The Path to a Livable Future Cannot be the Path We’re On

Stan Cox has pulled off quite a feat with his latest book The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic. In a relaxed, inviting style, Cox sets unorthodox ideas in a persuasive human and environmental context.

Cox explains:

“The path to a livable future now involves not just reforming an unjust system, or budgeting a little more here and there to ‘underserved’ communities, but abolishing marginalization itself. By co-creating movements from all sectors of society, we organize in ways that are inclusive, open, democratic, and diverse. This is how we become unstoppable, and how we seed our present struggles with the dignified future we collectively envision.” [Italics added]

To be clear: Cox aims to promote radical action in the best sense, that is, by getting down to basics, to roots. Here is Cox:

In my previous book, The Green New Deal and Beyond, I focused tightly on the climate emergency and national public policies that will be necessary to end it. In this book, which zooms out to a wide-angle view of an entire society in rapid flux, I look to the movements now demanding the kind of transformation that’s necessary to get us all through the multiple, entangled emergencies that finally captured the nation’s attention in 2020.

Simply put, The Green New Deal and Beyond [April 22, 2020] is a ‘top-down’ approach grounded in national public policy, whereas The Path to a Livable Future is a ‘bottom-up’ approach grounded in grassroots movements collectively joined. The two books work in tandem to describe the essential ‘transformation’ Cox champions. However, that is just the beginning. Early on, Cox writes:

Ongoing emergencies in racial justice, climate, and public health jointly present us with grave challenges throughout society. In the pages ahead, I focus on three interconnected sectors of the economy where they converge in many ways: energy, land use, and food. The roots of the crises that collided in 2020, and the heavy impacts they will have on our future, are so intimately interwoven that these problems must all be resolved together, or they will never be resolved. … it was clear to me they could not be dealt with individually, each in its own chapter. I therefore decided to work through the various entangled roots all at once, weighing the actions that are necessary to win a dignified and sustainable future for all, and seeking viable ways to overcome the material and political obstacles to such actions. [Italics added]

In tackling these ‘entangled roots’ simultaneously, Cox lays out a very steep climb, but one he adroitly enables us to mount with him. We might ask, “How did he pull it off?” A bit of background sheds light. First, Cox is a research scholar in Biosphere Studies at The Land Institute, which means that he is accustomed to dealing with vast amounts of material. A quick scan of the Endnotes turns up 185 references that Cox puts to good use (more on this later). Cox is also a masterful and widely published author. In 2012, The Atlantic declared him the magazine’s “Readers’ Choice Brave Thinker” – a designation this new book reinforces.

So now we can return to the question, “How did Cox pull off this impressive feat?” Briefly, he did it in an Introduction and four succinct, superbly well-written chapters, 145 scant pages in all.

Introduction: Cox begins by recalling how he watched, transfixed, with family and friends, as they learn that Biden was projected to win Pennsylvania and the presidency. He then comments that the year 2020 was such that Biden’s campaign slogan ‘Build Back Better’—although suggesting improvement — was simply not going to be enough:

“… given the realities we continue to face — a global ecological emergency, a public health system in tatters, economic apartheid, persistent assaults on civil rights and democracy — a better normal is insufficient and unacceptable.”

Thus, the stage is set.

How Cox raises awareness is sophisticated and deserves mention. Chapter 1 simply reiterates events as they took place across 2020. Chapter 2 demonstrates the ‘entanglement’ of events identified in the Introduction, and it is accomplished in a way that also shows us not just whybut how it is essential to address them together. Chapter 3 is a roadmap like no other, moving easily from issue to issue throughout the tangled roots. Chapter 4 takes off from a clear-eyed description of our social and environmental predicament before reporting the impact a dedicated activist minority can have on majority opinion and action.

Chapter 1: The Perilous Year recounts the relentless succession of events that unfolded in 2020 to reveal our vulnerabilities as a society — leading off with the pandemic. Amidst all that was truly difficult, Cox nonetheless finds rays of light:

The crises of 2020 demonstrated that people and governments are capable of suspending business as usual in order to deal with disaster in real time. The path to a livable future is there — will we choose to follow it?

