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Kenny Ausubel: The End of Prehistory

The following speech was delivered by Kenny Ausubel at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

As we gather for Bioneers’ 30th anniversary conference, we stand at the end of prehistory. Nature is deregulating human affairs faster than a lobbyist can buy a politician. Global weirding is upon us.

We’re in the endgame of the Dim Ages: the
collision between the state of nature and the nature of the state. Our civilization
is a failed state.

The big wheels are turning. We face a
reckoning: transform or perish. It’s emergence in an emergency.

There’s
as much cause for hope as for horror. The good news is that we’ve done it
before, and as Bioneers has shown for 30 years, in great measure the solutions
are present, or we know what directions to head in. The solutions residing in
nature consistently surpass our conception of what’s even possible.

We’re
entering the Age of Nature. It’s high time to learn the ground rules and play
by them to design a regenerative and equitable civilization.

The
formula is simple: Taking care of nature means taking care of people, and
taking care of people means taking care of nature. Regeneration is the byword.
Building resilience is the grail — both ecological and social.

The imperative is to fast-forward the transition to 100% clean energy, keep the oil in the ground, and, as Project Drawdown is showing, sequester carbon back where it belongs in a drawdown to 350 ppm, which is do-able with what we already know and have.

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Doing what’s right for the
climate means doing what’s right for everything else. It’s
the reimagination of civilization in the age of nature.

Yet the thing we need most is what we have the
least of: time. Slouching toward sustainability will not turn the tide. Only immediate,
bold and transformative action will enable us to make the leap across the
abyss. That’s what we’re here to do.

Looking back over these past three decades of
Bioneers, what’s perhaps most salient is the extraordinary rise and influence
of social movements and civil society. We’ve acted as the countervailing force
holding back complete catastrophe, while developing and modeling real solutions
for very different ways of living on Earth and with each other.

The Mayan people describe this movement of
movements as “one ‘no’ and many ‘yeses.’” The “no” is to the concentration of
wealth and distribution of poverty. The “yes” is to “a world where many worlds
fit,” a global society devoted to health, justice, dignity, diversity, and
democracy — to human rights and the rights of nature.

So, I want to honor so many of you in this
room who’ve been among the visionary leaders of these movements — the tireless
frontline activists — the organizers — the creators — the pathfinders — the
healers — the dreamers.

As a community, we’ve shown that clean energy
works. Ecological agriculture and carbon farming work. Biomimicry and
Indigenous Traditional Ecological knowledge work. Restorative justice works.

Local economies — decentralized infrastructures
— living buildings — permaculture — green chemistry — 3-D ocean farming — they all
work.

And as Paul Stamets first showed us here in
1997, we know that mushrooms really can save the world.

Meanwhile, communities are reclaiming
democracy by revoking corporate rights. Nations are instituting legally
enforceable rights for nature. Beloved community and gender reconciliation are alive
and growing. Reparations are on the table.

The forefront of leadership is coming from
women, First Peoples, communities of color, citizens, and now from the swell of
amazing young people demanding that society wake the fuck up and start acting
like grownups.

Over these decades, we’ve seen these movements
grow from the margins to the mainstream. Our job now is to bring them to scale.

We first began advocating for a Green New Deal
here at Bioneers in 1995. What may have seemed impossible is now suddenly within
reach. The questions are what it’s going to look like, how fast we can make it
happen — and how we will overcome the retrograde forces pushing business as
usual — and they do mean business.

One thing is for sure: The twin crises of
climate chaos and extreme inequality will keep getting worse fast — and people
will keep rising up in ever bigger numbers demanding and making change. That’s
what happened in the 1930s and it’s happening again.

As Tom Hayden pointed out here three years
ago, at the time the New Deal was gestating, it was not called the New Deal. It
was called “the movement.” It crystallized from a spray of initiatives often incubated
in the “laboratories of democracy” — cities and states. In a few short years,
the impossible became reality.

Social security and pensions — bargaining rights for organized labor — jobs by the millions doing meaningful work that needed to be done — and a cultural renaissance that changed the mindscape and politics.

Above all, the New Deal was about redirecting
government away from serving the rich to protecting the vast majority of people
and the common good.

As Kevin Baker recounts in his brilliant
article Where Our New World Begins, “The
Great Depression was an environmental collapse every bit as much as it was an
economic collapse.”

By
the 1930s, five-sixths of the original indigenous animal populations that thrived
when the Europeans arrived had been extinguished.

Seven-eighths
of the original woodlands had been cleared. One sixth of the topsoil in the US
would soon blow away in the cataclysm of the Dust Bowl.

35 million
acres of previously arable land had been decimated, with another 225 million
acres soon to follow. Plagues of locusts, rabbits and green worms overran the
land. The topsoil of Oklahoma and Wyoming blackened the skies of New York and
Chicago. Like climate disruption today, millions fled as ecological refugees.

As Baker points out, the devastation resulted
from “a
desperate capitalist battle, with every man for himself. If producing more
crops drove down farm prices and wrecked the land, well, that was just how the
market economy worked.”

The
private sector offered no plan, except more of the same. The Populist Party
surged, and the plutocracy attacked them as “socialists.” FDR
stepped in with transformative government action guided by the remarkable understanding
that the crisis had to be addressed as a whole system — the care of both people
and nature.

The
new Soil Conservation Service launched over 500 soil project stations,
experimenting with farmers with novel practices such as terrace and contour farming. The
government paid them to participate and save their farms.

The Civilian Conservation Corps employed
3 million men to plant thousands of acres of experimental drought-resistant
grasses. They constructed more than eight hundred state parks and planted
nearly three billion trees, including shelterbelts to secure the soil. In time,
they restored more than half of the damaged land.

The programs also acknowledged
nature’s limits. They resettled farmers and refugees who became the
unprecedented American middle class that emerged after World War II.

And that was just a piece of the
New Deal. Massive public works programs. Public health campaigns. Pre-natal and
birth care for women. Libraries. Public arts.

Although the New Deal made bad
mistakes and odious compromises, it got a lot right. It
had been a close call. The nation could just as easily have plunged to the
right. And plunging to the right is exactly what the plutocrats have been doing
ever since to roll back the New Deal to get back to a government serving the
rich.

The great work today of the Green New Deal is
to avert climate chaos, build resilience to adapt, and lift the burdens of
history once and for all. We need to overturn the New Deal’s grievous old deal
with the Southern Dixiecrats to keep the racial caste system in place and build
an inclusive society of jobs with justice and self-determination.

And ultimately in the ’30s, big business
coopted the economics to assure its ongoing hegemony. It was only World War II
that finally lifted the nation out of the Depression.

Today the world war is to save human
civilization as we know it. In the ’30s, it boiled down to saving capitalism from itself. But
this time around, capitalism may not be salvageable at all.

Beginning in the ‘90’s, corporate globalization
triggered a tectonic shift of wealth and political power to a super-elite of
billionaires. They launched a full-frontal corporate takeover of government.

According to Jeffrey Winters, the author of Oligarchy, wealth in the U.S. today is over “two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave-and-farmer society.” If billionaires were a nation, they’d be the world’s 3rd largest country. Call it bottom down and top up — breadcrumbs and circuses.

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As Fortune magazine CEO Alan
Murray recently commented: “More and more CEOs worry that public
support for the system in which they’ve operated is in danger of disappearing.”

As
Farhad Manjoo wrote, “They’re worried that when the next
recession breaks, revolution might, too. The coming Recession might finally
prompt the masses to sharpen their pitchforks and demand a reckoning. But the
CEOs now have a plan to head off revolution. They want you to know: Actually,
they really do care about the world. Like, a lot. If I sound cynical, it’s only
because I’m not a complete idiot. It’s all a game to the moguls in charge.
Their greatest fear is that we’ll stop playing.”

So much for “the
end of history” that political scientist Francis Fukuyama pronounced in 1992
following the fall of the Soviet Union. Capitalism seemed triumphant,
unopposed, unassailable.

Author Mark
Fisher calls it “capitalist realism.” It’s easier for most people to imagine
the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Three decades later, it’s Boom and Doom — the
terminal convulsions of an oligarchic economic system bedeviled by $100
trillion dollars of stranded oil assets and the impossibility of unlimited
material growth on a finite planet.

Petrostates and fossil fuel corporations are
growing desperate. The frenzy of deregulation is the distress signal of a failing
business model. Market trauma is in store.

Trump is just the hood ornament on the Hummer
of plutocracy gone off road. Monopolies smother the economy. The roster of
Fortune 500 companies reads like a rap sheet of mass crimes. It’s gangsters and
warlords making feudalism great again.

Meanwhile,
what Oliver Bullough calls “Moneyland” has emerged as the “dark twin of
globalization.” As much as $36 trillion dollars of dark money is stashed in
offshore black holes. $1 trillion dollars a year exits the
world’s developing countries in laundered money and tax avoidance. By 2015, 52%
of Russia’s wealth resided outside the country.

Untraceable shell companies are behind the
majority of investment linked to Amazon deforestation, illegal fishing, and
other crimes against nature and humanity.

Most of “Moneyland” is entirely legal. The
system is the crime.

As writer Franklin Foer commented, “Thievery
tramples the possibilities of workable markets and credible democracy. It fuels
suspicions that the whole idea of liberal capitalism is a hypocritical sham.”

The predicament is double-barreled: Failing
to imagine the end of capitalism may mean the end of the world. On the other
hand, state socialism has equally failed. The ground truth is that there’s no
precedent or grand model for a next economy — one that’s grounded in equity and
the limits and principles of nature.

The
first question is: “What’s the economy for?”

If
building resilience is the goal, the priority shifts from growth and expansion
to sufficiency and sustainable prosperity. Real wealth creation is based on
replenishing natural systems and restoring the built environment, especially
our infrastructure and cities. It’s based on investing in our communities and
workforce. It works best when done all at once.

Economic
re-localization creates three times as many jobs, earnings, and tax
collections — as well as far greater security.

Like
the New Deal era, today waves of smaller-scale models and policies are percolating
from the bottom up. Gar Alperowitz and the Democracy Collaborative call it the
“Pluralist Commonwealth.”

A
core principle is shifting ownership of the nation’s wealth institutionally to
benefit the vast majority. Ownership becomes diversified, including public, private,
cooperative and worker-owned enterprises. Too-big-to-fail giants are broken up
or restructured as publicly owned utilities.

Nor
is there a model for what true democratic governance looks like at modern
scales. We need to reclaim democracy and decentralize political and economic
power to local and bioregional levels. It begins and ends with community and with
building stable transgenerational community wealth and job creation.

But paradigms die hard and empires die harder.

As Charles Blow wrote, “This is a game of
power, pure and simple, and it’s about whether the people who have long held
power will be able to retain it…

“The Founders, a bunch of rich, powerful white
men, didn’t want true democracy in this country, and in fact they were terribly
afraid of it.

Now a bunch of rich, powerful white men want
to return us to that sensibility.”

Naomi Klein warns against “climate barbarism,”
saying “This is how the wealthy world is going to ‘adapt’ to more climate
disruption: by fully unleashing toxic ideologies that rank the relative value
of human lives in order to justify the monstrous discarding of huge swaths of
humanity.”

It’s the last-ditch play by Billionaire Nation
to make heaven a gated community — even if it’s in hell on Earth.

Instead what’s rising up is the return of the
repressed. Everyone who has been othered, marginalized and deleted. The poor. Working
people. Women. People of color. Indigenous Peoples. Immigrants. LGBTQ people.
Young people. The last shall be first after all.

The word “crisis” comes from the Greek word krino. It means “to decide.” We need to
decide what kind of future we want — and act like our lives depend on it.

It’s now o’clock.

The
Mayan people call this the “Time of No Time.” Ohki Siminé Forest, a Canadian
wisdom keeper of Mohawk descent who lives and works with the Mayan people in
Chiapas, describes the Mayan vision in this way.

From
here on, we’re on Earth time. Mother Earth is shaking to her core. It’s a time
of madness, disconnection, and hyper-individualism.

It’s
also a time when new energies are coming into the world, when people are
growing a new skin.

The
Mayan vision says that we in the West will find safe harbor only if we can
journey past a wall of mirrors. The mirrors will surely drive us mad — unless we
have a strong heart. Some mirrors delude us with an infinity of reflections of
our vanity and shadows. Others paralyze us with our terror and rage, feeding an
empire that manufactures our fear into resignation.

But
the empire has no roots and it’s toppling all around us. In this time everyone
is called to take a stand. Everyone is called to be a leader.

To
get beyond the wall of mirrors, the final challenge is to pass through a tiny
door. To do this, we must make ourselves very, very small. To be very humble.
Then we must burrow down into the Earth, where indigenous consciousness lives.
On the other side is a clear pond. There, for the first time, we’ll be able to
see our true reflection.

In
this Time of No Time, they say, we can go in any direction we want — by dreaming
it. Our dreaming can shift the course of the world.

It’s
going to be a long and winding trek across generations.

We’re
already making some of the pathways others can walk toward our many dreams.
Countless more dreamers will blaze luminous new trails.

The dreams are already within us. One day, may we awaken to find ourselves living in our wildest dreams.

Watch Kenny’s full talk here.

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Bioneers

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Revolution from the Heart of Nature.