The previous pages show how our global system is on an unsustainable path and becoming more unstable by the day. They give three worlds to which we might be headed: an Earth free of humanity ; a humanity cut from its earthly roots, locked into technologies for its survival ; and a humanity more aware and respectful of the life system around it. The decades to come will be critical to choose which way we are going, and the last section explains why I choose the third path and decide to do as much as possible to get there. Now what can we do, as the helpless individuals we sometimes feel we are ?
The first clue is already given in the first part: since the most pressing issue is that of unstable society, the first thing to do is call for more democracy and protect our human rights. The next pressing issue is that of outrunning natural capacity to supply enough for our production, and to change that we will need to change our economic system and its logic of profit. The last issue we will be faced with is the depletion of natural reserves of raw materials, so we will need some technical solutions to make the most of what we have available. But that only comes third.
a) Just do something
This is the first, trivial, thing. If you do not think about the issues we are facing, if you do not speak about them, if you do nothing about them, there is no way you will make a difference. But conversely, in a world so complex, the tiniest hint in the direction of a change might have huge impacts. It can also backlash, but lets assume as long as you give enough of these small kicks in a consistent way, they will overall push change in the direction you wish.
The first step is thinking about the changes you want to implement. I like to use time usually deemed “useless” for that. Public transportation journeys, cooking time for meals, effortless walks outside… Embracing the void of my mind when things get boring rather than rushing to a smartphone to refill. Some food for thought is needed, of course, news and posts can provide it, but knowing who is behind the text and having diverse enough sources to get a complete picture is important. Internet provides every piece of information we might wish and that is the challenge: the world is never how we wish it would be. And at some point we have to decide what we believe and stick to it at least long enough to do something about it, even if we might want to change our mind later.
Idle moments can also be enjoyable with friends, and that is the second step: share. You never know where a conversation is going to get you, as long as you allow it to proceed, with its silences and sometimes its hard feelings. Because sustainability touches every aspect of our life, chances are that any discussion will provide something to think about along those lines. Then there is the difference between plainly disagreeing and try to convince each other in an usually endless discussion or understanding where the disagreement lies, which at least allows to see when the discussion can end.
The last step after you have thought and discussed about what might be good to do is to do it. Put your proposals forward wherever you can: at home, at work, and most of all on the public domain: if politicians won’t listen to you, there is no shortage of newspapers to write to, of associations and movements that can use one more brain and two more hands.
You might feel there are a lot of constraints to action, so better be flexible and accept to postpone some things. Plan ahead when you want to think about what changes you are ready to go through, then plan when you are going to cope with the details of doing it. Big changes in one’s life (moving out, changing jobs…) are the best opportunities to align one’s lifestyle and ideals: live closer to the ones we love, negotiate less working hours with our employers, involve with associations we feel close to… Because those are stressful periods though, we tend to just try to be over with it and give up, thereby missing the opportunity. So let us take a step back before such periods. Changing a routine is relatively difficult, but the impact of that is dwarfed by what can be achieved if you change your life so your routines can be sustainable.
b) Cope with complexity
Knowing what to do is alone a challenge. We now live in a society where “sustainable lifestyle tips” are everywhere and “Top 10 things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint” can easily be found (have a look if you never came across one of those, I will not come back to it for now). So as for the individual level we probably know what you “should (not)” be doing. Keep in mind those are very tiny steps compared with the impact of the system around you, but being confortable with your own lifestyle is also a pre-requisite to be able to think about the lifestyle of society as a whole. Out of all the things we are told to do, I focus on the AABBCC of the most polutting ones: Airplane+Automobile, Beef+Banks and Cooling/Heating+Consumption. These are fields where any compromise is technically very difficult, so we will have to do way less of them (like 10 times less). It is not about stopping driving cars or eating beef altogether – it is about to first think if we can divide by, 5 something unsustainable we are doing, then looking for ways of reducing that impact by a further half.
