Gaia's Response to Us

SUBHEAD: The Earth is not dying, Gaia is just reacting to our mistakes.

By Erik Assadournian on 20 December 2020 for -

Image above: One of the earliest images of the whole Earth from 29,000 miles into space taken from NASA Appolo 17 spaceship on way to Moon. It was titled the Blue Marble and and is one of the most reproduced images in history. (

So often we hear the phrase ‘save the world’ or the ‘save our planet.’ We may even use it. But sometime back in my career someone wise corrected that, explaining that the planet is not dying but changing—and through that change many species, including our own, will probably die. But the Earth, in all likelihood, will not die.

But to say the Earth is changing, just as to say it is dying, is passive, like, saying ‘Oops, too bad, we were born on a sick old planet—just our bad luck.’

No, Gaia is responding. Responding to our actions. Whatever metaphors you want to use here, feel free: You want to make Gaia into a finely-balanced aquarium filled with exotic fish, and us a wild child dropping soap in the tank to ‘clean’ it

You want to make Gaia a partner suffering from domestic abuse who finally lashes out on us, her abuser, after years of mistreatment? You want to make Gaia a complex planetary system that holds heat from space with a thin coating of co2, a layer that has increased to a level not seen in 23 million years, higher than even three million years ago when global temperatures were 2 degrees C warmer and sea levels were 15-25 meters higher? While the last isn’t artful, it is accurate.

Gaia is responding. To the altered conditions we have unleashed—with our profligate burning of fossil fuels, our cutting down of forests and ravaging of oceans, and our sheer numbers (us and our pets and livestock).

Amazingly, I don’t see us correcting course any time soon.

This past year, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we shut down large parts of our economy. And so far an additional 1.7 million people have died from COVID. Each and every death is a tragedy. But guess what? Atmospheric concentrations of co2 increased this past year, hitting yet another record (though at this point every year is a record as long as it keeps going up).

That’s pretty amazing. Air travel declined dramatically and is currently 46% lower than in 2019. Road travel in the US declined 11 percent compared with last year. Many businesses were shuttered and will never come back, particularly restaurants. 

But we kept eating, kept making things (after a brief pause) and perhaps even more things to fill consumer demand for novelties while stuck at home (from appliances to backyard patio sets),** plus, all the personal protective equipment (129 billion masks a month!), vaccines, and the equipment needed to deliver them (see, for example, the current boon in freezers and dry ice).

If anything, this year of pandemic, of urgent antiracism protests and prodemocracy demonstrations (not just in the US but countries like Belarus), and of endless Trumpian shenanigans and stoking of conflict and partisanship have crippled the climate movement.

Online protests don’t draw eyes—especially when there are half a dozen other crises to report on every day (including climate-driven ones like raging fires and a record hurricane season). And while groups like Fridays for the Future and the Extinction Rebellion have remained active, the smaller actions they’ve taken have gotten much less attention.

This past week, my wife, son, and I watched I am Greta. It was certainly a moving film, exploring how Greta Thunberg went from one individual striking, alone, in front of the Swedish parliament building for the climate, to sparking a global climate movement to becoming a symbol—both of youthful leadership and truth-telling as well as a vilified figure for those on the right, even receiving death threats.

And thus Greta has also become a symbol of this whole polarized nightmare. Climate change is a threat to our existence, but truly effective action (meaning economic degrowth and daunting levels of cultural change) is a threat to “our way of life” (i.e. the dominant consumer-capitalist paradigm). 

And thus, as viewers see in one scene, Thunburg argues passionately for action in front of the European Economic and Social Committee and Jean-Claude Juncker (president of the European Commission at the time) responds by saying that they’re working “to harmonize all flushes across all toilets in Europe,” which will help save water and energy. You could see the palpable contempt on Thunberg’s face.

Deep down I was hoping my son, 8.5, would say to me let’s start going to the Middletown Town Hall each Friday to strike. I’d be up for that. I want to do that. But I want him to lead that. I don’t want to ‘use’ him, like in an uncomfortably funny scene in the Dutch show Rita where parents make their daughter lead a school climate strike in order to get a book deal.

But the majority of kids, nej, the majority of all people do not want to spend their days protesting. They simply want to enjoy their lives.

But Gaia is responding. To our carbon-intensive life-enjoyment processes. And if we don’t try something different, perhaps partaking in “good trouble”, we’re gonna be in great trouble.

Carbon March to DC

Back in late 2008 (12 long years ago), I shared a proposal with some of the leaders of the climate movement at the time. It was a proposal to organize people from around the United States to walk to Washington,*** taking several months, building the energy and media attention as smaller groups merged into bigger ones and neared the capital, and then blockading major entryways into the city until the new president, Barack Obama, and the Congress felt compelled to respond. 

Note, this was before Occupy Wall Street and XR but absolutely not a new idea—I took it directly from Gandhi’s Salt March to Dandi mixed with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and other non-violent actions (as you can read here).**** I got some generic positive comments, like Greta at the European Commission, but nothing more. 

And considering I had a cushy job at a sustainability think tank, and had just been invited to direct a new book (on consumerism and cultural change my passion), I didn’t push very hard. Especially as everyone else seemed so optimistic that, under the new president, we’d deal with climate change.

But we didn’t. And I should have pushed harder. And I should now. But even now, as the crisis is upon us (not a looming threat any longer), when I have a young son who will inherit this mess, I find myself hesitating at the idea of putting life on hold and risking life and liberty. 

Sure, in part it’s because I have a child, though old enough to walk with me now (and he’d probably get a kick out of walking from Connecticut to DC, where we used to live). And partly it’s because I’m conflicted about whether it’s simply too late to stop the climate unraveling (see the postscript below). But if I’m honest, it’s also because I’m too comfortable.

Yet, without sustained and consistent pressure, Biden’s climate policy, especially with a divided Congress, will not be enough nor will the Green New Deal that activists are advocating for and mostly consists of unsustainable techno-fixes instead of returning to live within Earth’s limits. No country is currently doing enough, as yet more research shows. Do we just accept that and prepare for collapse as best we can or do we fight, risking our freedom, safety, and comfort for that?

Perhaps the Carbon March is not a good idea (though I admit I still really like it, post-pandemic) but we certainly need to expand, support, and deepen efforts of groups like XR and Fridays for the Future, particularly in the United States, where climate protests have taken a back seat to issues that feel more pressing (and frankly have never gotten enough attention or energy here). 

Of course, we need to address racism, COVID, inequality, growing far-right extremism, and gun violence, as well, but if we don’t find a way to fold climate change into the mix, or even fold all of these into an intersectionalist environmentalist framework—then we’re toast, and, as the world burns, all the social gains fought for over the past two centuries will go up in flames with it.

Postscript: To Fight or Adapt? Or Both?

Taking on one other dimension of this, there is a new divide growing between those still trying to ‘save the world’ (aka stop runaway climate change and the mass die off of life including people), and those who simply think it’s too late, and that the best we can do is prepare for the inevitable transition ahead. This latter community, perhaps best represented by The Deep Adaptation Forum, may be right. But that doesn’t mean we can throw in the towel. 

Every part per million of co2 in the atmosphere is going to make things worse (in a non-linear kind of way). Yes, we need those working on preparing for the transition (in both direct ways, like the Transition Town Movement, and deeper ways, including, I’d argue cultivating an ecocentric spirituality that can help us get through the horrors ahead with our humanity intact), because a post-growth future—one wracked by a never-ending series of disasters—is coming soon to a theater near all of us. But we also need those slowing down this march to collapse (especially as after a point, adaptation is impossible).

This is the ideal, though: the actions we take in one realm would also help in the other. For example, a months-long march to Washington to press for climate solutions would also build social capital, engage communities around the country, teach participants to live simply (and get used to living with less), and rediscover basic skills like cooking (for their cadre of marchers). 

This might subtly do a lot to get us ready for the degrowth/collapsed reality ahead. And cultivating an ecospirituality that strongly encourages its adherents to be engaged politically and socially (especially in ways that help normalize degrowth) would also support both realms. 

Ultimately, with the scope of change needed, it does not much matter if you devote yourself to deep adaptation or to slowing the collapse—both are essential and both are part of our bigger collective struggle. The only thing we cannot afford is no corrective action at all.


*Then again, as James Lovelock has noted, Gaia is older than Gi once was. There is a point when the strain of switching states could end all life on Earth and thus Gaia. And of course, like all beings, it is inevitable that Gaia will one day die, the sun’s growing heat and finite life guarantee that. But I have faith that Lynn Margulis is right in that the bacteria deep in the Earth will spread out and create new variations to fill in the empty niches of the new hot world humanity unleashes, starting another cycle of life.

**And factoring in hoarding, we may have even consumed more household goods and food (though it is feasible that this increase might have been offset by food waste avoided from eating at restaurants).

***Due to the nature of this journey, many of the participants would be students and elders (retirees) supported by the communities with food and shelter and attention as they passed through.

****I was inspired to write this after listening to Wendell Berry speak, telling his audience of environmental journalists that the time for “symbolic” civil disobedience was over (in 2008). By that he meant short-term actions that were designed for media attention but did not really disrupt anything in any sustained way that would force a serious response.


When Consensus is Fractured

SUBHEAD: In 2020 we found ourselves in a world where we could not agree on what is reality.

By Richard Heinberg on 18 December 2020 for -

Image above: Volunteers help clean up the parking lot outside a Best Buy store, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, after vandals struck overnight in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. From (

Virtually everyone agrees that 2020 was an abomination. An entire industry of opinion writers is busying itself with end-of-year hand wringing, scouring every online thesaurus for adjectives to express just how horrible the last twelve months have been. 

But what facet of the awfulness to focus on? For the appalled chronicler, the most obvious starting points are the coronavirus pandemic, which has left illness, death, shuttered businesses, and lost jobs trailing in its wake, and the chaotic US presidential election, in which the soundly defeated incumbent has attacked and seriously weakened the very foundations of democracy on his way out the door. 

These two baskets of grim news (pandemic and election) have been accompanied by a shift in the national (and, to some extent, global) zeitgeist—a shift that’s been obvious to anyone paying attention, but that’s nevertheless challenging to capture in words. 

Let’s call it the fracturing of consensus reality. While it won’t be the top story of the year according to most news roundups, it may end up being just as impactful as anything else that’s happened during our latest orbit of the sun. And that’s saying something. 

What’s Real? Let’s All Agree As social and linguistic creatures, we humans—operating in groups—create shared mental worlds. We perceive sensory data, then we verbalize and conceptualize those perceptions, and finally we check our verbalized and conceptualized accounts of reality with other people. 

Over time, a consensus emerges. This language-mediated reality-building process is hardly new; it’s been going on since we all lived by hunting and gathering. Then, everybody within their little groups shared the same stories and the same basic mental map of the world.

After we adopted agriculture, social classes and full-time division of labor ensued. With slavery, kings, and a dramatic reduction in the social power of women, consensus reality became more of a Venn diagram, with the king having the final word in defining the overlapping region on the diagram representing consensus. 

Later, the emergence of writing and Big God religions enabled reality to be codified for empires, and elements of the dominant consensus (e.g., Roman law and Christianity) could be spread among alien cultures. 

For most Europeans, even as dynasties came and went, reality remained essentially whatever the Bible, the church, and the king or emperor said it was. Consensus reality was never consistent or complete and never a correct map of what it purported to represent; it was always an approximation skewed by power relations. 

Some people’s realities were privileged, while other people’s were marginalized, excluded, or intentionally destroyed. And there were always blind spots—actual trends, vulnerabilities, and consequences that nobody noticed or talked about, such as the gradual depletion of natural resources—that only became “real” when they could no longer be ignored. The modern era (from roughly 1500 on) brought new sources of diversity to the consensus-building process. 

As Europeans conquered societies around the globe, “reality” began to reflect the sounds and flavors of these diverse cultures; the result was everything from jazz to fusion cuisine. Meanwhile, the power of commerce greatly increased, reducing the influence of church and aristocracy. 

Increased diversity and a shift toward commercial primacy were accompanied by new integrative trends in the process of collective reality-building. Principal among these was the emergence of science—a self-correcting method for discovering objective truth. 

Of course, science had its blind spots, too (for example, it was often subject to commercial influence—witness the long lags in recognizing the nasty side effects of tobacco and pesticides), but it was persuasive: assertions could be tested by controlled experiment. 

Over the decades, science built formidable structures of knowledge that most people lacked the expertise or temerity to question, but that could be verified by anyone with the necessary resources. Reality became “enlightened.” Another integrative trend consisted of the development of new communication tools—the printing press, and later radio, movies, and television. 

Increasingly, through these media, nearly everyone was exposed to common facts, ideas, and images. The wealthy banker and the destitute farmer uprooted by the dust bowl were marinated in the same Hollywood imagery, and the same civics homilies taught in compulsory public schools. 

Cracks in the Modern Consensus The emerging global consensus suffered a couple of serious ruptures during the modern era. In Europe, fascism brought more than a new set of political power relations; it created a mental universe so dominated by notions of racial and national superiority that it demanded the rewriting of textbooks. 

And in Russia, communism built a narrative in which the dictatorship of the proletariat—under constant attack by the forces of capitalism—must ultimately prevail, leading to a workers’ paradise. 

Both fascists and communists used new mass communication tools (radio, movies, and newspapers) to give their consensus realities force and credibility. Even science could be repurposed to support alternate realities. In the Soviet Union, the state decided to back an alternative to natural selection and science-based agriculture. 

The originator of this heterodox set of views, Trofim Lysenko, became Director of the Soviet Union’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences, where—with Stalin’s approving help—he rooted out the study of Mendelian genetics and taught instead the theory that characteristics acquired by parents can be directly transmitted to their offspring. 

Opponents of Lysenko were accused of “mysticism, obscurantism, and backwardness,” then banished to Siberian work camps. As a result, biological science in the Soviet bloc was set back decades. After the defeat of fascism in WWII and the fall of the Soviet bloc, the West’s consensus—shaped largely by the US—seemed to become reunified and stabilized. 

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama called it “the end of history.” But blind spots persisted and grew. Some of these profoundly shaped not just the dominant worldview itself, but the contours of daily life for multitudes. 

One telling example: the so-called science of economics codified for nearly everyone the false assumption that perpetual growth in industrial activity is possible, and denied all evidence to the contrary. 

Economics concealed other blind spots as well, as it continually ignored widespread signs that the “free market” does not in fact benefit everyone, and that people do not actually behave like idealized rational self-interest-maximizing robots. 

Some persistent and periodically worsening cracks in the consensus ripped along economic, ethnic, or political fault lines: especially during the Jim Crow era, African-Americans and European-Americans in southern US states inhabited sharply different realities, and stark inequities have persisted to the present. 

Other cracks, fed by suspicions that powerful people were manipulating the consensus to their own benefit, led to what came to be known as conspiracy theories—including doubts about the official accounts of the JFK assassination and 9/11, as well as misgivings about the safety and “real” purpose of water fluoridation and vaccination. Meanwhile, communications media were evolving still further. 

While radio and television had a largely unifying effect during the 20th century, the internet and social media are proving to be disintegrative to consensus in the 21st. Algorithms capture users’ interests and prejudices and feed them news and opinion articles that lead them to have ever-more-extreme views. 

“Do you think the government is suppressing information about space aliens? You don’t know the half of it! Read this!” 

The radicalizing propensity of social media was a factor in the sudden political ascendancy of Donald Trump, who acted as both symptom and driver of consensus breakdown. As a real estate developer and reality TV personality, he seemed an exceedingly inexperienced and unlikely candidate for the top political office in the country, and arguably the world. His intellect and ethics were widely suspect. 

But he had the ability to give utterance to the grievances of a sector of the populace that feels left behind—people of mostly European ancestry in low-density towns and rural areas across the nation (in recent decades, most of America’s wealth and cultural attention has flowed to high-density, multi-ethnic cities). 

Even if Trump could not change the material circumstances of small-town families, he could make them feel as though they had a voice. Ironically—and perhaps therefore somehow even more fittingly—it was the voice of a gaudily privileged New Yorker. 

