Blueprints for the Future

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:

A pile of old blueprints in a run-down room
Blueprints to Copper by Scallop Holden
  • communitarianism (rather than individualism),
  • interdependence (rather than independence),
  • democracy (rather than autocracy),
  • humanity as part of nature (rather than separated from it),
  • sustainability,
  • gender equality,
  • tolerance/harmony,
  • cooperation/negotiation,
  • 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).

A detail from an embroidery of an old blueprint patent drawing for a Jacquard loom part.
Embroidered loom part drawing by Cross-stitch ninja

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.

Climate change: doing what’s right

A street strewn with empty water bottles. Two men are sweeping them up while another drinks in the foreground.
Unquenchable Thirst from Flickr user stumayhew

One of the arguments that I’ve been hearing a lot as we approach the Government’s release of details about the tax on carbon is: “We shouldn’t do anything because it won’t make a difference.” I’ve heard it from family members, and it’s also a continuing theme in the political debate. The poll cited here shows that many Australians (67%) believe Australia contributes only a small percentage to global carbon dioxide emissions and “a majority (64%) believes that Australia’s proposed carbon tax will make no difference to the world’s climate”, while this article in The Age cites BHP chairman Jac Nasser as warning “against the belief that Australia’s plans for a carbon tax would be influential – environmentally or diplomatically – on a global scale”.

There are plenty of arguments against this perspective. For one thing, Australia has a far better chance of negotiating multilateral or global agreements which require other countries to take effective action on climate change if we’re taking action ourselves. But even if it didn’t make much of a difference, globally, we should do our best to take effective action on climate change because it’s the right thing to do.

We don’t teach children not to steal (but not if you won’t get caught). Or not to hurt others  (but go ahead if noone will find out). We don’t teach them to do the right thing (but not if it’s hard). We don’t tell them not to litter (but do it if other people have already done it). We, as individuals, don’t believe (I hope!) that it’s okay to do the wrong thing if everyone else is doing it. As a society, I would like to believe that we support the idea of doing what’s right even when it’s difficult and even when your peers might not support you.

Children picking up trash by the seaside
Trash pick-up from Flickr user Sustainable Coastlines, taken by Joe Dowling

Australians contribute disproportionately to the problem: we produce more carbon on average per capita than the previous most polluting nation, the USA (Lauder). That might not end up having a huge effect compared to larger economies, but it will certainly contribute.

Taking effective action on climate change will make a difference internationally. A carbon tax won’t cripple our economy (even business bodies agree). It doesn’t need to cause problems for lower-income households (learn more).

But you know what? Even if it’s hard, even if it weren’t going to make a difference internationally, we should do our best to take effective action on climate change. We made a mess, we keep making the mess, we should help clean it up. We should do the right thing because it’s what’s right. We should start acting in the way we teach our children to act.