Idealism, realism, our economic system and ecological reality

In Norway, there is a tradition of calling it “idealism” when someone cares for the Earth or works for social justice. I have always found that odd.

To me, creating a society that takes ecological realities into account is realism, not idealism.

It’s our only way forward.

If anything, business as usual is idealism. It’s based on the fantasy that we can continue to ignore ecological realities or that small tweaks are sufficient.

OUR ECONOMIC SYSTEM

We have an economic system that was developed at a time when we didn’t need to take ecological realities into account. For all practical purposes, we had unlimited natural resources, and nature had an unlimited capacity to absorb our waste. Humanity was small enough, and we had poor enough technology, so we could afford that luxury.

These days, with our much larger numbers and much more efficient technology, we still use an economic system that has those assumptions built into it. And that’s insanity. It’s suicidal.

That’s why we find ourselves in a situation where our scientists – and common sense – tell us we have to make drastic changes now in order to survive. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

And this is not just about our economic system. This is about all our human systems and institutions. All of it needs to deeply transform to reflect ecological realities. That’s the only way we can survive and thrive in the long term.

ANOTHER WAY IS POSSIBLE

We developed our current economic system in a way that made sense to us back then, over the last few hundred years.

And we can develop another system. One that takes the limits of nature into account. One where the actual cost is included in the calculations. One where what’s easy and attractive to do is also what’s good for our ecosystems and future generations.

And one where as many as possible, preferably everyone, has at least their basic needs met. That too is required for a more stable society that takes ecological realities into account. Desperate people create instability, and content people allow for stability. (Also, it just feels better for all of us to know that others have what they need.)

WHY DON’T MORE TAKE IT SERIOUSLY?

Why don’t more of us take this seriously? Why do most live as if nothing special is happening? Why don’t politicians take it seriously? Why do people continue to call it “idealism” instead of realism?

The general answer is that this is how systems work. Systems have many mechanisms to stay dynamically stable and only shift when enough builds up so it has to.

And in this case, there are many of these mechanisms at play.

We have evolved to take seriously what’s clearly immediate and impacts our daily life. And so far, the consequences of the current ecological unraveling seem distant. (In other locations or in the future.) We can explain them away. (Occasional extreme weather.) Or it’s slow enough so we get used to it. (Loss of biodiversity.)

We have evolved to operate on the timespan of weeks, months, or a few years. We typically don’t operate on the timespan of decades or centuries, and that’s the perspective we need to realize and take in ecological changes.

Politicians operate on the timespan of one or two election cycles. To them, it makes more sense to focus on what’s more immediate and short-term. They have few to no incentives to operate on larger timespans. (This is built into our political system and not their personal fault.)

Non-human species, ecosystems, and future generations don’t have a voice in our system. They are voiceless. And they are hugely impacted by our current ecological unraveling. Including their voice in our system in a real way – in our economy, politics, and business operations – would make a big difference. We can do this by giving them legal rights and advocates with power.

We take our cues from others. We see others living their lives as normal, so we assume all is fine and we don’t need to take things too seriously.

We assume we still have time. Things are fine now, and we’ll take care of it later when it’s more urgent. In this situation, we are not seeing the consequences of what we are doing until decades later. And we will have to live with the consequences for centuries if not millennia. It has been urgent for decades already, and many don’t seem to realize it because they have not yet seen or lived with the consequences. (When we do, it will be too late to stop what’s already set in motion, but we can make an effort to keep it from getting even worse.)

We assume someone else will do something. Politicians will do something. Or business leaders. Or activists. Or our children and future generations. That’s not how it works. This is the responsibility of each of us. This is about you and me. Not just others.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

I don’t know what will happen any more than anyone else.

I imagine we’ll have to go much further into the crisis before we collectively take it more seriously. The words of scientists are not enough, it seems. And at that time, we’ll be far into dramatic changes that we’ll have to live with for centuries and millennia.

I imagine a lot of our resources will be tied up in dealing with the immediate dramatic consequences. It’s now that we still have the resources to make the bigger picture changes without too much hardship, so doing it now makes the most sense.

It may be a bottleneck for our civilization. I imagine many will die, especially those with the least resources.

I imagine there will be a diversity of responses, just as we see today. Many will just try to get by and focus on the immediate situation. Some will operate from a zero-sum view of the world. Some will take a bigger picture, a longer view, and focus on win-win solutions.


DRAFT FRAGMENTS

It’s based on the idea that we can continue to have an economic system that pretends we are not living within a larger ecological system that has limits.

….

If anything, business as usual is idealism. It’s based on the idea that we can continue pretending that we can ignore ecological realities and that tweaking things is sufficient. It’s a fantasy.

….

And most of the current consequences of the ecological unraveling are happening elsewhere (in other places or in the future), or in ways we can explain away (occasional extreme weather), or slow enough so we get used to it (loss of biodiversity).

….

We assume we still have time. Things are fine now, and we’ll take care of it later when it’s more urgent. The problem is that it’s urgent now and it has been urgent for decades. We are not seeing the consequences of what we are doing

….

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