Saving the Planet

Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd,  2015.

A recent and amazing article by John H Richardson, titled “When the end of human civilisation is your day-job”, describes how many climate imagesscientists suffer from psychological trauma because their studies lead to the inescapable conclusion that human beings are destroying the planet, and climate change will create conditions making it impossible for the human civilisation to survive. There are two strategies currently being pursued with regard to climate change. One is the ostrich strategy of denial, which claims that there is no such thing, or if there is, it is part of natural geological processes rather than being created by human beings. The second is the band-aid strategy which seeks to make small efforts at relief of major visible problems being caused by climate change. Neither strategy has any hope of success at saving the human civilisation in its current form.

The roots of the problem run deep, and the changes we need to make are very radical. One of the most fundamental teachings of all traditional societies is the subordination of personal interests to the social or collective good. During the “Great Transformation” that led to the creation of modern society, this teaching was turned on its head. Individuals were encouraged to pursue personal interests even at the expense of society. As this philosophy gradually gained strength, many institutions which depended on social commitments were destroyed. Key examples are families and communities, previously built on lifetime commitments, which have been replaced by temporary social relationships based on expediency in advanced societies. The idea that excessive and wasteful consumption was immoral, especially when others were in need has been replaced by the idea of sacredness of property. That is those who have are perfectly justified in flaunting their luxurious lifestyles, while the rest of us struggle to imitate them. The breakdown of barriers to greed led to a mad race to consume more and more without any concern as to the effects on others or on the planet. As a result, income inequalities have become greater than ever seen in human history, and the lifestyles of the super-rich are unimaginably wasteful of planetary resources.

Two additional developments have magnified the effects of this pursuit of individual pleasure to planet-destroying proportions. One is the corporation, which has been given the rights of individuals, but not the responsibilities. Milton Friedman’s assertion that “Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible” became widely accepted as the norm for corporate behaviour. The second problem is the loss of the idea of the symbiotic relationship between human beings and the planet they live on. In earlier times, this idea was encapsulated in the term ‘Mother Earth’, and it has been revived in modern times as ‘Gaia’, the living planet.

Among the hundred largest institutions today, 51 are now large corporations, while 49 are nations. All nations are pursuing growth, while all corporations are driven by the pursuit of growth and profits. Unfortunately, the planet we live on is finite, and cannot accommodate a constantly increasing demand on its resources. In addition to stripping the planet of resources which took millions of years to produce, our current demands (which keep increasing) on its renewable resources exceed the capacity of the planet by about 50 per cent. Current levels of consumption and population are not sustainable, and pursuing further growth is tantamount to suicide by destruction of the planet. Yet, increasing levels of consumption are required by corporations for growth and profits. In fact, the popularisation of hedonism and individualism can be attributed to the needs of the corporation to sell more and more products. Also, the rape of the planet is largely due to corporations, which have responsibility to the shareholders to produce profits, but no responsibility to preserve the planet. Because corporate profits are hurt by environmentalist movements, a documentary called“Merchants of Doubt” shows organised efforts by corporations to create doubt about climate change. This completely reverses the ancient Greek proverb that societies grow great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. It is hard to imagine the greed of those who would destroy the planet for a few dollars.

So what is to be done? Many initiatives going under the name of ‘green capitalism’ have emerged, which suggest how we can modify capitalism to make it compatible with survival of the planet. However, in a deep and disturbing book titled Green Capitalism: the god that failed, Richard Smith has explained the failure of current efforts at greening capitalism, and how all such efforts are bound to fail because of fundamental conflicts between the demands for growth and profits, and the ecological planetary balance. Among the radical changes required to save the planet is a radical transformation of the economic system. We must go back to pre-modern models of social responsibility, where individual goals are subordinated to social concerns. A key priority has to be a reduction in standards of living to levels which are feasible with life on the planet. Instead of growth, we need to pursue de-growth. Interestingly, happiness research shows that simple ways of living produce more happiness at lower cost than our currently targeted ever-increasing standards of luxury. Currently, our lives are devoted to huge amounts of over-production and over-consumption of useless or wasteful goods. This producing and consuming leaves no time for pursuing more precious aspects of living, such as achieving excellence in different dimensions such as spiritual, moral or physical. We are too busy to cultivate friendships, and to give time to our loved ones. Agreements cannot be reached on environmental protocols because every group wants to consume more at the expense of others. To save the planet, it will be necessary to join hands in a collective effort, which puts social concerns ahead of private individual ones. Little wonder that climatologists are in despair.

  1. As a scientist heading four generations of a large family I share Richardson’s despair, resolved into hope by a desperate focus on what can be done about it.

    Something I once saw at the Alternative Technology Centre in mid-Wales sort of captures the spirit of this “what can be done”. There is a limit to how high a mechanical pump can lift water, but with high mountains and lots of cascading streams some clever Victorian invented a pump in which blocking fast-flowing falling water momentarily generates enough energy to lift some of it several hundred feet, automatically unblocking it allowing the flow to speed up again so the cycle can repeat.

    By analogy, I am envisaging “radical transformation of the economic system” from bank-financed corporate economy-scale profit pumping to a “credit card” type mechanism which blocks off the flow of fictitious bank finance, allowing people to “pump up” their personal and project achievements by becoming indebted by use of credit only as necessary, being then responsible for writing it off by earning their keep in repaying our communal debtedness to Nature. With constitutional law so rewritten, banks and executive government would still have an advisory role in this, and the system would be limited by factors like higher credit limits having to be earned by credit-worthiness and the sum of credit limits not exceeding the total price of the resources available: split between personal incomes, justified increments and a prize fund to honour achievements in whatever field by debt write-offs. International trade would be on the basis of exchange or gift of surplus renewables rather than finance. The availability of credit for local trade both satisfies need and regenerates options for timesharing as against commitment to specialisation in particular aspects of our working and social lives

    Having raised my own hopes by finding this practical solution, what is tending to dash them again is the seeming inability of others to hope for (and therefore to seek out) logical solutions rather than more elegant statements of the problem.

  2. Nancy Sutton said:

    I think one of the greatest problems is that ‘common people’ cannot understand academic jargon. Dave, could you explain your idea in ordinary English? using minimal number of words? utilizing a metaphorical ‘picture’ of some sort or other? I know it’s important to convert your fellow experts, but that is useless unless a ‘picture’ of the possibilities (feasibilities, affordabilities, desirability, etc.) is created. I’m thinking the marketers’ ally…soundbites, or at least a sound paragraph. A pr guy once said that when you change the ‘picture’ that people see, you change the situation.

    Communication is the problem, I think…. not lack of possible, feasible, affordable, desirable alternatives that appeal to the basic values of both left and right. (And it’s the ‘values’ that sell… not the facts, per G. Lakoff, et al) Let’s get ‘selling’! 🙂

    • Nancy, I am not an academic but I have been familiar with the ‘fog index’ for forty years. That hasn’t made life easier. Communication is indeed the problem, but not in the way you think. It is more like the familiar ‘gestalt’ picture of a vase. Some people can see it as two people facing each other. Others can’t, but if they kept looking, eventually they would.

      I see two ways in which an economy can be run, as different as steam railways and personal transport. Those still living in the steam age couldn’t imagine the future value of the cars made practicable by petrol and diesel engines.

      You asked for a metaphor. I used the metaphor of two different types of “pumping” to compare a bank-based economy with one based on personal credit cards. The banks draw money out of the economy while creating low value wealth, whereas credit cards pump wealth into the economy as we work to pay off our debts.

      So, I’m an old man. Perhaps the city dwelling “common people” of today are unfamiliar with the hand-operated water pumps which used to stand on village greens, and with the historical origin of steam engines in draining mines?

      So it is ‘values’ that sell? To a scientist, necessity speaks louder than desire. With the love of money dominating economies, the need is to motivate change, not satisfaction. Since writing to Asad I’ve addressed this elsewhere:

  3. Mr. Taylor’s mention of a prize produced an idea. If the world’s nations would agree to set up a yearly contest for best economic ideas for solving problems like poverty, inequality, greed, corruption, war etc., a paltry global shared investment of only $3.5 million USD per year could prove very beneficial.

    1st Place $1 million
    2nd Place $750,000
    3rd Place $500,000
    4th Place $250,000
    5th thru 14th Place $100,000 each

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