In the recent article, CO2 emissions rises mean dangerous climate change now almost certain, the Guardian highlights the growing scientific concern that business as usual is being business as usual, leading us down that cliché nightmarish fork in the road; the higher estimates in the climate models, which will present future generations with a world as different from today as today is from the previous Ice Age.
To me, it points out nothing more than a turning point; where human physical capacity supersedes the natural range of the human mental capacity. That is to say, we can create more damage in space and time than we are able to comprehend. We can reasonably perceive the turn of events from smacking someone else in the face, but (as I know firsthand) we cannot perceive adequately the results of pouring PVC into the backyard of our operations, over-fertilising our agricultural land or, more close at hand, the long reaching impact from desiring a standard of living intimately entwined to greenhouse gas emissions.
There is some truth in the old saying, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” however, this is not a good analogy for the situation at hand, where one could say, “an fruit in hand is not worth five on the bush.”
It’s a concept that requires no deep powers of reasoning. It requires no philosophy. Even caterpillars and ants have worked it out.
Many caterpillar and ant species developed a mutualistic symbiosis where the caterpillar provides sugary syrup in exchange for ant security. The relationship is an ongoing one that provides new avenues for food access to the ants and reduced mortality for the caterpillar.
If the ants were like us, they would first attempt to farm the caterpillars to produce more syrup. Over time, the holding capacity for the caterpillars would have been reached and to continue this growth, the ant would need to turn to the protein provided by the caterpillars themselves, thereby reducing the overall return; degrading the wealth creator.
As always is the case, these additional resources went to increasing the population of ants; thus they are locked into such a high level of resource pressure – even as they watch it degrade.
However, it is absurd to think of ants in this way. Equally, it ought to be as absurd that our species would fashion wealth creating models on such methodologies. We tend to favour wealth we have at hand –the bird for instance – over wealth we have less security over – the birds in the bush, ready to fly away.
There is evolutionary justification for this bias, just as there is for many human behaviours nowadays deemed immoral (such as many base emotions).
Yet, where on Earth is a bird going to escape from our species? Even if it could escape to space, would it be free from us? The answer should be obvious; as long as the resource exists, it is either in our current capacity to obtain it or our reasoning to develop future methodologies to obtain it. Resource insecurity thus now only exists where resource degradation occurs.
Further, there is something in the first part of the hypothetical story I created for the ants. We are capable of cultivating the entire globe (yes, even the poles and harshest deserts). We can maximise productivity, just as long as we start and end with biophilia – that is, with resource exchange with ecosystems (current or engineered). Just as stated in the previous paragraph; our ingenuity removes resource insecurity where resource management is appropriate.
With high greenhouse gas emissions something that we are locked into for perhaps decades or more (even if we made aggressive measures to reduce them, which, it should be clear, we won’t), we must seriously contemplate harvesting atmospheric carbon instead. The most practical (and cheapest) option to achieve this is; let the plants do it. Photosynthesis stores carbon as energy. Without a doubt, this is the most logical method through which we can sink carbon and provide useful by-products. GM may even help us improve the rate of conversion if we are game enough to answer this pressing question of how we can realistically avoid 4 °C of warming.
However, the second problem of the hypothetical ant story is our reality; we are at a point where human activity has, firstly, encouraged us to secure more resources and secondly grow more numerous; so much so, we seem to be idly watching the slow decline of real wealth – the fruit on the bush.
This pressure of growing size and per capita consumption leaves us with my opening observation; our physical capacity is larger than our ability to comprehend it.
Whether it is climate change, as the Guardian article comments, biodiversity loss (and others), as noted by Rockström et al. (2009) or our inability to efficiently manage precious fresh water resources as I’ve mentioned previously, we demonstrate this fact with resounding monotony.
We are not capable of fair (or even realistic) judgement of risk on a scale that covers environmental governance. Economic discounting the future is philosophy of this principle.
For this reason, we cannot rely on our internal capacities, such as common sense. The human experience breaks down on such matters as it does geological time and in the realms of quantum physics. Global negotiations are inherently flawed and doomed to fail.
That does not mean that we must venture down this fork of business as usual. I have hinted throughout of the alternative; innovation. We must concisely outline universal objectives (such as a floor above which all members of a species must be maintained), how much resources are required for such objectives and methodologies to ensure such resources exist into the indefinite future.
To achieve the latter, I suspect we will need to change our minds and finally develop ethics that can incorporate geological and biological engineering. There should not be a problem with such techniques if they result in maximising prosperity of the flourishing of life – not simply our species. We would prefer an energetic thriving globe over a wasteland, but our current attitude to wealth paralyses us into disbelief as wealth slips away through our fingers.