But it was an angry voice, and it spoke in words of few syllables. He was the first Twitter President. The Trump team’s communication strategy, in the immortal words of former top adviser Steve Bannon, was to “flood the zone with shit.” Disruption of consensus reality wasn’t a regrettable side effect of their efforts; it was a central goal. 2020: The Dam Breaks In short, prior to the year now ending, consensus reality in the US was already starting to crumble. But 2020 delivered two sledgehammer blows: a pandemic and a polarizing presidential election. First, the pandemic. 

As many observers have pointed out, COVID-19 has greatly varying infection and death rates by nation, and countries with higher levels of social cohesion have generally tended to do better at combatting the disease. 

The United States has fared the worst of all countries in raw numbers, with over 17 million total cases so far and over 300,000 deaths (about a dozen smaller countries, including Belgium and San Marino, have suffered higher per capita rates of infection and mortality). Currently the US is seeing over 200,000 new cases each day and roughly 2,500 deaths. 

Unless the trend changes, total mortality for the country may eventually begin to rival that of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, in which about 675,000 died (though the per capita death rate will almost certainly not be as grim, given today’s far larger population). 

 Why has the US suffered such a horrific outcome? 

Much of the blame certainly must be borne by President Trump and his political appointees and allies in the federal government. They mounted almost no coordinated national pandemic response; instead, states were left to formulate their own policies and to compete with each other for medical supplies. 

Messaging from the executive branch was likewise unhelpful or downright counterproductive: in the early weeks, when the virus was largely just a distant menace and preparations could have made a huge difference, the President dismissed the need for concern (on January 22, he told a CNBC interviewer, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”). 

Then, when it became clear that sickness was spreading and people were dying, Trump invented the term “China virus,” evidently seeking to deflect blame while still failing to forge a national response plan. Later in the year, as economic and political concerns took the spotlight, 

Trump returned to almost completely ignoring the disease, even omitting attendance, for weeks at a time, at meetings of his coronavirus task force. With no clear messaging from the President, it was essential that the appropriate federal agencies step in. But here again the response faltered. 

The Centers for Disease Control at first advised the public against mask wearing, despite clear evidence that masks were effective at stopping the spread of the disease. Only later, once masks became more widely available, did the CDC change its recommendation. 

But this self-contradiction had undercut the agency’s credibility. Many people continued to believe that mask wearing is ineffective, while the President encouraged his followers to see mask mandates as government overreach. Conspiracy theories immediately filled the vacuum of leadership and consistent government messaging. 

Millions of people, stuck at home under lockdowns, were spending more time than ever on social media and Google, exploring ideas and opinions about the coronavirus. A pair of YouTube documentaries titled “Plandemic” became instant sensations.

 Many people adopted the view that there simply is no pandemic, and that the “fake news” media ginned up the story as a way to enable globalist liberal elites to exert more control over citizens and the economy. Now that vaccines are on the horizon, the conspiracy mill is cranking harder and faster than ever. While the anti-vax movement has been slowly simmering for decades, its current leaders’ books are suddenly among the top-sellers on Amazon.

Up to a third of Americans say they will likely refuse to take a vaccine when it is available. While many people hope that the advent of vaccines will halt the pandemic in its tracks, anti-vax fervor, along with the soaring rate of infections, may mean that the disease will continue to spread and kill far into the new year. If Americans were divided prior to the pandemic, their tribalism only intensified as the decision about whether to wear a mask became an instantly visible expression of group identity. 

But division was deepened also by the fact that 2020 was a presidential election year. Elections are always polarizing. That’s the point: each voter must choose one candidate or another; “all of the above” is not an option. 

But this election season pushed the polarization needle far into the danger zone. Democrats steeped themselves in books and articles detailing accusations that Donald Trump presents all the clinical symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, and that he is an authoritarian, a rapist, a tax cheat, a business fraudster, a Russian puppet, and a traitor.

At the same time, followers of QAnon (who is supposedly a patriotic government insider) spread the notion that leading Democrats are Satan-worshiping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring, while Trump—a messiah sent by God—heads a heroic behind-the-scenes effort to preserve decency, freedom, and Christianity (QAnon believers now occupy seats in Congress and many state houses). The election outcome was unequivocal. 

Biden bested Trump by 7 million popular votes, with electoral votes stacked 306 to 232. Even Republican election officials in swing states said the balloting went off with scarcely a hitch. But Trump, evidently unwilling to be seen as a loser (or perhaps wishing to avoid prosecution for financial crimes once he leaves office), claimed that the election was rigged and that he had actually won. 

A flurry of almost 60 lawsuits followed, two making their way to the Supreme Court; all were dismissed. No convincing evidence of widespread irregularities was produced. Nevertheless, Trump’s followers adopted the narrative that millions of dead people had voted for Biden, and that suitcases full of illicit Biden ballots had been surreptitiously delivered to vote tabulators. According to one poll, only a quarter of Republicans think Biden was legitimately elected.

 A steady drumbeat of evidence-free assertions resounding through right-wing media channels and parroted by Republican elected officials (who fear retribution from Trump’s base) has created a formidable alternate reality in which Trump won fair and square, while Biden is being falsely elevated to the highest office.

 Consensus Dynamics Cognitive dissonance—the holding of contradictory thoughts or beliefs—makes people miserable. And when a person’s own interpretation of reality runs counter to the consensus reality, some degree of paranoia or depression often results. 

Alternatively, a person unmoored from the dominant consensus may become a dedicated paradigm warrior intent on converting others to their own views, sometimes even by violence. The loss of consensus is therefore also problematic for society as a whole. 

People who have left the consensus behind may disregard or flout norms (such as longstanding informal rules with regard to elections and Congressional procedures). Society then becomes less capable of solving problems; and so, if economic, social, or environmental crises materialize, societal collapse of one sort or another becomes a real possibility. 

As individuals find themselves not just disagreeing on politics or religion, but living in different and directly conflicting mental universes, they individually experience cognitive pain and anguish. Families are torn apart, friendships severed. 

But the collective risks of consensus breakdown go deeper, and include the possibility of widespread rage, pushing society toward civil violence, coup, or state failure. If, as is often the case, the fracturing of consensus results in (or is caused by) strong feelings of grievance among one group against another, a cycle of retribution may ensue. 

Recent brain research by James Kimmel, Jr. at the Yale University School of Medicine shows that the brain on grievance craves retribution in much the same way a brain addicted to heroin craves more heroin. 

 Is the fracturing of consensus reality a symptom of societal decline due to other factors (such as economic crisis or limits to vital resources), or is it an independent variable, capable of causing collapse by itself? 

In my view, the former is more likely the case: if a society is doing well economically, it is usually able to resolve occasional cognitive contradictions over time. A polarizing demagogue (like Joseph McCarthy or George Wallace) may appear, but the status quo eventually reasserts itself.

However, if a society is experiencing an economic, political, or social emergency, consensus breakdown may contribute to a self-reinforcing process of collapse. People’s views of reality don’t diverge arbitrarily and without cause. They do so because people’s self-interests (which may differ by income, status, region, religion, or ethnicity) are becoming further divided. The divergence of worldviews is thus a secondary problem.

But once consensus begins to shatter, people’s interests are likely to diverge even further as bifurcating worldviews create economic and social islands. People may even separate geographically, moving to be closer to people with whom they share values and views. 

Further, if an increasing majority people in a given community are espousing a new shared belief, others may feel compelled to alter their previous beliefs in order to belong. The fragmentation of consensus reality isn’t just a war of ideas. It is a more profound and disturbing process both psychologically and socially. People who have abandoned, or who have been abandoned by, the consensus may find dubious new beliefs to cling to; but they may also become keenly aware of cultural blind spots that others continue to ignore. 

They feel themselves flung into a new universe; the experience can be either terrifying or thrilling, or both. One of the effects of loss of consensus is the lowering of social trust. Trust is the basis of cooperation, and high levels of cooperation are required for modern complex societies to function. 

