Listen to conversations within the Occupy movement and you will hear an emerging vision of the world’s future.
It is a world where power is “horizontal” and local. Where populations have organized into true communities that provide increasingly for their own needs and trade with each other for that which they cannot produce. It is a world much better suited, physically and socially, to the creatures that we are built to be, than is the cruel and self-destabilizing world we currently inhabit.
It is a world that, were it possible, I would embrace.
Unfortunately, this vast imagined world of sustainable and interconnected farming communities is not possible – not within our foreseeable future.
Even if the Occupy movement were to win whatever power it required to remake the world, even if we could snap our fingers and set the proposed world instantly in motion, and at the same time magically and instantly educate everyone with the cultural knowledge they would need to participate in that world, the new world would descend immediately into a chaos as bad or worse than the unimaginably bad fate to which we are presently hurtling.
On hearing about this locally driven future, one should ask this question: What powers this imagined horizontal world?
The stunning fact is that the industrial world we all know is made of fossil fuel. One hundred fifty years ago, before large-scale exploitation of petroleum, the population of the world was one billion people, and the number was not skyrocketing as it is now. It was powered by renewable if not always sustainable sources of energy.
We can’t say for sure how many people could sustainably coexist on the Earth, but the Earth’s population before the influx of oil serves as our best guide. And even if that approximation were somehow off by 100 percent, and two billion could indefinitely share the planet, we know with certainty there is no way to feed, clothe and house a population of seven billion people in a local and horizontal world.
Six of seven people alive today couldn’t exist without fossil fuel. If we cut the flow off – even if we first reduced everyone’s consumption of resources back to the 1850 average (which would feel like sudden poverty to all but the hardiest souls among us) – the population would crash from something like seven billion to something like two billion in a rapid, global, Malthusian meltdown.
If we attempted instead to wean the world from fossil fuels, we would necessarily see the same reduction in population over a longer period – which would be a big improvement over the first scenario, but not big enough.
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Maybe we could get there within 100 years through some brilliantly compassionate scheme that incentivizes people to consume at global average rates for 1850, and at the same time to produce an average (across the entire world) of 1.5 children per couple – for 100 years – without a rebellion against that plan taking hold somewhere on Earth and triggering a global race to the bottom.
But even if that plan could somehow work, and even if individuals accept its implications for themselves, it is not likely to be popular, even amongst the intrepid souls who currently demand change with their tents and courage. And that plan certainly won’t organically arise in a beautifully horizontal world. On the contrary, it would require a draconian, and very vertical world – one we would have to endure in order for our great-great-grandchildren to live in a sustainable, horizontal one.
Unfortunately, though humanity could have seen our global predicament coming (as my maternal grandparents did back in the 1950s and 1960s), the world has waited a long time to wake up to the giant time bomb we have constructed beneath our feet.
Our system is built on an architecture that is truly global. It is bigger than nations. And the profits from it have ended up concentrated in the hands of a tiny and foolish few – a micro-minority that can clearly send gargantuan armies into battle on simultaneous fronts just to keep the fundamental instability of our system hidden for another decade.
Our bloody financial and agricultural systems stand at the shore of this torrent of energy and materials that we have so recklessly borrowed from the Earth’s distant past.
It does not have to be this way. There are rational courses of action to take. There is time to save ourselves – just barely if our best understanding of emerging climate patterns are within the ballpark. But we will miss our chance if we don’t manage to resist, in our desperation, grasping at straws, and rushing toward utopian mirages.
Real solutions to our present predicament will necessarily involve at least enough centralization of power to wrest control of the world’s fate from the hands of the multinational agribusiness, energy-extraction and financial industries, and to stand down the vast military-industrial-law-enforcement complex that presently guards the world against meaningful change.
Setting such a course is going to involve leadership, vision, luck and determination. It further requires the Occupy movement to outwit its enemies and to evolve faster than they can adapt to it.
It is time to morph. Dig deep. God speed.