Essentials of Life and Death – part 6 of a #RealGreenRevolution

This is the 6th 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. These ideas on a #RealGreenRevolution provide a contrast to current agendas, with the aim of encouraging a global environmental movement as a rights-based political force.  In this part of the essay, I focus on some sensitive issues about life and death, which have become even more polarised due to pandemic policy responses.

To receive each part of the essay, subscribe to my blog, using the box on the right (or right at the bottom of this post). To engage with other people who are responding to these ideas, either visit 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. A list of previous parts of this essay is available.

Agricultural Transformation

The impacts of current levels of climate change on agriculture are already scary. The modelling of what could happen when we pass 1.5 degrees global ambient warming is much scarier. Our civilisation is based on grains, which feed us humans about 80 percent of our calories, either directly or via animal feed. With 1.5 degrees warming the risk becomes high for prolonged droughts or unseasonal frosts harming the production in multiple major grain exporting regions around the world in the same year. Therefore, our agricultural and food systems need urgent diversification in ways that do not increase, but reduce carbon emissions.

The starting point is problematic. The agriculture and food sectors around the world are characterised by the expansion of big business. Massive multinationals are involved in production of grains, in their shipping, and in the trading of contracts for their purchase and sale, either now or in future. Around the world commercial cropping has displaced diverse forms of agriculture, with the farms growing larger as the fields grow larger. Seeking the economies of scaled production, with the use of large amounts of agrochemicals and machines has been the direction for decades. Many countries had given up on having an agricultural policy, and many countries do not even have ownership of their own emergency stores of grains anymore. Everything about this system must change, and change fast.

Each country will be different, but certain key things are relevant for any context. Some of these ideas may seem contradictory, but they are necessary alongside each other in order to try to reduce the harm from a multi-breadbasket failure that would collapse the international trade in grains upon which nearly all of us depend at present.  

First, a change of direction towards agroecology is essential, where the soils of the land are restored, mixed cropping techniques are reintroduced and less chemicals are used. Connected to that, much more public funding for permaculture gardens in urban areas is important. Second, the urgent development of high calorie alternatives to rain-fed grains, and to high-protein alternatives to meats are needed, which will include greenhouse, hydroponics and novel foods. These two approaches are quite different, with the former approach appearing less industrial and the latter appearing more so. Ideological bias towards one or the other will be unhelpful in what is an emergency situation to try and keep humanity nourished during the coming disruptions. Like many analysts, I consider it unlikely we can feed the world with small permaculture gardens, and I do not want to risk mass starvation while trying that due to passionately held theory. Rather, for a swift change in agriculture, both government funding and credit guidance to banks will be necessary in ways that alter both the practices of big farms and agricultural businesses on the one hand, and multiplying small alternatives on the other.

An energy carbon tax would feed through supply chains to incentivize changes in agricultural practices and make some forms of meat more expensive, to reflect the carbon footprint involved (see part 2 of this series). However, given that societies need to reduce the meat proportion of diets rapidly for both carbon footprint and grain availability for human consumption, a tax on animal feed is probably necessary. Other taxes on food could be reduced, and the tax system brought into line with policy objectives of enabling nutrition through a climate disrupted era.

As disruptions to food supplies are increasingly likely, it is not appropriate to leave national reserves in private hands, or for multinational commodities firms to play a key role in prices and availability. Therefore, renationalisation of reserves and the break up of some of the large multinationals in this sector would help increase resilience and be a useful adaptation measure. Of course, these companies will fund and promote research reports that argue otherwise, and thus obfuscate the simple principle that in a crisis we do not want our ability to eat being determined by profit-maximising international companies.

What I am describing here is not an incremental agenda that might marginally change government budgets. This transformation of agriculture needs to begin immediately and involve budgets similar to what is currently spent on the military. Otherwise, we will not have made a serious attempt at saving lives. Therefore, measures for agricultural transformation could be candidates for financing through the new international mechanisms I described in Part 5 of this essay.

Health Sector Reform

Climate change effects on economics, society, and politics also has implications for how to promote public health. Research indicates that more diseases already – and will increasingly – spill over from wildlife into human populations because of the damage we have done to the environment. During the recent pandemic, we have witnessed how the policy response from governments has correlated closely with the interests of pharmaceutical companies. Novel vaccines have been prioritised above other measures, such as scientifically-proven benefits of nutritional supplements, medicinal herbs, generic drugs, and the empowerment of employees to self-isolate. The influence also appears in how vaccines from companies that generate profits in the west have been favoured by their governments over vaccines from elsewhere, like Russia and China. For decades, there has been scholarly critique of the commercial influence over the whole paradigm of medicine, favouring profit-making drugs over holistic and complementary approaches, on the methodologies for the authorisation of medicines, and the role of patents in making drugs unaffordable to many people or creating a large drain on public finances. In addition, the process of ‘professional closure’ which occurs in all areas of expertise to raise the status and income of professionals, has meant the corporate-shaped medical profession has maintained a negative attitude towards other approaches to health and wellbeing, and to community-based approaches to that. Therefore, the opportunities for those professionals to learn through engagement with wider forms of knowledge, as well as the ability of the general public to integrate different forms of knowledge on health and wellness has been compromised. In the face of increasing disruptions to societies around the world and the increasing demands on the medical sector, this situation will change. It is best that such a change is guided, rather than just occurs out of necessity, as the latter means more people might be sick and die than otherwise.

