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The Phase Five Shift – Transforming Culture

Peter Tait

In Stephen Boyden’s model of the human component of biohistory we need a cultural transformation to move to phase five – the biosensitive human society. This is the Phase Five Shift.

What do we, as academics and activists, have to grapple with to make this shift occur? What has to change and how do we change it?

The short answer is that we know how to do this; but do we? We have theories of social change (The Change Agency) who teach activists to campaign for change: how to prepare, form a group, plan a campaign, message, use media, advocate, and demonstrate. The Transition Towns initiative is doing cultural change in locales all over the world to build local resilience and ease communities out of the mainstream economy. Innumerable NGOs are active changing their bit of the social landscape (Paul Hawken’s list). But how can we design a transformative change and apply it from within an evolving complex system? Or is all we have chipping away one drip at a time at the bedrock of the mainstream culture?

We know reform is possible. We ended slavery, northern women can now vote, South Africa no longer has colour apartheid, the Berlin Wall now has only souvenir status and tobacco is on the way out in western countries. We know we can design change: fashion changes regularly, there are iPods, iPads, smart phones with a new cover every month and electric cars.

But our economy, jobs, work, food production and our current extraordinary good health and prosperity runs on fossil fuels and this make the fossil fuel sector extra specially powerful. Their wealth is tied to carbon in the ground, and to realise that wealth means they have to put it into the atmosphere. We have the knowhow and technology to get energy differently but fossil fuel corporations don’t want it to happen just yet.

So the essential immediate transformation is in energy; shifting the economy to run on renewables, together with associated measures for improving energy efficiency and reducing energy demand.

But this latter raises a further set of necessary transformations in the human practices which are driving ill health and ecological damage. These are deep matters affecting core cultural assumptions and values. These factors are interrelated, in that decisions about one affect decisions and outcomes in others. They all impinge on how each of us can responsibly live on and fairly share this planet. These factors are: how many children can each of us have; what volume of resources (water, nutrients, metal, wood, carbon etc.) is fair for each of us to use; how much physical space is it fair for each of us to use not only because in four decades we are likely to be 11 billion humans, but if temperatures rise by a few degrees and sea levels by a quarter metre parts of the planet now habitable may not be then without terraforming; and what about the other species we share the planet with?

I’m not going to close with the glib ‘we need to act for our children and grandchildren’ because that is obvious. We do need to begin to wrestle with these wicked issues and so how we can transform our governance, social institutions and economy, how we bring corporations under democratic control, and most urgently how we leave most known carbon stores in the ground. How? First practical step – divest. Otherwise – I’m not sure. Ideas welcome. Watch the Fenner School Human Ecology Forum webpage.