The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel provides one of the central metaphors of the book. In the story,
the builders sought to build a tower that reached to heaven—a metaphor for the attempt to reach the infinite
through finite means. Similarly, human beings through their technology—social and material—have sought to
create a perfect world, a Utopia. Social technologies, such as systems of law, and physical technologies of
energy, materials, and biota, have created an edifice that reaches high indeed. We call it civilization, but
are we really any closer to Heaven? Are we better off today than the hunter-gatherer, the Roman peasant, the
1950 American? No matter how many problems we solve, the sky seems just as far away as ever.
Meanwhile, the higher we build the more problems appear in the base of our structure, as if our civilization
were beginning to collapse under its own weight. Look at Pieter Bruegel’s painting. The lower sections begin
to crack and crumble even as they build the tower higher. Similarly, even as technology achieves new wonders,
fundamental problems as old as civilization proliferate. We have microchips and nanotechnology, yet a large
and growing portion of humanity cannot meet basic human needs for food, health, and security from violence.
One look at the Tower in the painting is enough to see that the builders’ project is obviously doomed. It is
absurd, in fact. The higher the building goes, the greater an insulation from reality is necessary to continue
the effort. Yet continue it they must, because their whole way of life is built around its construction. Jared
Diamond gives a similar answer to the question of why the Easter Islanders continued to destroy their ecosystem
to erect huge monoliths, even when their doom should have been obvious. Their politics, their economy, their
social organization, all depended on the construction. We as well are addicted to the ascent of technology.
Faced with the problems caused by previous technology, we know no other way to solve them but through
new technologies that generate their own unintended consequences. Helplessly, we build the Tower higher.
– Charles Eisenstein, from The Ascent of Humanity
In the brief history of humanity, our unique capacity to think has allowed us to shape our environment in ways our ancestors could only have dreamed about. Our increasing ability to control nature has allowed us to reign supreme over all other species and has resulted in explosive, exponential growth of human population, resource depletion and pollution. We are now in the age of the , an age defined by scientists in which one species above all others, homo sapien, has transformed the entire planetary landscape to serve its needs. More than any other species, it is we who will determines the future course of the planet. But ironically, this distorted power which we human beings have come to possess and our “success” may be the very thing that leads to a rapid unravelling of our civilization. We are not unlike a cancer or a pathogen who has spread too quickly and in danger of killing the very host it depends on for its survival. Unlike a pathogen, however, there is new host to jump to; we only have one planet. [/four_fifth_last]Today, we sit at a unique position in history. We are amidst a perfect storm of crisis but we can still look back at our recent history to see how we got here. And if we do gaze back with open eyes and mind, we will find that our technological inventions have gradually alienated us more and more from our environment, creating ever greater distance. We have lost touch with the environmental feedback mechanisms, once so vital to the survival of our ancestors. Human society through vast deforestation, global warming, ocean acidification, accelerated biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion are conducting a vast global ecological experiment. We are stressing the ecosystem to its limits and are fast approaching planetary boundaries and irreversible tipping points. We are far from equilibrium and if we do not take means to correct the imbalance, nature inevitably will, leading us into a completely unknown regime – a new stable state in which our own species may not be suited for survival.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.We are at a turning point in human civilization, facing a perfect storm of economic, environmental and energy crisis that threatens not only humanities long term prospects, but the entire planetary biosphere. It is therefore very clear that we require a major paradigm shift away from the attitude of control and dominance of nature and back to the attitude of cooperation with her. The time has come to apply our imagination to the greatest challenge we have ever faced, to makeover and redesign humanity. These issues are complex, intertwined and of a global nature and for the first time ever, humanity will really need to unite in order to solve them. This challenge is made even more difficult by the short time window for action, exasperated by deliberate confusion leading to paralysis and media fatigue at a time when united action is needed the most.
- Albert Einstein
Consumption drives the economy of continuous growth, yet it is based on a futile attempt to fill our sense of lack.Behavioral change is crucial and for that, we must mount an effective global education campaign. But this is not mere education of the mind, but more critically of the heart and the human spirit. For through the epic odyssey of our evolution, we have come to lose touch with our greater self. Our human-made environments has cut us off from nature and we have lost touch with the deep and sacred feelings surrounding our own cycle of life and death. At the root of our externally manifest problems of violence towards other beings and towards our planet is this deep sense of lack in our experience of life. We must rediscover this as the starting point of healing the planet.
