Climate change and sustainable development: narratives and altruism

Humanity is going through a critical moment; the incessant irruption of extreme events alerts us to a future of great uncertainty. This situation leads us to make decisions “in the dark”, without a suitable understanding of the context we are facing or the future effects of our present actions.

Many of the actions we take follow a narrative, as this allows us to anticipate an explanation for an event or series of events. For example, stocks or bonds are bought because investors believe that the prices of the assets they are buying will continue to rise. Robert J. Shiller, 2013 Nobel laureate in economics, highlighted the importance of narrative in economic decision-making. Certainly, a narrative can lead us to wrong decisions, as Shiller puts into relief when explaining financial exuberance. This does not invalidate the role of narrative, although it warns against those who propagate providential messages.

In order to deal with uncertainty, we ultimately build our actions around a certain referential narrative, an aspect also highlighted by Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics. In the absence of certainty, when no model can explain the reason for a situation, the narrative appears. However, it is also true that stories coexist, often contradictory, which are discussed at the family dinner table, in our circle of friends and in work or professional environments.

Economists should be honest, acknowledge the limitations as well as the flaws of their models. At all times, they [the models] should be used to understand reality, and not try to adjust it to the precepts dictated by the pseudo-theory. We must recognize the limits of the current canonical model and begin to understand the limits of the planet when making decisions.

In other scientific fields, the knowledge can be categorized as decisive, even if some speak of alternative stories. This can be seen in the field of climate: there is a direct relationship between greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere (particularly carbon dioxide) and the increase in global average temperature. In the scientific field, the consensus is categorical. However, the oil industry denied this effect for years, then tried to hide its responsibility and is currently trying to delay the transition with technological promises.

Stories coexist, although scientific evidence supports one view. This forces us to recreate the climate narrative and strengthen our story so that it triggers change. The communication of the problem is essential. (Un)fortunately, the constant and increasing occurrence of phenomena that are becoming more extreme every day serves to highlight the scientific fundaments of our narrative.

The presence of uncertainty also raises the importance of closer ties, the need to enhance altruism, to foster camaraderie and to bet on common benefit. Such a situation contradicts the neoliberal model that shows a narrow vision of man as a selfish and greedy being: society does not exist. That is the message of M. Thatcher that still lingers in the minds of many leaders in our region. As many political scientists point out, it ended up inducing the rise of the extreme right in different corners of the world.

Stories, when unfounded, behave like fads. In a posthumous book, anthropologist David Graever documents the existence of camaraderie in the Upper Paleolithic period (30,000 to 50,000 years ago) and highlights the existence of a certain type of egalitarianism in these societies. Other authors come to refute such a discovery. They told us, through their narratives, of primitive societies in which man was the wolf of man. The possibility of facing uncertainty was one of the first reasons that explained the emergence of altruism, as different cultures began to reward those who behaved appropriately and punish those who did not. Every society, in short, is distinguished by the existence of groups of camaraderie, the search for altruism and mutual benefit.

If we analyze the speech in the region, we observe the primacy of the extractivist discourse, be it neoliberal or neo-developmentalist; both deny the emergency of the moment. This justifies new oil industry projects, whether in the Ecuadorian Amazon or in the depths of the Argentinean sea. According to the official story, for example, developing Vaca Muerta allows advancing towards a “clean” transition, ignoring, however, the multiple studies that, from the scientific community, warn about the pernicious effect of methane in the atmosphere: 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The countries of the region are not the main responsible for the greenhouse effect, but they are not minor players either. When comparing the total accumulated emissions, we see that countries such as Brazil or Mexico show relevant levels and, when we evaluate per capita values, Argentina holds an important place. We should also analyze the sectors that have benefited in Latin America, the scarce spilling that the extractive model has generated towards the most marginalized sectors of societies. We must move towards a new development model and begin to walk an energy transition that benefits the most left behind, that empowers society.

Fortunately, a new narrative is emerging in the region, a vision that transcends the (false) rift. From the clamor of the population to the political tribunes, the environmental speech is gaining followers among the political class. New leaderships are emerging that combine the traditional clamor for social justice of the democratic left with respect for biodiversity and recognition of the limits of the planet. The speech made by Colombian President Gustavo Petro at the United Nations, which represents a turning point in regional politics, is worth mentioning. But it is also worth mentioning the presence of Marina Silva, together with Lula, celebrating the victory of the anti-fascist coalition in Brazil on October 30.

New narratives are required, as well as moving forward with policies that privilege the common good. We are going through a time of emergency, as the time to limit the average temperature increase to 1.5 °C is running out. In a recent report, leading scientist Johan Rockström highlighted the relevance of using the word “emergency”. It denotes the presence of an unmanageable risk, the resolution of which requires more time than we have. If we do not act, and soon, by the end of the century, the average temperature will rise by 2.8 °C. We are heading for catastrophe, such is the message of António Guterres that some political leaders prefer not to hear.

*Translated from Spanish by Camille Henry

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