In a biology lesson about the bacterial growth curve, the parallels with the climate crisis were hard to miss. Stick bacteria in a test tube with food and their population will grow exponentially until, eventually, they run out of resources and kill themselves off. Even a couple of decades ago, the comparison with humanity’s predicament felt glaringly obvious; and we have not really strayed since from the inevitable path to extinction.
The hope seems to be that a big crisis might be the shock we need to change course. But we are living through the biggest global crisis for decades – and are travelling and consuming less as a result of the pandemic – yet it already seems unlikely that much will change. It’s easy enough to throw around the old adage “never waste a good crisis”. But when it comes to existential questions about the future of humanity, it has proved fairly useless.
Coronavirus or not, we remain locked into a treadmill that measures progress by growing GDP rather than by wellbeing and environmental sustainability. This is an economic paradigm that has served most of us – particularly the most affluent – pretty well for decades. But the richer we’ve got, the more the benefits have tailed off. There have been a number of studies showing that, beyond a certain point, more wealth does not necessarily equal more happiness – true at a societal level as well as an individual one.
There is a lot that could account for this flatlining. It was once assumed that increased productivity, driven by technological progress, would result in us having more leisure time: see John Maynard Keynes’s prediction in the 1930s that we’d be working just 15 hours a week by now. But instead, luxury beat leisure and an explosion in consumerism has driven us towards ever more consumption. The “happiness” economist Richard Layard has also pointed towards “disorders of development” such as obesity and tech addiction (although it should be noted that within a wealthy society such as ours, obesity is associated with poverty).
The costs of this consumption have increased. Much of it is subsidised by labour exploitation, both at home and abroad. And then there is the small issue of catastrophic climate change, as we race towards “tipping points” beyond which global heating becomes self-reinforcing and harder to halt without unprecedented levels of coordinated international action.
Stack all this up, and the idea of already-rich societies moving towards a “zero growth” economic model – once the preserve of the radical green fringes of politics – starts to look increasingly like a no-brainer. We would have to sacrifice gains in material living standards, but the potential prize would be preserving the planet and achieving a better worklife balance. If we could protect the least affluent from any negative impacts – which would require more redistribution, not to mention paying more for services such as caring and cleaning – what’s not to like?
The big problem is, of course, no one knows how to get there. The 2008 financial crisis offered a chance to take stock. For a while, it looked like something might happen: economists designed global “happiness” indices and the UN General Assembly declared a “world happiness day”. But not only did nothing change: it was used as political cover for darker agendas. Bhutan adopted a measure for Gross National Happiness in an attempt to market itself globally as the “happiness” country, while papering over its record of human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing. In the UK, David Cameron pledged to set up a national wellbeing index as he cut back mental health services, youth services and children’s centres.
We’re back there again: happiness advocates saying we can’t afford to waste this opportunity to rethink, even as the government has prioritised pubs over schools – economic recovery over broader measures of wellbeing – in relaxing the lockdown.
This is no surprise. Our political and economic systems are utterly indisposed to the radical shifts we need to promote wellbeing over wealth and protect the planet. Short-termism is everywhere, from politicians who face elections every few years to company directors who must account for quarterly results. On the right, there are powerful vested interests who want to maintain business as usual – who go quiet in the wake of a crisis, or even appear to jump on the bandwagon (just look at Davos agendas in recent years), but who do all in their power to obstruct change. The left often makes peace with continuous growth, despite its costs, because a rising tide makes redistribution easier. And it is crazy to think that a shock to GDP caused by a financial crisis or a pandemic could be used as a bridge to a different world because the brunt of the pain is always, always borne by the least affluent and the young.
So we need to think far more about the mechanisms and institutions that could get us on to a different path. The Long Time Project is exploring how humans could shift their time horizons so, simply put, we feel more emotionally connected to our future descendants. It points to the fact that we tend to view our future selves, let alone future generations, as strangers. We need to rewire the way we think about the future, and our own ageing and deaths; the projects’ founders believe that art and culture can play an important role. And we could learn from those times in history when humans have proved their ability to think beyond their own lifespan: “cathedral thinking” is based on those architects who planned spectacular buildings that would never be finished in their own lifetimes.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, unless we find a way to think differently about consumption, wellbeing and sustainability, humans will be responsible for our own extinction. And it should be clear by now that crises – extreme weather, pandemics, financial crises – are never going to be the wake-up call that forces us to confront our own fragility. A good crisis inevitably goes to waste, and it is lazy and irresponsible to think otherwise.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist