If our world is unfair and unsustainable, what do we do about it? Where do we start?
This section is all about setting the world right, and since that needs to happen on so many levels, I’ve sorted solutions between personal, local, national, and international actions. But before we can actually say what needs to happen, it’s worth painting some kind of picture of what we want in the first place. It’s a whole lot easier to outline some ways forward if we know where we’re going. In a single sentence:
My vision is for everyone to have the opportunity to live a fulfilling life in a fair society, in a way that doesn’t undermine future generations’ capacity to do the same.
I don’t suppose anyone’s going to argue for unfulfilling lives in an unfair society that is unsustainable, but no doubt the devil is in the details, so let me break it down.
Fulfilling lives: As writers such as Oliver James and Richard Layard have shown, levels of happiness in the wealthiest countries haven’t risen since the 1970s, despite a doubling of GDP. Poverty is miserable and wealth makes us happier, but only up to a point. Once we have enough, further growth delivers diminishing returns. (The first free refill at the café is great, the second is appreciated, but nobody needs ten cups of coffee.) We have geared our economy around the pursuit of growth, assuming that growth will automatically translate into more fulfilling lives. Unfortunately many of the policies that deliver economic growth actually work against us, making society less equal, more competitive, and more individualistic. Consumerism coaches us to be permanently dissatisfied with what we have, always wanting more.
Part of the answer here is to make wealth history: not by returning to poverty, but by redefining wealth, remembering that a life worth living involves community, strong relationships, satisfying work, healthy democracy, and the opportunity to participate in art and culture.
Solutions that work towards more fulfilling lives include flexible working, protecting public space, and participative democracy.
Fair society: Global wealth is increasing at remarkable speed. The year I was born, 1981, global GDP stood at $11.3 trillion (US). By the time I was ten it had doubled to $22 trillion, and by 2001 it was $31.8 trillion. You’d think that kind of growth would sweep poverty away, but in 1981 there were 1.5 billion people living on less than a dollar a day. The doubling of global wealth over the next ten years knocked that down to 1.2, and the next ten years managed to reduce it to 1.1 billion people. Think about that for a second: It took $10 trillion dollars of growth to lift 100 million people out of extreme poverty. Of all that magnificent increase in wealth, 95% of it completely by-passed those who needed it most.
That’s just the extreme end – around half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and that figure has barely changed since 1981. So while it is technically true to say that growth can end poverty, it is neither the best nor the only way. Whether they do so knowingly or not, those that say it is are repeating a convenient lie.
I don’t want to live in a world where the 500 richest people have more money than the poorest billion. I reject an economic system where those 500 people need to get 100 times richer for that billion to be just 2 times better off. We’re supposed to be an intelligent, moral species, and such a system is unworthy of us. Let’s make those extremes history.
Solutions that work towards greater equality include minimum and maximum wages, taxes on luxury goods rather than on income, cooperatives instead of corporations, land reform, and fair trade policies.
Future capacity: All of this wealth creating machinery exists within another system – the biosphere. It’s a vast system, but it isn’t infinite. Everything we do as a human race needs to fit within the boundaries of our planet – and that means there are limits to how many resources we can gather in any given year, and how much we can throw away. As things currently stand, we’re drawing resources faster than the earth can renew them, and emitting waste faster than the earth can absorb it. That dooms future generations to a world plundered of its natural wealth and drastically altered by pollution, perhaps to the point of being unliveable in places.
Climate change is the biggest problem here, but the nitrogen cycle is also out of balance, water aquifers are being depleted, and our stocks of non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels are rapidly depleting. Deforestation, overfishing, and biodiversity loss are also changing the earth, leaving us poorer even as our economy grows. With every passing year, the world is less equipped provide for us in the future.
A sustainable world is one with limits, where we take just enough and no more from the earth, and emit waste no faster than it can be processed by the earth’s systems. The good news is that good lives don’t have to cost the earth. We can make that overconsuming lifestyle history without compromising human happiness.
Solutions that work towards sustainability include reducing carbon emissions, encouraging localisation, protecting fish stocks and managing forests, recycling, and designing better, longer-lasting products.