and profits.

2015 has seen some monumental events that may be pointing to an expansion of global consciousness around the need for we humans to change the way we live and work on this planet.

These include:

And the big question of what agreement may be signed at COP 21 in Paris this December may finally answer the question:

Is 2015 a turning point for matters related to human sustainability on Earth?

How will you respond privately and organisationally?

Collectively these responses recognise that sustainability issues are near a tipping point and are:

1) Very important – and becoming very urgent.

2) Broader and deeper than planting more trees.

3) An interconnected set of challenges that join up human and environmental wellbeing (including species diversity); the way we relate with others – social justice; and the degree to which we each enjoy inner meaning and peace as we live authentic lives.

To resolve the issues that are being highlighted requires a profound change in the way in which we live and work.

One way of viewing the fundamental nature of that profound change is seeing it as a shift from exploiting resources – to nurturing resources – human and environmental.

As you nurture your people more, nurture your communities more and nurture the natural environmental systems more, you will also nurture bottom line financial returns. Investment analysis confirms this now. But that’s not the reason to do it – it just makes it easier.

Exercising your leadership is right and surprisingly rewarding

The reason to do contribute towards a better world now is because its the right thing to do and as Peter Drucker said, “Leadership is doing the right thing.”

For an appreciation of what may be possible when we start nurturing natural systems, instead of working against them; and an appreciation of the surprising outcomes that may spring because the world is interconnected, have look at the the film clip, How wolves change rivers – the link is shown below.

This post was first published at http://www.the-partnership.com.au by Josie McLean.
Josie is the founder and principal consultant for The Partnership, an Australian organisational and leadership development firm dedicated to a more sustainable world that works for all. The Partnership’s purpose is to guide organisations to transform their cultures to one’s that nuture their people, their communities and economies, and the natural environment.

Why Radical is the New Normal

The climate crisis is spinning out of control, and the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow unabated. It’s time to let the radical uncertainty of this moment enlarge our sense of possibility.

Syrian refugeesWe are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality.

In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.

Perhaps that sounds odd, since we are routinely advised to overcome our fears and not give in to despair. Endorsing apocalypticism seems even stranger, given associations with “end-timer” religious reactionaries and “doomer” secular survivalists. People with critical sensibilities, those concerned about justice and sustainability, think of ourselves as realistic and less likely to fall for either theological or science-fiction fantasies.

“Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity.

Many associate “apocalypse” with the rapture-ranting that grows out of some interpretations of the Christian Book of Revelation (aka, the Apocalypse of John), but it’s helpful to remember that the word’s original meaning is not “end of the world.” “Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create.

But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending—not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end.

Let’s start with the illusions: Some stories we have told ourselves—claims by white people, men, or U.S. citizens that domination is natural and appropriate—are relatively easy to debunk (though many cling to them). Other delusional assertions—such as the claim that capitalism is compatible with basic moral principles, meaningful democracy, and ecological sustainability—require more effort to take apart (perhaps because there seems to be no alternative).

mountains_of_vulcanBut toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction).

Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption?

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.

First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.”

There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism—the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology—is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination.

Don’t Let the Apocalypse
Get You Down
Take What You Need

The climate crisis is spinning out of control, and the gap between the rich and poor continues grow unabated. It’s time to let the radical uncertainty of this moment enlarge our sense of possibility.

I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution—many revolutions—but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.

To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.

As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.


Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out.

Robert originally wrote this article for the Love and the Apocalypse edition of YES! Magazine. Republished here with permission.

He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu.

Learning together for a change

Enhancing and making more conscious our inherent human capacity for collaborative learning through shared action and reflection will accelerate the changes we must make to survive the Anthropocene transition.

In Western societies emphasis is usually given to individual choices and actions as the way to positive change. Many activists seem to assume that the aggregation of individual actions will create a ‘critical mass’ of opinion that will somehow trigger systemic change. But it is surely the intelligence and effectiveness of what we do together that will determine our fate. Ultimately our ability to survive and thrive in the Anthropocene will depend on our capacity for wise and compassionate collective action. This suggests a greatly enhanced capacity for collaborative or social learning in order to adapt to conditions of rapid change and profound uncertainty.

The global North and West typically frames learning as an individual process mediated by a teacher or some kind of instructional technology. But learning is also a social process in which groups of people share their experiences and knowledge, experiment with different ways of dealing with a difficult challenge, reflect together on the meaning of their experience, and decide on new forms of action.

Learning embedded in relationships is familiar to many indigenous peoples and in more traditional societies. But even in the West decades of research and experience with organisational learning, communities of practice, participatory inquiry, and action learning can inform the development of new social learning methodologies to enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and organisations. These methodologies must be grounded in an understanding of how communities and organisations make sense of their shared experience and collaborate to modify their collective responses. Adaptive social learning needs to be integrated into our everyday social practice at all levels of society.

We will ever remain biological creatures, but we are also cultural beings who create our own virtual habitat and through it share an emerging collective intelligence, potentially much greater than the simple sum of its parts. Finding ways to more fully realise this collective learning potential in the service of the continuing viability of our species within the limits of Earth’s biosphere is a key challenge in the Anthropocene.

Degrowth and transformation

sustainability scienceSustainability Science is a journal that probes interactions between global, social, and human systems, the complex mechanisms that lead to degradation of these systems, and concomitant risks to human well-being. It provides a platform for building sustainability science as a new academic discipline which can point the way to a sustainable global society by facing challenges that existing disciplines have not addressed. These include endeavors to simultaneously understand phenomena and solve problems, uncertainty and application of the precautionary principle, the co-evolution of knowledge and recognition of problems, and trade-offs between global and local problem solving.

Special issue 

Degrowth as a social-ecological transformation

CONTENTS (Click on titles download articles as PDF files):

See more on degrowth research and action at: http://www.degrowth.org/

Rethinking Emergence

A workshop in the series: Living in the Anthropocene – Rethinking the nature/culture divide (see previous post)

University of Southampton UK
January/February 2016
Convenor: Tudor Vilcan

Complexity theory presents a fundamental challenge to the rationalist principles of liberal modern thought and governance. Whereas the latter is premised on the ability of subjects to predict and control the world around them, complexity theorists propose that such attempts will always be exceeded by the unpredictable and non-linear nature of life itself. Various complexity theorists suggest that governance can only work by abandoning the reductionist frameworks of liberal modernity and instead unleashing the potential of life to self-organise. The key to understanding how complex life can be governed is the concept of emergence. In between the entropy generated by chaos and the reductionist order of modernity, emergence postulates that order exists through a process of continuous adaptation modelled on evolution through the mechanism of natural selection. This means that order can be generated without an overarching designer or hierarchy, whether we are looking at a colony of ants or a human society.

Complexity and emergence are subject to wide consensus in regards to the natural world, but the entrance of emergence into the cultural realm should be subject to more examination. Questions can be asked about the rather deterministic overtones of the concept and its relation to human agency and intentionality. The workshop represents an opportunity to rethink emergence in the light of its implications for the nature/culture divide.

So what of eco-mutuality?

It’s not just that the concept of sustainability has been co-opted as a corporate greenwashing tool. Nor that its meaning has become so diluted and oxymoronic that its usefulness is problematic. My problem is that sustainability is in its essence an anthropocentric concept.

The focus of sustainability is on how humans can satisfy the present demands of a swarming and rapacious population “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). But what of the ecosystems we have laid waste to, the species our predations have driven to or over the edge of extinction? Surely the concept of sustainability at best ignores and at worst reinforces the very essence of the problems we have created by acting as though the rest of life on Earth exists primarily to serve our needs and satisfactions.

This is the hubris that drives the existential crisis we have created for ourselves in the Anthropocene—and for the many other species we are driving before us. Life on Earth will survive our marauding self-interest, but it will be many thousands of years before the biosphere finds a new stability conducive to life’s flowering on the planet.

Take climate change for example. Scientist tell us that even if we were to cease all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow the Earth system will take hundreds of millennia to reabsorb the excess carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere and the oceans since the start of the industrial revolution (Archer 2009). In the Anthropocene we must accept responsibility for the consequences of our collective actions in deep time, when our custom is to think only within a timeframe of multiple human lifetimes.

To me it seems self-evident that we need a much more robust and inclusive term to encompass a fundamentally different relationship between our species and the rest of the community of life on Earth if we are to survive the Anthropocene. Sustainability simply doesn’t cut it.

This is not just semantics. Our categories of thought and discourse prescribe our actions and condition our ethics.

So what of eco-mutuality? To me the term denotes an ethos of partnership or, in Thomas Berry’s words, “a mutually enhancing relationship between humans and the Earth and all its living creatures” (1988). It implies a retreat from hubris to humility, from predation to co-existence.

I’d be interested to know what connotations the term eco-mutuality has for others. What specifically are the values that seem to you to be explicit or implicit in the term? What resonances does it have for you?

Can we try a thought experiment to flesh out some of the meanings and implications of eco-mutuality and how they might translate into practical ethics?

References:

Our Common Future, Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland report), Oxford, 1987.
David Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, Princeton, 2009.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, 1988.

Image credit: Ecohustler.co.uk