I’ve been studying and learning and thinking for many years, trying to figure out how we can solve this environmental dilemma that we humans find ourselves in. And I’m not completely sure about the following, but—more and more I’m realizing that the workable path forward is likely to be a variation of what we’re doing now, and not some drastic departure or major paradigm shift. When you look at the big picture, we humans are not as far off the track as some fear.
That statement might cause some hand-wringing in some quarters, and it does seem a bit counter-intuitive when you see the immense damage that is being done to the planet. BUT, here’s my thinking—to fix it, we don’t need revolutionary changes, we need evolutionary ones. To explain, here are four things we don’t need—
We don’t need a new type of economy.
(Though we need to fix this one.)
I’ve written about this before, and my opinion remains—the path forward retains the market system. Some other economic structures work on small scales, such as self-sufficiency, back-to-the-land communities, communes, and gift economies, but their proponents utterly fail to show how their ideas could scale up to provide for all the varied needs of seven billion people or more. We will continue to need industry, science, high-tech medicine, politicians, universities, lawyers, and yes, even the financial system; we can’t all live on homesteads, milking goats and sharing hand tools (though some of us certainly can). Our current free-market systems are strongly based in economic realities, despite their failings. Other whole classes of economies—those run by tradition, or by command—either sacrifice individual freedom, or fail to create material prosperity, or both.
Now, we do need to do a better job of harnessing the power of the market system, so that it more equitably serves the good of the whole. All nations should probably use some form of Gross National Happiness to measure progress, like Bhutan does, rather than relying solely on GDP. We need to fix the tendency for market economies to trend toward the unequal distribution of goods, and we need to dramatically shrink the gaps between the world’s poorest and the world’s wealthiest. It would probably also be good for all corporations to function something like B-Corporations do, (see my last post), where concerns other than profit help drive decision-making. But, taken as a whole, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by striving to ditch the market system altogether. If we did we’d only end up recreating huge portions of it, and constantly struggling to fill the gaps that abandoning it would leave.
Eventually we will have to transition to a steady-state economy, but I’m slightly less concerned about that than I used to be. While we must not grow haphazardly, there’s plenty of room left in the system for “good growth”, particularly in the case of bringing the impoverished parts of the world up to better living standards. As more of our energy comes from renewable sources, as we get ever-more efficient in its use, as recycling systems become “cradle-to-cradle”, and as economic activity gets progressively more “decoupled” from the environment, in many cases we’ll be able to have our cake and eat it, too. There are certainly dangers ahead—we must control our physical footprint, it will be imperative that we get the world’s population growth under control, and we must protect, preserve, and restore our soils, wildlife, and natural areas, as well as the world’s oceans. But with the right boundaries, the market-system, coupled with good governance, will be the best way to achieve these goals. And, speaking of “good governance”—
We don’t need some yet-to-be-devised political system.
(Though our current democratic systems could be improved and made more universal.)
Humans 1) need some form of governance, and 2) have come up with many, many versions of how to govern ourselves. And, rather than explore that previous sentence ad nauseam, let me just cut right to the chase—the government to have is a liberal, Western-style social-democracy. (And I was of this opinion before the current focus on it, in the U.S., by the Bernie Sanders campaign.) (Video of Sanders explaining democratic socialism here.) In terms of concern for the environment, relative equality, liberal values and freedom, education levels, and overall prosperity and happiness, I don’t think any other type of government can compare.
Though even these governments can surely be improved, the far bigger challenge for humans in this case is to bring better governance to all the people in the world who don’t currently have it, those who live under dictators, oligarchs, oppressive military regimes, plutocracies, kleptocrats, and the like. Or, equally bad– those who live in anarchist states such as Somalia, with virtually no government at all; places where might makes right. Needless to say, societies where poverty, oppression, and restricted free-thinking are the rule need to be changed for more reasons than to just help solve environmental problems.
We don’t need new inventions and technology.
(Though many that will help are possibly on the way.)
Many people still seem to think that we’re all doomed unless we humans can invent something radically new, something like fusion, or indoor vertical farms, or outposts in space. I strongly disagree. We can transition to where we need to go with the things that we already have. Wind turbines, solar panels, permaculture, materials that can be fully recycled, electric vehicles, organic farming, net-zero buildings… the list goes on.
Now, it is true that new technologies are indeed on the way, and if they arrive then it will make our path forward easier. There are likely many advancements just around the corner, from better batteries, long-distance DC power transmission, and perhaps even fusion. But we mustn’t wait—to delay change while waiting for new inventions is just another form of kicking the can down the road, and we don’t have the luxury of time. We can build the world that we need, right now, with today’s technologies.
And, most importantly, we don’t need to wait for “someone to fix it”—WE CAN FIX IT.
It is easy to see what’s happening in the world and to feel a bit helpless, and to wonder when “they” will get it fixed. But there is no “they”, only us. (Post: “It’s all Individual Action“). You, and me, and other individuals. This is important, so let me say it again– there is no “they”, only us. We control companies with how we spend our money, we control governments with how we vote, and we drive change when we act. It is difficult when we start and our numbers are few, but our example of change leads others to act, and begins to change cultural values and norms, and there eventually becomes a critical mass where change starts moving much more quickly. In fact, I think we’re currently seeing this acceleration. The world’s carbon intensity is dropping, populations are become more engaged in the climate debate, and the world could see potentially dramatic agreements from next month’s climate talks in Paris. Solar farms and wind towers are springing up everywhere, schools are making gardens and composting centers, citizens are getting involved in all manner of social and environmental causes. There is much, much to do, but I am more optimistic than I was just a few years ago.
Speaking of optimism, after starting this post I happened to watched the film “Tomorrowland,” and it had an interesting subtext, but one that is probably true— there’s probably not much that we humans can’t accomplish; we just need to set our minds to it, and we have to realize that we must be willing to make changes in our lives.
In the end, nature is resilient, humans are adaptable, and many of the answers are right in front of us. In a thousand years it isn’t likely that we’ll be using the systems that we have today, but for now, they will serve us as we transition to living in ways that are more equitable, and that don’t destroy the planet. But of these basic systems, none of them are quite perfected—and that’s where we need to direct our efforts.