“All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
Dr Pangloss, “Candide”, Voltaire
Winning the battle but losing the war?
Sustainability has become a concept that, by certain measures, has gone mainstream. It has become an expectation, rather than an exception, that companies of global (and smaller) significance have staff and effort expended towards some form of sustainable, responsible or citizenship-related endeavour.
However, this does not mean that the “war” for the protection and enhancement of the global environment has been won. To the contrary, all the scientific evidence tells us that the overwhelming global trends in environmental quality are downwards (with the odd little piece of less-bad news).
The reasons for this are many, varied and complex. It is perhaps easiest just to say that sustainability was never a design consideration of economics, and therefore, by extension, of capitalism.
However, from a psychological and neurological perspective, there are also some other, very interesting, factors at work.
The forces of reaction and the forces of protection
Beyond the forces of reaction – those who believe that environmentalists are wrong, are wrongheaded, or who have wilfully or naively misinterpreted data; and beyond the forces of protectionism – those who may privately agree that environmentalists have a point but are having far too good a time to want to change, there is a further challenge we face in building a sustainable world – status quo bias.
Status quo bias – the best of all possible worlds?
It is not reason which is the guide of life, but custom.
Status quo bias is the phenomenon (backed up by some significant evidence) that humans have an objectively non-rational preference for the status quo. A 2009 paper published by the US National Academy of Sciences found that, when faced with difficult choices, people are more likely to choose the status quo. In addition, the study also noted that these choices were frequently not the “best ones” but that the difficulty of making the decision was a factor in driving people to stick with the familiar.
A common example is that presented by an over-abundance of choice, for instance when faced with too many varieties of cereal in the supermarket, we often find ourselves buying either what we always buy, or refusing to make any choice at all.
Status quo bias implies that, rather than setting us free, choice may actually imprison us.
This phenomenon presents a huge challenge for building a sustainable world, even though that world might be demonstrably more likely to benefit us all. It also calls into question the idea that a sustainable world can or should be achieved by presenting people with a greater variety of sustainable choices when perhaps such a change would make little or no difference.
Change and the fear of change
Change alone is unchanging.
To an extent, status quo bias can also be attributed to a natural fear of change. As a man, this is something I am of course familiar with; move the contents of kitchen cupboards around and I become lost, listless and existentially challenged until my brain eventually gets used to opening the correct door.
In contrast, however, humans actively embrace certain types of change, notably those we label as progress. In the last 20 years technologies have transformed our access to knowledge and learning – a change we have embraced as undoubted progress, and our ability to travel and explore has expanded also.
Fundamental, radical, change happens all the time and humans are quite capable of adapting. My grandmother, for instance, was born into a world which was in many ways indistinguishable from that of two or even three hundred years before. Yet when she died the world had convulsed, tens of millions had been killed deliberately and died preventably. Technology had boomed and mass material production and consumption had become a core mode of good citizenship, as had universal healthcare and the chance for many of not dying from dirty water and many communicable diseases.
Yet, while we are living it, change appears not to be something called change, just life, which may or may not have new features from one day to the next. Our lives are defined by change, however small – so why does real sustainable change seem like such a challenge to achieve?
It is perhaps not change which presents the problem for building a sustainable world, but the fear of change. It is also the fact that, whether we like it or not, we tend to assume that the status quo, the now, is somehow right and natural; an instinct which prompts us to instinctively reject visions of the future as containing more design and value judgements than our present reality.
The argument goes like this – “You may consider that the environment is important, and want it to be protected or valued differently, but doesn’t the valuation or protection you propose require value judgements as to what is important? Who are you (or anyone) to make judgements which may not be shared by all?”
This is of course a fair point – any environmentalist seeking to assign or champion value or behaviour without some logical and empirical framework underpinning their thinking should be ashamed of themselves.
Value judgements are a fact of life so let’s get on with it
Any vision for change from the status quo will involve value judgements, but aren’t we already wrestling with a set of value judgements that tell us that economic activity (i.e. a developed wetland) is more valuable than none (an undeveloped wetland), regardless of the consequences for the system as a whole?
We live in a world of value judgements; therefore to suggest that some value judgements may produce better outcomes for common-self interest than the current set of value judgements doesn’t really seem to me to be imposing anything.
Towards common value (judgements)
Visions of a sustainable future are by their nature based upon judgements as to what is valuable. At a species level, I would suggest that most of us would probably agree on what is valuable: water, food, air, shelter, warmth, security, equitable income, education, communication and representation.
Equally, in terms of what is valuable in nature, it is fairly clearly understood that qualities of diversity, resilience and productive capacity are critical for thriving ecosystems and we also have a pretty good idea of how to support and encourage these characteristics.
Given the possibility of consensus, we mustn’t confuse the way we happen to do things now with the “right way to do things”.
We must not let our comfortable attachment to the norms of today prevent us from embracing the change that a sustainable human future demands. Yet we must also understand that there are good reasons why we tend to associate what is familiar with what is “best”.
This post was originally published in a marginally more sober form by Guardian Sustainable Business on 15/02/2013