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The Culture of an Ecologically Sustainable Civilization

As we have argued in a previous article (Transforming Culture), cultural transformation is essential to the realization of an ecologically sustainable civilization. Here we consider some of the major realms in which cultural transformation is needed. Visually, these might best be considered as sectors of a circle, each representing a spectrum of related ideas and…

Written by

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden


Originally Published in

As we have argued in a previous article (Transforming Culture), cultural transformation is essential to the realization of an ecologically sustainable civilization. Here we consider some of the major realms in which cultural transformation is needed. Visually, these might best be considered as sectors of a circle, each representing a spectrum of related ideas and practices, with links from each sector across to each of the other sectors, forming a web. Such is their inter-relatedness and their integrity as a unified system. The order in which they are considered here is arbitrary, as any re-ordering of them should reveal. In each case, at least until ecologically sustainable societies are securely established over most of the Earth, we must discuss each in the context of a necessary transitional struggle.   


The full expression of a green social democratic (ecosocialist) culture and its stability can only be achieved when all the elements of such a society, economic and cultural, are achieved. What follows, then, is the authors’ view of the content and nature of the cultural transformation needed, largely based on decades of our own participation in this struggle. 


Education and cultural change


The battle for cultural transformation takes place through education, broadly understood as all the means used to maintain, enrich or change an established culture.  


Education as a source of authority over others corresponds to a hierarchical society, such as capitalism. Education as a continuous commitment to learning and facilitating the learning of others corresponds to the achievement and then maintenance of a fully inclusive, democratic society, such as a green social democracy. Where the former is characteristic of authoritarian, hegemonic behavior, the latter is characteristic of inclusive, democratic behavior.  


In as much as learning is specific to the brain of each person, it is individual. In as much as knowledge is socially created and shared, learning is social. Education as both personal development and social development includes our engagement in transforming our social and natural world while we develop ourselves, and vice-versa.   


The extent to which knowledge is socially created is evident in every language. Languages are the supreme social creation, continually developed across millennia and without which our individual and shared knowledge would indeed by limited.


Preparation for democracy, including knowledge of the democratic institutions (and of the existence and limitations of insufficiently democratic practices) of the community and country they live in, is the right of all learners and part of the essential content and method of education. Every opportunity should be used by teachers (perhaps better designated as “learning guides”) to engage learners in democratic practice, including participation in informed decision making within their schools and other educational settings (such as class and school councils as well as mock legislative assemblies) and within their communities. Class and group projects that offer  learners opportunities to prepare letters, briefs and exhibitions for presentation in public arenas or to public bodies on issues of concern to them can be excellent motivators for learning and a means of gaining the habit of scientifically and ethically informed participation in democratic decision making.  


The relevant science and ethical standards applicable to the question learners are considering need to be part of the learning process, including feedback from the teachers and the students. Whereas scientific knowledge is established by consensus within the scientific community and can be taught and evaluated as such, there is in this transition period to an ecologically sustainable civilization inevitably a debate within society about the appropriate ethical standards to apply. Teachers whose aim is to prepare students for a more democratic society, in which human development has priority, will give students the opportunity to make up their own minds about which ethical standards to apply.  


The development of people with deep moral convictions and behavior requires that teachers not use evaluation to direct learners’ moral choices, but instead check to ensure that they are engaged in developing standards based on reason and respect for others, including their right to their own opinions. The focus of evaluation needs to be on the quality of the research and presentation and the knowledge of relevant science and applicable moral standards in evidence.  


As the process of transition to a green social democracy advances, a community consensus on ethical standards is likely to emerge. In the meantime, the moral standards associated with the market exchange of commodities for money, including the sale of a person’s labor time as a commodity and the resulting inequality of income and wealth, will continue to have rational defenders (even while the non-market exchange of services and goods becomes an increasingly larger part of economic life).  


Science and imagination are the two keystones of the educational system of a green social democratic culture. Science is both product and process. It is the knowledge base and at the same time the method for obtaining knowledge that a green social democratic society needs. The product of science is information, which in conjunction with the application of appropriate ethical standards, enables informed democratic choices to be made. The process of science is at the same time the method a democratic society uses to test whether its policies, laws, systems, and regulations have been appropriate and effective in achieving its ethical goals and meeting its ethical standards.  


Imagination is likewise both means and ends of an education for a green social democracy. With imagination, learners can identify alternatives, develop new technologies and find solutions to the challenging problems they face. With imagination learners can see the world through the eyes, ears, thoughts and experiences of others, see into the past and envision the future. Through imagination, they can escape the shackles of dogmatism and the rigidity of doctrine. 