As part of how we adapt to climate change and the difficulties it will cause, governments should massively increase investment in, and incentives for, non-corporate and community-based approaches to health and wellness. A range of behaviours in society, relating to diet, commuting, working arrangements, opportunities for physical activities, availability of play and community engagement, all need assessing and supporting. In addition, a range of non-medical therapeutic support for mental and physical health and wellbeing should be supported. A paradigm shift that restores health and wellbeing as a community-supported goal, where cost is not a barrier to people exploring how best to look after themselves, is key. Given the psychological distress that is likely from increasing societal disruptions and worrying news, community-based emotional support will need to be a key part of that new agenda. Even the World Health Organisation has recognised this need, although its attention to it is only beginning.

Family Planning Access

The relationship between population growth and overconsumption of natural resources has been a controversial topic. Population growth is highest in countries with poverty, and when asked, a large proportion of women in low-income countries say that they would like to have more control over their family sizes. But the experts who write about problems from overpopulation are nearly always from the global North. They are accused of downplaying the fact that although low-income countries have higher rates of population growth, the carbon and ecological footprint per person in such countries is many times less than in high-income countries. Therefore, from an environmental perspective, whether it is about reducing impact on the environment or preparing for a world with more scarce resources, it is as important to focus on the power of women to make informed choices about pregnancy. That means ensuring that women and girls worldwide have access to sex education, support of their rights and dignity, more opportunities in life, as well as access to birth control. That does not mean encouraging potential parents to have less children, but to provide them with the options not to have children. For instance, in some situations high infant mortality rates mean that it has been customary to have many children – therefore improving health would help that concern. Just because some people have approached this topic in an inappropriate way, does not mean that helping reduce population growth in all societies in an empowering way is not a sensible environmental policy.

The importance of enabling adults to have fewer children means no real green revolutionary movement should accept without challenge those religious institutions and their leaders who seek to reduce access to family planning. It seems incoherent to me that some applaud the Catholic Pope for positive communications on the environment while not addressing the Catholic Church’s stance on population and voluntary birth control. But it is also important that the overpopulation discussion does not focus on low-income countries alone. A child born into a rich country is likely to have a carbon and environmental footprint well over a dozen times greater than someone born into an average situation in a low-income country. Some high-income countries have been encouraging their citizens to have more children, due to concerns about an aging population. That is not compatible with our environmental predicament. Instead, if a citizenry are deciding to have fewer children then the government of a nation should look at ways to respond to that without trying to increase the birth rate.

Reducing the birth-rate alone will not help with carbon cuts, drawdown, adaptation, or the rest of the ClimatePlus agenda that I outlined in Part 1 of this essay. Indeed, focusing on it could become a distraction. However, if it is complemented with a focus on reducing and equalising consumption levels around the world, then slowing the rate of population growth will be useful and have a widespread and long-lasting effect. Unfortunately, this nuanced approach is still often condemned as racist, in ways that make invisible the women across the global South who nearly always state their interest in more birth control and smaller family sizes. As such, the use of racial awareness to invite outrage against a fair discussion of this issue might itself reflect some self-involved white privilege.

Voluntary Assisted Dying

The topic of voluntary assisted suicide is very delicate and can evoke strong emotions. The idea that we might choose when to die is upsetting to some people, sometimes because of a deep sadness about people committing suicide and a real concern about how assisted dying could be abused. Yet part of the reason that most of us do not pay attention to this issue is because death is little discussed in modern cultures and is hidden away. The three grandparents I visited in nursing homes before they died all wanted to be able to leave this world earlier than they did. It was particularly painful for my parents to witness their suffering. My grandparents were being kept alive partly out of the habit of the medical system to keep people alive even when that was against the wishes of the people in their care. It appears that to be completely against compassionately letting the terminally ill or the elderly to pass away when they want to, is an escape from ethical complexity for a modern health profession. To change that stance would require more oversight than currently the medical profession has.

I would like to see voluntary assisted dying available more widely but more regulated than currently in Switzerland. Key is the process of permission. I prefer a system where a number of pre-registered friends or family would need to agree for the process to go ahead. For instance, well ahead of a situation where we would seek this form of assistance, we would nominate 5 people, of whom 3 would need to agree, including one person who is a registered medical doctor. That would mean the law would need to be completely different, as currently anyone knowing about someone making plans for assisted suicide might be investigated by the police. That I would mention this matter in relation to the environmental crisis might be shocking to some people. The implication is that because humanity has overshot the carrying capacity of our home, that we should stop keeping people alive if they don’t want to be due to terminal illnesses. Yes, it is the argument I am making. Does that mean I am suggesting the elderly have less right to life? No. I am arguing that in normal times we shouldn’t be torturing our elderly due to our cultural aversion to death, while in difficult situations, we should think even more about providing options for people who are suffering to seek voluntary assisted suicide. When I hear people state religious reasons against such alleviation of suffering, I find it difficult to recognize love in their sentiments, but rather I hear what Lao Tsu described as the situation where love and spirituality dies and is replaced by moral statements and performance. It is important that the environmental movement do not shy away from the most important matters of our lives, in order to seek favour with this or that group, or avoid shaming, which is one reason why I have raised these matters of life and death in this essay.

You can subscribe to my blog by using the box on the right, or at the bottom of this post. To engage with other people who are responding to these ideas, either visit the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn (where I will check in) or the Deep Adaptation group on Facebook, or by follow the hashtag #RealGreenRevolution on twitter. A list of previous parts of this essay is available.