Reimagining care

The recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and the ongoing negotiations over US President Joe Biden’s social infrastructure bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, share an important feature. At the heart of global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change is a commitment to care for our planet. Similarly, Biden’s bill is a down payment on building an entire infrastructure of care in the US—including paid family leave, childcare, a child tax credit and affordable community and home-based care for anyone else who needs support.

The reaction to both of these landmark developments tells us something important about the way many people think about care. In the context of climate change, care for the earth translates into a set of prohibitions, restrictions and duties: we cannot continue living the way we are now without inviting catastrophe. And many justify their support for childcare and eldercare by emphasising that more of it would allow caregivers, still primarily women, to remain in the workforce and thus be ‘productive’ members of society.

In both cases, therefore, care is a means to an end, rather than something to be desired and cherished in itself. Care is a duty: we must take care of our planet and our family members. Or else it is a service to be paid for: we can buy carbon credits to offset our pleasurable consumption, and hire others to feed, bathe, dress and drive those we love.

But as the British social designer Hilary Cottam and I have written, care is not a service, but ‘a relationship that depends on human connection’. The quality and depth of our relationships with others are essential to our longevity, wellbeing and brain development, and to our very humanity. In a recent lecture at the British Health Foundation, Cottam reminded us of the philosopher Martin Buber’s concept, repeated by Pope Francis in a 2017 TED talk, of how ‘I become an I through a you.’

Suppose, then, that ‘we’, the human race, become fully human through our relationship with our environment. Or, put another way, what kind of humans we are depends on how we relate to the earth. The British archaeologist David Wengrow argues that recent discoveries of the remains of early societies disprove the theory that power hierarchies are necessary to civilisation. He describes ‘garden cities’ without centres, societies that alternated between hierarchical command and egalitarian cooperation, and cultures that managed land through stewardship rather than ownership. Overall, he concludes, ‘we turn out to be a playful, inventive species that only recently got stuck in a deadly game of extraction and expansion—“you’re either growing or you’re dying”—and forgot how to change the rules’.

How we relate to the earth in turn determines how we create economic value. In the agricultural age, we cultivated crops and husbanded animals to feed ourselves and exchange with others. In the industrial age, we extracted material from the earth and converted it into products that we could use to clothe, shelter, transport, educate and entertain ourselves. In the digital age, we extract data from human interactions with one another and with the earth, and convert these into a new array of goods and (mostly) services.

But if we must now repair the earth and ensure the continued sustainability of our interactions with it, then care—the skills of nurturing and cultivating land, plants, animals or humans—becomes a central source of value. Cottam argues that ‘carers’, for want of a better term, ‘must be to this technology revolution what engineers were to the last. The work of this century is work of repair: of ourselves and of our wider environments.’

We may therefore be entering a new economic era in which value arises primarily from the relationships that contribute to environmental health and sustainability and human flourishing. Call it the relational age. We will deploy technology in the service of a broad range of relationships—teaching, coaching, mentoring, guiding, nurturing, training, developing, nursing and many others still to be discovered or rediscovered—that enable human beings to reach their full potential and live in harmony with their environments.

Such an economy would move from extraction to investment; from making and building to maintenance and repair; from having to being; and from production and consumption to creation and care. Static individualism would give way to dynamic interdependence.

This vision of human beings as nodes in a vast web of relationships that can improve or wreck their life chances corresponds to our own biology. After all, an ecosystem is an intersecting set of interdependent relationships. Physicist Fritjof Capra has written of ‘the web of life’, referring to the countless interdependencies of living organisms. Activity in biological networks is a continual process of molecular and cellular repair and renewal.

If we think about care this way, as an essential set of relationships that allow us to grow and flourish as part of a larger planetary ecosystem, then care becomes a good in the literal sense of that word. By regarding care as the fulfilment of a deep human desire rather than as an obligation, we can turn it into a source of value and thus something to be relished, rewarded and respected. Above all, care can provide a path out of our current environmental and spiritual crises, a bridge to a new economy and a deeper understanding of our own humanity.