This article, written by Olli Tammilehto, has been published in the book Sustainable Futures: Replacing Growth Imperative and Hierarchies with Sustainable Ways edited by Marko Ulvila and Jarna Pasanen (Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland 2009) and in Sustainable societies web site http://www.ymparistojakehitys.fi/susopapers/index.html in 2009 (written in October 2008) . You can republish it in English or in any other language but you should first inform the author.

Rapid Social Change as a Pre-Requisite For Preventing Global Climate Catastrophe

Our ecological situation on the Earth is very precarious. We are on the verge of global climate catastrophe. Humanity has only a short period of time to change its metabolism with the rest of nature. According to leading climate scientists, if we do not decrease the emission of greenhouse gases very rapidly, a self perpetuating climate change starts which ultimately leads to the death of billions of people, the loss of half of the biodiversity and most of the planet becoming uninhabitable. For technical and political reasons it is not possible to make the needed emission reduction by technical fixes alone. A rapid change in social structures, including power relations, is needed. This paper tries to show that such a change is within the bounds of possibility. The argument is based on analogous historical experiences, on the nature of social reality today, on the structure of human subjectivity and on dissatisfying consumption.


Accelerating climate change

Mainstream solutions

Growth imperative as a stumbling block

Really existed revolutions

Parallel society

Common wealth

Dissatisfying consumption




Accelerating climate change

According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a cut of 85% is needed by the year 2050 if we are to keep carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere below 400 parts per million and the temperature rise below 2oC1. Above that level it may be not possible to prevent some potentially catastrophic processes as the death of Amazon rainforest and sea level rise of several meters. To attain such a target, the Global North should reduce its emissions even much more – at least 95%2. Fairness demands that because old industrial countries are responsible for most of the historical emissions threatening the climate.

However, IPCC's emission cut target is probably too moderate. Many leading climate scientists say that the global climate is much more sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions and other radiative forcings than IPCC's models estimate3. In fact, climate change during the last years has been more rapid that IPCC predicted. For example, the Arctic Ocean is losing sea ice up to 30 years ahead of IPCC forecasts.4 The melting of Arctic permafrost has started. Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is gushing now into the air so strongly that it prevents Arctic lakes to freeze over during the winter. Arctic permafrost contain twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. Melting permafrost has not been taken into account in any climate models.5

Accordingly, emission reductions should be even more drastic and rapid. In a few decades we should stop greenhouse gas emission altogether. And probably even that would not be enough: According to several leading climate scientists even the present carbon dioxide level of 385 ppm is too much and it should be reduced to 350 ppm or lower6. It means that a large part of the carbon assimilated from the air by green plants should not be used but should be let to be stored by natural processes or by human efforts.

Mainstream solutions

The mainstream response to the situation is to propose some technical fixes: capturing carbon dioxide from the coal power plants, building nuclear power stations, planting trees, increasing renewable energy, raising the efficiency of energy use etc. But there are many technical constraints that prevent the deployment of these technologies rapidly and extensively enough to combat climate change.

The present system of energy production and consumption has absorbed enormous investments for half a century or more. If you have enough time you can replace or renovate it completely without difficulties: the components of the system wear out anyway and must be replaced. But to do so in a couple of decades – as would be necessary in a solely technical change model – is impossible: you cannot deploy enough skilled workers, materials and energy. Anyway, a rapid replacement program would suck so much energy that positive net energy to replace fossil fuels could be acquired only after many decades. Instead the program would for time being increase the use of fossil fuels7.

It has been calculated, for instance, that a program starting one nuclear power station construction every month would begin to produce net energy only after 33 years8. This calculation uses rather optimistic assumptions. The time to wait net energy would be even longer if you take into account the increasing amount of energy needed to uranium mining: rich deposits are soon to be depleted9.

Even if some of the fixes could technically be realized rapidly, the present social constraints foreclose this. One of them is the existence of big oil companies which want to maintain their position and which have enormous political power to carry out their will. Yet the most important constraint is the general character of the present economic system. No emission reduction program is allowed to take place that would increase the costs of business companies too much or would stop economic growth.

Obviously a swift transition to non-fossil energy and food production system incur high costs on most branches of economy. This fact has been obscured by two influential reports: The Stern Review conducted by Sir Nicholas Stern, a high official in the British Treasury, and the report of the Third Working Group of the IPCC10. They conclude that to mitigate climate change is economically rather painless: in mid-century the needed measures would cut the the global GDP only a few percent. The conclusion is, however, misleading for several reasons. First, it is not based on the latest climate science showing the urgency of stopping the greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, the reports choose such mitigation scenarios which are clearly very risky on the basis of the then available science but which allow economic activities to go on without large disturbances. For example The Stern Review admits that if we let greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere to reach 550 ppm in carbon dioxide equivalents, there is a 50% chance that the global average temperature would rise more than 3oC and a 10% chance it exceeding 5oC. These temperature rises would have catastrophic consequences, admitted in the report, but nevertheless the review adopts mitigation scenario which stabilizes the concentration to 550 ppm.11 A tighter mitigation scenario would risk economic growth.

Third, the reports use highly optimistic assumptions concerning massive deployment of non-fossil energy technologies. For example, they do not take into account that investments in energy efficiency will give diminishing returns in the long run. To produce biomass so that land-use changes do not generate greenhouse gases is very costly.12

The hopelessness of the mainstream solutions to climate change is underlined by the record in the mitigation efforts up to now. Even though there have been many local successes in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, they have not cumulated on the global level. Instead emissions have grown recently at a faster pace than ever. Global carbon dioxide emissions grew 1.1% per year between 1990 and 1999, but more than 3% per year between 2000 and 2004. The emissions growth since 2000 was faster than in any of the scenarios used by the IPCC.13 This happened in spite of the fact that many of the biggest emitters had pledged in the Kyoto Protocol to decrease their emissions. In fact most of the signatories of the treaty have increased their emissions. Only the UK and Monaco seem to be on the track of fulfilling their reduction promises.14

This deadlock has created despair in many people who understand the precariousness of our ecological situation. When they see no prospect in the rapid change of human energy system, they want instead to embark on the ultimate technical fix: to change the physical characteristics of the planet Earth. Some panicked scientist and entrepreneurs plan risky geoengineering projects to avert the approaching climate catastrophe. Many of these – for example spreading a large amount of sulphates into the atmosphere – are very dangerous.15

Growth imperative as a stumbling block

Yet an obvious solution to the climate change dilemma is to cut down production in general and reduce institutional consumption and individual consumption of the global upper and middle class. This alternative is hardly mentioned in the mainstream discourse. The reason for the silence is the same as for the social constraints slowing down the deployment of non-carbon technologies: practically all the nations on the Earth are in the grip of the growth imperative.

Why is economic growth so important? One reason is that we live in societies in which the key units are profit seeking corporations. But this alone does not explain the growth imperative because besides seeking their own success and growth, companies are also after the death of their competitors. In this situation the net growth could also be negative. But negative or zero growth in capitalism means increasing unemployment and social instability. Therefore already in the beginning of the 19th century European economists and politicians realised that state policies must encourage and stimulate general growth in production in order to avoid social chaos: people who loose they livelihoods because they themselves or their employers fail in competition would be absorbed to other growing branches of economy16.

On the other hand, economic growth functions as an ideology that promises better living and prosperity for all. It works as a surrogate democracy under which enormous gaps in power and wealth generated by capitalism can be maintained.

Especially this has been the case in Europe and North-America since the beginning of the 20th century. To curb the rising tide of social change movements the powers that be had to devise a new way to rule. The new order, later to be called fordism, was invented. It was based on mass production of relatively cheap consumer items the types and models of which were changed regularly and the necessity of which was inculcated to people by the new propaganda system working on subconscious level17. Consumerism has ever since been the key ideology to maintain the power relations and it needs economic growth to function18.

