Here is some cheerful idealism for sorting out the world’s double whammy of ecological cataclysm and economical disaster.
In the press there is much deliberation about how to rebuild the economy. Even the FT, which is fairly practical and does not usually get into theorizing, is digging deep to find underlying social and psychological reasons for the financial crisis. They are looking beyond mechanistic causes like interest rates and regulation.
So it is fair enough to spend time thinking about basics.
It starts with a simple materialistic theory of society: once we have food shelter and kids the challenge of the human being is to fight boredom. Boredom is tackled by creation of flows of dopamine, adrenalin, serotonin, endorphins, and other chemicals, to give senses of achievement, comfort, pleasure, challenge, satisfaction, contentment, wellbeing, ecstasy and so forth.
The economy reflects this. Part of the economy is about supplying food, building and bedding materials. The rest is about generating the flows of chemicals in our minds through creating aspirations and then providing, at a price, the means to achieve those aspirations.
It so happens that the creation and satisfaction of these aspirations usually mess up the environment. They also mess up our health and the wellbeing of our society.
Here are some examples: we aspire to sitting on sunny beaches or sliding down snowy mountains – this means that people build ugly hotels and ugly airports; it means aeroplanes; it means destroying habitat of other animals. We aspire to the American dream so we drink coca cola and fizzy drinks which give us diabetes. We aspire to granite tops in our kitchens, take on debt to fund the refurbishment, and then have to work rather than spending time with our children resulting in stress-related illness and family breakdown. This then engenders a further cycle of escapist behaviour, which makes us want to eat vast amounts of comfort food and max out our credit cards on plastic tat. There is a long list of behaviours which yield self-perpetuating cycles of aspiration and achievement all damaging the environment, our bodies, and our social fabric.
There are also activities which are beneficial or neutral to the environment and our health and society. These good activities include organic gardening, tree planting, walking, stamp collecting, playing sports which don’t require lots of manufactured equipment, playing music, reading, doing home improvements such as fitting solar panels, efficient boilers, roof and wall insulation, home cooking, painting and drawing, writing letters, being nice to people, bird watching not incurring excessive travel, knitting, sewing, keeping old people company, doing sport with inner city kids, dancing, repairing hedges, running, playing with the kids, smiling, doing woodwork, learning languages. The full list is much longer than this.
We already know well what activities are carbon intensive and what activities are not. The trick is to link aspiration and satisfaction thereof to activities which are not carbon intensive.
Under a year ago we all believed in the good and the wisdom of markets and believed that the government did not have the right to intervene into what we do and tell us about good and bad. Then it would be unthinkable to suggest regulation which aims to channel our spare energies into activities which do good.
Now luckily free markets have soiled their underwear and governments are once more being expected to show us the way.
Circumstances are perfect for reengineering society. Through education, advocacy, exhortation, example, incentive, and intervention our leaders need to reset our aspirations. They need to wipe away the set of aspirations to do things which are bad for the environment, health and society. Then replace them with positive stuff so that people will get rewarding flows of cerebral chemicals for doing environmentally beneficial things.
With a concerted effort and good leadership society’s woes and environmental problems should be put to rights in a few years.