Main obstacles to successful policies

Ever since the official recognition of environmental issues during the United Nations Conference in Stockholm in 1972, humankind has tried to tackle the problem in many ways. Despite all the new innovations, sacrifices, and environmental regulation, I feel like we are stuck. I’m not the only one. The problems that lie beneath decision making when it comes to environmental issues are not simple or easily described, but stem from the structures of our modern society. While money and power are considered the elements of a happy and fulfilling life, the most important decisions are made based on economic growth rather than sustainability factors. However, the improvement of living standards brought by economic growth might not be infinite which implies that the “paradox of growth” as sited in Jackson’s article “Prosperity Without Growth? The Transition to a Sustainable Economy” is one of the key elements that prevent the change from happening.

What makes money one of the most simple questions of our time is that it is always under someone’s possession. In other words, it has an owner, unlike the sea, or wild animals which, by regulations, do not belong to anyone. This brings us to one of the biggest challenges regarding environmental policy: The tragedy of the commons and its applications to global change. Hardin’s article “The tragedy of the commons” (Science, 1968) gives us an example of this in context of pollution, “in this case we are not using a commons, instead we are sort of making one, discharging waste to the environment”. Here Hardin refers to our responsibility not to make more waste than what is our share. Even though polluting the environment on purpose sounds pointless and stupid, in our capitalist world it makes totally sense when it comes down to a single person. It is way cheaper to toss away a chicken package than to try to clean it with electrically warmed water to later be able to recycle it. As we can clearly notice, it all comes back to money. Because as long as we live in a capitalist world, money rules.

In the early days of environmental politics there was a lot of denial. If results of an investigation, for example, were inconvenient for a company, they were hidden and never published. The politicians were scared to act upon the issues because that might have caused them not to be re-elected. Another debate that has labeled the environmental discussion throughout the years is whose responsibility it actually is to fix it all. In his first lecture “Introduction to global environmental policy challenges” Hukkinen discusses the different perspectives, but he comes to the same conclusion as me. Not the rich western countries who started the polluting, nor the “poor south” that currently leads the pollution charts, are the only culprits and therefore not alone responsible to take the lead. I find it a bit funny, although, that we are trying to find the culprit in the first place. As mentioned before, we are talking about global change and global problems, so it should be clear that they require global solutions. Those can not be made alone or locally; they need cooperation and that must happen everywhere at once.

As cooperation is the best way to handle worldwide problems, mutual coercion about certain rules is needed. That is why climate conferences play such an important role in tackling the actual crisis. Although most of the country leaders are present and many prevailing situations are discussed, it is not rare that the conference comes to conclusions that are far away from enough. Therein lies one of the biggest issues of global environmental regulation; sustainability is socially constructed and at the same time objectively real. This means that even though some numbers of global environmental crisis can be stated as facts, the way they are shown varies from one culture to another. This obviously means that we see everything from our own very narrow perspective, and it is hard to try and empathize to the different ways people from all around the world see these issues. Again, there is no easy solution for this, but I believe that by carefully listening to one another, we get closer and closer to the solutions the life on earth is craving for.

In addition to the cultural diversity that does its own part in decreasing the likelihood of finding shared interests, as mentioned in Hukkinen’s lecture “Institutions in environmental management”, we face the question of how to act globally. Decision making at a local level is relatively easy, but when we scale up these rules and solutions to wider geographical areas or bigger populations the organizing becomes harder. It is not the lack of regulation, but rather the fact that it just does not work. Globalization is a new process even in the short history of human civilizations, but it has made us think from small to big, from local to global. This makes me wonder what would happen if we tried to reverse our thinking. In this case we could, instead of scaling up, scale down. What if we first created a global picture or scenario and then applied it locally, considering the environmental factors of each area? Could this help us see which pieces belong together, and more importantly, what is the place of each piece in the entirety?

To see how these pieces later interact and what would be the possible outcomes of certain actions, we use scenarios. They help in building more realistic future goals and preparing for unwanted events. Scenarios, although useful, are not trouble-free. In his lecture “Methodological Issues in Scenario Construction,” Hukkinen talks about difficulties in constructing accurate scenarios. He, for example, points out that when making scenarios, we have to consider many different factors and trends at once, and some are easily left out without no one noticing. Although we would consider all possible factors, we cannot know for sure which will influence the future. Building a scenario, we also give people an idea of what the future might look like. This affects our thoughts, and as strategic animals, we alter our behavior according to what we believe will happen. This means that scenarios are not only predictions but might affect the future events. Contingency is another factor that shapes the scenario constructing since many trends behave in an unpredictable way and therefore cannot be effectively used. I think the most important thing in scenario construction is not to find one and only way to follow, but to be able to navigate within several models in order to adapt to changing environments.

There is no need to mention that our current way of living, the capitalist mindset, is not sustainable. Continuous economic growth forces us to increase the usage of natural resources and so speeds up consumerism. Glamourizing materialism is only going to lead to more and more waste as trends like fast fashion grow in popularity. As the ongoing environmental crisis forces us to change our habits, we really need to change our attitudes, too. If we do not think, we will not act. In my opinion, one of the most important things here would be to see the value of immaterial daily joys. Since the early days of internet and all kinds of mobile devices, life has been getting more and more complicated. I bet many of us have not even noticed it until now that we can clearly see the difference. The complexity did not come alone. It made us unsee the importance of daily moments with family and friends, those “just chilling”–moments and smiles from strangers on the streets. We wanted more and more, and materialism took that now empty spot in our minds.

As I see it, in order to reach our sustainability goals, we should restore our old consumption habits. There is no need to go from 100 to zero in a minute. Let’s just keep it simple; if you don’t need it don’t buy it. Because in the end, it is not only good for the planet, but good for you too. Similarly, when it come to even bigger issues like traffic pollution, what is good for the environment benefits you as well. Biking or walking to work improves your health but also wakes you up in the morning. When it comes to polluting and climate conferences, a big step was taken in COP 28, United Nations Climate Change Conference in United Arab Emirates this fall 2023, when the countries decided to put an end to the usage of fossil fuels.

As rational beings, we don’t base our decisions on what is good for the environment, nor for society, but for ourselves. If it is throwing out plastic into the trash, we do it; if it is driving to work instead of walking, we do it. This obviously does not meet the interests of society, but if we do otherwise, someone will take advantage of our consciousness. For example, if you ride a bike to work, you make life even easier for the ones who decide to take the car; you are not taking their parking spots nor making the streets more crowded. The conflict between the needs of an individual and the society comes down to Free Rider’s Dilemma. The very essence of this problem is the thought that if a single person does not do their duty, the rest will still compensate it. Free Rider’s Dilemma applies to many everyday acts we are all assumed to carry out, such as paying the metro ticket. The applications are well explained in Poundstone’s book “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (Oxford University Press, 1992), where he implies that society can survive a few free riders, but if everyone did it, the consequences would be disastrous. Free Rider’s Dilemma is a huge problem in many levels of global change and impacts, for example, sustainability, polluting, and international politics. “I don’t have to because the rest will do my share.” Until a certain point, the “rest” can handle the situation, but the harsh truth is that the globe cannot be saved by only a handful of people, especially if the rest are doing their best to stop the change. But what could be done to make people act? I think what we must do is the exact same thing we have been doing for centuries: creating a story– a story that makes people think and, more importantly, believe. Because a convincing story is what gives people a sense of belonging, and for that they are willing to act.

We have been talking about many obstacles to environmental regulation that is made by leaders and politicians, but what actually matters the most is who gets elected. Sadly, people do not usually sit down and ponder the future scenarios when deciding on who to vote for. Like in the case of thrown- away plastic containers, people tend to vote for someone whose ideas match with their ideology and benefit them in one way or another. Most people just simply do not care, or have enough knowledge, or both. The cause of this problem lies in our unwillingness to change. “This is what we have always done; this is what works” they say. But times change and so must we. Getting stuck in the feeling of good old times will not get us anywhere. The rich guard their money, they guard their power, and they guard their comfort. These people just do not see beyond their own circles. They have no idea what it is like to have no money, no power, and no comfort to guard. This selfishness is slowly but surely driving us to extinction. We cannot operate if we are not given tools to operate with, and no tools are given if the majority thinks they are unnecessary. People are simple and people are lazy. For as long as acting sustainably and doing what’s good for the globe is not easy, fun, and cheap, the sad truth is that not enough people are ready to risk their comfortable lives for the future generations they are not even going to meet.

(A final essay to a course of Environmental policy)