It’s common to hear the assertion that we have all the technology we need to avoid climate breakdown, and all that’s required is the political will to launch the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. These messages give the impression that little change is needed beyond our society’s carbon-intensive energy systems, allowing us to continue living essentially as we did before. There is significant reason to believe, however, that major changes to our lifestyles and culture are in fact necessary components of creating a sustainable society—and that a transition will be impossible without laying the groundwork for those changes.
Anyone following energy research will have heard of Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi’s iconic studies which suggested that wind, water, and sunlight could seamlessly and inexpensively be used to fuel today’s industrial societies. Most studies since then have expressed similar views, and it’s not difficult to find assertions that “the sky is the limit.”
But other analysts expect that an entirely renewable energy system will provide less energy than a fossil-fueled one. Even if renewables’ net energy at scale turns out to be comparable to fossil fuels, we may still lack the complementary technologies (e.g. sufficient energy storage options) needed for society to operate as it does today. The International Energy Agency anticipates half of emissions reductions in 2050 coming from “technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase.” US Climate Envoy John Kerry has echoed this view, saying that “I am told by scientists that 50 percent of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.”
Parts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mitigation report give the impression that energy will be overabundant in an all-renewable world. Yet its authors acknowledge that “innovation and even fast technological change will not be enough to achieve Paris Agreement mitigation objectives. Other changes are necessary across the production and consumption system and the society in general, including behavioural changes.”
So how should we plan for the transition? The IPCC’s authors write that “Policy approaches facing deep uncertainty must protect against and/or prepare for unforeseeable developments.” Despite suggestions of energy abundance and a seemingly straightforward transition, “This uncertainty extends to the impacts of low carbon innovations on energy demand and other variables, where unanticipated and unintended outcomes are the norm.” It’s essential to consider what challenges we could plausibly face.
If energy becomes less abundant during this multi-decade transition or afterward in an all-renewable society, then rationing systems for equitably distributing it could become essential. We would need to learn to be judicious with energy use and decide which features of society most deserve the energy available. Certain activities may be significantly scaled back or simply not possible in an all-renewable world, like travel via large airliners, which cannot be powered directly by renewably-sourced electricity due to prohibitively heavy batteries. Citizens of wealthy nations have developed their sense of what “normal” looks like under conditions of energy abundance, and have never needed to face these issues.
And then there are issues raised by other kinds of limits—ecological rather than energy-based—that confirm the need for fundamental changes to how we live. Declining forests and wildlands, freshwater and topsoil depletion, and a rate of species extinction unseen since the dinosaurs were wiped out vividly show that human demands are overwhelming this finite planet. These issues, along with climate change, are symptoms of ecological overshoot, an overarching problem that if not corrected eventually ends in the collapse of the populations that rely on the eroding ecosystems—humans included. While energy limits may be harder to know with certainty, our transgression of ecological limits is clear. Even if we could produce as much or more energy from carbon-free sources as we have today, survival would depend on wealthy countries choosing to use less energy and consume fewer resources. The transition we need extends beyond our energy systems, requiring us to achieve a sustainable scale of human activity relative to the ecosystems we depend on.
We are currently approaching these crises as if technology is capable of reducing emissions and resource consumption as quickly as we need while leaving today’s lifestyles largely unchanged. But is that a sound strategy? Technological solutions are used as substitutes for behavioral and cultural changes. There is a threshold of evidence regarding technology’s limits beyond which we must plan to make those sorts of changes, because not doing so could commit us to a catastrophic outcome. That is the precautionary principle upon which many activists stake their calls to action. In my view, that threshold has been crossed.
Social movements must create enough political and cultural space for fundamental change to become possible. The public will need to reconsider its most deeply held assumptions about how the world really works and how it should work. A sustainable society would be oriented around sufficiency rather than ever-increasing consumption, with post-growth economic institutions that respect the limits we face. As mentioned above, we may need to ration energy and change how (and where) we live and work. We’ll surely need to leave consumerist lifestyles behind and begin to talk about stabilizing and gradually reducing human population size. Smaller homes, fewer goods consumed, travel over shorter distances, more wealth held communally rather than privately, jobs organized much more around local or regional economies and agriculture in particular—these are some of the conditions we may need to embrace.
