Climate Change and Collective Intelligence

Climate change is so big and pervasive we can hardly see it. There’s almost nothing in our collective lives that is bigger in its implications. The changes it demands of us are the most profound we have ever faced and they are growing increasingly urgent.  Among our most radical challenges is building the capacity for whole societies to be smarter and wiser collectively than we are individually…

Climate change is perhaps the largest and most hard to grasp crises we’ve ever faced. It is so much more than “global warming” and “rising seas”. Its ramifications are so many, so diverse, and so planetary.

Perhaps the biggest challenge before this one was the very real possibility of global thermonuclear war during the Cold War. Numerous times we were mere minutes away from global holocaust. We’ve made it through those global rapids… so far.

There are many other potential crises that could be terminal for humanity – like virulent genetically engineered viruses or self-replicating nanobots consuming the environment. But those are possibilities, not certainties. In contrast, climate change is here and growing. Climate change is today and the day after tomorrow. We can probably still ameliorate it, but not for much longer. And, unfortunately, we can no longer stop it.

That makes it a fascinating case for exploring collective intelligence – our ability to collectively perceive, reflect, act, and review our actions, done together as an ongoing process of evolving harmonization with the world around us.

Remarkably, humanity as a whole isn’t really grasping that this climate transformation is happening, despite our collective scientific and technological means for observing it. We aren’t SEEING it, collectively, really. Or perhaps I should say that we are collectively seeing something but can’t quite decide what it is and if it is real. (Remember, I’m speaking here of “us” as the whole of humanity. Of course many people and groups DO see it and urgently engage with it. But as a collective entity, we’re not even mostly on board with the true reality of it.) Journalism, a key dynamic in collective perception at the whole-society level, is definitely failing to play its proper role in public awareness of climate change. More often than not, it provides entertaining blinders.

And of course it is not only our collective perception that is lacking. So, too, is our capacity for collective reflection – including public conversations, news analysis, and deliberations in legislatures, courtrooms and board rooms. Here and there we find truly sustained attention and creative strategizing. This, of course, leads to little collective decision-making and implementation and no concerted review of how any of our efforts at dealing with this crisis are actually working…. at a whole-society, whole-humanity level. Again, there are exceptions. But overall there is a concerted effort to avoid straying too far from business-as-usual.

But that’s the simplicity of collective intelligence – perception, reflection, action, and review, done together as an ongoing cycle – institutionalized in our culture, our governance, our economics, our education – all aspects of our public life.

Our innate cognitive limitations – e.g., as individuals we can’t SEE climate change – combined with money-distorted politics and PR manipulations make it exceedingly difficult for us to exercise much collective intelligence about climate change. We don’t currently have the capacity to collectively recognize that our economic and political systems are systematically killing us – “us” not being just you and me, but civilization itself – relentlessly, even as more and more money flows through those systems leaving behind the fantasy of prosperity.

Once seen, it becomes clear that not only do we need to handle climate change, we need to handle the cultural and systemic arrangements that have impeded our ability to handle climate change (as well as to handle all other issues we face). The implications are truly revolutionary – or, if you prefer, radically transformational.

What do we need to do to radically transform our capacity to collectively realize what is happening in and around us, to collectively reflect on what should be done about it, to collectively act on the best solutions and initiatives we can come up with together, and to collectively note and reflect on the results? What changes to politics, economics, governance, education, journalism, technology, culture, community, and the shape of our lives and our world could enable us to be more intelligent and wise together? The answers are never-ending and urgently important.

The two pieces excerpted below tackle both the difficulty of comprehending our situation and, once we overcome that difficulty, some of the radical implications of what’s needed. There is much more to be said about that, but these articles along with my commentary above provide a thought-provoking starting place.

I recommend the long forms of both articles, available at the links provided. But the excerpts will give you a good taste of them quickly.



Excerpt from

How science is telling us all to revolt

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.

By Naomi Klein

Brad Werner… geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego [gave a complex systems theory presentation at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2012 entitled] “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”. [In it, he concluded that] global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”….

[Werner] is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions…. [D]itching of [the present economic order] in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) is no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity….

Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, …. points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast. With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else….

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the [agreed upon international] 2 degrees [Celsius] target (which…already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now….

Anderson and Bows [point] out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 percent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 percent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government….

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012 essay that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature Climate Change, Anderson and Bows laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity. On this it is worth quoting the pair at length:
“. . . in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2 degree [Celsius] rise, ‘impossible’ is translated into ‘difficult but doable’, whereas ‘urgent and radical’ emerge as ‘challenging’ – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, ‘impossibly’ early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about ‘big’ engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.”….

By August 2013, Anderson was willing to be even more blunt, writing that the boat had sailed on gradual change…. “Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony”….

= = = = = =

Excerpts from

Bigger Than That: (The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change
by Rebecca Solnit

We’re not very good at looking at the biggest things. They may be bigger than we can see, or move more slowly than we have the patience to watch for or remember or piece together, or they may cause impacts that are themselves complex and dispersed and stretch into the future. Scandals are easier. They are on a distinctly human scale, the scale of lust, greed, and violence. We like those, we understand them, we get mired in them, and mostly they mean little or nothing in the long run (or often even in the short run)….

Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia — and… it’s already here.

It’s not only bigger than everything else, it’s bigger than everything else put together. But it’s not a sudden event like a massacre or a flood or a fire, even though it includes floods, fires, heat waves, and wild weather. It’s an incremental shift over decades, over centuries. It’s the definition of the big picture itself, the far-too-big picture. Which is why we have so much news about everything else, or so it seems.

To understand climate change, you need to translate figures into impacts, to think about places you’ll never see and times after you’re gone….

We like to think about morality and sex and the lives of people we’ve gotten to know in some fashion. We know how to do it. It’s on a distinctly human scale. It’s disturbing in a reassuring way. We fret about it and feel secure in doing so. Now, everything’s changed, and our imaginations need to keep pace with that change. What is human scale anyway? These days, after all, we split atoms and tinker with genes and can melt an ice sheet. We were designed to think about human-scale phenomena, and now that very phrase is almost as meaningless as old terms like “glacial,” which used to mean slow-moving and slow to change….

If there is to be an effort to respond to climate change, it will need to make epic differences in economics, in ecologies, in the largest and most powerful systems around us. Though the goals may be heroic, they will be achieved mostly through an endless accumulation of small gestures.

Those gestures are in your hands, and everyone’s. Or they could be if we learned to see the true scale of things, including how big we can be together.

Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
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