Accordingly, one – and possibly the only – way to avert climate catastrophe is to get rid of the growth imperative and dethrone corporations. This change would probably be accompanied by the birth of real democracy and a vast increase in social equality: when the surrogate constructed ideologically by the prospect of everyone becoming rich would cease to exist, it would be very difficult to suppress people's centuries-old yearning for the real thing. However, the chances of this happening in near future seem very slim. But there are reasons why we still have hope.

Social change movements exist and there are historical experiences indicating that in dire situations they can change and grow rapidly. History also teaches us that the combination of ongoing social struggles and a sudden crisis can cause a rapid structural change in society.

Really existed revolutions

To take this possibility seriously and to learn from history is hampered by several questionable assumptions. One of those is that all historical revolutions have been especially violent and that the violence was due to a small fanatic minority imposing the revolution on the rest of the population. This is, however, only one of the possible readings of the historical record. Another reading is that revolutions as people's uprisings and starting points for the process of building new social structures have often been rather non-violent. Violence association with revolutions is caused most often by those forces within and outside the country that want to stop the revolution and from the fact that they have happened during a war.19

For example relatively little fighting was needed to overthrow the Batista regime in Cuba because of the widespread dissatisfaction and the massive uprising of the people20. Also in Russia to topple the tsarist and the following provisional regime and to start to organize the economy democratically, only modest violence was required. But the Bolsheviks needed massive violence to stop revolutionary people to hollow the basis of centralized power in the country21.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc was almost non-violent: Both the grassroots movement that was the immediate cause for the collapse and the counter-movement from above which established the new centralized order did not use violence in the conventional sense. Indirectly the counter-movement's death toll is huge also in this case because it imposed economic austerity measures causing severe impoverishment of the great majority of the population22.

Parallel society

Another hidden assumption making major social changes to seem impossible is that people and society really are what you see in the official institutions. Society is the state plus the official economy. People are citizens, voters, schoolchildren, students, patients, workers, employees, craftsmen, professionals, entrepreneurs, employers, owners, investors, debtors and consumers. Or if they cannot be characterized by a positive relation to these institutions, they are defined negatively: people are minors, disabled, retired, unemployed, poor, misfits, delinquents, criminals and foreigners. What they are or do additionally, is of marginal importance. From this perspective society is by and large a well-functioning whole which is possible to change only modestly.

But underneath and parallel to the official structures and roles, there is another world of thought, activity and social relations. This consumer may curse the market-chain because she must buy again poisonous tomatoes from Spain and bread full of additives. That well-payed employee may hate his socially irresponsible employer and plans how he could use his inside knowledge to sabotage the company. This unemployed engineer may organize an exchange circle in her neighbourhood and feels that for once she is doing something important. That investor may read histories of revolutions and dreams about a new social upheaval. This retired teacher may be an active member of a social justice group and learns to appreciate the views of young and radical fellow-activists.

Very important is that the majority of these and those dutiful citizens, workers and consumers are also mothers and fathers. When their children are small, they produce an enormous amount of food, cleaning, care and other essential services unpaid at their home. Usually the only thing preventing them from breaking down under the workload is the help given by informal circles of friends, relatives, neighbours and peers.

The informal work by parents, unemployed, retired and other people as well as social relations supporting it, are so extensive that one can speak about an alternative economy existing in the middle of any modern society. It is not based on the logic of markets or capitalism, even less it is a planned economy. It resembles the gift economy recorded in many anthropological studies23. But because barter and informal, socially embedded market relations occur in it also, it is not pure gift economy. Maria Mies and some other German anthropologists have started to call it subsistence economy24. In the Global South this economy is of course even more important than in the North.

