Real World Solutions for the Climate Crisis - Part 1
In this first part, an anthropological perspective is adopted to bring an understanding of the human relationship with the climate crisis.
This is the third of a series of articles putting the climate crisis under the microscope and the direct follow-up to The Hidden Climate Catastrophe.
It considers the false ‘business as usual’ solutions, comparing with solutions that should be implemented but aren’t. And then there’s the solutions we thought would tackle the problem but actually end up creating other problems. Behind this are the cultural identities that drive these issues.
The article has been split into two parts to accommodate the scope of this investigation and analysis. Part 1 looks through the lens of anthropological research to understand how we got here and where were going. Part 2 covers the false solutions and potential real world solutions that should be pursued.
Worshiping False Gods
Throughout the ages, humanity has imagined solutions to problems depending on whatever belief systems were incumbent. One tradition was offering a sacrifice to the God’s in order to appease them. Usually it would be an animal offered for sacrifice, but in some cultures it was a human sacrifice. As Shimon Levy notes in the paper sacrifice:
In bringing a sacrificial offering, man expresses his conscious (or not so conscious) belief that he is subject to the ravages of time, fate, and nature; to human frailties, the slings and arrows; as well as to the hope that he can communicate with God, the gods, various forces of nature and other enemies; and give them something meaningful of his own in order to receive from them something no less important: life, health, abundance, absolution for imagined orreal guilt, and other material, mental, and spiritual benefits. Sacrifice, according to Freud [e.g. in Moses and Monotheism], is motivated primarily by fear and guilt. The sacrificial offering, both symbol and non-symbol, image and non-image, indicates faith in its validity as a means of exchange in the trading with those powers stronger than man. The sacrificial offering, as a physical substance, constitutes a mental and social bridge connecting one with a spiritual destination, the foundations of which are concealed in the obscurity between hope and terror.
He also mentions that sacrificial occasions are shrouded in theatre. Such issues may be considered something to be consigned to the annuls of ancient history. Yet today, the same mindset prevails. The Gods may have changed, the culture is different, but the primal beliefs that drove our ancestors are intrinsically the same. This brings us full circle round to the climate crisis. For many, science is an intangible entity that is just as mysterious as the forces of nature that influenced ancient cultures. Climate change is one of those mysterious forces that for some is Gods will, for others it may be the confirmation of some biblical prophesy. For many, its just the intangible entity that doesn’t fall within the sphere of perception.
This article from Grist explores the paradox within fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity over climate change, creationism and evolution in the US and how this has become a political issue, where most reject the science behind climate change (amongst other things). Some Christians believe that God’s Earth should be protected and looked after under the stewardship of the people, whilst others believe that the earth is there to be exploited. Younger evangelicals are more receptive. The article notes:
In 1967, the historian Lynn White Jr. published a short essay in the journal Science. “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” argued that the Christian worldview could be blamed for the rapid pace of environmental destruction. White wrote that the biblical story of creation gave Christians an impetus to dominate the land. Genesis, after all, called on people to “subdue” the Earth and to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air.” It was God’s will. White wrote that this dogma entrenched the idea that the natural world served no purpose “save to serve man’s purposes,” which influenced the development of modern technology and the ecological crisis it wrought.
It comes down to interpretation:
Over the next half-century, many Christians imbued their faith with a concern for the natural world. To counter the idea of “dominion,” they went back to the book of Genesis. The same story, they said, asked people to “work and take care of” the land, and to “let the birds increase on the earth.” Rather than interpreting the story of creation as a license to dominate, these Christians consider it a call to protect and steward the landscape.
Similar paradoxes prevail in other world religions. In some cases in the past this has led to the destruction of local environments. But those who see the Bible as a source to endorse environmental prudence admit that the bible has been used by some to cause destruction and devastation. This goes some way to explaining the incredulous climate denial and wanton destruction that currently prevails. Its obviously a bit more than that. The prevailing dogma of the neoliberal order underpins the almost cult-like characteristics of the system - a system that believes that science and technology will provide a solution. But peel away the thin veneer of our high-tech society and little has changed over the past few millennia. The false God of consumerism is now incumbent.
This invariably leads to the false solutions that has come to the forefront in dealing with the climate crisis. It’s the fundamental belief that we can solve the crisis within the current system without changing anything, just like the ancients did before us. Looking through the lens of anthropology offers a holistic insight into cultural systems, beliefs, practices, expressions and social behaviour. If neoliberalism lies at the heart of the problem, then that is where this investigation should begin.
In a paper from the Annual Review of Anthropology, scholar Tejaswini Ganti from New York University, considers the role of anthropological research into neoliberalism. It outlines how neoliberalism has become a focal point within 21st century discourse as a political-economic concept. In the paper, Ganti argues that neoliberalism can mean different things depending on context. She identifies four key terms:
(a) a set of economic reform policies that some political scientists characterize as the “D-L-P formula,” which are concerned with the deregulation of the economy, the liberalization of trade and industry, and the privatization of state-owned enterprises; (b) a prescriptive development model that deﬁnes very different political roles for labor, capital, and the state compared with prior models, with tremendous economic, social, and political implications; (c) an ideology that values market exchange as “an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs”; and (d) a mode of governance that embraces the idea of the self-regulating free market, with its associated values of competition and self-interest, as the model for effective and efficient government.
Neoliberalism is referred to as an ‘ideological and philosophical movement’ or ‘thought collective’ that emerged during the interwar years. The driving force behind the ideology was the prevailing rise of communism, collectivism and state-centered planning. In short, socialism as a political force was seen as a threat to the free market and individual freedom.
The concept began to take shape before the outbreak of World War 2 with the publication of Walter Lippmann’s An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society in 1937, ‘which argued that a market economy was far superior to state intervention and that the absence of private property was akin to totalitarianism.’
After the war, the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) was founded by a group of influential economists (named after the Swiss town where they met), led by by Austrian economist Friedrich August von Hayek, ‘to build a transnational network of intellectuals who could be trusted to promote the cause of neoliberalism.’ The key focus was private property:
Private property in terms of the means of production was seen as key to decentralizing power and preventing its concentration, which could otherwise jeopardize individual freedom. Freedom of choice across all domains of production and consumption—of the producer, worker, and consumer—was imperative for the efficient and satisfactory production of
goods and services. Freedom of choice also extended to individuals who should have the right to plan their own lives rather than be directed by a centralized planning authority.
Also in the team was Milton Friedman, who’s theories would have a major impact in the emergence of neoliberal thought (see below). But the seeds of the free market were sown in the 18th century by Adam Smith in his seminal work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Smith referred to the market as an ‘invisible hand’, whereby someone pursuing their own interest ‘frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.’ This forms the basis of the modern concept, if you leave the free market to its own devices, everything will work out under its own volition.
Hayek was strongly influenced by Smiths work and that underpinned his position on the free market. But neoliberalism became a contentious issue in the 1970’s, through the influence of Friedman. I’ve previously covered Friedman influence:
Friedman trained groups of students who became known as the ‘Chicago Boys’. Naomi Klein covers the story of the Chicago Boys and Friedman’s influence in detail in her book The Shock Doctrine.
Friedman was effectively the Godfather of unfettered ultra laissez-faire capitalism. He recognised disaster as an opportunity for ‘economic development’. This was the ideology that Friedman instilled in his students. As Klein put it in her book:
Like all fundamentalist faiths, Chicago School economics is, for its true believers, a closed loop. The starting premise is that the free market is a perfect scientific system, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the maximum benefits for all. It follows ineluctably that if something is wrong within a free market economy — high inflation or soaring unemployment — it has to be because the market is not truly free. There must be some interference, some distortion in the system. The Chicago solution is always the same: a stricter more complete application of the fundamentals.
After serving as the president of the MPS from 1970 to 1972, Friedman focused his attention on the Chicago School. The Chicago Boys instigated a coup in Chile with the help of the CIA. But Friedman’s grand experiment in neoliberalism was a catastrophic failure:
After a year, inflation went through the roof. Unemployment was rampant. The economy was facing imminent collapse. Finally in 1982, Chile crashed and Pinochet was forced to backtrack and shift into socialist mode.
