Editor’s Note: Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture, and one of the central authorities in the dominant, globalizing culture is that technological progress is an unmitigated good. We call this “the lie of the techno-fix.”
The lie of the techno-fix is extremely convincing, with good reason. The propaganda promoting this idea is incessant and nearly subliminal, with billions of dollars pouring out of non-profit offices, New York PR firms, and Hollywood production companies annually to inculcate young people into the cult of technology. In policy, technology is rarely (if ever) subjected to any democratic controls; if it can be profitably made, it will be. And damn the consequences. There is money to be made.
Critics of technology and the techno-elite, such as Lewis Mumford, Rachel Carson, Langdon Winner, Derrick Jensen, and many others, have spoken out for decades on these issues. Technological “development,” they warn us, is perhaps better understood as technological “escalation,” since modern industrial technologies typically represent a war on the planet and the poor.
In this article, Helena Norberg-Hodge asks us to consider what values are important to us: progress, or well-being? Breakneck speed, or balance? She articulates a vision of technology as subordinate to ecology and non-human and human communities alike based on her experiences in the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh.
The most recent topic explored by the thinkers and activists who make up the Great Transition Network was “Technology and the Future”. As writer after writer posted their thoughts, it was heartening to see that almost all recognize that technology cannot provide real solutions to the many crises we face. I was also happy that Professor William Robinson, author of a number of books on the global economy, highlighted the clear connection between computer technologies and the further entrenchment of globalization today.
As anyone who has followed my work will know, globalization is of particular interest to me: for more than 40 years I’ve been studying its impacts on different cultures and societies around the world. From Ladakh and Bhutan to Sweden and Australia, a clear pattern has emerged: as people are pushed into deepening dependence on large-scale, technological systems, ecological and social crises escalate.
I’m not the only one to have seen this. In the International Forum on Globalization – a network I co-founded in 1992 – I worked with forty writers, journalists, academics and social and environmental leaders from around the world to inform the public about the ways in which “free-trade” treaties, the principal drivers of globalization, have eroded democracy, destroyed livelihoods, and accelerated resource extraction. In countries as disparate as Sweden and India, I have seen how globalization intensifies competition for jobs and resources, leading to dramatic social breakdown – including not only ethnic and religious conflict, but also depression, alcoholism and suicide.
Professor Robinson wrote that we are “at the brink of another round of restructuring and transformation based on a much more advanced digitalization of entire global economy”. This is true, but the link between globalization and technological expansion began well before the computer era. Large-scale, technological apparatuses can be understood as the arms and legs of centralized profit-making. And while 5G networks, satellites, mass data-harvesting, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will allow the colonization of still more physical, economic and mental space by multinational corporations, technologies like fossil fuels, global trading infrastructures, and television have already helped to impose a corporate-run consumer-based economy in almost every corner of the globe.
For reasons that are increasingly evident, an acceleration of this process is the last thing we need in a time of serious social and environmental crises. What’s more, the technologies themselves – from the sensors to the satellites – all rely heavily on scarce resources, not least rare earth minerals. Some of the world’s richest corporations are now racing each other to extract these minerals from the deepest seabeds and from the surface of Mars. It has been estimated that the internet alone – with its largely invisible data warehouses (much of it manned by exploited labor in the “developing” world) – will use up a fifth of global electricity consumption by 2025.
And for what? So that we can all spend more time immersed in and addicted to virtual worlds? So that we can automate agriculture, and drive more communities off the land into swelling urban slums? So that drones can deliver our online purchases without an iota of face-to-face contact?
When thinking about technology from within an already high-tech, urban context, we can easily forget that nearly half the global population still lives in villages, still connected to the land. This is not to say that their way of life is not under threat – far from it. Ladakh, the Himalayan region where I lived and worked for several decades, was unconnected to the outside world by even a road until the 1960s. But today you can find processed corporate food, smartphones, mountains of plastic waste, traffic jams and other signs of ‘modernity’ in the capital, Leh. The first steps on this path were taken in the mid-1970s when, in the name of ‘development’, massive resources went into building up the energy, communications and transport infrastructures needed to tie Ladakh to the global economy. Another step involved pulling Ladakhi children out of their villages into western-style schools, where they learned none of the place-based skills that supported Ladakh’s culture for centuries, and instead were trained into the technological-modernist paradigm. Together, these forces are pushing the traditional way of life to the brink of extinction.
While that process began relatively recently in Ladakh, in the west it has been going on far longer, with deeper impacts. But even here, more and more people are becoming aware that the technologization of their personal lives has led to increasing stress, isolation, and mental health struggles. During the pandemic people have been forced to do more online than ever before – from classes to conversations with friends and family – and most have discovered how limited and empty online life can be. There is a clear cultural turning, visible now even in the mainstream, that goes beyond a desire to spend less time on screens. People are also beginning to reject the posturing of the consumer culture and its work-and-spend treadmill, wanting instead to slow down, to cultivate deeper relationships and to engage in more community-oriented and nature-based activities.
I see young people all over the world choosing to leave their screen-based jobs to become farmers. (This return to the land is happening in Ladakh, as well, which I find truly inspiring.) Informal networks of mutual aid are arising. Friends are gardening, cooking and baking bread together; families are choosing to live on the land and developing relationships with the animals and plants around them. We are seeing increased respect for indigenous wisdom, for women and for the feminine, and a growing appreciation for wild nature and for all things vernacular, handmade, artisanal and local. There is also an emergence of alternative, ecological practices in every discipline: from natural medicine to natural building, from eco-psychology to ecological agriculture. Although these disciplines have often been the target of corporate co-optation and greenwashing, they have invariably emerged from bottom-up efforts to restore a healthier relationship with the Earth.
All of these are positive, meaningful trends that have been largely ignored by the media, and given no support by policymakers. At the moment, they are running uphill in a system that favors corporate-led technological development at every turn. They testify to enduring goodwill, to a deep human desire for connection.
When viewed from a big-picture perspective, the expansion of digital technologies – which are inherently centralized and centralizing – runs contrary to the emergence of a more humane, sustainable and genuinely connected future. Why should we accept an energy-and mineral-intensive technological infrastructure that is fundamentally about speeding life up, increasing our screen-time, automating our jobs, and tightening the grip of the 1%?
For a better future, we need to put technology back in its place, and favor democratically determined, diverse forms of development that are shaped by human and ecological priorities – not by the gimmicky fetishes of a handful of billionaires.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is founder and director of Local Futures. A pioneer of the “new economy” movement, she has been promoting an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being for over 40 years. She is the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, and is the author of Local is Our Future and Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. She was honored with the Right Livelihood Award for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, and received the 2012 Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”
The points in time at which various ancient human societies began to go the wrong way (whether by force from outsiders, or by bad decisions made from within) are numerous and span thousands of years, but, thankfully for our future, some few remotely-situated Indigenous societies around the world never departed from those basic, ancient ways of seeing and living with the natural world and still have enough of their ancestral homelands not yet confiscated or destroyed by colonialist predators to make that continuance possible. The Kogi people of the northern Andes mountains in Colombia are a prime and now well-known example, as are some of the more remote tribes to the south and east of them in the Amazon rainforest. Other relatively intact traditional indigenous societies exist in remote locations in central Africa, the Pacific islands, northern and southeastern Asia, and a few other remote locations in the Americas and elsewhere. It is by learning from people such as these, and from all of our relations in the non-human world as well, that we might be able to find our way back to truly green, sustainable and regenerative ways of life. There are also many more Indigenous peoples throughout the world who have just a little or none of their ancestral homelands still accessible to them, retain only pieces of their traditional cultural values and practices, and have just a small number of tribal members who are still fluent in their ancestral languages. Colonialism, capitalism, cultural oppression, and intercultural relations have brought many changes to them, but, even so, for people whose encounter with wrong ways of living is more recent than most of the rest of humanity, the way back to truly green eco-harmony might be a little easier.
Unless a community consciously agrees to put the needs of their entire local ecosystem and all lives within it first, above what they conceive to be human needs, their community will someday fail and collapse.
As clearly as we now see that the concept of utopian societies was never meant to mean “perfect” societies, it should also be clearly understood that traditional Indigenous societies were never perfect either, just as no human society has ever been perfect and none ever will. But, model ideal societies do not have to be perfect to provide inspiration, wisdom, and direction for our paths forward into the difficult future. It is interesting to note that the first contacts that European colonialists and their descendants had with Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere (or, “the Americas” and the first people to be called “Americans”) inspired a small wave of utopian thinking that lasted for centuries, and now, in this time of profound global crises, many people are looking to Indigenous individuals, societies and cultures for guidance and leadership towards resolution of the current crises and for ways to create viable, Earth-sustaining and regenerative future communities. Many utopian community social experiments have come and gone over the last five centuries, and one reason why the vast majority of them failed is that they did not look closely enough at the models to be found in Indigenous societies all over the world. While some communities have mimicked Indigenous, eco-based, reciprocal economic models to some extent, and others have imitated Indigenous representative political models, there are two elements of the original ways of human social organization, which nearly all non-Indigenous-led utopian communal experiments have missed, and which are essential to ideal community success. One element is the understanding that humans are just one of millions of types of people (or, “species”) who all have the potential to make essential, invaluable contributions to the interconnected web of regenerative life on Earth. All species of the living world belong here and need each other. People from anthropocentric, “human needs first,” or “humans-are-most-important,” or “humans are superior to all other species” societies have an extremely difficult time trying to see that, unless they somehow acquire a special ability to break free from that very powerful mass delusion. Unless a community consciously agrees to put the needs of their entire local ecosystem and all lives within it first, above what they conceive to be human needs, their community will someday fail and collapse. A big step on the way to getting there is to realize that the greatest human need is to be in tune with the needs of the entire living organism to which we are all connected.
The second element is the need to learn how to have deep communion or interactive communication (listening, hearing, and being heard) with all of our non-human relations in the natural world (animals, plants, earth, water, fire and air). That idea sounds very unreal, or even impossible, to most modern humans today, but there are many stories and indications that most of our species once had and commonly engaged in such abilities, throughout most of our history as homo sapiens sapiens. Although I probably will not be able to recover much of our former fluency in such communion, after 70 years of living in this corrupt, lost, degenerated modern industrial world, I will remain committed to working on that quest for all of the remaining time that I have to live in this body, with all of the species by which I am surrounded. Why? Because I expect that we can learn more about what Mother Earth wants from us and how we can be healed and corrected, from our innocent, already-connected, harmonious, right-living, non-human relatives than we can from just listening to and following other humans. Daniel Wildcat (Yuchi, Muskogee), professor of American Indian Studies at Haskell University, helped to clarify this Indigenous perspective in his ground-breaking 2009 book, Red Alert: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge:
Current scientific research on animal communication overwhelmingly verifies the existence of complex communication systems. Honesty and humility require us to acknowledge that indigenous knowledge, in its diverse substance and structure, is the result of collaboration, a respectful partnership, between us and our many other-than-human relatives. Several tribal elders I have known have been almost matter-of-fact about their ability to exercise interspecies communication with animals.
The old ability to also commune with and hear the languages of the plant beings is eloquently described by Potawatomi scholar and award-winning nature writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer in a recent essay that was re-published in Yes! magazine:
The Indigenous story tradition speaks of a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species. But we have forgotten—or been made to forget—how to listen so that all we hear is sound, emptied of its meaning. The soft sibilance of pine needles in the wind is an acoustic signature of pines. But this well-known “whispering of pines” is just a sound, it is not their voice….Traditional cultures who sit beneath the white pines recognize that human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world. Other beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons, possessed of their own gifts, responsibilities, and intentions. This is not some kind of mistaken anthropomorphism….Trees are not misconstrued as leaf-wearing humans but respected as unique, sovereign beings equal to or exceeding the power of humans.
We definitely won’t get to successful, regenerative, natural Life-connected communities just from reading books written by other humans. This is not a simple philosophical exercise or an intellectual parlor game. We have to actually live the interconnected life, under natural laws and the wise limits of Mother Earth, on a finite but abundantly sufficient planet. That was the old normal way of living for the vast majority of our species, for the overwhelming majority of the time of our existence in Earth.
Some other essential elements for successful utopian societies at this particular moment in global history, besides the two most important elements mentioned above, include:
A group of people with a common enough vision or sense of direction, not excessive in population for the particular place in which they live so that they do not overshoot the carrying capacity of their local ecosystem or need to trade with the world outside their community for material goods, and can help to maintain regenerative processes and relationships between all species of life in that local ecosystem/community. Eventually, the community would need to determine their own membership or citizenship requirements and limits.
Access to sufficient land and clean water. This might require that people pool their financial resources and purchase land together. A more remote rural location would be safer, but for people who feel that they must remain living in urban locations, at least for the short-term future, city or town governments sometimes lease vacant lots relatively cheap for use as community gardens.
Sufficient collective knowledge and experience within the community membership about how to care for and nurture a wide variety of edible plants, either native to the place where the community lives or compatible with that ecosystem, to organically grow or gather for food and medicine. Knowledge in sustainable, respectful hunting and fishing might also be useful or necessary.
A commitment by all community members to expanding the community’s collective knowledge of the lifeways and connections between all species in the community’s ecosystem and learning how humans best fit into the interconnected purposes of life in that place. Knowledge of the lifeways of the people who were, or still are, indigenous to that place is an essential part of this process. As much as it may be possible, that knowledge should come directly from the people who are indigenous to the community’s place, whenever and how much they may be willing to share that knowledge, and such people should be invited into those communities and have leadership roles there, if they choose to do so. Generally, though, most Indigenous peoples would prefer to form their own ideal communities on their own ancestral lands or reservations.
Although ideal or utopian communities may need to use some money to get the community started, ideal communal economies should eventually become moneyless, direct-from-and-back-to-nature (ecologically reciprocal), mutually reciprocal, life-giving and sharing societies. In the formerly normal pre-monetary world, a society’s wealth was received directly from relationship with the natural world and was preserved or enhanced by maintaining a good, respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world. If our economic dependency is on the well-being of local natural systems, that is what we take care of and if our dependency is upon money, then that is what we care about most. In old Indigenous societies, the honorable attitude was to look out for the well-being of all people (human and non-human) in the community, give generously without worrying about what you will receive in return, and NOT measure out individual material possessions mathematically, to assure exactly equal portions of everything to each individual. In a culturally generous gifting economy, sometimes individuals or families would be honored in a ceremony and receive many gifts from the community, making them temporarily rich in material possessions. On another occasion a family or individual might sponsor a feast for the whole community and give gifts to all who attended until they had no more possessions left to give. When such activities were frequent and commonplace and people knew that they were connected to a generous, caring, cooperative, reciprocating community, of both human and non-human beings, there was no anxiety or sense of loss about giving one’s possessions away. Generosity was such a highly-esteemed, honorable character trait, that people sometimes actually competed with each other to become the most generous. There was also social shaming attached to being stingy or greedy, which is seen in some of the old stories, along with the stories about generosity and other positive traits.
The community would need to mutually agree upon a governing structure and decision-making processes for issues that involve or impact the entire community (including the ecosystem and non-human members of the community). Community rules and laws should conform to and not violate nature’s laws. Effective government depends on mutual respect and/or love, listening and communication skills, common core vision and goals, honesty, transparency, and a commitment by all community members to working on and continually improving their self-governing skills.
Democratic or consensus decision-making about what technologies and tools will be allowed in the community, again giving highest regard to what would be best for the entire ecological community and for the connected biosphere of our whole planet.
Here again are the first two necessary elements of ideal community creation (explained above, before this list), reduced to nutshell, outline form:
Relinquish all anthropocentrism and any concepts of human superiority over all of the other species that we share interconnected life with in our ecosystems and in the entire biosphere of Mother Earth. Recognize the interconnected value of all species of life and keep that recognition at the forefront of all community decision making. (How can the species that is the most destructive to Life on Earth be rightfully considered “superior” to any other species, much less to all of them?)
All individuals in the community should commit themselves to actively developing our formerly common human abilities to commune deeply with and communicate (listening, hearing, and being heard) with other species in our inter-connected natural world. Since, for many of us, our ancestors lost those abilities hundreds or even thousands of years ago, a community should make no requirements about the speed at which those abilities should be developed. It should not be a contest, but, instead, a mutually-encouraging, enjoyable, natural process. With each successful step that any individual makes in this endeavor, the entire community gains greater ability to more closely follow nature’s laws and gains a better sense of how humans were meant to participate in and contribute to Earth’s living systems.
There are probably many more essential elements of community formation, structure, and actual operation which people may feel they need to consider and discuss. The reason that I titled this essay “Paths (plural) Forward….) was to acknowledge that there will be innumerable forms that ideal communities will take, throughout the world, depending upon the needs of local ecosystems and all of their inhabitants, the will of the particular communities, their sense of the common good, and whatever creative ideas that they come up with.
Some Obstacles and Possible Scenarios on the Near Future Paths Forward, both Good and Bad:
The idea of giving up and abandoning modern technologies is unthinkable and even abhorrent to most present-day humans. Besides those humans who have an abundance or excess of such things, many people around the world who own very few modern technology products are also repulsed by the idea that they might have to give up even the dream or desire to have such things. To abruptly switch to pre-20th century, or earlier, technologies would be excruciatingly painful to most modern, western industrialized people, and even a slow transition would be quite hard. It is possible that, to somewhat ease the transition to truly green and bio-sustainable living, we could just end the production of toxic modern technological products, while still using those things that already exist until they’re spent or broken (but cease immediately from using items that burn fossil fuels or emit other toxic wastes, in their production or consumption), and then not replace them. Some items could possibly be re-constructed from discarded parts, until such things are no longer available. During the time span in which the old manufactured goods are being used up, people would simultaneously need to be very actively engaged with learning to bio-sustainably produce the things that they actually need and that are actually green or Earth system friendly. That might be, at least in part, what a viable transition could look like. Obviously, most people today would absolutely reject and resist such a change, due partly to not knowing any other way to live, alienation from nature, fear of the unknown, and belief in, addiction to, or imprisonment by their normal material culture. Just wrapping their minds around the realization that so many things that they had always considered to be normal and innocent should probably never have been made, will be nearly inconceivable to most, at least initially. I remember how hard it hit me when I first realized that we just cannot continue to go forward with the status quo social systems and most of their by-products and still have a living world for very long. But how many will give it a second thought or change their minds after personally experiencing the increasingly common excruciating pain of global warming natural disasters? At some very near future point, relief agencies, all of which have finite resources, will not be able to keep up with the increasingly frequent catastrophic events, including more pandemics (connected to thawing permafrost, increased trade and travel, and increasing displacements and migrations of humans and other species). Is the creation of ideal or “utopian” local eco-communities, immediately and proactively—like building the lifeboats before the ship actually sinks—the best possible and most viable path forward, both for humanity and the rest of Life on Earth?
Because of the likelihood that modern industrial humans will not respond quickly or adequately enough to sufficiently (or even significantly) alter our present global destruction trajectory, the creation of utopian eco-communities might become more of a post-collapse source for places of refuge or survival and healing for those relative few who do manage to survive, than a means for actually providing an appealing alternative to continuing with the status quo, or just limiting the harm caused by our predicament. It may be likely that even those of us who would like to create utopian eco-communities would have a hard time doing so as long as the option of continuing with the status quo still exists, because we are so conditioned to depend on or desire many of the things that society offers us. Either way, though—whether prior to the collapse of the status quo or after—the creation of such communities would be a good thing and probably the least futile use of our time, attention and energy.
I offer here a brief assortment of some possible near-future scenarios, both positive and negative:
1. Sometime within the next five years, about 60% of humans around the world decide to create local eco-utopian communities, following the old Indigenous principles described above, and begin the process of abandoning modern industrial technological social systems and structures. Soon after that, we also begin the difficult process of safely de-commissioning all of the existing nuclear power and nuclear weapons facilities in the world and sealing away the radioactive materials therein. The bio-system collapse already set in motion to that point continues, but at a rapidly diminishing rate, as Earth’s regenerating systems are allowed to take over and bring gradual healing and an opportunity for a new direction for humanity, rather than repeating our former disastrous mistakes. As the human people begin to experience the joy of re-discovering our real purpose as part of Earth’s interconnected life-regenerating systems, while simultaneously grieving about all of the increased suffering of the humans who are still stuck in the collapsing, chaotic old industrial societies, and offering refuge to any persons that their communities can take in, many ask each other the question, “why didn’t we start doing this much sooner?”
2. In the initial first few years of the international, local utopian eco-community movement, very few people take it seriously and the vast majority of humanity knows nothing about it. Government security agencies in the wealthiest nations of the world know about it, but only because they spy on everybody, and not because they see the movement as a serious threat, as they assume it would never catch on due to the common unquestioning submission to the system and consumer addictions to modern technology and over-consumption. During those same first few years, the corporate-controlled wealthiest governments are much more concerned with the growing far right wing revolutionary movements in the U.S. and much of Europe than they are with the mild-mannered, willing to work through the system, so-called “left.” The fringe right, or the tail that wags the Republican Party dog, successfully breaks Donald Trump out of prison, and re-elects him as President in 2024, then designates him to be “President-for-life.” Though at one time useful tools for the ruling class’s divide and conquer strategy, at this point the rulers determine that they have become somewhat unmanageable, since an obvious one party state is not as useful or dependable as two parties masquerading as opposites, when they actually serve the same corporate economic masters. So, the corporate rulers decide to make the far right wingers of the U.S. an example to the far right in Europe and to any on the far left in the U.S. who might be encouraged to try something similar with the harder to wag Democratic Party dog. The U.S. military is called in, they stage a coup against Trump and his cohorts, and begin mass imprisonments, and some executions, of many of the remaining right wing revolutionaries (except for the ones who cooperate with the government, making deals and submissions in order to save their “me first” lives). It is only after that that the governments of the wealthy nations of the world and their corporate handlers begin to notice that the utopian community movement had grown exponentially during the years that they were pre-occupied with the far right. Of course they had noticed that consumer spending had diminished considerably throughout the “developed world,” but had attributed that to other usual economic factors and to the extensive hardships caused by the increasing natural disasters, including the most recent pandemics. Once they realize that the eco-utopian movement has the potential to completely bring down the prevailing economic system, they get right on it. One useful tactic they find for dealing with the situation is to employ the now scattered, frustrated, scorned, unemployable, and even more fearful far righters as mercenary soldiers against the eco-utopians, whom they easily scapegoat for the deteriation of the economy, with very little need for indoctrination. Most of the righters agree to serve just because of the promise made to them that they would get their guns back after they complete their service to the country. Simultaneously, the EU, Russia, China and other governments use their more conventional militaries and other methods of persuasion and suppression to deal with the situation.
3. Instead of rejecting modern industrial technological society altogether, the majority decides to try technological “fixes” to our predicament instead. They generally agree that saving the capitalist system, their precious, hard-fought-for careers, and their even more precious levels of material consumption are more important than saving biological life on Earth itself. But, in order to save capitalism and the status quo civilization, and avoid an international socialist revolution, they realize that some more significant and more convincing gestures need to be made toward CO2 reduction. In 2023, production and installation of solar electricity panels and wind farms begins to increase rapidly throughout the world, along with all of the toxic, CO2-producing mining, manufacturing, construction, deforesting and defoliating of natural habitats for new power lines as well as for the new power installations themselves, road-building, hauling of equipment, workers, and the products themselves to retailers and installation sites, and more—all of which involve a huge increase in the burning of fossil fuels. Even though the alleged purpose for all of that increased industrial activity would be to replace fossil fuels with “green energy technologies” at the scale needed to keep the precious system going and growing and create more jobs, the unexpected or oft-denied negative consequences soon become nearly undeniable (but humans have the ability to deny just about anything—or, actually, just anything). The oil, lithium, and “green energy” companies then use their greatly increased profits for advertising and indoctrinating people to trust the new “green” uses for fossil fuels. They also use some of the new profits to purchase the cooperation of additional politicians and entire governments in protecting their enterprises. The bio-system collapse, natural disaster and mass extinction trajectory then continues, at a more rapid rate.
4. By 2033, it becomes widely obvious to the majority of humans that the “green” energy techno-fix for the continuation and growth of modern industrial capitalism is not really that green and is actually exacerbating global warming and the continually increasing environmental catastrophes, while pulling attention and resources away from both the urgently-needed disaster relief and the struggle against the seemingly endless parade of new pandemic diseases. Because they still have not developed any proven technologies or machinery for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere at anywhere near the rate needed to get back to the 2° C “point of no return,” which we had already passed back in 2028, the ruling class then decides to proceed with the next great, unproven, theoretical techno-fix: injecting sulfides and/or other chemicals into Earth’s only, increasingly fragile, atmosphere in an attempt to block or reduce much of Father Sun’s gift of radiant light and warmth—a technology called “geoengineering,” or artificially forced Earth cooling. Very soon after the first widespread use of that techno-fix, we then get a “Snowpiercer” scenario, but without the horrific, impossible, perpetual-motion prison train “lifeboat.” We just get the entire planet frozen to death.
5. The complete collapse of the modern industrial economy occurs in the year 2029, due to multiple factors (too many to list here, but they include some of those listed in the scenarios above and many things that are actually happening RIGHT NOW). The radical left finally realizes then that a real opportunity for a successful socialist revolution is now upon them, effectively dropped right into their laps. They can actually just vote it right in, throughout the so-called “developed world.” Seeing the writing on the wall, the trillionaires and billionaires decide that the whole planet has become unmanageable and too out of control, so they make one last plundering of the planet’s gifts (a.k.a., “resources”) to build up their private spaceship fleets and build more space stations, in preparation for their last grand exit. Many of the millionaires and wannabe trillionaires do whatever they can to join them and those who fail to make the escape then also fail at a last ditch attempt to save capitalism. Many eco-utopians and eco-socialists advise the more conventional Marxist socialists that socialism will fail without putting the needs of the natural world first (instead of just the humans) and doing away with money. After much productive discussion around the world, in-person and by the internet (whenever the intermittent grid is up and running) it is generally agreed that nation states and empires have run their course, done much more net harm to life in Earth and the common good of humans than their assumed “benefits” can make up for, so the human people decide to abolish all such political entities. They also decide that, instead of nations, human societies should be small, local, eco-centered, non-monetary and truly democratic, while staying in touch with each other through communication networks, with or without the electric grid. For several decades after that glorious beginning, as the Earth begins to heal through natural regenerative processes and the humans begin to discover who they really are and how they fit within the Whole of Life, they also discuss whether or not they should continue to use electricity, and, if so, what limits upon such use does Mother Earth and all our non-human relations recommend to us?
6. OK, just one more possible near-future scenario to give here, although I am sure that we all could think of many more. Nuclear war breaks out between the U.S. and China in 2022, with additional participation from Russia, the EU, and North Korea. China targets both the Yellowstone caldera and the San Andreas fault. We get combined nuclear and volcanic winter, and the Earth freezes to death. A couple of the trillionaires, with their entourages, manage last minute, rushed, and not completely prepared, spaceship exits, and end up starving to death in outer space within a couple of years (having extended the time of their survival with cannibalism, of course).
Which of the above scenarios seems most likely to occur, in your opinion? Do you think that something else would be more likely and, if so, what? What would you like to see happen? Do you feel free to think with utopian creativity? If not, do you understand why that is? Would you like to have that freedom and engage in such creativity for the common good?
I realize that, for many of you, this may be the first time that you have heard of many of these dismal realities regarding the present condition and future prospects of life on Earth. As I began to say earlier, I have not forgotten the dismay, anger and other emotions that I felt when I first became aware of some of these facts (and other facts that I did not go into here), several years ago. There are many other people, around the world, who are going through the same thing and there are support groups and other resources that have been formed over the years to help people get through this together and peacefully adapt to it. For me, the way I deal with it best is to try to create alternative, natural living paths forward. Just because the status quo way of societal life is doomed does not necessarily mean that all life or all potential human societies are doomed.
I also realize that for many of you this may be the first time that anybody ever told you that utopian does not really mean “perfect” or impossible, and that exercising our utopian creativity might be not only a good thing, but an absolutely essential thing to do at this particular time. It might also be the case that you have never heard that traditional Indigenous societies and lifeways might provide us with models for viable, Life-saving, Earth-protecting, regenerative paths forward at this time, instead of being the “miserable,” “brutal,” “struggles for existence” that you might have heard about in some anthropology class. The future might indeed look like it is going to be a painful struggle for life, for both humans and non-humans, but engaging in survival efforts as communities with united visions, a common sense of purpose, seeking the common good for each other and for all species of life in our local community worlds, will be much easier and more enjoyable than trying to pursue mere survival as “rugged individuals” or rugged little nuclear family units. Embarking upon these paths forward to “utopian,” ideal, or best possible and ever-improving human eco-communities might be what our Mother Earth and all of our relations of all inter-connected Life have been yearning for us to do for thousands of years! I am excited to find out what we will learn in the actual doings.
Banner image: The Kogi village and tribal community of Tairona, in northern Colombia.
George Price (descendant of the Assonet band of the Wampanoag tribal nation of Massachusetts) has been living with his family on their five-acre organic, polyculture farm on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana since the summer of 1985. He retired from a 33-year teaching career in 2018, which included teaching Native American Studies, American History, and African American Studies at the University of Montana for 20 years. Since he is no longer working “through the system,” he is devoting the remainder of his life to Earth/Water protecting, organic farming, food sovereignty, constructive communicating, and replacing industrial technophile capitalism with local, eco-harmonious, EarthLife-centric, cooperative, alternative communities.
 Here is a link to the only free access to the amazing old documentary film on the Kogis, “ From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRgTtrQOiR0 The written introduction to the film at the top of the post, contains an excellent explanation on why the Kogi people do not want to receive tourists or other visitors on their lands. What humans who want to return to our original harmonious ways need to start doing is to work on listening to and following the voices of our relations in the non-human portion of this inter-connected life world. That is an ability that all First Peoples had for most of the time of our existence as humans on this Earth, and it is still the best source of true guidance. Stop looking to modern humans and guru types for the light that we all need that is freely available in our natural, inter-connected world (both within and outside of our bodies).
 I am afraid that if I name and give more precise locations for these model Indigenous societies, some eco-tourists, missionaries, or other modern humans might find them and corrupt or destroy them.
 I must acknowledge here that, like all human demographic groups, the multitude of Indigenous peoples, world-wide, have much variation among individuals within their unique individual societies—in personal experiences, adaptation to historical circumstances, retaining of cultural traditions, level of wealth or success within the imposed colonialist economic systems, and several other factors that impact cultural resiliency and recovery.
 Besides Thomas More, other colonial era European writers who imagined “utopian” societies and were inspired, in part, by what they had heard about Indigenous peoples of the Americas include Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract, 1762), Tomasso Campanella (City of the Sun, 1602, English translation, 1623), Thomas Bacon (New Atlantis, 1626), and James Harrington (The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656). Benjamin Franklin is known to have admired the form of government of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy and to have recommended to his fellow revolutionaries that they copy the Haudenosaunee, to some extent. See, Donald A. Grinde, Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1991, pp.96-98, but really, the whole book.
 If not a need or dependency, such trade could remain optional, to preserve good relations with neighbors, and provide things not available in the community location that would do no harm if brought in to the community.
 Some of us old-timers who tried to go in that direction back in the late 1960’s on through the 1980’s and failed will probably have plenty to say about that. Barb and I lived communally (in shared houses and living spaces) from 1970 until 1973 and in intentional community (separate households on shared land) from 1982 to 1985.
 Although I do not agree with them about everything, two people who it has been said are very helpful with that kind of support are Joanna Macy and Michael Dowd (they work separately).
 That is enough about the “whys” of this for now, partly because the essay is getting very long. I’ll be glad to hear from others now, in the comments below and elsewhere, and will turn my attention now and in future blog posts to more about the “hows” of it all. But, I know that the real knowledge, wisdom, and joy, will come through the doing, not just the words.
The oral traditions and origin stories of many Indigenous peoples, worldwide, include some stories of the endings of previous worlds. In such stories, the end of one world usually coincides with the beginning of a new world. Typically, the end of one world is the end of a grave error, the end of a world gone wrong. The life-endangering wrong way had to end for life to continue anew. To have a fresh start, venturing into many unknowns, might be somewhat scary, but it is really a wonderful gift.
In the early winter months of 2014, in Missoula, Montana, I was part of a coalition of climate activists and Indigenous Earth and water protectors who were trying to stop, or at least discourage, the transport of enormous pieces of mining equipment to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, where it would be used in the largest and dirtiest oil extraction project on our planet. The equipment was so large that the companies that owned those things could only move them through cities in the middle of the night, at the time of least traffic use (around 2:00 a.m.). They could not transport these monstrosities on the freeways because they were too tall—even lying down on trucks—to go under the overpasses. We called them the “megaloads.” On four cold winter nights, in January through March, we walked out onto the largest street in Missoula as soon as we saw a megaload and its entourage of pilot cars and police vehicles approaching. We sang and round-danced in the middle of the street, carrying signs, and sometimes our crowd was big enough to make a circle that fit from curb to curb across the whole street. The police allowed us to continue for a short while (the longest time was 22 minutes), then they cleared us off the road. A handful of our people intentionally got arrested, but most did not.
Sometime after the fourth megaload blockade, the oil and equipment transport companies decided to refabricate the equipment for transport on the freeways. We had caused them a minor inconvenience and a little negative publicity regarding the tar sands industry and its impacts on the Canadian boreal forests, rivers, the health of humans and other species, and global warming. So they began transporting their destructive devices in smaller pieces, to be reassembled upon arrival in Alberta. That change in operations cost three companies (Exxon Mobil, Imperial Oil, and transport company, Mammoet) about two billion dollars altogether, or about one quarter’s profits (at that time, just before oil prices dropped and tar sands extracting became a little less profitable). When taking government subsidies and tax breaks given to oil corporations into account, they probably hardly even felt a pinch from our annoying actions and were actually able to expand their tar sands operations and increase their profits for a few years after the blockades. Our blockade coalition held together for a few months longer, waiting for the next megaload to come through Missoula, which never came.
During those weeks and months after the last megaload blockade, I spent a good amount of time analyzing and reassessing the value and effectiveness of street blockades and similar actions on the big picture. The big question on my mind, and in the minds of some of my friends, was, “What did we accomplish and what good did we do for protecting the Earth through our actions in the street?” We also wondered who even noticed what we did (most citizens of Missoula are asleep at 2:00 a.m. and we didn’t get much media coverage) and, for those that noticed, did anybody who wasn’t already in agreement with our views on protecting the natural world change their minds and decide to take action on behalf of natural life? How about the megaload transport workers, security guards and police, whom we forced to stop their work and sit there watching us for 15 or 20 minutes, reading our signs, and listening to our round dance songs and our vocal pleas for the end of fossil fuel use? Did any of them change their thinking or quit their jobs? Well, we never heard back from any of them on that, as far as I know, seven years later.
One thing that seemed pretty certain to me then, and I’m even more sure about now, is that humans who live in monetary-based economies (capitalist or socialist) will very rarely choose to cease engaging in activities that assure them that they will be rewarded with that most essential material tool: money. That includes fossil fuel workers, the corporate bosses who own their labor, and just about everybody else who lives within the constraints of modern industrial societies. Most people would not knowingly engage in toxic, life-destroying activities if they were not getting paid for it or benefitting from it in some other way, or if they did not feel that they had no choice other than to make money doing such things. As long as people are rewarded for destroying life on Earth, they will continue to destroy life on Earth. Just about a week before the first megaload blockade, in January, I had written an essay about how money and beliefs about money are at the root of all of the activities, systems, and structural devices that are destroying natural life on Earth, titled, “The Problem with Money.” In the months after the last blockade, I revised that essay into a new one, titled, The End of Money: The Need for Alternative, Sustainable, Non-monetary Local Economies, and began to bring the ideas therein into many public forums, mostly attended by other self-professed “environmental activists.” That essay is a combination of critique of the status quo and suggestions for alternative, EarthLife-centered, local economies and societal structures. At that point in time, I had come to the conclusion that it was futile to continue attempting to change the prevailing large-scale societies (nation states and corporate-controlled empires), working through the usual channels, and settling for the small increments and ineffective gestures toward change allowed by the systemic authorities. As I was learning more about the science regarding Earth’s bio-system tipping points and feedback cycles, I could see that we most likely do not have the time to move at such a snail’s pace, “barking up the wrong trees,” and make the types of major changes in human activities and social systems necessary for stopping the destruction of our interconnected Life on Earth and preventing more mass extinctions and ecosystem collapses. It had become clear to me then, and it is even clearer now, that the actual function of our political and economic systems is to perpetuate and protect the productive and consumptive mechanisms and so-called “way of life” that is destroying life on Earth, regardless of any official statements of purpose or intent to the contrary. The response that I received from most people to all of that was disappointing, but also enlightening. For a variety of understandable reasons, many people feel an immediate need to dismiss and block out not only the essay, but my entire perspective on necessary responses to our current crisis as “utopian dreaming,” or some similarly dismissive label.
When people read that essay or hear me say things like the economic and political structure of modern industrial societies is fundamentally wrong and that these societies must end most of their ways of being before they destroy most life on Earth, there are two responses that I hear most frequently, from the very few people who bother to talk with me about these ideas at all. Here are those responses:
“You are throwing out the baby with the bath water!”
“You are making the perfect the enemy of the good.”
My succinct reply to that first dismissive accusation can be found in the very short essay on this blog titled, “Who is the Baby?” That reply basically goes along the lines of asking people which baby they want to save, industrial civilization and their modern conveniences, or natural biological life on Earth, because we cannot save both. That is all I will say about that one now, as the point has also been made in my book review of Bright Green Lies, even better in the Bright Green Lies book itself, and by many others, including more and more climate-related scientists. (I will elaborate on this further, below). In this present essay, I would like to focus on that second dismissive accusation, which was actually the primary impetus for me to write this essay in the first place, along with my love for natural life.
There are many important questions to probe about the assumedly “perfect” and the allegedly “good.” Why do most people believe that utopian thinking is a quest for “perfection?” How did that claim originate? Whose interest does the claim that all utopian thinkers are unrealistic, irrational perfectionists serve? What is the difference between an imaginary, unattainable, “perfect” society and an ideal society? Are the societies that we (residents of all modern industrial nation states) live in now something that we can justifiably call “good?” When we call societies like these “good,” do we really mean that they are “lesser evils?” Very often, when people are told that their society is not good, or is unjust and harmful to life, they respond by comparing it to some other countries that they consider to be much worse. Is “good” and “lesser evil” truly the same thing? What should be the essential, required elements for a truly good or ideal society, especially in light of the current and near-future global crises? I would like to productively address all of the above questions in this essay and, by doing so, hopefully open up some possibilities for future interaction and deeper engagement with these core issues. Ultimately, I would like to persuade people that utopian thinking and actual creativity really is a useful, vital and even absolutely necessary exercise for us to engage in now, in order to be able to proactively and successfully deal with the challenges presented to us by the current and future, multi-pronged crises facing both Earth’s biosphere and the prevailing human societal frameworks.
Obviously, answering these questions will require some clarification of the definitions of several terms, especially “utopian.” So, in the interest of getting right to the point, let’s begin with that word. The word, “utopia,” was invented by Thomas More (Sir or Saint Thomas More, if you think that we should use one of those two titles that were bestowed upon him by the recognized authorities, when speaking of him), for his 1516 novel, “A little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia.” That was the original, long title (but in English, instead of the original Latin). There are six slightly different shorter titles used in some of the various English translations of the book, as follows:
On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia
Concerning the Highest State of the Republic and the New Island Utopia
On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia
Concerning the Best Condition of the Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia
On the Best Kind of a Republic and About the New Island of Utopia
About the Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia
Why was it important for me to show you More’s actual original title of the book and the six commonly-used titles? Because none of the titles describe the fictional island nation called Utopia as “perfect” and the book is not a discussion of perfect societies at all, but rather of best or most optimal societies. More uses the word “perfect” six times in the book, but never as a descriptive term for Utopia.  Rather than calling Utopia perfect or flawless, More preferred words like “best” or “good.” In his original title, More suggests that Utopia is an example of “how things should be in a state,” or, in other words, an ideal—but not perfect—state. The word “best,” in the 16th century as well as now, is a relative term, defined as “better than all other examples of a certain type or class of thing.” Under that general definition, the thing referred to as best is also understood to be the best so far, or best that we know of, until something better of its type is either found, accomplished, or created. In no way is the best considered to be permanently best, flawless, without room for improvement, or perfect.
The meaning of the word “best” in the various English titles of the book, as outlined above, becomes even clearer when we consider the structure and style of this frame narrative novel. The book is divided into two parts, the first part being a discussion between More and a couple of fictional characters about both the flaws and the best aspects of European societies, including England, and the second part is a descriptive narrative by one of More’s fictional friends about a fictional island somewhere off the coast of South America called “Utopia.”  Much of the social structure, politics, economics (i.e., no private property in Utopia), beliefs and customs of Utopia are compared to those in Europe and found by More’s friend to be ideal, or at least better than those in Europe. But, not only does no character in the story assert that Utopia is perfect, More himself, as a character in his own novel, states in conclusion at the end of the book that, when listening to his friend describe Utopia, “many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people [the Utopians], that seemed very absurd,” and, after listing some of those disagreeable aspects of Utopian society, he says in his final sentence, “however, there are many things in the Commonwealth of Utopia that I rather wish, than hope, to see followed in our governments.” The literary device that More uses here, in which he places himself in conversation with the fictional characters that he created (his “imaginary friends?”), allows him to express ideas that might have been dangerous for him to propose directly, in his own voice, while representing himself as somewhat oppositional to the radical social ideas advocated for by the character who describes Utopia, Raphael Hythlodaye. This technique also allowed More to be somewhat mysterious, or publicly ambivalent, regarding his actual views about ideal societies (“plausible deniability”?), as he was considering finding employment in the court of King Henry VIII at the time when he was writing “Utopia.”
For the record, and to be absolutely clear, as I see it, and I think most of my readers would agree, Thomas More’s Utopia is no utopia or ideal society.
For the record, and to be absolutely clear, as I see it, and I think most of my readers would agree, Thomas More’s Utopia is no utopia or ideal society. Even though the Utopians have an economic system that is somewhat ideal and closely resembles the non-monetary, use value (rather than market or commodity value), need-based distribution, gift economy type of economic system that I and others have long advocated for, much of the rest of Utopia’s social order is abominable. For example, it is a patriarchal society with all of the political leaders being males, and the Utopians allow for and excuse colonialism and slavery (not race-based, but for convicts and prisoners of war). While they seem to keep their population within the carrying capacity of their island most of the time, when their population gets a little too large for that, they form temporary colonies on the neighboring mainland, with or without the permission of the people already living there, on lands that they call “waste land,” because the land is uncultivated or “undeveloped” by humans (a familiar excuse used frequently by European colonialists of the western hemisphere, in More’s time and long after). That perspective and practice also illustrates the crucial missing element of the Utopian economic system, which (if it actually existed) would doom it to unsustainability and failure: it is anthropocentric, or centered on human needs and desires only, and not on the needs and sustainable, regenerative order of their local ecosystems, including all species of Life. That has been the most significant flaw of most utopian communal experiments in western, Euro-based societies for centuries (a point that I will elaborate upon further, below).
One reason for the common claim that the Utopia in More’s book, or any proposed utopian society, is intended to be perfect and therefore can never actually exist, can be found in the debate over More’s intended meaning of the name. Thomas More invented the name, Utopia, based on one of two possible Greek prefixes. (The suffix is “topos,” which means “place,” and there is no debate regarding that.) The debatable possible prefixes are “ou” (pronounced “oo,” as in “boo” or “goo”), which means “no,” or “none,” and “eu” (pronounced like “you”), which means “good.” Depending upon which Greek prefix one thinks More incorporated for the name of his fictional society, Utopia can either mean “No place,” if the prefix came from ou, or “good place,” if it came from eu. The U in the word Utopia has long been pronounced like the Greek eu, which suggests that More possibly used that prefix to form the name, but, since we have no audio recordings of how utopia was pronounced by More and other early 16th century English speakers, we don’t know with any certainty that they pronounced it in the same way that we do now. The text of Utopia itself, was originally written in Latin by More (who left it to later, posthumous publishers to produce English translations), not Greek, so there is no assurance there as to which Greek prefix he meant. “Utopia” is the Latin spelling of the name. For some reason, possibly related to his personal career ambitions and even his personal safety (in a society in which people often unexpectedly or capriciously “lost their heads”), More left the question about the meaning of “Utopia”—no place or a good place—open to debate. There is a contextual clue on page 171 of the second English translation, but it does not definitively resolve the question. 
So, now we can leave that question of the origin and meaning of the word behind us and get to the more important question of why most people believe that utopian thinking is a futile, foolish quest for “perfection.” The short, most direct, and most likely answer is because that is what they have always been told. But, if that is not how the inventor of the word defined it, who decided to give us this other story, and why? Follow the interest and the benefit (not just the money). The powerful and wealthy, the rulers of the vast majority of human societies, find it in their interest to discourage their subject people from imagining or creating alternative societies that are no longer subject to their domain and no longer contribute toward generating enormous, disproportionate amounts of material wealth for themselves. Ever since human beings began to depart from living in local, indigenous, eco-centered, life-regenerating communities and started creating unsustainable mega-societies like nation states and empires, about 7,000 years ago, the rulers have worked hard (or hired and forced others to work hard) at producing and perpetuating many lies for the purpose of deluding or frightening their subjects into remaining submissive to their systemic power, wealth and control. Over this long span of time, the rulers became very adept at persuading people what to think and what not to think, and with the electronic technologies invented over the last hundred or so years, the subjected general public has been constantly bombarded with such messages. Commercial advertising, mandatory public schooling, peer pressure, parental love, fear of poverty, and the quest for equality, along with many other things, have all been used successfully by the ruling class as mechanisms for keeping people submissive and keeping wealth and power in the hands of a select social minority.
One of the saddest things that I have ever seen is children being taught to censor themselves from asking legitimate, important, and even vital questions, especially the big questions about the often illogical, counterintuitive and clearly unjust societal structure and traditions.
Not only are we told what to think, but also which topics to never think about seriously and which questions are too dangerous to ever ask. One of the saddest things that I have ever seen is children being taught to censor themselves from asking legitimate, important, and even vital questions, especially the big questions about the often illogical, counterintuitive and clearly unjust societal structure and traditions. The topics that the rulers would like to see eliminated from our thoughts and plans the most are those that threaten to end their power, wealth and social control. Thoughts, plans, and especially actions, for creating ideal, utopian societies must therefore be suppressed and eliminated, and the most effective mechanism used for that purpose, so far, has been to convince people that utopian societies can never exist because utopia means “perfect” and we all know that humans are not, have never been, and will never be, perfect. But, it is much harder for the rulers to convince us that we can’t become something much better than we are now, not just individually, but collectively, as a society, and therefore they cannot allow “utopian” to be defined as “better” or “best possible,” as the title and discourse in Thomas More’s book seems to suggest.
The more that subject people are rewarded, praised, honored, and awarded for their submission and service to the rulers and the system, the more difficult it becomes for them to question and resist the status quo. When the status quo systems are completely accepted as at least inevitable (“the only game in town”), if not unquestionable, and people are convinced that any apparent flaws in the system will eventually be corrected by the system, utopian creativity becomes unnecessary, dismissed, and considered a foolish waste of time and energy. Thoughts about reform—improving the system through the allegedly self-correcting mechanisms available within the system—are about as far as people are encouraged to reach in pursuit of social change. But the system, which is really a conjoined political, cultural and economic system, is primarily designed to self-preserve, not self-correct. What the system preserves most is the power of the wealthiest persons in the society, who control or strongly influence the politicians by use of lobbyists, bribery and threats to the politicians’ continued luxurious lifestyles or their actual safety. This happens at all levels of government, but is most structurally effective and most firmly established at the federal level. In the United States (and in other nations, as well to somewhat lesser degrees), the “revolving door” phenomenon, in which congresspersons who leave Congress are then hired by corporations to serve as lobbyists to their former colleagues in government, and sometimes later return to politics in higher public offices (such as presidential cabinet positions), is a prime example of this type of political corruption. A 2005 report by the non-profit consumer rights advocacy organization, Public Citizen, found that between 1998 and 2004, 43% of the congresspersons who left their government positions registered to work as lobbyists. Other reports show that another approximately 25% work as lobbyists without officially registering by becoming corporate “consultants” or lawyers. Besides the lobbying aspect of the system—If you need more evidence of the depth of the systems’ corruption and why it will most likely continue to self-preserve for the perpetuation of the mechanisms causing Earth’s biosphere collapse instead of self-correcting to the substantial degree now necessary to prevent such collapse—do some research and analysis on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” decision and on the “pay to play” system which all U.S. congressperson’s (of both political parties) must go through in order to get significant positions on law-writing committees or gain financial support from their party for their next re-election campaign. I could go on and on about the system’s corruption and its likely trajectory, but this is an essay about ideal paths forward and new possible systems, not so much about dystopia. I will only describe enough here about the current dystopian society and its contribution to the global crises to illuminate the need to abandon it and turn towards “utopian” creativity.
While much has been researched and written about the political and economic elements of the conjoined system, not as much has been dealt with regarding the cultural element, which is as much at the heart of the problem as the other two. One study that deals well with that cultural and ethical element, “The Ethics of Lobbying: Organized Interests, Political Power, and the Common Good”, by the Woodstock Theological Center (Georgetown University Press 2002), provides us with a very telling short quote from a corporate lobbyist they interviewed, who chose to speak anonymously: “I know what my client wants; no one knows what the common good is.” For utopian and alternative society thinkers and creators, it is this issue of the common good (which I expand further, below, to include the common well-being of all Life in Earth, not just humans), which the modern industrial political systems seem to have lost sight of, that matters most. A culture in which personal, individual self-interest, most often manifest in personal material accumulation and consumption, is the greatest concern for the vast majority of people, will consequently produce the types of political systems that we are subject to today. If one is familiar with and understands that type of culture, combined with the fact that getting elected to a political office now requires amounts of money that are inaccessible to the vast majority of aspirants to political office, then it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of politicians are more concerned with securing the financial assistance needed to keep their political power than they are with whatever may be the common good.
While it is true that utopian thinking has taken on all sorts of forms over the centuries—from moderately restructured or reformed societies that closely resemble the societies that their creators criticize or reject, to societies that are only different due to the invention and application of phenomenal new technologies or wonders of human innovation, to those societies which are completely, radically different from the status quo systems and culture that their creators have come to reject and refuse to perpetuate—when I think of the type of utopian societies that are needed today, I think of that latter type, not reformism or techno-fixes. I know that pursuing such a path could meet with much opposition and can be dangerous if our opponents ever think that we could actually succeed at creating enough independent, ideal societies to cause the prevailing system to become abandoned and defunct. Suggestions for abolishing and replacing the system with a new way of living that ends the usual limits on the distribution of power and wealth are discouraged, punished (through various social mechanisms, legal and illegal), and sometimes labeled as “treasonous,” a capital offense, which can provide legal justification for a government to end a person’s life. This has long been the case with empires and nation states, whether capitalist or socialist, so why is it so relevant and urgent to risk going in such a direction now? This is a time like no other before it, in which there has never been a greater need for widespread utopian creative thinking and action. If we carefully examine the likelihood of extreme danger for all life on Earth that would result from continuing with the same social, cultural, technological, political and economic systems, according to all of the best available science to date, it becomes clear that we must create and learn to live within some very different types or ways of social life, in order for life on Earth to continue and to minimize the number of extinctions of species that are already set to soon occur, under the present system and its current trajectory. It is a matter of likely consequences and unacceptable risks, like leaving a bunch of matches and highly flammable materials in a room of unmonitored, naturally adventurous little children—but on a much larger, global scale.
Before most people can seriously consider what follows in the rest of this essay, they probably need some more persuasive reasons why such drastic changes to their customary and comfortable “way of life” are necessary. Such reasons can be found within the scientific case for the futility and/or impossibility of successfully resolving the current and near future biosphere crises through current social, political and economic structures or with the use of any actual or imagined technological “fixes.” That case has already been made, increasingly, by numerous experts, in a growing number of scientific reports and publications, so, rather than repeat all of that here, I will just insert some links to some of the best sources for that information for your reference, examination and further evaluation. It is difficult to summarize the essential root of our predicament in just one or two sentences, but as a sort of hint as to what a thorough investigation would find, I will offer you this “nutshell” illustration: capitalist industrial manufacturers seek the most powerful fuel and engines to run their large-scale, earth-moving, industrial equipment as quickly and efficiently as possible, in order to successfully compete, attain or maintain a competitive edge, and maximize their profits. So far, no electric battery powered machinery comes anywhere close to providing the power that they get from fossil fuels. That includes the heavy equipment used to mine and manufacture so-called “green” technologies. The links and a little more information are in the following endnote: 
Although having a solid grasp on the latest scientific findings on our predicament is essential to determining our most effective response, many social scientists and psychologists say that the real barrier preventing most people from considering the scientific facts regarding the dire circumstances facing biological life on Earth, and the need for radical societal change, is what people are willing to accept and resign themselves to, instead of making such changes. What are people willing to settle for as “good enough?” That question brings us back to the discussion of how people define “good.” If the type of creative thinking that is now required of us does not mean that we have to come up with something “perfect,” will those who now protest that we utopian creativity advocates are “making the perfect the enemy of the good” switch their accusation to “making the best (or the better) the enemy of the good?” If so, I would still have to ask them, “How do you define ‘good’? How would you define a good society?” Can any society that was built on a foundation of colonialism, slavery, the predatory exploitation of all of the material natural world (including other humans), patriarchy, anthropocentrism, racism, sexism, justified greed, and many other life-destructive perspectives and practices actually become a good society through attempts at reform, especially when the people in power oppose and block nearly all necessary substantial reforms? In the history of the United States, the foundational flaws listed above were not just unfortunate, unintended by-products of a basically just and well-intended government, but, in actuality, the necessary elements for achieving its intended purpose: dominion over all of the human and non-human inhabitants of their illicitly-acquired lands and over any other lands that they might eventually take in the future. Has that fundamental intended purpose of the U.S. (and other human empires) disappeared or ever been relinquished?
One reason why transformational reform towards real justice, equality, and regenerative environmental sustainability is continuously prevented from occurring is that the social mechanisms deemed necessary to perpetuate an empire or large nation-state, including formal education, indoctrination (both religious and secular), economic bondage, and social peer pressure (leveraging the human need to belong), are used by the ruling class in such societies to promote patriotism and widespread belief in the righteousness of the nation’s foundation. It is completely understandable that people want to feel good about their ancestors, their society, and their culture, have a sense of innocence about it all, and not be burdened with a sense of guilt over what the vast majority feel is normal and unquestionable. Such widespread beliefs and comfort zones make it even harder for people to admit that their societies are fundamentally flawed. Even when social beliefs about right and wrong change, over the long span of time, and large numbers of people begin to recognize and assess the errors of their nation’s founders, there remains a need for the ruling class and their loyal subjects to either justify or deny those foundational errors. One of many examples of this practice in the U.S. is the attempt to justify the slaveholding practiced by founders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington by referring to them as “simply men of their time,” while denying (or completely unaware of the fact) that 98% of the “men of their time” in the new nation did not hold any of their fellow humans in slavery and the majority of states in the new nation outlawed slavery in their original state constitutions. Another example, used to justify colonialism and the aggressive, often genocidal, separation of Indigenous peoples from their homelands, is the lie that the North American continent was mostly an uninhabited, unused by humans, “virgin wilderness wasteland, ripe for the taking,” at all of the various times and places in which European or Euro-descended people first arrived. For over a century, American academic anthropologists, in service to the ruling class, grossly underestimated the population numbers of Indigenous societies originally in the land now called the U.S., in order to perpetuate that lie. Such institutional social mechanisms stifle and obstruct any imagined or actual significant correctional mechanisms that people believe are built into the system. People who have been effectively taught that their societal system is designed to repair its own flaws (no matter how foundational or essential those “flaws” and outright atrocities are to its existence) through its authorized “proper channels,” that such processes for correction must take lengthy amounts of time (perhaps even generations, for major flaws), and that creating new societies built on better foundations is unnecessary, impossible, and maybe even “treasonous,” tend to accept the common assumption that their society is either “good,” “better than other countries,” or, at least something we can call a “lesser evil.” We have also been effectively conditioned to accept lesser evils in nearly every political election campaign, especially at the national level, and every time that we must transport ourselves somewhere that is too far away to walk or bike to, even when we would prefer not to use fossil fuels or toxically-mined and produced lithium at all. Is a “lesser evil” the same thing as “good?”
Is a society that is so destructive to life that the best rating that it could give itself on environmental sustainability is “lesser evil” actually a dystopia?
Unfortunately, it seems that most subject peoples of modern industrial nations have come to define “good” and “lesser evil” as basically the same thing. Maybe the two-word phrase that most people would use to define the state of our current societies and our assumed-as-necessary daily compromises with evil is “good enough.” To that statement of submissive resignation I just have to ask, “good enough for what?” Good enough to keep a sufficient roof over your head and food on your table, at least for this month? Good enough to put enough gas in your tank so that you can continue to drive to that job of yours that just barely pays you a “living wage?” For those who have been a little more fortunate, a little more submissive, compromising, and “well-adjusted”—and, therefore, better-rewarded—does “good enough” mean “at least I get to have all of these great toys and continue to consume way beyond what I really need?” Good enough to keep you binging and streaming your life away? To those who do not define a “good enough” society based solely on its material benefits to themselves, and think more about the well-being of all members of the society (or, what used to be called the “common weal,” or, “common good”), does a society where 5% of its members own 67% of the wealth have a “good enough” economic system? Is a society that is continuously engaged in illegal wars fought only for the purpose of generating financial profits for the owners of various industries “good enough?” Is a society of human beings whose minds are so twisted by the colonialist concept called “race” that they actually have no idea what a human being really is “good enough?” For those who care about preserving Earth’s natural systems that keep us alive, is a society in which the majority of its citizens are so out of touch with and alienated from the natural world that they do not realize that they need those interconnected natural systems (much more than they “need” money) in order to remain alive “good enough?” When confronted with the painful and repulsive fact that their society’s way of life is actually destroying life on Earth and bringing many species, including their own, rapidly towards extinction, some people reply, in attempted self-defense, that there are other nations which are doing more harm to the natural world than their own country is. Is a society that is so destructive to life that the best rating that it could give itself on environmental sustainability is “lesser evil” actually a dystopia? I think that any society that destroys their natural source of biological life simply by carrying out their normal processes of living, within the laws, customs, and ordered structures or systems of that society, and cannot bring themselves to stop doing so, is a dystopian society. Is living in a dystopian society “good enough?” But, again, let’s not get bogged down with endless examples of social dystopia. The only reason I am writing about dystopia here is to point out the need to move towards new (and some old) utopian, or actually ideal, ways of living. So, let’s proceed now in that direction.
What really is the “normal” way of human life in Earth, over the broad span of human history? The reason that I inserted the image above is to give everybody a sense of what is possible for the human species on this planet, and to de-normalize the ways we have been living for the last 5 to 7 thousand years, or 2.5% of our existence. Before we began to go the wrong way, disrespecting and exceeding the carrying capacity of our ancient ancestral homelands (and/or other people’s homelands, taken through conquest or colonialism), all of our various Indigenous ancestors practiced ways of life that were guided by local ecosystems and all of our interconnected and related fellow living beings. Those were harmonious, regenerative, sustainable, and (though not “perfect”) probably mostly joyful, peaceful, thankful and abundant ways of life. We are still that same species and this is still the same planet, even when we take into account all that has changed, and all the vital knowledge that most of our people lost long ago. We will not know what is possible, regarding a return to at least some aspects of the old normal, until we make our best attempts to do so.
Banner image: The Kogi village and tribal community of Tairona, in northern Colombia.
Part II follows tomorrow.
George Price (descendant of the Assonet band of the Wampanoag tribal nation of Massachusetts) has been living with his family on their five-acre organic, polyculture farm on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana since the summer of 1985. He retired from a 33-year teaching career in 2018, which included teaching Native American Studies, American History, and African American Studies at the University of Montana for 20 years. Since he is no longer working “through the system,” he is devoting the remainder of his life to Earth/Water protecting, organic farming, food sovereignty, constructive communicating, and replacing industrial technophile capitalism with local, eco-harmonious, EarthLife-centric, cooperative, alternative communities.
 Beck, Peggy V., and Anna Lee Walters, The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life, Navajo Community College Press, Tsaile, Arizona, 1992. Clark, Ella E., Indian Legends From the Northern Rockies, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1966, 1977.
 The recent COP 26 debacle, which intentionally excluded participation by many Indigenous and other heavily-impacted peoples from the global south, and the infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Congress that same week provided us with fresh examples of that futility, which many of us have long realized is the case.
 To be clear and fair, the word, “perfect,” in 16th century English, usually meant “complete” or “absolute,” although in certain contexts could be interpreted as “flawless” or something more like the way we define “perfect” today.
 Raphael Hythlodaye, Thomas More’s fictional friend who tells the story of his time in Utopia, is said to have gone there with Amerigo (a.k.a., “Alberico”) Vespucci. More’s Utopia: The English Translation thereof by Raphe Robynson, printed from the second edition, 1556, page viii.
 As you may already know, More did eventually serve Henry VIII as a counselor, until Henry had him beheaded for refusing to publicly agree with him on the topic of divorce and remarriage.
 See, Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman, eds., Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies, London, Pluto Press, 2011.
More’s Utopia: The English Translation thereof by Raphe Robynson, printed from the second edition, 1556, page 171. One of the minor characters in the book writes a poem speaking on behalf of the nation of Utopia personified, saying, “Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie.”
 Perhaps the only way that the politicians of today would prioritize the needs of the people whom they allegedly represent, over the will of the corporations who lobby them, would be if the people could form their own “Lobby for the Common Good” and that lobby was funded well enough to surpass the enormous dollar amounts in bribery of all of the corporate lobbyists combined. But, increased corruption of the electoral process (gerrymandering, artificially-constructed “gridlock” through the invincible two-party system, “divide and conquer,” etc.) is also making the people’s voice and will less relevant to the concerns of politicians.
 The first scholar to clearly demonstrate the inadequacies of so-called “100% green energy” technologies for replacing fossil fuel energy at present scale (and much less adequate at future expanded scales) was Ozzie Zehner, an engineering professor at UC Berkeley, in his excellent 2012 book, Green Illusions: the dirty secrets of clean energy and the future of environmentalism, (University of Nebraska Press). In their 2021 book, Bright Green Lies:How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert echoed much of what Zehner had previously shown while updating the case and adding many more examples and reasons why the so-called green technologies are not nearly green enough to resolve our dire predicament, taking into account all of the fossil fuel energy, mining pollution, and CO2 emissions required to manufacture, transport, install and maintain those “green” technologies at the scale needed to continue with the industrial capitalist high-tech consumer societies. In their 2011 book, TechNo-fix : why technology won’t save us or the environment, Michael Huesemann and Joyce Huesemann describe in great detail the shortcomings and pitfalls of human technological “ingenuity,” including environmental pollution, the many harmful by-products and unintended consequences of many technologies, and the need to fix harm done by many techno fixes. The authors make a very strong argument against the notion that technology and “human innovation” can fix any problem or predicament. A very informative and well-researched study published by three science journalists earlier this year (2021) on exactly what it would take to run the current and growing industrial technological U.S. economy by switching from fossil fuel energy to solar and wind power apparently led to conclusions that were not nearly as rosy or optimistic as the authors had hoped for. The Race to Zero: can America reach net-zero emissions by 2050?, by Oliver Milman, Alvin Chang and Rashida Kamal, The Guardian, March 15, 2021, delivers some startling facts about how much environmentally degrading infrastructure that feat would require, including the need to cover 10% of the surface area of the continental U.S. with solar and wind farms, just to supply the electricity, not to mention all of the other energy productions now done using fossil fuels. We would also need “enough new transmission lines to wrap around Earth 19 times.” That article can be read at this link: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/15/race-to-zero-america-emissions-climate-crisis?utm_term=75ea2afeff5d052feec5683cc23a9e8f&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayUS&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=GTUS_email&fbclid=IwAR2Y1IXwzzEzviZY_u8hJ6gcW0ffBiIucDHfbRkjNzDAr5v0mH2vRNGl2oE
Another good, recent scientific article about the inadequacy of “green energy” technologies for resolving our biosphere crises is found here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-delusion-of-infinite-economic-growth/ Earth system scientists are experts at the big picture of our planet’s condition and trajectory of changes over the broad span of time. One of the best (at least most clearly explained, although there was a little wifi connection fuzziness) presentations on the reality of Earth system collapse was made in an interview with Earth system scientist, Joe Brewer, back in December of 2020. Here is the link for that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2L_JD2nxbE OK, that’s enough for one footnote—more, later. Of course, all of these cited items contain references to further sources of good information.
 Global CO2 emissions went down briefly, from March to May of 2020, during the big international shutdown of commercial and industrial activity at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, but have gone back up again continuously since then. Stats on emissions for 2021 should be published in February or March of 2022.
 See, Nash, Gary B., The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, New York, Penguin Press, 2005, and Lynd, Staughton, Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: Ten Essays, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill,1967.
 See, Thornton, Russell, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1987. Also, Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
 The time frame for the starting point of homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humans in their present form, ranges from 150,000 to 400,000 years ago, depending upon whom you ask. The longer ago that starting point was, the smaller the percentage of our existence that has been spent in unsustainable, life-destructive societies.
 All humans have ancestors who were, at some point in the past, indigenous to a particular place.
 In contrast to the negative, racist portrayals of all Indigenous peoples made by the ruling class colonialists.
Editor’s note: Under the current system, Economies of Scale create Jevons Paradox. “This is crucial: Increased energy efficiency not only doesn’t generally reduce demand, but instead increases it. This is called the “rebound effect,” and we see it all the time.” – Bright Green Lies p. 213 Our power over nature is only an illusion. Nature has no mercy.
By Richard Heinberg
Climate change is often incorrectly described as an isolated pollution issue. In this flawed framing, humanity has simply made a mistake in its choice of energy sources; the solution entails switching sources and building enough carbon-sucking machines to clear the atmosphere of polluting CO2. Only the political power of the fossil fuel companies prevents us from adopting this solution and ending our existential environmental crisis.
But techno-fixes (that is, technological solutions that circumvent the need for personal or cultural change) aren’t working so far, and likely won’t work in the future. That’s because fossil fuels will be difficult to replace, and energy usage is central to our collective economic power.
In other words, power is the key to solving climate change—but not necessarily in the way that many pundits claim. Solutions will not come just from defeating fossil fuel interests and empowering green entrepreneurs; real climate progress will require the willingness of large swathes of the populace, especially in wealthy countries, to forgo forms of power they currently enjoy: comfort and convenience, the ability to travel far and fast, and the option to easily obtain a wide range of consumer products whose manufacture entails large inputs of energy and natural resources.
This is not a feel-good message, but the longer we postpone grappling with power in this larger sense, the less successful we’re likely to be in coming to terms with the climate threat.
Why can there be no climate techno-fix? There are two routes to this conclusion. The first one meanders through the history of humans on Earth, revealing how each new technological or social innovation empowered some people over others, while often imposing a long-term environmental cost. The adoption of agriculture was a milestone on this path: it enabled more people to subsist in any given area, and it led to cities, kings, and slavery; further, in many places, plowing tended to deplete or ruin topsoil, and city-dwellers cut down nearby forests, leading to eventual societal collapse.
But the real show-stopper came much more recently. The adoption of fossil fuels gave humans the biggest jolt of empowerment ever: in just the last two centuries, our global population has grown eight-fold, and so has per capita energy consumption. Our modern way of life—with cars, planes, supermarkets, tractors, trucks, electricity grids, and internet shopping—is the result.
Climate change is the shadow of this recent cavalcade of industriousness, since it results from the burning of fossil fuels, the main enablers of modern civilization. Nevertheless, rapidly increasing population and consumption levels are inherently unsustainable and are bringing about catastrophic environmental impacts on their own, even if we disregard the effects of carbon emissions. The accelerating depletion of resources, increasing loads of chemical pollution, and the hastening loss of wild nature are trends leading us toward ecological collapse, with economic and social collapse no doubt trailing close behind. Ditching fossil fuels will turn these trends around only if we also deal with the issues of population and consumption.
That’s the big picture. However, the quest for a climate techno-fix also fails on its own terms—that is, as a painless means of averting climate change while maintaining our current industrial economy and way of life. The rest of this essay deals with this second trail of evidence and logic, which requires a more detailed presentation. So: buckle up. Here we go.
Why Solar Panels Won’t Save Consumerism
Most energy analysts regard solar and wind as the best candidates to substitute for fossil fuels in electrical power generation (since nuclear is too expensive and too risky, and would require too much time for build-out; and hydro is capacity constrained). But these “renewables” are not without challenges. While sunlight and wind are themselves renewable, the technologies we use to capture them aren’t: they’re constructed of non-renewable materials like steel, silicon, concrete, and rare earth minerals, all of which require energy for mining, transport, and transformation. These materials are also depleting, and many will be difficult or impossible to recycle.
Sunlight and wind are intermittent: we cannot control when the sun will shine or the wind will blow. Therefore, to ensure constant availability of power, these sources require some combination of four strategies:
Energy storage (e.g., with batteries) is useful to balance out day-to-day intermittency, but nearly useless when it comes to seasonal intermittency; also, storing energy costs energy and money.
Source redundancy (building far more generation capacity than will actually be needed on “good” days, and then connecting far-flung solar and wind farms by way of massive super-grids), is a better solution for seasonal intermittency, but requires substantial infrastructure investment.
Excess electricity generated at times of peak production can be used to make synthetic fuels (such as hydrogen, ammonia, or methanol), perhaps using carbon captured from the atmosphere, as a way of storing energy; however, making large amounts of such fuels will again require substantial infrastructure investment, and the process is inherently inefficient.
Demand management (using electricity when it’s available, and curtailing usage when it isn’t) is the cheapest way of dealing with intermittency, but it often implies behavioral change or economic sacrifice.
Today the world uses only about 20 percent of its final energy in the form of electricity. The other 80 percent of energy is used in the forms of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. A transition away from fossil fuels will entail the electrification of much of that other 80 percent of energy usage, which includes most transportation and key industrial processes. However, many uses of energy, such as aviation and the making of cement for concrete, will be difficult or especially costly to electrify. In principle, the electrification conundrum could be overcome by powering aviation and high-heat industrial processes with synfuels. However, doing this at scale would require a massive infrastructure of pipelines, storage tanks, carbon capture devices, and chemical synthesis plants that would essentially replicate much of our current natural gas and oil supply system.
Machine-based carbon removal and sequestration methods work in the laboratory, but would need staggering levels of investment in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale, and it’s unclear who would pay for them. These methods also use a lot of energy, and, when full lifecycle emissions are calculated, it appears that more emissions are often generated than are captured. The best carbon capture-and-sequestration responses appear instead to consist of various methods of ecosystem restoration and soil regeneration. These strategies would also reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions. But they would require a near-complete rethinking of food systems and land management.
Not long ago I collaborated with a colleague, David Fridley, of the Energy Analysis Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to look closely at what a full transition to a solar-wind economy would mean (our efforts resulted in the book Our Renewable Future). We concluded that it will constitute an enormous job, requiring tens of trillions of dollars in investment. In fact, the task may be next to impossible—if we attempt to keep the overall level of societal energy use the same, or expand it to fuel further economic growth. David and I concluded:
We citizens of industrialized nations will have to change our consumption patterns. We will have to use less overall and adapt our use of energy to times and processes that take advantage of intermittent abundance. Mobility will suffer, so we will have to localize aspects of production and consumption. And we may ultimately forgo some things altogether. If some new processes (e.g., solar or hydrogen-sourced chemical plants) are too expensive, they simply won’t happen. Our growth-based, globalized, consumption-oriented economy will require significant overhaul.
The essence of the problem with a climate techno-fix is this: nearly everything we need to do to solve global warming (including building new low-emissions electrical generation capacity, and electrifying energy usage) requires energy and money. But society is already using all the energy and money it can muster in order to do the things that society wants and needs to do (extract resources, manufacture products, transport people and materials, provide health care and education, and so on). If we take energy and money away from those activities in order to fund a rapid energy transition on an unprecedented scale, then the economy will contract, people will be thrown out of work, and many folks will be miserable. On the other hand, if we keep doing all those things at the current scale while also rapidly building a massive alternative infrastructure of solar panels, wind turbines, battery banks, super grids, electric cars and trucks, electrified industrial equipment, and synthetic fuel factories, the result will be a big pulse of energy usage that will significantly increase carbon emissions over the short term (10 to 20 years), since the great majority of the energy currently available for the project must be derived from fossil fuels.
It takes energy to make solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, and new generations of industrial equipment of all kinds. For a car with an internal combustion engine (ICE), 10 percent of lifetime energy usage occurs in the manufacturing stage. For an electric car, roughly 40 percent of energy usage occurs in manufacturing, and emissions during this stage are 15 percent greater than for an ICE car (over the entire lifetime of the e-car, emissions are about half those of the gasoline guzzler). With solar panels and wind turbines, energy inputs and carbon emissions are similarly front-loaded to the manufacturing phase; energy output and emissions reduction (from offsetting other electricity generation) come later. Replacing a very high percentage of our industrial infrastructure and equipment quickly would therefore entail a historically large burst of energy usage and carbon emissions. By undertaking a rapid energy transition, while also maintaining or even expanding current levels of energy usage for the “normal” purpose of economic growth, we would be defeating our goal of reducing emissions now—even though we would be working toward the goal of reducing emissions later.
Many folks nurture the happy illusion that we can do it all—continue to grow the economy while also funding the energy transition—by assuming that the problem is only money (if we find a way to pay for it, then the transition can be undertaken with no sacrifice). This illusion can be maintained only by refusing to acknowledge the stubborn fact that all activity, including building alternative energy generators and carbon capture machinery, requires energy.
The only way out of the dilemma arising from the energy and emissions cost of the transition is to reduce substantially the amount of energy we are using for “normal” economic purposes—for resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, heating, cooling, and industrial processes—both so that we can use that energy for the transition (building solar panels and electric vehicles), and so that we won’t have to build as much new infrastructure. Increased energy efficiency can help reduce energy usage without giving up energy services, but many machines (LED lights, electric motors) and industrial processes are already highly efficient, and further large efficiency gains in those areas are unlikely. We would achieve an efficiency boost by substituting direct electricity generators (solar and wind) for inherently inefficient heat-to-electricity generators (natural gas and coal power plants); but we would also be introducing new inefficiencies into the system via battery-based electricity storage and hydrogen or synfuels production. In the end, the conclusion is inescapable: actual reductions in energy services would be required in order to transition away from fossil fuels without creating a significant short-term burst of emissions. Some energy and climate analysts other than David Fridley and myself—such as Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester—have reached this same conclusion independently.
Energy is inextricably related to power. Thus, if society voluntarily reduces its energy usage by a significant amount in order to minimize climate impacts, large numbers of people will likely experience this as giving up power in some form—whether physical, social, or economic.
It can’t be emphasized too much: energy is essential to all economic activity. An economy can grow continuously only by employing more energy (unless energy efficiency can be increased substantially, and further gains in efficiency can continue to be realized in each succeeding year—a near-impossibility over the long run, since investments in making processes more efficient typically see diminishing returns over time). World leaders demand more economic growth in order to fend off unemployment and other social ills. Thus, in effect, everyone is counting on having more energy in the future, not less.
A few well-meaning analysts and pundits try to avoid the climate-energy-economy dilemma by creating scenarios in which renewable energy saves the day simply by becoming dramatically cheaper than energy from fossil fuels; or by ignoring the real costs of dealing with energy intermittency in solar and wind power generation. Some argue that we have to fight climate change by becoming even more powerful than we already are—by geoengineering the atmosphere and oceans and thus taking full control of the planet, thereby acting like gods. And some business and political leaders simply deny that climate change is a problem; therefore, no action is required. I would argue that all of these people are deluding themselves and others.
Do the Right Thing—Even if It’s Hard
Problems ignored usually don’t go away. And not all problems can be solved without sacrifice. If minimizing climate change really does require substantially reducing world energy usage, then policy makers should be discussing how to do this fairly and with as little negative impact as possible. The longer we delay that discussion, the fewer palatable options will be left.
The stakes could hardly be higher. If emissions continue, the result will be the failure of ecosystems, massive impacts on economies, widespread human misery and migration, and unpredictable disruptions to political systems. The return of famine as a familiar feature of human existence is a very real likelihood.
It’s easy to see why people would wish to avoid giving up social, political, economic, and physical power to the degree that’s necessary in order to deal with climate change. Fighting entrenched power is a contentious activity, often a dangerous one. People with power don’t like threats to it, and they often fight back.
That’s why environmentalists like to choose their battles. The fossil fuel industry is wealthy and formidable, but at least it’s an enemy that’s easy to identify, and a lot of people already feel critical of the oil and gas companies for a variety of reasons (gasoline is too expensive, oil pipelines cause pollution, and so on).
But not all roadblocks to climate solutions are attributable to the oil companies. The rest of us are also implicated, though to greatly varying degrees depending on where we live and how much we consume. Our whole modern consumerist way of life, the essence of our economic system, is at fault. Unless we’re willing to give up some of our power over nature—our power to extract and transform resources and deliver the goods that we have come to rely on—then we’re destined to careen from one disaster to the next until our worst fears are realized.
It’s understandable why most environmentalists frame global warming the way they do. It makes solutions seem easier to achieve. But if we’re just soothing ourselves while failing to actually stave off disaster, or even to understand our problems properly, what’s the point?
The only real long-range solution to climate change centers on reining in human physical, social, and economic power dramatically, but in ways that preserve human dignity, autonomy, and solidarity. That’s more daunting than any techno-fix. But this route has the singular advantage that, if we follow it intelligently and persistently, we will address a gamut of social and environmental problems at once. In the end, it’s the only path to a better, safer future.
 Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for 100 Percent Clean Energy. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2016. Full text available at www.ourrenewablefuture.org. Accessed September 2, 2020.
 Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. For example, Tim Morgan (former head of research at Tullett Prebon) argues that it is surplus energy—the energy left over once energy required for energy-producing activities—that has driven economic expansion, and that a transition to renewables will necessarily result in declining surplus energy (see Tim Morgan, Surplus Energy Economics website https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/ Accessed September 2, 2020.) In a recent paper, Carey King of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, shows the inadequacy of current growth-based economic modeling of the renewable energy transition and proposes a new model that incorporates data-derived relationships between energy use, resource extraction, and economic growth. His conclusion is that the renewable energy transition will entail trade-offs with consumption, population, and wages; these trade-offs will depend on the path taken (whether high or low rate of investment). Carey King, “An Integrated Biophysical and Economic Modeling Framework for Long-Term Sustainability Analysis: The HARMONY Model.” Ecological Economics, Vol. 169, March 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106464 Accessed September 2, 2020.
 Heinberg and Fridley, Our Renewable Future, p. 140
Planet of the Humans, an outstanding documentary by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, drew a lot of attention when it was originally published on YouTube for free. But a coordinated censorship campaign lead to it being taken down from YouTube where it had been viewed 8.3 million times.
“Day 4: Still banned. Our YouTube channel still black. In the United States of America. The public now PROHIBITED from watching our film “Planet of the Humans” because it calls out the eco-industrial complex for collaborating with Wall Street and contributing to us losing the battle against the climate catastrophe. As the film points out, with sadness, some of our environmental leaders and groups have hopped into bed with Bloomberg, GoldmanSachs, numerous hedge funds, even the Koch Bros have found a way to game the system— and they don’t want you to know that. They and the people they fund are behind this censorship. We showed their failure and collusion, they didn’t like us for doing that, so instead of having the debate with us out in the open, they chose the route of slandering the film — and now their attempt at the suppression of our free speech. “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Fascism is given life when “liberals” employ authoritarian tactics. Or sit back and say nothing. Who will speak up against blocking the public from seeing a movie that a group of “green capitalists” don’t want you to see? Where is the Academy? Where is the International Documentary Association? If you leave us standing alone, your film may be next. What is pictured above could be the darkened screen of your next movie. Do we not all know the time we are living in? All this energy spent trying to save our film when we should be saving the planet — but the green capitalists have once again provided a distraction so that no one will see what they’re really up to, so that no one will call them out for thinking we’re going to end the climate crisis by embracing or negotiating with capitalism. We call BS to that — and that is why our film has vanished. But not for long. We will not be silenced. We, and hundreds of millions of others, are the true environmental movement — because we know the billionaires are not our friends.”
Now the movie is up on YouTube again
Michael Moore presents Planet of the Humans, a documentary that dares to say what no one else will — that we are losing the battle to stop climate change on planet earth because we are following leaders who have taken us down the wrong road — selling out the green movement to wealthy interests and corporate America. This film is the wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement’s answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids. It’s too little, too late.
Removed from the debate is the only thing that MIGHT save us: getting a grip on our out-of-control human presence and consumption. Why is this not THE issue? Because that would be bad for profits, bad for business. Have we environmentalists fallen for illusions, “green” illusions, that are anything but green, because we’re scared that this is the end—and we’ve pinned all our hopes on biomass, wind turbines, and electric cars? No amount of batteries are going to save us, warns director Jeff Gibbs (lifelong environmentalist and co-producer of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine“). This urgent, must-see movie, a full-frontal assault on our sacred cows, is guaranteed to generate anger, debate, and, hopefully, a willingness to see our survival in a new way—before it’s too late. https://planetofthehumans.com/
From Julia Barnes, the award-winning director of Sea of Life, Bright Green Lies investigates the change in focus of the mainstream environmental movement, from its original concern with protecting nature, to its current obsession with powering an unsustainable way of life. The film exposes the lies and fantastical thinking behind the notion that solar, wind, hydro, biomass, or green consumerism will save the planet. Tackling the most pressing issues of our time will require us to look beyond the mainstream technological solutions and ask deeper questions about what needs to change.