This is the first in a 7-part essay on the type of policy innovations that would respond to the truth of the environmental predicament and, also, why most environmental professionals ignore such ideas to promote limited and limiting ideas instead. It provides a contrast to current agendas, with the aim of encouraging a global environmental movement as a rights-based political force. This introduction provides context and a #ClimatePlus framework, with the policy proposals coming in the subsequent parts.
As humanity faces catastrophic climate change, we hear calls for ‘systemic change’, or ‘transformation’. However, the familiar policy ideas shared by politicians, business leaders, climatologists and campaigners fail to be systemic. That includes the new announcements coming from governments during COP26, on matters like forest conservation and financing coal. But it also includes many of the bolder ideas from environmental campaigners, as some uncomfortable examples will illustrate… No, banks divesting from fossil fuels is not systemic, because if it works enough to lower the share-price of international oil companies, then competitors, rich families, or sovereign wealth funds from around the world will take them over and keep the oil pumping to supply ongoing demand. That doesn’t mean that banks and pension funds are doing the right thing to invest in oil companies – they are not. But trying to change that is not a systemic aim because it won’t change humanity’s impacts at scale. Neither is calling for governments to stop focusing on GDP growth a systemic idea, if the monetary system that requires their economies to grow in order to achieve economic stability remains enthroned. Condemning the UN processes as failures as a way of calling for multi-stakeholder alliances on climate is not a transformative stance, when it ignores how corporate influence over decades destroyed the potential of those UN processes and will likewise distort the initiatives coming out of any new alliance.
So am I just being defeatist? No – otherwise I would not bother writing this 7-part essay on radical and transformative policy responses to our environmental predicament. There are many systemic policy innovations that could help humanity right now, but you won’t hear them from the professionals engaged in climate policy this month. That is because the professional classes, who are people with time to engage in the policy jamborees, have been schooled within the ideology of our time, which defers to existing power in a global capitalist system. I know because I am one of them. I lied to myself for decades as I tried to encourage significant reform through voluntary corporate sustainability initiatives. What’s worse, we professionals working on public challenges are surrounded by people with an unacknowledged narcissism, where the motivation to feel ethical, smart, and contemporary, trumps any depth of inquiry into what might be going on and might be possible. It is a strange but silver lining of the terrifying climate news that more of us are being forced out of such patterns through a dark night of the soul. It means we can consider again what might work, rather than what has been just easy stuff to tell ourselves – or our professional admirers, clients or donors.
Released as a series of blogs over the next 7 days, in this essay I aim to help you explore how you might engage in larger social change beyond your household and neighbourhood, as you anticipate increasing societal disruption from the direct and indirect effects of environmental breakdown. If you want to be part of a political movement that has relevant goals, either through your professional work or as a volunteer, I hope this essay will stimulate some new ideas and drive. I consider this an outline of ideas for a “real green revolution,” by which I mean a fundamental change in the power relations which have caused the interrelated social and environmental chaos of our era. I will touch on controversial topics including monetary reform, geoengineering, ecocide, nuclear power, family planning, and assisted dying, amongst others. Consequently, I don’t anticipate widespread agreement, but hope the essay will illustrate the breadth of policy ideas that can arise from a more holistic and systemic approach than the one on display this month as the world talks about climate.
