Wake-up call to all of us – A call for action to strengthen social ethics as well as the self-regulatory capacity of life on earth.
Position Statement adapted from a workshop given by Willi Kiefel, trustee of Feasta, to the Institute for Earth System Preservation, March 2019
Unfortunately, the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 5th Assessment Report, about the Earth’s warming have exceeded its own earlier assumptions. Our planet is warming faster and more than the IPCC assumed. The increasing amount of catastrophic flooding, prolonged weather periods of extreme heat and increased frequency of storms of extreme intensity tell their own story.
All these extreme climate events are undeniably caused by human activities such as fossil fuel burning and the subsequent CO2 emissions. The major reason for climate change is the economic philosophy based on ever increasing material growth. This Carbon Economy model originated in the developed world (Global North) but has been increasingly adopted by the emerging economies including China.
Over the past 70 years, material growth has become the driver for ever increasing consumption in order to increase happiness. In his Apostolic Exhortation of 2013 Pope Francis compares this economic concept with a “Dance around the Golden Calf”:
“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare [-] above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”
The prevailing economic model of the Global North is based on free usage of natural resources. The supply of these resources, it is assumed, will be ever more facilitated by new technologies and great innovations, so called “disruptive” developments.
Despite all this we continue to transgress our “planetary boundaries”. These boundaries define a “safe operating space” for humanity and are essential for human development and well-being. The main boundaries are: climate change, biodiversity loss, excess nitrogen and phosphorus production, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global consumption of freshwater, change in land use for agriculture, air pollution, and chemical pollution.
Current estimates assume that humanity has already transgressed three of these boundaries: climate change, biodiversity loss, and nitrogen production.
Out of necessity, the Global North has become adept at dealing with some environmental problems. Over the last half century, the worst remnants of the destruction caused by the 19th century Industrial Revolution have, in many cases, been ameliorated. Rivers, like the London Thames, are being cleaned up and the air quality in major cities, like Los Angeles, is improving.
Synthetic pesticides such as DDT that were once sprayed on our crops, have been banned in most developed countries and replaced by hopefully less harmful alternatives. Lead has been removed from petroleum-based fuels and paint, and 21st century fridges function without CFCs.
However, the growth based economic model perpetuated in the Global North is being increasingly adopted by the Global South. The hope there is to bring their lifestyles to the same level as the Global North.
As Pope Francis writes in the same Apostolic Exhortation of 2013:
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
This puts the responsibility for the mess caused by this economic thinking clearly at the door of the Rich World. We, in the Rich World, must not only accept our responsibility for contributing to this development. We must also take immediate action to clean up this mess. This means a deep and radical change for us. And change, in particular a change in lifestyle or even more so spiritual change, is never easy. Present day societies must pull the metaphorical emergency brake, as Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl, urged political and economic leaders at the 24th Convention on Climate Change (COP 24):
“You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared of being unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake. You are not mature enough to tell it like is.
Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money. Our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury. It is the sufferings of the many which pay for the luxuries of the few.
Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. We need to keep the fossil fuels in the ground, and we need to focus on equity. And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.”
There is an urgent need for an overall systematic change – no silver bullet.
The concept of planetary boundaries illustrates the enormous stress that human’s modern lifestyle impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems. The overuse of nitrogen, for example, has already well exceeded its sustainable boundary.
Focusing on ecological factors and trying to address the transgressions of these planetary boundaries would, however, say nothing about the distribution of affluence and technologies among the human population.
While remaining within the planetary boundaries is a necessary condition it alone is not sufficient for a good future for humanity. We also need a more egalitarian world, with more equitable socio-economic systems.
A more equitable world where the wealth of our Common Home would be shared more equally would also help to slow down population growth which is another contributor to Climate Change.
At present, “Green Growth” or the “Green Economy” is proclaimed as a solution to achieve true sustainability. But even, if all our energy demands were generated from renewable, non-carbon sources, we would still need to reduce our material growth in order to stay within our planetary boundaries.
We all need to transform our lifestyles as well.
I believe any transformation process will consist of a “patchwork of solutions”; some will evolve in parallel, some mutually enhancing and some may also turn out not to be successful.
