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Neglected dimension: Important linkages of social relationships, values to climate change

By Bharat Dogra 

A very important but neglected dimension of the efforts to resolve climate change and related serious environmental problems concerns the social values and relationships among people. To bring out the significance of this neglected aspect let us examine the response of two different types of societies.
First, let us try to compare a society in which family and community ties are strong and close with another society where these are weak, where there is strong individualism and a very high number of single person households or units. In the first society there is more sharing of resources and facilities, so that this society tends to consume less (to meet needs such as housing and various gadgets). In addition there is much greater possibility in the first society to mobilize people for tasks like greening of community places or even household spaces. When it comes to tasks relating to climate change adaptation, it is the societies with close social relationships which are likely to prove capable of much greater resilience and success.
Secondly, let us try to compare two societies—one with strong values of seeking satisfaction in more or less frugal living of basic needs and a few small comforts, with another society that is highly consumerist with never-ending demands of consumers. The society with frugal living as a basic value can also be a very happy society as it seeks happiness in pursuits other than acquisition of too many material comforts and luxuries (for example in good relationships and sharing). On the other hand the highly acquisitive society may not turn out to be so happy despite all its luxuries because endless consumerism or greed generates its own miseries rooted in very narrow thinking. What is true beyond doubt is that the society with values of being content with basic needs is the one which has much lesser environmental costs, or a much smaller carbon footprint. Its GHG emissions in the normal course of life will be much smaller than the second society.
Let us compare a society based on equality with one based on high level of inequalities. In the first case it is easier and more likely for all members of society to work together for the common good with benefits of their common endeavors also reaching all members. Hence members of this society feel high enthused and motivated to work for the common good. This is particularly important in rural societies when people are being mobilized for important tasks such as afforestation and water conservation. On the other hand in a highly unequal society this sort of people working with high motivation and solidarity is difficult to achieve. Here the trend is more on the part of the dominant persons to try to maintain their dominance, instead of striving to secure the cooperation and solidarity of all community members. Hence in the second kind of society, the chances of real success of efforts like successful planting, care and maintenance of trees are likely to be much less. A more equal society is also likely to be more successful in taking various effective climate change adaptation steps.
A society which is highly conservative, held backwards by irrational beliefs and superstitions, where women are denied control over their reproductive health, may be very reluctant to use even those contraception methods that are easy to use and proven to be safe. Hence they may have larger families than what is desired by them and affordable in terms of costs of bringing up children in satisfactory ways. At the same time such a society will be more burdensome on environment and will cause more GHG emissions, compared to a society where the small family norm is widely prevalent.
If we compare two societies—one with a high level of social harmony, including inter-faith harmony, with higher commitment to peace and unity, and the other with low levels of this, then the resilience and adaptation of the first society is also likely to be higher.
Hence under various societies GHG emissions and burden on environment may be different, and their capabilities for adaptation and resilience may also be quite different.
Surely then, from the perspective of improving the chances of success of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, there is an important role for striving to change social values and relationships in certain ways and in certain directions. However such important linkages of ecological and social issues are often neglected. Instead there is a trend to artificially segregate various issues and act on the basis of their narrow and reductionist understanding. This has an adverse impact on the success of climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Hence there is clear need for more holistic approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as to the resolving of other serious environmental problems.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071

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