Although this question is both enduring and familiar, its present urgency is fully accentuated in a typically brilliant, but viscerally terrifying, exposition by Noam Chomsky on the current frangible condition of the world, and its near-term prognosis. However, I am also reminded of the strapline from the International Permaculture Conference, held in London in 2015, offering the intention and perhaps the means for “Designing the world we want.”
Chomsky never pulls a punch, as he strikes at layer on peeling layer of mendacity and fragility, from a prevailing framework whose groans, under the cumulative stresses of “growth”, should be heard as cries of threatening systemic collapse. The intermeshing quality of the world’s many woes has been conveyed by the term “changing climate” (i.e. climate change per se being just one item on the list), and amid a morass of such magnitude, positives are apt to remain obscured and muffled. Thus acknowledged, there could hardly be a better time than now, for a recasting of the world, having decided how we want it to be, in the broadest context, while there is still sufficient residual integrity to the whole that change might yet be managed, and full collapse is not yet inevitable, or already crumbling out of our hands.
It is no surprise that Covid-19 is a principal feature on the current global stage, and is probably the major focus of our concerns and attentions just now. While we cannot know how exactly everything will pan out, it is likely that the virus will be with us for some time, and we are entering a period of “recalibration” rather than a Post-Covid “back to normal”. Hence, focussing more on local and community resilience increasingly seems to make sense. We will certainly need to share support with our family, neighbours and friends, in the time to come.
That said, whatever our moves might be to rebuild the economy “Post-Covid” – as this term seems to be sticking – if they do not also usher in a definite and sustained mitigation of carbon emissions, it is highly unlikely that climate targets will be met. In short, the time is now or never, yet as set against a backdrop of “business as usual”, opportunities to address climate change are not merely slipping through our fingers, but wilfully being cast aside. For example, not only is new investment going toward high carbon industries, but an intention has been announced to raze ancient forest to create 40 new coalfields in India, on the grounds that “the economy comes first.”
Thus, dangerously, falling pieces of the carbon framework are being nailed back into place, with scant consideration of “what”, over the world and how we want to live in it. Rob Hopkins has nicely reframed this interrogative as “What if”, to animate an exploration of possibilities beyond the humdrum, the accepted and the mundane. This time is undoubtedly critical, to decide on our definitions of economy or wealth? What, indeed, is most precious to us? How would we like the world to look in the year 2050, against which many climate action targets are benchmarked?
Most climate action plans are set as adaptations of where we presently are, working forward from now, which almost tacitly assumes that the future will be substantively like the present. Backcasting is the reverse of this way of thinking, used in the Transition Towns ideology, which sets a series of steps back, say, from 2050, to the present, in order to provide a logically progressive sequence toward attaining desirable attributes identified for that later date. By setting year-stones conveniently along a defined pathway, a practical and ideological “rack and pinion” gear is engaged to propel the journey forward, with reduced risks of straying or derailing. Covid, of course, may have shifted the landscape, not necessarily of our wants, but of the possibilities available to us, and how we order our list of priorities.
While Chomsky is sanguine that we will conquer the coronavirus, he hammers home the point that really it is the least of our worries; that is, in comparison with the escalating prospects of nuclear war, and climate change. Thus, the doomsday clock, originally set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947, was reset to the closest value so far, of merely 100 seconds (1 minute and 40 seconds) before midnight in January 2020, taking account of the increased threats to global stability posed by “a nuclear blunder”, aggravated by the gradient of climate change.
In his book “The Wayfinders” (“Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World”), Wade Davies poses the question “What kind of a world do we want to live in?” in the context of the value of cultures with alternative comprehensions of the world than our own. While the loss of any single one – especially in some far flung corner of the world, as we might opine it – may not appear to much affect our own daily experience in the West, their more progressive loss begins to weaken the cultural web of civilization, as the loss of biodiversity begins to fracture the web of the biosphere, with consequences that are both wholesale and probably irredeemable. Thus, any reply or strategy elicited by the title’s question must be broader than our “wants” at the personal, or even national level, but must consider “the world” in its full dimension.
Davies highlights the Tendai monks in the mountains of Japan, outside Tokyo, who must endure such a gruelling initiation (Kaihigyo) that only 46 have completed it during the past four centuries, which he describes as:
“a ritual path of enlightenment that brings the initiate to the realm of the dead, all with the goal of revealing to the living that everyone and everything are equal, that human beings are not exceptional, and nothing in this world is permanent.”
Hence, our choices made on the local scale must further consider their impacts more globally – not only in a geographical sense, but across the swathe of beliefs and views that different cultures hold as their framework to make sense of existence, to give value and meaning to life, and to decide upon which goals count as being worthy of achieving. In the industrialised West, we have become increasingly focussed on money as a goal and the accumulation of personal wealth, and it’s trappings, as our measure of success. It is telling that, from a survey of college freshmen in 1966, only around 44% gave making a lot of money as “very important” or “essential”, but this had risen to 82% by 2013. This is a clear indication that Western culture has changed, and is probably still evolving, since according to a more recent Ipsos-MORI report, 45% of the much maligned “Millennials” score as “materialistic”, while only 24% of the UK sample think it is important to “be rich”.
Beyond the wants of individuals, are necessities of preservation, shared in common across all cultures – however different these might at first appear – required to conserve the biological integrity of the Earth, and sustain its Earthlings, i.e. all passengers on Spaceship Earth, be they human or other living creatures. This line of thinking takes us beyond the confines of human cultures, and considers more broadly our place on this planet, within the context of all life.
The Kogi (Kággaba) are said to be the most isolated of the four indigenous peoples who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Although they have neither the wheel nor writing, their advanced comprehension of ecology, and the nature of the universe takes the breath away from even distinguished Western scientists. Their mountain home is like a microcosm of the rest of the world, since it hosts the various different microclimates and habitats necessary to support the range of life that exists on Earth.
The Kogi (Elder Brother) noticed that the clouds were missing, that snow and ice no longer covered the mountaintops, that the lakes in the highlands, which are the source of the rivers were dry, and they realised that by destroying “sacred sites” further down, as a result of mining and oil and gas exploration, outsiders (Younger Brother) are causing the rivers to die: without water, everything else dies too.
Thus, the message is not just one of yet another traditional way of life being driven to extinction by climate change, but that because the Earth system is an interconnected and “living” organism, impacts on any component of it will be felt throughout, causing the body to sicken and die. I would recommend the documentary film “Aluna” which conveys all of this far better than I can, in these few words.
Elder Brother hopes that Younger Brother will take away this message, and stop cutting into and damaging the organs of the Earth, as though we are injuring a Mother, who sustains us. While the Kogi’s way of life and universal view are very difficult to understand from a Western perspective, it is clear that our approach must change, and that of the rest of the world in trying to emulate it, otherwise environmental destruction and climate change can only be accelerated more rapidly.
To cut carbon emissions, and therefore stabilise the climate (in general), the most significant action at our disposal is to use less. Change is frightening, and uncertainty even more so; thus we tend to cling to a familiar craft, even as it sinks. But, if we want a world that is both habitable and agreeable into the future, for all Earthlings, our choices are limited to those which also reduce the conjoined burdens of our rapidly consuming finite resources and the carbon emissions and other pollution that are discharged in the process. Opponents to the idea of climate change and adapting to ameliorate it often level the accusation that this would involve “going back to the stone age”, and yet probably an adjustment to the living standards of the 1970s would be enough.
However, due to the tardiness of our efforts, the scale and rate of the changes now required are staggering, amounting to an 8-10% reduction in carbon emissions per year in the wealthiest nations of the world, which presents as a practically insurmountable challenge.
Albert Einstein is quoted, perhaps apocryphally, as saying (something like): “The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking. If we want to change the world we have to change our thinking…no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.” Therefore, to decide on how we want our 2050 world to look, we need to find a new narrative; perhaps a new tradition; a release of imagination – maybe with more “What if?” – to make sense of our own image on a rapidly transforming global canvas.
As Mikhail Gorbachev has exhorted:
“We badly need a new economic model… We cannot continue living by ignoring environmental problems. The planet is overburdened… We do not have enough fresh water for the people.. Billions of people are subject to hunger today. So the new model must consider all these needs. This model must be more human and more nature oriented… We are all interconnected but we keep acting as though we are completely autonomous.”
Almost half a century ago, E.F.Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful, (“a study of economics as if people mattered”), in which he warned of the perils of treating natural capital as income, urging that we “think globally, act locally”, as the term has been coined. Our wants, then, cannot simply amount to selfish, short term acts of acquisition, that impoverish others elsewhere, or the overall system must finally fail, and the place and culture of each and all of us along with it. Hence, while our actions are best served on the local scale, it is necessary to be aware that the choices we make may also have global consequences.
In this regard, the three guiding ethics of permaculture – Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Shares – can provide a frame of reference for our decisions, while instilling benevolence into our actions, enabling us to chart a course toward the kind of a world we want (…really).