What if problems of climate change, biodiversity loss and dysfunctional ecosystem services are not the real problem, but merely the symptoms? What if the real problem lies in the stories we tell ourselves to justify why we dither and procrastinate to act?
The dominant story of sustainability is a fear-based narrative of scarcity, negative impacts and disruptive change in the face of growing socio-economic needs. Its subtext is uncertainty and sacrifice, which in turn engenders resistance to change. We see this clearly in the international discourse on climate change: as the planet experiences the effects of global warming, scientists are pushing for lower ‘safe limits’ of emissions and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, while governments, intent on rescuing a failing world economy, argue for increasing these limits to politically acceptable levels. Thus, despite the published warnings of scientists and professional risk analysts about the perils of overshooting planetary boundaries, and the dire social and economic consequences of such overshoot, the majority of humans are still trapped in denial, and in the case of the developing countries, also anger at losing out.
There are two stories we use to avoid accepting both the scientific evidence for the need for change and the ethos required to change our behaviour and aspirations and take action. The first is the story that we cannot change the system, that we cannot fight the enormous systemic inertia of what has become a global system of interdependent economies and increasingly shared consumerist value systems driven as much by philanthropy as by the media. The second story is that there is no clear vision of what a viable alternative may look like. This is not true, there are many theorists and practitioners who are re-inventing the way economies can work, rethinking agricultural and industrial practices, and redesigning the way we live.
To move forward, it is necessary to develop an alternative narrative of sustainability: one of positive impacts leading to an abundant and flourishing world. But to do this, we must shift to a worldview that is more relevant to the complex and living systems of which we form part; a worldview that would open solutions to us that are simply not possible using the thinking of the worldview which created the challenges in the first place.
Introducing an ecological worldview
Why is it that, even though we know how bad things are going to get very soon, and we know what needs to be done to prevent, or at least mitigate this, the entire global society still prevaricates and finds excuses not to make the changes we know we should? The answer is very simple. We won’t act, because the choices we have to make fly in the face of everything we have been told we need to be and do, not only to survive, but to be happy and successful.
We know our choices shape our world, but we rarely recognise that these choices are themselves shaped by our beliefs about the world. It is becoming increasingly clear that it is not technology, or the economy, or politics that presents us with the biggest challenge in creating a sustainable world, but escaping the trap of our present, mechanistic worldview. To quote Wendell Berry:
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes and to yield to its limits.
Our present, mechanistic worldview sees the universe as a very sophisticated mechanical system, governed by universal laws (such as the laws of physics, mathematics and chemistry) that can be used to predict and determine the behaviour of the parts (from atoms to galaxies) that constitute the universe, based on the properties of these parts. Once we have discovered these laws, we can not only explain all phenomena, but ultimately, through scientific and technological development, replicate and control them. This places humans in control of nature to create all kinds of useful things to improve life for humans. This worldview tells us growth can and should continue indefinitely, limited only by our imaginations and our technological sophistication.
In contrast, an ecological worldview sees humans as part of a larger community of life; part of nature with a contributive role to play in the health and evolution of the living systems of which they are part - continually participating as nature and developing the potential of both the system and its inhabitants. Where the goal of a mechanistic worldview focuses us on the success of the individual, the goal of the ecological worldview is the continued well-being and healthy functioning of the whole.
Ten values that underlie the ecological worldview
The most important values of an ecological worldview are based on an understanding of: a) wholeness anchored in the idea of an interconnected, interdependent and integrated world; b) the importance of relationships and the idea that the world is co-created through those relationships; and c) the world as constantly changing, inherently unpredictable and ultimately impermanent.
Integrity: To maintain the wholeness of a system, it .is necessary to maintain its structural integrity (its intactness), as well as its functional integrity. For example the integrity of an ecosystem, say a coral reef, requires that its structure (the set of relationships that creates it) is intact and the system is functioning as it should
Inclusivity: To be able to interact with the world in its entirety, and maintain its integrity, requires an approach that engages and integrates all dimensions and levels of existence. The value of inclusivity requires the integration of humans and nature, the different dimensions of existence (matter, mind, life, and spirit), different hierarchical levels, as well as different domains of knowledge and ways of knowing.
Harmony: To maintain healthy and mutually beneficial relationships, it is necessary to maintain harmony through respectful relationships with all aspects of our extended self. Harmony means that, just like in an orchestra, all elements in a system, while each adding its own ‘voice’ and melody, cooperate in a manner which avoids dissonance and create a world in which the parts are congruent to their whole and each other.
Respect: A key characteristic of the ecological worldview is that it extends the boundaries of the self so that there are no boundaries (and no differentiation) between the self and the non-self. Thus, in the ecological worldview, the value of respect requires that all of existence be treated with regard, esteem and consideration, not only because each part of the world has intrinsic worth (as suggested by Naess49 and Wilber50), but as an extended form of self-respect, as all existence is part of the extended self, and therefore an integral part of the self.
Mutuality: The extended awareness of self as part of an inter-connected whole that is also part of the self, gives rise to the value of mutuality, which represents the idea that we are in this together, and what happens to the ‘other’ will also have an effect on the self. It is the root of practices such as compassion, which aims to consciously place oneself in the shoes of the other, and to treat others as one would treat oneself.
Positive reciprocity: We, and everything we know, are products of relationships created through reciprocal exchanges of energy, matter, information, or emotion, and the qualities and quantities of these exchanges can strengthen or weaken the entire network of relationships. When reciprocity is seen in the value context of mutuality, it requires that the exchange be not only fair, but also to mutual benefit. Positive reciprocity is thus not just about reciprocating in kind, but about reciprocating in a way that is of benefit to and advances the relationship between self and extended self
Fellowship: We are actively in relationship with our world; we participate in its creation and it reciprocates by participating in our creation. This requires a co-operative relationship between entities sharing a mutual interest – in other words, a fellowship. When fellowship is seen as a value, it requires that interactions should be to the benefit of the whole. As such, fellowship is an extension of mutuality and positive reciprocity. However, it recognizes that this is a co-operative partnership. Therefore, in co-creating the world, humans are in partnership with nature, which implies a more egalitarian (and humble) relationship than that of dominion or stewardship. It further implies that humans have to take on a duty of care with respect to the well-being of the whole.
Responsibility: A distinct feature of humans is that they are morally responsible agents because of their capacity for decision. This places a burden on them to act responsibly as part of the community of life, and holds them morally accountable for the consequences of their actions. What constitutes responsible behaviour in the ecological worldview is determined not only by the values discussed so far, but also by the last two values that build on the view of the world as uncertain and impermanent.
Humility: The ecological worldview describes a world where change is a constant and in which we cannot know the true consequences of our own best actions. Humility is a necessary response to an inherently unpredictable and unmanageable world, and it is a necessary value to counteract the hubris and ego that may lead to actions that are neither respectful or responsible, nor supportive of positive reciprocity and harmony, and which may threaten the integrity of the whole system.
Non-attachment: The realization of our own impermanence and of the impermanence of all around us leads to the last, and possibly most difficult, value to uphold – that of non-attachment. Non-attachment does not mean uncaring detachment. Instead, it means realizing the impermanence of both the self and the object, as well as the futility of trying to hold on to anything in an ever-changing world, including ideas, dogmas and strategies. Attachment to ideas and outcomes limits one to the possibilities in hand, and thus reduces the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Attachment to specific situations, specific arrangements or accumulated potential can eventually destroy much more than just that which is being grasped.
Acting with an ecological worldview
The following guidelines for action flow from these ten values:
• Actions should be guided by the values of the ecological worldview and a holistic process of reflection that takes into consideration all interests and the impact of actions on all system levels.
• Decisions and actions are iterative and collaborative processes which necessitate negotiation and partnership with all interested parties, including nature.
• Effective action should follow the laws of nature, cooperate with and participate in the processes of nature and learn from nature.
• The outcome of actions should contribute to the well-being, nourishment and regeneration of the world.
• To be effective in an ever-changing world, actions should be guided by principles of precaution, adaptation and non-attachment.
Take the example of our energy system. It may seem untenable to take into account the interests of all engineers, community members, ecologists, lawyers, economists and regulators in the design of new ways forward. The key, however, is to take a collaborative and cooperative process to inform the design: to approach the challenge as though we were already a living system of active players. The objective should be to enhance all the systems with which the energy system, this new Living Grid, interacts - contributing to the system’s resilience and adaptability. Through such a process, the system should move toward self-sufficiency where the ownership and management of the key stakeholders involved in the beginning is no longer required.
Our current approach to sustainability is comparable to merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. To create a future in which humans will thrive, and not just survive the calamities we have created, a different approach is necessary. For this, we need a new story of humanity that aligns with the way nature works and the values that drive it, and that honours humans as co-creators of the natural world. This story tells us we do not need to be only consumers; we can have a positive role in this community through being producers of resources (or even ecosystem services) for other species.
If we want to take this alternative story, this more accurate ecological worldview, and make it the reality throughout all human systems, we need to begin with the basics: the values that underpin it.
This article is an edited extract from the book, ‘Designing for Hope, Pathways to Regenerative Sustainability’, by Dominique Hes and Chrisna du Plessis.