COP27 – Systems Change for Climate Action

On day 2 of the COP27, session 3: High-level Session on Systems Change and Climate and Sustainability Innovations examined the deep paradigm shift needed for effective climate action. There was one key overarching message that I took from this session that also resonated with my own work: we need a radical rethink of our economic systems, social justice, and the way we approach natural resources.

There were two issues that panelists argued need addressing in terms of innovation if we are to address climate change effectively and timely: 1) decoupling human wellbeing from the use of natural resources; 2) power, or rather the decentralization of power. Both issues are addressed in a Buen Vivir framework, which is one reason why I focus on the concept, not only for social wellbeing but ecological wellbeing too. It ties into yesterday’s discussion on empowering local communities for climate action.

Janez Potocnik, Co-Chair of UN International Resource Panel hit the nail on the head when he argued that we need to move from an economy that sees humans as external to nature, to one which understands humans are a part of nature. He also stated that we need to remove the causes which lead to negative impacts, of which extractivism is a core function because it is a driver of human needs, but it is also the cause of great inequalities.

Janez argued that to live sustainably, we must move to provisioning for human needs, rather than servicing existing paradigms. I argue further that in that, we must also provision for environmental needs. Without taking into consideration the needs natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity have to continue to function and thrive, we risk destroying them to the detriment of society.

Dr Andres Steer, President of Bezos Earth Fund brought up the critical issue of power and control – that in the absence of empowering local communities to take action on the ground, any advances in innovation (whether that be technological, knowledge, economic, or otherwise) are void. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to effective climate action, the ability for decision and policy-makers, and others who hold the balance of power to cede some of that power to local communities to identify and implement solutions.

We see this with the concept of neoliberal development, under which the idea of sustainable development – and multilateral policymaking forums – sit. The overarching paradigm sees one set of values as dominant and therefore urges everyone to take the same approach, without having any idea about local challenges and the context on the ground. Dr Steer urged the UN to consider this transformative climate action, pleading, “as we think about changing the system, let’s not forget that on Monday morning we need to address real problems on the ground.” In other words, high-level aspirational commitments are nice, “and make for good dinner party conversation”, but are not always conducive to feeding effective solutions in real-time.

In closing this session, the facilitator summarised that “we have called for radical rethink. We have called for accepting that we will have to act in crisis. We are not going to be dealing with a world that is not in crisis.”

On that note, it is reassuring to hear the acknowledgment that frameworks and concepts like Buen Vivir, Donut Economics, Degrowth, Circular Society, and others that were once considered too ‘radical’ and pie-in-the-sky, could bring the kinds of holistic empowerment solutions the world needs in times of urgent climate crisis. Now it is about taking these from idea to action.

A Good Life for the SDGs

Photo by j.mt_photography on Pexels.com

Time to change the lens for sustainability?

The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to social and environmental sustainability, with an overarching goal of ending poverty and protecting the planet by 2030.  Universal is the keyword. This means they apply to everyone, everywhere, regardless. This makes them more aspirational than practical and because of this, it’s argued that they are impossible to achieve. Indeed, by all accounts, they are failing. And, we’re running out of time.

The 2022 Progress report on the SDGs details the immense challenge ahead of us in terms of achieving social, environmental and economic sustainability. The report admits a backward slide against the Goals (albeit in the face of significant “cascading crises”, most notably in terms of poverty, climate change, and environmental indicators.

Climate change and sustainability come hand in hand. A changing climate is a major challenge for social and environmental sustainability. In turn, the way modern society functions is far from sustainable long, or even medium term and is hastening the speed of climatic changes that are occurring.

The IPCC has confirmed that climate change is caused by human activity, and it is happening at a speed faster than first realised. Thwaites “doomsday” Glacier in Antarctica, for example, is melting at a speed faster than could ever have been anticipated, threatening global sea levels to rise up to .6m https://theconversation.com/thwaites-glacier-the-melting-antarctic-monster-of-sea-level-rise-podcast-191057

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has called the current climate situation a “code red for humanity”. Everyone everywhere will (and already is) experience the wrath of the past decades’ inaction. As I have argued many times, we cannot continue to decouple human and environmental wellbeing. These “cascading crises” are complex, and they are entangled.

