Introduction by Ben Speggen
This essay – by Stuart A. Kauffman, M.D., a MacArthur Fellow, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and emeritus professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania; C. E. Hunt, who has worked in conservation with state and federal agencies for over 30 years, domestically and abroad; and Carl W. Hunt, a retired U.S. Army colonel and principal co-author and editor of Paradoxes of Power – is the third in a series on leadership and power and how the lessons they observe in their book can be applied at the local level.
In the first essay, the authors ask a big question: What recommendations could come from a closer study of leadership and power – the successes and failures of each – that might lead to changes in practice at the community level? The second essay turns specific attention to gender and racial biases.
Here the authors turn their attention to leadership and its impact when it comes to nature and the environment.
Future ones will examine leadership and power in the context of economics, government, politics, education, justice, and religion.
Here is their case on: Human’s Power versus Nature’s Power
Imagine, as R. Buckminster Fuller would have you, Earth and the thin fragile patina of biosphere on its surface as “a big spaceship.” Originally, it had lots of room and supplies.
Powered by the Sun, all the sustenance, food, water, and oxygen aboard our vessel comes from the interior of our spaceship. But as humans spread throughout the spaceship, multiplying in numbers, resources that once appeared to be virtually limitless we now know to be finite.
Now, imagine you were just elected the mayor of your small city of 35,000 people. It is the county seat and the largest community around for 40 miles. Most of the newly elected city council members ran on the same platform you did, so there will be general agreement as your administration starts.
You and your team think about the Earth as a finite source of support. You share concerns about what consequences the pending planetary changes may have for you locally.
The question: What can you and your city team do about it from such a modest local perch?
The answer is both simple-sounding and immensely challenging: Be a worthy leader and use your power wisely.
As a leader, you know that people are always the most important responsibility—in ethical terms, but also for practical purposes if you want to be seen as a success. That means you must assure the living and working environment your people require to thrive. Hence, the platform you ran on includes creating jobs and educational opportunities. This would offset the loss of the significant manufacturing plant that employed a sizeable chunk of your city’s residents while leading recovery efforts to address environmental damage it caused over the past decades.
But your town is only one of a global community on a single planet. What can you possibly do that would make any difference—to people in your community, and to the world?
What are some facts that will impact us? All of these are “known,” but they’re far too easily forgotten:
- Over 7.8 billion people, including some 333 million Americans share to varying degrees in the success from which we all benefit; the citizens of your city are included in these totals.
- Temperatures, both during the day and night, are dramatically increasing in recent decades; the summer of 2021, in which July was the hottest month in recorded human history, exemplifies this.
- “Heat-related mortality rate attributable to human-induced climate change, 1991–2018,” is up during this period by 37 percent, in some 732 locations around the world; this includes cities and towns very close to yours.
- As NY Times climate reporter Somini Sengupta recently wrote, “The extreme weather disasters across Europe and North America have driven home two essential facts of science and history: The world as a whole is neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor live with it…even since the 2015 Paris Agreement was negotiated with the goal of averting the worst effects of climate change, global emissions have kept increasing.” These observations are further validated in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers, released in August.
- According to a recent UN report, “More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.”
- More than 50 percent of terrestrial biomass consists of us, plus what it takes to feed us—our crops and livestock, including cattle, chickens, pigs, rice, wheat, sorghum…many of the things you raise in your community.
- Humans are causing a mass extinction. The UN expects that within 30 years a million species may be lost forever. Birds and insects are going, and soon the fish in our lakes will be in danger.
- We are rapidly invading habitats around the globe, driving repeated pandemics such as COVID-19, as viruses jump species. More pandemics will come.
- We are in the Great Acceleration, in which technological change is racing ever faster as we pave the planet.
For the first time in humanity’s 300,000-year history, we face issues that are global in scale, civilizational in scale, and existential in scale. Your small town may only seem local, but the crises are local and global. We are part of it all and cannot ignore this central truth. A major cause of all this is our $120 trillion global economy growing at 3 percent a year, and expected to double by 2100, that lifts us from poverty, providing jobs and meaning in our lives and communities; at the same time, it is destroying our biosphere.
We’ve based our assumptions about caring for Spaceship Earth on our belief that we have the right to do as we will with our only biosphere. But it begs a follow-up: Do we? And if so, at what price?
Visualizing and Appreciating the Dilemma
About four years ago, Stuart, one of the co-authors of this essay, began to deeply research and document the consequences of our long sought-after national and global economic growth. Stu and his colleagues laid bare how our increasingly interconnected economies and aggressively interactive relationship with nature are damaging our future as both the human species and all life on earth. The best human thinking, planning, and engineering in our history has been leading to one of the worst possible outcomes. This was a result we could not start to imagine at the beginning of an economic expansion fueled since at least the start of the Industrial Age. In Global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) terms, it looks like this:
The outcome has been an unintentional power struggle with Nature. Again, these contradictions are “known,” but our political, journalistic, and diplomatic lives proceed as if they were not.
In 2017, Stu and his colleagues, Wim Hordijk, Mike Steel, and Roger Koppl, proposed and refined what they call the Theory of the Adjacent Possible (TAP), a way of understanding how economies and the environment have interacted over centuries of human progress to produce the “surprises” of simultaneously good economies and worsening environmental conditions. Stu and his collaborators began proposing TAP in a variety of peer-reviewed papers, which he discusses informally in a video presentation posted on Dec. 4, 2019.
