By Matt Oppenheim
Introduction and Overview
Many acknowledge that planet earth is over a precipice of decline due to several intertwining factors: frightening climate change and irreversible environmental damage; the massive diaspora of refugees of war and water; hyperinequalities between rich and poor and the unrelenting impact of many multinationals on the above. There is an additional, less recognized impact that is an essential part of this equation. It is predicted that by 2020, five million people will be unemployed due to the acceleration of technological innovations that are more efficient than human-based work.1 Philanthropists, university researchers, and progressive multinationals are working on a rapid solution to address the human impact of this change. However, like many of the solutions offered for these other impending crises, solutions to rapid unemployment are short-sighted and often focused on “universal income (UI)” policies, which in the past have proven to be a means to warehouse human capacities.
Recently, an innovative approach to UI gaining global attention is being trialed by a combination of nonprofit, GiveDirectly, researchers from top universities, and support from philanthropic endeavors.2 Focused on a network of villages near Nairobi, Kenya, this intervention offers $22/month to over 6,000 people inhabiting rural villages and extends support to over 26,000.3 Their focus is understanding if and how this project impacts innovation and initiative at the family and village level, and the results are dramatic. Villagers are planting gardens, obtaining new land for agriculture; sending their children to school; starting economic enterprises; creating larger social circles and community lending programs, where several families pool their resources.4 In other words, they are beginning to achieve every community development researcher’s dream—the facilitation of individual and collective capacity-building and further, the driver for achieving human potential. Can this one intervention prove to be prophetic in addressing the impending issue of employment loss due to rapid technological innovation?
It is the goal of this chapter (of the book) to unpack the purpose and dynamics of this endeavor—to inquire about its strengths and challenges, and especially to see how a potential long-term intervention might be utilized to face social, ecological, and economic challenges that have plagued humanity since the emergence of Homo sapiens, some 150,000 years ago. In this inquiry, we address the eternal tenets that cause human societies to decline or collapse as well as to find renaissance and resilience. This article finds that technological innovations throughout the human endeavor can equally cause both, and we have to become deeply discerning in the use of technology for the purpose of renaissance and resilience rather than collapse. Both are possible in the foreseeable future.
This chapter argues that the integration of the following dynamics is urgent in addressing the previous challenges:
- Encourage; invest, and infuse rapid technological change wherever possible. This is not only the probable future, but the urgent future. However, this change must be integrated with the following dynamics mentioned in the following and others through this chapter (of the book) in order to succeed.
- This must be accompanied by the tremendous unleashing of human potential brought about by this technological change and funded by the trillions of dollars now wasted on urban and global obsolescence and deliberate destruction of the environment.
- All civilizations that have collapsed have returned to decentralized, coordinated, ecologically based economies. We are facing imminent ecological and civilizational collapse. We must return to this constant in civilizational cycles. The money freed-up from the aforementioned must be directed toward this end.
- Adaptation to the world’s watersheds has also been a constant in the story of planet earth as well and the key to civilizational evolution. Ignore this law and civilizations always collapse; follow the design of the watershed and life is resplendent.
Social Evolution of the Common Good
Imagine the first 150,000 years of human existence as Homo sapiens. The well-being of the group depended on the well-being of the individual— each was mutually supporting. We hunted and gathered in small groups where there were no words and no purpose for differences in wealth or position. Commonly acknowledged is that times of work and play were intertwined—people existed in companionship and the good of the whole relied on the potential and capacity of the individual.5 We followed the design of the watershed and the environment rather than having power it. The watershed was the cosmos; the mountains were the place where all of creation emerged and the source of all that sustained us.
As society grew more complex, there was regular distribution of wealth and community resolution to problems. The Kwakiutl Potlach of the Northwest coast of North America was a huge distribution ritual, where the wealthier villages gave out all their wealth to the less wealthy—there was an inherent trust that through this dynamic, the needs of all would be met, and the villages would return to harmony.6 This also solidified networks of interdependency. In the Marae ceremony of the indigenous people of New Zealand, a community would face its community problems and find solutions through weeks of song, poetry and oratory.7 Elders of the Ifikbo Ibo of Nigeria, when faced with conflict, social imbalance; famine or disease would seclude themselves and “remake” their world in the building of a ceremonial Mbari house, which re-created their world in a return to balance and harmony, so they could move together toward a common future.8 The lesson here is that people in small, decentralized communities addressed ecological, social, and economic challenges much more effectively than in huge urban centers.
Each of the aforementioned did not diverge from the design of the watershed. In fact, when I visited a Maori village many years ago, an elder refused to open the door when I knocked. Then he opened the door a crack. He first asked, “What is your river?” “The Rhine, I answered.” Then he asked, “and what is your mountain?” “The Alps, I answered” He replied: “Yes, I know your people—they are fine people.” Then he opened the door and welcomed me in. Each of this chapter’s (of the book) readers owes their past and future to their watersheds. However, the present is in question!
That has been “our” way throughout much of the course of our existence. Even with later “great civilizations”—through a similar process of wealth distribution and decentralization of power—there was a return to both ecological and social resilience.
Causes of Urban Collapse and Resilience
As societies evolved to greater complexity, many became superurbanized and hierarchical. This initially helped govern the fields, utilize individual talents, and distribute resources. However, as each aspect of urbanization intensified, collapse was eminent. What occurred in these civilizations is that leadership became more aloof from human need; natural resources were destroyed, and human capacity focused on activity that depleted rather than replenished the economy.
An illustrative example is several of the Mayan Empires, As the priestly class gained power, much of the labor force, once focused on farming, was re-directed to the building of huge temple complexes and the creation of ceremonial objects. Forests were rapidly lost and water resources dried up. In other words, the leaders of society lost their purpose in protecting and facilitating the collective good and balance with the environment and rather focused on their personal fame, wealth, and power. Does it sound familiar?
However, there are other examples that fly in the face of this paradigm. We have the illusion that all great Mayan centers simply disappeared, and that was simply not the case. With Tikal (which lasted over one thousand years), what is seen as a huge city center is actually a huge network of water canals, water cisterns, and distribution centers that reached a network of small villages, 30 miles out into the countryside.9 What we see as the huge primary temple complex was actually made of large stone blocks, carved from the bedrock to create this water storage and distribution system. The runoff from these complexes would disperse into marshes, reservoirs, and rivulets.
Mayan culture still remains vibrant and resilient based on interdependent networks of autonomous, community-based villages, and decentralization with self-reliant economies.
At Angkor Wat in the Mekong Delta in Cambodia, the appearance of the central “Water Temple” was actually an elaborate web of water distribution centers, represented in a network of smaller temples, where water managers and their communities decided how to distribute water and decision-making was made among a huge region of self-reliant villages attuned to the watershed. These technological and ecological innovations were learned from previous civilizations that had perished because they followed the earlier Mayan paradigm of collapse. They had learned bitter lessons and rigorously applied the ethic that “not one drop of water should be wasted.” Are we not at the exact same moment again given the water shortage crises that have been mentioned in Chapter 4 of the book?
