If we want to prosper, we need new meaning in life

JEREMY LENT argues that a change in our collective and individual thinking is necessary to avert social and environmental collapse.

Business leaders fret that if a concerted attempt is made to reduce this growth trajectory, it might lead to a spiralling decline in valuations, possibly even to the collapse of the capitalist system.

The reasons why our civilisation continues hurtling towards a precipice are multilayered. There are some readily identifiable factors; underpinning these are certain structural characteristics of our global system that lock in our current momentum; and underlying these are cognitive frames – the ways we think about life, often unconsciously – that form the basis for our collective behaviour.

Each of these layers must be addressed to make a meaningful course correction.

Read our review of Jeremy Lent's The Patterning Instinct.

The easily identifiable forces propelling humanity on its current course are the special interests that gain financially and politically – at least, in the short term – from continued economic growth and use of fossil fuels.

Competing network

In the United States, for example, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually in political lobbying and funding for those who deny the threat of anthropogenic climate change. They currently exert enough power over the US legislative process to thwart meaningful national legislation.

However, even without these special interests, some structural characteristics of our global system make it very difficult to change direction. One of these is known as technological lock-in: the fact that, once a technology is widely adopted, an infrastructure is built up around it, making change prohibitively expensive.

A frequently cited example is the QWERTY keyboard, which was originally designed for its inefficiency, in an attempt to slow down the rate of typing and therefore prevent early typewriter keys from hitting each other.

More efficiently laid-out keyboards can double typing speeds, and yet it has been impossible for them to make inroads, because everyone is used to the older, inefficient design.

In the case of fossil fuels, an obvious example of technological lock-in is the network of petrol stations for vehicles with conventional engines. Any new electric car technology has an uphill battle to create a competing network, even if its vehicles offer equivalent performance.

Growth trajectory

These technological challenges can be overcome with enough investment. A far greater obstacle to meaningful change is financial lock-in: the financial infrastructure underlying the fossil-fuel-based economy.

Fossil-fuel companies and corporations are valued primarily on the basis of their proven coal, oil and gas reserves. However, for the world to keep global warming to 2 degrees, the oil companies would only be able to use about one-fifth of their reserves.

These corporations would experience drastic declines in market value if the world were to make a serious commitment to rein in global warming. Given the overriding corporate objective of maximising financial returns, their executives have a powerful incentive to steer the public debate away from this issue.

Business leaders fret that if a concerted attempt is made to reduce this growth trajectory, it might lead to a spiralling decline in valuations, possibly even to the collapse of the capitalist system.

Beyond the narrow interests of the fossil-fuel industry, the entire capitalist economy is founded on perpetual growth. In aggregate, world stock markets are valued on the same growth assumptions that predict a quadrupling of the global economy by mid-century.

Business leaders fret that if a concerted attempt is made to reduce this growth trajectory, it might lead to a spiralling decline in valuations, possibly even to the collapse of the capitalist system.

Extracting and marketing

Additionally, in the arena of geopolitical rivalry, the power of a nation relative to others is substantially based on economic strength. National political leaders fear that if their nation unilaterally chose to reduce its own growth to a more sustainable level, this would reduce its ability to protect its national interests.

This self-defeating collective dynamic highlights a crucial flaw in capitalist ideology: the notion that it is inevitably beneficial for society when each person seeks to maximise his or her own gain. Underlying this notion is an even more fundamental defect of classical economic theory: the assumption that Nature is inexhaustible.

When the framework of modern economics was developed in the 18th century, it seemed reasonable to view natural resources as unlimited, because for all intents and purposes they were.

Economists therefore treated minerals, trees and water as commodities to be sold at a price that was simply the cost of extracting and marketing them. As we’ve seen, the experience of the past 50 years has proved that assumption to be wrong.

Political systems

In the words attributed to systems theorist Kenneth Boulding, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

In spite of this obvious and fundamental flaw, classical economic theory continues to be used around the world as the driving force for decisions made by corporations, policymakers and governments. How can that be?

The American environmental historian J.R. McNeill offers an explanation: “When an idea becomes successful, it easily becomes even more successful: it gets entrenched in social and political systems, which assists in its further spread. It then prevails even beyond the times and places where it is advantageous to its followers.”

This is another form of lock-in: ideological. “Big ideas”, McNeill observes, “all became orthodoxies, enmeshed in social and political systems, and difficult to dislodge even if they became costly.”

This Author

Jeremy Lent is the author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. This is an extract of a longer article that appeared in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. The latest issue is available now