It is profitable to let the world go to hell

I get a feeling that many (most?) people who have a positive attitude towards sustainable behaviors do not realize the extent to which sacrifice would be necessary to avoid catastrophe. Do they have a Disney-like feeling about the subject? Possibly. Levels of consumption have been way above Earth’s capacity for some decades and a true change of course would probably require very bitter measures (how about a carbon tax doubling or tripling the price of gas or increasing the prices of all plastic junk consumed by humans?). One thing is to promote difficult behaviors such as colonoscopies and prostate screenings. Promoting bitter ideas or behaviors to save the Earth is a different animal. There is strong competition from rich groups who benefit from the status quo and are willing to spread doubt and false but compelling narratives. However, the stronger competition comes from the entire economic ecosystem, which depends on the unsustainable and impossible quest for continuous growth. Businesses are like cancer cells, they strive for growth no matter what. A CEO who does not deliver growth is punished without mercy. A president or governor in any place of the world will do almost anything to have economic growth, inflating his/her electoral capital. In other words, the system, including political bodies, is completely engineered towards growth.

My point is that the promotion of environmental attitudes or behaviors tends to be at best inocuous without considering the system’s structure. At least if the goal is to save the planet.

Oddly enough, proponents of free market refrain from the idea of incorporating externalities into the price of carbon-based products and activities, which would accelerate or at least stimulate substitution for alternatives as well as technology development. The latter is uncertain, has a longer time span and is patent-based, which tends to preclude its rapid spread (in the desired speed). We are nearing 2020, we have done too little in the last decades and there are lots of reasons to expect a tipping point in the coming decades. Having been studying the field of system dynamics over the last 3-4 years, it is easy for me to see how the structure of the system produces the behaviors we would like to avoid, while also creating powerful barriers against change. In a much broader scale, we are like a prototypical fishery, which reaches its peak in production when the system is already doomed. But this realization does not integrate the collective repertoire of mental models about climate change.

In other words, the battle is way above the realm of behaviors. Free market, which is a clever brand thriving in the marketplace of social ideas, is a highly selective concept, conveniently forgotten when it comes to restructuring our global socioeconomic systems.

It has happened before (see Jared Diamond’s great book “Collapse”). We are like the inhabitants of Easter Island, who drove themselves to extinction. Effective collective or social learning is something that we have not mastered yet. I doubt we will.

The real battlefield is thus in the realm of ideas. We need to go beyond.