Earth Day... Get's it Backwards
As Earth Day 2022 fades into the distance, it is worth recalling that on that day we were once again exhorted to save the world, save the planet, save the earth, save the whale, save the forests, protect the environment, and so on. And these are noble objectives. And we are told that our future, saving ourselves, somehow depends on how well we "save the world" – although how exactly is usually not made clear. But I believe all this is backwards.
Douglas Adams agrees saying "we don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it".
Putting Humanity First, and...
We are human, anything and everything we do comes from our consciousness, so in our thoughts and actions we cannot be anything other than anthropocentric – we cannot help but put ourselves first. Indeed, many would say putting considerations other than human well-being first was not ethical.
But, we are also animals. So, we, like all other land-based life on this planet, live in the tiny 6km high Critical Zone... from the soil beneath our feet to the top of the breathable atmosphere. So all our actions are always going to occur within, and impact what occurs within, the Critical Zone. (For more on the Critical Zone please read this two-part blog post)
From this, I believe it becomes clear. Since we are humans we have no choice but to put humanity first. What we decide we want, the needs that we have, the direction we choose to take, and how we choose to get there, must be the primary questions that we need to respond to today.
But we can't respond to these questions in a vacuum. Definitely not. We must respond to these questions within the context of the life-giving Critical Zone upon which we depend – its abundance and its limitations. If we ignore this context in our choices and behaviour we are simply putting our future well-being and the well-being of future generations at risk.
Indeed many would say that deciding that we want to head in a direction that requires us to damage the very life-giving systems upon which we depend is not ethical either.
And to be clear on the urgency: our current behaviour, based on our current decisions about what we want and how we go about getting it, very largely ignores the impact of our choices on the life-giving Critical Zone upon which we depend. Clearly, this is unsustainable – for us!
What Do We Want?
We haven't had a widespread conversation about what we as a species want and how to get there since the Bretton Woods conference at the end of the 2nd World War. As we experience every day, the assumptions made back then were fundamentally flawed since they ignored the necessary interplay between human well-being, human actions and our planet. (See this blog post for more).
The conservation and environmental movements have done a tremendous amount to protect, and in some cases restore, the life-giving Critical Zone. However, none has addressed the systemic causes of the systematic damage we are doing to the life-giving Critical Zone.
Indeed, in day-to-day culture, away from the conservation and environmental movements, the opposite is true. Every day our modern culture reinforces the idea that we humans are incredibly inventive, and able to solve any problem – even those created by our own past actions. We now acknowledge we created the climate crisis. We now acknowledge certain resources, like fossil fuels, are finite. And we now acknowledge that certain services provided by our planet, such as climate regulation, or freshwater cycling, can be significantly perturbed by our actions – harming ourselves and future generations.
But, in all these cases we are told that we can solve these problems if we put our minds to it. Indeed such is our confidence that we can solve all these problems and more, that we believe we can do so in ways that will avoid mass human suffering. But I believe this is a highly risky bet, verging on, if not actually hubris, arising from our modernist mindset (See this two-part blog post on the impact of modernism and the Critical Zone).
What To We Do Now?
My belief is it does start with a conversation, around the world, about what do we as humans want? What do we aspire to be? What level of well-being should we be aiming for? And, at the same time, we need education about what the world does, the processes of the Critical Zone, to give us the possibility for life, and perhaps more, flourishing.
From these two learning loops, one an internal reflection, the other an external exploration, we might come to a new understanding of how to meet our needs in ways that enable the possibility for humans and all life on this planet to flourish for generations to come (John Ehrenfeld, MIT).
Naive perhaps? But what alternative do we have?
UN75 – A Start to the Necessary Conversation
It's worth noting that at the start of 2020 the UN Secretary-General did try, before COVID, to start this conversation as part of the marking of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN. He launched the single biggest consultation in humanity's history asking essentially "what is it that we want?" For more see this post for the launch of this consultation and this post for the results.
Of course, this didn't get anything like the attention it needed to be truly effective because of COVID... but it is a good step in the right direction.