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.