It may be possible for the global
system to undergo a change in state, a fundamental shift from one of
increasingly intractable interrelated crises to one characterized by mutually
reinforcing synergetic solutions.
The global situation
has become like a Gordian knot wherein it appears that all attempts to solve
any one crisis in isolation only makes others worse. We face myriad crises, all aspects of an
unprecedented breakdown in many global systems that is already coming to a head
and will become acute within a decade or less.
Spiraling debt, the impending end of abundant oil, global warming,
overpopulation, mass extinction and a general acceleration of change verging on
chaotic instability can all be seen as part of a pattern of converging
indicators at a unique moment in history.
Many of these trends (enumerated in more detail below) are still accelerating
and are apparently characterized by logarithmic curves.
Mathematically, a “log curve”
becomes ever steeper as it goes off toward infinity. When the log curve describes a finite trend
such as population growth, or the rate of consumption of renewable resources, a
serious problem is implied. For example,
in many species such as bacteria in a Petri dish, or rabbits on an island,
given a sufficient food supply the population will first spike with a growth
rate following a log curve, and then crash.
This overall pattern is known as the “J-curve.”
It is easy to imagine how the
current trajectory of our civilization could also turn out to follow a
J-curve. Indeed, many analysts who have
examined global trends in detail would say that a purely rational assessment of
the situation indicates that we are most likely headed toward some sort of
collapse or crash. Many of them might
argue that the great majority of people who don’t share that view are in
denial, or are at best operating on blind faith. Most of those arguing that we are currently
headed for catastrophe insist that the only way to avoid it would be for
society to make a massive U-turn.
Unfortunately, this seems exceedingly unlikely to happen.
However, there is another
plausible scenario. At a critical point,
key trend lines could shift from curving one way, representing ever
accelerating but increasingly unstable change, and cross over to begin to curve
the other way, representing deceleration toward a state of greater
stability. Mathematically, this
phenomenon would be described as an S-curve; the point where the curvature
changes from facing one way to facing the other is called the “point of
At this moment of transition, the
trends represented by the curve are changing so rapidly that the situation
feels unstable, but this point also represents the unique moment of opportunity
when even the slightest shift can profoundly affect the trajectory of the whole
Viewed from this perspective, a
whole range of trends, some usually seen as positive, and others negative,
might make sense when viewed together as part of a larger phenomenon, one that
is in the deepest sense hopeful, and yet also profoundly challenging. Many of these trends, described below,
represent the culmination of a phase of the industrial revolution that began in
the 1700’s as a direct result of the scientific revolution of the 1600’s. The end of that phase, reaching maturity at
the cusp of the millennium, represents the inevitable shift that must occur
from a system based on extractive resource use to one characterized by closed
loop cycles of material flow. As we will
see, this adaptive transformation is strikingly similar to one biological
nature adopted three billion years ago.
A potential plateau is implied, a new dynamic stable-state analogous to
an octave of nature, that could be described as MetaNature.
Challenging Global Trends
A number of global trends may be
characterized by the S-curve diagram and other related graphs. Some
of the most challenging phenomena include:
Population Plateau: While debate continues about exactly what the
final figure will be and when it will occur, there is universal recognition
that the population must stabilize in coming decades. The larger that final
figure is, the more challenging it will be for all of us. However, the acceleration of the population
growth actually reversed and began to decelerate in the 1970’s. AIDS and other new diseases such
as bird flu could also change the overall population plateau figure and when we
reach that plateau.
Peak Oil: The drop-off in
new oil and gas discovery heralds the end of the fossil fuel age and the
transition to solar and other clean renewable energy sources. Some analysts say we have already reached the
top of the curve, while others say it may be as much as a few decades
away. But the argument is over when, not
if, it is happening now. What is not
clear is how steep the other side of that curve will be, though all indications
are that it will be more abrupt than many believe.
Global Warming / Climate Change:
Even if we had more fossil fuel, we are running out of atmosphere
faster than we are running out of oil.
Coal poses an even more serious threat to increase CO2 levels, and both
the U.S. and China
have a lot of coal.
Mass Extinction: Biologists are already calling the current loss of
biodiversity “the 6th
Extinction,” as it can only be compared with the five previous periods in
the history of life on Earth when meteor impacts or other cataclysmic events
caused massive extinction spasms. It
took hundreds of millions of years for biodiversity to re-establish itself on
Earth after each of those. By contrast,
humans have only been around for two million years, and civilization for a few
thousand. It is very likely that all
future generations will measure us by how much of the existing biodiversity we
preserve for them. If current trends are allowed to continue, it is estimated that we will lose half of the plants
and animals on Earth within 100 years.
It is also estimated that climate change alone could cause the
extinction of 30% of all terrestrial plant and animal species.
Over Consumption of Resources: While many natural resources are theoretically
renewable, we are currently using many of them at extremely unsustainable
rates. Overall, we are currently using
approximately half of the biological output of the planet for human
purposes. The doubling period is on the
order of ten years, and our consumption rate is still accelerating. In other words, we would be using more than
all of the available output of the planet in roughly ten years or less.
Global Markets: While debate
rages as to whether free trade is in fact fair trade, for better or worse, the
world is rapidly and inevitably being transformed into one unified economic
system. The negative consequences of
current “globalization” have more to do with unfair biases in the fiscal and
economic rules of that process than with the fact that it is becoming one
Hopeful Global Trends
At the same time as we are facing
these challenges, a number of other trends are emerging just in time to
potentially allow us to effectively address them. These include:
Transformation in Technology:
Given the advances we have seen over the last 100 years, it is likely
that we can develop the scientific insight and technological capacity to
achieve the one hundred fold increase in energy and natural resource use
efficiency that will be required for the entire plateau population to enjoy a
satisfactory level of material well being, support and comfort.
Information & Communication Technologies: The Internet, personal computers, cell
phones, satellites, digital radio and television are all part of a revolution
in digital communications that is both enabling and driving massive changes
in global culture, awareness and education.
Cross-cultural Understanding and Cross-fertilization: We are living in a unique moment of
rapidly accelerated cross-cultural mixing, novelty and vitality.
Rise of Democracy: Throughout
the world vast numbers of people are expressing an aspiration for
political freedom and self-determination, often for the first time.
Growing awareness of the Interconnectedness of All Life: Catalyzed by revivified spiritual aspirations
and spread through changes in communications technologies, new local grassroots
movements striving to protect cultural and ecological resources are sprouting
all over the globe. The image of the
Earth from space symbolizes a new collective global experience marking this
moment in history as different from all previous times.
Beyond the Solar Age
While many authors have pointed
to the transition from the fossil fuel age to the solar age, most discussions have
lacked the larger context of what the dawn of the solar age actually represents
in the evolutionary history of life on Earth.
If we examine the industrial revolution as if it were an extension of
the same natural, and indeed possibly inevitable, process of evolution that has
guided biological evolution, several important and perhaps comforting themes
Peak oil and atmospheric CO2
build up actually represent the second climate crisis and perhaps the third
energy crisis in the biological history of life on Earth. The first energy crisis came when early life
used up all of the freely available high-energy chemicals for food and had to
suddenly invent/discover photosynthesis in order to capture and use energy from
sunlight. The first climate crisis, the
O2 crisis (as in too much oxygen), came when these photosynthesizing bacteria
had eventually released so much oxygen into the atmosphere that, after it had
rusted all of the available iron, oxygen rapidly built up to such a
concentration in the atmosphere that organisms started spontaneously
combusting. In response to this
dangerous new energy source available in the atmosphere, new organisms
invented/discovered respiration. Ever
since then, photosynthesizing plants and respiring animals have maintained the
carbon cycle, thereby keeping the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere in balance.
Just as early organisms virtually exhausted available resources before
discovering how to establish and maintain cyclic closed loops of material
flows, humans have done the same with our industrial technology. We will either figure out how to make this
transition like those successful organisms that survived, or go extinct like
those that did not.
Viewed in the context of the
carbon cycle, all human energy combustion technologies are like hyper-animals;
they are all on the respiration side of the balance between plants and
animals. Like animals, our machines burn
oxygen to consume hydrocarbons and give off carbon dioxide and water vapor. Actually, even human agricultural activities
are biased in that direction compared to nature’s previous balance, and we can
see evidence that the atmosphere first began going out of balance long (in the
human time scale) before the industrial revolution. Humans apparently started changing the atmospheric
balance toward more CO2 with the first large scale agriculture, beginning ten
or twelve thousand years ago, as we both reduced the total amount of tree cover
and increased the overall rate of burning and decay.
It is hard not to regard this
trend with considerable distress, as indeed the consequences for us, just as
for our ancestors the microbes, put our species under considerable evolutionary
stress. Yet, seen from another
perspective, what is happening to us now may be just as natural and inevitable
as what happened at the dawn of photosynthesis or respiration. Moreover, just as at those moments in
evolutionary history, we have already invented/discovered a new way to arrange
matter that will allow us to harvest the energy we need.
This time it is humanity’s turn
to perform the same kind of feat that nature did millions of years ago and figure
out how to capture sunlight in matter and transform it into a useful flow of
energy. Now, instead of doing it with
carbon, as nature did with photosynthesis, we are doing it with silicon, which
is in a sense the next octave of carbon, directly below it in the same central
column on the periodic table. This time,
as with each of these previous evolutionary turns on the spiral, matter has
arranged itself (now through humans) in a pattern that captures ten times as
much of the energy from sunlight as photosynthesis. Silicon photovoltaics are an order of
magnitude more efficient than plants.
Granted green plants, like all biological forms in nature, solve many
problems at once without any toxic or high temperature processes, and can
reproduce themselves at ambient temperatures without external equipment. However, the illustration remains useful.
Silicon photovoltaics may be seen
as the first example of a new class, or a new phase of human industrial
artifacts, which express a level of coherence and elegance in their design
approaching that found in nature.
Indeed, these and other new technologies may point to a whole new class
of human technologies drawn from a deep understanding of the same geometric
patterns and coherence found in nature’s forms and expressing the same degree
of chemical elegance in their composition and resource flows. Such technology might be described as
essentially like an octave of nature, as Meta-Nature, a set of solutions to the
puzzle of matter as elegant as those found in nature; like nature, already
existing in potential in matter, and yet composed of a realm that may not
assemble itself through biology except through the intervention of humanity.
We may gain further insight into
the natural trajectory of energy technology by observing that over the last few
hundred years the primary fuel source for human technology has progressed from
wood, to peat, to coal, to oil, to natural gas, and since 2000, has been widely
recognized as inevitably converging on hydrogen. What is most interesting about this sequence
is that each form of energy storage has fewer carbons in relation to hydrogen
until one arrives at pure hydrogen and has nowhere left to go. With hydrogen, one has arrived at the
smallest, lightest carrier for chemical potential energy possible in
matter. Thus, coincident with all of the
other trends described at the outset, we seem to also be arriving at some sort
of inevitable logical end point in the sequence of ways in which to store
chemical potential energy in matter.
The Point of Inflection in Technological and Human Transformation
Humanity may actually be on the
verge of suddenly recognizing that we have just turned the corner and are
already rapidly headed toward a plateau where we will have achieved clean,
sustainable closed-loop very long-term solutions for our fundamental energy and
life support technologies. From this perspective,
the transformation of energy technology that is occurring at the end of the oil
age takes on a larger meaning. Fossil
fuel begins to look more like an analog of the white of an egg, an energy
reserve sufficient to allow an organism to grow rapidly to a state of maturity
at which point it makes a fundamental transformation to a state of sustainable
self-reliance. The long-term
solar-hydrogen technology will literally be born out of the nourishment of the
fossil fuel age.
We may feel dismay at our
apparent failure to make this transformation rapidly enough thus far. Yet, once
one has glimpsed this larger perspective, it seems perhaps inevitable that,
like biological organisms near the point of birth, the global system can only
make the necessary transformation by going into a period of rapid growth and
turbulence to achieve escape velocity.
The portion of the S-curve as it traverses the point of inflection may
be very steep, like a log curve going almost vertical. During the relatively
brief period that the system traverses this highly accelerated and dangerous
process, none of the existing systems can be sustainable because all
transitional systems are appropriate only to that momentary period and are
still too inefficient to retain for long after.
Once we begin to come out the other side of that brief period, the
technology for fundamental life support needs will start to become both
increasingly efficient and increasingly durable. Only efficient solutions will
be appropriate to retain for the long term, and only durable solutions will be
worth investing in, as the return on investment will be measured over longer
and longer periods of time.
As we pass through the point of
inflection, see where we must go, and begin to adapt accordingly, we will
discover that the technologies created during the disposable growth mode of the
late 20th century were so inefficient that it will be very easy for
us to quickly make advances in efficiency. While these solutions will make huge strides,
they will still be a long way from the maximum efficiency theoretically
achievable. They will not even begin to
contemplate the durability that will theoretically be achievable in the
future. This describes the life support
technologies characterized by the portion of the S-curve from the point of
inflection up to the middle of the curve.
This period is in a sense the inverse mirror image of the first
industrial revolution and might be expected to comprise an approximately
symmetrical period following the millennial fold point as the industrial
revolution preceding it, for perhaps a couple of hundred years, though
it could also turn out to happen much more rapidly.
The next section of the S-curve,
where it flattens as it begins to approach the horizontal asymptote
representing an exceedingly stable long-term plateau, is an analog or octave of
nature that we are referring to as MetaNature.
This plateau would be characterized by the advent of technologies that
are so efficient, durable and elegant that they would be retained for
generations, as each successive iteration would become increasingly difficult
to improve upon, for example, a
perfectly doped silicon photovoltaic panel designed and assembled at the
nano-geometric scale and encapsulated in pure quartz instead of plastic. Such technology could be expected to last a
very long time; one could imagine humanity living with it for seven
generations and beyond.
The point of inflection in the
S-curve is also the point at which key individuals begin to recognize what is happening in the overall system and where it could be
going if we successfully traverse the point of inflection. From this new perspective, it immediately
becomes clear to them how their previous behavior in the absence of this new
vantage point had in fact been necessary, appropriate, and perhaps even
inevitable, to bring the system to its current state. But at the same time, those behaviors would
now become counterproductive and even dangerous if they did not shift their
actions to steer the system in a slightly different direction toward a stable
long-term future. The shift necessary at
his point is subtle yet profound, as the very recognition of the possibility
of the long-term state will itself act as an attractor, helping to make it
self-evident to players how to adjust their behavior to bring that future into
being more rapidly.
New Economic Game Rules
The most fundamental shift that
would both enable and require new approaches would not involve technology so
much as changes in the social-economic “game rules,” that constrain and
dictate virtually everyone’s behavior within the current system.
At some point in any discussion of a
sustainable future or adaptive alternatives to our existing short-term practices,
the discussion turns to the constraints of the economic system and financial
markets. While many economists take for
granted that the existing money system is inevitable, like the laws of physics,
and that no other alternative is possible, it is more accurate to regard our economic system as a human construct,
a set of game rules that are actually only maintained through carefully
orchestrated efforts and have many potential variations, each with a set of
likely consequences. It is an open question among some observers whether
stability can be preserved in that system, and for how long. The increasingly speculative nature of the
vast flows of wealth, deepening social inequity, and unprecedented ecological
crises will all pose serious challenges to the system. From this perspective it is quite plausible
that the global monetary system could suddenly go into crisis due to its own
inherent instability before anyone can intervene. Fortunately, the same innovations that could
help to alleviate the myriad local economic problems racking the system now
would also be most likely to help us recover from a global crisis.
The current monetary system is
based on “fiat” money, that is, money
created by fiat out of nothing, and based on collective trust in the system. Central banks create the money supply by lending
money into existence. Thus, our money is
debt-based; it comes into existence with interest attached. In addition, fiat money must, by definition,
be scarce to have value and bring with it positive interest rates. It can be shown mathematically that positive
interest necessitates short-term thinking by rapidly discounting the
future. This by itself requires all
players to act in an unsustainable short-term manner toward nature and human
Debt-based fiat money is very
good for doing industrial revolutions.
So, to the extent we have not concluded the transition from the oil age
to the solar age, we may still need this kind of money for the second
industrial revolution. However, it was
primarily appropriate when scarce capital equipment, and to some degree human
labor, were what constrained us most and natural materials were abundant. Now that the situation is inverted our
continued adherence solely to debt-based money is threatening to destroy the
life support capacity of the biosphere.
One approach to help gradually
and smoothly shift the situation would be the introduction of a
commodity-backed currency. Bernard
Lietaer, designer of the Euro, proposes a trading unit called the Terra, backed
by a “basket of commodities,” i.e., a bushel of wheat, a barrel of oil, an ounce
of gold, etc. In many ways the Terra is
simply a rationalization of the massive, existing barter counter-trade already
conducted between and among multinationals, in part as a hedge against currency
fluctuations. But the Terra would have
the advantage of being counter-cyclical.
That means it would be a hedge against economic volatility: in an
economic downturn companies holding excess inventories of the constituent
commodities could generate liquidity by converting them into Terras, in boom
times they would convert their Terras back into commodities and use them as raw
materials for production. Such a system
could suddenly become the safety net in case of loss of faith in fiat money or in
a financial meltdown, but could also potentially have other indirect benefits
in helping to transform financially driven time horizons.
