Translated by Sara MacVane
The relationship between humankind and the natural world has undergone substantial changes over the course of time. First we were subject to nature, then we domesticated it, and then we tried to free ourselves from it altogether. We didn’t realize however that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology follow their own logic and that trouble might ensue.
It seems true that we only become seriously interested in environmental questions when they have an immediate, local, and concrete effect on us. Our relationship to nature is a global concern however; it involves the whole world. In the course of this discussion we will be looking at expert opinions regarding the environment, human responsibility for its degradation, and most recently, forecasts as to developments, and positive signs of public awareness.
Scientists hold that the earth’s environment is endangered.
The natural conditions of the planet Earth have rendered it suitable for the development of life as we know it. Over time successive equilibria between the earth’s land and sea surfaces and the atmosphere have favored the development of many different types of organisms, and most recently of all, the development of human beings.
During at least several decades intergovernmental groups on climate change and biodiversity (GIEC* and IPBES**) have been measuring and studying the state of our current global equilibrium and the eventual effects of disturbances to it. Changes in the equilibrium affect the entire world and have been taking place over a very long time-frame (since the last ice-age in fact). Environmentalists do not just analyze the evolution of these changes, they also try to predict different possible outcomes and to suggest different responses.
What are the principal levels of risk? Five themes appear crucial:
First of all, climate change:
GIEC confirms that the earth is warming rather quickly, and that human beings are the cause. The experts hold that an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) retained in the atmosphere causes the so-called green-house effect, that is to say the increased warming and the dangers that it creates. Carbon dioxide and a few other gases present in the atmosphere create the warming effect, and over the last century the amount of carbon dioxide has increased rapidly. Although not everyone agrees, some scientists consider 350 – 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 to be the absolute maximum tolerable:
- From 350 ppm some parts of the globe will have scorching heat waves, desertification (Australia), water shortage for human being in semi-desert regions, and elsewhere inundations, hurricanes and other extreme conditions;
- At 450 ppm these effects would be more or less global.
We have already passed 400 ppm and the earth’s mean temperature has increased by 0.85°C since the earliest reliable measurements at the end of the 19th century. The international community has set an increase of 2°C between now and 2100 as a ceiling for risk, if we are to maintain our ability to adapt at a level sufficient for meaningful survival.
If we don’t act at once, the negative consequences will be borne by future generations, and devastating effects like inundations, hurricanes, and desertification will certainly increase ……. We are already familiar with these effects; the signs are evident. The last 20 years have been the hottest in a century across the globe, and that is only one example.
Second, many animal and plant species have become extinct:
Scientists estimate a decrease in the number of species 10 – 100 times greater than at any earlier time during the last several thousand years. Some people predict the sixth extinction of life (the last one was the extinction of the dinosaurs), and this one would involve all the earth’s land and marine systems (destruction of the forests, breaking up of the ecosystems, increased acidity of the oceans, with the loss of nearly 50% of marine life over 40 years…..).
The greatest loss of all, over and above the loss of any specific species, would be the ecosystems, or systems of interdependency among species, which tend to erode even more quickly than individual species. Our ecosystems supply essential natural services. One example of this is the way insects carry out pollination and so assist plants to flower and to produce fruits and vegetables. Another example is the production of pharmaceutical molecules, and yet another, the way soil and vegetation affect the distribution of water on the earth’s surface. The services rendered by our ecosystems belong to all of us and are necessary for our most basic needs, today certainly, but also tomorrow.
There is a very strong relationship between climate change and the erosion of biodiversity, and the consequences affect everyone: by reduced food production, for example, or lack of water, or changes in the circulation of water and the effect that has on agriculture and on cities…..
Third, changes in the use of land:
These also have an effect on the climate and on biodiversity. The increase in urban areas, deforestation, the destruction of open meadows, and single-crop cultivation all contribute to a sharp increase in carbon dioxide, reduce the quantity of plants to absorb it, and diminish biodiversity.
The impact on climate change is global and immediate. In equatorial Africa and South-East Asia the area devoted to forests has been reduced by 60% in order to meet a world demand for wood and palm oil, but deforestation in turn reduces the amount of carbon dioxide which can be absorbed.
If we destroy significant equilibria in the world, the effects will fall on later generations, and may indeed precipitate the whole world-system into a new era. According to the information which insurance companies gave to Davos Economic Forum, world economic losses due solely to natural disasters (hurricanes, flooding, fires) rose from 50 billion dollars to 200 billion between 1980 and 2012.
Fourth, the waste of natural resources:
Excessive use of natural resources and disturbance to the natural nitrogen and phosphorus cycles will limit the earth’s capacity for development in the future, and already disrupt natural equilibria. Phosphates assure the fertility of the soil, for example, but when we use them in excess, they degrade the natural environment (soil erosion, interference with biogeochemical cycles, pollution of rivers, lakes, sea coasts and ecosystems, increased acidity of the oceans). On the other hand, the over-mining of phosphate may hinder future use which could create a danger to food security.
The same warning applies to the intensive use of none-renewable water supplies from deep below the earth’s surface, which is often the case in industrialized countries. These deep water supplies become reduced very quickly, in just a few decades. This will certainly disrupt human activity and rural societies in the future. Likewise industry uses various materials and rare metals wastefully according to a linear economic model which includes: extraction, transformation, use, wastage, and pollution, without any concern for the sustainability of resources.
Fifth, risks to health and technology:
Scientists tell us that exposure to the environment, with the synthetic molecules, nano-particles, and hormone disruptors present in the air and in our food is contributing to new diseases.
To some extent we have been able to dominate nature, and we now know that scientific and technological developments will allow us to manipulate human characteristics in the future; we will be able to detect physiological anomalies, manipulate genetic codes, create a “super-human”, although we do not know beforehand what the advantages or disadvantages might be, for us and for society.
In this situation, we can act in two complimentary ways: attenuating the causes and adapting to those consequences which prove unavoidable. For example, the faster and more decisively we act to reduce the emission of gases which cause the green-house effect, the better for everyone. On the other hand, if we do not to take decisive measures to change the direction in which we are headed, climate change will become extreme (perhaps 4° – 5°C hotter by 2100). The risks for the weakest members of society will become intense, access to resources, there will be conflicts for access to resources, and the world itself will be endangered.
- An ethical question: What is our responsibility?
Beyond the time frame of our own existence, we could easily become a geological force. Let’s take a look:
The Earth is more than 4 billion years old, life has been present for more than a billion, and homo sapiens for a few million years. For much of our existence of course, our existence was entirely interdependent with the natural world. Hunters-gatherers gave way to herders and farmers 10,000 years ago at most. These farmers were also keepers or guardians of the natural world on which they were dependent.
However, our impact on nature has increased rapidly since the middle of the 18th century due to an increase in population and in wealth. We use more energy, build more cities, and move more things from one place to another than ever before.
It was only around the middle of the 20th century that scientists began to worry about these tendencies like the extinction of species, damage to the ozone layer, destruction of the soil, the green-house effect, the increase in temperatures, and the rising sea-level.
We have become the principal force effecting the functioning of our planet, at least at a superficial level. Taken all together we have become a geological force.
Scientists refer to our current age as “anthropocene”. Although they do not agree as to the date of its beginning, that must be sometime between the beginning of the industrial age and the atom bomb, traces of which will long remain in the earth’s sediment.
Since the 1970s philosophers and sociologists like Hannah Arendt and Jacques Ellul have been cautioning us. Here is what Hans Jonas says in his Principe Responsabilité: “Act in such a way that the consequences of your actions are compatible with the continuation of an authentically human life on the earth.”
These writers question the consequences of our individual and collective behavior, especially our use of technology and the clichés we use to describe it in order to ease our conscience. This (mis)use of language is particularly evident when we talk about consumption – everything is “throw-away”, fashions change, and obsolescence is built-in.
During the second half of the 20th century, in the push to improve the level of our lives, excess has taken the place of any a priori reflection about the micro-economic consequences of our actions. “Care and attention” in every sense has given way to self-assertion, to “more and more”, to the search for recognition through acquisition, and material accumulation.
Recently philosophers and sociologists have offered a response, inviting us to become more frugal and more responsible, each in his and her own way, and so to contribute to a better life for everyone.
This is the reasoning behind the recent declaration on climate change by the Fédération protestante de France. It urges us to take care of the planet, to share it and keep it safe for future generations, to behave in accordance with a commitment to the dignity of all human beings and to exercise a concept of justice which includes future generations, society as a whole, and reduced consumption. This is also the message of the Pope in his recent encyclical Laudato si.
- What reactions are possible?
The United Nations environmental program and GIEC agree that the world population is growing and urbanization is accelerating. For example in 1990 1/3 of the population of China lived in urban areas, but by 2040 this will become 2/3. In 20 years’ time (2010 – 2030), the middle class will go from 2 billion people to 5 billion. Naturally this means that the consumption of resources and materials will also increase.
If we maintain our current rates of development, the consumption of materials and energy will be three times as great in 2050 as it was in 2000. This calculation includes precious ores, industrial minerals, construction materials, fish, fossil fuels, and more. The earth’s temperature will increase by 4 or 5 degrees above current levels by the end of this century.
Some local crises already come close to the predicted disaster levels. For example successive draughts in Syria between 2007 and 2010 caused a shortage of food, which in turn caused the displacement of more than a million people.
Predictions estimate that the sea-levels will rise 60 – 80 centimeters by 2100, 3 meters by 2300, and to an even greater degree afterwards, even once emission of gases has been stabilized. The consequences will be felt for centuries. We might note that many of the world’s large cities with their vast populations are situated near the coast.
