Imagine a Doomsday Courtroom thronged with the starved, the poisoned and the drowned former inhabitants of Earth.
A be-wigged and robed barrister stands and pronounces that:
Humankind is charged with gross negligence for ignoring the gradual destruction of the processes of the Earth which supported human life.
A similarly-clad counterpart rises to his feet on the other side of the court and declares that the humans' defence centres around: It wasn't my responsibility m'Lud; The problem was too big for me m'lud; I didn't believe what anybody said m'Lud and There was no point in me doing anything because nobody else was doing anything m'Lud. Is this a valid defence?
Fortunately this image is a dream – a nightmare if you will – and we are far from it yet. However, the train is in motion and we are heading towards oblivion, or at best galloping into a world of chaos1.
What is it about human nature that allows us to stick our heads in the sand and enables us to shoot down people who bravely shout warnings from the parapets? Is it justifiable behaviour? Are we indeed guilty as charged?
We Need to Do Something
It's not as though we haven't had time to understand the gravity of the situation, yet still the message isn't resulting in a sufficient change in the way we live.
Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) was probably the first global publication that alerted us to the possibility that mankind can irredeemably damage the environment upon which we rely for survival. In the 1970s Donella Meadows published Limits to Growth and EF Schumacher Small is Beautiful which heralded a welter of publications and strategies. Governments across the world started to address the issues, leading to the United Nations assuming a coordinating role.
The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland) Report Our Common Future (1987)2 came up with a generally accepted definition for sustainable development as 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.
Our Common Future catapulted the concept of sustainability into worldwide debate. It didn't take long for intellectuals to recognise its clarion call of sustainable development for the oxymoron that it is. Nevertheless, an entire sector of business was created in well-meaning attempts to define and implement it. The sustainable indicators movement came into being and communities across the globe set up measurement systems to trumpet their sustainability achievements.
In 1992 The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development took place in Rio3. 172 governments participated and 2,400 representatives of non-governmental organisations attended to discuss issues including production of toxic chemicals, replacing fossil fuels with renewable alternatives, the growing scarcity of water and how to reduce vehicle emissions. The summit resulted in not only the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but also the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21.
But Actually, It's all too Hard for Individuals
Without a doubt, understanding how we might achieve more sustainable human life on earth involves complex and sometimes politically sensitive issues, but commitment to reduce or even to mitigate the impact of humans upon the earth is remarkably (and possibly disastrously) slow.
Perhaps foremost is the sheer size and significance of the issues that face mankind. The magnitude is a deterrent to individual and even government action. Most discussions about greater sustainability and environmental degradation start with discussions about global trends: population growth, carbon dioxide concentrations, fisheries and forest depletion and so on. Unfortunately, a significant side effect of this approach is that they describe a problem that is so large and complex that it is difficult for an individual or a single nation to believe that they can make much of a difference. Consequently we dither, not knowing where to start.
In addition there is a lack of certainty about the detail of what is facing humankind. The future of the planet must be thought of in terms of scientific risk, not certainty. Some of the elements of concern are talked about with confidence, but many are speculative. As a result the science lies within the realms of public and policy debate; an area not known for decisive action, particularly anything likely to be unpopular with the electorate. To adopt the precautionary principle4 sounds good, but in practice it is hard to enforce something perceived to result in a decline in quality of life when the resulting benefits are not certain.
Communication about the risks is an area which continues to be a challenge, both to those trying to explain the problems and to those trying to find out exactly what remedial action is best. The media are the source of most people's information and there is no guarantee that reports are complete or fully-informed: journalists are not scientists. In addition, journalism is one of the least trusted professions - its reporting is met with cynicism by some readers. The messages therefore do not necessarily reach the audience in a way that is believed or understood.
As well as mistrusting journalists, many people also mistrust politicians and any scientists seen to be working for politicians. Scientific messages are perceived to have been spun for political ends in Western nations over the last few decades, leaving a general cynicism about any new science-based political exhortation from governments. It has not helped that contradictory statements, opinions and reports have come from governments and scientists, fuelling uncertainty.
The mistrust in world leaders and governments is reflected in poor voting figures5 and significant declines in political party membership in many parts of the world. If the population is not engaged in government, it is unlikely to willingly comply with requests of government. Perceived disenfranchisement also leads to an unwillingness to engage in any way with government, including voting for change, let alone becoming politically active.
Significantly however, mistrust of government appears not to release them from an expectation that they – and not the populace – should be making the hard decisions that will reduce human impact on the earth.
More Things that Make it Still Harder
All this leaves the individual in a sea of confusion. Who to believe? Who to trust? What to do for the best? And is it too late already, so why don't we continue living the good life for the time remaining?
If we do accept that we might be able to rescue our future, how do we know any change in habit is doing any good? Is it 'enough' to leave the car at home and catch the bus to school or work? If we adopt long-life light bulbs, what happens to the mercury contained within them? There are no clear answers to this sort of question. Given the levels of ambiguity, people prefer to wait until there is greater certainty that changes in their activity will have a positive effect.
Which brings us to the issue of parity: the perception of what is fair behaviour change or compromise for one individual or society may be completely debilitating for another6.
What happens if our neighbours continue to burn all their lights, own and run gas-guzzler cars and water their lawns throughout a drought? What is right for one person is far from it for another. It is hard to motivate oneself to change habits of a lifetime when one's peers do not. We spend much of our life trying to fit in with society, but taking action on the human impacts on the planet means that we might stand out from the crowd. It is a hard thing to be considered different, however good the reason.
For some there is a perception that to live sustainably (however one defines the term) is to live on a subsistence level: without those luxuries which some now consider necessities. While this is blatantly not the case, there is a resistance to losing the civilisation that is defined by material wealth.
Associated with the unwillingness to give up any of the things that are now the norm7 is the belief that the dictum necessity is the mother of invention will save us all. New technologies will be invented and implemented in time to avert disaster; life on earth will continue in a familiar and comfortable fashion without individuals having to compromise or lift a finger. This is a dangerous belief, laden with uncertainty and it contradicts the precautionary principle.
Is Any of this Defensible?
The simple answer is no. It may be understandable and explicable, but we should not defend inaction and inappropriate action which contribute to what may be a fatally flawed way of life.
To be born human is to be predestined to have an impact upon the world. We are at the top of the food chain. That we are currently living beyond our means is not in question. That we are actively doing anything to remedy the situation is definitely in doubt.
We are responsible.
Guilty as charged.