In the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos, the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon warned that “our model of economic growth has become not merely obsolete, but a global suicide pact.” We have drilled our way to growth, burned our way to prosperity, and staunchly adhered to our faith in consumption without considering the consequences. In 2013, all resources are depleting before our eyes; the clock is ticking even faster; and we must wake up in time to build a new sustainable economic model for survival. Last week, I argued (echoing many others) that we are on the cusp of a new era in which only a radical change of our current worldview can save us from plunging down to mass extinction.
A Flawed Core
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson argued (in his 1972 book Steps to the Ecology of Mind) that the basis of the environmental crisis of the modern age lay in the realm of ideas. Humankind suffered from an “epistemological fallacy”: we have constructed an erroneous dualism – that mind and nature operated independently of each other. The way we perceive the world can change that world, and the world can in turn change us. He wrote: “when you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise ‘what interests me is me or my organization or my species,’ you disconnect from other loops of the interconnected web of life. An example would be the disposal of industrial waste into lakes. We do this because we forget that the “ecomental” system which is the lake is a part of our wider ecomental system – and that if the lake is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience. Our inability to see this truth, Bateson maintained, was becoming egregiously apparent. “Purposiveness” has become the prerogative of human consciousness; and we believe that it is our right to get what we want, when we want it. This condition, spread mass scale, produces some disturbing effects: vanishing forests, smog, global warming. “There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds,” Bateson wrote, “and it is characteristic of the system that basic error propagates itself.”
How do we rectify this flaw in our consciousness? Bateson believed we need to correct our errors of thought by achieving clarity in ourselves and encouraging it in others — reinforcing “whatever is sane in them.” In other words, to be ecological, we needed to feel ecological. His emphasis on the interdependence of the mind and nature influenced the likes of George Sessions and Arne Naess, who proposed the “principles of Deep Ecology” (in 1984), hoping to shape the attitudes and behaviour of individuals coming from different philosophical and religious positions.
Deep ecology moves beyond the duality and refutes the idea that humans are “superior” species, which the rest of the ecosystem should support in an obsequious manner, or that nature is for humanity to master and control. Rather than accepting the Social Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest, deep ecology sees life from the perspective of synergy and interconnectedness. It questions whether the global culture, with its model of continued economic and material growth, is ethically or environmentally sustainable. Is it ethical that we strive to fulfill our needs and desires at the expense of unprecedented species depletion, pollution, and destruction of natural habitat—as well as engendering a climate change that is bringing the Earth into a dangerous state of imbalance? And if we are part of an interdependent whole, how long can we all endure this present ecocide?
The most telling feature of the principles of Deep Ecology is the promotion of an unusually strong sense of interconnectedness and a deep awareness of the multiple interacting factors that compose a healthy environment. According to Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, this is soliphilia, “the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it.” This is the psychological foundation for sustainability. For those of us that see the necessity of radical change, we must acknowledge the obvious need to work on ourselves as well as the social system. If we have not begun to transform our own delusions (discussed last week), our efforts to address their institutional manifestations are likely to be useless. It is simply due to this absence of a critical mass of awakened individuals (or soliphiliacs) that we are currently unable to see a collective transformation which in turn can sufficiently challenge the existing sociopolitical order. Only then, would we truly make an effort to implement pragmatic ideas such as “sustainable production and consumption”, “carbon tax”, “restructuring renewables”, and “cutting down fossil fuel subsidies” in any meaningful way.
Sustainable Production and Consumption
The Oslo Symposium in 1994 proposed a working definition of Sustainable production and consumption as “the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations.” Commentators on this topic highlight that the main thrust of sustainable production is on the supply side of the equation, focusing on enhancing environmental performance in key economic sectors. Sustainable consumption approaches the demand side, examining how the goods and services required to meet basic needs and improve quality of life – such as food and health, shelter, clothing, leisure and mobility – can be provided in ways that reduce the burden on the Earth’s carrying capacity.
However Noble the intentions of the sustainable production and consumption framework maybe, we must question the fundamentals of the current consumer models, before attempting to ‘bend’ these ideas to fit the existing model of continuous material growth. Does consumption define us? Do we live to shop or do we shop to live, or in order to fulfill our individual purpose? Answering these fundamental questions is crucial. Progressive activists and environmentalists have gone down the path of incremental reform and ‘change within the system’ for decades to no avail. As the American environmental statesman James Gustave Speth points out, the roots of our environmental and social problems are deeply systemic and thus require transformational change—the shift to a new, sustaining economy ushered in by a new politics.
A New Measure of Growth
We could start by developing an alternative to the current measurement of growth – GDP. GDP offers no comparable monetary estimation for the costs of environmental degradation or human health impacts that result from economic growth. For instance, GDP does not account for pollution; neither does it factor in leisure nor unpaid child care. Furthermore, it does not provide a sense of inequitable distribution of a country’s wealth; and does not capture the quality of life or happiness in any given society. Several countries and organizations have derived various alternative measurements of growth and development, such as, Gross National Happiness, Happy Planet Index, and Genuine Progress Indicator that attempt to capture natural and social capital of communities.
Our collective ‘fetish’ with GDP has resulted in dangerous negligence of the value of the priceless: clean water, childhood asthma, wetlands, etc – all that are referred to as “externalities” in economic models. This lack of an all-encompassing cost structure leads citizens to associate economic activity with wellbeing, and subsequently demand that policymakers make heedless decisions based on economic calculations. The next time we protest a carbon tax policy or cutting down fuel subsidies, both of which are likely to increase fuel prices, we ought to reflect on whether we are part of the problem or the solution.
A Bottom up Transformation
The establishment of state banks, co-operatives of various types, and development corporations at the local grassroot level is key to transforming the future from the bottom up. For example, at the heart of Europe’s renewable energy bonanza are community-owned energy projects; in Denmark, about 80% of installed wind capacity is individually or co-operatively owned; in Germany it is about 51%. In the United States, groups like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) are focusing on locally rooted, locally committed, environmentally sustainable enterprises, and community revitalization through that means.
Then, there are Transition Towns, a brand of environmental and social movements, based on the principles of Bill Mollison’s seminal work, Permaculture, a Designers Manual (1988), consisting of communities striving to live in a sustainable manner (i.e. reducing fossil fuel usage, reducing dependence on long supply chains, community gardening, etc.). These examples make compelling cases for local level transformation, which in turn could lead to larger structural changes. What we need right now is a new inclusive social and political movement. The best hope for such a dynamic is a fusion of those that understand the interconnected of life systems, social justice, and political democracy into one progressive force. George Bernard Shaw famously said that all progress depends on not being reasonable. It’s time for a large amount of civic unreasonableness.
*Vagisha Gunasekara is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) Sri Lanka. Vagisha received her PhD in political science from Purdue University, USA. Her research straddles issues at the intersection of post-war reconstruction, gender, feminism and international relations. CEPA is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. We encourage you to visit our website www.cepa.lk to follow further conversations on related topics.