He continues:

Maybe, it began to seem, 2020 really could be a historic turning point, fueling grassroots action on a broad front, not only against racism and cop violence but also against the many societal ills, including our assault on the Earth, that both intensify racism and are fed by it.

And he concludes:

Now, would climate, justice, and economic policies deemed outrageously radical before 2020 finally get traction in grassroots America by, say, the midterm elections of 2022? Could it even be possible to end the overproduction and overconsumption that’s threatening the Earth, and to do it in a way that ensures sufficiency for communities currently relegated to underconsumption of basic needs? Could systemic racism finally be abolished?

Chapter 2: The Tangled Roots of Our Predicament opens with a quote:

“Because human activities cause this environmental damage, our species is culpable for a crime we are committing against ourselves. But in our defense, humanity is largely trapped by the political form of liberal state power, which facilitates the smooth functioning of global capitalism—the source of the problem.” –Adrian Parr, 2016 (Interviewed in the New York Times)

In short, Cox writes:

The time has come to abandon the old economic system designed to enrich the few and to replace it with one forged by all to benefit all. The path to a livable future must be one with public health, ecological balance, racial justice, and democracy at the center of policy.

Reinforcing this view is the proclamation from Dr. Martin Luther King (cited in the previous chapter):

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

Discussions of industrial agriculture, energy and their tangled impacts on human health and well-being follow, and Cox observes:

Climate action plans [GND] and Democratic postpandemic recovery plans both have emphasized not only worker protections and economic justice but also racial justice, Indigenous rights, workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, social safety nets, and other remedies that would help steer the nation’s economy away from the increasingly exploitative, racist path it has taken in recent years.

But none of the mainstream climate plans were adequate to end America’s contribution to greenhouse warming. They all lacked a necessary element: a direct mechanism to rapidly reduce the use of fossil fuels in the economy, entirely eliminating them on a crash deadline. [Italics added]

Cox is clear-eyed that the consequence will be the end of endless economic growth, a consequence fiercely opposed by the wealthy elite and their political allies.

In conclusion, he writes:

As we strive to achieve a healthy, just, ecologically sustainable society, we know what’s not going to work: technological fixes in energy, medicine, or agriculture; more intensive exploitation of land and labor; a bigger economic pie; an ostensibly “clean” services economy that values production over care. Those are dead ends.

What is needed is the opposite: a society-wide, indeed a worldwide, commitment and strategy to restrain human activity within strict ecological limits. And this must be carried out in ways that involve leadership from all communities, particularly those traditionally left out of the decision-making process. The goal must be to achieve an impact on the Earth light enough that sufficiency and justice for all can be sustained through the coming chaotic decades and far beyond.

Chapter 3: ‘To Do’ List for 2022 | We are reminded that a National Climate Policy, such as that laid out in The Green New Deal and Beyond, can provide a protective umbrella under which grassroots actions at the community, workplace and household / individual levels can take place under various forms of deliberative and participative democracy.  For example, in discussing the local administration of national limits on resource use, Cox cites the WWII Rationing Boards as the most apt historical precedent – the first of several such precedents cited. The message is clear: we know how to do this.

A frank, thought-provoking discussion of energy issues follows:

While community and regional governance of resources should occur under a national umbrella that guarantees both limits and fair shares, the national effort must in turn connect to an international mobilization. Otherwise, humanity’s total emissions can’t be driven down to zero in time

So goes the to-do list for tackling food systems, international environmental justice, living ‘beyond fossil fuels’, indigenous sovereignty, and more.

The chapter concludes with a look to ‘what’s next’ by presenting the multiple uncertainties and surprises that most assuredly lie ahead, making ‘business-as-usual’ virtually impossible. The concluding sentence of the chapter could be the introductory sentence of the book’s final chapter:

“The time for orthodox governance has long passed. Uprooting such orthodoxy won’t be easy, but clearing a path to a livable future now depends on it.”

