It’s 2100, food is increasingly difficult to get hold off, billions have fled the rising waters in a mass exodus as coastal cities drown and storm surges pound what’s left behind. Sky-scrapers stand empty, like tombstones rising from the watery depths, eerie remnants of a society that overreached itself – the focus of humanity is no longer on mitigating climate change. It’s on survival.
Welcome to dystopia.
This is what the world could look like in 2100. We’re not quite there yet, but sometimes it feels like we couldn’t run faster in the race towards oblivion as we hurtle ourselves into the dystopia of the future.
Hurricane Katrina brutally showed us, in 2005, just how thin the layer of human civilisation is when faced with the destructive power of nature.
Headlines announce we’ve got 11 years to stave off climate change then all of a sudden it’s 18 months. But the reality is, and recent history would suggest, that giving ourselves timeframes to work towards doesn’t really help. If it’s not now, it’s always further away, slightly down the road, something we can worry about tomorrow. It’s human nature to kick the big issues into the long grass when there’s so much else going on but we need to start changing now — any other time simply won’t cut it.
So, how did we get to this perilous state? In a word: consumerism.
We are literally eating the planet. And if that’s an uncomfortable analogy it’s because its true. Humans and the animals we eat make up the overwhelming majority of large mammal biomass on the planet. Of all the mammals on Earth, 96% are livestock and humans, only 4% are wild mammals. 70% of all birds are birds that we rear, domestically, to eat. The dwindling 30% in the wild face an increasingly precarious existence.
These staggering statistics belie our consumerist desires. We have supplanted wild animals, species and whole ecosystems with farms and domesticated animals bred to satiate our appetites. We are consuming the planet.
It’s not just our appetites for flesh that our driving the decimation of the natural world. It’s our insatiable demand for energy and the relentless drive of our modern economies that is changing the very make-up of the atmosphere that sustains us. It’s our desire for beautiful wooden furniture; the need to take mahogany from its natural rainforest environment, slice and dice it, control and festishize it and turn what was once a majestic, beautiful wild tree into a cabinet. Something that once sustained countless numbers of animals reduced to something to contain useless things humans don’t really need.
And because we keep procreating quite successfully the demands for all of the above continue to energise the destruction of the rainforests, atmosphere and wild eco-systems.
What are the answers? Many and varied. But we can face up to a few home truths by recognising how our individualistik, consumerist lives affect the natural world and how the choices we make can limit those effects.
Growing in numbers, family planning and girl power!
We want more, and we want it now. The number of people on the planet, and the domesticated animals we breed for food or company massively over-shadow all other species of large animals. We have become so successful as a species that we have overpopulated the planet to the detriment of all other species. Can we change the fundamental driving forces at the heart of every human for health, wealth and security for themselves and their children? Probably not.
Can we change, or influence the number of people coming into the world who fundamentally and unconsciously drive forward this destruction? Yes. And we can do it in ways that enrich individuals, support women’s rights and help drive us in an entirely new direction that’s less harmful to the planet.
Wired has identified the moral imperative that should be at the heart of the fight against climate change: Educate girls and give them birth control. Robin George Andrews argues here:
A study published last summer also found that having just one fewer child is a far more effective way for individuals in the developed world to shrink their carbon footprint than, say, recycling or eating less meat. For women in wealthy countries, these decisions are often freely made, and fertility rates in those countries are already fairly low. In low-income countries, such individual agency—not to mention contraception—is frequently absent, and fertility rates remain high.
This is a link that might not occur to many as a front runner in the race to reduce the emissions that cause climate change and global warming. But it’s a link that could have a powerful impact. Once countries embrace education for girls and improve the freedoms and rights of women the evidence is clear: from reducing disease to improving life expectancy and prosperity, the empowerment of women means fewer forced marriages and fewer children — a key factor in reducing the emissions causing human made climate change.
And while the empowerment of women and family planning initiatives have made huge strides in recent decades, there are still huge swathes of the world to which these two fundamental basic human rights are denied. From prosperous nations such as the United States to some of the poorest countries in the world these rights are prohibited on the basis of political or religious reasons, or both.
Whilst politicians and leaders wrangle about the audacity of providing women with control over their own bodies and lives (in the 21st Century!) more people will be born, we will consume more, more carbon dioxide will enter the environment, the planet will get hotter and the ensuing consequences of climate change and global warming mean more people will die. It’s the circle of life writ large in our future dystopian nightmare.
But this future isn’t inevitable and the answers to changing it are simple: one big cog in the wheel has to be the empowerment of women right around the world.
We need to face up to the truth about sustainability
There is a huge gap between what we think sustainability looks like and what sustainability actually is. And this gap has grown wider over recent decades so now the sustainability movement has come to represent the very opposite of what it set out to combat in the first place.
This creeping change has been so subtle that it’s been difficult to notice it happening: sustainability has become much more focussed on sustaining development as opposed to sustaining nature.
