Do we need to change our economic model?

In the first part of this personal political manifesto I referred to what I termed our world view: a way of understanding the way we experience the world and our position in it; a way of making sense of what we do on a daily basis; and a way justifying, to ourselves and others, our actions and behaviour. Whether we are aware of it or not we all have such a world view. It is what we use to supply meaning and purpose to our lives, and is usually so embedded in our being that we just regard it as common sense. Traditionally this world view was provided by religion. For some of us it is derived from a political ideology. For most people, however, those who have not got strong religious or ideological adherences, this world view is provided by our economic model. In saying this I’m not suggesting that we are all familiar with economics, far from it. Merely that our dominant economic model, some version of capitalism, has so invaded our view of life as to provide this life with meaning and purpose. We measure the success of our lives according to the amount of wealth we have acquired; earning money is our primary goal in life.

“So what?” you ask. Well, in short, this dominant economic model is not only deeply flawed, it is unsustainable. It is driving to us exploit our natural environment through our relentless consumption of natural resources and to poison this environment through our relentless disposal of waste. On a national scale we measure the success of our economy through the GDP (gross domestic product) figure. This figure, which by a long way is the main measure of our national success, is the sum total of everything produced in a country. Or, to be more precise, every item or service produced that has a monetary value attached. It does not take into account unpaid work (looking after our children or an elderly relative at home for example) and it does not take into account money given for no work (through state benefits for example), though it does include work done to clear up after an environmental disaster. So, rather bizarrely, clearing up after a major oil spill contributes to our ‘national success’ whilst parents devoting time bringing up their children does not.

But even worse, this measure of success demands constant growth. And constant growth requires, in some form or another, the constant supply of raw materials – whether this is carbon-based fuel to drive industry, the raw materials to produce clothes and food, or the rare minerals and metals required for modern ICT equipment. However, no form of growth can continue ad infinitum. There is a limit to the resources we can extract from our natural environment, and there is a limit to the amount of waste we can dump into our atmosphere, oceans and land. For these reasons alone we need to think about economics in a completely different way. We need a different way to model our economy and a different way to model our individual success in life.

In a way I think that the main problem with the capitalist economic model is that it puts the cart before the horse. We are constantly told that we need to produce wealth in order to spend that wealth achieving what we need and want. We are constantly told that it’s good that a small minority people, through their financial expertise and entrepreneurship, appear to be accumulating most of this wealth because this wealth will ‘trickle down’ to all of us. This ‘trickle-down effect’ is one of the biggest fallacies of our current economic model. It simply doesn’t happen. The rich continue to get richer and the poor, in relative terms, get poorer. Inequality in most countries, the relative gap between those who are at the top of the financial hierarchy and those who are at the bottom, continues to grow – causing major social and health related problems (for an excellent explanation of this problem read the classic The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett). Moreover, in a very obvious sense, wealth, in itself, cannot sustain human life. You cannot eat it, drink it or breath it. You cannot take shelter in it. You can use to buy those things, but those things only require money because of the economic system. Wealth is the means to an end, not the end in itself.

So how about reversing this situation by placing the horse in its correct, and most effective position? How about measuring the end rather than the means as an indicator of our economic success? How about the transition to a ‘wellbeing economy’? I strongly believe that we need to redesign our economic model and that the first task should be to agree what are the measures of human wellbeing. The degree to which any economy meets these measures should be the measure of its success. Wealth or money, as a straight forward means of exchange, should simply be the means to achieve this end, not the end in itself. And to start off the debate, could I suggest that we could do an awful lot worse than adopt Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics as a model. This has a number of social foundations (such as water, food, health, education, work, housing, social and gender equality, energy, a political voice, peace and justice) and an ecological ceiling composed of a range of environmental factors. The aim of this model is to steer the economy such that it delivers the social foundations without exceeding the ecological ceiling.

For most of us this would not be an easy transition. But just try and imagine what life would be like if each national government, supported by some form of international structure, focussed on delivering these social foundations whilst avoiding the potentially devastating ecological ceilings. Imagine what the world would be like if the dominant world view, the way each of us gave our lives meaning and purpose, was based on such a model rather than the pursuit of wealth? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

The need for political leadership on climate issues

In the second part of my personal political manifesto I want to focus on climate issues, and in particular on the need for far greater political leadership than we are seeing at the moment. As the eminent climate scientist Michael E. Mann points out, seventy-one per cent of global carbon emissions come from the same hundred companies. These companies are not run by evil CEOs who are on a mission to render the Earth uninhabitable to humans, far from it. But because the raison d’être of the bosses and shareholders of these companies is so firmly embedded in free-market economics, because their ontological security (their whole reason or justification for existence) is so entangled in the dominant economic model, they can easily become blind to what scientists are saying. Because they believe that their operations are a force for good they are naturally inclined to dismiss any evidence that says the contrary. At worst they will find ways of discrediting the science (much like the tobacco industry did several decades ago), at best they will put their faith in market solutions to climate problems.

