One-Planet Solidarity

By Kari McGregor


From the French, solidarité –  

  1. communion of interests and responsibilities,
  2. mutual responsibility,
  3. union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples, etc.

The traditional East-West divide between collectivist and individualist cultures has long fuelled debate on how to find an appropriate balance between fulfilling responsibilities to every member of society and honouring the integrity of the individual. It is commonly held that Eastern cultures are often collectivist to the detriment of the individual, while Western cultures are individualistic to the detriment of the collective.

Our environmental predicament, as well as the increasing wealth disparity between the world’s haves and have-nots, provides ample evidence that individualistic Western consumerism is extremely damaging to the population as a whole. We have razed forests, vacuumed the oceans, and poisoned our air, water and soil in our terminally accelerating quest for the perpetual economic growth that maintains us in the manner to which we’ve grown accustomed, and we have wrought misery on the populations that bear the consequences.

The Western framework

Solutions proposed within the framework of Western culture tend to favour actions that appeal to our individualism rather than to our sense of responsibility to society. Greenwashing business as usual enables the self-deceit of ‘green’ consumerism, fitting neatly within the parameters of a growth economy while pandering to individualistic desire. We anonymously contribute our share to inequitably distributed GDP by working and spending, and tithe the fruits of our labour as taxes frittered away on unaccountable cronyism. And we abdicate our political power by electing lesser evils to office in lieu of collectively organizing to meet our needs.

This framework casts the individual not as a responsible participant in society, but as a consumer, a tax-payer and a voter. Individuality itself is eroded by our conformity to these designated roles and narrow parameters. Denied active participation in society, we are appeased by celebrity theatrics and access to consumer goods manufactured by those lower down the economic food chain, and we are fed a steady diet of reminders that our core responsibilities are to vote, pay our taxes, and go shopping. We are to be individualistic, not individual, collectively serving power, not powerfully serving the collective.

To address our environmental and economic predicaments effectively, self-serving individualism and abdication of responsibility must be supplanted by solidarity. Recognition of, and commitment to, shared responsibilities and interests are the very foundation of a resilient Earth Community.

Common needs and the Golden Rulers

Access to clean, safe water, healthy food, shelter, safety and security are inarguably the most basic of needs that we all share in common. The inequity of a world in which more than two billion live below the poverty line with inadequate access to the basics while 1,645 billionaires live in the lap of obscene luxury is a profound failure of solidarity. While we profess to care deeply for the plight of the have-nots, a wealthy lifestyle is indicative of an unwillingness to level the playing field by sharing with those who otherwise go without.

Whether those 1,645 billionaires wish to share their wealth or not, it is of no help for those of us who have plenty to rattle complaints about the injustice of inequity around a self-righteous echo chamber while we are in a position ourselves to live more simply so that others may simply live.

On a finite planet, to waste drinkable water on irrigating golf courses or producing luxury goods while aquifers are bled dry damns those who rely on subsistence agriculture. It is obscene that children die of hunger while many adults die young from the maladies of affluence. Homelessness due to unaffordable housing and insufficient incomes casts doubt on the ethics of profiting from property sales and driving up prices. While the wealthy developed world lives relatively buffered from the impacts of natural disasters, the impoverished third world takes a regular beating thanks to the unaffordability of safety measures.

Will the poor forever continue to turn the other cheek while the rich continue to exploit the wealth disparity to their own advantage in a misapplication of the Golden Rule (he who has the gold makes the rules), or is a leveling of the playing field on the cards?

Shared challenges and the Golden Rule

Many of the problems that plague the world’s poor are unimaginable for their comfortable counterparts in developed countries. However, there are challenges we all share. Energy constraints will eventually constrict us all, and our perpetual growth economy is nothing better than a race to the finish line in which the winners are pre-determined, but also destined to be losers in the long run. Environmental damage ravages the poor first, but eventually boomerang back to their source. And economic contraction topples the smallest dominoes first, but without their support, the larger ones are destined to fall too. A position on the top deck of the Titanic does nothing to prevent the ship from sinking upon impact.

Sentiments of pity for the have-nots do little to engender the sense of solidarity required to steer this boat we are all in together onto a safe course. If we are all, indeed, in the same boat, regardless which deck we are on by default, then extending care to others is pragmatic as well as compassionate – the Golden Rule (do unto others) is a form of insurance. A sense of responsibility to a broader community provides fertile ground for the cultivation of one-planet solidarity.

Parameters for one-planet living

The fact that all 7.2 billion humans share space with a diminishing variety and number of other living organisms on the only habitable rock circling a distinctly ordinary star in the outer reaches of a pretty standard galaxy in the immense expanse of space provides a humbling set of parameters for how best to survive.

