Over the last week, a few items, in the limited media that I access, have increased my awareness that the world needs a new radical idea, and I don’t have it. At the start of the 21st Century we are like a species on steroids, from the planet’s point of view, and that’s not healthy for the planet. And if it’s not healthy for the planet, it’s not healthy for us. Why do so few of us even seem to be aware of this?
It started with last week’s New Scientist’s cover story: Earth’s Nine Lives; whereby an environmental journalist, Fred Pearce, looks at 9 natural parameters that give an indication of the health of the planet from a human perspective. By this, I mean he looks at limits set by scientists and how close we are to them. He calls them boundaries, and they are all closing or already passed, with the possible exception of one. They are: ocean acidity; ozone depletion; fresh water; biodiversity; nitrogen and phosphorous cycles; land use; climate change; atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution.
Out of these, ozone depletion seems to be the only one going in the right direction, and, according to Pearce, three of them, including climate change, have actually crossed their specified boundaries already. But, arguably, the most disturbing is fresh water where he believes the boundary will be crossed mid-century. It’s worth quoting the conclusion in its entirety.
However you cut it, our life-support systems are not in good shape. Three of nine boundaries - climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen fixation - have been exceeded. We are fast approaching boundaries for the use of fresh water and land, and the ocean acidification boundary seems to be looming in some oceans. For two of the remaining three, we do not yet have the science to even guess where the boundaries are.
That leaves one piece of good news. Having come close to destroying the ozone layer, exposing both ourselves and ecosystems to dangerous ultraviolet radiation, we have successfully stepped back from the brink. The ozone hole is gradually healing. That lifeline has been grabbed. At least it shows action is possible - and can be successful.
The obvious common denominator here is human population, which I’ve talked about before (Living in the 21st Century, Sep.07 and more recently, Utopia or dystopia, Sep.09; and my review of Tim Flannery’s book, The Weathermakers, Dec. 09).
In the same week (Friday), I heard an interview with Clive Hamilton, who is Charles Sturt Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University, Canberra. He’s just written a book on climate change and despairs at the ideological versus scientific struggle that is taking place globally on this issue. He believes that the Copenhagen summit was actually a backward step compared to the Kyoto protocol.
Then, today (Saturday) Paul Carlin sent me a transcript of an interview with A.C. Grayling, who is currently visiting Australia. The topic of the interview is ‘Religion in its death throes’, but he’s talking about religion in politics rather than religion in a genuinely secularised society.
He’s looking forward to a time when religion is a personal thing rather than a political weapon, that effectively divides people and creates the ‘us and them’ environment we seem to be in at the moment. Australia is relatively free from this, but the internet and other global media means we are not immune. In fact, people have been radicalised in this country, and some of them are now serving jail sentences as a consequence.
To quote Grayling, predicting a more tolerant future:
‘And people who didn't have a religious commitment wouldn't mind if other people did privately and they wouldn't attack or criticise them.
So there was an unwritten agreement that the matter was going to be left quiet. So in a future where the religious organisations and religious individuals had returned to something much more private, much more inward looking, we might have that kind of public domain where people were able to rub along with one another with much less friction than we're seeing at the moment.’
To a large extent, I feel we already have that in Australia, and it’s certainly a position I’ve been arguing for, ever since I started this blog.
But Grayling also mentions climate change, when asked by his interviewer, Leigh Sales, but hints, rather than specifies, that a debate between a science expert on climatology and a so-called climate-change-sceptic would not be very helpful, because they are arguing from completely different places. One is arguing from scientific data and accepted peer-reviewed knowledge and the other is arguing from an ideological position because he or she sees economic woe, job losses and political hardship. It’s as if climate change is a political position and not a scientific-based reality. It certainly comes across that way in this country. As Clive Hamilton argues: people look out their windows and everything looks much the same, so why should I believe these guys in their ivory towers, who create dramas for us because it’s how they make their living. I’m not being cynical – many people do actually think like that.
But this is all related to the original topic formulated by the New Scientist article – it goes beyond climate change - there are a range of issues where we are impacting the planet, and in every case it’s the scientists faint, but portentously reliable voices, who are largely ignored by the politicians and the decision-makers of the world who set our economic course. And that’s why the world badly needs a radical idea. Politicians, the world over, worship the god of economic growth – it’s the mantra heard everywhere from China to Africa to Europe to America to Australia. And economic growth propels population growth and all the boundary pushing ills that the planet is currently facing.
The radical idea we so badly need is an alternative to economic growth and the consumer driven society. I really, badly wish 2 things: I wish I was wrong and I wish I knew what the radical idea was.