Building Back Better for People and the Planet

Today is World Environment Day, the “most renowned day for environmental action”. The theme this year is biodiversity, which is such a pressing issue, but as ever these issues can’t be addressed in isolation.

So, what should we be doing? We talk about “building back better” from the pandemic but we don’t have a clear vision that we’re working towards. We talk about net zero carbon and protecting our ecosystems, but we haven’t agreed how to do that in totality. Our capitalist world view is predicated on consumption, treats the environment as an externality and is leading to our use of energy doubling every few decades. This is clearly unsustainable, not to mention leading to widespread unhappiness, and talking about solar panels in that context seems to be a plaster treating a symptom while avoiding the cause.

How do we change the system to leave fossil fuels in the ground? How can we create a system where destroying a football pitch of rainforest every 6 seconds is abhorrent? How can we do this in a way that reverses the decrease in quality of life? How do we truly “build back better for people and planet”, as World Environment Day calls for?

The first step has to be to recognise that people are the answer. It is people that make the decisions that make the difference, both as consumers and industrialists, so we need to change how we make decisions. These are driven by four factors: our intrinsic needs like hunger and survival, our values or ethics, our society’s norms or peer pressure, or by of an external incentive, like money. We can’t change our evolutionary drivers, and they’re not that relevant here, but the others are.

Let’s start with our personal values. What should these be in this new world where we live with the planet and its inhabitants, not from it? Capitalist economics encourages us to act in our own interest and our society drives values of consumption and looking after your family but not the planet. The values of the future need to be empathy and truth.

Empathy is critical because it drives solidarity, equality and wellbeing, all missing from our current system. At a social level, empathy becomes a value of justice. The horrific death of George Floyd is an example of that. If you’ve seen that video of his treatment at the hands of the people who exist to protect and serve him, it’s hard not to be horrified. That empathy can make you feel sick and demand action for justice, as we’ve seen in protests around the world. Sadly, that empathy seems to be reserved generally for people of the same community to you or perhaps the same race, but that’s not enough. We need to recognise that every animal on this planet has the same rights to life as people. With that level of empathy and justice, destroying jungles, polluting the oceans, and raping cows for milk is unimaginable.

Truth enables everything else. We are in part in this mess because we chose to ignore the destruction of the environment and because that debate became politicised. We must encourage debates, but truth must be central to that. At a societal level, truth becomes transparency, again something that the current economic system doesn’t encourage.

We can cultivate new values but as the WWF showed, we need an economic system that incentivises this. When we offer financial incentives to people to act in an eco-friendly way, we reinforce their connections with money more than the environment. In future then, they’ll choose to protect their bank accounts over the planet, but part of the reason our response to the climate emergency has been slow has because people and businesses already choose money over planet. So how can we measure, reward and incentivise people according to these values?

Currently, resources are priced based on demand, but they should be based on availability, both for those extracted and those that are being polluted. That means sustainable consumption becomes relatively cheap, whilst air pollution or consumption of rare elements become prohibitively expensive. The challenge is that this needs to be set globally, but we already set the price of elements like gold centrally.

At the worker end, in a world of increasingly intelligent machines, it doesn’t make sense to reward people for their time alone. We want to create a system that incentivises empathy after all, so let’s trade that as well.

One example: you spend four hours volunteering. As well as a warm and fuzzy feeling, what if you were also recognised for the benefit to society? You could earn £5 worth of “goodness” - let’s call that 5 units of Karma, a new moral currency. You could then trade that at any social enterprise, which gives at least half of their profits to good causes. So perhaps you choose to buy coffees for your friends. Normally that comes to £20, say, of which £5 is donated to a good cause by the social enterprise. Instead, you pay £15 (to cover the profit and costs of the coffee) and 5 Karma. The social enterprise doesn’t need to give the extra £5 to a good cause, because you’ve already done some good to earn the Karma. That way, the amount of good done by buying from a social enterprise is the same, the coffee company doesn’t lose any money, and you’re incentivised to volunteer because you’ve saved £5.

This case doesn’t sound that revolutionary because you were already volunteering, but how many more people would volunteer in an evening or through work’s CSR/volunteering days if they felt better, had fun, did good and saved money on their next coffee, lunch or energy bill? More people would volunteer and more good would be done, and the possibilities are broader than that. Businesses could reward people for working on more ethical projects using Karma, young people could be rewarded for helping out in the local communities or baby-sitting, and people working in the charity sector could earn more without the need for more fundraising, which would make that sector more attractive and therefore productive and impactful.

This is just one sketch of the future that prizes all living creatures and their wellbeing in a sustainable way.

So, what does this mean for Via Outdoors? Firstly, we will try to implement this system as we grow to encourage our colleagues to act responsibly and empathetically. Second, we will promote the values of empathy, justice, trust and transparency now. Just as World Environment Day calls for us to act #ForNature, everything we do is for nature. We’ll continue to be a restorative company, donate to good causes and encourage customers to appreciate the outdoors, instead of ‘conquering’ mountains.

So, do you agree with this? What will you do to act #ForNature?

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