Living in a material world


Which of us lives in the “real world”?

“It’s all very well being idealistic – but you have to live in the real world” – a re-occurring refrain aimed at environmentalists when discussing sustainability with some parts of the financial and political communities. Newton's cradle - physics in action

This always makes me wonder, which “real” are they talking about, and is it really reality?

The real world to me is the material, physical one. One in which reality is defined by the laws of physics; by entropy and of the conservation of energy, the limitations of material scarcity and the boundaries of physical systems.

So, which reality is it that us environmental types are being told to subscribe to? It appears to be one which is definitively less tangible and more illusory. A world where what is real is not defined by fundamental physical laws but by mutable, socially derived and consensually agreed notions of value, economic and political acceptability.

You don’t need faith to believe in physics, to understand the laws of energy, to know that we are a populous species on a finite planet. Yet you do need faith to believe that economics adequately describes the nature of reality, that finance and profit make decisions which contribute towards the common good or that political processes prioritise the long term over the threat of tomorrow’s headline.

How do we bridge the reality gap?

Bridging the gap either requires sustainability to abandon a connection with the material world or for economics and finance to value the underlying nature of reality.

I know which path I would choose. Tethering our understanding of the world to the abstractions of a set of social science theories with variable reliability seems a less than sensible way of navigating the undoubtedly real material and physical challenges of the coming century.

Basing economic value upon the principles of observable physical, social and ecological reality seems most likely to support and drive a truly integrated and sustainable world. It would also have the additional benefit of making an ideal world a good deal more realistic.

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