A couple of years before she died, I asked my grandmother about her experience of being a nurse in wartime London (WW2). Not being one for talking much about herself, she responded: ‘best years of my life’.
Now my grandmother had, by most accounts, a good life. After the world wars, hers spanned the unprecedentedly peaceful second half of the twentieth century, the peak of modernity’s success. Emigrating to South Africa after WW2, my grandfather achieved a senior position in a large corporate, she had four healthy children, material comforts, and the she found meaning and satisfaction in her role of wife and mother. Yet it was wartime London that provided her with her ‘best years’.
What has this to do with South Africa’s challenge of reducing carbon emissions and simultaneously ‘developing’ in the twenty-first century? ‘Development’ is largely taken to be an expansion of what modernity achieved in the developing nations to the ‘undeveloped’ rest-of-the-world, the meeting of basic needs, consumerism, materialism, homogeneity, technology, progress. The question that my grandmother’s response provokes is whether this model has brought us ‘development’. Sure, hunger, malnutrition, high rates of infant mortality are not desirable. But neither is the obesity, depression and chronic disease of the ‘developed’ societies. Modernity did not bring my (admittedly very healthy) grandmother the best years of her life… These were instead found in a time of intense social solidarity under threat, meaning through immediate purpose, through collective and communal effort.
In these early years of the twenty-first century we are seeing ever more rapidly the environmental constraints that we were unable to see in the twentieth. Modernity’s offer of material comfort, and the extractive, industrial model it was based on worked to a degree, for a few, for a time. But it did not work for the environment. Whether it can work for the many now becomes a moot point – the environmental constraints are binding. However equally so is the urgency of addressing social inequality: access to information heightens both the visibility of inequality and the mobilisation of the oppressed.
In the face of this conundrum, it might assist us to ponder Einstein’s insight that solutions are not found within the same logic that created the problem. What is this ‘development’ that we seek? How do my grandmother’s reflections on her life help us to step back and ask ourselves what we really want? And from there, what other models might there be of societies that provide more ‘best years’?