Another Reason for Societal System Change

Subhankar Banerjee, in his recent “On Climate Impasse: Appetite and Substitutes,” asserts that Progress is “a paradox. Progress is as real as an apple, and it can also hold contradictions.” Why? Because, Banerjee explains, Progress increases “the quality of life for some, while [it] degrades or destroys the same for others.” It is also the case, he adds, that in some cases Progress “simultaneously improves and degrades the quality of life for the same individual.”

The “Progress” referred to here by Banerjee here is the technological development—combined with, and motivated by, to a degree, greed— which has produced our consumer society. His interest in that development stems from the fact that the production and transportation that makes a consumer society possible has been on the backs of fossil fuels, the burning of such fuels resulting in an increased “greenhouse effect.”

Banerjee adds:

Our daily life—from brushing teeth in the morning, to brushing teeth at night, before going to bed—is profoundly dependent on petroleum products and byproducts…. While we can certainly substitute some aspects of our lives with “clean, alternative technologies” …, it is impossible for us to extrude ourselves from petroleum) …—unless we fundamentally change how we live.

That is, societal system change is the only real answer to the pollution problem.

Banerjee notes, and expresses agreement with, an essay (“How Much Should a Country Consume?”) written several decades ago by economist John Kenneth Galbraith, to the effect that “appetite” is the ultimate cause of our excess consumption, so that efforts at increasing efficiency, finding substitutes, etc. “miss the boat” so far as solving the excess consumption problem is concerned—given that it is “appetite” that is the ultimate “driver.”

If “appetite” is the ultimate driver, should the emphasis be on reducing it?—the result then being reduced consumption and, therefore (assuming the continuation of the use of fossil fuels), a reduced emission of greenhouse gases.

That’s what Banerjee seems to suggest, but what that suggestion ignores is that societies are systems, so that their various components not only interact one with another, but do so in a somewhat harmonious way. Some conflict exists in any human societal system, and as societal change occurs, some sectors lag behind others. Generally speaking, however, the various “parts” of a human societal system work together reasonably well.

Banerjee himself had said (see above) that the only way to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is to “fundamentally change how we live”—and I agree with him on this point. Where I disagree with Banerjee is that he seems to argue that societal system change must be accomplished by first reducing appetites—as if this can be done in the context of the Existing Order. My view is that that is not possible—given that societies are systems.

I concluded in the early 1980s that the only answer to various of our problems was societal system change, and in 1984 I presented a strategy for achieving that transformation. That strategy (which has not been implemented—needless to say!) was (a) based on the principle, stated by Eugene Linden (Affluence and Discontent: The Anatomy of Consumer Societies, 1979, p. 176), that “the only real threat to the American economy is self-sufficiency,” along with (b) the fact that diversity exists within the population—enough diversity to enable societal system change to be a reality.

What the strategy involved was the creation, and proliferation, of self-sufficient communities, in terms of five “waves,” each composed of a certain segment of the population. As I had taken a course on Population while a student at the University of North Carolina (and had therefore studied migration theory), I referred to the strategy as a “push-pull-push-pull-drag” strategy!

My reasons, in 1984, for proposing a strategy for societal system change were largely of a sociological nature, Sociology having been my “minor” (and Geography my “major”) while a student at UNC. Since then, however, I have gained an interest in human “design specifications” (see this, p. 38-117) and—more recently—in global warming, so that I would now add that any communities created in an effort to implement my strategy should also take those two factors into consideration.

Although in my discussion of the New Word Fellowship (see this, p. 37-75) I gave decision-making a key role (unlike in my earlier discussion of “design specifications”), I failed to emphasize its importance in that eBook. Psychologist Michael Bader, however, has, in a recent article, made me realize more fully the importance of being able to use our decision-making ability.

Bader notes the fact that modern society allows little room for decision-making by most and states, “The toxic result of this increasingly intolerable system of phone queues, Muzak, and long waits is helplessness,” which he adds, “is the most destructive of human emotions.”

There are numerous reasons why the Existing Order is in need of replacement, and we can add the squelching of a fundamental human need—that of being able to make decisions that affect one’s life—to the list. The only question is whether a move to replace the Existing Order can occur soon enough to “save” at least a few people!

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.