Environmental Realism

To round off my recent posts, I’d like to make a plea to my readers in that if we truly wish to make meaningful headway on the detrimental aspects of the birth of the anthropocene, we must get real.

It’s very easy to wish that we didn’t have the problems we now face, or that some wonderful utopian solution is just around the corner and that it will save our souls. But such things will not occur and holding onto such myths cause fractures within the already engaged individuals on such topics and merely assists this frustrating paralysis.

Half of the world’s population will not evaporate completely from space and time; not humanely nor completely. Wishing for a smaller world won’t change the global population from 7 billion strong.

Regardless of how nice it might seem to some people, the dream a global rural community, where everyone is a food producer is impractical and would ultimately cause more damage to the remaining ecosystems than the system we already have. Not to mention that we would also lose a great proportion of our capacity to meet persistent environmental change or to improve the global standard of living to developing nations through such  change

No, the stark reality is that;

  • We have 7 billion people and the number is continuing to grow (at much fast rates in developing nations),
  • Developing nations want a standard of living comparable to that we in the affluent west have long enjoyed which will place a huge impact on already stressed resources and most importantly they have the right to want such a standard of living just as much as we do,
  • The twentieth and twenty first centuries will be the age of the fossil fuel; we have a very long way to go to develop societies that enjoy a respectable standard of living with a low- to-nonexistence dependence on fossil fuels, which leads into;
  • Climate change resulting from human CO2 emissions is unavoidable, but, as Prof Dessler has put it many times; it’s like an inevitable collision between cars – we still have control how hard the impact will be, and
  • Most people will be unable (or unwilling) to develop a strong connection with rural landscape and food production.

That’s the sharp end of the stick.

To be realistic about effective management of the remaining ecosystems and improving the sustainability of our activities, we will need to keep these points in mind.

Probably the hardest points for many of us to accept are the social points, because they take in mind other perspectives which we may not relate to. Some of the more hardcore environmentalists may make daily sacrifices to lower their personal impact on environmental degradation and CO2 emissions, but still they enjoy a life many folds greater than people in the slums of Mumbai (both in access to goods and services and in their carbon footprint), for instance.

It is fundamental that we avoid as much as possible such first world romantic illusions – such as a return to a world of primary producers or that simply making small sacrifices will make a massive difference (ie. that renewable power will solve the problem or that we should stop having children etc) – and rather try to see the world closer to that the majority do. Having running clean water and reliable power within the home and even your own bedroom are still luxuries for the majority of the global population.

Effective change will need to see the problems of population, food production and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions from the majority view, not that of the luck few.

At the same time it presents excellent opportunity in that we can ask how can the majority be raised to an appropriate standard of living while keeping the greenhouse gas emissions down. Such solutions could improve the lives of billions of people while providing the tools necessary to retrofit the first world.

We too often debate from the other side, but the greater change must come from where the greatest impact is needed and that is the vast majority who still live a harder life in poverty.

Another difficult point to accept for many is that our addiction to fossil fuels is a long way from over. The smoke stack is the heart of the industrial era and it simply cannot be turned off overnight and replaced by a few nice windmills and some solar panels. Even the hotly debated nuclear or hydro discussions will not wean us off of the black gold within my life time.

We will probably have to accept that none of us alive today will live long enough to see the world free from combustion. Dessler’s metaphorical car holds too much inertia for that.

What we do have at hand are the breaks and we can control the rate of “deceleration”, that is, how quickly we reduce our greenhouse emissions, which will come from solving the problem of developing an adequate standard of living in developing nations and then retrofitting this to human activities elsewhere.

In doing so, we will also address the points made in Dick Smith in, Population Crisis and Nicholas Stern in, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet; that population control needs first to address health and education in developing nations, which will in turn slow population growth to something similar to that seen in developed nations. From there we can work out how to reduce the global population over multiple generations to something more sustainable while avoiding the obvious result of an aging population.

The environmental realist will recognise that there are no quick fixes and while some fancies might be enjoyable to muse over in one’s spare time, they will amount to nothing due simply to the huge chasms between the current reality and the ideal future. We are not talking about results we will see in our life time – indeed societal structure of a 50, 60 maybe even 90 years from now will probably be easily recognisable to anyone of us today – but about something that will only start to take real form in the twenty second century.

We will lose more species and we will know for certain that we have left the Holocene entirely behind us – these are sad and unavoidable truths. However, how much loss and change is up to us today and the only way we can make meaningful decisions to impact these results is through being honest about problem and what are the achievable steps we can make from where we are standing at the time.


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