With debt-based money, the future is
discounted rapidly (the interest rate is literally called the discount
rate). With a commodity-based trading currency, money is no longer a good
store of value, only the underlying goods themselves have value, and they have storage
costs. So the trading unit effectively has a negative interest rate, more like a hot potato. Ancient Egypt had such a system, as did medieval Europe when the cathedrals were built. There is a natural tendency to seek to create truly enduring stores of value.
Complementary currencies based on
either mutual credit, or time dollars, are also promising for invigorating
local sustainable economies, transforming social services and alleviating the
health care crisis. The Japanese
government has been studying complementary currencies intensively for several
years as a way to avert bankruptcy in their health care system.
The second major source of
dysfunction in our current economic system is the existence of externalities,
i.e., costs which individual entities, usually corporations, are permitted to
force the rest of society to absorb, rather than internalize in their own
pricing and balance sheet. This systemic
situation could be solved by international agreement changing the global rules
For example, a simple approach
would be to phase in a new trade provision specifying that any corporation
that fails to fully account for, and internalize, all costs associated with the
production and sale of its goods or services shall be responsible for a
multiple of the actual cost avoided. The
penalty could be imposed as an import tax.
The rate might start as a tiny percentage of the avoided cost and grow
steadily to 200% or more over a period of a decade. If managers knew that this cost was going to
predictably increase over time they would incorporate full cost accounting into
their normal operations and make investments in plant and equipment to change
practices so as to avoid these penalties.
All competitors within a given industry would face the same challenge,
so it would not give any one company an unfair competitive advantage, though
inherently dirty and costly industries would suffer in comparison to cleaner
and less costly alternatives. Any
company that could document that an error was made in good faith would have a
valid claim against their own insurance (but might also pay higher future rates
accordingly). Violations found to have been made with malice of intent would be
a liability that would come directly out of shareholder equity in the company.
In this manner, it becomes the responsibility of every corporation in each
industry to insure that it has accounted for all costs associated with its
activities. Lawyers would police the
system, earning lucrative settlements, at least until the system adjusted and
violations became increasingly rare as executives rapidly restructured in
response to shareholder pressure to avoid costly violations.
These are examples of shifts in
the economic “game rules” which, when coupled with a new technological
revolution based on design that operates in alignment with the same underlying
principles as nature, might propel a tremendously vibrant transformation of the
The most optimistic technological
breakthrough (which makes it plausible that we will be able to not only
reduce, but ultimately reverse global warming) is a new carbon
sequestration/utilization technology based on charcoal. The process can use biomass to make energy
along with a charcoal soil ammendment called biochar. This can actually remove net CO2 from the air while returning
carbon to the topsoil where it is needed. (See http://www.biomassec.com.)
Many other technologies may in fact be low-tech in their implementation, but pay tremendous
dividends for a global population freed from the yoke of stifling debt and
given access to useful and appropriate information. Examples of these might include inexpensive
bio-sand filters that allow people to gain access to cheap, safe drinking water
without electricity; or “swales”, contour ditches that allow people to reforest
otherwise barren dessert by catching seasonal rainfall and storing it in the
ground where trees can tap into it; or a host of permaculture and aquaculture
techniques that can allow a peasant family to live sustainably on three
hectares of spent land, rather than slashing and burning a hectare of virgin
rainforest for meager subsistence every year.
The potential for all people to
find a new sense of purposefulness and determination when given the mandate and
the opportunity to rise to a meaningful challenge is immense. We have most often seen this in time of war
when whole populations have reorganized themselves almost literally
overnight. It is even more apparent in
the face of natural disasters when people most selflessly pull together for the
common good in the face of adversity. We
have also seen it to some degree in the US
with the New Deal and even the Apollo space program. It is very likely that the challenges of the
coming decade will dwarf these examples and call for an even greater response,
for we are entering the period of the greatest shift humanity has ever known.
some ways the perspective outlined above is reassuring, as it suggests that
even human technological activity can be seen as a natural and indeed
inevitable process wherein everything that everyone has done up to this point
was perhaps necessary. Evolutionary systems seem to naturally move toward higher
states of coherence. Nature does this by
itself, and thus what we’re doing can be seen as part of a natural
process. Once seen in this manner, that
very understanding also compels us to act differently in the light of this new
vantage point; we, as humans, have both a unique opportunity and
responsibility to do so.