Where are the proposals, the routemaps, to help us disentangle ourselves from the ecocidal economic growth machine we have been convinced we are wedded to? There are clearly many such routemaps, but most crucially what is needed is to identify how such a routemap can work both within the electoral system as it stands (within a supposedly ‘successful’ expanding capitalism, within a party political voting system, within the economic inequalities that exist) and also work within a rapidly transforming situation where people are rapidly losing faith in the status quo but have no idea where to turn to for an alternative effective system for organising our material and social needs.

Any such set of proposals or routemap has to be based on an understanding of who we are as humans and therefore as a society, a clear understanding of what we are capable of. Of course, underlying all social action is such a shared root paradigm, a shared fundamental understanding of reality and who we are.

As Dave Pollard recently pointed out in ‘An existential approach to bringing about change’: “Donella (Dana) Meadows was famous for her twelve ways to intervene in a system, one of the most often cited works in the field of bringing about change . . . and suggested that there were really only three highly effective ways to intervene:

  1. Change the paradigm (way of thinking) that underlies the system, or open people up to operating without any set paradigm at all.
  2. Change the fundamental goal, purpose or function of the system.
  3. Encourage and enhance self-organization: Remove the barriers to self-organization and let the collective wisdom of groups of people continuously tweak the system to serve them collectively.”

For Meadows, changing the paradigm is the key. (Although I suggest that ‘changing the paradigm’ might be better understood as: reminding people of the nature of reality, a nature and a reality they know through their everyday experience but one that is consistently denied in their everyday interactions with the powers that be.)

The conflict between a range of positions within a dominant paradigm helps to maintain the sense that that particular paradigm encompasses the world. Those who believe we are fundamentally selfish and those who believe we are ultimately altruistic both maintain the sense of an either-or world in which our needs are fundamentally met individually rather than collectively. Those arguing that we need to develop by extracting increasing resources (to expand the economy to rescue the poor) and those who argue that we need to conserve (that we need to protect nature from humans) both reinforce a sense that human well-being and the well-being of nature are mutually exclusive.

In Calum Robert’s recent article on the ‘Aquacalypse’ (his term for the overfishing that is destroying the life of the seas) Roberts ultimately pins the blame on human nature. Rather than pinpointing a particular economic system and the power relations and paradigm that flow from and maintain it, Roberts powerfully restates the underlying paradigm that justifies that annihilation of the oceans. He concludes: “If I am right about Human Nature, the aquacalypse is inevitable; there’s nothing to be done about it”.

The account of the way the fleets have simply expanded as they have used up different parts of the ocean is very useful; the underlying assumption is not.

Robert’s useful reminder to us that we think of the environment of our early years as the baseline that we need to return to (when in fact it was already a greatly impoverished version of what went before) is a good metaphor for what is wrong with the underlying assumption in the piece.

Roberts repeatedly refers to humans and human nature when what he really means is the more recently dominant impoverished form of human thinking that assumes exploitation is the natural given. He states that we humans “are animals after all”.

Clearly we are animals, but animals are seen here through our cultural lens that assumes that ‘survival of the fittest’ means thoughtless exploitation, and that the strong always try to destroy the weak, when actually what Darwin meant (in The Origin of Species, if not in the Descent of Man) by ‘survival of the fittest’ was the survival of those who fit best with their environment.

The assumption that we humans don’t belong, or only belong in a way that inevitably has to destroy its environment, serves to reinforce the dominant paradigm that justifies current exploitative and destructive economic political and hierarchical relations. There are many more ways of being human than this; and we could stop this systematic destruction in its tracks if we not only realised this but realised the power available to us from deriving our strength – our ‘fitness’ – from delighting in the rest of the environment of which we are a part; rather than deriving our powerlessness from mistaking this ecocidal system for being who we are.

This is the ninth in a series of ‘Case for the Commons: the kinder Society we want’ posts – the tenth will look at a possible routemap, in this case for Scotland.