What do you think of when someone talks about the ‘Good Life’? There are many ideas about what the ‘Good Life’ should look like, most of them involving wealth accumulation.
What if I suggested that a Good Life should no longer revolve around wealth and economic growth, but should be something that enhances and protects the wellbeing of humans as part of a broader community, and that it should also protect the wellbeing of our environment? After all, one cannot really exist without the other. That is the aim of the Latin American conception of the Good Life: Buen Vivir.
Buen Vivir is a complex concept for social and environmental sustainability based on Indigenous worldviews – one that has evolved over time to include ideas from politics, academia and non-Indigenous communities.
It’s about abandoning old ideas of individual happiness backed by an accumulation of wealth and economic growth, towards a life with more intention, a reciprocity with nature and embracing the idea of community.
As an alternative to sustainable development, it addresses the gaps in policy that have led to the type of social and environmental injustices we see today. Policies that are driven by top-down visions of what communities need. These injustices are part of the structural failures that are driving climate change.
You may of heard of other culturally-originated concepts like the Danish Hygge or Lakom, the South African Ubuntu, or the Japanese Ikigai. But what stands Buen Vivir apart from these other cultural concepts is that it is both an aspirational goal that can be used by the likes of governments and policymakers to ensure a more socially and environmentally just order; but on the flip side, it is also a lifestyle driven by the same key principles.
Just what those key principles are I will discuss in later posts, but this means that Buen Vivir has both the potential to change policy for more responsive and participatory democracies, but it is also rooted in the attitudes, behaviours and practices of individuals and their communities. Both feed into each other, but ultimately it starts with the people. And that’s the beauty of it.
Buen Vivir’s ability to marry both people’s behaviour with policy is one of the most important parts of the concept, and it is why I have chosen to focus on developing a framework tool that not only helps guide communities for the changes they want to see to meet their own needs, and implement Buen Vivir within their own homes and communities; but also helps guide government institutions when working with communities and their needs to make sure that the developmental goals match the community realities.
The most crucial aspect of Buen Vivir though lies in the way both policymakers and communities change the way we view our relationship with each other and with our earth.
That is where Buen Vivir has the innovative ability to ensure both social and environmental wellbeing – of our communities and our planet. Sustainable communities for a sustainable earth for generations to come. In these challenging times, that is exactly what we should be aiming for.
Idealism is described in the Cambridge dictionary as “the belief that your ideals can be achieved, often when this does not seem likely to others.” Being an idealist requires resilience and determination – two useful qualities in the era of climate change and related rising global inequalities. Addressing climate change is going to require both resilience to make hard decisions and changes, and pragmatism to follow that through. What will guide these changes is an idealist perspective that all of this matters.
Idealists though, are often criticised by the lack of pragmatism to act on problems and find concrete solutions. They are often labelled as “politically naïve”, or “dreamers”. Idealism in that light would fall short on any meaningful action for environmental and social justice. The world has enough big ideas that lack pragmatism. Practical idealism, however, can combine utopian vision with practical tools for implementing the moral principles to support it.
Mahatma Gandhi was a practical idealist who acted pragmatically on his principles and values. Practical idealism moves beyond knowledge and ideas towards actively finding solutions to social and environmental concerns.
How do we do that ?
Far from being naïve, practical idealism is centered around hope. Hope is a necessary outlook for fighting the climate crisis, because without it, the reasons for doing so would be null and void. Without hope that the future could be more bleak, we continue perpetuating the status quo. That is a realist’s job.
I was once told “don’t think you can change the world.” Changing the world sounds ideal, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t sound so practical. Yet, those of us fighting for social and environmental justice must believe precisely that we can change the world, otherwise what is the point of our work? Believing the realist rhetoric means that you simply must accept the status quo. Continuing with the status quo is also easier than confronting the necessary structural and societal changes that should be made. That is arguably what got us into this mess in the first place.
Currently, the status quo has sent us hurtling past tipping point, upwards towards global structural inequality, and is now sending us on a trajectory of global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. Such a path would be disastrous for the planet and reinforce greater inequalities.
The first step is to break from these old paradigms and find fresh new solutions that are not built in the shadows of old social and environmental models. To do so we need all hands on deck. Here, a plural approach is important.
Despite countless international conferences, declarations and treaties we are still on a crash course to destruction. While we do still need big global frameworks to guide us, to understand where the problems lie scientifically and how we could possibly tackle them collectively; we also need local action guided by idealists. Whereas countries have a political imperative to act on climate change, for many individuals it is hard to see the bigger picture, that repeated smaller voluntary actions count way more than we care to give them credit for. It’s hard for people to see and feel the positive impacts and consequences of changes to their daily behaviours and so the biggest problem is getting people to persist with change beyond their own moral compass. After all, the collective impact of individual actions can certainly have a world-changing effect. In the words of Margaret Mead, ““Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
So, we need more practical idealists to drive the momentum. That sounds romantic, but how on this great burning planet do we create idealists when the future (and current state of affairs) is filled with pessimism?
Jennifer Anikst wrote, “To me, pragmatic idealism means that you want to change the world for the better, and you believe that the tools exist to figure out how to do that”. Put in the perspective of Buen Vivir, it is the point of cleavage between Buen Vivir (sumak kawsay/Good Life) and Vivir Buen (ally kawsay/Good Living), or if you like, the utopian ideal and the daily journey we take to reach it. That is the sweet spot for practical idealism.
One criticism of idealism is that it is subjective. If we look at universal ideals like Western development we see the problem head-on. One cannot impose one set of ideals universally and believe they will work. They cannot then be pragmatic. Any practical approach has to be a decolonised one. Coming back to the argument for pluralism, if we scale actions down to the local level, the first thing we should understand is that, as Rutger Bregman says, “Not everything is measurable. And findings can’t always be generalised.”
This is where local context, local needs, and local actions matters over universal standards based on the aspirations of one culture. Context matters in the way we deal with climate change and sustainability, but also particularly with related social problems. It then becomes a subjective matter – subject in that communities everywhere live very different socio-economic, cultural, historical and geographic realities.
A practical idealist will be guided by a core common ideal (in this case limiting global warming, and the impacts on climate change, as well as reducing global inequalities), but the applied principles will be different depending on one’s reality, and that is the same with Buen Vivir.
But climate change and social issues are essentially political. Then question then becomes, how do we become idealists without becoming ideological? Ideologies take away from the pragmatism of an idea, and focus on creating epistemic rifts rather than concrete solutions for change.
In my book I argue that “once something has been labelled under a particular ideology, it has the potential to become co-opted for certain interests. Ideology, in this way becomes a ‘mobilising utopia’ sought as an ‘offensive weapon against hegemonic ideals’ (Caria & Domínguez 2016). This will only create a polarising defence, instead of working in cooperative and plural ways for effective solutions.”
If we refer to an approach filled with hope as utopian instead of unattainable idealism, we are really talking about the idea of practical idealism. As Omar Felipe Giraldo says, a utopia is ‘‘not simply a dream, but a dream that indispensably aspires to be realised.” On Buen Vivir as a utopian concept for social and environmental wellbeing, I argue also that “it has to be separated from ideology to serve a high-level, guiding purpose in which it is possible unite community needs with national and global goals.”
So, to become a practical idealist without becoming ideological the key is to see approaches like Buen Vivir as decolonised (not set on a universal ideal) practical tools to achieving a higher set of moral and ethical values for environmental and social wellbeing. By doing so we have a practical pathway to climate action and social equality in which we all play a vital role, which can hopefully lead us to more positive future outcomes for the planet and its people.
Maria Zambrano* lives in the highlands of Ecuador’s Cotacachi Canton, home to two of the world’s 36 internationally recognized biodiversity hots pots. It is also home to a people fiercely committed to their own social and environmental well-being. Zambrano is an Indigenous Ecuadorian of the Kichwa people. Sitting at a café in Cotacachi, the seamstress is dressed in a black wrap-around skirt and a traditional embroidered white shirt, on which she’s done all the embroidery. The colorful stitching, she explains, is symbolic of her land, depictions of the connection between humans and Pachamama, which she uses to refer to Mother Earth. Pachamama, she says, is at the heart of everything she does.
It is no secret that the term climate change is the source of a great deal of anxiety in people of all ages these days – even more so amongst those who are starting to feel its effects. The term ‘eco-anxiety’ has been coined by psychologists to deal with this relatively new phenomenon.
Climate change is indeed having direct and indirect effects on our health, including our mental health. Many young people are facing feelings of “existential dread” about what their future holds. Despite the rise is climate pessimism, there are reasons to be (cautiously) optimistic. The Climate Reality Project discusses 9 of them here.
To ride that momentum, in this post I’d like to reframe the discussion today and talk about ‘hope’, ‘optimism’ and, most of all, ‘respect’.
Let’s start with this idea of the ‘environment’. The term can be argued as being contested. It means different things to different cultures. Unfortunately, in the West we separate human life from the natural environment, but not without consequence.
To many Indigenous cultures around the world the environment is not a separate entity, it is an all-encompassing connection to a personified ‘Mother Earth’. It demands respect. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, by personifying the natural environment, or even just seeing it as something other than an inanimate resource to exploit – a holder of rights – than we automatically begin to pay more respect to it and the richness it provides human life. After all, most people would hardly disrespect, abuse and exploit their own mother! It is a question of paying full respect to that which sustains life.
When we reframe the natural environment in such a way, it is less daunting to approach a changing climate with a sense of reality.
Nonetheless, it is easy to be pessimistic about climate change when we see the scientific data and understand the current planetary trajectory. A certain amount of fear is necessary to emphasize the urgency of the situation. The problem is, climate pessimism often leads to feelings of hopelessness, sometimes denial, and ultimately inaction. But, what happens when we start looking at things a little differently, and open our eyes to the pockets of good things that are happening globally to combat climate change – in our communities, cities, private enterprise, associations, research, policy, technology? We only have to look at the way the environment is embraced by other cultures around the world to restore some optimism in humanity.
A shift in mindset sows seeds of cautious optimism that can spur on lasting and effective climate action where we can all contribute to these pockets of good things, until climate action is no longer revolutionary, but the norm. To change our mindsets though, we need a certain dose of hope.
So, let us talk about hope for a moment. What is the opposite of hope? It is despair. Often despair leads to feelings of guilt. As Paul Goodman once said, “No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties.” Hence the rise in eco-anxiety.
I have just started reading Jonathan Porritt’s ‘Hope in Hell: a decade to confront the climate emergency’. As a mother of two children, working on climate, sustainability and wellbeing from a social and policy perspective, I need to entertain feelings of hope, otherwise what am I doing? So, the title of this book drew me in immediately. I have read too little of this book to give a review, but this focus on reality mixed with hope and optimism is the angle we all should be taking right now.
Porritt opens his book with a quote from Rebecca Solnit, fitting for climate action
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.”
To a certain degree, the precautionary principle in international environmental law is caught up in a force of hope. Solnit continues,
“It’s the belief that what we do matters, even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
We can no longer take a gamble with decisions and behaviours, all precaution is needed. Even if we don’t know why beforehand. In fact, precaution doesn’t go far enough. But hope does. Hope inspires people to understand that what they do matters. The actions they take in their personal, professional and political lives can contribute to real transformative change.
A sustainable future needs hope in transformative change, with a dose of optimism to believe that action can lead to change. Add an understanding of reality, and respect for the natural environment. As Greta Thunberg says “Act like your house is on fire. Because it is!” Only, guard hope that not all is lost.
Much attention is paid to the inaction of policymakers to enact effective climate policies. We must not forget though, the burden of climate passivists, those who believe that someone else will take care of things. Both “shiny optimists” as Porritt calls them, and pessimists can fall into that camp. Much lasting change is achieved from the bottom. Social movements and behavioural change has achieved great things in the past century.
So, let’s guard some hope, regard good climate action in all corners of society with a healthy sense of optimism, and embrace nature not as a resource to exploit exponentially, but with full respect for way it sustains life on earth.
Continuing on the idea of self-mastery from the last blog post, I’d like to take a minute to discuss why we need to decolonise our ideas of wellbeing. By refocusing how we approach our individual and collective wellbeing through mental, physical, emotional control, we can have more positive interactions with those around us and the environment that sustains us.
On a personal note, I have been concentrating on finishing my first book, and writing for media to get the understanding of Buen Vivir out into a wider audience whilst being a Mother my two young children. I could have overextended myself, as society generally expects, and kept up with the blog, engaged more in academia, and pursued more projects at the same time; but when you work on an idea that promotes a decolonised view of wellbeing you start to change the way you think.