I will focus on what might be the most important public policy areas to work on, in light of the unfolding disruptions to our way of life and the difficulties to come. What I mean by ‘important’ is those changes in policies which could affect the greatest number of people through changes in the incentives and disincentives we experience directly. Given the disruptiveness of the pandemic era, as well as the forthcoming disruptiveness of climate panic, I think some of these policy ideas will have a chance to be implemented, even if they are then swamped by subsequent disruptions as the climate changes further. Nevertheless, writing this essay has felt somewhat futile. Because my proposals go against the powerful tide of mainstream policy that is reflected by COP26 as well as its critics. That sense of futility meant I kept quiet for a while. But then I realised that if people like me don’t share our ideas on what we think is needed, then we will not discover if there are like-minds to collaborate with. If we keep quiet then neither would we have offered a contrasting agenda that could help people understand the ideological limits of what they are currently being offered. Silence would mean we would not know if something positive could have happened – we would have accepted defeat without utterance. I remain a positive pessimist: I anticipate a very difficult future but continue to hunger for new ideas for how to reduce harm and find joy in the process. Even the contrast that is offered may help some not to participate in counterproductive policy responses. Therefore, even while I expect that the ideas outlined in this essay will not be enacted, I share them with a desire to be fully present to the situation, to uphold truth and dialogue, and honour our unending capacities to do what’s right, whatever the circumstances.
Over these last 3 years since the Deep Adaptation paper on societal collapse went viral with a million-plus downloads, I did not share many ideas on policies. Not because I did not have any, but because I preferred to encourage ways of relating and discussing where people from all walks of life would develop new ideas about what to do once they woke up to our predicament. That enacted my perspective on social change, where key to engagement are the common questions, better ways of exploring them and experimenting with multiple possible answers. The same aim of promoting a multiplicity of ideas underpins the Deep Adaptation book which I edited with Rupert Read. In its pages, many experts share their ideas on diverse topics – from education, to business, to psychotherapy, to local economics. That approach also reflects a painful realisation that the complexity of the processes of societal disruption and breakdown means that advancing wide-ranging recommendations on policy responses can become delusional. That complexity is a challenge to the growing ‘climate adaptation’ policy arena that I will explore further in this essay.
Some people who anticipate collapse, and some people who observe us, have the impression that the ‘deep adaptation’ framework and community are not about policies that might help reduce harm and create better possibilities during societal breakdown. It is true that some people who are very active in the Deep Adaptation Forum are not interested in any efforts at creating a wider influence on people through public policies. They rationalize that in various ways, including by regarding the current governance apparatus of the market and governments as of limited lifespan. Some people see any work on influencing policy as rather dry and painful and do not wish to spend their remaining years engaged in such activities. I appreciate those views – and feel them – but do not think that helpful if it becomes the dominant response amongst those of us who anticipate – or consider we are witnessing – societal breakdown. Instead, if I share some tasty but half-baked ideas on policy innovations in response to imminent or unfolding societal breakdown, perhaps you will bite on them, or spit them out and serve some of your own! That process might be a bit awkward along the way, but some good new ideas might emerge in the process.
Before diving into specific policy ideas, it is important to note where, philosophically, I am coming from. Key, therefore, is one’s perspective on human nature and the role of governance in related to that. In my exploration of systemic approaches to problems, I discovered that people are assuming a range of ideas about the nature of reality and the nature of the human. Such ideas underpin how people imagine the need for – and nature of – governance. That touches on the oldest debates in political philosophy, which stretch further back than, say, Hobbes, to the various ideas of Plato, Lao Tsu and other totems of thought on both human nature and good governance. Therefore, before jumping into the specific policy ideas, I wish to begin with some reflections on human nature and what may have gone wrong so far.
If we look at the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last 40 years as well as the levels of habitat and biodiversity loss, the trends are near exponential in a terrible direction (unless you are a cockroach awaiting the destiny of your offspring to rule the planet in the late-Anthropocene era). The raw data on human impact on the planet is irrefutable evidence that our collective efforts to sustain our living environment have failed. Looking at those exponential curves of doom, one climatologist remarked to me that it appears as if humans are behaving like an unintelligent bacteria colony in a petri dish. When such organisms find themselves in a yummy petri dish, they reproduce themselves until they exhaust their nutrient supply and create too many waste products for their own survival, thereby wiping themselves out. As I self-identify as a human, I might be biased on this matter. With that caveat, I think we are far more intelligent than bacteria. So what might be the other options for making sense of humanity’s overshoot of the resources of our planetary home and resulting self-harm? One idea is that we are smart but suicidal. Another option is that we are smart but insane. Perhaps we went insane due to our anxiety at our awareness of our own mortality, and thus became subconsciously destructive of all life including our own. Putting aside such existential rumination on the collective unconscious for a moment, to return to the realm of normal chit chat, neither suicide nor insanity seem intelligent from a normal understanding of intelligence. That’s not to say that suicide might seem to be a way out for some individuals in situations of intense and irreducible suffering (which is something I will return to later). But I believe there’s a much better explanation for why we’re acting like bacteria in a planetary petri dish. And there is good scholarship to back up my idea. So, without further ado…
Humanity is oppressed by the systems that were built and maintained by people amongst us who have been expressing their lowest states of consciousness. Those states of consciousness are filled with fear, greed, and antipathy towards fellow humans. They lead people to seek to acquire more control over resources and other people. They create and develop systems that reduce the need to trust and be trusted, like and be liked, care and be cared for. The history of the theft of common lands and common resources, the creation of currencies and banks, profit maximising corporations, and financial speculation all relate to that form of consciousness. A lot of effort then goes into woke-washing this systematised separation and selfishness, by people who had careers like mine. A lot of us don’t realise that is what we are doing because we have not experienced life outside this economic system. It has trained us since birth to experience each other and the world in ways that involve separation, scarcity, acquisition and competition. Throughout our lives we are rewarded and punished in ways so it is easier to compete to acquire stuff, status and experiences, while externalizing risks and costs onto other people, the natural world and future generations.
Unless we wake up to these systems of oppression and how they are the reason for why humanity has got itself into this terrible situation, we will not identify how to reduce future harm. It is in overlooking this matter of assumptions about human nature in relation to the cause of our predicament that I believe the environmental movement in advanced economies has been flawed. Ignoring or downplaying systemic oppressions and instead promoting further managerial control of people serves to denigrate us all, rather than honour our suppressed yet resilient inclinations for solidarity and collective contribution. To not recognise these processes of oppression is to implicitly assume that human nature is bad, stupid, suicidal or insane. All of those assumptions are misanthropic. Unless we become aware of that thread of misanthropy within current policy discussions on public issues, then, in a state of anxiety at disruptive changes and risks, many of us could support greater oppression of each other. This is what I have identified in the mainstream narrative about how to respond effectively to the pandemic, and my encouragement of a more citizen-based response in future, which recognises our capabilities and desires to make responsible decisions for ourselves and each other.
What are the policy innovations that might have the deepest and widest effects on the whole of an economy in society without creating a cumbersome bureaucratic burden or meddling in people’s lives unnecessarily? That was the question I asked myself as I reflected on all the ideas I have discussed or developed with people in the field of ‘sustainable development’ over the past 30 years. We know there are numerous important things to work on. For example, the world of fashion is quite ridiculous in its premises on constant change and superficial matters of appearance, while involving negative impacts on the environment and sometimes on the workforce down through the supply chains. It is something I’ve worked on in the past. However it’s not one of the main areas to focus on if we seek policy ideas that could have the widest impacts. For that, we need to identify what has the most implications for the rest of economy and society – we need to identify and change the operating code for our economy and society.
That focus has inevitably led me to focus on matters of economic governance. Such topics can be complicated, dry, full of technical language and attract serious people who like it that way. The topics can seem far outside the fields of expertise of people who work on environmental concerns. Topics of economic governance are also less easy to explain to a friend, colleague or supporter of an environmental cause. Therefore, few of us are prepared to engage fully. Many people who have engaged have then left their activism behind and ended up working within the economic system, as consultants, bureaucrats or investment advisors, animated by a story of incremental change, which fades into the background as the rest of life becomes more important than their prior activist intentions. Another impediment to activist engagement with economic governance is a misguided story of pragmatism. I meet many environmentalists who say that there is not time to work on economic transformation. They feel rightly frightened by the pace of climate change and its current impacts on societies. The desire for urgent impact is understandable. But in arguing to work with the economic powers as they are, in ways that therefore do not seek to transform power relations, they have to ignore how environmentalists and social justice campaigners have tried for decades to redirect the power of corporation and banks towards more socially and environmentally beneficial outcomes. They ignore the experience of that effort, which has demonstrated only incremental improvements while the trajectory of the global economy has been otherwise, and the data on environmental health demonstrates the existing strategies have not worked. They also ignore how the last 5 years has witnessed political activists being successful in many countries with an explicitly rebellious message in relation to incumbent power. With that appetite for radicalism in mind, I invite you to consider the policy ideas that I will share in this 7-part essay.