Some of us – a minority, of course – are living a 4-planet lifestyle in terms of consumption while our global human population averages a 1.5-planet lifestyle. Many countries are running ecological deficits with ecological footprints far beyond their biocapacity. On a finite planet it is simply impossible to provide an increasingly high standard of living to an increasing population – something’s got to give, and in our case it’s been the environment, while the status of the poor has yet to be elevated, and conflicts rage. Enter competition and the invisible hand of the ‘free’ market, aided by the military-industrial complex – the ethereal and imperial tools of ‘resource’ allocation in a world of diminished responsibility and absent of solidarity. The maintenance cost of privilege is paid by those who can least afford it.

To rein in our consumption to a level that the Earth can sustain will require solidarity. Resource limits and planetary boundaries imply a set ecological ‘budget’ from which to provide for all humans without harming the planet or any of our fellow Earthlings. Apportioning a few aid or investment dollars to the game of catch-up – which translates to the poor as running to stand still – bears the unintended consequence of adding to environmental damage and resource depletion, thus accelerating our pace over the cliff-edge from which we will not return, at least not to life as we know it. The only way to both provide a reasonable standard of living to everyone and sustain the environment that sustains us is to reduce the consumption of our species’ over-consumers to a one-planet level.

The greatest point of leverage for change is the consumption level of the average citizen of any wealthy country. Downshifting from a 4-planet lifestyle to a one-planet lifestyle has a net positive impact, whereas trying to enable 4-planet living for the poor would render space exploration our only chance for survival. Joking aside, this is precisely the approach favoured by wealthy elites such as Elon Musk, of Tesla Motors fame, belying their insistence on the virtue of their eco-capitalist model of techno-fix salvation.

7.2 billion is a heck of a lot of humans, and with each new addition our ecological budget is stretched thinner and thinner, a circumstance exacerbated by peaking resources. Those at the top of the pyramid of consumption may not notice the constriction, but those at the burgeoning base sure do as the rug is pulled out from under them. We have four choices for a course of action, only one of them viable:

  1. Continue business as usual – growing consumption and population until we hurtle over the cliff-edge
  2. Continue to increase consumption while reining in population – until we go over the cliff-edge in a lower gear
  3. Continue to grow our population while curtailing our per-capita consumption – until we go over the cliff-edge in a lower gear
  4. Curb both population and consumption – until human civilization is operating within nature’s carrying capacity

In order to bring both population and consumption into line with carrying capacity it is necessary to ascertain an optimal threshold for meeting basic needs, and peg this to the maximum number of humans any given landbase can support at this level. Anything else simply defies logic. It is quite obvious that rapidly reducing our consumption buys us the time required to stabilize and reduce human population to a sustainable level.

The privilege pitfall

If it were as simple as encouraging large-scale downshifting we would probably have already carved a large chunk out of our planetary predicament and be well on the way to a more stable future. But downshifting simply isn’t appealing to many, and therein lies the catch: the privileged aren’t naturally disposed toward relinquishing their privilege.

While our culture encourages us to aspire to greater wealth, higher status, and a higher plane of power and privilege, the relative privilege of the average person in the developed world is obscured and normalized, despite being unsustainable. Until we view this privilege for what it is there is bound to be resistance to the perceived injustice of losing or giving up what we feel entitled to. And a guilt-trip isn’t very persuasive.

In order to encourage downshifting to a one-planet way of life, a sense of empowered responsibility can provide both motivation and reward. Downshifting does not simply mean consuming less in material terms – for example foregoing superfluous electrical and electronic appliances, gas-guzzling private vehicles, cluttered wardrobes, and gratuitous air-con – this is necessary, but not sufficient. Meeting some of our needs more creatively via the burgeoning sharing economy provides abundance without the economic and ecological price tags of private ownership and individualistic consumption – and it means we share the challenge of meeting our community’s needs while increasing overall access.

Downshifting also means localizing our horizons by participating more in our local economies. This strengthens the resilience of our communities as we rely less on global supply chains and resource-intensive infrastructure whose impact on the environment and the local economies of other regions is largely detrimental. Closing the distance between producers and consumers, between workers and workplaces, and between the haves and have-nots fosters a sense of local solidarity. Localizing our horizons also means more purposeful participation in our own communities, a stronger sense of belonging forged from a mix of contribution and connection. This increased connection and participation along with reduced individual economic burden leaves our communities more politically empowered to take control of our own destiny, no longer at the mercy of global power structures whose interests do not align with ours.

Solidarity is our insurance

One-planet solidarity means living purposefully as a valuable member of a connected Earth Community. In sharing responsibility for providing access to basic needs for all humans, and for preventing or addressing damage done to our shared planet in the process, we necessarily connect, collaborate, and co-create the resilient communities of the future. What better insurance scheme could there be?

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