Damon Gameau’s “2040” - Do we really need a compelling vision for a sustainable future, or could we simply do what is essential to avoid the worst case unsustainability outcomes and see where that takes us?
As a spoiler alert – I don’t have a firm answer either way to this headline question, but I do think that visioning the future is incredibly important as a motivational technique that supports good mental wellbeing in the face of the climate crisis. However, the question also benefits from being unpicked a little, to tease out some nuances.
The documentary “2040” by Damon Gameau is a sterling effort to assist the creation of optimistic visions of the future in the face of the many unsustainability challenges facing us right now. But is he setting the bar too high, in terms of building expectations and dreams about such a sustainable future?
In fairness to Gameau, he gives a sense of what his own vision for 2040 is like, (his vision is centred on the future of his own young daughter) and he invites the viewers to imagine what their own 2040 vision would look like, rather than pushing his own vision on everyone else. So, the film doesn’t purport to set a single expectation of what the future should look like. This is one of its great strengths.
The film is one of many that attempt to overcome the “climate anxiety” being experienced, especially by many young people, in the face of the climate crisis currently unfolding in front of our eyes. And that begs the question of whether such visioning is a help or a hindrance in averting climate catastrophe, and creating the conditions for human thriving in perpetuity.
To start to answer that question it needs breaking down a little, perhaps into the following parts, each of which I then discuss in more detail:
I want to discuss these questions in reverse order, because that addresses the topic in a more chronological way, from history to where we are now, then to where we could be at the point of averting climate catastrophe, then to where we could be beyond that, eg in a place of just and sustainable living (Kate Raworth’s doughnut) in the long-term and into perpetuity. Bear in mind the concepts of “necessary and sufficient conditions” and “necessary but not excessive actions” at each stage in this discussion.
4) What should we compare our visioning efforts to, in terms of the visioning that global, national and local communities have undertaken to date, which have shaped the world we currently inhabit?
Has there been a “vision” guiding or driving humanity’s efforts so far towards “progress” as a whole species? Probably not. The human race of over 7 billion individuals in 195 countries is organised in such disparate ways that it is very unclear if there is any guiding vision providing any unity of purpose or action for all of its members.
Some might argue that a largely Western (and Northern Hemisphere) vision built on personal freedoms and success driven by market forces – the neoliberal capitalistic “laissez faire” approach and the auspices of the “hidden hand” of markets – is the most dominant paradigm currently in place. Its ‘intention’ is to solve the human development challenge by making individuals as free as possible. Perhaps ‘intention’ is too strong a word to use at this point, given that the paradigm is, for its strongest advocates, about outcomes at an aggregate (and global) level from billions of uncoordinated, independent, individual decisions and actions. Its intention could alternatively be described as optimal resource exploitation and allocation, but only under perfect market conditions (which never exist). And, even then, this leaves out externalities, which is one of the reasons we face the unsustainability challenges around us. So, it causes many problems even when it achieves its objectives.
One of the difficulties in making a critique of this ‘vision’ (even if it could be described as that) is that it purports to be a vision based on freedom rather than control. That freedom is about individual opportunity, but it is a largely illusory freedom, and it doesn’t solve the problems of inequalities and unsustainable aggregate human environmental footprint.
It is also evident that a ‘vision’ based on freedom doesn’t mean that there isn’t gross inequality. We know that there is such inequality, even if such a vision becomes the ultimate reality in perpetuity. You could even argue that the current status of most market-economy based countries is already at or very near the optimum or equilibrium envisaged by the neoliberal capitalist market economy vision. The vision doesn’t promise that everyone will be rich. It only promises that some people can lift themselves out of poverty and become rich. As for the rest …
The theory of “trickle-down economics”, or “a rising tide lifts all boats”, often used in defence of the neoliberal capitalist vision, has been proven to be false in the current era.
If one rejects that neoliberal capitalist vision, on the grounds that it cannot result in a fair distribution of income and wealth or a sustainable future for all, it’s difficult to weaken it and replace it with a better one, because the most vociferous advocates of the neoliberal capitalist vision will defend the existing paradigm and will perceive such efforts to displace it as attacks on individual freedoms (or will probably use such a line of reasoning as a straw man defence of the status quo).
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And that leads us to the next question I headlined. Perhaps the best way of displacing an outdated vision is to create a better one that transcends it and to which people switch in increasing numbers over time. This might be better than full frontal attack on the old vision.
3) What amount and type of visioning would be just enough to avert climate catastrophe?
We immediately hit a challenge in tackling this question, because there is a lot of uncertainty about climate tipping points. Those are the points where the conditions and drivers are such that climate switches rapidly and uncontrollably to a new, very different, climate state which could dramatically change the size and nature of the challenges for human survival, let alone thriving.
We do have the internationally agreed Paris 1.5 degrees target ceiling for global warming, and this target is based on current best science and risk assessment of probabilities. Even if we achieve it by keeping warming below 1.5, however, there is still a significant probability that one or more tipping points will have been reached by then, making it more difficult to undertake further actions to stabilise climate or reverse damaging trends in the pipeline at that point. It should be noted that the modelling supporting the 1.5 target is weak at addressing tipping points, so there is still much uncertainty about whether achieving 1.5 will avoid some tipping points being reached. This is a very active area of ongoing scientific study.
I could talk about the Precautionary Principle at this point, but the above discussion of Paris 1.5, alongside an appreciation that we are already at about 1.2 degrees of global warming, illustrates that humanity has already rejected the use of the Precautionary Principle in its responses and actions to date about tackling human-driven climate change.
Paris 1.5 is the best we have currently as a stretch target (and it will be a very big stretch if we are to achieve it) so perhaps the most pragmatic way of creating a vision that would be ‘just enough effort to avert climate catastrophe’ would be a “Paris 1.5 vision”, or a series of “Paris 1.5 consistent visions”.
A further difficulty with such an approach is that such visions need not include social justice to achieve their aims. It would be totally feasible (but morally unacceptable) to achieve Paris 1.5 without addressing social justice or any aspect of inequalities at all. A free-market capitalist system, operating within a properly functioning but very stringent set of international and national governmental environmental regulations, could achieve the Paris 1.5 target. The big caveat in the preceding statement is that it is premised on governmental regulations being sufficiently ambitious and robust to achieve the objective. That might include such matters as, for example, setting carbon pricing (globally) at effective levels to achieve Global Net Zero through rapid enough switching of entire industries from high carbon to low or zero carbon operation and impact. In most countries, there is very little evidence of such ambitious regulations being implemented, or even planned.
2) What amount and type of visioning would be just enough to avert climate catastrophe AND achieve a socially just, sustainable future?
This is the crux and the core of the discussion. It becomes apparent from the previous comments that this is the true battle-ground for creating a liveable future for all, free from climate catastrophes and gross inequalities, and lived in a perpetually sustainable environment.
It’s no surprise that a lot of work has already been done on this.
To what extent can these existing sources of inspiration and action be drawn on for new visions? Can they be consolidated or reconciled with each other? Are they all complementary? Are any of them mutually exclusive concepts?
The main challenge here is one of integrating a large range and body of existing work into a cohesive whole, in a way that enables sustainability (eg planetary boundaries) to be maintained, individual freedoms to be supported as much as possible and organised collective actions to be planned and delivered. Is that an inherently contradictory ideal, or is it, in fact, the only way forward to a just and sustainable future for all? What does such an integrative approach look like, and what are it’s intended outcomes?
This is where, inevitably, the matter moves from being one with a rather technical or organisational characteristic into one with a more creative and imaginative style. That, perhaps, is ultimately the most important feature of visioning. Because visioning, to many people, is about how to imagine the ideal future, not how to plan for how to get there.
1) What amount and type of visioning would be excessive and counterproductive?
It’s possible that some visioning can go too far, in terms of scope, levels of detail, resource requirements, change management capacity, timescales etc. This can lead to disappointment, confusion, conflict, distraction, poor resource use, poor outcomes, unintended outcomes, failure to achieve desired outcomes, to name a few problems.
The challenge, and the excitement, is in ‘negotiating’ between various creatively and imaginatively constructed visions of the future and the real-world practicalities of purposely designing feasible pathways to get to one such future from where we are now, eg using the decision-making and resource allocation mechanisms currently in place (as well as the means to modify or replace those mechanisms where they are too big a barrier to making sufficiently timely progress).
I’m cautiously optimistic that we, the human race, have it within us to make the changes necessary to enable a just and sustainable future to happen. Note I say “a” just and sustainable future, not “the” just and sustainable future. There are many possible just and sustainable futures out there. As many as there are people capable of creating a vision of such a future in their minds.
All we need is for one such future to be made reality.
The Planetary CFO - working towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet.