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An anthropological perspective on transformations to sustainability: Meeting the demand for integrated social transformation with a political process of open and inclusive communication

Averting a global ecological collapse

Contemporary societies and their economies must undergo a transformation to sustainability without further delay if we are to avoid an unprecedented ecological and socio-political disaster. To achieve such a transformation, principles consistent with sustainable ecosystems and social systems need to be identified and applied systematically across all sectors. What are these principles in their most fundamental form, and how can they be applied?

To answer these questions, we can draw on the insights of anthropology, a bridging science dedicated to the holistic study of humanity across the entire span of its evolutionary development (physical anthropology) and across the full breadth of its cross-cultural diversity (cultural anthropology).

The professional practice of cultural anthropology routinely pursues a high level of self-critical, meta-cultural awareness, which is a key requirement for freely exercising our cultural options. This kind of meta-cultural awareness lays bare the extent to which social behaviour of human beings is culturally learnt and hence adjustable to a degree not found in other species. One of the side effects of globalisation is that exposure to other cultures is now also experienced at a popular level, opening up the possibility to scale up such meta-cultural awareness for the purpose of societal change. This new awareness can make us feel dis-embedded, enhancing the appeal of fear-based populist identity politics, but it also has the potential to boost self-reflection and thus liberate us from the bonds of mismatched and destructive cultural narratives, producing an ‘anthropological moment’ in the history of human consciousness.

Averting a Global Environmental Collapse, by Rita Reuter.
Averting a Global Environmental Collapse, by Rita Reuter, 2015.

The comparative and longitudinal anthropological understanding of human societies reveals many parallels between the characteristics of societies and ecosystems, and the principles that make them sustainable or unsustainable are also fundamentally similar. The health of human societies and ecosystems rests on two key elements: a high degree of diversification and a dense web of cooperative interdependence relationships that capitalize on this diversity. These system requirements are not well accommodated within prevailing economic narratives, whose proponents have instead promoted a naïve Darwinism to legitimize and promote self-serving and monopolistic behaviour. The false premises of this prevailing narrative need to be challenged and its negative consequences charted; it must be replaced with a new narrative promoting human well-being and responsible environmental stewardship. Social and ecological sustainability follow similar principles of diversification and interdependence, and seen from this perspective, we have a dual crisis with a common cause and similar solutions. The same strategy of unrestrained profit maximisation that drives escalating inequality also drives ecological destruction. Once the torch of reflexive, meta-cultural awareness is pointed at this destructive cultural practice and its supportive cultural narratives, particularly in economics, an opening is created for real change.

Unsustainability: The demand end of transformation

The current social crisis is caused by escalating disparities between rich and poor nations, as well as between rich and poor citizens of particular nations. A 2016 Oxfam report notes that today “eight men possess the same wealth as half the world’s people.” Middle-class people in affluent nations are also disadvantaged by these developments, as the research of Senator Elizabeth Warren has revealed. At the extremes of disadvantage, we find that some 795 million people went hungry in 2014. At the extremes of affluence, the meaning of wealth is disconnected from individual consumption, and becomes primarily a quest for power. Such concentration of power works to perpetuate and institutionalize inequality through overwhelming influence on national and international policies.

The current ecological crisis has been much discussed in academic literature, including in the field of anthropology, but even experts struggle to picture the full extent of the challenge. Non-renewable resources are peaking, and renewable resources are extracted above their renewal rate. Biodiversity loss occurred at a rate of 52% between 1970 and 2010, according to the WWF 2014 Living Planet Report. A less well-known ecological threat is the fact that half of the life-supporting and irreplaceable topsoil of the planet has been lost in the last 150 years.

Transformation: The supply end of sustainability

This dual crisis has reached a critical state and its nature is systemic. There is now a widespread academic consensus that implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is likely to fail unless systemic synergies and trade-offs are carefully considered and weighed up. Deciding exactly what to do locally, regionally and globally will be a complex task requiring a multidisciplinary and cross-sector approach. The scientific community can contribute factual evidence, but the decisions required involve values and interests and hence the process needs to be not just rational but politically viable. The lack of an effective process for achieving a consensus and commitment to mutually agreed multi-scalar crisis action plans remains a major political obstacle to a rapid and integrated response.

