Book Review of Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth

Glen T. Martin

This is an extraordinary book. Among all the books I have read on climate change and our common human future, this book counts as one of the best. It provides a deeply informed and knowledgeable positive vision of how human beings can move beyond climate crisis and create a decent world for all human beings and a credible future for our planet. It is a vision filled out by hundreds of examples of what is being done right now worldwide to make these changes happen. The book reviews both the history and dynamics of economics, written by an informed economist and creative thinker. It is one of the few must-reads for all who care about the future of humanity.

In Part One of this review, I will describe the main points made by the book: that is, the seven ways that we need to be thinking like 21st century economists. The book is divided into chapters corresponding to the 7 ways to think like a 21st century economist, and I will follow this order. In Part Two, I will critically relate the book to our corresponding need for political transformation of the world system and ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Part One

 First principle: Change the Goal from GDP to the Doughnut. In her introductory section Kate Raworth quotes Buckminster Fuller as saying “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (p. 4). The introduction reviews the history of economics and the ways that it was built around one story, one image, and essentially one visual diagram of the way economies worked (or were supposed to work).

This worldview (this frame, this paradigm) became fixed in textbooks and the minds of economists worldwide. It was built around a linear model that essentially ignored our rootedness in the planetary biosphere and focused on growth. Growth became measured worldwide in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). It ignored human rights as well as our planet’s ecology and focused single mindedly on worldwide growth.

It became institutionalized in immense systems like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization right down to the present. It either accepted or ignored ever widening inequality, vast poverty, and growing evidence of climate change. Raworth shows that economics cannot any longer be framed on a linear growth model of extraction to production to distribution to consumption to waste disposal, because this model ignores nature and our planetary boundaries. She records a recent declaration that states:

We are the first generation to know that we are undermining the ability of the Earth system to support human development. This is a profound new insight, and it is potentially very, very scary . . . It is also an enormous privilege because it means that we are the first generation to know that we now need to navigate a transformation to a globally sustainable future. (p. 47)

We need to change this dominant visual and theoretical model of GDP to a doughnut shape. The outer ring of the doughnut is composed of the “ecological ceiling” that can be expressed in terms of the nine planetary boundaries that climate scientists have identified as crucial not to violate if we want conditions on our planet to remain hospitable for future life. The nine, known worldwide today, are climate change, ozone layer depletion, air pollution, biodiversity loss, land conservation, freshwater withdrawals, nitrogen & phosphorus loading, chemical pollution and ocean acidification. Beyond these limits constitutes environmental overshoot. They form the “ecological ceiling” for doughnut economics. Economics focuses on how human beings can flourish within that inviolable ceiling.

The inner ring of the doughnut is comprised by the “social foundation” that provides the “safe and just space for humanity.” Just as economics fails when it goes beyond the ecological boundaries of the outer ring, it also fails when it does not provide for the well-being of human beings: when human beings go hungry or fall into poverty and homelessness. The inner ring of the doughnut is the social foundation comprised of income and work, education, health, food, water, energy, networks, housing, gender equality, social equity, political voice, as well as peace & justice. Economics must expand its mission from merely monetary wealth creation to concern for all these elements of human well-being.

Raworth links this social foundation with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, “agreed to by 193 member countries in 2015—and the vast majority of these goals are to be achieved by 2030” (p. 39). “Together,” she writes, “the social foundation of human rights and the ecological ceiling of planetary boundaries create the inner and outer boundaries of the Doughnut” (p.42). We need to change the goal of economics from “the Cuckoo model” of endless growth of GDP to the model of thriving in balance: “human prosperity in a flourishing web of life” (p. 47).

Second principle: See the Big Picture—from self-contained market to embedded economy. The big picture. This chapter contrasts the “drama” of traditional economics with the new drama and new players of Doughnut Economics, illustrating the narrowness of the traditional model. Economics impacts everything, all dimensions of human life as well as the Earth that sustains us. She shows the multiple ways in which traditional economics simply ignored most of these dimensions and operated as a self-contained theoretical model that led to today’s disastrous consequences.

The Doughnut model brings in the whole of our human situation beginning with the Earth whose planetary boundaries must be respected. It includes:

Society, which is foundational—so nurture its connections

The Economy, which is diverse—so support all its systems

The Household, which is core—so embed it wisely

The Commons, which is creative—so unleash their potential

The State, which is essential—so make it serve wisely

Business, which is innovative—so give it purpose

Trade, which is double-edged—so make it fair

Power, which is purposive—so check its abuse (p. 63)

This chapter examines each of these dimensions, showing the ways in which each of them was either ignored or falsely conceived by traditional GDP economics. Traditional economics never spoke of “nurturing.” It never spoke of “wisdom,” nor of purpose (since economics was modeled on early-modern ideas of mechanistic science), nor of purposes for business and trade (beyond the mindless accumulation of wealth), nor of the abuse of power. She declares that “the Circular Flow diagram instead transforms the starting point of economic analysis. It ends the myth of the self-contained, self-sustaining market, replacing it by provisioning by the household, market, commons and state—all embedded within and dependent upon society, which in turn is embedded within the living world” (p. 79).

Third Principle: Nurture Human Nature—from rational economic man to social adaptable humans. This chapter examines the model of human nature embedded within traditional economic assumptions, the model of homo economicus in which each person (and by extension each business or company) was conceived atomistically as a rational calculator of individual self-interest and advantage. Not only was this a fundamental distortion of our complex human nature but it served as a social model for people in trade, banking, Wall Street, and business.

But the twenty-first century portrait of human nature is very different, making us realize that this classic model (simplistic assumptions necessary to make economic formulas mathematical and hence apparently scientific) was a major distortion, leading economists astray into their disastrous endless growth models. In the new model of human nature, we are “social and reciprocating” rather than narrowly self-interested. We have “fluid values” rather than a fixed economic nature. We are “interdependent,” not isolated atoms of self-interest. We act on “approximations,” not narrow calculations. And we are embedded in the web of life, “far from having dominion over nature” (p. 88).

The chapter explores the many ways that we can “nurture” and “nudge” people to do the right thing. Right behavior can be encouraged by the state, by communities, and economists. These include proper tax programs and other economic incentives, empowering cooperatives, making legally possible associations that work together for the common good, educating for ecological sensitivity and understanding, creating alternative currencies, recognizing the role of households in the economy, empowering women, promoting “generosity and public spirit” (p. 110). There are dozens of ways we can overcome the destructive stereotype of homo economicus and empower our ability to work together for the common good of humanity and our planetary biosphere.

Fourth Principle: Get Savvy with Systems—from mechanistic equilibrium to dynamic complexity. Under systems theory and “complexity science” that have emerged worldwide since the 1970s, systems theorists study “how relationships between the many parts of a system shape the behavior of the whole” (p. 117).  (I would add the corollary, which Raworth also recognizes, that the whole (the structure of a system) also shapes the behavior of the parts.)

Systems scientists are now understanding the ways in which natural systems, with their feedback loops and integration of many dynamic factors, operate according to complexity designs of dynamic balance and mutual integration. This chapter shows the ways in which traditional economics, by not including systems theory, created boom and bust bubbles and on-going financial instability, unable to move economic history out of “a rolling cycle of dynamic disequilibrium” (p. 126).

A similar failure has led to “the dynamics of inequality,” in which a tiny few individuals now own more than 50% of the world’s wealth, and the similar feedback loops that have allowed governments to be taken over by an “oligopoly” of the rich and powerful who direct law and institutions toward their own interests. She also recalls “the damage wrought by the shock policies of privatization and market liberalization implemented in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the former Soviet Union during the 1980s and 1990s” (p. 137).

Similarly, today’s economy has ignored pollution and is bringing the world to the brink of ecological collapse: “pollution, which—unlike metals, minerals, and fossil fuels—typically carries no price and so generates no direct market feedback.” She concludes that “Today’s economy is divisive and degenerative by default. Tomorrow’s economy must be distributive and regenerative by design” (p. 133).

Economics can create “nested systems” that “serve the whole of which they are a part.” It can promote diversity and create a healthy resilience that can bound back from storms. It can create “open-source” design business models, find “leverage points” that help balance an entire system. And finally, if it is to be truly holistic, it can bring ethics into economics.

Traditionally, economics pretended to be a “science” and hence abjured ethics, but today we recognize our responsibilities to the common good and future generations. Ethically, an economist must act in the service of “prosperity within a flourishing web of life.” Secondly, economists should “respect autonomy” in the communities they serve. Third, we all need to “be prudential in policymaking,” minimizing risk and attending to the most vulnerable. Finally, we all should “work with humility,” recognizing the limitations and shortcomings of our models (p. 138).

Principle Five: Design to Distribute—from ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design. A fundamental model of traditional economics, found in many textbooks, was the “Kuznets Curve,” a simple chart that showed increasing economic inequality (linked to endless GDP growth) that peaks at a certain point and then begins to descend toward ever more equality. She states, “It was a clever theory but it was wrong” (p. 142). This chapter reviews some of the data and leading economists showing that it was wrong.

Inequality was seen as an inescapable side-effect of the endless growth model, but its many negative effects were ignored, including the fact that it is destructive of democracy. It allows the few to distort not only the market but also politics. It does not help developing poor economies grow faster, and it promotes economic instability leading to recessions and depressions. Designing to distribute, on the other hand, looks at the economic world as a network of flows (just as ecology looks at the world as a dynamic network of interdependent flows of energy, air and water, nutrients, interdependent systems, etc.). A systems thinker will see the world as “a distributed network whose many nodes, larger and smaller, are interconnected in a web of flows” (p. 148).

This approach must re-examine wealth, how it is owned and distributed, and find ways to establish dynamic flows that benefit everyone, ways such as a wealth tax, maximum and minimum income rules, democratizing of ownership, reexamining property and land ownership laws, low-cost loans, fair intellectual property rules, or land-value taxes as were proposed by economist Henry George. We can also re-examine banking and money-creation which, until now, have largely been monopolies of private, profit making banks that create money as interest-bearing debt. In addition, we can ask why the lion’s share of money or created value should go to “investors” who most like never produce, manage, or even participate in the enterprises in which they invest.

But what determined each group’s respective share of earnings? Economic theory says that it is their relative productivity, but in practice, it has largely turned out to be their relative power. The rise of shareholder capitalism entrenched the culture of shareholder primacy, with the belief that the company’s primary obligation is to maximize returns for those for those who own its shares…. Employees, who turn up for work, day-in and day-out, are essentially cast as outsiders…. Shareholders, meanwhile, who probably never set foot on the company premises, are treated as the ultimate insiders. (p. 160)

This chapter cites many interesting examples of communities that have devised alternative ways of dealing with income, trade, and distribution, using such innovations as block-chain currencies to track and distribute value widely. Or by using “time-care credits” in which people accumulate credits for helping a community’s more needy elderly residents, thereby combining networking care with income distribution and community solidarity. Not for profit enterprises are spreading; community interest companies and cooperatives are thriving. In addition, the super profitable digital companies are being reexamined with an eye to how we can create a truly distributive knowledge commons for the world. Every person should have a stake in owning the robot technology (p. 164).

Principle Six: Create to Regenerate—from ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design.

This chapter emphasizes so rightly that we should not be thinking only in terms of not exceeding environmental limits, for the world that we live in here and now, the one we have created from two centuries of industrial expansion, is a mess. Simply shifting around the present system does not solve any real problems. Individual countries may claim progress in reducing greenhouse gasses, but this is an illusion. They need to think in truly regenerative terms.

Raworth states that: “Recently complied international data reveal that when a nation’s global material footprint is taken into account—by adding up all of the biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and construction minerals used worldwide to create the products that the country imports—then the success story seems to evaporate” (p. 179). Instead, we need paradigm-shift. A new, circular, regenerative paradigm will give rise to new goals.

All this requires that we reexamine both the role of the state and the idea of the commons. The famous image of the “tragedy of the commons” has been discredited. We can share the commons in multiple efficient and complementary ways, just as we can reexamine intellectual property rights laws with the goal of enhancing the knowledge commons. Business needs to move from a “do nothing” and “do what pays” orientation to a “do your fair share, do no harm,” and, ultimately, “be generous” model, helping us achieve a “circular economy” in which we restore (repair, reuse, refurbish, recycle) and regenerate (capturing value at each stage of decomposition) all the while using renewable materials and energy in harmony with ecosystem limits and minimizing lost matter and heat (p. 188).

Contemporary capitalism is still focused on attitudes that are “the opposite of generous.” They focus only on creating financial value “for just one interest group: shareholders” (p. 193). On the other hand, we have the Open Source Circular Economy (OSCE) movement striving the “unleash the full potential of circular manufacturing.” Such movements emphasize “modularity (making products with parts that are easy to assemble, disassemble, and rearrange); open standards (designing components to a common shape and size); open source (full information on the composition of materials and how to use them); and open data (documenting the location and availability of materials). In all this, transparency is the key” (pp. 195-96). We need a world of transparency in which human beings work together to create a decent planetary home for all. Such common practices will be the key to any economy that can truly regenerate and restore.

“The business of business is to contribute to a thriving world” (p. 198).  We need to understand that the economic system itself is causing the environmental crisis. “The global financial system as we know it needs to shrink, simplify, diversify and deleverage” (p. 199). And in all this, the state must act as a partner within the same new paradigm and its goals. Much of traditional economics claimed that the state must get out of the way of the “free market,” but now we know there is no such thing as a free market. Various regulations or incentives in the law give rise to a variety of results. The state must work with businesses, the market, the commons, and the citizens to establish a planetary network that regenerates and restores, inclusive of the common good of everyone.

Principle Seven: Be Agnostic About Growth—from growth addicted to growth agnostic.

This chapter involves an extended critique of the growth dogma (a critique that was also expressed in less sustained fashion in each of the previous chapters).  We must be agnostic about growth not only because the growth dogma is destroying the planet, creating ever greater inequality and ruining democracy everywhere on Earth.  But this does not mean that growth in certain sectors cannot be helpful, nor does it mean that we cannot redefine growth to include a wider definition of well-being and “progress” than traditional economics embodied.

But growth must clearly “decouple” from “resource use” as well as pollution and other damaging “externalities” of classical economics.  Raworth calls this “sufficient absolute decoupling” in which our planetary system moves back within the nine planetary boundaries established by climate scientists. The rapid growth of the past two centuries was largely due to the supply of cheap fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). Even though we live on a planet daily flooded with clean solar, wind and water energy, the global economy is directly dependent on fossil fuels.  We must decouple the economy from this dependence. “Growth” can no longer mean using fossil fuels for producing more and more products—endless manufacturing, globalized transport, and ever-growing waste.

At present, “GDP brings both global market power and global military power.”  But we need “innovative thinkers in international relations to turn their attention to strategies that could help usher in a future of growth-agnostic global governance” (p. 238). The world, like economists, needs something to aspire to. Public relations, instead of focusing on getting people to by ever more of things they do not need, or on targeting children’s immature needs and wants, should be helping to nurture what is best in us toward a vision of a new human community.

The New Economics Foundation, for example, summarizes findings that are proven to promote human well-being: “connecting to people around us, being active in our bodies, taking notice of the world, learning new skills, and giving to others” (p. 240). In her conclusion, Kate Raworth declares: “Ours is the first generation to deeply understand the damage we have been doing to our planetary household, and probably the last generation with the chance to do something transformative about it. . . . Once we accept the economy’s inherent complexity, we can shape its ever-evolving dynamics through smart stewardship” (pp. 243-44).  We can frame a new story. Just as Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world,” we also need to draw the change we want to see in the world. Frame things differently. Change our paradigm and our corresponding goals.

Part Two

I think there is an important first point to be made. While I appreciate the fact that this is a book written with a positive vision and affirmative spirit (“we can do it”), the book does minimize the severity of the climate collapse that is happening all around us. Previous books that I have reviewed on climate crisis (all found on my blog at www.oneworldrenaissance.com) focus on a severe crisis happening now.

For example, James Gustave Speth says we need a “bridge at the edge of the world” (because we are literally teetering on a cliff of disaster). Richard Heinberg says, not that we should be “agnostic” about growth, but that growth is effectively over and we need to deal with this fact immediately. David Wallace-Wells describes our rapidly approaching “uninhabitable Earth.” Bill McKibben sees our civilization at the point of “faltering.” Joseph Romm describes a rapidly approaching world significantly inhospitable to human life.

But my second point is the really fundamental one. As with the other thinkers cited in the preceding paragraph, Kate Raworth has made a great step forward with the Doughnut Model of economics, but she has not really followed Buckminster Fuller’s advice to change the model. Changing the model in economic textbooks is not going to succeed unless we concomitantly change the global political-economic system in fundamental ways that go far beyond these textbooks and beyond economics.

She declares that we have ignored the emerging science of systems thinking and systems analysis. But perhaps sitting in her cushy first world setting in the UK, surrounded by similarly caring well-educated, comfortable colleagues, distracts from the fact that the present world system is designed to defeat Doughnut Economics. This design of the global political system has put us in perpetual danger of nuclear holocaust wiping out civilization for the past 70 years. Here and there Raworth hints at this truth (of imperialism, nation-state warring, the secrecy and the corruption that this system breeds). However, she fails to recognize that these facts require changing the global political system along with its economic system.

Above we saw her state that, “Beyond merely rewriting macroeconomic models, however, this lock-in highlights the need for innovative thinkers in international relations to turn their attention to strategies that could help to usher in a future of growth-agnostic global governance” (p. 238).  International relations? Relations between militarized sovereign states recognizing no effective law above themselves? Not uniting humanity in a regenerative and restorative democratic world system?

Apparently, we are supposed to “get savvy about systems” but not that savvy. Buckminster Fuller, whom she quotes as saying we need a new model rather than fighting the old one, advocated a truly new model: “The synergistic effectiveness of a world-around integrated industrial process is inherently vastly greater than the confined synergistic effect of sovereignly operating separate systems. Ergo, only complete world desovereignization can permit the realization of an all humanity high standard support” (1972, p. 88).

Fuller advocated democratic world government. The world system goes way beyond a global economic system predicated on growth of GDP.  She appears to recognize this and says that we must integrate the market, the state, the commons, and the household as a regenerative and restorative community. However, this appears to mean that we can retain some 193 mostly militarized planetary nation-states with absolute territorial boundaries. Clearly we need more than “creative international relations” if we want to survive on this planet. This book is systematically (and I think intentionally) vague on this issue so as not to offend the powers that be and so as to appear affirmative and positive in its outlook.

She points out that we “nurture human nature” for better or worse through the kind of systems we create. She apparently wants to nurture human nature while retaining the system of militarized sovereign nation-states that overtly attempts to “nurture” their citizens into nationalism, patriotism, militarism, national competitive spirit, national security regimes, borders blocking immigration, and an “us versus them” orientation. It should be obvious that if we join the world join together politically, then human nature will be vastly more “nurtured” toward the common good of the entire planet than if they remain fragmented in waring, militarized nation-states.

In systems theory, the parts influence the character of the whole and the whole influences the behavior and character of the parts. A politically united Earth (the whole) would change the thinking and behavior of the parts sufficiently for Doughnut Economics to have a chance to save the planet. On the other hand, today’s world system is structured for economic and military rivalry among nations, economic rivalry among corporations, secrecy, manipulation and propaganda among rival religious and national ideologies, and entertainment-style non-news among gigantic profit-making news corporations, much of which is designed to cover up the planetary crisis and promote the existence and success of the profit-making, winner take all capitalist world system.

The alternative holistic and integrative economic thinking that the world needs so badly cannot succeed unless we take systems science seriously enough to realize that we must necessarily change the entire world system. Capitalism and the fragmented system of territorially bound, militarized nation-states are internally linked. You cannot change the one unless you also transform the other.

Despite the many fascinating examples that Raworth gives of groups and entrepreneurs thinking in these new terms, the immense trajectory of the present omnicidal world system appears unstoppable. It cannot be converted to a regenerative, non-growth, distributive, worldwide system through attempting to reform thought and practice within the framework of the present world system.

 The only thing that makes possible a total transformation of our planet from unsustainable disaster to truly creative and life-affirming sustainability is by uniting humanity under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.  The combined trajectory of the global momentum is too immense to allow the “butterfly” of a transformed economic model to emerge from the “caterpillar” of destruction now engulfing the Earth.

She claims that the new system must be based on “transparency,” while the current world system is directly based on massive secrecy. However, the Earth Constitution puts transparency first.  It provides the necessary global medium for open standards, open source, and open data. It unites all humanity within a common legal framework dedicated to fostering the planetary common good of peace, reasonable equality, and sustainability.

It does not imagine (as Raworth appears to do) that somehow human beings will become suddenly like herself (caring, humanistic, generous, loving).  She correctly says we must “nurture human nature,” but ignores that the present system is designed to bring out the worst in human nature: competition, hate, fear, nationalism, exploitation, enforced inequality, corruption, endless weapons, secrecy, and the criminal malfeasance that secrecy engenders. It is the logic of the system, of the present world system, that brings out these horrible consequences. If we truly change the system, entirely different consequences will follow.

Ratifying the Earth Constitution is the only practical means that can make possible a Doughnut Economics orientation practiced everywhere on Earth with transparency, fairness, openness, and solidarity. As long as the present fragmented and fragmenting world system predominates, the wonderful vision of people like Raworth will remain unfulfilled.  She cites concerned financial experts who declare that “the global financial system as we know it needs to shrink, simplify, diversify and deleverage” (p. 199).

But that is exactly what Articles 4, 8, and many other articles of the Earth Constitution do for the planet.  What else is going provide this unity and vision for the planet when the present privatized global financial system is bigger and independent of any nation from Wall Street to Hong Kong to London?  The Earth Financial System under the Constitution establishes the simplicity of global public banking directed to humanity’s common good of sustainability, reasonable equality, and world peace.  It finances with minimal cost (without profit-making interest) all creative projects for a better, regenerative world, requiring no collateral or prior wealth to finance these projects.

There is no need to attract private investors to finance worthwhile regenerative projects. The “global financial system” now belongs to the people of Earth, not private, profit obsessed entrepreneurs who are often simply criminals dressed in suit and tie. The present global financial system attracts and encourages such people because it is structured for private monetary profit.  The one thing that could bring Doughnut Economics truly and rapidly to our world, Kate Raworth ignores.

She argues that state taxes and regulations must phase in the “use of life-friendly chemistry only, along with net-zero and net-positive industrial standards” (p. 202). How could this possibly be done without enforceable, democratic world laws? Twenty-five percent of the world’s nations today are not democracies, and an additional thirty-five percent protect only some of their citizens’ human rights. Even so-called “democratic” states are controlled by special interests.  In the USA, this is clearly the case, with an industrial-military-academic complex hell bent to dominate the world through wars, subversion, and economic exploitation. The world’s most powerful nation is an oligarchy run by special interests. Doughnut Economics does not have a chance unless we can unite the world within global democracy.

How is “the state” going to support a regenerative and restorative financial system and system of laws?  The sovereign nation-state cannot. If imperialism and empire were not the role of the USA, it will be some other power-hungry, oligarchic empire. “Sovereign” states can never represent the people of Earth, but only their own portion of the world’s citizens.  Only the Earth Constitution can give us a world where all nations are working for a living, equitable, and sustainable global economy. If we want a future for humanity on this planet, let us take our Doughnut Economics to the World Parliament!

Brief Bibliography

 Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Found on-line at www.earth-constitution.org.  Found at many website and in many editions, e.g. Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With an Introduction by Glen T. Martin. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Daly, Herman E. (2014). From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Fuller, Buckminster (1972). Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Pocket Books.

Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

McKibben, Bill (2019). Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? New York: Henry Holt Publisher.

 Raworth, Kate (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Romm, Joseph (2018). Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Speth, James Gustave (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wallace-Wells, David (2019). The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Crown Publishing Group.

 

 

 

 

Book Review of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben

Glen T. Martin

(This article is also posted at www.oneworldrenaissance.com)

This thoughtful and very interesting book by a leading environmental activist is well worth reading. Besides accurately describing the climate crisis leading to a likely pending collapse of human civilization, Bill McKibben introduces important themes not much found in the literature on the environmental crisis. These themes include the cult of Ayn Rand individualism among the superrich, the development of super-intelligent computers that might replace humans, and the breakthroughs in genetic engineering that may point to actually designing future human beings.

Part One of this review will discuss what I take to be the main points of McKibben’s well-written book. It will necessarily omit much of the rich detail that makes this book so interesting and will focus on the main points brought up in each section of the book. Part Two will attempt a critical assessment of the book with an eye to the question of paradigm-shift and its relation to the need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Part One

McKibben divides his book into four parts relating to his overall theme of “the human game” which may at present be playing itself out. Part One is called “The Size of the Board.” Part Two is called “Leverage.” Part Three: “The Name of the Game,” and Part Four: “An Outside Chance.” In the first part, he describes some of the many horrific disasters that are happening around the world. While the dominant idea continues to be the “idea of progress”: thinking that the size of the board on which the human game is played can be continually increased. Reality has it that the board is in fact shrinking:

In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a stark “warning to humanity.” [Like the proponents of progress] they had charts, but theirs depicted everything from the decline in freshwater per person to the spread of anaerobic “dead zones” in the world’s seas. As a result, the scientists predicted, we face “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss”; soon, they added, “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with “persistent declining trends in productivity”…. There are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970…. The planet’s oldest and largest trees are dying fast. (pp. 11-12)

The list of the calamities depicted here, of course, goes on and on, and the next several chapters of this book mention many of them. We are threatened not only by large scale nuclear war, or destruction of the ozone layer, but also by relentless climate change: “perhaps the greatest of all these challenges” (p. 21).  The planet’s hydrology is changing, vastly drying up some regions while massive flooding and torrential rains occur in others.

And “as land dries out, it often burns” (p. 24).  McKibben cites the astonishing and unprecedented fires in California from 1987 to the present, the burning of vast regions of Siberia (and today, after this book was published, we have reports of hundreds of vast fires in the Amazon basin, threatening the vital “lungs of the Earth”).  These fires, destroying the very forests that we need to survive, like the unspeakable force of torrential rains now falling with the increased super-storms, are impossible to fight.  Melting ice and permafrost activate “feedback loops” that impel the climate past tipping points from which it is impossible to return. “This is our reality right now. It will get worse, but it’s already very, very bad” (pp. 25-33).

McKibben goes on to describe the past massive geological extinctions that have occurred in the billions of years of the existence of life on Earth. The conditions under which ours is happening are worse than most of the previous ones. The difference is that we are the geological force responsible for the current destruction. The Holocene geological period of the past 10,000 years provided humans with a fairly stable climate with which to develop civilization and spread throughout the Earth. But geologists have renamed our current period the “Anthropocene” because we are now the geological force changing the climate.

He goes on to describe the record temperatures now being recorded across the globe, in India, China, the US, Canada, Australia, Iran, the Person Gulf, Pakistan, Egypt, Vietnam—virtually everywhere. He describes the rising oceans and their effects on coastal areas worldwide.  McKibben then turns to the politics of climate change. The basic principle of which is that “We literally don’t want to hear about it” (p. 67).

The entire global economy is based on burning fossil fuels.  President Obama turned to fracking in the US because this increased energy independence and because gas burns cleaner than coal or oil.  But scientists soon found that a certain small portion of the gas inevitably leaked from the processes of mining and transporting methane gas. And this leaked gas “traps heat in the atmosphere about eighty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide” (p. 68). We simply don’t want to hear about it.

Politicians (like President Obama) are “elected to run a political and economic system based on endless growth.” Similarly, Canada contains one of the two largest deposits of tar sands on Earth. “In the spring of 2017, [Canadian Prime Minister] Trudeau told a cheering group of Houston oilmen that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there” (p. 70). We simply don’t want to hear about it.

It’s not a good sign that the largest physical structures on our planet, its ice caps and barrier reefs and rain forests, are disappearing before our eyes.  So: problem from hell. Governments prefer to evade it. Human psychology is not designed to cope with it. It’s happening too fast. (p. 70).

 Part Two of the book is called “Leverage.” In this part, the next few chapters go into the cover-up of the problem by multinationals Exxon and Shell and many other powerful corporations. Their scientists told them clearly early on about the effects of fossil fuels on the climate, but they intentionally covered this up and mounted a multi-million dollar campaign designed to emphasize doubt about climate science. “Thus began the most consequential lie in human history” (p. 76).  He describes this process and its influence on governments in the US through the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations.

For much of Part Two, McKibben traces the influence of the novels of Ayn Rand on the political, economic, and corporate oligarchs of the United States. The basic principle of Ayn Rand’s writings is simple: “Government is bad. Selfishness is good. Watch out for yourself. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes are theft.” He quotes her as saying “all codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people” (p. 91-92).

He traces the impact of Rand specifically through a number of these oligarchs such as Tom Perkins (one of the richest men on the planet), to the Koch brothers, Charles and David (heads of a vast economic empire), to US Senator Mitt Romney, to Rupert Murdock (media mogul and owner of the infamous Fox News Corporation), to senior officials in the current Trump administration (including Trump himself), to the CEO billionaires who run the High-tech empires out of Silicon Valley in California.

Part Three is called “The Name of the Game.”  Of the many books coming out on the climate crisis, this book is unique in that it delves into two technological breakthrough phenomena that open possibilities for the future of humanity that are deeply problematic.  These are, first, the super-computer revolution portending future computers that may be smarter than humans and might conceivably replace humans. Second, there are the breakthroughs in genetic engineering that now allow human beings to genetically design new human beings that are being born.

These chapters are very interesting, and they raise the same fundamental question raised by the book itself: what is “humanness”?   How can we find meaning in being human within a sustainable world with maturity, intelligence, and love without destroying what we are through perpetual climate changing economic growth, through attempting to replace ourselves with computer robots, or through attempting to design better human beings by means of genetic engineering.  Part Four, called “An Outside Chance,” asks the question whether we can alter our current trajectory in all three of these areas. The possibilities do not inspire optimism, but there is still some hope.

 Part Two

 Bill McKibben focuses on resistance and maturity at the end of his book. The book describes very well the immense juggernaut impelling civilization forward toward collapse and total human disaster. The movement of resistance has grown, in part due to McKibben’s own efforts and those of the organization he helped found, 350.org.  However, the juggernaut of wealth, power, and institutional inertia has not been slowed and it may not be possible to stop it before the human game falters for good. That is why Part Four of the book is called “an outside chance.”  It does not look good, but there is still a chance: “we have yet to turn the tide” (p. 191).

There are “two new technologies” that might turn the tide and give civilization the chance to survive: “One is the solar panel and the other is the nonviolent movement.”  To make effective use of the nonviolent movement means that we must overcome the libertarian idea that somehow freedom means that only I matter. We must realize, with one thinker he quotes, that “moral enhancement of a person does not restrict freedom” (p. 201). Moral enhancement means we need to stand with others to protect the human game and to reduce inequality and suffering.

The price of solar panels is dropping, and they are being installed in places like Ghana in West Africa, making a huge difference in people’s lives. Clean energy through wind and solar must be an essential factor in avoiding planetary scale climate disaster: “The latest studies, from labs such as Mark Jacobson’s at Stanford, make clear that every major nation on earth could be supplying 80 percent of its power from renewables by 2030, at prices far cheaper than paying the damage for climate change.” We also, of course, need to “eat lower on the food chain, build public transit networks, densify cities, and start farming in ways that restore carbon to soils” (p. 211). We have the technical capacity to make the transition. The only limiting factor is “political will.”

McKibben mentions the legacy of thought about nonviolence from Henry David Thoreau to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. He means by “nonviolence” not just acts of resistance but “building mass movements whose goal is to change the zeitgeist and, hence, the course of history.” It is also “the method by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few” for “the fight over climate change is ultimately not an argument about infrared absorption in the atmosphere, but about power and money and justice” (pp. 219-20).

As Naomi Klein has said, if we can’t get a serious carbon tax from a corrupted Congress, we can impose a defacto one with our bodies. And in so doing, we buy time for the renewables industry to expand—maybe even fast enough to catch up a little with the physics of global warming… In the early summer of 2018, Pope Francis used precisely the language we’d pioneered in that fight: most oil, gas, and coal, he said, needed to “stay underground.” We’d begun to change the zeitgeist, which is the reason we’d gone to work in the first place…. Anyone who thinks that time is therefore on the side of the oil companies is reading history wrong. This movement will win (though, as we’ve seen, it many not win in time). (pp. 222-24)

In this closing section on our “outside chance” for having a future on this planet, Bill McKibben speaks of solar energy and nonviolence as “technologies less of expansion than of repair, less of growth than of consolidation, less of disruption than of healing” (p.226).  He goes on to discuss the ideas of maturity, balance, and scale.  We need the maturity of being able to see what we are now doing and understand that we have the amazing power to stop it, and not do it. As Pope Francis said, we can keep it underground. We can also not replace humans with computers and not begin making designer babies.

We need to “balance” our right-wing ideologies with “structures” that make fraternity real: “labor unions, voting rights, and a social safety net” (p. 230). Finally, we need proper scale to counterbalance the obsessions with efficiency and growth.  We need to slow things down: “Taken all together, the results suggest that instead of dreaming about utopia, we should be fixated on keeping dystopia at bay” (p. 235).

McKibben’s “epilogue” contrasts the space program at Cape Canaveral with the surrounding beach and wildlife protection area where it is located.  Instead of shooting for the stars, or other planets, as if this could somehow save us, we need to be protecting this “unbearably beautiful planet.” We should be loving our planet and its people to feed the hungry, to protect sea turtles and sea ice, to welcome newborns into the world and surround the old when they are passing on.  The human game, is, and can be “graceful and compelling,” and it is only our love of it that will allow us to save it (p. 296).

His appeal concerning the ways we can resist and change the course of things is moving and deeply humanistic. But is it really a change in the zeitgeist?   If he means by “zeitgeist” the spirit of radical individualism and the Ayn Rand orientation of power, domination, and egoism, then perhaps these recommendations do somewhat address changing the zeitgeist in this sense. But the outdated zeitgeist that must be changed and the emerging transformed zeitgeist go much deeper.  Solar panels and the nonviolence movement are only two components of fundamental paradigm-shift that must take place from fragmentation to holism. Perhaps, we indeed must envision and work on behalf of a realizable practical utopia.

This book, for example, contains no structural analysis of capitalism. Neither does it contain any systematic critique of the dominant world system of sovereign nation-states interfaced with global capitalism. There is no discussion of “paradigm-shift”—the need to shift from an outdated paradigm from which capitalism and nation-states derived that included atomism, determinism, positivism, and moral nihilism (all features of the Ayn Rand arrogance of today’s superrich oligarchs).  There is no real discussion of the emerging contemporary paradigm of holism, ontological freedom, the reintegration of fact and value, or moral universalism. (Some of the books in the Bibliography below provide a fuller analysis of these phenomena.)

This book, while full of interesting and valuable details and insights, does not give us the tools necessary to develop a truly new zeitgeist, to accomplish the truly deep paradigm shift necessary for human survival and flourishing.  The egoism and destructive individualism of our superrich ruling class is not independent of the system itself, which empowers and produces them. The entire world system, composed of militarized sovereign nations and ruthless multinational capitalist corporations, must be transformed. No combination of the nonviolence movement with economically viable solar panels will suffice.

It is not that maturity, balance, scale, and love are out of place. It is rather that the world system as we now know it defeats these qualities, producing instead nationalism, dogmatism, egoism, and nihilism, even among the marginalized and desperate poor (as the “Trump follower” phenomenon clearly shows). Truly realizing what Mahatma Gandhi called “Truth” or what Buckminster Fuller called “Universal Mind,” that is, truly changing the zeitgeist, requires fundamental world system change. Einstein said we must learn to think in an entirely new way as citizens of “one world.” This is the role of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Thinkers from Karl Marx to Erich Fromm declared that real change in human institutions would precipitate a corresponding change in human consciousness.

The Earth Constitution is therefore both means and ends. Its holism brings all humans together to solve our truly global problems, something sovereign nation-states find almost impossible to do. It sets up the institutional mechanisms for a democratic global economy that works for everybody, and a comprehensive environmental program in which all nations and persons are on the same page. It inspires loyalty to the Earth and future generations, something that the present system demanding quarterly profits for corporations or “patriotism” toward nation-states cannot possibly accomplish.

The new zeitgeist must be worldcentric, free of dogmatism, selfless in the sense of agape or karuna (Christian love or Buddhist compassion), and it must be grounded in truly universal moral truths.  The Earth Constitution represents the institutional transformation most closely correlated to the transformation of human consciousness. The idea that nonviolent resistance can slow down the juggernaut enough for solar panels to cover the globe will not save our planet. The idea of universal human solidarity under a truly humanistic global political and economic system, one mandated to end war and ensure sustainability for the entire planet, will alone be sufficient to preserve, enhance, and fulfill the human game.

Like so many climate change environmentalists, McKibben appears to accept the nation-state system without question.  Like so many of them, he focuses on politics within the United States as if the rest of the world would simply follow suit if we could only get things right within the US. One of the threats to existence that he identifies is nuclear holocaust, but he never appears to realize that the threat of nuclear holocaust is a consequence of a world divided into competing sovereign states, that it can only really be effectively addressed through enforceable democratic world law.

This book by Bill McKibben appears to have no awareness of these essential features of a truly transformed zeitgeist as embodied in the Earth Constitution. The book represents a thoughtful maturity within the present system but not the new global zeitgeist that is imperative if there is to be a future for humanity. The Earth Constitution protects by enforceable law all the things that Bill McKibben wants, and it gives us the institutional and technological mechanisms to make it happen. If we do not want the human game to falter and fail, ratifying the Earth Constitution should be our fundamental objective.

 

Brief Bibliography

 

Chase-Dunn, Christopher (1998). Global Formation: Structures of World-Economy. Updated Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Roman & Littlefield Publishers.

Chossudovsky, Michel and Andrew Gavin Marshall, eds. Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the XXI Century. Montreal, Canada: Global Research.

Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Finnis, John (1980). Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Foster, John Bellamy, et. al. (2010). The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Harris, Errol E. (2000). Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Kovel, Joel (2007). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World. London: Zed Books.

Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Martin, Glen T. (2011). The Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.  The Constitution can be found on-line at www.earth-constitution.org.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation.

McKibben, Bill (2019). Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Book Review of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben

Glen T. Martin

This thoughtful and very interesting book by a leading environmental activist is well worth reading. Besides accurately describing the climate crisis leading to a likely pending collapse of human civilization, Bill McKibben introduces important themes not much found in the literature on the environmental crisis. These themes include the cult of Ayn Rand individualism among the superrich, the development of super-intelligent computers that might replace humans, and the breakthroughs in genetic engineering that may point to actually designing future human beings.

Part One of this review will discuss what I take to be the main points of McKibben’s well-written book. It will necessarily omit much of the rich detail that makes this book so interesting and will focus on the main points brought up in each section of the book. Part Two will attempt a critical assessment of the book with an eye to the question of paradigm-shift and its relation to the need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Part One

McKibben divides his book into four parts relating to his overall theme of “the human game” which may at present be playing itself out. Part One is called “The Size of the Board.” Part Two is called “Leverage.” Part Three: “The Name of the Game,” and Part Four: “An Outside Chance.” In the first part, he describes some of the many horrific disasters that are happening around the world. While the dominant idea continues to be the “idea of progress”: thinking that the size of the board on which the human game is played can be continually increased. Reality has it that the board is in fact shrinking:

In November 2017, fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a stark “warning to humanity.” [Like the proponents of progress] they had charts, but theirs depicted everything from the decline in freshwater per person to the spread of anaerobic “dead zones” in the world’s seas. As a result, the scientists predicted, we face “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss”; soon, they added, “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” A third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with “persistent declining trends in productivity”…. There are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970…. The planet’s oldest and largest trees are dying fast. (pp. 11-12)

The list of the calamities depicted here, of course, goes on and on, and the next several chapters of this book mention many of them. We are threatened not only by large scale nuclear war, or destruction of the ozone layer, but also by relentless climate change: “perhaps the greatest of all these challenges” (p. 21).  The planet’s hydrology is changing, vastly drying up some regions while massive flooding and torrential rains occur in others.

And “as land dries out, it often burns” (p. 24).  McKibben cites the astonishing and unprecedented fires in California from 1987 to the present, the burning of vast regions of Siberia (and today, after this book was published, we have reports of hundreds of vast fires in the Amazon basin, threatening the vital “lungs of the Earth”).  These fires, destroying the very forests that we need to survive, like the unspeakable force of torrential rains now falling with the increased super-storms, are impossible to fight.  Melting ice and permafrost activate “feedback loops” that impel the climate past tipping points from which it is impossible to return. “This is our reality right now. It will get worse, but it’s already very, very bad” (pp. 25-33).

McKibben goes on to describe the past massive geological extinctions that have occurred in the billions of years of the existence of life on Earth. The conditions under which ours is happening are worse than most of the previous ones. The difference is that we are the geological force responsible for the current destruction. The Holocene geological period of the past 10,000 years provided humans with a fairly stable climate with which to develop civilization and spread throughout the Earth. But geologists have renamed our current period the “Anthropocene” because we are now the geological force changing the climate.

He goes on to describe the record temperatures now being recorded across the globe, in India, China, the US, Canada, Australia, Iran, the Person Gulf, Pakistan, Egypt, Vietnam—virtually everywhere. He describes the rising oceans and their effects on coastal areas worldwide.  McKibben then turns to the politics of climate change. The basic principle of which is that “We literally don’t want to hear about it” (p. 67).

The entire global economy is based on burning fossil fuels.  President Obama turned to fracking in the US because this increased energy independence and because gas burns cleaner than coal or oil.  But scientists soon found that a certain small portion of the gas inevitably leaked from the processes of mining and transporting methane gas. And this leaked gas “traps heat in the atmosphere about eighty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide” (p. 68). We simply don’t want to hear about it.

Politicians (like President Obama) are “elected to run a political and economic system based on endless growth.” Similarly, Canada contains one of the two largest deposits of tar sands on Earth. “In the spring of 2017, [Canadian Prime Minister] Trudeau told a cheering group of Houston oilmen that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there” (p. 70). We simply don’t want to hear about it.

It’s not a good sign that the largest physical structures on our planet, its ice caps and barrier reefs and rain forests, are disappearing before our eyes.  So: problem from hell. Governments prefer to evade it. Human psychology is not designed to cope with it. It’s happening too fast. (p. 70). 

Part Two of the book is called “Leverage.” In this part, the next few chapters go into the cover-up of the problem by multinationals Exxon and Shell and many other powerful corporations. Their scientists told them clearly early on about the effects of fossil fuels on the climate, but they intentionally covered this up and mounted a multi-million dollar campaign designed to emphasize doubt about climate science. “Thus began the most consequential lie in human history” (p. 76).  He describes this process and its influence on governments in the US through the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations.

For much of Part Two, McKibben traces the influence of the novels of Ayn Rand on the political, economic, and corporate oligarchs of the United States. The basic principle of Ayn Rand’s writings is simple: “Government is bad. Selfishness is good. Watch out for yourself. Solidarity is a trap. Taxes are theft.” He quotes her as saying “all codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people” (p. 91-92).

He traces the impact of Rand specifically through a number of these oligarchs such as Tom Perkins (one of the richest men on the planet), to the Koch brothers, Charles and David (heads of a vast economic empire), to US Senator Mitt Romney, to Rupert Murdock (media mogul and owner of the infamous Fox News Corporation), to senior officials in the current Trump administration (including Trump himself), to the CEO billionaires who run the High-tech empires out of Silicon Valley in California.

Part Three is called “The Name of the Game.”  Of the many books coming out on the climate crisis, this book is unique in that it delves into two technological breakthrough phenomena that open possibilities for the future of humanity that are deeply problematic.  These are, first, the super-computer revolution portending future computers that may be smarter than humans and might conceivably replace humans. Second, there are the breakthroughs in genetic engineering that now allow human beings to genetically design new human beings that are being born.

These chapters are very interesting, and they raise the same fundamental question raised by the book itself: what is “humanness”?   How can we find meaning in being human within a sustainable world with maturity, intelligence, and love without destroying what we are through perpetual climate changing economic growth, through attempting to replace ourselves with computer robots, or through attempting to design better human beings by means of genetic engineering.  Part Four, called “An Outside Chance,” asks the question whether we can alter our current trajectory in all three of these areas. The possibilities do not inspire optimism, but there is still some hope.

Part Two

Bill McKibben focuses on resistance and maturity at the end of his book. The book describes very well the immense juggernaut impelling civilization forward toward collapse and total human disaster. The movement of resistance has grown, in part due to McKibben’s own efforts and those of the organization he helped found, 350.org.  However, the juggernaut of wealth, power, and institutional inertia has not been slowed and it may not be possible to stop it before the human game falters for good. That is why Part Four of the book is called “an outside chance.”  It does not look good, but there is still a chance: “we have yet to turn the tide” (p. 191).

There are “two new technologies” that might turn the tide and give civilization the chance to survive: “One is the solar panel and the other is the nonviolent movement.”  To make effective use of the nonviolent movement means that we must overcome the libertarian idea that somehow freedom means that only I matter. We must realize, with one thinker he quotes, that “moral enhancement of a person does not restrict freedom” (p. 201). Moral enhancement means we need to stand with others to protect the human game and to reduce inequality and suffering.

The price of solar panels is dropping, and they are being installed in places like Ghana in West Africa, making a huge difference in people’s lives. Clean energy through wind and solar must be an essential factor in avoiding planetary scale climate disaster: “The latest studies, from labs such as Mark Jacobson’s at Stanford, make clear that every major nation on earth could be supplying 80 percent of its power from renewables by 2030, at prices far cheaper than paying the damage for climate change.” We also, of course, need to “eat lower on the food chain, build public transit networks, densify cities, and start farming in ways that restore carbon to soils” (p. 211). We have the technical capacity to make the transition. The only limiting factor is “political will.”

McKibben mentions the legacy of thought about nonviolence from Henry David Thoreau to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. He means by “nonviolence” not just acts of resistance but “building mass movements whose goal is to change the zeitgeist and, hence, the course of history.” It is also “the method by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few” for “the fight over climate change is ultimately not an argument about infrared absorption in the atmosphere, but about power and money and justice” (pp. 219-20).

As Naomi Klein has said, if we can’t get a serious carbon tax from a corrupted Congress, we can impose a defacto one with our bodies. And in so doing, we buy time for the renewables industry to expand—maybe even fast enough to catch up a little with the physics of global warming… In the early summer of 2018, Pope Francis used precisely the language we’d pioneered in that fight: most oil, gas, and coal, he said, needed to “stay underground.” We’d begun to change the zeitgeist, which is the reason we’d gone to work in the first place…. Anyone who thinks that time is therefore on the side of the oil companies is reading history wrong. This movement will win (though, as we’ve seen, it many not win in time). (pp. 222-24)

In this closing section on our “outside chance” for having a future on this planet, Bill McKibben speaks of solar energy and nonviolence as “technologies less of expansion than of repair, less of growth than of consolidation, less of disruption than of healing” (p.226).  He goes on to discuss the ideas of maturity, balance, and scale.  We need the maturity of being able to see what we are now doing and understand that we have the amazing power to stop it, and not do it. As Pope Francis said, we can keep it underground. We can also not replace humans with computers and not begin making designer babies.

We need to “balance” our right-wing ideologies with “structures” that make fraternity real: “labor unions, voting rights, and a social safety net” (p. 230). Finally, we need proper scale to counterbalance the obsessions with efficiency and growth.  We need to slow things down: “Taken all together, the results suggest that instead of dreaming about utopia, we should be fixated on keeping dystopia at bay” (p. 235).

McKibben’s “epilogue” contrasts the space program at Cape Canaveral with the surrounding beach and wildlife protection area where it is located.  Instead of shooting for the stars, or other planets, as if this could somehow save us, we need to be protecting this “unbearably beautiful planet.” We should be loving our planet and its people to feed the hungry, to protect sea turtles and sea ice, to welcome newborns into the world and surround the old when they are passing on.  The human game, is, and can be “graceful and compelling,” and it is only our love of it that will allow us to save it (p. 296).

His appeal concerning the ways we can resist and change the course of things is moving and deeply humanistic. But is it really a change in the zeitgeist?   If he means by “zeitgeist” the spirit of radical individualism and the Ayn Rand orientation of power, domination, and egoism, then perhaps these recommendations do somewhat address changing the zeitgeist in this sense. But the outdated zeitgeist that must be changed and the emerging transformed zeitgeist go much deeper.  Solar panels and the nonviolence movement are only two components of fundamental paradigm-shift that must take place from fragmentation to holism. Perhaps, we indeed must envision and work on behalf of a realizable practical utopia.

This book, for example, contains no structural analysis of capitalism. Neither does it contain any systematic critique of the dominant world system of sovereign nation-states interfaced with global capitalism. There is no discussion of “paradigm-shift”—the need to shift from an outdated paradigm from which capitalism and nation-states derived that included atomism, determinism, positivism, and moral nihilism (all features of the Ayn Rand arrogance of today’s superrich oligarchs).  There is no real discussion of the emerging contemporary paradigm of holism, ontological freedom, the reintegration of fact and value, or moral universalism. (Some of the books in the Bibliography below provide a fuller analysis of these phenomena.)

This book, while full of interesting and valuable details and insights, does not give us the tools necessary to develop a truly new zeitgeist, to accomplish the truly deep paradigm shift necessary for human survival and flourishing.  The egoism and destructive individualism of our superrich ruling class is not independent of the system itself, which empowers and produces them. The entire world system, composed of militarized sovereign nations and ruthless multinational capitalist corporations, must be transformed. No combination of the nonviolence movement with economically viable solar panels will suffice.

It is not that maturity, balance, scale, and love are out of place. It is rather that the world system as we now know it defeats these qualities, producing instead nationalism, dogmatism, egoism, and nihilism, even among the marginalized and desperate poor (as the “Trump follower” phenomenon clearly shows). Truly realizing what Mahatma Gandhi called “Truth” or what Buckminster Fuller called “Universal Mind,” that is, truly changing the zeitgeist, requires fundamental world system change. Einstein said we must learn to think in an entirely new way as citizens of “one world.” This is the role of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Thinkers from Karl Marx to Erich Fromm declared that real change in human institutions would precipitate a corresponding change in human consciousness.

The Earth Constitution is therefore both means and ends. Its holism brings all humans together to solve our truly global problems, something sovereign nation-states find almost impossible to do. It sets up the institutional mechanisms for a democratic global economy that works for everybody, and a comprehensive environmental program in which all nations and persons are on the same page. It inspires loyalty to the Earth and future generations, something that the present system demanding quarterly profits for corporations or “patriotism” toward nation-states cannot possibly accomplish.

The new zeitgeist must be worldcentric, free of dogmatism, selfless in the sense of agape or karuna (Christian love or Buddhist compassion), and it must be grounded in truly universal moral truths.  The Earth Constitution represents the institutional transformation most closely correlated to the transformation of human consciousness. The idea that nonviolent resistance can slow down the juggernaut enough for solar panels to cover the globe will not save our planet. The idea of universal human solidarity under a truly humanistic global political and economic system, one mandated to end war and ensure sustainability for the entire planet, will alone be sufficient to preserve, enhance, and fulfill the human game.

Like so many climate change environmentalists, McKibben appears to accept the nation-state system without question.  Like so many of them, he focuses on politics within the United States as if the rest of the world would simply follow suit if we could only get things right within the US. One of the threats to existence that he identifies is nuclear holocaust, but he never appears to realize that the threat of nuclear holocaust is a consequence of a world divided into competing sovereign states, that it can only really be effectively addressed through enforceable democratic world law.

This book by Bill McKibben appears to have no awareness of these essential features of a truly transformed zeitgeist as embodied in the Earth Constitution. The book represents a thoughtful maturity within the present system but not the new global zeitgeist that is imperative if there is to be a future for humanity. The Earth Constitution protects by enforceable law all the things that Bill McKibben wants, and it gives us the institutional and technological mechanisms to make it happen. If we do not want the human game to falter and fail, ratifying the Earth Constitution should be our fundamental objective.

 

Brief Bibliography

 

Chase-Dunn, Christopher (1998). Global Formation: Structures of World-Economy. Updated Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Roman & Littlefield Publishers.

Chossudovsky, Michel and Andrew Gavin Marshall, eds. Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the XXI Century. Montreal, Canada: Global Research.

Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Finnis, John (1980). Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Foster, John Bellamy, et. al. (2010). The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Harris, Errol E. (2000). Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Kovel, Joel (2007). The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World. London: Zed Books.

Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Martin, Glen T. (2011). The Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.  The Constitution can be found on-line at www.earth-constitution.org.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation.

McKibben, Bill (2019). Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Book Review of Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller Glen T. Martin

R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) is sometimes called the “Leonardo di Vinci” of the 20th century. His inventions and innovative design principles are known and used worldwide. But beyond his great insights into the fundamental principles of geometry and 20th century science, Fuller was also a profound philosopher whose ideas remain of direct relevance to our endangered human situation in the 21st century.

Of his 10 or so books, Critical Path, published toward the end of his long life, is meant to be an overall synopsis of his vision and the meaning of his work in service to humanity. In this review, Part One will try to articulate what I take to be the most central ideas of Critical Path. Part Two will attempt to extrapolate from Fuller’s thought what is most relevant to our present situation in the year 2019 in relation to the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Part One

Like many serious thinkers, Buckminster Fuller’s books always reflect the multi-faceted thought of their author.  When he was a boy, Fuller recalls, his inquisitive mind was always investigating and asking questions. His elders did not encourage this kind of independent questioning. They told him to listen to his teachers and learn from his elders. But Fuller soon understood that this is precisely what we must not do. We must learn to think for ourselves. One of the great tragedies of our endangered world in the 20th and 21st centuries is that we imbibe ideologies and beliefs from our elders that obscure and derail the intuitive, innate wisdom that each individual can bring out of himself and use as a guide for life.

As a young man Fuller tried his hand at business, but was an abject failure.  He realized that the deeper problem was that in business he was working for himself, for private profit. In World War One he was in the US Navy, commanding ships. He was good at this, he says, because he was not doing this work for private profit. He realized eventually that each of us should be working for humanity, for what is universal in the universe and in human life. Private profit, like war on behalf of this or that nation-state, is destructive of our common human project. In Critical Path he declares: “It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable as mandated by survival. War is obsolete” (p. xxv).

If we want to survive, he said, we need to be thinking beyond the ideologies of communism and capitalism. We also need to be thinking beyond the ideologies of sovereign nation-states. We need to be thinking in terms of human evolution as a whole, which is itself a product of cosmic evolution. All the different nations, cultures, races, and language groups around the world are now obsolete by the 20th century.

We need to bring all these “differently competing entities into a completely integrated, comprehensively interconsiderate, harmonious whole” (p. xvii). We must make the world work satisfactorily for all humans (p. xix).  You need to become “spontaneously enthusiastic about everyone having everything you can have” (p. xxxvii).

Fuller understood the paradigm shift that emerged in the 20th century away from the Newtonian conception of an “inertial,” static cosmos and toward the Einsteinian conception of an integrated, evolving universe always in dynamic, harmonious motion. There is no longer any up or down. The sun does not move around the Earth. The world is a sphere with no boundaries, only one human civilization everywhere. The human mind can understand the “the generalized principles” governing the “eternally regenerative Universe” (p. xxxvi) and act on these principles to make planet Earth a successful, beautiful place for everyone to live.

Mahatma Gandhi organized his life around “truth experiments.” Early on, while in South Africa, he realized that life needed to be conducted as satyagraha, clinging to truth, continuously making “experiments in truth.” For the whole is truth: God is Truth. And the consequence of this action of “clinging to truth” was nonviolence in thought, word, and deed—love of the whole (God as Truth) and every person as a child of that Truth.

 

A similar love animated the life of Buckminster Fuller:

We can sense that only God is the perfect—the exact truth. We can come ever nearer to God by progressively eliminating residual errors. The nearest each of us can come to God is by loving the truth. If we don’t program the computer truthfully with all the truth and nothing but the truth, we won’t get the answers that allow us to “make it” (p. xxxvii).

Whereas Gandhi focused on the all-embracing truth in terms of nonviolence and social struggle, Fuller focused on the eternal laws of the cosmos revealed by Relativity Theory and Quantum Physics, and the amazing human mind that can comprehend these laws.  The evolving universe has itself evolved a creature that can comprehend its laws and thereby use these laws to solve its problems of survival and flourishing on planet Earth. We must love the truth (God) and thereby use our computer technology for the benefit of all persons on the planet.

We must repudiate our nation-state loyalties, our political ideologies, our racism and our greedy, self-interested capitalism. God is truth and truth embraces all of humanity. “Personal integrity” transcends all these ideologies and propaganda systems through the “discovery of truth and the interrelationship of all truths. The cosmic laws with which the mind deals are non-corruptible. Cosmic evolution is omniscient God comprehensively articulate” (p. xxxviii). Personal integrity mirrors cosmic integrity.

Fuller corroborates the idea of our common human evolution through developing his own account of the “speculative prehistory of humanity” as well as the evolution of technological developments from ancient times to the present. He makes many interesting points about these developments, but it is important to keep his purposes in mind. He is showing (1) that we have always been one common human civilization developing around the planet (even before people were in communication with one another) and (2) that technology has evolved in concert with our understanding of fundamental cosmic principles (the laws of nature) to bring us to a point in the 20th century at which we can use that technology for the benefit of all humans in one harmoniously planetary civilization.

The alternative, if we continue with our divisive ideologies or our fragmented system of sovereign nation-states, is extinction, planetary omnicide. When he published this book in 1981 (at age 86), it was already very clear to thoughtful people like Fuller that this was the choice that confronts us. Today, in 2019, we are very close to passing the point of no return.  Even with very rapid immediate changes in the fossil fuel, polluting, greed invested, nation-state competitive economy of the world, it is not clear whether we have entered the period of runaway global warming which human technology and ingenuity will be unable to stop.

In his small book Grunch of Giants, published two years after Critical Path, Fuller presents his analysis of the absurdity of a capitalism run by the super-rich for the benefit of the super-rich while the entire planet heads for omnicidal disaster. It is a system of greed, of unrestrained debt, and of political manipulation by the super-rich titans of capitalism. But it does not have to be that way. Fuller writes: “I learned very early and painfully that you have to decide at the outset whether you are trying to make money or to make sense, as they are mutually exclusive.” (pp. xiv-xv). He continues:

Humanity is the experimental initiative of the Universe. The experiment is to discover whether the complex of cosmic laws can maintain the integrity of eternal regeneration while allowing the mind of the species homo sapiens on the little planet Earth to discover and use some of the mathematical laws governing the design of the Universe, whereby those humans can by trial and error develop subjectively from initial ignorance into satisfactorily informed, successful local-Universe monitors of all physically and metaphysically critical information and thereby serve objectively as satisfactory local-Universe problem-solvers in sustaining the integrity of eternally regenerative Universe (p.xxiv).

Fuller had, of course, been making these points for many years. In Critical Path, he wrote: “Cosmic costing makes utterly ludicrous the selfish and fearfully contrived ‘wealth’ games being reverentially played aboard Earth…. Since realization and fulfillment of that responsibility [to think from a planetary point of view] involve evolutionary discovery by humanity of the cosmic stature of its mind and the inconsequentiality of its muscle, the planting of humans on Earth may not bear fruit” (p. 119).

Fuller recognized that our minds (our deep minds—not corrupted by ideologies, dogmas, personal selfishness, or ignorance) are direct expressions of the cosmic mind come to consciousness in us. Our selfish “wealth games,” like our ludicrous “nation-state games,” block deep mind. This means that we are heading toward an omnicide in which the planting of humans on the Earth by the Universal Mind “will not have borne fruit.”  Our cosmic destiny will not have been fulfilled, and the human project may well fail.

Part Two

During the years 1968 to 1991, the period during which Critical Path was being written and distributed, other world citizen thinkers were busy writing and refining the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Fuller’s best known book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, was published in 1968, the same year as the First Constituent Assembly in Interlaken, Switzerland at which the project for writing the Earth Constitution was formally initiated (see Martin 2011).

The Earth Constitution sets up a global democracy on precisely the principles that Fuller developed during his long life, principles in which the “integrity” of his own mind was progressively conforming to the “integrity” of the cosmos. One of the issues often focused on by contemporary writers about the planetary environmental crisis is the issue of “scale.”  Global trade (based on shipping made possible by fossil fuels), some claim, will have to be scaled back, and local communities will need to become more self-sufficient by growing their own food and dealing with their own technical issues (see, e.g., Heinberg 2011).

However, we at the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA), point out that the Earth Constitution integrates the holism of human civilization and the planetary biosphere with the need for local initiative and empowerment.  Only this combination will be sufficient to provide what James Gustav Speth (2008) calls “the bridge at the end of the world.” Anarchist visions of local empowerment will not be sufficient to regulate the whole, equitably and justly, for the good of the biosphere and future generations.

Fuller recognized the need for a comprehensive, focused global authority dedicated to the common good of humanity and future generations:

It was not that the problems could not be seen by others, but society was preoccupied with individual, national, state and local business-survival problems, which forced its leaders into short-term, limited-scope considerations—with no time for total world problems. The presidents of great corporations had to make good profits within a very few years or lose their jobs. The politicians, too, were preoccupied with short-range national, state, or municipal survival matters” (Critical Path, p. 127).

Spaceship Earth needs to be democratically run by elected people who see and understand the whole, the oneness of civilization and our cosmic responsibility to make a flourishing planetary civilization. The Earth Constitution, with its designed unity in diversity for all its agencies and structures, is optimally suited to make this happen. Local empowerment is necessary and excellent but under of system of exclusive local authorities there will be no global authority to direct the planetary protection of the biosphere and assure the equitable well-being of all the world’s citizens and future generations.

Fuller lived at the time when computer compilation of information, and computer modeling and projections, were just coming into widespread use. In Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Donna Meadows, et. al., chronicle the development of computer modeling over the period 1974-2004. The early computer models of climate change are now seen to be largely correct. Their prediction of increasing global temperatures, global droughts, global superstorms, and changing weather patterns were borne out during these three decades.

Today, the worldwide Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the UN uses the ever more sophisticated data, variables, and projection power to model local and global climate change over a wide variety of parameters. Under the Earth Constitution, the work of the IPCC can be harmonized with the Integrative Complex that includes global agencies dedicated to exactly this monitoring, coordination, and dissemination of information to localities around the world. This appears to be exactly what Fuller had in mind in declaring that we need to begin responsibly operating our “Spaceship Earth” and overcome the fragmented system of autonomous nation-states and self-serving economic corporations.

The IPCC has been warning the nations and business corporations since its founding with the United Nations in 1988. Yet because the UN is not a constitutional government but rather a treaty of sovereign nation-states, its warnings have gone largely unheeded and its predictions of increasing climate disaster have come true.  We need not only heed the warnings of the scientific community, we need to heed these warnings though major changes in the economic and political structure of the world system, a structure that now inhibits the ability of people everywhere to deal effectively with climate change.

The UN system does not embody the paradigm-shift that Fuller envisages. It holds back the process of human self-transcendence (Martin 2018). Its Charter rests soundly on the principle of national sovereignty and makes clear that the UN has no authority over the affairs of these nations. How does humanity create a system in which the deep mind, universal mind, is more likely to emerge in our leaders and many citizens?   How does humanity create a system in which agencies and global authorities can implement and promote the insights of deep mind throughout planet Earth?   The answer lies in ratifying the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

 

In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Fuller describes the result of this paradigm shift to the holism of the cosmos, the biosphere, and all humanity. This will apply precisely to the world as organized through the Earth Constitution. The system itself will promote universal “synergy”:

Earth planet-based humanity will be physically and economically successful and individually free in the most important sense. While all enjoy total Earth no human will be interfering with the other, and none will be profiting at the expense of the other. . . . They will be free in the sense that they will not struggle for survival on a “you” or “me” basis, and will therefore be able to trust one another and be free to co-operate in spontaneous and logical ways. (p. 95)

Contemporary physicist Henry Stapp, commenting on the philosophical and human significance of quantum physics, writes of the vast transformation occurring as new insights in science “lead us away from the egocentric bias” of classical physics to a new “image of the self, not as a local isolated automation but rather as a nonlocalizable integrated aspect of the creative impulse of the universe” (1988, 57).  The human mind is an expression of “the creative impulse of the universe.” God is truth, Fuller declares, and we draw ever closer to God though discovering our “integrity,” our deep mind beyond ideology, greed, and nationalism.

Life is not about your or my personal ego and its selfish interests. It is about all of us together: our common humanity. Physicist and philosopher Ervin Laszlo writes that “Ours is an in-formed, purposively evolving universe, and with our body and consciousness, we are an intrinsic part of it” (2017, p. 43). This is the fundamental cosmic truth for which we should all be striving. We should all live as self-aware embodiments of the Cosmos. This is Fuller’s fundamental principle.

Mahatma Gandhi led a life of satyagraha, “clinging to truth,” that understood nonviolence as the universal principle of truth that must inform all our human relationships and institutions. Gandhi also advocated democratic world government, going beyond the militarized nation-state to global law-making authorities. The nation-state, he declared, was “violence in a concentrated and organized form” (1972, 132).

Fuller likewise led a life of clinging to the a priori truths of physics, that is, to the revealed mind of God, mind which is evolving to fruition in human consciousness. These truths must also inform all our human relationships and institutions.  Like Gandhi, Fuller advocated democratic world government, going beyond a chaotic world in which “hundreds of chiefs” attempt to independently and competitively pilot our one Spaceship Earth.

One of Fuller’s central thoughts was that we begin playing “the world game” rather than our current practice of “war games.” One key consequence of playing the world game was his idea of a “Global Energy Grid” that could bring electrical power to every person on Earth. Such a grid would make peoples interdependent worldwide, promoting peace. It would improve the standard of living for everyone, providing refrigeration for food and the many other benefits of electricity.

Fuller realized that high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission lines could link the nighttime half of the world and the daytime half of the world (the daytime half always experiencing plentiful solar energy), making the rotating world itself an energy generation and distribution grid benefiting everyone. Today (2019) HVDC long distance transmission capacity has greatly improved and is being used to link off-shore and island based wind farms to the electrical grids of Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany and other locations. Engineers are also looking into using deserts for massive solar arrays that can generate the electricity to locations worldwide through long distance HVDC links. Potentially, the Sahara Desert could generate enough clean, non-fossil fuel power to serve all of Europe (Jones and Westman, 2007).

The Earth Constitution is ideally suited to oversee and implement this sort of planetary coordination as human beings convert from fossil fuels to clean energy. A system of local empowerment of self-sustaining communities alone would be wholly inadequate to use the rotation of our planet from night to day to provide a global energy grid that would empower and protect every person on Earth.  Buckminster Fuller saw our immense human potential for linking the global and local levels within a dynamic synergy.

The Earth Constitution embodies both the visions and ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Buckminster Fuller. It gives us both a well-designed system for progressively reducing violence in all human affairs and it gives us the infrastructure to use science and technology equitably for the benefit of all.  As Fuller expresses this, our choice today is between “utopia or extinction.”

The Constitution provides Fuller’s “operating manual” that can lead us into a nonviolent, technologically advanced and efficient, world system government informed by deep, universal mind. Universal mind effortlessly transcends competitive, selfish, power-hungry interests as well as nation-state fragmentation and war-making. Universal mind demands a planetary civilization under the rule of democratically legislated universal laws. The most effective thing we can do to save humanity, prevent nuclear war, and address climate change is ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Fuller, R. Buckminster (1968). Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Pocket Books.

Fuller, R. Buckminister (1981). Critical Path. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Fuller, R. Buckminster (1983). Grunch of Giants: “Gross Universe Cash Heist.” Santa Barbara, CA: Design Science Press.

Gandhi, Mahatma (1972). All Men Are Brothers. Ed. Krishna Kripalani. New York: UNESCO and Columbia University Press.

Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Jones, Peter and Bo Westman (2007). “HVDC Transmission from Energy Source to Consumer,” http://www.renewableenergyfocus.com/view/3567/hvdc-transmission-from-energy-source-to-consumer/

Laszlo, Ervin (2017). The Intelligence of the Cosmos: Why Are We Here?  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Martin, Glen T. (2011).  Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2017). “Gandhi’s Satyagraha and the Earth Constitution.” In Examining Global Peacemaking in the Digital Age: A Research Handbook. Ed. Bruce L. Cook. Hershey, PA: IGI Global Publishers: 361-371.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-transcendence: The Power of the Future for Human Transformation.

Meadows, Donna, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

Speth, James Gustave (2008). The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stapp, Henry. 1988. “Quantum Theory and the Physicist’s Conception of Nature.” In The World View of Contemporary Physics. Ed. Richard F. Kitchener. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press: 38-58.

Book Review of The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg

Glen T. Martin

 

This is one of the very few books that I would characterize as a “must read.”  Richard Heinberg has mastered a broad series of scientific studies and literatures in economics, including analysis of the 2008 world economic bubble and collapse along with an analysis of the global economic system of banking, money creation, growth, and debt. He has studied the literature on energy sources, their economics, use, and limits, on world production and trade issues in various major countries, and on resource extraction and use, including peak oil, food, and water. He cites the extensive literature on climate change and environmental limits, including pollution, environmental decline, and natural disasters.

He also describes what many thinkers have said about how we can adapt to this new reality with resiliency and a minimum of suffering. He expertly puts all this information together to make a formidable argument that we are at the end of the line for growth, that is, for the global economic system as we have known it for at least two centuries. We must urgently adapt to a post-growth world in order to avoid an inevitable planetary collapse that will cause devastation to human well-being throughout our planet.

The climate crisis cannot be addressed through further growth but only by transition to truly new age of steady-state economics, politics, and culture.  Part One of this review will summarize Richard Heinberg’s major arguments.  Part Two will examine his recommendations for adaptation to a steady-state, non-growth world system and assess the adequacy of these. It will point the ways in which he omits the urgent need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Part One

Chapters 1 and 2 of The End of Growth examine the most recent worldwide economic collapse that began in 2008 with the collapse of the real estate market in the U.S. Heinberg examines the dynamics of this collapse. Citing many studies that have been done of the collapse, as well as the global capitalist system itself, he shows that this collapse went far beyond a U.S. real estate bubble to the very structure of the globalized banking, debt, and money creation system. Capitalism famously cycles through the creation of economic bubbles and collapses, including the big collapses of 1873, 1907, 1929, and 2008, with many small recessions in between (pp. 39-40).

Under this system, growth  (continued economic expansion) is an essential feature. Today, most money is created by banks under the fractional reserve system.  Under this system banks are required to keep on reserve a certain proportion of the money they lend to borrowers, say 3%.  This means that a bank may lend up to 97% beyond whatever actual assets it possesses. The money lent beyond its assets is created on a balance sheet and exists nowhere else. It is created as a virtual asset to the bank and as debt to the borrower, who promises to repay the loan with interest. In this system, banks are leveraged far beyond their actual assets and, if there are major defaults on these loans or a run on the bank by its clients, the bank fails and all this money and credit are lost, unless there is a bailout by the Federal Government or some larger bank swallows the failed bank and its toxic assets. This is not only true of individual banks but of the system as a whole: it is leveraged by debt far beyond its actual assets.

The assumption behind this entire system (today’s capitalism), therefore, is perpetual growth of the economy.  Loans are made in the fractional reserve system with the expectation (and assumption) that the borrower will be able to prosper (grow) in such a way as to be able to pay back both the principle and interest on the loan. Capitalism requires investments, continually renewed and growing investments. Most investments in new production initiatives or existing industries require borrowing with the expectation on the part of everyone that the enterprises will grow, flourish, and be able to pay back their loans with interest.

A bank will fail if it cannot make such loans and have them paid back through economic growth or sustained income on the part of the debtors. Similarly, nations operate under a similar debt system in which nations themselves borrow from the world banking system in order to invest in infrastructure and growth initiatives with the expectation that growth (measured in ever-increasing GDP) will allow them to pay back, a least eventually, the principle and interest on the loan. “The end of growth,” he writes, is the ultimate credit event, as everyone gradually comes to realize there will be no surplus later with which to repay interest on debt that is accruing now” (p. 103).

Under such a system, there is “a built-in expansionist imperative” (p. 37). Heinberg reviews the two main economic theories that developed with regard to this expansionist imperative in the 20th century. The great debate has been between the followers of John Maynard Keynes (Keynesians) and followers of “free market” thinkers like Friedrich von Hayek (often called neoliberals). The Keynesians advocate government regulatory intervention and significant spending in order to keep the system growing and healthy. Neoliberals advocate a free, laissez-faire market with minimum government interference. In both cases the assumption is that we need a “healthy” economic system premised on sustained growth.

Heinberg notes a number of contradictions within the system itself (pp. 40-41). But the most fundamental contradiction is the assumption that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet in which there are limits to natural resources as well as the capacity of the planetary climate to regenerate itself sufficiently to sustain an ever-expanding industrial economy, ever increasing use of fossil fuels, and an ever increasing human population. He writes:

One such error is the belief that economies can and should perpetually grow…. This fundamental logical and philosophical mistake, embedded at the very core of modern mainstream economic philosophies, set society directly on a course toward the current era of climate change and resource depletion, and its persistence makes conventional economic theories—of both Keynesian and neoliberal varieties—utterly incapable of dealing with the economic and environmental survival threats to civilization in the 21st century. (pp. 39-40).

Chapter 3 is entitled “Earth’s Limits: Why Growth Won’t Return.”  Using extensive sources and the latest scientific and economic studies, Heinberg shows how we have reached “peak oil,” peak water, peak food production, and peak extraction of certain essential minerals. He points out that “peak” does not mean the end of these things but indicates that point at which production “achieves its maximum rate before beginning its inevitable decline” (p. 107).

Resources are exploited according to the “low hanging fruit” principle, which means the most accessible are taken first and then those more expensive to access and mine are exploited later. Oil companies are now undertaking mining in the deep ocean shelves and in the inhospitable Arctic regions, even though these operations are very expensive, because the easy access oil fields are declining in output and yielding less than the global demand. According to a report of the International Energy Agency (IEA), global crude oil production will likely never surpass its 2006 level, and fossil fuels from all other sources such as natural gas will likely peak about 2035 (pp. 107-08).

Water is used in practically all production processes, often in great quantities for cooling. It is even used in the extraction of much fossil fuel production. People, of course, need fresh water for drinking, washing, and cooking, and immense amounts of fresh water are used for irrigation to grow crops. Yet worldwide there is a growing shortage of fresh water and ominous signs of a coming severe global water shortage. The main sources of fresh water are the melt from snowpacks and glaciers, underground aquifers, and the world’s major rivers. All of these sources are rapidly and visibly shrinking. Aquifers are depleting faster than they are recharging, rivers are shrinking and in some cases drying up entirely, and snowpacks-glaciers are melting at rates that will mean the end of these water sources within just a few decades (pp. 124-29).

And the production of food is running up against severe environmental limits to its growth and portending its inevitable decline. This production requires not only great amounts of water but immense inputs of fossil fuel to run farm machinery, transport food to processing plants (and run the plants), and then get the food to local markets.  Around the world forests are being cut down to plant more crops, pesticides and fertilizers continue to pollute wetlands, fresh water, and oceans, agricultural lands are over-farmed and soil fertility accordingly diminished.  Food production has peaked and is beginning to rapidly decline.

In addition, oceans are severely over fished and the ecological resiliency of nature seriously diminished from all these sources. Plants require phosphorus for growth, and worldwide phosphorus mining has reached its peak production and is declining (p. 135). This means that a global food crisis is looming since, in the very process of producing food, we are destroying the biological base that makes that production possible (pp. 129-138). In addition, there are increasing natural disasters and accidents (such as the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico), all of these limits working together to end the era of economic growth forever, a growth dependent on the very fossil fuels that are causing major climate change:

The billions of tons of carbon dioxide that our species has released into the atmosphere through the combustion of fossil fuels are not only changing the global climate but also causing the oceans to acidify. Indeed, the scale of our collective impact on the planet has grown to such an extent that many scientists contend that the Earth has entered a new geologic era—the Anthropocene. Humanly generated threats to the environment’s ability to support civilization are now capable of overwhelming civilization’s ability to adapt and regroup. (p. 145)

Heinberg spends all of Chapter 4 addressing the dogma of economics that claims these crises can be surmounted because of three key economic principles: substitution, efficiency, and innovation. Mainstream economists claim that energy, mineral, and other natural resources can find endless substitutions. Human creativity under a free market will endlessly be able to meet these challenges. Similarly, the market promotes ever increasing efficiency (for example, engines that burn fossil fuels more efficiently, machines that use less electricity per unit of power, or turbines in dams that produce more electricity per unit of water that drives the turbines).

Defnders of unending growth and “free markets” also often claim that innovations can be potentially limitless, for example, inventions to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or to purify ocean water into fresh water. However, these arguments ignore that fact that there are absolute limits built into the laws of nature. For example, the second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy determines that all forms of “organized” energy will run down, leaving unorganized thermal waste (e.g., burning the “organized” energy in fossil fuels inevitably produces,
“unorganized” waste in the form of heated gasses such as carbon dioxide). Hence, there are hard and fast limits to innovative improvements:

While we are never likely to reach zero in terms of time and cost, we can be certain that the closer we get to zero time and cost, the higher the cost of the next improvement and the lower the value of the next improvement will be. This means that, with regard to each basic human technological pursuit (communication, transportation, accounting, etc.) we will sooner or later reach a point where the cost of the next improvement will be higher than its value…. For many consumer products this stage was reached decades ago. (pp. 176-77)

Chapter 5 reviews the evidence for these contentions in terms of “competition and relative growth in a finite world.” Heinberg reviews the China growth phenomenon, geopolitics, currency wars, population stress, and the post-growth conflict between rich and poor. His informed discussions of each of these issues corroborate the central thesis of this book: growth has ended, and, while relative growth is possible here and there, the global economy, energy consumption, debt and loan development scenarios, indeed, the entire idea of endless economic “development” is at its end, never to be revived.

The last two chapters (6 and 7), address the ways we can manage the inevitable contraction, and the ways in which the concept of growth will necessarily change from quantitative growth (of Gross Domestic Product, GDP) to qualitative, non-economic growth (improvements in the quality of life, the meaningfulness of communities, and focusing on meaning and value rather than economic growth and expansion. If we continue in denial, however, and continue thinking that growth can be resumed with the right stimulus measures in the form of interest rates, tax deductions for investors, etc., then we may well experience a catastrophic global meltdown unlike anything ever previously seen in history (pp. 233-36).

Recognizing the dynamics of our current situation, however, could lead governments to take measures that would not circumvent the crisis, which is impossible, but at least minimize its impact and more justly equalize the painfulness of the contraction. It would require “a radical simplification of the economy,” for which a general reorganization and transformation would be required. Two options stand out. First, we could “slice a decimal place off everyone’s debts,” including businesses, while at the same time protecting assets below a certain level (to protect the poor). Those who have little or no debt could be compensated accordingly with money added equitably to their accounts. This would be very painful, but would constitute a necessary “re-set” in the relationship between the rich and poor in terms of real assets (p. 238).

Secondly, as Ellen Brown suggests in The Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth about Our Money System, we could convert to public banking with the government creating debt-free money to address the crisis and ensure that neither chaos nor corruption would ensue.  Some combination of these two options might make our economic and financial systems “more sustainable and resilient” to face the inevitable climate limits and disasters to come. The present debt-driven system of financial speculation and borrowing with the intention of perpetual growth would need to be given up entirely. We would have to “reinvent money” in ways that did not make its value dependent on speculative money markets.

Part of Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 examine the new “post-growth” economic systems proposed by various thinkers within the growing literature on this subject.  Heinberg cites a number of thinkers who have proposed an alternative economics relevant to the present crisis: Frederick Soddy, Henry George, Thorstein Veblen, E. F. Schumacher, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman E. Daly, etc. He quotes Daly concerning a “steady-state economy” which consists of “an economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance ‘throughput,’ that is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy from the first stage of production to the last stage of consumption” (p. 250).

Measures of success of such economic systems could not, of course, consist in increasing GDP. Heinberg reviews the several alternative models for success that have been developed—from the “Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)” to the “Gross National Happiness (GNH)” measure to the “Happy Planet Index (HPI).” For example, the Gross National Happiness measure assesses success across nine dimensions: “time use, living standards, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, culture, health, education, ecology” (pp. 256-259). Hence, “progress” can be made in all these dimensions and would no longer be simplistically reduced to economic growth of GDP.

The final chapter (7) explores a range of literature envisioning alternative community and lifestyle models that are consistent with sustainability. There are “transition towns,” “common security clubs,” and “community economic laboratories” springing up all around the world. People are cooperating at the community level to begin living without fossil fuels, off the electric grids of big utility companies, and out of the big commercial banking systems (and into community credit unions or other people’s run banks).

Others are forming food coops and often growing much of their own food. They are forming community health clinics independent of big government or corporate health systems. They are sharing tools, developing their own alternative currencies, engaging in labor/barter transactions. All in all, they are creating resilient and independent local communities that will be much more likely to flourish as the globalized economy fails and the great contraction and transition takes place.

Heinberg ends the book by placing our current crisis within a broad perspective of the great transitions that human civilization has previously made. First, was the harnessing of fire nearly two million years ago. Second was the development of language. Third was the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. Fourth was the industrial revolution about 200 years ago. The fifth transition is the great contraction of today:

Now we are participating in the turning from fossil fueled, debt-and growth-based industrial civilization toward a sustainable, renewable, steady-state society. While previous turning entailed overall expansion (punctuated by periodic crises, wars, and collapses), this one will be characterized by an overall contraction of society until we are living within the Earth’s replenishable budget of renewable resources, while continually recycling most of the minerals and metals that we continue to use…. The remainder of the current century will be a time of continual evolution and adaptation…which will itself be a dynamic rather than a static condition. (p. 284).

Part Two

 Richard Heinberg does not mention the industrial-military complex that has dominated the economics of the United States and most of the world since World War II. His book does not mention war or militarism or global state-sponsored terrorism in which the top-secret intelligence agencies of the major imperial nations set up false-flag bombings, assassinations, and sponsor proxy terror forces from ISIS to Al Qaeda in the interest of imperial power and domination (see, e.g., Engdahl 2016). Nor does this book mention nuclear weapons or the global development of other forms of weapons of mass destruction.

He cites a great deal of literature on alternative communities and local, self-sufficient transition towns but makes no mention of the probable need of these towns to defend themselves against aggression and terrorism.  How will they do that?  The only possible assumption (hidden behind Heinberg’s conception of the world in transition to a steady state) is through continued nation-state militarism, international conflict, mistrust, and espionage. He never mentions the absolute need to change this system.

Is what he recommends a truly steady-state world?  Or is it a world cloaked in assumptions about the nation-state system that are totally out of date and contra-indicated to a sustainable future?  An apparent background assumption, for Heinberg, involves the industrial military complexes of the world continuing in order to protect American or British territorial sovereignty and allow his “transition towns” to flourish and spread. But, of course, to retain the industrial military complex is to retain a significant portion of the old growth and debt economic system. Vast sums of debt-created money and immense waste of the world’s precious resources are inescapably necessary for all militarism.

What if Russia or China or Iran do not go along with the great contraction and downsizing?  What if they find ways to retain their military and nuclear weapons and pose a threat to the territorial sovereignty of the US and UK where transition towns are flourishing and spreading?  In that case, to defend these contracted, sustainable communities, their governments will have to spend 50% of their wealth to feed the military complex and will have to attempt to grow in order to finance this monster.  We have come right back to the fundamental contradiction. Heinberg recommends that we shave one decimal point off all debt, but he never recommends abolishing the military monster sucking dry the economies of every major nation.

The truth of the matter is that Heinberg does not envision a truly transformed world. He does not consider the fundamental factors of national sovereignty and security. Under the fragmented world of militarized sovereign nation-states, the transition envisioned by Heinberg simply cannot happen. There are always enemies under the present world system. They do not trust one another, and under this world system, war alone can solve fundamental disputes between nations. There are no legitimate, enforceable laws for our planet as a whole. The U.N. is simply a treaty of militarized sovereign nation-states, as well as colonized by the economic growth model. It is part of the problem rather than the solution.

As with so many environmental experts exposing the crisis the world is faced with and advocating immediate radical changes, Heinberg’s account slips back and forth from a world analysis to national recommendations for the USA, without ever acknowledging this immense contradiction. Which is it?  Do we need global transformation of economics, politics, and culture to deal with the end of growth and the climate crisis?  Or do we need the 5% of the world’s population in the U.S. to eliminate debt-based banking, mainstream growth economics, along with its entire fossil fuel economy?

Heinberg is clear that the entire world has embraced this same debt-based, growth mandated, high risk economic system, a system that he argues has crashed for the last time in the 2008 global economic crisis and can never recover because we are at the end of everything (peak oil, peak water, peak food, and super-peak debt). He cites the bail outs for that crisis in many billions of dollars that were taken by all the major countries, not only the U.S.  He cites the growth dogma at the heart of the economic policies of all the major nations and the role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as, in some ways, the world’s central bank, encouraging growth and debt.

But when it comes to the new economics, politics, and culture that will emerge during and after the great contraction and transition, the world system of militarized, competitive nation-states is not mentioned. Perhaps the global industrial-military complex just painlessly vanishes into the background, going down without a fight?  Perhaps the nonsense dogma that the military of each country provides jobs for their citizens also just vanishes like the morning fog?  Heinberg’s account of the new world after the collapse and transition is hopelessly inadequate and unconscionably naïve.

This is a shame because his book is on the mark concerning the global capitalist economic system as a major cause of climate crisis, and as having reached the final end of its life-span leaving humanity facing the pain of contraction and transition to a more rational, sustainable, and just world economic system. The Constitution for the Federation of Earth provides that system. It provides a politics of cooperation and holism among all peoples and nations, rather than hate, fear, and suspicion. It provides for demilitarization of the world and transition to cooperative, integrated decision-making representing the equitable best interests of people everywhere (not just the U.S. or U.K. or China or Russia or India, all of whom now operate on the basis of their perceived national self-interests).

All these aspects of a transformed world system go together. We must solve the problem of militarism and war, for it is part of the same failed world system that has led us to climate collapse.  We must solve the problem of radical disparities in wealth through creating a just world system. We must address the problem of global human rights violations as part of this same solution to climate collapse. The Earth Constitution integrates all these global issues together within a planetary framework designed to democratically and effectively deal with them.

Perhaps most fundamental is that the Earth Constitution gives us debt-free, global public banking, freeing humankind once and for all from the absurd debt-based system of modern capitalism. It gives us one universal currency, not based on debt, but stable and valued the same everywhere. This is an absolute key to creating planetary justice along with addressing the climate crisis. The capitalist banking casino is also a casino of national currencies in which entire nations can be brought down through manipulations of the value of their currencies. This system of domination by private, debt-driven banking cartels must necessarily end if we are going to transition to a sustainable, equitable, peaceful, and rational world system.

Ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth is the most effective method of transition. Otherwise nations will be militarily competing for water, food, and essential minerals, and the world system will continue as a war system, rather than a peace, prosperity, and sustainability system.  Transition towns, and local resilient communities are essential, but this emphasis on “small is beautiful” gives us only half the story. What are we going to do about the world system as a whole?  It cannot continue to be a militarized system of some 193 rogue nations recognizing no enforceable laws above themselves. It has to become global democracy in which everyone is on the same peaceful, legal, and cooperative page.

The local must be empowered to become sustainable and reasonably self-sufficient while the global must become unified, democratic, and demilitarized. The two are inseparable. You cannot have local self-sufficiency (no longer dependent on global fossil fuel shipping and manufacture) without having global coordination, mediation, communication, and justice-making to make sure than none of the local parts decide to make an exception for themselves by invading the others for resources, water, wealth, or food. Human beings must cooperatively share the Earth’s essential resources, not pretend (as does the UN) that these are the “private property” of the nations where they happen to be located).

And we will not make a successful transition to sustainability without advanced technology spread equitably across the globe. (Not protecting wealthy corporate profits through intellectual property rights but provided to people everywhere as necessary for sustainability.) Local communities with picks, shovels, and hand tools will not give us a sustainable world system without advanced solar panels, the latest battery technology, wind technology, advanced water irrigation systems, scientific monitoring of ecosystem health, and vast projects to restore our global forests, wetlands, farmland ocean integrity, etc. The biosphere of our entire planet needs restoration as far as is still possible. How will Heinberg’s “transition towns” undertake this vast global initiative?

All of this is provided for by the Earth Constitution and none of this is considered by Richard Heinberg as a necessary aspect of the great contraction and transition we are facing. His book is excellent on the problems we face, problems created by the growth dogma and debt-based capitalism, which he calls “the underlying contradiction at the heart of our entire economic system—the assumption that we can have unending growth in a finite world” (p. 20). But his solution is confused and self-contradictory, ignoring as it does the problem of militarized sovereign nation-states, the military industrial complex, and a world system designed for competition, suspicion, subversion, and war, rather than peace, justice, sustainability, and the rule of law.

If we want the truly new era that he advocates, we must deal not only with the failed global economic system but also with the failed global system of militarized nation-states that is the necessary complement and institutionalized support of that economic system. The two aspects of our world system go together inescapably.

Both are transformed within the Constitution for the Federation of Earth into a global peace system, justice system, freedom system, and sustainability system, designed to empower local, sustainable, reasonably self-sufficient communities everywhere on Earth. The most effective single action we can take to deal with climate crisis and the end of growth is committing ourselves to ratification of the Earth Constitution.

 

 

 

Brief Bibliography

 

Boswell, Terry and Christopher Chase-Dunn. 2000. The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism: Toward Global Democracy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publisher.

 

Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Engdahl, F. William. 2016. The Lost Hegemon: Whom the Gods Would Destroy. Wiesbaden, Germany: mine.Books.

Harris, Errol E. (2014). Earth Federation Now!  Tomorrow is Too Late. Second Edition. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Heinberg, Richard (2011). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Martin, Glen T. (2013). The Anatomy of a Sustainable World. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Publishers.

Petras, James and Henry Veltmeyer. 2005. Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-liberal Capitalism. London: Zed Books.

Schumacher, E. F. 1973. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row.

Valentine, Douglas. 2017. The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, Inc.

 

 

Book Review of Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing By Frank Akerman and Lisa Heinzerling

Glen T. Martin

This book specifically examines the cost-benefit analyses undertaken by  U.S. government analysts over the past several decades in the face of many environmental issues and the climate crisis itself. It is directed at the dominant forms this analysis has taken with the ascendency of neoliberal economics in Washington, D.C. This happened a decade or more after important environmental laws were enacted in the United States in the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972). Beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. government has been colonized by conservative economists who devise “cost-benefit” formulas for environmental action that routinely inflate the costs and deflate the value of the benefits of environmental laws and regulations.

In Part One below, I will summarize points made in the book showing the distorted and falsified modes of analysis employed by these conservative government bureaucrats and economists. In Part Two, I will further investigate the issue of value and “pricelessness” raised by these authors. In doing so, I will try to place the excellent points made in this book into the larger global framework of value in relation to the climate crisis and human existence in general. In Part Three, I will raise a few very fundamental critical issues regarding the central thesis of this valuable and well written book. I will argue that deep transformation under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth is the only coherent solution to the climate crisis.

Part One

The economists who integrate cost-benefit analysis into U.S. government functions have embraced the ideology of capitalism that declares markets to be the supreme arbiter of efficiency (Chapter 2).  Under capitalism, a private company will incur costs of acquiring resources or materials for production, and the costs of labor and machinery in production, in order to produce a product offering something that consumers want and for which they are willing to pay. In this way the company makes a profit beyond the costs of resources and production. If consumers do not want the product and will not buy it, then the market “efficiently” will not produce it. Market competition keeps costs to a minimum while producing products people want, which (according to this mainstream economic theory) is efficiency in action.

Advocates of this free-market doctrine, of course, find that government regulation of businesses, whether for environmental reasons, worker safety on the job reasons, fairness and decent pay reasons, or any other reasons, interferes with the efficiency of the market, distorting its beneficial workings. How much are we willing to pay for saving some human lives from cancer deaths? How much are we willing to pay for reducing toxic lead poisoning in our children? (pp. 3-5). How much for worker safety? How much are we willing to pay for preserving unspoiled wilderness areas? (pp. 5-7). The assumption, critiqued by these authors, is that the market can put a price on all these things and give us quantifiable answers. “Cost-benefit analysis sets out to do for government what the market does for business: add up the benefits of a public policy and compare them with the costs” (p. 37). The authors continue:

In principle, one could correct for the potential sources of bias in estimating the costs of regulations and other public policies. No such correction is possible in assessing the benefits of regulation, because the benefits are, literally priceless. Herein lies the fatal flaw of cost-benefit analysis: to compare costs and benefits in its rigid framework, they must be expressed in common units. Cancer deaths avoided, wilderness and whales saved, illnesses and anxieties prevented—all these and many other benefits must be reduced to dollar values to ensure that we are spending just enough on them, but not too much…. Most or all of the costs are readily determined market prices, but many important benefits cannot be meaningfully quantified or priced, and are therefore implicitly given a value of zero. (pp. 39-40)

Perhaps beginning most emphatically with the election of conservative Ronald Reagan as U.S. President in 1979, the great moral principles that undergirded the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act began to be attacked and eroded. These moral principles included the ideas that it is people’s right to breath clean air and drink clean water, and that deaths from bad air and water are wrong in themselves. Lives are priceless.

From the point of view of the neoliberal economics that triumphed worldwide with Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thacher in the U.K., these regulations interfered with the free market, as did public ownership of forests, resources, and other government services.  The neoliberal mantra was “deregulation” and “privatization,” converting everything possible to profit-making businesses, with minimum government regulatory interference. This alone, they declared, could give us the cost-benefit efficiency provided by capitalist markets.

In Chapter 3, the authors examine the role of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), founded in 1970, and since colonized by advocates of cost-benefit analyses for all government functions. They give specific examples of the absurd calculations of this office, always attempting to show the high costs and low benefits of government regulation, using arcane economic concepts to quantify everything (including the monetary value of human lives), supposedly showing that most government regulations were inefficient and costly, and that the “free market” could do a much better job.

Chapter 4 considers the question of putting a monetary value on human life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US developed a cost-benefit analysis of regulations for removing arsenic from drinking water. Arsenic, of course, is a deadly poison for human beings that often appears in drinking water drawn from various underground sources. What are the costs of arsenic removal to a certain “safe” low level (e.g., 10 parts per billion (ppb)) as opposed to the benefits of saving so many lives? A complex formula for calculating the value of a human life put the EPA estimate at 6.1 million dollars per life.  This figure then became a common value used in many other cost-benefit calculations, such as analysis of companies paying higher wages to workers in jobs that have a higher risk of injury or death (pp. 75-81).

Only if you have a calculated cost for the value of a human life, you can do a cost-benefit analysis showing whether regulation is beneficial and efficient or whether it is inefficient and needlessly costly. The authors of this book, however, assert that “human life is the ultimate example of a value that is not a commodity, and does not have a price” (p. 67).  Yet the OMB and EPA in the U.S. have calculated prices for everything, for you cannot do a cost-benefit analysis without these calculations (Chapter 5).  What is the price of health versus sickness?  What is the price of dealing with bladder-cancer versus dealing with a common cold?  They have calculations for it all.

How can government perform efficiently unless it can give a determinate value to every benefit sought, whether saving human lives, regulating safety conditions on the job, creating good traffic laws, or removing the poisons from drinking water?  The authors advocate the “precautionary principle, calling for policies to protect health from potential hazards even when definitive proof and measurement of those hazards is not yet available.” They quote from the great Rio Declaration adopted by the U.N. Conference on the Environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. (pp. 117-118)

However, the market is all about efficiency, and government regulation often interferes with market efficiency, so the precautionary principle is out the window if it cannot satisfy a cost-benefit analysis that tells us what whales are worth (versus their extinction), what health is worth (in terms of income that is not lost or lives that are not cut short), or what it is worth to exclude deadly poisons from our drinking water.  And in these calculations, as Akerman and Heinzerling make clear, there is nothing about fairness.

The calculation of the value of a human life includes income expected or lost.  In the value of human life with respect to an estimate of income lost from an early death, it turns out that the lives of high-income people are worth more than low income people (pp. 71-74).  Similarly, for older, retired people, who are no longer earning an income.  According to these calculations, their value is considerably less per life than the value of younger people (pp. 101-02).

Even the value of lives, health, and the planetary environment of the future are discounted with respect to the present in these cost-benefit calculations (Chapter 8). There is no such thing as “intergenerational equity” since the lives of future people are worth so much less than the consumer preferences of present generations. This book is full of interesting examples of the absurd conclusions and calculations made by the OMB and EPA in the U.S. for the last several decades, conclusions that defy common sense, repudiate the precautionary principle, and violate human decency, fairness, and our sense of moral values.  It sparks outrage and horror to read these stories about what these economic ideologues are doing to us all, to future generations, and to the most basic canons of human common sense and moral decency. The authors write:

The imperatives of protecting human life, health, and the natural world around us, and ensuring the equitable treatment of the rich and poor, and of present and future generations, are not sold in markets and cannot be assigned meaningful prices…. Our view is sharply at odds with the contemporary style of cost-benefit analysis in Washington. The new conventional wisdom assumes that the priceless is worthless: today’s decisions require calculations and bottom-line balances, and only numbers can be counted…. An alternative method of decision-making is badly needed. (pp. 207-08).

Akerman and Heinzerling recommend as their alternative a “holistic approach,” rather than the “atomism and reductionism” of the cost-benefit analysis that calculates the value of individual objects and then computes a totality of them all.  Under the holistic approach decisions “depend on multiple quantitative and qualitative factors,” and the qualitative factors include human “rights and principles, not costs and benefits” (p. 213). Included in this recommendation is the “precautionary approach to uncertain and potentially dangerous risks” and the promotion of “fairness—toward the poor and powerless today, and toward future generations” (p. 210).

None of this is ever included within the neoliberal, free market capitalism that has dominated the U.S. (and much of the world) over the past four decades. They write: “Health and environmental protection ultimately involve our values about other people—those living today, and those who will live in future generations.” This is “an ethical question that must be answered prior to detailed decision-making” (p. 229).

The logic of the market deals with cost-benefit efficiency, never moral values, which cannot be quantified. Equity, justice, ethical obligations to others—none of these questions can be answered by the mainstream economics imposed worldwide by Washington, DC.  Ethically we must be concerned both with people in the future and those trapped worldwide in poverty today. We must face the tradeoffs and dilemmas honestly and pragmatically, with a “sense of moral urgency”, without compromising what is priceless (p. 234).

Part Two

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the statement that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”  The recognition of human dignity is perhaps the supreme moral principle.  From this principle, the Declaration derives its entire list of human rights. In addition, the 1994 U.N. Draft Declaration of Principles of Human Rights and the Environment states:

All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically secure environment. This right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible. . . . All persons have the right to an environment adequate to meet equitably the needs of present generations and that does not impair the rights of future generations to meet equitably their needs. . . . (Weiss 2001, 670)

All human beings have personal, social, and environmental rights, which translate into the moral obligation of governments to protect and promote these rights. Why do persons have these rights?   Because all persons share in human dignity, an intrinsic value that cannot be translated into monetary terms.

Immanuel Kant made this insight the second form of his famous Categorical Imperative: “Always treat every person as an end in themselves, never merely as a means.” He clearly explained that this was because persons have dignity (rather than price) (1964, Orig. Pub. 1783). Persons are intrinsically valuable and our relationship with ourselves and all others cannot be quantified by any price. Persons are not a means to anything else, but “ends in themselves” (see Martin 2018, Chap. 2).

The great traditional religions of the world all recognized something sacred, divine, or transcendent about human life. That is, they all recognized human dignity. In the West (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), humans were made in the image of God. Something about the gift of freedom and moral responsibility gave us this non-quantifiable intrinsic value. In the East (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism) (generally speaking) humans were identified with the whole, with God or the Tao or Buddha nature as expressions of that whole. Freedom and moral responsibility were also part of being a creature self-aware of its inner identity with the divine.

These traditional ways of recognizing human dignity did not receive wide-spread serious challenges until the 17th century with the rise of the scientific method in Europe. This method included a new understanding of how everything in the universe was mathematically quantifiable. Empirical methods were developed to investigate these quantifiable relationships and the new knowledge that gave human beings immense power to manipulate their environment and invent ever new and more powerful ways of doing so (technology).  What I have called the “early-modern paradigm” involved assumptions based on atomism and reductionism, and assumptions about universal causality as well as the relations between mind and matter (Martin 2008; see Harris 2000).

Because it was so effective in manipulating nature, this early-modern paradigm spread worldwide and formed the basis for the on-going progress of the sciences. This same atomism and reductionism were behind the development in the 17th century of both the system of sovereign nation-states and global capitalism. Both capitalism and sovereign nation-states are based on the atomistic, incorrect early-modern paradigm. Capitalism is based on the atomism of individual and corporate self-interest, and nation-states on the atomism of an Earth divided into absolute, militarized sovereign territories. Today these worldwide institutions continue to dominate the thought and behavior of most persons on the planet (ibid). Together, they are a major source of our global environmental crisis.

But science as a progressive, self-correcting method is not tied to any dogmas or reductionist doctrines. Since Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, the discoveries of quantum physics in the 1920s, and the continued discoveries of microphysics and astrophysics through the present day, one science after another has converted to holism. Science now understands that you cannot reduce everything to its parts (atoms), and that reductionism is an incorrect interpretation of the world.

Out of this holism the ecological sciences were born—the understanding that human beings, economics, and all human institutions are not independent of nature but a subcategory of nature. All parts, from atoms to species to human communities, have no substantive reality of their own independent of the wholes to which they belong. Holism understands that if we do not conform civilization to the planetary biosphere that supports all life, we will be making our life, along with much other life on Earth, literally extinct (see Daly 1996).

The recognition of human dignity as well as the discovery of holism serves as a counter-movement, indeed a complete reversal, from the early-modern paradigm of atomism and reductionism. Holism means we are all interdependent and interrelated with one another (worldwide), and dignity means that our most fundamental relationship to one another and to future generations is moral, and not quantifiable.  These are universal, planetary values requiring universal, planetary solutions.

A decent, healthy economics must conform to these realities, as well as to the laws and limits associated with our interdependency within the planetary biosphere. It must become holistic and recognize that economic decisions must be thoughtfully integrated into the holism of moral principles, human dignity, and equality as well as the holism of our planetary biosphere that supports all life on Earth.  Holism means that we are one species on this planet, one civilization all interdependent with one another.

If we want to survive the climate crisis, if we want a life for future generations, we must think and act holistically. We need a holistic institutional framework that both transforms the atomistic Earth system and promotes the ascent to a worldcentric consciousness. We need to join all nations together under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

 A broad consensus has developed among psychologists and ethical thinkers (as well as integral wisdom scholars such as Ken Wilber) that human beings are evolving, growing, to higher levels of moral, emotional, interpersonal, and intellectual maturity, both as a species and as individuals. We grow out of the egoism of childhood to the ethnocentrism of our immediate social environment within which we grow up to the worldcentric level of seeing ourselves as human beings first and our differences with others as purely secondary. Finally, proper growth moves into cosmocentric levels in which we experience a harmony with the fundamental principles of the cosmos itself, and with the holism of the universe, sometimes also called God.

True human maturity begins at the third stage of growth. What Ken Wilber (2007) calls the “worldcentric” stage of development, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) calls the stage of “moral autonomy.” At this stage (which Kohlberg explicitly identifies with Kant’s ethics), one no longer takes one’s values from the surrounding ethnocentric culture but rather recognizes universal values autonomously, judged for their coherence, consistency, and universality.  My book Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence argues that mature worldcentric and morally autonomous human beings have progressively understood the concept of human rights within ever-larger frameworks since the 18th century.  This is summarized in the following chart.

THREE GENERATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Political Rights (18th century): The recognition that all humans have reasoning ability and therefore the right to political freedoms, allowing them to participate in government as well as live independent lives.
Economic and Social Rights (19th century): The recognition that all humans pursue goals in their lives, and therefore possess the rights to an economic and social well-being that makes reasonably possible the pursuit of their goals.
Planetary Rights (20th century): The recognition that neither political nor economic rights have meaning apart from a world system that includes substantial peace and a protected, viable planetary biosphere capable of supporting a healthy and productive lives.   (Martin 2018, p. 210)

Human beings have been growing for the past three centuries into a moral maturity progressively recognizing universal human rights and dignity. These so-called third generation “planetary rights” are embodied within the Earth Constitution. If we want a future on this planet, we must organize both economics and politics (in the form of global democracy) under the authority of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. We have planetary rights to both peace and a protected global environment. We can only survive on-going climate disaster by joining together under this constitution. It embodies both the holism discovered by contemporary science and the planetary maturity discovered by psychologists and spiritual thinkers.

Part 3

Akerman and Heinzeling appear to know nothing of these planetary conclusions. They are writing in terms of the internal discussions within the United States, characterized by progressives versus conservatives, human rights defenders versus free market ideologues.  Perhaps, this is why the hope for a decent human future may primarily lie with thoughtful people outside the United States.

The internal level of planetary awareness or worldcentric maturity within the US is relatively low. These authors find it necessary to argue that there are some things that are priceless and non-quantifiable.  The dominant consciousness within the U.S. does not even see these obvious truths. The U.S. government is dominated by egocentric and ethnocentric capitalists who continue to operate under the delusory early-modern paradigm of atomism and reductionism.

But even the consciousness of the authors of this book (Priceless) is not particularly worldcentric or mature in a planetary sense. In their argument with the free market ideologues, they attempt to appeal to the best example they can think of in which values and precautionary principles (not reductionistic cost-benefit analyses) have been behind U.S. government economic decisions. The example they give is U.S. military spending:

Advocates of military spending appeal to beliefs about threats to our way of life, offering broad statements for response and, in classic “command and control” mode, proposing major weapons systems on the basis of their expected technical performance. Questions of cost minimization and budget constraints enter only at a much later stage, in the details of implementation. Those who complain about excessive costs are suspected, often correctly, of harboring deeper objections to the weapons programs under discussion…. Why, then, do we imagine that there is a stingy, fixed total of resources available for defending ourselves, our children, and our surroundings against environmental and occupational harm?  No one ever imagines it when it comes to defending ourselves against military threats. (pp. 219-220)

Is the political dialogue in the United States really so naïve as to think that the vast U.S. military-industrial machine built up since World War II is really about moral values, about something noble and worth defending?  Have all the antiwar struggles of thinking people and groups against the Vietnam War, the Central America wars of the 1980s and 90s, the Yugoslavia War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the Syria War, and the danger of nuclear holocaust, without end, not made a dent in the thinking of these mainstream liberal advocates of environmental protection? Have they not read about the sordid history of the CIA, which is a global criminal organization? (Valentine 2017).

Have they not heard of imperialism, the drive to global domination, world system exploitation of the periphery by the center, or “national security” needs to control the Middle East supplies of the world’s oil? (e.g., Petras and Veltmeyer 2005).  The otherwise excellent points in this book, and their many detailed examples of the bizarre economic reasoning behind the free market ideologues who have colonized the U.S. government, deserve attention. But their solution, that we need to deal with the climate crisis according to the same values that make us spend so much on militarism, truly appears to derail any reasonable solution to the climate crisis. Their appeal to “holism” appears as totally inadequate.

U.S. militarism, empire, and imperialism are part of the same ideological package behind the free-market ideology that resists facing up to the truly daunting challenge of climate collapse. Capitalism requires military force to protect markets and resources. If militarism is their example of noble values that do not require a reductionistic cost-benefit analysis, then it may be that their reasons for wanting to confront the climate crisis are equally spurious. Where is the human universality and solidarity required by truly universal values embodied in the value-chart above?  How can our necessary solidarity with the rest of the world in dealing with the climate crisis be reconciled with our on-going military spying, aggression, and domination over the rest of the world? There is a contradiction here of gigantic proportions.

Where is there a worldcentric maturity that sees human civilization as one holistically interdependent phenomenon?  It is not to be found in this book. The need to confront climate crisis is linked to the equally urgent need to confront the possibility of nuclear holocaust and global militarism.  The world’s anti-war movements and the world’s environmental struggles are two sides of the same coin. We need a new world system predicated on peace, justice, and sustainability as universal human values, as universal human rights, not as so-called “American” values.

We need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth as the most promising document that can give us the economic, political, and moral foundations for a truly new and liberated human civilization. It along provides the holistic framework necessary for uniting humanity to deal with climate crisis, justice issues, and demilitarizing the world. Nothing less than this will make a future possible for subsequent generations. The Earth Constitution is truly the key to the next stage in human intellectual, spiritual, and moral maturity. Its ratification should be our central priority. Both the values, and the future, that it embodies are truly “priceless.”

Works Cited

 Akerman, Frank and Lisa Heinzerling (2004). Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing. New York: The New Press.

Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Found on-line in many languages and many locations such as www.earth-constitution.org and www.worldparliament-gov.org.   In paperback from, edited by Glen T. Martin at the Institute for Economic Democracy Press, 201

Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

Harris, Errol E. (2000). Apocalypse and Paradigm: Science and Everyday Thinking. Newport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Kant, Immanuel. 1964. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Trans. H. J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. The Psychology of Moral Development: Volume Two, The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Martin, Glen T. (2008). Ascent to Freedom: Practical & Philosophical Foundations of Democratic World Law. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: the Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Petras, James and Henry Veltmeyer. 2005. Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-liberal Capitalism. London: Zed Books.

Valentine, Douglas. 2017. The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, Inc.

Weiss, Edith Brown (2001). “Planetary Rights,” in The Philosophy of Human Rights. Ed. Patrick Hayden. New York: Paragon House, pp. 618-636.

Wilber, Ken. 2007. Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Integral Books.