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January 20, 2010
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rainbow film bubble

Green positivity

– more than just bubbles

In 1992 Bill Clinton famously said” it’s the economy stupid.” With the Copenhagen climate change conference, it might be asked if this has been replaced with “no, it’s the environment stupid.”

I think the focus has to shift beyond either, or even both. I would like to propose as the most useful framing: “it’s the implementation stupid”. In the terms of the social scientist Helga Nowotny, this means asking how to frame both economy and environment together in contexts of application – in Village-Connections terms, this means relevant and effective social innovation by people, around their aspirations and needs.

On Christmas day 2009 I had a conversation which has stayed in my mind because I was told I was being overly negative, not once, but twice!

It hurt. I don’t see myself as negative, quite the reverse. I’m always striving to see opportunities and come up with creative ideas.

I’d been talking with a member of the Green movement who had strong academic credentials, and I’d been arguing for a broadening of the framing of sustainability. I wanted this framing to be based on people being able to choose or create sustainable livelihoods that reflected their hopes and aspirations. I wanted framing that recognized and enabled practical economic issues to be tackled, such as national indebtedness. I also expressed concern about the lack of attention to peak oil, and how I thought this issue brought into sharp focus the need to relate practical environmental transition to overall economic transition.

I realized, too late, it was bad form to be engaged in such topics on Christmas day. I apologized, and I meant it.

When I got home I gave myself a hard time – why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut? But then I realized it’s not just at Christmas that I’ve got myself into trouble by trying to insert what I see as some economic realities and innovative possibilities into conversations about sustainability and finding it’s not appreciated. Or worse, that it can cause me to be seen as “negative.”

I understand the need for maintaining confidence in the economy. I also understand why the issue of peak oil is seen as too spooky to feature prominently on political agendas. The economic, social, and political implications of oil becoming less and less available and increasingly unaffordable to support current patterns of use are not comfortable to contemplate. I do not want to rock the boat unnecessarily. However, it also worries me that many people (at least in New Zealand) seem to want to continue living in some kind of bubble of positivity – if we just keep being positive, everything will be alright.

This positivity bubble is supported by all kinds of groups of people: political elites and investors and bankers, who rely on profits and taxes to keeping on rolling in; the public with mortgages and other big debts, borrowers who rely on being able to keep repaying at affordable rates; and many members of the public who feel they have benefited from this climate of ‘positive thinking’ and need it to keep prosperity flowing into their lives.

Last year, I wanted to prick this positivity bubble and let in some air, to try and force some reality thinking into this positivity. My post doc research was focused on sustainable wealth creation and distribution so I had a lot of thoughts on the matter – particularly on framing that could open up new and effective contextualizations of opportunity or possibility in local, and thence from local through to global, contexts.

I’ve been concerned that large-scale debt, both government and private, can give power to investors to control spending and other policy agendas, and that this needs to be factored into the framing of present choices.

Clearly also, there is a need to look comprehensively at how to make an effective transition to a post oil-dependent economic order. A report, published by the UK Energy Research Centre, which reviewed over 500 research studies, found that even according the most conservative estimates, there are at most only 20 years of easy access to oil left, no matter what new oil fields we discover (refer to New Scientist). We need wider understanding about the ways oil underpins our way of life, in order to think realistically and creatively about post-oil dependent futures.

I think the results of the recent Copenhagen climate change conference have confirmed that discussion about transitions needed to get to futures we want is too important to leave to a few (“leading”) individuals.

In retrospect I realize I should have known better than to try and inject some reality into my conversations about sustainability, but then again, if I hadn’t tried, I wouldn’t have seen the paradox that a commitment to positivity, not backed up by sufficient knowledge and analysis, could frustrate the actual achievement of positive outcomes.

My fear has been that this positive lobby might succeed in shutting down conversation and debate about limitations inherent in present discourse and policy-approaches. I fear this in turn will mean that present socio-economic dysfunctionalities will continue to grow unabated until some sort of authoritarianism will be seen as necessary to maintain order – all for our own good mind you. I fear then the positives-lobby would then tell us to remain positive because, really, there was no alternative. My need is for an awareness of the reality of the challenges, so we can together, roll our sleeves up and deal with them.

With the new decade upon us, I’d like to propose we work to broaden and deepen the framing of sustainability and how to implement it, moving beyond mantras of positivity that are soft on the problems and how to deal with them. I’d like to see the cultivation of positivity based on innovative and effective environmental and economic contextualization, guided by people’s individual and shared aspirations and needs.

To do this, people need to see not only the problems, but also practical ways through them, before they will accept the need to make changes. Here, I agree with Brian Milani’s strong and thoughtful caution:

In tough times, people will do nasty things for money. Even when times are good, many people who have no interest in big money or power are driven to compete and accumulate simply because they cannot trust society to take care of them when they are old or ill. They cannot trust that their children will get a decent education (Technonatures, 2009, pg 254).

I think Copenhagen may have helped test the reality of making policy without involving people or recognizing their needs, especially people on whom one depends to remain in power. For instance, according to one US report,

Less than ten days after claiming a breakthrough on climate change in Copenhagen President Obama is facing a mutiny from senior Democrats who are imploring him to postpone or even abandon his cap-and-trade Bill. Democratic Senators, fearful of a drubbing in the mid-term elections next year, are lining up to argue for alternatives… [They want] to put jobs and the economy first.

On the other hand perhaps, as Milani also proposes, if people felt more assured of “access to many opportunities for community, real security, and personal fulfillment,” in other words, be able to define and meet their needs and aspirations, they are more likely to become driving forces for change towards a sustainable future, rather than impediments to it.

The problem is not that we don’t have enough to meet everyone’s need; the problem is that a billion or so of the world’s leading consumers have come to be swept up in patterns of production,  consumption and transport that are unnecessarily energy intensive, wasteful and so create scarcity. The problem is not that people aren’t intelligent, and talented, and couldn’t do vastly better. It is, rather, that many have come to be temporarily limited in what they can see by their habituation into current patterns, inhibiting the broadening and deepening of understanding about what else might be possible, desirable, and perhaps, even necessary.

I know I’ve skated over complex issues, and so I’d be very interested if you could help to fill in more details.

For an excellent introduction to the scientific principles of sustainable energy use I would strongly recommend John Peet’s book “Energy and the Ecological Economics of Sustainability.”

See Jeff Rubin, the former Chief Economist of CIBC World Markets and the author of Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller and his presentation at the The Business of Climate Change Conference 2009

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1 Comment

  1. village idiot says:

    “fearful of a drubbing in the mid-term elections next year”

    Doesn’t that say it all about politicians? It may be a little simplistic to say, but the truth is politicians, and their entourages, care very little about community, the environment, the economy (except where it impacts on their bottom line – as they are all invariably wealthy land-owners), education, health etc etc. They care about one thing – the next election.

    That these people are making decisions for me and about my future is more frightening than any of the calamities we’re facing.