Beware Moral Hazards, Systems Blindness, and Shifting the Burden.


Most of the response to COP21 has been positive. Fossil fuels have had their day. 2° C looks to be within reach. There seems to be little doubt that the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is going to slow. The naysayers point to the lack of strongly enforceable provisions and to the dependence on acceptance by future politicians. A few of my friends raise issues about the incompatibility of the targets with already established growth policies and the historical lag of efficiency increases relative to growth.

In the systems thinking/dynamics world where I continue to spend time, The entire COP21 and prior efforts fit a classic behavioral archetype or maybe even a couple of them. The least troublesome of these patterns is called “fixes-that-fail.” This refers to solutions to problems that are directed at the symptoms of some underlying set of causes that are not affected by the fix. Solutions like this may look pretty good for a while, but, after some time passes, the underlying causes kick in and the problem recurs. Efficiency and technological innovation can certainly make a dent in the problem, but without addressing the primary driver, economic growth, they are mot likely to provide permanent cures.

The more troublesome pattern is called “shifting-the-burden.” The name comes from the continued use of symptomatic fixes while ignoring the root causes. The habitual use of technological fixes in the modern world tends to do this all the time. It is too easy to make the symptoms go away or appear to abate; attention to and application of resources to the roots fades. Technological or technocratic fixes come close to exhibiting a closely related pattern, that of addiction. The roots causes are similarly ignored, but new problems arise or old ones exacerbated.

Economic growth is the nearly universal solution to all social problems. Poverty is considered to be nothing but a lack of money to enter the market sufficiently. Growth shifts the burden from deep-seated sociological issues and infrastructural failures. Inequality is increased as an unintended but very serious problem, easily seen as the outcome of an addictive pattern of societal behavior.

Technological fixes also fall into the domain of moral hazards, another name for shifting-the-burden, almost. Moral hazards are solutions to problems that lull people into believing that they have covered all their bets. Car insurance is a common example. Buying insurance reduces the risk of the costs of accidents, so people may exercise less care on the road. It’s the same a setting carbon reduction targets. The general public will believe that the problem is solved and can continue to behave in ways that are also damaging to the environment and to other people. Recycling has had this effect as well as reducing waste. Surveys show that some recyclers stop paying attention to other harmful practices, in essence, telling themselves they are taking care of the problem.

The problem, however, is bigger than recycling or reducing/eliminating fossil fuels. Footprint analysis attempts to measure or estimate the total impact of human activities on the globe. While the methodology is not terribly precise, it does give us a credible picture of how we are treating the Earth. Recent estimates pointed to the use of more than one and one-half Earth’s worth of resources, maybe now about two Earth’s worth. With continuing growth coming in both the developed and developing nations, human footprint is headed for even more Earths, clearly an unstable condition. But one could imagine a huge sigh of relief coming from Paris, signaling exactly that one of these patterns was being enacted.

I fear that my continuing arguments that climate change and other problems of unsustainability are deeply rooted in modern beliefs will get even less attention now. Bill McKibben seems to be satisfied. It is critical that we do not let up in calls for transformational change at the level of culture. Consumption redefinition is essential. I have frequently argued with my friends and colleagues in the sustainable consumption community that they blunted their attack by tying it to the idea of sustainability. It is much more important to focus on the drivers for consumption in modernist cultures. The most powerful single factor (there are many) is the psychological/economical model of the human being, that is, homo economicus. On that simple, but ungrounded, model rests most of the institutional drivers for consumption.

Following the lead of development economists like Sen, Nussbaum, and Max-Neef, it is the quality of the economy, not its magnitude that is important. The market should be guided to offer goods and services that enable people to enact the care that is more fundamental to their being than is self-interest. If some adjective is needed to modify consumption, let it be “care-enabling.” Human caring is central to our meaningful existence and it never stops as long as we are breathing, but it lacks the insatiability quality of Smithian self-interest. Many domains of care can be addressed without material- and energy-intensive goods and services. Care is delivered in relational, not transactional, interactions.

Again in a word to the sustainable consumption community, this phrase lacks the transformational power of consumption for human caring. It already has been associated, with not so wonderful results, with the idea of degrowth and similar materialistic concepts. As long as the accepted model of human behavior is the present economistic one, it will be virtually impossible to introduce transformation ideas. Neoclassical economics rules the roost; to change that, its foundations must be weakened. Doing consumption better is not going to be enough. We must do it radically different. People speak of life-style change as essential, but according to what standards and ethics. The care model has the important feature of already being here, but buried under a huge pile of cultural overburden. This is the place to start the serious work of transforming the Planet into a flourishing home for all its living species. Yes, it is very important to slow down the destruction of our planetary home, but not at the cost of neglecting the efforts aimed at the systemic causes of our troubles.