My greatest concern, however, is the extent to which our current response to the climate crisis is so well and truly focused on personal behaviour and individual action. This focus has the effect of deflecting attention away from the need to regulate bad industry behaviour. For example, we are being encouraged to eat less meat and dairy, in fact some media channels are currently being saturated with adverts for vegan food, but there has been no discussion about the regulation of farming and the food production industry. There is pressure on us to fly less, but not the slightest hint of greater regulation of aviation and the package holiday industry. And we are told that using active travel (walking and cycling) and public transport is much preferable to using the car, but because of the woeful shortcomings of our transport infrastructure this is next to impossible on many occasions, particularly in rural locations. What all this means is that it is far too easy for those of us concerned about the climate crisis to feel guilt at not doing enough, whilst those responsible for the vast majority of the problem are either guilt free or not being encouraged to ‘pull their weight’. This needs to change.

I am not saying that individual action is unimportant – far from it. But I am saying that there needs to be a far greater ‘top down’ response. There needs to be much greater control and regulation of big business and industry. One way to achieve this could be through ‘the market’. At the moment there is little or no cost to industry for the harmful effects of their operations. For example, there is no direct cost to the aviation, or marine, industries for the carbon their operations deposit into the atmosphere. In economic terms, these ‘costs’ are referred to as ‘externalities’. Rather than this cost being picked up by us all it would make far more sense to use market mechanisms and impose a carbon tax on their operations. This way the cost of package holidays and cheap clothing imported from the other side of the world greater reflect the true cost of these items. Governments do not even need to abandon ‘market economics’, they just need to regulate these markets such that they take into account the harm they cause. Governments need to stop cowering to big business and take more control of the economy. In a democracy, governments should be the vehicle for collective control. They should exert leadership. Though for this to be truly effective we will need to make some changes to our democratic decision making process. I will discuss this further in a couple of weeks.

Because so many of us simply do not fully understand science, governments also need to demonstrate leadership by having faith in science. Their decisions need to reflect the latest scientific evidence. Whilst, most importantly, this applies to climate science, it also applies to many other areas, particularly health and medicine. Next week’s post will focus on the economy, and the way our current economic model is no longer fit for purpose. For now, though, I want to simply point to a particular concern – the way that many governments prostrate themselves in front of the alter of free market economics. I argued above that some loss of market freedom is needed to allow the true cost of many items to be reflected in the cost consumers pay. I would also argue that belief in scientific evidence should carry far greater weight than belief in the invisible hand of markets to achieve the greater public good. For this to happen governments will need to display strong political leadership. They will need to follow the science and explain the science.

The toxic state of public discourse

Having had a break of several weeks from writing these weekly blogs I’ve decided to start the new year with a series of posts in which I sketch out a personal political manifesto. In doing so I must stress that I have no issue with the Green Party manifesto nor their policies, but I do like to think for myself and be as true to these thoughts as I can. This series of posts, therefore, will hopefully explain to anyone who is interested ‘where I’m coming from’. It will also allow me the opportunity to work through various thoughts I’ve had. I find writing a creative process, a process that allows me to organise my thoughts and unearth inconsistencies in them.

Most people, no doubt, will expect our climate and ecological emergency to be my main priority. As important as this issue is, however, I’m fast coming to the conclusion that there is an issue of equal importance – what the author James Hoggan calls “the toxic state of public discourse”. Particularly since the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the USA, there seems to be not just a growing polarisation of political ‘thought’ but an escalating intolerance, bordering on hatred, of the ‘other side’. Whilst the popular press do not help in this process, the worst culprit by far must be social media. It’s become far too common to resort to hatred and abuse as methods of dismissing what someone has to say rather than rationally explaining why you disagree. Until this changes I think it unlikely that the actions necessary to resolve our climate crisis will be taken. In fact I would go as far as to suggest that the need to resolve the health of our public discourse affects all other area of policy. It will certainly inform my other posts in this series.

Part of the problem is that we are nowhere near as rational as we like to believe. Humans have evolved to make decisions mostly on emotional grounds, in response to fear, hunger or sexual desire for example. Our ability to reason, and in particular the emergence of science, are very recent developments. Most people, most of the time, do not fully understand science and much prefer to go with their ‘gut feeling’, adding a ‘reason’ why they have made a particular decision afterwards. The Brexit ‘debate’, with chants from certain politicians that “we’ve had enough of experts” only endorsed such decision making. When we follow this overly emotional path it becomes far too easy to feel threatened by anyone who disagrees with us and to respond aggressively.

Another dimension to this problem concerns what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls our ontological security. Each of us has developed a world view: a way of understanding the way we experience the world and our position in it; a way of making sense of what we do on a daily basis; and a way justifying, to ourselves and others, our actions and behaviour. Providing most of our experiences can be explained by this world view we feel secure as a person. However, if something happens that threatens this world view, something like a radically changing climate for example, we feel deeply threatened. Our initial response to such challenges is to find a way from within our world view of explaining them away, thus preventing the emergence of deep feelings of insecurity. Rather than accept the science of climate change, for example, an acceptance that may involve a radical change to how we live, we tell ourselves that the scientists have ulterior motives and that what we are experiencing are just natural fluctuations in climate. Or we find a way to relabel the offending fossil fuel as ‘green coal’ and carry on as normal.

One way to steer our public discourse onto a healthy track would be to accept that there is no absolutely definitive position, answer or solution to any problem or issue. There cannot be, and science, properly understood, does not claim that there is. Scientific theories are working hypotheses, only valid until they fail to make accurate predictions or until the development of another theory that makes more comprehensive predictions. Through the scientific method all claims are peer reviewed and challenged. Socially we need to start developing a similar response to public discourse. If someone challenges our opinion it should be incumbent upon us to listen to those challenges. If we disagree we need to learn to respond politely, to explain why we disagree, and to not insult the other person for having the audacity to disagree with us. And perhaps, more importantly, we need to be prepared to admit that we may have been wrong and change our opinion accordingly.

It would also help if we started to develop a greater understanding of science in general, and of complexity science in particular. Complexity science is the science of complex, dynamic systems. Human bodies, social systems, and our natural environment are all complex systems, but the important thing to realise is that all such systems are always embedded within a larger system, or systems, which they interact with and are dependent upon. This means that everything interacts with the world it inhabits. As this world will always change to some degree the embedded system will also need to change to some degree. Nothing, absolutely nothing, remains the same for ever. Moreover, due to the dynamic nature of such systems, novelty, new phenomena, will emerge at some point. Whilst it is quite natural for the embedded system to resist change (homeostasis) it also vital that if necessary it does change. If it doesn’t it may well collapse.

Ideology or common sense?

It has been several weeks since my last blog. This lack of writing has had nothing to do with a lack of will or interest, and everything to do with a lack of time: It’s been a particularly busy few weeks. This is a shame because I genuinely like writing these blogs. I find the act of trying to write something coherent a great way to not only clarify and structure my own thinking, but often to actually creates ideas. I wish I could say the same about my relationship social media. I’m really struggling to find the motivation to become engaged with Twitter at the moment, let alone Facebook.

To be honest I really only ‘do’ Twitter and Facebook because I’ve been persuaded that, as a politician, I need to. Most of the time I’m happy tweeting, and sometimes even enjoy it. But at the moment, for some reason, I’m struggling. Facebook, on the other hand, is always a chore, and I doubt that even at the best of times I use it effectively. Perhaps I need some training on how to.

One of the local groups that I’ve joined on Facebook is ‘Bridport Political Banter’. A week or so ago I posted a link to George Monbiot’s article on Capitalism and climate change. I knew, of course, that there would be a reaction from what come across as the right wing police of the group, and I knew that there would be no discussion or debate about Monbiot’s argument. In this respect I was not disappointed. But what I found so frustrating on this particular occasion was the simple dismissal of his argument as left wing ideology. For some reason ‘ideology’ always seems to be the go to demon that condemns the views of people we disagree with, whilst our own views (being the right ones) are assumed to be ideologically free. I would suggest otherwise – that everyone’s views are derived from their own ideology.

Ideology is, of course, a heavily debated term in political philosophy. My own take on it is to see it as that background ‘world-view’ that we all possess, as that general mental structure that we use to bring various thoughts, feelings and experiences together into a coherent whole, that allows us to make sense of our world. My point is simply that all of us have an ideology or world-view. We need it in order to give our lives meaning. But we only ever seem be critical of other people’s world-view. We rarely, if ever, analyse or question our own. Why? Why are we always so certain that our own views are spot on, and that anyone holding different views is wrong? Why do we often regard our own thinking as just plain common sense, whilst those of our political opponents as misguided?

