Dung Beetle Medicine

The following is a speech written and delivered by Bioneers Co-Founder Kenny Ausubel at the 2018 Bioneers Conference. View the full keynote video here.

View more keynotes, transcripts, and more from the 2018 Bioneers Conference.

Recently I happened across a fading old post-it tacked in an obscure corner of my office. It’s a cartoon of two beetles. One is saying to the other: “Of course we put up with a lot of shit. We’re dung beetles.”

That’s kind of what life is feeling like these days, isn’t it? We’re charged with cleaning out the stables of a misbegotten, decaying civilization — composting it into fertility — and replanting it with new growth. This is a transformative and traumatic moment — a time of rise and demise. We’re in the maelstrom. How we navigate the pathways forward will set the course for decades and centuries to come.

Perhaps it took a breakdown this breathtakingly extreme to reveal the democracy theme park for what it is, and to mobilize enough people to actually change the system devouring people and planet. In this psychotic episode of politics gone feral, we’re grappling with an illegitimate regime. It lost the popular vote. It seized power by exploiting an electoral reality distortion field nakedly corrupted by voter suppression, gerrymandering and an anti-democratic electoral college.

It has been doubly overwhelmed by a disinformation mass media machine and Russian black ops and cyberwar. The democracy theme park is also a Potemkin Village, and Putin’s a Republican.

To be clear, I’m a registered independent. But with that said, I have to agree with Noam Chomsky that the Republican Party is “the most dangerous organization in human history.”

Climate change denial. Environmental mass murder. A war on women. A strategy of stoking racial and ethnic hatreds and white nationalism. Refugee children ripped from parents and caged in internment camps.

Raw power brandished to stack the Supreme Court with a hard-core party partisan, corporate hack, accused sexual assaulter and human shield for executive immunity. It’s government by gangsters and warlords, aligning globally with authoritarian regimes while erecting a Banana Republic here at home.

The Banana Republicans are pedal to the metal dragging us full-throttle into the abyss — right when time is of the essence to floor it in the opposite direction. The US republic is ostensibly based on the “consent of the governed.” I revoke my consent. How about you?

As Michelle Alexander wrote, “We are not the resistance. A new nation is being born. Trump is the one who’s fighting it. The regime is radically out of step with the ground truth of American culture and the arc of today’s diverse, interdependent world. They’re like the Japanese soldiers in World War II still fighting on an island who didn’t yet know the war was over. As Frederick Nietzche observed, “All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the heart of humanity.”

As Naomi Klein sees it, “The reason the mask has fallen off, and we are now witnessing undisguised corporate rule is not because these corporations felt all-powerful: it’s because they were panicked. Our movements are starting to win. Rather than risk the possibility of further progress, after decades of privatizing the state in bits and pieces, they decided to just go for the government itself. It’s a corporate takeover.”

But make no mistake: Trump is just a babbling hood ornament on the Hummer of a plutocracy gone off-road. The 2008 financial crash outraged the public and stoked serious talk of nationalizing banks. It spawned the Occupy movement, the fight for $15, a surging fossil fuel divestment movement, and mass social movements all over the world committed to toppling political corruption, social injustices, and austerity schemes that further concentrate wealth and distribute poverty. The imperative now is to convert these movements into systemic change.

At its core, this maelstrom is a literal “male-strom”: the death throes a patriarchy hell-bent on retaining its power. Peak toxic masculinity is a distress signal: It’s on the run.

In the US, for the first time, women comprise a majority in the workforce. Of the fifteen job categories projected to grow in the next decade, only two are primarily male. Women comprise a majority in colleges and professional schools. They’re gaining ascendancy in many professional careers. Record numbers of women are running for office this year and will win.

We know that wherever women have decision-making power, all the metrics improve dramatically. “States that have improved the status of women are as a rule healthier, wealthier, less corrupt, and more democratic.” They’re less likely to engage in conflict both domestically and globally.

The physical security of women directly correlates with national security. Ending violence against women is literally a national and global security issue.

This is the moment for men everywhere to put the equality, safety and leadership of women front and center. It’s high time to redefine masculinity, and begin healing the gender wound with truth and reconciliation. The future of the world depends on it.

As Heather McGhee said here at Bioneers last year, “Our democracy has become as unequal as our economy. Capitalism is writing the rules for democracy, instead of the other way around. For three generations, now, politicians have stoked white anxiety, successfully linking government to undeserving minorities, and gaining support among white voters for cutbacks in public spending, regulation, and public solutions.”

Heather’s conclusion is this: “We need a ‘we’ to survive, and that’s exactly what racism destroys. The proximity of so much difference will finally force us to admit our common humanity. The beauty is in who we are becoming. It’s the country’s fulfillment and salvation.”

Author Pankaj Mishra recently observed that, just like today, in the late 19th century an unprecedented wave of corporate globalization caused massive global migrations and racial mixing. Like today, mass social movements erupted worldwide to resist empire and its elites.

As Mishra describes, “For fearful ruling classes, political order depended on forging an alliance between rich and powerful whites and those rendered superfluous by industrial capitalism. Exclusion or degradation of nonwhite peoples was a way of securing dignity for those marginalized by economic and technological shifts.

“Today,” Mishra continues, “it has reached its final and most desperate phase, with existential fears about endangered white power feverishly circulating once again. Global capitalism has promised to build a colorblind world through economic integration. But as revolts erupt against globalization, politicians and pundits in the Anglosphere are again scrambling to rebuild political communities around what W.E.B. DuBois in 1910 identified as ‘the new religion of whiteness — the ownership of the earth forever and ever.’ The religion of whiteness increasingly represents a suicide cult.”

The suicide cult of the U.S. regime is a desperate “whitelash” against a society inexorably on its way to becoming a majority-minority population. It’s a cultural revolution of pluralism that cannot be turned back.

As Jose Antonio Vargas put it, “This country is only going to get blacker, browner, more Asian, and gayer. Women will break all barriers. A country that has barely dealt with the black and white issue is now getting more complicated with all these ‘othered’ people. What’s left is this question of how much change can straight white men and white people handle?”

But the biggest change we’re facing is climate change. Over the past couple of years, Mother Nature stopped knocking and just blew the doors off. Climate resilience is about to become the central organizing principle for everyone’s lives.

The climate swerve of U.S. public opinion is finally tipping. The markets have spoken. The age of renewables is unstoppable, promising $26 trillion in growth and 65 million new jobs by 2030.

As climate chaos keeps worsening in fast-forward, this shift will radically accelerate. But, as Bill McKibben points out, “climate change is a timed test, and we’re failing.” We need to take bolder, bigger and more holistic measures. It means the reinvention of everything.

Perhaps the single greatest breakthrough initiative underway is Project Drawdown, founded by our friend Paul Hawken. Its goal is to actually reverse global warming by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere back to pre-industrial levels. All the practices and technologies documented in the best-selling Drawdown book are already commonly available, economically viable, and scientifically valid.

But Project Drawdown’s true power lies in its holistic approach that goes beyond the imperatives of clean energy technologies and keeping the oil in the ground.

Eight of the top 20 solutions it showcases relate to changing the food system. Combining reduced food waste and a plant-rich diet — the #3 and #4 solutions —  would make them #1. Combining girls’ education and family planning — the number 6 and 7 solutions — would comprise the second top solution.

These examples illustrate the kinds of systemic dynamics that will both reverse atmospheric CO2 and improve virtually all areas of life. It’s eminently doable with what we already know and have.

In just one year, drawdown projects have spontaneously ignited around the world from the grassroots to the canopy. Paul says the goal is for drawdown projects to be common practice worldwide within 15 years. It shows how we can realize a radically different scenario: actually healing the climate and ourselves.

Realistically, government is the only force big enough to stand up to the corporate juggernaut. The government is us — if we take it back.

What we need government to do today is a Green New Deal. The same battle over corporate state capture that’s playing out today took place in the 1930s when FDR saved capitalism from the capitalists with the New Deal.

The parallels are striking: extreme inequality and wealth concentration — wholesale deregulation — corporatized courts — restrictive immigration policy — and the rise of white nationalism and Fascism.

But there’s one big difference.

As the late Tom Hayden pointed out, “The great work then was to save us from the Depression. The great work today is to save us from climate catastrophe and the end of civilization as we know it. We need to put every person in this country and on this planet who’s out of a job or underemployed into a great green employment project. The starting point is to combine the notions of reducing emissions and achieving jobs and environmental justice.”

At the time it was being built, it wasn’t called the “New Deal.” It was called “the movement.” The programs and models percolated from the bottom up from the “laboratories of democracy” — cities and states.

That same scenario is recurring today with green blocs and regional and bioregional green alliances among cities and states. Cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions.

We know that real wealth creation is based on replenishing natural systems and restoring the built environment, especially our infrastructure and cities. It’s based on investing in our communities and workforce. Restoration is estimated to become a $100 trillion market. Every dollar we spend on pre-disaster risk management can prevent seven dollars in later losses.

One key to building resilience is greater decentralization against the inevitable failure of centralized systems. Think decentralized power grids and more localized foodsheds and economies. Localized economies are the kryptonite of global markets. Some of today’s most innovative and successful models are arising from the work of The Democracy Collaborative, co-founded by Gar Alperowitz, who’ll share some stories later this morning.

The Democracy Collaborative is demonstrating what a Pluralist Commonwealth could look like. It marks the end of the growth economy and the start of living within our planetary means. It supersedes the false binary of capitalism and socialism, instead creating a mixed economy in service to the common good, climate action and equity.

It devolves substantial political and decision-making power to local and regional entities, coupled with designing democratic governance structures. It prioritizes economic security and intergenerational community wealth creation. At the core is distributed ownership through diverse forms of public, private, cooperative and common ownership.

These kinds of objectives may be closer than they appear. This is the time to seed the field. Small changes can have big influences.

One driving force will be the epic generational shift underway in the US and around the world. Numerous credible polls consistently reveal U.S. Millennials and Gen X’ers — the biggest generations in our history – with large majorities holding overwhelmingly progressive views. They’re also more than 40 percent nonwhite, the highest share of any adult generation.

By 60-80 percent, young people want climate action, support same-sex marriage, recognize racial discrimination as the main barrier to African Americans’ progress, and believe immigrants strengthen the country.

Sixty-five percent believe the country is on the wrong path. Seventy-one percent want a third party. Fifty-one percent oppose capitalism.

Millennial and Gen X voters will likely be the biggest cohort in the 2020 elections. Along with women and communities of color, their activism will change every institution in society in the foreseeable future. As the deep ecologist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy puts it, “We are part of a vast, global movement: the epochal transition from empire to Earth community.”

Which brings us back to dung beetles.

Over the past few years, scientists have discovered that dung beetles have many gifts. They’re not to be poo-poo-ed.

These humble creatures face fierce competition for this black gold. The male beetle plunges furiously into the mosh pit, rapidly piecing together bits of dung into a round ball. He rolls it away full-tilt boogie in the straightest possible line to escape dungway robbery.

It’s no mean feat to stay on the straight and narrow because the beetle is pushing that ball facing backwards and upside down, head toward the ground. How do they do it?

Researchers noticed an odd phenomenon. If the beetle seemed to lose his way, he climbed on top of the ball, performed an energetic circular dance, then rolled right along. By manipulating the time of day, scientists learned that he’s recording a mental snapshot of the sun, moon or stars. If he gets lost, he calls up that Beetle Maps snapshot and gets right back on track.

As one scientist commented, “We love working with the beetles. No matter what we do to them, they just keep on rolling.”

So, Bioneers — perhaps in these times, we can learn some dung beetle medicine. If we lose our way, just climb on top of that ball, dance by the light of the heavens, and keep on rolling.

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