Environment shock: how the pace of environmental change destabilises

Originally posted here.

Let me begin with an idea that many will find shocking, outrageous or even inconceivable.

In order to maintain our complex industrial civilisation it may be necessary for us to entertain the inconceivable: that we have the power to manage the planet’s climate and environment. Indeed, this decision is being forced upon us as the planet warms and we reach critical “boundary thresholds“. We may have no choice in the matter if we wish to preserve our civilisation.

We will be compelled to become planetary engineers.

We can see the impact of our civilisation in every aspect of the Earth’s climate and environment: from the CO2 warming the planet, the mass extinction of species and the acidification of the oceans. And while it is hard to conceive our actions having such a profound impact on the Earth, the evidence from science is both compelling and overwhelming.

And yet as individuals and societies, how to we treat this new knowledge: do we accept it, or do we deny it?

Perhaps we are in a kind of shock?

Environment shock: the response to technological and environmental change

We often talk about the dizzying pace of technological change in our lives, and as individuals and societies we struggle to “keep up”. Institutional change – whether it is in private industry or government – is notoriously slow. People and societies are often caught unaware when change comes.

Thus our laws and social habits are often conflict with the changes wrought by technology. For the individual it can be disorienting and confronting.

Forty years ago Alvin Toffler termed the phrase “future shock“. He used it describe the stress societies undergoing profound technological changes experience:

“…Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change overwhelms people, he believed, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. “

Similarly, our societies are struggling to meet the challenge of climate change and environmental collapse.

Perhaps what we are experiencing is a kind of “environment shock”.

Defining “environment shock”: shock precedes inertia

I can only offer a tentative definition, but I see parallels between the tension our societies experience with rapid pace of technological change and rapid environmental change.

“Environment shock” could be defined loosely as:

As the environment undergoes rapid and enormous change individuals, societies and institutions struggle to both a) assimilate and understand this information and b) develop effective strategies to both contain and manage rapid environmental change on a global scale.

Case in point climate change: despite decades of overwhelming evidence and the good intentions of many governments, emissions continue to rise and no effective means to control carbon emissions exist. It may be our existing institutions are insufficient to meet the challenge environmental change presents.

Thus “environment shock” prompts some unsettling and hard questions :

  • How do we manage a planet?
  • Who governs the process of managing the planet?
  • Who provides the funding for planetary management schemes?
  • How do we balance the self-interest of nations and individuals against the “common good” of managing the planet?
  • What is the role of governments and trans-national institutions?
  • What is the role of industry?

Perhaps we are still in a state of shock as the implications of these ideas.


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