6 Propositions for a transformation process to get us out of this ecologic “downward spiral”:
1) Reduce, and eventually neutralize material growth
Economic growth based on material growth is only a fairly new historic phenomenon. For most of human history the predominant economic model stayed much the same. In his Short History of Humankind, Yuval Harari explains the increase of global production as a result of demographic expansion and the settling of new lands.
In his Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith had initially intended his theory of “profit by private entrepreneurs” to help the creation of jobs and thereby creating general wealth.
Unfortunately, Harari goes on, the introduction of the concept of credit and the availability of “cheap” fossil fuel energy led into our current situation of exponential growth. This economic concept is called Capitalism.
Its belief in perpetual growth is based on the assumption that ever more inventions and an unlimited supply of natural resources will continue. Eventually it will lead to a “sustainable world.”
This “creed”, as Harari calls it, flies in in the face of almost everything we know about the universe. Paradoxically, humans would consider a society of wolves foolish to believe that their supply of sheep will keep on growing indefinitely.
If we want to get away from the fiction, or mirage of unlimited growth, and if we want to maintain the essential standards of our civilization, we need to reduce our consumption of natural resources by a factor of five. This in turn requires a fundamental change of our economic priorities and lifestyles. Experts have been advising that we take this approach since the 1970s.
2) Decarbonise the economy as well as our lifestyles
This process could be accelerated by capping global carbon use. Feasta has developed a concept for “CapGlobalCarbon” as a balanced, and socio-economic carbon pricing model. The basic principle of this concept is simple. “Cap and Share” would impose a binding cap on fossil fuel production, charge fossil fuel producers (or importers) for producing, and distribute the revenue from those charges on a per-capita basis. The cap would be lowered each year until eventually, by 2050 at the latest, fossil fuel production is eliminated.
A number of models which bear similarities to Cap and Share are currently under consideration or already implemented e.g. in California. Other examples are the Swiss Carbon Tax model, or the Canadian and Washington State carbon tax model.
3) Assess National Well-being (NWI) Instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
Robert F. Kennedy summarized the defective nature of the concept of the GDP as a singular assessment for national well-being as follows (In his speech in Kansas on March 8, 1968):
“Our Gross National Product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. .. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, […]. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.…”
Unfortunately, the success of the current predominant economic system is measured by GDP. It demands continual growth if it is not to collapse into a catastrophic depression. This leaves politicians with little alternative but to pursue short-term economic growth more-or-less regardless of the damage that that pursuit might be doing to longer-term environmental and social sustainability.
In cooperation with FEST Heidelberg, Feasta has completed a first draft of a National Well-being Index (NWI) for Ireland. This NWI is a modification of other National-Well Being Indices developed by FEST- Heidelberg with a research group around Professor Hans Diefenbacher. The concept is based on some 18 indicators relating to economic, social, as well as “environmental” well-being. The project’s intention is to introduce a solid, comparable data base model that would enable comparative tracking of factors beyond traditional quantitative accounting of economic activity. NWI Ireland could be used by the Irish Central Statistics Office in parallel with the GDP based index to gain credibility. But also to show the differences and especially the dark areas which GDP does not show.
4) Use the concept of ecovillages for education and training on transition into a low-carbon society
One such Ecovillage is Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary. It is affiliated with Feasta, and a member of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).
GEN defines an eco-village as “an intentional or traditional community, using local participatory processes to holistically integrate ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainability in order to regenerate social and natural environments. […]They represent an effective, accessible way to combat the degradation of our social, ecological and spiritual environments. They show us how we can move toward sustainability in the 21st century.”
Ecovillages can be a great tool in “Sustainability Education” right from Primary Education through to 3rd level Education and Adult Education.
5) Reformulate national constitutions
Future constitutions cannot be centered on the human alone, but must include humans and their (natural) environment on equal terms. Ecuador has already showcased such feasibility. When it comes down to it, natural rights are human rights.
6) Develop alternative models of democracy and governance
New governance models must be developed that are cognisant of the unprecedented challenges offered to human societies through climate change and transgressing the planetary boundaries. These need to include a facility to allow younger generations who are not yet eligible to vote. After all, they will be the bearers of the decisions of the ones presently in power.
And a last word from world famous nature film-maker David Attenborough (92) at COP 24:
“Leaders of the world, you must lead […]. The continuation of our civilizations and the natural world on which we depend is in your hands.”