Societal values and sustainability


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Olenka Slywynska

In Collapse, Jared Diamond argues that sometimes the only way for societies to survive, despite the environmental problems they create and experience, is for them to re-evaluate and reform their key values. Given the environmental problems we face today – climate change foremost among them – it seems worth asking whether our core values need such revision.

To begin with, it must be recognized that societies with widely differing values are nonetheless contributing to dangerous climate change. Anybody with net positive emissions is adding to the stock of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, though naturally those who are emitting tens of thousands of kilograms a year are causing more danger than those emitting mere hundreds or thousands. That being said, both due to the non-renewable nature of the resources and the climatic consequences of their utilization, it is fair to say that all societies that are dependent on fossil fuels are contributing to the problem: a set that includes everyone from Canada to India to Saudi Arabia to Indonesia.

Within such a diverse group, are there any common values at all? Perhaps the most important ‘value’ is more like the absence of a value – an unwillingness to take the welfare of distant future generations seriously. Most people work hard to improve the prospects for their offspring in the next generation or two, but engage in behaviours that are profoundly threatening to all members of generations beyond that, for a period extending into distant geological time.

One ‘value’ that might be both common and problematic is a continued determination to grow with respect to both activities with a high biophysical throughput and those with a low one. The latter isn’t really a problem. It is no more environmentally damaging to produce good paintings or music than bad ones. The former, however, is deeply problematic. There are inevitably physical limits to growth, as well as to the conditions under which people can live present lives. Most societies disregard those limits. As Diamond argues:

Even if the human population of the Third World did not exist, it would be impossible for the First World alone to maintain its present course, because it is not in a steady state but its depleting its own resources as well as those imported from the Third World. At present, it is untenable politically for First World leaders to propose to their own citizens that they lower their living standards, as measured by lowe resource consumption and waste production rates.

If we are to maintain a decent standard of living in developed states, while also alleviating the unjust suffering in the developing world, we need to develop a society that treats both resource demands and waste production as serious issues, to be kept within the bounds of what can be maintained forever.

Are there other deeply held values that conflict with the goal of producing a sustainable global society? Like the Greenland Norse described in Diamond’s book, placing a high status value on eating meat is one, and an especially concerning one when it comes to rapidly rising wealth in developing states. Indeed, the general problem of resource-intensive status symbols is one common to the Easter Islanders and both Chinese and North American people today.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

. June 22, 2009 at 2:02 pm

“In the context of resource depletion and sustainability such a view can only mean that the marketplace will determine all. No government intervention can take place save to enhance the interests of particular groups at the expense of others. That is the sole meaning of “government program.” In Buchanan’s view it cannot be construed otherwise.

The problem for those who seek widespread sustainability preparations is that this view has come to be widely accepted by the public and even by politicians. And, its corollary–that humans are all independent information processors that aim to maximize their personal gains at all times–has also achieved a broad purchase on the public mind.

What strategy, then, might one pursue to counteract this view which is now so prevalent? I no longer concern myself with the diehard cornucopians and techno-optimists who will never be convinced that anything truly catastrophic could ever happen to us or the natural systems that support us. The way to win any battle for the public mind is to focus on the so-called “persuadables.” These are the people who haven’t really made up their minds about an issue, and they tend to be the largest segment of any population. On this count my worry grows exponentially. As Robert Rapier has explained on this site previously in a piece entitled “We Won’t Stop Global Warming,” most people say they want to do something about global warming. But when one places a price on actually doing something, say, raising the cost of gasoline $1 a gallon through taxes, support for action drops precipitously. People see themselves as maximizing consumers first, and citizens with duties to a greater society second.

Therein lies the conundrum. Any public-spirited sacrifice–even for people who believe there is a problem–seems out of a question in societies whose entire politics and culture are dominated by the idea that personal wants are the equivalent of the public good. In the longer run the question of human freedom becomes even more nettlesome in my view because a sustainable industrial society implies two things: a steady-state economy and a stable population. And, that implies considerable regimentation of daily life, the likes of which people in Western-style democracies have never experienced.”

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