Klein sums up the experiment:
Chile… was a country where a small elite leapt from wealthy to super-rich in extremely short order — a highly profitable formula bankrolled by debt and heavily subsidised (then bailed out) with public funds. When the hype and salesmanship behind the miracle are stripped away Chile under Pinochet and the Chicago boys was not a capitalist state featuring a liberated market but a corporatist one. …What Chile pioneered under Pinochet was an evolution of corporatism: a mutually supporting alliance between a police state and large corporations, joining forces to wage all-out war on the third power sector — the workers — thereby drastically increasing the alliance’s share of the national wealth.
But the negative connotations of neoliberalism wasn’t restricted to market forces or the breakdown of democracy, there was an environmental dimension as well. What liberal economists failed to recognise was that economic activity doesn’t exist in a closed system, it takes place in the wider ecological environment of the natural world. As such, anything that occurred outside the economic system was externalised. This concept was explored in Garrett Hardin’s work ‘the tragedy of the commons’, published in Science in 1968. Hardin was a controversial figure due to his views on population growth, a contemporary issue in the 1960’s and ‘70’s and which underpins ‘Tragedy’. Nevertheless, his insight on environmental issues was important.
He begins his essay by focusing on the point that science and technology has its limitations. He argues that:
A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.
He then considers the dilemma of an increasing population whilst preserving privilege, pointing out that, ‘In a finite world this means that the per capita share of the world's goods must steadily decrease.’ He discusses the use of energy and the similar limitations that will be encountered here.
He takes aim at Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, that no progress will be made on the problems he discusses, ‘until we explicitly exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography.’ He then goes on to cite the example of the herdsman who introduces extra cattle in order to increase income, which then leads others to also introduce extra cattle. This ultimately leads to overgrazing because there isn’t enough pasture to accommodate all the cattle. This then is the tragedy - over exploitation of a common resource. He notes that, ‘As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.’ And that’s the crux of the argument. Within the closed system of economics, what occurs within the system is perfectly rational. He sums up:
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.
Another interpretation of the tragedy is environmental abuse. Using the example of pollution, Hardin notes:
The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers.
Legal enforcement would be the obvious answer, but Hardin makes the point that we have a situation where; ‘Bureau administrators, trying to evaluate the
morality of acts in the total system, are singularly liable to corruption, producing a government by men, not laws.’ Or to coin the phrase:
Who shall watch the watchers themselves?
Environmental regulation has improved in some areas since Hardin’s time and there are differing perspectives on the population issue. But the climate crisis remains the elusive. This boils down to the paradox of the closed system whereby climate change in relative terms doesn’t exist. Within the system, that would appear to be a perfectly rational perspective. But rationality isn’t the same as understanding. Rationality is only as effective as the scope of ones understanding and experience. Understand the paradox and you understand the problem. What that means in effect is - a closed system doesn’t share any external boundaries. But every human system shares a boundary with the natural world. Within our current economic framework, this boundary is an invisible border with blurred edges.
Climate change has become a focal point for Anthropological studies. A paper published in Economic Anthropology by Thomas A. Reuter (University of Melbourne), Climate change as a cultural artifact: Anthropological insights to help avert systemic collapse, pins down the key fallacies that underpin neoliberalism. He refers to:
pseudo-intellectual premises about nature (including human nature) within the pseudo-realist neoliberal ideology that upholds today’s dominant and highly destructive economic regime.
He points out the nature of species’ interdependence within ecosystems and how important these dynamics are, to humans as well as other life forms. He notes that:
Interdependence is greatest, however, among individuals of a species that is reliant on differentiated social systems. Humans are the most mutually interdependent or “social” of all life-forms.
This has led to the ‘differentiation of acquired knowledge and skills’ as our modern culture has evolved. How has this led to a culture that has become diametrically opposite to what it is? Reuter points out that this cultural contradiction is a relatively recent development:
people have lived relatively sustainably since modern humans first evolved some 195,000–160,000 years ago. The current crisis originated in the age of industrialization and only began to accelerate exponentially in the post–World War II period of rampant consumer capitalism. Moreover, what is true across temporal scales is true also across geographical regions. The vast majority of non-Western societies studied by anthropologists appear to have lived relatively sustainably until recently, and many continue to do so, as indeed Western societies did prior to the Industrial Revolution. Sustainability has been the rule rather than the exception.
The contrast here is that although indigenous people may endorse some ‘primitive’ beliefs, much of their culture is predicated on their relationship with the natural world, something that western modern culture has become fatally disconnected from. As Reuter sums up:
climate change is not happening because of some intrinsic element of human nature; it is a cultural artifact.
In short, mass consumerism driven by the current system lies at the heart of the problem, whereby:
Industrialization had its own techno-utopian allure and briefly held the promise of presumably “higher” living standards for middle-class consumers in some parts of the world.
This is defended through the prevailing myth that ‘this particular system and all its artifacts, including a highly unsustainable variant of human ecology, as a natural, stable condition that is without alternative.’ There is also another underlying narrative that is based on the Darwinian concept of ‘survival of the fittest’. That the strong must prevail and that the weak should be eliminated. This lies at the heart of neoliberal culture and forms the basis for colonialism and the view that western culture is superior and everyone else is inferior. The result is widespread inequality. However this is a distorted view as competition is inherently self destructive from an ecosystem perspective:
Healthy ecosystems thus over time resolve competition and exploit it as a motor for continuous diversification, with the ultimate outcome of establishing complex webs of interdependence wherein species are mutually sustained.
The ubiquitous Adam Smith crops up again. But here, Reuter outlines how Smiths’ ideas have also been misconstrued. He notes that Smith, ‘though a free market advocate, was well aware of similar patterns in economics and critical of pseudo-realist approaches.’ In other words, Smith was aware of the contradictions within the system. In conclusion:
The event-focused, short-term logic of economic realism, driven by the voracious profit appetite of financial capital, thus rests on a pseudo-intellectual misreading of Hobbes, Darwin, Smith, and others that largely does away with broader moral (systemic) concerns.
The concept of a ‘moral economy’ is postulated as a means of re-establishing sustainable interdependence.
A more in-depth outline on the role of anthropology comes from the American Anthropological Association (AAA). In 2010, the Global Climate Change Task Force (GCCTF) was established. In 2014 it produced its final report, Changing the Atmosphere: Anthropology and Climate Change. The report uses the term ‘global environmental change’ as a more relative term than ‘climate change’. Given climate changes’ more abstract contextualisation, global environmental change refers to real world events such as deforestation, soil erosion, soil contamination, water and air pollution. Increasingly, anthropologists are studying the interactions between climate change and human culture and society. The result is a substantial body of research outlining how our species is dealing with the problem - or not, as the case may be. This sums up the conundrum:
Steve Rayner characterized climate change as a “wicked problem” requiring “clumsy solutions.” Rayner explained that wicked problems have no clear set of alternative solutions, tend to have redistributive implications for entrenched interests, and are symptomatic of other, deeper problems.
To reach a deeper understanding of the issue, the report calls for an interdisciplinary approach that pulls in scientists, sociologist and economists, amongst others. There are many intersections here. The report observes:
a cultural and political divide within western, industrialized countries, between believers and deniers of climate change; this in turn is an instance of greater questioning the authority of science and its use in political and policy circles, contestations occurring historically since the development of natural science paradigms.
The report takes a systems approach, linking people, the environment, and the economy. As such, ‘Systems-thinking forces us to engage with new concepts, methods, and models that bridge many disciplines.’
The report identifies four key drivers of climate change, responsible for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG); Consumption, Land Use, Energy, and Population. These are not separate and are interconnected. The burning of fossil fuels for transport, heating and generating electricity, drive consumption and increase land use. But consumption isn’t equal. Levels of consumption is based on affluence. Given that the impacts are global and much production takes place beyond national boundaries, this questions the validity of national emissions calculations. In short, ‘The global divide between over- and under-consumption does not follow regional or state boundaries.’
Increased land use comes from areas such as agriculture, logging, infrastructure development, mining and fossil fuel extraction. As consumption increases, so does energy use. In the past, population growth was attributed to much of the above. In contrast with the approach of Hardin, the population issue isn’t as straight forward. A rising population will put pressure on resources, but as the report points out:
It is also a paradox that affluence and decreasing fertility are associated with increasing carbon emissions and a warming planet.
The real issue here then is that the most affluent nations are incurring the greatest carbon impacts on the planet. The big question here is; How did we get here in the first place?
Never before have we faced a crisis such as the climate crisis. However there have been periods where extraordinary situations have been presented over the 2.5 million years since humanity first emerged. Humans have been able to adapt to changing environments and have been changed themselves through evolutionary processes. There have been failures, but that’s to be expected. In the past, humans existed symbiotically within ecosystems. However that began to change with the dawn of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Representative political systems can bring stability within social groups. Adaptability is the key to survival. But as the report notes, rigid political systems ultimately fail due their inability to adapt. Using the example of ancient Egypt, irregular Nile flooding periods caused instability. But some learnt to adapt:
Whether or not political systems were flexible, farmers adapted by relying on diverse strategies… to obtain and use water. This example and many show how political flexibility—defined as a willingness to abandon dysfunctional practices and infrastructure and modify social forms—offers important ways to address challenges.
In Peru, civilisations either flourished or collapsed depending on climatic variations. This was covered in a previous article related to COP20 in Peru in 2014.
Other key events in history have been influenced by climatic variations e.g. the Medieval Warm Period, which influenced Norman and Viking expansion into parts of Western Europe. But today, the world is globalised and highly populated; ‘we lack such ability to migrate across political borders or to more promising ecosystems; we have fewer options than our ancestors had in the past.’ The report quotes Anthony J. McMichael (Australian National University):
[c]limate change poses threats to human health, safety, and survival via weather extremes and climatic impacts on food yields, fresh water, infectious diseases, conflict, and displacement. Historical experiences of diverse societies experiencing climatic changes, spanning multi-century to single-year duration, provide insights into population health vulnerability—even though most climatic changes were considerably less than those anticipated this century and beyond.…The drought–famine–starvation nexus has been the main, recurring, serious threat to health…. Modern societies, although larger, better resourced, and more interconnected than past societies, are less flexible, more infrastructure-dependent, densely populated, and hence equally vulnerable. Adverse historical climate-related health experiences underscore the case for abating human-induced climate change.
The Roman empire is another case in point. Its expansion occurred during a warm period. Although largely successful, as the climate cooled it exposed the empires’ dependency on monocultures. The empire slowly contracted as spending and taxes increased. The military expanded, needing a larger budget and social conditions deteriorated. As the report sums up:
The Roman Empire is one of history’s great successes, and also a spectacular failure. It has many parallels with contemporary societies: a reliance on a handful of vulnerable staples, growing differences in wealth and access to land and other resources, a changing climate that affects the ability to respond to problems, diminishing state income (trade and taxation) and increasing expenditures (wars, rebellions), and failure to invest in infrastructure and its maintenance. Clearly, as the past shows, multiple shocks and system-wide impacts beyond temporary instability can render great societies fatally vulnerable.
The lesson from history then is that:
in a changing climate, stress contributes to the rigidity and intensification of top down approaches, which in turn creates unstable systems.
Its a story of following familiar rituals and practices in the hope that they will find a solution to new problems that are poorly understood, where ultimately ‘migration, conflict, and a reliance on technological solutions have been common responses to drastic change,’ but are especially ineffective today. Migration is no longer possible due to sealed borders. Conflict exasperates and perpetuates problems. Technology can be a false solution, because ‘an over-reliance on technology derails the human ability to cognitively adapt to change.’
The report covers possible approaches to dealing with the climate crisis. These will be covered in the ‘real world solutions’ in the next part of this article. But the conclusion to be drawn here is, that a flawed system can only produce false solutions. Referring to an old computer science adage, ‘garbage in, garbage out’ (GIGO), you only get out of a system what you put in. As false solutions are based on a fallacy, they are easily debunked.
Part 2 outlines the false solutions that has emerged from the closed system. These are contrasted with potential ‘real world’ solutions.
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