Later societies addressed social/economic and ecological problems with a focus on the “commons”—common community property, where cattle grazed, natural resources were distributed, and a council of leaders decided how to use scarce resources appropriately.10 Forest laws of medieval England protected the beasts of the forests and the trees from poachers.11
Return to the Watershed
One pervasive key to this return to balance was a focus on the dynamics of the watershed. Watersheds are fed by high, often glacial mountain chains. As rivers, tributaries, and rivulets flow down lesser mountains and into valleys, we find resplendent forests and mineral-rich soils.12 Further into the plains we find underground aquifers, and the dynamic between deep-rooted diverse flora, which helps bring deep aquifers back to the surface. As the rivers fan out into deltas, they create nutrient-rich alluvia and then enter the oceans. Coastal estuaries, marshes, and swamps create an amazing dynamic, where the coast is prevented from the impact of hurricanes and storms while providing an amazing ecological niche of flora and fauna that has continued to provide a resplendent existence to humanity. The ancient Marsh Arabs, living in the alluvial areas of the Tigress and Euphrates rivers, provided an essential service by both protecting a precious ecological niche and demonstrating how a society could live in support of the environment. The decline of these tribal groups during Saddam Hussain’s reign added to the decline of these niches and to the destruction of the large centralized civilizations upstream.13
Many emergent societies and civilizations were designed in conformity to the flow of water.14 Villages, settlements, and cities of the early U.S. Southwest were first designed to follow the course of water, through acequias or water dispersal systems both amongst pueblos and later Hispanic cultures.15 In the Shinto practice of Satoyama in early Japan, fish life and water flow interspersed with housing, transportation, and merged back into ponds and larger lakes.16
The review of the long cycle and evolution of human society has proven time and time again that when following the previously mentioned dynamics both social and ecological resilience is stable; with ignorance and then conscious destruction of these watershed dynamics, civilizations eventually collapse.
So, it is by no coincidence that the decentralization and community autonomy that emerges out of the fall of large unbalanced urban systems is precisely the human return to the laws of the watershed. Despite large- scale desertification, massive deforestation, strip-mining, and desecration of the world’s river systems, the watershed remains the one great constant in the story of planet earth. Follow the aforementioned laws of human relationship with the watershed and a human future is guaranteed; ignore and reverse these laws, civilizational collapse is a question of this basic equation.
Archeologist Vincent Scarborough of the University of Cincinnati is a world expert of the archeology of water management over more than 10,000 years. Through a review of thousands of archeological research projects and his work around the globe, his book The Flow of Power: Ancient Water Systems and Landscapes testifies to the challenges and solutions cited throughout this chapter (of the book). He and his archaeological colleagues worldwide have created the collaborative IHOPE (Integrated History and Future of People on Earth)17 and now believe that archaeology needs to move from the periphery to the center of socio-ecological change initiatives. He foresees the immediate need to disperse huge untenable urban environments into decentralized regional technological hubs.
It has really been the onset of the industrial revolution in the mid-18th century that has blinded our attention to the watershed—our eternal legacy on this planet. Because of this, we view history from the lens of the “carpentered” environment that commodifies rather than sustains nat- ural environments. This has led to the decoupling of the civilizational– environmental interdependence. Because of this we are blinded to the age-old laws of decentralization and watershed symbiosis. However, when we consider an economic renaissance in the age of artificial intelligence, let us not remain blinded with the eternal legacy of our planet in order to ensure a sustainable technological progress along with protection of environment.
Today’s Urban Collapse
Analogies to today’s dire urban predicament are evident. Large monument-like buildings utilize 76 percent of electrical energy in the United States.18 Inside are many industries that take away rather than adding to a productive economy. In capitalism, the priests of ceremony and ritual are replaced by the stock market sector and financial sector, which more often creates the potential for destruction than genuine economic development because of the way it operates. Added to this is the banking, insurance, and health sectors that need to undergo major structural changes with technological advances as discussed in Chapters 1 through 3 (of the book)and society should be more focused on increased self-sufficiency, watershed attunement, and self-reliance. Urban health care costs have accelerated through air pollution, high urban stress, lack of exercise, and aloofness from the nurturing natural world. Then there is the overtaking fast-food sector, which generates huge waste and leads to loss of electricity and pollution of our water sources as well as obesity.19
Added to this is the tremendous waste of human capital in the prison– industrial complex,20 as well as the obscene loss of energy from the global exchange of goods that traverse the globe; clogging shipping lanes and wasting fuel as basic goods are moved back and forth across continental highways. Then there are the escalating long-term consequences from petroleum disasters, both on the sea and on land.21, 22
If this is not sufficient to foretell a collapse, given the violations of common-sense macroeconomic parameters, let’s add the following dramatic factors. 18 of the 25 largest urban centers across the world are along the coast. Because of rapidly melting glaciers, these cities are beginning to flood and will be completely flooded by the end of the century. Dramatic climate change causing massive hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes, and desertification accompanied by sweeping fires, leading to massive soil loss and flooding, has created a “climate diaspora” that has reached tens of millions.23 Multinational corporations are privatizing precious water, leading to millions of the poor to bathe, cook, and consume toxic water from toxic industries.24 Over 7 million people in the world are without sanitary water.25
Water wars are displacing and causing the suffering of millions. One of ISIS’ first goal was to cut off water access in Mosul in Iraq to capture the city in 2014.26 Only seven percent of land in China is considered arable.27 The human displacement, malnutrition, and unimaginable waste of resources foretells a doom scenario that is frightening. Even worse, this crisis is on a global scale, not just on the scale of one iso- lated watershed-based civilization that could collapse and recover without impacting others. The stakes are much higher. There is a growing consensus that household recycling and rooftop water catchment, community gardens, and bicycling to work, though ethical and noble, will not reverse what is upon us.
Watershed councils and collaboratives worldwide are applying ecological conservancy, social activism, and challenges to wrong-minded multi- nationals in reversing some of the destruction mentioned in this chapter (of the book). These organizations are sparking transformation and building on national and international levels. They often oppose crony capitalism and promote people-powered economics. Somewhat like the Kenyan intervention; these movements are developing community solidarity, sparking capacity building, and better utilizing human and natural resources.
Better than the Kenyan initiative, they are powered by local initiative and cause, rather than outsider-modified intervention. However, from the arguments of this chapter, they focus too much on the comprise between the actors involved and include multinational corporations and large- scale industries as decision-makers. They also fall far short in adequately addressing the eminent collapse of large obsolete urban environments, as discussed in Chapter 4 of the book.
At the high points of human existence, our bonds of common des- tiny have nurtured tremendous human potential, creativity, love, human well-being, collaboration, and a thriving community life. The reason is actually very simple; we evolve and achieve much more when each individual and the collective are firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, we are at one of the lowest points in our existence, where the wealthy few cause immense suffering of the many. Millions are starving in addition to lack education or water, adequate housing or healthcare and are displaced from their homelands.
Insights Into Universal Income Schemes
Earlier approaches to universal income have fallen short of creating fulfillment for individuals—as terms such as the “dole” code for the doldrums refer to a social state when millions of the unemployed vegetate without further training and education or viable futures. This has often been the case in Western countries. My 10-year experience with universal income in Australia is testament to this fact. When the young are asked what they do or what they aspire to do, many answer “oh, hanging out; listening to music or surfing.” One 40-year old friend hung himself after being on the dole for over 15 years and then faced a new government demand that the unemployed obtain employable skills and then job-hunt—he had been acculturated into an identity of incapacity.
The real question is what to do about the tremendous human potential that is unleashed when technology takes over jobs. There is actually no limit to the need of labor to make a better world—and the need now is supremely urgent. The goal is to shift un-needed investments in the economy—aspects of the economy that actually have no economic benefit, to projects that add proven value to enhance human life. The shift to a subtle more intimate relationship with the watershed will employ billions. Then there will be no surplus labor, and rather than working no-end jobs, the focus will be human creativity and innovation. We can then embrace all forms of technological innovation as liberational and transformative.
However universal income (UI) or the means to guarantee the basic necessities of life forever to the human being may always be needed, but not as an easy release from guilt for the exploitive and super rich. The best use of UI occurs when it accompanies the shift mentioned earlier back to our watersheds.
Encouraging Insights for the Kenya Initiative
Where does this leave us regarding the Kenyan UI intervention? The strengths are that they have chosen Kenyan villages—a specific set of rural dynamics in which the potential for success is heightened. While most rural regions are depleted, people are abandoning them and there is little economic vitality. This case mimics that of Mayan villages after the fall of the great Mayan empires. People are utilizing their natural resources, using their potential to develop talents and potential, and strengthening community solidarity. They are utilizing their present technologies in support of and not in opposition to all that is good about their future. So, this would seem to be quite a potential niche in which further introduc-tions of technology might be a fit.