The outlook is not good. While it seems like we are on a one-way course for destruction, there is definitely hope in limiting the scale of future destruction, if we band together, separately. That is, if we change divert the approach from ‘universal’ to ‘contextual’. Immediately.

In the words of Sneddon et al. (2006)

“Sustainability may yet be possible if sufficient numbers of scholars, practitioners and political actors embrace a plurality of approaches to and perspectives on sustainability, accept multiple interpretations and practices associated with an evolving concept of “development”, and support a further opening up of local-to-global public spaces to debate and enact a politics of sustainability.”

Because climate change is a global challenge (perhaps the biggest!) with no geographical limits it requires a global response. Let me rephrase that, it requires a response globally, that is anchored in local geographical, climatic, ecological, socio-political, economic and cultural context.

The thing about place is that no one locale is the same. Place is a complex notion. Each comes with its own identity, challenges, and socio-economic situation. The identifying factors aren’t just social, each place is unique with its own environment, biodiversity, ecosystems, topographical, geological, and geographical advantages and disadvantages. Place influences a person’s identity and their empathy towards nature, which plays a role in the motivation for climate and sustainability action. The perception of place is then vital to social and environmental justice at the community level. This makes the community context the most practical viewpoint for addressing social and environmental issues.

What’s more, climate change is not and will not affect each place equally. Each community will mount its own challenges that are unique to that place. So, it is nonsensical to then believe that we can apply a universal approach to these issues, even if they have global scope. Plus, large-scale transformational systemic change is inherently complicated, and especially drawn out – a major issue when dealing with issues on an urgent timescale like climate change.

Global declarations and treaties are a vital part of the international system. They are an important tool to set the wheels in motion for action in all parts of the world, and they outline states responsibilities and obligations in responding to challenges that affect us all. But, they are not effective in their own right. International action is firmly squared within the boundaries of neoliberalism, which promotes universal values in line with Western standards, and ignores the diverse realities of communities everywhere. This has indeed been one of the most common critiques in relation to global climate declarations. International climate diplomacy must be coupled with locally anchored solutions within a context that speaks to locally-identified needs and challenges, otherwise they are all but useless.

What alternative approaches like Buen Vivir do is remove local action for social and environmental justice from ideal and aspirational universal values and provide local communities with agency to drive solutions that meet their realities. As a hypothetical example, let’s look at two climate-related flood disasters, the solutions that are required for (comparably) affluent communities in Northern New South Wales in Australia will not work in the poor communities of Pakistan who are currently experiencing climate flooding of biblical proportions.

 Small-scale transformational change breaks up larger big-picture goals like the SDGs and makes them amenable to place and context. Smaller chunks are easier to swallow and (notwithstanding all the complexities in a community) quicker to achieve real change. Concepts like Buen Vivir also help reconcile the social and environmental aspects, that builds bridges between the two rather than having them almost compete for attention.

Local action for climate change is crucial and Buen Vivir provides a framework for locally driven solutions that build resilience, mitigate impacts, and allow communities to adapt in relation to their own realities. It that respect it provides a tool for increasing social and environmental wellbeing in the face of these challenges. Having local solutions unadulterated by the global agenda yet capable of working together in cooperation with it is vital for transformative action at this point. ‘Together yet apart’ – much like the catchphrase of the COVID lockdown period.

Even the upcoming COP27 in Egypt has recognised the importance of working together for implementation against the old notion of a single negotiated outcome. The Presidency Vision states the need “to replicate and rapidly upscale all other climate-friendly solutions towards implementation in developing countries”. “Together for implementation” is the theme, with the Presidency saying that implementation needs to happen “on time and at scale”, and be “specific, measurable, and impactful”.

Each of the principles of Buen Vivir has the potential to cooperate with the wider global Goals, but leaving it to the communities to identify the needs and respective solutions. I outline just how the principles converge with the Goals in my book and more recently paper published in the Community Development Journal .

Never before has the term “think globally, act locally” been more prevalent than now. And never has the call been more urgent!

The People’s Charter for an Eco-Social World

The Global People’s Summit: Co-Creating a New Eco-Socio World was held 29 June – 2 July 2022. I was honored to have been included in the program, presenting my research on Buen Vivir.

One of the key outcomes of the Peoples’ Global Summit was the ‘Peoples’ Charter’ shaped by diverse voices across the globe and based on the values of Buen Vivir, diversity, respect and Ubuntu, for the co-creation of globally shared values.

