We need a new common consciousness of what’s necessary and possible to curb climate change

CUSP Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity                                   25th November 2018               Guest blog by Teresa Belton

Cultural resistance to the need for a fundamental, urgent, unprecedented rethink of the way we conduct life in order to limit temperature rise is continuously fed by the apparently affirmative but actually misleading words of charismatic thinkers such as Rutger Bregman and Steven Pinker, Teresa Belton finds. What we need instead are fresh holistic narratives of contented material sufficiency and personal and social enrichment —to create the critical mass for a new common consciousness, and to protect the world from catastrophic ecosystem destruction. (This article is an edited version of a piece first published in The Ecologist on 5 November 2018.)

Political and social consciousness of the looming threat and the measures necessary to limit rising temperatures is still largely unengaged. In the UK one need look no further than the government decision to build a third runway at Heathrow airport, the continued subsidies given to fossil fuel companies, the reduction in incentives to install solar panels, and the slackening of planning regulations to allow fracking applications free passage. And at the household level, sales of consumer goods and use of energy continue unabated, as though they’re no threat to tomorrow. Popular discourse is lacking in sound or alternative messages. Two recent books by ‘believers’ in anthropogenic climate change offer clues as to why public attitudes are generally so apathetic.

Partial views

One is Utopia for Realists and how we can get there by Rutger Bregman. The other is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Both present positive propositions on other topics with verve, and make thoroughly worthwhile reading. But each communicates a woefully inadequate stance towards climate change.

Bregman’s focus is the eradication of poverty and inequality. He makes a compelling case for the introduction of a universal basic income and other major changes, such as a fifteen-hour working week, and taxation on capital instead of labour. He contends, too, that measuring social welfare and a higher quality of life requires better metrics than GDP.

So far so good. But, the most fundamental needs for welfare and a decent quality of life are secure shelter, food, water, and access to health care; climate change imperils them all. If we don’t succeed in halting the rise in global temperatures very soon, we can expect a dramatic escalation in death, injury and deprivation of enjoyable life, as homes are destroyed, harvests fail, diseases spread, people fight for resources, and uncertainty and anxiety about the future become endemic.

So what does Bregman have to say about climate change? He suggests that working less is the solution—to “stress, climate change, accidents, unemployment, emancipation of women, aging population and inequality”. In cataloguing climate change together with these other problems he implies that it is qualitatively and quantitatively on a par with them. But climate change is in a league of its own.

Climate change is the wickedest of wicked problems, its causes intricately embedded in government policies, business practices and individual behaviours. Moreover, the ecological effects of CO2 are cumulative; they will not cease or ease from one day or year to the next in response to a particular change of policy, as other problems might. Bregman’s suggestion that climate change can be dealt with by a single social change, such as a shorter working week, misrepresents the gravity of the situation to an irresponsible degree. His suggestion that utopia is possible is similarly a delusion when rich biodiversity and the dependability of nature are rapidly dwindling.

Pinker lets us down in different ways. The concern of his book is the restatement for contemporary times of the Enlightenment principles of reason, science, humanism and progress. Reinvigorating them, he emphasises, must be done collectively through systems and institutions: democratic government, international organisations, laws, norms and markets. He does confront the potential of climate change to wreak damage of catastrophic dimensions, but is hopeful that this point will not be reached. His hope is based on the observations that life has improved vastly in numerous respects in recent decades, thanks to Enlightenment thinking; that wealth is rapidly increasing around the world, and as countries become richer they become more inclined to protect the environment. He supposes that the forces pushing such progress along will remain in place. Pinker is convinced that rationality and technology can pull us back from the brink. But he does acknowledge that there is no guarantee that the necessary transformations to technology and politics will be in place in time.

So why is Pinker’s stance on climate change inadequate? One reason is that his heavy emphasis on technology leads him to address only the supply side of the energy issue, asserting that, “the enlightened response to climate change is to figure out how to get the most energy with the least emission of greenhouse gases”. This we must certainly do. But the demand side must be tackled too. Another failing lies in his exclusive focus on grand principles and structures. Such little regard as he pays the individual is sneering, labelling recycling, reducing food miles and unplugging chargers as pointless displays, sacrifice, distraction. Yet the IPCC have long advised that behaviour change must complement technological innovation if we are to keep global temperatures to liveable limits.

Personal responsibility

Calculation of personal carbon footprints indeed reveals how all of us in the developed world are individually contributing to global warming. According to the World Bank, US residents in 2014 were each responsible on average for emissions of 16.5 tonnes, compared with the UK average of 6.5 (another source puts this at 10), and the Swedish average of 4.5. The discrepancies even between rich countries show that there is much scope for reduction of personal emissions. Plenty of information on how to reduce the energy consumption involved in meeting everyday needs is available in books like Chris Goodall’s How to Live a Low Carbon Life and Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad are Bananas? For the sake of ecological health and social justice we need to aim for reduction of carbon emissions in the developed world and an equitable allowance across the world, a process that has been termed ‘contraction and convergence’.

Blinkered perceptions

Pinker repeatedly appeals to the need for reason, yet he is not immune from the human weakness for cognitive bias which, he points out, undermines rationality. It leads to selection and omission of evidence to suit one’s case, as he does again in his attempt to explain why Americans are exceptions to the general pattern that, the richer a country grows, the happier its people become. In 2015 the US had the third highest average income yet was thirteenth in the ranking of countries’ happiness. This, he argues, is because more education increases anxiety and a sense of responsibility which detract from happiness.

But it simply does not ring true that Americans’ happiness is compromised significantly more than that of the population of any other rich nation by awareness of problems. Consumer culture is rampant in the US, and a far more likely explanation for the less-than-expected US happiness score is the ultimately unsatisfying nature of consumerism. People whose values are centred on wealth and possessions are likely to suffer from poorer wellbeing and self-esteem, and higher anxiety, depression and insecurity, as American social scientist Tim Kasser has explained in his book The High Price of Materialism. The New Economics Foundation in the UK has constructed the Happy Planet Index which creates an aggregate score for wellbeing, life expectancy and environmental footprint for about one hundred and forty countries. In sharp contrast to the experience of the US, Costa Rica, whose average per capita carbon emissions in 2014 were a mere 1.6 tonnes, came top of the HPI league for happiness in 2009, 2012 and 2016.

Bregman and Pinker are so narrowly focused on their own preoccupations that their views of the necessary responses to climate change are badly blinkered. Bregman’s advocacy of approaches to poverty and inequality is well grounded, but, in the face of climate change, his assertion that leisure will be the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century, shows that his claim to be a realist is hollow in the context of the bigger picture. Pinker’s fervent confidence in the continuation of the arc of human betterment leaves his mind closed to the possibility of the critical insight that it is carrying us beyond the point of viability.

These failings are serious. They contribute to the cultural resistance, prevalent in popular discourse, to the need for a fundamental, urgent, unprecedented rethink of the way we conduct life. Public intellectuals and social influencers who write and speak of climate change have a vital role to play in providing sound information, and inspiring their readers, listeners and viewers to do what needs to be done to secure a liveable future. Prominent figures whose enthusiastic endorsements of books amplify the messages contained in them also bear some responsibility.

Fresh, holistic frameworks

We need public discourse which spreads an inventive vision of how things can be better. Tinkering with the existing order is no longer enough. Focused mechanisms that are valuable in themselves, such as a universal basic income, must be integrated into an all-encompassing restructuring of economic relationships. From this systemic perspective, in his book Prosperity without Growth, Tim Jackson offers a fresh economic blueprint which radically re-construes old concepts. He formulates enterprise as service, work as participation, investment as commitment, and money as a social good. Kate Raworth provides another visionary framework. Her concept of the ‘doughnut economy’ delineates a safe and just operating space, within which basic human needs can be met and critical natural thresholds avoided. In September this year the IPPR’s Commission on Economic Justice, made up of business and third sector leaders and academics published its report. The commissioners unanimously agreed that that environmental sustainability should lie at the heart of a new UK economy which should operate within sustainable environmental limits, enforced by law. Meanwhile, CUSP continues to explore the social, political and philosophical nature of sustainable prosperity, as well as the economic. All this innovative thinking needs to permeate mainstream discourse fast.

Inspiring personal narratives

We need to create a fresh individual perspective too, showing that we can live in different, better ways. My study of individuals living in Britain who actively choose to live lives of modest material consumption, elaborated in my book Happier People Healthier Planet: How putting wellbeing first would help sustain life on Earth, tells a different story from that of the materialistically aspirational norm of social communication. The participants also illustrate how people who are keenly aware of the state of the natural world and of human inequality, and who focus their lives on creativity, connection with and protection of nature, making a positive difference in the world, and other intrinsically rewarding concerns, are actually likely to enjoy higher than average life-satisfaction.

Critical mass

Increasing numbers of ‘modest consumers’, ‘voluntary simplifiers’ and ‘minimalists’, who value time and self-determination over money, are experiencing the enjoyment and fulfilment which flows from lifestyles organised around the non-material riches that life has to offer. For ecological destruction to slow significantly many more need people to cross the ‘threshold of understanding’ that ever increasing possessions, convenience and luxury do not actually deliver deep or lasting happiness, but that ‘non-material assets’ do. We need a critical mass of people with such values. The willing withdrawal of much custom from consumer society, and active support of alternative ways of conducting life that benefit the human and the natural world, would help build the political pressure to instigate the reconstruction of our larger systems from the top down.

Creating a new trajectory

Personal and social wellbeing thrive in a climate of respectful, supportive relationships; belonging and community; responsibility and a sense of agency; active engagement and meaning; personal creativity and shared cultural experiences; green space and wild places; and material sufficiency, for everyone. It is in our power to redirect the trajectory of human development, to build a culture of contented sufficiency, to protect the world from catastrophic ecosystem destruction.

Alongside the extraction of maximum energy with minimum emissions, our challenge is to work out how, individually and collectively, we can get the most out of life using the minimum of material resources. Unlike economic growth, the potential for personal and social growth has no bounds.

The Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity is funded by the ESRC. The overall aim of CUSP is to explore the economic, ecological, social and governance dimensions of sustainable prosperity and to make concrete recommendations to government, business and civil society in pursuit of it.

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