Old Paradigms – New Norms.

This forms the basis for a webinar on March 10th hosted by the University of Cork.

I am currently based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, working with the Saudi Ministry of Health on their hugely ambitious Transformation Plan. Because of Covid regulations I had to pass first through Dubai, a city of such proportions as to be breathtaking. It is like a bigger, cleaner, more opulent London, but without the rain. Then I had to transit through Bahrain, similar to Dubai, but not as big or flashy. Both sit on the coast in the Persian Gulf and of course are oil-based economies.

All three cities are in a part of the world where the climate is inhospitable during the summer, where water is scarce and yet they thrive and expand. This following point is obvious: This is where the theory of an oil-based economy – a carbon-based economy-society – becomes real. It is obvious to see in England, but somehow the climate here, the scale and the amount of energy use on display, forces the point home.

All three are unsustainable without oil. Should the oil and water taps be turned off, or become more expensive, then there would be dire socio-political implications. 

It is still late winter here, but the temperature outside is 30 degrees during the day. Cultures that developed over hundreds of years to cope with the conditions have been swept away in the cities. Oil based modernity makes life possible. 

This brings me to consider the wider context in which we have developed old paradigms and now need to develop new norms. 

Before we consider new norms, we need a little context to inform our assumptions, values, knowledge and skills. What follows is an outline of my own paradigm, my own conceptual map, that informs how I see the world to be, in order to rethink the old paradigm I grew up in. 

In short, as a baby boomer, I took for granted ideas of unfettered global travel, a diet rich in meat, cheap consumer goods, and an increasingly wealthier life than my parents. I also took fresh water, topsoil and the arrivals of moths and butterflies as a given. Technological progress was an unequivocal ‘good thing’, as was transport by car and a take-make-waste linear production model which bottled water exemplifies. 

I also took for granted that the world system is what Immanuel Wallerstein called ‘Core-Periphery’, in which the mass reserve army of labour of the global south (periphery), work to supply the services, goods and material resources for consumption in developing countries (core). You can see it clearly in any big city you visit. 

It is probably common knowledge that scientific reports from various disciplines that study the earth’s climate systems, biodiversity, and geography are documenting major changes to our current geological epoch now being increasingly referred to as the Anthropocene.  The global temperature rise since pre industrial times is now about 1.1 degrees with a 22 centimetre rise in sea level. We have seen extreme weather events such as the wildfires in California and Australia, huge floods in Africa, India, China, Korea and Japan and severe droughts in Argentina, Paraguay and Western Brazil. 

A two-degree rise sees half a meter sea rise, more extreme weather and loss of ecosystems. This is locked in, even if we meet the Paris accord which would lead to a 3-3.5-degree rise. Small island nations such as the Maldives would have to be abandoned and global crop yields would plummet. Paris aspired to keep within a 1.5-degree world, to get to net carbon zero by 2050. Even if we get there, we will still need to suck carbon out of the air through massive reforestation and carbon capture and storage.   

The changes in climate being studied and recorded are too rapid to allow evolution to adapt. Therefore, a smooth transition between the epochs for much of the existing biosphere will be impossible. 

This week, reports of the decline in the gulf stream is extremely worrying but can be halted if we act. 

We need to ask ourselves not ‘can we keep doing this’, because in many, many areas, we can. Business as usual in the short term is doable, perhaps for another 50-100 years?  Our productive and extractive capacity is enormous, on a scale unimaginable to ordinary people..

We also cannot separate these issues from global political and social systems as they have developed over the past 70 years. I suggest that the ecological crisis is directly linked to the development of human social and political forms since the industrial revolution, but they have accelerated since about 1970. The decline of welfare capitalism and democracy, the rise of oligarchic, plutocratic, authoritarian regimes and the transition to financial capitalism in the West is, in my view, linked to the wider socio-political and eco crisis. Finance capitalism is the rising dominance of the pursuit of profit from the purchase, sale and investment in, currencies and financial products. Tomas Picketty argued that rewards now flow to asset owners and rentiers in far larger proportion than to those who actually work to produce. 

What of course is required now is massive global investment in activities that creates a sustainable future rather than rewarding ownership of assets. 

Especially since the 1980s, collective action for welfare and social justice based around labour organisations, have collapsed in the face of the ideology of individualism and consumerism. This ideology has been called ‘neoliberalism’. Covid has exposed the weakness of this ethical framework, by highlighting the nature of work and the need to consume. 

We, in the developed West, have elevated the idea of placing the individual in the centre of our experiences to be the one of the highest ethical ideals. This individual is entreated to chase self-actualisation, and more recently to develop resilience and mindfulness in order to deal with the socio-political stressors that arise from structural reasons such as precarious employment, lack of affordable housing and low pay. It is an atomised self. It is a view of the individual that considers that we are rational and should be free to pursue individual projects within the structure of free markets. The answer to the question: “what is ethical?” is often “let the market decide”.  

This can be traced back to the Thatcherite idea of autonomous individuals who should be free from collective obligations and responsibilities. The individual exists separately from society and the planet. There is no such thing as ‘society’.

Note that this idea is neoliberalism not traditional conservatism. 

Why does that matter? Because it is ideological, because it serves a certain class interest. Because in the end, none of us are free rational actors who can reshape the world independently of much bigger forces. We are products and producers of the societies that predate us and will come after us. How we think and act is shaped by biological, psychological and social mechanisms working ‘behind our backs’, unnoticed and unseen. The market does not deliver an unequivocal good, it has massive failures.