We have been far too busy for far too long. The neoliberal and indeed capitalist systems require us to keep the cogs of the economic wheel turning for continual economic growth, wealth creation and accumulation. When you take a step back from the daily grind, its easier to stop and ask ourselves: “Do I need to be this busy? What impact is this having on my wellbeing and that of those around me?”
Some people need to keep themselves, and their minds occupied. I am one of those people. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I cannot be everything to everyone, everywhere. It is a question of priorities, and stepping back to ask what really matters today? I am learning to ask: What are my needs, the needs of my family and those around me, and will this task contribute to satisfying them? If the answer is no, then I find something else to keep my mind engaged. Rather than the endless pursuit of busyness, work and errands, I turn to cooking, art or music. The benefits are multiplied if I do this with family and friends.
You see, we are living in Generation Burnout.
Experts are finding a link between capitalist societies and mental-health disorders as the leading cause of life expectancy decline behind cardiovascular disease and cancer. The forced change of pace from COVID-19 has been a welcomed aspect of lockdown on that front (without disregarding its other impacts of course).
In the book ‘Monopoly Capital’, by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy argue that capitalism fails “to provide the foundations of a society capable of promoting the healthy and happy development of its members.”
It is glaringly obvious that neoliberal approaches to wellbeing, anchored in capitalism, and measured by busyness, wealth and GDP have not worked. So, logically it is time to decolonise the way we conceive wellbeing.
There are many global alternatives to wellbeing that are both practiced and philosophised in traditional and Indigenous communities and radical circles. The Latin-American concept of Buen Vivir captured my attention however for two of many reasons: 1) not only does it include human wellbeing, but it also encapsulates environmental wellbeing; and 2) it has potential applicability outside of these niche communities.
Oftentimes we are engaged in this idea of busyness because of a societal expectation that we continually generate wealth. It goes beyond our needs and to our perceived desires. I say perceived because as anyone who has ever suffered from burnout will tell you, they work so much that they do not have time to enjoy the wealth that they have accumulated. Not only do decolonised ideas like Buen Vivir step away from a linear perspective of wellbeing gauged by economic growth, but they discourage it.
If we constantly strive for more and more, where is the endpoint?
Buen Vivir focuses on the collective. Although Buen Vivir is not about individual wellbeing as an outcome, its principles of reciprocity with nature, respect, participation, and education do demand that individuals change their own behaviours. This flow-on effects on the wellbeing of both society and the environment, for the greater good of the collective.
Those aforementioned questions of priorities also extend to reflect on how our choices affect both those around us and the wellbeing of the natural environment. After all, there is a direct correlation between the subjective wellbeing of the individual, and the collective wellbeing of a community and vice-versa. Moreover, when we feel more connected to nature, we are more inclined to protect its wellbeing.
When we make time for ourselves and our loved ones, along with more time to reconnect with nature, we experience greater physical and emotional wellbeing. It slows us down and revives us, and satisfies intangible needs that amplify wellbeing.
The way Buen Vivir approaches satisfying our needs in both a tangible and intangible way, means a move away from the neoliberal capitalist society that is having detrimental impacts on both human and environmental wellbeing, towards a more just (and healthy!) society.
I have been a bit quiet on social media and the blog lately. Now it’s time for a brief update. I ticked off some professional milestones, so I have taken a short break to refuel. You might call it ‘self-mastery’. Self-mastery is vital for human and environmental wellbeing. It helps you create space for the things that matter: for the relationships in your life, solitude, gratitude, happiness, family, and the natural environment.
The human race has spent such a phenomenal amount of energy demonstrating its mastery of nature that it has led not only to an environmental crisis, but also to a blurring of the lines between the superficial and the necessary.
Now more than ever we need a vision for the future of humanity and the planet. We need to chase that vision with fervour. We need to master ourselves, focus on what we actually need, and strengthen the connection with nature, not destroy it chasing the dollar bill.
We need to let transcendence guide our daily choices, with an understanding that there is something more than individual desires. And only then will we truly be able to tackle climate change, environmental destruction and social injustices.
In the first part of this post, I discussed the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics. In Part II of this post, I’d like to talk about the consequences of COVID-19 and how we can use the lessons learned to tackle climate change.
It is really a tale of two emergencies, one has come upon us with startling rapidity, and the other has been more of a slow-burning crisis. In my article in The Conversation, I talked about a few key lessons we could take from the COVID-19 crisis, in particular: act early, slowing down and localising more, and spending on environmental sectors like renewable energy and sustainable technologies.
COVID-19 has taught us the importance of swift action. At the start of the pandemic we really pulled the emergency stop brakes. We could clearly see the way this was heading and therefore that we needed urgent action.
This slowing down of life globally has resulted in a slowing of the economy. Some say it’s an unintended degrowing of the economy.
This has had both positive and negative consequences. The negatives were things like massive job losses and jump in unemployment globally. Pandemics and climate crises alike hit the most vulnerable the hardest. They act as poverty multipliers because of the way they force people into extreme poverty.
Where this is a disadvantage for climate change is if we address these issues with the same system that has caused the problem in the first place. If decision-makers seek to ramp up production, stimulate economic growth, and expand extractive industries this will all but ensure timely action to avoid climate catastrophe.
These negatives highlight the inherent problems with the current economic system – problems that we already saw with the GFC, that when there is a crisis, the whole system goes into chaos. To justly tackle these social problems, we will need to take a good hard look at the root of the problem, and take effective structural action.
But there have been positive impacts for the environment. In the first 4 months of the pandemic emissions dropped more than a billion tonnes from the same period in 2019.
This has illustrated the significant positive impacts we can have if we slowed our pace of life, and started localising more, including trade, business, production, food, socialising, and travel.
The International Energy Agency estimates a 5% drop in emissions in 2020. This means that if we continue on this path, we will reach net zero emissions by the target of 2050. But even this is too little too late. The UN Emissions Gap Report in 2019 said that to keep warming closer to 1.5 degrees, global carbon emissions need to fall 7.6% per year until 2030.
So, in terms of action for climate change, the environmental consequences of COVID-19 provide us with a chance to reset the way we do things, to reset the economy, if we are willing to abandon the old normal and embrace the ‘newmal’, as it has been called.
This is where ideas like degrowth come in. While the slowing of the economy from COVID-19 is unintended, it provides a window for policymakers to seize the opportunity to introduce intended policies that are socially and environmentally just.
Because degrowth has always been considered a radical approach, no country has shown the will to implement it, but this unintended degrowing of the global economy has started the wheels in motion for change in that direction.
The key word is intended. Sustainable degrowth is not the same as a recession, and if done correctly it can lead us to more socially and environmentally just outcomes. This is because there are accompanying social policies to counteract less wealth accumulation in society. It would mean scaling back the environmentally damaging sectors of the economy but strengthening others like healthcare, sanitation, education, aged care, renewables etc.
This requires decoupling from carbon to prevent climate-related crises from having such a profound impact. So we need to look to more sustainable ways to revive the economy. From a degrowth perspective, that might involve things like a universal basic income, more money in health systems and sustainable technologies, greater small-scale renewable energy rollout, reskilling workers in green jobs.
By effective policies investing more in people and environment focused industries and less in extractive industries it will not only have a positive runoff on climate, but we will also be more prepared to tackle any future pandemics or crises related to climate change.
So while we need a shift in policy, we also need a behavioural shift towards collective action, collective wellbeing and away from individualism, which we have started to see during COVID – this strengthening of solidarity and a shared sense of humanity, that we are all in it together.
Degrowth pushes away from the capitalist economic system from a policy perspective, and then this has implications for our way of life, like a reduction working hours, more leisure time, reducing consumption and this consumer culture we have. It short, it means less stuff, but more time and freedom and therefore greater wellbeing. We would all need to jump onboard. This requires a shift in society as well as in policy.
Many people have seen the benefits of a slower way of life and many people are saying they don’t want to go back to normal, because ‘normal’ was the problem. This is where Buen Vivir comes in.
Buen Vivir is a Latin American concept for people-led wellbeing and sustainability. In this blog you will see me write about it quite a bit. It is my particular area of expertise. I have spent the last 7 years trying to understand it, analyse it, study it, write about it. I have spent time with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the cloud forest of Ecuador in that aim. Because through my preliminary understandings, I strongly believed that we can learn a great deal from them and their philosophy of Buen Vivir in seeking to transform the trajectory of our Earth and its peoples.
Buen Vivir has similarities with degrowth in its aims, but it is slightly different. Both degrowth and Buen Vivir are complementary, and in fact if Buen Vivir is attained, degrowth is a consequence of the changes made, but not the explicit aim. Where degrowth is policy-oriented, Buen Vivir shifts the power to the people.
Under a Buen Vivir approach these changes are pushed from the bottom up. Change is put in the hands of the people so they can decide on the direction to meet their needs. Needs, is a key word here. We are talking fundamental needs – basic and emotional needs, not materialistic desires for more consumption.
Like degrowth, Buen Vivir advocates for a move away from an extractive and consumerist economy, towards more equity in social and economic systems.
Where Buen Vivir is pertinent for action against climate change and future health pandemics, is that is calls for less anthropocentrism in recognising this vital connection between the health and wellbeing of nature and that of our own. So, it is biocentric, meaning that all life matters equally. Not humans first and foremost, and we worry about the environment later once the consequences start to impact our own wellbeing. After all, we are intimately connected to nature, and our survival depends on the health and wellbeing of the natural environment.
One of the biggest lessons from COVID-19 is this connection – how we are deeply connected to each other and the earth. As a society we must start to internalise this more, and act on it mindfully through our decisions and choices to make sure we have both strong healthy communities and a healthy environment.
So while Buen Vivir is people led, it is important to recognise the symbiosis between policy and society because we can’t achieve ecological sustainability and wellbeing alone, we need effective and supportive policies. So, this brings me back to policy post-COVID19, and how policymakers need to aim for both human and environmental wellbeing to avoid more global catastrophes of this kind.
One way to protect this relationship at the policy level, is through a legal recognition of the rights of nature as has been done in some jurisdictions. Nature can no longer be a resource to exploit, but it must be a relationship to nurture.
This last part, we can all consciously and mindfully practice through the decisions and choices we make every day. Thinking our way to a better planet by doing.
I spoke of these issues in this webinar with The Conversation, the Hawke Centre and the Embassy of France.
We are living in unprecedented times. This period will go down in the history books, and today’s children will be telling their children stories about times of climate change and COVID-19. How the stories end is in great part up to us, now.
It is a tale of two emergencies. They are really intersecting rises. Only one is being responded to with urgency, but they are both connected to each other, and both entail unprecedented threats to humanity.
COVID-19 has led us to a deeper understanding of how we are connected to each other and to nature. This highlights the urgent need to radically address climate change to ensure the health of that relationship.
The World Health Organization has affirmed that there is an increase in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic viruses making a jump between animal hosts and humans, and that there is a link between this and climate change. Not only will biodiversity loss due to climate change makes pandemics more likely, but we will have reduce capacity to tackle global health crises due to the intersecting nature of more extreme weather and environmental events on human health.
We know that climate change puts pressure on many species to move to new areas due to loss of habitat and food sources. This puts more animal and bird species in contact with human populations, increasing the risks of novel virus spillover.
According to a recent study, by 2070, around 4,000 mammal species are “predicted to aggregate in areas of high human population density…sharing novel viruses between 3,000 and 13,000 times.”
It is not yet know the definitive links of findings such as this and the potential for global pandemics, but science suggests the risks are high. For such reasons, the IPCC is currently modelling the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics to include in its next assessment report in 2021.
Regardless of the science, we know that the wellbeing of the natural environment affects human wellbeing and vice-versa. It is this society-nature continuum, that often gets forgotten and is in danger because of human activity and the continual search for developmental ‘progress’.
We live on a finite planet. The constant, unrelenting quest for economic growth is creating more ecological destruction that we cared to imagine at the start of the industrial age. Because of this we are now living a climate planetary emergency. This has been internationally acknowledged and declared in over 1,750 jurisdictions worldwide, yet the political will to address the climate emergency with as much urgency as the health emergency is still lacking.
Nonetheless, COVID-19 has demonstrated that we have a chance for a social and ecological reset. This gives us the possibility to address climate change in the process. But, how?
I will discuss further in the second instalment of this post
The Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States has awakened broader challenges to the current state of race relations – in particular in connection to environmentalism and climate change.
Within the race debate is a larger one of decolonising environmental and climate action – that is, moving the conversation away from predominantly white Western perspectives of how we should handle climate change and ecological sustainability, and listening to other voices and perspectives. No, not just listening in fact, we need to incorporate them and bringing them greater equality in the process.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, poor, non-white populations have been bearing the heavy brunt of the decisions made predominantly for Western colonial interests. They have benefited little to none from the policies of development that have sent our world into a downward climatic spiral. In fact, they have led to greater inequalities for Indigenous and non-white, primarily economically poorer populations of the Global South.
