The environment and history, what ‘went wrong?’
When societies find themselves with these unprecedented levels of peace, liberty and knowledge, they are free to look beyond immediate concerns, which are far more trivial than before or at least granted less weight – how easy to tolerate one’s Catholic neighbour today! – and contemplate long-term issues. Since the 1970s, we have with growing passion contemplated possible futures of the environment (distinguished from the romantic term, ‘nature’), which has become a matter so pertinent that, political football aside, it is arguably the long-term issue of the day for several countries around the world if not the world as a whole. Yet there was no radical step in the name of the environment and I think we can now quite confidently declare that the road to sustainability and decarbonisation will finish as a far more gradual one than it needed to be and one not without heavy financial incentives. What went ‘wrong’? Why did and possibly will climate change or the environment (rather than nature) fall short of an iconic place in history?
There is no need to mention here the countless examples of disappointing, shortcomings on and rescinding of environmental targets and contributions, we are acutely aware of them. Against all (reasonable) optimism, in recent years CO2 emissions reached record levels, global meat consumption continues to rise and of the 10 countries seeing an increase in deforestation in 2018 from 2017, 6 were in Africa, whose full development is still apparently way into the future. The slow approach and numerous setbacks have been testament to an ironic lesson from history: revolutions are messy, terrifyingly unpredictable and potentially fatal for at least one generation. In a globalised world, they have the added potential of drastically altering global politics. When the problem is not scorching one’s face or clamping their breast, they aren’t compelled to ignite a revolution, and no big player or enough people were willing to ignite one to fight an environmental catastrophe in the future. Why jeopardise what you have now, that is so good? Why take the doomsayers seriously? What occasioned thinking about the environment also stalled the response to protect it. Indeed, this is the difference between past revolutions and one for the environment: the former erupted against present grievances, while the latter seeks to protect the present, but fears a future catastrophe.
The traditional revolution may have some or a lot of nostalgia for the past and even seek a re-establishment inspired by it or its myth, but even this is lacking in environmental discourse. Not only are people not faced with present grievances near in degree to future catastrophe, they are not offered a meaningful justification to pass drastic and immediate action to preserve something to which they sincerely feel connected and want to be smaller than and outlived by. A sense of history will do us good. May I be cynical and blunt and ask if you actually care about the rapid retreat of Kangerlussuaq Glacier? Do your grandparents in this ageing society? Again, what occasioned thinking about the environment and grew Greenpeace to near 1 million members by the 1990s also stalled the response to protect it because we no longer think remotely like this. Our thoughts turn to the present as we live for the day and we have only recently snapped out of an incredibly wasteful culture. As purchasing power has spread, the influence of money has too, and more individuals revolve around what it can buy. Even those with sustainability credentials have jumped on the bandwagon and not without financial gain.
Is this authentic? We may do well to reprise the romantic nature and leave the scientific environment for the scientists to whom we often do not listen without immediate reward. We must exercise caution before meddling with science anyway. Without it, we could not have onset the industrialisation it now tells us was so disastrous for the planet. And the best way to go, I believe, is not with updates on the retreat of ice in Greenland, but with the romantic appeal to nature within your reach, encouraging sincere action to preserve it that also helps the rest of the world as we grapple with what will actually occupy an historical place: the fourth industrial revolution soon to be accelerated by increased AI.