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Why Does Incrementalism Dominate When The Environmental Crisis Is Getting Worse?

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Actions are constrained by possibilities

In its latest Emissions Gap Report, the UNEP concludes there is no credible pathway to achieving the 1.5°C target and climate disaster can only be avoided by an urgent system-wide transformation. This conclusion may come as a surprise seeing as more than 70 countries, including the biggest polluters — China, the United States, and the European Union — have set a net zero target, representing 76 percent of global emissions. On top of that, over 600 companies have signed the business ambition for 1.5°C commitment. While more than 700 cities, over 500 universities, and 23 regions have joined the Race to Zero, pledging to take rigorous, immediate action to achieve net zero in the 2040s or sooner. So many seem to be doing so much, so why are we failing to make the necessary transformation?

It all comes down to what we believe needs to be changed. Rather than systems-wide transformation, as the UNEP (and many others) argue is required to avoid disaster, the process of change in governments and businesses revolves around incrementalism; that is, it’s all about making small changes to lots of things, without seeking to transform anything. The idea is that lots of gradual changes will bring about fundamental changes over time. This will avoid rocking the boat, and help to maintain a thriving economy, all the while getting rid of the bad parts of the economy so we reduce environmental impacts. Clearly, the approach isn’t working. An analogy of a car helps explain why.

Imagine society is a car. When we’re born, we become passengers in that car. All of our experiences, our way of seeing the world; our interactions with one another; our behaviour, norms and values; every element of our lives are shaped by the car and combine to form an unquestioned way of seeing the world. Now, imagine the way the car organises itself is destroying the road it requires to sustain itself. The passengers, aware of their predicament, know they must make changes to how they do things. How should they go about overcoming the problem? It stands to reason that the first thing they must do is identify the cause of the problem. Once they understand the cause, they can look to make changes to stop the undesired effects. 

The thing is, the actions the passengers can and can’t take are constrained by what is possible within the rules governing the passengers. Imagine the cause of the problem is the engine — if we compare our analogy to the real world, the engine is the economy that provides for the passenger’s needs. The health of the engine, and with it, the passengers that are ‘fed’ by the engine, depend on it going faster. It’s the goal of the engine that causes destruction to the road. But seeing as the living standards of the passengers hinge on the car going faster, the design of the engine can’t be questioned, even though it is the cause of the problem. 

When it comes to solutions, any action comes with a caveat, it must not hinder the ability of the engine to go faster. Take a solution like placing a giant sail on the back of the car. This may help slow the car down and reduce the effects on the road, it may reduce the effects altogether, but it’s an action that’s inconceivable because it seeks to slow the engine down. Another solution might be to change the engine altogether so it serves a different purpose. These solutions focus on the cause, and may well solve the problem, but from within the car, it’s politically, socially and culturally unfeasible to implement either strategy, because the lifestyles of the passengers hinge on making sure the engine continues going faster. And so the passengers embrace incrementalism. They beaver away, modifying the bodywork, tinkering with the brakes, replacing the fuel. Each action creates an illusion of change, but whatever changes are made, the car will continue to create undesired outcomes because there’s simply no getting away from the fact that the engine is the cause of the problem.

The real-world economy is much the same as the engine in the car. The engine is the glue that holds society together, and it’s governed by a set of beliefs that revolve around economic growth. It’s that belief that has become unquestionable because the health of the economy, and with it high (and rising) living standards, depend on growth being maintained. What this translates into is a set of constraints that defines what is possible and what is not. Questioning the sustainability of economic growth, or any actions that could hinder or undermine growth is out of the question. Possibilities must complement the overarching framework and contribute in one way or another to maintaining growth. And so, incrementalism has been embraced as this is a great strategy in providing an illusion that the problem is being solved while deflecting attention away from the underlying cause of the problem. 

If you could take a leap out of the car that is society, it would be obvious that incrementalism is suicidal. It would also be obvious that the only viable solution is to redesign the car around a different engine. But that’s the thing about society, it’s so all-consuming that collectively we fail to even see that our lives revolve around the engine, let alone that the engine is the cause of the crisis. And so, businesses remain convinced that small changes like reducing their carbon footprint or increasing efficiencies or decreasing waste will solve the problem. Politicians remain convinced that setting an ambition to become net zero is enough to get us there. Members of society remain convinced businesses and politicians are doing enough to solve the problem. It’s only when the crisis feels like a crisis, and we’re inundated by wave upon wave of weather extremes that translate into economic shocks that this suicidal strategy will unravel. It will then become clear that incrementalism is designed to reinforce the status quo, but by that point, it may not be impossible to replace the engine.