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Welcome to 2020: Our Chance to Save the World – and Ourselves
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When the accumulation of wealth is
no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.
We shall be able to rid ourselves of many
of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value.

The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease

John Maynard Keyes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, 1930

These are the words of one of the most influential economists of the 20th century. Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes envisioned a future society largely free of the necessity to work. A fair world, where everyone would have free time to pursue their artistic inspirations after working three hours per week. However, his predictions in “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” are in stark contrast with the world we currently live in. Britain, for instance, has one of the longest working weeks in Europe, with an average of 42.5 hours per week.

Britain has also one of the highest costs of living in the world. So long hours at work are necessary. Yet, with more than 4 million people struggling with poverty, consumerism is still the status quo. It has seeped into our psyche to the point that our entire culture is organised around spending to buy. Moreover, our social and economic order encourages us to buy goods (and services) in ever-increasing amounts. It glorifies “having” over “being”. The more worldly possessions one owns, the more successful they are perceived to be and the higher their social status. 

But, as Dylan sang candidly, the times, they are a’changing. Our Planet, plagued by overproduction and over-consumption of material goods for the last 50 years, is kicking off. Exploiting our precious, finite, natural resources has lead to a global crisis second to none. But this time, the war isn’t against some external enemy. We are up against our own behaviours. Our dependence on consumerism, in the name of the status quo, is under scrutiny. The good news? We have the power to banish our outdated cultural ways.

Homelessness rate in the UK hit an all-time high in 2019

How did we get here?

Vigga Svenson, a prominent sustainable entrepreneur and CEO of Fashion Continued, blames it on the marketers. She claims that unscrupulous marketing practices created artificial “consumer cravings.” Consumer cravings are not real-life necessities, but superfluous. They are carefully crafted by the marketing machine, manipulating consumers into buying a product not strictly needed. This invention by old-school marketers is the essence of today’s buy-and-throw society. In their defence, marketers hired by CEOs had the aim of making the big bucks, with little regard for the environment. Sadly, apart from trailblazers such as Patagonia, the business world in the last century was largely unphased by environmental issues.

Unfortunately, this attitude was mainstreamed in the 90s and 00s and is definitely still in vogue today. Fortunately, in the last decade, a distancing from consumerist attitudes has been spreading transgenerationally. Take the rise of public figures such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in the US and Sanna Marin in Finland, for instance. It shows that ideas of democratic socialism are becoming more attractive, especially to Millenials and Gen Zs. However, one would be mistaken in thinking that values sustaining a fairer society are being embraced solely by young idealists. The business world has been forced to follow suit.

The fashion industry is a good example. Notorious for having been wasteful and exploitative, it has now become a fertile ground for a green revolution. Fashion Continued, for instance, is “a platform for circular fashion through which brands can facilitate take back and resell of products more than once”. Inducing systemic change in an industry historically known as being destructive isn’t a walk in the park. Yet, market trends show that there is no other way forward. Svensson explained that she employed social marketing principles to make a positive impact. Social marketing greatly differs from “old-school” selling. It focuses on ascertaining needs and wants of a target audience before creating a package of goods or opportunities. Svensson claimed that their research showed a real-life, public need for a platform enabling behaviour change.

Pieces of ice detached from a glacier floating in the North Sea

Change requires individual and collective growth

The rise of environmentally-friendly social marketing practices is one essential ingredient for changing our societies for the better. Telling people what to do might have some beneficial effect, but it isn’t enough. Mass media campaigns generally fail. Because fostering new types of sustainable behaviours isn’t as easy as it might seem to be. Back in ’98, the UK Government spent 20 million pounds on the “Are You Doing Your Bit?” campaign, which unfolder over a decade. The campaign was aimed at changing national behaviours on recycling, water use and energy efficiency. However, it achieved minimal collective behaviour change despite 87% brand recognition.

It’s quite possible that the same campaign would have had more impact today. But a study published in Nature Communications last year explains that “telling people what to do isn’t enough”. People do not simply “give up” comfortable habits. Hence, bombarding consumers with information might not be the most effective path to achieving a greener world. A greener world is achievable, but only after an en-mass rewiring of the way we see ourselves. We must transition from being consumers to being, once again, citizens actively inhabiting our societies. Ultimately, we must go deeper and understand our motivation to change. Fortunately, it looks like 2019 was the true “ignition year” for this transformational change.

Banner at an Extinction Rebellion protest

From Consumers to Citizens: the road to transformation

The global panorama has never seen so many disciplined, nonviolent movements arise at the same time. Extinction Rebellion in the UK; the Sardines movement in Italy; and all the peaceful civil movements that have arisen in Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Hong Kong, Iraq and Lebanon. These movements have brought back a civic sphere to the act of protesting. One that had been missing for quite some time. The urgency of the matter is clear to everyone. The window of opportunity for keeping temperature increase below 2°C is narrowing quickly. Most of us who are concerned about the environment are aware that the crossroads we face is of historical importance. And many see this as an opportunity to rethink the way we live.

The importance of making small changes in our lifestyles has pervaded our eco-consciousness. We’ve banned plastic bottles and straws, given up the consumption of animal products in our diets and switched to green energy suppliers; but when it comes to saving the Planet, can personal sacrifices really help? Mainstream media outlets and the internet have made sure everyone is aware that global warming is man-induced. However, what isn’t clear is how our small individual actions can possibly solve the issue. When it comes to climate change, does “every little bit helps” still apply?

Important personalities of national and international clout have notoriously advocated otherwise. Back in 2007, Tony Blair stated there was no point in cutting British carbon emissions within the next year. Mr Blair claimed that “the growth in China will make up the difference within the next two years.” The former UK PM believed behaviour change needn’t happen because technology would save the world. This type of forma mentis was famously likened by Greenpeace to “holding out for cigarettes that don’t cause cancer”. Of course, we all hope that science will find new greener ways to reduce future emissions. However, for this to happen, large-scale effort from engaged governments needs to be put into place. To think that some silver-bullet will magically fix climate change if we ourselves don’t make any effort to change is a mistake.

Human-driven deforestation affects wildlife, biodiversity and weather patterns

Political Consumerism

Apart from social marketing tools and nonviolent civil disobedience, collective behaviour change can also be achieved by practising political consumerism. Political consumerism is less radical than it sounds and has an overarching empowering effect. The purchasing power we have as consumers gives us the ability to be “constructively disruptive.” How do we affect big businesses still running on unsustainable practices? By avoiding purchasing their products. Boycotting those who still fund big oil is a solid start. Shopping at social enterprises and co-ops, supporting more local, small sustainable businesses also has its weight. However, the question remains on whether making a series of small, ethical purchasing decisions is enough.

Alden Wicker, sustainable fashion and New York Times journalist, thinks that eco-shopping won’t cut it. Buying sustainably won’t “change the world as quickly as we want.” Which is partially true. Small ethical purchases mean nothing if we ignore at large the structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models. However, it is important to remember that consumer-based actions are extremely powerful when taken collectively.

Extinction Rebellion Banner at Marble Arch, London

Strength in Numbers

Rosa Parks probably wouldn’t have gone down in history as a civil rights icon if she had acted alone. In fact, her refusal to move to the back of the bus was planned methodically. It was part of a network composed of thousands of activists who had planned their civil disobedience. With time, other social rights movements adopted this model, such as gay rights activists and, of course, environmentalists. But the model has proven to bring about deep change only when coupled with a larger, citizen-led campaign.

In the late Nineties and Noughties, for instance, the anti-sweatshop movement targeted apparel-makers of the likes of Gap, Nike and Adidas. These market giants had to improve their workers’ working conditions thanks to boycotts. Hundreds of thousands picketed the front of stores, held sit-ins at colleges and bombarded the companies with letters. Sometimes, when the numbers are right, campaigns can achieve incredible things in a flash. In just eight weeks, consumer-led boycott towards Nestlé lead to the company’s pledge to go “0-deforestation” by 2020. It “only” took 200,000 emails to the company and a demonstration at Nestlé HQ by hundreds of thousands of activists.

2019 saw the rise of nonviolent climate action-based movements around the globe

We’re in it for the long-run

The process of re-becoming citizens ultimately means stepping out of our comfort zone. This is a space which looks different for different people. For us at The Boiler House, it has meant taking one honest look at our addiction to highly polluting behaviours. Short weekends away on the other side of Europe. Fast fashion shopping. One thousand tabs open on our internet browsers (read here on why internet browsing can be carbon-intensive.)

The reality of climate change is one that is hard to swallow. No one seems to be prepared for the scale of happenings presented to us each day. Hence, how can we blame those who, faced with the enormity of the situation, decide to turn the other way? It’s only human to want to avoid suffering.

But those brave enough to face the challenge can gain hope from the fact that plenty of alternative ways of “practising capitalism” are flourishing around the world. Stakeholder-owned co-ops have been around since the late 1800s. The rise of the social enterprise is a contemporary ubiquitous affair worldwide. Other important realities are arising from the idea of de-growth. Transition Towns based on circular economies are appearing, like Totnes in the UK. Solidarity and sharing economy are two of the fastest business trends in history. The reuse/repair and up-cycling movements dotting the global map. We are definitely moving in the right direction. Our job now is not to lose momentum and push forward. There is strength in numbers, and we can make 2020 the year we saved the planet – and ourselves.

Solar Power is estimated to be 20x cleaner than coal-sourced energy

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05 / 01 / 2020 // Written by Sylvia Helen Goodrick
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