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.

The sustainability of work in the ‘newmal’

The sustainability of the workforce has been one of the many issues that have been highlighted from the changes brought about by COVID19. I’m not talking about keeping people working, I’m talking about social and environmental wellbeing.

Many people are asking: but what if we never go back to the old ‘normal’? What if we embrace the new normal, the ‘newmal’? In capitalist societies, we have turned work from a productive activity for livelihood and improving quality of life, to a sprint for the gain of material wealth – many people spending a great deal of time commuting to urban centres for employment, and often at the detriment of leisure time.

One of the keynote speakers for this year’s OzWater conference Simon Kuestermacher spoke of the problems associated with the centralisation of the workforce. With a map of Melbourne he illustrated the areas of population growth, which were mainly central and peri-urban areas, contrasted to the growth of the workforce, which is primarily in the central CBD area. The problems then associated with a commuting workforce are multiple. It encroaches not only on work-life balance, but it also creates a sustainability conundrum.

What would be more efficient, Simon says (no pun intended), is for a commuting workforce to look more like an anthill than a star with a central point. This got me thinking about the ways we can utilise the changes forced upon us during COVID19 as an opportunity for a more sustainable workforce, and greater social and environmental wellbeing.

Instead of employers demanding employees to commute to centralised locations, they could support a more flexible employment environment by providing choice to employees to work from sustainable coworking spaces closer to home for those unable to work from home for logistical, space or other personal reasons.

The popularity and use of coworking spaces has been on the rise in recent years. They often serve as places where workers (and thus innovation) thrive. Many are based on principles of sustainability, in both their running and their architecture.

While most coworking spaces are member-based, state and local governments are beginning to support these projects by providing funding to community groups, local businesses and entrepreneurs to transform under-utilised or empty spaces, like Victoria’s Regional Coworking Spaces and Creative Places program.

Of course, there are always those who cannot work from home or decentralised locations, but flexible working arrangements for those who work in an office environment, and can work from a distance is beneficial to both workers and the environment.

In effect, you would create a decentralised workforce – clusters of decentralised work commutes, where employees could work either from home or close to home, decreasing emissions and high energy outputs related to both commuting to work and the running of large office environments; and increasing work-life balance, and therefore employee wellbeing.

The workplace commute is responsible for an average of 98% of employees work-related carbon output. According to a US study, a typical office for 90 people emits approximately 234 tonnes of CO2e per year, compared to a three person household which emits 1.39 tonnes of CO2e per year.

Creating local coworking spaces in peri-urban and rural areas also introduces more local employment opportunities, which can be based on local needs, and in turn forge stronger communities.

Stronger communities and higher levels of wellbeing amongst workers would be a win-win situation. According to a survey by McCrindle 28% of Australians would be willing to earn 5% less for greater working flexibility, and 14% of Australians would be willing to earn around 10% less if it meant access to remote working opportunities.

This finding supports the call by degrowth proponents for fewer working hours and more flexible working arrangements. These kinds of changes would mean a shift away from our growth-oriented society, towards one balanced on the wellbeing of people and the planet. After all, there has been substantial research into the fact that economic growth is not making us happier, it is instead turning us into “slaves of material things” – to quote one of my key informants in Ecuador.

Buchs and Koch (2018) said “In a co-evolutionary process, a range of institutions developed which are now coupled to a growth-based capitalist economy, including the nation state, representative democracy,the rule of law and current legal, financial, labour market, education, research, and welfare systems. These are based on philosophies which emerged to justify and give meaning to these institutions, for instance on individualism, freedom, justice, sovereignty, or power. The embeddedness of the growth-based capitalistic economic system in these co-evolved institutions and ways of thinking makes it difficult to transition to a degrowth system because the change of the economic system would need to involve a parallel transformation of those coupled systems.”

Here’s the thing: COVID19 has fundamentally challenged the workings of those institutions and questioned the basis of those philosophies. This leaves us with an unprecedented opportunity to change our approach to many aspects of society, including work.

To really think radically, what would this look like if governments extended the free childcare for working families introduced by the Australian government during COVID19 (or at least lowered fees to help more parents rejoin the workforce after having children) and provide more childcare options attached to these decentralised coworking environments?

We would potentially have more people in paid full or part time employment, working closer to home, with lower stress levels, more time to spend with loved ones, healthier and stronger communities, less environmental stress on urban environments, and fewer associated environmental emissions.

This is just one vision of what the future of work could look like for greater social and environmental wellbeing – a more sustainable workforce for a better future. I’ll leave this open for comment. I’d be interested to hear yours.