Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—Backing Off

 This post is on the third chapter called Backing Off of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

“The whole intellectual edifice collapsed in the summer of last year because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the last two decades, a period of euphoria.” Alan Greenspan, a few months before the financial meltdown in 2008

 1. Too Big to Fail?

 Bill McKibben in his third chapter starts off with talking about the problem with systems that are large too to cope with the stresses put on them. He starts off the example of the financial system, which avoided collapse in 2008 but which has been severely stressed ever since. The Global Risk Report 2012 put out by the World Economic Forum is discussed in the following post:


 In this report, the five most serious risks currently facing global civilization were listed for the five risk categories of 1) environmental (green), 2) societal (red), economic (blue), technological (purple), and geopolitical (yellow). The problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions is, of course, the subject of Bill McKibben’s book as a whole. But the book also illustrates the connection between some of the other risks and that facing the environment. For example, the last chapter deals with the problem of chronic fiscal imbalances and how it is making it more difficult to spend resources on environmental protection.

Figure 1. Top five global risks based on Global Risk Report 2012

The third chapter, the one I am writing about in this post, deals with the geopolitical risk of global governance failure which is linked to the economic problems we are facing. In the economic arena, the big banks were labeled as TBTF or Too Big To Fail, as a reason for the enormous government expenditure made to keep them afloat during the financial crisis of 2008.

However, the problem now is that the banks are even BIGGER than they were at the beginning of the crisis. Two years before the crisis, the assets of the top big banks accounted for 55% of GDP in the US; two years after the crisis in 2010, that figure had risen to 63%. If the collapse of the Eurozone later on this year causes another “Lehman moment” to occur, what is the chance that the big banks will NOT ask for another bailout? Zero. What is the chance that the government, especially right before the election, will NOT give it to them? Given that even more of the nation’s GDP is tied up with the big banks, there will be more pressure on them from the financial and business community in general.

The response from some of the electorate is that the government itself suffers from being too big. This anti-government populist strain is entertained by those who view government as a constraint of business, but Bill McKibben takes the radical view that both government and business have to be constrained and their power decentralized. This seems like a radical notion to sum, but he tries to put it in historical perspective in the next section of the chapter.

2. Centralization and decentralization

Greater concentration of wealth and power followed by periods of decentralization of that same wealth and power are the two polestars of American history (and one might argue world history as well).

In the political sphere, the Declaration of Independence represented a movement away from the political and economic dominance of the colonies by Britain, and the fledgling United States were set up with Articles of Constitution. The weaknesses of this system were recognized and a Constitution was set up as a compromise between those advocating for a strong Federal Government and those trying to preserve the rights of the individual States within the Union.

In the late 19th century, the economic inequality we faced as a country caused a political backlash which took the form of the Progressive movement, and eventually to the mixed economic system which was ushered in by the New Deal. The reaction against this started in earnest with the Reagan administration and now we are in the midst of what I call the Gilded Age II. This is where we are now, where the extreme economic inequality is creating feedback loops of corruption which are undermining our democratic framework of government.

Bill McKibben would argue that the decentralization of both economic and political power is a good thing, because it will prove stronger and more capable of coping with the tremendous stresses that the environmental problems of climate change are putting on the system.

I think the best analogy for this would be the geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller.

The individual links are not strong in and of themselves, but they interlock with so many other links that when a stress is put on any one point of the dome, it is dispersed through so many different nodes that it doesn’t overwhelm the structure. This theoretical concept was tested in one of the first uses of the geodesic dome, to house US government installations in Antarctica which face tremendous winds during the winter.

Supporting farmers’ markets and other more local forms of food suppliers rather than large agribusiness may not seem efficient, but it is effective in reducing the burden on the infrastructure of roads, highways, etc., AND it also increases social cohesion by encouraging people to interact with each other on a local level.

In the science fiction series called Daybreak by John Barnes, a major technological catastrophe (the spread of biological and nanotechnological plagues) cause the central government to collapse. The first book describes this breakup, but the second book shows how it is the small communities that are the more isolated from the system pre-Daybreak that actually do better than the urban areas which are dependent on resources that only the system can provide.

Although the stresses our society will face in the next 10 years are more likely to come from environmental problems rather than technological ones, I think the same principle applies that “smaller is better” under the current circumstances.

The next post covers the last chapter, which outlines some of the forms that this decentralization may take.

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