Progress is sustainability

30 05 2011

“They killed me when they took my land” Sinan Akçal

“…progress is about being able to sustain yourself…” Maura Harrington

The problem is an extraordinarily complex one. Human actions have already breached or still threaten the nine planetary boundaries, with climate change the biggest actor of ecological collapse. Climate change is not the single issue but a giant one in a dynamic set of interrelated issues, although it is one of the boundaries that is easiest to solve. Easiest to solve, but still, not easy. That it is easier to solve than the others shows what a mess we are in.

Emissions in 2010 were higher than ever despite the recession, prompting alarm that 2C stabilisation of temperature would be impossible, with a much greater likelihood of a 4C increase by 2100. Governments and media will continue to talk about averting future disaster while failing to notice that anthropogenic disasters have been hitting for some time and are increasing in severity. More food riots and conflict are predicted, but media and government responses focus on increasing the flow of money and curtailing tyrants rather than preventing damage of natural resources.

Why is there an increase in emissions? Because the response to global distress by almost every country that is not entirely torn by conflict or slowed by entropy is to effect a rapid ‘great leap forward. For one of many examples, Ecuador is champing at the bit to destroy vast areas of rainforest to extract only a small amount of oil. These examples mean yet more deforestation, extraction, power stations, dams, factories and city infrastructure, always in the name of looking after the interests of a nation’s people. But, the benefits for the majority of people are dubious. These ‘great leaps forward’ mean overlooking or promoting corrupt, exploitative, ecocidal and ‘culture-cidal’ practices in the interests of what is considered the greater good of ‘more jobs’ and GDP. Many of these countries are forgetting to ensure the stability of local agriculture (and/or productive wilderness) because of the belief that jobs means money to buy food and other land-based produce from elsewhere. However, as we breach planetary boundaries there is less ‘elsewhere’ that food can be produced. Add to this, growing inequality which contributes to the statistic that 50% of all food is wasted (if all aspects of the production cycle are accounted for, including losses because of food’s transportation from ‘elsewhere’). The myth that rapid industrial progress will  benefit all a nation’s people remains a very powerful one, despite the fact that corporate executive pay increased by 32% in 2010 while workers’ pay endured the most prolonged squeeze since the 1920’s.

Why is this myth so powerful? Individuals conform to social norms based on what they understand will be optimal for them. Never before has it been so hard for people to decide for themselves, based on concrete evidence, what is optimal for them. (For more about social norms see the work of Dr Cristina Bicchieri.) Worldwide, normative values have switched massively away from those where cultural stability is achieved by having the means to thrive with the land, towards values whereby individual or family security is achieved by having a job away from (or against) the land. Those who uphold the former values can often be described as backward, foolish and standing in the way of progress. Those who drive the latter values can often project themselves as progressive, smart and caring for people. Of course, it’s much more complex than this polarity suggests.

These two news stories about Ireland and Turkey show us people who for generations have provided food from their land but are now being ousted by government-commissioned industrial schemes. The long battle of the people of Erris against Shell has been narrated as a film, out now, called The Pipe. Maura Harrington, one of the activists, says: “This is about a sense of place and its people. We may not qualify as indigenous people, but we have our land and culture, to which we belong. All those people who emigrated from Erris through history, Erris never left them. They say we are opposed to progress, and laugh at us. But to me, progress is the ability to sustain yourself, and those who come after you. It’s nature and nurture: what we here call muinhin, which means of the place, and cointeann, which means to get a little awkward when that place and its people are about to be torn apart.”

I find these words very potent, an inspiration for those of us in the arts and heritage sectors. Museums have traditionally been about gathering and protecting the artefacts and knowledge of dislocated cultures and environments, as well as collapsed civilisations. We were trained with a normative mindset which said that this dislocation and ‘culture-cide’ had happened in the past. We accepted that the later 20th Century had settled into a state of post-modern multiculturalism, and we worked positively to promote tolerance of dislocated peoples. That was not wrong but we took our eyes off the ball: in the ‘great leap forward’ of the developed world we failed to notice the ongoing and escalating destruction of habitats.

One key problem is that we are distracted by arguments about the right approach. Aside from, or beneath, the technical arguments about nuclear, geoengineering, carbon tax and so on, I see two dimensions to the disagreement: Between people-centred thinking and systems-thinking; between transitional economics and growth-based economics. See this matrix for a visual version of the two dimensions. The disagreements between those who are closest in their views can be the most intense. The ‘growthers’ concerned about climate change accuse organisations such as NEF of being too weak, that solutions for social and environmental injustice depend on boosting economies to get people out of poverty. The ‘transitioners’ assert that economic growth must be decoupled from resource use growth, and that growth does not have to be measured in money. Growthers tend to see climate change as the big issue, which needs to be tackled rapidly with big engineering and social change projects. Transitioners tend to see ecological collapse and resource scarcity as the problem-complex, to be resisted gently but urgently by locally-scaled alternative tactics. It was in reading this post by Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition movement) that I wondered if it is possible to reduce the polarities between them. As he says, everybody is choosing to act primarily for their families and communities. We all have common cause. On the whole, those of us who see our communities as including wildlife and who see the life-giving land as our home are more likely to take a longer view, looking further back to sustained traditions in places but also further ahead to ensure that they are sustained. We need to overcome the argument about growth by focusing on prosperity through advanced technologies (and revived practices) that restore the land’s capacity and we need to come together to be resilient in the face of runaway climate change.

Letter from America

15 10 2009

I’m sitting in a hotel bar in Washington DC, a few minutes from Capitol Hill, writing this post for Blog Action Day. The theme for this Action Day is calling on Obama to tackle climate change at Copenhagen and beyond. I was going to blog about the reason I’m over here in Washington, working for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, whose vision is ‘understanding the natural world and our place in it’.  The museum is planning a fantastic new space and programme that aims to change people to take responsibility for our planet. But before writing about this I have to get something off my chest: I am really quite shocked by the unsustainable lifestyle here. I knew the facts about America’s consumption and emissions and I’ve visited twice before. I did think though, that there must have been some change in response to the climate crisis. Nope. Everyone looks blank when you mention environmental reasons for wanting less plastic, air con or paper, as if they haven’t heard the news. They pat their mouths with another paper napkin from their personal pile of napkins, rather than licking their lips, and ask if they can get you anything else, as you seem a bit dissatisfied. Because, really they are exceptionally warm and friendly people here in Washington and I’m not being sarcastic about that. This isn’t personal at all. It’s about the norms that people accept.

The food here can be relatively tasteless or crude tasting, and is always in vast portions, so that loads is wasted or causing obesity, and if it’s not hot it’s tooth-achingly chilled. It’s a society that finds it easy to complain about poor service but there are no complaints about this waste.  If the Americans had heard the news they would surely feel sick and at least show signs of wanting to change. But I see hardly any messaging in advertising, news, retail and hospitality services to be more sustainable.

They can’t have heard the news, not understood its meaning or just won’t believe it. Maybe they really haven’t seen the news. It is true I’ve seen no single mention of environment in two thick Washington Posts, delivered unwanted to my hotel door, which doesn’t appear to have any environment coverage at all judging by its website navigation, even as Obama is today involved in climate summits with India & China. Climate protests in Washington, such as Power Shift in February, seem more fully covered by The Guardian than Washington papers.

The news on one level is pretty simple. It’s as simple as a tiger leaping into your face. If you saw a tiger coming at you, you would panic, run and/or die. Unfortunately we don’t see it. We kind of see it, but we interpret it as something all cuddly, frozen in time or not there at all like the tiger leaping out of a display in the Museum of Natural History. We are so used to seeing the natural world as if in a diorama, threatening but safely distant. Actually, the news is worse than one tiger coming at us. It’s us going at all the tigers, and going at many 1000s more species of animals and plants, including our fellow humans. It’s us having become a ‘force of nature’ and accellerated geologic time, as Alan Weisman describes in A World Without Us.

Bill McKibben helps make it clear with his 350 campaign. The planet has never before seen more than 300 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. We are currently at 390 parts and rising. We need to get it down to below 350 to sustain some semblance of liveability on the planet. Above 350, as McKibben says ‘you can’t have a planet’.

So, Americans, you understand the concept of choice. What do you choose? Asking for a bigger portion of steak now or a liveable planet for your own future years and your children’s? We’re not talking about your descendants, we’re talking about you. Ask everyone who has any power, whether it’s the power to stop serving individual plastic bottles of water, or the power to change the law to reduce emissions, to make the change because you demand better service.


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