When we add the sagely advice from the aforementioned thousands of years of human trial and error chronicled in the return to the watershed, we can offer the drivers of the Kenyan initiative specific ideas to expand their initiative.
First, we need to consider the wider context surrounding these villages in southwest Kenya. The environs nearby Nairobi, though much smaller in scale, mimic many of the destructive dynamics of the major urban hubs of the planet. Tens of thousands of refugees live in squalor, with no access to any of the basic necessities of life.28 The Nairobi River has long lost its identity as a river and is now considered by many as the main sewer system of the city. It is so toxic that it kills thousands per year. This effluent has obvious consequences for the entire watershed, which include loss of agricultural land, destruction of ecosystems, spread of disease, disruption of community life, and the imperative for impacted villagers to move to Nairobi as refugees.
An exacerbating dire plight is the increasing terrorist activity of Al Shabab and Boko Haram30 and associated terrorist organizations, now claiming large swaths of land in northeast Kenya. So, the urgency in Kenya is exactly the same as the rest of the world. Urban waste and blight can be diminished through a return to the watershed mentioned earlier. Local initiatives such as the one mentioned for Kenyan villages can be expanded to include a vibrant full-scale movement of decentralization based on initial successes such as the ones explored in the experiment for universal income.
Back to the Basic tenets
The tenets at the beginning of this chapter (of the book) have hopefully been argued convincingly. No one model of change will work in each context, and no one can guarantee or accurately predict what the future will hold. However, the long span of history holds crucial clues.
As mentioned before, billions of people would be needed to shift society back to the necessary symbiotic systems with the watersheds that we have always returned to. Imagine small ponds and lakes and small-scale waterworks, within which are planted oxygenating lotus and chlorophyll nutritious algae. Imagine the new labor that would be freed up to develop nurturing economic hubs and profoundly resilient communities—the community organizing and facilitation skills and the diversity facilitation that would be infused at huge economic benefit. This includes the infusion of thousands of innovation hubs that apply human potential to physical, biological, and technological innovations, as well as psychological, artistic, and other creative interventions that develop greater harmony and imaginative human communities.
One would legitimately be concerned about the mode, process, and timing of this immense transition, even if it is urgently necessary. Can we just close down mega-industries and huge urban environments and “camp out” in dispersed decentralized communities? Do we imagine the migration of millions of people and millions of homes and buildings left empty? If this mega transition were in the wrong hands, there would be mass starvation, massive unemployment, and exacerbated mental and physical health as a result. Even in this regard, for this transition to be smooth, the control of socioeconomic system should pass into the hands of Sadvipras as mentioned in the concluding Chapter 13 of the book. While my expertise is not sufficient, as any anthropologist, I would look for the trends and model projects that show the pragmatic and realistic timetables with which to actually begin the transition. We can also look to past civilizations that were quick enough in this transition to be successful. Let us take “what is” to transition to “what will become” as our adage.
Each of the diverse experiments in state-wide socialism and communism have ended in the same disasters. When given resources and capacity, people in rural areas will rapidly shift to the time-honored decentralized, autonomous mode. Simultaneously re-weaving the human ecosystem into the fabric of the watershed will return to the mental primacy of the watershed to human existence. Large urban centers, while being divested of the aforementioned wastage of trillions of dollars, can convert to hubs of exchange of knowledge and information, the regional convergence of people when collaboration is needed, and restructuring of the current global transportation system back to the regional.
There are countless examples in every niche of the planet that provide the course of the future and offer the potential for planetary change. There are self-reliant economic regions that focus primarily on the sustainability of natural resources and have developed a people-based cooperative economy. Mondragon31 in the Basque region of Spain is an example to follow closely. In Japan, disenchanted young adults are returning to traditional Satoyama16 villages; where economic and village living is interspersed with the course of the river and integrated with ponds and lakes.
Ancient Lessons Fuel a Positive Future
The best advice is to turn to the well-proven interventions that evolved over thousands of years and then apply current technology to these systems. Many Moghul societies created systems of cisterns and water canals that dispersed water over large areas. Small ponds, lakes, dams, and reservoirs preserved fish and plant life, and meant that all people had easy access to clean water. The Yemeni and Syrian models of water distribution have long been followed. Here, river water distribution is spread according to need and necessity, rather than to the first farmers or the dominant multinationals in the watershed. In parched deserts, Muslim societies built mechanisms to extract enough water to serve large villages. Many ancient societies were water temple cities.
Sparking a transformation of Consciousness to Conscious Action
There are many keys to returning our worldview, ethics, and visceral experience of life back to the watershed. Most countries still boast amazing ancient watershed pilgrimages that link ancient cisterns and natural springs together as well as linking modern religion with ancient mythic spirituality. All large rivers have their gods and goddesses and spirit-beings. People in Egypt still beseech the Nile god to assist them in times of social and economic strife. In India there are massive river pilgrimages that introduce the pilgrim to vastly different languages, arts, and agricultural practices that still exist in symbiosis with the watershed.34
One remarkable seer, originally from Bengal, India, where the Ganges, Sarasvati, and Brahmaputra watersheds converge, applied an amazing plethora of ancient genius.35 Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar travelled great lengths of rivers, studying the history of water-harvesting, agriculture, and cultural, spiritual, and economic development.36 He has used this knowledge to create schemes for decentralized communities, where ponds, lakes, and small reservoirs dot the landscape and fuel both cooperative, small-scale, and large-scale industries. Here architecture blends with the environment, and education focuses on local language, culture, and the legacy of ancestors.
In one large-scale intervention created by Shrii Sarkar (see http:// anandanagar.org/), a certified engineering and technological devel- opment college represents the only college in a large impoverished, desertified rural region. This college sits within a huge project infused with people-run cooperatives; innovative farming and reforestation projects; revived ponds, small lakes, and reservoirs and water-harvesting techniques.37
The re-shifting of priorities and urgent changes argued earlier are already occurring. As well as trialing projects, there has been a shifting of consciousness and many finding renewal and resilience by walking their own watersheds. Now it needs to become the dominant paradigm.
Media watchers all know that what people watch reflects both the urgencies and the promises of the future. On the one hand, we have mete- ors threatening to end all life on earth—the zombie apocalypse, which is really the de-humanization occurring in our urban climes; the re-emerging craze of warrior movies; either with superhuman skills or the returning theme of the warrior and wars ever-fighting terrorists. We flock to these movies because they show us what we often do not admit is going on in our subconscious mind as being harmful, yet they also show us the way forward. Black Panther is one of the most compelling recent movies. We are captivated by a never-colonized indigenous regional society in harmony with and taping into the powers of ecology. Hyperadvanced technology blends seamlessly with community and ecology. The romance of the movie The Color of Water garnered the Oscar for the Best Movie of 2018. In it, a timeless water-god (our longing for the watershed) enchants a lonely cleaning woman—a symbol of the disenfranchised millions—who becomes a warrior in the face of the evil power brokers.
Let’s follow them back to our watersheds, glance around up to the mountain tops, follow the course of the great rivers, the nurturing valleys, plains, and river deltas. Then let’s invite current technological innova- tion and progress to free up the human potential to apply to what is truly fulfilling for us and deeply nurturing of our symbiotic ecosystems. Impending collapse must return to resilience and ecological harmony. For nearly 150,000 years that has been our way. Whether through great suffering or more rapid urgency it will always be our way!
Taken from the book Economic Renaissance in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, with permission. Economic Renaissance in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Apek Mulay (Ed.) Business Expert Press, LLC (2019), 222 East 46th Street, New York, NY 10017. www.businessexpertpress.com
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