What will we give up to fix a broken world?

The climate crisis is often, and rightly framed, as a problem generated in the first world. And solutions and mitigations are framed as ways in which the first world needs to change.

Rebecca Solnit, a writer and historian, describes it this way:

Much of the reluctance to do what climate change requires comes from the assumption that it means trading abundance for austerity, and trading all our stuff and conveniences for less stuff, less convenience.

She proposes a different way of looking at things:

But what if it meant giving up things we’re well rid of, from deadly emissions to nagging feelings of doom and complicity in destruction? What if the austerity is how we live now — and the abundance could be what is to come?

I’ve been thinking, and thinking about her article. Her vision was initially seductive:

What if we imagined “wealth” consisting not of the money we stuff into banks or the fossil-fuel-derived goods we pile up, but of joy, beauty, friendship, community, closeness to flourishing nature, to good food produced without abuse of labor? What if we were to think of wealth as security in our environments and societies, and as confidence in a viable future?

Those are exactly the ways in which I would like to think of wealth.

And yet.

Something nagged at me after reading it, and was pulled into sharp focus by a novel, outwardly frivolous, that I was reading at the same time. In Sourdough by Robin Sloan, the heroine is a developer trapped in a soul-less job as a coder in San Francisco who is given a crock of sourdough starter and starts to bake bread. Her bread is a success and she earns a spot at a market which is trying combinations of the traditional things (honey, bread, coffee) found at markets with new technologies.

So far, so familiar. I was expecting the romantic male lead to appear pretty soon. But it was not to be.

They’ve failed us

The founder of the market, a mysterious shadowy figure, at one point addresses the people working there. Saying that a great realignment coming, he or she lays out the history of food in the United States, detailing how packaging, refrigeration and interstate highways remade the experience of eating in the 1950s. The founder’s voice, relayed virtually, then says:

On both sides, they’ve failed us. Of course, we know about the industrialists. Their corn syrup and cheese product. Their factory farms ringed by rivers of blood and shit, blazing bonfires of disease barely contained by antibiotic blankets. These are among the most disgusting scenes in the history of the planet… But on the other side… the organic farms, the precious restaurants… these are toy supply chains. ’Farm to table,’ they say. Well. When you go from farm to table, you leave a lot of people out. I think more poorly of these people than I do of the industrialists because they know better. They know it’s all broken and what do they do? They plant vegetables in the backyard.

It’s that phrase “you leave a lot of people out” that has been haunting me. I think about it all the time now, even as I survey the various winter seedlings popping up in my garden.

Who gets left out?

Solnit’s opinion piece is not, I am sure, representative of her full body of work and thought, and I apologise in advance for taking her words at face value. But putting the sourdough book and the article in the same frame is useful (to me anyway).

Solnit writes that the changes that first world people need to make consist of giving up “stuff” and “convenience”. There is no mention of giving up:

  • First world medicine (and by that I don’t mean high-tech surgery; I mean decent hospitals, well-run clinics and secure supplies of life-saving medication)
  • Secure food chains
  • Clean water coming out of the taps
  • Sewage systems that work
  • 21st century communication systems
  • Working and affordable public transport systems

These things are the product of long years of industrialisation and infrastructure-building and scientific endeavour. They function well in countries that have had centuries of practice in complex supply-and-demand chains. They need working economies and decent bureaucracies and efficient governance.

Invisible systems

These amenities are taken for granted in many places, so much so that they have become invisible. Which makes it possible to think that giving up “stuff” in favour of a simpler way of life will somehow make everything better. If the underpinnings of the systems that bring the “stuff” to you are invisible, they don’t have to be accounted for.

The thing is that none of these systems or the frameworks that enable them are in abundance in the developing world, where people can get cholera from their drinking water and women are dying in childbirth.

Centuries of industrialisation lie behind both the successes and the messes (the blood and shit) of the first world. It’s going to take a lot more than local farmer markets to fight our way out of this mess. What the Sourdough passage brings into sharp focus is the question of scale: small local solutions are valuable, but they don’t address the question of how the big systems that underpin modern living can be reframed and remade.

I don’t have solutions (perhaps no one does) but I do have some questions.

My questions

  • How do people in the developing world get working health and food systems, and economic opportunity, without repeating the mistakes of the first world?
  • What will it take to bring the amenities taken for granted by the most climate-conscious San Francisco organic farmer to the slumdweller living in squalor and dirt in Kenya?
  • What would people in the first world really have to give up?
  • How do you feed 8 billion people in an equitable manner?

I’ll be pursuing these questions, and all their ramifications over the next while – watch this space!

Main picture: Gabriel Jimenez, Unsplash

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