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Is Our System of Government Incapable of Meeting the Challenges We Face?

In the long emergency ahead, the challenges to be overcome are first and foremost political, not technological or economic.

The US flag flies at the Capitol building in Washington, DC in October. The US Senate approved a deal Saturday to avoid a federal shutdown, voting for a spending bill worth roughly $1 trillion to fund the government through fiscal year 2012.


The following is excerpted from The State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Possible by the Worldwatch Institute. Copyright 2013 by the Worldwatch Institute. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

The first evidence linking climate change and human emissions of carbon dioxide was painstakingly assembled in 1897 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. What began as an interesting but seemingly unimportant conjecture about the effect of rising carbon dioxide on temperature has turned into a flood of increasingly urgent and rigorous warnings about the rapid warming of Earth and the dire consequences of inaction. Nonetheless, the global dialogue on climate is floundering while the scientific and anecdotal evidence of rapid climate destabilization grows by the day.

We have entered a “long emergency” in which a myriad of worsening eco-logical, social, and economic problems and dilemmas at different geographic and temporal scales are converging as a crisis of crises. It is a collision of two non-linear systems—the biosphere and biogeochemical cycles on one side and human institutions, organizations, and governments on the other. But the response at the national and international levels has so far been indifferent to inconsistent, and nowhere more flagrantly so than in the United States, which is responsible for about 28 percent of the fossil-fuel carbon that humanity added to the atmosphere between 1850 and 2002.

The “perfect storm” that lies ahead is caused by the collision of changing climate; spreading ecological disorder (including deforestation, soil loss, water shortages, species loss, ocean acidification); population growth; unfair distribution of the costs, risks, and benefits of economic growth; national, ethnic, and religious tensions; and the proliferation of nuclear weapons—all compounded by systemic failures of foresight and policy. As a consequence, in political theorist Brian Barry’s words, “it is quite possible that by the year 2100 human life will have become extinct or will be confined to a few residential areas that have escaped the devastating effects of nuclear holocaust or global warming.”

Part of the reason for paralysis is the sheer difficulty of the issue. Climate change is scientifically complex, politically divisive, economically costly, morally contentious, and ever so easy to deny or defer to others at some later time. But the continuing failure to anticipate and forestall the worst effects of climate destabilization in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is the largest political and moral failure in history. Indeed, it is a crime across generations for which we have, as yet, no name.

Barring a technological miracle, we have condemned ourselves and posterity to live with growing climate instability for hundreds or even thousands of years. No government has yet shown the foresight, will, creativity, or capacity to deal with problems at this scale, complexity, or duration. No government is prepared to make the “tragic choices” ahead humanely and rationally. And no government has yet demonstrated the willingness to rethink its own mission at the intersection of climate instability and conventional economic wisdom. The same is true in the realm of international governance. In the words of historian Mark Mazower: “The real world challenges mount around us in the shape of climate change, financial instability . . . [but there is] no single agency able to coordinate the response to global warming.”

The Problem of Governance

In An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, in 1974, economist Robert Heilbroner wrote: “I not only predict but I prescribe a centralization of power as the only means by which our threatened and dangerous civilization will make way for its successor.” Heilbroner’s description of the human prospect included global warming but also other threats to industrial civilization, including the possibility that finally we would not care enough to do the things necessary to protect posterity. The extent to which power must be centralized, he said, depends on the capacity of populations, accustomed to affluence, for self-discipline. But he did not find “much evidence in history—especially in the history of nations organized under the materialistic and individualistic promptings of an industrial civilization— to encourage expectations of an easy subordination of the private interest to the public weal.”

Heilbroner’s conclusions are broadly similar to those of others, including British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who somewhat less apocalyptically proposes “a return to greater state interventionism”—but as a catalyst, facilitator, and enforcer of guarantees. Giddens believes the climate crisis will motivate governments to create new partnerships with corporations and civil society, which is to say more of the same, only bigger and better. David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace likewise argues that the role of the state must evolve toward larger, more innovative governments and “stronger international institutions [as] the only possible way to preserve national interests.”

