One of the topics your correspondent keeps banging on about is that complex adaptive systems (like the world we live on) can sometimes experience jumps from one state to another when the they reach a tipping point.
Unfortunately, most of the ecological tipping points scientists consider vis-à-vis climate change are, shall we say, bearish human civilization.
For example, melting permafrost might release massive amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the environment, leading to sudden, runaway warming. Extreme Greenland glacial melt might cause a terminal slow-down of the Thermohaline Cycle, which would likely turn huge swaths of land virtually uninhabitable and create massive die-offs in the ocean.
In the face of the overwhelmingly bearish tipping point discussions, it was a pleasure to sit down to speak with John Perkins, the author of a new book entitled Touching The Jaguar and co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance.
Perkins knows a lot about tipping points.
For years, he served the powerful interests of international development organizations as an “Economic Hit Man,” charmingly offering developing nations’ heads of state economic assistance they literally couldn’t refuse. His long-running New York TimesNYT best-seller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man offers an engaging account of that part of Perkins’ life.
After a series of meetings with South American shamans, the assassinations of several heads of state who had resisted his charms, and numerous other harrowing adventures, Perkins realized the life he was leading was crazy. After reaching his tipping point, he walked out the door and didn’t stop until he made it back to the Amazon – an area in which he had lived while in the Peace Corps.
Perkins contends that today, factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic and increasingly sobering news about climate change are Mother Nature’s way of gently pushing human society toward a psychological and spiritual tipping point. If we listen to Mother Nature (“Pachamama” in the Incan tradition), Perkins argues in his book that we can make as big a transition as he did when he left the life of an Economic Hit Man.
The main element in being able to respond productively to Pachamama’s nudges according to Perkins is understanding that perceptions mold reality.
We must, he says, abandon the perception that success means more and more materialistic consumption.
Perkins believes that it is up to us to determine how to organize our societies and economies. There is no one “out there” to save us – we must take make the changes we want to see.
To make the changes, we need a new perception: the perception that success means creating a future our children and grandchildren will want to inherit. That perception will result in actions that will start the ball rolling to solve many of our current problems, including climate change.
Making these changes is frightening and requires a kind of contrarian courage that seems nonsensical at first – in the same way that reaching out and touching a jaguar seems frightening and nonsensical. To drum up this kind of courage, we first must come to an understanding of what mission we want to fulfill in this world. This process of self-discovery forms the heart of a shamanistic journey that he took while at the point of death in an Amazonian village years ago and describes in detail in Touching the Jaguar.
“The carpenter, the teacher, the parent,” Perkins writes, “can all have different personal missions, but if we all head for the goal of a sustainable and regenerative future, we will get there.”
For loyal readers of this column who know your correspondent as a hard-boiled realist that writes derisively about “unwashed hippy types”, my mention of finding climate solutions through a spiritual journey of self-discovery may seem out of character.
In fact, I brought this up with Perkins when we spoke and asked him for some concrete recommendations for people who wanted to take active responsibility for building a more sustainable and sensible economic system.
“Write letters,” he replied.
Perkins told me that CEOs at countless large and powerful companies have confided in him that they too are concerned about the environment and are deeply conflicted about their companies’ roles in climate change and other ecological issues.
However, these titans of industry also describe themselves as being in a bind; if they redirect investor capital towards sustainability projects unilaterally and their stock price suffers for it, they’ll get kicked out of their posh C-suite digs faster than you can say “anthropogenic global warming.” Perhaps, they fear, their replacement in the C-suite will not be as attuned to ecological issues and will reverse the tentative, incremental steps they had tried to take.
Perkins told them to encourage people to write letters to their Boards of Directors and post the messages every chance they get on social media. The letters should read something like this:
“Dear Sir / Madam,
“I love your product and cannot get enough. In the past, I have recommended all my friends to buy your product too. I’m telling you that, from this day forward, I refuse to buy anything that you market or even to buy any product which uses your productuntil your company commits to taking concrete steps to reduce emissions and build a truly sustainable business model.”
“CEOs tell me,” Perkins says, “that when they have hundreds of these messages, they can show them to their large investors and say ‘These are our customers. We need to listen to them.’”
That is my message to you as well. Not everyone has the background or capacity to start a company like Carbon Engineering, GlassPoint Solar, or Heliogen, but that doesn’t mean everyone is off the hook. Do me a favor and write the CEO of your favorite companies a personalized letter like the one above.
I did and it feels pretty good – an “Alice’s Restaurant” moment for the 21st century.
Now, to close out this admittedly out-of-character article about making a personal decision to change the economic underpinnings of our society, I want to append a personal note.
My daughter was born twenty years ago last week.
Since that happy occasion, the earth has seen nine out of 10 of the warmest years on record (her brother was born two years before her, which was the 10th of the 10 warmest years), atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen nearly 15% to a level not seen in millions of years, and Ocean Heat Content has increased by hundreds of percent.
Slowly but surely, we children of the Industrial Revolution are forcing our own environment out of the climactic envelope that has given rise to 10,000 years of human history.
My daughter is – justifiably in your correspondent’s opinion – frustrated with her elders (your correspondent included) for having dumped such a frightening grab bag of problems into her and her peers’ laps.
There’s no point in wringing our hands about what we should have been doing in 1985. The oil companies have done what was legally required of them – maximize profits for their shareholders. We have done what is convenient for us – bought bobbles and trinkets that make us momentarily forget that we have lost something important in the process of generating cash to buy them.
All that history and all those decisions lie behind us. Every decision from this moment forward serves as an incremental vote that will decide the fate of life on our planet.