The latest IPCC report has been published, and unsurprisingly, the alarm bells are getting louder. Personally, it leaves me unimpressed. We need scientific evidence for sure. Though, we know that scientific evidence will not make the majority of politicians, businesses, or individuals act. A lot of scientists are not even acting.
I have been doing some research on human behavior and change, so I have some ideas on why we can observe this inaction. Likely it is a conundrum of reasons. First, we are not as rational as behavioral economists might want to portray us. The direct link between information and action does often simply not work. Think about yourself. In how many instances did you have information that would call you to act in a certain way, but you still acted another way? Why there is this gap between information and action is yet another story. Sometimes it is a lack of opportunity, sometimes it is social pressure, sometimes it is laziness.
We have known about climate change for a long time now. But that did not make us act. The IPCC report clearly shows that the actions taken are merely lip service. They fall short of getting us anywhere near the target.
Apart from the gap between information and action, I think humans are hiding behind technology. To be clear, I am not suggesting that technology is inherently bad (I use a laptop to write this blog), I am not suggesting going back to the stone age, I am not suggesting that technology is not a part of the solution. When reading the IPCC scenarios, one can see that reaching the 1,5°C target will depend on using technology that has not been developed or is still in its infancy. Furthermore, these technologies involve, as any other technology, certain risks.
These risks should be considered before thinking that any technology can really solve a problem. As Gunderson and Holling (2002) explain in their book, human systems get stuck in a loop of problem-solving, because any solution creates new problems. The use of fossil fuels has solved certain problems, but we all know how many other problems it has created. These are not small problems. We are altering the climate! I get dizzy when I think about geoengineering. I think that humans are not mature enough to handle such technologies. And frankly, we have not even mastered the technologies that are in place. I have referred to it in the past, and I do it again. Why are we even thinking about solar geoengineering when I am living in a developed country where the waste collection system does not work? Why not start to reduce the metabolic rift (Schneider & McMichael, 2010) and close natural cycles before playing Mr. Burns?
We are hoping for some technology to save us so we can stay the same. We think about altering natural systems, and we want to change natural laws, just so that we do not have to change.
When one learns about nature and how things work, one remains in constant awe about how perfect all seems to work. Nature and all these natural laws are like a magical clockwork that is magic because it is too complex for the human mind to understand.
Human systems are not at all like that. They are also too complex to understand, but they are flawed. I am disappointed of humankind not being better at creating systems. Isn’t it our ingenious brain that we celebrate and that we think is what makes us distinct from other mammals? Yet, we have created systems that are parasitic. They live and survive because they are based on the exploitation of other people and the planet. Is this all that human ingenuity can come up with? And to not change these parasitic systems, we invent technology that helps us to maintain the parasitic relationships we have created.
The other day I read a paper by Herrero et al. (2020). They provide a list of 75 technologies that could transform the food system. They provide an overview of how far developed these technologies are. Then they talk about the ingredients for system change and bring human behavior and mindset changes into play. To my disappointment, this was all about technology acceptance. What about changing human behavior so that we do not abuse the environment? To create a food system that is in synergy with the planet?
I do not want to upset anyone, but when I hear about lab meat and the protein transition, I have to laugh. Why on earth does anyone need lab-grown meat? Why do I need to eat insect burgers (I do not mean to devalue insects. Of course, they are just as worthy of being eaten as cows). Not that a vegan diet is for everyone. But I have a vegan diet for more than 10 years (lost track of it, maybe close to 15), and protein is my least worry. Not that I am a dietitian, but the amount of protein a human needs a day is overrated by the general public. Given the size of my latissimus, I doubt that I have a protein deficiency. I do not supplement proteins; I eat nuts and beans. Of course, if one does not like to eat nuts and beans, one has to eat lab meat. What I want to say, is that we overcomplicate things, and we need to make a market out of it.
As Pungas (2023) writes in a paper about Food Self-Provisioning (low-tech, organic subsistence farming), easy options are neglected, because they have no potential to generate big money. If such alternatives are mentioned, then only in the modernized version (in this case e.g., organic agriculture). We are not eating normal food, we need superfoods. We do not just have a diverse diet; we need a concoction that contains all we need in one shot. The paper of Pungas (2023) generally relates very much to this fixation on tech. Anything low-tech is backward. When you criticize tech, you will immediately get some comment like: “So you want us to be back in the stone ages?” This inability of even considering alternative ways to look at technology shows that we are stuck in our worldview.
The focus on tech is intimately linked to the focus on market mechanisms. In some literature, one finds, that this might be because the market is itself presented as a wonderful man-made machine. This might be related to the evolution of economics, a science that does not like to be a social science, but rather a natural science. Anyhow the marriage between tech and the market is illustrated by a prominent transition theory (socio-technical transition theory), where the vehicle to change is the market. Similar to what Herrero et al. (2020) write, all we need to worry about is scaling the tech up and making people buy it. Then the regime will change, and voila, we are safe. Aside from the side effects that any technology has (also renewable energy, for example), these magic market mechanism stories leave an important thing out of the equation. As Béné (2022) outlines, the selection of technologies in the current system only follows the premise of making profit. When scientists (or whoever) select technologies based on factors other than profitability, we add qualities to the market system, that the market system does not have. Why is it necessary to conduct sustainably assessments for products? If the market acted to the benefit of all, it would not be needed. Why do we need a fair-trade label? If the market acted to the benefit of humankind, that would not be necessary. We add ethics and certain norms to the market system, because the only constant normativity the market adheres to is making profit.
We think the market fails, but the market works perfectly fine. It works the way it has been designed. It has been designed to make profit. Technologies will only be taken up by businesses if they think they can make a profit with it. And because profits have to increase, they have to sell more and more of that technology. That, of course, creates more and more negative side effects.
Neither technology nor the market will save us. To get us on the right track, we need to understand what our sphere of influence is, we need to take responsibility for our actions, we need to add ethics to the equation. We need to tear the system down and build new ones. True human ingenuity will be found in the systems that are built on respect for nature, for natural boundaries and other (human)beings. Systems in which humans prosper in synergy with nature and not as a parasite.
Figure 1: Snippet from Nature newsletter
Béné, C. (2022). Why the Great Food Transformation may not happen – A deep-dive into our food systems’ political economy, controversies and politics of evidence. World Development, 154, 105881. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2022.105881
Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (2002). Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press.
Herrero, M., Thornton, P. K., Mason-D’Croz, D., Palmer, J., Benton, T. G., Bodirsky, B. L., . . . West, P. C. (2020). Innovation can accelerate the transition towards a sustainable food system. Nature Food, 1(5), 266-272. doi:10.1038/s43016-020-0074-1
Pungas, L. (2023). Invisible (bio)economies: a framework to assess the ‘blind spots’ of dominant bioeconomy models. Sustainability Science. doi:10.1007/s11625-023-01292-6
Schneider, M., & McMichael, P. (2010). Deepening, and repairing, the metabolic rift. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 37(3), 461-484. doi:10.1080/03066150.2010.494371