Common wealth

In addition to subsistence economy and partly overlapping with it, there is another already existing alternative economy: that based on common wealth created by nature and cultures. Concrete manifestations of material common wealth are, for instance, the air that we breathe, the sun that warms us, the winds that cool us, the very climate we try to save, the ability of most women to give birth, wild animals and plants, rivers and most lakes, oceans, deserts and a large part of the forested areas, cities and villages, public libraries, schools, hospitals and cheap public transportation systems. Non-material examples are most of the genetic information and scientific knowledge, open-source software like Linux, local knowledge, folk wisdom and common sense, folklore and a large part of popular and high culture.25

Accordingly, the informal sphere of the society is not at all of marginal importance: its proper functioning and continuing existence are often a matter of life and death. Therefore people are often ready to fight if this economy is threatened. These conflicts are widespread because from the official perspective informal sector contains only poorly utilized resources that must be brought into productive use. In the fight to defend the informal economy, alternative forms of political organizing and democratic decision making develop26.

Thus both in politics and in economy there is all the time going on a wide variety of such important activities, social interactions, group formations and other processes which are not integrated into the official institutions. The institutionalization process of the society is incomplete and open. In a way there exists ‘social surplus’ that makes society more flexible and explains many phenomena which cannot be accounted for if one looks only at the institutional structures.

The same applies on the individual level to subject formation. The personality of a woman or a man acting both in official and informal roles has many fractures. This inconsistency is increased by the fact that official institutions are full of internal contradictions and often the dominant ideology is incapable to contain them.27 For instance, the official doctrines of states and companies are full of noble principles, emptiness of which is obvious for many insiders. This “subjective surplus” is partly channelled to unofficial activities, partly it exists only as dreams and as potentiality for a future society. Thus even under the polished face of a most loyal and diligent worker and citizen there may be a surprise waiting.

Furthermore, the official social institutions like states and companies are not static formations but social processes that must be created anew all the time. They are full of internal cleavages and struggles. Workers and employees, on the one hand, and owners and employers, on the other hand, are often pulling the strings in opposite directions and want to get rid of each other.28

This all means that when a major social change is happening, its motor is the social and subjective surplus which comes more and more from the background to the fore. The primary front-line between the old order and the new horizon is not the one between them and us. Instead it will divide almost everyone from inside. In this perspective the question of violence in major social changes takes a new light: You have no reason to kill a person if a half of him is already on your side and the other half may follow. There is no need to impose violently a revolution on others if most of these are already partly in the social change movement or on the threshold of entering it.

The collapse of the Soviet Bloc is a case of the phenomenon. At least decades before the big change the society and people were riddled with cleavages between the official and the unofficial. Anyone travelling in these countries usually came across on these fractures. Officially a person was a dutiful cleric in a state institution, but in practice he used his time to organize food and other necessities for his relatives or did voluntary work in a cultural heritage association. He was a master in double-thinking. The cleavages found its expression in political jokes circulating everywhere. People worked half-heartedly and in practice sabotage was widespread. Accordingly, the economy and political apparatus functioned poorly. When things started to change, one and the other found their oppositional side even among the party elite. Soon the hollowed-out society collapsed.29

Another recent case is Argentine, a country resembling western Europe in many respects. The economic collapse in 2001 changed countless society women and supporters of middle class values in a few weeks to activists demanding and making a radical social change. As the official society was stagnating, a new polity and economy started to be organized on the basis of neighbourhood assemblies, occupied factories and moneyless goods exchanges.30

Dissatisfying consumption

Third assumption that makes it difficult to think beyond the present social arrangements is the idea about positive correlation between high levels of consumption and human well-being. However, a great number of surveys and studies show that after certain, rather low, threshold consuming more does not make people more satisfied or happier. For example, when asked in the beginning of 1990's, whether people are happy, over 90% of the Indonesians, the Philippino, the Malaysians and the Hong Kongians answered affirmatively, but only 64% of the rich Japanese regarded themselves as happy. In the USA people were happier in 1950 than in 1990 although the GNP per capita doubled in that period.31

Even though these results may look like statistical aberrations, they have a simple explanation: While economic theory postulates humans as material beings, marketing – taught in another corner of institutes of economics – regards people as social and spiritual beings. In advertisement commodities are made into symbols of most varied things: strength, beauty, artistry, skilfulness, trustfulness, intelligence, social success, masculinity, femininity, sex, naturalness, nature experiences, a social group, dominance. Commodities are bought because of their social, cultural and spiritual meanings and connotations. But usually they do not satisfy social, cultural and spiritual needs. As far as they do satisfy, they do it only for a short while: Soon meanings are moved by advertisements from old things to new ones. Yet you cannot buy the new ones at once – or perhaps ever. The consequence is frustration and dissatisfaction.32 Already in 1920s Charles Kettering of General Motors stated: "The key to economic prosperity is organized creation of dissatisfaction."33

Meanings are manipulated also on a wider cultural arena in commercial media. Leaders and public figures are made into idols of certain consumer lifestyles. Living according to the models is possible only for a few. The results include eating disorders and the depression epidemic34.


To avoid climate catastrophe humanity must decrease its greenhouse gas emissions very rapidly. This is not possible with technical fixes alone. What is defined as production and consumption in the official economy must be cut down. This, however, is not possible within the present social system because it is based on growth imperative. Therefore basic social structures must be rapidly changed by social movements. This may be possible because analogous changes have occurred in history without large-scale violence. Social resources and energy for such an upheaval could be tapped from the social and subjective 'surplus' created by the fractured character of the present societies and corresponding cleavages in human subjectivity. To abandon consumer society in such a process may turn out to be surprisingly painless because modern consumption is inherently dissatisfying. Economic growth and consumption utopia have been used as excuses and surrogates to prevent realizing values of democracy and equity shared by the majority of people. Hence there is a chance that out of the transformation would emerge, besides saved climate, also an equitable economy and a genuinely democratic polity.


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1Barker et al. 2007, IPCC 2007b, Hawkins et al. 2008

2Hawkins et al. 2008, ,14

3See e.g. Hansen et al. 2007, Kerr 2007, Oppenheimer et al. 2007

4See e.g. Tin 2008

5Monbiot 2008

6Hansen et al. 2008, Hawkins et al. 2008

7See e.g. Astyk 2008

8Tyner 2002

9See Lowes 2008

10Stern 2007, IPCC 2007a

11Stern 2007, Trainer 2008, Foster et al. 2008

12See Trainer 2008, Pimentel et al. 2007

13Tin 2008

14Biello 2008

15See e.g. Isomaki 2007, Fausel 2008

16So called Say's law in classical political economy is a reflection of this insight, see e.g. Kurz 1999

17See Carey 1997, Chomsky 1989

18See e.g. Sklair 2002

19See e.g. Foran 2002, Bookchin 1996, Graeber 2004

20Paige 2002

21See e.g. Brinton 1975[1970], Voline 1990[1947], Goldman 1970

22See e.g. Chossudovsky 1997

23On gift economy see e.g. Mauss 1970, Temple 1988

24Bennholdt-Thomsen & Mies 1999, Bennholdt-Thomsen et al. 2001. Alfredo L. de Romaña calls it "autonomous economy", Romaña 1989

25See Lummis 1996, McMurtry 1999, Berkes 1989, Bollier 2002, Tammilehto 2003

26See e.g. Solnit 2004, Abramsky 2001, Graeber 2004

27On fractured subject see e.g. Henriques et al. 1984, Fairclough 1989, Foucault 1972

28Holloway 2002

29This is partly based on my own observations. I made about 20 trips to the Soviet Union, Poland, GDR and their successor states in the years 1986-1996.

30See e.g. Colectivo Situaciones 2003, We Are Everywhere 2007

31See e.g. Easterlin 1997, Veenhoven 2008, Hansson 2006

32See e.g. Leiss 1978, McCracken 1988

33Rifkin 1994

34See e.g. Cato 2006, Levine 2007

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