Why we need more practical idealists in the age of climate change

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“The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones”

John Mayard Keynes

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.