A major disappointment with our current general election campaign is its numbing normalcy. We the public are at least partly to blame. The usual campaign issues – growing the economy, tax reductions, more roads, crime, housing, full disclosure, etc-- get the most air time while critical life-threatening issues are ignored. And we the public, and the media, play into it.
We live in abnormal times but ignore the abnormalities. We live in the most abnormal period of human existence – the age of advanced ecological overshoot. Climate change and biodiversity loss, and a range of other environmental issues accumulating into advanced ecological overshoot, are a serious existential threat to personal and social survival. The scientific data on this are clear. We are on course to ecological and social collapse unless we understand and modify our predicament, and soon. Attending only to the normal will lead us to disaster. It’s as if we continue to play rugby while the stadium around us burns to the ground. The scientists are telling us we have a planetary emergency, but we are collectively ignoring the uncomfortable reality.
Humans are good at dealing with typical emergencies such as fires or floods. We know how to plan for them when disasters occur; the most common and immediate response is an increase in cooperative and altruistic behaviour. We know how to make the best of a bad situation.
But our current planetary emergency is atypical. It is unlike a fire or flood where the impact is immediate and obvious. Our atypical overshoot emergency involves crossing theoretically projected ecological tipping points, which will not result in immediate disaster when they are transgressed; life will go on the day after they are crossed pretty much as it did the day before. The disasters are already happening, but the really ugly, irreversible ones come later. The most recent research indicates some are likely within a decade.
There’s the rub: the disasters are locked in once the tipping points are crossed. They lead to irreversible change to planetary systems and nothing we can do will reverse the situation. And they will worsen over time. This is the way ecological collapse works. We don’t experience it directly and immediately, but it is nonetheless real and inevitable. Our typical reflexive disaster response mechanisms don’t automatically kick in; we didn’t evolve to deal with these kinds of unprecedented, time-delayed but inevitable tipping points. But we have evolved to understand and anticipate them, and that is exactly what increasing numbers of scientists are telling us.
When we perceive a typical emergency, we change what we are doing and do what is needed. We change priorities, and we don’t worry much about costs or disruption to our lives because we know both will be worse if we don’t deal with the crisis. Dealing with the atypical emergency of advanced ecological overshoot requires the same refocusing of priorities, on a grand scale. The irreversible consequences will be far worse than anything humanity has experienced in the past.
At one level most of us grasp that we cannot keep doing what we do to Nature without serious kickback. We are anxious about climate change, but have little emotional connection to the broader issue of ecological collapse. It all seems so remote and theoretical, and maybe even uncertain. Isn’t science and technology going to rescue us? The answer from independent scientists is a resounding “NO.” Technical “solutions” may help a bit, but a massive change of priorities is critical.
One can understand why politicians don’t lead on this issue. We should have at least a smidgen of sympathy for them. In a democracy, politicians must be attuned to public sentiment and priorities. Get too far ahead of the pack and you’re ignored.
Part of the problem is that we the public are not well informed about ecological collapse, and until we see it as priority politicians are likely to continue sidelining its importance. The media can help, but they are caught in the same spiral of ensuring eyes are on their material and too much exposure could drive people away. It’s a wicked problem with horrible consequences.
Another reason we all may be avoiding the inevitable trajectory we are on is because we’re not sure what to do. If there is a fire or flood it’s generally pretty obvious what is needed. Ecological collapse of global systems is an abnormal event and what to do is not immediately obvious, especially if we don’t fully understand the problem.
Here is just a sample of some ideas regarding constructive actions. This is not a blueprint, but just examples what we can do to avoid the collapse course we are on.
Make Significant Reductions in Our Demands on Nature
An obvious step would be eliminating fossil fuels. Their unique energy properties have allowed us to do more damage to Nature than Nature can bear. There is a growing global movement to ban fossil fuels. One program to gradually reduce them over a few years is Tradable Energy Quotas. This one policy initiative would make the single greatest impact on reducing our destruction of natural systems.
Acknowledge What is Necessary Will Be Disruptive
Eliminating fossil fuels will obviously have a huge impacton people’s lives and livelihoods. This is one reason this idea is not given serious consideration. But it is the single action that gives us the best hope of avoiding collapse.
If we acknowledge and accept that disruption will be inevitable to avoid collapse, then we will be more prepared to take the required action. Collapse will be far worse than a planned disruption.
Ensuring Essential Supports for Everyone
Accepting disruption would be easier if we had assurance that everyone’s basic needs would be met. Programs like Universal Basic Incomes, and Universal Basic Services would go a long way to accomplish this. These programs could easily be afforded within a Modern Monetary Theory approach to government finance, as inflation would not be a risk.
Redistributing existing financial wealth to ensure everyone’s basic needs are met would become an essential component of the recovery process. Wealth taxes, debt forgiveness, resource taxes rather than personal taxes, etc, would all contribute to increasing equality in society and reducing our demands on Nature.
Redistribution is essential to increase the level of trust in both our government and our community, to enable us to work together rather than prioritize our personal wellbeing. The only genuine security is common security. Financial wealth is not going to protect families from collapse, so the wealthy should be prepared to contribute to the needed actions.
Reconnect with What Provides Genuine Life Satisfaction
The quality of our lives can still improve even if disruption is inevitable. Our consumer culture has overshadowed what the genuine life satisfaction research tells us really matters. Once we have basic needs covered, what matters most is time with friends and family, leisure time, a meaningful role and voice in community. All of these non-material experiences can be enhanced even if we have to make significant changes in our consumption patterns.
Increase Consensus Decision Making
The common purpose of doing difficult things to ensure a liveable future requires everyone’s involvement in making the difficult decisions. Citizens’ Assemblies are an example of how to broaden the decision-making process in a well-informed and consensual manner.
Governments emphasizing consensus processes would also be required. How about a National – Labour coalition that operates by consensus, and does its best to include the smaller parties as well?
Understanding the enormity of our existential threat is essential for broad support. A massive public education campaign is needed to inform people and politicians of how seriously we are damaging Nature, and what is required to allow Nature to regenerate and provide for us over the long term. Allowing Nature to restore itself is not just a nice-to-have, but essential to our wellbeing.
Long Term Systems Change
The kinds of changes required to avert ecological collapse cannot occur rapidly, nor will they be temporary. We need a very different vision of how to thrive within planetary limits. We need to reconsider how we currently prioritize financial wealth at the expense of both Nature and human wellbeing. We have a bad case of the Midas touch and it will destroy us unless we give it up. Prioritizing human wellbeing, ensuring basic needs are met – for everyone (whether we agree with them or not) – should be the overarching principle of our economy. We need to rethink the very concept of business profits and the role of business in community.
Again, scholars have been grappling with these issues for some time and there are many alternative ideas available to examine and develop. Who issues money (banks or governments)? Who decides how natural resources can be used (business or community)? What is the most desirable combination of population size and per capita consumption (high population and lower consumption or lower population and higher per capita consumption – these are our only options)?
There are many organizations in New Zealand/Aotearoa attempting to bring these types of issues into public awareness and dialogue. These are the issues that we as citizens need to explore and engage with politically. These are the issues that political campaigns should be run on.
Find one of these organizations that perks your interest and join the process to get serious about the state of the nation we call home. Let’s make election campaigns “abnormal” compared to today’s “bread-and-circuses-and-ignore-the-elephant-under-the-table” fest.