We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.
—R. Buckminster Fuller
Suppose you are a galactic observer charged with keeping an eye on a few planets, of which Earth is one. You are able to send a message to Galactic Central to indicate the state of the planet, but the communication challenges mean that you can send only one of five numbers:
- No worries, all is well
- A few minor problems, but the planet is fine
- Not so sure about this; it could go either way
- Serious problems that, if not resolved, mean system collapse
- Game over!
What would you send back to Galactic Central? When I ask groups, the response averages between two and three. Mostly we are concerned. I wonder what you think. My view of our current trajectory is between one and two.
I’m going to frame this essay with a question. Suppose in 100 years time, 2117, humanity has stabilised the situation on planet Earth: we have passed the peak in human population and it is declining—voluntarily—without war, pandemic or famine; we have halted the catastrophic fall in biodiversity; we have dealt with carbon and other emissions and stabilised the climate; we have minimised our demands on the Earth’s ecosystems and resources and now consume less than the planet regenerates each year (food, water, fuel, forests, soils, fish and so on); we have all but stopped mining and recycle all the minerals we need; and we have stopped polluting our ecosphere and vastly reduced our energy use.
The Earth is now healing itself. How did we make that happen? What principles did we use to guide our actions? Most importantly, how did we organise ourselves?
I have framed the question in this way because I think it helps to understand why our trajectory is towards a collapse of our civilisations and the ecosystems that support them. It is not the future; it is simply a trajectory, which we can change if we choose.
To put this in context, think for a moment about how the Earth works and maintains its living systems. The principles that govern its workings are in the province of science: biology, physics, ecology, chemistry, geology, complex systems, Gaia and so on. Now think about how we humans are organised: politics and predominantly economics, both of which are competitive. Add some culture and religion to round it off.
There is almost no link, no common ground, between the way humans are organised and the way the Earth works. You won’t find ecological principles and the laws of thermodynamics written into any constitution. This did not matter when there were few people and they had only a small impact. But now we have a big impact and we do damage when we ignore the Earth’s imperatives.
It’s as if I were given an iPhone but handed a chainsaw manual to operate it. ‘The picture in the manual looks a bit different, but what the hell, it must be a new model.’ The manual says to put oil and fuel in it, so I find a couple of holes and do that. It says sharpen it, so I get a file and sharpen what looks like a good place to do that. In quick time it is wrecked. That is how we are managing mother Earth.
So the challenge is to organise humanity to be in tune with the ‘operating instructions’ for the planet. Earth’s rules are not going to change, so we must. The operating instructions are mostly scientific principles and science has a lot to say about how we do this. This means redesigning politics and economics, starting with a blank sheet of paper. We should not expect the bankers and the politicians to do this for us in response to logic or people pressure. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. I don’t mean that disparagingly, tempting though that might be, but simply to say that the bankers and the politicians won’t dismantle the system that they have mastered. We are going to have to do this ourselves.
In my view the key purpose that underpins this new framework is to preserve biodiversity and to heal and regenerate our ecosystems. This is based on James Lovelock’s understanding of a whole-Earth system, Gaia, which self-organises to support life. If we want to stay alive we need to support life on Earth.
How do we organise people? Where do we start? There are many principles, which will be part of a longer essay, but a few of them point in the right direction.
The first is that the approach be science-based. By that I mean that we include all the key understandings of the way the planet works and we exclude anything that contradicts them. So our actions need to be sustainable, scientifically verifiable and guided by, for example, the Natural Step four system conditions. It means we create a steady state, with zero material and energy growth. Incidentally, this implies a radical reduction of material and energy consumption—in Australia, for example, by more than a factor of ten. We will need to use our understanding of complex systems, resilience and wicked problems among others to guide us. These ideas would be written into our constitutions, not in an obscure subclause, but right up front. They will need to be managed outside politics, like a legal system or a reserve bank. They are non-negotiable. They are necessary conditions for survival.
The second principle is that politics be cooperative not competitive. On an empty planet competitive behaviour was successful. We could damage ecosystems and other people and move on. Humans had only a small impact globally. If a place was damaged there was usually space and time for the Earth to heal. But on a full planet we have a big impact. Competitive behaviour damages and destroys the commons on a global scale, with no space and time to heal. Cooperation is required to avoid damage and heal the wounds. Cooperation is required to share limited resources. This means a radical change in politics and economics.
Moving from the broad principles of science and cooperation to local organisation, I suggest that the basic unit of humanity is a local community, a village or small town, and that the basic unit of the Earth is the local ecosystem of which that community has stewardship. What should be the relationship between them? I hold that only the people who live in a particular place can ever know it well enough to be appropriate stewards of its ecosystems: caring for the commons, deeply knowledgeable about the system and committed to the indefinite long term.
Only by living in a place can you know which tree is essential for a particular species of bird, which can be used for furniture or firewood, which produces the sweetest fruit, or which is needed as a windbreak. You cannot know this sitting in an office in London or Tokyo or New York. This means that ultimate political authority must be local.
If the choice the community makes is to be cooperative, then a consensus decision-making framework is required. The leader’s job is not to make the decisions, but rather to guide the process and act as a guardian of the principles of transparency and fairness. The community makes the decisions. The role of regional and federal levels of governance is to support and coordinate, not to dictate.
This is a broad description of a political framework based on stewardship and nurturing of ecosystems. But what of economics? One principle I have already mentioned is that of a steady state: no material and energy growth. This means that the banks can no longer lend for interest, which forces material and energy growth. Each community will need to understand what it can produce without damaging its ecosystems, so that it can be sure that in a thousand years and beyond, its ecosystems will still support the life, lives and livelihoods of its flora, fauna and human inhabitants. Each community will need to share what it has. But communities will also trade. I can’t grow nutmeg on my little farm, but I love nutmeg, so I want to trade. What will guide this trade?
The good news is that economics is not a science. We can write a new set of economic principles on the back of an envelope. We can’t do that with gravity or thermodynamics, since nature defines the starting point. So we can design a new approach. Markets are a good example. They provide choice, efficiency and innovation. Many economists would have you believe that they should be free on a global scale. But competitive markets are also destructive. When not constrained, they devour and consume the commons also on a global scale. They destroy lives, livelihoods and ecosystems by, among other things, making the pace of change too great for communities to adapt.
A competitive market is like fuming sulfuric acid. H2SO4 is very useful when in a bottle, in a fume cupboard and used judiciously. Let it free, however, and it will consume almost everything it touches. Markets need limits and boundaries to protect other markets—what the economists, not always politely, call ‘protectionism’.
The parallels with biosecurity are uncanny here. Introduce a revolutionary new product into a place without some protection for the existing products and working communities and people will be harmed if they do not have time to adapt. Introduce a new species into an ecosystem and it may similarly wreck things, as we know only too well with rabbits, cane toads and feral cats among many others in Australia.
Just as we will need much tighter biological constraints on the movement of species, so markets must be tightly constrained to avoid damaging local economies, communities and ecosystems. We may have less, but we need less. There is more to say on the topic, but this gives you an idea of how radically we need to think.
Why ‘a century of healing’? We have wounded the planet in a thousand ways. It will never return to what it was, but we can give it space for its ecosystems to recover and flourish, we can give it space and time to heal. None of that can happen unless we, humanity, agree, unless we work together. My experience tells me that such cooperation can happen only with a profound spiritual transformation, a profound healing in each one of us. We will not give up our petty jealousies, our resentments and our hatreds without such deep work.
By spiritual I do not mean religious. I mean that connection with life and with each other that comes when we see and accept reality exactly as it is. I experience this as a healing process. Only by healing ourselves can we give the planet space and time to heal itself.