In other words, we must learn to live within ecological and energy limits. That won’t be easy for people accustomed to living as if the only limit to their material desires is money. But in numerous ways this society would be much better. If we get there, it means we’ll have achieved a level of democracy we have never known. It will be a society grounded in equity, where people have a much stronger sense of community. Meeting everyone’s basic needs will become a core priority. And of course, it will be the only type of society that has a chance of maintaining a livable climate and surviving this century.
Envisioning a Transition Culture
We need to create cultural conditions under which post-growth economic institutions and sustainable lifestyles can be embraced, supported through new legislation, implemented, and defended. This “transition culture” must extend far enough to deliver a political base that can elect a majority of post-growth champions into government. It should inspire multitudes of dedicated leaders in each community to bring the transition to their own home, fueled by resources from the federal government and in coordination with regional, national, and international plans. We’ll also need this culture to give rise to believers in the transition and in democracy who will actively protect the process from those who may attempt to derail it or stoke an authoritarian backlash.
The general purpose of a transition culture is to nurture our individual and collective capacity to shape our own fate, what I think of as autonomy. The problems facing us have both external and internal dimensions, and we must be able to navigate both. We build autonomy as we join social movements, for example, because our collective power positions us to overcome elite opposition to our vision. We also build autonomy as we work through the personal obstacles that naturally arise from the process of fundamental change. Remaining too bound to the old society and culture won’t allow us to accept the deep changes that our problems may require. We must develop a flexible and liberated mindset to avoid getting in our own way on the journey to a new society.
I believe the following qualities are major pillars of a transition culture from which a sustainable society could emerge.
Holistic knowledge of the systemic roots of our crises
The first characteristic is holistic knowledge. Our formal and informal education does little to prepare us for the transition, and we need to understand what changes are necessary and why. This allows us to set appropriate expectations, which will be essential for maintaining public support. A high-level, widespread analysis of the transition would also highlight where citizens’ efforts are needed to make it possible, potentially engaging many more people in the process.
I have written about the five domains that capture much of what the population should know to understand and participate in the transition: literacy in ecological systems, technologies and energy sources, economic institutions, power structures, and socio-cultural change.
The foundations and limits of our existence and our lifestyles are rooted in the ecosystems that provide the resources and waste absorption capacity that make life possible in the first place, as well as the energy sources that allow us to transform them. Ecological and technological literacy allows us to understand the roots of our crises and why transitioning to an all-renewable world may require us to learn to live with less energy.
Our current economic institutions promote a destructive relationship with our environment, encourage an unhealthy attachment to consumption, and generate extreme wealth disparities that give rise to plutocracy. In order to live within the limits of ecology and energy, we must build these limits into our economy. Only an organized public can make these changes, but it will take widespread economic literacy to dispel the notion that the economy is the domain of a privileged few. By developing confidence in their own understanding, everyday people can take an active role in building more localized economies that prioritize sustainable scale and a just distribution of resources.
By studying how power is exerted in our society, we no longer succumb to the illusion that the public already possesses meaningful democratic control over the government. Instead, we become aware of the reality of plutocracy and how elite rule maintains itself. We also learn about the core features of a democratic society and strategize how to get there. We study history to anticipate the likely opposition we’ll face during the transition and prepare in advance to overcome it.
We must also dig into the norms of thought, behavior, and institutional design that define our current culture. Learning about their origins reminds us that elites needed to put significant effort into creating a business-friendly culture, and that we can change. We study collective action, social movement history, indigenous and alternative ways of seeing the world, and the skills needed for relocalizing economic activity and managing energy descent scenarios. As communities become more informed and organized, they also become aware of the significant power they have to change society.