But the decolonisation of the environmental movement doesn’t end there. Away from the Global South, in the United States and the UK – two countries with tense race relations – race and class determine who suffers the most from the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction because of social and economic inequalities. It is not just about environmental protection, it is also about equity in access to a healthy environment, clean water and air, arable and unpolluted land.
The tensions between environmentalism and racial and ethnic justice are not new. However, the recent global uprisings against racial injustice in line with the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted how these issues are intertwined with environmental injustices – not just in the United States, but worldwide.
Historically non-white, non-Western countries and peoples have been subjected to exploitation for the sake of Western-led development. They have been locked into inequitable and pretty much unilateral systems of resource flows, which have seen Western colonising countries enter lands foreign to them and pillage them for their precious resources which were (and still very much are) exported to countries in the Global North for their own economic development and wealth accumulation.
While many countries have theoretically been ‘decolonised’, that does not transpire into practice. The reality is that this inequitable system of resource extraction still exists today for the interests of Western development. These large-scale extractive industries have been the major driver of climate change. When the world began to realise this, Sustainable Development was introduced in an attempt to ‘green’ economic growth.
The Western neoliberal movement for Sustainable Development has done nothing substantial to ensure us a sustainable future with a healthy planet and healthy, harmonious and just communities. Development and its derivatives have, time and time again, been called a failure.
Western countries have hailed Sustainable Development for its universality – that is, being applicable to everyone, everywhere, regardless of their geographical, cultural or economic circumstances, or realities. The idea is to bring all societies up to Western standards of living, while addressing the environment.
This ‘single story’ of Sustainable Development is what we have to change if we are to successfully tackle climate change through sustainability.
Everything that is happening globally right now, from coronavirus, social inequalities, failures of health and political systems, systemic racism and the climate emergency, it is time to change the course of our human and ecological trajectory.
There is an impetus for change that we can no longer call radical, but instead it should be viewed as reasonable, logical, and most of all imperative.
Sustainability is about the emergence of multiple stories, within which the histories, situations and realities of Indigenous, Native, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, African, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Maori, Masai, Bedouin, Arabic, Kurdish, Pacific Islander Peoples and all other non-Western peoples should not only have their stories heard, but also be part of the unfolding of the next generation of multiple stories. They also need to be respected. This means doing sustainability differently.
So what is one vision of what might this look like? My expertise as you are probably aware is in incorporating Buen Vivir into action for social and environmental wellbeing through a practical tool for change. This moves the debate away from the Western perspective to something practical that passes the baton of social and environmental justice to others in a sort of decolonisation of the environmental and social systems.
Although Buen Vivir originates in the Andes, and with Indigenous roots, it is far from being implementable only in Latin America. Its core premises transcend cultural and geographic boundaries, to be something that speaks to the good of all humankind and the planet we reside on. They are present in many different cultures around the world (particularly Indigenous) whose voices have been muted by those of Western development.
Buen Vivir doesn’t return to a pre-modern past, but rather embeds itself in different ways of living, different practices and viewing the world. These variances come together under a set of common core principles – not a prescriptive or rigid way of doing things, but rather as guidance. It incorporates others’ knowledge including technical and scientific in the ways that we can look after the environment and people.
It is about listening to all the multiple stories and letting those people determine their own path to sustainability and wellbeing. It is also about not letting outsiders determine that for them, or devaluing the lives and realities of others who might not conform to a certain economic, race, class or social status determined by Western developmental standards. Lastly, it is about equity in ensuring a healthy environment and healthy communities.
Watch Novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks of ‘the danger of the single story’ in her iconic TED talk. We can apply these lessons to the way we approach environmentalism and sustainability. As she says, “it makes our definition of equal humanity different”, she says. “It is a story of power”, of whose story is told, of who gets to determine the plot and ending of the story.
The sustainability of the workforce has been one of the many issues that have been highlighted from the changes brought about by COVID19. I’m not talking about keeping people working, I’m talking about social and environmental wellbeing.