The People’s Charter is a living document and reference point that will grow as the world’s populations share their solutions for a sustainable planet where people live in peace and security. It is co-designed and co-built.

“The People’s Global Summit recognises that the pledges made by governments since the founding of the United Nations – the pillars of peace, development and human rights – have facilitated crucial steps forward but have not yet been realised. Challenges are at crisis point. Rights have been eroded. Inequalities and fractures have grown. Poverty sits alongside extreme wealth. Nature has been degraded, leading to climate warming and environmental destruction. Millions of people have been displaced as a result, adding to the millions more displaced by conflict and violence. The governments that made these commitments have prioritized competition over collaboration and sovereignty over solidarity. They have not yet served the people they represent.”

The Charter sets out five values for a new Socio-Eco World and seven implications going forward. The purpose was to create a call to action for world leaders at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum and General Assembly in July 2022.

If you missed the Summit, you can still watch the presentations by clicking the sessions in the program here. Be sure to check out some of the amazing keynote speakers, as well as the opening ceremony by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez and climate activist Dr Kumi Naidoo.

You can read the contribution book here.

Transformation for Climate: but, of what?

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.

An Incredible Force: Women and Climate Action

Happy International Women’s Day!

On International Women’s Day 2022 we reiterate the need for a gender-equal world and celebrate the power of women and girls in the fight against climate change and its impacts – Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow is the theme this year.

In a statement for UN Women, Executive Director Sima Bahous said, “Climate change is a threat multiplier. But women, and especially young women, are solution multipliers.”

Imagine the transformational change we can achieve if we prioritize gender equality globally – not just in privileged seats – and give precedence to the important role women and girls have to play in a sustainable future!

“Imagine a gender-equal world.

A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

A world where difference is valued and celebrated.

Together we can forge women’s equality.

Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.” –

http://www.internationalwomensday.com

Breaking the bias…that is the first step. While women have a vital role to play in the health of our future planet, we are more vulnerable to the many impacts of climate change than men.

As Sima says, “The accelerating crises of climate change and environmental degradation are disproportionately undermining the rights and wellbeing of women and girls. They are multiplying insecurity at all levels, from individual and household to national. Rising temperatures, extended droughts, violent storms and floods are resulting in loss of livelihoods, they are depleting resources and fueling migration and displacement. The latest major IPCC report on climate change, and our Secretary-General, have warned us that ‘nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone – now, ’and that ‘many ecosystems are at the point of no return – now’.”

As the COVID pandemic has shown us, we now have the opportunity to rewrite the future trajectory of climate action. We can rethink and re-imagine avenues of transformative change for a sustainable future. The global shifts in policy and behaviour in relation to COVID have shown us that swift and radical change is possible when we have the momentum. The urgent nature of climate change gives us this impetus.

Part of this shift will require us to re-evaluate and transform the way we understand wealth in the economy. Currently in a neoliberal system wealth is measured by GDP. This measure of how a nation is fairing has been widely criticized over the past few years as outdated and dangerous in the era of climate change. An extractive economy is at the heart of economic growth policies that promote economic wealth accumulation above all else. Studies that show the vital importance of the care economy – of which women play a large part – tell us that we need to shift away from resource-heavy extractivism and better value collective wellbeing to ensure social sustainability throughout generations, and ultimately positively impacting ecological sustainability.

Valuing social and ecological wealth, to which women often pay greater focus in decision-making, helps to augment a communities’ Socio-Eco Wellbeing.

Women and girls are positive agents and super changemakers when it comes to climate action because of the tendency to think about collective wellbeing and the ecological impacts on their families and communities. Around the world, there are some amazing women and girls leading the charge in both formal and informal ways against climate change.

Research shows that greater female representation in parliament leads to more stringent and genuine climate policies. Yet, only 35% of environmental ministries have a gender focal point (womendeliver.org) Increasing involvement of women in decision-making capacities, especially regarding natural resource and land use is sound policymaking for climate-resilient communities, which has a ‘ripple effect’.

