The Ecological Crisis is a Political Crisis

Kevin MacKay | September 25, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Protestors holding a sign

With each passing day, reports on global climate change become increasingly bleak. Recent research has affirmed that the glaciers are melting faster than anticipated1, and that acidification, with its catastrophic effect on ocean ecosystems, is also proceeding faster than feared2.  As the concentration of atmospheric carbon continues to rise, so does the likelihood we’ve passed the tipping point for irreversible climate change.3

When one looks at other critical earth ecosystems, the danger is equally apparent. Soil is being destroyed.4 Fresh water shortages are wracking several continents and leaving billions of people without reliable access to clean drinking water.5 Fish stocks are plummeting.6  Oceans are clogged with plastic garbage.7 Biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate.8 In the face of this full-spectrum ecological assault, a growing number of scientists have been saying that the collapse of civilization is now unavoidable.9

Stopping the destructive effects of industrial, capitalist civilization has now become the defining challenge of our age. If we don’t radically change our society’s course within the next 30 years, then a deep collapse and protracted Dark Age are all but assured. In order to confront this challenge, we need to understand what is causing civilization’s crisis, and most importantly, how the crisis can be resolved. At stake is nothing less than a viable future on this planet.


The Five Horsemen of the Modern Day Apocalypse

In my book, Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization, I argue that industrial civilization is being driven toward collapse by five key forces – related to terminal dysfunction within its ecological, economic, socio-cultural, and political sub-systems:

  1. Dissociation: globalized production and distribution systems disrupt people’s ability to put their own actions, and the actions of elites, into a coherent causal and ethical framework. Actions by individuals, institutions, and systems of governance are therefore disconnected from their effect on the natural world and on other peoples. Without this critical feedback, even well-intentioned actors can’t make rational and ethical choices regarding their behaviour.
  2. Complexity: the world-spanning nature of industrial capitalist civilization, and the massive number of interrelationships it represents, make predicting the effect of any given change on the system as a whole devilishly difficult. Disastrous tipping points loom in several of civilization’s systems – from the collapse of ocean ecology to the threat of nuclear war. In addition, because the crisis cannot be contained in one part of the globe, the dysfunctions can’t be dealt with in isolation.
  3. Stratification: a profoundly unequal distribution of wealth – both globally and within nations – leads to mass human poverty, displacement, and to premature death through disease and continuous warfare. Stratification also leads to political instability, eroding a society’s social cohesion and undermining decision-making structures.
  4. Overshoot: the economic practices of industrial capitalism are exceeding ecological limits. Our civilization is critically degrading the biosphere, burning through non-renewable energy sources, and shifting the entire climatic balance.
  5. Oligarchy: in states worldwide, political decision-making is controlled by a numerically small, wealthy elite. This form of government serves to lock in patterns of conflict, oppression, and ecological destruction.


Societies as Decision-Making Systems

Each of the horsemen presents a significant threat to civilization’s viability. However, oligarchy is particularly important as it deals with a society’s decision-making systems. In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or to Succeed, geographer Jared Diamond argued that many past civilizations have collapsed due to their inability to make correct decisions in the face of existential threats.10  Diamond drew on the work of archaeologist Joseph Tainter, who in his 1998 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, argued that civilizations fail due to a constellation of factors.11

To Tainter, the ultimate mistake failed civilizations made was to continually solve problems by adding social complexity, and as a result, increasing the society’s energy needs.  Eventually, Tainter argued that civilizations encounter a “thermodynamic crisis” in which they are unable to sustain an energy-intensive level of complexity.  The result is collapse – ecological devastation, political upheaval, and mass population die-off.

The tendency for societies to collapse under excessive energy demands is an important insight. However, what Tainter and Diamond failed to appreciate is how oligarchy is an even more fundamental cause of civilization collapse.

Oligarchic control compromises a society’s ability to make correct decisions in the face of existential threats.  This explains a seeming paradox in which past civilizations have collapsed despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises.  The problem wasn’t that they didn’t understand the source of the threat or the way to avert it.  The problem was that societal elites benefitted from the system’s dysfunctions and, prevented available solutions.


Oligarchic Control in “Democratic” States

Citizens in countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, or the Eurozone members, would generally consider themselves to be living in democratic societies. However, when the political systems of Western democracies are scrutinized, clear and pervasive signs of oligarchy emerge.

A 2014 study by American political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page revealed that the great majority of political decisions made in the United States reflect the interests of elites. After studying nearly 1,800 policy decisions passed between 1981 and 2002, the researchers argued that “both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.”12

Today, oligarchic control over decision-making, and its catastrophic ecological effects, have never been clearer. In the U.S., Donald Trump and his billionaire-dominated cabinet are seeking to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency13, to question climate science14, and to pursue a policy of “American energy dominance” that will dramatically expand production of fossil fuels.15

U.S. energy companies are also having a profound impact on domestic energy policy by accelerating the development of hard-to-access fuel sources through hydraulic fracturing, deep-sea oil drilling, and mountain-top removal coal mining.16 At the same time, fossil fuel oligarchs are working overtime to dismantle green energy initiatives, such as the Koch brothers’ war on the solar industry in Florida, and in other cities across the continent.17

In Canada, often thought of as more progressive than its southern neighbor, the situation hasn’t been much different. Under prime minister Stephen Harper’s two terms, the Canadian state became an unapologetic cheerleader for extracting some of the world’s dirtiest oil –Tar Sands bitumen. Harper accelerated Tar Sands production, leading to the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of boreal forest, the diversion of millions of gallons of freshwater, and the creation of miles of toxic tailings ponds, filled with water contaminated by the bitumen extraction process.18

Like the Trump administration, the Harper government silenced federal climate scientists.19 The government also targeted environmental charities and non-profits, using funding cuts and the threat of audits to undermine climate advocacy.20  When a movement of national outrage swept Harper from power in 2015, Canadians were hopeful that climate change would once more be taken seriously. However, the new government of Justin Trudeau, while embracing the international discourse on global warming, has shown a continued allegiance to the fossil-fuel oligarchy by committing over $7 billion in federal funds to purchase the failing Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.21


What is To Be Done?

To create a sustainable future, we must first learn the lessons of the past, and what archaeological research shows is that throughout history, civilizations that have been captive to the interests of an oligarchic elite have all collapsed.22 Today’s industrial, capitalist civilization is trapped in this same deadly cycle.

As long as a self-interested elite controls decision-making in modern states, we will be far too late to avoid the effects of steadily contracting ecological limits.  In addition, we will be unable to avert the downward spiral of economic crisis, conflict, and warfare that will result as oligarchs scramble to maintain their wealth and power in the face of dwindling resources and mounting crisis.23

Breaking free from this destructive pattern will require us to take political and economic power back from the 1% and return it to the hands of citizens. This means that advocates for ecological sustainability must move far beyond individual actions, lobbying, or reform of existing political and economic institutions. If we are to have a chance, we must ensure that governments make decisions based on the public good, not on private profit.

Radically transforming industrial, capitalist civilization won’t be easy. It will require movements for environmental sustainability, social justice, and economic fairness to come together, and to realize their common interest in dismantling the system of oligarchy and building a democratic, eco-socialist society.24  This “movement of movements” must put aside sectarian squabbles, and finally realize that the goals of economic justice, human rights, and ecological sustainability are all intrinsically linked.

Such changes may seem like a tall order, but hope can be found in the deepening struggle being waged to protect our fragile ecosystems. First Nations groups are leading this charge and beginning to win some important victories. The inspiring Water Protectors of Standing Rock were able to disrupt the Dakota Access Pipeline in the face of intense government oppression.25 In Canada, Several British Columbia First Nations recently won an impressive court victory in their opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline.26

If successful grassroots struggles can be linked with equally hopeful movements for real political change, then there is hope for the future. However, if we continue on with “business as usual” – hoping that change will come from lifestyle choices and the interchangeable representatives of elite political parties, then the future looks grim indeed.

Kevin MacKay is a Canadian social science professor, labour activist, director of a non-profit sustainable development organization, and author of Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse, and the Crisis of Civilization, published by Between the Lines Books. Kevin can be contacted at:

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  • NAJohnson

    On the one hand, I can’t believe there isn’t a single reference to population growth here. Overpopulation is the real primary driver of ecosystem destruction (land use, habitat fragmentation, resource demands including food, water, energy consumption, and primary goods like minerals, oil, wood, etc…). There is no alternate system to Capitalism which can solve these issues so long as population remains unaddressed. Capitalism is, to use an ironic idiom, a red herring on ecological issues.

    On the other hand, claims like “throughout history, civilizations that have been captive to the interests of an oligarchic elite have all collapsed.” are ridiculously misleading, because *all* civilizations have collapsed. There’s literally no example of a civilization which hasn’t collapsed unless you include current ones, which would refute your special pleading point (as modern oligarchic civilizations also haven’t yet collapsed). Now, you might well respond that all historical civilizations were captured by an oligarchic elite, but why specify then? Why not just say that outright, and that all civilizations have collapsed. Your phrasing seems to be lying by ommission – claiming there exists some unicorn civilization which is not captured by oligarchic elites and has not collapsed. If that doesn’t exist, there is no lesson to learn from the past except that collapse is inevitable.

    Of course, realizing this means you haven’t really addressed the important questions: (1) Is it possible to even have a civilization not captured by an oligarchy? (2) Can such a civilization avoid collapse indefinitely? How?

    Given that *species extinction is inevitable* in the long term, and as a consequence human extinction is inevitable, that suggests there’s no such unicorn as a civilization that never collapses.

    Basically, you phrase this as if there exists some real alternative that avoids civilization collapse, backed up by archaeological research, and that’s a bald-faced lie by implication.

    We should all agree that rampant ecological destruction is a bad thing, but you’re dramatically overclaiming what can possibly be solved.

  • Eric Lee

    After listing issues readers are likely to agree with, a political solution, the taking back of power, is offered:

    “Stopping the destructive effects of industrial, capitalist civilization has now become the defining challenge of our age…. Breaking free from this destructive pattern will require us to take political and economic power back from the 1% and return it to the hands of citizens. This means that advocates for ecological sustainability must move far beyond individual actions, lobbying, or reform of existing political and economic institutions. If we are to have a chance, we must ensure that governments make decisions based on the public good, not on private profit.”

    [Again with comments offered:]

    “Stopping the destructive effects of industrial, capitalist civilization has now become the defining challenge of our age [as if you could pick and choose the constructive from the destructive effects of industrial society, embrace the prosperity, exuberantly consume, shop at Walmart and support Reverend Billy’s Stop Shopping Choir with a generous donation, or just say no to pollution, profit, and the power of special interests the 1% AND the 99% have that self-organizes the complex society they are and serve]…. Breaking free from this destructive pattern will require us to take political and economic power back from the 1% [Canadians live like (consume like) Americans, luxuriating in the glow of fossil-fueled wealth. They and other industrial society consumers are the 1%, from the homeless who would be richer to the more successful middle class kleptoconsumers who are rich compared to the commoners of the elsewhen past and elsewhere present, or even most of the chiefs and kings of yore] and return it to the hands of citizens. [So the solution is the taking “back” of power by citizens who never had it and when it comes to foundational questions (e.g. what level of per capita consumption is “enough” and what population of humans, pets, and livestock can an environment, such as a watershed, support, and what technology does more good than harm?), the citizen voters don’t know enough to have an opinion and don’t get a vote other than perhaps a pretend vote that doesn’t matter as Nature determines what works (not elites) and “has all the answers” (H.T. Odum).] This means that advocates for ecological sustainability must [stop advocating for something they neither understand nor have any say over, and listen to Nature (and perhaps those who listen to Nature) who determines what policies work to achieve ecological sustainability based on energy principles, so why bother to play house within the ephemeral socio-political economic control system or] move far beyond individual actions, lobbying, or reform of existing political and economic institutions[?]. If we are to have a chance, we must ensure that governments make decisions based on the public good, not on private profit.” [The ill-defined “public good” is and always has been a consideration of all hierarchical control systems from chiefdom to nation-state level, but never the only one nor even near the top of the list.]

    [The existing political and economic system is NOT REMOTELY CLOSE TO SUSTAINABLE. We are enmeshed in and indeed, as sub-systems, we are the complex, powerful and remorseless system dynamic that selects our collective behavior and thereby automatically thwarts all attempts to stop it as long as growth is what is working in the short-term to maximize empower. It is an MPP (Maximum Power Principle) thing, which, like the grim second law of thermodynamics doesn’t go away because we don’t believe in or understand it. If we fail to understand it, the implications of it, we are doomed to go with it to hit the wall of biophysical limits, and all proposed political “solutions” are merely distractions. Alternative would be to not go with it. Governments and the growth economy will not be reformed into their opposite. The unsustainable system need not be destroyed as it will self-destruct. To change the existing global hegemon, “do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete. That, in essence, is the higher service to which we are all being called.” —R. Buckminster Fuller.]

    [The “beyond…reform” meme references revolution which doesn’t come from the barrel of a gun, but from creating a new model that actually works, a pattern that will be selected for (by the nature of things, not voters) and thereby replace the failing pattern when descent comes (though not before). Doing so has nothing to do with politics but does with system dynamics. Believing in political “solutions”, a “movement of movements,” or religious “salvation” is feel-good delusional. Appeals to conscience or our “better angels” selects for consciencelessness and short-term self-interest of elites and commoners, i.e. business-as-usual. If you ask cancer cells to just say no to growth (by appealing to “foresight intelligence”) and you are unbelievably successful and ninety percent listen and stop metastasizing, then what? They self-select out of the growth system whose growth is imperceptibly slowed for a short time, and meanwhile the pace of planetary destruction is not (noticeably) slowed. A new model with new “rules of the game” that selects for “foresight intelligence” (and against growth/empire-building) would have a different outcome, but nobody gets a vote other than of the vote-with-your-feet type. Creating new models is the higher service we are being called upon to iterate towards.]

  • Dr D


    thank you for this concise and erudite summary of the situation. My advice is that a new social movement is needed to promote policies that are commensurate to the socio-ecological crisis. I recommend that civil society urgently investigate and support new central bank mandates. It is the traditional role of central banks to provide some macro-prudential regulation, however neoclassical models do not include new policies or tools that can make use of central banks as governance institutions.

    In addition, it is my view that ‘natural laws’ have been overlooked in the economic analysis, such that the root cause of our collective inability to respond to the crisis may be hypo-cognitive. These natural laws are known as the laws of thermodynamics: keeping in mind that natural living systems (plants, animals, fungi, etc.) have achieved homeostasis via evolutionary processes. Our civilisation is evolving, but we have not identified the laws and mechanisms for achieving homeostasis at a physical, financial and political level. Perhaps we can now discover the “…the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve …” the socio-ecological crisis. My advice is that we find the missing policy in the laws of nature. Without this new economic model even the elites will be victims, because they too will be ‘forced’ to participate in the same systemic dysfunction.

    I will attempt to explain how natural laws can be applied to carbon pricing in my essay, titled The Silver Gun Hypothesis. Part II is due late this year.

    • Nick

      Our current economic system is driver of the majority of our environmental and social problems. Not sure how you think central banks can help when they are promoting and supporting a fractional reserve system of bankng where money is only ever created from debt, and where the system is based on continuous growth. Continuous growth, being an impossibility on a fintie planet with finite resources.

  • Joshua M. Rosenau

    Read Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael.” Then tell other people to read it.

  • Geoffrey Holland

    I agree with your analysis. Job one: get the dirty money out of our politics.