Change the System, Yes, But How?

System change requires systems thinking, especially about degrowth

The cries are getting louder and they’re coming from an unusual combination of people not usually given to playing the role of Cassandra. Doctors, a top UN official, schoolchildren, and at least 11,258 scientists from 153 countries are chorusing what everyone should know: despite forty years of global climate summits, business has generally gone on as usual. Irreversible tipping points, cascade effects, melting ice, rising levels of CO2, CH4, and N2O, ocean acidity, rising temperatures, wildfire, massive species extinction, and much more, have led them to emphasize that the catastrophe is not only about melting glaciers and killer temperatures but that it’s a social and political problem. They’re calling for “transformative change, with social and economic justice for all”.

Last June, Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, warned that the impacts of global heating threatened basic rights to life, water, food, and housing for hundreds of millions of people, as well as democracy and rule of law. Another stand was taken by the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, who, backing Extinction Rebellion, urged health professionals to engage in nonviolent social protest because “medicine is all about protecting and strengthening the human species”. Schoolchildren, stepping in where adults have failed, understand all too well that the crisis isn’t only about saving polar bears. They’re also calling for system change.

The climate crisis has shown that capitalism is incompatible with the planet’s health and that it’s essential to move away from GDP growth. Yet, instead of heeding the warnings, governments are turning to violence against demonstrators and, like the Prince of Salina, in The Leopard, are opting for gatopardismo (“Things will have to change if we want things to stay as they are”), preferring to protect the status quo than to change a planet-destroying system. This situation is fertile breeding ground for far-right groups which, exploiting people’s fears, are regressing back to fascist-style government in which human rights are even more gravely threatened.

In a recent interview, Srećko Horvat of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) calls for “transnational cooperation because those we are fighting against are working transnationally”. In his Green Strategy Marc Brodine writes, “A massive movement is needed, worldwide in scope, to fight defensive battles against environmental degradation and exploitative development.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders recognize the need for revolutionary reforms. But one essential fact is almost non-existent in the discourse. The climate crisis is a human rights crisis and the most affected are the world’s poorest citizens who have done least to contribute to the disaster.

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Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

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