Escaping Extinction: Two Perspectives Both Looking at You

For months Retake has been framing the climate change as a crisis of capitalism that can only be solved by inventing another system. In two well crafted articles, from The Nation and Resilience, this challenge is framed brilliantly. Capitalism insists on me against you, me over you, with a thirst for profit eroding the value in caring for each other or our future. That is what must change.

Escaping Extinction:  Our Systems Must Change

Today’s post relies on two extraordinary articles, first “Escaping Extinction through Paradigm Shift,” by Nafeez Ahmed, originally published in Insurge Intelligence and republished in Reslience. The second written by Astra Taylor and published in The Nation, “Time’s Up for Capitalism, But What Comes Next?”

Ahmed begins  by reporting on his personal reaction to the daily news: paralysis. How could so much be going so wrong while there is a total absence of political leadership anywhere on earth grappling with the full depth and scope of the problem?  “Watching the news has become like entering a psychological boxing ring where you get the shit punched out of you repeatedly until you drop to the floor, broken, bloodied, and inert: helpless.” Ahmed goes on to claim this reaction as our common ground. We all have had this sense of impotence and rage watching Democracy Now!, CNN, MSNBC, or PBS. For those needing more evidence of the imminent collapse of our economic, political, and environmental systems, Ahmed cites six recent studies, each viewing this collapse from a different perspective. I excerpted his citations and you can view the annotated list with links to each study by clicking here.

Ahmed goes on to point out how part of the problem is how the world reacts to its impotent rage. He notes that some react by blaming “the other,” the refugees fleeing war, violence, drought, and other manifestations of capitalism’s collapse. Here we find the classic capitalist framing of everything: it is “we” who have versus those who don’t have. And we need to win — with walls, laws, and rising animosity toward those who seek refuge. Ahmed’s context is in Europe, where one democracy after another seeks legal protections from floods of immigrants that dwarf what the US finds on our southern border. In this context, we find a racist, xenophobic opposition to the mere existence of those fleeing uninhabitable homelands. The problem is not us, but “the other.”  “Within this paradigm, expulsion of the ‘Other’ is the final solution. This is the zero-sum game model of existence. There’s not enough to go round, so we need to accumulate as much for our (narrowly-defined) selves as possible. More growth, but just for ‘us’ — because ‘They’ are the ones taking our jobs.”

The other reaction is among those who are “woke.” We protest, we petition, we march, we vote. But Ahmed points out that all of this protest is directed at governments that are essentially incapable of taking the kind of actions needed to address the scale of the crisis. What’s more, our petitions and protests externalize the problem: “We” get it. “They” must change.

We have been trained to believe that voting every once in a while in parliamentary systems suffices for effective democratic action that serves our legitimate interests. We now know that this is not enough. Our democracies are not just broken, beholden to special interests belonging to an interlocking network of energy, defense, agribusiness, biotechnological, communications and other industrial conglomerates dominated by a tiny minority. Our democracies are in a state of collapse: incapable of addressing the systemic complexity of the crisis of civilization. As they fail, they are veering toward rejecting their own democratic ethos toward increasing authoritarianism — shoring up centralized state powers to ward off dangerous ‘Others’ and unruly citizens.”

Ahmed goes on to describe how our democracies are incapable of addressing the complexity of the challenge, in large part due to these democracies being beholden to the very capitalist organizations with a financial stake in how we currently do business. “Until we address the question of transforming the very sinews and structures of contemporary neoliberal capitalism-as-we-know-it, the defining economic paradigm of our global civilization, we are speaking the wrong language.

But Ahmed doesn’t simply blame capitalism and our democratic governments, he blames all of us and suggests that the solution to our climate crisis resides within each of us, not just in changing our personal behaviors, but in insisting that in our places of business, our local government, in our schools and other institutions, we change how we do business and resist the zero-sum game of we versus the other. “This is what is missing from our response to the crisis of civilization. Our responses are based on demanding change from the ‘Other’. Whether it’s governments, or philanthropy or business — it’s about calling to account everyone other than ourselves. The problem is out there, and we have to shout and glue ourselves to the ground to get Them to listen.”

Ahmed is short on specific suggestions, but his laser-like exploration of the nature of the challenge is very worth your review. Click here to review the full article.

Astra Taylor in The Nation also identifies capitalism and the world culture it has birthed as the heart of the problem, but she also offers a glimpse of the kind of change from within that is required.

“With climate calamity on the near horizon, liberal democracies are in a bind. The dominant economic system constrains our relationship to the future, sacrificing humanity’s well-being and the planet’s resources on the altar of endless growth while enriching and empowering the global 1 percent. Meanwhile, in America, the Constitution exacerbates this dynamic, preserving and even intensifying a system of minority rule and lashing the country’s citizens to an aristocratic past.


