You Say You Love your Children Above All Else

January 30, 2019

So off went the Emperor in procession under his splendid canopy. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, “Oh, how fine are the Emperor’s new clothes! Don’t they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!” Nobody would confess that he couldn’t see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success.

“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.

The tale of the Emperor’s new clothes of Hans Christian Andersen has an important key to how we can change the world: it is by disclosing the prevailing myths that are the foundations of the current order. This is particularly important for a society with so many forceful feedback loops as the current industrial capitalist culture. A school strike of a fifteen year old might therefore be more important than a NGO-boycott of a multinational or a new international treaty.

There are often vivid arguments between those that argue that consumers, the market, scientists, corporations, governments or international organizations have the main responsibility for climate change (or the deforestation of the Amazon, the use of pesticides, overfishing or cruelty to animals just to name a few others) as well as the transition to a no/low greenhouse gas emission society.

Often, the allocation of responsibility and agency follows main political lines – neoliberals tend to believe the solution is in the market place, while socialists think the solution is found in more government regulations. But there is also a divide in the view of the possibilities of new technology. A high level of faith in technology is often, but not always coupled with a trust in markets. There is also a moral dimension which tend to allocate guilt to the individual and there are perspectives coming into play. There is of course also the mixing up of who is and who should be; if we think some party ought to be responsible for something we mostly argue that they are responsible.

My own take on this is that on the one hand we live in a networked economy and society and in such a society it is futile to point fingers only at one part of it, as they are all interdependent. On the other hand there are interests and drivers which strongly influence the development in a particular direction. To disclose those is very important.

When it comes to the use of fossil fuels and machinery to replace human labor in farming and industry, the energy in one barrel of oil corresponds to the energy of 25 000 hours of human work. One person can now do the work of five, ten or even hundred persons through the use of ingenious machinery powered by fossil fuels. The remaining workers often gets an easier job (but tiring in new ways), controlling a machine instead of working the land with a hoe or pounding iron with a sledgehammer. So it can’t be very surprising that those technologies have taken over our society. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that capitalism and the market economy have been major drivers for the transition to a fossil fuel economy.  For companies, regardless if they wanted to or not, it has been impossible not to mechanize if they want to stay in business. And mechanization led to specialization and bigger scale, which in turn led to linear production processes, a fundamental break from an economy that earlier was sustainable and largely regenerative. Competition also pushed producers to externalize as many costs as possible, be it social, cultural or environmental.

Governments have also been keen on growth oriented policies, “international competitiveness” to keep corporations happy to invest and operate in their country. This gives the governments more tax revenue to spend (perhaps also money into their own pockets). The power of corporations has also increased with globalization and de-regulation, to some extent the result of intentional politics and to some extent the result of the capitalist take-over of more and more of society.

By and large, citizens, consumers and workers have of course also benefitted from this, at least as long as growth continued and the elites (economic, political or technocratic) didn’t abuse their powers by taking too big a share of the pie. Calls are now made, however, that “consumers” shouldn’t waste so much food, eat less meat, stop driving the car and don’t fly. Oddly enough no one makes the same call for people in their role as workers – are we to consume less we also need to produce less, shouldn’t we? No calls are made for companies to produce less or countries to shrink their economies.

There are huge limitations for what a person can do in her role as a consumer. Accounts from Sweden makes clear that — despite a very high rate of renewable energy — almost no activities, goods or services come under the limit of 1 gram CO2e per cent spent, which is, roughly, the rate under which we need to come to manage the 2 degree target.  Not the electrified rail traffic, not going to the theatre and clearly no consumer goods at all make it (link in Swedish). In addition, almost 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the average Svensson’s consumption are about investment (building factories, roads, houses) and public sector (schools, hospitals, military, police) – things that you have absolutely no influence over as a consumer. Even for the remaining 60 percent of the emissions the real influence of consumers is limited.

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For sure, stop flying and driving that car, recycle and buy organic foods! However, as an individual, it is rather by cutting down on your income and thus total consumption as well as tax payments, and spend less, all categories, that you can take full responsibility. That choice is no longer the choice of a consumer but of a human being or a citizen. By that you choose to opt out of the consumer culture and move away from the market paradigm and the growth paradigm.

One strategy is clearly to “be the change you want to see” by getting together with others to build up operative attractive local communal alternatives, things practiced by the transition movement and alike since a long time.

As a citizen you can – and should  – also take political action to reduce the total metabolism of the society and change all the drivers which are pushing for more growth. Strong candidates for change are the basic capitalist institutions or practices, such as so called free markets, the right to own nature and information (private property), rent extraction, free movement of capital, externalization of costs, the right to pocket profits and socialize costs (i.e. the limited company), inequality and money. Some of these can be dealt with by the introduction of taxes, such as carbon dioxide taxation or other economic instruments. Other reforms are cutting out perverse governments subsidies for fossil fuels and dysfunctional pension systems built on the premises of eternal growth. Policies that facilitate resilient localized economies can have many shapes and forms, but most also requires protection from international competition etc. Other changes may need much more profound reforms.

In general the approach can be informed by Donella Meadows´ perspective on leverage points. ”These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” In view of her analysis one realizes that the real influence of opting out of the consumer culture or growing your own food is not the actual reduction of emissions and resource use you can accomplish by that, but the challenge of the “goals of the system” and the “prevailing paradigm” which the action reflects. Those are the two leverage points that Donella Meadows considered most powerful.

It is the prevailing myth of the invisible hand; that markets are the best way to allocate wealth, income, production, consumption, status and resource use, that keeps us in its grip. We are threatened with all sorts of disasters (unemployment, inflation, or loss of income) and damnations (North Korea) if we dare to question this modern religion (or ideology you prefer). To call the bluff and show that the emperor is naked, like the child in H.C. Andersen’s tale, is probably the most powerful thing you can do. You can do that culturally through art or literature, you can do it politically by screaming it in the street or writing articles like this. You can do it scientifically or you can do it practically by demonstrating in or through your own life. No method is uniquely best, and often they need combinations to be powerful.

Sometimes, one event or action can trigger a cascade of events which will bring down even the mightiest empire. The school strike of 15-year old Greta Thunberg can be such an event, even if we will not know until later.

(The title of the blog post is a quote from Greta’s speech to COP 24)

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change activism, consumer culture, powering down