I like Antonio Gramsci’s take on this. In the words of Kate Crehan, in his Prison Notebooks the Italian Marxist views common sense as “that comforting set of certainties in which we feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the world we inhabit. These are the basic realities we use to explain that world.” And this, in a nutshell, describes the problem we are all up against. We all grow up in a particular social context, and tend to absorb the views of those people who are part of our particular social context. Most of us need to feel part of this context, of our particular community, because most of us need to feel that we belong to something bigger than us. But particular social contexts vary. A young person growing up in a community where most parents have been to university and where there is an expectation that they will do the same will have a different common sense view of the world to a young person growing up on an inner city estate controlled by rival gangs and to parents who place little value in education, who in turn will have a different common sense view of the world to those young people born to rich parents and educated through the public school system. Each young person will have a different common sense take on the world. Who’s right?

Which brings me to the elephant in the room. COP26, the United Nations conference on the climate that has just closed in Glasgow. Why isn’t this the main topic of this blog you may well ask. After all, I am a Green Party politician. Well, the truth is I never had a great deal of hope that the necessary national powers would agree to take the necessary action, let alone to go away and take those actions. It would take an unrealistic level of optimism, for example, to expect global politicians to agree to end the use of fossil fuels by a particular date when the fossil fuel industry had a larger representation at the conference than any individual country. The problem is again one of common sense or ideology. For the vast majority of the politicians at the conference the basic tenants of capitalism form their basic background world view. The need to grow their national (and personal) wealth is the basic starting point for all decisions. Until we start discussing alternative measures of national (and personal) success I genuinely fear for the future of humans on this planet.

Our market economy: the solution or the problem?

No doubt in an attempt to bolster its green credentials in advance of the UN climate conference starting in Glasgow at the weekend, last week the Government published its ‘Net Zero Strategy’. Whilst this strategy aims to achieve many worthwhile outcomes, it is fundamentally flawed. Why? Because it is embedded within and built upon an economic model that measures its success in terms of economic growth. In his forward, the PM asserts that “over the last three decades we have already reduced our emissions by 44 per cent – while growing our economy by over 75 per cent – and this strategy sets out our plan for going the rest of the way.” This no doubt sounds good, as it is intended to, but when analysed the shine quickly fades.

For one thing, the 44% reduction in carbon emissions does not include emissions associated with international aviation nor those associated with the UK consumption of goods and services imported from overseas. This means that the emissions associated with approximately one third of the goods and services we consume are not taken into account. But worse is the relentless pursuit of growth, growth that is fuelled by the constant imperative to consume: to consume stuff we didn’t know we needed; stuff to replace other stuff that is made to appear out-of-fashion; stuff we then need to spend more resources and energy disposing of.

If we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions we need to consume less stuff. End of. It is as simple as that. The manufacture of any product results in some amount of carbon being emitted. We need to start asking ourselves which of these products we actually need, and which we simply buy to appear fashionable or to impress others. The problem is that our current economic model is grounded in consumption. If we stopped consuming our economies would stop growing, and the presiding government would be blamed for mismanaging the economy. An alternative economic model could be based on population wellbeing – perhaps based on some measure of the degree to which the population is healthy, have warm and secure homes, sufficient food, are free from crime, abuse or hate, and, most importantly, are not exploiting their natural environment.

One way to adjust the current economic model would be through the introduction of a carbon tax. Currently many of the ‘costs’ of producing a consumer item are not included in the price – the carbon emitted during its production and by its shipping half way round the world for example. If these costs were included the consumer market would better reflect the realities of production. To be fair, the ‘Net Zero Strategy’ does hint at this. In the Executive Summary (p16) the 2nd of 4 Key Principles says “we will ensure the biggest polluters pay the most for the transition through fair carbon pricing.” But, and this is a very big but indeed, I can find no reference to a carbon tax in any part of the 368 page document.

One of the other consequences of having this strategy imbedded within the model of a market economy is the belief that, given the right incentive, the market will find the necessary solutions and that direct government action would simply get in the way. Hence a large part of the strategy is given over to investing sums of public money in various policy areas (net zero bus and rail travel or clean maritime vessels and zero emission flights) in the belief that private companies will use this money to create the desired solutions (together with their necessary profits of course).

An alternative would be for the government to take a lead and directly deliver what’s needed. So rather than simply proposing a date for when all new cars will need to be fully emission free (2030) and investing in public transport to enable half of journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030, why not bring all public transport back into public ownership with the aim of making it both a cheaper and more convenient option than using a private vehicle. Even a zero emission car has a carbon footprint, not least of which as a result of the steel used in its manufacture. And when you consider that most cars spend most of their time not being used, wouldn’t it make sense to try and find ways of living without them?

Another area that needs far more radical action is the building sector. Rather than simply saying that no new gas boilers will be sold after 2035 and offering a small number (compared to what will actually be needed) of grants for boiler upgrades and fuel pumps, the government, through revised planning guidelines, needs to be legislating for all new buildings to be built to the highest energy efficiency standards, and offering encouragement and help for all (not just a few) existing homes to be retrofitted to the highest standards possible.

The bottom line here is that the market economy is part of the problem, not part of the solution – and the government just doesn’t see it. As Michael E. Mann points out in his new book The New Climate War, “Seventy-one per cent of global emissions come from the same hundred companies.” I just can’t believe that with a few nudges in the form of relatively small sums of government investment these large global companies are going to stop prioritising profit and the wealth of their directors and CEOs over the wellbeing of the Earth and its citizens.

Reflections on the week past

Reading Chris Loder’s column in last week’s Bridport News has left me a little confused. On the one hand it’s given me hope. His criticism of supermarket chains as “defenders of corporate greed” leads me to suspect that our MP may be a rarity amongst Conservative MPs – someone who does not support a neo-liberal free market economy. It is, after all, the open competitive nature of our market economy that allows these supermarket chains to saturate the market and devour most locally based small businesses.

It’s also reassuring that our MP recognises that the “cost of cheap food is nature.” One way to redress this, of course, would be to impose some restrictions and controls on our market economy. Perhaps the introduction of a carbon tax? Such a tax would allow many of the externalities, those costs which are paid by nature but not directly by the consumer, to be absorbed into the market price of goods. For example, the price of foods transported from the other side of the world would include the cost of removing the carbon deposited into the atmosphere from their transportation. This would make these foods much more expensive and locally produced foods much more competitive.

But on the other hand I get the strong impression that he is simply playing to the local farming community, trying very hard to develop the ‘son of a farmer’ image, someone who’s fighting their corner. I also get the strong impression that he is ambitious regarding his career in the Conservative Party. Such ambition would be incompatible with being a critic of the free market economy. I’m struggling to imagine him rocking the boat regarding any Conservative orthodoxy

I’m pleased though that our MP will be attending the Transport Day of the COP26 Climate Summit. However, if he is serious about mitigating the worst effects of our climate emergency perhaps he will also support a carbon tax on air travel; perhaps he will be advocating for public transport to be made easier and cheaper than driving by car; perhaps he will be calling for public transport to be nationalised and regarded as a not for profit public service?

Last Thursday saw a full meeting of Dorset Council. Fortunately this one was far less cantankerous than the last, and we managed to get through all our business in a reasonable time without falling into chaos. During the ‘Questions from Councillors’ I asked two questions to the portfolio holder for planning. The first was:

A recent report from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee concludes:
“The scale of the challenge to retrofit existing homes to tackle the climate crisis is enormous. Energy efficiency is a precursor to the transition to low carbon heat, so action must be taken in the 2020s to set homes on a decarbonisation trajectory to meet our net zero targets.” In Bridport, and other parts of Dorset, many of these existing homes have had requests to install energy efficiency measures, including the installation of double glazing, refused by our planning system because they are listed buildings. These listed buildings are nothing grand. Many are simple terraced houses that have been occupied by generations of working families, and the installation of double glazing would “lead to less than substantial harm” to their significance as a heritage asset. Could I have an assurance that the new Dorset Local Plan will take a different attitude to listed building consent and positively encourage the retrofitting of energy efficiency measures?

The issue of energy efficiency in general, but the installation of double glazing in particular, in listed buildings is fast becoming a personal campaign. Whereas most home owners are free to install double glazing if they have not already done so, and install solar panels on their roofs to generate electricity, those who happen to live in listed building have to apply for permission through the planning system – permission that is often refused on the advice of the conservation officer. The national planning guidelines on this are less than clear cut and require conservation officers to balance one guideline against another. In the absence of stronger wording in support of energy efficiency measures in listed buildings from the government I plan to argue that Dorset Council makes its case in the new Local Plan. My question was in effect the opening move in this campaign. I was not surprised at the bland and non-committal answer I received.

Green Ethics Part 4

I have used my previous three blogs to work through and outline an approach to green ethics that has been fermenting in my mind for several years. A week last Thursday I had an opportunity to present these ideas to a public audience at a local ‘Green Ethics’ event held as part of Bridport’s ‘Great Big Green Week’ – a series of events aimed at bringing the public’s attention to the up and coming UN climate conference (COP26) in Glasgow. The discussion that followed my talk, together with an informal debrief down the pub afterwards, has prompted some further thoughts, a few of which I will sketch out in this blog.

My comments on empathy probably provoked more reaction than anything else I said, including the question of whether it was ‘right’ to empathise with someone who was obviously acting against your own moral code – say someone who prioritised the accumulation of personal wealth above all else, or even (my example) thinks nothing of hurting someone else to satiate their own personal desires. Answering this becomes harder the greater the public distaste for the crime, but, yes, I probably would argue that attempting to empathise with someone who has done something you find abhorrent is a good response. To empathise is not to agree or condone. It is simply an attempt to see and feel the offence from the perspective of the offender. This could have a variety of effects. It could generate a degree of sympathy for the offender because you understand an aspect of their behaviour, some mitigating circumstance, that was otherwise hidden. Conversely it may reveal a darkness that makes you want to punish them even more severely. Either way, on balance, I think the attempt to empathise to be of value, though I do accept that for some offences the darkness revealed may be too much for many of us to deal with.

Some members of the audience expressed a desire for the introduction of clear rules or laws that would limit our behaviour with regards to our carbon emissions, for example: couples being limited to having two children or people being limited to one flight every five years. I am torn about how to respond to this. In many ways I agree. I certainly think that there should be more top-down ‘guidance’ from the government on the lines of the compulsory wearing of seat-belts in cars and the banning of smoking in public spaces. We could all (and I do mean all – every single one of us, no exceptions for power or wealth) be limited to so many flying miles per year, or be subject to some other form of carbon rationing. On the other hand I often think that the imposition of hard rules prevents us developing good judgement, what Aristotle termed phronesis or practical wisdom. As I argued in the first of this series of blogs, there is no definitive reference point that makes something absolutely right or wrong – there are always nuances. The same applies to rules or laws. As a senior officer in the Fire Service once said to me, rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Such practical wisdom requires space to grow.

On the way to the pub after the event, someone asked me whether green ethics requires hope? This threw me at first – but later it got me thinking. There have been times in recent months when I have thought there to be little hope for humans on this planet. As the sociologist Anthony Giddens has argued, we humans will not truly grasp the full implications of our climate and ecological emergency, and what we need to do and change, until the effects are well and truly ‘in our face’, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it. And even when it is ‘in our face’ far too many of us will still hold onto some misguided belief in progress and be waiting for the technological cavalry to come charging round the corner and save us. But perhaps hope is not the same as optimism. The standard philosophical account of ‘hope’ suggests that it is a compound attitude comprising of both a desire for a certain outcome and a belief that that outcome is possible. Note ‘possible’ not ‘likely’. So in terms of the outcomes that could be achieved by the approach to green ethics I have outlined, I certainly have a desire for them and also a belief that their achievement is possible. In this sense I have hope. But perhaps the more important point here is that this hope, this desire for a ‘green’ future and the belief that its achievement is possible, needs to be held by the majority of us. Without this hope we are well and truly on the path to extinction.

Green ethics – part 3

In my previous two blogs I have argued that, in terms of ethics, the way forward for humanity is through the development of certain character traits or good habits – habits that will support our flourishing as members of a global land community, character traits that will support the story of this same flourishing. But how do we develop these character traits? And, perhaps more importantly, what are they? I have been thinking this through now for about ten years, and have made several lists of suitable candidates, but here I’m just going to outline what I consider to be the three most important. But first a few words about their general development.

Aristotle termed the character traits he discussed ‘virtues’, and argued that we develop them through constant practice, through constant repetition, through establishing good habits. He never prescribed exactly what each virtue meant for each individual in a given situation, other than it was the avoidance of both excess and deficit, what he termed the golden mean. He recognised that “conduct has to do with individual cases, and that our statements must harmonize with the facts in these cases”, and that “a master of any art avoids excess and deficit, but seeks the intermediate and chooses this – the intermediate not in the object but relative to us”.

Let me illustrate what Aristotle means here with the first of my suggested character traits – empathy. By empathy I don’t simply mean feeling what another person feels, I mean a considered response to those feelings that lies between the two extremes of selflessness and selfishness, a mean point that we need to determine for ourselves relative to each social situation. Why? Because it involves a conscious attempt to put ourselves in the position of the other and to assess the situation from their perspective and, perhaps, to ask ‘what does the other person expect of me?’ For each social act it is impossible to describe that act as either right or wrong, but the habit of practicing empathy contributes to human flourishing because it makes vivid the expectations of the other through thought and feeling. Expectations, in both the senses of the word (what ‘should’ happen, what ‘will’ happen), are the relations that form human society and culture, they are the forces that cause it to change and grow, they are the forces that glue it together.

If empathy is the social glue that holds communities together, that brings out our interdependence on others, my suggested second character trait does something very similar with regards our relationship with other animals and our natural environment. Let me term this new habit ‘Ecopathy’. This is the developing trait of both feeling and understanding ourselves as ‘plain members of the land community’, as Aldo Leopold phrased it, of deeply appreciating our interdependence with all life. If we want to get scientific, it means developing an understanding of the dynamic complexity of life on this planet, and allowing this understanding to influence how we act in the daily dramas of our lives. In terms of Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’, perhaps it lies between the two extremes of our selfish exploitation of the planet, our thinking that we have dominion over other life forms, and the brutal fact that as a member of the land community we do need to eat, we will produce waste, and some of our actions will harm other members of the land community.

I have recently come to the realization that the outlook for humanity is bleak, very bleak, unless we start learning how to think. Yes, I know we all think we can think, we do it all the time, but I mean really think – not just have opinions. We need to develop the habit of thinking critically, of asking questions about what we hear and read, of looking for and evaluating the evidence that supports our opinions and beliefs, and (most importantly) being prepared to have other people challenge our opinions and not responding with a tirade of insults. For want of a better phrase, I am going to term this third character trait ‘good sense’. I use this phrase to purposely contrast it with the term ‘common sense’ which I equate to a herd mentality, the habit of simply following popular opinion. Perhaps the golden mean here is somewhere between a herd mentality and the arrogance of believing that any thought we have must be correct.

The three character traits that I’ve outlined above are by no means exhaustive, they are simply my top three. It is important to realise that there cannot be a definitive list of character traits, just as is it impossible to say, definitively, what the right or proper action is in any situation. It is impossible to say, therefore, what character traits we should be developing. In the same way as all the characters in good novel have different traits, we will all need to develop our own characters in our own way in response to our own unique circumstances, but we need to do so forever mindful of the story we are trying act out, and our dynamic interdependence on all other natural systems.

Green ethics – part 2

In last week’s post I very briefly outlined what I consider to be the problem with both the traditional approach to ethics (basing our ethical decisions on some non-existent definitive reference point) and the relatively recent consequentialist approach (making an impossible calculation as to the consequences of any action). Instead I suggested that an approach based on the methodology of Aristotle (one that focuses on the development of good habits and character traits in order to flourish as a citizen within a community) may well provide the route to the development of an effective Green Ethics. A different way to think through the importance of habits and character traits is through an appreciation of the importance of narrative or story telling in human life, and especially its role in supplying meaning and purpose to our lives.

One of the paradoxes of human life is both our need for meaning and purpose, and, in any definitive sense, its complete absence. Through both experience and shared knowledge humans are able to make good rough and ready predictions as to what to expect during their day to day activities, an evolved ability that gives them a good evolutionary advantage over animals of much greater strength and speed. However, not everything we expect to happen (in both ‘will’ and ‘should’ senses of ‘expect’) is supported by evidence based knowledge. We fill in the gaps, join the dots, by creating stories. Doing so makes it much easier for our ‘knowledge’ to be passed on to future generations – for the simple reason that it makes sense of what otherwise could be a disparate collection of expectations. Whilst this general process applies to all aspects of human life, it applies particularly so to ethics where, as discussed last week, objective reference points just do not exist.

Take the example of truth telling. Experience over the span of human evolution has shown that in practical terms, within particular communities, human society functions better if individual members can trust each other, and that this trust is dependent on members telling the truth. It’s not necessary for this truth telling to be 100%, in fact there may well be occasions when ‘the greater good’ is best served by the full truth being withheld. But how can this experience be passed on the young members of the community other than through them being told they need to tell the truth? And the easiest way to respond to the inevitable ‘why?’ is to feed this imperative into a story that, as well as explaining how they should behave, explains where they have come from and what their purpose is. Enter the role of religion. Religious myths have, over the course of human history, served the purpose of supplying the ‘grand narrative’ to human existence. But, whereas science, and particularly evolutionary science, now provides an evidence based explanation to our existence, religion still has a grip on the ethical explanation. This needs to change.

Religion myths, then, were arguably the first stories – certainly the first ‘grand narratives’. But the fundamental use of story exists at the personal level as well. We each have a ‘self narrative’, a story that we tell ourselves and others that links our various experiences together into a coherent whole and provides a personal meaning and purpose to our life. As Will Storr points out in his book Selfie, “To make a successful story, a self needs a mission. It needs a plot”. And, as our personal experience of stories will testify, successful stories need a variety of characters – they need good guys, heroes; they need bad guys, the villains; and they need victims. These various characters will also have their associated character traits, those aspects of their usual behaviour that identifies them, that we use when describing them to others. Our grand narratives, those that make sense of our tribe, community, or nation, also make use of characters and character traits, but in a much more abstract way.

The story we need to start telling is the story of human survival. This is the story of stories, the grandest of narratives. It is the story of how humans, though ignorance of their origins, created many false myths, especially the myth that they were special and separate from the rest of nature – that other animals and the land itself (what Aldo Leopold terms ‘the land community’) were there for human exploitation. It is the story of how, as a chapter in this story, humans found a use for the fossilised remains of forests that existed before the emergence of human life, and that in burning this fuel to power their economy they nearly released so much stored carbon back into the atmosphere that human life became untenable. It is the story of how, at the last minute, humans realised that they were plain members of the land community and started to behave accordingly. It is the story of how humans changed their character traits – but in what way? What traits of character, what habits of behaviour will facilitate our survival?

Green ethics – part 1

This will be the first of a three part blog that sketches out a green approach to ethics. I have been working on the various ideas that I hope will come together by doing this off-and-on for some time, but a conversation I had last week has not only promoted these ideas to the top of my thinking, it has also brought various different ideas together. The three most significant questions / areas of thinking that I’m trying to pull together in my mind are: Could the methodology used by Aristotle in his ‘virtue ethics’ help us respond to our climate and ecological emergency? How would an understanding of our use of narrative help in our response to the need for political, economic and social reforms? To what extent are poor thinking skills, particularly the ability to think critically, contributing factors in the problems we face? I will sketch out the first of these in this blog, with the other two following in successive weeks. Hopefully the vague idea I have on how these strands fit together will crystalise in the process.

The central question for any approach to ethics is, given a particular situation, how should we act? The dominant answer in the West for most of the last two and a half thousand years has been “in accordance with a definitive notion of ‘the Good’”. According to this traditional approach ‘the Good’ transcends human experience but exists for our guidance. For Plato ‘the Good’ existed as an ideal Form and was absolute, timeless and unchangeable. Whilst any good that humans did on Earth was but a shadow the Good, Plato argued that we could get closer and closer to the Good through philosophical practice. This approach was adopted by western religion where the Good became the word of God. God’s commands on how to act in any situation were either presented by divine revelation (the Sermon on the Mount) or through an intermediary who, through an inner voice, directly heard his voice.

In later philosophy, Immanuel Kant in effect took the same position by arguing that we should only ever act according to those maxims we would wish to become universal laws – laws that are absolute, timeless and unchangeable. There are two main problems with these approaches to ethics: these absolute and universal maxims and commandments fail to appreciate the complexity of actual life (no act can be categorically right or wrong, good or bad); their transcendent reference points, be they an ideal Form or the voice of God, simply do not exist.

During the nineteenth century an alternative approach to ethics emerged – a consequentialist one. This started with the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham who basically argued that we should determine the goodness of an act by the amount of happiness produced; that the act which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the right one to take. Later proponents modified this by differentiating rule utilitarianism from a focus on individual actions, an approach that argued that an action is right if it conforms to a rule that leads to the greatest good. Consequentialism more generally argues that the rightness or goodness of an act is determined by the consequences that result from it. Once again there are two main problems with this approach: the impossibility of determining the consequences of an act, let alone the amount of happiness produced (again, it fails to appreciate the complexity of life); and the later discovery by neuroscience that in actual fact the brain ‘decides’ what to do in any situation a fraction of a second before we consciously contemplate the act. This last point is potentially a lethal blow for ethics, with John Gray arguing that our attempts to be moral animals are futile.

There is, however, a way to rescue ethics, and that is through the conscious development of good habits. If we get into the habit of behaving in a certain way in a certain situation we tend to do so without thinking about it at the time. Most craft and sports skills are developed this way. The problem of determining which habits to develop however, which are good and desirable, which are bad and to be avoided, remains. This, I want to suggest, can be resolved by returning to the methodology of the philosopher who first focused on the importance of developing good habits – Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that whenever we act we do so in order to achieve what we take to be some good, and that that particular good is sought in order to achieve some further good. He went on to argue that we can follow this line of reasoning until we reach the end of the line where we find the greatest good. Aristotle termed this greatest good eudaimonia, a term that is often translated as ‘happiness’, but which can also be translated as ‘flourishing’.
For Aristotle this flourishing was always of an individual actor within society. Good habits, or good character traits were those that made you a good citizen, that allowed you to flourish within your community. I suggest that the some method can be extended to apply to humans as part of the land community, as Aldo Leopold called it. Good habits or good character traits are those that not only make an actor a good citizen within their community, but allows that community to flourish as part of a world community, that world community to flourish as part of a global land community, and that global land community to flourish as part of a global eco-sphere.