Coming up on Small Farm Future – some posts on the hows and whys of social transformation towards more sustainable societies, which have been prefigured in recent posts like this one on ‘self-systemic’ agriculture and my previous one on utopias – perhaps particularly in relation to the ensuing discussion about individualism and collectivism. Here, I’ll look at the question of transformation via personal consumption choices in societies of mass consumption, which I touched on a while back. That discussion prompted Peter Kalmas, climate scientist and author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution to get in touch and kindly send me his book.

Maybe first I should set out a brief position statement. As I see it, the world is beset with enormous inequities, creating a lot of human misery, and looming environmental crises, creating yet more human (and non-human) misery. The dominant paradigm for tackling these problems involves lifting people out of poverty through growing the capitalist global economy, and mitigating the environmental problems caused by this economic growth through technical innovation. I don’t think this will work on either count – it won’t lift many people out of poverty and it won’t succeed in mitigating environmental problems. If we continue down this path, it seems to me likely that there will be major breakdowns in human social systems and in the Earth’s biophysical systems. In fact, there already are. These may proliferate in all sorts of surprising and dystopian ways, but I don’t see much point in speculating about how such ‘collapse’ scenarios may unfold. I do see a point in speculating about alternative scenarios that may create better outcomes, and in particular about how such scenarios may emerge from present social processes, because that may give some kind of a handle on how to increase the probability of those better outcomes occurring. So that, generally speaking, is what I want to focus my writing around.

One possible way of achieving these better outcomes is if the wealthy consumers of the world change their consumption behaviour: stop flying, stop driving, stop buying products that use conflict minerals, stop eating resource-intensive meat, stop shopping in value-scouring supermarkets, stop using polluting plastic and so on. Peter’s book (I can’t claim to have read it word-by-word and cover-to-cover…I’m afraid the in-box is too full…but I’ve spent some time looking over it) first sets out the evidence for climate change, the seriousness of its consequences and the pressing need to do something about it. Then it looks at the numerous things us carbon-spewing rich western consumers can do to lessen our impact on the climate system. And it emphasises that many of these things don’t involve loss and self-sacrifice, but can be part of a more fulfilling and interesting way of life.

I don’t have any quarrel with that. The science, as far as I can tell, is compelling – it’s a really good idea if we reduce global carbon emissions, fast. And somehow that’s going to have to involve people in high-emission regions like Western Europe and North America cutting their emissions drastically. Well then…Peter’s book shows us how to get started.

I guess the problem I have is that I don’t think it’ll work – for three reasons, of increasing gravity.

The first is a twist on the familiar criticism of environmentalists – they talk about the dangers of climate change while flying off to environmental conferences in exotic locations etc etc. They’re hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach…what we might call the John Michael Greer critique. The risk that I think Peter’s proposals run is the opposite: the dread prospect of environmentalists who don’t fly off to exotic conferences, who instead preach what they practice.

People don’t like hypocrites for sure, but nor do they like preachy environmentalists telling them that they shouldn’t do stuff. Now, I’m sure Peter isn’t at all preachy, but I think it’s hard to avoid people reading those bad, virtue-signalling motives into any public avowal of carbon restraint. If you consider yourself a role model helping other people lessen their planetary impact by following your example, I’d be willing to bet that a fair proportion of those other people will dismiss you as insufferably smug unless you have social skills that greatly exceed my own (which to be fair wouldn’t be difficult – that’s why they only let me communicate with the world through this computer). I’ve been down this road myself – I’ve been the Puritan at the party, shocked at the wanton ways of lesser folk. I ended up not liking that guy much and now try to cultivate a different persona. Let he who is free of sin and all that…

Some of the commenters under my last post emphasised the need for greater collaboration and less private individualism in a sustainable post-capitalist society of the future. So how about this? Suppose you’ve given up eating meat because of its environmental impact – good for you — and an acquaintance invites you over to a special meal, which in their worldview is a beef-fest. I suggest you keep your meat abstinence private and tuck in. One or two meaty meals are neither here nor there in terms of global environmental protection. More important that you build community by publicly accepting your acquaintance’s generosity. But if it’s important to you to be seen not to be eating meat, I’d want to ask why. Is publicly-dramatised individual abstinence the best route to sustainability? Maybe…but maybe not?

The second problem is essentially the free rider problem – if everybody refrained from behaviour X it would have a significant impact on global emissions, whereas if it’s just me and a handful of other freaks while everyone else carries on regardless it has no significant impact on global emissions. Might as well carry on Xing, then? Well, Peter makes the point that lower impact choices can often be the fun choice – who wants to sit in a traffic jam when you can be biking through the woods? It’s a good point, but I don’t think you can sustain it across the board – particularly in the context of a society that’s systemically organised on the basis that many or most (rich) people will have to drive to work, fly for business or pleasure, be instantly reachable via mobile phone, shop at the supermarket etc. It’s not that these possibilities are intrinsically great in themselves, but in a society that’s organised around them you have to go out of your way to avoid them, which may sometimes be possible and indeed attractive at the individual level, but not really possible for the population en masse.

Actually, that’s the thing that draws me most to people making ethical lifestyle choices – that little spark of individuality driving them to swim against the current, resist the machine etc. But then here we are, back to individualism…

Perhaps a wrinkle within this second problem is the complexity of the issues concerning the shape of a future sustainable society. There’s no end of ‘expert’ opinion telling us, for example, that feedlot beef involves lower emissions than pasture-fed beef, which is probably true depending on how you choose to draw the parameters around your analysis. But it’s also probably true that in a sustainable, low-energy society there’d be some pasture-fed cattle, but no feedlot cattle. So should you eat only feedlot beef to lower your emissions, eat only pasture-fed beef to help stimulate sustainable farming, or eat no beef at all in the hope that somehow by so doing you can wash your hands of these agrarian dilemmas? Beats me.