Human solidarity is an equally important aim and outcome of a green social democratic educational policy and practice. This begins with the recognition that learning is a social process.  Cooperation and collaboration can be powerful methods as well as essential outcomes of learning.  


Learning to see past superficial differences to the fundamental kinship of all the peoples of our communities, countries and planet, to our common experiences and interests, is necessary preparation for our common future on a single planet unified by a common atmosphere, shared oceans and connected lands. Solidarity with the people of the globe in common struggle against injustice and harm to our shared global home is central to learning as preparation for a sustainable future. International solidarity is the distinguishing characteristic, both as an aim and a method, of an education that is preparation for a just and sustainable global society.        


Connecting the classroom with the world outside the school is not only good pedagogy, in the case of the conservation of nature and related environmental justice issues it is essential preparation of students for meeting the most serious challenges that lie ahead. Teachers can overcome barriers to such learning, whether material or moral in character, by enlisting the support of the community in this task, and for young learners, the support of their parents. As experienced educators know, even when all the required resources are otherwise available, enlisting the help of school leaders, community organizations and parents of younger learners is always an effective educational strategy, one that by its nature is inherently characteristic of any community that would define itself as a green social democratic (ecosocialist) one.  


The transition to an ecologically sustainable civilization also features the separation of Church and state, thus establishing the right to belief while publicly supporting and advancing education in science. Although frequently mandated by the constitutions of capitalist democracies, the separation of Church and state is more evident by a lack of enforcement in the field of public education. Government endorsement and funding of Church run schools and the inclusion of religious services as a mandatory part of public education is practiced in much of the capitalist world.


Fundamental to an ecologically sustainable society would be the practice of upholding the right of all to freedom of religion and belief, including the right to voluntary, privately funded religious education, while providing publicly funded, non-religious education for all. An education in science would be the right of all children, a necessary condition for learning to live in harmony with nature.


Natural and social science education, of course, is not the only field of education at least partially stifled by authoritarian influence over education in capitalist democracies. Perhaps fearful of a citizenry capable of changing society, the political right wing in capitalist countries has had considerable success limiting education to the so-called “basics”, by which they mean emphasis on the skills needed to function within the workplace. They apparently believe – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that these skills can be learned effectively outside the contexts in which they have meaning for students and society.


An ecologically sustainable civilization will feature study in contexts that are meaningful and engaging to the learners, developing the ability to learn on one’s own, to think imaginatively and to creatively engage in problem solving using knowledge of the natural and social environment. A particularly prominent place in education belongs to civics, characterized by active engagement by the learner in the practice of democracy. Opportunities for all learners to engage in literature, the arts, crafts and design characterize a society committed to living in harmony with nature and other people. 


Imagination and science


It may go without saying that a transition to a form of society that does not already exist requires imagination. Saying so, however, is not an appeal to fantasize. What is needed is the ability to identify solutions that may not already find clear expression, but nonetheless represent alternatives that are logical, desirable and feasible. 


Evidently, scientific discovery, technological invention and democratic decision making all benefit from imagination. Those who recognize this and want these creative practices to flourish give pride of place to the development of imagination as a desired outcome of education.  


Likewise, expressions of human solidarity and actions to conserve nature require imagination, in the first case to be able to put oneself in the shoes of others, in the other, to imagine the consequences of failure to conserve nature.  


Suppose we were all able to imagine nature as one of the others, as many indigenous people do.  Putting the rights of nature (nature rights) on an equal footing with the rights of people (human rights) may well have been a factor in the survival of our species. Now that our actions are known to have a dramatic and potentially catastrophic impact on both nature and humans, would it not be wise for all of us to imagine the rest of nature as our equal partner on this journey into the future?     


Like imagination, science has a similarly compelling role to play in society, increasingly so as we proceed through the transition to an ecologically sustainable global civilization. Tolerated, but constrained in more authoritarian cultures, science is necessarily a defining element of a society that would aim to be both green and social democratic. The methods and results of science would be foundational in a society committed to informed democratic decision making.  The transition to such a society is facilitated when those working to achieve it provide a model of the practice of making scientifically informed decisions.   


The aim of a society in which science is no longer an optional component of education but an essential tool for solving social and environmental problems and making informed democratic decisions is supported by a fight for science for allas a characteristic of public education. The commitment of green social democrats to learn the science related to the issues they address and their fight for a prominent role for the teaching and learning of science in the public education system is part of the struggle for the kind of society we need. 


Dependent on imagination for its success, a greater role for science in society necessarily gives an impetus to a growing role for the arts and technology. In the transition to a green social democracy, these endeavors are likely to be increasingly viewed by their practitioners as inseparable. The “two cultures” phenomenon (where obscurantists endeavor to pit the arts and sciences against each other) will likely make no sense to those whose life experience is obtained in a green social democratic society, just as it makes no sense to the more thoughtful scientists, artists and technologists today. 


As collaborative endeavors involving participants from every country and culture on earth, the arts and sciences benefit from human solidarity and contribute to itArtistic expression is shared across the globe, uniting peoples and cultures. Not only do scientists from around the world contribute to a common, shared body of knowledge, that knowledge undermines unscientific beliefs that are frequently advanced to support racism, sexism and chauvinism, while identifying the social value and respective roles of society, history, natural environment and genetics in creating both human diversity and homogeneity.  


With respect to the most urgent problems confronting humanity, the degradation of the environment which supports us and the growing inequality that characterizes present economic and social life, science (natural and social) is the source of the knowledge we need in the fight for the conservation of nature and the achievement of a just, sustainable society. Lack of relevant scientific knowledge, however, is not the principal barrier to its application to protect humans and nature from impending climate change. The principal barrier is the continuing domination of a socio-economic system that legally prioritizes private profit over the welfare of people and nature.  


As we bring the most rapacious sections of monopolistic capitalism under greater public control, we will be able to use existing science and technology to make greater headway in the battle on behalf of a future for our species and all of living nature. We will permit science to play its role and imagination to inspire us to action, at the very least to prevent a worst case scenario, keeping a door to the future open while we make greater progress in transforming ourselves and our world, moving from a dominant capitalism to an ecologically sustainable civilization.   


The institutions of science and education


In transition to an ecologically sustainable civilization, all scientific research would be conducted in either the public or non-market sectors of the economy, its results made publicly available without cost. Likewise, new technological knowledge, whether developed in public institutions or in remaining private ones would be made publicly available without cost. Copyright and patent rights to knowledge would be abolished, thereby facilitating the free dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge and its rapid application to practice. 


All economic units, including those engaged in scientific research and technological development, would be chartered to serve the public interest, as democratically determined by the people’s legislative assemblies. These charters would specify the responsibilities of every economic unit, including those engaged in science and technology, for the conservation of nature and the quality of human life.   


Likewise, all education would be freely available to all who seek it, including access to libraries and learning resources. Cooperation within and between educational units would be the norm, including the sharing of experience.      


The conduct of education for students under the age of majority would be a joint activity of the teachers, parents and children. Accountability to the public could take the form of public presentations and demonstrations by the students of exemplars of their work and learned abilities and explanations by the teachers of their teaching methods. Multiple choice testing, sorting of children for the purpose of impeding their participation in further learning opportunities and similar practices would be abolished.  


In an ecologically sustainable civilization, there would be multiple independent local centers of research, education and information. This contrasts with class societies, where centralized governmental bodies exercise hierarchical control over publicly funded activity to impede initiatives that might undermine the existing systems of exploitation of people and nature. An ecologically sustainable society would have no such need. Instead, people’s democratically constituted legislative assemblies would articulate the broad aims and directions of the community, leaving multiple local work collectives to elaborate and implement these community aims and directions. The cultural transition to an ecologically sustainable society, therefore, features the replacement of hierarchical government practices with ecologically sustainable decentralized management practices. 


The media and entertainment


Let’s turn now from science and education to the media and entertainment as social enterprises.  Our cultural focus remains on “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices” which define the culture of an ecologically sustainable alternative to capitalism. These have profound implications for the media and entertainment industries.


Let’s first consider some of the ways neo-liberal capitalism distorts the putative functions of the media and entertainment industries, namely, to inform, enlighten and entertain. What can be said about the content of advertising by for-profit businesses? What influence do advertisers and corporate owners of the media and entertainment industries have on programs and content? Do consumers really get what they want? To what extent is the public manipulated to support practices that represent the narrow self-interest of powerful media and entertainment industry owners? To what extent is the public interest in achieving a more just, sustainable society undermined by private interests with a contrary agenda?


We are not here questioning the commitment to socially responsible professional behavior by the millions of journalists, artists and others employed by the private-for-profit media and entertainment industries. But isn’t there a better, more reliable way to organize the media and entertainment industries? Every major bookstore is full of works by responsible journalists and media personnel arguing for a better way.    


The essential questions are these: Can the media and entertainment industries perform their functions in the ways needed by society when they remain under the ownership and control of corporations that have interests contrary to those of the public? Are there ways to organize the media and entertainment industries that remove such conflicts of interest? 


The logical answer to the first question is no. The answer to the second question is yes. Worker cooperatively owned and managed media and entertainment businesses constitute one alternative when supported publicly, not by private-for-profit corporate advertising revenue. Given the highly collaborative nature of these enterprises, this might prove the best alternative within a transitional market economy. And, of course, there is precedent for this in many capitalist countries.  


