Sustainable Luxury

How can we grow the world we want?

Bioneers CEO and Co-Founder, Kenny Ausubel reflects on the pressing environmental and social challenges of our time and the real solutions needed for a global transformation.

A few years ago, I got an email from Paris inviting Bioneers to put together part of the program for a conference there. It was called “Sustainable Luxury.” I thought it was a joke.

I learned the event was basically a Green Fest for the .01 percent. We declined the invitation, but the idea stuck with me. Sustainable luxury: Is that what it’s all about?

It’s no coincidence climate extremes are striking simultaneously with the greatest extremes of wealth ever seen in human civilization. Call it bottom down and top up — the height of inequality.

Corporate economic globalization has hyper-concentrated wealth in the hands of the even fewer. They’ve captured political systems, the media and ideologies that drive the destruction. A handful of billionaire plutocrats who profit from fossil fuels hold the world economy hostage and dominate U.S. government policy.

The driving force behind today’s unprecedented globalized collapse is financial. Futurist and economist Hazel Henderson has characterized conventional economics as “a form of brain damage.”

It’s Boom and Doom — the final throes of an oligarchic economic system bedeviled by the stranded assets of Big Oil and the impossibility of unlimited material growth on a finite planet.

Societies slide into crisis when slammed by multiple shocks or stressors at the same time. Climate disruption is propelling both natural and human systems toward their tipping points.

Prior civilizations met their demise by cutting down forests, eroding topsoil, and building burgeoning cities in dry areas that ran short of water, sometimes hastened by climate change. Until now, the damage has always been localized.

When Jared Diamond examined the demise of the Mayan civilization in Mexico, he teased out the final thread from the unraveled tapestry: political leadership. He wrote, “Their attention was evidently focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all these activities.” Sound familiar?

Energy is a nation’s master resource. Each empire has had an idiosyncratic ability to exploit a particular energy source that propelled its rise to economic power. The Dutch learned how to tap wood, wind, and water. The British Empire burned coal. The American empire has hung fire with oil.

Ecological regime change demands political regime change.

The cautionary tale is this: No empire has been able to manage the transition to the next energy source. The joker in the deck this time around is the climate imperative to fast-forward the transition off fossil fuels worldwide. It requires the most complex and diabolically urgent transition in the history of human civilization. Nothing like it has ever been done.

Ecological regime change demands political regime change. As Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown wrote, “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth. We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems.”

Just as economics is driving the destruction, it needs to power the restoration -- to transform the global economy from a vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle. Despite “free market laissez-faire” rhetoric, great wealth throughout U.S. history has been accumulated through manipulating the political system and through corruption. It has been nearly totally dependent on government policies.

So what happens when enlightened policies are put in place?

In the absence of sufficient U.S. federal leadership, it’s cities and states that are largely moving the needle on addressing climate disruption. As the world’s 8th California has long played a catalytic role in the development of landmark national environmental laws and standards.

California is spending $120 billion on clean energy in the next five years, more than any other state and most foreign countries.

As Tom Hayden has reported, “Since Governor Jerry Brown’s first term in 1974, California has been on a steady march to an alternative energy future. Enter Brown today as a modern Archimedes, the ancient Greek philosopher who searched for a leverage point from which to transform the world. California is that leverage point.”

Governor Brown began his current term by passing game-changing climate legislation, and building on the AB32 global warming legislation of the previous Governor. He has populated the administration with savvy, skillful policy makers designing leading-edge climate policies. Coupled with visionary lawmakers, the state has developed and implemented a broad suite of clean energy and low-carbon incentives and policies, while maintaining a fairly robust economy and green jobs creation.

California is spending $120 billion on clean energy in the next five years, more than any other state and most foreign countries. It’s poised to achieve 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, and may double its rate by 2030. Consumers have saved an estimated $74 billion on energy efficiency programs. Silicon Valley leads the U.S. with 2/3 of green venture capital.

While fracking policy remains a serious unresolved issue, California is showing how an advanced economy can set future targets of 100 percent renewables without nuclear power. Goals in the coming decade include 1.5 million zero-emission cars and a million solar rooftops. New state building codes are driving the proliferation of zero-net energy buildings.

Meanwhile distributed energy is on its way to democratizing clean energy and displacing centralized fossil-fueled utility monopolies.

Dispelling the “jobs versus the environment myth,” California employs 199,000 workers in clean energy industries, with 100s of thousands more planned. Clean economy jobs jumped 20% over the past decade while other jobs rose only 2%. There are already more clean energy jobs in the U.S. than jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries.

Major environmental justice legislation is set to assure hundreds of millions of dollars to implement climate policies and jobs that benefit frontline communities. That environmental justice vision will be key to international negotiations. Environmental justice has been the deal-breaker between the rich and poor countries — the poor did not create the problems yet suffer the brunt.

Governor Brown’s strategic end-run using clean energy diplomacy has led to low-carbon pacts with China, Germany, Mexico, Israel, Peru, Quebec, British Columbia, and multiple states in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and New England.

He has helped assemble a Green Bloc of states including the Northeast and Midwest that include at least half the American population and over 40 percent of the economy, with total GDP of $6.4 trillion. Former Governor Schwartzenegger and former New York City Mayor Michael Blooomberg are also building local and regional alliances. Many other nations are rooting for the Green Bloc’s continuing political rise.

The strategy is to force action federally and internationally from below. As Governor Brown commented, “What happens in California doesn’t stay in California.”

Changing the politics will come down to growing the national and global movement of movements. The recent climate action march in New York City was the biggest ever by a factor of four — an estimated 400,000 people in the streets peacefully. There were 2,646 events in 162 nations.

It showed a powerful, rapidly swelling movement, but what was truly historic was its diversity. Appropriately led by the world’s indigenous peoples, it crystallized a landmark global coalition reflecting wildly diverse social movements, professions and walks of life.

It’s a story going back many centuries. Follow the money.

This diversity signified the return of the repressed — all those who’ve been excluded, marginalized, and harmed by the systematic privatization and ravaging of the global commons. It’s a story going back many centuries. Follow the money.

The so-called “transition” from feudalism to capitalism was in truth a blood-soaked three-centuries of class war waged with inconceivable violence and overwhelming force.

In the wake of the Roman Empire’s demise, feudalism’s fragmented fiefdoms were characterized by a cavernous wealth gap, military dictatorships, and local self-sufficiency. As Thomas Hobbes put it, life was “nasty, brutish and short.”

Population was the basis of wealth. When the Black Death of 1346–1353 killed off a third of Europe’s people, it ignited a labor crisis and drove up the cost. A wave of revolution swept the land. By the end of the 1400s, the European peasantry and urban workers had gained unprecedented power and increased wages.

Feudal manors became uneconomic, the Downton Abbey syndrome. Estates were sold to merchants to raise export crops as investments. Enclosure laws privatized the commons and forced tenants off the land. Money replaced nature as the preferred medium for the accumulation of wealth, transforming landless peasants and workers into wage slaves.

The labor crisis had other world-changing consequences. The elites set their sights on women as the means of reproduction. Supported by the Church, they criminalized abortion, birth control and sodomy.

Women’s reproduction and labor became forced labor. Women were excluded from most paid jobs, condemned to prostitution and begging. A systematic social enclosure restricted women to the home as the property of their husbands.

Thus began a true war against women. Over the next two centuries, savage witchhunts caused the mass murder and torture of at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women, along with the confiscation of their property. At the root were unmistakable economic motives.

Simultaneous with the war against workers and women came the conquest of the Americas. Colonization yielded the biggest transfer of wealth in history: a fifteen-fold increase in Europe’s money supply. Gold and silver made possible the global economy as we know it.

The colonial enslavement and genocide of the indigenous populations of the Americas was modeled in part on the witchhunts. Within a century, 95 percent of the indigenous populations of the Americas were dead. When this genocide caused another cataclysmic labor crisis and fears of economic collapse, the elites began enslaving Africans.

Led by King Cotton, plantations became the fodder of the Industrial Revolution. As Edward E. Baptist documents in “The Half Has Never Been Told,” capital extracted from slave labor enriched European as well as American bankers from the North and South, along with merchants and manufacturers. Slave owners invented innovative financial and accounting instruments, such as bonds with slaves as collateral, often backed by state credit.

Slavery was foundational, not incidental, to the evolving capitalist economy. As historian John Mohawk observed, “Commerce and warfare, or the threat of armed violence, would become the founding partnership in the production of modernity.”

But above all, a new model of labor management had been set: export-oriented production, economic integration, and the international division of labor.

With the bloodstained advance of capitalism came a worldview and ideology. The central metaphor was the machine: Mechanical Philosophy. In this objectified view, the body, nature, the Earth and women became resources to be exploited. The influential Enlightenment thinker Francis Bacon modeled his methods of scientific investigation on the interrogation of witches under torture.

The ideological war against witchcraft and magic was directed against the commonly held worldview that saw nature and the cosmos as a living organism: animate, conscious, co-creative, and responsive to the individual’s participation. Women, nature and the Earth were seen as nurturing mothers.

We’re coming full circle back to ancient indigenous wisdom we all once held — interdependence, kinship, reciprocity and reverence.

If there’s one thing we know today with certainty, nature is not a machine. The oneness and interconnection of everything are irreducible, dynamic, participatory. We’re coming full circle back to ancient indigenous wisdom we all once held — interdependence, kinship, reciprocity and reverence.

As Janine Benyus put it, “Our biological elders have been here much longer than we have. Organisms have done everything we want to do, but without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future.

“In the process of meeting their needs, organisms manage to fertilize the soil, clean the air and water, and mix the right cocktail of atmospheric gasses that life needs to live.

“What life in ensemble has learned to do is to create conditions conducive to life. That’s what we have to learn too. Luckily, we need only step outside and ask the local geniuses that surround us.”

Mechanical Philosophy and the centuries-long race to the profitable bottom help explain why the sky is falling. Sustainable luxury is founded on sustained inequality and violence. It helps explain why the diversity of the global climate action march is the return of the repressed.

As civil rights leader J.L. Chestnut said in 2001 at Bioneers: “Fighting on behalf of women, on behalf of minority people of color, fighting on behalf of the environment and the planet are all one big battle. We bioneers know that violence, greed, racism, unchecked materialism and abuse of this planet and nature are their own form of terrorism, and will eventually destroy us if we don’t first put an end to it.”

In 1990 Bioneers put forth the proposition that the solutions are largely present. At the time, we could count the genuinely significant paradigm-shifting visionaries and solutions in a given field on one or two hands. Twenty-five years later, it’s impossible to keep up with the avalanche of authentic solutions, creative responses, and radical transformations occurring in global consciousness and behavior. We’ve seen many of these pathfinders and emergent fields move from margin to mainstream.

The Stone Age didn’t end because people ran out of stones. We’re participating in a profound global transformation. As Bioneers has shown for 25 years, social and scientific innovators have been developing and demonstrating far better technological, economic, social, and political models, often inspired by the wisdom of the natural world.

The solutions are largely present for just-in-time delivery. Now we need to rapidly spread and scale them.

As Naomi Klein wrote, “The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system — one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power.”

In this time, we’re all called upon to be leaders — and leadership resides in community.

It’s the moment of truth to turn vision into action to grow the world we want — the world the world wants. It’s bottom up and top down – all hands on deck to generate the biggest and fastest economic, industrial, political and cultural transformation in history.

In this time, we’re all called upon to be leaders — and leadership resides in community.

I am so grateful this astonishing Bioneers community of leadership exists today to meet this epochal moment.

The coming years are going make the ‘60s look like the ‘50s. Everything is up for reinvention and everything is going to change. In what ways hinges on what we do at this once-in-a-civilization moment.

Together we can move the world from breakdown to breakthrough. Are you up for it, bioneers?

-Kenny Ausubel