Escaping extinction through paradigm shift
Drone footage of displaced family tents in one settlement in Badghis, Afghanistan, due to ongoing drought and climate change. There are thousands of makeshift homes spread between mountain hills on the outskirt of Qala-i-naw city. (Source: NRC/Enayatullah Azad)

Escaping extinction through paradigm shift

‘Rebellion’ is not enough. We need to build new systems from the ground up, right now

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
11 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

For the last month, as a journalist and academic, I’ve experienced a strange sensation of paralysis.

I don’t usually experience this. Usually I find myself driven by the pressures of wanting to cover with due justice a full spectrum of intersecting crises and potential solutions.

But this month watching the spectacle of political madness unfolding across Washington, London and Brussels, while chaos and suffering continues to kick off across Venezuela, Yemen, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Nigeria and beyond, I experienced something I haven’t felt in a long-time. A sense of total burn-out. Of futility. Of tiredness.

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.

I can’t imagine this is a particularly unique sensation. But I wanted to share it with you because this is common ground. Common ground across the deepening divides tearing our societies apart. No matter which side of the divide we stand on, that sensation of paralysis and helplessness is playing out in tangible form in the political processes we see out there.

The sensation of paralysis is therefore not just a psychological artifact. It’s the internal experience of the systemic dysfunction playing out in the world. It’s a reflection of the state of collapse that our prevailing democratic institutions are experiencing as they prove completely incapable of responding to and solving for the intricate complexity of inherently interconnected converging global crises.

How to deal with the ‘Other’ has now become the defining sticking point of contemporary Western politics. It is particularly exemplified in the paralysis of the UK government and parliament in the face of the Brexit process; the paralysis of the US government over the Trump administration’s ‘Wall’; the inexorable mainstreaming of anti-‘Other’ sentiment across Europe; in the extent to which the failure of the incumbent order to resolve internal crises has driven the resurgence of new forms of extreme politics, inspired by nativism and nationalist rejections of groups of people considered both ‘foreign’ and parasitical.

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.

But rumbling beneath the surface of this obsession with the ‘Other’ is a deeper problem that we find much difficulty facing up to: the fact that the system of life we have built for ourselves and which many of us think is being undermined by too many of ‘Them’, is already collapsing in its own right.

There has been welcome media coverage of a startling new UN report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report concludes that human civilization is systematically destroying its own life-support systems, resulting in the potential mass extinction of at least one million animal and plant species.

The driving motor of this destruction is the ‘endless growth’ paradigm of our current global economy, a paradigm that has seen human populations and cities grow exponentially across the world, in turn driving the exponential growth in consumption of resources, raw materials, food and energy.

That accelerating expansion of industrial civilization-as-we-know-it has ravaged natural ecosystems, leading to the decline of numerous species who are critical for the continued healthy functioning of natural services providing food, pollination and clean water that are essential to sustain our own civilization.

If we continue on this path, our ongoing destruction of nature, forests, and wetlands will fatally damaging the earth’s capacity to renew breathable air, productive soil and drinkable water.

The report is by far the most comprehensive to hit home how the collapse of biodiversity ultimately entails the collapse of human civilization. But it is hardly the only study confirming our current trajectory.

In February, the UN Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) issued its own comprehensive global assessment across 91 countries, warning that prevailing agricultural techniques were destroying the biodiversity needed to sustain global food production.

According to the report, of 7,745 local (occurring in one country) breeds of livestock reported globally, 26 percent are at risk of extinction; nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, with more than half having reached their sustainable limit; and 24 percent of nearly 4,000 wild food species — mainly plants, fish and mammals — are decreasing in abundance (a number likely to be much higher due to lack of data).

Another report out this month by the World Wildlife Fund and Global Footprint Network outlines how this massive, systematic environmental destruction is rooted in a way of life based on overconsumption of natural resources: we are growing beyond our means. We are taking without giving back.

The new report shows how if everyone in the world consumed at the same level as EU residents, from the period of 1st January 1 to 10th May alone, humanity would have used as much as the planet’s ecosystems can renew over the entire year: which means that 2.8 planet earths would be needed to provide for this level of consumption.

