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System change, not climate change! What 'The Good Place' can teach us about climate action

It’s pointless to blame Extinction Rebellion activists for eating McDonalds. Like in the TV show The Good Place, it’s the system that’s broken.

Simon Mair
16 October 2019
Extinction Rebellion, London, October 2019
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SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

In the Netflix sitcom, “The Good Place” (fair warning: spoilers ahead), Michael, (a reformed demon), and a group of humans are trying to escape eternal damnation. Along the way they discover that the celestial moral accounting system is broken. Every action we perform here on earth has moral points attached to it. You gain points for good actions and lose points for bad actions. When you die the celestial accountants add up your points. If your total is high enough you get into the good place.

But, and here’s the twist, the system is broken! It used to work, but not anymore. No-one has got into the good place in the last 500 years. Not even the guy who lives alone in the woods eating only what he can grow himself. The problem, we find out, is that the world is so complex now that no action is consequence free. When you buy a tomato, the production process is so convoluted that you’re implicated in child labour – there is no moral choice you can make. There are too many unintended consequences. This is a good analogy for climate action.

It is impossible to live a carbon free life. If you try you will burn yourself out. Just as in the good place every action, no matter how well intended, generates negative points, in our world every action generates carbon. This is why it is ridiculous to criticise Extinction Rebellion protestors for going to McDonalds. We have to eat. McDonalds might not be the lowest carbon meal. But ultimately, in the world we live in, there is no sustainable meal. Where the analogy with The Good Place falls down is at unintended consequences.

The Good Place is a good show. But its description of child exploitation emerging from complexity and unintended consequences reveals its internal conflict. The show struggles with its sense that it is unfair to judge individuals for actions that are constrained by the system they live in, and its lack of ability to diagnose systemic forces beyond ‘complexity’. We do live in a complex system, unintended consequences are real. But nothing about complexity has to imply exploitation. And when using the term unintended consequences it is useful to ask: unintended from whose perspective?

Carbon emissions and child labour are not unintended. These things are built into our political-economic system. Those who own and run large companies benefit from both. They have a vested interest in keeping the system as it is today. Capitalism and the fossil economy evolved together.

Fossil fuels were brought into the economy because they offered two key things to an emergent capitalist class. 1) Greater productivity: the ability to produce more stuff with fewer people. You get more energy out of coal than wood or water, which lets you produce more efficiently. 2) Greater control over the workforce. Coal allowed capitalists to centralise production and bring workers in house at a scale that was previously unheard of. Fossil fuels and the need to give over much of our lives to work for other people are not coincidentally linked. They are both central to the way capitalism works.

We must be clear. Life in an ecologically sound civilisation will not be as it is today. Probably we won’t be able to have McDonalds. But the end of MacDonald’s is an outcome of social change. Not a means to achieve it.

Life under capitalism is a sequence of compromises. I’m sat writing this in Pret outside the Trafalgar Square XR camp (is Pret better than McDonalds, or just more middle class?). But I used my own mug and I cycled here. Try to live a compromise free, exploitation free, carbon free life under capitalism and see how fast you burn out.

Of course, this suits those who want the system to remain as it is just fine. Don’t fight back. Stay home. Make your own organic soy milk. That’s the kind of resistance the capitalist class can live with. Either you’ll run out of energy and give it up, or you’ll spend all your energy working out your carbon footprint and not have the energy to organise against fossil capital.

Like those in the good place, we live under capitalism. The ever watchful eye of celestial accountants sees the exploitation inherent to capitalist production, adds it up and condemns people to eternal damnation for the act of existing in a capitalist society. The only way to avoid damnation is to change the system. By all means make the changes to your daily life that you can. Little changes do add up and are part of building a culture change. But know that the big changes, where your energy can be most effectively used, are in building a movement capable of challenging the vested interests of capitalism.

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