Does anyone else feel like asking the powers that be: “Excuse me, what exactly is going on? Where do you think you are taking us? Are you all completely out of your minds?
“Why else would you pretend not to notice that our civilization is systematically killing life on Earth?”
It’s astonishing that things can get this bad and still be largely sidestepped by mainstream media and governments. And, for some reason, it’s still not ‘the done thing’ to bring it up seriously in conversation. Why? We’d hardly hold back out of deference if a surgeon mentioned she would be whipping out one of our healthy kidneys just to improve the hospital’s transplant figures. It’s mind-boggling that we button our collective lips while the capitalist juggernaut mows down the planet’s life support system – just to prop up GDP.
What a very strange state of suspended animation this is.
It’s not as if the ecological reality is being kept from us. Just a few dips into recent UK news items gives us these pointers: humans are driving the ‘biggest mass extinction since dinosaurs’ says The Times; the BBC reveals that Earth is ‘on course for eco-crunch’ and also provides an estimate of the annual cost of forest loss, which at $2-5 trillion ‘dwarfs bank crisis’, and we learn from The Independent that climate change ‘may soon make the tropics too hot for many native species’. Meanwhile efforts to avert these problems are going nowhere: we know now the world is ‘to fail’ on its biodiversity protection target; and the Telegraph reports that business as usual means that, as one example of many, British seas ‘face ecological disaster due to over fishing and pollution’. The climate is changing even faster than it was last time we looked and we’re now certain it’s humans doing it. As I said, civilization is killing life on Earth.
I doubt I’m telling you something you don’t already know. Who hasn’t switched off the television in sheer frustration at the dumbing down; at the sight of company directors and state leaders force-feeding the same financial system that results in the destruction of natural resources and natural livelihoods; at the constant distractions from the mother of all issues? As long as the economy matters more than the biosphere, a charismatic new US leader, clean technology and green business are mere palliatives compared with the shift we need. What will it take? What’s stopping us? And why don’t these questions shape the lead story on every news programme?
Perhaps we are holding back out of fear that the change we need might involve sackcloth, communism or stone-age lifestyles. But this is nonsense. We have at our fingertips solutions of sophistication and brilliance, which come from some of the cleverest thinkers of our time and are being covered by some of our most mainstream publications. They require a big change in thinking. But hey, if the Economist can manage it, who can’t? Look at New Scientist: it recently published a far-reaching and thoughtful special report entitled ‘How our economy is killing the Earth’, which challenges the biggest mantra of all: economic growth. The report explores many well-considered, mind-shifting alternatives. ‘A growing band of experts are … arguing that personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth. The science tells us that if we are serious about saving Earth, we must reshape our economy,’ says the introduction.
Some of the experts’ work overlaps with proposals in the Green New Deal solution put together by the New Economics Foundation and the far-reaching Redefining Prosperity by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, which considers, among other things, the move to a steady state economy. Then there’s the Transition Town movement, a worldwide, grass-roots initiative to wean communities off resource-hungry lifestyles and become self-sufficient, and (with a focus on the UK), the ZeroCarbonBritain plan to switch from fossil fuels in 20 years. George Monbiot has written a very compelling book on how the whole world could embark on a similar plan. Impractical? Think again. Cuba’s had an impressive bash at it already.
There’s more. Dozens of scientists and economists from 22 countries recently shacked up for a four-day intensive in Sweden to assess the state of the planet and the options we have. These academics, from international networks called the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP), emerged from their crisis talks to make an urgent call on governments to integrate ecological issues into any plans for fixing the global economy. “We’re running the planet like a subprime loan,” said one of the participants in the meeting, Dr. Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
The summit concluded that human society is ‘moving dangerously beyond the planet’s natural limits in a striking parallel to the financial debt crisis’ and that ‘it is still possible to put together a plan for a sustainable planet’ – but only just. World leaders should heed these statements. Not only will the short-term fall-out of recession and financial collapse feel like a walk in the park when the planet’s ecosystems move into irreversible collapse, but the teetering economic system also presents an opportunity for fundamental change. The meeting produced plans to work towards desirable visions of the planet in the year 2050. A report summarizing the conclusions will be released by the end of 2008.
It’s clear that the world isn’t short of solutions; but it does appear to be short of the will to implement them. Do we not care about life? Have we lost the ability to value our grandchildren’s wellbeing? Or are we powerless in the face of world leaders who are … what? Malevolent? Greedy? Blind to reality? Held hostage?
Insanity is the answer
Sometimes clues to the answers to intractable questions come from outside the box – or outside the culture. Our inability to feel part of nature, or to care about it or to invest in our descendants is viewed by many cultures outside our own as a form of insanity. Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan Indian author, artist and activist and director of the En’owkin Centre describes (in ‘Ecopsychology: restoring the Earth, healing the mind’), a conversation with her father and his mother many years ago as they sat on a hillside in their reservation looking down on the town below.
“The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane,” commented her grandmother. Her father agreed, adding, “It’s because they are wild and scatter everywhere.” Armstrong qualified the comments, based on a deeper consideration of her language, which has words unknown in English that are therefore lost in straight translation. She suggested more nuanced interpretations as, “The people below, who are not of us, may be a chaotic threat in action; they are all self-absorbed, arguing inside each of their heads,” and, “They have a displacement panic, they have been pulled apart from themselves [in terms of] family (generationally) and place.”
If the wounds run this deep it’s no surprise we do strange things to compensate. Most of us get our social and personal validation from the modern structures and contrivances of society, like our jobs, our levels of material accumulation, and our systems of assessment and reward. Ironically, those who have been favoured by these structures are likely to be the most dependent on their continuation; to consider an alternative would be to undermine their own personal validity.
Yet these are the very people with the resources and influence to remake the world. As long as their inertia and insanity prevail, chances for recovery slip daily through our fingers.
We are probably all out of our minds. The need to re-educate ourselves, however high up our particular ladder we may be, about alternative means of self-validation has never been more urgent.
Let’s start by being bold enough to ask the questions, the big ones. Ask your manager, the CEO of your organisation, your parents, your MP, your radio station, the editors of the papers and news stations, your neighbours, your Prime Minister, your president. Ask them if they’ve noticed we’re extinguishing the planet’s life force. Ask them whose permission they’re waiting for to openly acknowledge this and help turn things around. We owe it to our descendants and the rest of life on Earth to escape the cultural stranglehold that prevents us from challenging the way things work.
Let me know how you get on.