Drive it like you own it, not like you stole it
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
“As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow ” (Military-Industrial Complex Speech, Dwight D.Eisenhower,1961 )
Although America started measuring atmospheric CO2 levels at the Mauna Loa observatory on Hawaii three years before Eisenhower’s farewell speech in 1961, he was more concerned about democracy and society than sustainability when he spoke. Nonetheless, the words resonate powerfully given the challenges we face into today, with some of his fears well founded.
Since 1961 atmospheric CO2 levels have increased from around 320 ppm to around 420 ppm today, an increase of over 30%. Scientists estimate this level is comparable to the Pliocene period, when sea level may have been 17 metres higher, global temperatures 2 ̊C to 3̊C higher and poles ice free. Climate change is happening more quickly than anticipated with the impacts already being felt by millions. These impacts will continue to be felt and will become more severe till well into this century.
Over the same period the global population has soared from around 2.5 billion to nearly 8 billion, with life expectancy rising from 50 to over 70. Total wealth has increased to around $500 trillion but it is spread incredibly unevenly, with the richest 1% owning more than the poorest 55%.
Humans are now so numerous and so dominant, that for the first time in planetary history, the activities of a single species are driving planetary outcomes, rather than geological and natural processes. Scientists have started to refer to this as the Anthropocene, coining the phrase for a new geological epoch in which the activities of humans have become the dominant force on the planet.
The mass of human produced items is estimated to have exceeded the mass of all the biomass on the planet in 2020. Habitats have been destroyed and approximately 25% of all species now threatened with extinction. We are polluting the biosphere which provides all the food we need to eat, the water we need to drink, the air we need to breath and which is the base of all our economic activity. We are also using up the Earth’s resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished, breaching planetary boundaries on multiple dimensions. We would need 1.7 Earths to meet our current rate of consumption on an ongoing, sustainable basis.
We face myriad other problems such as antibiotic resistance, plastics, space junk and obesity. Most of this is financed and facilitated by today’s financial and economic system, which continues to allocate capital to activities which exacerbate these issues. A market failure of epic proportions, patently neither sustainable, nor in the public interest. These problems are well documented and broadly recognised, so why is it so hard to address them?
Examining the current system reveals shortcomings in its design and in our embedded societal beliefs about it, such as our belief that more financial wealth will lead to improved prosperity, that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market is wise or that prices should not capture externalities. Identifying the shortcomings leads to a list of 10 recommendations to address these (which you can read in my next blog, or in my original essay), design principles for a better future, a future worth living in, a good Anthropocene. A future in which we re-tool the financial and economic system to stabilise the climate and to deliver sustainable and equitable prosperity within the finite bounds of the planet we live on.
This will be a fundamental transformation of humanity’s operating system, one that recognises we are part of the Earth system and wholly dependent on its continued functioning. A transformation in which we come to believe in a new story about human prosperity, a story in which humanity is intricately connected to, a steward of, and dependent on nature and the Earth system. A story of abundance, of justice and equality. A story of co-operation in which humankind leverages all its busy endeavour to create a better and sustainable future for all life on Earth, a future worth living in.
This is the Anthropocene reality. Now that we’ve worked out we are driving the planet, it is in our collective gift to drive it responsibly, rather than recklessly.
This will be the most formidable challenge of our time. Success is not a given, nor does history offer much encouragement given how comprehensively we have failed to date on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the protection of nature or the reduction of inequality.
However, there is hope. More people than ever before are aware of the climate crisis. Net zero commitments span hundreds of governments and thousands of companies, cities, states and universities. More people than ever before believe the story of climate change and that we must now take action at unprecedented pace and scale to decarbonise our economy and so limit global warming. Climate change solutions are scaling rapidly and we are beginning to allocate capital towards net zero. It is technically possible to reduce emissions and stabilise the climate. Where climate has led, equity and nature topics must follow.
So there we have it. Our planet, our future, our choice.