In Northeastern Europe, people find it hard to explain to themselves why they should they care about climate change – a Mediterranean climate at the Baltic Sea… What’s the harm?
Well, there is harm. Also, in the north. While people near the Pacific Ocean or the Caribbean Sea might not need convincing that the climate crisis is a bad thing, people in the north – often the ones who emit the most – are more stubborn. To convince them, if anything, one formula works.
It is not to say only that the temperature will get x degrees warmer. Because any x degrees more is good.
It is the comparison to a homeostasis of a human body. 36 degrees is fairly cool. 38 is far more disturbing, you’ll want to get the temperature down fast. But imagine 40 degrees! 41?
In the not too distant future, people will think of us as we do of Louis XVI’s court: – they had Versailles but Versailles didn’t have bathrooms, so they didn’t wash themselves and did their business on the stairs and into fireplaces. All the fancy wigs with lice under them and special instruments to scratch. This is the same thing we’re doing now. Today’s “real world” is incredibly ugly, dull and dirty – with a fancy wrapping of new and newer. It’s doing our dirty stuff into an elaborate fireplace, pretending to be the kings of the world.
What else are highways full of traffic into the offices in the morning from the “green” suburbia? What else is production, dwellings, streets and parking lots built with minimal considerations on sustainability and sense of surroundings, the human beings and other creatures living there? When did we forget that streets are for people not cars? What else is insourcing from countries where also European capital only cares about the lowest price, no matter the true cost? What else was travelling by plane for a meeting and back home the same evening? What else is buying “coffee to go”? Yesterday’s solutions are the problems of today.
A deeper issue is that we might have made a false connection in the last four decades: democracy and peace = the mirage of comfort and of purity. No need to clean your shoes: buy new ones! No need to wash dishes: throw them away!
The mass produced idea of more, bigger and newer was of questionable taste from scratch – yet it does have a primordial appeal… Our brains are wired to provide and secure – more, bigger and newer for less money targets exactly this providing and securing part of the brain. The selling economy sends us to a constant loop of securing, ending up in the complete opposite. In a lot – a lot – of trash and emissions, as well as mountains of unquantifiable waste.
In the consumerist context, bashing wasteful lifestyles was considered radical – a green issue that brushed real life only from the sides and distracted from economic growth. It ruined everybody’s party…
In the last few years, we’ve grown to understand that it is consumerism that is extremist. The consumerist normality has been aggressively marketed toward us, twisting the secretal reward mechanisms in the body – it is not inevitable normality of economic growth but a particular stage of mass production in a mass society. But the reflexes of consumerism are hard to lose – both economically or cognitively. In many ways, we are completely defenseless towards aggressive marketing. We weren’t cut out for this kind of danger.
Yet we have to learn to refuse – the most effective way to get the emissions and waste down – and to embrace a far more valuable “consumption”: cleaner air, water, space is more useful than any perceived convenience or status symbols. We might use our technical advancement to avoid dangerous uncleanliness or dangerously hard labor. But, apart from those, convenience and consumption seem to have too high a price to continue pursuing.
Many people start to struggle here. Yes, refusing is fine but what about the European companies’ competitiveness? Isn’t refusing going back and damning us to poverty?
And what is poverty, anyway, today? In the past, it might have been lack of basic healthcare and educational possibilities. Now, it definitely includes a community’s climate and other human generated risks – such as inaccessibility to clean water, risk of draught or flooding, extreme weather, the various risks that arise from dangerous pollution; but also the pollution of aggressive advertising and malicious data usage. How do we, without eco-totalitarianism, arrive to a society that gives [us] a chance to be part of functioning ecosystems to all communities, not only the rich?
In our time, we do need to go ahead. But we need to go small and slow. There is a lifestyle to reinvent in Europe. And it is the idea of good quality, taking care and consuming consciously. It is the idea of small but thought through. I am far from protestant frugality – and also from protestant frivolity – but I do propose that there is certopean Union, EU;y more desirable than planned obsolescence – the practice where consumer products are designed to be replaced in short while.
I remember my father who had his jacket or shoes from “1972” or “81” – numbers [like] that seemed incomprehensible to a child as they designated a time before me. He only had one bike. He was incredibly austere in his personal matters but it was not only a personal posture. It was a cultural one.
Born after the war, in 1947 in Estonia occupied by Stalin’s Soviet Union, resources were hard to come by. A village tailor turned his mother’s coat around after 10 years of use, so that the good part of the fabric would show. After another 10, his mother’s coat was made into his, the child’s coat. Pieces of the coat where souled with pig leather and made, admittedly primitive, shoes. It might be this context that always made my dad bewilder over how people use something once and then just throw it away!
But then again, so should we. We should be bewildered.
I also remember a newspaper piece on Prince Charles. The journalist was exclaiming – look, the prince has a mended suit! Indeed, it was visible from a photo that the prince’s jacket had been mended, probably with a piece of cloth from the inside of the jacket. For the prince who has admitted to maintaining his stuff for decades, mending it was a natural choice. For the consumerist, it is scandalous. This rich man can’t get a new suit?
There is something strikingly similar between poor village life in Estonia after the war and the future king of Great Britain. It means that this kind of model is not “only for the poor” or only for man who has his personal Savile Row – or Neapolitan – tailor. It’s for everybody.
This lifestyle of taking care has to be reinvented for the future citizen. As an economic social innovation, it will get Europe’s services and products buyers from the outside. Slow consumption that, instead of frenetic growth, concentrates on long run sustainability.
Here we get to the core of the present cultural transition. Because it’s important to admit: the Green Transition is not first and foremost an environmental policy, it is much more a cultural and economic revolution. It is our cultural consuming patterns that will influence the economy and our economic behavior will influence the environment.
We have to forget the excesses of consumerism and instead, price things according to their environmental and social impact and share the experience of taking care of things. This means that side by side with the environmental experts, anthropologists and psychologists should work on services, strategies, policy bundles or single measures. The good thing is that while consumerism creates anonymity, mending stuff actually creates a community feeling. Borrowing stuff and asking for help create new ties.
Should private people and companies engage in harmful activities? It is a philosophical question to which we will be giving different answers as the climate crisis deepens. But my guess is that we will limit a number of harmful activities just as we have put limits on smoking, plastic or discarding dangerous waste directly to nature. It would be better, though, to look at this question holistically and proactively. We have a regulated edge – a tradition of evidence-based policymaking that makes Europe a legal lighthouse for the rest of the world. This edge should be reinforced to meet the needs of tomorrow. It will be an integral part of Europe’s soft power.
The Green Transition also gives Europe more independence. Not having to import oil and gas from often quite backward countries saves us from trade deficit and the independence from foreign energy providers allows us to make value-based political decisions. (It will also liberate the Middle East from abandoned Ferraris…) We’ll liberate quite a lot of financial resources we’ve been, without any alternative, sending to oil and gas exporting countries – that creates an investment buffer for further green innovation. But producing locally more also gives us a new take on social inclusion – we’ll need people working for either big employers or NGOs or be entrepreneurs themselves working on green economy projects.
Going local as a part of the Green Transition will make our ecological footprint smaller but it will also revive local communities. It will create new and closer economic ties instead of old, anonymous ones. It will make us all consume a little less – because consuming will be more expensive even without green regulation – and instead better products that are locally sourced. Also, we’ll benefit from being the frontrunner in innovation – through solid and innovative growth of especially the single market. That then expands through green export everywhere in the world.
We don’t have to try to be as big as China and the US are. We can build a model of sustainable wellbeing that people from all around the world will follow. Europe’s power in the age of Green Transition will never be hard power – it will be more impactful soft power, thus providing a lead for others to follow. A lifestyle that is attractive and resilient, and one which stands the test of time – while other, more short-sighted ones, will rise and fall fast.
Last of three articles by Mihkel Kaevats, Estonia, Young Professional Advisor at United Europe and Advisor at the Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs.