Overcoming the status quo, and building a sustainable society


in Economics, Politics, The environment

Digging machine

One of the biggest difficulties in dealing with climate change is the challenge of making people give up things they have been benefiting from inappropriately for a long time. For instance, if a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system raises the price of fuels or energy, people will rebel because these things were cheaper before. It isn’t very psychologically potent to say that the lower previous prices were the result of ignoring the consequences of one’s actions. While a theoretical concern for future generations and people living in other countries is easy to maintain, a concern than manifests itself in changed behaviour is quite different.

In the end, our whole society is unsustainable. It is based on an energy model that cannot be perpetuated, and it is doing terrifying damage to the physical and biological systems of the Earth. Between the advent of industrialization and the present day, we have been living a kind of Ponzi scheme. Hopefully, people will grow to understand the enormous opportunity that exists now to initiate the transition to a sustainable human society: one that can sustain itself for millions of years.

Doing that requires foresight, an understanding of science, and a willingness to reject things that have existing for a long time, on the basis of rational objections. Ultimately, I am not entirely confident that humanity can manage that transition. Even so, now is undeniably the moment to try.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. March 12, 2009 at 9:41 am

Most people are pretty strongly wired against losses. Give them a fancy new gadget for a few months and then take it away, and they will probably be less happy overall than if they had never gotten it.

That’s even more true if the benefit being lost is something that previous generations had, and that some of their peers in this generation still do. Losing the ability to fly from city to city at low cost would be one example.

Magictofu March 12, 2009 at 11:09 am

My close to two year old son often goes into bursts of rage when I take something away from him (dangerous items or toys belonging to other kids for instance). I fear achieving sustainability is also partly fighting against human nature and millennia of evolution.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 11:13 am

There is a lot to overcome. In some ways, the next generation is likely to be poorer than this one. The best we can hope for is that capital investments and technological development will offset the natural resource depletion, pollution, and climatic destabilization.

Personally, I would wait for a big shift towards sustainability to begin, before I would be optimistic about the prospects of those who will live after 2050.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 11:14 am

Two terawatts of solar by 2020 would be a good start.

Sasha March 12, 2009 at 12:36 pm

In my eyes, the problem comes down to personal sacrifice. We all need to consume less. Some of us do, willingly sacrificing driving cars, jet-setting, cell phones full of heavy metals, etc. because we recognize the benefit, the offset. The problem is that for personal changes to amount to much, critical mass is needed, and right now, there are still too many people making excuses – including those about how unfair it is that they are asked to give things up that those before them enjoyed. The myth of the liberal individual seems alive and well in most contexts, but withers when it comes to responsibility. Thus, my proposed solution boils down to three words: heavy consumption taxes. Start taxing people $100 for every piece of toxic electronic equipment they buy, be it cell phone, mp3 player, netbook, etc, and I’d wager that our inability to repair or recycle electronics would miraculously resolve itself, and that sales (and thus energy consumption) would drop to something far closer to a sustainable level.

Milan March 12, 2009 at 12:45 pm


Could such a system be sustained politically, or would parties that promised a return to the pre-tax days take power?

Milan March 12, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Society-wide economic self-restraint and democracy may be incompatible.

R.K. March 12, 2009 at 1:15 pm

I think they can be compatible, but only when the kind of restraint demanded is seen as tolerable.

You can’t say: “Coal energy is destructive, so we are only providing electricity on alternating days.” You can say: “Coal energy is destructive, so we are taxing it and building nuclear plants and renewables.”

Dealing with opportunistic parties that offer policies with short-term appeal will always be a challenge in democratic societies.

Magictofu March 12, 2009 at 2:15 pm

This is getting depressing…

I think I would be better off stockpiling canned ravioli in an underground bunker for when society collapses. There are a bunch of frightening people doing just that.

Magictofu March 12, 2009 at 2:55 pm

One more reason to get depressed: “Forty-one percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters that they are doubtful that global warming is as serious as the mainstream media are reporting”


Milan March 12, 2009 at 2:56 pm

It is both depressing and deeply frightening to consider what will happen if society’s energies cannot be substantially redirected during the next few decades.

For the most part, it seems the more informed any particular person is, the more likely they will be profoundly scared about the future of the world.

. March 12, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Green — as in money
What stops us from acting more boldly on economic and environmental policy
Posted by Gar Lipow (Guest Contributor) at 5:57 PM on 11 Mar 2009

R.K. March 12, 2009 at 3:09 pm

There is a big messaging problem here: optimists are generally more convincing than pessimists. The gloomier supporters of strong climate policies become, the more likely they are to be ignored in favour of the crowd that argues that all we need to do is wait for saviour technologies to emerge.

If we are going to overcome climate change, we will need to appeal to people’s optimism and ambition, as well as their fears.

Milan March 14, 2009 at 1:59 pm

PhD Comic on UBC’s Sage Bistro and sustainability

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