Saving Our Planet Requires Systemic and Behavioural Change

The natural environment has been poisoned, vandalized and trashed in accordance with the demands and values of the all-pervasive socio-economic system, and as long as it persists it is impossible to imagine the steps required to save the natural world being taken. Economic considerations and short term self-interest will continue to be applied and the devastation will continue.

Neo-liberalism is an extreme form of capitalism, like its founding ideology but darker, even more unjust and brutal. It sees every aspect of life – waterways, forests, the air, people, you name it – as a potential product to be exploited, profited from, drained of all value and discarded. The “free market” (does such a thing exist, anywhere?), and its power to regulate supply and demand, is a cornerstone, as is competition and private ownership of everything, including health care, education, even prisons. Whatever area, the aim is the same, maximize production limit costs and generate wealth for the business, most importantly the shareholders, no matter the impact on the environment and society.

A value system and integrated way of life has evolved consistent with the ethos of this poisonous ideology: individual ambition – personal success over group well-being; greed or excess; sensory pleasure; materiality; tribal nationalism (strengthened by competition); distrust of others who are different, and a fabrication of individuality. True individuality is impossible within the constraints of the doctrine which demands conformity, assimilates and dilutes creative expression to the mechanics and trends of the machine, and like all ideologies, moves towards crystallisation, maintains itself supreme and claims there are no viable alternatives.

Societies have been fashioned around these ideals and values, as has individual and collective behavior; behavior resulting from conditioned ways of thinking about ourselves, of other people, of the environment and the purpose of life, which, whilst openly undeclared is hinted at from the values promoted: Purpose it says is related to pleasure, sensory gratification and material success; all of which are sold as means to achieving self-happiness and self-fulfillment, without ever questioning what this “self” is.

Such self-centred happiness is derived from pleasure and the quelling of desire, which, as the architects of the system know well, is not possible, because desire is insatiable. This fact is instinctively known, but the messaging to the contrary is relentless and for many, most perhaps, the trials of daily living are so great, the separation from oneself and the natural world so acute, that relief is essential. The diverse and endlessly malleable World of Consumerism provides the means of momentary alleviation: Alcohol, drugs, (legal and illegal), sex, shopping, TV, sport, more shopping, holidays, organised religion, shopping and food. And to excess; greed, ownership of things (homes, cars, clothes etc.), and the general accumulation of stuff is insisted upon, for the simple reason that it is consumerism that feeds the monster. This very same consumerism, which is perpetuating unhappiness and fuelling ill health, is also the underlying cause of the environmental emergency.

It is the irresponsible consumption of animal-based foodstuffs and manufactured goods, many of which are made in the Asiatic world (where the West has outsourced its production-based greenhouse gas emissions), that is driving the crisis.

A massive “if”…

Complacency, ignorance and selfishness have been the principal weapons of environmental destruction wielded by western governments, big business and the rich for decades. Adopted now by nations in other parts of the world, the global environmental impact has been devastating, in many cases catastrophic: destroying ecosystems, massacring animal life, poisoning the air and water, draining the soil of all goodness and disrupting natural climate patterns.

In order to stop the carnage and begin to heal the planet, a radical change is needed, not just more pledges and corporate greenwashing; fundamental change in behavior and attitudes that will usher in a kinder, more considerate way of living. The needed values and actions however are incompatible with Neo-Liberal capitalism, or any form of capitalism, and the greedy, selfish behavior that it promotes: cruel modes of living fashioned in rich nations, where the most extreme levels of consumerism occur.

It is not after all the villagers in India, China or Sub-Saharan Africa where rabid consumption is taking place, it’s the rich that are overwhelmingly responsible – the obscenely rich in particular; the private jets, numerous homes, cars, constant travel and piles and piles and piles of things. A study by Oxfam, published in 2015, found that, “Fifty percent of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by the world’s richest 10%, while the poorest half – 3.5 billion people – are responsible for a mere 10%.” In the 25-year period studied (1990-2015), global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 60%, and “the increase in emissions from the richest 1% was three times greater than the increase in emissions from the poorest half” of the world’s population, that’s around 3.6 billion people.

Wrapped in selfishness and protected by governments, it is the really rich, and the corporations (which they own) that own everything and are consuming most of everything. This overindulged, hideously wealthy collective, have benefitted enormously from the socio-economic machine and are extremely resistant to the systemic change that is needed if, and at this stage it’s a massive “if”, the natural world and all that lives within it, is to be saved.

The structural limitations (financial, political, social) and behavioral expectations of the Ideology of Greed and Exploitation, prohibit the needed changes taking place within the time frame required, hence the perpetual procrastination, excuses and delays, even as the planet burns. The inherent constraints and relentless demands – to consume, to exploit, to compete, to divide – run completely contrary to the needs of the environment, and indeed the health of humanity; sacrifice is required, it is not possible to have our materialistic consumer filled cake and eat it; sacrifice of a materialistic way of life that has resulted in divided societies of unhappy anxious people and the destruction of the natural world.

Last year, as with each year during the previous decade, global greenhouse gas emissions were the highest ever recorded; this, despite an economic quietening resulting from Covid restrictions and high levels of awareness of the environmental emergency throughout the world. As COP26 draws to an unimpressive close, governments haggle over emission targets, funding of fossil fuels and money for the global south, and a new poll reports that most people (in the 10 countries polled, including UK, US, Germany, France) say they are unwilling to alter their way of life to save our planet. We must once again ask, what will it take for humanity to wake up and change?

For the environmental emergency to be faced with the intensity needed, and healing to occur, a dramatic shift is required. A systemic shift, together with a fundamental change in attitudes, values and behavior, particularly among those living in the rich nations. A shift away from complacency and selfishness towards responsibility, cooperation and simplicity of living; united action rooted in love, as Elizabeth Wathuti (youth climate activist,) from Kenya told COP26 in her wonderful speech,“care deeply and act collectively.”

Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India.  E:  W: