Let’s imagine a society based on human flourishing and respect for the natural world.
When you look around what do you see? What is it that keeps society ticking over; same old, same old, until – all of a sudden – something changes? How do those of us who are concerned for the future of our planet help push these changes in a positive direction?
To answer these questions we first need to realise that we, individually and collectively, imagine society.
Think about your morning. When you woke up, you knew what you needed to do to make your day happen. You got up at a particular time, ate breakfast (or not), checked email (or not), and made your way to work (or not) using whatever transport you knew to be available. Your day could have started in dozens of different ways – but you probably ensured that it started more or less as usual. You held your day “in mind” and so it came to pass.
We also have a collective imagination. If we tell each other that “it’s a dog eat dog world,” and “survival of the fittest,” is a natural law, then it follows that we will put considerable effort into getting a secure job, accumulating personal wealth; and if we have children trying to make sure they have a head start. These practices stoke the collective imagination further: if we are in social circles where everyone is working long hours, getting promoted at work and making their way up the property ladder, then this seems to prove that survival of the fittest is the natural order. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that keeps society reasonably stable.
However, no society is completely stable. Although most of the time we re-enact business as usual, if we ignore the natural world or thwart human thriving, eventually we will cease to believe in ourselves. And then the chaos – or the fun – begins.
In relation to the physical world, as we continue to ignore the evidence for climate change and carry on as usual, we destabilise society. Assuming that climate scientists have got the basics right, if we maintain our current practices, change will happen, simply because the physical world will rewrite the rules. Some changes might be swift, such as a cyclone that destroys homes in a few short hours. Others may take decades or centuries as is likely with sea level rise. But if there is a physical process in action, change will happen with utter indifference to our protests that we need time to adjust.
Society is also unstable if it ignores the human drive toward flourishing. People crave to be “people-like” – that is to express their creativity, feel control over their lives, and above all, to be part of warm and trusting relationships. If society does not provide the conditions under which people can be people-like, there will be an underlying restlessness, as well as pockets of extreme anger and social agitation. Of course power structures can act to keep people confused and even complicit in their own oppression. But this takes a lot of effort and it never works completely. Think, for example, of the enormous effort that goes into re-creating the consumer society every day – advertising, shopping malls, a pervasive social narrative that consuming (for the sake of consuming) is pleasurable, natural and so on; and yet many of us know consumption is a hollow substitute for something deeper and more expressive.
Furthermore, once you are aware of the human suffering and ecological damage that consumption causes, the glittery surface seems even more bizarre – like an aging rock star who has had too many face-lifts.
Fascinating research by Alex Tribou and Keith Collins suggests that social changes prompted by people’s desire to flourish can, like some natural events, happen very rapidly. They graphed the rate by which individual US states legalised interracial marriage, same sex marriage and women’s suffrage. Notably, once one state had made the change others tended to follow in rapid succession until the federal government required all states to comply. This is not to overlook the decades of preparatory work that preceded these laws – gradually shaping people’s imaginations towards the possibility that, for example, to restrict marriage to same-race, different-sex partners, thwarts many people’s deep desire for a partner with whom they feel at home. But it does show that when social systems keep people from being the people they need to be, those social systems are vulnerable and can suddenly change.
What follows from all this is that when society ignores the natural world and keeps people from flourishing, it has fault lines. And when we work to produce a society with ecological systems and people at its heart, we are working with nature. Can there be a better ally?
Increasingly, I am interested in working on an imaginative tale – a tale of joy – that we can trust each other and it is not, in fact, a “dog eat dog world”. I do not mean a shallow trust – I will pay back the money you have loaned me or take one for the team on the sports field. I mean deep trust – that together we will ensure that everyone has access to a home and some land, good food and clean water. We will also ensure universal access to the fruits of our big, cooperative endeavours – education, medicine, political processes and so on.
This is in part because we acknowledge that these are social products in which it is meaningless to tease out who “deserves” what, and in part because they are the route by which we can co-create the society we want to live in. You can trust me to really mean it. That is, I am not trying to win a war, sell a product or even leave a legacy. I really mean that I want to live in a society based on radical inclusion and I am prepared – in fact I would be delighted – to swap my excess wealth for this.
So how can we bring this tale of joy to life? Well one way is by creating networks aimed at promoting human and ecological flourishing. For example, I have been appointed to a sustainability leadership role in the Faculty of Science at my university, and I have focused on setting up such a network. The network is open to all staff. Members propose projects and work with interested others on these. While I am involved in several of the network’s projects, what I am actually trying to do is provide the setting for a sustainability culture to emerge – a sense that we can work together to sort out the various problems we face. Collaborative networks offer a lived alternative to the notion that life is a battle field with individuals and nations competing, and nature a form of collateral damage.
None of us can actively change society – society is a complex arena in which multiple forces are vying for attention. But what we can do is look for the fault lines and offer people alternative ways to imagine their lives together. We can also refuse to accept the standard story that keeps business as usual ticking over. For example: Exactly why do we need to “grow” the economy? What is true prosperity? Do people really need large salaries to work hard? What does it mean to make a profit and is all profit ethical?
My challenge to you is this: think about what you want from life. Try to let go, just for a moment, of the fear that if you don’t beat other people in the race to the top all the world’s riches will vanish before your eyes. You might find that what is left is something rather beautiful: to be part of a warm community, to experience the natural environment, to develop whatever talents you have, to use your body, to solve hard problems, for your contribution to be recognised by others, for your children to be happy. Now imagine if our social institutions were required to help people achieve hopes like these. Now there is a tale of joy.
This thought piece is based on an edited version of my talk to the Theories of Change hui held in Auckland on February 19, 2016.