I went down to Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP)‘s Thursday seminar series for the first time today, which was given by Dr. Peter Ellyard from the Preferred Futures Institute. In the broadest outline, I agreed with many of the points that Ellyard was making. He emphasised the need to change the way we behave and the goods we produce, and the need to shift towards a system that values:
- communitarianism (rather than individualism),
- interdependence (rather than independence),
- democracy (rather than autocracy),
- humanity as part of nature (rather than separated from it),
- gender equality,
- safekeeping through security.
Most of those values (except perhaps the last, and the idea of “tolerance” rather than genuine acceptance) are values which I would support.
However, I found Ellyard’s plans for the execution of this value shift quite problematic. I debated whether or not to post about this, and decided that I should because many of the issues I had with Ellyard’s talk are quite common among those advocating ‘progressive’ solutions to climate change and other problems. The thoughts below are not directed purely, or even primarily, at Ellyard’s work: while they were sparked by today’s talk, I haven’t read Ellyard’s writing and am talking about more general trends that I’ve seen in much of the literature and activism around sustainability.
Firstly, I think there’s an important tension between advocating moving beyond both modernity and post-modernity, as Ellyard does, and presenting a “blueprint” for change. While I certainly agree with Ellyard that we need to start imagining the future we want to live in, many solutions to the problems we have now need to be worked out by people in local communities, and through processes of experimentation. The problems we face are complex, and solutions will need to evolve over time as we realise that changing one bit over here means another issue pops up over there. I haven’t read Ellyard’s books, so I won’t pretend to know how dogmatic his presentation of his blueprint for change is. However, on the whole I think any presentation of a fully-fleshed out programme for the future which others should simply sign up to, whether by an expert or not, is problematic (I’m looking at you, George Monbiot).
Secondly, Ellyard’s underlying approach seems to be very much rooted in the idea that markets are the best way to solve problems. Again, I haven’t read his books so I’m quite happy to be corrected on this point. But several times he mentioned the need for more entrepreneurship around sustainable products and services, and championed the idea of “mining the sky” (removing carbon from the atmosphere) as a good way to approach climate change. As a corollary to this, he mentioned that one of the benefits of being an early adopter for more sustainable practices and approaches was the ability to profit from it, and said we would be likely to see people becoming billionaires from doing so. I don’t think we need more billionaires. There’s some good evidence out there that inequality contributes to unhappiness, and that those who make more money contribute more to the problems we have. (And, frankly, nobody needs a billion dollars.) The assumption that capitalism, particularly entrepreneurialism, will solve our problems also ignores some of the serious issues inherent in the relationship between capitalism and nature. The assumption that technology will save us all has similar failings (for more on both of these points I highly recommend reading Prosperity without Growth). If we’re really going to live in a just and sustainable world, we need to be willing to make some deep and far-reaching changes to our economic systems and our lifestyles rather than hoping that some minor tweaking of capitalism and more technology will fix everything (I’m looking at you, half of the TED talks out there).
Thirdly, I strongly disagree with many of the specific changes that Ellyard was advocating. He spoke about ‘gene technology’ as a positive way forward, for example, and also said that everyone who comes out of university ends up with a more ‘planetist’ perspective. There’s plenty of good writing out there about the problems with GM crops (such as Kumi Naidoo’s very brief piece in The Drum), and I’ve had plenty of experience of people who have graduated from university who not only fail to consider the good of the planet, but also don’t think much beyond their own individual desires. Advocating education isn’t enough: the type of education matters. Of course, many people who support the same overall values will differ on the details, and we need to be aware of this and think of productive ways to work through the differences.
Fourthly, there were aspects of Ellyard’s presentation that I felt bolstered some of the less progressive aspects of Australian society. We need to be willing to call people on actions that support inequality or marginalisation, even when they’re meant to be ‘on our side’. Doing so can be hard, and damaging to those brave enough to do so (as seen in the recent issues with calling out sexist and harmful behaviour in the skeptic community). Ellyard referenced France’s willingness to take a communitarian approach by putting the safety of the community above individual rights, saying that they were willing to make Muslim women remove their burqas so that they can be identified and people can check that they’re not in disguise and strapped with explosives. This is such a mischaracterisation of the French government’s motivations/justifications (which relate more to the emphasis on secularism and rather strained references to women’s rights), and are an unnecessary contribution to the othering of Muslim women in Australia (and elsewhere). Ellyard also, unfortunately, didn’t cite any woman in his talk (he referred to one non-white man, Nelson Mandela). If we’re going to “be the future”, as Ellyard puts it, we need to start including a diverse range of perspectives in our research and practice. Ellyard seems to do this in his writing, and I’m sure that on the whole it’s an approach he values. Sometimes people just need a gentle nudge to remind them to keep up good habits. Noone can build a blueprint that will work for everyone, so we need to make sure that we actively seek out perspectives from people of different backgrounds, and that we build spaces which are safe and inclusive.
Overall, I’m glad I went to the talk. Ellyard made many excellent points, and CUSP seems like a very interesting space that brings together some fascinating and urgent threads of research. Having these conversations is important, and being willing to provide constructive criticism as well as acknowledge the good points is vital. It’s the only way forward. If we’re going to build
a blueprint blueprints for the future, they will be collaborative efforts, palimpsests of sketches and scribbles and additions.