Conference on Meditation and the Environment, Sydney 22-24 April 2016
Presentation on the theme of the day: ‘Finding a New Consciousness’
by Dr Mark Diesendorf
Associate Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, UNSW Australia
I trained as a scientist, so my starting point for Finding a New Consciousness is the scientific understanding that human society – whether pre-industrial, industrial or postindustrial – is totally dependent upon the natural environment.
Our biosphere – that is, the land, sea and atmosphere in which organisms are able to live – was created by millions of members of millions of other species that existed before humans arrived on the scene. The essential living processes that now sustain us continue to be maintained and run by populations of the millions of non-human species that are still here. They are not run by us. These natural processes are energised by our star, the Sun. They are not energised by us.
• We rely upon plants to capture solar energy by photosynthesis and convert it into a form that we can ingest, enabling our bodies to function and indeed powering almost all species and ecosystems on Earth.
• We rely on ecosystems of micro-organisms in our stomachs to digest the food we eat, extracting essential nutrients and enabling the storage of food energy in our bodies as carbohydrates and fats for current and future use.
• We rely on other species to provide the oxygen in the air that we breathe, also via photosynthesis.
• We rely on natural processes to provide an atmosphere with a sufficient concentration of greenhouse gases to provide a suitable temperature range for life. But not too low or too high concentrations of GHG.
• We depend upon nature to provide the great bio-geo-chemical cycles that enable us and the other species on Earth to exist and function: for example, the carbon cycle that, until we disturbed it recently, kept our climate in a balanced state; the cycle of the fluid of life, water; the cycle of nitrogen, an essential component of amino acids that form all proteins needed by living entities; and the cycle of the essential nutrient, phosphorus, that’s a vital component of our bones and of the molecule ATP that generates energy in our cells.
We humans are interfering with all these systems and cycles, precipitating a series of environmental crises that are damaging our life support system, health, society and economy.
The most critical interference is human-induced climate change, which is already impacting on human society and economy by increasing the frequency of extreme events – heat-waves, droughts, wild fires, floods and coastal inundation. Climate change is also is partly responsible for the loss of biological diversity, including loss of marine life by acidification of the oceans and the bleaching of coral reefs; it’s also responsible for declining global food production.
At one conceptual level, the drivers of environmental destruction are three-fold: growth in population; growth in the physical economy (energy, materials and land-use); and polluting technology. Underlying these three drivers are greed, lust for power and hubris, an arrogant belief that we humans live independent of nature and can even modify it safely.
These destructive elements have led to polluting technology, that superficially appears cheap, but in practice imposes severe indirect costs on us, and to an economic system that puts profits before people and fosters the absurd notion of endless growth on a finite planet.
Yet we humans also have great capacity for cooperation, love, self-sacrifice, deep knowledge, engagement with the spirit, and the design of laws, organisations and other institutions to constrain our destructive tendencies and to foster a better world.
This leads to my 2nd key point in Finding the New Consciousness.
Not only are we totally dependent upon the environment for our survival, but we are also dependent upon other human beings, at least for our thrival. We depend on other humans in a practical sense, a psychological sense and an anthropological sense.
As children we depend totally on our parents. As adults we depend on others for the food we eat; shelter; personal security; and emotional connections: friendship, love, emotional support, sex and reproduction. This dependence was true for hunter-gatherers and is still true for modern industrial society. While we can survive for a while without all of these requirements, except food, we cannot thrive.
We have not evolved to exist in isolation from one another. Indeed, there’s growing scientific evidence that the development of our brains throughout life depends on interactions with others. Prisoners locked up in solitary confinement for months or years develop delusions. When released they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or worse mental illnesses. The SBS documentary series ‘Secrets of the Brain’ has more about this.
What we can do
So, the first two steps in Finding the New Consciousness, are to recognise our dependence on the natural environment and our fellow human beings.
The third step is a logical consequence of the second: we must recognise that, while improving our individual health and well-being is necessary, it is not sufficient. For example:
• If we live in a polluted city, in which employment areas are separated from residential areas, and the principal form of transportation is by motor vehicles on congested roads full of toxic fumes, we cannot solve the problem of travel by individual action.
• If we live in rented accommodation, which is poorly designed and not insulated, we cannot avoid huge energy bills.
• If population growth is not being matched with growth and improvement of infrastructure, the only individual remedy, for those who can afford it, is to leave the city and struggle to become self-sufficient on a plot of rural land.
• If we operate a large food-producing farm and the big retail chains do not pay us a fair price for our products, our business collapses.
• If we buy cheap clothing made by people in poor countries who are paid less than $1 per day and are in some cases working as slaves, we are participating in a vicious economic system that exploits people.
So, the third step in Finding our New Consciousness is understanding that social and economic changes are also needed, and acting collectively upon that understanding. We must expand the New Consciousness and join with others to protect and restore our natural environment and social justice, which is equal opportunity for all, at least in terms of access to the basics of life. This is just my definition of sustainable development: development that protects and restores our natural environment and social justice.
To undertake ecologically sustainable, socially just development we must also recognize political realities: that governments, whether conservative or small-L liberal or socialist, are subjected to strong pressures by powerful vested interests. It is no accident that in Australia both Labor and the Coalition are supporting the development of huge coal-mines, even while paying lip service to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The rhetoric they utter to justify their internally inconsistent stances is preserving jobs in the coal industry, although many more jobs could be created in renewable and energy efficiency while phasing out coal.
Addressing two of the drivers of unsustainable development: technology and the economic system
I’ll speak briefly about changing technology, using energy as a case study, and then changing the economy.
Our research at UNSW, together with research by other groups, shows that we could operate the National Electricity Market entirely on renewable energy, together with improved efficiency of energy use. These technologies are all commercially available; they just have to be scaled up. To do this we the people must pressure federal and state governments to implement policies to phase out fossil fuels and simultaneously expand the ecologically sustainable energy technologies. The necessary policies include:
• a price on carbon;
• removal of subsidies to the production and use of fossil fuels;
• expanded Renewable Energy Targets;
• a reverse auction system for large-scale wind and solar farms, similar to the successful scheme in the ACT;
• fair feed-in tariffs paid for feeding electricity from small-, medium- and large-scale renewable energy back into the grid;
• stronger and more extensive regulations and standards for energy efficiency;
• investment in public transport, cycleways, pedestrian streets and improved urban design generally.
The technologies and policies needed for the transition to an energy efficient, renewable energy society are discussed in more detail in my latest book Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change (UNSW Press and Routledge-Eathscan, 2014).
The barriers to the transition are no longer technological nor economic; instead they are political, institutional and cultural. To overcome these barriers we must organise collectively, joining existing environmental, social justice and consumer groups and, if necessary, forming new ones. More broadly than the energy policies I just listed, we also need policies to provide:
• resources for educating and training the sustainable energy labour-force at universities and TAFEs;
• expansion of manufacturing industry for renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies;
• new and expanded sources of finance; and
• new institutions of governance.
My book, Climate Action: A campaign manual for greenhouse solutions (UNSW Press, 2009), describes how community groups can apply pressure to governments and other powerholders to achieve positive social change.
Furthermore, independent of governments, we can support the expansion of community renewable energy projects and buyers’ groups for sustainable energy products.
Creating a sustainable economy
From an ecological perspective, a sustainable economy, sometimes called a steady-state economy, is one with no growth in the use of energy materials or land, and no growth in population. It has a lower throughput of energy and materials than in Australia of 2016.
From a social justice perspective, it must provide a fair and adequate basic income and public infrastructure for all. This should be possible for a species that boastfully calls itself Homo sapiens.
More specifically, to transition to a sustainable economy:
• We must limit resource use and waste production through tighter controls on advertising, extended producer responsibility and environmental tax reform: taxing the bads, but not the goods.
• We must distribute income and wealth more fairly by setting minimum and maximum incomes and re-introducing an inheritance tax and/or a wealth tax.
• We must reform the monetary and financial systems, to foster productive investments (e.g. in renewable energy and public transport), while discouraging the current system where the vast majority of financial transactions are simply unproductive gambling on the stock market.
• We must change the way we measure progress, by replacing GDP with more meaningful indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator.
• We must secure full employment by setting shorter working weeks to share the work around and encourage more local production of goods and services. Local production would be assisted by carbon pricing, which would make international freight transport more expensive.
• We must create business models that are less likely to foster growth than shareholderowned corporations. Instead of trying to sell a product in the form of a material object, the new businesses would sell services or lease products. In so doing they would retain ownership of the equipment that provides the service and take
responsibility for supplying, maintaining and recycling it. Cooperatives can play a greater role; they offer greater democratic control by their members than companies.
All this is discussed in a forthcoming book by a group of us called A Future beyond Growth that’s will be published by Routledge within a few weeks.
With these changes the new economic system could be considered to be a constrained type of capitalism. Markets would still exist, but they would be shaped to serve the majority of people instead of large corporations and other vested interests that pay little or no tax.
To conclude, with a New Consciousness – assisted by meditation and reflection leading to social action – we can move our society towards a socio-economy, industries and technologies for a better world.