So there is something fundamentally wrong. Yet for the most part, our political leaders are preoccupied with the surface symptoms of this fundamental crisis of civilization, rather than the crisis itself.

The UN IPBES global assessment, for instance, confirms that the planet is currently experiencing 2,500 conflicts over fossil fuels, water, food and land — conflicts which are therefore directly related to the ongoing collapse of the earth’s biodiversity.

These conflicts are driving the mass displacement and migrations of people across the world, in turn radicalizing political bureaucracies and triggering extreme nationalist responses.

This month, a new study by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) — launched at the UN headquarters in Geneva — found that a record 41.3 million people worldwide are displaced inside their own countries due to conflict and violence. This is the highest it has ever been, an increase of more than a million since the end of 2017 and two-thirds more than the global number of refugees.

The report flags up particular crises: the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria, a rise in intercommunal tensions in Ethiopia, Cameroon and Nigeria’s Middle Belt region — which together contribute most of the 10.8 million new displacements.

Many of these disruptions are directly linked to climate change impacts. In 2018, extreme weather events were responsible for the majority of the 17.2 million new displacements. Tropical cyclones and monsoon floods led to mass displacement in the Philippines, China and India, mostly in the form of evacuations. California suffered the most destructive wildfires in its history, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Drought in Afghanistan triggered more displacement than the country’s armed conflict, and Nigeria’s crisis in the northeast was aggravated by flooding that affected 80 per cent of the country.

The climate connection was further underscored in a major scientific study published earlier this year in Global Environmental Change, which concluded that climate change played a significant role in migration and asylum seeking from 2011 to 2015, by creating severe droughts which drove and exacerbated conflicts.

Conflicts across the Middle East, Western Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa were exacerbated by “climatic conditions” — eventually resulting in as much as one million desperate refugees turning up on European shores. That mass migration, of course, played a pivotal role in the UK campaign to leave the European Union, and the revival of nationalist sentiment across Europe, the US and elsewhere.

By end of century, it won’t just be migration we have to worry about — it will be, if we continue business-as-usual, an uninhabitable planet: a situation where we, too, will end up becoming the Other.

And this is where the sheer futility of conventional political responses — and prevailing political discourse — rears its ugly head. Because of course, whether or not we leave the EU will have literally no meaningful impact in itself on the fundamental systemic drivers of mass migration. Neither will whether or not we do indeed build a Wall along the US-Mexico border.

Yet while the planet burns beneath our feet, we are preoccupied with essentially irrelevant questions whose answers offer nothing of substance to address the real crisis — to which, for all intents and purposes, we are blind.

It is no wonder that following the inspirational lead of Greta Thunberg, some have seen little option except to take to the streets through protest movements like Extinction Rebellion. The hope is that sustained nonviolent resistance can compel governments to take the urgent action necessary to transition rapidly to fossil fuel free societies.

But there is a serious faultline in this approach. XR suffered from a serious lack of joined-up thinking. It was not grounded in a comprehension of the climate crisis as a systems crisis, and therefore failed to explicitly link up climate action to other key systems such as austerity, food, water, politics, culture, and ideology. XR therefore failed to appeal to the working class and largely occluded people of colour and diverse faith groups.

The other faultline is that the target of action — national government — may well have missed the point. Governments are merely nodes in a wider system of power which they do not really control, but tend to pander to — a system of power which we are all to varying degrees and in different ways complict in.

It is precisely through governments that the prevailing system has, over the last several decades, carefully built-up a special resistance to the power of street protests. This is why the largest demonstrations failed to derail the Iraq War. Counterinsurgency doctrines fine-tuned in theatres of war have been increasingly applied in domestic settings to counter, disrupt and neutralise all forms of protest action. The fear of what Samuel Huntington once called the ‘crisis of democracy’ has meant that governments have dedicated themselves to ensuring that direct protest action has as little tangible impact as possible. Hitting the streets and hoping the powers-that-be do what you want is, therefore, not a viable strategy.

That doesn’t mean that XR shouldn’t be part of a wider strategy.

