In the same way that the colour green is an output of mixing yellow (sunlight) and blue (water), green politics is an outcome not a cause. As Gus Speth laid out clearly in his book “The Bridge at the Edge of the World”, the environmental movement has seen itself as an input into the political process, a component of right strategy and an agitator desiring influence; rather than focusing on the desired end result, the total solution.
When we look at environmental concerns as the output, the results of political movement, we immediately understand our phraseology differently. We are forced to consider what are the inputs that will result in environmentally sustainable outcomes. In this perspective we see that achieving green goals requires a more fundamental attention to all of the inputs that drive our societies. We see that green is a secondary output resulting from the right combination of primary inputs.
The increasingly common use of the word “sustainability” betrays a movement toward consideration of the actions that must change, but we need to go further back than that. We must focus on the context within which actions are taken, on the factors that shape what actions are plausible and the intentions that proceed those actions.
In drilling back through the layers that are between the outcome and the root we soon come to realize that it is necessary to act on the causes if we are to affect the results. The roots, in this case, are the fundamental structures of our society, governance and economics. Only by addressing these root issues will we achieve balanced environmental outcomes, resulting from sustainable actions intentioned within sound social structures.
The required restructuring of our social fabrics to align ourselves to produce sustainable results will test us to the core, and this is why cohesive mutual interest must be a central feature of the changes we introduce. The global reach and indiscriminate impacts of environmental change exempts no one from its direct or consequential fallout. Concepts that drive, laud or emphasize individual survival will only result in collective failure for all. Changes that reward and reinforce social unity will help us all succeed individually.
One facet of the need for this increase in social cohesion is the now commonly acknowledged fact that remediating our energy use will have a disproportionately disadvantageous impact on the poorest members of our societies, because they already have to devote the largest portion of their resources to the basic staples of life. Even relatively minor increases in energy costs will have a substantial impact on their ability to do everything else for themselves. Directly affected are shelter and transport costs, but those have immediate secondary effects on sustenance and education. Only the provision of universal basic services can ameliorate these impacts and maintain social cohesion.
Another requirement for achieving sustainability, and a direct result of increasing energy costs, is an urgent drive for greater efficiency, primarily in shelter and transport. While private economic units can be motivated into efficiency investments through simple pricing mechanisms, public infrastructure requires intentional and proactive public investment to increase efficiency. Efficiency in transport and housing also necessarily require collaborative effort serving mass needs.
Further amplifying the need for publicly intentional intervention is the dramatically compacted timescales within which changes must be affected. Markets rely substantially on behavioral changes to redistribute resources efficiently, and human behavior is naturally inclined toward consistency and against the destabilization of change. The proactive stimulation of change ahead of lagging behavioral tendencies requires intentional intervention driven by public will in advance of market motivated reallocation. In short, by the time market forces are effective in motivating change it will be too late, we must act on what we know now about the future consequences of today’s actions if we are to act in time.
The final fundamental causal factor at the root of sustainable survival is the evident efficiency of small, local processes. Small-scale farming, energy production and microeconomic activity are fundamentally necessary features of our future because they alone can produce the sustenance, energy and wealth that is in balance with our natural environment. This requirement for local, micro-production predicates the devolution of political and social structures to empower local communities. Reinvigorating our local societies without losing the cohesive benefits of our wider national and trans-territorial infrastructures requires that we adopt multilayered representational democracies to maintain unity while we enfranchise communities.
If we are to achieve the movement of our world into alignment with our Earth we must act on the fundamental structures in the context of our societies. The provision of universal services and multilayered democracies are not merely the right things to do, they are the necessities at the heart of achieving environmental sustainability.
Green is what we need, but we must paint with a broader palette to achieve that goal. Comprehensive, fundamental changes to our democracies, social structures and economies are necessary precursors to achieving environmental balance and it is on these basic elements that we must act. Our environmental goals are going to be met by the ministries of housing, social security and healthcare along with the devolution of our politics. Paint our politics first and then the picture will be green.