A holistically knowledgeable public is better able to maintain its support for the transition because the reasons for change will be clear. And it has a measure of protection against the information warfare that elites will wage in an attempt to derail the transition. The crises we face may finally seem real when enough people have a shared analysis that illuminates the interconnections between ecology, technology and energy, economics, power, and culture. It is easy to sleepwalk past our issues because they are too infrequently on the minds of most people and rarely discussed publicly. This curriculum, spread widely enough, will help us to affirm the reality that we should have been paying attention to all along.
Strong norms around learning, democratic deliberation, and collective action
The second characteristic involves our habits—we’ll need to replace a cultural tendency towards passivity with an inclination towards active participation in shaping society.
The first habit to establish is deeper intellectual engagement with our society and its problems. Everyday people will need to take an active role in learning about the details of the transition, the likely barriers, and how they can help to propel it forward where they live. That only a small fraction of the citizenry is currently seeking to understand and address society’s existential issues doesn’t bode well for solving them. We need a more widespread sense of desire and responsibility for exploring the issues we face.
We also need to cultivate the quality of our thought. Throughout the transition, we will encounter varied technical and political questions, new science, and corporate propaganda. We’ll need the public to be able to determine which issues raised in public discourse are real and which may not be. There will also be numerous trade-offs on the road to a new society, and we’ll need to nurture our capacity for critical and nuanced thinking to illuminate them and make sound decisions. It requires a commitment to maintaining evidence-based beliefs, practice with evaluating information, and humility. These qualities are key for maintaining confidence in our chosen path while also remaining open to new information and re-evaluation, helping us distinguish between the challenges we must inevitably face and those we can avoid by shifting our approach.
Part of this effort involves encouraging people to become inquisitive about the sources of their beliefs and to reflect on moral questions. These more philosophical approaches could help us become less attached to our current worldviews, more curious about their origin and what other perspectives we might adopt, and better-versed in ethical reasoning. Let’s explicitly discuss our mental models of how the world works and collectively learn about the biases that often impede our perception, so that we can notice and hopefully move beyond them. Deep conversations about what life should be about in light of ecological and energy limits must start happening regularly, so we’ll need to develop our capacity and willingness to have them. This age of ecological overshoot presents humanity with difficult moral choices, and we must take time to understand and deal with them productively. Helping people develop new lenses for looking at the world is crucial for navigating an uncertain future.
The second habit to establish is regular participation in collective political action. This is currently unfamiliar to many citizens whose primary political activity is casting a vote during an election. Everyday people must recognize that only by pooling our resources and working in groups can we have an impact at the scale of our crises. We must also gain the skills involved: learning to set goals, run campaigns, and manage disagreements not just in education courses but by joining social movements and economic relocalization efforts where we live. When we work together, we can elevate new ideals and the pathbreaking political representatives we want to advance them.
We need to eliminate our collective bystander effect as much as possible, and develop modes of thought that allow us to successfully navigate complexity. The goal is to no longer be passive spectators but instead active participants in shaping our own fate.
Non-consumerist cultural values
To create a sustainable society, consumer culture—a value system that normalizes and glorifies ever-increasing consumption—must be replaced with a culture in which meaning is typically sought outside of material goods. We should not underestimate the role of consumerism in wealthy countries, which can have a major psychological dimension. Our consumption behavior can be entangled with our identity, self-esteem, coping mechanisms, and relationships with others. Under those conditions, significantly reducing resource use may be infeasible.
There are many steps to take. It’s crucial that we begin to clarify the difference between needs and wants. While needs are satiable, wants can be infinite. The things that tend to matter most to us do not necessarily demand today’s high levels of consumption: loving relationships, economic security, meaningful work, leisure time, and opportunities to learn about the world. When these needs aren’t fulfilled, buying more things doesn’t compensate. Research indicates that beyond a certain level of income, happiness stops rising. A significant portion of our total consumption is of the “conspicuous” variety, based on a desire to “keep up with” our peers. As others consume more, we feel pressure to match or exceed them, perpetuating a cycle that doesn’t increase well-being. So much excessive consumption is therefore meaningless or a source of strife. The public must become thoroughly aware of that.
We should explore how consumption weaves through many of our core cultural values, and redefine them. We’re taught that growth and progress is a matter of expanding GDP. Freedom is often equated with our ability to consume, thus the more lavish our lifestyle the freer we supposedly are. The view that more is always better is often our default, and striving to consume more is conflated with the search for purpose in our lives. There is little examination of how much consumption is enough for a good life. We’ll need to affirm visions of growth and progress that don’t revolve around consumption, develop non-consumerist definitions of freedom, and determine for the first time the meaning of enough. This will likely entail finding more meaning in our relationships, in a contemplative life, in the work of maintaining our shared home, and perhaps in simplicity. We need to live with more gratitude, which requires us to become more conscious of the many things we take for granted.
Citizens should also learn about the immense effort that corporations put in to turn what was originally a culture defined by thrift into one defined by an individual’s buying options. Consumer culture is only about a century old—the 99 percent of human history that remains had no concept of self-definition through consumption. Knowing that consumerism doesn’t completely define human nature helps fight feelings of determinism.
The ultimate goal is a society that attempts to meet everyone’s needs in the least resource-intensive ways. We’ll need to help people develop identities shaped far less by their consumption behavior, learn how to deal with adversity by drawing on inner and collective sources of strength, and make it easier to form meaningful relationships with others. Otherwise, the thought of embracing ecological limits may itself feel like an existential threat.
Commitment to equity
A transition culture would have at its core a commitment to equity in its many forms. We must seek equity within nations and between them, between present and future generations, and between human and non-human species. We’ll need to recognize the tension that can exist among these different goals on a finite planet already in overshoot, and try to find balance in the decisions we make. This does not mean that hardship will be avoided, or that perfect equity can ever be achieved—after waiting so long to deal with our issues, we may often be forced to choose between bad options with somewhat uneven effects.
Nevertheless, a commitment to pursuing equity is vital to the transition. It is the foundation of democracy, because as inequality grows too much it fundamentally separates people and elevates a few into positions of immense power over the rest. The level of wealth and power redistribution we’ll need to establish a sustainable economy relies on a firm belief in equity. It also helps to give rise to solidarity; we’re going to have to work together and collectively overcome adversity to make the journey to a new society, and pledging ourselves to manage scarcity as fairly as possible will be a crucial pillar of stability along the way.
Capacity to accept large-scale change
We’ll also need to cultivate the traits of flexible thinking and emotional resilience, so that openness to change becomes a core cultural value. Any sort of change, even the most positive, can elicit fear and resistance. Some level of upheaval is likely to accompany the transition, and we’ll need the skills to cope without letting it paralyze us or turn us back.
There will also be significant uncertainty involved, despite our efforts to create a citizenry as critical and conscious as possible. Doubt has long been used as a weapon by industries seeking to fight collective action in the public interest, and it will be here. We’ll need to address that vulnerability by building comfort with uncertainty and working to maintain trust in the transition plan.
A major part of building resilience is cultivating real community. We’ll rely on our connections with others more than ever throughout this process. The more we can foster solidarity and develop people’s capacity to embrace change and the unknown, the more secure the transition will be.
To be clear, the qualities above are generally qualities of thought and behavior, and on their own are insufficient to transform society. Institutions are a major part of our culture as well, and they either limit or extend changes in thought and behavior. For example, an economy in which businesses produce goods designed to break and require quick replacement will always use unnecessary resources, even if every member of the public is aware of the problem and trying to make less resource-intensive choices as an individual. A government that guarantees a job to its citizens can extend public support for disruptive societal change far beyond the support possible through individuals’ emotional resilience alone. Building new institutions and infrastructure that make it easier for people to live sustainable lifestyles is vital. But these structures only change if thought and behavior become geared towards social transformation first.
It’s important to recognize that these qualities blend together and mutually reinforce one another. How much of a non-materialistic culture can we create without resilience? How can we think critically without holistic knowledge? We should strive to cultivate these various characteristics at the same time. Like emergent properties, which arise from the connections between elements in a system rather than any single element itself, a new culture might only emerge if enough of its roots are being established simultaneously.
It should be unsurprising that this constellation of characteristics also represents a deeply democratic culture. It’s a vision of communities with the skills, habits, and level of self-organization needed to critically evaluate information, make informed decisions, implement those decisions, and manage conflict peaceably, even when circumstances are unclear and challenging. Such communities can withstand the obstacles we’ll inevitably face without being divided or co-opted by elite demagogues. This is the durable political base we’ll rely on to deliver the repeated election victories required for a long-term transition.
Creating a Transition Culture
We need to lay the groundwork for a sustainable society to make it possible. The first step in that process is for activists to recognize the likely limits of technology-based climate solutions and the resulting need for significant changes to our lifestyles. This conclusion is more challenging than standard narratives dominated by technology, but we must ask ourselves where the evidence around our ecological and energy issues leads. If the climate movement comes to see itself as a movement fighting for a fundamentally different society, then we’ll have the numbers needed to begin establishing its foundation by reshaping public knowledge and culture.
Building the infrastructure needed to cultivate the characteristics described above is the next step. We’ll need to develop the courses and our communication strategies, gather input from relevant experts, and first establish the curriculum within the movement so that all activists have a thorough understanding before bringing it to the public.
The movement could utilize an inside-outside strategy where we attempt to influence existing information systems while creating our own education and discussion networks both online and in communities across the country. There are trade-offs to each strategy. It may be much slower to try to sway established media and school systems, as those in power will surely deem many important topics too radical to appear before the public. On the other hand, building movement-run education institutions could be quicker and better for curriculum integrity, though the challenge will be reaching the needed scale of millions of participants. A promising avenue may be the creation of citizen assemblies in each state, whereby participants would make policy recommendations meant to address ecological overshoot to local and state governments, and would rely on this education to do so.
Ultimately, we should consider all of the possible channels through which mindset shifts can occur and develop a comprehensive strategy. Having multiple, varied means of challenging social myths and encouraging people to rethink their assumptions is essential. Formal communication campaigns are complemented by efforts to pass policies and establish institutions that embody the traits of a transition culture. The repetition of new thought patterns is crucial for instilling a new common sense.
A New Enlightenment for a New Society
There is no close historical comparison for the task ahead of us, but the magnitude of the cultural shift is perhaps most comparable to the Enlightenment. Revolutions during that period upended hundreds of years of rule by monarchs and aristocrats who were said to be chosen by “divine right”—an unimaginably daunting power structure to overcome. Even more improbably, what replaced it was an entirely new experiment in human governance: representative democracy. Though many were disenfranchised at its outset, this novel system of government would eventually give ordinary people a historically unprecedented chance to shape their society. The era’s political revolutions were in large part the result of “a revolution of the mind,” spurred by increasingly widespread arguments about democracy’s viability and legitimacy. These arguments forced growing numbers of people to rethink their understanding of the world and their place in it.
We are called today to birth a new Enlightenment. This is a story of humanity learning to govern itself, to impose the right self-limitations, and to finally develop wisdom equal to the power of our technology. We are all a part of this story, though we grow up without anyone telling us that. Our lives have great purpose because the ending is not yet written. We have never truly chosen the path we’re on, instead carrying out our own destruction on autopilot. We are called to awaken each other and collectively author our common future. What could be more meaningful than that?
This article on social change literacy is the fourth and final installment in the Climate Activism Curriculum series. If you haven’t checked out the three previous articles, which sequentially build an argument for economic and cultural transformation, you can check them out here:
Educating for Climate Activism, Autonomy, and System Change presents a curriculum model that ties these literacy domains together.