Climate change is not the problem

25 November 2021

Climate change is not the problem. It is a consequence of the problem. Our societies are out of balance, overwhelmed by rampant individualism and corporate entitlements. Until we recognize this, we will make no headway in reversing climate change. How many more COPouts will that take?

The Triumph of Imbalance 

A healthy society balances the power of private sector businesses, public sector governments, and plural sector communities. It does not allow individual, collective, or communal needs to dominate. Few societies today are so balanced.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, pundits in the West declared “the triumph of capitalism.” No, balance had triumphed. Following the Second World War, the democratic countries of the West had maintained a relative balance across the three sectors, whereas, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were severely out of balance, on the side of public sector power that favored collective needs.

Since 1989, however, the failure to understanding this has been throwing many other countries, not least the liberal democracies, out of balance, on the side of private sector power that favors individual needs. In much of the world today, capitalism has indeed been triumphing. (The attendees at COP 26 included 500 fossil fuel lobbyists, more people than from any single country. Indeed, many of them were delegates of 27 of different countries.)

How can we reverse climate change when so much of the world is driven by private sector interests that favor conspicuous consumption, including the use of carbon energy? How many governments today are prepared to confront the consolidated power of economic globalization as well as the intense lobbying of their own corporations? (The Citizen’s United decision of the Supreme Court of the United States legalized bribery in that country.) And how can any corporation driven by the relentless pursuit of shareholder value even sustain true social responsibility?

No wonder our governments give us so much planning and so little acting. For climate change, we get the charade of 40-year plans from 4-year governments, and equally deficient responses to other consequences of this imbalance, including the disparities of wealth and the decline of democracy. Recently we celebrated the global agreement for a minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. Fifteen percent! Meanwhile, the party of Abraham Lincoln leads a frontal attack on American democracy.

Beyond the Fixes  

The preferred solutions for these predicaments only exacerbate them. In the United States, it is “fixing capitalism.” Fixing capitalism, however necessary, will no more fix a broken America than would fixing communism have fixed the broken regimes of Eastern Europe. It is our societies that need fixing. Heroic leadership is another popular solution—bring in some savior. Where has that been working lately?

We don’t need leadership from some imagined “top”, or institutionalized social responsibility, or great events from Paris to Glasgow. We need sweeping social change from the ground up. Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood this when he was asked by a social activist to support his cause: “I couldn’t agree with you more,” he said, “go out and make me do it.” Making the authorities do it, in government and business, will require a groundswell of community movements worldwide.

Toward Reformation  

If this sounds utopian, consider the Reformation of the 16th Century. In today’s vocabulary, the new social medium of the time—the printing press—was used to take a post viral. Martin Luther was an obscure monk when he posted his message about the corruption of the predominant institution of the time on the door of one of its churches. Within weeks, it was circulating widely, embraced by people who were fed up with that corruption. That groundswell changed the Christian world.

Is it outrageous to believe that such a reformation could happen in the 21st Century? It is outrageous to continue to do what we have been doing. COPing out 26 times is outrageous.

Barak Obama spoke recently about how long it takes to effect major change. He missed an essential message of COVID: face us with sufficient threat, and the unimaginable can become imperative. Who would have imagined that governments would act within weeks to lock down their people and close so much of their economies? How many more floods and fires will it take to make enough of us feel sufficiently threatened by climate change?

In a rebalanced world, the changes we require might be less onerous than we have been led to believe. Compared with COVID, there would be no need to shut down much of our economies, just those parts that continue to pollute extensively. (Bear in mind the extent to which our economies have shifted from manufacturing to services.) Nor would there be any need for locking down, except the lobbying and other entitlements that have been hijacking progress. We would need to take the mask off our rampant individualism, and to keep our societies distant from the legal corruption that is destroying them.

What to do? No, what’s not to do

Most of all, many of us will have to get active, including the “young people in many countries… who still have to find the courage to stand up for what they believe in, to fight what they know is wrong, and to defend the rights of their people.” (This comes from Srdja Popovic’s book Blueprint for Revolution, much of which can serve as a blueprint for reformation.)

I get one persistent question from people who have read my book Rebalancing Society: “What can I do?” So I developed a chart that shows the many things that we can do, by ourselves and in our communities, companies, and governments. Click on some of the dots, and do something, anything, to get started. The possibilities are endless. When you recognize how outrageous is the mainstream, you can help to make the outrageous obvious.

© Henry Mintzberg With a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, no rights reserved.