Would you rather…?

Another day, another climate talk – Part 2

It’s 3.45 in the morning and I’m awake. 

Outside I can hear the rain, the incessant rain. Was it the rain that woke me?

Yesterday, on my way home I saw the river had broken its banks again. I’d been visiting a friend who was about to set off to COP26. 

“I’m worried we’re going to fail,” he told me.  

That’s what woke me. Imagining what it means for COP26 to fail.

I have a 16 year old son and I’ve been aware of the severity of the climate crisis since he was a year old. Throughout this time I’ve been living with the prospect that my son and his generation are very likely to die much younger than previous generations. And they are likely to die

in conflict,

of starvation,

of natural disasters,

of flooding, 

of heat stress, 

and they may well be one of the last generations of humans on the planet. 

That is what it means for COP26 to fail. That is possibly even what it means if it were to “succeed”.

The effects of our current emissions have already locked us into catastrophic climate change. We may not survive regardless of our best efforts and our leaders are far from encouraging (or enforcing) our best. They are not willing to address the fundamental issues at the heart of the crisis.

When my son was younger, he would play a game with me. “Mum. Would you rather only eat pizza for the rest of your life or only eat pudding for the rest of your life? Would you rather run down the street naked or sit in a bath of cow poo? Would you rather have a lifelong supply of chocolate or never have to wash up again?  

These fictional dilemmas were taken quite seriously – “You have to choose one mum!” – but were of course inconsequential. Nobody was offering me a lifelong supply of chocolate or a life free of domestic chores. 

Right now we are facing real choices, the consequences of which will mean the difference between life and death. So tell me…

Would you rather we use our scarce energy resources to keep hospitals open or allow companies to use it to produce the latest consumer gadgets? 

Would you rather have clean drinking water or allow corporations to turn it into different varieties of sugar water that are linked to the obesity epidemic

Would you rather eat healthy food, grown by people you can trust, or allow corporations to use precious acres to produce junk food that is making people sick?

Would you rather your children can breathe clean air and play freely outside or be able to drive your car whenever and wherever you want?

Would you rather protect the land, water and air against corporate interests for the sake of your children’s futures or allow them to degrade and destroy the earth under cover of extensive greenwashing?

Unfortunately this is not a game. These are the real questions we are facing in a world on the brink of systemic collapse. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot feed ourselves, heat our homes, keep hospitals and schools running and send billionaires into space. 

If these dilemmas pose a conflict then I can assure you that it is a manufactured one. You don’t want Coca Cola more than you want clean drinking water. You don’t want junk food more than your health. You don’t actually care more about your car than your kids, even though you may be dependent on it. These desires and dependencies are constructed by an economic system that is geared towards generating private wealth at the expense of the public good. And it is supported by an advertising industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year

I know you don’t want it this way, because deep down no sane person would prefer to maintain the industrial growth system over life itself. It’s a false dilemma. We’ve been conditioned into believing that there is no other way to live or even die. We’re under a spell that needs to be broken. For the sake of our children’s futures I want to help you break it.

Take a moment to think about what you really need. Not what you would like, but what is essential to your wellbeing. Make a list. If you are anything like the hundreds of people from around the world that I have interviewed, your list will contain things like: love, family, friends, good food, a home, fun, laughter, physical affection, challenges, learning, music, entertainment and any variety of pleasures that most humans have enjoyed throughout our history and which, until now, have not had to cost the Earth.

Now what if we try to classify these wellbeing requirements into nine fundamental human needs, which we can assume all humans share to a greater or lesser degree, just to get a manageable overview of what we want to spend our scarce resources on, in a way that is fair. This work was done by Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues in the 80s. I have formulated the needs below as a series of questions. 

I invite you to sit with these nine questions and ask yourself ‘How can we meet these needs without harming ourselves, others or the Earth?’ 

How can we feed, clothe and shelter ourselves?

How can we feel loved and appreciated? Express our creativity?

Develop our understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us?

Know who we are and feel a sense of belonging?

Have a voice? Have time to rest and relax?

Feel safe? Have freedom to choose?

I have been asking people these questions for over a decade now. When I present this as an economic framework people are often surprised that they had forgotten that the purpose of the economic system is to meet needs, rather than manufactured wants. The puzzle we are trying to solve is not ‘How do we make as much money as possible?’, but ‘How do we make best use of our resources and relationships, both scarce and abundant, to meet the needs we all share?’ Money is merely a means to an end, not an end in itself.

If we believe that it isn’t possible to meet these needs outside of the industrial growth system, let’s remember that humans have developed many different ways to satisfy them throughout history. Our rich and varied human cultures stand testimony to that. 

So, sit with these questions. Reflect on the times you felt truly satisfied. Reflect on what really matters to you. Then ask yourself:

Did it absolutely require the continuous production of more material goods and conveniences for you to reach true fulfilment? Was it the stuff that made you happy or the opportunity to connect, love, learn, celebrate, rest, reflect, experiment or express yourself that really created true satisfaction and wellbeing? Are there other regenerative ways to meet these needs that would also work or work better if you had access to them? 

And most importantly:

How can you free yourself and your community from the industrial growth system and start building a world worth living and fighting for?

Massive changes are afoot. Life as we know it is coming to an end, for better or worse. 

There is no techno fix that will allow us to maintain Western lifestyles and still live on the planet. No amount of electrification or so called renewables will be able to supply enough for our energy-hungry lifestyles

Our technologies and resources now need to be used sensibly and sparingly towards the adequate satisfaction of fundamental human needs and not manufactured human wants.

So, tell me, what would you rather?

It’s 4.45. 

The clock is ticking. 

It is still raining.

Read: Another Day, Another Climate Talk – Part 1 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Ann Owen says:

    Great piece, Inez. I hope it becomes a rallying cry. I think we’re nearing a turning point for better or for worse and there are some things popping up that give me hope. Like this for instance: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19452829.2019.1633734

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