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.
The G7 is a group of seven of the world’s richest industrialised countries which meets annually to discuss pressing issues always headlined by the global economy, security and energy. This year saw climate change and health highlight the agenda for the leaders, which is significant given that the world’s most affluent countries and biggest emitters are largely responsible for climate change.
However, this is mainly because climate change and COVID have proved to be two of the biggest threats to the global economic system – which, if we are honest, overshadows any moral imperative to address these crises. Leaders explicitly state a recognition of “climate change and growing inequalities as key risks for the global economy”. A historical look at global action on both ecological and health crises demonstrates that are not a priority until they begin to destabilise the global economic order.
More than a few experts have argued that if we are to fight future climate and health crises, we need to address the structural and systemic causes. However, the communique coming out of the summit from our world’s most powerful leaders show a commitment to anything but that.
In a piece in Climate Policy following the Climate Ambition Summit in December 2020 four former senior members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat demanded that “Real action rather than lip service” by phasing out coal and put an end to fossil fuel subsidies and establishing a 2030 interim CO2 target. As co-author Michael Zammit Cutajar stated, “We cannot continue kicking the can down the road to climate safety. ” Yet, that is precisely what is being done by the world’s richest countries hiding under an economic safety net.
On climate leaders have promised to “commit to net zero no later than 2050, halving our collective emissions over the two decades to 2030, increasing and improving climate finance to 2025; and to conserve or protect at least 30 percent of our land and oceans by 2030”, which responds to the UNFCCC report to establish interim 2030 targets, but whether or not immediate and effective strategies – that is the “real action” in the form of urgent domestic policies and regulations – follows suit is yet unknown.
The key points on climate coming out of the communiqué are as follows, however, one must pay attention to the non-committal and sometimes exclusive language that may open up any loopholes for tangible action. We must keep in mind that language use is a vital factor in International Law:
Ahead of the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15), the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP26) and the fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD COP15), we commit to accelerating efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep the 1.5°C global warming threshold within reach, strengthening adaptation and resilience to protect people from the impacts of climate change, halting and reversing biodiversity loss, mobilising finance and leveraging innovation to reach these goals.
[In line with the Paris Agreement] we collectively commit to ambitious and accelerated efforts to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest, recognising the importance of significant action this decade…we have each committed to increased 2030 targets and, where not done already, commit to submit aligned Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) as soon as possible ahead of COP26, which will cut our collective emissions by around half compared to 2010 or over half compared to 2005.
Domestically, we commit to achieve an overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s and to actions to accelerate this. Internationally, we commit to aligning official international financing with the global achievement of net zero GHG emissions no later than 2050 and for deep emissions reductions in the 2020s.
We will phase out new direct government support for international carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy as soon as possible, with limited exceptions consistent with an ambitious climate neutrality pathway, the Paris Agreement, 1.5°C goal and best available science.
Domestically, we have committed to rapidly scale-up technologies and policies that further accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity, consistent with our 2030 NDCs and net zero commitments.
International investments in unabated coal must stop now and we commit now to an end to new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021.
We reaffirm our existing commitment to eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by 2025.
Sustainable, decarbonised mobility and to scaling up zero emission vehicle technologies, including buses, trains, shipping and aviation.
We will take action to decarbonise areas such as iron and steel, cement, chemicals, and petrochemicals, in order to reach net zero emissions across the whole economy.
We recognise the need for an urgent step change in the deployment of renewable heating and cooling and reduction in energy demand…[and welcome the Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) initiative’s goal of doubling the efficiency of lighting, cooling, refrigeration and motor systems sold globally by 2030.
We commit to ensuring our policies encourage sustainable production, the protection, conservation, and regeneration of ecosystems, and the sequestration of carbon.
We support an ambitious post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be adopted by parties at CBD COP15 which sets ambitious goals, strengthens implementation, and enhances regular reporting and review.
We adopt the G7 2030 Nature Compact in support of the global mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
What should have been on the agenda is possible pathways to a new global economic system (or economies) that will better help ensure both social justice globally, while effectively fighting climate change and ecosystem destruction.
Despite growing calls to abandon old ideas of economic growth as a solution to global ills, the G7 communiqué expressed renewed calls to reinvigorate our economies by “promoting growth into the future”. Leaders promised to “increase the prosperity and wellbeing of all people while upholding our values as open societies.”
We cannot continue to prioritise growth as a fix-all solution. To meet the increasing ecological and social challenges of the 21st century, we will need to end the pursuit of exponential growth, and look towards economic models that are that regenerative, collective, collaborative decolonial, and new values-driven.
A global economy that focuses on collective wellbeing of both people and nature is the only way we can use economics to tackle the mess we are in. There are many alternative to development models, such as Buen Vivir, which advocate plural economies within a larger global wellbeing-oriented economy to fundamentally address collective social and ecological wellbeing locally, and scaling that up. Perhaps the G7 is an outdated concept for our 21st century challenges, and needs to be opened up to thinking from other ‘undeveloped’ economies.
Our world is broken in many ways, compounded by climate change and biodiversity loss. Human impacts have had a profound effect on the changes in nature.
Humans have led to a broken world. It’s time to for us restore the earth! For today, Earth Day 2021, that is the theme.
The global pandemic highlights the urgency of environmental action at every level of society. Restoring the earth doesn’t just mean relying on government action, it’s a reminder that we all have to come together and contribute to a brighter future – one of hope.
‘Sustainability’ is no longer enough. ‘Sustainable development’ hasn’t worked. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s look at other approaches that can reconcile our society with the planet that sustains us. We have the opportunity to turn away business-as-usual, challenge the staus quo and regenerate and renew the earth.
We can do this by shifting our behaviours, and changing our worldviews on our role and relationship with nature. This involves deep societal change. But in the words of Martin Luther King, “today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”
Earth Day should not be just symbolic, however, it’s an opportunity to continue the conversations of change which can lead to real, practical transformation. Here some ways all levels of society can do so from individuals, communities, industry and governments:
• Prioritise Indigenous and traditional knowledge and incorporate them in public policy and decision making.
• Look towards ideas like Buen Vivir that seek to restore the connection between people and nature, and between each other. This means moving away from a transactional society and towards collaborative living and collective socio-eco wellbeing.
• Start implementing and supporting regenerative activities like regenerative farming, agriculture, gardening, and tourism.
• Educate. Teach the next generations what can be done for the future, and instill a reciprocal planet-people mindset. Centre Indigenous and traditional approaches to resources in education.
• Move to a circular and regenerative economy, and localising that through social and solidarity economies that connect producers with consumers and provide equitable outcomes.
• Change consumption patterns with cooperation between people, governments, business, and organisations. At the most basic level this can involve tree planting; reductions in energy consumption and waste by individuals and industry, supported by effective policy; better waste management solutions incorporating new technologies.
• Support research in and harness sustainable technologies to support a circular and regenerative economy, and help support individual efforts.
• Declarations of a climate emergency coupled with effective strategies and policies to implement necessary changes.
• Celebrate and promote a ‘culture of restoration and regeneration’ through art, music and storytelling to motivate and inspire action.
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