New Paradigms Needed

Through all its history humanity has been facing challanges which often seemed unsolvable. Nevertheless, we have been able to achieve a solution every time so far – sometimes better, sometimes worse, but we’ve done it. Today again we face a whole spectrum of huge challanges: the climate change with all its facettes. Biodiversity reduction due to general damages to ecosystems all over the world. Poverty and undernourishment. There are many proposals how to solve these problems, many of them of a rather technological nature. But these won’t do. More is needed: new value systems. New paradigms.

The problems humanity faces today are of a peculiar kind: they are generally self-generated, manmade. Without us burning fossil fuels, logging forests, overfertilizing lands, there would be no climate change. Without us caring so little about equality and distribution (and so much about having more) there would be far less poverty and hunger around the world. Without us exploiting global commons at highly unsustainable rates there would be no issue of biodiversity loss and ecosystems at the brink of collapse. To name only a few severe examples.

Many commentators suggest that we can solve these problems without substantially changing our ways of life: renewable energy technologies (with or without the help of nuclear power) are supposed to stop climate change, economic growth is supposed to lead to so called convergence between rich and poor countries and thus to less inequality and poverty (especially in subjective terms, since no-one will live at or below the existence minimum ever more), and better technologies and institutions are expected to save the Earth’s ecosystems and all the endangered species through an optimization of their use.

As reasonable as it may sound (since we made it in the past, we will make it now), I am afraid that all this is just wishful thinking. We’ve let it come too far. Of course, there may emerge some kind of a “savior technology” that will help us overcome all the challanges without much effort. This is possible, but also highly improbable. To rely upon that hope would be very naive.

Renewable energies won’t stop the warming of the climate if we don’t learn sufficiency (and, e.g., how to overcome the Jevons effect). More growth and thus more affluence in the developing world won’t solve the problem of poverty and hunger if we in the industrial countries don’t realize that we just have too much (there is only one pie to be shared), that we don’t help the poor by demanding ever-cheap products imported from their countries, and that the need for distribution cannot be circumvented through giving more to all – since relative wealth is what matters. Better technologies and institutions won’t save our ecosystems if we don’t accept the fact that their services have a price and that the Earth has a carrying capacity which cannot be durably “overshooted”.

In general, all these global problems – poverty, climate change, biodiversity loss and others – can only be solved if we change not only technologies and institutions (though this is important as well), but also our whole system of values: away from materialism, thrift, the demand for ever more and ever cheaper products and so on… You may express it this way: technologies and institutions and, in some cases, economic growth, may be the sufficient condition. But new paradigms are the necessary condition, the condition sine qua non. If we fail to fulfill this condition, to change our thinking, we are doomed to fail.


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