Change the values that shape our systems
Two weeks ago, I argued that the immense challenge of climate change and other global ecological changes that threaten our health, as well as the high levels of inequality experienced worldwide, are the inevitable result of the societal systems we have created.
If “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” as the Institute for Healthcare Improvement puts it, then to get different results, we need a different system.
Last week, I suggested that our economic system is not “fit for purpose” in the 21st century. The new mantra that we can have both a strong economy and a healthy environment is simply not true if the strong economy is based on harming the environment.
So the Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley argument that we need the pipeline to get the oil from the Alberta oilsands to foreign markets is nonsensical when we consider both the global climate-change impact of the oilsands, and the local devastation they create. Their arguments are rooted in a world view, modernism, and an underlying set of values that are also not fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Modernism, the dominant world view or paradigm within which we operate, is rooted in two 16th-century transformations in thought, according to Krishan Kumar, professor of social and political thought at the University of Kent. The first was a religious transformation, the Protestant Reformation, with its attendant values relating to work (the Puritan work ethic), which led to modern capitalism. This was accompanied by a scientific revolution that was based on rationalist thought and the scientific method.
Kumar identifies a number of elements that comprise “modernism,” but states: “Fundamentally, it is the economic changes that most dramatically affect industrial society.” Those economic changes include “economic growth as the central defining feature of an industrial … economy.” These transformations and the growth in wealth, resources and power for the nations of the West that resulted led to a belief in the inevitability of progress.
But progress has been confused with economic growth, and two key values that relate to that: acquisitiveness and greed. We want more stuff, and we can never have enough. If you are a billionaire, you still aren’t a multibillionaire. And if the acquisition of all that wealth (and the power that goes with it) impoverishes others and harms the planet — well, that is just the cost of progress.
The fact that economic growth now threatens the stability of the ecosystems and the sustainability of the natural resources upon which we depend somehow is ignored. This is linked to another key attribute of modernism that Kumar mentions, and which stems from the scientific revolution: “A sense of being superior to and/or apart from nature.” We do not fully understand or accept that the environment is not some “nice to have” fringe benefit of being wealthy, not something that must be sacrificed in the name of progress.
At the heart of our challenges, then, lie two sets of values that we have to change: acquisitiveness, greed and economic growth on the one hand, and our separation from nature on the other. With respect to the first, we need to replace growth with the concepts of adequacy or sufficiency as a guiding principle.
In the foreword to the book Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, Herman Daly — the “elder statesman” of steady state economics — suggests that “enough,” which means “sufficient for a good life,” “should be the central concept in economics,” while “the current answer of ‘having ever more’ is wrong.” Or as Gandhi said: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s need, but not every person’s greed.”
Dietz and O’Neill propose a number of policies that together “form an agenda for transforming the economic goal from more to enough.” These include limiting the use of materials and energy to sustainable levels, stabilizing population through compassionate and non-coercive means, achieving a fair distribution of income and wealth, and changing the way we measure progress.
Add to that a recognition that we are part of, not apart from, nature and must act accordingly, and we might have a fighting chance of getting to a society based on enough for all.