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.
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.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States has awakened broader challenges to the current state of race relations – in particular in connection to environmentalism and climate change.
Within the race debate is a larger one of decolonising environmental and climate action – that is, moving the conversation away from predominantly white Western perspectives of how we should handle climate change and ecological sustainability, and listening to other voices and perspectives. No, not just listening in fact, we need to incorporate them and bringing them greater equality in the process.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, poor, non-white populations have been bearing the heavy brunt of the decisions made predominantly for Western colonial interests. They have benefited little to none from the policies of development that have sent our world into a downward climatic spiral. In fact, they have led to greater inequalities for Indigenous and non-white, primarily economically poorer populations of the Global South.
But the decolonisation of the environmental movement doesn’t end there. Away from the Global South, in the United States and the UK – two countries with tense race relations – race and class determine who suffers the most from the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction because of social and economic inequalities. It is not just about environmental protection, it is also about equity in access to a healthy environment, clean water and air, arable and unpolluted land.
The tensions between environmentalism and racial and ethnic justice are not new. However, the recent global uprisings against racial injustice in line with the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted how these issues are intertwined with environmental injustices – not just in the United States, but worldwide.
Historically non-white, non-Western countries and peoples have been subjected to exploitation for the sake of Western-led development. They have been locked into inequitable and pretty much unilateral systems of resource flows, which have seen Western colonising countries enter lands foreign to them and pillage them for their precious resources which were (and still very much are) exported to countries in the Global North for their own economic development and wealth accumulation.
While many countries have theoretically been ‘decolonised’, that does not transpire into practice. The reality is that this inequitable system of resource extraction still exists today for the interests of Western development. These large-scale extractive industries have been the major driver of climate change. When the world began to realise this, Sustainable Development was introduced in an attempt to ‘green’ economic growth.
The Western neoliberal movement for Sustainable Development has done nothing substantial to ensure us a sustainable future with a healthy planet and healthy, harmonious and just communities. Development and its derivatives have, time and time again, been called a failure.
Western countries have hailed Sustainable Development for its universality – that is, being applicable to everyone, everywhere, regardless of their geographical, cultural or economic circumstances, or realities. The idea is to bring all societies up to Western standards of living, while addressing the environment.
This ‘single story’ of Sustainable Development is what we have to change if we are to successfully tackle climate change through sustainability.
Everything that is happening globally right now, from coronavirus, social inequalities, failures of health and political systems, systemic racism and the climate emergency, it is time to change the course of our human and ecological trajectory.
There is an impetus for change that we can no longer call radical, but instead it should be viewed as reasonable, logical, and most of all imperative.
Sustainability is about the emergence of multiple stories, within which the histories, situations and realities of Indigenous, Native, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, African, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Maori, Masai, Bedouin, Arabic, Kurdish, Pacific Islander Peoples and all other non-Western peoples should not only have their stories heard, but also be part of the unfolding of the next generation of multiple stories. They also need to be respected. This means doing sustainability differently.
So what is one vision of what might this look like? My expertise as you are probably aware is in incorporating Buen Vivir into action for social and environmental wellbeing through a practical tool for change. This moves the debate away from the Western perspective to something practical that passes the baton of social and environmental justice to others in a sort of decolonisation of the environmental and social systems.
Although Buen Vivir originates in the Andes, and with Indigenous roots, it is far from being implementable only in Latin America. Its core premises transcend cultural and geographic boundaries, to be something that speaks to the good of all humankind and the planet we reside on. They are present in many different cultures around the world (particularly Indigenous) whose voices have been muted by those of Western development.
Buen Vivir doesn’t return to a pre-modern past, but rather embeds itself in different ways of living, different practices and viewing the world. These variances come together under a set of common core principles – not a prescriptive or rigid way of doing things, but rather as guidance. It incorporates others’ knowledge including technical and scientific in the ways that we can look after the environment and people.
It is about listening to all the multiple stories and letting those people determine their own path to sustainability and wellbeing. It is also about not letting outsiders determine that for them, or devaluing the lives and realities of others who might not conform to a certain economic, race, class or social status determined by Western developmental standards. Lastly, it is about equity in ensuring a healthy environment and healthy communities.
Watch Novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks of ‘the danger of the single story’ in her iconic TED talk. We can apply these lessons to the way we approach environmentalism and sustainability. As she says, “it makes our definition of equal humanity different”, she says. “It is a story of power”, of whose story is told, of who gets to determine the plot and ending of the story.
If you were to ask a classroom full of children to draw a picture for an environmental cause of any kind – whether it’s climate change or pollution or even littering – many of them will draw something that includes a blue globe with green continents on it. Or some green blobs roughly approximating the […]