by L. Hunter Lovins
Humanity stands at the edge of a crumbling cliff. Half of the world’s wealth is owned by one percent of the population—the 80 richest individuals having as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people.
At the same time, we are losing the biological integrity of the planet. Global Biodiversity Outlook Three states that we are losing life at a rate never before seen in history, and that the earth’s ecosystems are tipping into collapse. Three of them, are at particular risk: Business as usual, there may be no living coral reefs on planet earth, perhaps as early as 2035. The Amazon, the earth’s lungs, is drying up and burning. And the oceans are acidifying. This puts the whole of the oceanic food-chain at risk.
Scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre demonstrate that humanity has moved beyond the planetary boundaries in at least four of the nine critical categories: Loss of biodiversity, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, climate change, and forest loss. Despite this overuse of the world’s resources, we are still failing to supply all people with the basic necessities for life and human dignity. Dr. Kate Raworth of Oxford describes the doughnut: the safe and desirable operating space below the boundaries of the planet’s carrying capacity but above a minimum standard that fairly allocates resources to meet basic human needs for food, water, energy, equity and health care.
The great cultural historian Thomas Berry observed, “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story–the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it… sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with a life purpose, energized action, It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education… We need a [new] story that will educate man, heal him, guide him.”
The new story must, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, be about, “a world that works for 100 percent of humanity.”
The old story
In 2008 we suffered the first of what will come to be ongoing collapses. “The Great Recession,” from which the world has yet to recover, evaporated $50 trillion dollars and 80 million jobs globally. As if this weren’t bad enough, a 2013 article in the Financial Times, titled “Central Bankers Are Flying Blind,” admitted that even the experts “do not fully understand what is happening in advanced economies.” If they don’t, who does? A collapse of this magnitude was supposed, according to neo-liberal ideology, to be impossible.
Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to predict your future is to invent it.
Indeed, 36 men created the economic mental model that has delivered the mess we’re in. Meeting in 1947 at the Mont Pelerin hotel outside Montreux, Switzerland they built the intellectual architecture of an economy of small government and individual decision-making in an unfettered free market.
They went on to place three of their members as heads of state, nine as Nobel Laureates in economics—a prize they created to legitimize neo-liberalism—and their members as advisors to essentially every head of state in the world. With the rise to power in 1980 of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, they won. Their value structure became the dominant economic model in the world.
Their campaign to delegitimize government as an instrument of delivering human wellbeing and protecting vulnerable people and ecosystems grows stronger as heads of state like Angela Merkel in Germany preside over the social ruin of Greece and the other Southern European states. The tough-love program was supposed to restore Greece’s economy. Instead it shrank it by a quarter lifting youth unemployment to 60 percent. The situation in Italy and Spain is not as dire, but could easily become so.
Globally, this doctrine of austerity, privatization and destruction of social safety nets has resulted in the richest .1 percent adding $10 million every year to their household wealth while the number of children on food stamps in the U.S. increased 70 percent from 2007 to 2014.
“Be happy,” we are told. “Never has material wealth been so high.” Yet studies from around the world show that while global gross domestic product continues to rise, people’s happiness has stagnated or begun to decline. We feel a dissatisfaction with the world. As Ellen Goodman, American journalist, puts it, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car and the house you leave vacant all day so that you can afford to live in it.” A New Yorker cartoon shows an elegant woman in a chandeliered boutique asking, “What do you have to fill that dark, empty space in my soul?
The new story—one that works for everyone
Such poverty, both material and spiritual, is not an accident.
Nelson Mandela said, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
“The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known,” says Peter Seeger, gentle folksinger. And we need these new stories.
We need a narrative of stepping back from the edge—the only wisdom when standing at a crumbling cliff—of turning to see all that we have left behind, the intactness of the natural world, of genuine human community, the ancient wisdom we’ve forgotten. With the brilliant experiments of those who have grown adept at living at the edge, we can find a new center, craft a new solution. We can find that place of safety in which the sacred can again convey a sense of coming home.
But while we’re living on the edge, let’s realize that it can be an exciting place. In nature, edges of ecosystems are where the greatest abundance lives. Where two ecosystems come together, like a meadow meeting a forest or a river flowing into the sea is where fertility is found because it is where the greatest diversity occurs.
Entrepreneurs launch from edges, sailing away from the old linear economy to find new lands, new hope. When they do, they find that there IS a round world out there, a circular economy that can counter the liquidation economy now ravaging the planet.
We have all of the solutions we need to fix all of the problems facing society. For example, from my book The Way Out: Kickstarting Capitalism To Save Our Economic Ass, to Dr Mark Jacobson’s Solutions Project, we have solutions to the climate crisis—to how we can supply affordable, renewable energy for all.
In a recent study called Energy Darwinism, Citi Group warns of the “alarming fall in the cost of solar.” (Alarming to who?) The report describes how there is now utility-scale solar installations on offer for as low as 5¢ a kilowatt hour, far below the grid average cost of 11¢ a kWh. It discounts this, however, observing that the solar arrays are subsidized. Note to Citi: ALL energy has been and continues to be subsidized; those to the fossil and nuclear options are twelve times the subsidies given to all forms of renewables and efficiency.
The report goes on to say that the ten-year-forward price of gas, which it dubs as previously the cheapest option, is 11¢ a kWh. The unsubsidized ten-year-forward price of solar is 10¢ a kWh. It’s over, solar wins: “This is now the era of renewables,” the report concludes.
Companies from Unilever to Apple and Google to Ikea and dozens others are now being powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Whole cities are following the example of the Danish island of Samso, and German towns like Wildpoldsried in meeting all of their needs from the sun, wind, flowing water, and biofuels.
The green economy already employs almost three million people worldwide—more than fossil fuel does. Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), cites an international Labor Organization study estimating that green jobs will be half the global workforce by 2030, creating 15 to 60 million new jobs over then next decade.
Green companies are increasingly outperforming companies that cling to last century’s business models. The 2014 CDP Climate Change report shows that Standard and Poor’s companies that build sustainability into their core strategies are outperforming companies that fail to show such leadership. The companies actively managing their carbon emissions and planning for climate change enjoy eighteen percent higher return on investment than companies that aren’t, and 67 percent higher than companies that refuse to disclose their emissions.
Natural Capitalism Solutions surveyed 40 of the now at least 55 studies showing that the sustainability leaders are enjoying higher stock value, faster growth in stock value, lower risk and a host of other enhancements to core business value.
The new story needs you
As the evidence mounts that the climate crisis is real and worsening, people are reclaiming their voice. In September 2014, 400,000 people jammed the streets of Manhattan for the Great Climate March. There are few things politicians fear more than people in the streets, and the next day at the United Nations, President Obama said, “The alarm bells keep ringing, our citizens keep marching. We can’t pretend we can’t hear them. We need to answer the call. We need to cut carbon emission in our countries to prevent worse effects, adapt and work together as a global community to tackle this global threat before it is too late.”
The next month Obama signed an historic agreement with China, agreeing to cap carbon emissions. (Even Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of a billion people, is calling on humanity to step back from the cliff on which we now stand with the new papal encyclical on the environment.)
All of this is good, and long overdue. If politicians do not act, the people will. Institutions that lose legitimacy collapse quickly. The Occupy movement that questioned the legitimacy of the current economic system scared politicians. Concern over dissent from inequality and climate led the US government to institute the unprecedented surveillance of citizens represented by the PRISM program revealed by Ed Snowden.
Such fear may not be entirely misplaced. The video of Russell Brand telling the BBC commentator Jeremy Paxman that he hadn’t a flicker of a doubt that it’d be revolution, was one of the most watched YouTube videos of 2013. But revolution is not a solution. Revolutions eat their own—intellectuals first. The establishment has a monopoly on violence, and Sarah Palin shoots straighter than most activists.
There is a better way: creating a new narrative that will guide people to transform the economy. My friend Bernard Laetaer says, “Homo Sapiens are an interesting species. We have incredible power to transform our environment to meet our needs, and yet we have this odd tendency to create a world, forget that we have created it, and then throw up our hands and proclaim our inability to change the system. Capitalism is not a set of natural laws that Adam Smith discovered. It is our creation, and it is constantly evolving and changing—consciously or unconsciously.”
In 2012 the King of Bhutan asked Dr. Robert Costanza and a group of us to reinvent the global economy. Not a modest task—clearly not something that any of us can do alone—but it’s one that I take very seriously. There are hundreds of groups around the world working on this, from such venerable organizations as Stewart Wallace’s New Economics Foundation in the UK, Ashok Khosla’s Development Alternatives in India, to the Club of Rome and the UN Environment Programme. Many of us are now coming together to craft a new narrative of a world that works for 100 percent of humanity.
Using John Fullerton’s Regenerative Economy as the seed crystal, a group of us convened by the Club of Rome are co-creating the new narrative. We need to be “Occupy meets Wall Street.” We need to coalesce the strategies to shift the massive flows of speculative finance into the real economy.
In the current economy, the most resilient people have been left out and disenfranchised. But their survival ability has made them creative. Building a disruptive economy by bringing the voices in from the edges to the center is very powerful. We celebrate a real economy, an economy in service to life. We seek the creatives, the disruptive, the entrepreneurs, the heretics, the dispossessed—all the people who have been told to shut up. These people from the margins now hold the greatest promise for saving our asses—in the artistic, creative, and entrepreneurial edges that are where the magic is. They will become the new heroes. This is the antidote to the voices that say there is no hope.
We need to bring in the edges of biodiversity, the edges of innovation to craft solutions. Technology and new inventions are part of the equation, but we need to govern using indigenous wisdom. The flat economy in which we now live is one of soulless statistics, measured by GDP—the linear flow through the economy of money and stuff. The task now is to build a circular economy that has room for everyone. And we need to do it fast. The great oceanographer, Dr. Sylvia Earle says, “What we do in the next ten years matters more than what humanity does in the next 10,000.”
As we change the story we will give people a place to stand, to hold on to. With a vision of a round earth comes the mindfulness of our little blue orb—Bucky Fuller’s Spaceship Earth—and the emergence of a new ethic, of us all as crew, all responsible for its stewardship, and all needful of caring for each other if our vessel is to survive.
Editor’s note: This is based on Hunter’s talk at the GAIN Conference of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), 2015.
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