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The tyranny of progress

Stability is not stagnation

20 05 06.ringel2

We must plan for a radically different future, one that doesn't see stability as stagnation and is both adaptable and sustainable. We should argue for and work towards something better than a cycle of growth and decline. 

Imagine your prime minister, president or chancellor standing at a press conference, declaring that for the foreseeable future, you cannot take a plane or use a car, you must stay at home. The media is shocked and agitated - these are severe restrictions to freedom of movement. Further imagine that this leader is not making these demands because of a pandemic. Instead, she is arguing they are necessary to solve the climate crisis.

Before Covid-19 took over the world, we were asked to prevent climate change by becoming “sustainable”, and it was often not clear what that actually meant. It usually involved changing our everyday consumption practices. Citizens around the world were asked to reduce their use of plastic bags, beef consumption, air travel. We hoped that small steps, taken daily by everyone, would make the difference. Perhaps a few small state interventions here and there in the capitalist market economy – slight incentives and even slighter restrictions – would also help prevent the planet’s deterioration.

Drastic state interventions, such as restricting civic freedoms, were almost never imagined on humanity’s path towards sustainability. Apart from war, the last time governments imposed such restrictions was during the 1970s international oil crises, when several nation states banned Sunday driving and flying. This latter crisis arguably led to the emergence, rise, and predominance of neoliberalism around the world. Our current form of organising capitalism is based on a retraction of the (post-World War II welfare) state. For hardcore neoliberals, the market should regulate human affairs, not the state. This was the framework in which many political leaders agreed to pursue their fight against climate change, and for sustainability.

Crises are inherent to capitalism. Neoliberalism has excelled in incorporating these crises into its own raison d’être without losing any of its political persuasiveness and credibility.

However, crises are inherent to capitalism. Neoliberalism has excelled in incorporating these crises into its own raison d’être without losing any of its political persuasiveness and credibility. It presents itself as the solution for these crises, despite being their cause, and failing to solve them. In the near future, its proponents will claim to know how we will overcome our current public health crisis and its economic, political and social repercussions. I suggest we use the lockdown to consider alternatives. What big steps could we take towards sustainability? What role can national governments play in tackling the climate crisis in the a post-Covid-19 future?

In the UK, it’s been shocking for many to see a right-wing populist, hardcore neoliberal version of the Tory party endorse policies that some have called ‘communist’. The government has taken an active, Keynesian role for the state in fighting Covid-19. Might this radical and unexpected response change our expectations of how governments can fight the even bigger climate crisis? How sweeping will our fight against climate change be, once we can get the current crisis behind us?

It is possible that humanity will party even harder in re-established freedoms after Covid-19: flying more, producing more, consuming more. Perhaps people will want to live life to its fullest, regardless of how sustainable that life is, now or for future generations. Life would be again as we knew it before the pandemic. Yet if we and our elected political representatives were to pursue sustainability more seriously after we will have recovered, there are a few things we might learn about sustainability from the perspective of the anthropology of time. Here is a short “How To” guide to sustainability, beyond the neoliberal era.

My empirical work as a social anthropologist takes place in postindustrial cities. These urban communities benefitted from the boom of capitalism, before its bust hit them even harder. What followed the promise of growth was the harsh reality of decline. These crises are part and parcel of capitalism, and many doubt that this particular political economy is well-equipped to handle (or prevent) crises generally – and natural catastrophes in particular. Sustainability is often hailed as a solution: a remedy to the ills of industrial capitalism. The origins of the term lie in seventeenth century forestry, when a German noble man thought about a more sustainable use of his and others’ forests. In its current use, sustainability entails a variety of different temporal logics that gesture beyond capitalism’s dominant paradigm of ‘growth', and its less unwelcome twin ‘decline’.

First, sustainability aspires to a different kind of future. Inhabitants of the postindustrial cities I studied hope that sustainability will take their hometowns out of endless cycles of boom and bust. Sustainability could change our relationship to time and our expectations of the future: the capitalist-modernist linear view of time could give way to a cyclical understanding of time. Resources would be not be consumed, but reused. In economic, ecological and social terms, these cities would not be subject to any future crises. Because of that, future generations will enjoy high standards of living, economic prosperity, and stability, too. At least, this is how the postindustrial future of sustainability can be envisioned.

Sustainability must make itself sustainable. We have to be able to maintain this different future in the future.

Second, another temporal logic is the guarantor for this fundamental change: Sustainability enables us not just to envision a different future. It also enables us to measure this alternative vision through the perspective of its own future, i.e. the future’s future. In the era of sustainability, something has a future only if that future has a future, too. To make a company, factory, institution, or infrastructure sustainable, you must design it for the long-term future. This doesn’t mean that it cannot change, rather that the ability to adapt is built into it. Sustainability must make itself sustainable. We have to be able to maintain this different future in the future.

Third, pathways to sustainability are complex, complicated, even contradictory. Particularly with regards to ecological sustainability, many envision a small-step approach to change that slowly but continuously leads to a reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions, eventually halting our planetary demise. Proponents of declaring a climate emergency argue for a more radical approach to changing the unsustainable present. Both pathways will have to consider the maintenance of the changes they aspire to. States around the world have traditionally shied away from more radical interventions, exaggerating the conflicts between, say, the economy and climate (rather than, as currently fashionable, between the economy and public health).

The proposed “measurements for sustainability" hardly help: whereas we can count the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, economic sustainability only seems to ‘count’ when businesses, wages, employment rates, etc. grow. A growing GDP, however, might not be the right indicator to measure economic sustainability. Other calculations also do not add up. We are currently saving hundreds of thousands of lives from a dreadful disease, but we seem to care less about the even higher predictions of deaths due to climate change.

We must encourage people to envision a future that is radically different from the one we are currently trained to work towards to.

Fourth, the concept of sustainability presents a difficult temporal conundrum. When can you tell that something has become sustainable? How can you know that no further crises will affect it and that future generations will not be negatively affected by it? This is a problem many of my interlocutors faced, when their city’s decline was slowly stopping. Instead of indulging in this stability, people experienced it as stagnation. Cautious hopes for a stable future were consumed by longstanding doubts, based on long-term experiences of decline. As soon as these cities’ economies picked up again, local politicians switched their vocabulary back to promises of growth rather than endorsing what sustainability could be all about.

To avoid this conundrum, we must use sustainability’s entire logical armoury. We must encourage people to envision a future that is radically different from the one we are currently trained to work towards to. We must fully consider this future’s future. We must measure our steps forward not just carefully, but bravely. During this time of enforced introspection, when we cultivate our crisis capacities and scrutinise our expectations and understandings of what counts as ‘normal’, we should reconsider how the future after the crisis should look like. Not just with regard to our own everyday small steps, but scrutinising what we expect our elected representatives to do.

In the UK, political leaders are repeatedly claiming to follow scientific expertise in tackling the current crisis. Yet this has not always been the case - economists’ warning about the repercussions of Brexit were ignored. What about climate scientists? The climate crisis threatens human survival in a more significant way than Covid-19. We should reconsider what the state and our governments can do for us, the measures they should take, and the changes they – and we – should unashamedly argue for.

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