First and foremost, whatever else it may be that people believe are the critical features of a civilised society, they are all completely irrelevant unless we can transform our relationship with the natural world.
There will be no civilised society for anyone, anywhere in the world, of any kind until we turn away from the kind of extractive, wantonly destructive economy on which most people’s understanding of ‘progress’ would still seem to depend. Until we learn to live in balance with the natural world, co-creating the kind of long-term sustainable prosperity that will mean good, healthy lives for all of humankind, based on the good health of the natural systems on which we are all still entirely dependent, only multiple variations of dystopia await.
The failure to understand this essential, non-negotiable physical truth is the principal reason why we continue to undermine prospects for a civilised society, however well-meaning and sincere they may be.
And the fact that we are now within a few years of today’s already calamitous climate crisis becoming an irreversible crisis, not just in our lifetimes, but for centuries to come, demonstrates the true cost of having allowed our understanding of civilised societies to become completely dependent on the mind-numbing fantasy of permanent economic growth on a finite planet.
Once we are through that particular barrier to understanding the essence of a civilised society, then justice, reciprocity and conviviality can do the rest of the heavy lifting. It remains a complete mystery why we put up with such startling inequality in our society today – measured in terms of child poverty, health inequalities, income divides, wretchedly poor quality housing, deep racial inequality, unequal educational attainment and so on. Those deep-seated, structural barriers to a civilised society will need to be removed.
Covid-19 forced us all to think much more about the places where we live, the community of people, networks and interests that help make our lives work. We have evolved as communal creatures, dependent on each other, not as isolated individuals working away to promote our own narrow self-interest. Since the 1980s, success has become more about ‘me’ than about ‘we’. About acquiring, consuming and competing, rather than about sharing, serving and cooperating. The life-sustaining work of millions of essential workers, volunteers and carers went largely unrecognised, whilst millions more lived in loneliness or just put up with chronic mental health issues. It’s hard to imagine any kind of civilised society without having addressed that challenge to how we see ourselves now and in the future.
As to the conviviality piece, I can think of no version of a just, compassionate and genuinely sustainable world that is not uplifted by people being together in joyful communion, sharing whatever the good things of life may be for different people in different societies, living in the truth of how amazing we can be.
Jonathon Porritt – Writer, broadcaster, and co-founder of Forum for the Future