Indeed, in researching this post, I did a Google search: capitalism and climate change. There were scores of articles from the NY Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Mother Jones, Yes!, the LA Times, everywhere. It isn’t as if the relationship between capitalism, our addiction to growth, and the 1%’s addiction to profit is a secret. But, as is described so clearly by Ahmed, our governing systems are paralyzed or more accurately, tied up in knots and incapable of addressing the scope of the problem. But while Taylor doesn’t point to specific political strategies or policy reforms, she does point to the kind of transformation required, describing a North American pre-colonial, indigenous treaty-making process.

The fossil fuel and finance industries, alongside the officials they’ve bought off, will fight to the death to maintain the status quo, but our economic arrangements and political agreements don’t have to function the way they do. Should democratic movements manage to mount a successful challenge to the existing order, indigenous precolonial treaty-making processes provide an example of the sort of wisdom a new, sustainable consensus might contain. The Gdoonaaganinaa, or “Dish with One Spoon” treaty, outlines a relationship between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Nishnaabeg people. The dish symbolizes the shared land on which both groups depend and to which all are responsible; in keeping with the Haudenosaunee Great Law of peace, the agreement aims to prevent war, so there is only a spoon and no knife, to ensure no blood will be shed. The dish “represented harmony and interconnection,” Leanne Betasamosake Simpson explains. “Neither party could abuse the resource.”

Nishnaabeg custom required decision makers to consider the impact of their decisions on all the plant and animal nations. Both Nishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee law dictates that leaders must take the needs of the next seven generations of their respective communities into account. And this is the nature of the change required. Both authors write that this change must begin with each of us and from there move out to our places of work and worship, our friendships, our local institutions, our government, and beyond. Click here to review the full The Nation article. It is extremely well written and incorporates analysis of concepts that for the sake of brevity, I did not include in this post but are very worth your review. Taylor goes back to our founding fathers and examines the structures they put in place and how the perspectives and priorities of the long-dead constrain our abilities to address problems they could not have dreamed of. A very insightful piece.

I must say, that while these two authors framed the nature of the problem very compellingly, I was left wanting in terms of the solutions. While the kind of transition or paradigm shift Ahmed and Taylor identify do seem to be the required change, in their writing I didn’t see a bridge that can get us there. The “one dish, one spoon’ treaty was created by peoples with no concept of land ownership or profit. Our cultural distance from that time could hardly be wider. With so little time, how do we achieve one dish, one spoon when those who own the dish have no intention of giving up that ownership?

And so I end by posing a question to readers of this blog: With less than 12 years remaining to contain what seems uncontainable, what is the most effective path? What should each of us do with the remainder of the day, the week, our lifetime, if we are to pass on a sustainable world to our children? What do we do?

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne








Categories: Climate Change, Agriculture, Land Use & Wildlife, Election, Political Reform & National Politics, Social & Racial Justice & Immigration Reform

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6 replies

  1. Paralysis, follows the morning news.
    Good post. And your question “What shall we do?” is at the heart of all things.
    Gandhi said, to cooperate with evil is to perpetuate the very system that oppresses us.
    Revolution will come to the U.S. as soon as the stock market collapses. And this will be within the next 2 years. The national debt has tripled in 2.5 years. The unsecured loans (cars, credit cards, and student loans) are greater than 1.4 trillion. Banks are already reporting they are not “securitized” (means they do not have the required 10% of cash holdings per loans issued). All of our systems are broken: health, education, government, finance, and environment.
    Expect civil war. Prepare now. Creating community for mutual survival is imperative.

  2. What to do? Off the top of my head there are two tracks. One is activism. A campaign to reduce plastic packaging, for example. Or getting local governments to adopt a very specific green policy. These may seem like minuscule steps in the big scheme, but every step in the right direction is worth taking. The second track is very simply withdrawal from the greater part of the consumer culture that has shaped our lives. Reduce consumption by 1/3 to 1/2. Of pretty much everything. Don’t believe this is possible? Walk into a Walmart (an easy target, I know, but representative) or an Albertsons. 90% of what is sold, 90%!!!, is either stupid, useless, unneeded junk or is demonstrably bad for you. As an older guy who had a very fortunate and diverse childhood, I can attest that most of the newer “stuff” we have today, (that we didn’t have then), is unnecessary for satisfaction and happiness. Perhaps a movement could incorporate a simple slogan like 67% or 50%, much as the great legacy of Occupy was to popularize the neglected reality of the (we are the) 99% versus the 1%. BTW, I’m not advocating wearing a hairshirt or feeling guilty all the time. Humans seem to need art and occasional frivolity in their lives. (PS: I was informed at the last Retake meeting that “minimalism” is now a thing, and I’ll be exploring this on the internet very soon).

    One thing I am pretty sure of: the concept of perpetual growth, in any human domain, is done.

    Also, full disclosure: I do not believe that the political entity called the U.S. of A. has much of a future. The political and economic structures and the individuals in power–mostly sociopaths–are too irredeemably corrupted for there to be anything to hope for except a less severe downshifting into national decline.

    Finally, I’ll submit that there are a few simple concepts that we can apply in our local actions: accountability, sustainability, resilience, and community. If we question actions and decisions using these criteria, we may have a chance in the future for ourselves and for our children/grandchildren.

    “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out”.–Vaclav Havel

  3. HI Paul and Roxanne. Whenever I hear some new person out there in the community view you two and Retake with some or more than some skepticism, I just go to a post and affirm to myself how full of BS these folks are.

    And you are getting your shoulders behind the dead carcass of inertia that plagues this planet, and you are PUSHING!!! Thank you for finding the heart of darkness. Just look what this post has drawn out. Two really excellent perspectives on the mad human disease that has infected all of us, and is destroying all our truly meaningful plant and animal friends.

    Ironically (or maybe not) I just came from a watershed class on the crisis of overconsumption and resultant “garbage” that results, and if and how it is and can continue to be dealt with. As Barry Commoner said long ago, there is to “there” to throw away our wasted hoardings. One man in class tonite said that we are literally sitting atop our own filthy pile of garbage, and he had tears in his eyes.

    As you and many others of us almost certainly ask ourselves, repeatedly, “what can we do?” This question also hit the bricks tonite in my class, and we were asked to collaborate on possible answers. A usually talkative and question-laden class of 17 was eerily silent. So I dared to brave what I thought would be a storm of rebukes, and I posited that there were many potential avenues of reclamation. But I started with what I always see as the elephant in the room – our personal failures to admit to ourselves that we are in way over our heads, are essentially addicted to consumption, denial and argumentative defense of our behaviors, that we have been manipulated and deluded by propaganda posing as capitalist advertising into self-mutilation and persecution of ‘the other,” and that without literally standing on our heads and revolutionizing our daily existence, not one damn thing of any consequence will change for the better.

    I then suggested that we destroy capitalism by any and all means possible, by pointing out that 90 percent of us do all the work for the other 10 percent, and then turn around and consume what we have just produced and pay the 10 percent back 90 percent of what we were just paid, only to do it all over again. So we force all business to become employee-owned and non-profit, that we then question the need for each and every company that produces absolutely every item of consumption available, and the energy we consume to make, transport, use and then discard such junk, and just shut down the production of all bright and shiny objects. To start with.

    I was met with many thanks, applause, penetrating gazes with wry smiles, etc.

    So I say it now, as I have before. Revolution or Extinction. We do not seek violence, but we cannot be manipulated and coerced one more second into behaving like lunatics so a handful of sadistic, perverse sociopaths can get their rocks off to the sounds of the last frog croaking.

    Mick Nickel

  4. On San Isidro day, I saw the Pojoaque Valley acequia system at work, from source to finish. I saw young farmers working with water, soil, and available technology to provide abundant healthful food to Santa Fe.
    Can small groups of people working together, creating infrastructure and – possibly more important – social networks – re-shape society? Maybe. In fact, working at the small local scale may be the only way that we can make the county, the state, the nation humane.

  5. Escaping Extinction:

    My first thought is that it will be better for the planet’s water, air and soil, its non-human creatures and plants, if we humans bow out. The earth will heal and renew itself if we’re not here.
    Let’s not grieve human extinction.

    To fight extinction (of ourselves) we can learn to live lighter on the planet from our indigenous neighbors.
    We could stop being carnivorous and consumers-of-the-unnecessary. Live larger by living smaller.
    We can conserve water, make our yards wildlife friendly, grow food, disavow plastics. Etc.
    We all know the list.

    If we stop consuming petroleum products we may save ourselves from extinction.

    I got to a Hearing in the House Chamber early one afternoon and caught the end of a speech by a tribal leader who was using the L word, saying with simplicity and humility:
    We need to love each other more. We need to help each other, like we used to ….
    It was an appeal for community, an appeal to treat each other like neighbors, like family.
    Being a caring community, as Retake, as Santa Feans, as New Mexicans are doing for refugees, might cover a multitude of our sins of overuse and excess.

    As for activism, I would like to see Retake EMPHASIZE Clean Energy Initiatives and a Just Transition. Good people are working on health care, on school improvement, but the most crucial and urgent need for all earth’s creatures is for fossil fuel extraction to be halted. And for G&O to be pressed into cleaning up their operations until they are eased out of production entirely.
    We need to convert more legislative votes before the next sessions–and not only by primarying DINOs, although that is an important tactic.
    We need to involve younger generations, being willing to let them lead.
    We need to fight the insanity with grace and passion. And we need to do it smart.


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