Source: http://www.womendeliver.org

UN Women has identified 5 useful ways to build gender equality globally. Some of these actions are policy-based, others also require a shift in mindset for a transformational gender-equal future:

  1. Empower women small-holders: Increasing the capacity of female small-scale farmers and access to productive resources can help promote sustainable agricultural practices. Women often think long-term and when involved in natural resource management, have been shown to use resources more sustainably.
  2. Invest in care: Unpaid and underpaid care work that unequally falls on the shoulders of women historically is a collective good that can benefit the wellbeing of all (individuals, families, communities, and their environments etc), but much like the environment in a neoliberal model, it is treated as a commodity to be exploited. More social value can be attributed to this kind of work, as well as more supportive policies with greater investment in the care economy.
  3. Support women’s leadership: Participation and inclusion of women in leadership and decision-making at all levels of society can help lead to more sustainable outcomes. Decision-making by women often leads us away from individualism, as women have a tendency to consider wider impacts and their families, communities and environments in decision-making. It is particularly important to prioritise Indigenous women’s knowledge in decision-making processes because of the wealth of knowledge they possess about their local communities, natural environments, biodiversity and natural resource management that can benefit climate action.
  4. Fund women’s organisations: empowering women’s civil society organisations can not only help achieve the action above, but it can also help elevate those voices in vulnerable communities that might otherwise be suppressed.
  5. Protect women’s health: Research shows that women are more likely to suffer from climate-related health issues such as disease or weather-related health impacts. Women are the cornerstones of family and community life, therefore impacts to women’s health have flow on effects for collective wellbeing.  Moreover, threats to public health are threats to community capabilities, affecting climate resilience.

Although global, equitable gender-focused solutions are not yet a reality, we can draw on the lessons in this year’s IWD theme to embrace women and girls as ‘solution multipliers’ in the face of social and environmental challenges, and break the bias for a more sustainable (and collective) future.

Twosday is the day to start living in harmony with nature

Today Tuesday, 22nd day of the 2nd month in 2022 is Twosday: 22.2.2022.

Whether you are spiritually inclined or not, the repetition of numbers is bound to pop out at you. Today’s date in particular has become a source of existential inquiry It has many people wondering what the greater signification of the day is and what its future consequences may be, evoking something metaphysical in our curiosities.

Numerology or the study of number symbolism can be traced back to Ancient Greece in 500BC when philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras developed a theory between numbers and their association with musical notes, which then became symbolic of individual’s personalities by tracing their birthdates. Numerology has since taken on many forms from biblical, philosophical, and cultural.

To numerologists, the number 2 symbolises harmony and cooperation, the union of basic dualities in nature. Its biblical signification brings about the unification of two forces.

Scientists have said that there is no scientific basis in the theory of today’s date. But at the very least it is culturally rooted in the aspiration to create shared meaning. Of course, I’m going to put an environmental spin on this.

For most of modern history, human societies have created a duality between the natural and human worlds, which has arguably been at the root of much of our demise – both social and environmental. This separation of worlds has been demonstrated to be one of the primary causes of climate change, as humans seek to exploit natural resources.

There has been much work coming from scholarly research and practitioners about the need to end this divide and seek harmony and cooperation between nature and society so that we may really transform the future trajectory of the planet.

So let me plant this seed…

What if today 2.22.2022, the day associated with change, harmony, unification is the day we individually and communally change the dualist way we look at the world and understand that if we, as humans live in harmony with nature, it might have significant transformative and positive impacts on our world and climate? Whether you believe in the power of numbers or not, our dualism has to change, so why not start with today?

According to numerologists, by taking the root numbers of 2.22.2022 today’s date is associated with the “destiny number” 3, which signifies optimism. If nothing else, today can be associated with the day we changed the human-nature duality of modern-day society and started thinking about both the human and natural environments as one union. And that, if we think about long-term impacts on climate change, is much cause for optimism!

Sustaining Water Wellbeing

Our blue planet is a testament to the integral role of water to every living being on earth. Access to water not only satisfies our basic needs but our psychological needs too.

Over the summer I may have been a little quiet as I took time with my family. A large part of wellbeing is taking time to connect with our families, and ourselves and for me, the school holiday period is a good time to do that. We spent a lot of time being by the water, whether that be the ocean or the rivulet. The ambiance of water – blue space – has therapeutic effects on human health and wellbeing. The time spent by water was a timely reminder that we are connected to the liquid stuff in more ways than we realise.