Global and Local Polycentric Power
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”— this has been true of so many eras, and it is acutely so today.
In the past, though, we seemed to know what life was in abundant local detail: Which plants are safe in this valley, which not? Where is the topsoil best this year in this corner of our plot of land? Local wisdom is essential, whether it involves something like the Flint, Michigan water crisis or the more recent continuous closures of Interstate 70 in Colorado, due to mudslides coming from flash floods on fire-scarred land.
All towns are in the tangled web of other towns, cities, pastures, woods, hinterlands, streams, lakes, nation states, and the seas; larger struggles and consequences scale downwards to local communities. Mayors, community leaders, and all of us together have never been more important, as we create bottom-up actions that scale forward to national levels and the world.
Years ago, automobile batteries lasted years. Before, growing boys graduated to the safety razor that lasted decades. Now we buy a dozen triple blade plastic razors in a plastic package that finds their way into landfills and oceans. Why? Planned obsolescence and greater velocity of goods: the Great Acceleration.
But velocity-of-consumption isn’t a 21st century concept. Fifty thousand years ago, hunters and gatherers might have killed and slaughtered an elk. When the clan had eaten half of it, they might have thrown the remainder aside and set out to kill another elk—or so anthropology suggests. A bit slower than today, but still velocity, and it roughly follows the model of “take-make-sell-discard” we mentioned above.
We must learn to correct errors more quickly and shift capital and labor from danger to safety more flexibly. Easy to say, but how can we do this? Let’s start by understanding and visualizing what we’ve done to ourselves and our world.
Local leadership, like most leadership, cannot work as “command and control.” To succeed it must enable local joint co-creation, mutual agreement that is earned rather than imposed, and quick adjustment to the lessons of trial and error. Can local produce from the Farmer’s Market be on sale in the chain supermarket? Could that help local income and tax revenue? As it turns out, it has before. In World War II, Victory gardens supplied 20 percent of U.S. food. The United States and its allies won World War II without plastic, and local communities contributed significantly to the victory.
The Great Acceleration is TAP in action, and we must make it work for Nature as well as humanity.
Enabling Human Power to Work with Nature
The economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize for her work on well-functioning local and statewide cooperatives, such as water collectives. As Ostrom suggested, ad hoc, jury-rigged, “emergent” solutions are how big entities like Nature and the dispersed biosphere co-evolve. We can better learn how to use such polycentric distributed power to enable local communities in overlapping webs to regional, national, and global diverse solutions. You can tap this power, Mayor!
Governance in the 21st Century cannot be about centralized, universal policy-driven plans. We not only do not know what will happen, we do not even know what can happen. Policy must be adaptive and scalable when we have created a world that changes so fast. This is TAP in action.
The global economy rules of today reflect the central tenant of Western Civilization: Nature is ours to use.
But that is false. Humans are of Nature, not above Nature. More than 2000 years later, our global, local, civilizational, and existential crises invite us beyond the Anthropocene, our most recent geological period.
In a July 2021 essay, international banking adviser Andrew Sheng wrote: “What we need is a ‘One-Earth Balance Sheet’ to describe the true and fair accounting for Earth that covers not just the flows and stock of everything, but also natural capital and biodiversity,” to offset policymakers’ blindness to “stock imbalances” in the interactions of man and Nature. “If we consider Earth as a living being, we can easily amend the current accounting measurement frameworks to take into consideration human interactions with nature,” Sheng notes. This sort of accounting and “balance sheet” must be fed from the bottom up, a huge contribution that local leaders can begin to make.
What do you do, Mayor? How do you leverage these insights about Nature to your constituents’ advantage? How do you make your transient power work alongside Nature’s eternal power? You and your community leaders may feel like climate change and environmental damage isn’t something you can affect, but if enough small towns and cities around the world did take on the challenge of protecting Nature while building community opportunities, big changes can happen.
That’s good leadership and good use of your power.
A local approach to resolve the issues of man’s power versus Nature’s power offers a great deal of promise, as some private enterprises and ventures have proposed. Scalable, polycentric approaches can work well. It all starts at the community level and grows upwards until it impacts an entire region, state, or nation. That’s how Nature’s Power and Humanity’s Power can work together for all of us.
While we’re just imagining the Earth and Nature as our “spaceship,” consider the following “Adjacent Possible” scenario. Imagine that you were the captain of the ship and just made an emergency landing on a planet with a civilization and technological state matching Earth’s in 2021. But all the humanoids that lived there left since their world had sustained significant environmental damage.
The environment now shows strong signs of recovering—and enormous potential, whenever given a chance. There’s still robust diversity of other non-human species present, as the air, land, and water seem to have recovered without human-like “progress.” You decide to stay.
You’ve been appointed the first mayor of the 35,000 people from the ship. As the new mayor, you have a choice: Would you advise firing up the existing old fossil-fuel powered factories and refinery infrastructure and risk re-damaging this newly discovered world? Or, would you tap the nascent renewable energy technologies present to build an entirely new society and professions that aimed to keep your new world cleaner and more sustainable for all species on the planet? Knowing what you know now, how would you chart the future of your people and the other species of your new home planet?
In a broad sense, that’s the choice we face now on Earth while there’s still time. So, what’s it going to be, Mayor?