To fill our sense of lack, we have found a dangerous substitute. We maintain our self-denial of mortality and numb our true feelings of repressed fear and confusion through an artificial happiness based upon unnecessary and harmful consumption. And it is the continuous economic growth driven by this unhealthy consumption which lay at the heart of our planetary destruction.
Economic Shock Peak Oil Manufacturing Food Scarcity Pollution Overpopulation
(Click on each link above to explore each problem area separately then visit our Solutions page to see what a holistic, zero waste, low carbon society might look like and what scale of change is required to bring that about.)
Human Progress – a much vaulted term which we have all bought into. It is the folly of a mind which believes itself superior to the nature which created it which has led humanity on this tragic journey from hunter gatherer to citizen of modern society – a paradoxical journey of material progression at the vastly greater price of spiritual and environmental regression. The Magnitude of the Challenge we now face is almost impossible to believe. We have erected a progress trap of epic proportions. How can an entire civilization be asleep at the wheel? We are Icarus, who in our arrogance of believing that we can dominate and control nature now see our wings melting as we approach the sun.
On the one hand, ours is the story of the triumph of human ingenuity; creating the magical world we live in today – a world where we can communicate with anyone instantly anywhere in the world and where people can transport themselves over vast distances in a matter of a few hours. However, this magic elixer of symbolic reasoning also has a dark side. What gives abstract reasoning it’s strength to control the environment is also what gives it its weakness. For in our rush to control and dictate our human lives over nature, we have failed to recognize the cardinal rules of nature; its inter-dependency. This simultaneously beautiful and ugly world we have created is a direct reflection of this double-edged quality of reasoning.
The world from which we arise from is an infinitely interconnected one. The Hindu myth of Indra’s Net provides a metaphor of this interdependent organization. This net exists in Indra’s palace in heaven and extends infinitely in all directions. At each node of the net where threads cross there is a perfectly clear gem that reflects all the other gems in the net. We ourselves, as human beings are not only arisen from this interconnectivity, but are that very thing itself. To remind ourselves of our connection with nature, we only have to try to stop breathing for a few moments. Something as fundamental as the air we breath is interconnected to microscopic plankton in the ocean or the humble trees outside our homes, both which are at threat due to our global levels of pollution. Our bodies are constructed from nature; she is within us in the deepest way. We do not live apart from her, but intimately with her, with every single breath we take.
In our natural propensity to make a better life for ourselves, we have forgotten the umbilical cord that binds us to mother nature. It is easy to see how we became so distracted. After all, economics is the most important activity of the modern human. It is our means of basic survival; without money, we don’t eat. Yet, when our immediate survival becomes the predominant focus, we lose awareness of other things which are equally as important to survival – such as the environment that gave rise to us. Our success as the thinking species has allowed us to multiply out of control like a cancer. It is ironic that our great “success” may actually be our greatest failure in disguise.
Our technocracy has built itself by employing abstract reasoning to solve problems of human need, implementing the solutions using technology and being rewarded with financial gain. Yet when technology is built with a narrow focus of financial gain and designed with neglect of ecological impact, it will only be a matter of time before nature catches up. It seems that now we are paying the price.
Together, we stand at the precipice of great change. It is the responsibility of each human being alive today, to become aware of the reality which scientists have been trying to tell us. Go to the Magnitude of the Challenge page to educate and bring yourself up to speed.
We can either manage the required change ourselves or it can be taken out of our control and nature will manage it for us – with undesirable results. Once upon a time, we lived close to the land and the sea. We knew the bounty she could provide and we also knew its limitations. In our blind march towards progress, our large manufacturing plants have broken that ancient and sacred bond with nature. In fact, it is in the best interest of manufacturers to deceive us and not tell us of the environmental ruin they have caused as a result of providing products for us to consume. We have inadvertently disconnected ourselves so completely from our ecological reality, that we have lost all feedback mechanisms that normally warn us of impending mutual danger. We have very little choice now, but to shift paradigms quickly. Ironically, the alienation that has caused all this may be the very motivation we need at this time.
The Challenge that this human civilization now faces is a daunting one on the scale of the disappearance of entire societies…things that we have only read about in the history books. Do we have the wisdom to unite and overcome this challenge? At stake is the entire modern industrial technological society, culture and way of life which cheap non-renewable energy has built for us. Peak Oil is on its way …some say it’s already here. If the US military is preparing for it, you know that it’s being taken seriously at the highest level. Unless today’s generation is educated on the enormous civilization-scale changes coming down the pipeline, they will be wholly unprepared to meet it. There is environmental awareness to be sure, but there is also a lot of greenwashing and technological cheerleading and promises to fix the technological problem too. We each have a responsibility to know what is really happening. The problem is not one single, isolated problems, but a perfect storm of many convergent, intertwined problems. They all have a common source in the reckless overconsumption characteristic of modern society.
When there weren’t so many of us, we were nowhere near the limits. Now, we are knocking on their doorsteps and annually exceeding our safe allotedearlier and earlier each year. Unless we act decisively, rapidly and speak as one global force, something is going to give.
The Age of the
Humans are being to have such a large scale impact on life on earth that geologists have come up with an informal geological chronological term to describe it, the Wikipedia). It is marked by evidence of the broad extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. The term was coined by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and has been widely popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological era for its lithosphere. (Source:
At every single stage – from its biased arrival to its biased encoding to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering to misinterpreting to others, the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual good goal of appearing better than one is
- Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011
In his book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, author Robert Trivers argues persuavely that it is evolutionarily adaptive to practice self-deception. We continually bias and adjust information to confirm a set of impressions we already hold. Here’s how critics to Limits to Growth criticism have changed to confirm the belief of the correctness of a model of limitless economic growth and unquestioned trust in the technological-industrial model:
- 1970: There are no limits
- 1980: There are limits but they are very far away…we don’t have to worry about them
- 1990: A lot of excellent research on damage of the ecosystem. Maybe the limits are near but we don’t have to worry because the markets and technology will take care of them
- 2000: The markets and technology isn’t working but it’s still necessary to sustain growth because that’s what gives us the resources to deal with these problems
- 2010: Well, if we had been able to sustain growth, we wouldn’t have had all these problems (i.e Peak Oil: people who used to say that there was no Peak Oil now say that if we had the investment to sustain the growth, we wouldn’t be in this problem)
Table of Contents
- Economic Quigmire
- The Interplay between the 3 E’s: Economics, Energy and the Environment
- The Clock is ticking….
- Our Challenge, the world’s challenge and your challenge
The current unsustainable economic model of limitless growth and short term return has led society to its precarious position today teetering on global systemic collapse. As noted investment advisor Jeremy Grantham says, present economics cannot see beyond the next quarter and this is THE CENTRAL PROBLEM that will keep our planet on the Business-As-Usual trajectory that will lead to a rapid decline in human civilization.
The current economic paradigm pits economy against ecology…in spite of the fact that both concepts originate from the same root – the Greek word for “Eco” which means “the home”. We must rapidly transition from an economy which places short term needs far ahead of long term needs and which sees economy as incongruent with ecology. We must rapidly evolve a socio-economic system which allow both short term and long term needs to be met and which allows economy to function alongside ecology.
Current economic philosophy of all leading financial institutions continue to lead to decisions which maximize short term benefit at the expense of long term sustainability. In the name of annual bonuses, corporate managers make decisions that satisfy the hunger of uninformed shareholders and consumers alike at the expense of depleting vast amounts of resources and generating large amounts of waste….all problems these same corporate managers expect future generations to deal with.
It is clear that humanity is facing a perfect storm of diverse crisis caused by an economic system which is based on:
- short term profit
- no long term planning
- a clear indifference to the well being of the environment or people
The picture above illustrates how complex problems such as Global Warming depend on both a social and a technical factor for their solution. While countries focus on the technical factors and pay little heed to the social factors, there is no way that there will be a solution without finding solutions to the the social problems such as overconsumption, overpopulation and replacing an unsustainable economic model of limitless growth that focuses on short term returns.
To solve the problems we face today requires anti-business actions. It will require businesses to forget about short term profit and to invest in the decades to come. It means reducing economic activity because economic activity depletes resources and pollutes air, water and land. How will we do that in the current economic paradigm?
The Interplay between the 3 E’s: Economics, Energy and the Environment
Another Way to See the Perfect Storm: A crisis in Economics, the Environment and Energy explained by Chris Martenson. Follow Chris along from module 1 all the way to 20 on a journey to understand how humanity got itself into this mess. Chris offers clear and lucid explanations of each of these major areas and then how they converge to create the perfect storm we now find ourselves in. You owe it to yourself and your family to understand the situation you are mired in.
The Kaya Identity is an equation which shows the interdependency of pollution (carbon emissions) with population, the economy and energy.
C emission = P * G/P * E/G * C/Watt
- Cemission is global CO2 emissions from human sources in Gigatons/year
- P is global population
- G is world GDP in $
- G/P is global per-capita GDP in $/capita
- E is global primary energy consumption in Watts
- E/G is the energy intensity of world GDP in Watts/$
- C/E is the carbon intensity of energy in Gigatons/year
The first two terms P and G are social factors while the last two terms, E/G and C/E are technical factors. What this implies with respect to Global Warming is that both technological AND social solutions must be sought concurrently. The equation shows that if our industrial, technological society only focuses on the technology solutions and ignores the social one, we will still not prevent Global Warmings harmful effects on society. It is an example of how the complexity of our many problems means that we must solve them all together; the only viable solution is a holistic solution. Policies and behavioral changes in all areas must be coordinated to mobilize an effective solution.
The Clock is ticking….
Humanities achievements have come at a very high cost and looking back in hindsight, we can see that the path to the present has been littered with unsustainable choices. Against this backdrop, we cannot continue with business-as-usual. We have now become overly dependent on a centralized system which in turn is completely reliant on non-renewable energy. While our collective ignorance has led us to this difficult place, it is only our collective wisdom that will have any hope of leading us out of it.
Our Challenge, the world’s challenge and your challenge
InGienous Designs is a South African based For-Profit Social Enterprise that is ready to meet these many challenges head on. We work within the current socio-economic paradigm but are trying to fashion a new and truly sustainable one out of it. We know the unprecedented challenges the human species faces at this moment in time and we know we know that it will take the greatest creativity and dilligence from each and every one of us to solve this enormous problem. Now, more than ever, the future of humanity rests within each and every single person’s hands. Each one of us has limitless potential and now is the time to discover it and stand up to be counted. Nobody really knows if we can stop this runaway freight train, but as responsible human beings, we have no choice…..we must try our best.
As a Social Enterprise, we recognize that business is an evolution of modern man’s basic instinct for survival. How to morph business and our technologicial society into a truly sustainable one for the entire global community will be an evolving story. Will there still be centralized power? Will there be local power? All we know is that the last two hundred years, modern civilization has been spoiled by an unsustainable high energy lifestyle and there is now a desperate need to return to a low energy one. We need to take control and ease into it rather than have the system come crashing down on us. Ironically, in a low energy society,while developed countries will suffer a lot of pain and hardship letting go of high energy appliances that have made life convenient, developing countries will actually experience an overall improvement in quality of life.
As a Social Enterprise, our wealth is critically tied to the true wealth of the local community. And while Africa has historically been exploited for her rich natural resources, we recognize that the continents’ greatest gift is perhaps it’s vast pool of untapped human resources. Once the people of Africa have awakened to their true potential, establish confidence in themselves and are educated to develop their newly discovered talents, profound social transformation will occur that will finally lead to a truly free Africa.
From a business-only perspective, there is vast untapped opportunities in Africa, ample opportunity for win-win wealth creation. The Harvard Business School recently estimated the Base of Pyramid (BoP) economy to have a potential value exceeding 15 Trillion dollars. At the same time, if we continue to adapt a development model which decouples financial wealth from human and environmental wellbeing, we will only continue on a line of unsustainability. In the African context, therefore, we must create a unique holistic developmental approach which combines:
- Local economic development encouraging the majority of trade to take place locally
- Holistic design that integrates humanity, technology, community, economics & environment
- Partnership with the community including village based education centre staffed by a combination of local and outside teachers
- Appropriate holistic mix of Base-of-Pyramid technology developed and manufactured locally to stimulate local trade
- World-class sustainable practices, engineering and design and skills transfer to local community when possible
- An entrepreneurial spirit that reframes problems as opportunities
All of this is built upon the foundation of a new 21st century humanism whose main purpose is to awaken the sacred within each person and remind us of our common humanity. It is only such a reminder that has the power to awaken and then to unite us. For it will take a unified humanity to bring about the necessary global paradigm shift.