It is also antithetical to ecological and systems thinking. 

This neoliberal idea of an atomised self separates the self from nature. It cannot consider a ‘unitary ontology’, so that throwing a plastic bottle into the sea is throwing something into a totally separate entity rather than seeing it as part of oneself. In this view, the oceans, the air, the biosphere are all separate from the free thinking, rational, ontologically distinct individual.

Many adults and children in the world can separate their actions and being from the wider whole; it is why we can trash and despoil the environment without being alarmed that we are doing it to ourselves. We are, in truth, one unitary whole. 

This neoliberal ideology tells us that we are supposed to ditch grand narratives of social justice and changing the world for more prosaic and safe objectives such as the pursuit of individual happiness. To do so, politics has no longer any place in resource allocation via redistribution in any meaningful sense. Politicians have left the field to non-political actors to rationally plan and execute courses of action for the population. Power shifts to the financial and corporate sector and to technocrats within often transnational bureaucracies. Other actors in this field are the billionaire tech giants, plutocrats and billionaire media owners such as Rupert Murdoch.  Fossil fuel interests, climate change deniers, neoliberal media tycoons are the ‘the coalition of the unwilling’. They are the climate ‘inactivists’.

They use three key methods to halt change – Deflection, Division and Doom.

Sustainability and Climate Change. How will we think about it? 

Mike Hulme, Professor of Human Geography and a prolific write on climate change, recently argued:

“We can state with some confidence that in 2067 physical climates around the world will be warmer than they are now, there will be less ice on the planet, and the ocean level will be higher. Of this much science can be certain. More tentatively, a range of environmental changes that may follow from this warming – and some possible social impacts – can be sketched.”

How will we think about what all of this means for daily living, creative practices, religious beliefs, technological innovation, business investment and political action?

This is by its very nature future thinking, and therefore the degree of uncertainty about the issues is huge. 

Hulme suggest that we may come to think of climate change as an engineering problem, as a locus for politics, as a human predicament or all three. I think we need to look beyond these surface ideas and look at invisible economic, social, and thus political dynamics. The key dynamic driving the world is the overarching need for capital accumulation. Follow the money: Watch what investors are doing. Watch what is getting funded, who is benefitting, how transparent is the process and is it free of any democratic control? 

The social and political meaning of climate change and sustainability will arise out of the complex interplay of money, banks, debt, investment, and the dynamics of capital accumulation. Alongside this economic dynamic will be our cultures, our ethical standpoints and our philosophies.  

What is business doing now? First of all business has woken up to the risk to their current business models that climate change poses. They realise that business operations can be affected by extreme weather and secondly they are realising that the wrong investments in old technology may not provide a return because people no longer want what you offer. Businesses across the board are setting zero net emission targets as the world market is moving towards net zero.

What are investors doing? The finance sector is shifting to mainstreaming climate change into their investment decisions. Even Oil and Gas has started on creating net zero targets. Microsoft has committed to net zero and by 2050 they will have removed their entire carbon emissions to date. Corporate lobbying used to lobby against climate policies, but now have reversed that thinking. e.g. BP lobbying for change in climate policies. 

In conclusion, I think we need to reflect on the current, and envision a different future. Some of this is overwhelming and at times frightening. Big Tech and Global Governance might provide answers, but do not bank on it. What we can control arises from our personal spheres of influence. While bearing in mind that we are all trapped within an iron cage of a much bigger global system, there are small cycles of change we can engage in. We must also avoid getting into arguments of hypocrisy – no one can easily escape the facts of our individual contributions to carbon emissions, plastic pollution, and waste disposal. The coalition of the unwilling will ruthlessly exploit division and accusations of hypocrisy. 

This is not your burden alone. Do not take on the whole world.

Further Reading.

Barnard, K and Weiss, C.  (2020) The Return to Green Conservatism. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. November 10th The Return to “Green” Conservatism – Intercollegiate Studies Institute (isi.org)

Brundtland, G (1987) Our Common Future, World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford 

Capra, F. (1995) The Web of Life. Harper Collins.

Gates, B. (2021) How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Penguin.  

Hawken, P. (2007) Blessed Unrest. Viking Press.

Hulme, M. (2020) Climate Change Forever: The Future of an Idea. The Scottish Geographical Journal ‘Climate change, COP and the crucible of crisis‘.136:118-122

Intercollegiate Studies Institute (2014) The Conservative Case for the Environment. The Conservative Case for the Environment – Intercollegiate Studies Institute (isi.org)

Klein, N. (2014) This Changes Everything. Capitalism v The Climate. Penguin.

Orr, D. (1992). Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. S.U.N.Y. Press

Scruton, R. (2013) Green Philosophy. How to think seriously about the planet. Atlantic books

Urry, J. (2011) Climate Change and Society. Polity Press

Watts, J. (2021) Good people fall victim to doomism. I do too sometimes. The Guardian. 27th February.  

Selby, D. (2007) As the heating happens: Education for Sustainable Development or Education for Sustainable Contraction? International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development 2(3/4)

Web: Sterling, S. Re-thinking education for a more sustainable world (sustainableeducation.co.uk) – This site has all of Stephen’s publications listed.

Stockholm Resilience Centre: