Spoiled by progress?

2 Nov

We live in interesting times. More than that, we are experiencing an unprecedented moment in the history of human civilization. Never before have we been so connected. Never before have we lived so long. Never before have our political and economic systems been so globalised. Never before have we altered the very nature of our earth’s climate.

And yet, in my conversations with people recently, you would think we had been here before. That the climate change predicament we face is just another obstacle in the path of human progress. I’m not talking about climate sceptics, or Daily Mail readers or anyone else that the green movement generally throws buckets of water on. I’m talking about my peers – young people who care, who know that “Houston, we have a problem” and who, in some cases, would describe themselves as campaigners.

There seems to be an underlying assumption that things sort themselves out in the end, that technology will finally come to the rescue, or governments will finally get a clue. Some of the discussion in my MSc seminars so far have had people suggesting that we will somehow be able to make (finite) fossil fuels grow through human ingenuity or that we will be able to “planet-hop” when we finally exhaust our resources here and mine in space.

Putting aside the ethics of both these suggestions, I do not want to deny that technology might make significant, path-altering breakthroughs or that governments or markets or whatever other instruments will come up with ingenious solutions. I sincerely hope that will be the case, but these things don’t happen on their own. We make history. Somehow, we have forgotten that we have instrumental roles to play in ensuring that change happens.

Up until now, the climate change movement has successfully used examples of previous social movements to encourage people to take action. Climate Rush use the example of the suffragettes, there have been lessons from the anti-slavery movement, and over in the US the environmental justice movement seems a natural successor to the civil rights movement.

It is incredibly inspiring to hear the stories of these movements – the actions, the speeches, the successes – and begin to apply them to the challenge of our time. However, I think there is a flipside. It may sound contrary, but I also wonder whether the fact that all these movements did succeed has actually gone a long way to lulling my generation into complacency. I was born after the anti-slavery movement, the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s lib movement. All those historic social shifts happened without me, so surely a conclusion I can come to is that the shift to a low-carbon economy can happen without me too.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a safe conclusion. It we who are here, and it is we who must act.

We have been spoiled by progress, both social and technological. Truth is, we have no idea how this is going to play out and yet we’re acting like we do. Truth is, we can’t afford to take that risk.

So this is essentially an appeal. If we want progress, then we must go out and get it. Whether it’s through art and culture, science and research, engaging in local politics or community groups, campaigning, activism and direct action – through our individual actions we need to form a collective identity. An identity that can carry a movement. The opposite of “spoiled” is “fresh”, “ripe”, “clean”. Let’s come to this movement fresh and clean, shed old successes and failures and look straight into the future.

4 Responses to “Spoiled by progress?”

  1. Nat November 3, 2010 at 12:04 am #

    Dear Hanna, I really enjoyed reading this (and appreciated the coherent sentence structure and consistent grammar after the readings we’ve had over the weekend! haha)I just wanted to make a brief comment which might allow us to feel less defeated in the face of such a daunting situation in relation to climate change and that is this: I think the comparisons between the climate change struggle and previous movements have been interesting and I would argue that infact complacency existed in perhaps even more stringent forms in these previous movements, especially noting the self and other psychology of subjugated ‘groups’ seen in the civil rights and feminist struggles. The domination of a majority and an historic culture of subjugation must have been incredibly well buried within the mentality of many in society and yet it was (and arguably still is) being overcome. However, I think in hindsight we tend to envisage a rapid sucession of change in relation to women’s rights for example but in reality social acceptance and cultural repositioning takes a long time and behind direct action there was always significant momentum, perhaps established for a period of time. However,unfortunately for us time is the one factor we do not have and so the radicalisation and the energy we require now must come soon. I blame contemporary social attitude on many factors but I believe 19th century laissez faire philosophy placed individualism and self-interest as the guiding principle of emerging Capitalist markets. Thinkers such as Herbert Spencer, linked the contemporary science (Darwinism, survival of the fittest) to social structuring, leading to justifications of ruthless self-interest and unequal societies. The poor were poor because they were ‘weak’, and this also created paranoia amongst the wealthy who then grew increasingly weary of their own dependence on money in order to ‘survive’ themselves. Interestingly, if you look closer at Darwin’s ‘the origin of species’ there are many interesting examples of mutual dependency in nature and altruism, but these have gone vastly ignored by many. I think the anarchist Kropotkin was the onle philosphy to truly apply this persepctive of Darwinism onto society in the form of ‘mutual aid’. I just wanted to briefly mention this, as I personally see the same struggle over the interpretation of what constitutes human nature today. We see the neolibealism of Thatcher’s ‘there’s no such thing as society’ still domianting political economy and the struggle for identity and collectivism ( + altruism)against this. That is a very black and white portrayal and I wish I could write more to try and be a little more comprehensive but I’m tired!
    The very real geophysical issues of anthropogenic alterations to our planet are dangerous, unprecedented ( for example, the speed at which the ice sheets are thinning) and in almost all cases, uncertain. Whilst the same polarisation of [GLOBAL] society (this time between developed and developing) may cause the political and power conflicts seen in previous struggles, the dimensions are far greater and may be it is in fact underplaying the situation to compare with anythin else. I wonder about the issue of globalisation constantly…Should we try our hardest to rectify the huge problems in the WTO and the problems of trade? or should we shrink away from the risk and dependency we all now share in global finance. How do we begin to create any form of regulation or accountability in the global markets? I’m sorry this has become my own bizarre written soliloquy and I completely altered my original view. oh well….xxx

  2. cterkuile November 3, 2010 at 5:59 am #

    Yes! Beautifully written.

  3. Ellie November 3, 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    I enjoyed this, I love reading something that I feel really hits the nail on the head. A great warning against reliance on others, shifting responsibility and procrastinating action. A reminder that we need to be the change we want to see! Thank you 🙂

  4. hannamade November 3, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Hi guys, thanks so much for your comments! I really appreciate feedback. Sort of related to your comments Natalie, is a new study that “links current attitudes on climate change to the slow transformation of societal views on smoking bans and the abolition of slavery” http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2010/10/culture-shift. It’s a good read. x

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