The latest warnings from the IPCC predict that the world is heading towards critical temperature limits. We have already reached 1.0 degree of global warming. The IPCC report estimates that global warming is likely to triple to 3.2 degrees unless urgent, radical action is taken immediately. The IPCC warns that incremental change is no longer enough, and what we need now is transformation. But, what does this mean?
The IPCC defines ‘transformation’ as, “a change in the fundamental attributes of natural and human systems.” Is this enough to prevent it from becoming another catchphrase amenable to co-optation as the status quo sees fit? To avoid perpetuating what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls, “a litany of broken climate promises” the course will have to change. We are running out of options.
Transformation, therefore, should effectively address and change the structural and systemic causes of social and environmental injustices that impede any genuine change. Confronting the crisis requires urgent political and societal change.
Transformation then is not only about technology and energy policy, but also a holistic approach to how we govern society on an interwoven planet. So, when we talk about transformation, we also have to talk about what type of transformation, who is involved, how, and at what scale.
The type of transformation that can see us through the change we need is plural, locally embedded, embraces all forms of knowledge (not only technological), and is inclusive of all geographic, cultural, socio-economic, developmental, and linguistic realities. It also needs to transform behaviours and practices from a largely anthropocentric model of society to a more holistic view that embraces a human society interwoven in harmony with nature.
To speak in metaphors of interwoven systems, humans have long viewed the world like a double helix, one strand representing nature as a living being, necessary for life, and the other strand representing society seeking to dominate nature and control it. The two strands coil around each other but running in opposite directions, their purpose intertwined, yet never touching. Yet, nature and society are more like an intricately woven tapestry. One loose thread in one part, can see the rest come completely undone. We are part of nature and any attempts at transformation to save it from climate change must recognise this.
Transformation is more than about scientific and technological mitigation strategies. Part of this is shifting mentalities firmly towards a post-extractive economy, not only discussing transition. The transition to just climate policies is important, we have to get it right, but merely focusing on discussions of what it looks like takes away from the immediate radical change that is needed and the larger goal of what comes after. Continual discussion about transitions without immediate action only sustains current convictions, planted in short-term fixes.
A hybrid approach that incorporates daily social transformation with the ultimate vision of what needs to be achieved to limit global warming will help achieve both long and short-term goals. In the quest for daily transformation, education plays a major role. That is, education on all levels, formal, in the home, in communities, and in policy. Education must be strategic not to continue the messages of the past. The transformation of education thus must also be systemic. I will discuss the transformation of education in my next post.
Post-Extractive Circular Society
The theme of Earth Day yesterday was “Invest in our Planet”. The question needs to be asked, at which point does the fix-all economic narrative become redundant? While we do need future investment in new technologies, we can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of techno-fixes for reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Yes, technology and will play a crucial role in transformation, but relying on it to achieve the real physical change that is needed in urgency is not the solution. Perpetuating the myth that we can build our way out of this through technology that supports exponential economic growth is dangerously digging us a deeper grave.
The IPCC report states that other mitigation strategies are likely to be prohibitively expensive, and that is the excuse used in ideological stances to abandon any kind of concrete change. According to Munich Re Research, in 2020, climate change disasters have led to estimated global economic losses of A$272 billion. Yet, when we look at the costs of inaction the argument mounts that it may very well be more economically expensive to continue down the same path of slow transition and economic justification, but more than that it will also cost us much more than money, it will and is starting to cost lives. In 2020, there were approximately 31 million internally displaced people from climate change impacts alone. By 2050, think tank IEP estimates that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate-related events. We can therefore legitimately argue that there is more at stake than economic growth.
A move to a low carbon society will not be effective at its aims if it destabilises ecosystems and puts efforts to protect biodiversity in jeopardy. This is why transformation must not only be about the types of energy we transition to, but also how much and on what scale. For true transformation, the use of renewable resources has to be in harmony with nature, as well a society. After all, even renewal resources perpetuate an extractive mentality on a large-scale as part of a neoliberal economic growth strategy. Our global economic model, for starters, has to evolve and transform with the challenges that lie ahead.
The ways we transform the energy sector should also be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge to sustain transformation in harmony with nature. Policy strategies like moving towards a circular economy, which embed multiple approaches with the same aims such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, Regeneration, or even Degrowth can be part of a just economic transformation towards a post-extractive society. Instead of thinking about it as only economic as we do with a circular economy, by embracing these various approaches in tandem, we can then evolve towards a circular society – renewing and regenerating all life in harmony with the natural environment.
The UN calls for “transformation [that] requires attacking the root causes that generate and reproduce economic, social, political and environmental problems and inequalities, not merely their symptoms” but there is no concrete blueprint for this type of transformation. Many scholars have argued that this requires visioning a post-extractive society that focuses on regenerative approaches to society and natural resource management.
In regeneration, it’s important to look beyond fossil fuels and carbon emissions because of the circular effects of environmental destruction. Here, the models and frameworks I mentioned earlier work within a regenerative, circular society, such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, and Degrowth, for example. For future actions that are compatible with nature, so that the environment may regenerate and flourish, incorporating the rights of nature into future global and national climate policies would be beneficial.
Regenerative alternatives to development promote a state where human society and nature live in harmony. Regenerative approaches are not just about reaching Net Zero, but they are holistic and integral in that they seek to leave environments and their societies in a better state, having a positive impact on human wellbeing and the environment as a whole.
So, in summary, when we think about the type and scale of change needed to tackle the environmental challenges that lie ahead, transformation must be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge, particularly Indigenous knowledges. It is regenerative, seeking structural and systemic change which includes, as a foundation, formal and informal education systems. Transformative regenerative approaches work in harmony with nature and seek to enhance environmental wellbeing, as well as societal wellbeing. Transformation then, upends the way the world currently works, towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable future, not solely towards better economic growth.