Human living is in the early stages of huge change that will take us well beyond historical experience. In the last of a five-part series, business professor and sustainability expert Dr Wayne Cartwright explains what this means for life as we know it.
A dramatic shift in society's attitude to the environment is needed. Photo / Getty Images
Dr Wayne Cartwright. Photo / Supplied
OPINION: Present ways of human living cannot continue for more than a few years because they depend on the strong performance of an economy that is failing and cannot continue. New ways of living are required - there is no choice about this - but we do have alternatives.
Our new ways of living will be shaped by two realities: what we think life is about (our deep beliefs that influence how we think and act); and harsh and restrictive economic conditions.
Wealth and self-interest
Right now, the dominant view of life for the relatively affluent is determined by the global economy and their role within it. The economy requires that wellbeing is closely associated with material possessions and spending ability (on recreation, travel, sport and so forth).
This belief is tuned up through advertising, shopping malls, online stores and easy credit. Continual developments in technology and design enhance products and services so that what we own soon needs replacement.
People are encouraged to believe purchasing replacements will make them happier, which maintains economic growth and keeps this way of life rolling along.
The economy also encourages people to be self-interested. Most workplaces encourage people to 'look out for themselves' and be competitive. Most leadership is top-down and transactional, focused on 'getting the job done'. Although team-work is sometimes expected, this is usually to make the organisation perform better, not because it is intrinsic to society's way of life.
The economy also depends on rights of ownership because markets work through buying and selling things that are owned. This works well as far as it goes but resources in the 'commons' - the atmosphere, oceans, most waterways and the fundamental ecological systems on which human life is utterly dependent - are separated from immediate consideration.
These dominant personal ethics and values apparently feel right and comfortable to most people. Put simply, 'this is the way things are'. People feel they can't do anything to change it even if they want to. They take this way of living for granted and do the best they can within it.
Two paths ahead
The critical question is whether these ethics and values will continue to serve us well in a future of permanent economic contraction.
If we hold on to them, we will be motivated to retain current ways of living as much as possible. Most attention will go to coping as well as possible with oil prices, climate change and problem debt. We will continue to seek wellbeing and happiness from material possessions and consumption but with lower incomes, higher costs of most products, more expensive transportation, substantial unemployment and widespread failures of companies and financial institutions.
The tax base will be lower so social services and welfare safety nets will be cut back. Environmental degradation will continue, although more slowly due to less economic activity.
Does this future way of living look rather dismal? Do people have to 'take to the bunkers' in this way? Does this way of living provide the best prospects for wellbeing and happiness?
There is an alternative that is worth urgent and deep consideration. Many people may find it strange and even radical, but that should not be a reason to put it aside - after all, we are heading for radical changes anyway.
The case for a more communal way of life
Community self-sufficiency can be used to buffer economic swings. Photo / Getty Images
The core of this alternative would be much stronger local communities. There is a good practical economic reason for this. An economy faced with much higher energy costs will increase its 'local-for-local' production of foods, some types of light manufacturing and local services, leading to vigorous local markets and community exchanges. Thus, a much greater proportion of total economic activity will take place within communities.
The same cost influences will reduce flows of goods between districts and reduce dependency on imported goods. (Though, of course, many categories of commodities, manufactured products and services will continue to be provided from national sources and by importing. Conventional food supply chains will also continue to supply essential foods that cannot be produced locally and non-seasonal fruits and vegetables when they are affordable.)
Thus, the whole economy will have greater self-sufficiency at each level - local and community, city and district, and nation. This will help buffer parts of the economy from external economic disruptions. Local communities would be buffered most and nations to a lesser extent.
Further buffering could be provided by creative approaches to local trading - such as barter exchanges, locally-redeemable vouchers and local currencies - to further insulate the 'local-for-local' part of the economy in each community from national and international swings.
Reassessing deep beliefs
Our present values do not align with the formation of strong local communities. Self-interest and individualism would need to be replaced with the realisation that personal and family wellbeing are more secure in a community that works together, shares successes, and jointly tackles setbacks and difficulties. People would need to realise that each of us is interdependent with all other human beings.
The stupidity of deliberately disadvantaging other people would become very clear. Harmful competition would be reduced. People would have an intrinsic deep respect for others - whatever their nature or foibles - and this would replace wariness, quick judgement and doubt.
If people made these changes in their deep beliefs then, at the very least, they would understand that if they harm the natural environment, they also harm themselves. More powerfully, their respect for life would make such action very distressing, so they would avoid it.
People would recognise that, beyond essentials, the accumulation of material and financial wealth is not required for wellbeing and happiness. This would be replaced by the deep satisfaction of sharing many kinds of experiences and a life more in harmony with nature. (A weaker economy would not be able to provide as much happiness through material goods anyway.)
In this way of life, community enterprises would spring up with volunteer labour, resources provided in kind and value-determined voluntary payments. The structures of these non-commercial enterprises would be practical and consistent with the community's values.
Human activity needs to be planned, adjusted and monitored to fit within environmental limits. Photo / Getty Images
Is it time to take fringe ways of living mainstream?
Small groups have been experimenting with these ways of living but very much on the fringes of society, which has viewed them with suspicion. The time has perhaps come to learn from them, expand their ideas and bring them into the mainstream.
In this scenario, new ways of living would begin in local communities with agreed common principles but with acceptance of local variations. In this way, core ethics would be explored and tested in practical living conditions where people are in close and regular contact.
The ways of living developed in these founding communities would then extend - as they strengthen - to whole countries and, eventually, most of global mankind. This would happen in contrast to the neo-classical economic model, which pushed global processes and influences down to countries and communities.
In this alternative way of life, market mechanisms would work to maximise community wellbeing and the happiness of individuals within the overarching requirement for ecological integrity. Business enterprises would have a different role in society, consistent with the society's new core values and ethics.
Changes to finance and employment
The banking and finance sector would provide just two main services - the facilitation of financial transactions through clearing cheques and debit card accounts, and the issuing of loans from deposits to assist with the development of enterprises and purchase of assets.
The right to create and supply money would be vested in governments rather than banks. Central government would control the whole-of-country money supply and local governments would control local-for-local market currencies. Credit would not be available to finance consumption but community exchanges would provide food banks and vouchers for people and families with short-term difficulties.
The concept of employment would be very different. Communities would function as integrated units to maximise the wellbeing of their citizens. Some people would be employed by commercial enterprises but the level of market demand would be insufficient to employ everyone in this way.
However, there would be no unemployment, because non-commercial community enterprises and institutions would provide opportunities for everyone able to contribute skills and time to enhance the wellbeing of the community. Given the values that guide living, it would be easy for the community to establish systems for sharing resources among its citizens, so that everyone is able to participate in the requirements for life.
Governments at all levels would ensure that the integrity of ecological systems is sustained and, if already at risk, recovered. All human activity would be planned, monitored, and adjusted to ensure this happened. Most planning and adjusting would be undertaken autonomously by citizens who live by their ethics and principles - and so simply know what is right. Governments would monitor and intervene as necessary. Monitoring methods would be developed from concepts already well-established, such as carbon footprinting and energy budgeting.
'Challenging but achievable'
Major and radical changes in ways of human living are inevitable and are already underway. Major shifts will probably be necessary within a decade and certainly within twenty years.
We can either let these changes roll over us with great consequential hardship or we can begin to prepare right now for our big transition to quite different ways of living - truly 'creating tomorrow'.
This will be challenging but it is achievable. To do it, we need to open ourselves to change by understanding what is really happening, ridding ourselves of stupid beliefs that our present ways of living can continue much longer, and commit as a whole community to making the changes work well for us and the planet.
Check out the full series as featured in Element magazine from the NZ Herald: