White Supremacism and the Earth System
The protests, the pandemic, and the planet: from systemic decline to civilizational renewal
The US is on the brink of becoming a racist failed state. It is no accident that this terrible moment arrives in the midst of a global pandemic; an escalating economic crisis; an oil sector meltdown. This is a perfect storm of simultaneous, complex crises. How did we get here? How do we solve this?
If we’re not confused, perplexed and alarmed about this intensifying sequence of overlapping crises, we are not paying attention.
It’s time to start paying attention. Right now: We, the human species, stand at the dawn of a great civilizational inflection point. This is the fork in the road. The decisions we, you, make in this moment are about to make history.
The convergence of events we are witnessing is a symptom of a wider process of global systemic decline. This convergence is happening due to the unsustainable nature of a system that can no longer keep going in its current form without sparking further crisis. The ultimate hidden driver is a way of living and being premised on self-maximization through plunder of the ‘Other’: whether Others are different humans, different species, or the planet itself.
That is what the Black Lives Matter protests are. They are an uproar from centuries of inter-generational trauma rooted in the systematic enslavement from which the modern industrial capitalist world system emerged, a system that is now in ‘overshoot’ of planetary boundaries. And so the crisis of white supremacism in the United States is not just about America and it’s not just about race: it’s about the Earth, and how American racism represents our broken relationship with our own planet.
So we need to face up to reality if we want to get through this: Until we begin developing the capacity to see and adapt to the complex interconnections between human systems and the wider natural systems in which they are embedded, we will be unable to move off a trajectory of accelerating societal collapse.
Chapter 1. I was warned that US would collapse into fascism from 2020
Ten years ago, if you’d said that America would become engulfed by race riots that would make a civil war look possible, most people would have laughed you out the room. At that time, I’d warned that the failure to address the root structural causes of the Crisis of Civilization would lead world governments to become increasingly militarized and authoritarian. Business-as-usual would intensify the risk of political conflict and civil unrest, I argued, and countries like the US would see an escalation of such unrest along “ethnic, religious and class lines.”
In my book, A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It — which integrated the analysis of crises across climate change, energy, food, the economy, state-militarization and terrorism through a systems-lens — I urged the need to recognize that all these crises are deeply interconnected through the operation of a single global system.
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The failure to do so would guarantee short-sighted ‘emergency’ responses that focus on the symptoms of crisis rather than changing the systems behind them — government would react to public outrage and political instability through attempting to expand political and military policing powers to stave off growing instability. I’d warned that if these trends continue unchecked, “our societies will sacrifice liberal values for increasingly polarizing and exclusivist conceptions of group identity which normalize political violence: i.e., militarization.”
The events of the past decade have borne out this assessment.
In 2014, in the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, I interviewed Pentagon defense analyst and Iraq War veteran Terron Sims, who is also president of the North Virginia Black Democrats. He told me that “if we don’t deal with the root cause in terms of widespread racial discrimination against black people, this will be our tomorrow… there’ll come a point where the combination of unaccountable, rampant and racist police repression will inflame community tensions in circumstances of growing levels of deprivation and hopelessness. And that’s where race riots could become far more of a norm than we might expect. So unless something changes, yes, Ferguson is our future.”
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Two years after I spoke to Sims, I interviewed Professor Johan Galtung, the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated ‘founding father’ of peace and conflict studies as a scientific discipline, who had previously predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with many other major geopolitical events. Galtung went on to predict that US global power would come to an end by 2020, amidst the emergence of a new phase of “reactionary fascism”. The election of Donald Trump, he told me, was consistent with his forecast. Many of the processes he described to me as key features of US collapse are accelerating right now in the wake of the pandemic: resurgent white supremacism; deteriorating conditions for minorities; US withdrawal from the very international institutions it helped create as instruments of power projection from the UN, to the WHO to the WTO; and the descent of domestic US politics into polarization and unrest.
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Galtung foresaw these events on the basis of a sophisticated complex systems analysis of 15 structural contradictions across, political, economic, cultural, environmental and social spheres. If left unresolved, he argued, these would unravel US society as we know it.
That process is now underway. The great unravelling is happening right now, beneath our feet.
Chapter 2. The racial crisis is global, systemic and biophysical
The prescience of both Galtung and Sims demonstrates that we cannot understand this crisis if we insist on seeing racial injustice as separate from wider social, cultural, political and ecological crises.
The eruption of protests across at least 140 cities in the United States, triggered by the racist murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, is the worst outbreak of civil unrest since the 1960s. In at least 21 cities, the National Guard has been deployed as clashes between protestors and police have turned violent.
The protests represent a point-of-no-return emerging from a history of rising civil unrest and entrenched institutional racism, rooted in an inherently destructive model of life. That model connects rampant white supremacism with a predatory socio-economic order hellbent on the destruction of ‘Others’ — a system which ‘Otherizes’ not just humans, but other species, and even the very natural environment in which we are irretrievably embedded yet blind to in the everyday.
The crisis has prompted further radicalized state, police and military responses, risking an unprecedented expansion of authoritarian powers — exemplified in President Donald Trump’s call on the US military to quell ongoing unrest in the homeland under the Insurrection Act (which was in play since two years ago as I’ve previously reported).
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Why are these protests happening right now? Why are they unfolding in the midst of a global pandemic? Is there a connection? Or is it just a case of bad luck?
In reality, it is no accident that this unprecedented socio-political crisis is occurring in the midst of a long anticipated pandemic, which as of the end of May had killed 100,000 Americans and driven 40 million into unemployment — while overwhelmingly and disproportionately impacting Black and ethnic minority communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the staggering racial divide that plagues our societies, and our planet. In the US, Black Americans are dying from the disease at a rate nearly three times higher than white people. In the UK, Black and Asian minority groups are twice as likely as white Britons to die if they contract the disease according to Public Health England, with people of Bangladeshi background facing the biggest risk. Other studies suggest an even worse picture, that Black men and women are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Similar trends have emerged in Europe. In Norway, residents originally born in Somalia face infection rates more than 10 times above the national average.
We still don’t know for sure why this is happening, but the factors are complex. Studies indicate that entrenched socio-economic and health inequalities play a direct role, but not the only role. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tells us that chronic conditions associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes (like diabetes, asthma, hypertension, kidney disease, and obesity) are all more common in ethnic minorities than white populations. But the CDC also identifies other factors: ethnic minorities are more likely to live in more densely populated areas and housing, to rely on public transport, and work in lower paid service jobs with no sick pay. In the UK, many ethnic minorities disproportionately suffer from overcrowding and work as keyworkers or as frontline healthcare staff.
Which makes it all the more shocking that just days after US police officers wilfully suffocated George Floyd to death, the UK government censored evidence from its own review into the ethnic disparities in COVID-19 deaths, highlighting the potential role of “structural racism and discrimination” in driving poorer life chances for minorities. That evidence was supplied by over a thousand community organizations and individuals representing Britons from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Their voices were silenced.
When we trace these complex factors back, we are led inexorably to the elephant in the room: the societal prevalence of structural racism.
According to Professor Sandro Galea of the Boston University School of Public Health, the core problem is “that our society is structured in a way that can deny minority populations, particularly black Americans, access to the resources that generate health.”
Health is a symptom and signifier of much deeper socio-economic and political systems. African Americans have the highest poverty rate among racial and ethnic groups, at 27.4 percent. Only 57 percent of black students can access all of the math and science courses needed for college readiness. Black Americans are more likely to live in segregated, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
This is not an isolated problem. It is global and systemic.
In 2012, the Annual Review of Public Health authoritatively concluded that:
“Disparities in the health of socially and economically disadvantaged compared with more advantaged populations are observed worldwide.”
Health disparities are a result of “a failure of societies to distribute equitably the resources needed to support health for all.” The implications for the injustice of the COVID-19 pandemic are stark. If more minorities are dying, it is because their ethnicity puts them at a health and social disadvantage “rooted within the institutions, social stratification, and cultural norms of societies.” These are entrenched societal characteristics that are difficult to change, “because they provide the underpinnings of power, privilege, and social advantage”.
In other words, if more black and brown people are dying from COVID-19, it’s because our societies are designed that way.
The social structures, that you and me are part of and perpetuate, are killing minorities — extending and amplifying the inter-generational trauma that connects historic colonial structures with contemporary racism directed most viscerally against Black communities.
But the immediate impacts of the pandemic are just the beginning. It is Black and ethnic minorities who have experienced the brunt of the economic fallout. While unemployment rates are rocketing for everyone in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, they have been even higher for Black people. The pandemic has amplified pre-existing structural disparities that have meant that minorities are more likely than their white counterparts to be unemployed or in zero-hour contracts.
As COVID-19 lockdowns around the world have ushered in more draconian policing to monitor and enforce social distancing restrictions, it is Black people who face the biggest fall out from increasing acts of police brutality and violence– this time justified in the name of ‘public health’. In the US, Black people are nearly five times more likely to experience police-related injuries than white people. And those who get injured are twice as likely to die from those injuries as their white counterparts. Most people who get stopped by police are Black or Latino. Men who get stopped frequently by police are three times more likely to exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder and high anxiety. People in neighborhoods where pedestrians are more likely to face police questioning are also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma and obesity — the very same illnesses which lead to the most severe COVID-19 symptoms.
The pandemic has wrought a perfect storm of disease, violence and poverty onto Black and minority communities across the Western world, amplifying problems they were already facing. In doing so, the murder of George Floyd was a catalyst, a match to long-burning flames, tipping over a declining system into a spiral of chaos.
But this perfect storm of structural racism, effectively weaponized by the COVID-19 pandemic, cannot simply be removed with platitudes of support, affinity and allegiance, or goodwill gestures of solidarity. We have to start by recognizing this structural racism for what it is — the extension and legacy of a global imperial system, premised on ecological plunder: A system of accelerating resource extraction and wealth centralization premised on imperial violence that is literally destroying the ecosystems on which all life on Earth depends.
Chapter 3. Slavery, empire and the Anthropocene
The structural racism behind current national and global health inequalities was woven from the blood of slaves. Slavery lives on in the discriminatory structures that inflict health inequalities across our societies today. In the words of public health expert Professor Sando Galea:
“The legacy of slavery, especially, remains core to many present health challenges, undermining health through segregation, mass incarceration, and other pernicious influences. There are even patterns of present-day poor health which roughly match the geographic outlines of where slaves were imprisoned. For example, a high concentration of stroke mortality in the US, especially among African Americans, aligns with where slaves were concentrated in earlier eras — a haunting rejoinder to those who would dismiss history as irrelevant to contemporary life and health. These stroke patterns also inform yet another racial health disparity — black Americans are at greater risk of stroke than any other group in the US; risk of experiencing a first stroke is about twice as high for blacks than for whites.”
As Africana studies pioneer Professor Locklsey Edmondson of Cornell University wrote over twenty years ago, the consequences of the slave trade “are still secreted in the contemporary world.” By conditioning the nature of developing contacts between Europe and Africa, slavery affected “the original systematization of white-world and black-world relationships” as part of a “developing European and white-world search for global influence and power.” It thus laid the foundation for “emergent patterns of a white dominant international order.”
The systemic enslavement of Africans was integral to the emergence of the global economy as we know it. It was part of a trans-Atlantic emerging capitalist world system, designed to establish a labour force for the expansion of plantations across colonial America, which fuelled Britain’s industries and helped augment the processes behind the Industrial Revolution.
The acceleration of slavery also coincides with the dawn of the age of the ‘Anthropocene’, what some scientists consider to be an entirely new geological era characterized by the predominant impact of human activities on the Earth’s geological processes. British geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin put the pivotal date for the onset of this new geological epoch at 1610. “This date marks the irreversible exchange of species following the collision of the Old and New worlds”, which coincided with “an associated unusual drop in atmospheric CO2 captured in Antarctic ice cores.”
It’s truly shocking that this historic drop in CO2, visible today in the ice cores, resulted from “vegetation regrowth on abandoned farmlands following the deaths of 50 million indigenous Americans (mostly from smallpox brought by Europeans),” write Lewis and Maslin. “The annexing of the Americas by Europe was also an essential precursor to the Industrial Revolution and therefore captures associated later waves of environmental change.”
This dating for the Anthropocene associates it directly with the violence of empire, with the 1610 date bridging the destruction of mass Native Americans with the mass slavery of Africans, both acts of genocidal violence integral to the emergence of capitalist industry.
From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, between nearly 17,000,000 and 65,000,000 Africans were killed in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, according to R. J. Rummel in his Death by Government.
University of Essex sociologist Robin Blackburn in The Making of New World Slavery demonstrates the centrality of slavery to the emerging extractive capitalist economy. The momentous profits of slavery were accumulated in the “triangular trade” between Europe, Africa and America, and contributed directly to Britain’s industrialization. Profits from triangular trade for 1770 would have provided from 20.9 to 55 per cent of Britain’s gross fixed capital formation. These profits were reinvested in manufacturing, ship-building, canals and coal-mining — the core arteries of British industry — which in turn triggered industrialization across Europe, and beyond.
The dawn of industrialization was, in turn, an inflection point for the human species. It ushered in the age of fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — which enabled a bold new era of exponentially increasing material throughput, fuelling a new paradigm of ‘endless growth’ economics.
This economic paradigm has widened income inequalities for more than 70 percent of the world population, even as it has also escalated the destruction of natural ecosystems.
We have produced and consumed at rates equivalent to the exploitation of two whole planets.
And worse, multiple warnings backed by a global consensus of climate scientists have warned that human activities, through the escalating consumption of fossil fuel resources, is destabilizing the Earth’s natural carbon cycle with potentially catastrophic consequences for al life on the planet within our lifetimes.
Chapter 4. Structural racism as a planetary boundary effect
For hundreds of thousands of years, the planet has sustained an equilibrium, a ‘safe operating’ space offering an optimum environment for human and other habitation — in which the quantity of carbon emitted and absorbed by planetary ecosystems remains stable.
But since the Industrial Revolution, built on the back of empires — enabled by the sinews of slavery — human civilization has inexorably expanded, consuming greater quantities of fossil fuel energy along the way, and exponentially increasing associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — overwhelming the planet’s capacity for absorption. The result has been a steady increase in global average temperatures. Scientists warn that the extra addition of CO2 into the atmosphere, capturing greater heat, is in turn playing havoc with the Earth’s climate, weather and ecological systems.
As human civilization continues its expansion, burning up escalating quantities of fossil fuels along the way, the climate science community warns that above a certain level of CO2, planetary ecosystems could shift passed a key tipping point into a new, dangerous era — one outside the stable boundaries of the preceding hundreds of thousands of years, and certainly outside anything human beings have ever experienced.
Our civilization is on the brink, right now. A landmark study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that at the current level of an approximate 1C temperature rise above the pre-industrial average, we are already breaching so many planetary boundaries at such scale, that we could be at immediate risk of triggering a cascade of runaway processes leading to an uninhabitable planet. The complexity of these boundaries is such that we may not even be able to detect whether these processes are in play until after the fact. We just don’t know.
What we do know for sure is that if we continue on this pathway of business-as-usual, conservative projections suggest we are heading toward a 3 to 6 degrees Celsius global average temperature rise within 80 years. Even a 2C planet, to which at minimum we are already heading within 16 years, should be considered “extremely dangerous” for human societies; and a global average temperature rise within the 3–4C threshold would probably create conditions that make the core infrastructures of human civilization increasingly unviable.
The same process of relentless global industrial expansion laid the conditions for the COVID-19 pandemic. As industrial activities have grown exponentially, they have encroached increasingly onto wildlife and natural habitats, forcing animals carrying tens of thousands of unknown exotic diseases into closer interaction with human settlements. That’s why scientists have warned for decades that a pandemic would be inevitable this century.
Yet this very expanding global industrial system which is breaching planetary boundaries and triggering increasingly dangerous disease outbreaks is the legacy of colonial racism.
It is a legacy all too few of us are aware of, and so it lives on in invisible structures and institutions shaped by a grim history of imperial bloodshed and conquest. The global expansion of industrialization was inseparable from the empires that enabled it, via the systematic construction of new racial categories designed to legitimize imperial conquest and expansion.
It was precisely within the crucible of colonization that we saw the dawn of scientific racism, the biologically-justified concept of multiple races, the grotesque legacy of which we continue to struggle with today. The idea that there are different ‘races’ can be traced back to the political appropriation and distortion of neo-Darwinian theories of evolution. The concept of ‘race’ was used to underpin racial hierarchies which positioned white Europeans at the pinnacle of civilized human advancement in this juggernaut of global industrial expansion.
Racism, then, is not discrimination against other ‘races’. It is the very act of creating the notion of distinctive ‘races’ of people who possess fixed, generalized characteristics and behaviours within a hierarchy of superiority.
In the early nineteenth century, racism manifested largely as a religious ideology linked to interpretations of the Bible, viewing non-European groups as inherently inferior due to their heathen beliefs and ancestry, and frequently targeted Jews. From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, racism evolved on the basis of scientifically-justified biological theories which attributed fixed traits, behaviours, characteristics, abilities and disabilities to constructed groups of people based on their supposedly distinctive biological characteristics. Since then, racism has continued to evolve until it became underpinned by subliminal cultural theories.
The late sociologist Stuart Hall famously described “race” as a “floating signifier”. Rather than being a fixed concept, he explained, race has always been an inherently political construct, projected by powerful dominant groups, justifying unequal power relations with other groups. As such, it is a construct that changes and adapts to historical circumstances of power. That is why the new cultural racism focuses on the imagined fixed cultures of imagined fixed groupings of people, permitting homogenized abstractions about their natures, beliefs and practices, projecting a hierarchy of inferior and superior cultures with Western Europeans consistently at the apex. Racialized stereotypes can then cut across colour divides, while encompassing ‘non-racial’ categories like faith, culture and civilization, which end up becoming racist code for the same brand of longstanding discriminatory practices.
That’s why contemporary racism has become so insidious and difficult to detect. It often operates by disavowing its biological roots. So Black people — and other minority groups — are still homogenized and demonized as repositories of inferior behaviour and characteristics such as crime, terrorism, lawlessness and beyond, without necessarily believing in biological or genetic inferiority, enabling the refrain, ‘I have Black friends. I don’t hate people because of their skin colour. I’m not racist. But…’
And this is why identity-politics has not gone away. That’s why racism is deep-rooted, because it’s structural; it’s embedded in our societies; racism’s impacts and consequences and behavioural patterns and assumptions are embedded in who and how we are, due to the power relations that define our ways of living and being.
Racism therefore won’t be fought by parading ourselves as wonderful non-racists, but only by owning up to this horrifying heritage so that we can learn how to move beyond it by creating new systems, behaviours and understandings.
As industrial civilization continues on its relentless path of maximum extraction, exploitation and centralization of resources, its power centers continue to invent and entrench multiple ideological divides between human beings, and between human beings and the natural world, to justify its unequal power relations. And so, the devastating impacts of the Earth system crisis remain racialized, with the worst consequences disproportionately affecting poorer, darker peoples all over the world.
Chapter 5. Phase shift
Thus, the pandemic and the protests are interlinked in complex ways which our prevailing institutions of government, media and education are largely blind to. They are twin sides of a single coin of global systemic decline, representing its most core interacting components: Earth system disruption and human system destabilization.
It is Earth system disruption that destabilizes human systems. This destabilization — and the inequalities, chaos and violence it perpetuates — inhibits us from seeing and responding adaptively to Earth system disruption. The result is that we are more vulnerable than ever to the next cycle of Earth system disruption and human system destabilization, which continue to feed into each other on a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
We need to break the cycle. But we can’t break what we refuse to see.
It’s only by facing up to the mistaken choices we’ve made as a species, by taking responsibility for who we are and what we’ve done, that we might be able to step-up together and make different choices that can convert this trajectory of systemic decline into a chance for civilizational renewal. But to do so we must accept some humility, recognize that we didn’t see this coming, and know that this is because our current way of seeing the world largely misses the true, interconnected complexity of what’s really going on.
The George Floyd protests follow on the back of a steady rise in the frequency and intensity of protest events, political instability and civil unrest, both in the US and around the world. They were preceded by a rising tide of racism and white supremacism in the US, and symbiotically interconnected with escalating political instabilities in many other parts of the world, from the 2008 Occupy movements to the 2011 and 2018 Arab uprisings.
As I’ve shown in my scientific monograph, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer Energy Briefs, 2017), this rising trend in political unrest correlates intimately with the escalation in Earth system disruption: the intensification of climate chaos, the diminishing returns from ever-expanding resource extraction, the widening of structural inequalities, and the increasingly complex intertwined impacts on food, water, energy, and health systems.
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What we are experiencing right now, this intensifying convergence of crises across multiple simultaneous points of systemic failure, is part of a deeper transitional process.
We are in the midst of a global phase shift, a great transition from one systemic configuration to another.
The outcome of this transition is undetermined, except for one thing: the previous systemic configuration is in decline, and will not survive this century.
Clear economic and biophysical signals of this decline are legion, as long as one is brave enough to acknowledge them.
Prior to the pandemic, we were wildly spearheading near-exponential increases in energy consumption, public debt, population growth, greenhouse gas emissions, and species extinctions. But this exponential growth has brought diminishing returns, which can be understood through the scientific concept of ‘Energy Return on Investment’ (EROI).
The metric, pioneered by systems ecologist Professor Charles Hall of the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is the foundation of the emerging discipline of ‘biophysical economics’.
EROI is designed to measure how much energy is needed to extract energy from a particular resource. What’s left is known as surplus ‘net energy’, which we can use to support goods and services in the economy outside the energy system. The higher the ratio, the more surplus energy is left for the economy. Over the last decades, that surplus has run increasingly thin.
In the early twentieth century, the EROI of fossil fuels was sometimes as high as 100:1. This means that a single unit of energy would be enough to extract a hundred times that amount. But since then, the EROI of fossil fuels has dramatically reduced. Between 1960 and 1980, the world average value EROI for fossil fuels declined by more than half, from about 35:1 to 15:1. It’s still declining, with latest estimates putting the value at between 6:1 and 3:1.
As we use more and more energy just to extract energy from our resource base, we are left with less ‘net energy’ to support financing of public goods and services. This has acted as a background ‘brake’ on the rate of economic growth for the world’s advanced industrial economies, which has also declined since the 1970s. In other words, industrial civilization is overshooting its own fossil fuel energy base, and as a result the economy is running out of steam. Everyone is feeling the squeeze, but the first people to do so at the highest intensities are Black people and minorities.
According to Professor Mauro Bonaiuti, an economist at the University of Turin in Italy, mainstream economics has failed to account for these key ‘biophysical’ underpinnings of the economy: material flows are dependent on energy. Since the 1970s, industrial societies have been in a ‘phase of declining returns’, he argues, measured across GDP growth, EROI, along with labour and manufacturing productivity.
To make up the shortfall, Bonauiti argues, we have kept the economy growing based on accelerated levels of debt. After the 2008 financial crash, a massive program of quantitative easing (QE) drove global debt even higher than pre-crash levels — barely sustaining a much slower level of GDP growth. But the scale of debt keeping the industrial machine chugging along far outweighs our energy resource base. At some point, he warned, this unsustainable heyday was bound to grind to a halt.
These dynamics have made the economics of oil particularly unsustainable. In 2005, conventional crude oil entered a long plateau. To meet growing economic demand the industry shifted to more expensive unconventional forms. Since then, US shale supplied some 71.4 percent of global oil supply growth.
In February, as much of the world was sleepwalking into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Geological Survey of Finland — a Finnish government agency overseeing the EU’s mineral resource modelling — published a comprehensive study. Although there is “plenty of oil left,” it is “increasingly expensive to access”, the report warned. Record shale oil production came at higher costs and declining well productivity. Most shale oil companies faced negative cash flow, compensated for by drawing down billions of dollars of unrepayable debt. The pandemic was a pin that burst this oil bubble.
It’s not clear that this bubble can reinflate, but even if it can, doing so threatens the environment, and undermines the economy by requiring more unsustainable debt-expansion.
This is what planetary overshoot looks like from an energy perspective.
All this data begins to make sense when viewed in the context of the life cycle of ecological systems, as defined pre-eminently by the late ecologist CS Holling — who identified four stages in the growth and decline of a system, which we can apply to industrial civilization.
The first stage is growth. Industrial civilization has experienced its most rapid period of growth over around 200 years or so from the nineteenth century until the late twentieth century. But this growth stage did not begin in the nineteenth century. If we use the data put forward by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, the crucial moment began in the 1600s, coinciding with the colonization of the Americas, and the emergence of trans-Atlantic slavery.
The second stage of conservation — during which a system self-consolidates reaching a phase of stability — appeared shortly after the Second World War. It reached its strongest point of stasis between 1970 and the early 2000s, but even within this period, the seeds of decline began to be detectable in the slow-down in growth rates and many other trends.
During this conservation stage, the structural racism of the preceding centuries experienced degrees of rehabilitation and reconfiguration, as the system’s expansion generated new arenas of conflict. The pressures and demands of industrial capitalist growth played key roles in the transition away from slavery toward new forms of wage-labour organization, with a need to absorb Black people and minorities into the circuits of fossil fuel-dependent capital accumulation in new ways. The combination of mass struggles with internal socio-economic and cultural changes helped drive the concessional legislative victories of the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
By the 1990s, the ‘Otherizing’ dynamics of the expanding system were focused increasingly on external rather than internal ‘enemies’. The system shifted from the exaggerated threat of external Communists, toward making ‘sense’ of the increasing geopolitical fractures across key areas in the Muslim world from the Middle East to Central Asia where the world’s largest reserves of fossil fuels can be found.
At some point in the twenty-first century, we began to enter Holling’s third stage, the release phase — a period of uncertainty and chaos as the system begins to decline. The weakening of the global system is visible most clearly in the mounting evidence of Earth system disruption, but is particularly conspicuous in the system’s inability to sustain the material growth rates that brought its current structures into existence.
As Earth system crisis has accelerated, it has increasingly destabilized the human systems we have taken for granted in recent decades during the previous relatively stable conservation phase.
One of the most obvious dynamics we are seeing in this release phase is the heightening of ‘Otherization’ through the stale, broken lens of ‘national security’: instead of recognizing the sequence of crises as a global systemic crisis, our institutions — built from the sinews of slavery and empire — are focused instead on symptoms, on the upheaval of peoples, on the unravelling of nations, on the weakening of the liberal order, and how these threaten the power relations that enable business-as-usual; so the locus of response is not system change, but escalating violence to crush those visible surface symptoms, those peoples, those nations, that liberal order, to defend the business-as-usual that seemed to be working so wonderfully a few decades ago.
As we are entering deeper into the release phase, human system destabilization is accelerating these ‘Otherizing’ dynamics. One of its outcomes is the eruption, the laying bare, of: the structural racism at the heart of this system; the increasing unbearableness of the consequences of this racism; and the tremendous, latent violence on which this system is premised.
Yet there is another dimension of the release stage that is crucial to recall. As the prevailing system declines, breaks down, weakens, elicits the unleashing of rage and angst, this very process of weakening creates a clearing of systemic uncertainty. That systemic uncertainty opens up new possibilities for change, where small perturbations in the system can have deep impacts in a way they could not do during the first and second phases of growth and conservation.
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This is what I call the global phase shift. This is the transition point where small, local actions can have wider, accumulative, system-wide effects. This is the moment where each of our choices has a momentous, history-forging potential.
Because we are at the cusp of what Holling saw as a fourth stage in the life cycle of a system: reorganization.
As we move toward this fourth stage in the last stages of the life cycle of industrial civilization, the choices each of us make during the global phase shift play an integral role in determining the structures, values, behavioural patterns, and relationships of an emergent system, which will then form the basis of a new systemic life cycle for human civilization.
The decisions we make right now will plant the seeds for the task of rebuilding, redesigning, and recreating the next life cycle for our species.
This has quite profound implications.
It means that many structures we see around us at this moment are destined to disappear, one way or another. Many of them are already experiencing interlocking, cascading failures. We need to accept the demise of those systems which, through their own brittleness, stubbornness, and narcissism, are incapable of change. There will be terrible fallout from this process and we need to do all we can to mitigate the impacts.
Simultaneously, we need to also cast our gaze ahead, toward what we need to create, toward the new life-patterns we are being called to bring into being, the new relationships, the new values.
We will need to bring forth all our creativity and wisdom; we will need to do our best to stop thinking in silos, and to see the world in its complex intersectionality; we will need to integrate our struggles in unfamiliar ways, not just through public statements, but through new institution-changing actions; we will need to reflect really deeply on how changing and upgrading our perceptions translates into changing and upgrading who we are and how we are, across all our relationships; and we will need to roll up our sleeves and work together across multiple sectors and systems to scale up how we can leverage that process to create transformative conditions for the flourishing of life, by challenging ourselves as well as challenging prevailing unequal, destructive, narcissistic power structures, especially those within our reach.
The Black Lives Matter eruption is the outcome of a civilizational inflection point — a point-of-no-return — beyond which we face two choices: escalating collapse, or systemic transformation. The imperial system of structural racism and ecological plunder is crumbling beneath the weight of its own diminishing returns. Where does your allegiance belong? To that which is already doomed, or to an emerging life-world of possibility?
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is Executive Director of the System Shift Lab. He is an award-winning investigative journalist, change strategist and systems theorist. Nafeez is editor of the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform, INSURGE intelligence, and ‘system shift’ columnist at VICE where he reports on ‘global system transformation’. Previously a Guardian environment blogger where he covered the geopolitics of interconnected environment, energy and economic crises, he is a former Visiting Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, which supported his research to produce his latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017). He is a Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems and a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. He is the winner of the 2010 Routledge-GCPS Essay Prize and 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, and has been twice listed among the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 most influential Londoners.
This article was edited on 8th June 2020 to remove aphotograph of George Floyd being suffocated to death by a police officer. The image was removed at the request of activists who have highlighted how the circulation of such images can increase trauma for Black people.