Our blue planet is a testament to the integral role of water to every living being on earth. Access to water not only satisfies our basic needs but our psychological needs too. Our need for water can be categorised by Manfreed Max-Neef’s nine axiological needs for Human-Scale Development, that is: subsistence, protection, participation, identity, idleness, creation, and even affection, understanding and freedom; but which also corresponds to Maslow’s psychological needs mirrored in his Hierarchy of Needs such as the need for leisure time, culture and community. Oftentimes, water is only equated to the need for subsistence or survival.

Water is a communal concept. The only thing individual about water is the way its presence makes us feel, subjectively. Yet, even that has objective consequences because, numerous studies show that being connected to nature, particularly water, makes people feel part of something bigger than themselves, imparting a feeling of awe and transcendence. This feeling of being connected to something bigger helps develop the responsibility to protect the environment around us.

Given the overwhelming importance of water to life on earth, the principle of reciprocity is especially crucial. In other words, being cognizant of the society-nature continuum and conscious of the fact that what we take, we must also give back. The Socio-Eco Wellbeing that results from Buen Vivir, confirms transcendent values like our deep connection to water, highlighting the importance not only of human wellbeing but also environmental wellbeing.

The United Nations resolution 64/292 calling for access to safe water to be considered as a human right was passed in 2010 with the support of 122 countries. It states that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” (UN CESC – General Comment 15, paragraph 2).

Although no one can deny the necessity of water as human, and the need for everyone, everywhere to be able to access clean, safe water, it has been argued that making it a human right only reinforces the mentality of human’s dominance over nature – that we must control it as a means to ensuring our own survival and livelihood, cementing if you like, the idea of water being a commodity. It should not be.  Rather, it should be understood as an essential part of the earth’s lifecycle, of which we are also a part.

Our modern-day commodity-like dependence on water leads to pollution, drought, water scarcity, and consequently diseases and food insecurity. Notwithstanding our absolute need for clean, fresh water; shifting mindsets from water as a human right to the responsibility of humans to ensure the health and sustainability of water sources can help ensure the former. Of course, this would not be equitable without re-examining the structural causes as to why many communities go without safe drinking water, and sacred water environments destroyed, polluted, or even seized.

In neoliberal development, human rights and environmental protection are often in conflict with each other. In 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed that the human right to water is legally binding upon states. To guarantee water as a human right means first addressing the structural and systemic road bumps that see the misuse, overuse, and exploitation of water and water sources. A large part of this is due to industry consumption. Particularly in communities in the Global South which have had multinationals and/or governments misuse and pollute local water sources for production’s sake. Watercourses are protected internationally by the “no-harm” principle in international law. That may help with seeking reparations,  but there is nothing concrete to prevent harm being done in the first place.

Harms to water sources create water stress, not only for humans but also for all living ecosystems that rely upon water for survival. The consequences are dire and cyclical. It affects food systems, livelihoods, even reactional activities. In short, it affects both human and ecological wellbeing and threatens our ability to satisfy both basic and psychological needs.

So, let’s put a spin on this. If we viewed water not as a right, but as a guarantor of both human and ecological wellbeing that must be protected and cared for to be utilized, would that change anything? Should it then not just be a question of society’s needs, but environmental ones too? The first step might be to also ask: what does water need to ensure its continual and safe replenishment?

Personifying ecological resources, for example, is a practice and worldview taken by Indigenous Peoples for generations, and it may help better ensure sustainability by changing the way we look at our natural resources. This practice has been ratified in law in a handful of cases where local jurisdictions uphold the Rights of the Nature, such as the constitutional amendments in Ecuador which recognise such rights, or the treaty ratified in New Zealand with the Māori iwi recognising the Whanganui River as a legal entity.

Complementing the right of water should therefore be the application of environmental personhood – providing water itself rights to exist and survive in good health. These two ideas need to harmonize each other because, without water, there is no life – human or otherwise. On the contrary, without humans, water will continue to flow and perhaps thrive, without the threats of overuse and pollution. Unfortunately, we humans cannot say the same about water.

The IPCC Report on Climate Change: What you can do

What’s the Issue?