According to surveys by Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans think interpersonal trust has weakened in the past 20 years. There is a strong correlation between low trust and Trump voters—which could be an explanation for why the pre-election 2020 polls were inaccurate: people who are distrustful not only disproportionately voted for Trump but also refused to participate in polling surveys. Because the costs to society of loss of consensus are obvious and considerable, societies invest heavily in maintaining a shared worldview. 

But if there are severe and growing flaws in that consensus, keeping it whole may not be an option. 

When consensus fractures into two directly competing narratives, some people may seek to resolve cognitive dissonance by claiming that the two narratives are equally valid. But this is a difficult stance to maintain, as the narratives are usually mutually exclusive. Take the current case with regard to the US presidential election: the main competing reality claims are not on equal footing with regard to facts or outcomes. 

The “Trump really won” claim is simply fantasy; the “Biden really won” claim is backed by clear evidence that will result in the actual inauguration of a new President. But, in a way, facts are beside the point. Over a third of Americans are so alienated from the consensus that they prefer to believe obviously fabricated lies rather than to acknowledge demonstrable proof. 

The new Republican “reality” is tenable not because it is based on anything physically verifiable, but because it is emotionally satisfying for people who refuse to accept the dominant narrative. In the post-Trump era, traditional Republican ideology (low taxes, states’ rights, limited government spending) becomes entirely expendable. 

Any argument that “owns the Dems” is good, regardless how specious. 

Democracy itself becomes an impediment to the goal of wrecking the consensus. Defenders of the dominant worldview can’t understand why anyone would be so upset with it. Isn’t it based on science and established values and traditions? 

Doesn’t the alternative represent a devolution into pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and deepening dissension? 

To a certain extent, the fervor of the disestablishmentarian faction is traceable to economic and social trends mentioned earlier (the flow of wealth and power to coastal urban centers and the slow demographic shift of the country toward multi-ethnicity). The upholders of the mainstream consensus accept those trends, which their elites use to their own advantage, but they fail to take account of those left behind, or to see the holes and blind spots in the consensus they defend. 

 Perhaps the deepest blind spot in the current US consensus is that it has no satisfying and unifying vision, no coherent ideology; its main guiding value is simply “more.” Its implicit message: we must keep on doing what we’re doing (producing more wealth by turning more of nature into waste) because to do otherwise would result in economic Armageddon. 

The best we can do is to somehow avert catastrophic climate change and reduce extreme wealth inequality with technical work-arounds, even as we continue to do the very things that cause those problems. 

 The central lie of the consensus is that the rising tide of economic growth will lift all boats . . . eventually. But eventually never seems to come. As the folly of expecting endless economic growth on a finite planet starts to reveal itself—via the need for ever more drastic measures to maintain the appearance of growth and to prevent widespread destitution—something has to give. People who feel unfairly treated as the impossible perpetual-growth machine decelerates begin fleeing the consensus, even if doing so leads them to curse imaginary scapegoats and believe obvious fictions. 

 Can the Old Consensus Be Repaired? Can a New One Be Built? Joe Biden is central casting’s answer to the call for a tried-and-true figurehead to restore the old consensus. Anyone who’s not swept up in anti-elite fervor probably finds it easy to sympathize with his exhortation to bring America back together, and his intention to be President of all the people, including those who voted against him.

However, Biden faces daunting if not insurmountable challenges. These arise not just from fervent, defeated, and angry Trumpists, who may attempt to run a “shadow” presidency, countering every action of the new administration. 

There are also hurdles inherent in the taming of the pandemic and the stabilization of the economy. Less widely acknowledged but perhaps most formidable of all is the challenge of finally coming to terms with the blind spots and lies embedded in the worldview that still runs the machinery of our economy and government. Consumerism—a way of organizing the economy that is fundamentally at odds with nature’s limits—is so deeply and implicitly woven into the warp and weft of modern America that only a cathartic collapse and renewal is likely to expunge it. 

The best Biden can likely do, even if he has the strategic brilliance to propose a Rural New Deal, is to be a competent placeholder. The perplexing fact is that we don’t know what kind of new consensus may emerge, or when. 

Indeed, it is entirely possible that, in the context of energy and economic decline, the human ideasphere will remain fragmented from now onward. However, I’d like to think that a new consensus is indeed possible, and that it will comprise the best of what we humans have learned so far. 

And, though what follows is entirely speculative, it seems appropriate to close this essay with an exploration of what that consensus might look like. Science would be an obvious candidate for inclusion, blind spots and all: its self-correcting mechanism tends to deliver improving approximations of truth with regard to physical reality. 

Of course, in a world with a smaller and slower economy and much less energy available, only comparatively small and simple experiments might be possible, but it’s the method that matters. 

 Science can’t tell us much about values and goals. For those, knowledge is less important than wisdom. And wisdom comes from intelligent self-control. As sages have always taught, it is in the taming of selfish urges that we find compassion and contentment. 

After the environmental and social mayhem that our two-century fossil-fueled consumerist mania will ultimately and undoubtedly unleash, I think we are likely to develop a strong and healthy collective skepticism regarding the aggregation of power for its own sake. 

A sustainability-oriented worldview would acknowledge the ongoing need for a low and stable population relative to environmental carrying capacity. And it would prize sufficiency, equity, resilience, and happiness above accumulation and ostentatious display. 

Our remarkable human capacities for language and tool making have gotten us into plenty of trouble over the millennia, never more so than now. A healthy consensus worldview would channel those outsized abilities away from geopolitical dominance and the production of wealth for the few, and toward the democratic (rather than just elite) production of beauty in all its possible forms—including poetry, literature, movement, music, art, drama, and architecture. And it would guide aesthetic appreciation toward the enhancement and emulation of nature.

Finally, a future consensus would take account of varying human needs, proclivities, modes of expression, histories, brain chemistry, and more, seeking reconciliation and community rather than exploitation and dominance. 

Such a consensus reality, such a culture, is far from where we are now. Between here and there sits a valley we must cross. If we travel together, we have a better chance of arriving safely on the other side. That requires healing the divisions among us, if and when we disagree. 

Have a peaceful holiday season.


The Great Unravelling

SUBHEAD: Part of a discussion series on adapting to the environmental crises we have created.

By Asher Miller on 28 October 2020 for the Post Carbon 

Image above: Firefighters conduct a back-burn operation along Route CA-168 during the Creek fire as it approaches the Shaver Lake Marina on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020. Photo by Kent Nishimura for The Los Angeles Times. From (

Introducing “The Great Unraveling?”, a series of interviews with some of the world’s foremost experts on a broad range of environmental and societal challenges, culminating with a powerful discussion on what these converging and accelerating crises mean, and how we can respond.

What if we don’t look back on 2020 as the year from hell, a painful and surreal slip on the otherwise generally smooth path of progress? What if, instead, we look back in five or ten or twenty years to 2020 as the moment when everything started to really and truly unravel?

Of course, what I’ve presented is a false choice. The truth is that for billions of people (and other species!) the unraveling has been occurring for a long time, assuming they had anything that could be unravelled to begin with.

People who have been left behind or churned up by the relentless machine of exploitative capitalism. People and natural ecosystems already on the frontline of the climate crisis. Communities that have lost their social cohesion and ability to confront problems collectively.

2020 has exposed and supercharged the fragility, unsustainability, and injustice of so many of our global systems:
  • untenable economic and racial inequality;
  • brittle, globalized supply chains controlled by a relatively small number of corporations;
  • a global climate system that’s already fevered at 1.2ºC warming;
  • growing political instability, distrust, and the rise of authoritarian governments;
  • the collapse of biodiversity and the crossing of other planetary boundaries;
  • an economy dependent on growth, consumption, debt, energy, & population;
  • the failure of governmental institutions to respond to, let alone anticipate, crises;
  • the likely peak in the amount of energy available to power modern society.
These crises were already here or looming long before the coronavirus pandemic hit us broadside this year. In fact, my colleagues at Post Carbon Institute, the many writers who we have featured here at, and allies across the globe have been sounding the alarm for decades that the Great Acceleration would inevitably lead to a Great Unraveling or even collapse. That forewarning may now be moot.

To begin considering how to navigate the “Great Unraveling,” we must first try to understand how various environmental and social systems may interact. So a few months ago, Post Carbon Institute and Anthropocene Actions asked some of the world’s foremost experts to share their views of where things stand with some of our most pressing environmental and societal challenges, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

We then hosted a powerful discussion with an esteemed, diverse panel on what these converging and accelerating crises mean, and how we can respond.

Facing up to these interconnected crises requires unprecedented cooperation and coordination, if we have any hope of creating a sustainable, equitable, and resilient world. To this end, campaigners, politicians, companies, governments, and communities all across the world are pushing for and enacting change. 

But these efforts will have to remain robust, flexible, and resilient in the face of growing destabilization. And they must be grounded in an understanding of the systemic nature of the predicament we face.

The wrenching disruption of the pandemic presents barriers to change, as shown by those seeking to reinforce the pre-pandemic status quo. But this historic moment also presents opportunities to move toward a sustainable society that benefits all. The key to a better future is to learn how to manage the compounding crises of a more destabilized future – how to navigate the Great Unraveling. 


Winning the Trifecta

SUBHEAD: To win we will have to solve all our problems together... health, wealth and environment.

By Juan Wilson on 24 June 2020 for Island Breath -

Image above: An urban street in America after a major collapse. From (

A trifecta is a certain kind of bet in a horse race. The better makes a great deal of money if he wins, but the chances are slim. The better must not only win on picking the first place finisher of the race, but also the second and third place winners.

We humans have to win against a trifecta of disasters that we have brought unto ourselves by greed, complacency and ignorance.

We have known for  more than three generations that the jig was up. We realized humans were destroying the Earth that is our only home. Its was 1970 (50 years ago) that President Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, who signed into law the US Environmental Protection Agency.

There were high hopes that some remedy to our environmental plight might be found. It wasn't found and it wasn't in our short term interest to do so.  We avoided finding a way to save the Earth and the creatures that inhabit it because it wasn't as profitable or as comfortable as continuing on  burning up the planet for profit and comfort. 

Well, now we will have to win a trifecta to survive and flourish any longer. We face three implacable dangers that are intertwined.
  • Economic Collapse
  • Environmental Collapse
  • Worldwide Fatal Pandemic
The financial collapse is from over-borrowing against the future to continue economic growth as the means of creating wealth.

The environmental collapse is a result of supplying and utilizing the resources for the energy and resources for ever growing economic growth.

In my mind the worldwide fatal pandemic is a correction by Gaia (Mother Nature) for the financial and environmental collapse we have created. Mother Nature is shaking off her blood sucking tics.

There is little time or the will among us to change our ways... but for those that survive the 2020's it will because they have embraced small scale locally resourced food and fabrication. Those survivors will be using hand tools and sailboats rather than tractors and container ships to operate their steady state economy.

As we have been recommending for years... get a head start! As John Michael Greer wrote in 2012 "Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush!". That means getting educated to the situation and acting on it right now. 

If you are a newby to these thoughts you will have to work overtime to catch up. As James Howard Kunstler envisioned in his Would Made By Hand novels, most middle class suburbanites like car salesmen and insurance men will be lucky if they end up living on a productive plantation doing manual labor. 

Manual skills, whether making a barrel, playing a violin, or stitching up a wound, will have real and lasting value in the future. 

As things stand now, I have no clue how long we will have a "world wide web" to go to in the future. Right now we can count on it to inform us the answer to all the questions that we have. 

Once it is unreliable or down we will have only the hard copy left in the schools the libraries or your bookshelves for reference. You might try finding an Encyclopedia set that's been abandoned by your local library or at a local garage sale.


Re-opening won't fix our economy

SUBHEAD: Our national economy is too fragile, brittle, bankrupt, corrupt and hopelessly perverse.

By Charles Hugh Smith on 26 May 2020 for Of Two Minds -

Image above: Illustration of the ruins of Las Vegas with the Bellagio Casino in the left foreground and Caesar's Palace to the right for the story "Underneath Us" by Alex TIllson. From (

The stock market is in a frenzy of euphoria at the re-opening of the economy. Too bad the re-opening won't fix what's broken. As I've been noting recently, the real problem is the systemic fragility of the U.S. economy, which has lurched from one new extreme to the next to maintain a thin, brittle veneer of normalcy.

Fragile economies cannot survive any impact with reality that disrupts the distortions that are keeping the illusion of "growth" from shattering. 

For the past two decades, every collision with reality cracked the illusion, and the "fix" was to duct-tape the pieces together with new extremes of money-creation, debt, risk and speculative excess.

While the stock market has soared, the real world falls apart. If your region needs a new bridge built, count on about 20 years to get all the "stakeholders" to agree and get the thing actually built. 

Count on the cost quintupling from $500 million to $2.5 billion. Count on corners being cut as costs skyrocket, so those cheap steel bolts from China that are already rusting before the bridge is even finished? Oops. Replacing them will add millions to the already bloated budget.

Want to add a passenger stop on an existing railroad line? Count on 20 years to get it done.

The complexity thicket of every regulatory agency with the power to say "no" basically guarantees the project will never get approved, because every one of these bureaucracies justifies its existence by saying "no." Sorry, you need another study, another environmental review, and so on.

Need a new landfill? I hope you started the process 15 years ago, so you'll get approval in only five more years. Every agency with the power to say "no" will stretch out the approval, so they have guaranteed "work" for another decade or two.

Did your subway fares double? Was the excuse repairing a crumbling system? Did the work get done on budget and on time? You must be joking, right? All the fare increase did was cover the costs of skyrocketing salaries, pensions and administrative costs. Repairs to the tracks and cars-- that's extra. 

Let's float a $1 billion bond so nobody have to tighten their belts, and have riders pay for it indirectly, through higher taxes to pay the exorbitant costs of 20 years of interest on the bond.

Have you been thrown off your bicycle by the giant potholes in the city's "bike lanes"? The city reluctantly admits that these streets that haven't been maintained for decades--yes, decades. 

The city once paid for street maintenance out of its general budget, but alas, that's been eaten up by skyrocketing salaries, pensions and administrative costs, so now we need to float $100 million bond to fund filling potholes.

If all goes according to plan (ha-ha), we should be able to re-pave the streets that have been crumbling for 20 years in... the next 20 years.

These real-world examples are just four of thousands of manifestations of a broken system. Rather than make tough choices that drain power and wealth from vested interests, we simply borrow more money, in ever increasing amounts, to keep the entrenched interests and elites happy.

There are two "solutions" in the status quo: dump the debt on taxpayers or on powerless debt-serfs--for example, college students. (See chart below of the $1.6 trillion that's stripmining student debt-serfs.)

Who benefits from selling all the municipal bonds, bundled student loans, etc. to investors starving for a yield above 0.1%? Wall Street, of course.

The problem is that while debt has soared, productivity and earned income have stagnated. The statistical narrative has been ruthlessly gamed to hide the erosion of living standards, but even with the bogus "low inflation" of official statistics, wages for the bottom 95% have stagnated for decades.

Measures of productivity have also been gamed to mask the ugly reality that the vast majority of the U.S. economy is stagnating under the weight of interest payments on debt, mal-investments in speculative gambles, higher junk fees and taxes, crushing regulatory compliance, high costs imposed by monopolies and cartels and a well-cloaked decline in the quality of just about everything the bottom 95% uses or owns.

What little productivity gains have been made have been skimmed by the top 5%. Coupled with the Federal Reserve's single-minded goosing of the one signaling device it controls, the stock market, the top 0.1% in America own more wealth than the bottom 80%.

If productivity stagnates and winners take all, the wages of the bottom 95% cannot rise. Real wealth is only created by increases in the productivity of labor and capital; everything else is phantom wealth.

The only way stagnant incomes can support more debt is if interest rates decline. Presto, the Fed dropped interest rates to near-zero a decade ago. 

Of course you and I can't actually borrow millions for 0.1%; that privilege is reserved for financiers and other financial parasites and predators.

Debt-serfs were able to refinance their crushing mortgages to save a few bucks, and so they can afford to 1) take on more debt and 2) pay higher taxes to fund the ballooning public debt.

Every one of these extremes has increased the systemic fragility of the American economy. This fragility is reflected in the impoverishment of the bottom 95%, the thin line between solvency and bankruptcy, the decay of public trust in institutions run for the benefit of entrenched interests, and the quickening erosion of America's social contract.

Re-opening a fragile, brittle, bankrupt, hopelessly perverse and corrupt "normal" won't fix what's broken.

When Giants Fall

SUBHEAD: If you think Walmart will survive what’s killing other retail generally, you’re wrong.

By James Kunstler on 22 May 2020 for -

Image above: "Wal*Mart" pun art by Mark Tichenor. From (

It was only a few decades ago that Walmart entered the pantheon of American icons, joining motherhood, apple pie, and baseball on the highest tier of the altar.

The people were entranced by this behemoth cornucopia of unbelievably cheap stuff packaged in gargantuan quantities. It was something like their participation trophy for the sheer luck of being born in this exceptional land, or having valiantly clawed their way in from wretched places near and far — where, increasingly, the mighty stream of magically cheap stuff was manufactured.

The evolving psychology of Walmart-ism had a strangely self-destructive aura about it. Like cargo cultists waiting on a jungle mountaintop, small town Americans prayed and importuned the gods of commerce to bring them a Walmart.

Historians of the future, pan-frying ‘possum cutlets over their campfires, will marvel at the potency of their ancestors’ prayers.

Every little burg in the USA eventually saw a Walmart UFO land in the cornfield or cow-pasture on the edge of town. Like the space invaders of sci-fi filmdom, Walmart quickly killed off everything else of economic worth around it, and eventually the towns themselves.

And that was where things stood as the long emergency commenced in the winter of early 2020, along with the Covid-19 corona virus riding shotgun on the hearse-wagon it rolled in on.

We’re in a liminal, transitional moment of history, like beach-goers gawking at the glassy-green curve of a great wave in the throes of breaking. Such mesmerizing beauty!

Alas, most people can’t surf. It looks easy on TV, but you’d be surprised at the conditioning it takes, and Americans are way, way out of condition. (All those tattoos don’t give you an ounce of extra mojo.)

And so, in this liminal moment, the people still trudge dutifully to the Walmarts with their dwindling reserves of cash money to get stuff, going through all the devotions that we took for granted before the wave welled up and threatened to break over us.

Which is happening. Despite all the fake-heroic blather from the Federal Reserve, from Nancy Pelosi, from Mr. Trump and Mr. Mnuchin — from everybody in charge, to be really fair — and in the immortal words of another recent president — this sucker is going down. Specifically, what’s going down is the aggregate of transactions we call “the economy.”

Meanwhile, the people in charge struggle to prop up the mere financial indexes that supposedly represent economic activity, but more and more just look like a shadow play on the wall of some special slum where the street-corner economists peddle their crack. 

Eventually, the people don’t even have money for the crack, and to make matters worse, whatever money actually remains on the street is worthless.

The wave is breaking now, and a lot of things will be smashed under it — are getting smashed as you read. As in any extinction event, it will be the smaller organisms that survive and eventually thrive and that’s how it will go in the next edition of America, whether we remain states united or find ourselves organized differently.

Accordingly, the giants must fall. When the communities of America rebuild, it will be the thousands of small activities that matter, because they will entail the rebuilding of social capital as well as exchanges that amount to business. 

Social capital is exactly what Walmart and things like it killed in every community from sea to shining sea. People stopped doing business with their neighbors. It took a cataclysm for them to finally notice.

If you think Walmart will survive the same cataclysm that’s killing chain-store retail generally, you’re going to be disappointed.

Everything about it is over and done, including the Happy Motoring adjunct that allowed the cargo-cultists to haul their booty those many miles home. (And, ironically, it wasn’t the oil issue that determined this, but the end of the financing system that allowed Americans to buy their cars on installment loans, when it ran out of credit-worthy borrowers.)

Amazon will be the last giant standing perhaps, but it will go down, too, eventually, on its ridiculous business model, which depends utterly on a doomed trucking system. It will be like the last dinosaur roaring at the dimming sun — while the little proto-mammals skitter to their hidey-holes beneath it.

One thing remains constant: human beings are very adept and resourceful at supplying each other’s needs, which is what business amounts to. Young people, freed from the fate of becoming serfs to corporate giants, can start right now at least imagining what they can do to be useful to others in exchange for a livelihood.

The earnest and energetic will find a way to do that at a scale that makes sense when a new order emerges from the wreckage. After a while, it won’t matter much what any government thinks about it, either. 

Like all the other giants, it will fall, too.

Dance Macabre

SUBHEAD: Hundreds of kinds of services no longer have customers who can afford their offerings.

By James Kunstler on 18 May 2020 for

Image above: Painting from the 16th or 17th century illustrating the "Dance Macabre". From (

Western Civ’s most infamous encounter with pandemic disease, so far, was the big first wave of the Black Death that had a marathon run from 1346 to 1353. That bug was the real deal. It killed folks left and right, every age group, every social station, and it killed them ugly.

Few who caught it survived. Up to half the population of Europe perished, along with a lot of their social and economic ways.

The cause of the Black Death was subject to every possible explanation except the actual one, Yersina pestis, a bacterium associated with rats and their insect parasites, fleas and lice, who also enjoyed an association with humans living in the generally squalid conditions of the day — the ancient Roman habit of bathing long forgotten.

At the top of their list of causes was an angry God, and his wicked erstwhile subordinate, Satan.

The “experts” of that time tended to cluster in the church hierarchy, with its drear obsessions and compulsions. The squishy boundary between the supernatural and reality loosed all manner of derangement.

The Jews came in for much vilification, leading to massacres in Strasbourg, Mainz, and Cologne. On the whole, the episode represented a terrific humbling of humanity. The allegory of the Dance Macabre summed it up in mankind’s universal antic journey to the Palookaville of death.

On the plus side, as modern interpolators might say, the bubonic plague winnowed down Europe’s population to a scale more congenial with its resource base. After that big first wave of the disease, land was cheaper and human labor better rewarded.

Eventually, more food got around. Incidentally, the plague provoked nostalgia for the classical antiquity of Greece and Rome, especially among the scholars of Florence, launching the extravaganzas of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and eventually our own pageant of techno-supremacist Modernity.

Covid-19 seems rather a punk-ass illness compared to the Black Death. Its victims by far are people already on a fast track to the last roundup. We know exactly what causes it, if not so exactly its origin, and yet the response among our experts has been far more ambiguous than those long-ago bishops of Christendom to the Great Plague.

The various scientists, physicians, public health officers, and politicians seem, to the casual observer, about equally divided between those who consider the corona virus a grave threat and those who insist it’s hardly worse than any annual flu. What is one to believe? Or do?

Which brings us to the verge of the Great Opening-up. The current nostalgia for pre-Covid-19 business-as-usual is understandably intense.

Gone especially from daily life are all the ceremonies of human togetherness, from gatherings of friends to the casual shoulder-rubbings of urban life to the crowded venues of the lively arts to the great moiling orgies of pro sports.

The life of the perpetual jigsaw puzzle, YouTube, and Netflix has proved inadequate to human aspiration. Gone, too, are livelihoods, revenue streams, and rewarding roles in everyday existence. The itch to get out and do, get out and make, get out and be, is overwhelming.

Behind those plain yearnings, though, looms the specter of a system that appeared to be already foundering before Covid-19 entered the scene. There is, at least, considerable agreement that the disease catalyzed the disorders of finance and economy and accelerated the damage — just not among the people most responsible for engineering the fragilities that actually crashed things.

Jerome Powell, Pope of the Church of the Federal Reserve, went on the 60-Minutes show Sunday night to reassure the nation that things will eventually get back to normal. “I think you’ll see the economy recover steadily through the second half of this year.”

Yessir, if you say so. Were his fingers crossed? You couldn’t tell because the camera had him framed in a head-shot. Personally, I think the Fed Chairman was blowing smoke up the nation’s wazoo.

Spooky as it’s been, the Covid-19 virus has also been a great cover-story for the natural collapse of a severely unbalanced, ecologically unsound, and dishonestly represented set of arrangements that are now unspooling at horrifying speed.

The car industry is dying. The airline industry is laying out its fleet of big birds in desert graveyards. The college racketeering operation went off a cliff, along with medical profiteering. Agribusiness no longer has a business model.

Hundreds of kinds of services no longer have customers who can afford their offerings from acupuncture to zymurgy.

None of that will be fixed by injections of miracle money borrowed from ourselves in quantities that would turn every US citizen into a millionaire — if it wasn’t just pounded down the rat-holes of the stock and bond markets. The big question about the Great Opening-up is when the recognition of all that turns to raw emotion.

Covid-19 may still be with us then, but it will be the least of our problems.

The masks will come off. The dance will commence.

'Planet of the Humans" review

SUBHEAD: The calls into question the solutions proposed by so-called renewable technologies.

By Edwardo Sasso 0n 7 May 2020 for Resilience - 

Image above: This immense photovoltaic power plant is operated by an Italian company in the desert near Villanueva, Mexico. From (

[IB Publisher's comment: In our experience in Hawaii solar-electricity generation does not necessarily require the use of large quantities of cement and steel. The panels themselves often have aluminum frames. In Hawaii we have a corrugated metal roof. Our solar panels have aluminum frames bolted to 2"x4" wood frames that are bolted to the metal roofing. Small scale individual residential and commercial solar systems don't need high voltage distribution towers or heavy duty foundations and framing. We worry about hurricane damage... but that's likely to take the whole roof off.]

If you haven’t seen the latest (and arguably the most contentious) documentary on renewable energy, be prepared for an aftertaste of mixed feelings.

Joining hands with the controversial Michael Moore, environmentalist and filmmaker Jeff Gibbs has sent an eerie message that is now somewhat dividing the climate movement—in many ways for the worse, but, in a few others, for the better.

So, at least, one could argue is the case of Planet of the Humans. After engaging briefly with some of the well-deserved criticisms the film has received thus far, there are nevertheless some important aspects brought to our attention by the movie.

Specifically, at one point in the documentary, Gibbs touches upon the religious and existential dimensions underlying our ecological hot waters—aspects that, for what it seems, many of his critics have left unaddressed. Hence the focus towards the end of this review will fall on the cosmic role of religion (or cosmology, if we will) in helping us engage with “the great scheme of things”, to use the phrase of one of the scholars interviewed in the documentary.

But first a sketch of the film and its criticism.

What is the Central Claim of Planet of the Humans?

Drawing implicitly on the legacy of renowned environmentalist Rachel Carson, in essence, Planet of the Humans calls into question the solutions proposed by so-called renewable technologies.

Such solutions, Gibbs argues, are to a degree or another an extension-in-disguise of the same problems created by our technological society. For one, solar panels and wind towers still burn fuels to be produced; for another, they rely on copious amounts of minerals and rare earth metals.

More worryingly, what Gibbs calls “the narrow solution of green technology” keeps feeding the pockets of a smaller few at the expense of the greater rest, leaving underlying societal problems unattended.

Overall, the documentary thus aims to show how the creation of these panels and towers, as well as the burning of biofuels and biomass, are also problematic, albeit in different ways if compared with the fossil fuels they aim to displace. Old wine in new wineskins, in short.

“Is it possible” thus asks Gibbs, “for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?” (17:10)

Even if he argues for an unnerving “no”, some of the film’s reviewers are ready to claim the opposite.

(Well-Deserved) Hot-Blooded Reactions

To begin with, Gibbs’s critics are quick to signal how the film’s downplaying of renewables is outdated. The dismissal of solar panels (14:45, a scene whose panels arguably date from 2008), for instance, is done on the ground of their inefficiency.

However, as leading environmental activist Bill McKibben answers back, engineers have done their job since in vastly improving this technology, making solar the cheapest way of generating energy today.

According to McKibben, since a panel now lasts (up to) three decades—taking four years to compensate for the energy it took to build it—90 percent of the power it then produces is carbon-emissions-free.

Moreover, others point out how the overall impacts across the lifecycle (to mine materials, build, transport, install, and uninstall) both solar PVs and wind towers is between 3 and 28 times lower than using, say, liquified natural gas for electricity production (natural gas is one of the less polluting forms of fossil fuels).

The Guardian, too, implicitly takes sides with furious scientists calling to take down the movie—not least because fact-checks are revealing the film’s slim evidence to back up some claims.

Getting Rid of the Mud-water, but Keeping the Baby

Besides valid reasons like the above, what struck me as most troubling was the grim and rather accusatory tone of the documentary. It’s also (to a considerable extent) polarizing, at times dismissing perhaps too easily the honest intentions of some well-meaning folk. (Sad but true; especially in an age of ecological breakdown when we need to unite despite our differences.)

Still, could the film’s field-splitting call to choose sides, be the method to its madness? Could its polarizing stance somehow serve Gibb’s insistence to untangle the ecological cause from the story of unceasing economic growth—even of so-called ‘green’ economic growth—that continues to dictate the north of our industrialized societies?

Senior Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and author of Afterburn: Societies Beyond Fossil Fuels, Richard Heinberg, agrees with the filmmakers in admitting how the belief that with ‘green’ investments and political will we’ll ultimately be able to build a green future is “an illusion that deserves shattering.”

According to Heinberg,
“The only realistic way to make the transition in industrial countries like the US is to begin reducing overall energy usage substantially [solar-/wind-powered or otherwise], eventually running the economy on a quarter, a fifth, or maybe even a tenth of current energy.” 

Read: Renewables? To an extent, yes; but far beyond: lifestyle change, and cutbacks—something that some environmentalists shy away from championing, admittedly for the tactical communication purpose of not losing their audience.

And yet, as Heinberg notes, “it’s a mistake to let marketing consultants sort truth from fiction for us”—a chief reason why Planet of the Humans doesn’t have space for such bargaining.

Just Give Me (One More) Fact

On a similar vein, world-renowned Professor Emeritus of Community Planning at the University of British Columbia, William Rees, has recently shown the limitations of renewables and remains a pessimist facing what he labels as a “superficial support for the notion that green tech is our savior.”

To back his claim, Rees points out how building just one typical wind turbine requires 817 energy-intensive tonnes of steel, 2,270 tonnes of concrete, and 41 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic.

In turn, solar power also demands large quantities of cement, steel, and glass—let alone rare earth metals. Aside from their compromised mining and refining processes, world demand for such metals of so-called renewable energy would rise 300 percent to 1,000 percent by 2050 just to meet the Paris goals.

“Ironically,” Rees remarks, “the mining, transportation, refining and manufacturing of material inputs to the green energy solution would be powered mainly by fossil fuels.”

For all we’d like them to, towers and panels don’t simply drop from heaven. So, too, more or less argues the film.

Fact-checking and physical limitations aside, a deeper and more fundamental issue that Planet of the Humans unveils is that of the societal story that we continue to tell ourselves, in one shape or another—be it green, orange, right, left, or center.

And it’s the 300-year-old, now-taken-for-granted story of our increasingly urbanized, Techno-Industrial Age: namely, that we are the captains of our souls and the masters of our fates, and that we attain that fate through technology, production, and consumption.

In short, this societal narrative (including many ‘green’ versions of such narrative) has made us believe that we are above, front-and-center, while everything else is below, in the backstage.

Under this worldview, ‘nature’ is not a ‘Home’ but a ‘resource’; we are not earthly humans but technological ‘citizens’ (and now virtual ‘Internauts’); countries are not made of communities of earth-dwellers but of abstract ‘markets’ of X or Y number of ‘consumers’. And thus our very language betrays us.

Scholars call this ‘anthropocentrism’ blended with ‘economism’. Others label it ‘speciesism’ and ‘technopoly’, even as one corporation praised it by making us sing “You got the whole world in your hands, with Mastercard at your command.”

As materialist historian Yuval Noah Harari has shown in the sixteenth chapter of Sapiens, this story championed by today’s economic system has become so pervasive that it now has all the elements of religion—however secular its scope.

It tells us what to believe (economic growth will lead to the benefit of all), how to behave (rational and disciplined at the workplace, unrestrained and narcissistic at the shopping mall), and what to value (“Life is Now”, as Visa trumpeted rather conveniently, and dogmatically).

Hence to culture and religion we now turn—and to their characteristic interest in “the great scheme of things”.

Remixed Echoes of an Even-Older Story

In one of the most existential sections of the documentary (49:04), the director asks whether our inability to come to terms with our mortality misinforms most of our societal decisions. He also asks rhetorically whether his side (the environmental side) has an unspoken religion, even as the Right has Christianity and a belief in infinite fossil fuels.

I would nuance this second claim—at least pertaining to the so-called religion of (many) of the Right. And that because such a belief system is often in fact Deist. (Deism is a modern distortion of ancient Christianity, presenting us with a deity that’s detached from the world, which is then purportedly left for us to control as we discover and master its immutable laws.)

It is not my aim here to make a case for believing in a transcendental Agent, but simply to acknowledge how director Jeff Gibbs might be unknowingly inviting us to shed the same tears of the God testified to and experienced by the descendants of the ancient Hebrews.

In contrast to the absent deity of Deism, the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis, for instance, speaks of the Most High becoming “regretful” considering the evil doings of humankind—something that “grieved God to his heart”.

According to the Book of Jeremiah, the Eternal One recoiled and was immersed in swirls of grief as people became strangers in their own land. In fact, in and through the cry of that young Hebrew prophet, God wept (Jer 14).

A Prophet in the Making?

haps, one of the film’s greatest contributions: its invitation to mourn, to leave us with discomfort towards superficial solutions, to invite us to feel and experience grief? However somberly and imperfectly, Gibbs may as well be helping us to traverse an unavoidable but ultimately necessary dark valley—one where we are reminded of how, before any blink of light, we must first confess and turn away from our pathological complicity with the decimation of our sacred Home. Genuine tears are the only cradle of authentic beginnings.

Even if commonly dismissed by large strands of the scientific and humanist communities in our scientific age, here lays one of the fundamental insights of what we call ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’; namely, their ability to disclose the ultimate horizons that should inform and inspire our lives.

Such horizons have been barred by the smokescreens created by the Industrial Revolution, tempting us not to see anywhere beyond. (Who needs to pray for rain for crops when one is a click away from a Caesar’s salad or a Papa John’s pizza?)

For numerous reasons, for the past three centuries we’ve increasingly come to believe that there’s no ultimate purpose or ‘goal’ to life. Instead, all we’ve been left with is an unrestrained desire to impose our will upon others and upon the living world, as it’s now tragically evident. When ultimate purposes vanish out of sight, we strive to become gods.

Recovering Forgotten Horizon

Intentionally or not, the film’s sorrowful approach begins to dismantle this very ‘scheme of things’; one that has made us believe that we are alone, at the center, in control of an inert universe without ultimate meaning.

In contrast, the forgotten grand-view cracked open by ancient spiritual traditions summon us to acknowledge ourselves as guests in a world that precedes us and that is not our own. The spotlight falls elsewhere.

At least according to the Judeo-Christian tradition that now unspokenly undergirds pretty much all of today’s secularized Western cultures, we are mortal tenants and fragile earthlings; accountable, dependent, small. We are animated by sacred breath, even as we are made from the very dust to which we will return.

But, precisely as such, we are nevertheless invited into an extravagant feast hosted by the Ultimate Source of completeness, gladness, and joy—the very Source who also cries and grieves.

Is such plenitude the hidden treasure that we are most searching for today—left, right, or center? Far beyond any technical glitch that we can muster, isn’t such plenitude the very ‘something’ which we know in our bones to be ultimately missing?

Those, of course, are questions for another occasion. And they may seem trivial should we continue to dismiss the divine and the transcendental as sheer social constructions that our human ancestors invented back in yesteryear to soothe our consciousness.

But then we must ask, how far will the dogmas of Materialism continue to take us? As posed by one of the film’s social scientists: “If we’re to make progress (whatever that word means). . . we’re going to radically overhaul our basic conception of who and what we are and what it is that we value.”

Or to borrow the words from Albert Einstein:
“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. . . . Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Not unlike Einstein’s summons, Planet of the Humans is at least spot on about the need to turn away from our technocentric story and all its delusions that have claimed to give us full control. Then, and only then, will any light shine like the dawn. And perhaps then, and only then, will we humans realize ourselves as transient guests on a planet that is certainly not of our own making.

Our tears will not be in vain.

Not a Cause but a Trigger

SUBHEAD: This corona virus pandemic may cause civilization to collapse for good reasons.

By Ugo Bardi on 16 April 2020 for Cassandra's Legacy -

Image above: Illustration by Steven Castelluccia of economic collapse caused by pandemic a peak consumption. From original article.

Do you remember the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back? It is an illustration of how overloaded systems are sensitive to small perturbations. Could the COVID-19 epidemic be the straw that breaks the back of the world’s economy?

Like an overloaded camel, the world’s economy is strained by at least two tremendous burdens: one is the increasing costs of production of mineral resources (don’t be fooled by the current low prices of oil: prices are one thing, costs are another). Then, there is pollution, including climate change, also weighing on the economy.

These two factors define the condition called “overshoot,” occurring when an economic system is consuming more resources than nature can replace. Sooner or later, an economy in overshoot has to come to terms with reality. It means that it can’t continue to grow: it must decline.

These considerations can be quantified. It was done for the first time in 1972 with the famous report The Limits to Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome. Widely disbelieved at the time, today we recognize that the model used for the study had correctly identified the trends of the world’s economy.

The results of the study showed that the double burden of resource depletion and pollution would bring economic growth first to a halt and then cause it to collapse, probably at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century.

Even with very optimistic assumptions on the availability of natural resources and of new technologies the calculations show that the collapse could at best be postponed, but not avoided.

Many later studies confirmed these results: collapse turns out to be a typical feature of systems in overshoot, a phenomenon called sometimes the “Seneca Cliff” from a sentence of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Image above: Chart of the projections by the Club of Rome in March 1972 showing the projected " Limits to Growth". Note now in 2020 we have recently passed maximum food production and industrial output per person and are approaching maximum pollution as we slide down the steepest losses of resources. From (

The coronavirus, in itself, is a minor perturbation, but the system is poised for collapse and the epidemics may trigger it. We already saw how the world’s economy is fragile: it nearly collapsed in 2008 under the relatively small perturbation of the crash of the subprime mortgage market.

At that time, it was possible to contain the damage but, today, the fragility of the system has not improved and the coronavirus may be a stronger perturbation.

The collapse of entire sectors of the economy, such as the tourism industry (more than 10% of the world’s gross product), is already ongoing and it may be impossible to stop it from spreading to other sectors.

So, what exactly is it going to happen to us? Since we started with mentioning a camel, we may also mention a famous statement by Shaykh Rāshid that we can summarize as, "My father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son will ride a camel." Might that sentence have been truly prophetic?

Indeed, the coming crisis might turn out to be so bad to push us back to the Middle Ages. But it is also true that all major epidemics in history have seen a robust rebound after the collapse.

Consider that, in the mid-14th century, the “black death” killed perhaps 40% of the population of Europe but, a century later, Europeans were discovering America and starting their attempt of conquering the world. It may be that the black death was instrumental in this rebound: the temporary reduction of the European population had freed the resources necessary for a new leap forward.

Could we see a similar rebound of our society in the future? Why not? After all, the coronavirus could be doing us a favor by forcing us to abandon the obsolete and polluting fossil fuels we use today. The current low market prices are the result of the contraction of the demand and are likely to be the straw that breaks the back of the oil industry. That will leave space for new and more efficient technologies.

Today, solar energy has become so cheap that it is possible to think of a society fully based on renewable energy. It won’t be easy, but recent studies show that it can be done.

That doesn’t mean that the near term collapse can be avoided. The transition to a new energy infrastructure will require enormous investments, impossible to find in a moment of economic contraction we expect for the near future.

But, in the long run, the transition is unavoidable and there is hope for a "Seneca rebound" toward a new society based on clean and renewable energy, no more plagued by the threats of depletion and climate change.

It will take time, but we can heal the poor camel’s back.