When green social democratic business charters are applied to the media and entertainment industries, what will be the effects on the content of the information and entertainment they provide? These are likely to be as diverse as the needs of those who seek information and entertainment.      


In the moribund neo-liberal capitalist societies in which we currently live, substitutes abound for unfulfilled human needs. In a dehumanizing culture where human worth and opportunity is determined by income and wealth, unfulfilled needs frequently include companionship and intellectual stimulation, including opportunities to learn with the expectation of employment that provides opportunities to use the newly acquired knowledge. The impoverishing, unfulfilling substitutes steadily dished up by the neo-liberal capitalist media and entertainment industries are, in our view, more likely to disappear through the provision of meaningful alternatives than by prohibitions on media and entertainment options.   


In the absence of advertiser sponsorship of media and entertainment, where should the funding come from in the transition period to a non-market society? In a market economy, the public pays for its media and entertainment in any case. Presently the costs are included in the advertised products that consumers buy, in ticket prices, in subscriptions (for example to print media and cable and satellite networks), by donations to alternative media and through taxation. These could continue to be the sources of funding, but with the substitution of consumer reporting for advertising by private-for-profit businesses. The consequence could be media that more effectively meet public demand for information, enlightenment and entertainment. 


Democracy in transition to an ecologically sustainable civilization


Democracy has been treated in this argument as both a cultural value and a method of decision-making. As a cultural value, we mean that the opportunity to participate in decision-making is valued. As a method of decision-making, we mean that the opportunity to participate in decision-making exists. These broad definitions of democracy as a cultural value and as a form of government permit a wide range of practices. These correspond to the likelihood that actual practices will vary widely in the transition to an ecologically sustainable civilization, while insisting that radical democracy will necessarily characterize a non-market society, the only form of social relations compatible with sustainable human existence on Earth.    


Considerations in arriving at an appropriate democratic practice at any stage in the transition from capitalism and its severe deformation of nature include achieving a balance between

– maximizing the quality of the decisions made,

– increasing the likelihood that decisions once made will be carried out, and

– minimizing the time and material resources required to make decisions.


Factors that might influence the quality of decisions include 

– the number, experience and education of people whose talents are brought to bear on the decisions, 

– the level of knowledge available and considered when making the decisions, and 

– the care taken in the decision-making deliberation.


Factors related to the decision-making process that may increase the likelihood that decisions once made will be carried out include

– participation in the decision-making process, 

– confidence in the decision-making process, and

– for those who have not participated beyond voting for representatives, confidence in those who have been elected, including assurance that one’s own experience and interests have been fairly and ably represented.


Each of the factors that improve the quality of the decisions made and the likelihood that they will be acted upon favorably require time and resources, hence the need for finding a balance.  This determination is likely to be different for democratic decision-making within a work collective or a neighborhood and one made at the level of an international governing body. For example, the method of representative democracy is more likely to be used at the international level, whereas something closer to direct participation by all is more likely to occur in a work collective. This suggests that one way of strengthening democratic practice at all levels is to establish formal links between the levels, from bottom to top, paving the way to a radical democracy, one with ultimate sovereignty existing at the bottom level of community organization.  


Whatever forms of democracy are established at a given level, there is the related issue of the scope of each government, that is, what matters fall within its decision-making authority. With regard to scope, it seems reasonable to consider boundaries on the range of issues that a given level of governance might consider, particularly the international level. The United Nations, for example, needs to have the authority and means to protect the interest of all peoples in an environmentally healthy commons and a world without armed conflicts.  


Beyond matters that require global solutions, responsibility to govern should be left at the lowest level at which a problem can be effectively handled. This constraint would encourage more direct participation in the democratic process, particularly at the local level, likely strengthening democracy at all levels and producing better results.       


In practice, the process of strengthening democracy globally is likely to depend on actions taken at the national level. The final stage in a global democratic transformation could then coincide with the dismantling by the victorious peoples of the last military-industrial complex and the bringing under democratic control of the last transnational corporation. Imagine how that would impact the composition, nature and activity of international governing bodies such as the UN Security Council and General Assembly, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund! This would end their role as instruments of a minority global capitalist ruling class. They – or their replacements – would then be able to function in the interests of an ecologically sustainable global civilization.


What we hope stands out in our argument for cultural change, including political change, is its multi-faceted character, that changes in any one aspect of culture would not be enough to bring into existence a stable alternative to capitalist culture. Needed is mutually supportive transformation of all aspects of culture, each as an attribute of a concurrent transformation to communal economic relationships. Only with these concurrent economic and cultural changes will humanity be freed at last from the environmentally and socially destructive consequences of class division. 


In our next essay we look to twentieth century experience in the struggle to move beyond capitalism for what it might teach us.  


Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada