The Upside of the Downside

In this address from the Bioneers 2020 Conference, Bioneers CEO & Co-Founder Kenny Ausubel discusses the converging awakenings that took place in 2020 and how we can use what we’ve learned to move forward.


I’d like to talk with you about the upside of the downside.

There’s a supreme poetic justice in a virus hacking a rogue civilization on a collision course with nature and the human experiment. You can’t gaslight a virus. The ground truth of our biological interdependence with the natural world has disrupted the delusion of our separation from the web of life and each other. It has exposed the hungry ghost of insatiable greed devouring people and planet.

Kenny Ausubel

The only way to solve a pandemic and the concatenation of crises we face is through massive cooperation. As a society and civilization, we’re being compelled to change our pronoun from “me, me, me” to “we.”

Nature is deregulating human affairs faster than a lobbyist can buy a politician. We’re in the endgame of the Dim Ages: the clash between the state of nature and the nature of the state. Our civilization is a failed state. The big wheels of transformation are turning. It’s emergence in an emergency.

The contagion is apocalyptic in the original meaning of the Greek word: “A revelation, an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known, and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.”

It’s unveiling the truth that our human health is dependent on the health and integrity of our ecosystems. The contagion originated from relentless human incursion into shrinking wildlife habitats, where unfamiliarity breeds contempt. It was driven by a voracious market economy channeled through a misconceived food system.

It’s unveiling the misbegotten paradigm that exalts the growth economy over the wellbeing of people and the natural systems on which all life depends. As Hazel Henderson said, modern economics is “a form of brain damage. It’s nothing more than politics in disguise.”

The contagion is revealing the wisdom of the Precautionary Principle: “Better safe than sorry” — “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” We know that $1 spent on disaster prevention will save $7 in later damages.

It’s unmasking the fatal logic of a for-profit health care system. Tying Wall Street profits to human health is a prescription for disaster.

It’s exposing how huge the “precariat” is — the vast masses of humanity who live on the precarious edge — one step away from freefall. It’s revealing the extraordinary kindness and compassion of most people, and the expanding circle of heartfelt concern for the most vulnerable.

It’s showing a world where “I Can’t Breathe” became a meme for everything from Black Lives mattering to raging climate-induced mega-fires and COVID masks.

It’s unveiling how the temporary reduction of human activity allowed nature to begin to regenerate. Blue skies brightened Beijing, and for the first time in memory the Himalayas were visible from New Delhi. It’s a glimmer of what a restored world could look like when we change our way of living. Yes, when.

It has accelerated the decline of the fossil fuel industry and its political power, and sped the hegemony of clean energy.

It has spotlighted the democracy theme park, exposing the sharp teeth of raw power that talks democracy, until it gets into the hands of the wrong people – in other words, the people.

It unveiled the banality of evil, a full-blown kakistocracy — rule by the worst. They set up a roach motel in the White House.

When Jared Diamond examined the ecologically-driven demise of Mexico’s Mayan civilization, he identified the final unraveling thread: political leadership. He wrote: “Their attention was evidently focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all these activities.” Sound familiar?

It’s laying bare disaster capitalism’s Shock Doctrine: Never let a crisis go to waste. Corona capitalism is engineering the biggest heist in history, with corporate concierge service from the Fed already amounting to between $4 to $10 trillion.

Simultaneously, Corona capitalism is precipitating a deliberate extinction-level event of small and medium-size businesses – with cascading dis-employment that will exceed the Great Depression. When it’s safe to go out again, we will find a world of giants and dwarves.

Wealth in the U.S. was already over two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave-and-farmer society. If billionaires were a nation, they’d be the world’s 3rd largest country. They want to have their cake and eat yours too.

It’s “make feudalism great again.” Talk about a marketing challenge.

It’s Boom and Doom — the terminal convulsions of an oligarchic economic system bedeviled by $100 trillion dollars of stranded oil assets and the impossibility of unlimited material growth on a finite planet. The Hummer of plutocracy has gone off road. The system is the crime.

But make no mistake. Above all what COVID is unveiling is a sneak preview of what climate chaos is going to unleash. Climate resilience is about to become the central organizing principle of everyone’s lives. One thing is for sure: The twin crises of climate chaos and extreme inequality will keep getting worse fast — and people will keep rising up in ever bigger numbers, demanding and making change.

With breakdown comes breakthrough. The Great Unraveling is clearing the space for renaissance and regeneration. The game now is to grow the upside of the downside. The stone age didn’t end because people ran out of stones. Initiatives that may have seemed radical or impossible not so long ago now appear within reach.

As Naomi Klein wrote, “The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system — one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power.” 

Our movements are starting to prevail, which is why the corporate class has resorted to a hostile takeover of government. Its broker is the Republican Party. Its platform is so extreme that the closest analog in the West is Germany’s fringe AfD, a proudly white nationalist, xenophobic party with neo-Fascist ties. But even the AfD aren’t climate deniers, and the biggest difference is that the GOP is a mainstream party. Our political duopoly now consists of a democratic party and an anti-democratic party.

This reactionary whiplash is trying to misdirect our attention from the head-spinning ravages of corporate economic globalization by serving up the noxious cocktail of racism, xenophobia and othering in order to divide and conquer. One fear has been that the regime would start a war. It did: a civil war than had never actually ended.

It’s an ideology that W.E.B. DuBois described in 1910 as ‘the new religion of whiteness — the ownership of the earth forever and ever.’ As Pankaj Mishra wrote, “The religion of whiteness increasingly represents a suicide cult.”

So what’s the upside of the downside?

COVID has hammered the already failing business model of the fossil fuel industry into survival mode. It would tank even faster if not for federal subsidies. At the same time, its political power is waning, and it faces mounting legal liabilities for knowingly poaching the planet and lying about it. Perhaps it’s time for corporate capital punishment for the crimes of capital.

COVID is simultaneously quickening the transition to the inevitable clean energy revolution. But that is not enough — because we’re already in sudden-death overtime. The movement for drawdown is gaining traction to actually reverse climate disruption by bringing carbon levels back down to pre-industrial levels.

All the top practices and technologies are already commonly available, economically viable, and scientifically valid, including such cornerstones as regenerative carbon farming and food systems, ecological land management practices, and the empowerment of women and girls.

Because this is the last stand for many landscapes, standing for the land before it’s too late is paramount. Inspired by E.O. Wilson’s “Nature Needs Half” initiative, the One Earth project has mapped global, regional and local ecosystems to identify and prioritize key bioregions to support carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation. Our One Earth friends presented a panel last weekend on this work, including a globalocal app.

It’s no accident that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is on Indigenous lands. Indigenous leadership is both lighting the way and may be the key to the survival of our species.

It’s objectifying and commodifying of nature that have led us to this climate emergency and Age of Extinctions. It’s high time to expand our view of personhood to the natural world — not to corporations. We need to institute legally enforceable Rights for Nature.

The global movement for Rights of Nature is rapidly beginning to take hold in numerous countries. It flips the paradigm from nature as property to nature as rights-bearing. Over three dozen US communities and five US tribes have now enacted such laws, with many more moving to get involved.

In this past election in Florida’s conservative Orange County, home to Orlando and Disney World, a citizen-driven rights of nature ballot initiative passed with a jaw-dropping 89% of the vote. (Much of this success is thanks to Thomas Linzey and Mari Margil who will speak on Sunday.)

The climate emergency is the biggest political failure in history. It’s fundamentally a crisis of democracy and leadership. 2020 has seen democracy both under siege and surging.

Black Lives Matter became the biggest movement in US history, with unprecedented numbers of white allies stepping up, while a swarm of diverse social movements is converging to reclaim the many facets of the jewel of democracy. The forefront of this leadership won the 2020 US presidential election. It came from women of color and communities of color, First Peoples, and the swell of young people demanding that society wake the frack up and start acting like grownups.

At a historic threshold when the country is projected to become majority-minority in about 15 years, multi-cultural society is here to stay. The last gasp of the current political regime is like the Japanese soldiers in World War II still fighting on an island who didn’t yet know the war was over.

Millennials are the most diverse and largest generation in American history, and also the most progressive. By 60-80%, 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.These are the frontline leaders who are showing us how to make America grateful again.

Ecological healing and social justice are one notion, indivisible. A Green New Deal can and must coalesce all these priorities. It can put everyone in the country and around the world into a great green employment project that achieves meaningful living wage jobs, and environmental and social justice. This time around, a truly new deal will lift the burdens of history. We’re living through the re-birth of a nation.

And breaking news: The IMF concluded that saving the planet would be cheap or might even be free. Such a deal!

If building resilience is the goal, the priority shifts from growth and expansion to sufficiency and sustainable prosperity. 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.

In the face of the unraveling of economic globalization spurred in part by COVID, and a federal government that’s now a smoking ruin, the upside of the downside is greater decentralization against the inevitable failure of centralized systems. Think distributed power grids and more localized foodsheds and economies, which are the kryptonite of global markets. Economic re-localization creates three times as many jobs, earnings, and tax collections —  as well as far greater security.

We can supersede the false binary of capitalism and socialism, and instead create a mixed economy in service to the common good, climate action and equity. It’s an economy that prioritizes security, intergenerational community wealth creation, and much more widely distributed ownership. There’s actually no precedent or grand model for this next economy. Nor has anyone figured out how to create genuine democracy at large scales. That’s up to us, and from here on, it’s jazz.

In closing, as my friend David Orr recently said to me, he’d be quite optimistic — IF we had another 50 years. The crucible is whether we can fast-forward this transformation in record time, and Beat the Reaper.

The word “crisis” comes from the Greek word krino. It means “to decide.” We need to decide what kind of future we want – and act like our lives depend on it – because they do. Slouching toward sustainability will not turn the tide. Only immediate, bold and transformative action will enable us to make the leap across the abyss. It’s now o’clock.

“If we appear to seek the unattainable, then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.” So wrote Tom Hayden in the Port Huron Statement in 1962. Now more than ever, we need to imagine our way out of the unimaginable.

As mythologist Michael Meade reminds us, “The deepest power of the human soul is imagination. When human beings bring imagination to the situation, we join the agents of creation.”

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.”

The best way to predict the future is to create it. That’s what we’re here to do. All power to the imagination.

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