The impact of these little private choices should not be minimized, even if they are clearly not enough. There is a huge supply chain behind them and organisations monitoring these behaviour changes which then influence how the whole system will be redesigned next time there is an opportunity (changing an existing infrastructure is like if you were building a new house – not something you can do often, but you can completely change it to fit your needs). Directly or indirectly, all human activity is geared towards enabling our everyday life – that is why advertising is so important, to make sure our everyday life provides enough “demand” to keep the system running. No matter how complex the system might seem, your lifestyle change will have an impact.
Now conversely, the system conditions the lifestyle you can have. If there is no bus line, no local market near you, you will be bound to drive to a shopping mall. You might have to pressure some part of the system to get what you need to live how you want. We are back to the citizen role in policy making, and there individual choices will be all the more impactful as they are shared by others and/or can be transposed at higher levels. Some actions can not be taken at the level of your house, but maybe at the level of the neighbourhood, or the city, or the country. That is another way to reduce complexity: implementing changes at the most local level possible. It starts with speaking to your friends about it, as said before, but also getting involved as a citizen, vote for your representatives and participate in discussions organised by your city hall. Once your neighbourhood or your city has shifted to a more sustainable way of functioning it can in turn address the state to ask for broader changes and so on. For this, we need a well functioning democracy and well functioning means of communication, both things at risk today. How do we get that back?
c) Underlying principles: life, respect and trust
Last comes the question: how do we ensure our actions consistently push in the direction we want? For that, it helps to have principles or values that you intuitively believe will lead where we want to go, since we have shown it is not possible to rigorously predict where a given action will take us – the world is just too complex. You might think for years on given issues, it is always possible to find a dataset that contradicts some of your assumptions or a further mechanism that creates a backlash. Furthermore, focussing on the complex consequences of one’s decisions can overshadow which objectives we are pursuing.
Religions used to provide this “guide” for every decision in our lives, and they still do in many countries. In my opinion, we all have a faith of some sort even if we might not call it so. What is yours? Faith is complementary to rational thinking, not opposed – indeed many physicists have a confession. Faith explains the world once we have reached the limits of what we can understand. And because of chaos, these limits always exist.
Now, I do not believe in an omniscient God, neither do I want to convince you there is none. However, as was already manifest in the previous sections, life is precious to me. Its complexity far exceeds what I can rationally understand. The fabric of life is a beautifully intricate system that is made of countless births and deaths and pleasure and suffering. So is society, where living beings are the same as we are (if you are not a bot reading this).
When it comes to taking a decision that will impact this fabric, I choose aesthetics as a goal. There is a lot to do to make our cities, our parks, our forests and our oceans nicer looking. A lot of waste to collect, a lot of buildings to be renovated, a lot of plants to be grown, and mainly a lot of spaces to be left developing as they please to regain that touch of what some call “wilderness” and is so necessary for the preservation of diversity and of the natural cycles that we rely on. I am not worried we will get bored when we will be trying to reach a sustainable world, because there is always something new to do, something nice to create.
Lastly, I choose respect and trust as guides to reach that goal. Leave space to others but be empathic with them to be available when help is needed. Trust them when they ask for help and trust them when they are trying to help me. This works the best when speaking to individuals. Enterprises on the contrary can only be trusted as long as their economic interests are preserved. As for governments, the economic logic today makes them helpless, because they bind themselves to taking the decision that is seemingly the optimal one when it is taken (and only then, the future tells its own story…). There, transparency and democratic involvement are necessary.
There are entire pages to be written about it but I will leave it at that now.
This is pretty much what I wanted to say. Please do something. Maybe not proactively as a main activity, but keeping in mind environmental and social limits in your everyday life. Keeping in mind what is the long term perspective you wish to see realised. The future is now, since the smallest flick in the river of life might generate destructive as much as constructive swirls downstream. The past can not be changed and therefore has to be respected and understood as it is.
It is easy to be scared for us and for our children given the challenges we are faced with. It is fear that compels me to write this blog. But as a soldier in the war of ideas, as long as I am fighting I can keep the fear at bay and enjoy what is going on. After all, ideas are not like weapons. They are more like children, who fight each other without really being able to harm each other and get weaker or stronger as they grow up. Who can say who the parents are? I am only the caregiver of those I write here. Now they are to your care. May they strive.