Dancing on Thin Ice

The following is a transcript from Bioneers Co-Founder & CEO Kenny Ausubel’s presentation at Bioneers 2022.

“What exactly does Jeff Bezos want? What’s his endgame?”

Reporter Franklin Foer spent months canvassing a wide swathe, and he concluded that the ultimate goal of this master of the universe is not “dominion over the planet.”  

In 1982, Bezos had unveiled his grand vision in his high school valedictorian speech: One day, millions of earthlings would migrate to space colonies. Franklin Foer concludes this: “What worries Bezos is that, in the coming generations, the planet’s growing energy demands will outstrip its limited supply.” Bezos says the danger “is not necessarily extinction. We will have to stop growing, which I think is a very bad future.”

In other words, the space cowboy plutocrat’s highest value is unlimited growth. Given that nature is built on limits, it’s both a fool’s errand and a pathology. There’s an analog in the physical-biological world. It’s called cancer. It’s the same design as the pathological economic system that now threatens to make Earth a homeless planet.

Kenny Ausubel

When engineers prototype a machine, they run it at high speed and high stress to see what blows out – to find the flaws. These days, as Bob Dylan put it, “everything is broken.” What feels like a permanent five-alarm emergency is a civilizational stress test. Our institutions are woefully not built to manage the scale, scope, and complexity of the wicked problems that bedevil us. In most cases, they’re causing the crises. The flaw is the design itself. 

As the renowned green architect William McDonough said here at Bioneers 30 years ago, it’s not surprising that we’re surrounded by tragedy because today’s societal design is a “strategy of tragedy.” McDonough asked this: If design is the signal of human intention, then what is our intention? It’s not a matter of growth versus no growth. The question is: What do we want to grow? 

So what are we growing now? It’s sort of an all-of-the-above menu. Climate collapse. Mass extinction. Plague. Obscene wealth for the few and immiseration for the many. Authoritarianism. War. Civil War. Neo-Fascism. White supremacy. Misogyny. Othering. Young people bereft of a future on an increasingly uninhabitable Earth. And what’s the intention? The Seneca historian John Mohawk summed it up: “Stripped to essentials, the story of civilizations is a record of organized violence in pursuit of plunder, and for the purpose of defense against aggression by rival powers. Commerce and warfare, or the threat of armed violence, would become the founding partnership in the production of modernity.”

Over the past 3,400 years, human beings have been entirely at peace for an estimated 268 years, about 8 percent of recorded history. Since July 4, 1776, the US has been at war for over 93% of its existence. Clearly, for starters, we want to grow peace. That requires that we also grow justice. But the burdens of history are heavy indeed.

The seminal 17th-century Enlightenment political philosopher John Locke developed the theory of “possessive individualism.” It centered on the acquisition of money and the self-interest of the individual. The acquisition of money to make more money was to power the engine of capitalism. Author Kurt Andersen sums up the contemporary endgame of possessive individualism: “Everybody for themselves, everything’s for sale, greed is good, the rich get richer, buyer beware, unfairness can’t be helped, nothing but thoughts and prayers for the losers.”

The intention is profit and power. The design is the objectification, commodification, and financialization of everything. It’s all about the Benjamins. It’s hard to say if it’s the banality of evil, or the evil of banality. Either way, the consequence is kakistocracy – rule by the worst. We could be here doom-scrolling the rap sheet of corporate crimes against nature and humanity for weeks, but it’s the system that’s the crime. 

This is the moment of radical transformation. As our misbegotten, archaic institutions and structures continue to crumble, it opens up the space for authentic metamorphosis. To paraphrase Carl Jung, there’s a “changing of the gods,” a reset of civilization’s basic values, principles, and symbols. Something is dying, and something is being born. The outcome is deeply uncertain. This is the vortex moment to imprint new intentions and new designs. In many cases, solutions abound, and they’re making headway even against daunting odds.

For example, in reality, only about 90 corporations known as the carbon majors have been responsible for two-thirds of carbon emissions since 1751. Over half of those emissions have occurred since 1988 – after they already knew that burning carbon would poach the planet. They’re doubling down again in the wake of the most catastrophically successful disinformation campaign in history.

An axis of autocratic petrostates holds the world hostage. Petrodollars fuel Putin’s monstrous war in Ukraine. Under cover of war, the carbon majors are hustling to lock in more fossil infrastructure for decades to come. Or, the world does a 180 onto a regenerative path. We know true energy independence means getting off fossil fuels – in fast forward. That’s the fork in the road we’re at. It’s practically screaming at us. 

As Bill McKibben brilliantly observed, “The sun burns, so we don’t need to.”

In December 2021, a landmark Stanford report found that we have 95% of the technology required to produce 100% of America’s power needs from renewable energy by 2035, while keeping the electric grid secure and reliable. Solar and wind are now the cheapest bulk power sources in 91% of the world, and they will generate 90% of new power in coming years. 

A recent study from Oxford University finds that a “decisive transition” to renewable energy would save $26 trillion in energy costs in coming years. 

If we move quickly, we could still meet the goal to keep warming to 1.5 degrees celsius. But that’s a big gnarly “if.” Climate change represents the worst failure of political leadership in history. In reality, the energy sector has shriveled to the smallest component of the S&P 500 Index. Each of the five largest tech companies is bigger than the 76 top energy companies combined. If we had free markets, the industry would be in hospice.

But as the fossil fuel regime is dying, a bright shiny new profitable future shimmers in a new asset class called NACs, or Natural Asset Companies. It’s the spawn of the New York Stock Exchange, along with a new outfit called the Intrinsic Exchange Group, and Blackrock – the world’s biggest asset manager at $9.5 trillion dollars. That’s more than the GDP of every nation except the US and China.

They propose to “transform our economy to one that is more equitable, resilient and sustainable.” Guess how? By claiming rights of ownership and management of nature’s ecoservices – the very foundation of life. Truthfully though, ecoservices are priceless, and they own us. That’s exactly why the Rights of Nature movement is growing so rapidly. It flips the paradigm from nature as property to nature as rights-bearing, on whose behalf people can stand. 

By 2021, rights of nature laws were on the books in 17 countries, from the local to the national, including over three dozen communities in the US. Rights of nature governance are spreading steadily among US tribes and global Indigenous populations, where an estimated 80% of remaining biodiversity resides. May we grow Rights for Nature, and enforce them, NAC’s be damned.

Big Tech is the third kakistocracy golem under siege after Big Oil and Big Bucks. The advent of surveillance capitalism and social media has coincided with the full-blown atomization of societies and the shredding of community. Numerous studies show that social media amplify political polarization, foment populism – especially right-wing populism, and metastasize misinformation. Steve Bannon’s famed media strategy says it all: “Flood the zone with shit.” World War III is here. It’s a disinformation war, and it’s making Big Tech gobs of dough. 

Which is why the European Union is poised to do what has seemed almost unimaginable in these Disunited States of America: Rein in Big Tech for real. After first passing truly landmark laws to protect data and privacy, the EU is now going after the algorithmic ghosts in the machine. It will directly challenge Big Tech’s anti-competitive monopolistic practices. It will audit the companies for systemic risks, including divisive, hate-spewing virality, and corrosive effects on elections. 

The legislation has teeth, namely penalties ranging from six to twenty percent of the companies’ global revenues. That’s real money. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Meta have combined annual revenues of $6.4 trillion dollars. And what Europe does often becomes the global standard. May it grow, here, there and everywhere.

But in this traumatic passage we’re making through the valley of the shadows, it can be hard not to despair. The disorienting blur of collapse and strife can make it hard to remember the epic tide of progressive change of the past 15 or so years. Social movements have surged to challenge the Death Star and lay down new intentions and new designs. 

We’ve seen young people rise up all over the world and drive almost every major progressive movement. For a vast majority of young people, climate action is the defining issue. Their resistance will only grow more fierce and non-negotiable. We’ve seen Black Lives Matter become the biggest grassroots movement in American history. It has sparked a national awakening that went global. In 2015, there were four times as many protests as during the height of the civil rights movement in 1965. 

Despite the raging pandemic, protests occurred for months on end in every state in the country, including in many predominantly white communities. Racist statues have been taken down all over the nation. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag. Famous sports figures have bravely hacked the spectacle. Teams have been forced to retire their racist mascots. In 2020, six of the top 10 best-selling books were on the topic of race. Interracial marriage is at an all-time high. We’ve seen the largest surge in Indigenous activism in a hundred years, from Standing Rock to “land back” and treaty rights movements. In Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled that half the state belongs to the Muskogee Creek Nation. We’ve seen massive protests in favor of immigration rights. DACA became settled law. 

As the author Isabel Wilkerson said, “This is a wakeup call. This is a karmic moment. It’s as if the universe is calling upon us to wake up from our amnesia in order to figure out a way to reconcile our history.”

We’ve seen an extraordinary revival of the women’s rights movement. The 2017 Women’s March in DC was the biggest demonstration in the Capital in US history. We’ve seen the birth and global spread of the #MeToo movement. Record numbers of women have run and won office, though still far too few. As the Supremes prepare to abort Roe v. Wade, buckle up for the backlash of all time. We’ve seen the legalization of same-sex marriage in 30 countries, and major advances in gay and transgender rights. In 2020, over 574 LGBTQ political candidates ran for office in the US. We’ve seen the Occupy movement catalyze a global awakening to the outrage of plutocracy. We’re witnessing the Great Resignation as workers reject lousy jobs and conditions. There’s a renaissance of unions. 

Since 2012, there have been 92 strikes by 672,000 teachers in 21 states – with almost half the strikes illegal in those states. The Fight For $15 became the largest-ever US strike of underpaid workers. India was rocked by the biggest strike in world history, with 200 million workers and farmers rising up.

These movements will only grow in size and intensity as system crash keeps degrading our lives and the biosphere. We live with a gaping democracy deficit – a seismic rift between what majorities want and what elected officials and governments do. Why? Studies show that policymakers respond almost exclusively to the irreconcilable preferences of the one percent, which are lower taxes for the rich, deregulation, abolishing the estate tax, and privatizing or abolishing Social Security and Medicare. That’s why the current reactionary backlash is so virulent. Leading the US counter-revolution is the Republican Party. It’s now a straight-up authoritarian movement, to the right of even Germany’s extreme white nationalist, neo-fascist AFD party. 

As flawed as it already is, US democracy is on the line against the ongoing coup d’état by an extreme minority party. Its policies are so wildly unpopular that it won’t even admit what they are. It can only win elections by suppressing the vote, rigging election systems, packing courts, and mainlining poison into the national bloodstream. 

It’s Jim Crow for everyone, and it’s Jane Crow for women as the GOP – the Grand Old Patriarchy – slouches toward Gilead. As Peter Beinart points out: “Besides their hostility to liberal democracy, the right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing: They all want to subordinate women.”

This is the crucible. This ain’t no foolin’ around. 

Cultural historian Richard Tarnas sees it this way: “It’s exactly such times that can bring forth the moral courage and deep insight with which we can confront great dangers and powerful forces to transform a world in crisis.” In this head-spinning churn of radical uncertainty, we’re playing with a deck of jokers. We can’t know which way things may break at any moment or what windows may suddenly open or close. 

Professor john a. powell sees it this way: “It’s always important to realize that we’re living in several stories at once. We’re living in an unsettled time. Things don’t happen linearly. Sometimes you’re going along, and then it just leaps. We can’t always know when it’s going to pop open, but we can keep doing the work. We can be smart about it. We can be compassionate about it. Then if we’re lucky, things will pop open.” It’s now about building power. It’s about recognizing that all the authentic movements for a livable planet and justice are one movement at heart – a revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart. We can prevail, but only by standing in solidarity with one another.

In 1520,  the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes was hastily preparing to flee the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan to escape the bloody Indigenous rebellion. The island city in the middle of Lake Texcoco was connected to the mainland by only four causeways. He ordered his troops to hoist as much gold as they could carry away. Many fleeing Spanish soldiers drowned under the weight of gold.

That is the question today. As a civilization, will we drown under the weight of gold? Or will we choose the living treasure of life itself and make peace with our home and each other?

Keep the faith. 

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