From political campaigns to corporate planning, from economic policies to individual dreams of a better life – it will all only work out, ultimately, if set upon a foundation of understanding.
Understanding just what people want to hear and promising exactly that can, for a little while, lead some to power and profit. Eventually, however, whatever is not rooted in a deeper understanding – of what we want and what we can have, given the workings of this world we inhabit – must crumble and fall. On the other hand, better understanding (and considerate action based on it) will have a good chance at growing and rising…
So, the calls here, that we must change our ways, are not Cassandra cries arguing that we have sinned and must now either repent or harvest the storms we have sown, all based on ideology and quasi-religious views. Rather, they arise from a look at the energy and materials use of current lifestyles. An attempt at understanding reality, as it is and not as we’d like it to be.
Problematic Present Understandings
All too often, though, people believe that it is all set on such a foundation of realistic understanding anyways.
After all, innovation and growth, driven by industrialization and consumerism (and, not to forget, science), have made lives considerably better, have led many a people out of poverty, and continue to exert a great allure.
Unfortunately, as true as that is on some levels, it can also be seen that a consumer-based economy that is fundamentally based on debt (both individual-financial and ecological) does not have a bright future, let alone is able to deliver its promise to everyone. We who have these, more comfortable and affluent, lives already, we use more than the resources which would be ours if they were to be shared fairly and/or still available in future – and even if we all lived like the present-day average Chinese, our ecological footprint would exceed the resources, productivity, and coping capacities of the one planet we have.
So, we can see that this foundation is one of yesteryear at best, created in and for a time that was very different: a time of few people and lots of space, of expansion and growth, and of an expansionist view that didn’t mind destruction in some parts as long as there was some benefit to be gained from it (at least, for those who mattered according to ideas of civilization and relations of power).
Even just looking at matters in more ‘traditional’ terms of competitive advantages, much contemporary campaigning and policy-making is run along the lines of a cargo cult (to use Eric Garland‘s apt image which does not, by far, only apply to the USA): going through the motions in the hope that it will magically bring back the former prosperity – and doing so based on a faulty understanding of what made for it in the first place.
Even Stephen D. King, chief economist at HSBC, author of “When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence,” concludes:
In his “Future of an Illusion,” Sigmund Freud argued that the faithful clung to God’s existence in the absence of evidence because the alternative — an empty void — was so much worse. Modern beliefs about economic prospects are not so different.
And there, resources and energy, let alone ecological footprint, don’t even figure, at least in that NYT op-ed of his; and it’s only the Western affluence he sees as disappearing…
Now, things are different. And what isn’t yet different, should be: Even as people everywhere seem to be seen, in politics and economics, as nothing much more than consumers and voters, sources of labor and profit, and factors of productivity and cost, we are increasingly trying to focus on our shared humanity. Even if we don’t believe in such high-flying humanism, the effects of policies that breed poverty and create disenfranchised people don’t stay somewhere else anymore; there is little “somewhere far away” left.
Moreover, we are increasingly realizing – and having to realize – that there are boundaries that make infinite growth on a finite planet an impossibility, so that growth as we have seen it so far will not work out in future. All hopes of a de-materialization and de-carbonization of the economy aside, there still has to be material and energy use. So, it has to be fitting and functional in terms of the ecology of this our world.
This makes for the equally-wrong view on the other side, though: It’s not that we need to go post-growth, forfeit all innovation and progress, stop all change caused by our ways of living. We are not a virus diseasing the Earth.
We do need to use fewer resources and shift from destroying ecosystems to extract wealth from them to co-creating value by working with and in the way of ecosystems, whether these are more natural or more human-made. It is less easy, but it, thus, requires more intelligence and entrepreneurialism, an orientation not on stopping but on true progress, better futures – and it would be better for us in more than just “environmental” ways.
After all, all the promises of “the market” aside, we are already seeing that still more electronic gadgets, supermarkets full and ever fuller of (cheap, predominantly “junk”) food and stuff, and economies still counted as growing when it’s mainly financial instruments bringing in profits, not real value, don’t bring all that much in terms of shared advancement, happiness, a world that remains livable. So, there will need to be a change – or there will be a change.
The Constant Challenge
There is still always the same problem, though:
Even a purported, probable, threat to civilization and all of humanity is not motivation enough when everybody “knows” that you need money to live, that more money will mean more things and opportunities, and that it is more growth that brings more money and goods – hence, that is better. With that notion, and the idle hope that it will all turn out better than feared, in the background, even those who don’t quite seem to think with such rosy glasses on don’t want to live too differently, forfeit comforts and conveniences of modern life.
In fact, although this image of utter sacrifice that the calls for change keep giving rise to is quite unfounded, it keeps appearing time and again.
Thus, as the alternatives we need are not just easily “greened” variants of contemporary consumerist lifestyles, we uphold the hope of an easy solution, if only we go on as we have been – meaning, actually, that we just don’t want to have to change, afraid of what it might mean.
Really, it would be worth the try.
We know increasingly well what makes us happy – but rather than follow that advice, we find the work and good long look at ourselves it would require just too hard, and thus we stick with the convenient consumerist dreams which are being peddled so much and so loudly, instead. But, we have been learning.
Similarly, we need new guidance, honesty and reality – but afraid of the change and the work that better ways entail, we reward those who tell us simply that everything will be alright if only we go on as we have for the last decades, in spite of the unreality of it all. But, more and more people seem to feel that this doesn’t let us rise to our potential, keeps us small and stupid, and rise to the challenge of overcoming that.
So, perhaps we can see the problem as well as the potential: the ever-increasing need for the (hard, humbling, dangerous) truth, as well as the need and possibility of sharing reality-based and inspirational, aspirational dreams.
We need to get around to telling stories of such ways to and of better, to guide us into better futures connecting the best of what we have learnt to do with the best of what it means to live easily and (co-)creatively on and as part of Earth. And, of course, it is not just about telling stories and building awareness, it is all about putting them into practice, living our dreams of better lives and creating realities of them.