In this part II of my post on the IPCC report I’d like to look at the positive aspects of the report – that is, the ways we can help limit global warming below at least 2°C by a wholesale change in behaviours, attitudes, practices, and a mindset that is better coupled to the human-nature connection. A decoupling of this connection is what has ultimately led to the changes found in the report including a 1.1°C temperature rise since 1850-1900 from CO2 emissions.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the inactions of governments on climate change, which can lead to eco-paralysis and the inability to act, so in this post I’d like to focus on what individuals and communities can do and the power we have to drive change. I’m not saying that individuals are wholly responsible for slowing climate change, but I am saying that everyone has a part to play.

Climate change is an ecological, scientific and technological issue; but it is also a social, political and cultural one, and tackling it will involve social, political and cultural changes that need Joe Bloggs as much as the highest levels of government.

Let’s stay solutions-focussed!

This will mean looking to alternative ways of limiting our impacts on the environment, which will include changing attitudes, mindsets, behaviours and practices.

The most detrimental “solution” is the one that believes that we can tackle the changes needed using the same tools we have always used.

We can change behaviours and attitudes about our place on the planet by recalibrating our understandings of our connection to nature. Humans are part of nature, not superior to it. Indigenous knowledges of the role of nature in human society and vice-versa were instrumental in the ways in which people lived for millennia before industrial activities. In recent times, activists and policymakers alike have pointed to the need to return to Indigenous knowledge in environmental management and social policies.

Ideas like Buen Vivir (among similar traditional and Indigenous concepts and philosophies) recentre Indigenous approaches to the environment and community, thereby making them potential solutions for changing the way we live and organise society, globally. By changing this aspect of society, not only in how we act and the choices we make on a daily basis, but also in the policies that governments adopt, we can lessen our usage of natural resources and thus impacts on the natural environment.

However, we have one big global problem: political inaction. So rather than waiting for policies to change, we can start to do our part in slowing the changes to climate. How? It starts with a change in the way we think, followed by a change in the way we live.

The Indigenous Kichwa Peoples of the Andes in South America call this change in mindset and practices Vivir Bien.  If you’re familiar with Buen Vivir, you will know that Buen Vivir is the big picture idea of what sustainability and wellbeing should look like. It involves not only environmental sustainability, but also the social wellbeing of communities (not just competitive individuals), which in many ways is connected to the ways we value the environment. So, environmental and social wellbeing are inherently connected to each other in an idea I call Socio-Eco Wellbeing.

Vivir Bien is the same idea, based on the same principles as Buen Vivir, only it is described as how it manifests in daily living. The full matrix of principles can be found in my book. There are many examples on the internet about daily actions individuals can take to tackle climate change such as:

  • contacting leaders
  • adopting a climate friendly diet
  • limiting our resource use
  • switching to renewable sources where possible
  • consuming less, and
  • using your vote wisely.

These are great micro ideas that make important changes, but they also need to be backed up with the right mindset. That is, a switch to communal thinking and away from individualism, and; a consideration of the reciprocal human-nature connection in every action and decision taken. This also calls for macro ‘big picture’ thinking.

Here is an excerpt from my book on some of the (non-exhaustive) ways in which communities can implement the principles in their daily lives:

•• Adopting a reciprocal approach to our relationship with nature;

•• Public participation and enabling decision-making in a manner that honours

that reciprocity;

•• Fostering solidarity and harmony through an environment of community;

•• Ensuring equity in participation in public decision-making;

•• Manifesting a responsibility to participate in decision-making;

•• Educating future generations;

•• Participating in economic life;

•• Understanding their fundamental rights and responsibilities, including those

of the environment;

•• Exercising those rights;

•• Promoting and protecting cultural values and practices;

•• Valuing the role of health in a community.

Adding to that is the reducing consumerism and the material vision of the environment as a commodity – a consequence of adopting a reciprocal relationship to nature in our decision-making and behaviours.

These changes combined can help empower individuals and communities to do their part in limiting environmental impacts and therefore slowing climate change. Inevitably, the changes flow up.

In the words of the Dalai Lama, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

More reading:

Buen Vivir as an Alternative to Sustainable Development: Lessons from Ecuador, Routledge, 2020

How to Live the Good Life, Sustain the Mag

Optimism, Hope and Respect in a Changing Climate

Photo by Akil Mazumder on Pexels.com

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.”

Rebecca Solnit

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.

Let’s talk environmentalism: race, decolonisation and climate

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.

Like COVID19 and climate change, these too are intersecting crises that need to be dealt with concurrently and with urgency.

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.