UN Secretary General António Guterres has described our efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change as “a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. Its consequences, he notes, include “human suffering, towering economic losses, and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth.” The Secretary General certainly has a point, for the world as a whole is marred by structural inequality, accelerating mass extinction across the web of life, and the wholesale destruction of ecosystems whose services used to help and protect everyone.
Meanwhile, climate change continues its relentless advance. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is being bleached for the fourth time in six years. Spring flowering and tree lines are advancing quickly northwards, along with diseases, invasive species and trophic calamity for breeding birds. The hot and catastrophic year of 2021 was the fourth in five years in which catastrophes driven by global heating crossed the US$ 100 billion insured loss threshold.
The list goes on and on, but against all this Guterres envisions that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.” The hunt is now on for the next generation of books and projects to explore and give flesh to this defining task: ending the war and building a new peace with nature. But it is already clear that this is not a simple matter.
The causes of ‘war’ between people and nature lie in our recent world-conquering societies, business models and technologies.
The causes of ‘war’ between people and nature lie in our recent world-conquering societies, business models and technologies. The key change occurred when a critical proportion of people gave up living from local production using muscle power, to live instead from global production using machines. Raymond Dasmann in 1973 described this as ‘ecosystem people’ becoming ‘biosphere people’. But it then took industrial revolutions and empires to put us on a path to colliding with boundaries of global sustainability. And it took the post-war global economic expansion since 1950 to put the process into overdrive.
There was no particular reason in the 1950s to suspect that humans might be able to damage major Earth systems. Their existence was anyway barely suspected. Particular values, forms of society and their side-effects were allowed to become deeply and widely entrenched. Those side effects included pollution and the replacement of wilderness by plantations and settlements, while they also homogenised human cultures and neglected the value of diversity. Thoughtful people soon began to choke on this, and waves of environmental activism have come and gone ever since. Each left a ‘concerned institution’ behind them: UNEP in 1972, for example, and the Rio Conventions on biodiversity, desertification and climate change in 1992.
Millions of young and professional people are now fearful and angry enough to risk arrest … in seeking an end to what is now called the ‘climate extinction emergency’.
The current wave of activism began in late 2018 with Greta Thunberg and the launch of Extinction Rebellion. Millions of young and professional people are now fearful and angry enough to risk arrest and discomfort, even to renounce childbirth, in seeking an end to what is now called the ‘climate extinction emergency’. Apex institutions across the world reacted by recognising the emergency in formal declarations, and by trying to accommodate demands for system change. This involved a lot of wriggle and ‘blah blah blah’, as Greta put it, but also real interest in finding transformative solutions. Can the global advance of unsustainable economic growth really be halted? Is this attempt any different from those of the past?
What is new is that ‘science’, a massive social machine for creating reliable knowledge, can now describe the true condition of the living world in real time, in detail and with immense computing power. It has confirmed that the emergency is very real, so denial cannot now be taken seriously. Also, the pace of environmental change, natural disasters, and the patterns that connect them, cannot now be concealed. And many young voters and influential older people are now willing to be arrested and prosecuted for non-violent direct action. Thus the game has changed.
But the more we know, the more alarming it all becomes. The last five years have taught us that Earth systems have tipping points. This behaviour is typical of all complex systems, which resist change for a while but then tip suddenly from one stable state to another. This is exactly what now seems possible in oceanic, equatorial and Arctic systems. The implication is that events may move beyond human influence during the middle years of this century, leading to a chaotic and wholesale breakdown of Earth’s climate and life systems.
Fearing such runaway changes, governments pledged in the late-2015 Paris Agreement to limit global mean surface temperature rise, first to 2 C and later to 1.5 C. This is hard to do, hard to measure, and tipping points and dated deadlines make naïve planning very uncertain. But we do know we have to slash global net GHG emissions and recapture GHGs as fast as possible, and that the art of the ‘possible’ is itself changing to give us a glimmer of hope.
The Covid pandemic has shown that many things are possible that were once inconceivable. New technologies allow us to uncouple energy from GHG emissions, and are fast being adopted. As explained in Surviving Climate Chaos, there are new ways to work out the true value of nature-based and community-based solutions in resisting and adapting to climate change, while slowing mass extinction and preserving ecosystem services. And new movements have arisen to promote regenerative, carbon-capturing and biodiversity-friendly farming systems at vast scale.
These and other efforts could allow the best public investments to be chosen consistently, along with the right regulations to guide private investments. Applied widely and quickly, they could reverse the rise of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, and postpone tipping points long enough for our economic systems to be changed. This could win us another few years in which to make the solutions permanent. For this is a race measured in days, months, bold innovations and unexpected breakthroughs.
Here we can learn vital lessons…
We have to assume that we will win it, and survive the century with the biosphere battered and transformed, but still able to support people and other life on Earth. But we must also ask what we want our relationships with each other and with nature to look like afterwards. This is the essence of the quest for peace with nature, as there is little point in surviving just to launch another war. Here we can learn vital lessons from the many other cultures that have struggled in the past to control their own urges to neglect the rules of ecology.
Many survived a lot longer than we now seem likely to, by creating and using their own traditional ecological knowledge. We can learn many things from them, including a sense of humility and respect for nature which is, in the end, far more powerful than we are. We can also learn from them many specific techniques for living well and sustainably. And we can combine these with our own ecological knowledge, and some of our best technologies, to build a new, durable and life-enhancing future. Thus the living world might be saved.
Author: Julian Caldecott
Paperback ISBN: 9781108793780
Hardback ISBN: 9781108840125