Alternative society

We lack the leaders and the will for profound societal and economic change

I often try to imagine what an alternative society might look like. A system-wide improvement on what we currently have: a pluralist, multi-cultural, post-colonial society; with a modern, resource-intensive capitalist economy and a welfare state; extensive export-focused pastoral agriculture; and a parliamentary democracy. Looking backwards doesn’t really help as historical systems were the products of conditions we can’t, and wouldn’t want to, replicate.

It’s not hard to imagine something for a community or village, but that just tweaks what we’ve got, always depends on lots of external inputs, particularly of food and energy, and breaks down when it gets bigger than a few thousand people in one area. Any major change needs some significant disruption to the existing system, which would result in plenty of misery (for some) as changes bite.

A lot of people much cleverer than me have thought about this, and some of the ideas I’ve read over the years have been interesting, but there’s normally a big gap at the implementation phase. Without some sort of revolution or system-wide collapse to precipitate change, it’s hard to see how it can happen peacefully. Revolution seems unlikely, but a system-wide calamity driven by climate change and ecosystem collapse is not so hard to imagine.

I’ve been accused of exaggerating the possibility of ecological collapse. Years ago, I read Beyond The Limits written by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers. It focused on how the world was heading to overshoot the Earth’s resource and environmental limits, driven by exponential growth. This was before climate change was identified as large a risk it is now (although it was an emerging issue). I thought the book was great because it confirmed my fears we were heading to hell in a handcart. When I talked to one of my young colleagues about it, he rejected the premise that collapse was a real likelihood because we would always be able to find a technological solution to the problems of overusing resources and producing too much waste. This was, and still is, typical of many who find it hard to accept that humans wouldn’t be clever enough to respond to a threat before it became irreversible.

In recent years, the belief has grown that it would be wrong to stop the developing economies of the world from trying to create the sort of wealth for their citizens that us in the ‘West’ take for granted. There are still plenty of people who think that China and India should be stopped from growing their economies so that the rest of us don’t have to make too many sacrifices to prevent a climate change catastrophe. If that is going to happen, then the global ‘haves’ are going to have to share with global ‘have nots’ if we are going to keep within the Earth’s limits and have any equity in the world. The idea that the developed world can keep its wealth and consume resources at the level it is now, and the rest of the world will be content to let us do that and do without what we have, is simply deluded. The flood of desperate people from Africa and the Middle East heading to Europe — the much-derided ‘economic refugees’ — are evidence that people from Europe’s former colonies aren’t prepared to sit patiently as Europe consumes. In the same way that liberal capitalist societies in the early- to mid-20th Century realised that if they wanted to prevent revolution like that in Russia or China they needed a social welfare system that redistributed enough wealth to stop the poor revolting, the rich countries of the world will have to share some of the wealth they have to stop the rest of the world revolting against us. Equity aside, self-interest should be enough to drive a change like this.

So, what could our society look like then? A low-growth (or no growth) economy, with an equitable distribution of wealth and resources and much less impact on the environment. Less consumption, less demand for goods, with fewer jobs that produce things that people don’t really need. Technology that serves individuals and communities, rather than the people who own the technology, and builds up communities instead of creating divisions in them. A massive change to the food production system, with less intensive animal production, less waste, and universal availability of basic foods in all countries. We would still need a global food system as not every country can produce all the food it needs. The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the world’s wheat trade, and how that is affecting countries across north Africa and the Middle East, is proof of that.

Work would be different, and the rich countries wouldn’t be as rich as they are now. (That will a huge barrier to any meaningful change.)

One thing is for sure; our current politicians and business leaders are not the people who will lead a change like this. They still believe we can change the economy to respond to climate change without really giving much up. We go along with them because we want to believe that and hope that it will be as easy as we wish it to be.

I don’t really have any easy solutions for the transition. As I said at the beginning, these predictions or models tend to break down at the implementation stage if you exclude disaster or revolution forcing us to change because there isn’t the mass of people who are willing to change their lifestyles now. So, we’re left with the hard solutions. The ones that take work, committed action by many people across the world, and hard slog to convince enough people that we can and should adapt to an unprecedented situation, and create a new world. My hope is we will be wise enough to change before disaster hits, but history shows us the chance of enough people joining in to do that before it is too late is not high.