The performance of highly centralized governments, however, is not encouraging—especially relative to the conditions of the long emergency. Governments have been effective at waging war and sometimes in solving— or appearing to solve—economic problems. But even then they are cumbersome, slow, and excessively bureaucratic. They tend to fragment agencies by problem, rather like mailbox pigeonholes, but the long emergency will require managing complex systems over long time periods. Might there be more agile, dependable, and less awkward ways to conduct the public business in the long emergency that do not require authoritarian governments, the compromises and irrational messiness of politics, or even reliance on personal sacrifice? Can these be made to work over the long time spans necessary to stabilize the climate? If not, how else might we conduct the public business? Broadly, there are three other possibilities.

First, champions of markets and advanced technology propose to solve the climate crisis by harnessing the power of markets and technological innovation to avoid what they regard as the quagmire of government. Rational corporate behavior responding to markets and prices, they believe, can stabilize climate faster at lower costs and without hair-shirt sacrifice, moral posturing, and slow, clumsy, overbearing bureaucracies. The reason is said to be the power of informed self-interest plus the ongoing revolution in energy technology that has made efficiency and renewable energy cheaper, faster, less risky, and more profitable than fossil fuels. In their 2011 book, Reinventing Fire, Amory Lovins and his coauthors, for example, ask whether “the United States could realistically stop using oil and coal by 2050? And could such a vast transition toward efficient use and renewable energy be led by business for durable advantage?” The answer, they say, is yes, and the reasoning and data they marshal are formidable.

But why would corporations, particularly those in highly subsidized extractive industries, agree to change as long as they can pass on the costs of climate change to someone else? Who would pay for the “stranded” oil and coal reserves (with an estimated value in excess of $20 trillion) that cannot be burned if we are to stay below a 2 degree Celsius warming—often thought to be the threshold of catastrophe? Would corporations continue to use their financial power to manipulate public opinion, undermine regulations, and oppose an equitable sharing of costs, risks, and benefits? How does corporate responsibility fit with the capitalist drive to expand market share? Economist Robert Reich concludes that given the existing rules of the market, corporations “cannotbe socially responsible, at least not to any significant extent. . . . Supercapitalism does not permit acts of corporate virtue that erode the bottom line. No corporation can ‘voluntarily’ take on an extra cost that its competitors don’t also take on.” He further argues that the alleged convergence of social responsibility and profitability is unsupported by any factual evidence.

There are still larger questions about how large corporations fit in democratic societies. One of the most insightful students of politics and economics, Yale political scientist Charles Lindblom, concluded his magisterial Politics and Marketsin 1977 with the observation that “the large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed, it does not fit” (emphasis added). Until democratized internally, stripped of legal “personhood,” and rendered publicly accountable, large corporations will remain autocratic fiefdoms, for the most part beyond public control.

These issues require us to ask what kind of societies and what kind of global community do we intend to build? It is certainly possible to imagine a corporate-dominated, hyper-efficient, solar-powered, sustainable world that is also grossly unfair, violent, and fascist. To organize society mostly by market transactions would be to create a kind of Ayn Randian hell that would demolish society, as economist Karl Polanyi once said. Some things should never be sold—because the selling undermines human rights; because it would violate the law and procedural requirements for openness and fairness; because it would have a coarsening effect on society; because the sale would steal from the poor and vulnerable, including future generations; because the thing to be sold is part of the common heritage of humankind and so can have no rightful owner; and because the thing to be sold—including government itself—should simply not be for sale.

A second alternative to authoritarian governments may lie in the emergence of national and global networks abetted by the Internet and advancing communications technology. They are decentralized, self-replicating, and sometimes self-correcting. In time, they might grow into a global system doing what traditional governments and international agencies once did—but better, faster, and cheaper. Some analysts believe that the old model of the nation-state is inadequate to meet many of the challenges of the long emergency and is losing power to a variety of novel organizations. Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, for one, envisions networks of “disaggregated states in which national government officials interact intensively with one another and adopt codes of best practices and agree on coordinated solutions to common problems,” thereby sidestepping conventional inter-governmental practices and international politics.

Below the level of governments there is, in fact, an explosion of nongovernmental organizations, citizens’ groups, and professional networks that are already assuming many of the functions and responsibilities once left to governments. Writer and entrepreneur Paul Hawken believes that the world is already being reshaped by a global upwelling of grassroots organizations promoting sustainable economies, renewable energy, justice, transparency, and community mobilization. Many of the thousands of groups Hawken describes are linked in “global action networks,” organized around specific issues to provide “communication platforms for sub-groups to organize in ever-more-specialized geographic and sub-issue networks.” Early examples include the International Red Cross and the International Labour Organization.

Recently clusters of nongovernmental groups have organized around issues such as common property resources, global financing for local projects, water, climate, political campaigns, and access to information. They are fast, agile, and participatory. Relative to other citizens’ efforts, they require little funding. But like other grassroots organizations, they have no power to legislate, tax, or enforce rules. In Mark Mazower’s words, “Many are too opaque and unrepresentative to any collective body.” Much of the same, he believes, can be said of foundations and philanthropists. By applying business methods to social problems, Mazower writes, “Philanthrocapitalists exaggerate what technology can do, ignore the complexities of social and institutional constraints, often waste sums that would have been better spent more carefully and wreak havoc with the existing fabric of society in places they know very little about.” Moreover, they are not immune to fashion, delusion, corruption, and arrogance. Nor are they often held account-able to the public.

So what is to be done? Robert Heilbroner proposed enlarging the powers of the state. Green economy advocates believe that corporations can lead the transition through the long emergency. Others argue that an effective planetary immune system is already emerging in the form of networks. Each offers a piece in a larger puzzle. But there is a fourth possibility. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein proposes that we strengthen and deepen the practice of democracy even as we enlarge the power of the state. “Responding to climate change,” she writes:

“requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless sit is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law. 

Democracy, Winston Churchill once famously said, is the worst form of government except for all the others ever tried. But has it ever been tried? In columnist Harold Myerson’s words, “the problem isn’t that we’re too democratic. It’s that we’re not democratic enough.” The authors of the U.S. Constitution, for example, grounded ultimate power in “we the people” while denying them any such power or even much access to it.

Political theorist Benjamin Barber proposes that we take some of the power back by revitalizing society as a “strong democracy,” by which he means a “self-governing community of citizens who are united less by homogeneous interests than by civic education and who are made capable of common purpose and mutual action by virtue of their civic attitudes and participatory institutions rather than their altruism or their good nature.” Strong democracy requires engaged, thoughtful citizens, as once proposed by Thomas Jefferson and John Dewey. The primary obstacle, Barber con-cedes, is the lack of a “nationwide system of local civic participation.” To fill that void he proposes, among other things, a national system of neighborhood assemblies rebuilding democracy from the bottom up.

Political theorists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson similarly propose the creation of deliberative institutions in which “free and equal citizens (and their representatives), justify decisions in a process in which they give one another reasons that are mutually acceptable and generally accessible, with the aim of reaching conclusions that are binding in the present to all citizens but open to challenge in the future.” Reminiscent of classical Greek democracy, they intend to get people talking about large issues in public settings in order to raise the legitimacy of policy choices, improve public knowledge, and increase civil discourse. (See Box 26–1.) A great deal depends, they concede, on the durability and vitality of practices and institutions that enable deliberation to work well.

Political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin propose a new national holiday, Deliberation Day, on which citizens would meet in structured dialogues about issues and candidates. They believe that “ordinary citizens are willing and able to take on the challenge of civic deliberation during ordinary times” in a properly structured setting that “facilitates genuine learning about the choices confronting the political community.”

Legal scholar Sanford Levinson believes, however, that reforms will be ineffective without first repairing the structural flaws in the U.S. Constitution, which is less democratic than any of the 50 state constitutions in the United States. He proposes a Constitutional Convention of citizens selected by lottery proportional to state populations to remodel the basic structure of governance. Whether this is feasible or not, the U.S. Constitution has other flaws that will limit effective responses to problems of governance in the long emergency.

Philosophers have argued through the ages that democracy is the best form of government, and some have claimed that the deeper it is, the better. By “deeper” they mean a structure that spreads power widely, engages more people, and invites them to take a more direct role in the shaping of policy.

Most liberal (current) democracies do not meet that definition, being republican in form and thus giving most power and decision making responsibility to elected representatives. In some of these republics, democracy is even further degraded. In the United States, for instance, Supreme Court decisions over the years have established that there is essentially no difference in civic standing between individual citizens and corporations or other private interests that can and do spend billions of dollars on political advertising, lobbying, and propaganda (over $8 billion in the 2010 election cycle).

But it is not simply such distortions of democracy that compel a closer look at the benefits of deepening it. The democracies that most of the industrial world lives in have been derided by political theorist Benjamin Barber as “politics as zookeeping”—systems designed “to keep men safely apart rather than bring them fruitfully together.” In fact there are major potential advantages in bringing people fruitfully together in the political arena, not least with respect to the environmental crises that beset humanity now. Paradoxically, one of the weaknesses of liberal democracy may be not that it asks too much of its citizens but that it asks too little. Having mostly handed off all responsibility for assessing issues and setting policy to elected politicians, voters are free to indulge themselves in narrow and virulently asserted positions rather than having to come together, work to perceive the common good, and plot a course toward it.

One antidote to this is deliberation. Deliberative democracy can take many forms, but its essence, according to social scientist Adolf Gundersen, is “the process by which individuals actively confront challenges to their beliefs.” It can happen when someone reads a book and thinks about what it says, but in the public sphere more generally it means engaging in pairs or larger groups to discuss issues, com-pare notes, probe (not attack) one another’s assertions, and take the opportunity to evolve a personal position in the interests of forging a collective one. Deliberative democracy, in Gundersen’s words, “challenges citizens to move beyond their present beliefs, develop their ideas, and examine their values. It calls upon them to make connections, to connect more firmly and fully with the people and the world around them.” When arranged to address environmental aims, deliberative democracy “connects the people, first with each other and then with the environment they wish not simply to visit, but also to inhabit.”

Given the uneven record of democracies in educating their people into citizenship, true deliberation might be difficult to learn, especially in countries where the politics are strongly adversarial. Deliberative democracy is a “conversation,” Gundersen says, “not a series of speeches.” Conversations involve respectful listening—not just waiting to talk—as well as speaking. Yet there is an untapped hunger for it that can be released when the circumstances are conducive. And Gundersen has established through 240 hours of interviews with 46 Americans that deliberation about environmental matters “leads citizens to think of our collective pursuit of environmental ends in a more collective, long-term, holistic, and self-reflectiveway.” Such thinking might be the indispensable foundation for achieving anything like sustainability.

In this regard the U.S. Constitution is typical of others in giving no “clear, unambiguous textual foundation for federal environmental protection law,” notes legal scholar Richard Lazarus. It privileges “decentralized, fragmented, and incremental lawmaking . . . which makes it difficult to address issues in a comprehensive, holistic fashion.” Congressional committee jurisdiction based on the Constitution further fragments responsibility and legislative results. The Constitution gives too much power to private rights as opposed to public goods. It does not mention the environment or the need to protect soils, air, water, wildlife, and climate and so it offers no unambiguous basis for environmental protection. The commerce clause, the source for major environmental statutes, is a cumbersome and awkward legal basis for environmental protection. The result, Lazarus notes, is that “our lawmaking institutions are particularly inapt for the task of considering problems and crafting legal solutions of the spatial and temporal dimensions necessary for environmental law.”

The U.S. Constitution is deficient in other ways as well. Posterity is mentioned only in the Preamble, but not thereafter. The omission, understandable when the Constitution was written, now poses an egregious wrong. In 1787, the framers could have had no premonition that far into the future one generation could deprive all others of life, liberty, and property without due process of law or even good cause. And so, in theologian Thomas Berry’s words: “It is already determined that our children and grandchildren will live amid the ruined infrastructures of the industrial world and amid the ruins of the natural world itself.” The U.S. Constitution gives them no protection whatsoever.

Further, with a few notable exceptions—such as in Ecuador—most constitutions pertain only to humans and their affairs and property. We privilege humans, while excluding other members of the biotic community. A more expansive system of governance would extend rights of sorts and in some fashion to species, rivers, landscapes, ecologies, and trees, as legal scholar Christopher Stone once proposed. In Thomas Berry’s words: “We have established our human governance with little regard for the need to integrate it with the functional order of the planet itself.” In fact, from our bodies to our global civilization we are part of a worldwide parliament of beings, systems, and forces far beyond our understanding. We are kin to all that ever was and all that ever will be and must learn what that fact means for governance.

Building the Foundations of Robust Democracies

The history of democracy is complex and often troubled. In classical Athens it lasted only 200 years. Political philosopher John Plamenatz once wrote that “democracy is the best form of government only when certain conditions hold.” But those conditions may not hold in established democracies in the long emergency ahead and may be impossible in less stable societies and failed states with no history of it. The reasons are many.

For one, citizens in most democratic societies have become accustomed to comfort and affluence, but democracy “requires citizens who are willing to sacrifice for the common good and [restrain] their passions,” notes political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams. How people shaped by consumption will respond politically in what will certainly be more straitened times is un-known. Political analyst Peter Burnell cautions that “democratization does not necessarily make it easier and can make it more difficult for countries to engage with climate mitigation.”

Even in the best of times, however, representative democracies are vulnerable to neglect, changing circumstances, corruption, the frailties of human judgment, and the political uses of fear—whether of terrorism or sub-version. They tend to become ineffective, sclerotic, and easily co-opted by the powerful and wealthy. They are vulnerable to militarization, as James Madison noted long ago. They are susceptible to ideologically driven factions that refuse to play by the rules of compromise, tolerance, and fair play. They work differently at different scales. And they cannot long endure the many economic and social forces that corrode political intelligence and democratic competence.

Democracies are also vulnerable to what conservative philosopher Richard Weaver once described as the spoiled-child psychology, “a kind of irresponsibility of the mental process . . . because [people] do not have to think to survive . . . typical thinking of such people [exhibits] a sort of contempt for realities.” Psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell believe that the behavior Weaver noted in the 1940s has now exploded into a full-blown “epidemic of narcissism.” Such failures of personality, judgment, and character could multiply under the stresses likely in the long emergency.27

We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. There is no good case to be made for smaller governments in the long emergency unless we wish to sharply reduce our security and lower our standards for the public downward to a libertarian, gun-toting, free-for-all—Thomas Hobbes’s nightmare on steroids. On the contrary, it will be necessary to enlarge governments domestically and internationally to deal with the nastier aspects of the long emergency, including relocating people from rising oceans and spreading deserts, restoring order in the wake of large storms, managing conflicts over diminishing water, food, and resources, dealing with the spread of diseases, and managing the difficult transition to a post-growth economy. On the other hand, we have good reason to fear an enlargement of government powers as both ineffective and potentially oppressive.

Given those choices, there is no good outcome that does not require something like a second democratic revolution in which we must master the art and science of governance for a new era—creating and maintaining governments that are ecologically competent, effective at managing complex systems, agile, capable of foresight, and sturdy over an extraordinary time span. If we intend for such governments to also be democratic, we will have to summon an extraordinary level of political creativity and courage. To meet the challenges of the late eighteenth century, James Madison argued that democracy required a free press that served a well-informed and engaged citizenry, fair and open elections, and reliable ways to counterbalance competing interests. But he feared that even the best government with indifferent and incompetent citizens and leaders would sooner or later come to ruin.

In our time, strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency, but it will not develop, persist, and flourish without significant changes. The most difficult of these will require that we confront the age-old nemesis of democracy: economic oligarchy. Today the majority of concentrated wealth is tied, directly or indirectly, to the extraction, processing, and sale of fossil fuels, which is also the major driver of the long emergency. Decades of rising global inequality have entrenched control in a small group of super-wealthy individuals, financiers, corporations, media tycoons, drug lords, and celebrities in positions of unaccountable authority.

In the United States, for example, the wealthiest 400 individuals have more net wealth than the bottom 185,000,000 people. Six Walmart heirs alone control as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the U.S. population. Rising inequality in the United States and elsewhere reflects neither efficiency nor merit. And beyond some threshold it divides society by class, erodes empathy, hardens hearts, undermines public trust, incites violence, saps our collective imagination, and destroys the public spirit that upholds democracy and community alike. Nonetheless, the rich do not give up easily. According to political economist Jeffrey Winters, the redistribution of wealth has always occurred as a result of war, conquest, or revolution, not as a democratic decision or from the benevolence of plutocrats.

Toward the end of his life, historian Lewis Mumford concluded that the only way out of this conundrum is “a steady withdrawal” from the “megamachine” of technocratic and corporate control. He did not mean community-scale isolation and autarky, but rather more equitable, decentralized, and self-reliant communities that met a significant portion of their needs for food, energy, shelter, waste cycling, and economic support. He did not propose secession from the national and global community but rather withdrawal from dependence on the forces of oligarchy, technological domination, and zombie-like consumption. Half a century later, that remains the most likely strategy for building the foundations of democracies robust enough to see us through the tribulations ahead.

In other words, the alternative to a futile and probably bloody attempt to forcibly redistribute wealth is to spread the ownership of economic assets throughout society. From the pioneering work of progressive economists, scholars, and activists such as Scott Bernstein, Michael Shuman, Gar Alperovitz, Ted Howard, and Jeff Gates we know that revitalization of local economies through worker-owned businesses, local investment, and greater local self-reliance is smart economics, wise social policy, smart environmental management, and a solid foundation for both democracy and national resilience.

Simultaneously, and without much public notice, there have been dramatic advances in ecological design, biomimicry, distributed renewable energy, efficiency, ecological engineering, transportation infrastructure, permaculture, and natural systems agriculture. Applied systematically at community, city, and regional scales, ecological design opens genuine possibilities for greater local control over energy, food, shelter, money, water, transportation, and waste cycling. It is the most likely basis for revitalizing local economies powered by home-grown efficiency and locally accessible renewable energy while eliminating pollution, improving resilience, and spreading wealth. The upshot at a national level is to reduce the need for government regulation, which pleases conservatives, while improving quality of life, which appeals to liberals. Fifty years ago, Mumford’s suggestion seemed unlikely. But in the years since, local self-reliance, Transition Towns, and regional policy initiatives are leading progressive changes throughout Europe and the United States while central governments have been rendered ineffective.

A second change is in order. Democracies from classical Athens to the present are only as vibrant as the quality and moral power of the ideas they can muster, mull over, and act upon. Debate, argument, and civil conversation are the lifeblood of the democratic process. In our time, said to be an age of information, one of the most striking characteristics is the triviality, narrowness, and often factual inaccuracy of our political conversations. Much of what passes for public dialogue has to do with jobs and economic growth, but it is based on economic theories that fit neither biophysical reality nor the highest aspirations of humankind. The rules of market economies are said to date from Adam Smith 237 years ago, but those of natural systems are 3.8 billion years old. Allowed to run on much longer, the mismatch will destroy us.

At the dawn of the modern environmental era, in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act required all federal agencies to “utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision-making.” Nonetheless, the government and corporations, foundations, and nonprofit organizations still work mostly by breaking issues and problems into their parts and dealing with each in isolation. Separate agencies, departments, and organizations specialize in energy, land, food, air, water, wildlife, economy, finance, building regulations, urban policy, technology, health, and transportation as if each were unrelated to the others.

Reducing wholes to parts is the core of the modern worldview we inherited from Galileo, Bacon, and Descartes. And for a time it worked economic, scientific, and technological miracles. But the price we pay is considerable and growing fast. For one, we seldom anticipate or account for collateral costs of fragmentation or count the benefits of systems integration. We mostly focus on short-term benefits while ignoring long-term risks and vulnerabilities. Imponderables and non-priced benefits are excluded altogether. The results corrupt our politics, economics, and values, and they undermine our prospects.

