"The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers." Rabindrath Tagore
As I write this, I'm travelling with my family to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I’m going out there to deliver systems thinking training to frontline climate activists, NGO leaders, civil society groups, humanitarian relief practitioners and faith leaders.
I’ll be out there for two weeks, so you won’t here from me during that period. But I hope to update you shortly after I’m back on what I learned during this trip. In the meantime, please hang in there over the next few weeks!
I’m British born and bred, but my parents were born in Bangladesh. Last time I was out there, I was just 17 years old. I’m now in my forties.
Going back to Bangladesh brings up a lot of feelings, some of them conflicted. I’m excited to go back, to rekindle relationships with family members, aunts, uncles, and cousins, to see how Dhaka has evolved since I last experienced the city. I’m especially excited to bring my kids there, who have never been to the country, never been able to engage with the land where our ancestors came from, and to learn more about our heritage together.
And I feel extraordinarily privileged to be able to revisit this land with what I hope will be gifts of knowledge concerning what’s truly possible for Bangladesh in this global phase-shift – and also to go with humility, to listen and learn from my fellow humans there about the struggles they are facing and the solutions they are exploring.
Bangladesh is a country which epitomises in so many ways the challenges of this era of chaotic transformation. It’s not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it’s also one of the most vulnerable to climate change impacts such as sea level rise, heat stress, drought, floods, intensifying cyclones, and devastating natural disasters.
When I’d visited as a teenager, I remember being shaken by the sheer omnipresence of the normalisation of poverty. The downtrodden, the desperate, the hungry were everywhere you went in Dhaka. Yet it was also accepted as inevitable. It was a defining experience for me, and played a big role in why I wanted to dedicate myself to understanding systems, and system change.
It perhaps explains why I resist people telling me that positive change can't happen. A lot of people who say this are extraordinarily privileged and have never really seen real poverty and deprivation. I remember being deeply confused as a youngster about the sheer apathy of adults who simply accepted the way things are, without accepting any responsibility for it, or acknowledging that if we all did things differently, we could create a better world for all.
Bangladesh's disadvantages in the global economy and huge ecological vulnerability are no accident. These are a direct result of the impact of British colonisation of the Indian subcontinent, led by the East India Company. As I’d encountered during my PhD research on imperial social systems, British colonisation of India was integral to an emerging global capitalist system which extracted wealth and resources especially in terms of grains and cotton from India to Britain and Europe, inflicting horrendous mass violence in the process. The East India Company was not an entity that believed it had any meaningful stake in Indian society beyond the wealth maximisation of its own shareholders. Famines affecting millions, indiscriminate grotesque violence to put down worker uprisings, this was all par for the course to keep the wheels of the colonial enterprise lucratively lubricated.
Colonisation played a crucial role in cementing this unequal global system, that ended up elevating Britain to the wealthiest core, while plunging the Indian subcontinent toward the bottom peripheries, in turn leaving the region underdeveloped.
Following Britain’s departure from India – which involved the tortuous events of partition that eventually culminated in the genocidal violence that gave birth to the independent nation of Bangladesh – the fledgling countries of the subcontinent were in a state of political disarray and severe economic degradation.
The growth phase
And yet last year, for the first time, Bangladesh finally brought 100% of its population access to electricity for the first time ever. Imagine that. Electricity on tap – a bounty that we in the West take entirely for granted – has only just been achieved in a land recently colonised by one of our core powers.
Bangladesh’s journey toward electricity access has been crucial for its economic success in reducing real poverty rates.
Yet this milestone has come at a tremendous cost. Bangladesh gets 99% of its energy from natural gas, oil, and coal – with some from hydropower, and a relatively tiny amount from solar, wind and other renewables.
With Bangladesh’s energy growth driven largely by an exponential increase in fossil fuel consumption, the economy is now experiencing the very real limits of this model of development.
Peak and plateau of the current life-cycle of civilisation
The pace of job creation and poverty reduction in Bangladesh has slowed over the last decade, and since 2020, poverty rates are rising back above 20% according to the UN Development Program.
All this is because the global economy is at an inflection point. And fossil fuel dependent countries like Bangladesh are right at the heart of this.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy prices were rising due to fundamental challenges within the oil and gas sector relating to increasing costs of energy production and diminishing energy returns.
The war flipped those trends into overdrive, creating inflationary pressures which have led global energy prices to continue rising, which in turn is driving up inflation across the whole economy. Bangladesh has as a result experienced a record decadal high of 9.94%, squeezing the poor and middle class.
No country can escape the dynamics of the global phase shift. The energy dimension of this shift, as I’ve explained in detail here at AoT, is being driven by several interwoven dynamics. These are crucial to understand because as Professor Steve Keen and colleagues have adeptly revealed, energy is at the core of our economic systems even though conventional economic models do not recognise this.
1. The incumbent fossil fuel system is in decline driven by internal factors within the sector – both geophysical in relation to diminishing supplies of the cheapest and most accessible resources, and economic in the sense that the vast quantities of fossil fuels that can be exploited are increasingly expensive to do so, and offer declining energetic (and economic) returns. As a result, the global oil system is being propped up by subsidies and debt-money, all of which means the costs of keeping it alive are rising. This is the fundamental driver of long-term inflation in the global system that monetary economists tinkering with interest rates are powerless to solve.
2. The incumbent fossil fuel system is being economically disrupted by new energy technologies which are increasingly cheap, exponentially improving in performance, and so experiencing exponential adoption rates. This means that as they outcompete legacy oil, gas and coal industries, where trillions of dollars of investments have piled up based on expectations of lucrative returns, those industries are premised on ‘stranded assets’ – assets that are in reality massively overvalued, and so will never make those hoped-for returns. Ultimately, these economic dynamics will drive fossil fuels into obsolescence as they are replaced by new largely solar and wind based energy systems.
There is also, of course, the climate dimension of this shift. Bangladesh finds itself in the eye of the storm in this respect. On a global scale, we’ve already breached most planetary boundaries necessary to maintain a safe operating space for humanity. Earth system tipping points are at risk of being breached. Climate change driven by increasing fossil fuel consumption is a major driver of this, but so are many other processes of industrial expansion which are destabilising key ecosystems, degrading environmental life support systems, and accelerating the biodiversity crisis which is driving extinctions of plant and animal species at unprecedented rates.
This means that the ecological crisis is also compounding the inflationary costs being experienced in the existing system. So if we want to understand why a country like Bangladesh, despite appearing to have made so much progress in fighting poverty and increasing prosperity, is now finding that progress is slowing down as it moves into a period of heightened economic crisis, it’s because the entire ecological and energy system premised on fossil fuels is in crisis.
This tells us that the prevailing paradigm is deeply dysfunctional – there is something fundamentally flawed with the worldview, ethical values and organising structures that are associated with this paradigm.
Clinging to the old, or embracing the new?
Using pioneering system scientist Crawford Holling's framing of the life-cycle of natural ecosystems - which saw them moving through four phases, growth, conservation, release and reorganisation - it seems plausible that Bangladesh has moved through the growth phase and is reaching the stage of conservation, just as is happening with the wider global system. It is moving into the release phase, where the system becomes much weaker and begins to breakdown. As Holling recognised, this paves the way for the phase of renewal and reorganisation, and the dawn of a new life-cycle. But the new life-cycle cannot be premised on the same patterns as the old one which is dying - but on the emerging shoots of a new system.
If Bangladesh continues on a business-as-usual trajectory that remains tied to the dynamics of the incumbent system, not only will it experience a reversal in progress, but it will be bound to a future of escalating economic crisis rather than newfound prosperity.
Indeed, as oil, gas and coal accelerate along the path of terminal economic decline from the 2030s onwards – not least due their haemorrhaging EROI (Energy Return On Investment) – Bangladesh will find that its energy costs could intensify dramatically, with huge and growing impacts on its economic prosperity. These factors could reverse progress on poverty dramatically.
The result would be a perfect storm of spiralling decline – instead of a future of sustainable development, tied to a dying global fossil fuel system, Bangladesh could experience a future of escalating energy poverty, economic crisis, slowing economic growth, and spiralling ecological devastation, with reducing capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation.
Yet there is another scenario based on quite different choices – choices that require the nation of Bangladesh to realise what’s truly possible, and to understand that the forces of regression are merely symptoms of the demise of the current life-cycle of our civilisation. This is not the end, but the arrival of a new dawn.
Bangladesh: a solar super power in waiting
Various scientific studies demonstrate that Bangladesh holds vast untapped potential for solar power. The higher level estimates range from about 150,000 MW (megawatts) to 340,000 MW. While there are legitimate concerns that the highest capacity might encroach onto agricultural land, there are many solutions focusing on rooftop and commercial buildings which can still provide higher level outputs.
Even at the lower level of 150,000 MW, this is a colossal seven times Bangladesh’s current level of electricity generation capacity which is about 21,000 MW – and in which the entire population now has electricity access (albeit imperfectly with all sorts of problems such as huge payouts to dwindle down power plants due to fossil fuel overcapacity and load shedding). The bulk of this could be built offshore. If we aimed for 240,000 MW, this could be done using only 1.5% of land.
Demand is expected to rise out to 2040 to around 50,000 MW. This is still only a third of Bangladesh’s conservatively estimated solar potential (and it’s about a sixth of the higher estimate of the country’s solar potential).
What this means is that Bangladesh is capable of generating a huge quantity of clean excess electricity – that would provide Bangladesh with what can be called ‘super power’: a surplus of clean super abundant energyproduced over a period of about 30-50 years at zero marginal costs.
That’s because once the system is actually built, it will not need further inputs or costs to keep producing energy, but will continuously generate energy effectively for free. This means that in this system, energy will be super cheap and superabundant.
What will Bangladesh be able to do with all that super power? The opportunities will be endless. Bangladesh will not only be able to power a huge range of critical public services which were previously too expensive to support given rising fossil fuel prices, that will include being able to ramp up extensive climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in a way that was not possible within the incumbent paradigm.
By cleanly powering a range of services – including things like manufacturing, construction, mining and a new circular economy to ensure the regenerative and sustainable use of materials in a way that minimises waste – Bangladesh will be able to leverage super power to dramatically reduce its ecological footprint within planetary boundaries.
Averting economic risks as the old system falls away
Super power will also open up other opportunities. Bangladesh’s fishing and livestock industries are at risk of facing economic disruption over the next 15 years from the exponential acceleration of technologies in the food sector, namely precision fermentation and cellular agriculture. Just as fossil fuels are about to be outcompeted and disrupted by exponentially improving and scaling solar, wind and batteries, dairy and fishing industries will be outcompeted and disrupted by PFCA. Even more conservative studies suggest that cultivated meats will be cost-competitive with some forms of conventional meat within a decade.
This process will be driven by fundamental economics – as PFCA not only becomes cost-competitive, but multiple times cheaper than conventional livestock industries, they will scale exponentially as incumbent animal agriculture collapses. This will likely happen earlier than conventional forecasters assume, because the disruption will start with simpler products such as dairy milk proteins – once this capability emerges and begins to get cheaper than milk from cows, it will rapidly disrupt the dairy industry. As that process accelerates, it will spread to other industries.
PFCA means that large chunks of Bangladesh’s economy today will become obsolete within 15 years. Dairy farming represents 18.5% of the country’s agricultural GDP, and 2.4% of its national GDP; chicken farming about 1.6% of GDP; fisheries contribute about 3.57% of GDP. The PFCA disruption will have huge ramifications for livestock and fishing industries worldwide, which will not be able to compete: it will end up slashing Bangladesh’s GDP by 7.6%, affecting tens of millions of people.
But here too, the disruptions present an opportunity, not merely a risk.
Clean superabundant energy produced at zero marginal cost will empower Bangladesh to become a new industrial hub, as all sorts of services and industries see the opportunity to slash their energy costs dramatically by taking advantage of Bangladeshi ‘super power’.
One of these emerging industries will be PFCA. The production of proteins including animal proteins without killing animals enabled by PFCA is cheaper and more efficient than livestock industries – and can even disrupt some forms of agriculture like soy.
Using super power to underpin the build out of localised PFCA plants, Bangladesh will be able to produce more animal proteins than it currently produces, in the form of fish, chicken, eggs, lamb, beef and beyond all without killing animals, at around 10 times cheaper costs, and with a fraction of the land and water inputs. It will also be able to accelerate adoption of AI and robotics in ways that would previously have been impossible.
By investing in super power, and super powered industries like PFCA, Bangladesh would be able to ensure that workers and farmers embedded in disrupted industries are retrained and upskilled to become movers and shakers in these emerging industries.
Technology alone can't save us: our collective governance capabilities must evolve
But technology alone, then, is not the answer. Because to move successfully through this era of disruption requires careful planning and sound decision-making dedicated to protecting people (not doomed industries), to ensure that they can move into the emerging systems. Countries that are able to do this will race to the top. But we have to recognise that the incumbent industrial technologies that are destroying planetary life-support systems are part and parcel of wider social, economic, political and ideological systems. Together all this involves a whole systems paradigm shift.
The acceleration toward these new, different technologies entails the adoption of entirely new systems, laws, frameworks and practices by which to govern them. This won't happen automatically. It will only happen by choosing to do so.
We’ve already seen that the disruption of information through the internet, platforms, smartphones, video streaming, social media and beyond has made it cheap and simple for anyone to communicate with potentially millions of people. But this decentralising technological shift has come about in the same highly centralised organising structures of prevailing social, political, economic, cultural and ideological systems, many of which have not adapted to these new distributed capabilities. As such, the superabundance of information has generated polarisation, confusion and incoherence on an unprecedented scale. We still need to evolve our civilisational capabilities to collectively process this information into shared intelligence that can inform behaviours that allow us to adapt.
We need to become wise as a species. Our tools give us deeper capabilities, but that doesn't mean we will use them with the wisdom they deserve - only when we unlock that inner ability will we be able to unlock and harness the full potential of our tools.
To manage new and greater material capabilities, we need to evolve how we govern and manage those capabilities. When James Arbib and Tony Seba studied this dynamic in history, they concluded that it was only the evolution of a civilisation’s ‘organising system’ capable of managing and stabilising new technological capabilities within a new equilibrium that would enable it to truly breakthrough to a higher level.
That is why Bangladesh will need to draw on its rich cultural and spiritual heritage to help evolve new worldviews, governance systems, and value systems to manage the tremendous new material capabilities made possible by breaking through to a new superabundant energy system.
The role of faith leaders in Bangladesh in mobilising action, but also helping to light the way toward a new earth-centric paradigm that recognises our fundamental interconnections with each other, all life, and the earth itself will be crucial – not only for Bangladesh, but for South Asia, the wider Global South, and indeed, all of human civilisation. This is how we will be able to rise to meet today's challenges.
These traditions often highlight that constant material growth has no value in itself - that what's really of value is our love for each other, for the land and all its inhabitants, and for love itself. And that material prosperity serves no purpose except when it's contributing to the advancement of this love.
We need, in other words, a new type of partnership that integrates the best of what humanity has learned across our sciences, our cultures and our spiritual traditions, to navigate the current global phase-shift to the next life cycle of civilisation.
And so I close with a quote from the late, legendary Bangladeshi philosopher-poet Rabindrath Tagore:
In the west the prevalent feeling is that nature belongs exclusively to inanimate things and to beasts, that there is a sudden unaccountable break where human-nature begins. According to it, everything that is low in the scale of beings is merely nature, and whatever has the stamp of perfection on it, intellectual or moral, is human-nature. It is like dividing the bud and the blossom into two separate categories, and putting their grace to the credit of two different and antithetical principles. But the Indian mind never has any hesitation in acknowledging its kinship with nature, its unbroken relation with all. The fundamental unity of creation was not simply a philosophical speculation for India; it was her life-object to realise this great harmony in feeling and in action. With mediation and service, with a regulation of life, she cultivated her consciousness in such a way that everything had a spiritual meaning to her. The earth, water and light, fruits and flowers, to her were not merely physical phenomena to be turned to use and then left aside. They were necessary to her in the attainment of her ideal of perfection, as every note is necessary to the completeness of the symphony. India intuitively felt that the essential fact of this world has a vital meaning for us; we have to be fully alive to it and establish a conscious relation with it, not merely impelled by scientific curiosity or greed of material advantage, but realising it in the spirit of sympathy, with a large feeling of joy and peace.
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