The Need for effective Cultural Engineering

Sustainability and the consumer culture are in direct conflict. We are now locked into a set of behaviours based on fossil fuel and “growth”. If these behaviours continue the young people of today must face a very uncomfortable life threatening future. Even radical changes in existing policies or personalities will not solve our problems because it is precisely our present culture and its institutions which create these problems. We have to look at the foundations of our civilisation if we are to understand the changes needed for a sustainable future. You cannot pull yourself up with your own bootlaces – our systems themselves must change fundamentally if we are to live sustainably on a vibrant healthy planet.. Read on and you will see why!


Human behaviour is dominated by the “rules” imposed by the major institutions which provide a foundation for all civilisations. We need these “rules” so we can live together in structured communities. Over thousands of years the success and survival of every civilisation has been dependent on how well its institutions dealt with the challenges imposed both by their natural environment and the pressures they faced from other competing civilisations.

Human survival has been successful because of our extra-ordinary ability to create complex communities which provide all the functions necessary for living in a particular environment at a particular time. Humans are very good at being social animals. They quickly create sets of rules for living whether they are in a prison camp, a pop festival, a golf club or a women's institute.

Because of the way we are brought up, we are conditioned and educated to take our institutions as being absolutely the way things are done. They are simply part of our conventional reality – they are how the world is. That is a mindset which very few pundits, activists and thinkers have been able to break free from. It is not easy to do what is often called “thinking outside the box”! Noam Chomsky, Russell Brand and Peter Joseph (Zeitgeist) are some of the few who are now trying to promote this radical message – and millions are listening. But even these insightful individuals are not coming up with viable alternative models. At the same time, our politicians and the “establishment” will continue to do everything they can to keep present systems in place – they are entirely creatures of these systems and as such are hardly likely to promote change which threatens their own existence.

Our task here is not just to point out the life threatening flaws in our present institutions but to see how we might change them to make a better future! We need new institutions in order to live sustainably. This is the challenge for what I call “cultural engineering”.

So what are “institutions”?

“Institutions” are like the set of instructions you get when you buy a new game – they provide the rules for the game. In structured civilisations we need many different “games” to provide all the necessary functions for an effective society. In our current civilisation the major insitutions preventing sustainability are:

banking – creates money, credit and a way of allocating this within society

money – physical or digital tokens provide a way of storing value and carrying out trade

democracy – givesadults a vote which can change governments

religion – sets rules for moral behaviour, dealing with fear of the unknown and providing important “rites of passage” (wedding, funerals etc.)

economic growth – the driving force for modern consumerism

the free market – allowing pressures of demand and supply to set prices without controls

land ownership – allowing individuals and companies to own and control land

advertising – a huge industry which promotes consumption by persuading people to be unhappy with what they already have

trans-national corporations – legal entities which can live for ever and operate anywhere on the Earth while they and their owners are protected from unlimited risk

the motor car! - our most exciting “toy” which enables us to rush about

Centralised power distribution – wastes 2 tons out of every 3 tons of oil used

use of fossil fuel – the unsustainable foundation for much of what we now do

We also have a mass of minor (but still important) institutions like the QUERTY typewriter keyboard, the alphabet, the flush toilet, many types of social networking, football, social welfare …..and so on. The way people dress is also governed by complex rules – men wear long trousers, women wear skirts and so on. We instinctively know a lot about people from the way they dress.

Why are institutions so important?

The complex pattern of a civilisation's institutions are what make up its culture. Like all living entities successful cultures are ultimately selected by the survival of the fittest. We see this process all too clearly in the lessons of history. It seems very few civilisation have been able to modify their cultures sufficiently quickly to enable them to survive for more than a few thousand years. Great empires grow, prosper, become decadent and finally die – and so it goes on. The big question is “WHY”, and will we be the next to go? That is what we try to answer here.

The QUERTY key board is a perfect example of how established insitutions are so resistant to change. This original layout of the keys was designed to make as it difficult as possible to type fast – because fast typing would jam the keys. For many years now this “difficult” layout has been unnecessary because of electronic computers but every effort to change to something better has been a failure. We still use the “difficult” keyboard – and probably always will! Unfortunately similar logic applies to many other more important institutions – once created they are VERY difficult to change!

For the most of human history the workings and success of civilisations have been dominated by the institutions created by religions. The “rules” of such institutions normally being very effectively “policed” and enforced by fear of punishment from Gods. Generally these “rules” are enforced and directed by a governing elite – a priesthood, emperor or king. Any fundamental change in the system threatens such elites and is therefore ruled out. Such change cannot happen unless there is revolution, catastrophy or (most often) war.

That's our story. Finding a way in which ordinary people can change this story is our challenge.

Our Problem Institutions and Solutions for Sustainability

1.Banking – creates our money and decides how it is invested within society

Our present banking system evolved from the corrupt practices of goldsmiths in the seventeenth century. This is why banks lend much more money than they collect in deposits – they create this money 'out of thin air”. Almost all countries on Earth continue depend on this system for the creation and allocation of money and credit. 97 percent of all the money we use is in fact created by bank debt. All this debt is subject to interest payments. These payments can only be made either through inflation or economic growth. So these interest charges have become an all pervasive driving force for growth. To make matters worse the banking system is the primary way in which new investment is prioritised. Banks make their loans in order to maximise profit and minimise risk. This makes it difficult for new “green” businesses to raise funds because they are much more risky than, for example, house lending.

Changes for Sustainability

Our money could be created free of debt (and interest) by the state. This is called “sovereign money” and is simply spent into circulation by government. The quantity of money could be controlled by an independent body and the way new investment is allocated could be decided through some more democratic process rather than simply by expectation of profit. Iceland has just commissioned a major report exploring this possibility.

2.Money – physical or digital tokens provide a way of storing value and carrying out trade.

We have already described some of the problems caused by using bank created money. The system now used by national governments effectively makes the banks act indirectly as agencies of government. By manipulating interest rates and the supply of credit, governments attempt to maintain economic growth because growth is a primary policy objective of all populist democratic governments. Governments try to make sure there is always a small amount of inflation because this encourages people to spend their money rather than saving it. Spending more money is a necessary condition for profitable business and, once again, this requires using more and more of Earth's resources.

Note. The money system based on banks also allows national governments to impose effective taxation since all transactions must be recorded by the banks and made available to government. This allows taxes to be enforced which is a vital function permitting the existence of large nation states.

Changes for Sustainability

Our money does not have to be created by banks or governments. It can be created independently either locally (local currencies) or internationally through such new institutions as the modern digital currencies (particularly bitcoin). For sustainble living it is essential that money is deflationary (encouraging saving rather than spending). A deflationary currency would very quickly curb economic growth and the resulting unemployment would lead to important new social developments such as community work and own work. There would need to be effective transitional arrangements to prepare the public for such a new regime.

3.Democracy – gives adults a vote which can change governments

Our present system of popular democracy creates constant pressure on governments to maintain and even increase economic growth. People want more jobs, more money and more stuff to buy. This means using up more of Earth's resources and is non-sustainable. The politicians who can deliver the most growth are generally most likely to be elected. To make matters worse we have no selection criteria (other than popularity) for those who wish to become poliltical leaders. The system strongly tends to give “leadership” to those who most want to be in “power” or in the limelight. Such people are unlikely to have the knowledge, wisdom or experience necessary for life enhancing long term policies – emphasis must be on the short term.

Changes for Sustainability

We could extend the period between elections to reduce the pressure for short-term solutions. We could introduce rules limiting those permitted to stand for election – ensure they have experience, education, understanding of how things work and training (if necessary). We could choose our representatives by lot – just as the ancient greeks did – but make them accountable to questions and comment from the population. We could introduce a citizenship test to be passed before a person can vote – so those voting have a better grasp of the possible consequences of their choice. More radically we could abandon voting and choose leaders in ways like the communist party or the church – choice by a council of elders for example.

We certainly should ensure that the interests of future generations are represented in our systems of government – a step which has already been taken in a number of countries.

4.Religion – sets rules for moral behaviour, dealing with fear of the unknown and providing important “rites of passage” (wedding, funerals etc.)

Despite the dominance of consumer values the influence of major religions is still a significant influence on people's behaviour. The religions with a single all powerful god exert their power because of fear of punishment from this “all seeing” deity. But these major religions have nothing to say about preservation of the living environment. On the contrary they generally promote the view that all these wonderful resources (whether living or inanimate) have been provided by “god” for the benefit of human kind. This is very convenient for those who wish to promote consumerism and economic growth.

Changes for Sustainability

For thousands of years before mono-theistic religions the so-called pagan religions installed their many gods in the woods, lakes and mountains that surrounded them. Animals, water and trees had a spiritual dimension that could not be ignored in their use. They had to be used wisely and with respect. In these ancient times the power of technology and fossil fuels had not been unleashed so humans had to live in more careful harmony with the natural world rather than expecting to dominate it as they do today.

5.Economic growth – the driving force for modern consumerism

Before the seventeenth century money and wages were relatively insignificant parts of day to day existence. Most people lived on the land and received food and firewood from it as a matter of course – there were extensive common lands and those who worked on the land (the majority) received reward in kind rather than in cash. Barter and social oblligation were the primary means of “trade”. With the introduction of paper bank money and the enclosure of the commons (from 1694 onwards) the new governing classes wanted to remove the independence and self-sufficiency of rural life and force people into the wage economy. The governing class - “merchants of greed” as I call them -kick started the consumer economy and with it the notion of populist democracy. It became vital that the people always wanted to buy more so the factories could expand and profits increase for those that owned them. From the last 300 years “economic growth” has been an essential tool promoted by “the merchants of greed” to effectively enslave the masses as what some have called “wage slaves”.

Economic growth is effectively a measure of how fast we can use up Earth's resources and, as such, is completely at odds with the possibility of a sustainable economy.

Changes for Sustainability

It is quite natural that the majority of people wish to see their circumstances improve. The question remains as to what kind of improvement it should be. On the one hand we might hope for more and more money and consumer goods (as is most common today), on the other we could seek better food, more leisure, less pollution, less crime, less congestion, more friends, more music.....and so on. The problem is that few of these things can be measured in terms of money – as the song goes....”money can't buy you love”! But we can and we should measure many of them – health, pollution, crime, congestion......

If we are to change course towards sustainability then we need to change people's focus away from economic growth. In fact we want people to be pleased if economic growth becomes negative – the more we can reduce use of Earth's resources the better off we shall be (in the long run). We already see governments and academics promoting development of what are called indicators of “wellbeing”. This is at least a hopeful sign but even the green parties are nervous about suggesting economic growth should be reversed! Until this happens there is no prospect of sustainability..

6.Advertising – a huge industry which promotes consumption by persuading people to be unhappy with what they already have.

Billions of pounds or dollars are spent each year on advertising. It is a huge global business. The main purpose of advertising is to make sure people are unhappy with what they already have. Business needs them to want “more”. We have come a long way from the original idea of simply telling people about new products. So the best most imaginative brains in the world are devoted to making people unhappy, making sure they always want more stuff. It's not a recipe for sustainability.

Changes for Sustainability

Some cities (in South America) have already banned the display of adverts. This policy could easily be extended and the use of advertising as a major source of funding for the media brought to an end. Strict control of advertising needs to be enforced if we are ever to achieve sustainability.

7.The free market – allowing pressures of demand and supply to set prices without controls

The idea that the “free” market is the best way to achieve welfare and economic growth has long been at the centre of modern government policy making. The “invisible hand” of the free market has been a constant friend for the “merchants of greed”. Indeed this principle has dominated policies for world trade ever since the Bretton Woods conference and the Marshall Plan which followed it. The “free” market give the greatest power to the biggest players (they have the greatest bargaining power) thus accentuating the gap between rich and poor. More importantly (for sustainability) it also takes no account of the finite nature of the real world and the many non-financial costs associated with trade and industry. In the free market economy prices will adjust to make sure we use resources as fast as we can regardless of the non-financial costs (pollution of air and water for example) and without attention to limited resources. This makes dependence on the “free” market a suicidal policy if we want to live comfortably in the long term future.

Changes for sustainability

We already know that during war the use of vital resources is always rationed and prices are controlled. The reasons for this are obvious and few question the need. This principle now needs to be applied more generally. The present priority must be to ration the use of fossil fuel energy. A simple energy ration could be introduced – for example no-one should be allowed to use power greater than (say) 3 Kilowatts at any time for any purpose. It is perfectly possible to produce a lighweight motor car that can run at 60 mph on 3 Kw – rather than the 100 Kw or more used by many existing cars. The same would apply to heating of houses. Such a law would dramatically increase the prospects of sustainable living and would be very simply to apply.

8. Land ownership – allowing individuals and companies to own and control land

In most tribal societies the private ownership of land is unknown. Indeed in Europe the private ownership of land as we now know it was never intended. Historically the control and use of land was granted to individuals by the king in return for services (usually provision of military men and equipment). But these obligations have now disappeared and private owners can use their land more or less as they choose, subject to planning laws etc. So forests can be cleared and soils ruthlessly exploited for greatest short-term profit without any regard to the loss for future generations or the bad effects on flooding, climate and amenity.

Changes for sustainability

Those who own and control land have a great responsibility towards the Earth community which goes much wider than simply producing the greatest profit. There is a strong case for removing this responsibility from individuals and placing it with the “community”. At the very least individuals should be licenced before they take this responsibility so that some training and sensible conditions can be applied. The idea that land, this vital resource for the health of the Earth, can be controlled privately is not consistent with policies for ensuring sustainability.

9.The flush toilet – turns clearn water into pollution, wastes vital nutrients and uses large amount of fossil fuel

The flush toilet has become one of the central institutions of what we call “civilised” living. Few people ever give any thought to its true costs and consequences. The water it uses has to be purified and pumped to the point of use through an expensive infrastructure of pipes and reservoirs. The “waste” it removes is in fact full of vital plant nutrients which, in a sustainable world, must be returned to the soil. The processing of the effluent again requires pumps and a huge capital infrastructure. Finally the disposal of the sludge and run-off is both expensive and highly polluting for waterways and soil.

Changes for sustainability

In many ways the very existence of the flush toilet is a metaphor for our entire cultural approach to the use of our (only) planet. As individuals we take little responsibility for our own bodily inputs and outputs. Food arrives from somewhere, produced somehow and waste diaappears while we assume someone somewhere is going to deal with it sensibly. It is a carefree and careless way to live – not one which encourages sustainability.

Naturally there are important health concerns about the disposal of waste and modern people simply don't like what they consider to be dirty and smelly. But all these issues can be dealt with easily by using “dry” composting toilets. Such toilets can be managed and constructed very easily with a little training and education. Flushing human (and household) waste away using water must almost certainly be made illegal in a sustainable world.

10.Trans-national corporations – legal entities which can live for ever and operate anywhere on the Earth while they and their owners are protected from unlimited risk

Corporations have long outgrown and outlived their original purpose. Originally they were created as legal entities for very special purposes but their use a vehicles for business and exploration was greatly increased as the wage economy developed in the early 18th century. Even then their excesses caused concern. In many cases strict rules were imposed.. But today the political requirement for “growth” and the dependence of political parties on financial support from the business community have led to a massive expansion and virtual free for all. Not only do trans-national corporations dominate world trade, they also dispense huge politcal patronage and influence.

The primary aim of all corporations is to maximise profits for their owners (the shareholders). This is a major driving force for growth which is made worse by the need not only to create profit but also to pay interest to the banks who provide fiinance. So long as corporations dominate world trade and world governments then sustainability is impossible.

Changes for sustainability

The existence, size and activities of corporations now need to be severely controlled – as they have been in the past. The regulations imposed by the newly independent United States are a perfect model of what now needs to be done. There should be no political lobbying, no contributions to political parties, a finite lifetime for corporations, a restriction on their activities so they cannot expand into new areas or buy other corporations. The shareholders should not be protected from claims and losses.

11.The motor car! - our most exciting “toy” which enables us to rush about

Our “love affair” with the motor car is entirely unsustainable in its present form. We love to rush about in our large steel boxes which are fuelled by oil and continuously corrode away.

Changes for sustainability

We could certainly make cars much lighter using materials which do not rust – for example carbon fibre. We could limit the power output (as described above). We could do much more to make bicycles and public transport a more significant part of the transport system.

Note that electric cars which use centrally generated fossil fuel electicity are very much MORE polluting than conventional cars because thermal generation of electicity is VERY wasteful (see below).

12. Central Power generation – thermodynamically inefficient and expensive to distribute

Not only does central power generation make individuals and communities dependent on something quite out of their control but it also wastes 2 tons out of every 3 tons of oil consumed. This waste is simply a necessary consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and cannot be reduced – the statistics are readily available. The central generation of electricity is probably the single most wasteful use of fossil fuel.

Changes for sustainability

We don't need to generate power centrally. It can easily be done by local generators (whether wind, hydro, solar or fossil). We can alos much improve efficiency by better storage of electicity – for example by widespread use of such devices as the new Tesla domestic batteries. These allow each household to efficiently store its own renewable energy or low tariff off peak centrally generated energy for later use.

13. use of fossil fuel – the unsustainable foundation for much of what we now do

The existence of fossil fuels which can release the energy of millions of years of sunlight is the driving force for our present development. In this way, our civilisation is rather like the germ of a seed which has a great but limited store of available energy it can use to generate its first leaves. When this reservoir of resources has gone the plant must use these leaves to fend for itself using the earth and sunlight. The question evolution is now asking of the human species is precisely whether we can make this transition to become a self-sufficient and sustainable life form as part of the Earth.

Changes for sustainability

We have to stop using fossil fuels at some point. This means we must giive high priority to investment and research into fusion power to replace fission power and fossil fuels. We must also make tidal and hydro power major sources of renewable energy rather than the very inefficient use of wind. Energy saving can be achieved in many ways – particularly using insulation and changing the way we produce food. (Industrial agriculture is entirely dependent on fossil fuel both for cultivation and fertilisers.)


We probably need a new “religion” based on worship of life itself and the vital responsibility of stewardship which has now been given to humans with their conscious brain – a brain which has “free will” and is above “wildness”. Or we could worship the amazing power of space and time which stretch and bend in such magical ways to make life and the wilful direction of life possible.

At the very least we should be asking experts to look NOW at all the possible means of “cultural engineering” necessary to change the way we live.

Will Sutherland    June 2015