A plea to our leaders

One of the (implicit) messages of my blog is that to achieve sustainability, we have first to figure out what we want as a society. The open letter below is a call for just that.

Halt and Reflect

Whether you are a national leader, a journalist, an engaged religious person, or a school headmaster – this letter is directed to all of you who have a special voice in your community.

As global citizens and scholars, we urge the world’s societal leaders, at all scales, to instigate discussions on the simple question: “What is it that we value?”

We are a group of scholars with formal academic training. Many (though not all) of us would consider themselves “next generation scientists” – that is, many of us will be senior academics in the not too distant future. A minority of us already work in senior academic positions.

Traditionally, many people chose science as a career path because they were interested in how the world works. Many insights have now been obtained on this. Young people still enter scholarly training because they want to understand the world – but increasingly…

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4 thoughts on “A plea to our leaders

  1. “What is it that we value?”

    I fear it is something that is

    A) truly necessary to discuss and decide in a democratic way and
    B) impossible to truly discover or to agree on in this way (not to speak of implementation).

    I am quite sure that most people on earth are not able to make up their mind on what they really want, and even less on what they really need. And even if someone were she probably would change her mind every now and then.

    Unfortunately there are two unsurpassable advantages of equalling “what you value” and “what you pay for” (the status quo): This way of valuation is

    1. constantly updated, i.e. when you visit your deli around the corner at 3am to buy some Miller LIte (instead of every four or so years in an election – “please vote position 248.037 for beer”) and, even more important,
    2. inherently connected to the notion of opportunity costs (“do I get me GTA 5 or rather pay this month’s health insurance fee?”).

    By contrast, any discussion of “what is it that we value” is verly likely to end up either in a ‘Wunschkonzert’ (“meat and individual motorized mobility for everyone!”)* or an eco-dictatorship. That is, unless it is possible to insert the aspect of opportunity costs in the discussion (which may be not entirely unrealistic in the future, who knows…).

    *: As the cabaret artist Volker Pispers once nicely put it: If only every Chinese and Indian would get a car, no matter how efficient – everyone could just once turn it on for a minute and all our global oil-reserves would be history (and our planet done for). I am slightly sceptical that I will live to see the day a globally-led discussion on “what do we really need” reaches the conclusion that a car won’t be part of the sustainability-fiesta.

  2. I do not think either that “true discovery or agreement on values” is feasible. I guess, no-one really does. In this case, as in many others, the idea is basically that “the journey is the reward”. Public deliberation/deliberative democracy, as imagined by Habermas, is a goal in itself. Certainly, people have difficulties with discovering what they value and they change their minds often. But this is exactly what we need deliberation for–it is easier to reflect on one’s values when discussing them with others.

    The WTP approach is nice, but, first, it does not cover all values; second, it is restricted to uncovering first-order preferences, leaving second-order preferences “in the dark” (see Amartya Sen’s ciritque of the Revealed Preference Theory); third, there are important methodological difficulties involved in uncovering WTP for non-private goods.

    Your point about the opportunity costs is important, I think, but it does not go against the idea of deliberation (I would rather say that deliberation may help to draw attention to their existence).

    P.S. What Pispers said may sound nice, but it is plainly wrong. The 17 countries with largest oil reserves in the world (except US) have some 1,3 trillion (10^12) barrels of proven reserves. This translates to around half trillion barrels or 80 trillion litres of gasoline. Given that India and China have some 2,5 billion inhabitants and that in one minute around 0,1 l gasoline is burnt (a very crude estimate, but since he said “no matter how efficient”, I think it is OK), you arrive at a quarter billion litres of gasoline burnt, which is around 1/320000 of proven reserves in those 17 countries. Quod erat demonstrandum;-)

  3. (Pispers did maybe go without calculating the exact numbers but instead, using artistic freedom, made his point via a pointed emphasis. The essence of his statement – that it is impossible for each country to have a similar ratio of inhabitants/cars (or wealth in general) like Germany or the US – is nevertheless true).

  4. I agree with this general argument. Nothing against licentia poetica, but in moderation please;-) All too often I witnessed people using such estimates as given, therefore my “disproof”. By the way, I only recently wrote a piece about this problem of imitation of “Western” lifestyles (here), which I often see being used in Germany as an excuse for our own unsustainability.


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