“Happy is it, indeed, for me that my heart is capable of feeling the same simple and innocent pleasure as the peasant whose table is covered with food of his own rearing, and who not only enjoys his meal, but remembers with delight the happy days and sunny mornings when he planted it, the soft evenings when he watered it, and the pleasure he experienced in watching its daily growth.” The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe
The climate change problem is by all means the greatest opportunity for an overhaul of our lifestyle. And it can be viewed as an opportunity to reinvent the future rather than a loss or punishment; and a chance to relearn the simple pleasures of life. But this can only be done by truely accepting that the nature of the climate change problem has to do with everyone of us. Accepting that we are part of, and not separate from, nature. This also means he have a direct effect on nature.
Understanding our role as participants in the environment who have rights and responsibilities we soon see that sustainability is about fair share and balance. And we soon see too that the solution to climate change lies in the problem itself, as climate change is primarily the price we pay for our ruthless exploitation of fossil fuels.
However, removing fossil fuels by replacing them with other renewable energy resources alone is like replacing heroin with methadone. The dependency still remains, the yearning, and the consumption, -with all its dire consequences on us and the planet. We can not be free as people, either psychologically or physically, if we are for ever consuming and longing for more comfort and wealth. To address climate change we need to accept that the cause of the climate change problem lies with in us.
As I wrote in No Climate for Change, we know that part of the climate change problem is that no matter how much information we are presented, we will believe what is comfortable for us to believe anyway. Scientists know this too well. As Dr Glikson, one of Australia’s leading voices on climate change puts it”You can explain to them as long as you like but if they don’t wish to understand, they won’t.” Acknowledging our impact is a choice more than anything else. And unfortunately this choice is often made before we receive the information. This is to a large extent part of the climate change problem as with out taking responsibility for the problem, and embracing it, there is little to be done.
There is a discipline called “communication science” that studies the so called “science communication problem”. Information designer Angela Morelli and Prof Dan Kahan centre their work around science communication and have very sound findings that show that providing more scientific evidence and more information does not translate into responsible action. Dan Kahan maintains that the knowledge deficit hypothesis is not true. Climate change science and information is wide spread, we know it. Dan Kahan also says, that the source of the problem is what he calls motivated reasoning. It is how we accept what the information received means to us: “As humans we will always be assessing the information unconsciously, assessing how it is going to affect our life and the links to the social groups we belong to. If the information is coming along the meaning channel and threatens us, we will freeze or run away.”
It it perhaps the implications of the changes we need to make to address climate change that we find challenging, we instead therefore deny or downplay the climate change science and information. But what is this fear based on? The reality is that a lifestyle change is necessary anyway, as many health practitioners today ascertain. Lifestyle diseases, also known as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are collectively responsible for almost 70% of all deaths worldwide according to the World Health Organisation. They include: heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease. These diseases are associated with the way we live, -inactivity and poor diet.
Not so long ago both physical activity and diet were directly related to our engagement in food production, and such diseases were rare. Except of course amongst a minority, (the elite), who were perhaps envied for their exuberant meals and inactivity. Today the diet and inactivity of a minority has become the norm amongst a majority in the wealthier part of the world and are as diseases of affluence set to rise in the developing countries, no longer being just a problem of affluent societies.
Our lifestyle has an impact on our health as people, as well as on the on the environment which supports us. In order to address climate change effectively we must understand our impact, accept that the climate change problem is about values, and live by the principle of “less is more”.
Understanding our impact
The way the earth responds to global warming tells us that everything is connected and there is a price to pay for our excess. That is the nature of climate change, there are countless examples, and even if we reduce emissions through the use of renewable energy sources, -which undeniably we must to hold back global warming, the future on our planet is bleak. As Dr Glikson says : “The evidence indicates the climate may be tracking toward – or is already crossing – tipping points”. An example of this is the thawing of the Siberian permafrost due to global warming. Methane, a green house gas emission more powerful than carbon dioxide, is released into the atmosphere causing an unstoppable cycle, as greenhouse gasses are released, global temperature rises. As permafrost continues to melt we will see more warming.
Similarly, global green house gas emissions from industrial agriculture represent a significant contributor to climate change. A reduction of these emissions is hard to envisage as the demand for more green house gas emitting agricultural products such as meat and dairy continues to grow as does our world population. The 2016 report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations states in its introduction that: “Keeping climate change within manageable levels can only be achieved with the contribution of the agriculture sectors. They now account for at least one-fifth of total emissions, mainly from the conversion of forests to farmland as well as from livestock and crop production. The challenge is to reduce those emissions while meeting unprecedented demand for food.”
Most importantly our problem is overconsumption. And overconsumption is a growing problem. We all want more. The simplicity Institute offers an in depth analysis in Critique of Decoupling Strategy: A Limits To Growth Perspective , which explains why our lifestyle is not sustainable. As individuals we need to be aware and responsible for our own ecological footprint. Ecological footprint: is the impact of a person or a community on the environment, expressed as the amount of land required to sustain their use of natural resources. So imagine the amount of land you need to live compared to others, that is -land used to produce every thing you need to live the way you do. When we understand and accept our impact we can see that there is simply no way around this, -if we do not reduce our ecological footprint, if we do not limit growth through our own consumption, even if we do embrace renewable energy resources, we will still have a life threatening problem.
The solution is a radical change in lifestyle for us here in the developed world. Ted Trainer argues in his article, The Case For Simplicity that a simpler life is also a “richer personal life”. There are many health benefits that would come to us with a change in lifestyle and these changes are necessary not just to address our environmental problem but our own modern health issues.
The climate change problem is about values
It is our value system that needs changing if we are going to change our lifestyle. Here are some values which come to mind: understanding land as sustenance and not as profit, promoting cooperation and not competition, encouraging compassion and not fear, rewarding kindness, instead of success.
In reading these I find that they sound as logical as they sound crazy, this is because they are not the norm. We have come to accept very detrimental exploitative values. Questioning the values behind our growth economy mentality, instead of the constant tweaking of it, with small improvements as we know see with the green technology industry, can not as we know, solve the environmental problem.
In referring to our high impact agriculture Noam Chomsky in Human Intelligence and the Environment points to the need for an overhaul of our system: “We do happen to have destructive forms of agriculture: high-energy inputs, high fertilizer inputs. Things look cheap, but if you take in all the costs that go into them, they’re not cheap. And if you count in environmental destruction, which is a cost, then they’re not cheap at all. So are there other ways of developing agricultural systems which will be basically sustainable? It’s kind of like energy. There’s no known inherent reason why that’s impossible. There are plenty of proposals how it could be done. But, again, it involves dismantling a whole array of economic, social, cultural, and other structures, which is not an easy matter.”
The reason why we do not take responsibility of our food production as individuals is due to the willing acceptance of the structures mentioned by Noam Chomsky. In my own experience, here in Australia, where over 70% of homes are free standing and have gardens, I find it hard to find any food growing in them or on the streets. Growing food to feed the family, (and not just a small veggie garden), is seen as unglamorous and laborious. Food gardens are not part of the culture, and the selfless actions of people who dare to make changes by growing food on nature strips in front of their suburban homes, are often met with suspicion and hostility.
Also the availability of local or home grown produce in the community remains minimal with most people driving to the large supermarkets, like Coles, and Woolworths to purchase food. It is seen as normal that food comes from far and not from the immediate environment. It is seen as normal that we drive our cars to purchase food. And it is seen as normal that most of the food we eat comes from large fuel based industries requiring large land holdings, excessive water, synthetic fertilisation, environmentally damaging pest control, extensive use of machinery and infrastructure, as well as transportation. What we see all this as normal when it is in fact extremely damaging.
Challenging this “normality” as people by supporting local food growers whether they are your neighbours or a local small commerce, is a fundamental action to address climate change. Interestingly we think of food on shelves in a supermarket as being part of our comfortable lifestyle, we like the immediacy of it. When the truth is we work hard to pay for it, and in fact the true immediacy of food is one where food is in our streets, in our backyards, in our parks, and in the periphery of towns and cities. But it is us to choose to value the lifestyle that would entail changing to a low impact food production scenario. What is certain is that to expect governments to address climate change effectively as is now required is nothing but a gamble.
We also need to question what is behind our high consumption. Is it the feeling of abundance, luxury, and freedom that we seek? These feelings are to a large extent a psychological illusion; they can be attained from nature just as they can be attained from the material world. An orchard spilling fruit in a small backyard with a little house can evoke luxury, freedom, and abundance; -just as the sight of a mansion with four fancy cars sitting at the front. It is up to us to choose which one we value more. Judging by the way the world is going, we may soon place more value on the small but very productive place instead of the large energy guzzling property. But it is us to make the former the object of our desire.
A couple of years ago I wrote Our Land Now, Whose Problem? This article explores our attitude to land. It is obvious that we need to review how we think of land. And yet we seem unable to see land as anything other than as a perfectly divisible commodity that can be exploited for profit, turned into real estate, or locked up into national parks. How then can we address climate change if we know from our experience that it is precisely this attitude to land which has brought us to this point of destruction and vulnerability?Orio, in the Basque Country, where all villages, cities, and towns grow a significant amount of food in their immediate environment, (home gardens, streets, parks and the periphery).
Nurturing the attainment of joy from our experience of nature instead of pleasure from ownership can change the world in far reaching ways. It is not in the possession of nature where lies her conservation, but in our own participative experience of her. To feel such joy we need to re synchronize ourselves as humans with the processes and movements occurring in nature and understand our place in nature as one that is of appreciation and cooperation and not of possession and exploitation. This is what I attempted to convey in my children’s book Why This Farm! here we have a family who change their roles as exploiters of nature in their farm to cooperative engagement with nature and their community. In the process they find happiness. And as we now think normal to think of nature as a diminishing commodity, reviewing how we think of her is urgent. Nature is still available and free, but increasingly we think of nature as a luxury for the wealthy. We see this constantly in the world of advertising, through travel agencies and many of our travel destinations as I presented in Getaway Holiday.
Less is more
In our pursuit of wealth we have followed the principle of more and we need to follow the principle of less: less fast foods, less plastic in our lives, less fossil fuel based personal mobility, less outsourcing, less oversized housing. These are a few common lifestyle choices to do with our comfort which we could do without for our own good. This is perhaps why addressing climate change is as simple as it is uncomfortable because that is what it is it is about: us, being less comfortable. But less comfort is not less well being
Ironically we equate less consumption with a reduction in the quality of our lifestyle. But less consumption is not a loss, in fact it is a gain. We know consuming less fuel based products decrease our ecological impact and make us healthier people –even if less comfortable. We know going places by walking and cycling, eating less meat, growing food, divesting from companies who we know do so much damage, are changes which decrease our ecological impact and make us feel better.
But this kind of action follows as a result of decisions we make ourselves, from deep convictions, and not a set of actions we are told to follow. To begin with lets take a closer look at the climate change problem without taking ourselves out of the equation and ask ourselves is what we strive for worth the damage? After all, our degree of comfort in the developed world, is higher than that of the royalty we had less than a couple of hundred years ago, -which is in the clock of history something like a tick. And our degree of comfort comes from that very fast and destructive exploitation of people and resources in the world. Accepting this reality as valid is an ethical question which needs attention.
Ultimately, it is our own degree of conviction and determination which will determine our actions and results– and not just the government’s policy. We know these things, we know it is us living a car dependent life, in homes where we push buttons for comfort, and open fridges for food, that is the cause of the problem. There is no information deficit – we also know that we are on the brink of a world disaster with impacts larger than that of a world war the world has never had.
We also know that to prevent it we have to, as Ghandi said -Be the change you want to see in the world. And that means lifestyle change- Being the change we want to see in the world is as psychologically hard for us as it is simple. That is why we need to review our values.
Accepting and owning the problem is the first step. Changing our value system and opening up to responsible living is the next, and then the learning curve for sustainable living is huge. But like many great things in life that involve effort, -the rewards in terms of health and well being are immensely satisfying. The effect of switching to green energy would be great, it would reduce our impact significantly by reducing our emissions. But greater by far, and far more necessary, would be a switch from the pursuit of wealth to the rewarding pursuit of a responsible and caring lifestyle.
I hope that climate change will be addressed holistically as an opportunity to address many other problems of the environment and our health as people. Understanding the connections inherent in the climate change problem such as the simple fact that everything that is available to us as a purchase has a history and an impact for which we can choose to be part of or not, is a great start. For as long as we continue aspiring to live a life of excess through high consumption, the damage will continue. But this can only be done by acknowledging that the climate change problem is not one that can be solved with the same thinking which created it. This is because our current paradigm, an economy of growth, is supported by high consumption. This model has resulted in climate change and we can no longer afford it.
Paula Ajuria, March 2017