This term, Business as Usual, is slung around by many, but its meaning can be very different depending on who’s talking. There are at least five possible distinct groups who might use the term and it may mean something different to each of them. One group is scientists. Others may be think-tanks, environmentalists, nations, politicians, industry, or indigenous communities.
When scientists speak, they mean a specific thing. The IPCC defines Business as Usual as a specific baseline year for measured emissions. That year may be two decades in the past or it might mean last year. For politicians, Business as Usual means anything they want it to mean, depending on how they wish to frame the policies they support or whether they believe those policy targets are achievable. Business as Usual may mean life to some or death to others.
Different nations may use different base year’s emission records to define their own policy objectives. When large emitters choose a base year in a different way from climate scientists to define their own achievements, watch out. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s sleight of hand going on. It just means they are choosing the conditions that will display their policies in the best light, regardless of whether those policies conform to any scientific model or are developed based on targeted emission reductions that will have the greatest impact. Even incremental reductions are still steps in the right direction. Even so, when different entities use the term, it often means we are comparing apples and oranges.
There are differences between baseline years chosen for large emitting nations and those chosen by developing nations since the scale of emissions between the two is so different and the mitigation policies and objectives for one may be very different from the others. For the IPCC to identify a single base year applied to all nations might make comparisons between Intended National Defined Contributions (INDCs) easier, but it might also impose policy hardships on developing nations. This is why there is an honest attempt to standardize emission calculation methods without imposing emission reduction targets.
The intention to reduce emissions is an honest objective sought by all nations, but the growth of energy demand in developing nations is larger than that of developed nations and more aggressive policies projecting emission reductions might put their economies at risk. INDCs are revised every five years. Those developing economies are not only dealing with future emission reductions but also attempting to heal the damage of the past (not of their own making). This year in particular, we are seeing that damage spread more equally among all nations.
Scanning the entire array of INDCs renders the term Business-as-Usual virtually meaningless because each one of over 160 participating nations may choosing different reference years to achieve different outcomes. Plus, there’s no legal obligation to achieve those targets. Further, even though there may be methodological uniformity between nations for calculating a base year, there may be wide variance in reporting structures or accuracy. It’s virtually impossible to sort out what meaning changes truly have because there’s always a negotiation going on between national and global interests. Guess which ones usually win that argument?
Beyond all these specific complications, the term BaU is used by environmental organizations, among activists, and in casual conversation by others not fitting into any category without much attention placed on a real or common definition. It’s a vague reference to the remaining dependence on fossil fuels. Business as Usual can refer to economic dependency on non-renewable energy sources, the dominance of the profit motive over human and more-than-human welfare, the externalization of climate impacts, colonial projects threatening indigenous populations, the business model that maximizes ‘shareholder value,’ the marginalization of people, ideas, actual competition, the fallacy of the ‘free-market,’ pollution on a global scale, the poisoning of waters, air and land, the intrusion of toxicities into our bodies. In other words, the implacable juggernaut of the corporate state. Greenwashing, ‘sustainable growth,’ carbon trading schemes and even the term ESG look like mere window dressing for the status quo.
Looking at it from a common ground, perhaps an indigenous view, Business as Usual seeks continuity without any life-threatening shocks; an impossibility. In the broadest sense, Business as Usual is a dream: the prime directives of modernity, the ongoing distortion of the human relationship with the biosphere, the barely contained sprawling advance of civilization, even the myth of the Self, the independent operator, the solitary actor, the repository of agency and the source of will, the human. These are falsehoods propagated by the larger myth and destined to be revealed as empty, even delusional. Their consequence presages an unbearable sorrow as the unraveling of modern culture proceeds.
The very idea of Business as Usual has become its own undoing. There is no ‘getting back to it,’ as we were assured would occur following the pandemic. Climate impacts are the symptom. Though science must put a pin in a moment of history as a baseline, and even though that pin is a valuable composite of economic conditions, a temporary measurement of emissions, what is coming unraveled is the underlying commitment to a way of seeing the world that contains its own seeds of destruction. Business as Usual is a suicide pact. As the impacts of runaway emissions become more extreme, the mullahs of modernity grasp for narratives to ensure the continuity of the myth, to continue the upward transfer of wealth into the hands of a shrinking few, to continue destruction and call it Progress. If we sense our own experience closely enough, we can even feel that grasping within ourselves as a rising sense of disquiet as uncertainties appear all around us.
Collapse-ology is already attracting scientists from varying disciplines who point to signs of rising systemic strain:
96% of the biomass of mammals — biomass is their weight on Earth — now consists of humans, our pets and our farm animals; nearly 90% of the fish stocks the U.N. monitors are either fully exploited, over exploited or depleted; a multiyear study in Germany showed a 76% decline in insect biomass.
As the human ecological footprint continues to overshoot the capacity of earth to regenerate its renewable resources, Business as Usual becomes a shrinking refuge of denial for those who insist no brakes can be placed on the paradigm. We will think our way through. We will innovate our way through. And yet, the present system was modeled back in the 70s and predicted then to begin crashing right about…NOW.
Man is a victim of dope
In the incurable form of hope—Ogden Nash
We may imagine the opposite of Business as Usual is justice. What does that look like? There’s already a long history of social justice encounters with business in general and the fossil fuel industry specifically. There’s been a great deal of attention within the environmental and political movements on justice, the reversal of Business as Usual, the resolution of much deeper wrongs than those of mere emission profligacy. We could even say the entire agenda of that movement is about justice, the overturning of the current regime reflected in money flows directed to a select few investors, technocrats, and corporate executives while the rest of us are awash in the complexities of our private coping mechanisms.
This is an aspect of Business as Usual not typically included in its definition. We recognize the system that lines the pockets of a few, shuffling off the consequences to the many. But when we begin talking about reversing that dynamic, we get a story about the benefits of cheap energy and how those benefits are distributed to the many. In reality, those benefits accrue to a small percentage of the population while the negative effects are everywhere.
What would justice look like in the form of policy? A persistent long-term incrementally rising penalty on emitters combined with a distribution of those funds to all individuals equally? It turns out that there is such a policy proposal sitting in the wings of the current polarized political drama. And it turns out that most of the benefits of this policy would flow to the lower rungs of the economic ladder. But does focusing on a more equitable redistribution of both the benefits and the costs of modernity lead us to justice? What of the restoration of our lost internal wilderness? Shifting money around to right the wrongs of development could have a profound effect on the damage already caused and help reduce further damage going forward. But does such a policy by itself reverse the existential distress of modernity or reform the ideology of Progress, the engine of Business as Usual? Maybe not. But it would be a start.
©Gary Horvitz, 2023.