Chapter 4: The People Have the Power begins by recapping the to-do list:

Abolish systemic racism and state-sanctioned killing. Ensure safety, well-being, and justice for historically marginalized communities, families, and people. Free society of fossil fuels, air and water contamination, and greenhouse warming. Guarantee access to goods and services for all households regardless of occupations or incomes. Build a robust, ecologically sound, inclusive, and just food system to replace today’s fragile, destructive, cruel system. Create a new health system that serves everyone. And get it done together, with all sectors of society at the table.

Then, in what might be the understatement of the century, Cox adds,

That’s quite a to-do list, and it’s just the start of what’s required of us.

Let there be no doubt, Cox pulls no punches in discussing the lengths to which entrenched wealth will go to protect the status quo, concluding:

We can have ecological sustainability or capital accumulation, but not both.

And he asks,

Will we have the long-range vision and social solidarity required to make sweeping changes, redefine “normal,” and create the foundation for us to collectively restore the planet’s — and our own — health?

His answer:

We tend to avoid discussing the full extent to which our species has already damaged the Earth, and how much more damage is to come, for fear of inducing a sense of collective futility and despair. However, research shows that optimistic messages of progress in curbing climate change do not, as hoped, spur people to engage in more vigorous climate action. On the contrary, it is messages focusing on the growing threat posed by greenhouse warming that create strong motivation for action.

In other words, a clear-eyed discussion of past and future damage — one emphasizing that in trying to limit future damage, we are not helpless — such a discussion can galvanize, and if there’s one thing humanity needs as we face the 2020s, it’s galvanization.  [Italics added]

In forging The Path to a Livable Future, Cox has done far more than write a manuscript. In his capable hands, the book becomes a table around which he has seated society’s major voices — activists, researchers, thinkers, academics to discuss projects, actions, experiences, insights (those 185 Endnotes mentioned earlier). The impact of these distinctive and credible voices is cumulative: it fosters a slow-growing recognition of the many and varied groups actively engaged across society in working for transformation across the full spectrum of ‘entangled roots’ that comprise our social and planetary predicament.

Then he adds, there is hope:

Research on social “intervention points” and “tipping points” shows that if the share of a population that is committed, vocal, and active in support of a sharp departure from established policies grows beyond a relatively low threshold, in the vicinity of 25 percent, that commitment can mobilize passive supporters as well, and then quickly sweep through the rest of the population; in the words of researchers, “apparently stable societal norms can be effectively overturned by the efforts of small but committed minorities.”  [Italics added]

Cox concludes:

A just and livable future can be ours, but only if we organize, resist, imagine, and forge the path there together.

So, where do we go from here? If you have read The Green New Deal and Beyond, you are likely to order your copy of The Path to a Livable Future today. If you are a person who finds it difficult to cope with the environmental and climate crisis, The Path to a Livable Future furnishes a thoughtful, engaging introduction. If you are someone asking, but what can do? – The Path to a Livable Future supplies both inspiration and ideas.

On a personal note: reading The Path to a Livable Future has sensitized me to phenomena reported in the alternative press and even in the mainstream press, such that I find myself wondering, Have they read Stan Cox’s new book?  What this says to me is that Cox has done a brilliant job of demonstrating that as a society we know what to do. But what we know is fragmented — with bits and pieces scattered here and there. To his credit, Cox has pulled these fragments together into a coherent whole. All that remains, in his words, is to “organize, resist, imagine, and forge the path there together.”

Jane K. Brundage is a recovering corporate consultant intent on applying her process analysis and technical writing skills to advancing a livable, even enjoyable world for her children and grandchildren. She lives in Mexico City and blogs at Voices for Mother Earth:  ‘Calling Us to the Global Effort to Care for the Planet’s Finite Resources’. Jane now volunteers with, where this review originally appeared.