But suppose you take a different view to my first two points. If you model environmentally responsible behaviour, you’ll inspire others to do likewise. And if everyone did likewise, then the problem is solved.

Except that – point three – it’s not going to happen without profound systemic change. The present political economy is deeply invested in a massively energy-intense model of modernist-urbanist creation, destruction and re-creation involving vast flows of people and goods. Individually it’s possible to lower your footprint via numerous consumption decisions such as cycling rather than driving to work. Collectively, if it does prove possible to aggregate those decisions then it’ll tank the system and there’ll be no work to cycle to. OK, so maybe that’s precisely the aim – but then you need a different systemic vision, which is not implicit in the consumption decisions and can’t be assumed just to happen as a dependent outcome of them. In other words, the system has emergent properties – it needs ‘systemic’ restructuring at the level of the system.

I’m doubtful of the possibilities for aggregating those consumption decisions by example or exhortation in a society organised fiscally to incentivise the exact opposite. I see a parallel here with the ‘make the healthy choice the easy one’ paradigm in health promotion. Historical examples: don’t subsidise sugar production and then exhort people not to eat sugar; don’t manufacture dangerous cars and then tell people to drive carefully; don’t make flying the easiest and cheapest choice and then expect people not to do it.

I also see a parallel with 18th century anti-slavery activism in Britain. Middle-class people (middle-class women in particular) started talking about the link between the sugar they were drinking in their tea and the blood-soaked horrors of the colonial economy that was delivering it to them. But for all that in Britain today we like to think that it was William Wilberforce and his cohorts who personally put a stop to the slave trade, the ending of the trade and of slavery itself was a long drawn-out affair that responded mostly to changes in the global political economy and the superpower politics of the day – system emergence again.

Nevertheless, I’d concede that the behaviour of the parts is important. Anti-slavery activism more-or-less created the modern public sphere of respectable opinion and concern for unknown others that I think could be critical for a tolerable post-capitalist future. So whether you incline more towards Peter’s stance or mine, maybe the important thing is hanging onto the possibility that we can politely put out our alternative views in public.

None of the arguments I’ve proffered make a case for not trying to lower one’s personal environmental impact as such. I agree with Wendell Berry when he writes,

“to be fearful of the disease and yet unwilling to pay for the cure is not just to be hypocritical; it is to be doomed. If you talk a good line without being changed by what you say, then you are not just hypocritical and doomed; you have become an agent of the disease”1

I’d only add that even if you are changed by what you say and try to take some practical steps towards a cure within the current iteration of the global political economy, you’re almost certainly still an agent of the disease. That’s not an argument against taking the practical steps. It is an argument against their efficacy in the absence of finding routes towards structural transformation.

So I’m sympathetic to the ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ message. I don’t think it’s morally innocent to take a plane flight just because personal choice in that respect makes little difference to global outcomes. But what makes a bigger difference is collective, organised, political action geared to systemic change. The ‘be the change’ message is attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, but this is what Gandhi actually said (which Peter accurately quotes in his book):

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

I find Brian Morton’s interpretation of this passage quite persuasive: “Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”

Looking back from the present at the key causes for which Gandhi stood– Indian independence from colonial rule, non-violence and rural self-reliance – it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that his activism was only conspicuously successful in relation to the first of these. And ultimately this was the easiest one, because it fitted a pre-existing collective narrative of national self-assertion which is all too evident today under the aggressive Hindu nationalism of Modi (there’s a larger story here about the intersections and dissonances between Gandhism and Hindu nationalism, but let’s not go there now).

So in summary, while there’s much to be said for changing personal consumption habits in response to the climate crisis, I doubt that the necessary social transformation can be generated purely from aggregating such changes. In which case, I guess it behoves me to offer some alternative suggestions as to where the impetus for social transformation might come from. Ay, there’s the rub – I wish I had the answers. Conventional political positions just keep rollin’ on as if they do, but to me they seem exhausted. The right thinks history is on its side: human nature, markets, cultural identities will generate the correct solutions (never mind that these things are numerously and numinously contradictory). The left thinks history is on its side: social conflict powering historical change will propel righteous collective solutions. Both left and right are invested deeply in technological solutionism – which is why the books written by their avant-garde futurists all seem uncannily similar. Stewart Brand, Leigh Phillips, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Nick Srnicek, Mark Lynas: they sound like the modulated voice of a single character from some nightmarish modernist novel. Lord deliver me from fully automated luxury communism. Or capitalism.

Partly I think solutionism itself is the problem. There are no ‘solutions’ and no right answers. But I’d like to think there may be better answers to the numerous crises we currently face – not just the climate crisis but other biophysical crises, as well as social ones (economic justice, cultural meaning). One possibility is to bring more marginalised political traditions onto the stage – anarchism, environmentalism, libertarianism (any contradictions there? …you betcha). Or else to seek some radical rupture with the politics of the past that seems better fitted to our contemporary predicaments.

So…what path to take? The old familiar mainstream, the marginal, or the radically new? Hell, I’m opting for all of the above. I think we need to revitalise the best of the old traditions of right and left, while bringing in the contributions of more marginal political positions from the past – and articulating them all afresh in the completely novel historical circumstances we face.

It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it, and I already started out last time in my post on libertarianism and utopia (and in other previous posts too, like this one). So watch this space…though please forgive my lessened current output, resulting from various other pressing projects.

Meanwhile, I’d thoroughly recommend a read of Peter’s book, and I’d urge you (non-smugly) to try lowering your carbon footprint. Just don’t tell me that you’re doing it.

Notes

  1. Berry, W. 2017. The World-Ending Fire. Penguin. P.55.