Systemic Change, New Technology and Conscious Governance: Where Do We Begin?
Our dramatic decline has been so great, it seems that there is little recourse but to desperately escape on personal lifeboats from a sinking Titanic in the frigid dark waters of imminent Collapse. We in the Andes can measure this response by the steady stream of frightened but awakening gringos from North America seeking to escape from the ravages of the North by heading for an uncertain but exciting new life in apparently safer places like Ecuador. A lot of young people, some with small children, are arriving here to avoid the radiation poisoning from Fukushima and many other accelerating political and environmental indignities.
Our eco-retreat center Montesueños is one of several receiving docks to greet the arriving flood of Noah’s Arks coming from the endangered industrialized world. But even here in the global South, we are threatened by economic and political hit-men violently encroaching upon ever more of our dwindling, biodiverse resources and disappearing indigenous peoples. Ecuador is getting trashed by the predatory greed of resource-gobbling corporations, which are often given free reign by our cash-strapped governments to rape the environment in exchange for money. In the end, there’s no place left on spaceship Earth to hide. Escaping the matrix in the long run is not possible unless we as a people join together globally to stop aggression and pollution and embark on an entirely new path.
This is all so very sad when we look at the details about the deteriorating state of the world. The Internet is ablaze with horror stories of genocide, ecocide and imminent collapse.
It is now past time to recapture the spirit and optimism of that letter to Obama and rewrite the letter, this time addressed to those of us who can truly lead and listen, and who can intelligently and passionately embrace the daunting task of designing systemic change toward a lasting peace, justice and sustainability.
If you don’t yet feel the depth of our grief about what humanity is doing to the environment, you need only look at two recent essays, one by the radical environmental author Derrick Jensen and the other by the brilliant elder scholar Noam Chomsky. Jensen has captured that grief and come out of the woods with flailing sword, declaring that we must do something about our assaults on the womb of Pachamama now—or else. While Jensen appeals to the emotions, Chomsky enlightens the intellect, but their conclusions are basically the same: a handful of very powerful people and corporations, motivated by a desperate predatory greed, have enabled themselves to destroy our environment as quickly as possible so they can get theirs while the getting’s good. The people and the environment are merely collateral damage in this blind quest for power and control. This handful of the rich and powerful are willing to accept a systems collapse in order to reign supreme as they consolidate their power.
Chomsky argues that while our financial crisis can ultimately be solved by putting the burden on the taxpayer, the environmental crisis is fundamentally irreversible under today’s rules of corporate behavior. The system is set up to optimize its continued survival by optimizing profits within a corrupt market economy that doesn’t account for externalities and that creates enormous systemic risks affecting us all. Within any large corporation, if someone decides to step outside that box and factor in systemic risks, he or she will be quickly replaced. Yet such a system cannot survive this kind of tunnel vision. Profits may be maximized within the system, but like the host of a cancer, the system itself will inevitably collapse, as the recent unregulated financial crisis has shown, if external factors are not taken into account. Systems can crash as a result of the very success of companies that follow their own internalized rules to optimize their profits.
A prime example of this self-defeating behavior is our global addiction to fossil fuels. Chomsky cites the sixty-year development of the U.S. interstate highway system, for example, as a highly successful effort to “redesign the society so as to maximize the use of fossil fuels.” We are now suffering the consequences of these actions as we go to scarce supplies of oil, coal and natural gas in increasingly sensitive areas such as the Amazon rainforest, the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and now the melting Arctic. Meanwhile, the emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants might have already reached a tipping point beyond which we may not survive. The mandate we inherit is a daunting one: we must simply cease using both fossil fuels and nuclear fuels. Our energy systems need a complete overhaul now—nothing less will do.
Where to begin? If we think in terms of whole systems (e.g., energy, water, food, money, or waste) most of us can agree that these systems have been so grossly mismanaged and the specific technologies selected have been so grossly unsustainable, that the systemic risks have become too great for us to survive. In Chomsky’s words, we humans have become a “lethal mutation” that cannot last much longer if we continue to live under the current economic and political systems.
An irony in even proposing alternative systems and technologies is that the very idea of governance and technology often has extremely negative connotations for those of us who yearn for change. Environmentalists and progressives often dismiss “technological fixes” as a solution and yet have little to contribute otherwise, acting as if all technology initiatives must by their very nature be controlled by the elite. Building new systems, therefore, becomes a daunting task due to this blanket distrust, especially combined with the enormous resistance that naturally arises from vested institutions whose current governance and technology systems are so dysfunctional.
Many of us are conditioned to believe that all governments and technologies are bad for us. It is true that nowadays most of them are bad for us—but they don’t necessarily have to be. They can be designed to be friendly to us and to nature if we design them properly. If we don’t consciously design them to be friendly to people and the environment, then by default we will continue to descend into anarchy and unwise choices in our technologies.
So far, it’s been very difficult to envision and implement new designs in the presence of such resistance. Yet change we must. There are but few shining examples of truly responsible governance and clean technologies, so a lot of what we need to do will be starting from scratch. But we have to start somewhere.
During my decades with NASA and the aerospace community, I learned that in any coherent design process we start with what is called a concept design. This is simply a description of the kinds of systems that can fulfill the vision or set of goals upon which most of us can agree—for example, to co-create a peaceful, sustainable and just world. There are sometimes called design requirements that underlie the concept design.
For example, our choice of governance must truly reflect the will of the people to cooperate and fulfill these goals. Our choice of technologies must truly reflect the vision that we must have a sustainable way of living for generations to come.
In looking at our energy systems, therefore, it stands to reason that we’ll need to abandon most of our current energy systems—most notably the 93% of our energy that comes from fossil fuels and uranium—if we are to have a sustainable way of living. We have to go beyond even traditional renewables such as hydropower, biofuels, solar and wind because they too are unsustainable when materials and land use are considered. We have reached a desperate time on the planet when we need to see through the pervasive censorship regarding heavily suppressed breakthrough clean energy technologies such as zero-point, vacuum, cold fusion and advanced hydrogen and water technologies.
The main problem confronting us is this: within each existing energy technology there has been a buildup of enormous economic and political vested interests that can be measured in trillions of dollars per year. It’s not hard to see that the bigger an existing system has become, the more difficult it is to change course. The juggernauts of oil, coal and nuclear energy and their associated infrastructures (e.g., highways, pipelines, drilling rigs, coal and uranium mines, radioactive waste storage and the huge, inefficient and unsightly grid systems) dominate our policies and practices. Chomsky writes that for systemic change to occur, we are going to have to dissolve most existing institutions, and that means revolution. But as Buckminster Fuller wrote, “There is only one revolution tolerable to all men, all societies, all political systems: revolution by design and invention.”
We are in a global revolution even now. This revolution will destroy most of us, if it proceeds without some semblance of enlightened planning, or we could co-create a much cleaner set of design concepts upon which we can come together and agree. Those seem to be our choices. Our first step, then, should be to create a concept design for transforming our currently dysfunctional systems—our governance systems, our energy systems, our food systems, etc.—to new systems that will truly work for us. These designs should come from a number of interconnected advisory emergency councils that draw on our best knowledge and best practices and are deployed in local regions as well as disseminated worldwide. These councils would be made up mostly of well-informed and open-minded elders (I’ll volunteer!) to co-create conscious governmental structures and clean technologies designed to work with nature rather than against nature.
Unfortunately, virtually no politician on this planet has any interest in designing this revolution, and so by default our public policies only perpetuate the status quo and deepen the crisis. Republicans and now Democrats will in fact do everything in their power to shore up existing systems that support their continuing positions of power. Libertarians scream that we shouldn’t even have much government and we should let market systems and local governance prevail, not realizing that this can lead to anarchy and does not protect the environment.
We’re going to have to move beyond our current political and economic systems for our answers. We must move beyond media-amplified cults of personality and go directly to the principles that underlie our new system designs. Under today’s rules and expectations, no prominent politician can countenance any new systems that would even give the appearance of supporting these designs, except occasional vague rhetoric that we need to eventually develop renewable energy.
Existing governments need to be informed that the game is up and that the process of transition must begin now. Perhaps a massive public petition would be a place to start. In designing new systems we are merely stating what our requirements and conceptual designs are. At this point we are saying nothing about what this will mean for the ruling elite, or for the availability of jobs, or about what kind of transition scenarios or models of governance will be required. The process of innovating and designing can begin now, free of all the “stuff” that blocks it in today’s dysfunctional society. Thus we can immediately get on with the task of designing our new systems. Many of our most enlightened innovators can surely team up to redesign our energy, money, food, water and waste systems to our new specifications, much like designing a spacecraft that can go to the Moon.
In aerospace engineering parlance, we often refer to two different concept design philosophies as push and pull. Push generally means designing incremental refinements to existing designs, whereas pull means establishing designs to satisfy the new goals agreed-to by those unbeholden to vested powers but desirous of achieving them in new ways. Biofuels and solar and wind energy, for example, represent push technology, whereas breakthrough clean energy devices constitute pull technologies.
In today’s world, a dominance of the push approach supported by corporate managers and politicians can no longer work for us. More often than not, a push agenda can only commit us to yet more profits and pollution. We have no time for that. At its best, a push philosophy allows us to design a transition from what no longer works so that we are moving in the direction of what will work some time in the future. On the other hand, a pull philosophy allows us to go directly toward what we want.
Pullers are sometimes unpopular and misunderstood due to the populace’s fear that radically new designs will disrupt their lives too much, including their desire to protect short-term parochial interests (e.g., jobs, career, and economic “stability”).
Pullers, however, are truly the visionaries leading the way toward radical, sustainable innovation. I myself am more a puller than a pusher, because I have done enough research to be able to see what is possible in the intermediate future, which could be quite magnificent.
So What’s Holding Us Back?
Technology and government of any kind are two concepts that are deeply distrusted by many of us who could make a difference. In addition, systems-talk can be boring in the midst of the sensationalistic dance we’re performing on the deck of our collective Titanic. It may be necessary for those of us who choose to be pullers to design new systems by ourselves, knowing that widespread acceptance will need to wait for a more opportune moment. New governance and new technology systems can begin to be designed now. We can immediately begin experimenting with governmental structures and researching radical technologies to gain experience with both in the future.
We can begin by creating protected innovation sanctuaries, educational centers and R&D facilities. Let’s form emergency councils to mediate between the push and pull philosophy and to provide balanced advice to world leaders regarding new technology design concepts for a sustainable, peaceful and just world. Let’s openly discuss how we can make the transition to the new world as smooth as possible. And let’s team up and build our new world, rather than dwell on the dominating drama of the unfolding systems Collapse itself.
Grounding the Vision
A visionary is someone who expresses new and improved design concepts and persists in showing them to the world. We need teams of practical visionaries to design, research, assess and develop sustainable technologies. These teams would then educate the public about the new technologies and report about them to governmental structures for appropriate implementation. An example of such a team is the newly formed Global Innovation Alliance.
The gravity of the crisis confronting the planet calls to us to set aside our egos and join together in unity of purpose. It is essential that we begin the process immediately if we are to have any chance of survival. This is an initiative whose time has come.
Dr. Brian O'Leary is an author, pioneering physicist and former NASA astronaut. He has published ten international books on the frontiers of science, space, energy and culture. With his artist-wife Meredith, they founded Montesueños, a retreat center and botanical garden in the Ecuadorian Andes dedicated to finding deep peaceful and sustainable solutions to humankind's war on nature and to implement these at local, regional and global levels of action. Please visit Dr. O'Leary's websites at www.montesuenos.org and www.brianoleary.info for more details.