And the problem with this is that it only serves to accelerate the destruction of the natural world instead of protecting it. We now focus on creating sustainable palm oil plantations rather than rewinding back the clock to undo our damage. If we give nature a chance in areas that once held the most incredible biodiversity on the planet, then we might be able tor reverse the destruction. We could save iconic species such as the Orangutan from losing its natural home in Borneo and from ultimately going instinct in the wild.
In fact, we are so busy turning every parcel of land into a productive, working enterprise that sometimes nature can only thrive where humans fear to go… even when it’s a result of human error and accidental nuclear detonation.
In the here and now our commitment to sustainability ultimately means living a less consumerist lifestyle. We can all look at the Top 10 Ways to Reduce our CO2 Emissions to live in a way that’s less harmful to the planet. This is something we can all begin to start doing immediately and, whilst it can be hugely challenging and definitely more of a journey then a destination, it can have unexpected benefits as you choose experiences over possessions and start living life instead of buying stuff.
If we’re serious about sustainability then its important we allow nature to sustain itself, and us, to set aside serious amounts of space around the globe free from human interference. This would allow all of the natural processes to take place that help to clean the air that we breathe, filter the water that we drink and protect the natural environment from which we came. A rewilding project on a massive scale and we can see the positive impacts such work can have, such as the rewilding work taking place in Patagonia.
This is natural space that provide no income, no profit and no wealth except the intrinsic value in all eco-systems: the value of life.
None of these changes can really be effective without innovating our education system. Creating a school environment that addresses the challenges of the future is at the core of preparing the next generation for those challenges.
These are huge problems for humanity to solve across climate change, the effects of global warming and the impact of artificial intelligence which will have untold impacts on society and jobs. And it’s essential that young people have access to an education system that is responsive to the changing world around them and provides greater awareness of natural ecosystems and how we depend on them as well as the right skills for future employees to engage with the problems we have created.
The world is heading towards a global society in which the environment will take centre stage in the consciousness of everyone. We are going to need an army of scientists, technicians, engineers, environmentalists, politicians, marine biologists, zoologists and many more in order to meet these challenges.
Climate change education will enable this, and we can see it happening in some of the most affected places in the world. in Cambodia schools are already at the front line of this battle:
Students from grades 10 to 12 will learn about factors that drive climate change and the vulnerability profile of the country. They will also learn about key approaches and technologies, to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
In addition, the Ministries of Environment and Education, working together, have introduced an eco-school concept, as a way to engage youth and education officials in environmental and climate change issues. In 15 pilot schools supported by the Cambodia Climate Change Alliance (CCCA), students benefited from additional teaching on climate change, and worked jointly with teachers on resilience projects such as tree planting and climate-smart agriculture.-World Economic Forum
The aims of Empowering Women, Rethinking Sustainability and Educating Nature potentially have huge benefits for society and the way we live in harmony with nature. Each aim is valuable in its own right but collectively they will together transform societies and usher in a new age in which we are more conscious of the impacts our actions have in the planet.
Without creating awareness of the beauty and importance of nature or reducing our number OR rethinking our impacts on the world we are creating a perfect storm which will catapult whole societies into a dystopia of chaos. The panic and desperation of people who have no options will show exactly what humans are willing to do in order to survive. Rich Americans are already buying up properties in New Zealand as part of their contingency plans against a future doomsday scenario.
At the other end of the spectrum, climate change will disproportionately affect poorer communities who are already beginning to suffer the effects of climate change. The term climate change refugee isn’t yet legally recognised but it’s likely to become a popular description of millions of individuals are they flee drought and climate change disasters.
The existential nature of the environmental crisis mean that we need to make fundamental changes to the way we interact with, and educate ourselves about, the natural world. We can make decisions which rebalance our relationship with the natural world.
But this all means we have to revolutionise our societies from the ground up and given the smallest of problems can appear to send modern governments into a constitutional crisis, it seems difficult to imagine how we will collaborate together, in the interests of our species, the planet and every other species that makes it’s home here.
In fact its more likely that we will face a series of human-induced disasters before we realise the true scale of the problem we have created.
There many be widespread acceptance of the problem of climate change but this hasn’t yet translated into a readiness for serious, world-wide, life changing action.
There is tremendous capacity for human ingenuity and, if we put our collective heads together, there’s little doubt we would go along way to fixing the complex problem of climate change. We are, without a doubt, the most advanced problem-solvers in the known Universe. But then again our ingenuity is matched by our more individualistic desires for survival and competition; our indifference to distant problems and our focus on the detail of our own lives and motivations. After all, in evolutionary terms, we only climbed out of the trees 5 minutes ago.
Like a leaky gutter on the roof, I strongly suspect we won’t get round to fixing the problem of climate change until it’s too late and the roof has caved in. We may also find it difficult to grapple with the problems of faraway melting icecaps until the meltwater is lapping at the front door. Whether we find ourselves in a dystopia or not depends on the choices we make now and the way we prepare future generations for the environmental challenges to come.