Five pathways to a sustainable future (Jeremy Williams)

The latest paper from the Simplicity Institute is called The Deep Green Alternative (pdf – free download) by Samuel Alexander and Jonathan Rutherford. The introduction contains the following:

“The global development agenda seems to be aiming to provide an expanding global population with the high-impact material affluence enjoyed by the richest parts of the world. This is despite evidence crying out that the universalization of affluence is environmentally unsupportable and not even a reliable path to happiness.”

It’s not hard to live a simpler, greener way of life, and plenty of people voluntarily choose it. What’s harder to imagine is how that choice scales up to change across society. How does ecological living ever gain the critical mass to get beyond personal lifestyle? Can it ever be institutionalised, adopted as policy, and planned on a big scale? A national programme of simplification seems antithetical to the idea, however necessary it might be.

This latest paper describes five possible pathways to transition to a simpler way of life.

1. Radical reformism – this is the default position of most environmental campaigners and thinkers, where change is pursued through existing structures. It can still be radical, through ideas such as the steady state economy, but it does not seek to replace capitalism and doesn’t typically challenge class structures. It isn’t revolutionary, but attempts to work with government and business to affect change.

2. Eco-socialism – Proponents of eco-socialism “argue that market capitalism is fundamentally irreconcilable with ecological sustainability”. The growth imperative is inherent to capitalism and therefore it must be replaced – a systemic change towards more common ownership and democratic control. Eco-socialism is distinct from regular common garden socialism, in that most socialists are not motivated by environmental concerns.

3. Eco-anarchism – Sharing the belief that we need to abandon capitalism to achieve sustainability, eco-anarchism parts company with the socialists over the role of the state. The state has failed, and socialist states have often failed more spectacularly. The answer lies in participative, local democracy, with no political hierarchy. People will govern themselves. Rather than angling for a share of the power or demanding change through existing structures, eco-anarchists prefer to just get on with building alternatives within and underneath the current system.

4. Deep green resistance – the most controversial strategy, the resistance movement actively seeks to bring down global capitalism and unsustainable business practice. In this view, the situation is too urgent to wait for more people to be persuaded or for government policy to change. A more militant response is required. That, it should be swiftly asserted, is almost always peaceful – blockades, occupations, and protests. The vast majority believe in Gandhian resistance, and those prepared to carry out acts of violence or sabotage are a tiny minority.

5. Crisis and response – finally, there is a view that sees little promise in any of the above, but recognises that change “could arise not so much by design so much as by disaster.” When collapse inevitably occurs – whether through climate breakdown or financial crisis or something else entirely – radical change may be possible in new ways. It would unfortunately be accompanied by major disruption and potentially a great deal of suffering. This could be seen as a cop-out philosophy, but it doesn’t need to be passive doom-mongering or selfish survivalism. It can be pro-active too, building resilience and articulating alternative ideas for when the crisis comes.

Almost all mainstream campaigning is within the first approach, but opponents often seem to pigeon-hole them as socialists or protestors. These 5 approaches are often indistinguishable at the practical level.

Where do I fall in that myself? I’m not a socialist and I see no future for that word. Almost everything I write about falls within the first approach, but philosophically, I have a lot of sympathy with the third. That’s because I believe getting on with building people-centred alternatives is more productive than demanding that the government build them for us. I believe the status quo can be undermined with something better, but that’s something I’ve come to through my Christian faith rather than through anarchism, so I wouldn’t use the term myself. I actually think the future is a hybrid that we don’t have a name for yet, and that at this stage there is no one right answer.


One thought on “Five pathways to a sustainable future (Jeremy Williams)”

  1. These 5 ‘pathways’ challenge us to examine where we stand on the matter of a sustainable future for Spaceship Earth. Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ presentation on a safe and just operating space for humanity between planetary boundaries and the social foundations of a just human world is worth examining:

    Her balanced view of ‘the big picture’ of Spaceship Earth provides an upbeat broader view for policy makers of how the clash of natural and human earth systems might be resolved by redefining the purposes of economics. She sees a great opportunity in the emerging debate about UN Sustainable Development Goals to be formulated by the UN to steer global decision-making when they succeed the Millennium Development Goals that set development targets from 2000-2015. Like many high profile analysts of trends and future scenarios her stance is that of the first pathway – radical reformism. This assumes that collapse and disaster can be avoided by design. I think that the fifth pathway is more likely, but avoiding the ‘Crisis and response’ scenario is the ultimate purpose of ‘glocal’ community action for Spaceship Earth.

    As educators we can hardly advocate pathways 2 to 5 in the Simplicity Institute’s paper, although locally-initiated community action has elements of pathway 3. The pathways do however, provide a valuable framework for understanding the responses of many seriously concerned ‘global citizens’ to what they believe is the coming ‘Great Disruption’, Paul Gilding’s term for what will follow the end of the age of cheap fossil fuel energy that has fuelled exponential growth and climate disruption in the Great Acceleration since World War II. Many analysts see the present decade 2010-2020 as our last chance to implement pathway 1.

    Now in my 8th decade, my life has spanned the unprecedented and unimagined changes brought about by the ‘Machine World’. I now have time to access far more relevant scholarship and research than when I was distracted by having to earn a living. I am aware of my own ‘stealth denial’ but am still hoping to help those younger than me keep open the ‘safe operating space for humanity’ so that my six grandchildren and their generation can enjoy a life of well-being when they reach my age at the end of this century.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: