Is it just me, or do you too think that, if there is one global event that should unite people all over the world against one common “enemy”, it is a pandemic? The Covid pandemic is a textbook example of such an event.
So far, however, whether it’s about mask wearing, social distancing or inoculation, unity is far from the norm. All over the world, people have been protesting about all and any forms of restrictions imposed by the authorities to slow down the spread of the virus. In some countries, like Brazil under Bolsonaro and the US under Trump, official policy was and sometimes still is to favour money-making over life. Even under more “moderate” regimes, governments have been accused of relaxing Covid measures too soon or dragging their feet before imposing lockdowns, with all the inevitable dire consequences. People get sick, people fill hospital wards and people die.
This inability of humans to do whatever it takes to protect their own kind, their own fellows, is not new. What is rather new, is our ability to witness this in real-time. And what we witness is our inability to empathise enough with our own species to tackle this pandemic properly. We don’t lack the technical skills or the scientific know-how to fight this virus, we just love money more than our own kind. Economic imperatives will always trump human(e) needs. The most obvious examples of this are resistance to wearing face masks, the main purpose of which is to protect others, and opposition to vaccination, which again protects others to a large extent. That is even without talking about delayed lockdown measures, postponing putting countries on the Red List for travellers, awarding lucrative contracts to buddies for faulty PPE, and the list goes on. And this is only about the current pandemic. Add to that racism, xenophobia, hatred of migrants and refugees, constant wars, whether with religion, oil, water or other resources as an excuse, … and you can see that human perception of its own kind is in a sorry state.
That is human nature. Or that’s what human nature has evolved into over the last few millennia.
So what hope is there for other species? Humans are the only ones who can make a difference on this planet on a material level. And since they don’t care about their fellow humans, how can anyone expect them to care for other animals, let alone plants, which are still not recognised as sentient beings, or the climate, which is definitely too abstract a concept to grasp, let alone care about. If a pandemic, the adverse effects of which on humans are immediately obvious in a brutal way, cannot move people to take immediate action, how can we expect them to take action against something that is vague and seemingly still far away, like climate change, even though it requires immediate action too?
I don’t think we can. Humankind as a whole is unable to do so. Therefore, we can only hope to act on an individual level and hope that the sum of all these tiny actions amounts to enough to make a difference, however slight. It has become obvious by now that catastrophic climate change is inevitable. Positive feedback loops are thoroughly established and that is nothing anybody can do anything about. Even if we, humans, do take action to reduce carbon emissions to the levels we need and promised, it is far too late to make enough of a difference.
Greenhouse gas emissions during the pandemic, until the end of March 2021, have only been reduced to 2006 levels. This is still far too high to prevent global temperatures to rise above target levels, and that is while most of the planet’s economic activity stood at a standstill. Last month, however, emissions have skyrocketed again to reach the highest levels ever. And we’re not out of the pandemic yet. Now, if past human behaviour can be taken as a benchmark, it is safe to assume that we will try and make up for lost time. Consumption will go up and up. And any increase in consumption is detrimental to the climate and the planet as a whole. This increase is inevitable. Even without the pandemic and a boost to the world economy once it’s gone, the current human civilisation (the western civilisation that has become global) cannot survive without constant economic growth. A couple of years of depression due to the pandemic doesn’t change anything to this. Post-pandemic growth will only be so much more impressive because that is what humans want. All historic indicators, like world wars and previous depressions, hint at enhanced economic growth in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Why would it be any different now? On the contrary, all current indicators point to an even increased economic growth. People can’t wait to start travelling again. Pubs and restaurants are overflowing, and online sales are breaking all records, more than offsetting losses on the high street. Wood has become a scarce commodity and prices are at an all-time high. Did loss of rainforest slow down? No! Did polar ice stop melting? Nope! Did permafrost start freezing again? No again…
Another reason why taking necessary action is so difficult, even impossible, is that the whole world economy relies on constant growth to survive. Many countries, from Iraq to Nigeria, Azerbaijan to Venezuela, rely on oil and/or gas for almost 100% of their GDP. If we want to cut fossil fuel consumption to zero as soon as possible, which we absolutely need, millions of people will be affected, losing their income, their livelihoods, and for many their lives too. That is mostly in poor countries, so we don’t really care that much (right?!), but all economies on our planet are so intertwined that we too, in the so-called “rich” countries, will be immensely affected. What about our cherished pension plans? Life insurances? The banking system as a whole, come to think of it…
Of course, if we don’t do anything, or only at a pace we feel comfortable with, the consequences will be even more dire. So what is the solution, if there is any?
Frankly, there is no Big Solution. Humans are, well, human… after all. Even though awareness of planetary problems has been increasing exponentially over the past few years, or even decades, all so-called “solutions” imagined by well-meaning people involves a top-down approach. Take the whole XR movement, for example. It is based on the premise that protesting enough will make governments worldwide take action or will be led by a citizens’ assembly on climate for matters specifically involving climate-change. This citizens’ assembly would ultimately have legislative powers to compel businesses and individuals to take sufficient action and prevent catastrophic climate-change. So far, actions have been symbolic, and it is considered a victory when demonstrators don’t end up in jail. Mostly, the majority of citizens consider climate action a nuisance. They would like climate change not to happen, BUT… don’t prevent them from going about their daily business and definitely don’t do anything that could cost them a penny. So, by all means, push your government to take action, but really don’t expect any immediate result (and if it’s not now, it’s too late). Politicians know who their paymasters are, and it is certainly not you or me. Even worse, in the last few elections (not only in the UK), most voters have taken a masochistic pleasure in re-electing a conservative government that has always put its own interests front and centre, definitely over the interests of the citizens they are supposed to serve. The US is maybe an exception because Trump proved to be too much of a madman in the end for most Americans. Even so, notwithstanding grand-standing rhetoric, the Biden administration remains extremely vague about the phasing out of coal-fired power stations, to cite only one example.
Back to the million-dollar question: What to do?
You’ve probably heard it about a million times too, but a change of perspective, a different attitude, a paradigm shift, to use a big word, that’s what we need. Easier said than done, though. I am convinced the biggest obstacles to humans changing their perspective enough are, first of all, their sense of entitlement, combined with their lack of respect for everything and everyone. They think they have the right to do whatever they want, whatever the consequences for the Planet as a whole. This obstacle can possibly still be tackled with a lot of explaining, education, and good will on the part of us all. Then there is the issue of the worldwide economic system, which is a lot trickier. Our global economy has evolved into an incredibly complex machine that needs to be fed constantly. If it doesn’t grow, it dies. Economic growth depends on increased consumption. Increased consumption means increased production, which equals depletion of resources, destruction of habitat (mostly forests), increased carbon emissions, and so on. Now, the conundrum is that if the economy collapses, people go hungry and people die, but if we keep aiming for perpetual economic growth, the planet dies, ergo people go hungry and people die. Lose-lose. Let’s not forget that climate change is not the only problem the Planet faces. There is depletion of natural resources (like potable water and healthy arable land), loss of biodiversity, pollution of the oceans (on top of ocean warming), and overpopulation, just to cite a few examples. What most humans seem to forget is that nothing stands on its own, everything is intertwined, and the only ones who can influence all these interconnected parameters are us, humans.
We, and we alone, can make conscious decisions that will determine our own future and the future of all other living beings on the planet. The big question is: “Are we willing to make decisions that are entirely counter-intuitive, decisions that go against our own immediate self-interest, decisions that we have been told all our lives were wrong?” That is a question we all need to ask ourselves. It is all good and well to demand from our “leaders” that they legislate to reduce carbon emissions, but if we are not willing, or able, to do what is necessary in our daily lives, what’s the point?
Do we really need to change our cars every couple of years? Or our phones for that matter? Of course not! But imagine our elected representatives legislating that cars, phones, tablets, computers and white goods had to have a minimum lifespan of, say, 5 or 7 years (obligation for manufacturers) and, if bought new, we would not be allowed to replace them until the end of this period. If they broke down, they would have to be fixed (obligation for the consumer and for the manufacturer). That would be one way to reduce carbon emissions dramatically. But I can already hear the uproar. “We live in a dictatorship! It’s my money and I do with it what I want! I want my freedom!” Our elected representatives wouldn’t stay elected very long and that would be the end of the matter.
But let’s assume that we are all reasonable people and would be happy to use everything we have until it is worn out. Yes, even clothing. What about jobs? Would we be willing to have only one person in the household working? Because, if consumption drops dramatically, jobs would be lost too, and our income would drop. Of course, we wouldn’t need that much money, since we would consume less, right? But is that really something the majority of the population would get behind?
And what about travel? Do we really need to go away on holiday once or twice or even more every year? No, we don’t! Although, if you have been following the news lately, you will have noticed that foreign travel is one of the big issues. “We want to go on holiday! And we are being thwarted at every turn!” It’s as if one of our fundamental human rights has been taken away. “We can’t fly to our favourite holiday destinations anymore! And chances are we will have to quarantine when we come back! Can you believe it?” Of course, what’s the destruction of our planet, if at least we can have our holidays in the sun. That’s way more important!
Our whole education system is geared towards career opportunities, making as much money as possible, and then spending it on whatever we want. Big house (maybe another one for the holidays and a few to rent out too), big car (or two), holiday abroad twice a year (or maybe even three times). Those are all things we have been told we have to aspire to. And we do! We admire people who make loads of money and live in big mansions. We worship entrepreneurs who show off their “wealth”. If you don’t, you are not normal. And we can’t stand indigenous people who are self-sufficient and live without any form of so-called “modern comfort”. We must bring them “civilisation” and “progress”, build schools for them, and most of all sell them whatever we have to sell and make them understand that they need more of it. Who cares that they were leading a happy life so far? At least now, we can give them “proper” houses and “decent” education, and dig out the riches from under their feet, destroying another chunk of the rainforest. But hey, it’s profitable, right? And my pension plan has invested quite a bit in the mining company, so… what’s the destruction of our planet, if at least we have a good nest egg to retire on. That’s way more important!
Okay, enough ranting.
If we want to change the world for the better, we need to change our own lives. It is not enough to shout at politicians and demand change. We must be the change.
By change, I mean real change. It’s not enough to feel righteous when you recycle your plastic bottles and put your food waste in the compost bin. Composting food waste is still wasting food that consumed a lot of energy to be produced, packaged, transported, chilled, … And swapping your petrol car for a hybrid, while a step in the right direction, is not really doing much either. Your electric car will only start having a positive impact on carbon emissions after 2 years on average, compared to your old car, and the old one will end up in Africa anyway where it will go on breathing out exhaust gases until it completely breaks down. But that’s not your problem, right? Well yes, it is. Everything is interconnected, remember? Greenhouse gases know no borders.
We can only achieve real change when we are deeply committed. The new year’s resolution attitude won’t work. Stop what you are doing right now. Take a day off and think. Ask yourself, for real, what am I personally willing to do to leave a liveable world to my children and grandchildren, and not only to them, but to all living beings on our Planet. Our world has already changed a lot over the past few years. Changes that were supposed be decades away. It shouldn’t be too difficult to understand that something dramatic needs to be done right now. That part is easy. The difficult question is am I, me, myself, willing to do what it takes. If you are unwilling or unable to reflect on that question deeply and seriously, you can skip the rest of this article and go back to your cosy life.
Now, you will ask, what does “do what it takes” mean? First of all, it means having the deepest respect for everyone and everything on our Planet. If you own land or intend to buy land, respect and care for all the creatures on your land. Use it in a way that has the least possible impact on the People, animals and plants, who already live there. I am always baffled when I watch TV programmes where people (humans) buy a plot of land in the wilderness to live “in tune with nature”, and the first thing they do is bring the bulldozers in to shape it like they want it. There is not enough water? Dig out a 2-acre pond. There is too much shade? Raze a few trees. Not enough room for a vegetable patch? Cut down another couple of acres of woodland. And that’s for 2 humans who are convinced they will be living “in tune with nature” and be kind to the planet. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not bad people. They just don’t think. Or rather, they think like humans have been thinking for centuries.
So, basically, true respect and caring for All. Everything else follows. This requires a lot of slowing down and thinking at first. It becomes a lot more intuitive and automatic after a while once you get into the habit of asking yourself: “Okay. Do I really need this? Who am I harming if I do this or that? If I do really need it, is there a better way to do it that is less harmful?” Instead, most people ask themselves: “How can I make this more efficient, or more productive, and ultimately more profitable?” This is a typically “western” way of thinking that has gone viral and become global. Native Americans, for example, have a culture that directs them to constantly think about the welfare of seven generations into the future. We can hardly think ahead of the next quarterly report. The stock exchange seesaws based on Elon Musk’s breakfast tweet. We must lose this craving for instantaneous results without any consideration for others or for the future.
Once we have this respect for and caring attitude towards all things living, we will also realise that we are not entitled to anything and everything. We don’t have the right to destroy the habitat of countless living beings, including other humans btw, just because we “need” the timber, or because we “need” more room for our cattle, or we “need” the minerals that are in the ground. I can already hear the protests: “Yes, but we do need it for all those reasons. If we don’t get the timber, we can’t build houses. If we don’t increase pasture, people will go hungry. If we don’t dig for rare earths, we won’t be able to make computers or mobile phones, or even wind turbines.” True, but people don’t need to build palaces for houses, they don’t need burgers at every meal, and they don’t need a new mobile phone every year or two. That is up to every single one of us. If we, ordinary humans, would be willing to live in ordinary-sized houses, and eat in a more responsible way, and drop the compulsion of always having more and “state-of-the-art” things, rainforests would stand a better chance, biodiversity would be threatened to a far lesser extent and climate change would have a chance of being way less catastrophic than what we are headed for now.
This is our responsibility, the responsibility of every single human on the planet. Sorry, I can’t ask the members of any of the other 8.7 million species on earth to help. They are already behaving responsibly and always have.
Be as radical as you want, or can, in this caring. Start growing your own food. Even pots on a balcony will go a long way. Don’t take the car, cycle or walk whenever you can. Don’t take holidays far away. Share whatever you have with others. Give away what you don’t need. Don’t take more than you need. Stop being a so-called “patriot”. Be a Citizen of the Planet. Whatever you do, care for life first and foremost and form a community with all other People around you, human and other.