Foreseeable consequences should be taken into account at once in some areas, with particular attention to food shortages and the movement of populations both within and beyond their own countries. In October 2012, the United Nations appealed: to the international community to recognize that migration is part of the solution to environmental challenges throughout the world…. National sovereignty should not be a permanent obstacle to migration, when we are faced with millions of disaster-stricken people……
Predictions are not certainties perhaps, but the risks are very real. Failure to act has an important financial and social cost; many people even speak about social collapse. At the very least, these risks will affect a significant part of humankind, and neither will the rest of us come out of it entirely intact.
- What positive responses are emerging?
4.1 We have some idea about the kind of change we want:
The model for development needed must manage the natural resources with which we co-exist at a much lower rate of consumption. We must cut back dramatically, and changes within our societies will have to become more widespread. This will only happen if we reduce our use of natural resources by a factor of 4 or 5, according to the experts. We also have to stop all emission of gases which cause the green-house effect before the end of this century. That means that we will have to leave alone 1/3 of the petroleum, 1/2 of the gas, and 80% of the carbon available to us and use other types of resources. Clearly this is not at all easy.
We have to get ready to change the energy model which fosters development in our society at present. The challenges are these:
- Technology: We need to create durable infrastructures and goods, improving the efficiency of energy use, and promoting a parsimonious use of natural resources.
- Economic: We need to fix the world price of carbon at a rate relative to the cost of damage caused by the green-house effect. At present the price of gasoline is not high enough to encourage a change and receives 6 times more public financing than renewable energy. We need to stimulate economic, social, and environmental innovation.
- Social: We must adapt life-styles and modes of organization in order to attain a new and more sober prosperity. These adaptations will inevitably disrupt the life-styles and positions we have already acquired, and this in turn will necessitate our collective support during the transitional phase, especially for those less fortunate.
Before we can design a new model of consumption we need to be clear that our objective is a good life for individuals and a sustainable prosperity for society as whole, and we also need to know what we will use as indicators that we are nearing or have reached that goal.
During recent years some well-known researchers have made proposals to those in power. For example, in 2009 Nicholas Stern calculated that by investing just 2% of the gross domestic product we can avoid the world recession of 5 – 20% which could be caused by an increase in temperature of only 2° C.
Amartya Sen has elaborated other indicators aside from the gross domestic product in order to determine what constitutes a good life. He looks at quality, not just quantity to gage growth.
These positions should enable society to progressively and resolutely move toward a model which is ecological, energetically sound, and economically and socially just. In international discussions Europeans have sometimes called this a “green and inclusive” economy, that is to say an economy which takes into account the environment and those who are weakest. We need to go beyond renewable energy in order to create an economy which includes: cyclical use (recycling, re-using, ……), an economy of movement (car-sharing, use of bicycles, rather than acquisition), an economy of collaboration with nature (using natural substances which can reduce the carbon in the atmosphere), and finally an economy of consumption which uses our natural resources in the most economic and renewable way.
4.2 Public action must be world-wide:
Since the agreement at Rio de Janeiro in 2012, there have been further encounters and agreements, as we have become more conscious the risks.
This year the United Nations will adopt 17 world-wide goals for sustainable development in the ten-year period 2016 – 2025. These take the place of the millennium goals adopted in 2000 which were directed solely at developing countries. They envision: “A decent life for everyone; the eradication of poverty; a sustainable future for the world.”
We are all waiting for the United Nations discussion on climate change in Paris this December (COP21 is the logo in English, as it is also in French). The result must be a global agreement which is restrictive, altruistic, and cosmopolitan. We must limit the increase in temperature to 2° C, put in place 100 billion dollars of financing each year (“green funds”) to help those countries most concerned with climate-justice, so that we can all adapt to the new situation. But, it will be difficult, because the consequences of climate change will only become obvious after several decades, while economic, social, and political interests tend to be much more near-sighted.
4.3 Civil society begins to take an interest:
We should be optimistic however, for as an African proverb says:
You can hear the crash as trees fall, but not the murmur of the forest growing.
Positive reactions have been taking place over the last few years throughout the world, thanks to non-governmental organizations, companies, and local authorities which challenge our usual definition of development. These initiatives will be illustrated under the title “Solutions 21” at COP21.
Above all we need to increase our individual and collective ability to think and live in a different way. We need to encourage local participation and increase democratic pressure for government action on these questions; for who else can speak on behalf of and represent the interests of future generations?
In effect, the citizen-consumer is the only leverage we have to move economic and political interests so that they imagine a social project for tomorrow which guarantees an authentically human life on the earth. The project must be built on responsibility and equity – equity among countries, among generations and among species. Everywhere people are asking that we pay attention.
When we become disconnected from our origins and our place among life-giving resources, we provoke changes in the biosphere which could be harmful to us. In order to correct this drift and insure future generations, we must reconnect ourselves to nature, change the way we think, reinvent what we are able to imagine and find ways to make that happen.
* Group intergouvernemental sur l’évolution du climat (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)
** La Plateforme intergouvernemental scientifique et politique sur la biodiversité et les services écosystémiques (Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services)
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