Despite the misleading title, I will not talk to you today about the coronavirus, but of that other, far more insidious crisis that we cannot hope to solve with a vaccine. The global ecological crisis: a crisis in which we are the virus. I would like to share with you some brief reflections on human agency, human nature and their relationship with the possibility of a sustainable society. I know, philosophical stuff – but with very practical implications.
The idea for this article came from a series of conversations I recently had with a reader of my book ‘A Future History of the 21st Century: How We Overcame the Crisis of Civilization’. The text debates the nature of the current socio-economic system, and analyses which of its structural elements constitute obstacles to our transition to a sustainable society. It then discusses how we could potentially overcome those obstacles, focusing on specific economic, institutional and political reforms. All of this while avoiding the well-known trap into which many Degrowth theorists still fall today, which can be summarized by the dead end idea that bottom-up change is the only way out of the crisis, and that to change the world we first need to change ourselves. In short, this is a dead end idea because it cannot be translated into concrete policies. Conversely, to be carried out successfully, a bottom-up change requires a top-down change that facilitates and supports it. In other words: institutional, political and economic reforms.
After this necessary introduction, let’s get to the core topic of the article. The reader I spoke of earlier agrees with the book’s analysis of our current situation and acknowledges that the solutions proposed could produce the desired transition to a sustainable steady-state economy. However, he argues that human nature will never allow us to implement those changes. In other words, not only can human beings not change themselves – they can’t even change the very institutions they created. And this is not an unlikely change either, he claims, but an absolutely impossible one. This is the same as saying that we are trapped in a car that is heading speedily towards a ravine, with a functioning brake in easy reach of our hands, but sadly we are programmed not to pull it.
To put it another way, the problem is not to be found in a defect of the hardware (our hands) or in the resilience of the system (the car), but rather in the software code (our head). The software, he argues, is programmed for accumulation, for a growth without limits and without purpose, for constant acceleration. These things are not cultural constructs, but rather inalienable characteristics of human nature.
He then proceeds to claim, based on fringe clyodynamic theories – which he of course accepts as undisputable scientific proofs – that history demonstrates this; that civilizations have always grown until they could, and when they stopped doing so, they without exception collapsed. The only solution, he concludes, is exactly that: collapse. A non-solution. Worse still: to embrace the very idea that a solution is not possible. That we cannot pull the brake. That we cannot change direction. That we need to give up and accept that we are going to fall into the ravine, and die along with the system. Not everybody, of course. Those of us that will survive will have the chance to start again, little by little, from down there, the slow climbing of the cliff. Only this time with fewer resources. And this ad infinitum, with our heads forever preventing us from learning from the mistakes of the past: until the final suicide.
Of course – I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now – I do not agree that this is the unavoidable destiny of our species. I do acknowledge, however, that we are indeed genetically programmed for accumulation and growth, and that we are not programmed to individually impose limits to ourselves. We get immediate pleasure from accumulation, while the most we get from limits is a kind of long-term serenity. To obtain the latter we need effort and perseverance, while to accumulate more and more, we just need to follow our instincts.
In other words, starting from a clean sheet and without culture, we tend to long for growth. To have more, to produce more, to do more. What I do not agree with is that our culture has to strengthen this inclination, and cannot instead compensate for it, for everyone’s sake.
Let me be clear: contemporary global culture intensifies these human tendencies more than any other culture that preceded it. The fact that we live inside this culture makes us see it as the most natural outcome of human nature, just as the ancient Romans thought of their own culture as the peak of human civilization. Neither they nor we were right, of course. In the same way as we constrained our human tendencies to indulge in gratuitous violence, and no longer slaughter slaves in an arena, so people in the future can stop growing their production and consumption beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystems. What allows us to do this is human agency: the ability to change our culture and our institutions based on what we think is right. In this case, what is right for most people (including the author of this article) is to increase the lifespan of the human race on this planet, and make sure that life is worth living for future generations.
In this sense, we should note that our current situation involves never before seen elements that work in our favour. Here are some of the most significant:
- Today, for the first time in history, we know that our socio-economic model is environmentally unsustainable, and that a change is necessary (although there is currently no complete agreement on what type of change we need, or how to produce it).
- Today, for the first time in history, the entire world is interconnected, and can potentially discuss shared solutions (although coming to an agreement is not as easy as we hoped).
- Modern technologies make producing the goods and services essential to human survival more efficient. We produce and consume too much, but each unit we produce and consume has a lower impact on the environment compared to the past.
- It is now a consolidated fact that beyond certain levels of consumption, further consumption does not equal more well-being for human beings. We already passed those limits, which means that a reduction of our per-capita consumption would not produce a reduction in aggregate well-being.
There is also historical evidence that points towards the possibility of complex social models that are not based on the relentless accumulation of material goods.
There have been entire communities in Asia and Africa that for centuries lived in societies in which the individual accumulation of material goods was socially sanctioned. These are examples of instances in which culture compensated nature, producing ecologically sustainable social models as a result.
Thus, the real fundamental question is not whether it is possible to build a sustainable society, but rather whether it is possible to do so without sacrificing the fundamental values of the West and people’s well-being. If by ‘fundamental values of the West’ we mean things such as human rights and political and civil liberties, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ (you can find a demonstration of this in my book). If we instead mean unchecked capitalism and a lawless market, then the answer is ‘realistically, no’.
However, we do not need to ask history to know this, because history does not include the full range of possible futures. If there is a constant in human history, it is novelty. The creation of new things that constantly confute the idea that history is destined to repeat itself. History is not the full toolbox we have at our disposal to build our future. Many things that exist today did not exist before. These things are as varied as computing technologies and the internet, but also liberalism, the state of law, and human rights. We also, for the first time, live in a full world, without new frontiers to exploit. Human history has always been a history of exploitation because, among other things, there was an abundance of resources to exploit; now we are consuming (far) more than what nature produces. The situation has changed, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot change also. Before we did not need to change. Now we do. The very fact that we can see this as a problem is a relatively new thing, and a hint that we have the power to solve it.
My reader, however, appears to be blind to the very possibility of change, any change. This is because he draws his arguments not from history, but from an interpretation of history. A highly deterministic interpretation that excludes human agency. Doing so, he looks at the forest as an actor independent from the trees it is made up of. In this way, culture becomes an entity separated from people, which controls them as a puppet master. It has its own will, or moves as if it had one. There is no way we can control it. And even when it looks like we are in control, in reality we are just executing its directives. It is not the trees that make up the forest; it is the forest that makes up the trees.
Conversely, my position is one shared by most social scientists: the forest makes up the trees and at the same time, the trees make up the forest. The influence is mutual. Under certain historical conditions, it is mostly the forest that shapes the life of the trees. It decides where they lay roots, where they extend their branches, where they spread their seeds. In times of uncertainty and crisis, however, the trees can shape the life of the forest. They can shape which direction it expands. Whether it grows or retreats. If it provides sufficient nourishment for the living beings that inhabit it.
In a similar fashion, human beings are not slaves to their culture, although going against it, to change it, requires a considerable effort. An effort that the majority will not want to undertake unless they perceive it as absolutely necessary. Unless – and this is the main message I want to pass here – they believe that a change is possible.
Such a change is not likely to occur spontaneously, without direction. Most great changes in history have occurred when capable and innovative leaders (not only politicians, but also intellectuals) come together with a mass of people united by a common goal. A mass that starts small, but little by little grows until it reaches the critical threshold necessary to spark a change. This happened with women’s rights, with workers’ rights, with the liberal-democratic model, with communist revolutions, with Nazism. Change is not always positive. But it is almost always possible.
This does not mean it is probable. Often it is not. Today I think it is not probable. But it is possible. And this is really, really important. Another thing is important: change becomes more probable if we believe it possible. If the ideas of my aforementioned reader spread, change would become less probable: a self-fulfilled prophecy that could condemn our race (and others, too) to a dreadful future.
It is true: human beings are, to a certain extent, programmed by genes and culture. But they can also reprogram culture. Often they can only do this indirectly, like when the standard working day was reduced to 8 hours (an institutional reform). This produced more free time for individuals, which in turn translated into a proliferation of new activities, giving birth, among other things, to the entertainment industry and sport (previously, sport had been something that only athletes and nobles engaged in).
In conclusion, between my reader and myself there is both agreement and disagreement. We agree that the world is hurrying towards a ravine. We disagree on the possibility of pulling the brake. I firmly believe that resignation is the worst enemy of change. It paralyzes us. And I believe that optimism is needed more, not less, on the brink of an apocalypse. If we want to produce a positive change in the world, we need to look at the ravine with a smile on our lips, but also – and especially – with rolled up sleeves and our brains at work. It may be highly unlikely that we will be able to pull the brake. Nonetheless, we have the moral obligation to try. Success might not be probable, but it is surely possible. And this possibility, being rooted in the present and not in the past, is something that no deterministic interpretation of history will ever be able to disprove.
 See, for example, D. G. Blanchflower, A. J. Oswald, Well-being over time in Britain and the USA, in “Journal of Public Economics”, 88 (2004), pp. 1359-1386; R. Layard, S. Nickell, G. Mayraz, The marginal utility of income, in “Journal of Public Economics”, 92:8/9 (2008), pp. 1846-1857; D. Kahneman, A. Deaton, High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being, in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”, 107:38 (2010), pp. 16489-93; E. Proto, A. Rustichini, A Reassessment of the Relationship between GDP and Life Satisfaction, in “PLoS ONE”, 8 (2013).