There comes a point when even the sunniest of optimists has to accept that things have gone very badly wrong and are unlikely to get fixed any time soon. It would be bad enough if we were just facing one major existential crisis. In reality we are facing at least three and things are getting worse rather than getting better.
The climate crisis
The facts on the climate crisis are starkly obvious to anyone who cares to look at the science without bias. Before the industrial revolution there was around 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now there is 421 and the number is still rising fast.
It is a matter of mathematical certainty that increased levels of carbon dioxide will trap more energy from the sun and warm the planet. What is in doubt is how fast the chaotic changes will happen and whether the consequences can ever be controlled. Humanity’s plan for dealing with this is to try and stop making things worse by adding more carbon to the problem. Thirty years from now. We aren’t sticking to that plan.
The biodiversity crisis
If this wasn’t bad enough, we are living through a period of mass extinction of the other species that we share this planet with. Wild spaces are now little more than large isolated zoos, whilst most productive land has been given over to palm oil plantations, mile-long wheat fields and beef ranches.
Now, hungry eyes are turning towards the deepest parts of the ocean to see whether they can be stripped clear of minerals for short term profit at the cost of destroying ecosystems that will take thousands of years to recover.
The plastic pollution crisis
Those same deep seas have already been covered by a thin layer of microplastics, as have the highest mountains and the most remote arctic regions. Even the blood in your own body shows traces of plastic particles and there is no possibility of this debris ever being removed from the environment.
Incredibly, more plastic is currently being produced each year than in any time in human history and over 90% of all the plastic that is produced doesn’t get recycled and gets dumped somewhere in the environment.
The ideology of individualism
The central cause of these problems is an ideology. Humanity dominates the earth because it is one of the very few species that has learned how to co-operate successfully and individuals are prepared to sacrifice their own self-interest on behalf of the community. The species that have learned to do this include ants, a few types of bees, termites, naked mole rats and zebra fish. All of those species have been exceptionally successful in their particular environmental niche.
Unfortunately, humanity also has the ability to ignore the collective interest and focus on individual needs regardless of collective consequences. All too often it is financially cheaper for the individual to burn oil and gas, for companies to make products out of plastic and for farmers to spray their crops with pesticides.
The full economic, social and environmental consequences of consumption and production are not experienced by the individual and so, far too many continue to consume and produce in ways that have become frighteningly inappropriate. We are living under the dominance of an ideology that champions the right of the individual to behave with utter irresponsibility if there is enough profit in it for them.
Implementing climate solutions
There are, of course, signs of alternatives emerging. There are many who are trying to persuade us that the needs of the many must outweigh the temporary advantage of the individual. Unfortunately, those efforts have been too little and too late. Almost all the necessary technology is already in place that would allow us to change over to sustainable lifestyles in very short timescales. What is lacking is the political will and sufficiently widespread recognition of the scale of the crisis.
Instead of everyone rallying round to intensify our efforts as time runs out we are seeing a backlash from those who find the old fossilised lifestyles very comfortable, and well financed propaganda being continually pumped out by organisations that are currently profiting very nicely from recklessly irresponsible behaviour.
It has become customary for environmentalists to insist that there is still time to fix the problems. It isn’t true. There is always something constructive we can do. Every small action we take helps to limit the problems, and it is far better for people to try and do their bit than to give up. But let’s not fool ourselves. The climate chaos is only just beginning, and all the evidence is that global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels within the next ten years.
That was the level that scientists told us we could probably adjust to and that it might be possible to survive without triggering unpredictable and potentially unmanageable feedback mechanisms. Since it is now virtually certain that global temperatures will keep on rising past that 1.5-degree level, we must expect to move into an unpredictable and uncontrollable era with very unpleasant consequences.
The costs of failing to implement climate solutions
We have to assume that most glaciers will melt and so will significant parts of the permafrost in Siberia and Canada, releasing large quantities of methane. It is a matter of time before the artic north will become ice free in summer, exposing dark areas of sea to absorb more heat. It is highly probable that tree cover will decline and deserts will expand.
All of that is going to make it a lot harder to feed ourselves and is going to drive a lot more species to extinction. It will also challenge the ability of global financial and political systems to survive, which would bring its own set of horrific consequences.
So, excuse me if I sound a touch angry. Forgive me if I am stark and pessimistic in my analysis of the future. Pardon me if I am being alarmist.
I genuinely believe that the only responsible thing to do right now is to raise the alarm. We are at risk of destroying our civilisation and of taking a lot of other species with us. What are we supposed to do when we learn that this is the case – stay silent and make polite conversation?
Some things are too important to stay quiet about. A crisis that threatens our very survival is upon us and too many politicians think we can carry on as normal, provided we make a few small adjustments. We are facing genuinely existential problems. Those who wish to exist need to do everything we can to ensure our leaders recognise the urgency of the situation and start to act upon it.