We live in a time of severe ecological and economic challenges. In 2012 the world crossed a dangerous limit. A reading of 400 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide was recorded by monitoring stations across the Arctic. This figure is at least 50ppm higher than the maximum concentration during the last 12,000 years, a threshold that granted us the privilege to develop agriculture and civilization. We have already begun to experience a substantially more chaotic climate that demonstrates this altered architecture of our atmosphere.
Extreme heat, dustbowl drought, stunted crops, climate change, and massive wildfires have resulted in major food crop losses in Russia in 2010, and the U.S. in 2012. In many countries in the West, increased costs for animal feed mean higher prices for milk, meat and processed foods based on corn and soy. Price rises on the international grain market will have a major negative impact on poor countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, where many people spend most of their personal income on food. Rocketing bread prices, food and water shortages have all plagued parts of the Middle East and analysts at the Center for American Progress in Washington say a combination of food shortages and other environmental factors exacerbated the already tense politics in the region. Recent studies in Sri Lanka indicate that predicted changes in rainfall, temperature, and the soil moisture deficit, will demand additional irrigation water to compensate for the crop water requirement now and in the coming years. Therefore the climate change effects on maha and yala seasonal rains will cause serious problem for agricultural activities, such as paddy and other field crop cultivations in the north, north central and eastern regions (Prof Shanthi De Silva 2012, Open University of Sri Lanka). 4 million Sri Lankans are already malnourished and the World Food Programme (2012) cautions anything up to 200 million more food-insecure people by 2050. Just as much we accept these hard facts about the creeping disaster of climate change, we must also recognize that environmental chaos represents an imminent threat to a multitude of human rights: the right to food, to water and sanitation, to social and economic development. This is only a sliver of evidence that tells us to ‘care’ about the environment, if not for its own sake, but for humanity’s sake (a`la Nalaka Gunawardena).
The raison d’être of our consumer society – acquisition – is supported by polluting energy sources and guided by a pseudo-scientific principle of limitless growth. Bewitched by these ideas that run contrary to basic laws of biology, we imagine our society as above and beyond the rest of the living world. The truth, as former senior economist at the World Bank, Professor Herman Daly states, is different: “the larger system is the biosphere and the subsystem is the economy. The economy is geared for growth, whereas the parent system doesn’t grow. It remains the same size. So as the economy grows, it encroaches upon the biosphere, and this is its fundamental cost.” Whose wellbeing are we compromising in the name of incessant acquisition?”
In Moral Ground (Moore & Nelson 2011), South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu argues, that it is unjust that people in Africa — who don’t reap the “benefits” of the reckless burning of fossil fuel — are suffering from droughts and crop shortages as a result of the West’s consumption of oil. Although some perceive climate change as people of one culture (the developed world) destroying the material basis of another (Sheila Watt-Cloutier 2011), the issue cannot be confined to the Global South. The formation of the Earth’s atmosphere affects rich and poor countries alike; and global warming, influenced by agriculture and civilization should get everybody’s attention.
Moreover, we need to realize that ‘our children are our future’ is not merely a feel-good phrase, and that we have shared responsibility to not to compromise “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Report 1987). As such, we have horizontal (to others that live among us) and vertical (to our descendents) responsibility to protect the environment. Although we know all this, why are we sleepwalking into such an unprecedented betrayal of intergenerational justice? In order to find answers, we must examine our basic way of making sense of who we are, what the world is, and our role in it.
This is the Age of Reason, in which we have managed to bring ourselves to the verge of destruction by acting under the delusion that humans are separate from the Earth, and that we, are in control of it. The idea that ‘we are the masters of the universe’ stems from the belief that humans are the only beings of spirit and our adroitness grants us to rule over other ‘less important’ forms of life. Our hubris about human exceptionalism has even made us coin terms such as “individualism”, that lead us to believe that we are exceptional rights holders, separate from one another and always in conflict or competition with each other. Another one of our sophisticated terms – “dualism” confirms that on one side are humans with spirit and value, and on the other side is the insentient physical world that was created for the purpose of serving our needs. In the process of constructing and strengthening these delusions, we have led ourselves to believe in our ability to exceed natural limits.
Since the late 19th Century, Darwin’s findings about the biology of the evolutionary process have been misappropriated to define the industrial society. With phrases such as “survival of the fittest” (coined by the Victorian Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer), we see society as a jungle, where one must crawl over the other to survive and succeed. In other words, I can pursue my own welfare even at the expense of your (or everyone’s) well-being. If we take a close look at what motivates multi-national corporations or nation-states, we observe a scaled-up manifestation of the same worldview that prioritizes success, growth, and exploitation of others.
Most of us rally behind Adam Smith’s idea of the “invisible hand” of the market in our efforts to justify capitalism. This notion implies that if everyone works towards individual welfare, it will work for the benefit of the whole. There is an undeniable element of truth to this inference, as markets are profoundly efficient ways of distributing and re-distributing resources. Yet, when left completely unrestrained, they often end up being unfair. Markets need to be tamed within a political structure that minimizes the exploitative tendencies that arise. Though we are quick to spout Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in protesting the oppressive control of the economy by the government, we are oblivious to the real motivations of the world’s top 200 oil, coal, and gas companies (with a net worth of about $7.4 trillion), Wall Street, or the politicians they have bought. The driving principle behind these entities is Social Darwinism: using your position to get everything you can.
Similarly, the likelihood of the world’s leading emitters of carbon such as the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back the main source of emissions is extremely low. China’s emissions now make up over 24% of total global emissions (UN Statistics Division, MDG Indicators 2012). The United States of America, the former world heavyweight champion of carbon pollution, is still generating 18% of the total followed by the European Union contributing 14%. India’s emissions have jumped 9.4% to over two billion tons, placing it fourth in this game of existential “hawk-dove.” None of these leading emitters has agreed to sign an international treaty that would obligate them to cut emissions. The excuse presented by the Global South is the difficulty of squaring the historic carbon debt of the overdeveloped world with the need for developing countries to accept universal emissions reductions now.
The hallmarks of our globalized society – greed, consumerism, and separation from nature, combined with the supine disposition of “democratic” governments are successfully fueling a mutually beneficial relationship that will eventually take us towards extinction. Their shared worldview thrives on limitless economic growth no matter what the long-term consequences may be.
Looking Inwards – A Starting Point
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh believes that fundamental change can happen only if we fall back in love with our planet. When we recognize the virtues, talent and beauty of Mother Earth, he says, love is born in us. When we reconnect with it, we naturally want to do anything we can for the benefit of the Earth, and the Earth will do anything for our wellbeing. We need to start by revisiting ecological and evolutionary science that tell us that humans are part of interconnected, interdependent systems; that the thriving of the individual parts is necessary for the thriving of the whole; and that we are created, defined, and sustained by our relationships, both with each other and with the natural world. If we come to understand that deeply, we can invent new models of human goodness. As such, what is needed is an evolution of our current worldview that starts at the individual level and transmutes into the structures of society. In the article that follows this, we will look at how this awakening can occur at the individual and societal levels. What we need is a new ethic, derived by a community of diverse “mindful” people that can reimagine our place in the world.
*Vagisha Gunasekara is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Sri Lanka. Vagisha received her PhD in political science from Purdue University, USA. Her research straddles issues at the intersection of post-war reconstruction, gender, feminism and international relations. (CEPA) is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues.