Toward a 'Gaian League' of Nations
Michael Marien, Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science; Director, Global Foresight Books
Book review of Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform by Ross Jackson (Chairman, Gaia Trust, Copenhagen, Denmark; www.ross-jackson.com). Foreword by Hazel Henderson (Ethical Markets Media). White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2012, 315p, $19.95pb. (www.occupyworldstreet.org)
An ambitious and original book that is the clear polar opposite of Abundance by Singularity University Chair Peter H. Diamandis and science writer Steven Kotler (Free Press, Feb 2012; GFB Book of the Month, Aug 2012), with its focus on the exponential growth of technology. The stark differences in these two idealistic books will be discussed at the end of this review.
Jackson founded an international hedge fund in 1988 dealing with interbank currency trading, and holds a PhD in Operations Research from Case Western Reserve University. He begins by asserting that "The current global structure is dysfunctional, undemocratic, corrupt, and exploitative of the environment, the developing countries, and even the citizens of the wealthiest nations. The ruling elites are apparently quite satisfied with the status quo and have no interest in finding global solutions, which can only weaken their relative position ...(their) inflexible focus on economic growth makes it impossible to deal effectively with global issues like climate change, ecosystem damage, peak oil, and rationing of resources. Meanwhile, thousands of NGOs and millions, if not billions of ordinary citizens are dissatisfied with the status quo and are crying out for change. The dilemma seems to be: those who can, will not; those who will, cannot." (p.xvii)
This book is about the root causes of the current political/economic logjam-about "collapse and renewal of our human civilization, about danger and opportunity, suffering and vision." The vision involves "new institutions that deal specifically with the identified problems and that work for everyone," along with a strategy to get us there. We can't survive in the long term as a global civilization, Jackson insists, without major reforms of the type proposed here.
Part 1: PLANET UNDER SIEGE. Presents evidence that our civilization is in the midst of a painful "global collapse that will continue for several decades." We are heading for a major discontinuity brought about by overloading of the ecosystem as we hit the wall that limits further growth. Chapters are devoted to
1) The Assault on Nature: on our growing ecological footprint, overpopulation, the threat of global warming, the extinction of species, the grossly overstated hopes for genetic engineering biotechnology, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, monocultures of industrial farming, and endocrine disruptors of hormones as a potential threat to humanity);
2) Energy Descent: on the coming peak in global oil production (the only real doubt is when, if it hasn't already occurred), non-conventional tar sands oil and shale gas (very expensive, with questions about safety and extractable amounts), other energy sources ("none of these can replace oil"), the much-hyped "hydrogen economy," and solar energy as key to a long-term solution to escape the "energy trap" of declining fossil fuels; 3) The Collapse of Civilizations: compares the previous collapse of civilizations with the major discontinuity that seems to be ahead of us (civilizations are fragile and ephemeral; in the evolutionary timescale, none lasts very long, because they tend to destroy their ecological foundations for short-term gains that lead to long-term disasters, and introduce new levels of complexity that yield a negative marginal return); increased complexity usually goes hand in hand with increased fragility and vulnerability, e.g. the financial crisis of 2007-2009; also contrasts the GDP measure of growth with the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that adjusts GDP for a number of negative factors and thus shows "deterioration of well-being over the past 30 years."
Part 2: DRIVERS OF DESTRUCTION. Explains why the collapse is happening, with emphasis on the dominant worldview that produced unprecedented growth and an economic/political system that makes a collapse inevitable. Chapters consider 4) The Evolution of Economic Beliefs: on the central role of man-made economics ("far too important to be left to economists"), the nebulous concept of capitalism (which can take many forms), the separation of economics from political economy, the gold standard, the Keynesian perspective, basic flaws in modern economics (assuming no limits to growth, and the way in which growth is modeled), and the phases of speculative bubbles; 5) The Neoliberal Project: on the neoliberal ideology for organizing national and international economic relationships (minimal regulation, removal of all subsidies and restrictions on free flow of goods and labor, privatization of state enterprises, a currency regime of floating rates without capital controls); essentially a project to project American values and protect American interests worldwide, implemented by the IMF, World Bank, and WTO (the chapter also discusses myths of the free market, subsidies, and growing inequality in America and why it matters); 6) Financial Crises: on 1980 as the turning point of neoliberalism when Reagan and Thatcher came to power, deregulation that allowed speculative frenzy, unrestricted capital flows as the Achilles heel of neoliberal economics, speculation in "naked" derivatives, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the documented fact that many economists saw it coming; concludes that "I do not expect any effective action will be taken to prevent recurrent financial crises, certainly not in the US; the financial mafia is simply too powerful." (p.120)
Part 3: THE EMPIRE. Looks at what has been happening in the US over the past 60 years, acknowledging that it is no longer a true democracy, but has mutated into a "corporatocracy" with a firm hand on all vital sectors. Chapters discuss 7) The Kennan Doctrine: the guiding statement of the ruling elite, formulated in 1948 to serve as a "blueprint for empire"; explains how politics is skewed heavily in the direction of big money, the lack of real choice in most US elections, corruption in US politics, disinformation about US foreign policy; 8) The Corporatocracy in Charge: on inequality in wealth ownership and political power, the de facto world order; concludes that we must design new institutions, but "current institutions cannot be reformed as they are undemocratic and designed to fulfill the needs of the Empire." (p.158)
Part 4. NEW VALUES, NEW BELIEFS. Describes the shift in values that is already happening and will eventually form the foundation of a new civilization; "it is time to reinvent ourselves as a sustainable and far more desirable civilization based on a new worldview and universal human values... a deeper understanding of the coming crisis can give us the opportunity to make that vision a reality." (p. xviii) Chapters cover 9) The Emergent Worldview: on the dying Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm supporting a mechanical view of the world, the emergent paradigm that views earth as a living organism with humankind as an integral part of nature, James Lovelock's Gaia theory as foundation for the new worldview, the evidence of shift to Gaian values among the "cultural creatives" (in contrast to the Moderns - the dominant group - and the Traditionals), the growth of World Social Forum meetings, peaceful and violent rumblings of a global civil society movement, drivers toward egalitarianism, the ideal of a fully developed Gaian society ("the flourishing of millions of thriving, healthy, local communities and neighborhoods all over the world, having a high degree of self-determination and a great diversity in cultural profiles"; p.181), and the availability of local energy production as a prime driver of decentralization; 10) Learning from Nature: on biomimicry (or biomimetrics) that imitates nature's best designs and processes to solve human problems, "unlimited abundance" when we produce without waste or pollution by using nature's methods ("as long as our production methods are benign with no damage to our natural capital, there is no limit to abundance" p.188); 11) Gaian Economics: on Herman Daly's "steady-state economics" (a.k.a. ecological economics), valuing natural capital, managing consumption and resources, Gaian management tools (recognizing physical limits and use of green taxation/subsidies), and converting to ecological economics (measuring well-being by using much-improved versions of GPI, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), and dashboard indicators, rather than total production or consumption levels).
Part 5. TOWARD A GAIAN WORLD ORDER. Proposes a set of eight "new international institutions that are a logical necessity if we are to realize the vision of a sustainable and just future that works for everyone." A key component lies in "a revolutionary reform of the economic, monetary, trade, and financial system, as well as the political structure under which the international community operate." But resistance from the dying culture will be formidable. "The overriding objective of effective global governance in a Gaian world will be to ensure survival of the human species." (p.206) The eight institutions, to be founded by a member association called the Gaian League, are discussed in Chapters 12-16.
1) The Gaian Trade Organization to replace the WTO based on the principle of "free trade," which makes protection of the environment impossible. "The WTO is anti-environmental, anti-sovereignty, and pro-business in the extreme." (p.211) The GTO charter would be far simpler, allowing a wide degree of control over imports and exports for each sovereign state. This would level the playing field for small states, while assuring a sustainable future. Closely related to the trade regime would be currency regimes adopted by each state, because different currencies are a necessary condition for many diverse, self-determining, sovereign nations (a common currency should only be adopted among countries with a common language, comparable economies, and free flow of labor across borders). Having your own currency gives maximum control over your economy.