But right now there is no wider strategy, there is no cross-coordination between groups and sectors to create a more systems-level understanding of the crisis, and therefore enable a more systems-level vision of the solutions. And there is a very key reason for that. The response which sees ‘open rebellion’ as the only feasible form of reaction is a direct result of the degrading impact of a system whose entire design is to invoke a sense of helplessness and apathy in citizens.

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. And so it is only natural that we feel the most immediate response must be to react against this state of abject failure. Yet this response itself is a function of the same sensation of helplessness and paralysis induced by the system itself.

The problem is that liberal democracies in their current form are in a state of collapse for a reason: they are, indeed, incapable of addressing the systemic complexity of the crisis of civilization. No amount of nonviolent resistance will provide our existing political institutions with the capacity to address the crisis. Because the problem runs much, much deeper.

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 even here, this transformation is not simply a question of economics. It is a question of our entire paradigm of existence. And it is here — in recognising that the current crisis is calling us not merely to a fundamental transformation in our external relations, but one that is simultaneously co-extensive with our internal being — that the pathway for action emerges.

Over the last 500 years or so, humanity has erected an ‘endless growth’ civilization premised on a particular patchwork of ideological worldviews, ethical values, political and economic structures, and personal behaviours. This is a paradigm that elevates the vision of human beings as disconnected, atomistic, competing material units, which seek to maximise their own material consumption as the principal mechanism for self-gratification. This is the paradigm that defines how we live in our everyday lives, and constantly bleeds into how we end up conducting our relationships with our family and friends, in our workplaces, and beyond. It is the paradigm that has cemented our current trajectory toward mass extinction.

This is not just about external systems. It’s also about the internal systems of thought with which the external is co-extensive, and through which we have imprisoned ourselves. Our entire reductionist, mechanical model of what we think it means to be human needs to be re-written.

How collective intelligence can change your world, right now
So you want to change the world. Then grab a drink, sit down, and buckle up fora deep dive into the dynamics of system transformation. The system out therethat you’re fighting is inside you. We cannot defeat it in the world until werewire ourselves from the ground up. It’s not easy. It’s the hard…

To break this paradigm requires far more than making demands of broken institutions. Because, let’s just lay out our cards and be totally honest here, for most of the largely middle class white people that participated in the XR protests, it’s really not that difficult to do so. The biggest gap here is that it doesn’t necessarily require an act of transformative change on the part of the protestors themselves.

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.

When are we are going to realise that They are Us?

It’s not that we shouldn’t protest or call for institutions to change. But far more than that, if we are really serious about this, the far bigger challenge is for each of us to work within our own networks of influence, to explore how we ourselves can begin changing the organisations and institutions in which we are embedded.

And it means grounding this effort in completely new frame of orientation, one in which human beings are inherently interconnected, and inter-embedded within the earth; where we are not atomistically separated from the reality in which we find ourselves as technocratic overlords, but are co-creators of that reality as individuated parts of a continuum of being.

Whatever happens out there in the world, the crisis out there is calling unto each of us to become who we need to be, truly are, and always were. And on the basis of that internal renewal, to take radical action in our own place-based contexts to build the seeds of the new paradigm, right here, right now.

How can we change some of the systems within our schools, our places of work, our places of play? How can we harness learnings from our personal practice and transformation as people and family units, and translate that into working with our local communities to galvanise place-based change in our own local contexts? How can we plant the seeds for new organisations, institutions, businesses, political approaches, through our own actions, even while we call on pre-existing ones to take urgent action, refusing however to simply wait idly for them to do so, by starting up ourselves? How can we, throughout these efforts, work toward seeding the recognition that the great task is to build a new post-growth, post-carbon, post-materialist paradigm?

Let us not simply go to a protest. Let us build our own capacity as individuals and members of various institutions to think and do differently within our own consciousness and behaviour, as well as across energy, food, water, culture, economics, business, finance. By doing so, we plant the seeds of an emerging paradigm of life and reality that redefines the very essence of what it means to be alive.

This is the conversation we need to begin having, from our boardrooms, to our governing councils — for those of us who have woken up to what is at stake, the real question is, how can I actually mobilise to build the new paradigm?

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