Progress IS sustainability

“They killed me when they took my land” Sinan Akçal

“…progress is about being able to sustain yourself…” Maura Harrington

The problem is an extraordinarily complex one. Human actions have already breached or still threaten the nine planetary boundaries, with climate change the biggest actor of ecological collapse. Climate change is not the single issue but a giant one in a dynamic set of interrelated issues, although it is one of the boundaries that is easiest to solve. Easiest to solve, but still, not easy. That it is easier to solve than the others shows what a mess we are in.

Emissions in 2010 were higher than ever despite the recession, prompting alarm that 2C stabilisation of temperature would be impossible, with a much greater likelihood of a 4C increase by 2100. Governments and media will continue to talk about averting future disaster while failing to notice that anthropogenic disasters have been hitting for some time and are increasing in severity. More food riots and conflict are predicted, but media and government responses focus on increasing the flow of money and curtailing tyrants rather than preventing damage of natural resources.

Why is there an increase in emissions? Because the response to global distress by almost every country that is not entirely torn by conflict or slowed by entropy is to effect a rapid ‘great leap forward. For one of many examples, Ecuador is champing at the bit to destroy vast areas of rainforest to extract only a small amount of oil. These examples mean yet more deforestation, extraction, power stations, dams, factories and city infrastructure, always in the name of looking after the interests of a nation’s people. But, the benefits for the majority of people are dubious. These ‘great leaps forward’ mean overlooking or promoting corrupt, exploitative, ecocidal and ‘culture-cidal’ practices in the interests of what is considered the greater good of ‘more jobs’ and GDP. Many of these countries are forgetting to ensure the stability of local agriculture (and/or productive wilderness) because of the belief that jobs means money to buy food and other land-based produce from elsewhere. However, as we breach planetary boundaries there is less ‘elsewhere’ that food can be produced. Add to this, growing inequality which contributes to the statistic that 50% of all food is wasted (if all aspects of the production cycle are accounted for, including losses because of food’s transportation from ‘elsewhere’). The myth that rapid industrial progress will  benefit all a nation’s people remains a very powerful one, despite the fact that corporate executive pay increased by 32% in 2010 while workers’ pay endured the most prolonged squeeze since the 1920’s.

Why is this myth so powerful? Individuals conform to social norms based on what they understand will be optimal for them. Never before has it been so hard for people to decide for themselves, based on concrete evidence, what is optimal for them. (For more about social norms see the work of Dr Cristina Bicchieri.) Worldwide, normative values have switched massively away from those where cultural stability is achieved by having the means to thrive with the land, towards values whereby individual or family security is achieved by having a job away from (or against) the land. Those who uphold the former values can often be described as backward, foolish and standing in the way of progress. Those who drive the latter values can often project themselves as progressive, smart and caring for people. Of course, it’s much more complex than this polarity suggests.

These two news stories about Ireland and Turkey show us people who for generations have provided food from their land but are now being ousted by government-commissioned industrial schemes. The long battle of the people of Erris against Shell has been narrated as a film, out now, called The Pipe. Maura Harrington, one of the activists, says: “This is about a sense of place and its people. We may not qualify as indigenous people, but we have our land and culture, to which we belong. All those people who emigrated from Erris through history, Erris never left them. They say we are opposed to progress, and laugh at us. But to me, progress is the ability to sustain yourself, and those who come after you. It’s nature and nurture: what we here call muinhin, which means of the place, and cointeann, which means to get a little awkward when that place and its people are about to be torn apart.”

I find these words very potent, an inspiration for those of us in the arts and heritage sectors. Museums have traditionally been about gathering and protecting the artefacts and knowledge of dislocated cultures and environments, as well as collapsed civilisations. We were trained with a normative mindset which said that this dislocation and ‘culture-cide’ had happened in the past. We accepted that the later 20th Century had settled into a state of post-modern multiculturalism, and we worked positively to promote tolerance of dislocated peoples. That was not wrong but we took our eyes off the ball: in the ‘great leap forward’ of the developed world we failed to notice the ongoing and escalating destruction of habitats.

One key problem is that we are distracted by arguments about the right approach. Aside from, or beneath, the technical arguments about nuclear, geoengineering, carbon tax and so on, I see two dimensions to the disagreement: Between people-centred thinking and systems-thinking; between transitional economics and growth-based economics. See this matrix for a visual version of the two dimensions. The disagreements between those who are closest in their views can be the most intense. The ‘growthers’ concerned about climate change accuse organisations such as NEF of being too weak, that solutions for social and environmental injustice depend on boosting economies to get people out of poverty. The ‘transitioners’ assert that economic growth must be decoupled from resource use growth, and that growth does not have to be measured in money. Growthers tend to see climate change as the big issue, which needs to be tackled rapidly with big engineering and social change projects. Transitioners tend to see ecological collapse and resource scarcity as the problem-complex, to be resisted gently but urgently by locally-scaled alternative tactics. It was in reading this post by Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition movement) that I wondered if it is possible to reduce the polarities between them. As he says, everybody is choosing to act primarily for their families and communities. We all have common cause. On the whole, those of us who see our communities as including wildlife and who see the life-giving land as our home are more likely to take a longer view, looking further back to sustained traditions in places but also further ahead to ensure that they are sustained. We need to overcome the argument about growth by focusing on prosperity through advanced technologies (and revived practices) that restore the land’s capacity and we need to come together to be resilient in the face of runaway climate change.

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