2) The Gaian Clearing Union to regulate and settle international trade without use of any national currencies. This would reduce the likelihood of new financial crises (such as collapse of the dollar due to huge trade imbalances), free up substantial funds now tied up in foreign-exchange reserves, and resolve financial instabilities. The clearing union, first proposed by Keynes, would be founded by a number of central banks, each with a "trade account' with the GCU that could be in credit or debit. The scheme would encourage member countries to keep their trade deficits or surpluses within reasonable bounds and in long-term balance.
3) The Gaian Development Bank to replace the functions of the IMF and World Bank, to be funded by the freed-up foreign-exchange reserves for funding non-exploitative development, with ecovillages as the new development model. The most important premise for real development is control over the economy, and making a distinction between "growth" and "development" for well-being. The main thrust of the GDB would be "to establish daughter companies in each DC that would perform traditional banking business with a focus on local loans in local currency for local development, particularly in rural areas." (p.246) GDB's branches would become the lifeblood of the local economies where they operate, with deposits used mostly for local projects, and at least some local ownership as prerequisite for loans. The key to real development is local production of basic necessities, especially food, in contrast to supplying the Empire with cash crops to earn foreign exchange to pay off foreign debt. Every country, even the poorest, can be self-sufficient in organic food production with proper agricultural policies such as promoting permaculture. "Corporate agribusiness has been very successful in propagating the myth that only industrial agriculture with its intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides can feed the world. Once we enter the energy descent period, these industrial methods will no longer be economic." (p.250)
4) The Gaian Congress to define international law for member states composed of delegates appointed by Gaian League governments. "The Gaian Congress is not a world government." This would be inconsistent with Gain principles, and in all likelihood lead to the exploitation and corruption that we now have. The GC would have a restricted mandate - with a strong environmental and human rights focus - to deal with relationships among the Gaian League's diverse sovereign member states. It would define a set of international laws applicable to member states, where non-compliance would have economic consequences. Not all members of the UN are likely to be members of the Gaian League, especially in the near term, and there is no reason for Gaian League members to leave the UN, which has many useful functions but lacks power.
5) The Gaian Commission, headed by a Secretary-General, to carry out Congress resolutions and administer Gaian institutions.
6) The Gaian Court of Justice, the judicial branch to interpret Gaian law. League members will remain as members of the UN International Court of Justice, which handles cases involving conflicts between members and non-members of the League.
7) The Gaian Resource Board to administer member use of both non-renewable and renewable resources by rationing - a necessary function for long-term sustainability. The first step will be to establish an agency to control global CO2 emissions. The Board will also manage metals, fossil fuels, and the limited-capacity sinks that absorb wastes, such as rivers, lakes, oceans, and the biosphere. The Carbon Board, a division of the GRB, would auction off permissions to purchase fossil fuels and thus to emit CO2. Companies that are most innovative in reducing their emissions would be most competitive in the bidding and thus gain market share. With this scheme, there is no need for national emission targets or bureaucratic quota schemes, and there is no possibility for fraud or corruption.
8) The Gaian Council, a small elected group of "wise elders" with the power to overrule any Congress resolution or law not deemed in the long-term interest of the planet, and to mediate conflicts when requested. Each major region of the planet would elect by popular vote a person deemed incorruptible, who no longer has any business interests or political position and has demonstrated high levels of integrity. "Their major function would be to act as guardians of the entire planet" and to give direction to longer-term development. [EDITOR'S NOTE: the Gaian Council is similar to the World Future Council described by Jakob von Uexkull, above]
Part 6. GETTING THERE: THE BREAKAWAY STRATEGY. "The Gaian world order is a realistic vision of the future that should be realizable in its full manifestation in the lifetimes of most of those living today if we really want it. The overarching principles of the Gaian civilization are ecological sustainability and human rights. These are what must be prioritized above everything else." (p.275) The Gaian world order will not manifest all at once. It will involve a gradual process that in all likelihood will take many years to fully mature. And the final form will surely differ from the rough outline presented here.
The greatest challenge is to plant the seed - to get the Gaian League off the ground so that it can be seen, tested, and built upon. The closest model for the League is evolution of the European Union, which has very different goals but still illustrates the complexity of decision-making and the time required for negotiation and implementation.
The problem of citizens taking the initiative to change the status quo is that they are fragmented into thousands of groups that are "notoriously independent," even though they have similar values. Moreover, no single NGO has the resources to create a realistic alternative. Civil society cannot do it alone. Rather, the Gaian League should be "established and expanded by cooperation between top-down and bottom-up agents of change - a handful of small nations from the top and the grass roots of the world from the bottom." (p.278) A group of less than ten small nations could take the leadership responsibility by formally founding the Gaian league as an alternative to the Empire, initially as a small prototype, but scalable. Once established, other nations would be invited to apply for membership. But this strategy "can probably only succeed, in the face of Empire opposition, with massive support from civil society, not least from those within the Empire. This is the basic logic of the strategy." (p.278)
Which countries might take the lead? Jackson speculates about the Nordic countries (possibly even the EU itself), Switzerland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Bolivia, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Tunisia and Senegal. He goes further to suggest that, if the League becomes successful, "it might well be tempting for bioregions or cultural regions of the larger states to consider seceding and joining the League in order to obtain for themselves the benefits of self-determination and cultural integrity. If so, this could be a major step toward a more stable and peaceful global society with a multitude of small states focused more on cooperation than on competition." (p.294)
Many "global roadmaps" have been recently offered for the decades ahead, with idealistic schemes for global governance, managing the global economy, dealing with environmental issues, the energy transition, assuring human rights, and meeting basic human needs. Jackson's remarkable and timely book addresses all of these concerns with a thoughtful and provocative vision, especially strong on matters of political economy.
Supportive blurbs include Maurice Strong ("a masterpiece that deserves to get wide circulation and commitment by world leaders"), David Korten ("a truly important book"), Dennis Meadows ("plausible, constructive, comprehensive, original, very well written"), Hazel Henderson ("a single simple proposal that could change the current dysfunctional game"), Duane Elgin ("a breakthrough book that offers creative leverage points and new approaches"), Jim Garrison ("the definitive analysis of why the current system cannot reform itself and why a completely new system must be born"), John Perkins ("breaks through the barriers that have shackled us"), and Elisabet Sahtouris ("brilliantly informative, timely and prescriptive…simply the best strategy I have seen"). In other words, it's something else! And amply deserving of Book of the Month notice, despite some serious oversights (notably new infotech) and probable exaggerations (notably the pessimistic Chapter 2 on "energy descent," more impartially viewed as a problematic energy transition).
Even more striking is the sharp contrast with the previous GFB Book of the Month: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler (Free Press, Feb 2012). Diamandis is co-founder with inventor Ray Kurzweil of Singularity University, which promotes new technologies to solve grand challenges and hopefully improve the lives of "billions of people." Whereas Occupy World Street focuses on eight institutions to promote a Gaian world (while ignoring or dismissing new technologies, and research universities that promote them), Abundance considers eight "exponentially growing" fields: biotechnology, computational systems, networks and sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing, medicine, and nanotechnology (while ignoring politics, economics, multinational corporations, human rights, values, and the assault on nature). By developing these technologies to "stretch" resources, Diamandis and Kotler proclaim that "abundance for all" is plausible within a generation, and that "building this better world is humanity's grandest challenge." Jackson, however, promises "unlimited abundance" (pp 185-190) by using nature's methods of biomimicry and recycling limited resources.
The differences are markedly opposed in considering future food. Jackson extols local production that is 100% organic, greening deserts through permaculture, and every country becoming food self-sufficient. Diamandis and Kotler envision widespread use of Genetically Modified Organisms, vertical farming in cities, more aquaculture, and in-vitro meat from bioreactors, thus radically increasing productivity while protecting biodiversity.
Are these two contrasting visions total opposites, or is some overlap and accommodation possible - and desirable? Can a Gaian League flourish while ignoring the elephant-in-the-room of burgeoning technology (for better and worse), and the companies and universities that pursue it? Is the dazzle of exponential high tech inevitably a tool of Jackson's "Corporatocracy"? In any event, another important difference between the two visions deserves mention: unlike a Gaian world order, the high tech vision has money behind it, and there is money to be made. The promise is unlikely to diminish, and may well be a distraction from addressing the longer-term necessity of new "soft tech" institutions to foster sustainability.