Are we intelligent enough to prevent our own extinction?


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Does planetary intelligence exist?

In the first part of this essay, we talked about the striking similarity between human addictive behaviour and the growth addiction of modern societies and whether it could be treated analogously to a substance addiction. This now is a theoretical attempt to break free from the addictive spiral by daring to be more planetary intelligent.

Addiction usually has two drivers. One is qualitative: New, different states of intoxication are always sought. The other driver is quantitative: more and more is demanded from the addictive substance. In the case of modern consumerist societies, this applies to both the production side and the consumption side.

The beginning of every addiction therapy lies in the insight into the addiction and its harmfulness. The growth addiction of our economic system presents a heterogeneous picture here. Due to direct disadvantage experiences of the climate crisis and closely timed economic crises, the view of our economic system is indeed becoming more critical. However, it is still not entire societies that are questioning their addiction to growth, but at best parts of individual societies, while others are even increasing their addictive behaviour. In addition, we are also dealing psychologically with an asynchrony. The insight - yes, we have to renounce - that is shown at the moment of the theoretical discussion of the topic breaks down at the moment of the concrete, often non-public admission of consumption or growth.*

Thus, there is a double hurdle to overcome: the Janus-faced dependency and that of hidden addictive tactics.

Expectation of scalability as the driving force of addiction.

On the production side, our economic system is addicted to ever new, in many cases expendable, products. Innovation in high technology may often make sense. In the area of mass production, it usually is not. As a rule, it leads to ever new masses of superfluous products. The textile and food industries are only the most obvious negative examples. An outstanding one is the international beverage industry, which abolished the functioning glass bottle deposit system to increase profits and has since been destroying the earth with 440 billion plastic bottles every year. Bottles that contain mostly products that are harmful to health.
We have also fallen intellectually into a scalability trap. Only products and services that could be marketed in large numbers are thought of and developed at all. The seemingly indispensable product masses for mass consumption are the destructive factor of our mode of production. Along the way, this scalability addiction is suffocating small-scale production approaches that could cure us of the addiction and that are often gentler in regional cycles. Non-profit concepts such as tapping and gently using latent commons are ignored. Our greatest commons, the oceans, for example, are being ruined before our eyes by nationalistic and literally predatory capitalist greed.

As we know from addicted individuals in acquisitive crime, addicted industrial societies will stop at nothing to destroy long-term relationships with the planet's resources in order to drive their short-term production and consumption frenzies to new heights. A current example is the uncritical revival of liquefied natural gas extracted by extremely polluting fracking. Another is the notorious destruction of rainforests for livestock feed crops or pseudo-ecological fuels. This is not new. But it is interesting to look at the connection from the perspective of addiction maintenance. If we shut down one source of addictive substances, e.g. Russian natural gas, another one will be developed immediately, as well as Central American resources will be developed rapidly after the Colombian cocaine cartels have been curbed. And vice versa.

The idea of renunciation is not thought, the addictive substance must be extracted, because there is the insatiable addiction. In the case of modern societies, we call this energy security, for example; it is now to be temporarily secured by a change of the addictive substance producers, then by addictive substance substitution therapy (so-called alternative energies), which in turn are only made possible with considerable amounts of material polluting the environment.
The liberation from dependence, the end of addiction, seems a long way off. The fact that with solar energy we are also becoming dependent on China is similar to the relationship between a drug user and his criminal supplier. The situation is similar with wind power and battery technology. The solution is obvious. Exit the addictive cycle by gradually weaning ourselves off consumerism and the associated energy addiction.

Politics are too slow. Industry must lead the way

Since government guidelines are often marked by time-consuming compromises, industry must lead the way here in view of the planetary emergency and at the same time set impulses for action that are taken and reinforced by government and societal actors.
Is it illusory to demand that producers produce less and do so in cycles? That oversized status products be abolished, and the lifespan of everyday products be significantly extended?
Perhaps. But maybe not, if the alternative is to be unable to produce anything at all because the planetary foundations no longer exist. Product categories from necessary to dispensable to harmful would have to be introduced. What is necessary would be provided with a high product life span and reparability as well as recyclability. The harmful category would be reduced to zero through pricing policy. In the middle remains the segment dispensable or "nice to have", whose strategic weight would presumably fluctuate with the ecological and economic framework conditions but would also have to be reduced in the long term. All this sounds utopian and planned at the same time. One could think the old spectre of unfreedom and dysfunctionality on the horizon.

Here are three questions.

First question:

If the preservation of our planetary livelihoods is at stake, might this perhaps be the only way out of the vicious circle of production and consumption addiction, because an unguided continuation of market dynamics cannot lead to a rapid reduction of product masses?
This is because the expectation of scalability ensures that product masses are maintained.
They are modified in the sense of trendy sustainability, often nothing more than greenwashing. But the product masses will increase exponentially in view of the catch-up movements in the living standards of the global South.
Even if they were produced in a noticeably more sustainable way, the rapidly growing quantity would be fatal for the planet.
To enable the consumption level of the so-called western industrial societies, which produce a footprint of their citizens up to 32 times larger than so-called underdeveloped societies, to reach this level for the soon 9.5 billion inhabitants of the earth, we would need the planetary resources of 80 earths (J. Diamond/Crisis). We would use up all planetary resources at the latest on the fifth day of the year. Anyone who still relies on "business as usual" here is frankly not quite sane. Also, all sustainability efforts are here only drops in the ocean.

Meaning: Extraction & devastation, the principle of taking, the principle of growth-addicted economy (not just with raw materials, but also towards humans and animals) are outdated. Aggressively holding on to it is cutting off the water for yourself and mankind. Even so-called clean energy is only an alibi here: "Clean energy may be a help when it comes to emissions; but it has no use in reversing deforestation, overfishing, soil depletion, and mass extinctions. A growth-obsessed economy, even if powered by clean energy, will still plunge us into ecological disaster" (J. Hickel/The Tyranny of Growthism.).

Second question:

Isn't it the democracies duty to determine what level of renunciation is reasonable, through science-based understanding of people and fair questioning of citizens, since dictatorships and autocracies would only order renunciation arbitrarily, if at all? Answer: YES. The second question is immediately followed by another:

Third question:

What does man actually need for a good life? Before we turn to this question in detail, let me give you a more pointed answer: for a good life, man does not need excessive consumption. In the course of the last 150 years, so-called Western man has been trained to do so by an industrial society caught up in expectations of scalability. Thus, addiction to consumption and production became the norm.
But we now know that the contribution of material well-being to a good life, embodied in GDP, rises only to a certain, relatively low point. After that, it's about factors like easy access to social goods, community and health-promoting, low levels of continuous stress, humane development opportunities. This has been known for a long time: "GDP neither measures our intellect nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our education, neither our compassion nor our love for our country. [...] In short, it measures everything except what makes life worth living." (Robert Kennedy)

But the realization is far from being taken to heart. Quite the opposite. The warning issued early on by its inventor, Kuznet, not to make material GDP the measure of our social development under any circumstances, has been systematically ignored and thwarted under the primacy of economics, and has propelled us directly into the consumerist addiction from which we find it difficult to extricate ourselves today.
The GPI/Genuine Progress Indicator attempts to correct this aberration. It sets income inequality and social and environmental costs against personal consumption expenditures. Since the mid-1970s, it has flattened against rising GDP and then actually reduced. The GPI evokes the desirable condition of a society not yet completely dominated by addictive behavior. Thus it is closer to what we should understand by a good life. If it is favourable, the addicted society has fewer addictive substances in its blood.

If we orient ourselves to it, the negative consequences of excessive material growth, such as inequality, planetary ruin and health problems, will foreseeably be reduced. This could be another way out of the addiction spiral, in addition to the change on the production side (see above). Ideas like the One Health Concept also contribute by thinking about the health of humans, animals and the planet equally. If such approaches are taken seriously, they can help to curb the prevailing naive entrepreneurial actionism that keeps adding new addictive substances to the consumerist addiction cycle and is celebrated for it in the media.

From the right perspective and compared to the extensive loss of our planetary foundations, production and consumption renunciation is a small step. For it would correct something man-made by human action. But human action would be powerless in the face of planetary ruin once it had occurred.

There are ways of therapy and they must be taken immediately

There are promising tools for addiction therapy. The Genuine Progress Indicator can be used to determine the extent of addiction, lowering our scalability expectations can correct addictive attitudes, and the One Health Concept can be used to address prevention and follow-up treatment. Many other approaches should be able to contribute as well.
However, the all-important factor is time. Therefore, the benchmark for addiction treatment will be whether we can get the most influential players in the industry to see the destructive addiction spiral and correct it quickly. For while government actors are reluctantly transforming themselves into advocates for the planet, swift action by industry well beyond sustainability considerations to a strategic renunciation of potential monetary value creation is the prerequisite to seizing the temporary opportunity for transformation.

The renunciation of an aspired or already achieved level of prosperity is not considered seriously anywhere today. The leading media and politicians continue to celebrate growth rates and new triumphs of the partly green-washed mass producers. Knowingly doing the wrong thing is human and such an old behaviour pattern that even the Greeks coined the term "akrasia" for it.
Even the UN's environmental organization is already warning of the collapse of planetary systems, but it still seems illusory that Coca Cola will return to the deposit bottle system, or that any of the major car companies will voluntarily reduce their production capacities. Legitimized by e-car production, they are more likely to be increased. Bogus sustainability even functions as a qualitative addiction driver. Catch-up effects of dynamic economies potentiate planetary devastation, wantonly instigated wars generate civilization damage and further environmental destruction in addition to human casualties.

- Will we be too slow to forestall collapse through wise abandonment?
- Do we even have the minimal prerequisites for a strategic renunciation of our habitual addictive substances and behavior patterns?
- Are industry and society intellectually agile enough?

The 3rd revolution: Rights of nature and on nature become law

The answer to these questions remains open. In order for it to be promising, we need an ecological constitution with mutual - i.e. also subjective for every citizen enforceable - and not just unilateral rights to an intact planet.
Property will also be ecologically binding then. In rapid steps, ecology conforming to the market will become a market conforming to ecology. Rights of nature and individual ecosystems will be incorporated into the Basic Law - as it already was in Ecuador in 2008.
The author Kersten calls this the 3rd revolution in his plea for an ecological basic law. In it, we will have to prove that we are intelligent enough to prevent our own extinction. Which also outlines the most important requirement for a planetary intelligence.

In the third part of the essay we will try to draw conclusions for a delimitation of planetary intelligence against our present behavior.

  • Internet consumtion/internal growth rates in companies

Photography © L.v.Wangger

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