Calling for a massive sea-change in how we live on this planet of ours . . . Jeremy Heighway
I guess I move along the margins. I think about whether our new Anthropocene epoch (eons, eras, periods, epochs, ages) should actually signal a change higher up the order. We currently say that a new period, the Quaternary, started 2.6 million years ago, but we may need to draw attention more towards right now instead . . .
The bigger the mess we make, the more significant the geological markers will be. At the time of writing this paragraph we have not yet entered the Trump Age, but others have made films with titles such as “The Age of Stupid” or have begun to say that we are now living in a post-truth era.
There is also the new degrowth movement in town, calling for a massive sea-change in how we live on this planet of ours. However, I’ve not seen anybody calling for this to be a new degrowth age or era, just that we need to massively change our ways. Such a change would surely usher in something worthy of at least being an age, though. Also, depending on what we do over a really short time scale geologically speaking, we do have the potential to inflict something as high up as a new period on our planet, in my opinion.
Or, we can save ourselves from naming and shaming ourselves with a new Anthropiary Period and get down to the business of taking up the Anthropocene, accept our culpability so far by nominating an Age of Stupid, and then moving on into an Age of Enlightenment. At least these phrases already exist – except for the Anthropiary Period one. But ok, maybe the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the largest and oldest constituent scientific body in the International Union of Geological Science) needs to wait a few years before declaring that we have come to our senses, or not.
So, what are the mechanisms that will enable a successful degrowth society the world over?
We have now developed our technologies to a point where we can harvest large amounts of energy from solar and wind power and even grow food with continuous output indoors and vertically if we want to.
We could break free from using fossil fuels within the next couple of decades if we chose to do so.
What is unclear, though, is what steady-state world we wish to create in other respects: quality of life, life expectancy, equalities and so on
The degrowth movement has been having varying problems even with its very name of late. It is so much more than literally degrowth, and in many areas almost all supporters would actually like to see a massive growth in better ways of behaving towards each other, towards animals and towards the planet. However, looking for a different name is problematic too. It is almost testimony to the power of television, especially in the UK, that people might feel slightly awkward about wanting to call themselves part of the Good Life Movement . . . Maybe there is no name which can satisfy what it really feels like, but I do like that the name is directed against an equally unclear mindset which seems to have growth, growth, growth as one of its underlying pillars.
When going up against people who believe in clear figures (even if they make no sense in the long run), I think we do need to be more than warm, but fuzzy. We need to have an understanding of the mechanisms which drive lots of people, and systems which perpetuate or preserve patterns of behaviour, even when these are unhelpful. We need to be able to propose alternative systems that will function well and gain support . . .
In essence, I would like to know more about the environmental and social cost/benefit factors of choosing a regional product over an imported one, for example. However, the price tag tells me almost nothing about the energy required to make the product, let alone about the social or environmental conditions surrounding the process.
For decades now there has been talk about internalising the externalities, i.e. that all products and services should cost the manufacturer a ‘true’ price for the product, which should then be reflected on the price tag. Environmentally speaking, this is also known as the polluter pays principle.
Do good and be penalised, do bad and benefit from it; this is a fundamental flaw in many of our systems
If what a company is doing is causing any kind of harm, then it (and the customers) should have to pay for it and not society at large. One consequence would be that companies which put in the effort to be clean would no longer be at a clear disadvantage over those that don’t.
But unfair imbalances are not only to be found in environmental matters. Companies which hire a lot of workers will pay higher national insurance contributions than companies which choose to automate their processes. As unemployment benefit is a part of national insurance, companies who hire fewer people end up paying less towards this, which increases the burden on companies which are actually providing more of the jobs.
For years, one of my philosophical questions to the world has been: Why do people follow loudmouths to the slaughterhouse and ignore the whispers of the wise?
While it is nice that more and more individuals (the degrowth movement) are trying to take a step back from harming others by finding alternative ways of doing things, it is often part of the very nature of being quiet-spoken and tender that they are ignored by the vast majority of people . . .
The (re)distribution of wealth and resources is a major sub-current in degrowth thinking, and one of the most promising approaches in my opinion is the Universal Basic Income (UBI) idea. I probably do not need to extol the (perceived?) virtues of this here; I too see a lot of positives in the concept.
I do think it will be necessary to introduce monetary measures which aim to protect the environment and society. I do not wish to see irresponsible consumption rise as a result of redistribution, nor do I wish to see mass unemployment become an even more “acceptable” condition if it is against what people actually want for their own lives. A responsibly planned UBI will thus have to incorporate or acknowledge other large system changes in my opinion. There is much more to this than eco-taxation, for example, and yet even this subject is hardly being mentioned by UBI groups. At best, eco-taxation is mentioned within the framework of financing mechanisms for an UBI, but I believe this is massively understating its relevance and importance.
We need more participant pays mechanisms, which will involve identifying and monetarising the use of resources and pollutants. [As an aside, no, CO2 is not a pollutant in the general sense of the word. Then again, neither is salt, but I don’t want salt to find its way into my coffee, thank you very much, nor for more than threshold amounts to enter freshwater streams and rivers].
We need to find new ways of evaluating the consumption of energy, for example, and of taking into account both the direct individual use of energy as well as the energy embedded in products and services. This could be done via types of taxation or a secondary tier of payments which incorporates energy quotas and energy accounts (e.g. TEQs). An UBI would play a big role in making sure that poorer people in society would not suffer from certain higher prices/taxation.
We also need to look very hard at what work is, the nature of employment and being employed, and the frameworks associated with this extremely important element of our lives. What will meaningful participation look like in future, sustainable, degrowth societies?
*Jeremy Heighway currently lives in Leipzig, was an active participant at the degrowth conference in 2014, and took part in the basic income GAP sessions. In his day job, Jeremy mostly does translations from German to English in the field of renewable energy. His paper may be read in full here.
Posted on December 12, 2016, in Jeremy Heighway and tagged Age of Stupid, alternative systems, degrowth, Energy, externalities, loudmouths, monetary measures, polluter pays, steady-state world, the wise. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.