Our rapidly changing climate and disturbed weather must be a central organising principle for all governmental policies going forward. That is because our changing climate affects everything about our societies, either directly or indirectly, through impacts on food, water, disease, disasters, economics, psychology and more. The centring of climate does not mean that all other considerations become secondary. We are responding to climate change because we care about each other and nature. Some philosophers, backed heavily by billionaires, appear to be fine with the idea there be only a small population of humans left on Earth in return for a stable climate, because they surmise that would make it more likely for billions of future humans to enjoy life. Their philosophy of “longtermism” helps them to put the imagined future lives of humans above consideration of us alive right now. That means that elites have a new story to justify themselves changing the way they relate to the rest of us alive today. They imagine themselves unaccountable to us and serving a higher purpose of their imaginations. Like many people I am not keen on the idea of people with the power of enabling genocides to justify themselves with novel ethics and unproven hypotheses for climate restoration. Instead, many of us want to maintain and even grow our values, connection and consciousness, as we respond to the predicament. We realise we might not succeed in preventing global catastrophe, and prefer to uphold human dignity in the process of trying. Therefore, there is a balancing to seek, where we centre climate change responses, while respecting human dignity. In addition there is a deepening to seek, where we look into why humanity, or bits of it, caused this terrible predicament, and thus try to learn how not to make matters worse by efforts coming from the same place that caused the mess.
To refer to this balancing and deepening of approaches to the climate situation, I will call it a #ClimatePlus agenda. It is an agenda that does not develop a tunnel vision simply on carbon cuts and drawdown, but keeps the climate situation in mind across all issues faced in society. As I explored how such an agenda might inform policy innovation, I kept five key aims in mind.
- Mitigation of climate change in significant ways, including both emissions cuts and drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere.
- Adaptation to rapid and inevitably severe climate change, including measures that are accountable to affected persons, carbon-neutral and including anticipation of worst-case scenarios and even societal collapse.
- Restoration of the climate, including Arctic repair, with safe and regulated methods.
- Regeneration of ecosystems and the societies that depend on them, including assisted migration of ecosystems.
- Reparation by richer nations and the international financial system paid to people experiencing loss and damage from climate chaos; recognising the history of contributions to those current difficulties.
When I looked as what could be the most systemic interventions for each of the five areas of a #ClimatePlus agenda I realised that any one intervention could have implications for a number of the areas. I also realised that success would depend on an intervention not creating problems within the other areas. Therefore, my proposals address deeper structural issues than most of the current policy discussion around environmental problems. The resultant policy ideas are not fully formed. However, they emerge from my work on sustainable development since 1995 on all continents (bar Antarctica!), within business, investment, civil society, academia, political parties and the intergovernmental sector. So I’m not inexperienced, and still young enough for it to be premature to put me in the category of nutty old professor 😊 I hope that by sharing these ideas I will contribute to an opening of discussion on a more radical green agenda that responds to the latest science on biospheric collapse.
Each day for the next 7 days I will publish groups of ideas for policy innovation. To receive each part of the essay, subscribe to my blog, using the box on the right. To engage with other people who are responding to these ideas, either engage on the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn (where I will check in) or the Deep Adaptation group on Facebook, or by following the hashtag #RealGreenRevolution on twitter.