‘What I Want’ versus ‘What Is Best’

When ‘what is best’ doesn’t align with ‘what I want’, making the right decision is hard. We need to find ways of working out how make these options align as closely as possible.

Jared Diamond’s point in Collapse is that the fate of contemporary society is in our own hands. I read and wrote about the introductory chapter to a while ago. Eventually I did read the whole book, though as Michael Kavanagh points out;

“You could read the introduction and the last few chapters and get the point. But then you’d miss out on what Jared Diamond does best: tell stories.”

Kavanagh is right; as I’ve talked about before here storytelling is an important way of understanding the world. William Cronon has suggested narratives of global change that offer hope are needed for us to tackle the (potential) problems that contemporary society faces. Most of Diamond’s stories about the fate of previous societies don’t offer much hope however – most collapsed and the only modern example of positive action on the environment is Iceland. Diamond’s identifies five contributing factors to societal collapse:

“… climate change, hostile neighbours, trade partners (that is, alternative sources of essential goods), environmental problems, and, finally, a society’s response to its environmental problems. The first four may or may not prove significant in each society’s demise, Diamond claims, but the fifth always does. The salient point, of course, is that a society’s response to environmental problems is completely within its control, which is not always true of the other factors. In other words, as his subtitle puts it, a society can “choose to fail.”

Diamond emphasises the need for individual action – for a bottom-up approach to make sure that we choose not to fail. Kavanagh suggests the implications is that

“in a world where public companies are legally required to maximize their profits, the burden is on citizens to make it unprofitable to ruin the environment — for an individual, a company, or a society as a whole.”

Others suggest more dramatic action is needed however. Richard Smith suggests that this ‘market meliorist strategy’ won’t be enough. Smith contrasts the bottom-up decision-making of the New Guinea villages that Diamond uses as a potential model for contemporary decision-making with that of contemporary capitalist society. Whereas the New Guinea villages’ decision-making process takes into account everyone’s input:

“…we do not live in such a ‘bottom-up’ democratic society. We live in a capitalist society in which ownership and control of the economy is largely in the hands of private corporations who do not answer to society. In this system, democracy is limited to the political sphere. …under capitalism, economic power is effectively monopolized by corporate boards whose day-to-day requirements for reproduction compel their officers to systematically make ‘wrong’ decisions, to favour the particular interests of shareholders against the general interests of society.”

Smith’s solution? As the global issues contemporary society faces are so interconnected and international, international governance by a “global citizenry” is required. Critics to this approach are likely to be many, but whether it will be enough for individual consumers to “make it unprofitable to ruin the environment”, or whether the we develop a “global citizenry”, the ultimate question here seems to be ‘Are we prepared to change our lifestyles to ensure the survival of our contemporary (global) society’?

With the “End of Tradition” in western societies (i.e. life is no longer lived as fate in these societies) maybe the future of society really is in our hands as Diamond suggests. On the other hand, as Beck points out, as contemporary problems are due to dispersed causes (e.g. individuals driving their car to work everyday) responsibility is rather easily evaded and some form of global decision-making would be useful. To me the latter seems unlikely – those with power are unlikely to give it up easily. The ‘global’ institutions we currently have are frequently undermined by the actions of individual states and leaders. The power to change society and lifestyles (in the west at least) now lies with individuals. But with power comes a responsibly which, on the whole, currently we individuals are shirking.

The changes my and the next generation will need to make will have to go further than simply throwing our glass, paper and plastic in different boxes. There are small ways in which we can save ourselves money whilst helping the environment and they all add up. But sea changes in lifestyle are likely to be required. Governments will not make people do that, and have no right in a democracy. They can cajole via taxation (if they do it right) but they can’t force people to change their lifestyles. People must make those changes themselves because they want to make it profitable to sustain contemporary society. The problem is it’s very difficult to do what’s best when it doesn’t align with what you want. It can hurt. Findings ways of making the two align will become increasingly important. Often the two will not align and it will be necessary to take individual responsibility by accepting there will be a degree of pain. But once this responsibility has been accepted, the next step can be taken – working to minimise the pain whilst ensuring people get as close to what they want as possible.

Inevitably, I think modelling may have something to offer here. Just as Diamond uses evidence of historical environmental, technological and social change to discuss and tell stories about past problems we might use models to discuss and tell stories about potential problems we might face in the future. Simulation models, if appropriately constructed, offer us a tool to reconstruct and examine uncertain landscape change due to environmental, technological and social change in the future. Further, simulation models offer the opportunity to examine alternative futures, to investigate traps that might lie in wait. Just as we should learn from past histories of landscape change (as Diamond suggests), we should be able to use simulation models to construct future histories of change in our contemporary landscapes.

These alternative ‘model futures’ are unlikely to be realised exactly as the model says (that’s the nature of modelling complex open systems), and may not contain the details some people might like, but if they are useful to get people around a table discussing the most sustainable ways of managing their consumption of natural resources then they can’t be a bad thing. Modelling offers insight into states of potential future environmental systems given different scenarios of human activity. At the very least, models will provide a common focus for debate on, and offer a muse to inspire reflection about, how to align ‘what I want’ with ,‘what is best’.

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