Many people are asking: but what if we never go back to the old ‘normal’? What if we embrace the new normal, the ‘newmal’? In capitalist societies, we have turned work from a productive activity for livelihood and improving quality of life, to a sprint for the gain of material wealth – many people spending a great deal of time commuting to urban centres for employment, and often at the detriment of leisure time.
One of the keynote speakers for this year’s OzWater conference Simon Kuestermacher spoke of the problems associated with the centralisation of the workforce. With a map of Melbourne he illustrated the areas of population growth, which were mainly central and peri-urban areas, contrasted to the growth of the workforce, which is primarily in the central CBD area. The problems then associated with a commuting workforce are multiple. It encroaches not only on work-life balance, but it also creates a sustainability conundrum.
What would be more efficient, Simon says (no pun intended), is for a commuting workforce to look more like an anthill than a star with a central point. This got me thinking about the ways we can utilise the changes forced upon us during COVID19 as an opportunity for a more sustainable workforce, and greater social and environmental wellbeing.
Instead of employers demanding employees to commute to centralised locations, they could support a more flexible employment environment by providing choice to employees to work from sustainable coworking spaces closer to home for those unable to work from home for logistical, space or other personal reasons.
The popularity and use of coworking spaces has been on the rise in recent years. They often serve as places where workers (and thus innovation) thrive. Many are based on principles of sustainability, in both their running and their architecture.
While most coworking spaces are member-based, state and local governments are beginning to support these projects by providing funding to community groups, local businesses and entrepreneurs to transform under-utilised or empty spaces, like Victoria’s Regional Coworking Spaces and Creative Places program.
Of course, there are always those who cannot work from home or decentralised locations, but flexible working arrangements for those who work in an office environment, and can work from a distance is beneficial to both workers and the environment.
In effect, you would create a decentralised workforce – clusters of decentralised work commutes, where employees could work either from home or close to home, decreasing emissions and high energy outputs related to both commuting to work and the running of large office environments; and increasing work-life balance, and therefore employee wellbeing.
The workplace commute is responsible for an average of 98% of employees work-related carbon output. According to a US study, a typical office for 90 people emits approximately 234 tonnes of CO2e per year, compared to a three person household which emits 1.39 tonnes of CO2e per year.
Creating local coworking spaces in peri-urban and rural areas also introduces more local employment opportunities, which can be based on local needs, and in turn forge stronger communities.
Stronger communities and higher levels of wellbeing amongst workers would be a win-win situation. According to a survey by McCrindle 28% of Australians would be willing to earn 5% less for greater working flexibility, and 14% of Australians would be willing to earn around 10% less if it meant access to remote working opportunities.
This finding supports the call by degrowth proponents for fewer working hours and more flexible working arrangements. These kinds of changes would mean a shift away from our growth-oriented society, towards one balanced on the wellbeing of people and the planet. After all, there has been substantial research into the fact that economic growth is not making us happier, it is instead turning us into “slaves of material things” – to quote one of my key informants in Ecuador.
Buchs and Koch (2018) said “In a co-evolutionary process, a range of institutions developed which are now coupled to a growth-based capitalist economy, including the nation state, representative democracy,the rule of law and current legal, financial, labour market, education, research, and welfare systems. These are based on philosophies which emerged to justify and give meaning to these institutions, for instance on individualism, freedom, justice, sovereignty, or power. The embeddedness of the growth-based capitalistic economic system in these co-evolved institutions and ways of thinking makes it difficult to transition to a degrowth system because the change of the economic system would need to involve a parallel transformation of those coupled systems.”
Here’s the thing: COVID19 has fundamentally challenged the workings of those institutions and questioned the basis of those philosophies. This leaves us with an unprecedented opportunity to change our approach to many aspects of society, including work.
To really think radically, what would this look like if governments extended the free childcare for working families introduced by the Australian government during COVID19 (or at least lowered fees to help more parents rejoin the workforce after having children) and provide more childcare options attached to these decentralised coworking environments?
We would potentially have more people in paid full or part time employment, working closer to home, with lower stress levels, more time to spend with loved ones, healthier and stronger communities, less environmental stress on urban environments, and fewer associated environmental emissions.
This is just one vision of what the future of work could look like for greater social and environmental wellbeing – a more sustainable workforce for a better future. I’ll leave this open for comment. I’d be interested to hear yours.