David Attenborough’s Witness Statement is a compelling read. He describes a set of one way gates, through which we are hurtling. From the other side there will be no return, behind us a toxic soup unlivable for us and much of the planet’s plants and animals. The planet will survive (its a rock) but not as the garden of Eden that we have enjoyed to date and which is slipping quickly through our fingers. It pains me that our children may never enjoy the very many wonders of the world as I have, such as diving amongst the glory of the Great Barrier Reef, the source of much of our national fisheries and climbing across glaciers.
The news however, isn’t all bad. Attenborough presents a compass for the journey to a sustainable future. This roadmap is fairly well regarded as the areas of focus, which, if we can pull it off will allow us to thrive for generations. The circumplex presents 9 factors for us all to pay attention to. Upon current measures we are smashing the social foundations of the inner circle that we all depend upon for a full and free life. On the outer circle, we are already “beyond the boundary” on four of nine ecological parameters that define a world that is in balance with nature.
None of this appears brand new; much of this thinking has been conversational for decades. It is is pretty clear that we need to:
- Re-wild the world
- Reduce our footprint and polluting ways
- Get off carbon
- Stop single use plastics
COVID has brought much of this into focus as we spend less time being busy and more time in reflection. As we spent more time wandering our neighbourhoods we seem to have become more sensitive. We appear to have become more aware of our connectedness and the complexities of the virus lifecycle.
Yet we seem oblivious to the fact that we reside within and because of a complex web of life. Over 60% of of the cells in and on our bodies aren’t ours, they are microorganisms, connecting us to a complex ecosystem within which we all live. We are an ecosystem as much as we live in one. More than 10,000 microbial species occupy the human ecosystem. Yet the vast majority of us, politicians included would have us live in some sterile alternative that defies everything we know about how the world works and our dependency on this biodiversity.
Whilst none of this story is new, the runway is shortening to the point where it has become urgent. Whilst many say that they care, we seem to either contradict this care with our collective activities or conclude that our actions are irrelevant, not mattering enough. I see people sitting outside cafés at gorgeous beaches, drinking coffee in takeaway cups, enjoying the nature, marveling at it and accelerating its demise all at the same time, oblivious to the impact of their single use plastics and the bleaching waxing manufacturing process to get them there in the bliss with their coffee. These folk are often fit, tanned and even surfers, who on one hand value nature yet disregard it. Astonishing. We can witness people parked up with their car engines running and windows up so they can enjoy the air conditioning and read whatever it is consuming them on their mobile phones; oblivious to the petrol or diesel fumes being pumped into the planet or the ozone depleting CFCs from the AC. Peculiar. 4WD owners can be seen with highly visible black clouds of smoke blasting out of their exhausts as they press the accelerator hard to the floor for a weekend enjoying nature whilst destroying it.
Some ask “Why bother?” “Surely no matter what we do, China is going to destroy the place anyway with their bombs, inhumanity, consumerism and manufacturing?” So what if we turn the place into a toxic swamp within which none of us or our favourite animals and plants can any longer survive? That scenario is at least a few hundred years away, so lets just “go hard”
The Maori people call the answer “Te Here Tangata”, literally The Rope of Mankind. We are here because of our ancestors and for our children and theirs. We are here for all the plants and animals that have come before and hopefully will come in the future, known and unknown. We are not here because of us, we are here because of the past and the future. The Maori worldview considers everything living and non-living to be interconnected. The tangata whenua (people of the land) have a role as kaitiaki (guardians). The relationship between the health of the ecosystem and the wellbeing of the people is summed up by the phrase: Ko ahau te taiao, ko te taiao, ko ahau — The ecosystem defines our quality of life.
None of this, neither ignorance of many nor the wisdom of the ancient or few, should surprise the student of human behaviour or philosophy. There are multiple models to explain this dilemma between a hurtling catastrophe and our daily lack of care for it. It may be Nietzsche’s three steps to a meaningful life where the vast majority of us are simple camels; beasts of burden, heavily laden, plodding head down, largely unaware of the burning desert and their place in it, to just take that next step ahead. In Australia, when asked “How ya going?” a common response is “Getting There” Getting where? Dead?
Maslow’s hierarchy of need, another pyramid model that reflects well in America and the developed world has withstood the ages. Despite all the advancements in a modern society, the majority still trudge pay check to paycheck without the necessary finances to cover a $400 emergency. We do this while holidaying on credit cards. “Getting there”
In the developing world the challenge is more severe. Faced with a mountain of Present Bias, most people have neither the awareness or the agency to feel sufficient complicity to do anything more than trudge along the camel’s path in search of survival and maybe power, money or some other form of significance.
So where to? If we assume that 7 billion of us (80% of the developed world and all of the developing world) are too busy or otherwise concerned to care about Attenborough’s thesis, the question becomes, can the remaining 1 billion effect sufficient change and if so how?
The answer appears to lie in Spiderman. With great privilege comes great responsibility. We must change the infrastructure and models of growth and industry so that the gates are not passed through, As we do so we must build a communication strategy and set of engagement platforms that realizes the present bias of folk, their camelness and take them on the journey.
Either way, you get to either size up for a nose bag, or get to work to save the planet and the camels.