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Wilful Kindness


“Humankind”, the latest book by Rutger Bregman, will make you think very differently about your fellow human beings if, like most people, you have a pessimistic view of their true motives. According to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, this is our natural state and we behave towards others with innate suspicion and defensiveness because we view everyone else as self-interested and potentially a threat.

As residents, we don’t give our local councillors the benefit of the doubt – we think they lack the necessary conviction to do what’s necessary and cannot make the brave decisions we need. As councillors, what we do is never enough in the eyes of local residents who don’t understand the challenges we face in providing essential services and the support to those who need it most. As consumers, we are cynical when companies talk about their commitment to focus on social and environmental concerns as well as on profits.

Bregman suggests that this climate of distrust and mutual fear among ordinary humans tends to suit those in power. Examples of this in current populist politics are too numerous to mention. And yet this view of human nature as instinctively negative is misplaced. There is plenty of evidence – over the centuries as well as over the last few months – of the more positive side of our nature and how people come together in solidarity, especially during times of adversity. This more optimistic outlook towards our neighbours prevails, most of the time. (It is the exceptions that make the news, and routinely broadcasting these exceptions contributes to our distorted perception of what is normal.) If we behave with more positive intent, the negativity is no longer reflected back at us and suddenly we have a more liberated view of what we can do together.

We can take some of the insights on society, history and anthropology from Humankind and apply them directly to how we might work together more effectively to address the climate emergency. With more radical collaboration in mind between different people and organisations, consider the following climate action rules for humankind:

Reawaken civic life.

Labelled as consumers and defined by our work, we forget our role as citizens. Our individual civic powers have atrophied to such an extent that we have become illiterate in civics. Civics boils down to the simple question of who decides. No one knows the town or place where they live better than the people living there, so why let someone else take the decisions? We need different convictions about civic life and its importance if we are to transform a consumption-led society.

Mend the link between people and places.

Places have their own distinctive ethos that reflects the thinking and actions of the people locally. Much depends on how we shape these places: our environmental impact, our social wellbeing, our economic vitality, our sense of community and connectedness. There is no sustainability without diverse and inclusive places for us to share our finite resources more humanely while also nourishing the human spirit.

Be inclusive.

Local action on the environment and climate crisis requires convening people who represent the whole community. Climate change deepens divisions: too often, it is the old, the disenfranchised and the marginalised in our society who are most exposed to the risks. Climate change is unjust: poorer areas and communities are likely to suffer the worst consequences. Climate change is unfair: our response must not be.

When in doubt, assume the best.

Taking local climate action is not a competition: it is a collaboration between different people in different organisations who previously have not worked together. How should community groups, local councils and businesses who share the goal of a carbon zero future work together? It’s a question of attitude rather than process.

Focus on public affluence.

Ownership and consumerism are the mental models of a broken economy. There is no planetary shortage of natural resources if we are willing to make sharing, rather than private consumption, the engine of equality. The cornerstone of low-carbon living, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth.

Build networks, not institutions.

As modern societies steer away from government and towards governance, and from hierarchical control to networks, influence is inexorably shifting to citizens and the places where they live. We have no need for a centralised regime governing through Potemkin institutions. By appealing to humankind’s better nature, a new realism is possible. The localism of our time is not insular or static: it is connected and emergent.

The good news is that it is never too late for us to take collective action, because action we take today to address the environment and climate crisis will still reduce future hardship and damage. For the same reason, there’s no time for delay. In the words of Joyce McMillan, “We owe it to ourselves both to believe in the positive and convivial creative genius that has marked most of humanity’s greatest achievements so far; and to seek to build societies and economic systems that make space for the best in us, rather than actively expecting, and encouraging, the worst.

Photo by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash

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