Transformation to sustainability plans must be based on a clear understanding of the profound cultural change that will be required, at both the production and consumption ends of the economy. Increasing product life, repair, reuse, upgrading, closed loop recycling, resource (rather than labour) taxes and a major redirection of investment flows are some of the key measures needed. Labour will need to be reallocated from declining sectors to the sustainable economy. What’s more, available solutions must be implemented resolutely rather than blocked on the basis of vested economic interests. Profits may need to become less extravagant but will be more secure, especially in the long-term. Excessive per-capita material consumption may need to be curbed, but the supply of essential consumption items must become more secure. For investors and consumers alike, modesty and restraint will be more palatable when there is a guarantee that reasonable expectations and basic needs will be satisfied.

Small is Beautiful. Source: Daniel Pauly, University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre. Redrawn and republished with permission.

The transformative cultural change must be at a deeper level than usual. The prevailing assumption has been that technological innovation will solve all problems, notwithstanding the fact that the entire dilemma we now face is due to inappropriate use of modern technologies. A sixth Kondratiev wave of innovation may well be sustainability-driven, and delivered in part by the spontaneous efforts of inventors, entrepreneurs and investors, but there is a need to be wary of the unintended environmental and social consequences of new technologies. The high-tech, big industry perspective must be tempered by looking at what is already sustainable right now, or what was traditionally sustainable. We may rediscover that very often ‘small is beautiful’, as Ernst Schumacher pointed out in the 1970s. A stunning contemporary example of this principle is the industrial fisheries industry, which is heavily subsidised to destroy biodiversity, create enormous waste, consume large quantities of fuel and threaten the livelihoods of 12 million small fishermen, even though the latter are much more efficient, have less impact on biodiversity, use less fuel and produce less waste. Similarly, local traditional agriculture tends to be more organic, diversified, sustainable and socially responsible than the industrial variant. A fusion of sixth wave technology and small-scale diversified local solutions may be feasible, however. The Permaculture Movement in agriculture is an example, combining technology and innovation with traditional organic farming methods.

What’s required is a cultural critique of the modernist and largely science-based method of technological problem solving, from a perspective of sustainability and social inclusion, along with a greater appreciation for local knowledge in the art of sustainable living.

Toward a plan of action: Leveraging the power of diversity through open dialogue

In order to meet the need for developing systemic, integrated plans for transformations to sustainability that will consider all human actions in their ecological context, we first must change the way we deal with one other, our own ‘social ecology’. The political consensus we may arrive at in the end cannot be predicted in advance: it is a social process. But how can a shared commitment to sustainability be achieved? What are the key ‘social ecology’ principles of that would guide us toward such a political consensus?

Some of these foundational principles include: Presence, Acceptance, Openness, Courage, Compassion, Imagination, and a Collective Sense of Responsibility. The principle most evident from an anthropological perspective, however, is Respect for Diversity. The diversity of unique personal and social histories and associated diversity of personal and cultural knowledge is the greatest resource the world possesses. Ideally, if one person or culture was to discover an effective solution in a crisis, all would recognize and enact it, and be saved from calamity. In reality, this does not happen because we do not fully appreciate and respect diversity, despite much lip service. What is really needed is a dialogical process that will free conversations about a shared future vision and action plan from the corrosive effects of exclusion and domination.

Effective solutions often stem from the imaginations of people at the social margins who are not so invested in the prevailing order as to be blind to its failings. Unfortunately, they tend also to be the most ignored and excluded from important conversations and decision-making processes. Even in relatively free and open societies, marginal voices are often mistrusted and silenced by power holders. Knowledge and imagination are distorted or colonised by power. Quite apart from the injustice of it all, such colonisation of knowledge and imagination leads directly to an impoverishment of public discourse and practice.

On the other hand, humans have also shown a tremendous capacity to share knowledge and values within cultures, and to engage in collective imagination and joint action on that basis. We are endowed with a unique ability for language-based communication, which has enabled unprecedented social cooperation based on shared cultural narratives. Communication helps us achieve social unity, but unity must not be thought of as synonymous with sameness. Communication is only meaningful between those who are diverse and hence have different things to say. Respect for the value of diversity and commitment to open information flows are thus the psychological and social foundation for reaching a shared and truly rational (free knowledge exchange-based) understanding of how we can build a socially and ecological sustainable future together.

Further reading:

Reuter, T. A. 2017. Principles of Sustainable Economy: An anthropologist’s perspective. CADMUS – Journal of the World Academy of Art and Science, Volume 3(2), May 2017:131-149.


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