This is a response to Graeme Rickard’s post on Apr 27 to the Australian environmental network GreenLeap, discussing why the dimensions of the environmental problem seem increasingly unsolvable.
Graeme, When you notice that many of our best traditional solutions are making our energy and environment problems much worse now, it raises the stakes, but also lets you trace existential dilemma to its logical origins.
The origins of the problem provide solid evidence the problem is our whole model, not shortcomings in our execution.
To have the epiphany needed to change your whole way if thinking, though, seems require finding some hidden dimension of our thinking that can be “uncurled” to help us find ways to branch off the model we have toward something else.
How some of our most trusted solutions simply won’t work at all exemplifies the problem. The “solution” of providing more energy to an “energy starved” economic system with an infinite energy appetite, actually just feeds the addiction. It does not cure it.
I also don’t think trying to build self-sufficient communities makes much more sense. The idea includes an image of resorting to a nostalgic dimension of past skills for living, but that surely couldn’t work by itself now. Going “back to the land” doesn’t fix the problem of our having a failing technological society, that all our “semi-sufficient” communities would still be completely dependent on for technology.
One thing that goes even closer to the heart of it for me is that, at the limits of the earth, being more productive in using resources reduces rather than increases your supplies. Humans have relied on improving productivity as a way to “create” resources for actually thousands of years.
It’s been our most reliable solution it seems, but it doesn’t actually create any resources. Productivity only improves access to continually depleting resources. So.., at the limits of the earth increasing your access to resources has the reverse effect, decreasing your supply.
That we seem to have actually hit that natural limit for prospering from productivity growth seems to be why, for 10 years now, prices for the whole spectrum of food and fuel resource prices have been progressively escalating as a group (1). Supply has not been keeping up with demand, worldwide.
Increasingly the added supply for new users is being taken from the supplies of existing users, by raising the prices high enough. That really changes how an economy works. Anyone looking at it with fresh eyes would immediately say: “Gee, that’ll become a very unprofitable kind of investment, won’t it!”
That we have a world consensus plan to continually drive productivity growth then points sharply to yet another of the completely impossible assumptions around which we built our economic system. As using productivity to solve problems has been central to our thinking all along has also meant that questioning it has always been dismissed.
That’s part of why it’s been hard to draw attention to this and the other misunderstandings we’re struggling with. Ever since I noticed it I’ve been pointing it out leading bloggers, scientists and activists in sustainability. They have fairly quickly seen that it didn’t fit with the rest of their thinking,.. and in response let it drop rather than start poking around for ways to change their way of thinking.
You, just can’t start a new way of thinking about productivity with a social movement, for example, as productivity is very popular. For most people social competition drives them to be more and more productive anyway, and they cling to that language and those stories as part of their personal relationships, not even thinking globally.
From my years of mingling with various crowds, it looks to me that only a few scattered individuals have come to see that increasing productivity has been the problem not the solution all along. Those “break-away” individuals can’t lead a movement either, as their thinking is so individualistic they haven’t formed a common language for sharing it with others. So,… from that view, our bigger problem really becomes, that we have both no leaders and no followers.
So… perhaps we at least look for new images of where we should go. One new image of what a sustainable world looks like is an ecology, an economic system with independent parts that lives a long time and remains vitally active and creative, without escalating waves of conflict. That would somehow require the parts to anticipate when further growth will become unprofitable, and to stop growing on their own as a strategy for remaining profitable, to avoid pressing their limits to the point of conflict.
For our present economic model, the use of savings and investment as an unconditional driver of growing productivity conflicts with nature but is also central to our culture, and so is a special kind of deep cultural and institutional problem. You might have to “go to the ends of the earth” to even understand it.
Still, all the signs are that “we need a new model”. Each thing that proves that our present model can’t physically work also points directly to our needing to explore the difference between our beliefs (from our turning information into theory) and nature (environmental systems using energy). Earning a home on earth seems to require it…
I grant that to people who imagine that the natural world is what they believe,… their thinking is sufficient to justify whatever they believe. But even they must also be able to see that if people change what they believe nature is unaffected.
So, the question then is what would make us curious about studying how nature works differently than we think… that’s seems to be the rub. Lots of people can see it’s becoming absolutely necessary for our survival. At the same time most everyone also seems rather satisfied with their own beliefs! It calls for a sort of wilderness exploration, of a new kind, that as yet isn’t popular.
1) A decisive moment for Investing in Sustainability in New European Economy Apr 2010