In Face Of Danger, Humans Are Better At Rapid Change Than We Think

In Face Of Danger Humans Are Better At Rapid Change Than We Think

A new study provides evidence that humans are capable of radically altering the world around us, and offers hope in the face of climate change.

Human beings often forget that we have an invaluable ability, says a study by two British social scientists: we can change the world around us, and our treatment of it, more quickly and more significantly than we realise.

Beset by wars and rumours of still worse wars, by economic, political and social implosions, by natural disasters and a climate warming faster than we can moderate our impact on it, it is easy to think that changing to a greener and fairer society is beyond us. But rapid, radical transitions are more possible than we suppose, the study says.

Perhaps this sounds like so much wishful thinking. But the authors say their conclusions are firmly based on facts: what we can learn about our capacity for rapid change, they say, comes through examples drawn both from history and from the present day.

Change needed now

The study is published by the New Weather Institute and the STEPS Centre (based at the University of Sussex in the UK) and was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.

It details 14 stories of the sort of change it believes we need now. The choice is necessarily highly selective – “just a glimpse of where we might look”, as the authors put it.

One story describes the New Deal in 1930s America, which, the study says, “invested an amount similar to that thought needed for low carbon transition today to public relief and federal works programmes.

“The New Deal saw a general drop in income inequality, an improvement in gender equality, a major programme of new public housing and significant environmental works.”

“There are countless half-buried or forgotten examples that tell us that bold action in times of uncertainty is not only possible but could solve many other problems too”

A present-day example comes from Kurdish Rojava, at the heart of the Syrian conflict, where the authors say experiments with direct democracy on feminist and ecological principles “show that citizens can work together even in the face of violence and economic collapse”.

They describe the rapid changes that have occurred in renewable energy capacity in countries from Costa Rica to Denmark, and in food systems in Cuba.


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They even suggest that the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010, which halted northern European air travel overnight, prompted businesses and individuals to adapt almost instantly to the loss of a transport link previously thought indispensable.

But while the authors argue that we need drastic change and need it now, they acknowledge that achieving it involves overcoming massive obstacles. “Much of human society is locked into a high-consumption culture, energy-intensive infrastructure, unequal power relations, and an economic system dominated by finance that fails the poorest and takes infinite growth for granted,” they write.

Other barriers lie more in mindsets and attitudes. “Opponents of radical change argue that it is impossible because of powerful interests, high costs, the lack of a detailed blueprint, or the unwillingness of governments or citizens to act. Others pin their hopes on technology to solve environmental problems.”

The study suggests that these barriers can be overcome, and have been in the past – through grassroots movements, or leadership from governments, or a combination of the two.

It insists that both the costs and the benefits of change must be equally shared. “To be accepted, rapid change must be seen to be fair. This is especially true if and where there is any perceived sacrifice to be made for the greater good.”

Secret human history

One co-author, Andrew Simms of the New Weather Institute, told the Climate News Network there was a secret human history of society achieving extraordinary things during times of upheaval. “It contradicts fears or political excuses that no progress can be made on vital social and environmental challenges because of Brexit, economic uncertainties, conflicts or security threats.

“We need those lessons now as we’re challenged to reverse socially divisive inequality and pull back from the edge of catastrophic, irreversible climate change,” he says.

“There are countless half-buried or forgotten examples that tell us that bold action in times of uncertainty is not only possible but could solve many other problems too.

The power of past experience is how it shows that far from being powerless we have enormous capacity to adapt and change.” – Climate News Network

About the Author

Alex Kirby is a British journalistAlex Kirby is a British journalist specializing in environmental issues. He worked in various capacities at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for nearly 20 years and left the BBC in 1998 to work as a freelance journalist. He also provides media skills training to companies, universities and NGOs. He is also currently the environmental correspondent for BBC News Online, and hosted BBC Radio 4's environment series, Costing the Earth. He also writes for The Guardian and Climate News Network. He also writes a regular column for BBC Wildlife magazine.

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