The Empire Strikes Out

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece is adapted from Kenny Ausubel's opening remarks to the 2003 Bioneers Conference, which takes place Oct. 17-19 in San Rafael, Calif. Kenny founded Bioneers in 1990.

Speaking once at the Bioneers conference, Paul Hawken re-framed the famous defining image from the movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.' As you may recall, while the horizon fills with a flotilla of space ships, the earthbound scientists are feverishly fumbling to make contact with the E.T.'s. Awestruck, they try sending out a sequence of musical tones to establish communication. Meanwhile, unseen behind them rises the Mother Ship, dwarfing everything else, blotting out the entire horizon. The Mother Ship is the biology of the planet. The Mother Ship is the Mother Earth. And it is bigger than anything we can imagine.

That's about the size of it. For all the chatter about the Age of Information, what we are really entering is the Age of Biology.

We didn't invent nature. Nature invented us. Nature bats last, the saying goes, but even more importantly it's her playing field. We would be wise to learn the ground rules and how to play by them.

When I founded Bioneers in 1990, the impulse originated from my exposure to the work of biological pioneers searching to rediscover nature's own operating instructions. Their quest has been to glean what we might learn from four billion years of evolutionary intelligence and apply it in practical ways.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what the bioneers are doing is mimicking nature in order to help nature heal and serve human ends harmlessly. In many cases their knowledge is prefigured by ancient indigenous science from First Peoples, the world's original bioneers. These are the true biotechnologies.

The great ecological play takes place in a food web that makes no waste. It's powered by a solar economy that neither mines the past nor mortgages the future. Some of its guiding principles are diversity, kinship, symbiosis, reciprocity and community. It's all alive. It's all intelligent. It's all connected. It's all relatives.

One of the beauties of biology is that its facts can become our metaphors. These underlying codes may also serve as inspiring parables for how as human beings we might organize a more just, humane and authentically sustainable society.

If there is a single story woven within these many stories, it's the grand tale of interdependence. Life is intimacy interconnected, and as a culture we've made a basic systems error to believe that we exist somehow separate from nature, or from one another. That illusion could prove fatal at this momentous cusp where our turbo-charged technologies and overwhelming numbers have given us, for the first time in history, the capacity to blow it on a planetary scale.

Today a globalized corporate empire is menacing the future of the entire biosphere. We all know that empires are castles made of sand that always crumble and fade away, but by the time this empire strikes out, the biological game could be all but over. Corporate globalization is killing off its host -- and ours -- mother Earth.

Gary Larsen once did a great cartoon that sums up the empire express. A ship is sinking, and a pack of dogs crowded into a lifeboat are watching it go down. The lead dog says to the others, "OK -- all those in favor of eating all the food all at once, raise your paws." That's economic globalization in a nutshell.

The real-world situation that's spontaneously combusting today is a perfect storm of extreme environmental degradation and rolling infrastructure collapse. It's by no means the first time this has happened. Previous civilizations bought the farm because of self-induced environmental catastrophe, but in the past the damage was localized.

As Jared Diamond, the author of 'Guns, Germs and Steel,' has pointed out, these societies met their demise by cutting down forests, eroding topsoil and building burgeoning cities in dry areas that eventually ran short of water. Sometimes hastened by sudden climate change, the ensuing disintegration occurred suddenly -- in a matter of a decade or two after a society reached its peak of population, wealth and power. Because that pinnacle also marked maximum resource consumption and waste production, it produced unsupportable environmental impacts.

But there's more to it, Diamond says. "They had foolish leaders...who embroiled them in destabilizing wars and didn't pay attention to problems at home. They were overwhelmed by desperate immigrants, as one society after another collapsed, sending floods of economic refugees to tax the resources of the societies that weren't collapsing."

When Diamond studied the ecological downfall of Mexico's ancient Mayan civilization, he determined that the final strand in its unraveling was a crisis of political leadership. He said, "Their [leaders] attention was evidently focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all these activities." Sound familiar, my fellow peasants??

Today we're going mano a mano with the whole biosphere, and she's responding with her own form of deregulation. Just take global warming. The planet is reeling from record-smashing temperatures, violent storms, long-term droughts, hundred-year floods, unstoppable fires, massive insect infestations, migrating disease patterns, rising seas, and wholesale species extinctions not seen in 65 million years. Fifteen-thousand people died in France this summer from record-setting heat. In Phoenix, Arizona, people's flip-flops melted on the pavement. One woman who tripped and fell face-first on the sidewalk was rushed to a burn unit. As if the atmosphere weren't already unpleasant enough, global warming is just getting going.

Earlier this year, the White House pressured the EPA to hit the delete key in its state-of-the-environment report regarding the forty-weight connection between global warming and the burning of fossil fuels. The US political class says we need more scientific study while they march us backwards into the 21st century carrying a sack of coal. In fact, the science is unequivocal. It's no longer a matter of connecting the dots. It's a matter of connecting the elephants in the room.

Global warming means more and bigger storms, and one of the most striking images from the relatively mild Hurricane Miserabel was the battered mall of the Washington Monument. A large stand of flagpoles forlornly flew the stars and stripes, shredded to tatters by the violent weather. As the great urban farmer Michael Abelman once said here at Bioneers, "After all, what good is a country and a flag if there is no more fertile soil, no ancient forests, no clean water, no pure food? If you really love your country, protect and restore some wildness. Support local agriculture. Plant a garden. Those who work to protect and restore these things are the real patriots."

In truth, the US political class is clueless. It has no plan, besides eating all the food all at once. Although the empire may seem awesomely powerful, it's coming apart at the seams.

What is also true here and around the world is that people are stepping up with real solutions. There's a new superpower: global popular movements. They are growing from the bottom up -- to take back control over our lives, our communities, our economies and our cultures. People are starting to assume responsibility for the lands, the waters, the forests, and the global commons we all share with the web of life.

People worldwide are rejecting the deification of the market over environmental and human rights. As Amory Lovins has said, "Markets make a great servant but a bad master and a worse religion. Markets produce value, but only communities and families produce values. And a society that tries to substitute markets for politics, ethics, or faith is seriously adrift."

There are brilliant scientific and social innovators among us who've been patiently incubating the seeds of successful local, regional and even societal plans for the transformation to a sustainable civilization. An alternative globalization movement of unprecedented proportions is taking shape, weaving a green web of innovative models grounded in true biotechnologies and social equity.

This new world is being born right now before our eyes. It mimics the decentralized intelligence of living systems, the innate democracy of life. It's founded in the recognition that the first homeland security comes from environmental security. Our civilization's out-of-body experience is screeching to a halt as we awaken to our absolute dependence on natural life-support systems and our interdependence with all life. And in a world where half the people live on $2 a day or less, we can have no peace. The Gulf War we need to wage is to end the gulf between rich and poor.

And in terms of global security, it's no coincidence that the world's most dangerous political hot spots and breeding grounds for terrorism are exactly the same places with the worst environmental devastation and poverty. Go figure.

We're entering into unknown territory. There will be little to hold onto. It could be a time of unimaginable suffering and loss, but it will also be a renaissance of flourishing creativity and deep healing. The regenerative capacity of nature is powerful beyond our imagination. And the boundless nobility of the human soul is arising everywhere in waves of caring and kindness. Our social security is being woven in community, as people gather to mend our shredded social fabric and solve problems together. There is as much cause for hope as for horror. And we know we must prevail.

We can start by attending to our worst wounds. In very practical terms, the solution is to invest in our problems. We need a Green New Deal, a massive global investment in repairing the environment, transforming our infrastructures, and restoring people. The measure of any solution is whether it solves for pattern by resolving multiple problems in one fell swoop.

What's called for is strong government leadership to reboot the system. We need an immediate global Marshall plan of clean, renewable energy, and the re-design and rebuilding of our decaying infrastructures and clotted transportation systems. We can jump-start a permanent transition to an ecological agriculture that produces healthy, nutritious food in regionalized foodsheds -- restores the land, air and water -- and revives rural economies thriving with small and medium-sized farms. We need to revitalize public health with an Ecological Medicine anchored in the health of our ecosystems, which is the best investment any society can make. And we need a just legal system that puts human and environmental rights above property rights and corporate rights. All these programs will yield dramatically positive results -- environmentally, economically, socially and spiritually. All of it is do-able.

In great measure, we know what to do in practical terms to realize this vision. The vexing bottleneck we face is political, not technological. The other power blackout we have to fix is the corporate empire turning the lights out on democracy. As the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, known as "the father of fascism," said in a uniquely refreshing moment of candor, "Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power." As the whole world becomes a company town, democracy is in peril of becoming a phantom limb, severed from the body politic while we imagine it's still attached. Cleaning up the environment will happen when we clean up politics and reclaim our government.

Democracy is not a spectator sport. Voting is not something we can do just every two or four years. We need to vote every day with our lives. The coming environmental blowback and social dislocation could just as easily swing us toward martial law and totalitarian rule. If we don't change directions, we might just end up where we're heading.

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