Nonetheless, we administer, organize, and analyze in parts, not wholes. But in the real world there are tipping points, surprises, step-level changes, time delays, and unpredictable, high-impact events. To fathom such things requires a mind-set capable of seeing connections, systems, and patterns as well as a perspective far longer than next year’s election or an annual balance sheet. Awareness that we live in systems we can never fully comprehend and control and humility in the face of the unknown gives rise to precaution and resilient design.

One example of this approach comes from Oberlin, a small city of about 10,000 people with a poverty level of 25 percent in the center of the U.S. “Rust Belt.” It is situated in a once-prosperous industrial region sacrificed to political expediency and bad economic policy, not too far from Cleveland and Detroit. But things here are beginning to change. In 2009, Oberlin College and the city launched the Oberlin Project. It has five goals: build a sustainable economy, become climate-positive, restore a robust local farm economy supplying up to 70 percent of the city’s food, educate at all levels for sustainability, and help catalyze similar efforts across the United States at larger scales. The community is organized into seven teams, focused on economic development, education, law and policy, energy, community engagement, food and agriculture, and data analysis. The project aims for “full-spectrum sustainability,” in which each of the parts supports the resilience and prosperity of the whole community in a way that is catalytic—shifting the default setting of the city, the community, and the college to a collaborative post-cheap-fossil-fuel model of resilient sustainability.

The Oberlin Project is one of a growing number of examples of integrated or full-spectrum sustain-ability worldwide, including the Mondragón Cooperative in Spain, the Transition Towns movement, and the Evergreen Project in Cleveland. In different ways, each is aiming to transform complex systems called cities and city-regions into sustainable, locally generated centers of prosperity, powered by efficiency and renewable energy. Each is aiming to create opportunities for good work and higher levels of worker ownership of renewably powered enterprises organized around necessities. The upshot is a global movement toward communities with the capacity to withstand outside disturbances while preserving core values and functions. In practical terms, resilience means redundancy of major functions, appropriate scale, firebreaks between critical systems, fairness, and societies that are “robust to error,” technological accidents, malice, and climate destabilization. In short, it is human systems designed in much the way that nature designs ecologies: from the bottom up. 

It is time to talk about important things. Why have we come so close to the brink of extinction so carelessly and casually? Why do we still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? How can humankind reclaim the commons of atmosphere, seas, biological diversity, mineral re-sources, and lands as the heritage of all, not the private possessions of a few? How much can we fairly and sustainably take from Earth, and for what purposes? Why is wealth so concentrated and poverty so pervasive? Are there better ways to earn our livelihoods than by maximizing consumption, a word that once signified a fatal disease? Can we organize governance at all levels around the doctrine of public trust rather than through fear and com-petition? And, finally, how might Homo sapiens, with a violent and bloody past, be redeemed in the long arc of time?

Outside of Hollywood movies, stories do not always have happy endings. Human history, to the contrary, is “one damn thing after another” as an undergraduate history major once famously noted. And one of those damn things is the collapse of entire civilizations when leaders do not summon the wit and commitment to solve problems while they can. Whatever the particulars, the downward spiral has a large dose of elite incompetence and irresponsibility, often with the strong aroma of wishful thinking, denial, and groupthink abetted by rules that reward selfishness, not group success.

In the long emergency ahead, the challenges to be overcome are first and foremost political, not technological or economic. They are in the domain of governance where the operative words are “we” and “us,” not those of markets where the pronouns are “I,” “me,” and “mine.” At issue is whether we have the wherewithal, wisdom, and foresight to preserve and improve the human enterprise in the midst of a profound human crisis. Any chance for us to come through the trials of climate destabilization in a nuclear-armed world with 10 billion people by 2100 will require that we soon reckon with the thorny issues of politics, political theory, and governance with wisdom, boldness, and creativity.

David W. Orr is the Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College in Ohio. 

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