Climate Change and Development: Time for a Paradigm Shift?

By M. Adil Khan

(Professor, School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland, Australia)


Kyoto protocol, Bali conference and more recently the Rio conference and numerous other meetings and research works continue to warn us of the dangers of climate change and as a remedy, most prescribe restraints on carbon dioxide emissions.

Many countries take these warnings seriously and accordingly, have put in place various technological as well as fiscal carbon dioxide emissions but yet those who are the worst polluters do little to change their carbon footprint.

While the actions of those who are applying or are in the process of applying controls on carbon dioxide emissions are indeed commendable, those who are either procrastinating or going about things as business-as-usual have become the biggest source of worry.

For those who do little or nothing at all, my suggestion is that we must all coax those groups of countries to do something more concrete to abate climate harming activities.

Something More Important

However, here I also wish to raise an issue that is much more fundamental, something that cuts across all nations right across the board; this has to do with a value system that is essentially consumerist and thus, environmentally extractive.

Therefore, I ask whether, in the face of ever increasing consumerist and materialist lifestyles, the harbinger of corporatist capitalist system of economic “development,” the mitigation and adaptation measures including those that relate to carbon dioxide emission reductions, will have much effect especially in an existing economic arrangement that is inherently exploitative and thus ecologically predatory.

My own view on climate change is that we cannot eat our cake and have it too.

Here, the key question is whether without changes to our economic targets and more specifically, to our vision of development that advocates conspicuous consumption and regards moderation as backward-looking the so-called “remedial measures” that are designed to tame our factories will bear much result?

The corporatist capitalist notion of economic development,  a  postindustrial,  postcolonial

concept, sees the end product of development as a form of lifestyle and a value system that is essentially consumerist and materialist.

With global warming on the rise, climate change and environmental decay looming large and the very existence of many nations and people at stake, is it advisable to stay with the dominant theory of development, which is inherently resource extractive and thus is self-destructive? Should we not be going beyond the superficial and tackle the fundamental—shift our vision of development and its end-product, a consumerist materialist lifestyle, to something that is conserving and sustainable?

Promoting a Different Solution

Key to this shift is situating the concept of development within value systems that promote conservation as a way of life.

Until recently, most traditional societies tend to have pursued growth within the parameters of social, cultural and environmental sustainability.

But these values have since been replaced by colonial and neocolonial control of their institutions that propagate models of development and that are culturally alien and environmentally self-destructive.

Therefore, should we not ponder and think that going the way we are going and pursuing what we seek as development is not the way to go?

The current model of development seems to be causing more harm than good not only to ourselves but also to the rest of the world.

Should we, therefore, not reinvent and reincorporate values that had kept balance in our lives, those that we always have had but lost through colonial occupation and neocolonial influences.

In stressing the importance of this reinvention, Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook note in their recent publication, Revolt against Change: Towards a Conserving Radicalism, that “Popular traditions of frugality were not ideologies, they were living practices. They were the way ordinary women and men carried out their daily lives and taught their children to follow them. That all this should have been discarded overnight was a grievous loss, and grievously we are paying for it.”

“To want to reevaluate and revalue these traditions has nothing to do with a desire to return, to inflict a life of penny pinching misery and privation upon people. It is rather a wish to restore a sense of balance against the celebration of waste a sense of judgement against the glorification of the superfluous.

Such ideas of conserving lifestyles have had many precedents in the Asian value systems as well.

Asian Values as an Answer

For example, Buddhism promotes the idea of “bahujanahitaya bahujanasukaya lokanukampaya” meaning that every society must strive for, “the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.”

Where else would you a get a more compelling paradigm of sustainable human development than this?

Similarly, in Hinduism, the basic tenets of life have always been guided by the twinning principles of “simple living and high thinking.”

In Islam, the Koran states, “thou shall not indulge in silken clothing” – the stress is on moderation in consumption and avoidance of the superfluous.

Clearly, traditional value systems do not view development as a higher material state; rather it regards development as a state that balances

social and environmental with material – a state where material possession is to be regarded as complements to and not the main agenda of human development.

With colonization long gone and with not so happy outcomes of consumerist materialist model of development, time, therefore, may have come for all of us to draw upon our long lost values that until recently, guided us through a concept of life that is materially adequate but environmentally conserving and most importantly, spiritually enriching.

This is fine, but can we alter things and resurrect concepts and ideas that have either been long forgotten or devalued?

There is no easy answer to this, but all I can say is that we simply cannot go on the way we are going. We have to make a new beginning.

There are numerous examples of how many, including those in the West, benefitted from indigenous value systems including those that relate to crucial aspects of governance.

The long held back fact of the matter is that the original drafters of the American constitution, the likes of Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, drew heavily from the traditional social and political norms of the Native Indian Americans.

The American fathers looked at the Native Indian practices concerning freedom of choice and respect to each other’s rights and participation in decision-making, just to name a few.

These are all norms that helped Native Americans maintain peace, harmony and human dignity in their communities and enshrined the Article of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States of America with these values and norms.

Resurrection of Ancient Values

In the area of development, there is at least one country in the world, Bhutan, that has consciously rejected the development model based on a country’s gross domestic product and instead KDV UHGH¿QHG WKH FRQFHSW WR VXLW  LWV XQLTXH QHHGV that combines cultural autonomy, environmental sustainability and spiritual nourishment with economic targets through the achievement of what it calls, the “Gross Domestic Happiness” index.

Indeed, while these examples are highly inspiring, it is also true that we may not be able to change our economic model overnight, but we can certainly make a new beginning. By slowly resurrecting our traditional value systems, we can start to change our economic aspirations and their materialist targets.

Education,  among  other  things,  has  to play a very important role in resurrecting and implementing this proposed shift in values that would stigmatize the superfluous and glorify simple living and high thinking as a business of life.

Source: Sangsaeng – Living Together Helping Each Other, No. 33 Spring 2012 issue Asia-Pacific Centre of Education and International Understanding  UNESCO


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