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1st December 2023

Evolving from consumers to citizens to counter the climate and nature crisis

Richard Smith writes about a recent meeting of The Climate Coalition where different models of how the world might evolve were presented.

Spotting patterns and creating models can present new ways of thinking about the world, and I encountered two useful models at the gathering of The Climate Coalition. The context is that Britain is in a mess, not least in failing to meet what are already inadequate targets on the climate and nature crisis. Plus, the need to respond to the climate and nature crisis is being turned by some politicians into a “wedge issue,” encouraging the idea that those who want an adequate response are a “green elite” unconcerned with the plight of those struggling to get by.

The model that Jon Alexander shared with us is described in his book Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us. He identifies three sorts of worlds built respectively around subjects, consumers, and citizens. For most of history Britons were subjects. Rulers, mostly kings and queens, managed the world for us; we simply did what we were told and got on with our lives. As the country grew wealthier, we became consumers, encouraged to be individuals and pursue our self-interest. We may all have the right to vote, but most of us are content to leave others to run the country. We satisfy ourselves with “bread and circuses.” Alexander joked that he thinks of this world as “Shut up and go shopping.”

But there is a third world where we become active citizens, recognising our interdependence, and where a few leaders are not enough; they are simply not equal to the challenges we face. People become much more involved, taking more individual, organisational, and community actions. We actively hold our leaders to account but also work with them to surmount challenges. We saw some of this world in the early days of the pandemic when it seemed likely that the state and the NHS would not be able to cope. There was a call for volunteers, and millions stepped forward. People helped others in their villages, streets, and communities. Somehow that wave has faded in many places, but something similar is needed to counter the climate and nature crisis: our political leaders, although they have a vital role, are simply not capable of responding to the climate and nature crisis alone.

Despite the downturn since the pandemic, there are signs of a rise in citizens acting on the climate and nature crisis. Many communities have developed their own power supply. The very existence of The Climate Coalition, which brings together some 300 organisations, including major organisations like Oxfam and the National Trust, whose mission is not simply about countering the climate and nature crisis, and many smaller, community-based organisations, is evidence of citizens becoming more active. The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which is now a member of The Climate Coalition, is another example with 46 members, all organisations of health professionals but all committed to do something about the climate and nature crisis. UKHACC is also a member of Climate Majority, which is built around the idea of helping organisations of all shapes, types, and sizes to do what they can about the climate and nature crisis. The aim is to build up a sufficiently large proportion of the population who care about the issue to oblige and help political leaders to take the radical actions necessary.

Four possible futures

The second model used at The Climate Coalition crisis was the Long Crisis Scenarios developed by Local Trust. The scenarios were developed to think about the future after the pandemic, but, as the title implies, we continue to be in crisis, not least because of the damage to the climate and nature.

Scenarios are not predictions of the future, nor are they simply projections of what is happening or imaginings of a future we would like. They are plausible pictures of how the world might develop. They are in many ways most useful for thinking differently about now and about what may be important in preparing for any of the scenarios.

There are four Long Crisis Scenarios built around centralised versus distributed decision making and a society that is polarised or collective.

Centralised decision making in a polarised society are the characteristics of the “Rise of the Oligarchs” scenario. The government is authoritarian and encourages division and xenophobia. It’s a world in which the leaders are Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Jair Bolsanaro. Extreme right wingers being elected recently in the Netherlands and Argentina are signs of the rise of this scenario, as is the Booker Prize being won by a novel about Ireland becoming a totalitarian state.

This is a world of subjects. It is likely to be a world where leaders pay little attention to the climate and nature crisis, although China with its authoritarian leaders has been a leader in countering climate change. Britain came close to this world with Boris Johnson trying to ignore Parliament and the law but has pulled back with his demise. It’s easy to see, however, that it could come again. This is a scenario that might lead to states fighting each other for shrinking resources.

In the “Big Mother” scenario decision making is centralised but we are in it together. The government works for everybody but lacks ambition and invention because it fails to use the “wisdom of crowds.” It struggles to rise to big challenges like the climate and nature crisis. This is the world of consumers and perhaps closest to the current world in Britain and many other European countries. “The biggest variable is how effectively government delivers,” and it could find an effective response to the climate and nature crisis, although an adequate response currently seems unlikely with time running out.

The “Fragile Resilient” scenario is one of distributed decision making and polarisation. Things fall apart, and many people are disengaged. Chaos is close, but some individuals and communities survive and even flourish. This might be considered a post-consumer world where government has failed but we have not come together to support each other.

In the scenario where decision making is decentralised and we look out for each other, “Winning Ugly,” life is messy but there is “a steady increase in a society’s ability to organise, learn and adapt.” This is a world of citizens and maybe our best chance of finding a way through the climate and nature crisis.

It’s possible to see elements of all these scenarios in our current world, and any one of them could rise to be dominant. It’s more likely that we will have some of each of them, but a world where we move from being consumers to active citizens could counter the “Rise of the Oligarchs,” make more likely an adequate response by the government in “Big Mother,” reduce the chances of “Fragile Resilient,” and supercharge “Winning Ugly.”